Ezra sat with his chin resting on his hand, staring forlornly at the telephone. He simply didnt know what to do. For some reason Maudes plea for the two of them to spend Christmas together was actually making him feel guilty. Not only that, but images of big, fancily wrapped presents, a table set out with a veritable feast of fine cuisine and platters filled with special desserts and candies tempted him all the more.
Just when he thought hed made up his mind, another image, uninvited, would pop into his head. His brothers all gathered around their cozy little fire place early Christmas morning, sipping hot cocoa as they eagerly waited for the older boys to finish whatever last minute preparations they were attending probably taking an extra long time, just to torture the younger ones and settle down with them so they could pass out the presents. Their tradition wasnt anywhere near the extravaganza his mother put on, but for some reason hed come to cherish the simple tradition, and any thought of not being present made him ache inside.
"You look like youre carrying a world of burden on your shoulders, son," Josiah said, startling him from his thoughts.
Ezra let out a long sigh. "I dont know what to do."
Josiah sat down in a chair across from him. "About . . .?
"Well, Im supposed to call mother and let her know if I plan to join her on Christmas day."
"And I take it that this is proving to be a much more difficult decision than youd thought to would be, huh?"
Ezra nodded, sighing again. "On one hand, I feel a strange sense of obligation to accept her invitation . . .."
Josiah raised his eyebrows. "Youd probably make out like a bandit."
"Yes, Im sure," Ezra smiled wryly. "But," he lowered his voice, "well, I also feel obligated to spend Christmas here."
"Ezra, you know we want you to spend Christmas with us, but nobody will fault you for wanting to spend it with your mother."
"Its just that . . ." he glanced up at his oldest brother, "Id hate to disappoint the children."
Josiah turned away, but Ezra didnt miss the smile on his face. "What?"
When Josiah turned back, he was still smiling. Before he even realized what was coming out of his mouth, hed already said, "Well, you could always invite your mother over here for Christmas."
Ezras jaw dropped and he almost fell out of the chair. "Dont be absurd."
Josiah shrugged. "Just trying to help."
"Chris would probably shoot her before she got out of the car," he muttered, then raised his eyebrows meaningfully. "You know, I still cant believe they gave him a gun. Especially when my mothers in town. What were they thinking?"
Josiah laughed, shaking his head. "Im sure it was only out of desperation."
"Still . . .."
"Well, the offers there, Ezra. If youd like to invite Maude over Im sure everyone would treat her respectfully even Chris."
"Yes, but would she return the favor?" Which was the real reason for his hesitation. Maude would probably mock their whole tradition, the lowly decorations, the meager gift exchange, the simple meal. He didnt think he could bear it if she insulted any of his brothers, or their special traditions.
"Ezra, I doubt she could say anything that would surprise us. Its no secret that her tastes and expectations are quite a bit more . . .." He waved a hand searching for a proper word.
Josiah shrugged. "We know that no matter how hard we tried, we couldnt possibly measure up to anything shes accustomed to."
"But you already do!" Ezra insisted. "The thing is, you cant really compare the two. Its like apples and oranges." He paused for a few seconds, uncharacteristically at a loss to explain. Then he looked Josiah in the eye and said, "Whatever happens, I dont want you to change anything. Not one single thing. Deal?"
Josiah smiled warmly at him. "You have yourself a deal. By the way, where is everyone?"
"Chris is sleeping, Nathan is studying in his room, and Buck took Vin and JD out to help him do chores."
"I see." Josiah looked at his watch. "Well then, I guess its up to me to start dinner."
"Ill help if youd like," Ezra offered, thinking that helping with dinner might be a good distraction. Afterwards, he could try to figure out what to do about his mother with a refreshed perspective.
"I could probably use a little help," Josiah said, gesturing for Ezra to precede him into the kitchen. "Thanks."
"Oh, by the way," Ezra paused in the doorway, "Chris is sick, I think he has the flu."
"Great. Thats all we need."
~ ~ * * ~ ~
Chris was unable to work for the next week. In fact he was barely able to get out of bed. One night he was so sick that Josiah wanted to take him to the emergency room, but Chris somehow talked him out of it, promising that hed go in morning if he wasnt feeling better. By morning he did seem a little better though, so Josiah said theyd wait and see.
After that, Chris seemed to start slowly recovering and by Friday morning his fever broke and hed started to feel lots better. He told his brothers that he had never been that sick in his entire life and vowed to Nathan and Josiah that from that point on he would always get a flu shot.
