A Little Ezra Christmas Story
Author's Note: Be warned, this is an unabashedly sentimental little tale, but what the heck, it's Christmas!
"Uncle Buck, what are you doing?"
"Writing a letter to Santa."
Ezra's jaw sagged open.
"Don't want to wait too long or he might not have time to get our requests in."
Still gawping, Ezra clarified, "You believe in Santa Claus?"
Eyes widening in a dramatic display of shock, Buck said, "Sure, don't you?"
Uncertain now, the seven-year-old shifted from foot to foot. "Mother said Santa was just a fraudulent myth."
Buck laughed. "She sounds like that kid from 'Twas the Night Before Christmas'."
Ezra stared at him blankly.
"You know, the mouse who writes a nasty letter and ruins Christmas?"
The boy looked as if he were doubtful of his uncle's sanity.
"It's a cartoon," Buck explained.
Ezra's expression cleared. "Oh, I see." He studied his uncle for a moment and finally ventured, "You know, most people don't believe in Santa Claus."
"Well, that's true and I'll admit that I didn't either for a long time. Figured I was too old."
A hopeful note entering his voice, Ezra asked, "Aren't you?"
Buck smiled. "Nope. I believe in him now, and I'll still believe he' real if I live to be a hundred."
"But how do you know?"
"Because last Christmas Eve, me and the boys saw a shooting star. Josiah claimed that it was Santa Claus and that if we all made a wish on his sleigh it'd come true this year."
Eyes wide, Ezra asked, "What did you wish for?"
"Well, see, I didn't need much for myself so I wished for something special for my best friend."
"Yep. See, he'd been feeling real lonely for a long time, so I wished for Santa to bring him somebody to love again."
Ezra said uncertainly, "Me?"
Buck hugged him. "Of course, you! You've got no idea what you've done for us all, kid. I'll never doubt the big guy again."
"Me either," the boy whispered. He pondered the idea for several seconds, then asked, "May I have some paper too, please?"
"Sure," Buck said, handing him a sheet. "Know what you want to ask for?"
Ezra nodded. "If Santa Claus really gave me a home for Christmas, then it would best to request something smaller this year, right?"
"Wouldn't want to be greedy," Buck agreed.
A happy smile bloomed over his face. "Then I'm going to ask him to bring me a kitten. I asked Chris if I could have one once, but he just said, 'we'll see'."
"Wouldn't you rather have a puppy?" Buck asked hopefully, knowing that Chris was not a cat lover.
The child scowled. "Dogs chew shoes, and they're slobbery." Clearly feeling that he had offered all the explanation that was necessary, he ran out of the room, calling back over his shoulder, "Thanks, Uncle Buck!"
As he watched him go, Buck chuckled. Chris wasn't even home, and he could already feel the man glowering. He'd thought of all the arguments he should use; shedding, hairballs, litter box cleaning, but he hadn't been able to voice any of them. He had witnessed Ezra with stray cats in the past and knew that it was a mutual love affair.
Well, maybe he could get JD to pitch in on one of those fancy self-cleaning litter boxes. Nathan's wife was a veterinarian, and if they picked out a short-hair, there wouldn't be much danger of hairballs, right?
Marshaling his defenses, Buck went to call Chris; his mission to find out what Ezra wanted for Christmas accomplished.
The cellular phone rang just as Chris pulled it out of his pocket, startling him into a near-fumble. Quickly noting the caller ID, he snapped it open. "Hey, Buck, I was just about to call you. Gather any Intel?"
On the other end of the line, Buck made a static sound and said through his nose, "That's a big 10-4, mission commander. The partridge is in the pear tree."
Chris could not help but laugh. He had been trying for a week to get his newly adopted son to tell him what he wanted for Christmas, only to have him evade the questions. Chris knew that Ezra had been trained by his mother to avoid asking for 'frivolous' items, and was probably afraid that to wish aloud for something would only bring disappointment come Christmas morning. He had felt that Buck, the next best thing to a kid himself, might have better luck. "I knew you could do it, Elf-One," he joked back. "How'd you get him to talk?"
"Just convinced him Santa was for real," Buck replied in a normal tone, but with his voice lowered to prevent accidental overhearing by his young charge. "He was a little doubtful at first, but I figured he'd be willing to tell the big guy what he wanted quicker than he would us."
