Castle Roland

Short Story

Posted: 18 May 15

A Spirit of Christmas Finds a Place Called War

© Copyright December, 2014
Kyle Aarons

Author Forward:

Ah, an author's greatest debate when creating a new tale, when to start it and why start it there instead of at some other point. If one starts too far back the buildup is boring, start too late into the pertinent events and it becomes confusing as a reader tries to put all the pieces together. In this case it is even harder because the whole point is to put something out for the holiday season. Does this mean it should start during the season, end during the season, or what?

Well, after careful consideration and spending a restless night trying to figure it out, I decided to spin the clock back a bit, give you a few tantalizing bits, and hope it holds your interest until the real story starts. With this in mind, I felt I better warn any potential readers that all the details will not be make complete sense until a point later on. I hope any who start reading this sticks with this rather eclectic idea and sees it through. Also, as always with me, feedback, even the harshest negative feedback, is gladly accepted.

Garrison woke as the sunlight entered though the window of his east facing room. The thin light blue drape did little to block out the light. He pulled the comforter off and instantly pulled it back over himself. The room was cold, real cold! He stayed under the thick comforter as long as he could, but the need to get to the bathroom finally overcame the desire for warmth. He quickly moved into the hall and had to look around for a minute to figure out where the bathroom was.

The whole house was ice cold and it really sucked! He relived himself with teeth chattering and bolted back to his room. Part of him wanted to crawl back under the covers, but suddenly he realized the electric baseboard heater needed to be plugged in no matter how badly he needed the extra plug space. He moved over pulled his phone charger out of the plug and changed it with the heater. He then cranked the heat as high as it would go and hoped it wouldn't take long to warm up his room.

In the mean time, he dug though the rest of the dresser looking for anything warm to quickly put on. In the bottom he found a couple of pairs of sweatpants and another sweatshirt. He quickly pulled them on before finding some heavier socks. He had never had to deal with this kind of thing and the wooden floor was nowhere near as warm as having socked feet on carpet so he pulled on his shoes. He looked around wondering if this was all a play to make him want to go right back to Seattle. He bet it was.

He rubbed his face and moved back to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, and wondered about if his plan was really going to work for the first time. Winter was still a month away and he was nearly freezing to death, at least it felt like it. He had never woken up in a cold house before, and this was a real eye-opener. He wondered if other kids out here really had to contend with this. It did take long to realize some did, probably many more than some. There was no way a few of the places just down the dirt road from him had furnace type heat he was used to, and even if they did, they probably couldn't afford to pay for it to be on. He shivered again at the thought of it only getting worse as winter really settled in. This led to the next question, even if he found the perfect people to take him in, would he be willing to live with them through bitter cold winters with too little heat and possibly too little food? Being here sure made things look differently than they did back in Seattle!

Garrison briefly thought about praying, like his mom had taught him, but he shook his head and made a snarling looking face. God had taken Mom and was getting ready to take Dad. How could he talk to Him and trust Him? Garrison had not gone back to church since the day of the funeral, and had no intention of ever going back. After the funeral, his dad, not a church goer, asked only a pair of times if Garrison wanted to go to the youth Bible Study his mother had taken him to for years. Both times he refused and the subject was totally dropped inside the Donavan home. Garrison clenched his fist as he thought about the four of five churches his dad had driven past in the tiny town of War. Chances were good, if he did stay, he would end up going to one of them. He didn't really know if this was something he could contend with either.

Almost like an outside force was feeling his thoughts the water heater quickly changed the tap from cold to very warm water which allowed him to push his anger at God away and deal with the coming day.

With a yawn, he made his way into the kitchen and found it just as cold as the rest of the house. He looked at the wood burning stove and the pile of wood next to it with a frown. He muttered to himself as he pulled open the front and looked in, "I can't believe this is how we have to heat this place, and I have no idea how to start a fire in this."

Deciding the house needed heat and thinking as much about his dad's need for comfort as his own, he stuck some wood in and tired to light it with over a dozen matches from a box he found on a shelf off to the side with no luck at all. "Oh, come on!" He snarled as the thirtieth match went out without so much as singing the piece of wood."

From behind him, his dad cleared his throat, "Saul said there are some fire starting sticks in the drawer next to the dish strainer."

Garrison turned with a start only to see his dad was dressed in a heavy robe and slippers. "How come you have a winter robe and I don't?"

"Not sure, I'll have to ask Saul."

Garrison made a growling sound as he moved over to the dish strainer, still not quite believing he would have to do dishes by hand, and opened the drawer. Sure enough the whole drawer was loaded with packages of Duraflame Stix. He read the instructions quickly and stuck a pair of them in an X shape under the small pieces of wood he had already put into the stove. A single match ignited the pair of 'stix' and the flame started to spread to the rest of the wood in less than a minute. With a giant sigh of relief, Garrison watched as the flames continued to grow.

Father and son stayed close to the wood burning stove for several minutes as the heat generated by the fire felt good to both of them. After nearly five minutes of saying nothing, Garrison carefully loaded a couple of bigger pieces of wood into the stove and closed it. He was surprised to find the temperature in the kitchen was already starting to go up. "OK, make sure we buy like a semi truck of those fire stix!"

This got a chuckle out of his dad who moved over to the stove and looked it over. "I have no idea how to cook over a gas stove, so don't expect things to taste the way you are used to, at least for a few days. While I get some eggs and bacon started, why don't you go out to the wood pile and get the big fireplace going too? It's cold in here and I don't think this is good for me."

As predicted the eggs didn't come out like Garrison liked them, but he refused to complain. It had been his idea to come here and his dad was giving up a great deal for this to happen. After eating the rubbery textured eggs and slightly overcooked bacon, he pulled on his coat for his first day in War.

His first stop was the junk cars. They were awesome! There were over a dozen cars, old pickups and even an old van. It didn't take him long to decide he would turn the van into some kind of play fort. Before he knew it, it was lunchtime which featured another attempt by his father to learn the stove with limited success. Normally he would break out his PS4 or XBox, but with only a PS2 he decided to head out for more explorations. Five hours later and the sky getting dark he returned hungry and filthy. There was couple of abandoned houses, one of them right down the street, and both were partially collapsed and probably too dangerous to explore, but he did so anyway.

At dinner he did almost all the talking as he told his dad his plans for the old van, and let him know about where his explorations had taken him. He told his dad about the small river right down hill and it having a walking bridge over it. He also talking about the walk down to the school and back a couple of times checking for any shortcuts, which there were several promising ones he would explore over the next few days. Finally he talked about a few kids nodding his direction but had said nothing.

Garrison's father took a bite of the stuffed peppers he had made, slightly undercooked this time, and smiled at his son's exuberance. "You know, as the new kid, it will be up to you to make the effort to make some friends. This isn't Seattle. New kids don't come and go all the time and they don't see new faces all the time."

Garrison nodded, but not really understanding what his dad was trying to tell him, "I kind of felt like they were sizing me up or something, Dad. I'll give it some time..."

Garrison Jr. cut off his son, "You think you are hearing what I am saying, but you aren't really listening. The longer you stay standoffish, the harder it will be for you to make friends, Son. Again, you are the outsider here, and you need to work to belong, or your plan will never come to fruition. Now, tonight, I want you to spend some time on those textbooks you got, especially the Social Studies book, so you get up to speed on where your classmates will be at. Then, tomorrow, get your butt back out there and talk to some kids and make some friends."

Garrison let out a long breath and retired to his room, confusion written all over his face. Surely if he just did his own thing, others would see he was nice and would come to talk to him. He couldn't help but think of how the teachers at the academy made sure some kids were all but tasked to talk to the new kids. Surely the teachers in this school would do the same for new kids who come in. If he had to do this on his own, how should he start? He couldn't just extend his hand and say, "Hey, I'm Garrison from Seattle, who are you?" Even as he pulled out his text books and looked at the notes the teachers gave him on what chapters they were up to, he thought of dozens of ways to break the ice, what would sound good? There was no way he could play the part of a poor kid, at least not yet. He had no idea how to be one. Heck, he didn't even know what kids did for fun around these parts. He had seen a single baseball field, but no kids were on it. With no easy answers, he decided to do something he was good at.

