When Marc heard movement in the house, he quickly pushed the oven rack back in and closed the oven door.
As he stepped into the living room, Christian immediately pulled him into an enthusiastic hug and said, "You shoulda come with us! It was awesome!"
Marc returned the hug and said, "I'm glad you had a good time."
"It was crazy and wicked and we saw these old ladies get into a fistfight and there were cops…"
"Where's Galen?" Marc interrupted.
"Outside, smoking a cigarette." James said as he dropped heavily onto the couch, looking to be completely exhausted.
"Galen doesn't smoke. He quit years ago." Marc said cautiously.
"He started again… just now." James said wearily.
"Were you guys able to get all your shopping done?" Marc asked gently.
"I hope so, because there's no force in heaven or on Earth that could make me go out there again." James said as he closed his eyes.
"You'll have to tell me all about it later. For now, I have some last minute things that I need to do for the dinner." Marc said as he pulled out of his hug with Christian.
"We gotta wrap our presents, anyway." Christian said cheerfully, then turned to the other boys and quickly said, "Come on, guys!"
Marc watched with a smile as the boys hurried out of the room.
He glanced at James and quietly asked, "Are you alright?"
"No more kids. Ever. Brucey is as much as I can handle." James said quietly.
"You can come into the kitchen with me if you feel like talking." Marc offered gently.
"Thank you, Marc. Maybe in a minute. I just need some quiet time."
"You know where to find me when you're ready."
"Do you need any help with anything?" Collin asked as he walked into the kitchen.
"Has your father come in yet?"
"Yeah. He went upstairs. He seemed kinda quiet, there at the end."
"What happened to upset him?"
"I dunno. All of it, I guess. I thought he was gonna bust a blood vessel before he even got the car parked. In fact, he dropped us off at the front door at the second mall we went to, then went to park the car. It took a really long time."
"I'm sure he'll talk to me about it when he's ready." Marc said slowly, not sounding at all certain of it.
"Yeah. We got all our presents wrapped and put under the tree and stuff. Everyone else is gonna watch TV for a little bit, but I don't feel like sitting around. I'd rather be doing something. Is there anything left to do?"
"Actually, yes. I still need to get the dining room table set. I just rinsed the Christmas dishes in the dishwasher, so they need to be dried off and put out, if you want to get started on that."
"You're the only person I know who has Christmas dishes." Collin chuckled.
"Don't forget to use the Christmas placemats and napkin rings, they match the plates. I left them on the sideboard, just inside the door."
"Right." Collin said with a tender smile before walking out of the room.
A knock on the front door caused Marc to look up from his dinner preparations.
He waited for a moment, and when he didn't hear anything, he let out a long sigh before moving his skillet off the burner and wiping his hands.
"A house full of people, but can anyone be bothered to answer the door? Noooo." Marc grumbled loudly as he passed the living room door.
When Marc opened the door, his frustrated mood dissipated immediately.
"Yes, Merry Christmas, Allen. Please come in. Would this young man happen to be your son, Jake?" Marc asked as he led them inside.
"No. Actually, this is Davis." Allen said with a smile at the boy by his side.
"I remember you telling us about a Jake, Xain, Kenny and Kevin, but I don't recall a Davis being mentioned." Marc said as he stopped outside the living room door.
"My dad lives on the West coast and my mom's between husbands at the moment, so Allen's kinda filling in." Davis said shyly.
"Only in the sense of doing father-son things with Davis. Hildie and I don't have that kind of relationship." Allen hurried to explain.
"Don't worry, Allen. No one would ever think that you and my mom are a couple." Davis chuckled at the very thought of it.
"Except, maybe, for your mom." Allen responded immediately.
"Didn't I tell you? She's got her sights set on some guy from her plastic surgeon's office. I think they might be able to make it work. He's almost as vain as she is." Davis said with a grin.
"I can't even imagine…" Allen said with a disbelieving shake of his head.
Marc smiled at the exchange, then another knock on the front door made him look up with surprise.
"Maurice! I'm so glad that you made it! Please, come in." Marc said happily.
"I'm not too early, am I?" Maurice asked cautiously.
"Not at all. This is perfect timing. I'll be able to introduce everyone at once." Marc said as they walked through the entry hall.
"Officer Bridges?" Allen said in surprise.
"You two know each other?" Marc asked curiously.
"You could say that." Maurice said with a smile at Marc, then turned to Allen and asked, "Should I be setting up another adoption hearing when I get back to work?"
Allen chuckled, then said, "No. I don't think so. I've already adopted Davis in every way that matters."