Surprised, having assumed that there was no chance his determinedly mature little boy would still want to believe in Santa Claus, Chris grinned, "Good work. Okay, so what does he want?"
Buck hesitated. "You aren't going to like it."
"Expensive, huh?" Chris said, bracing himself for some outrageous request.
"Uh, well maybe a little, in the long run," he hedged. "I'm sure Vin can help you pick a good out come Saturday, though, and I bet Rain will give you a good deal on care services."
A feeling of dread filled Chris. Vin worked at an animal shelter on Saturdays, and Rain was a veterinarian. It didn't take a genius to put the clues together. "Don't tell me. He wants a kitten, doesn't he?" He had hoped that having avoided Ezra's tentative request of a few months ago, the idea might have been forgotten.
"Got his heart set on one. He looked so damned hopeful when he said he was going to ask Santa to bring him one that I didn't have the heart to tell him you hate cats."
Chris shook his head. Why couldn't Ezra have wanted a dog? He liked dogs, and already had several around the ranch. "I don't hate 'em, exactly," he defended. "We just don't get along so well. Remember that cat Sarah had? It'd attack me at the slightest provocation all day long and then cuddle up so close to me at night that I could hardly move without squashing it. My sister's cat was the same damn way. Every time I came home from college, it'd take one look at me and be out the door, yowling its fool head off."
Buck's answering chuckle was decidedly unsympathetic.
"Don't suppose there's any chance Ezra'd be happy with a pup instead?"
"No dice, pard," Buck said. "I already tried. He told me dogs were slobbery and liked to chew things, and it was pretty obvious that he didn't mean that in a good way."
Chris grunted. "Bo chewed up the kid's favorite pair of shoes a few weeks ago. Ezra still hasn't quite forgiven him for that. And you know how Pepper is when she finds anyone willing to play with her. She'll just keep dropping that wet sloppy tennis ball in your lap over and over until you lock her outside."
"Guess his reaction's not a big surprise then," Buck agreed. "That boy does love his fancy clothes."
He snorted ruefully. "You're telling me. Only little boy I ever saw who actually knows how to use an iron, and doesn't mind helping with the laundry."
A puppy was definitely out, then. Pity. They were a little messy at times, but dogs were friendly, obedient, full of energy and spirit, always ready to eat or play, and most of them loved children. Cats, on the other hand, seemed to prefer adult company to that of children. Sure, some were every bit as loyal as a dog, but they were also independent, finicky, fussy and preferred grooming and sleeping to almost any other activity. And every one of 'em seemed to crave affection but only be willing to take it on their own terms.
Suddenly, Chris smiled, realizing that his mental descriptions might well have been ascribed to Buck and Ezra. "Well," he said. "I can hardly let the kid down on his very first Christmas with me, can I? I guess maybe the house has room for just one cat."
"You mean that?" Buck said, astonished by the easy capitulation. His voice grew delighted as he nearly shouted, "Aw, buddy, that's great!"
"Shhhh!" Chris said sharply. "You want him to hear you?"
Buck went back to whispering, but his happiness was impossible to subdue. "I been thinking that maybe JD and me can split the cost on one of those self-cleaning litter boxes and I'll bet Nathan would contribute a bag or two of cat food. Maybe Josiah can kick in a few toys, or a nice padded box to sleep in."
Chris grinned, visualizing Buck wagging a big furry tail and running around in circles as his enthusiasm grew. "Sure, sure, just don't forget to buy Ezra something too. He might get a little miffed with Santa if his cat has more gifts under the tree than he does."
"No problem; wait'll I tell you what I picked out!"
"Tell me when I get there," Chris interrupted, heaving a little sigh. "Reckon I need to stop and talk to Vin for a minute."
He hung up the phone on the wickedly chortling Buck.
Chris studied the paper in front of him, checking off items. He had bought camping gear for Vin, video games for JD, a set of tools and a do-it-yourself home repair DVD for Josiah, a massaging chair cushion for Nathan and gadgets for Buck's latest obsession, cooking. (Apparently ladies loved a man who knew his way around a kitchen.)