Hours of schoolwork were definitely something he was used to. His academy gave out a ton of homework and home study assignments. A couple of his new teachers had, upon his father's request, given recent assignments to Garrison to look over and even work on so he could get a feel of being a grade higher in a school well below the academic standards he was used to. It was well after midnight when he closed the Social Studies book and put all the assignments the students had done in the last two weeks into his small backpack. He fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Sunday morning he woke up late, ate a bowl of cereal, had a banana and went out to look for other kids. He didn't find any. At first he was confused by this, but as his explorations widened, he noted several families leaving the churches lining the main street of War. "Church”, he muttered to himself, “They were all in church!"

Lunch came and went. A quick check-in with his father and a can of ravioli was all he needed before heading back out. The sun was already starting to go down when a couple of younger boys gave him a nod and he nodded back. He almost decided to see if they would say anything, but remembered his father's words. "Hey, um... I'm new here and wondered what you all do for fun?"

One of the boys rolled his eyes but the other, a nine-year-old by the name of Darrel showed him a few places up in the woods and introduced him to his twelve-year-old brother, Miller. The brothers were not super friendly, but did take him down to the river where they skipped some rocks and talked some. It didn't take long to find out Miller was in his grade and shared a couple of classes with him. Before departing for home, the pair made sure he knew how to find his own way back, as they came within sight of Garrison's house, Miller looked over the property, "I heard someone was kind of fixing this place up."

Still not too sure how to broach the subject, Garrison decided to stick to the truth, "Yeah, my father got it super cheap so he had some left to do some repair and junk."

"Lucky you," Darrel stated.

Garrison cocked his head to the side, "Lucky me?"

"Yeah," Miller nodded while pointing to the house, "You got two chimneys going so you must have a nice warm house. Our fireplace is in the far side of our place so it's always cold in our room."

Garrison couldn't help it. His eyes went a bit wide.

Miller smirked, "Like my brother said, lucky you." The boy paused, "See you in history tomorrow." He started to turn but stopped, "Hey, Gar, let me warn you. Ross is in our history class. Don't turn your back on him."

"Um... OK, why?"

Darrel responded, "His pops is rich and him and his friends are super mean."

"Yeah," Miller nodded, "and your kind-a small and don't look like a fighter so he'll try to pick on you the second he can get to you when the teachers aren't around."

Garrison took a deep breath, "Thanks for the warning and for showing me around some."

Miller nodded and jerked his head at his little brother to get him moving.

The week of Thanksgiving proved to be pretty decent. Miller actively helped break the ice with a couple of the other kids on the short day of school on Monday. The rest of the week there was no school, which allowed Miller and a few of his friends show Garrison around a bit more. The one time he went over and actually inside, Miller's house he was beyond appalled. The place was in horrible shape! He actually saw a squirrel run out as he came in, there were some holes in the walls, and half the windows had been crudely boarded up. He instantly knew if this place had been being lived in back in Seattle, the parents would have probably been in jail for neglect. The problem was, from what Garrison was seeing, Miller and Darrel were far from alone. In fact some kids appeared to be living in worse and nothing was being done about it.

However, the living conditions was not what caused Garrison to dismiss the idea of ever living with Miller, for it didn't take long for Garrison to find out that Miller, Darrel and their two sisters, Molly and Hanna all hated not having school in. It took a bit of reading between the lines before Garrison realized all four kids had exactly one guaranteed meal, school lunch, the rest was totally up in the air. Their mom worked as a waitress in a neighboring town, which provided some income and thus food. In addition, the church they went to had a food bank where many more meals came from. Miller's dad, however, was the real problem. In simple terms their dad was a drunk, plain and simple. Unfortunately, there were times where their dad drank what Mom brought home and meals weren't just scare, they were non-existent.

Garrison tired to talk to his father, but found the harder side of his dad than he had ever seen before. After hearing about Miller and Darrel, his father shook his head, "Son, this is a case where there is nothing you can do and there is nothing I can do. You can, if you want, see if there is any kind of social services you can report this to, but from what I am seeing, a hungry family is not going to get much attention if any. Now if their father is hurting them..."

Garrison shook his head, "I don't think so. Miller says his dad passes out drunk most of the time and he isn't, like, beat up or anything..."

"Look, the best we can do is to have them over for lunch a few times. I'll fix some cheap cans of soup or something to keep something in them, but I am not here for charity of others and you will not blend in the way you want to if I do more than a can of something here and there. Remember, I am here because you wanted to try to find a family and they clearly aren't it. I also don't want you going over there."

"No problem there, Dad, Miller said his father doesn't like other kids coming over..."

"Good." Mr. Donavan stated harshly. "I'm glad you found some kind of friend, but if I ever see him drunk or looking high..."

Garrison hung his head, "Miller isn't like that..."

"Good, then you have your first buddy, but I still want him over here a couple of times so I can get to know him and see for myself he is what you are telling me he is. In the mean time I will have Miss Anderson pick us up a couple of cases of Campbell's Soup, so we can give your friend a buck of food a few times while keeping us under the radar."

By the time Thanksgiving came, Garrison's father mellowed some and even invited Miller and Darrel over for a decent Thanksgiving meal. This was turned down, since the whole family was going to a church dinner. However, both boys happily showed up on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for some leftover Turkey sandwiches. On the other hand, the kids taught Garrison how to chop wood and after a not so easy conversation with Mr. Donavan, the two boys went out to the back and showed Garrison how to shoot the BB Gun, using the junk cars for targets. Garrison realized, even as he went out the back his dad was almost certainly on the phone with Saul, chewing on him some.

The nights were spent catching up so he was as close to his classmates as he could get before school resumed in earnest. One night Miss Anderson reluctantly stayed over while his father went to the new hospital for an overnight stay so the doctors could get to know his situation first hand. Miss Anderson, was only too happy to feed Miller and Darrel, however, and even had Miller sit with Garrison to help him get up to speed in the three classes they would share. Also, while nothing was said, a second BB gun and a massive bottle of BBs were added to the toy box when his father returned from the hospital so the boys could shoot together.

December 1, 2014:

By the time school was back in session, Miller and Darrel were regulars in the Donavan home. Miller and Darrel went the wrong way to pick up Garrison for the walk to school and were rewarded with a couple of cinnamon rolls each. The two boys profusely thanked Mr. Donavan, but secretly each held on to one each, which were given to their sisters before they entered the building.

The first few classes went fine. In each class introductions were made by the teacher informing the others of a new student who liked to be called Gar. Things were made easier because Miller had already introduced him to a few others so he didn't come in as a total unknown. In fact, History was first and Garrison found he was able to follow the class with no problems and a few kids readily talked to him. Social Studies was a bit more difficult, but the studying he had done allowed him to follow the discussion and even answer a couple of questions. English was a total joke. What he had been doing in the fifth grade classroom back in Seattle was way more difficult than what this sixth grade class was working on. The only thing he realized he would baldly miss was being able to do everything on a word processer. Everything in this class would have to be hand written.

It was in Math where the first problems crept up. The teacher went over a refresher course on doing word problems before handing out a work sheet. The questions, at least in Garrison's way of thinking were stupidly easy. He churned through them like a machine, thinking his fourth grade teacher had given him harder work. The only question he had to work on was one where a train left ten minutes after another but was traveling faster and the question asked how much earlier the faster train would get to the same place. Garrison went the long route of figuring out when the fast train would pass the slow one and then how long it would take for each to get there before he realized he could have just figured out what time each would arrive and then do the math to subtract and get the answer. This left him a bit annoyed at himself, but still, it only took him about three minutes to come up with the right answer. Before most kids in the class had the first page of the four pages done, Garrison was already lowering his pencil.