Friday afternoon the kids were let out of school for winter break. JD was practically bouncing off the walls in anticipation for Christmas -- ecstatic to have two weeks of free time to do whatever he wanted -- well, not counting chores. "We get two whole weeks to sleep late, watch TV and not do any schoolwork!" he exclaimed.
Vin and Ezra were somewhat less enthusiastic. Vin had been worried about Chris, although he was glad to see his brother sitting up reading when he got home from school. Hed done everything he could to help out while Chris was confined to his bed. Hed taken on extra chores, helped a lot more around the house, and whenever he had a spare moment he would spend it at Chris bedside.
Ezra was not only worried about Chris, he was also anxious about meeting with his mother. He did his best not to show his anxiety, but he was pretty sure the others were able to tell. Especially the evening hed gone through his wardrobe, trying to find suitable attire for the occasion. Hed rummaged through his clothing, tossing shirts and slacks onto the bed and floor, growing more and more frustrated that nothing seemed to fit him any longer. Living on the ranch, he hadnt need of the style of clothing his mother would expect to see him in and hed outgrown all of his suits.
In the middle of his frenzy, Vin had walked into the room. Hed stood looking at the clothing tossed all over, then at Ezra and immediately detected the problem. "I reckon if she wants to see ya bad enough, she wont care what youre wearin, Ez."
"You dont understand," he growled. "In her mind, appearances are everything. Thats what she always says, anyway."
Vin nodded, a thoughtful look on his face. "Well, ya got lots of nice sweaters, and these pants ya wear to church," Vin said, picking up his gray dress slacks that had landed on the floor. "If she dont like your clothes, the worst she can do is send ya home."
Ezra shook his head. Vin had no idea what sort of cutting remarks his mother could make, but Ezra did, having been the recipient of them on numerous occasions.
"And, I heard Josiah say that Mrs. Potterll be there. She wont let your mom say anything bad to ya."
Ezra looked up and almost smiled, wondering how Vin always managed to read his mind. He was right too. His mother wouldnt dare belittle him in front of Mrs. Potter .or so he hoped.
"Besides, I know shes your mom and shes important to ya, but you got all of us now and we like ya just fine the way you are."
The words sent a rush of warmth through Ezra and he tossed a look of gratitude to his little brother, who seemed to be growing up fast. "Help me pick up this mess?" he asked sweetly.
Vin surveyed at the disaster, the clothes strewn everywhere as if a tornado had gone through. "What do I get if I do?"
Ezra pursed his lips as he tried to come up with a fair exchange. "Well, how about if I help you clean your room?"
"My room is always clean," he reminded, but he was already picking up clothing, straightening it on the hanger and handing it to Ezra to put away in the closet.
"Okay how about I dont tell Buck that youre the one who spilled grape soda on his girlie magazine?"
Vins eyes went wide with shock. "Youre the one who showed me where it was hid!"
"Yes, but youre the one who turned Miss October purple."
Vin huffed, glaring at the other boy, who was grinning at him with satisfaction. "Fine," he said. Snatching up another shirt, he straightened it and handed it off to the devil.
Little brothers, ya gotta love em, thought Ezra.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
"Were gonna go get the Christmas tree today, aint we?" JD asked, as he drizzled syrup over his pancakes.
For as long as there had been children in the household, the weekend before Christmas had been set aside for the traditional selecting of the Christmas tree. Although Josiah found himself lacking his usual holiday enthusiasm, he would never think about letting the boys down. Hee wondered if any of them, besides JD, would actually care. Chris was sick; Buck had been working 12 hours a day; Nathan studied all the time, whether he needed to or not. Vin wasnt acting at all like he cared one way or another that Christmas was a week away, and Ezra was on the verge of a breakdown over the upcoming visit with his mother.
"Of course were going to get the tree today, JD," he assured.
Vin frowned, looking up from the breakfast hed barely touched. "What about Chris?"
"Well, I dont think hell be able to go this year, but he can still help us decorate."
Vin sighed and went back to moving the food around on his plate. "It wont be the same without Chris there."
"What wont be the same without Chris there?" A familiar voice questioned from the doorway.
"We were just talking about getting the tree today," Buck supplied good-naturedly. When he paused to get a good look at Chris, his eyes narrowed. "Shouldnt you be in bed, pard? Youre lookin a mite peaked there."
"Im fine," Chris grumbled, walking past Buck to get to the coffee machine.
"Ya dont look fine," Nathan pointed out, rising to take his plate to the sink. "Ya look terrible."
"Thanks brother," Chris replied with a false smile.