A shuffling sound caught his ear and he looked up to find Ezra peering through the doorway at him. The child was dressed in a cherry red bathrobe and his favorite pajamas, blue flannel with a pattern of playing cards sprinkled over the surface, his bare toes curling in the thick carpet as he waited to be noticed. The expectant look on his face coupled with a sheet of notebook paper clenched tightly in both hands easily explained his presence.
"Finish your letter to Santa?" Chris asked, stashing his own list inside a book.
Ezra nodded. "Want to see?"
Chris held out both arms in invitation and Ezra padded across the den and sprang into his lap with a level of enthusiasm that did Chris's heart good. The boy was usually very shy about accepting physical contact. Not surprising for a child whose own mother had left him on the doorstep of a complete stranger, whose only relationship to him was a distant cousin-ship by marriage. The woman had handed over her custody rights with barely a sigh of regret when the authorities had caught up with her five months ago, only pausing long enough to ask her son if he was willing to be adopted by Chris. Poor Ezra had not known what to do, caught between the wish to stay in one place with people who appeared to want him, and an equally strong desire to stay with the parent whom he loved desperately, even though she did not seem to return that sentiment. In the end, he had simply nodded and let the adults make the final decision for him.
Realizing that Ezra was waiting; the list in his outstretched hand, Chris brought his attention back to the present and accepted it. He stifled a sigh at seeing the very first item, written in large, neat block lettering.
"A kitten, huh?" he said, pretending to be surprised. "Y'know, son, I'm pretty sure Santa Claus doesn't deliver live animals."
A look of such abject disappointment filled Ezra's small face that Chris instantly felt like a heel, his last-ditch effort to keep his house cat-free suddenly seeming incredibly selfish. He felt even lower when the child firmed up his jaw and made a visible effort to hide his feelings, saying in a casual voice that was only betrayed by a slight wobble, "Uncle Buck said Santa was real. That he was magic and could do anything. I guess I knew he was only trying to be nice."
Chris rubbed his back soothingly. "No, he meant what he said. Buck really does believe in Santa Claus," he said with a soft laugh. "He probably just didn't know about the animal rule."
"There's a rule?" Ezra asked doubtfully.
Chris nodded. "Can you imagine Santa Claus trying to pack cats and dogs and bunny rabbits and ponies into his sack, right along with all those toys?"
As he had hoped, Ezra smiled a little at the mental picture. "That would make for a very long journey, even with magic."
"Sure would," he agreed. "That's why moms and dads have to help out when their kids ask Santa for a pet."
Ezra's expression slowly brightened. "You mean . . .?"
The last of Chris Larabee's reserve melted away as he looked into the hope-filled green eyes of his new son. "I mean that I already talked to Uncle Vin and he's going to show us around the Animal Shelter on Saturday and help you pick you out a Christmas kitten." He smiled at the wonder filling the child's face. "It'll be your cat, so I figure you should have a say in which one we choose."
The little boy let go a joyful cry and flung his arms around Chris's neck, hugging him so tightly he could hardly breathe. Chris didn't mind at all, simply hugging him back and laughing. The new cat could be the most foul-tempered beast in the state of Colorado, and its presence would still be worthwhile just for this moment.
As Ezra finally released him, Chris asked, "So, any idea what kind you'd like?"
"I'm not sure." Ezra's small pink tongue poked between his lips as he thought it over. "The kittens and puppies at the Animal Shelter are kind of like orphans, aren't they?"
"More or less. They mostly come from places where a mama cat or dog had babies and the families couldn't find homes for all of them."
"So they turn them over to the Shelter, and the people there find new families to take the orphans home and maybe love 'em and keep 'em forever?" he ventured.
Recognizing the subtle request for reassurance in the softly voiced question, Chris hugged him again. "That's exactly what it's like."
"So when we adopt a kitten, I'll be sort of like his new daddy, the same way that you're mine!" he said, looking delighted by the idea.
Chris laughed. "I guess so. I just hope that doesn't make me his grandfather."
A giggle rewarded the joke. Returning his attention to the paper in Chris' hand, Ezra asked interestedly, "If Santa is really real, but he can't bring my kitten, will he bring the other things instead?"
Realizing he'd never read the rest of the list, Chris quickly checked it over. "Let's see, you want a Bionicle, a racetrack, new books, board games, an Etch-a-Sketch; I didn't know they still made those; and a magic set."
"Is that too much?" the boy asked worriedly. "I tried to think of something Uncle Nathan and Uncle Josiah would want to play with too. They won't play poker against me anymore."
