This is a short story that takes 3 years prior to the original It Starts at Home timeline, detailing how main characters Johanna and Ryan met.
Picnic tables and sunshine were spread warmly across Evergrove Park. Home cooked meals sat at a table under a tent for the express purpose of sharing with a party of 50+ St. Peter and James church goers who had signed up for Christ Through Families.
Antonio and Miranda Pasqual had begun speaking to each other again after several weeks of neglect, for if it weren’t for their fellow CTF members and their warm and inviting council, they may have not remained married by now. Their middle grade daughter Johanna sat alone at their table while they socialized with other couples and parents who have been saved—or at the least had their relationships maintained with more certainty—by CTF.
“Why don’t you go play with the other kids?” Antonio said to Johanna, whose lunch plate had long been emptied of its deep fried and saucy contents.
Maybe bits of rice were still there, but not enough to warrant a complaint for Miranda to tell her to finish her food. “You’re too skinny, get more,” she would say, but she was too busy connecting with the other families.
“I don’t want to.” Johanna said, studiously playing Pega-Fighters VII on her new Pocket Gamer. “I don’t know any of them.”
“I thought you said you wanted me to buy this game for you so you had other people to play with?” Antonio said wiggling the Pocket Gamer beneath her hands.
“Fine!” Johanna grunted. “It’s not like I’ll find anyone cool enough who even knows the glory that is Pega-Fighters in here.” She muttered to herelf.
She got up and roamed the park while having her eyes glued to the screen. It had been a couple of months since her parents screamed their lungs out at each other, and she blamed herself for it. Even though it wasn’t her fault that the Pocket Gamer and copy of Pega-Fighters VII cost more with taxes than she originally calculated.
Antonio argued that Johanna deserved it from consistently getting high grades well into the 90% average, but Miranda rebutted that they couldn’t afford to waste money when they have too many overdue bills to cover. Then screaming match, which was really an accumiliation of past screaming matches, erupted in their living room.
On the other side of Evergrove Park, Ryan Rodriguez was also playing his own copy of Pega-Fighters VII. From time to time, he would look at the kids around him having fun playing tag or bouncing a volleyball around freely in a circle. Ultimately he chose solace in his pocket sized video game. He didn’t want any other children to see the pain he’s been trying to hide for the whole school year.
Ryan’s mother sat with a group with other women, while their husbands played a game of softball. They comforted her through joking about whether or not it was time to start looking for a new man.
She had recently lost her husband to a year long battle with cancer. She and Ryan had spent most of their free time by his side until he courageously let go of life support and accepted his untimely fate.
He could no longer stand the sound of adults speaking around his epic time trial game, especially when he was about to break his record of flying through 100 cloud rings under 30 seconds, so Ryan decided to go find a place under a nice shade to continue. He wanted to accomplish it under 25.
He found a tree to sit down at and instead of unpausing the game when he had about 10 more rings to fly through in the training course, he rested his Pocket Gamer on his lap and began to cry. Thoughts of his father flooded his mind. He had never felt so alone in a crowd of people.
Johanna found a secluded table where kids had left their emptied out dessert plates, complete with ice cream melting into the paper plates, and cookie crumbs dusting the tabletops and crumpled up napkins. She took her eye off the screen for a second and saw a boy leaning against a tree with his head buried between his arms.
She sighed and rolled her eyes. That’s all she’s been seeing since she joined CTF. Families stepping up to podiums in little church basement party halls, crying about their lives being touched through the power of Christ and the support of the other members.
Except this boy was crying all in private. Not to gain the sympathies of a room full of remote strangers, desperate to feel something.
Johanna walked over and stood over him. “Why you crying?” She said. “Big boys aren’t supposed to cry.”
“I don’t care.” Ryan looked up at her in between sobs. “ Then let me be small as an ant.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That’s just something my mom would say. I didn’t mean to be so tough.”
Johanna kneeled by his side and asked him what his name was. They gave each other the formal name exchange and a cool summer breeze whistled by, replacing the silence.
A moment later, Johanna noticed that Ryan had a Pocket Gamer on his lap.
“Oh wow,” she said. “You’re so close to unlocking Stormfire, my favourite Pegasus! How could you possibly stop now?”
“Eww, Stormfire is cheap. I already got him, I’m more of a Luna Eclipse player.” Ryan said wiping a tear off his cheek and sniffing. “Besides, I just wanna beat my record.”
Johanna shrugged, and took a comfortable seat against the tree stump beside him. “So are you okay? These CTF parties are so boring. Are you crying from boredom?”
Ryan managed a laugh. “No, it’s just—”
Johanna had her eyes locked on Ryan’s and they stared at each other in a moment of silence that seemed to have felt like forever.
“How about we just play?” He said. “Maybe save the tears for the next church basement meeting? Maybe that’s how we can start fitting in.”
Johanna laughed and said, “yeah, let’s just kill each other in the skies for now.”
They exchanged a smile and played on until sundown, until eventually, the kids who have long tired from playing tag or volleyball surrounded the tree and watched the giant epic sky battles Johanna and Ryan’s pegasi avatars displayed on their tiny little Pocket Gamer screens.