Behind him, a very heavy set boy spoke up, "Mrs. Kulder, I think you lost the new kid!"

Even as the teacher moved up, Garrison turned to look at the much bigger and shook his head, "No, I'm done."

This got more than a few looks and even a couple of gasps out of other kids. Mrs. Kulder's eyes narrowed, "Class, this is not a group exercise, get your noses back on your own pieces of paper!" She then moved up and thumbed through the worksheet Garrison had been working on. She took a deep breath, "I must say, Gar, I'm beyond impressed. Why don't I take you over to Mr. Long and let you sit in on the seventh grade class and see how you do."

The big kid behind Garrison looked up with disgust, "He couldn't have finished! He had to have cheated!"

Garrison, who had already stood, glared at the much bigger kid, "And how, exactly, could I have cheated? This is my first full day in this class.” He looked down at the paper on the kid's desk and snickered, "Oh, you better do a recheck, those first two are way wrong."

The boy turned bright red and clenched his fists but any outburst was cut off as Mrs. Kulder picked up the worksheet from off the boy's desk nodded and put it down. "You might actually want to listen to someone once in a while, Ross, Gar's right. You aren't even close. Did you even read the questions or did you guess?"

All Garrison could hear was the snickers of some and the heaving breathing of one as he was led out of the class to see how he would do in an even more advanced math class. It was the first full day in school and he had an enemy, one he had been warned about...

Ross struck the first time just as school got out. He moved behind Garrison and shoved him hard into a wall. As Garrison turned, he saw the overweight boy glare, "Come on smartass, come get you some."

Garrison actually thought about it, but backed off. The kid had to have five inches on him and probably a hundred pounds as well, if not more. Instead he used his favorite weapon, wits. "So did you ever read those math problems or is the problem you can't read?"

Ross made a move toward Garrison but was cut off by Mr. Johnson, "Really, Ross? Already starting on a new kid? Just knock it off and get to the bus, or to the office, your choice."

Ross shot another glare at Garrison, but backed off as the teacher made another step in his direction.

Tuesday, right after lunch, Ross struck again. He pushed Garrison up against a locker and pulled up his underwear real hard before shoving him to the ground. To prevent being late to class, Garrison had to wait all the way though the next class before he could go to the bathroom and get his underwear from out of his butt crack.

The next three days ended up being one torment after another. It turned out Ross had a few other bully friends who took every chance they could to make Garrison's life as miserable as possible. One poured water on his pants making it look like he peed himself, a couple of others tripped him in the halls at every opportunity, and one kid even managed to get honey or syrup in his hair as he walked out of school. Then there was Ross; the kid had a knack for giving wedgies when no teachers were around. Miller and a few of the others did what they could to help, but pretty much everyone seemed to be afraid of Ross and his friends.

December 5, 2014:

Garrison left school hating life, absolutely hating it. Miller and his brother were becoming OK friends and a couple of Miller's buddies had opened up some more. However, the warning about Ross had been off by a wide margin. Instead, to say the kid was bully and a massive brute had to be the understatement of the century. The final straw was one of his friends grabbing him and holding his arms while Ross kneed him in the groin just before lunch. Garrison spent lunch on the floor of his math room crying, missing lunch, and trying to clean up enough to not be noticeable before his afternoon started.

As he made his way home, with Miller trying to find out what had happened since it was clear something bad had occurred, all he could think about was going back to Seattle. He was done. This place was barbaric, and even as much as he liked Miller, there was no way he was going to endure any more of the abuse from Ross or his thugs.

He gave a nod to Miller and Darrel and waited for them to disappear into the trees before he opened the front door and shouted, "DAD! TAKE ME HOME!" This was greeted by silence. He moved deeper into the house, DAD, DID YOU HEAR ME? I WANT TO GO HOME!"

Again there was no answer. Fear gripped him as he bolted into his father room. No one was there. He grabbed his cell out of his backpack and noticed a text message. "Miss Anderson had to take me to the hospital. Had problems breathing. She'll be back to make sure you are OK later tonight. Feel free to feed yourself one of your tomato and cheese covered cardboard circles, and if Miller wants one, cook him one too, Dad."

"Ahhh!" Garrison shouted at the ceiling. "I just want to go home!" He almost threw his phone against a wall, but stopped himself in the nick of time. He made his way into his room and cried but as he did so prayed a few words for the first time since getting mad at God over taking his mom. "Where are all the good people, God? Are there any left?" Not long after he spoke the words, exhaustion, which came with the stress of everything building up over the last few months and the last few days in particular, took over and he fell asleep.

He woke well after midnight to the sound of a rare December thunderstorm. The first rumble of thunder brought him out of his deep slumber. The second rattled the windows and brought him fully awake. He woke and looked around just in time to see a flash of lightening and hear another rumble of thunder. Moments later the first heavy drops of ran hit the window. He rubbed his eyes and sat up realizing he was still dressed and very hungry. He hadn't even eaten dinner. Food sounded real good all of the sudden. After a few moments of debate, he decided he was hungry enough to fix himself a frozen pizza, so he made his way toward the kitchen.

Miss Anderson was up reading a book under the single lamp in the living room and heard Garrison move to toward the kitchen. As she looked up, Garrison gulped, "Is Dad OK?"

"We got him flown out and the doctors got him taken care of and stabilized. He had a real bad coughing fit, so they want to try something brand new on him. It sounds like he will be gone for a few days."

The woman set the book down and studied Garrison's face for a few minutes, "So your friend, Miller, came by to see you and told me you had a bad day at school today. You want to talk about it?"

Garrison almost said yes, but stopped himself. Instead his eyebrow shot up, "Miller really came back to check on me?"

The woman nodded, "Yeah, twice actually, it sure seems like you made a real good friend there."

Garrison rubbed his face as it dawned on him one of the people he had asked God about was in the same school as he was. The thought made him glance upward for a brief moment, "Uh huh. Wish they were all like him... Did you happen to give him anything to eat?"

"No, but I tried. It just breaks my heart to see such a good boy go hungry... He said his mom brought home some stuff, but I'm not real sure he was telling the truth. I could tell he had to find a reason to say no. He said he would be back in the morning, though, so we can make sure we get a decent breakfast into him. So what happened at school?"

"Ross happened." Garrison grumbled even as he fought the desire to cup his hands over his groin at the thought of the knee slamming into him. Seeing the look he was getting from his dad's assistant and very well paid babysitter, he pulled his back straight and put the best face on the situation he could manage. "He hates me because I am like ten times smarter when I am sleeping than when he is wide awake and he's real big."

"Has he hurt you?"

"Not really..."


Not liking the tone from the woman and refusing to tell any girl about getting kneed in the nuts, Garrison hardened. "It's just a big jerk being a big bully, really. He picks on lots of kids. He got me real good today, but I'm fine. I was just real mad and then got worried about Dad..."

"If he is hurting you...."

Garrison decided to tell a partial lie, "Miller doesn't let him." Which was true in a way. Miller did what he could, but couldn't be around all the time and would have probably gotten a knee in the groin, too, if he had been there since Ross and his friends had ganged up on Garrison. However, Miller had certainly prevented some bad stuff from happening.

Garrison's words got a slight smile out of the woman, who took them a face value, "Well, I'm going to make sure we get that young man a big breakfast when he comes over tomorrow! Since you were heading to the kitchen, I gather you are hungry?"

Garrison nodded, "Yeah, I was so mad I didn't eat dinner..."

"Let's get you some food, then!" She stood and turned toward the kitchen. "You know you are a pretty lucky kid to make a real friend to be there for you like Miller is."

As Miss Anderson disappeared into the kitchen, Garrison looked through the window and whispered, "Yeah, now all I need is three or four more of him..."