"Yeah, I've had a ton of 'legal' dads. But Allen is more like a 'real' dad than any of them. I don't want to change a thing." Davis said happily.
"Everyone. I'd like you to meet our friend, Maurice, my boss, Allen, and his almost-son, Davis." Marc said happily as he presented the new arrivals to everyone in the living room.
Marc glanced to see if Davis were disturbed by the introduction, only to find him wearing a beaming smile.
"Merry Christmas, everyone." Allen said warmly.
"Let me get Galen down here, then I'll introduce everyone." Marc said quickly, then dashed out of the room.
"Are you gonna have Christmas Dinner with us?" Nick asked curiously, directing his question mostly toward Allen and Davis.
"No. Davis and I are just out, making the rounds, wishing our friends a Merry Christmas." Allen said pleasantly as he gently placed an arm around Davis' shoulders.
"That sounds nice." Nick said with a smile.
"Although I didn't realize it at the time, I used to be fairly anti-social. So this year I'm putting forth an extra effort and making up for lost time."
There was a long moment of silence, then Marc hurried into the room, followed by Galen.
"Maurice, Allen and Davis, I'd like to introduce my husband, Galen, his son, Collin, my soon-to-be son, Christian, my brother-in-law, James, and my nephews, Brucey, Jorry, and Nick."Â Marc said proudly.
"It's nice to meet all of you." Allen said as he looked around the room.
"It's nice to see you again, although it seems strange to be seeing you outside of work." Galen said with a smile of delight at Allen.
"When I met you last year, I never would have imagined you ending up here." Allen said with a smile.
"You and me, both. But looking back, I wouldn't want to change a single thing." Galen said with a chuckle, then glanced warmly at Marc.
"We just came from Eric and Bobby's house. They spoke very highly of you." Allen said warmly.
"That was mostly thanks to Christian. If he hadn't spotted Joaquin on the side of the road, none of the rest would have happened." Galen said with a fond look at Christian.
"I'm just glad that you were there to help him. I don't know Joaquin that well, but Eric and Bobby think the world of him. Thanks for stopping and helping him." Allen said gratefully.
"How do you like our tree?" Nick asked Davis suddenly.
"It's nice…" Davis began to say automatically, then tilted his head slightly as he looked at the choice of ornamentation.
Allen also looked at the tree, then cautiously said, "It's very…", then seemed to falter.
"I think next year we should have one with bigger dicks." Christian said frankly.
"Size doesn't matter." Marc muttered in response, with a slight blush as he looked at his guests to see if they were offended.
"That's just something guys with little dicks say so they can maybe get laid, someday." Collin said dismissively.
"That's not something you'll ever have to worry about." Christian whispered to Collin conspiratorially, but everyone was able to hear.
"Let's not discuss this while we have company." Marc said shyly.
"Davis and I need to be going. We still have a few other stops to make." Allen said past a chuckle.
"Thanks for stopping by, guys. It was wonderful seeing you." Marc said with a grand smile.
"It was nice meeting all of you. Marc, I'll see you at work after New Years." Allen said before turning to leave.
"I'll walk you out." Marc said as he followed.
When Marc returned, he said, "If you guys want to head into the dining room, dinner will be served in just a minute."
"Do you need any help?" Collin asked quickly.
"Sure, if you're willing, you guys could help me carry the food into the dining room." Marc said pleasantly.
"Sure Marc, we'll all be happy to help you." Christian said as he looked around the living room at the others, daring them to defy him.
All the boys got up, some more reluctantly than others, and followed Collin and Christian to the kitchen.
"Are you okay? That looks like it's got to hurt." Maurice asked James quietly as they walked into the dining room.
"The doctors gave me some pain medication, so it doesn't hurt all that much. But I'm glad that Marc convinced me not to try and drive this evening. I didn't expect the pain pills to be quite this strong." James said honestly.
"Marc's got, like, fifty-thousand things in there. I hope you guys are really hungry." Jorry said as he walked into the room carrying a platter of ham, half of it already carved.
"I think we're going to need another table, just for all the food." Collin said as he walked in, next.
"There's some room over on the side board if you run out of space on the table." Galen said with a smile.
"Holy crap! Will someone take this thing from me? I didn't think it was going to be this heavy!" Brucie said as he walked into the room, struggling under the weight of an enormous turkey.
"That thing looks bigger than the oven. How did he even cook it?" Collin asked as he rushed to Brucie's side.
"The better question is, where are you going to put it?" Galen asked with a smile.
"Right in the middle. I don't think it'll fit anywhere else." Jorry said as he scooted a few things out of the way to make room.