Chris desperately squelched the urge to laugh out loud as he recalled the look on Nathan's face the first time he'd been beaten (and badly) at poker by a then-six-year-old child. In another instance, Josiah had allowed Ezra to talk him into betting cash instead of the customary Monopoly dollars, and ended up owing the kid nearly twenty bucks. Chris had put the kibosh on any more monetary bets and let Josiah off the hook with a stern warning not to repeat the infraction. The older man had felt honor bound to settle his debt anyway and had done so by presenting Ezra with the set of flannel pajamas he now wore.
"Nice of you to consider them," Chris croaked, covering his reaction with a cough. "And I expect Santa will do his best to bring the things you've asked for."
Thinking of Buck's excitement over the gift he had chosen, he wondered how on earth his friend had guessed that Ezra, who never seemed to care about any of the sporting events Chris and his friends watched on television, wanted a toy racetrack. "In fact, I'll mail this right off for you tomorrow morning. Don't be disappointed if you don't get everything you asked for, though."
"I won't." He hugged Chris again and then hopped down from his lap. As he reached the doorway, Ezra paused and turned around. "I want a striped cat; black or brown, maybe gray. Something that won't show too badly when he sheds fur on us."
Chris had to grin. Trust Ezra to think of a thing like that. "Good idea. Go on to bed, now. I'll come back in a few minutes to tuck you in."
"Okay," he said happily. "I love you."
Again, Chris's heart swelled. For Ezra, verbal expressions of affection were even rarer than physical displays. "I love you too, son."
Still smiling, he watched his boy scamper down the hall and then picked up the phone. He needed to call JD and Buck. One of them would surely know where to find a Bionicle, whatever that was.
A knock sounded at the front door and Chris hurried to answer it. As he opened the door, he glanced at his watch and grinned. "One minute past seven on Christmas morning. I thought Santa's elves were supposed to deliver at midnight."
"Well, Ho Ho Ho to you too," Vin replied sarcastically. Holding up the cardboard carrying case in his hand, he said, "One Christmas cat, as ordered."
Gingerly, Chris accepted the carrier, peeking inside at the anxious eyes of its small inhabitant. A loud plaintive mew sounded, and he shushed the kitten anxiously, glancing behind him to make sure that Ezra had not awakened and come to investigate. "Thanks for bringing her over early. I just finished putting the rest of the gifts under the tree about an hour ago."
"How long you been up?" Vin asked, following Chris inside and taking his coat off. Looking under the tree, where Buck's racetrack gift was set up and waiting to be played with, he laughed. "Never mind. By the look of things, I'm guessin' you never even went to bed."
"I got a little sleep," Chris hedged, not bothering to mention that he had dozed off in his chair around two a.m. and had been scrambling to catch up ever since he had jerked back awake at six.
Vin had offered to bring Ezra's new pet over early, knowing how anxious the child was for it. Ezra had made his choice on Saturday with great difficulty, every new cat he saw seeming to possess a benefit that made it ideal. Vin had been very helpful in steering him away from very young kittens, and those cats that were already known to not easily tolerate children or dogs a consideration Chris had not even thought of. Finally Ezra had set eyes on one particular cat and every adult present had known that this was the one. It was pure love at first sight. The Animal Shelter volunteers had allowed the two to bond a bit, but paperwork and preparations had been needed before the cat could go to its new home, and Ezra had reluctantly agreed to wait for Christmas.
Freeing the small cat from its box, Chris lifted it up and looked it in the eye. "Let's you and me understand each other, kitty," he said sternly. "There will be no tearing up my furniture, no spitting hairballs on the beds and no clawing at me or Ezra. Got it?"
To his surprise, the cat, a shorthaired five-month old black female with yellowish green eyes, purred in response.
Vin laughed. "Guess you can take that as a yes." He rummaged in his pocket. "Here, I brought you something to pretty her up with."
Allowing the green velvet ribbon to be tied loosely around the feline' neck, Chris carried the unprotesting animal to Ezra's bedroom, Vin following close behind.
Ezra was still sleeping peacefully. The gradually brightening light shining through the window illuminated his form and Chris could not help but smile at the way he lay snuggled into a little ball beneath the quilts.