As if something much more powerful was listening to his words, the sky above War literally lit up as multiple forks of lightning ripped across the sky followed by a deep and long roar of thunder.

Miss Anderson stuck around to make sure Garrison and Miller got a very large and filling breakfast before heading back over to the office house. "If you boys want lunch, come up to the office and I'll feed you." she paused and stared right at Miller, "Same for your bother and sisters, young man. I have plenty at my little cottage."

Just after noon, Garrison and Miller showed up with the Miller's younger siblings in tow. Miss Anderson instantly went to work getting a real meal ready while shooing the kids into her bathroom to get cleaned up. She also all but forcefully took the coats from Garrison's friends and put them in her washer. Unlike at Garrison's house, Miss Anderson had a PS4 and some games, which totally astonished Garrison, but lo and behold, there it was and she had four controllers! The group of kids spent almost all afternoon in a warm house getting fed as much as they could eat and playing all sorts of games. As sky darkened and Miller escorted his very happy younger siblings out the front door, he looked back and offered to do work for all the food. Miss Anderson flatly refused.

Miss Anderson turned to stop Garrison from leaving, but realized the boy really wanted to walk his friends home. She gripped his shoulder, "You should come back here..."

"I want to stay in my house."

"Garrison, you know I really don't like staying over there..."

"I know, but you are like five minutes away and I kind of wanted to ask if Miller could stay over."

"Oh..." she knew she had lost the battle as Garrison's big eyes all but melted her heart, "I guess I can take your dad's room, but only if it is OK if Miller stays over. Otherwise you stay here." She paused then, before Garrison could bolt out the door, stopped him again, "And if he does stay over tell him I want the younger three over for breakfast. I just can't stand seeing them hungry."

Garrison nodded with a big smile as he bolted out the door to catch up to the four kids as they made their way down the hill.

It didn't take long for Garrison to catch up and the offer to spend the night was accepted and verified with Miller's already heavily intoxicated father who simply said, "Yeah, whatever."

The two made their way back to let Miss Anderson know before taking a path Miller knew through the woods to get to Garrison’s house faster. As the boys walked through the woods, Miller pointed up to the full moon, "Mom always used to say when there was a ring around the moon like there is tonight, it means there is an angel watching over us."

Garrison stared at the moon for a second and smiled, but then the way Miller had said the words didn't seem right. He stopped and looked over only to see Miller staring upward and wiping a single tear off his cheek. Garrison stayed silent and turned his eyes back to the heavens. He had been over to Miller's shack several times, at this point. Of course Miller and always said his mom was working as a waitress... but... before school, after school, this weekend... He closed his eyes and hoped he was wrong.

He looked skyward again and realized what Miller had been saying; the light high clouds gave the appearance of the moon having a soft white ring all the way around it. It really did look like a halo. He spoke out loud, "Maybe God is watching us."

"Mom said it was an angel..." He looked over at Garrison and patted him on the shoulder, "A December full moon halo, I bet it is a Christmas Angel."

"We could sure use one looking over us."

"Yeah, too bad it can't make my dad stop drinking, but maybe it was the angel who got us all good meals today... I bet the angel let me meet you and Miss Anderson."

Garrison had nothing, no words of comfort, no good way to agree with his new best friend, especially since he had been ready to run back to Seattle the night before. With no words he decided to do what he could. He put his arm around Miller, having to reach up to do so and the pair walked to the house in silence.

Sunday came and went way too fast for Garrison. The time with Miller and the younger kids was a lot of fun as they took turns with the BB guns while Miss Anderson had them round up as much clothing as they could so she could wash and dry them. She did this at her own little cottage to hide the fact Garrison's house had a nice new washer and dryer. As a matter of fact, she kept the doors to the closet and Garrison's father's room locked. By the time she came back with almost all the kid's clothing clean, it was time for lunch, which she happily cooked.

Garrison found it hard to believe this was the same very stuck-up secretary who used to sit in front of his dad's office. To find she had a nice side was surprising; to realize she had a heart made it astonishing! She even made sure to send Miller home with enough food to make sure he and his siblings all would have a good meal for breakfast.

As nice as all this was, all Garrison could think about from the time Miller left for home was having to deal with Ross again at school. To take his mind off it, he played a couple of the PS2 games Saul had found in some second hand shop and retired to his room early to continue to work on catching up in a few areas of class work where he still felt he was a little behind.

December 8, 2014

Garrison met Miller at his place and handed over some rolls Miss Anderson had made for the four kids. They joked about the fact Garrison was screwing up the whole school by being in two grades at the same time as they took a few minutes to go down to the stream to toss some rocks before all but running to get to the school in time. The five entered the school and Garrison braced himself for a new round of misery, determined to not let Ross totally ruin such a great weekend.

As he sat down at his desk for History, he noticed a new kid in the class. As a matter of fact he couldn't help but notice him. The kid was tall and lanky and looked like he needed a bath, or at the very least his clothing and face washed. Everything about the kid all but yelled, "Grimy". On the plus side, the new kid gave Garrison a friendly little nod as he moved to sit down right behind him, taking a desk that had been empty all of last week like it belonged to him.

The teacher walked in right as the buzzer went off and looked straight at the new boy, "Well, Lucas, nice of you to join us again."

The boy chuckled, "Dad said he signed off on us all going deer hunting and I got my work done the best I could." He held up a folder with more than a few mud splotches and possibly even some dried blood on it.

The teacher let out a long breath as she pointed to the edge of her desk almost like she really didn't want to touch it, "This is the third full week you have missed this fall for hunting and you are falling way behind. Are there any more weeks you will be missing?"

"Na, next is bear season and we can do it over Christmas break. We can even do it just off in to the hills and not go anywhere, too, since McDowell county is a big bear county!"

Running her hand down her face in some annoyance, the teacher let out a sigh, "Good, then I expect no more absences from you until the holiday break."

"I'll be here!"

This got a bit of a chuckle out of several in the class, but the teacher quickly moved into her lesson on where all the founding fathers who signed the original Declaration of Independence came from. As if out of the blue, she asked a question just a minute or two before the buzzer was to sound to signal the end of the class, "I'll give 50 bonus points for anyone who can find me which man who signed it, passed on, on the fourth of July."

Without hesitation Garrison raised his hand. The teacher raised an eyebrow in near shock, "You know?"

"Yes, Ma'am Thom..."

The teacher cut him off, "OK, write it down and hand it to me. The rest of you, he just gave you a hint and a head start!"

Behind Garrison, Lucas spoke just loudly enough for him to hear, "Man, I could sure use those fifty points..."

Feeling kind of sorry for the boy for the drubbing the teacher had given him at the start of class, Garrison wrote down, "Thomas Jefferson, Died July 4th, 1826: Born April 13, 1743 in big letters and let it hang open as he stood, which in turn gave Lucas a clear view before Garrison folded the paper, and walked it up to the teacher. The grin he got from the taller boy as he walked back to his desk, past almost two dozen stunned faces, told him he had made the right decision.

The teacher picked up the paper, nodded, and let out a light whistle, "Well, we have one winner, the rest of you have just over a minute to dig into your books. I'll stand at the door to collect answers, so be sure to write your name at the top."

Heading to his next class, Garrison spotted Ross, who all but came straight at him, but suddenly stopped cold and went a bit pale. The massive bully quickly turned and all but ran down the hall to his next class. Confused, but absolutely relieved, Garrison made his way to his next class.

Some sort of higher power seemed to be with Garrison the rest of the day. Not only was Lucas in every class he was in, except the seventh grade Math class, but Ross and his mean buddies didn't make a single move on him. This all changed as school let out. Garrison went to the bathroom before heading out to meet Miller, when three of Ross' friends came in and grabbed him. Ross was not far behind. Two of the boys grabbed his arms with the third opened a stall door. Ross then came from behind and pushed Garrison's head into the toilet. At the same time the two holding him yanked off his backpack and coat.