"Seriously, where did he cook this thing? It's ginormous." Collin said as he helped to place the huge serving platter onto the table.
"Does anyone know where you want these things?" Christian asked as he held out a green bean casserole and a bowl of candied sweet potatoes as Jorry, Collin and Brucie passed by him, on the way out of the room.
"Try the side board, over there. It looks like the majority of the table is going to be taken up with meats." Galen said as he pointed.
As Christian was placing his burden on the sideboard, Nick walked in with an extravagantly decorated relish tray, prominently featuring three boiled egg penguins.
"Put that over here, Nicky, I think it's more of a centerpiece than it is food." Galen said quickly.
"Jeez, how many people does Uncle Marc think he's feeding?" Jorry said as he re entered the dining room with a large bowl of mashed potatoes.
"Um, let's see. How about you put that over here by me. There's a space beside the ham." Galen said as he looked around.
"Does anyone ever actually eat this cranberry stuff?" Collin asked as he looked with disgust at the wobbly bowl of chunky red jelly that he was carrying.
"Someone must, but it isn't me." Galen said with a chuckle.
"Well, it looks like we're going to have enough bread for everyone." Brucie said as he carried in a bread filled, towel lined, wicker basket that could easily double as a laundry basket.
"See if it'll fit on the china hutch. If not, put it on that extra chair in the corner" Galen said quickly.
"Seriously, there must be like a support group or an 'anonymous' meeting or something for people who cook this much." Christian said in amazement.
"What have you got there?" Galen asked as he moved slightly to get a better view.
"Prime rib, I think." Christian said disbelievingly.
"See if you can squeeze it in, down there by James." Galen said uncertainly.
"Where do you want the stuffing?" Collin asked as he walked into the room.
"I think you can squeeze it in, over here, by the turkey." Galen said quickly.
"Oyster stuffing." Nick called out as he entered.
"Oh? Um, let's see, maybe down here with the mashed potatoes." Galen said as he hurried to the other end of the table.
"I've got stuffing. Uncle Marc said that this one's cranberry." Brucie announced as he walked in.
"That settles it. We need to get online to find a local 'Cooks Anonymous' chapter." Galen said as he searched every level surface in the room to find a place to put more food.
"I thought I could leave the desserts in the kitchen until…" Marc trailed off as he noticed everyone looking at him.
"Everything looks wonderful. Please sit down and enjoy this wonderful meal that you've prepared." Galen said lovingly as he walked to Marc's side, then quietly added, "We'll talk, later."
"I forgot the salad!" Marc said suddenly and turned to leave.
"You've done enough. Just tell one of the boys where it is and take your seat." Galen said firmly as he held Marc back.
Marc turned to Christian and said, "It's in the refrigerator in the garage. And you might grab some soft drinks, while you're in there, if anyone wants some."
Christian looked at Jorry and Collin, then gestured with his head to signal, 'Come on.'
"Maybe I should have set up a card table, or something." Marc said as he looked around.
"I think the boys have had enough card tables. I wouldn't want to bring up any bad associations. This is fine." Galen said gently.
"Can we start eating? Or are we waiting for something?" Brucie asked as he looked at everyone sitting with empty plates before them.
"Go ahead, start serving yourselves. Just remember that we have more selections over on the sideboard and the china hutch." Galen said with a smile at Marc's nephew.
"Are you alright, James? You look a little woozy." Marc asked with concern.
"I'll be fine. But I might not be able to eat too much. The pain medication seems to be upsetting my stomach." James said cautiously.
"Try eating a little bread first, then give that a minute to settle. That sometimes works for me." Maurice offered kindly.
"Thank you, I'll do that." James said quietly.
"We brought some of each. Who wants what?" Collin asked as he walked into the room with an armload of sodas.
"I should have thought to make some Christmas punch to go with dinner." Marc said regretfully.
"Where would we put it?" Galen asked with a grin.
Marc looked around the table, then slightly nodded.
"Everything's great." Galen assured him.
"Where do you want this?" Christian asked as he held the bowl of salad and looked around.
"Hand it to me. I'll start it around the table. With any luck, we'll empty a few of these bowls and end up with more room than we started with." Galen said as he extended his hand.
"If we don't, then we're going to be playing musical chairs with the food dishes until the meal's over." Christian said with a grin as he gave the salad to Galen.
"What's this?" Nick asked as he held up a bowl.
"Ranch roasted carrots." Marc said automatically.
"Pass." Nick said immediately.
"Go on, give it a try. You might like it." Marc said with a smile.
"I don't like carrots." Nick said simply.
"It's true. He'll throw up." Jorry said frankly.