"I was just telling Vin that you probably wouldnt be able to come with us to get the tree," Josiah explained, moving toward Chris and gesturing for him to sit down before he fell down.
Chris set his mug on the table and dropped into a chair, apparently worn out from the short trip down the stairs. "Dont be ridiculous, of course Im going with you to get the tree."
"Chris . . ." Josiah questioned in warning tone. "I dont think youre up to it this year."
"I feel much better; besides I have to work tonight anyway."
Six voices exclaimed, "What?"
"Scott Turner came down with the flu, so Dans been on duty for two days straight. I told him Id try to make it in later."
"The flu aint nothing to mess around with, Chris," admonished Nathan. "You might feel okay now, but you do too much too soon and you could have a relapse."
"Thanks for the advice, Nate," he said, forcing a patient smile, "I promise Ill take it easy."
Vin wouldnt look at any of them, but by his expression it was obvious he was not happy. He stood up, grabbed his plate and set it in the sink with a loud clang. "Im goin to do my chores," he mumbled as he left the room, not waiting for a response.
"Whats up with him?" Chris asked, as if he hadnt been living amongst them for the past few weeks.
Ezra rolled his eyes and quickly put his plate in the sink as well. "Wait up, Vin!"
"What?" Chris asked, when he noticed everyone staring at him.
"What do ya think, Chris?" Buck answered, coming back into the room, zipping up his Carhartts. "He hears about all the people dyin from the flu . . .his teacher just died albeit it wasnt from the flu . . .things have got to be a little overwhelming for the kid."
"Chris could die?" JD spoke up, his fearful voice reminding the others of his presence.
Josiah shook his head. "Dont worry, son. We just dont want Chris to get sick again."
JD nodded, but he didnt look convinced.
"Im fine, JD," Chris tried to reassure the youngest. "Besides, Im just going in until tomorrow. Dan called the highway patrol and theyre sending a few officers over to give him a hand until he finds another deputy."
They all knew it would be pointless to argue with Chris. Once hed made up his mind, nothing short of falling on his face was likely to change it.
Later that afternoon, all seven brothers piled into the Suburban and headed out in search of the perfect tree, with JD reverently holding the burlap encased sapling that would replace the one they cut down. Of course when it came time to choose one, there was the traditional bickering of the boys that theyd also come to expect. JD wanted the biggest tree and Vin thought they should take the lonesome lookin one off to the side. Buck noticed Chris leaning wearily against the truck, and after a few minutes grabbed the saw and began sawing the trunk of an entirely different tree, leaving JD and Vin speechless. Which was fine by everyone else.
That evening they decorated the tree with the same care that their mother always had. And like every year, Ezra did his best to dissuade them from using the tinsel "Tinsel, is so last . . .century." But the younger boys were united against him, arguing that it wouldnt be a proper Christmas tree without tinsel.
Once it was finished, they sat around drinking cider and gazing at their handiwork with awe.
At some point, Chris had fallen asleep on the couch and the others were hesitant to wake him. Josiah was weighing the positives and the negatives in his mind. On one hand, Chris wasnt well enough to go anywhere; hed already overdone it by accompanying them to get the tree. On the other hand, Chris was likely to blow a fuse if they didnt wake him up and he didnt want to find out what Chris might do to spite them. Josiah could just see him taking off in a fit of anger, the results of which could turn out much worse than him just going in for a shift.
"Sure looks pretty, dont it Siah?" JD said gazing at the tree with awe.
"Sure does, JD." Josiah looked down at him with a fond smile.
Nathan sat in a chair with Vin on the floor leaning against his knees. He leaned forward and ruffled Vins hair. "What do ya think, buddy?" Vin didnt say anything, but he tipped his head back and smiled at Nathan.
"If you ask my opinion," Ezra began, "I think"
"The tinsel stays," five voices called out before he could complain again.
Buck sneezed loudly, startling them all and waking Chris. "Sorry," he apologized, then cleared his throat and sniffled.
"You alright?" Josiah questioned, reaching automatically for his forehead.
Buck swatted his hand away. "Im fine, just feelin a little . . .."
"You aint feelin a little sick now, are ya?" Nathan asked, before Buck had finished his sentence.
"No, no . . .." He shook his head then waved his hand at the tree. "I guess . . .this all makes me think about mom and dad. I guess Im just missin them a little."
"Yeah, me too," JD agreed sadly.
Vin rested his cheek against Nathans leg, his eyes even more sad than theyd been before.