Garrison struggled as hard as he could but there was nothing he could do. The toilet flushed with his head still in it and he could feel his long hair trying to go down the drain. This, at least, let him take a breath of air, but it didn't last nearly long enough since Ross' hand stayed on the back of his head as the toilet filled back up. Just as his water level was about to cover his ears, he heard a young voice behind him, "Leave him alone!"

One of Ross' friends, a seventh grader who went by the name Buster, told the kid to get lost. Several seconds later the toilet flushed again, but still Ross didn't let Garrison back up. Then things changed and changed in a hurry. Before the toilet had a chance to fill-up to the point of covering Garrison's face, the bathroom door flung open violent and a small group of kids rushed in. Outside the stall, Buster hit the ground hard as air rushed out of his lungs and a kick to his chest flung him backwards as he bent over trying to get his wind back.

The two kids holding Garrison's arms let go to face the newcomers, but one let out a squeal of pure agony and fell clutching his groin, as a boy much younger than him came up, ducked under the boy's wild swing, and savagely grabbed the much bigger boy's balls through the kid's baggy sweat pants and twisted with everything he could muster.

The third start to shout something, but stopped and fell right next to the other two as an elbow from a slightly younger and smaller boy caught him in the Adam's Apple. Half a second later Ross was yanked off Garrison and the sounds of fists landing on blubber could clearly be heard. Bawling and gasping for air, Garrison pulled his head out of the toilet only to find Miller and Darrel right there to help him.

Garrison came out of the stall coughing only to see Lucas towering over Ross and two kids each a smaller than the next version of Lucas, giving parting kicks to the two seventh graders, Buster and Jack. The final bully, a sixth grader by the name of Nelson, was still off in the corner making soft croaking sounds and holding his throat.

Lucas moved to the next stall, pulled Garrison's coat out of the toilet and handed it to Darrel while yanking off his own coat, "He's soaked and it's almost freezing outside. Put him in my coat and get him out the back before the teachers show up or any of the other kids see and make fun of him. Take him to my house and we'll get him cleaned up. Lucas pulled the smallest boy back from Buster, "Nothing to the face, Simon, these jerks have to get on a bus and the teachers will notice. He then turned and hardened as he gave Miller a light shove toward the bathroom door, "Go. We'll catch up."

As Garrison found Miller wrapping the offered coat around him and Darrel assisting him out the door toward the side door of the school, he heard Ross' crying voice, "You know what my dad..."

Lucas cut him off, "Your dad already fired mine, he can't do nothing more, Ross; and the next time you pick on one of my best friends this will seem like a pillow fight. Now get the hell out of here before me and my brothers decide to start over again just for something fun to do!"

Miller got Garrison out the side door and quickly took him across the street and up the hill into some trees. Darrel pulled the hood of the couple of sizes too large coat over Garrison's head to keep him warmer and hide the fact Garrison's hair way twirled around and sticking almost straight up.

By the time they were about a quarter of a mile from the school along the train tracks Miller angled them into the trees. The cold wind coupled with the fact his hair was soaking wet as was his shirt made things real cold even with the loaned coat over him. However, Garrison finally calmed enough to find his voice, "Where are we going and what just happened?"

Miller continued to guide Garrison into the woods as Darrel spoke up, "Lucas, Levi and Simon just happened... I've never seen them stick up for anyone before, though!"

"Me neither," Miller responded with a great deal of amazement in his voice, "but they sure picked a good time to start!"

Garrison kept quiet until they turned down a dirt road with "No Trespass" signs in huge block letters on both sides of an old, but well kept up wooden fence with barbed wire at the top, "Um, are we supposed to be going this way."

Miller managed a tight nervous smile, "Lucas told us to take you to his house and this is where he lives, but I've never been here before."

Even with Lucas' coat the cold was getting the best of him in the high winds and near freezing temperatures. Through chattering teeth, he managed to ask, "If you haven't been here before how do you know he lives here?"

Darrel couldn't help but giggle, "Once you been around for a while, you'll get to know where everyone lives just like we do. Just because we ain't been here doesn't mean we don't know Lucas, Levi, and Simon lives here!"

Before the trio even got to the large front porch, the door swung open and a large man stepped out wearing nothing but shorts. His bare chest showed he was extremely muscular and his bare feet didn't seem bothered by the fact he was stepping off the porch onto snow. "Hey, what are you all doing here, and why is one of you wearing my boy's coat?"

Both Miller and Darrel started to balk, but Lucas' voice came from off to the right side, well into the woods, "Dad, it's OK, they are our friends and Ross really got a hold of the one wearing my coat. He's all wet and has to be real cold by now!"

The big man quickly moved back to the front door and held it open, "Come on, boys get it here and get warmed up. "Luke, grab one of your spare jackets so you and Simon get some more wood cut and Levi, bring in an arm full of what we have cut so we can get a good fire going for him!"

The man pointed to the side room as Miller helped a shivering Garrison in. He also noted the soaking wet coat Darrel was carrying and held out his hand, "Give that to me so I can wring it out..."

Through chattering teeth, Garrison spoke up, "It was in a toilet, so you may not want to do that, sir."

The man once again pointed to the other room as he grabbed the coat, "These hands have seen worse, Son, don't you worry none."

Miller took Garrison over to the wood burning stove and helped him out of the borrowed coat and his wet shirt. Before Garrison could think to complain, the man reappeared and draped a heavy blanket with fur on one side over Garrison's shoulders, "Bundle up with that until you warm back up. It's way too chilly out there to be walking around in wet stuff." He then grabbed some wood Levi had brought in and tossed a couple of larger and drier pieces into the stove and closed it. "Won't take too long to get nice and toasty in here. How about a bite to eat while you all tell me what happened?"

The man then looked over at Levi as Levi dropped Garrison's backpack next to the still badly shook up boy, "And you may as well tell me how much trouble all you boys are in this time!"

"None!" Levi smiled widely showing large buckteeth typical of a ten-year-old. "No way is anyone going to tell, cause if they did Ross would have to admit giving the new kid a swirly!"

The man's eyes narrowed as he moved back over to Garrison and really looked at the tangled and twisted up mop of long hair on top of the boy's head, "Hold still, and let me kneed this out before it gets even more tangled. It will pull a little, but I bet if you just let me get it over with, I can do it without too much discomfort."

Seeing Garrison nod, the man knelt and moved his fingers deep into Garrison hair and slowly started to work out the swirled effect of having the hair flushed down a toilet. "Levi, get us some jerky and warm cider then get a fire started under the water heater and fill it. You are about the same size as him, so find a change of clothes so he can get a shower and get this whole thing behind him!"

It took over an hour for Garrison to fully calm down. The shower was a bit disconcerting, because it was a jury rigged thing where water was pumped into a metal drum which was heated by a fire and then could be mixed with cold tap water to make it not so hot, but it was a welcome relief to get the feel of his head being in a toilet off of him. Finally he came out of the bathroom dressed in clothing of a kid he had never met before and sat down at a massive oak table to some really nicely spiced jerky and warm apple cider. It wasn't till then did the man push him relate what had happened.

Lucas' dad, Mr. Wagner, listened and thanked Garrison for helping out Luke with the extra credit. He then reassured Garrison the events at the end of the school day would not happen again, even if his boys had to escort him to each class from now until hell froze over. He also made it clear to his three kids, none of them would get into any real trouble if they had to 'deal with' Ross or the boys friends by 'any means short of permanent damage'. By then the sun was starting dip low in the sky.

Garrison looked over to Miller, "Um, can you get me home? Miss Anderson is going to be getting worried..."

Mr. Wagner eyed Garrison, "Does she have a phone?"

"Yes, sir."