"Yeah. Um, give those here." Collin said and snatched the bowl of carrots from Nick's hand.
"I'm sorry about the chaos, Maurice. I've never really hosted a holiday meal before, even though I've always wanted to. I guess I kind of overdid it." Marc said quietly.
"There's no need to be sorry. It's a pleasure for me to sit down with a group of happy people and not have to worry about my work for a while." Maurice said honestly, then added with a grin, "And there's no chance of us running short on food."
Marc shyly smiled, then turned when he noticed a bowl of food being handed to him.
"Christian, before I forget, I wanted to let you know that an acquaintance of mine has volunteered to represent you in court." Maurice said casually as he added more food to his plate.
"You didn't need to do that. We can afford to hire an attorney." Marc hurried to say.
"Trust me, no matter how things end up turning out, it's better this way. Basically, the way it works, is that since Josh isn't being paid by you, he has no obligation to represent your interests at all. His only obligation will be to represent the best interest of his client, who is Christian." Maurice said carefully.
"So, who's paying him?" Galen asked cautiously.
"There's an organization that I'm familiar with that helps protect abused and abandoned children. Providing legal representation for Christian alone will allow the court to give more weight to his argument. If the lawyer were being paid by you, then there could be a presumption that his job is to get you custody of Christian, regardless of what's in his best interest." Maurice said seriously.
"Do you think we should hire a lawyer?" Marc asked cautiously.
"That's up to you. Since you have an interest in the outcome, I could see an argument for having a lawyer present to represent you. But since the case before the court will be to decide what's best for Christian, I can't say that there's really a need for it." Maurice said consideringly.
"Has the court date been set?" Marc asked curiously.
"Yes, it's on the docket for 9am on Monday." Maurice said simply.
"That's quick! Do we have enough time to prepare for that?" Marc asked as he looked at Galen with concern.
"I think so. I'll need to make a call after dinner." Galen said seriously.
"I'm sure that Josh is going to call to talk to Christian a time or two before Monday, but other than that, all you should have to do to prepare is show up." Maurice said frankly.
"Can I have some more of that stuffing?" Nick asked Marc hopefully.
"Sure, which one? Cornbread, oyster, cranberry or traditional?" Marc asked with a smile at his nephew.
"The one that tastes like 'Stove Top'." Nick said hopefully.
"Traditional." Marc said decisively, then passed a bowl of stuffing down the table toward Nick.
"Can I have some more turkey?" Brucie asked next.
"Pass me your plate. White or dark?" Marc asked casually.
"White, please." Brucie responded happily as he handed his plate to his father.
"Marc, everything is exceptionally good. Thank you for inviting us." James said as he passed the plate to Collin.
"Yeah. My mom's cooking sucks! This is great!" Brucie interjected.
"Brucie, that's not a nice thing to say." James gently scolded.
"But it's true!" Brucie defended.
"Yes, it is. But that doesn't mean that you're free to say it. If people notice you saying negative things, they'll think you're a negative, dark person who'll say those types of things about themÂ behind their backs. It's much better to try and be positive about things." James said instructively.
Brucie thought about his father's words for a moment, then, when his plate of turkey arrived before him, he looked down the table at Marc and said, "Thank you, Uncle Marc, your food is wonderful."
"You're very welcome, Brucie. It's a pleasure to have you here this evening." Marc responded warmly.
James gave his son a smile of approval before turning his attention back to his food.
A knock on the door caused Marc to look up suddenly.
Jorry and Nick looked at each other with concern.
"I'll get it." Marc said as he got up from the table.
Galen watched him leave, then quietly asked, "How is everyone doing?"
"I can't believe I've eaten this much, but I can't seem to stop. Everything's so good." James said in wonder.
"So, I guess your upset stomach is better?" Maurice asked with a smile.
"Yes. You were right about the bread. Just a few minutes later, I was feeling much better." James said gratefully.
"Jorry and Nick are right in here." Marc said as he led Ruthie into the dining room.
"Are you boys about ready to go?" Ruthie asked gruffly.
"We're eating Christmas dinner, Mom. Can you wait until we're finished?" Jorry asked hopefully.
"Please, Ruthie, why don't you sit down and have some dinner with us? As you can see, we've got plenty." Marc asked in an urging tone.
After a moment of looking at her sons' begging expressions, Ruthie finally relented and said, "I suppose."
"Have a seat, Ruthie. I'll get you a plate." James said as he began to stand.
"I'll get it, Dad. I'll be right back, Aunt Ruthie." Brucie said quickly.
"You know all the other guests, but I'd like to introduce a family friend, Officer Maurice Bridges." Marc said formally as he pulled a chair to the table from the far side of the room.