Chris leaned forward, looking around at all the discouraged faces. "When I first came to live here, the first Christmas I missed my real parents so much, and in my mind it didnt seem right to have Christmas when my parents were dead."
The others nodded understanding, all having had similar feelings.
"So mom sat me down and somehow got me talking about the stuff we used to do for Christmas . . .our traditions and such. When she saw me smile at some memory, she said See, you can still smile about Christmas after all, cant you? Which made me real mad. So then she apologized, and she said, Im sorry, it must be a terrible thing to have all those happy memories. What were your parents thinking? I couldnt believe it. I just looked at her like shed just sprouted horns. They must have made those memories on purpose just to taunt you through the years, so youd feel awful whenever you thought of them, right?"
Josiah chuckled softly, the words sounding so like the woman hed come to think of as Mom.
"I remember rolling my eyes, because I could see by then where she was heading. Then she got serious again and told me, I cant speak for your parents, Chris, but I know if anything ever happened to me, the thing Id want most to leave my children with would be happy memories, so they would smile when they thought about me."
There were sniffles and low murmurs around the room. JD wrapped his arms around Josiah and Ezra leaned closer to Chris. Even though their eyes were brimming with tears, they all had smiles on their faces. Except for Vin.
"Vin?" Chris looked at his little brother. Vin was staring up at the tree, his eyes filled with despair. "Whats wrong?"
They all turned their attention to the boy huddled in front of Nathan.
"I . . .I cant member what she looks like anymore," he said softly, his voice anguished. "My momma . . .I cant hardly see her at all."
They all knew he was speaking of his birth mother, whom hed lost at such a young age. He had no pictures, nothing to remember her by.
"Vin . . .." Chris started to apologize, feeling guilty for causing his brother pain.
But Vin ignored him, jumped up and hurried out of the room.
"Chris, its okay," Josiah said in a soothing voice. "Dont feel guilty. You did a wonderful thing by sharing that with us. I cant tell you how much it meant to me."
Chris tried to smile, but he felt awful and he was really worried about his little brother. "I should go talk to him," he said, starting to get up.
Josiah held out a hand. "Lets give Vin a little time to collect himself, okay? Besides, I thought you were going to work? Not that Im in favor of you going . . .but, if you are, shouldnt you be getting ready?"
"Yeah, guess I better."
Josiah was hoping maybe hed had a change of heart, but apparently not.
Vin pretended to be sleeping when Chris stopped in to say goodbye. Chris sat on the edge of the bed, wishing he knew what to say. What could anyone say that would make Vin feel better? His mom would probably know of something. Shes always had a way of making sense of things that seemed hopelessly senseless. Unable to think of anything adequate, he combed his fingers through Vins tousled hair and whispered in his ear, "Ill be here in the morning, little brother."
Less than an hour after leaving for work, Chris returned to the house. JD had fallen asleep on the couch, but the rest of his brothers were sitting around talking quietly.
"Hey, Chris. What are you doing home?" Buck asked.
Chris smiled sheepishly. "Dan sent me home. Said I looked like death warmed over."
"Well, thats the smartest thing Ive heard all day." Nathan commented.
"Did Vin ever come down?"
"I checked on him a bit ago and he was sleepin," Buck answered then shook his head sadly. "Poor kid."
"Yeah." Chris yawned, swaying with weariness. "Ill talk to him in the morning."
"You best get some sleep yourself, brother," Josiah advised, wondering if he had the strength to make it up the stairs. He kept a close eye on the man as he ascended the stairs, feeling relieved when he heard the creaking sound of footsteps down the hall.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
By Christmas Eve things had settled down somewhat. Josiah was still having a hard time getting into the so-called Christmas Spirit, but he was grateful that things were getting back to normal. Chris was feeling much better and able to help out with chores and help Buck a little too, which made Bucks workday a little shorter. Nathan had made an effort to spend more time with his brothers, realizing that soon hed be away at school and might not have the chance to make it home next Christmas.
As usual, Ezra and Vin had spent a lot of time together, although that day Ezra was so nervous about meeting with his mother that he hadnt been very good company. Vin had been even quieter than he normally was, but he didnt seem overly upset. He hadnt spoken of his mother again. When his brothers had asked if he needed to talk, Vin had shaken his head no.
JD was driving everyone crazy. He was excited enough about Christmas to make up for everyone else. Finally, Chris had ordered him out of the house, handing him a long list of outside chores to do. Vin decided to join him, having nothing else to do. The chores Chris had given JD werent the usual ones, so he didnt mind so much helping out.