Mr. Wagner glanced over at Lucas, who simply went by Luke when around his dad and brothers, "Luke, take him next door and see if the Murphy's will let him call and check if he can eat dinner with us and maybe stay the night if he wants to. Since he is in almost all your classes, he could give you a hand getting caught back up and I can get to know some of your friends. Levi, why don't you go home with Miller and Darrel to see if they can stay as well? We got plenty of food and room."

Darrel stated to say something, but Levi spoke up, "Dad, any chance I can take some jerky over to their sisters?"

Mr. Wagner glanced over at Miller who looked over with hope in his own eyes. The man gave a firm nod and smiled, "Yeah, take 'em a big bag of what I smoked over the weekend."

This got a big thank you out of both Miller and Darrel. Mr. Wagner nodded with a warm grin, and even patted the two departing boys on the shoulders as they took off with Levi.

The phone call went pretty much like Garrison expected. Miss Anderson was not thrilled in the least to have Garrison stay over at another boy's house who she had not met, and doubly didn't like it since it was a school night, but finally relented on the condition she could get the address and bring him a change of clothes. Luke jumped on the phone and gave her directions while really playing up the fact he NEEDED help with schoolwork after missing a week and agreed to meet her out on the cross street so she could find the house.

Miss Anderson arrived just as Mr. Wagner was putting down very healthy portions of spaghetti with ground deer meat in front of six boys. He quickly pointed over to his oldest, "Luke, grab another chair!"

Miss Anderson started to refuse, but both Darrel and Miller all but dragged her over to the table. With a shake of her head and a smile she finally took the offered chair. The fact was Miller and his siblings had started to grow on her. The conversation was light, as the kids steered well clear of what had happened at school, but the food was outstanding. When she found out she had been eating freshly hunted deer her eyes widened, which only got a laugh out of the boys around the table.

Mr. Wagner made sure all the kids had eaten their fill then directed them to get the dishes cleaned up and get homework started. All of them had some serious making up to do after hunting for a week, and with Miller, Darrel, and Garrison around he figured it was a great way to get his boys some needed help. He then showed Miss Anderson around, pointing out the old house had plenty of room for six boys and he had deer skin, and bear skin blankets a plenty for the boys to curl up in since he made them himself.

While the two adults went outside to talk, Garrison sat down with Luke and went over everything the boy had not completed while they got to know each other a little better. The two actually had quite a bit in common. For even as Garrison explained that Miss Anderson was the lead secretary for the company his dad worked at, and helped take care of him since his mom had been killed in a car accident, Luke related his own story.

"Gee, Gar, I'm sorry. I know how it is to lose a mom."

"Did yours..." Garrison's words stopped in his throat as he simply couldn't finish the question.

"Yeah," Luke answered knowing what was being asked even as he looked down and shook his head, "Her car was hit by some falling rocks. The accident report says the rocks were knocked loose by some blasting at one of the mines, but..." Luke clenched his fist as looked upward with a great deal of anger, "Dad has been trying to get them to admit fault, but they have all these lawyers and money and junk. Then Dad got fired by Ross' dad, since he is lead foreman for another mine Dad used to work for. Now none of the mines want to hire him, so money is kind of tight. Dad thinks the other mine paid off the company or maybe even Ross' dad to get him fired for some stupid safety thing to make money even tighter for us. Dad would admit if he had done what he was blamed for, and says it wasn't him."

Even with all this Luke didn't show too much despair, "But we are doing OK, and Dad is saving every penny he can to start his own business. He wants to be a hunting guide, but needs to buy everything to outfit a group of hunters who would then pay him to take them into the mountains and help them get deer or other game. Dad says there is big money in it if he could just get everything put together."

Luke broke into a wide smile as he added, "It would also be something all of us would help out with when we get older too, since we all love to hunt and fish and junk. Dad says it would make a great family business and he's right!"

Garrison, being used to how things were handled back in Seattle, looked over with confusion. "What about a bank loan?"

Luke shook his head, "The only thing we own is this property and house and no bank is going to loan out money to some unemployed miner who has been blackballed by the local mines without Dad putting this place up against the loan." Seeing the rather sad look he was getting from Garrison, Luke shrugged, "It's no big deal. We'll be fine. We can all hunt and fish for most of our food and no matter what Ross' dad says, plenty of people around here know Dad. He no drunk or druggie and he can fix just about anything. He picks up repair jobs all the time, so we have food and electricity. We cut off the phone and gas to save money, too. One of these years he'll get enough money to start his business and then we'll really be able to thumb our noses up at Ross."

The boys retired after all three of the Wagner boys were fully caught up on their work with more than a little help from Miss Anderson who came back in and worked with all three boys for quite a while.

The next morning Mr. Wagner made sure all six boys were well fed again before taking off to help someone down the road do some repairs on a car. The boys walked to school roughhousing and having fun the whole way. As they entered the school, Ross was right there, albeit walking with a bit of a limp, and glaring at them.

Luke glanced down with a gleam in his eyes at his youngest brother, Simon, "Time to get the message out. Go deal with him."

Garrison's eyes went wide and moved to block the much smaller boy, "Luke, he'll get crushed!"

Simon shot Garrison a truly wicked looking little grin. "Only if he falls on me. Dad taught all of us to fight as dirty as we have to when we need to and he took the gloves off all of us on this!" Simon reached behind himself and pulled up on his briefs so the waistband was visible above his jeans and moved forward with pure determination on his face.

Eight-year-old Simon made a straight line right toward Ross, then, just as he got close he darted around the left side of the kid while unslinging his book bag off his right shoulder. While the maneuver looked innocent enough, the bag's trajectory took it right into Ross's groin. Just as the bag hit the target Simon squealed as if in pain.

Even as Garrison cringed, Ross doubled up while shouting a stream of cuss words. He then went after Simon. However, while the book bag to the groin had not been seen by teachers, the following outburst and the lunge at a much smaller child did. Three teachers moved to stop the impending situation.

Simon, on the other hand, took a step back and this time swung his bag with everything he could muster at Ross. The well timed swing, with three heavy books in the bag, impacted dead center into Ross' face just as the first teacher got there. At the same time Simon shouted really loudly, "Your dad has a job, you don't need my lunch money! Now leave me alone and stop pulling up my underwear!" He then turned for everyone to see that his underwear was indeed pulled up well above his jeans.

Never in Garrison's young life had he seen such a perfectly planned firestorm erupt in front of him. Ross went down with blood gushing out of his nose, Simon was pulled back while the teachers actually were asking him if he was all right, and two other teachers rushed forward to check on Ross while yelling at him for assaulting and trying to steal from a younger student.

This left Luke and Levi wide open to move up to Buster and Nelson. Luke took Buster into an empty classroom while Levi pushed Nelson back deep into the locker area well out of the sight of everyone who was focused on the situation in the middle of the hall.

Both Buster and Nelson got the wind knocked out of them by kids who were smaller than them and left with warnings of this only being the start if they so much as touched a hair on Garrison's head ever again. They were also not so gently informed Miller, Darrel, Hanna, and Molly were also off limits. Before Simon and Ross were both taken to get checked out, Luke and Levi returned to Garrison's side cracking their knuckles and grinning. Luke put and arm on Garrison's shoulder, "I don't think anyone will be bothering you again, now let's get to History class, so I am not late. I'm in enough hot water with her already.

Garrison looked around in confusion, not even realizing Levi and Luke had temporarily left his side. "Where are Buster and..."

Levi walked by and put a finger up to his lips in warning, "They're taking a breather. Don't worry about 'em. If they have a brain cell left, they ain't going to touch you ever again!

December 19, 2014

The rest of the two weeks leading up to the Christmas break made the first couple of weeks fade into memory. Not only did he have some super good friends, his dad had come back from the hospital doing a little better and Miss Anderson and Mr. Wagner had even gone out a few times!