"Let me help you," Vin whispered, taking the cat back as Chris carefully shifted Ezra to make room on the bed. Moving the edge of the quilt, he nodded to Vin, who set the kitten down in the warm space.
For a moment, the kitten pranced in place, looking as if it would jump right down again. Then Ezra's hand instinctively shifted forward and touched the velvety soft fur, stroking it with gentle questing fingertips. The kitten sniffed at his face, then abruptly seemed to recognize him, plopping down next to his chest and purring even louder than before.
Ezra's eyelids fluttered open, his hand stroking the soft fur more fully as the cat's presence registered. Sitting up, he scooped the animal up into his arms, causing it to squeak in protest at being moved from its comfy new spot. "Oh, you're here!" he said rapturously. "You're really here!"
The cat accepted his excited hug with surprising patience, but eventually decided she had had enough and wriggled free, hopping down from the bed to poke around the room, investigating her new living space.
The child followed her movements with his eyes, delight reflected in every feature. Finally, he noticed Chris and Vin and scrambled free of his covers to hurl himself into Chris's waiting embrace. "Thank you!" he crowed, then let go, only to fling his arms around Vin's waist. "Thank you, thank you!"
"You're welcome, buddy. Merry Christmas," Vin said, ruffling his hair. "I hope you two have a lot of good times together."
"Oh, we will," he assured excitedly, turning to pick the kitten back up and cuddle it in his arms. "Look, Daddy. Isn't she beautiful?"
Chris swallowed hard, a lump filling his throat at Ezra's unconscious wording. It had taken months for the child to stop vacillating between 'Chris' and 'Mr. Larabee', but while he had known that Ezra enjoyed the idea of having a father, this was the first time he had ever addressed him as such. "Yes, son, she's beautiful," he said honestly, reaching out to give the cat's soft fur a brush in silent thanks for delivering such an unexpected gift to him. "Have you decided on a name?"
Ezra sat back down on the bed, small fingers automatically reaching to scratch the cat's jaw as she began bumping at his hand. "Should she have a Christmas name, since she's a Christmas cat?" he asked thoughtfully.
Vin squatted down to get a good look, stretching a fingertip out to rub the cat between its small pointy ears. "Might work. Something like Holly or Noel; maybe Snowball?"
Chris sat down next to Ezra and grinned at his friend. "You want to name a black cat Snowball? I think that's what Josiah would call irony."
As the two men laughed, Ezra frowned slightly, clearly not understanding the joke.
"How about Mrs. Claws?" Buck said from behind them, grinning as everyone looked at him in surprise. "I knocked but nobody answered, so I let myself in."
"Look, Uncle Buck!" Ezra said enthusiastically. "I got my kitten!"
Entering the bedroom, Buck sat down next to him and picked up the small cat, who once again proved to be unafraid of new people, butting her head against his chest and purring loudly. "Well, now. Aren't you a pretty little lady?" he cooed, obliging her with a scratch. "Lucky too, getting such a nice owner. Bet all the other kittens are right jealous of you today."
As if she understood, the kitten squirmed out of his grip and climbed back into the thrilled little boy's lap.
Vin smiled. "I'd say ol' Saint Nick used a little of his special Christmas magic to bring you two together for sure."
"Magic," he repeated softly, then grinned hugely. "That's perfect, Uncle Vin!"
For a moment he was confused, then he laughed. "Is that what you're gonna name her?"
He nodded happily.
Slipping an arm around him, Chris said, "I hate to break this up, but don't you want to find out what Santa brought?"
A small gasp proved that he had forgotten all about checking under the tree. Still clutching the kitten to his chest with one hand, Ezra jumped up and clamped his other hand around Chris's wrist, hauling him from the room with strength borne of pure excitement.
The manhandled kitten escaped from his grasp as Ezra fell to his knees in front of the Christmas tree, shouting, "Wow, a Piston Cup track!" Looking over his shoulder, eyes shining brightly, he directed his father and uncles' attention to the racetrack. "Look'it, Uncle Buck, you were right. Santa Claus really did come!"
The three men watched with bright grins on their faces as the little boy completely forgot his usual reserve and crawled around the floor on hands and knees to investigate every inch of the track and the three competitive "Cars" racecars. His attention quickly became diverted to other gifts as Chris also knelt on the carpet and began to hand him packages.