One of the chores on the list was: Put extra oats in the old feed trough for reindeer. Vin wasnt sure that reindeer even ate oats, and he didnt believe in Santa Claus, but he went along with it for JDs sake. Although, he had the feeling that JD didnt believe in Santa anymore either. He suspected the boy was faking he believed, thinking hed get more presents. He wasnt sure though, so he didnt question his little brother.
As they were emptying a bag of oats into the trough, Buck drove into the yard. Both boys turned to watch just as he practically fell out of his pick-up truck.
"Buck!" JD let go of his end of the bag and ran to his beloved brother, while Vin tried unsuccessfully to take up the slack. He wasnt strong enough, and all he could do is watch as the oats spilled all over the ground.
"JD!" he shouted angrily. "Look what you made me do!" He couldnt help but be concerned when he saw Buck stagger, so he left the bag on the ground and hurried to Buck. "Buck? Whats wrong? You sick?"
"Hes hot!" JD cried out. "I think he gots the flu!
"Now, hold on there, pard." Buck was going to deny that he had the flu, but he couldnt because he doubled over coughing.
As soon as he straightened up, Vin and JD guided him slowly toward the house. Once the front door was open, JD shouted at the top of his lungs, "SIAH! CHRIS! BUCKS GOT THE FLU-U-U-U-UU!" Which made the pounding in Bucks head nearly unbearable.
"JD, quit yellin!" Vin snapped, then looked up at Buck with compassion. "Come on, Buck. Ill help ya up to your room."
"Thanks, pard," he managed to get out before coughing the rest of the way to his room.
Buck was sure he was at deaths door, but he forced himself to get ready for church. They always went to church on Christmas Eve. When he got downstairs however, his brothers insisted he go right back up to his room. "But its Christmas Eve," he protested.
"Yes it is, and youre sick, brother Buck," Josiah said, pushing him toward the staircase.
"But . . .."
"Buck, I know you want to go to the service with us, but not only is it not a good idea for your own health," Nathan lectured, "it wont be good for you to go spreadin your germs all over the place."
Buck sighed, knowing his brother was right. "Okay, okay," he said tiredly and headed back up the stairs.
"Well be back in an hour," Chris called after him.
So, only six of the seven brothers attended church that evening. It was another tradition left over from their parents, and that Buck couldnt go was somewhat of a disappointment to them all. Josiah considered himself a spiritual man and attended church on a regular basis, usually taking the younger boys with him. Buck and Chris didnt accompany them very often, but they always made a point to attend Christmas Eve service every year. Josiah knew some people frowned on those who only showed up for church on Christmas and Easter, but he figured a little Gospel was better than none at all.
After the service, Mrs. Potter met them on the steps outside. She had volunteered to be the chaperone for Ezras rendezvous with his mother. Ezra was so nervous hed shifted and squirmed, unable to sit still in church. At the moment, he felt like he might throw up. He straightened his sweater, reminding himself that his clothing was perfectly fine. Still, he couldnt help be apprehensive about what his mother would say. He could just hear her now. "Ezra, did you dress this way just to spite me? You know perfectly well that youre supposed to dress up!" He kept trying to work out a suitable response in his head, but he still had no idea what would he say.
Ezra bid his brothers goodbye, walking toward Mrs. Potters car as if he were walking to the gallows. They all smiled encouragingly, and then Vin called out from the bottom step, "Remember Ez, your family loves ya just the way you are!" That simple statement seemed to give him the extra boost of courage he needed. Giving his brother a two-fingered salute, he climbed into the car.
As soon as he was buckled in, Mrs. Potter turned to gaze at him sternly. "Whatever you do, do not throw up in my new car."
"You call this a car?" he teased.
She laughed. "Its better than your car."
"I dont even have a car."
~ ~ * * ~ ~
Maude Standish met them at the door, seemingly overjoyed to be reunited with her darling son. "Ezra!" she gushed, kissing his cheek then smiling a huge toothy smile and pulling him into the suite.
"Mother, you look lovely," Ezra greeted in a way he felt was appropriate. While he was truly glad to see her, at the same time he was reluctant to let her know that.
Things went downhill after that. They talked small talk for a while, catching each other up. But their lives seemed worlds apart -- which they were, really. After too short a time, they ran out of things to talk about. Mrs. Potter sat apart from them, appearing as if she was reading a book. After an extended period of silence she tried to initiate a new topic. "Ezra, did you tell your mother about winning at the fair?"
Maude perked up, either at the thought of her son winning, or perhaps at the possibility of a new topic of conversation.