The other cool thing was Miller, Darrel, Hanna, and Molly almost never went hungry. Miss Anderson had them over almost every morning for a quick bite and every evening they were invited over to the Wagner's house. It was also becoming very common for Miller to spend the night at Garrison's or all of them over at the Wagner's. It was also clear Miss Anderson was sliding some extra food to Mr. Wagner to help feed all the hungry 'urchins', her words, but she always said them with a big smile.

The rather strange friendship, started over an extra credit question, also helped the Wagner boys. All three had fully caught up on class work and were actually getting some grades above a 'C' in a few classes for the first time since their mother had passed.

The fallout from the planned set-up of Ross in the hall turned out far better than any of the boys could have dreamed, as well. The teachers took the implied assault on Simon at face value and started checking with other students, many of whom admitted having had their own underwear pulled up on by the boy. A few others also admitted to other assaults like having their faces stuck into toilets. Ross was suspended indefinitely and police were even called in to see if there were any other thefts or attempted thefts of lunch money or other belongings. A search of Ross' locker turned up a couple of items and a knife, which was kind of the final straw from what the rumor mill around not just the school, but the whole town, said.

Walking away from the building, the conversation turned toward Ross for about the twentieth time.

Simon snickered as he talked about overhearing one of the teachers talking about a big winter vacation locker inspection since a knife had been found in Ross' locker. He then glanced up, "Do you really think I broke his nose though?"

Miller nodded while reaching down and tickling the smaller boy, "Oh, yeah. It was a really nice shot and I saw it up close before they rushed him to the nurse's station. It was like totally flat!"

The combination of the tickling and the fact he gotten Ross so good caused Simon to chortle in laughter.

December 23rd, 2014:

Garrison, Miller, and Luke continued to grow tighter as did the younger siblings of both Miller and Luke. The first four days of Christmas break the bulk of them spent pretty much every minute with each other. On the occasions where the younger ones, particularly Hanna and occasionally Simon, got in the way Miss Anderson was only too happy to have them over while the older ones did their own thing.

The night before, Garrison ended up at Luke's again and helped Luke and his bothers with catching up on classes they had fallen badly behind in, particularly Math. While the boys got much needed help, Mr. Wagner worked out in the barn on a snow blower engine for someone in town. After breakfast, he thanked Mr. Wagner for allowing him to stay, which only got a laugh and the man thanking him for showing Luke how to do schoolwork. He also reminded Garrison of the plan to have his dad, Miss Anderson, and Miller and his siblings over for a pre-Christmas dinner since the Wagner's were going to head up into the hills for some bear hunting on Christmas Eve day to get a week of hunting before the season closed on them on the New Year’s Eve. The winter hunting provided a great deal of the food for the Wagner home, and they weren't about to pass up on bear hunting season where they could most likely get several hundred more pounds of meat.

Garrison promised he wouldn't forget, then wasted no time heading out to Miller's house. He found the boy outside cutting wood while Darrel appeared struggling to pull a real old Radio Flyer wagon full of five gallon jugs of water up the hill behind the house.

Without hesitation, Garrison moved down to help the smaller boy all but drag the heavy wagon up the hill. "Why the water?"

Even as Darrel lowered his head and said something so softly his voice couldn't be heard, Miller answered, "Water got shot off again yesterday, so Mr. Maston let us use a hose to get good water instead of us having to get it out of a stream and boiling it like we have had to do before..." Miller paused, "Um, is there any chance we could come over and get a shower if this goes on too long?"

Garrison didn't hesitate knowing by this time both his dad and especially Miss Anderson would be a bit angry if he hadn't offered. "Any time! You, Darrel, Molly and Hanna can all come get cleaned up whenever you need to."

"What about your dad? He didn't look to good the last couple of days."

"He's been sick, but he'll understand," Garrison fired back a bit more forcefully than he meant to.

"Anything I can do to help?" Miller asked with clear concern.

"If there ever is, I'll let you know." Garrison sighed then pointed to the jugs of water, "But looks like you all are the ones needing help. Is there anything I can do to help get the water back on for you?"

Miller shook his head, "No, unless you can figure out how to get us just under a hundred bucks to pay what we owe for the last three months of water."

This made Garrison cringe some, since he had more than that in a box in his room. The facial expression was taken in pretty much the opposite way than Garrison's feelings behind making it, as Molly came out and gave Garrison a sad smile, "Yeah, a whole lot of money. Mom thinks she'll get a Christmas bonus, so it'll only be a couple of weeks or so this time. Don't worry about it Gar."

The problem was, it was taking Garrison everything he had in him not to run back to the house and pull out a hundred dollars out of his own money and hand it over. The fact he had more than enough to cover what a family of five needed to get water turned back on made all the suffering of dealing with a jerk like Ross so minor, it was stupid. He rubbed his chin as he thought over a way around the whole situation, then it struck him, "Hey Molly, do you cut wood too?"

"We all do," Miller informed Garrison. "Well, Hanna doesn't, but she can stack what we cut. Why?"

"Um, how about going up to some of the houses by where Miss Anderson lives? Some of them have firewood piles and a few have logs that aren't split yet. What if we went door to door and offered to cut the wood and stack it for them for some money?"

"We only have one old axe..."

"I got two in the garage behind the house and I bet we could borrow another one at Luke's if we really needed! I'm not very good at it, but you are and I'll do the best I can. I don't know what we can make, but maybe..."

Miller glanced over to his eleven-year-old sister, "You up for giving this a try?"

"As long as we can use Gar's place to clean up, sure!"

A quick swing by Luke's got four good axes and three more boys more than willing to jump in on the plan. They all set out with wood axes over their shoulders and started a door-to-door knocking campaign.

Seven hours later eight exhausted kids all but stumbled towards Garrison's small house. The kids couldn't help but notice Luke's father's truck out front, as well as Miss Anderson's car. Garrison cringed, "Oh, crud... We should have checked in!"

"Not much we can do about it now." Luke chuckled, "But I am sure once we tell them what we have been doing, my dad will totally be cool with it. I only met your dad a couple of times now, but I bet he will too."

Garrison took a deep breath, "I sure hope so!"

"Don't worry, I got this!" Miller stated, "I'll take all the blame!" He then pushed open the door and entered.

As the door opened and the group of kids entered the house, Miss Anderson, Mr. Donavan and Mr. Wagner eyed them with a bit of anger. This suddenly changed, at least in Miss Anderson's case, as she noticed a pair of rather large blisters on his hands. "Gar, your hands! What happened?"

Mr. Wagner moved up and looked at the boy's palms and his frown faded some, "I'm guessing some hard work and no gloves. Now where in the hell have you all been and what have all of you been doing?"

"All very good questions." Garrison's dad stated softly as he moved up and looked at the eight ragamuffins standing in his living room before eyeing his son's hands. "You are all filthy and I'd have to concur, you have been doing some hard work, but where and why?!"

Miller's smile was beyond huge as he stepped forward and dug into the right front pocket of his thread bare jeans, "They were all helping us cut wood so we could get enough to turn the water back on!" The boy proudly held up a wad of five tens, one twenty, and three fives. "We only have about fifteen bucks to go now! Even better, Gar is a great talker! There are two more places we can go tomorrow that promised us at least fifteen bucks if we get their wood cut for them! We'll have enough money before lunch time!"

Miss Anderson found herself at a loss for words. The anger over not knowing where Garrison had been all day vanished and was replaced with the revulsion of hearing four kids she had grown a bit fond of had no running water! It was... There was no word she could think of to fit. Somehow a combination of atrocious, sickening, horrific, disgusting, just plain wrong all needed to be blended together in a single word, and such a word just didn't exist. "Oh, my! Well you all are grubby and we are supposed to be getting ready to go over to the Wagner's for dinner... "

Mr. Wagner shook his head, "Dinner being late is not a problem.” He glanced over at his own kids, "You should have told me, and you all know it, but damn, I've got to let this slide! You done good boys!"

