Rodney's spawn are manipulative little bastards--a trait Rodney just knows they picked up from John's full-mouthed, large-eyed looks over the years--and petition him unendingly to see March of the Penguins when it's released in American theaters.
"Okay, I have to tell you something about penguins," Rodney says to them over take-out Chinese. "They're really not that cool. Remember that time I went to Antarctica on a consult?"
Joanna rolls her eyes and toys with her chopsticks; Andy snorts.
"That time I went to Antarctica on a consult, I saw them and they were not cute or charming like the movie is lying to you and saying," Rodney continues. "In fact, they were ugly and horrible and mean. And they bit me." They stare at him skeptically. "In the face," he adds.
Andy and Joanna share a look before they creep up to Rodney, pressing their tiny chins one each on his knees and stare up at him from beneath their lashes with their huge eyes.
Joanna says, "I know you probably don't want to go see the movie, Dad--
And Andy finishes her sentence with, "--It's just that we miss Daddy a lot."
"God, I hate both of you," Rodney mutters, and gets up to go find his car keys.
At the theater, he has a renewed sense of gratitude for Joanna and Andy's manners, since he was surrounded by the screaming detritus of suburban Illinois and their sixty billion offspring, still in their youth soccer league uniforms and ballet leotards, whining and wailing.
When they finally get into the theater, it's not much better, more of the same--just air conditioned and in the dark this time around--and Joanna fumbles around in Rodney's pockets until she shouts in triumph and finds his iPod, taking one earbud for herself and giving the other to her brother.
Joanna and Andy are listening to John's last letter, and Rodney tries not to feel a wrench of pain at the looks of distracted longing on his children's faces. The mp3 of John telling them about almost nothing--It's called a top secret mission for a reason, Rodney," John had said in his last letter, top secret to Rodney, rated R for language and adult themes--about what he's doing and everything about how he misses them dozens of times now. John talks about the strange and funny, innocuous things he's seen and about how much he likes the sky, still. He promises that when he gets home, he'll take them up in the plane.
Rodney puts a hand over his face and slumps down in the chair. There're fifteen more minutes before the film starts and the illegitimates are known for entertaining themselves well enough when John's undermining Rodney's authority via modern technology.
John's been gone for three months and Joanna and Andy are showing the wear. Joanna is in dire need of a haircut and Andy has what seems to be a permanent marker stain. On his forehead. But more than that, Andy's gone quiet again, tucked into himself and building enormous, cavernous Lego monstrosities in his room, picking at his food. Joanna called him sobbing at lunch a week ago because she'd heard some teachers talking about the war and how many soldiers were dying and was Dad dying, too?
Rodney hasn't been that angry since John got the call five months ago and said, "It's just one tour, Rodney. It's a special request from my former commanding officer. It's special ops. It's different," to Rodney's "What the fuck? You're retired! They can't call you back! Also, you're gay! Did you tell them that? That's you're gay and a mom?"
But Rodney's been losing fights with John since forever ago, and that's why he's here: in a theater in Evanston watching the opening credits of March of the Penguins with his kids and aching for a drink.
If he's honest, Rodney knows he's showing signs of wear, too. He's already been the angry military wife once already and he didn't like it then; this time, he's ready to set the entire military industrial complex on fire. He's ready to set John on fire. Rodney keeps waking up from dreams he's glad he doesn't remember and if he catches himself burying his nose in John's shirts even one more time, he's going to go beat his newest TA to death for forcing him to read Brokeback Mountain.
Rodney misses the sound of John fixing breakfast. Rodney misses the way John folds socks. Rodney misses how John slides his hand up and down Rodney's thigh absently as he's falling asleep, like he's reading the Braille of Rodney's skin. Rodney misses the corner of John's mouth and the wrinkles developing around his eyes and the back of his neck. Rodney misses John.
And then Morgan Freeman's voice starts rolling over the audience and every kid in the room shrieks when the first penguin waddles its way across the screen, a solitary black point in a huge, vast whiteness.
"Dad, when you go back to Antarctica, can you bring us a penguin?" Andy asks suddenly in an exaggerated whisper.
And since Rodney's always been in the business of lying to his kids, he says, "Oh, sure."
Later, after the eggs and the huddles of penguins in the freezing cold that make Andy and Joanna all huddle into Rodney, pulling up and pushing away the armrests so they can snuggle into his sides, there's the part where all the mom penguins leave for the sea, emaciated and desperate for food. In the background, all the fathers stay standing on top of their eggs, still huddled against the fierce winds, alone and longing.
It's right around then that Rodney decides he fucking hates irony and scrubs uselessly at his stinging eyes--and by the time he gets himself together he sees the gigantic bird and the baby penguins and before he can slap his hands over Joanna and Andy's eyes, they're already wailing.
"Dad--Dad, are those--are they-- Andy stutters horribly.
"Ohmigosh, that bird ate them!" Joanna whispers, half-hysterical. "Why did that bird eat them? Our class bird eats birdseed!"
And like most other family outings where John's absent, Joanna and Andy end up crying for a good quarter of the last part of the film and Rodney hugs them and offers them candy and extravagant gifts and almost becomes desperate enough to promise to let them go up in John's plane before the credits roll and he comes to his senses.
They manage to make it all the way back to the car before Andy--face wobbling and Rodney just knows this can only end in tragedy--says, soft and whining, "I miss Daddy."
And Joanna sniffles as she says, "I do, too," and "Dad when is Daddy was coming back?"
And Rodney says, "Oh, for God's sake," and "This movie was the worst idea ever," and "Oh my God! You're not going to be eaten by a seabird! Daddy's not being attacked by otters! Jesus Christ! I'm never letting you see an educational film again!"
There's a long family discussion about war and peace and duty when they get home. Andy asks how come Daddy's in the military and Rodney resists the urge to tell Andy it's because John is prettier than he is rational. Joanna asks wasn't Daddy retired from the Air Force and Rodney explains that he is, he's just doing them a favor. Because Joanna is a prodigal child, she blinks and says, "Well, that's stupid." Rodney nods, stroking her blond hair and saying, "Yes, bless you, elder daughter. Remember to tell that to your other parent when he gets back."
Rodney lies in bed a long time that night, listening to rain starting to fall outside his window and waiting for the quiet patter of footsteps that are inevitable. At half past midnight, they come in a pair, and Joanna curls up with her face on Rodney's shoulder and Andy sleeps like an elongated S, stretched out on John's side of the bed, snuffling into the pillow.
In the morning, Rodney makes them pancakes and puts on Dr. Who and they spend that Sunday on the floor in their pajamas, and drowse through the long, hot afternoon.
Because John is a bastard and Rodney is an equally-huge bastard, later that week, Rodney poses the illegitimates in dirty, torn clothing and smears them with mud, setting them up in the tall grass behind the house and telling them to forage as he takes dozens of photographs. He ends up choosing the one in which Andy is gnawing on a cookie that looks like a dirt crumble with a desperate gleam of hunger on his face while Joanna looks on jealously: it strikes just the right balance of ridiculousness and pity.
He captions it: THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LEAVE US.
Years later, John will wander into the house on a Thursday with a DVD copy of The March of Penguins from a bargain bin at the local Best Buy and ask if anybody wants to see it.
Joanna stares at him in mute horror for a solid minute before she throws her math book at him and cries, "Daddy, you're horrible!" and runs upstairs, crying. Andy's lower lip trembles but heroically keeps any outbursts deep down inside despite his immediate detour toward his permanent Lego structure in the dining room. Rodney will forcibly remove the DVD from John's hands and throw it into the garbage and John will never, ever know why.