"Well, unfortunately you are looking at the only brother who did not win at the fair," Ezra said, giving her a look of gratitude for her effort. "Although, I did win at some of the games at the carnival afterwards."
His mother smiled and patted his hand, then let out a long sigh. "If you dont mind, I need to check my messages," she said after another period of silence.
"Do you mind if I call home? Id like to make sure Buck is okay."
"Of course, darling." Maude got up and went into the bedroom, turning back to him before closing the door. "Ill be right back."
Ezra picked up the phone and started to dial. Mrs. Potter interrupted him. "You know Buck is being well taken care of."
"Of course I do."
"You miss them?"
"Why ever would I miss a bunch of loud, uncouth, irritable, untidy, Napoleonic barbarians?"
"Because theyre your brothers?"
Ezra ignored her; Mrs. Potter watched his face light up as he spoke into the phone.
"Chris! How is everyone? Hows Buck? Good, thats good."
His eyes narrowed and his grin turned into a smirk. "Mothers fine . . .as if you care. Of course Im not calling because I miss you," Ezra said, grinning once again. "You really should work on that ego of yours. Hey, Vin! Im fine. No, nothings wrong. Dont worry, if youre sleeping when I get home Ill fill you in on everything in the morning. Okay, tell everyone hi . . .no, no scratch that. Ill just talk to you later."
When he hung up he purposely didnt look in Mrs. Potters direction, so he didnt see the warm, knowing smile on her face.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
When Ezra got home, four of his brothers were waiting for him. Buck was in bed, of course, and JD had passed out shortly after theyd gotten home from church.
"So . . .?" Vin asked, eyebrows raised expectantly.
"So . . .what?"
"What did ya get?"
Ezra rolled his eyes. He still couldnt believe all hed gotten was a stupid suit.
"I take it Maude bought ya that fancy suit, huh?" Nathan asked, eyeing the obviously expensive clothing appreciatively.
"Yes, believe it or not, you are all looking at my Christmas present."
"Here are your other clothes, Ezra." Mrs. Potter handed him a box.
"Thank you, Mrs. Potter," Josiah grasped her hand. "Let me walk you to your car."
"No, no . . .Im perfectly capable of making it to the car, thanks anyway," she said with a wink. "You boys have a Merry Christmas."
"You too, Mrs. Potter," they called after her. "Thanks again!" They waved as she drove off then closed the door, turning their attention to Ezra.
"Thats all she got ya?" Vin spoke up first, unable to hide his disappointment.
"Yes," Ezra sighed. "This is it."
"Are ya sorry you went?" he asked hesitantly.
"Nah, it was a bit awkward, we really didnt have much to talk about, but Im not sorry I went."
Josiah wondered if Maude Standish was even aware of the gift shed been given.
Vin smiled at Ezra. "Im glad."
"Oh, and I brought you something," he said, reaching into the pocket of his expensive jacket and pulling out a napkin full of crumbs? "Oops," he grinned. "Mother would not approve."
His brothers chuckled, knowing how very much she would disapprove. "What is that?" asked Vin.
"It was Tiramisu." He handed the napkin to Vin. "Im sure it still tastes the same."
"Thanks." His brothers watched as Vin crammed the chunks of dessert into his mouth and grinned. "Yum."
Shaking their heads, Josiah, Chris and Nathan walked away, one of them muttering, "That boyll eat anything," and the others nodding in agreement.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
It was well after midnight, the house was dark except for the lights on the Christmas tree. Josiah relaxed on the sofa, admiring the tree and appreciating the silence of the hour. He glanced at the presents beneath the tree, thinking theyd done all right by the boys. No, it wouldnt be the best Christmas ever, but it would be okay. He knew the boys would never complain. Theyd appreciate anything they got. Josiah was thankful for that thankful for his brothers.
He closed his eyes, trying to capture that peaceful contented feeling that he usually had on this particular night of the year. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldnt quite grasp it. It was like the feeling was right there, yet out of reach. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes, looking to the star that topped the tree. He wondered what it was that made the difference this year, compared to years gone by. The season was stressful, plain and simple, but stress or not, hed always been able to find that peace of mind that filled his soul with the meaning of Christmas. What was different about this year?
"Siah?" He heard his name spoke quietly, and when Josiah opened his eyes Vin was standing in front of him. He hadnt even heard the boy approach.
"You should be sleeping, little brother," he said, but he lifted his arm, inviting the boy to sit beside him.
"Its okay, I know there aint no such thing as Santa," Vin said, with a mischievous smile.