Mr. Donavan looked a little more pale than normal. His voice, however, was strong, "I totally agree! Garrison, you ever pull a stunt like this again without telling me first I'll... Oh hell, Brett's right. This is a total pass and I know you get it. Now all of you, take turns getting cleaned up so we can head over to the Wagner's as long as Brett is still willing to have us."

"Are you kidding me?" Mr. Wagner smiled broadly, "After seeing and hearing this, oh, yeah, come on over. The deer steaks won't take all that long and we got to get these kids fed!"

Garrison Jr. nodded in total agreement. "We sure do. Also, tomorrow is Christmas Eve, so you won't have the money until Christmas Day and there will be no way to pay a water bill until Friday. Even then, they might not even be open since so many are taking a long weekend. Then there is no telling how long it will take to get it turned back on. Until it does, I expect all four of you to stay here unless your parents are willing to tell me to my face a good reason why you shouldn't. They can come over here for Christmas as well. This way I know all you kids will be clean and well fed through the Christmas break, too!"

Molly looked up, "Really? We could stay here where there is running water AND you have enough food for all of us?"

"I can find enough!" Miss Anderson all but shouted, to prevent Garrison's dad from giving up too much information. "I'll run to my place and get some and go to the nearest city if I need to!"

Luke shot Miss Anderson a smirk, "You'd make a great mom."

Young Hanna cocked her head to the side in confusion, "You aren't Gar's mommy?"

Miss Anderson smiled warmly at Hanna's even as her cheeks turned a bit red, "No, no kids for me."

Molly spoke up, "Too bad, from what I've seen, Luke's right, you'd make a great mom!"

Off to the side Darrel and Miller both nodded in full agreement. While Simon and Levi grinned.

This got some snickers out of Mr. Wagner and Miss Miller, but Mr. Donavan brought the conversation to a quick end by pointing to the bathroom, "Miller, I don't see an inch on you that is clean, so you go first. Darrel, why don't I take you over to your place to get you all a clean set of clothing?"

Miller stopped at the bathroom door and cringed, "Um..."

Luke's dad turned and eyed the twelve-year-old, "Um?"

Molly looked down even as she spoke, "Yeah, uh..."

Miss Anderson's eyes narrowed as her brain quickly put one and one together and came up with a very uncomfortable two. "You all are out of clean clothes and you have not had water for quite a while, right?"

Seeing three of the four kids look down and young Hanna simply nodding her head, Miss Anderson moved up to the group and wrapped them in a group hug, "What about your mom?"

Garrison also put the final piece in place as he saw Miller cringe, "You've been lying about her, haven't you?"

Tears started to spill out of Miller's eyes as he nodded, "The state will split us up and put us in foster care again if they find out!"

"Over my dead body." Miss Anderson stated.

"Not going to happen." Mr. Wagner stated with total conviction in his voice.

While not being in a position to do anything long term, Garrison's father still nodded in agreement. To deflect from the fact he couldn't give such a promise, he asked a question which badly needed an answer. "So where is your mom?"

Darrel and Molly both totally broke down even as Miller looked over at Mr. Donavan with tears rolling down his cheeks. "She left us just before the start of the school year after Dad hit her again."

"Does he hit you too?" Miss Anderson demanded to know with something akin to fire in her eyes.

Realizing there was no hiding anything any longer, Miller shook his head, "No, at least not after the fight with Mom. That was what the fight was about and she left threatening to call the Sherriff... Please don't tell..."

Mr. Donavan looked over with sadness, "I really don't see we have a choice..."

Miller pulled free of Miss Anderson and bolted out the door crying.

He didn't get far. Mr. Wagner went right out the door behind the distraught boy and put him into a protective bear hug even as the boy tried to kick and struggle.

Tears poured out of Garrison's eyes as he moved outside with his dad, "No, we can't let anything bad happen to them! Dad, come on, there has to be something we can do!"

As if his words were heard, a bright dot streaked across the sky. The words of his mom came to him as he caught sight of it. 'A falling star is to be wished upon...'

He looked up and pointed to the line in the sky and spoke aloud, "God, it is too close to Christmas for this to happen. I just wish for a safe place for Miller, Darrel, Molly and Hanna, even if it means I have to go back to Seattle!"

Garrison Jr. looked up as the shooting star blinked out, "Son, I'm not sure what I can do..."

An idea suddenly hit Miss Anderson. She moved up and looked at Mr. Wagner, "Let me ask you something, if I could find someone to bankroll your hunting business thing with no risk to your home, would you be willing to take in five kids and still date me?"

Mr. Wagner kept a tight but tender grip on Miller as he turned with total confusion in his eyes, "I'd take them in without... wait, five? Who is the other?"

Garrison weakly held up his hand. "Me."

As all eyes fell on Garrison, Mr. Donavan spoke up, "I have lung cancer and only a few months to live."

The faces of seven kids all fell as this was said. Even with everything else that was happening, Luke quickly moved up and put an arm around Garrison before the boy could fall to his knees. "Dad?"

Mr. Wagner let out a long breath, "It... if we can find a legal way to make it happen and we can really get enough for me to start my business so I have enough so no one goes hungry... I'll need help from the older boys during the summer and....” He looked over at Miss Anderson, "Someone to take care of the kids while I am out..."

"I'd be rather angry if you didn't ask!"

Even as the details stated to get ironed out, Mr. Donavan placed a call to Saul to get company lawyers on all the needed details including bending arms into pretzel shapes if needed to make sure Miller, Molly, Darrel and Hanna would get pulled out of their current house and placed with Miss Anderson and or Mr. Wagner.

Off to the side Miller put the cash they had earned on the table, "Um, you can have this if you are really willing to take us in. You may need it..."

Mr. Wagner grabbed Miller's hand and forced the boy to make a fist around the wad of bills, "No, but I do think this might just be enough to buy a couple of decent axes for you all to start your own little business and earn some spending money. It will be tight around here for quite a while and there is nothing better than seeing my kids, and it sure sounds like you will soon be one of my kids, earn his or her own spending money.”

Luke grinned at the idea, "Wagner's Wood Whacking!"

This got some laughter for the first time in over three hours.

As they all had a meal together and the truth of what brought Garrison out to War came out, Mr. Wagner stared into the boy's eyes. "You know, if you want there is a home for you right here, just as we have been talking about, but I just want to make sure. You have a great school and a much more comfortable life you could go to. Are you sure about this?"

Garrison's dad nodded, "He's right son, and no matter what you decide, my people will make sure Mr. Wagner gets everything he needs to start his business and will take custody of Miller and the others. Even as we speak, Saul has hired a law firm here in West Virginia to make sure nothing happens to any of them."

"This late at night?" Brett asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Saul has his ways and owes me a favor or ten." Garrison Jr. replied cryptically.

Before more could be said, Garrison looked up, "What if Miller's dad says no?"

Garrison Jr. snorted with a mixture of humor and disgust, "Let's see, jail and lose the these four fine children or a few thousand dollars from me and give up your four friends to a house where there will be love, food, and warmth... I don't care how drunk he is when Saul and his friends come to make the offer, I'm pretty sure he'll come to the right decision."

While the others didn't understand the hidden meaning or the emphasis of Saul and his friends being to make the 'offer', Garrison did. He just smiled at the words.

He then looked over at Miller and the others, "So, um, I lied to you all... are you still OK with me being your brother?"

Even as seven kids moved up to wrap Garrison in a massive group hug, Garrison Jr. realized this was the perfect place for his son.

With a warm feeling in his heart, Garrison looked over at his dad, "So, can I check out the attic now?"

Above the eleven people the night sky lit up over War once more as a larger and brighter shooting star streaked overhead. The time was 12:01, the start of the day of all days, Christmas Eve, where the wishes of the inner child can come true and magic can still happen.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Kyle Aarons 12/23/14