As Ezra was happily investigating his new set of LEGO Bionicles, a knock sounded at the door. Vin went to let in JD, Josiah, Nathan and Rain, who had all been invited over for a Christmas breakfast and unwrapping party.
"I see somebody started without us," Josiah called out, pulling Ezra' attention away from his loot. "Merry Christmas, friends."
Taking the newest toy with him, Ezra leapt up and bestowed hugs on each of the newcomers, babbling excitedly about his kitten, his racetrack, Santa Claus and Christmas magic, the words tumbling over one another in his haste to tell them everything. The adults only caught about one word in four, but they all smiled to see his obvious joy.
"Hey there, kitty," JD cooed, holding out a hand and kneeling down as he spied Magic hiding under a chair, keeping out of the way of all the bustle and clamor. "Nice kitty, kitty. I brought something for you."
Ezra said happily, "Hear that, Magic? You got a present too!"
"More than one," Rain assured him. "We brought all the things you'll need to take special good care of her."
"And a few extra goodies just for you," Nathan chimed in, presenting Ezra with a large gift-sack covered in pictures of snowflakes. "Merry Christmas, little buddy."
Not knowing how else to show his feelings, Ezra passed out another round of hugs to everyone, finishing with Chris who gladly provided support as Ezra plunked down on the carpet again and leaned back against him as he opened his new gift.
"Wow, thanks, Uncle Nathan!" he said, eyes shining as he pulled black trousers, a pale green button-down shirt and a gaily patterned red and green tie from the bag, followed by matching socks and a pair of black patent leather shoes from the very bottom. The shoes were exactly like the pair he had lost to Chris's dog weeks earlier.
Unseen from his vantage point behind Ezra, Chris shook his head in amusement over his obvious delight. Ezra had to be the only seven-year-old alive who would be genuinely happy to open a large Christmas gift and find nothing but clothes inside.
Over the next thirty minutes, the room was filled with the sounds of ripping paper and rustling packages. The seven adults exchanged presents amongst themselves, exclamations and thanks floating back and forth as each new item was opened, but the majority of the gifts and the attention went to Ezra. Being the only child in a large circle of near-family had turned out to be a distinct advantage and Ezra was soon surrounded by enough toys, books, puzzles, games and other gifts to make his head spin.
When everything was finally opened and examined, Buck and Josiah excused themselves to go get breakfast started while Vin, Nathan, Rain and JD went to work picking up discarded wrapping paper and boxes and sorting everyone's gifts into neat piles to be taken home later.
Ezra retained his spot on the floor; keeping Chris willingly pinned in place. His bright green eyes traveled over the busy room, taking in the tree, the gifts, his new family laughing and talking together, and Magic happily rolling and playing with discarded scraps of ribbon. "This is the best Christmas I ever had," he said quietly to Chris.
"You did get a lot of great stuff," Chris agreed, wrapping both arms around the small body.
"That's not what I mean," he said.
Giving him a squeeze, Chris said, "Tell me."
"I can't remember any Christmases where Mother seemed happy just to be with me, even when there wasn't a lot of presents or other people around." He squirmed around to settle more fully into the embrace, his cheek pressing against Chris's chest. "With you, it's different. I always feel like you're happy that I'm here."
"I am," he agreed softly. "You're very special to me, Ezra."
Ezra nodded. "Uncle Buck said he wished on Santa's sleigh last year that you could find somebody to love again, and that I'm what he brought for you. I'm glad he did, Chris."
Hugging him a bit tighter, Chris pressed a kiss on top of his head. "So am I, Ezra. And you know what?"
Ezra pulled back a bit to look at him. "What?"
"I really liked it this morning when you called me Daddy. That made me feel really special."
The child smiled shyly. "I wanted to, even before the adoption, but I wasn't sure if you'd like it."
"I more than like it," he said, "and I'd be honored if you'd like to use it."
The moment was interrupted by Buck's loud call of, "Come and get it!"
Ezra scrambled to his feet and took a few running steps toward the kitchen. Then he stopped and reached out to Chris. As his small hand was enveloped in the larger one, he whispered, "Merry Christmas, Daddy."
Behind them, a small cat purred, her tiny plume of a tail waving in the air as she followed her new family in to breakfast. Life would be good here; she could feel it in her whiskers.