"Well, Im sure you do, but its after midnight."
Vin nodded, suddenly looking nervous. Josiah noticed he had a folded piece of paper in his hand. "I was wonderin . . ." He chewed on his bottom lip, glancing up at his brother. "I-Is just thinking . . ." With a heavy sigh, his shoulders slumped. "Its probably a dumb idea."
"Why dont you tell me anyway," Josiah said, his voice deep and soothing.
"Well, Ive been thinking a lot about my mom . . .my real mom . . ." he swallowed hard, "and I cant remember her much anymore. I used to be able to, but its like all I see are these little flashes of what she looked like. I try so hard, but I just cant see her face no more."
Josiah hugged him closer. "Im sorry, Vin."
Vin didnt look up, but he nodded, leaning more heavily into his brothers side. "Well, ya know Mrs. Price has a little baby girl, and I keep thinkin that she wont ever know her momma. She wont ever have no memories to make her smile. She wont know how special her momma was, and how much she meant to everyone. And . . .and Is thinkin how much it would mean if I had someone that could tell me about my mom."
Josiah didnt have any words. He wasnt sure there were any. He blinked back his own tears, wanting to give Vin the chance to unburden his heavy heart.
"I was lucky to get a chance to know Mrs. Price and have her for my teacher . . .and my friend." Vin sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve. When he looked up at Josiah, his eyes were glistening. "I wrote this," Vin held up the piece of paper, "for little Grace. Maybe someday when shes bigger, shell want to read it and maybe it might make her happy to know how special her mom was." Vin placed the letter into Josiahs hand. "You can read it if ya want."
Josiah took the paper, almost afraid to read its contents. He looked at Vin, who was looking back at him with wide expectant eyes, and he knew that he couldnt not read it; so he slowly opened the paper and began to read.I thought maybe someday you might want to know how special your mom was .
The entire piece of paper, from top to bottom, was filled with wonderful details. While he was reading, it occurred to him that every description of Mrs. Price brought a pleasant image to mind. There were no platitudes, no exaggerations, just a simple, honest, heartfelt eulogy memories given as a gift from one child to another.
Josiah didnt respond right away. Not that he could have. His throat felt suddenly tight and he had to clear it a few times before he felt confident that his voice would work.
Vin sat forward, glancing sideways at him. "You think its dumb, dont you?"
"Lord no, Vin." Josiah pulled him back. "Dumb? Its its about the nicest gift anyone could give. Its beautiful. Im just so . . .." He couldnt find the words so he simply pulled the boy into a hug.
Minutes later he felt Vin relax, and his breathing alter into a soft snore. He maneuvered the boy around, wanting to have another look at the letter. Thats when he noticed the small, slightly discolored splotches scattered over the paper. He looked more closely and realized what they were. Watermarks. Vins tears of grief over something lost, and tears of healing over something shared.
Josiah felt a tear of his own spill down his cheek. He looked up to the star atop the Christmas tree, taking a moment to ponder its meaning. Then he looked down at the boy curled up against him and whispered, "Thanks for helping this wise man find his way."
~ ~ * * ~ ~
Christmas morning they all settled around the tree, gazing up at the colorful glass balls, the handmade ornaments collected throughout the years, strings of popcorn and cranberries, the tinsel and lights. The fresh scent of evergreen filled the room, helping to imprint every detail for future reference. Buck always got to be the one to hand out presents, but he was sick and restricted to the sofa. Theyd decided the duty would fall to Nathan, who had just handed out the first gift, when they heard the sound of a car pulling up outside.
Ezra, Vin and JD hurried to look out the window, wondering who would be visiting on Christmas Day.
A long white limousine was parked in front of the house.
Ezra groaned. "Mother."
Seven faces peered out the window as a man got out of the car then opened the back door. Sure enough, Maude Standish exited from the back of the limousine.
Chris groaned, and Buck whistled and said, "Nice."
Chris scowled at him. "Arent you supposed to be lying on the couch?"
"Oh, right." Backing up he settled again on the sofa.
"Well, we did invite her," Josiah said with a smile as he opened the front door.
"Josiah, how lovely to see you!" Maude greeted, sweeping past him into the foyer. She wore a long white fur coat and matching cap, which made her rosy cheeks and ruby red lips stand out. "Wheres my darlin boy?"
"Mother." Reluctantly Ezra went to her and placed a quick kiss on her cheek. "I didnt think youd come."
"Well, I cant stay," she told him, looking around the rooms as if inspecting the place. "I just wanted to drop off a few things and say thank you."
As much as the idea of hitting the jackpot in Christmas gifts appealed to Ezra, it also unsettled him because he didnt want to be the recipient of the mother-load of gifts while his brothers had gotten so little. As he glanced toward the doorway, he was stunned at the amount of presents being carried in. The chauffer had already dropped one load and was bringing in another.
Josiah was a little stunned. He had a brief thought that maybe he should deny the gifts, but wasnt certain if that would be the right thing to do.
"Well, I just wanted to say Merry Christmas," she said to Josiah, her arm still holding onto Ezra. "Im off to spend the rest of the holiday in Paris."
Ezra stood gaping at the enormous pile of gaudily wrapped presents. What on Earth was going on and where was the real Maude Stnadish? He wondered if perhaps there was an empty pod back at the hotel room.
"Close your mouth darlin," she whispered to him, reaching to push his jaw up. "Appearances." Ezra could only nod.
Meanwhile, JD and Vin had worked their way past the adults and were inspecting the presents with awe. "Hey! This one has my name on it!" JD shouted, pointing to a large rectangular shaped gift.
"Well, I must be going now," Maude said apologetically, then spun on her high heel and pointed to a plain paper sack. "Oh, I almost forgot, theres homemade chicken soup in here."
Ezra looked astonished. "You cooked?"
Maude laughed out loud, then pinched her sons cheek. "Dont be silly, darling. Its homemade from the hotel restaurant. I had some yesterday though, and it tastes divine . . .as far as soup goes anyway. Theres also a little treat for you."
"Yes, and in the future, I implore you to refrain from putting food in your pockets, Ezra."
"Hey!" JD called out again. "This one says Vin!"
"Well," Maude smiled affectionately at her son. "Merry Christmas, darlin boy." Then she swept out the door just as shed swept in, leaving seven stunned brothers in her wake. Then she climbed into the back seat and the chauffer closed the door, and hurried around to the drivers side.
"What just happened?" Chris wondered aloud, as the limos back window lowered. He knew for a fact that Maude Standish was not the sort of person to give anything without expecting something in return. She might be able to fool the others, but she couldnt fool him.
Maude looked at the seven stunned faces and shrugged, her eyebrows lifting. "Ho, ho, ho, darlings," she said, then smiled and blew them all a kiss as the limo drove off.
"Look, Siah!" JD squealed. "This ones for you!"
Josiah raised his eyebrows and glanced at Ezra who seemed fascinated watching the limo cruise down the long, winding driveway.
"This one says To Christopher," Vin informed them, patting a hefty square package wrapped in brightly colored holly print paper. "Thats you," he told Chris as if Chris didnt know.
Ezra glanced at Vin then up at Josiah, a small smile playing on his lips. "Perhaps she was visited during the night by three spirits?" he theorized with a shrug. "It could happen." Unfortunately, he surmised, it likely had more to do with guilt, than generosity or Christmas cheer. He knew from experience that anytime Maude bought him anything she didnt consider a necessity it was always because she was feeling guilty over something. She wasnt looking for forgiveness; she was seeking self-redemption, appeasing her conscience from what, he didnt even want to consider.
Josiah put an arm across Ezras shoulders and they watched until the tail end of the fancy limousine disappeared into the foothills.
Ezra sat at the end of the couch, smiling at the chaotic scene before him and thinking that there was no place he would rather be. Vin and JD were chasing through the rooms, slapping bows on each other and bombing each other with wadded up paper. Josiah was trying to make it to the coffee table without spilling the tray he was carrying, only relaxing once the mugs of cider were safely on the table. Chris was carrying around a garbage bag, trying his best to pick up the mess and shouting at the boys to settle down. Nathan skimmed through a new book, seeming oblivious to everything going on around him.
From his makeshift sickbed, Buck sneezed loudly. Hed felt sicker than a dog the last day, but at the moment he was feeling a small burst of energy. Propping himself a little higher against the arm of the sofa he reached out, helping himself to a mug of cider, then he waited for the perfect moment. When he felt the time was right, he smiled and raised his mug in a toast. "God bless us every one!" he called out in what he felt was a touching and dramatic imitation.
Vin and JD stopped in their tracks, Josiah choked on his cider, Nathan looked up from his book; Chris dropped his bagful of discarded wrappings and Ezra groaned. Chris looked around at each of his brothers before reaching down and snatching a section of torn wrapping paper from the floor. With an evil grin he crumpled the paper into a tight ball and said, "Lets get him, boys."
~ end ~
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