"Nice to meet you." Ruth said quietly as she looked at the man.
"Maurice, this is my sister-in-law, Ruthie Stone. She's Jorry and Nick's mother." Marc finished with a smile and a glance in the boys' direction.
"You have some wonderful children. It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Stone." Maurice said cordially.
"Here you go." Brucie said as he raced into the room and placed a plate and silverware in front of his aunt.
"Thank you." Ruthie said with surprise.
"The stuffing is really great. You've got to try some, Mom." Nick told his mother happily.
"Actually, I overdid the cooking a little bit, so I ended up with four different types of stuffing. The traditional is the one that Nicky seems to like best." Marc said shyly as he handed her the bowl.
Ruthie reluctantly accepted the bowl, then served herself a modest portion.
"If you like tri tip, you should have some of that. Marc really outdid himself." Galen said frankly.
"Thank you." Ruthie whispered as she took a small portion of the tri tip steak that was in front of her.
"There's plenty of everything, so please help yourself to as much as you like." Marc said pleasantly.
After taking a bite of food, Ruthie quietly said, "I can't stay too long. But this is very good."
In an effort to change the subject, Marc turned to Maurice and asked, "Is there anything else we need to know before the hearing?"
"No. Actually, as long as you know where and when it is, that should be all." Maurice said consideringly.
At Ruthie's curious look, Marc said, "The court is going to decide Christian's custody."
"Yeah. I hope he'll let me stay here with Marc. It's really great here." Christian said honestly.
Ruthie looked around, then quietly said, "It seems they'll keep you well fed."
Christian laughed at the response, then smiled warmly at Marc.
As Marc was passed two bowls at once, from opposite directions, Ruthie said, "I haven't had oyster stuffing like this in years. It's just like my mother's!"
"I remember having your mother's oyster stuffing a few times. When I tried making my own, that was what I was trying to make it taste like. Hers was the best oyster stuffing I ever tasted." Marc said honestly.
"Is there any way you could copy down the recipe for me? I never got it from her, and I've missed it so much. For the first time in years, it actually feels like a holiday to me." Ruthie said as tears filled her eyes.
"Of course I will. And if you like, you can take what's left with you. We obviously have more than enough." Marc said warmly.
"Thank you, Marc. I'm sorry for…" Ruthie began to say, but trailed off.
"It's okay, Ruthie. Just have a happy Christmas." Marc said gently.
"I don't think I could eat another bite." Galen said as he pushed away from the table.
"Everything was wonderful, Marc. But I think I'm gonna explode." Christian said as he rested back in his chair.
"How did you make this turkey gravy? I'm going to have to make Christmas dinner tomorrow and the kind I have isn't anywhere near as good as this." Ruthie asked as she helped herself to another portion of food.
"I'll copy down the recipe for you when I get you the recipe for the oyster stuffing. The secret is in the seasoning." Marc said with a smile at his sister-in-law.
All the boys seemed to be on the verge of turkey induced comas as they were picking at the last few bites of food on their plates.
"James, Nora called me and told me a little about what happened with Denise. Is everything going to be alright?" Ruthie asked hesitantly.
"How did Nora find out?" James asked cautiously.
"Denise called her from jail." Ruthie answered quietly.
James slightly nodded, then quietly said, "I'm leaving, Ruthie. I'm sure Denise has told you about what happened to my family when I was growing up. When she hit me, she crossed that line."
"The doctor said that Mom nearly killed him." Brucie added earnestly.
"I know what you went through, and I'm sorry about that. But I think that Denise just has a problem. If she agrees to get help with it, maybe you…"
"I hope she gets that help. Really, I do. In fact, when you see her, you can tell her that if there's anything that I can do, I'll support her however I can in that. But what we had is over. There's no undoing what's been done. Brucie and I will be leaving after the Christmas holiday." James said carefully.
"We're going to stay with Grandma Clairborne." Brucie added helpfully.
"Are you sure you won't change your mind? It's Christmas." Ruthie said quietly.
"I know, Ruthie. And for Christmas this year, I'm going to give Brucie a safe place to live where he doesn't have to endure screaming tirades and the threat of physical violence." James said seriously.
"I wish more parents would give that gift to their children." Maurice said honestly.
When Ruthie turned to look at him with question, he elaborated, "I'm an officer in the local courthouse. Every day I see people, many of them good, decent people, stand before the judge and make decisions that put themselves and their children in harm's way. Some do it out of fear, but many others do it out of some misguided notion of love that somehow includes putting up with some of the most heinous and unforgivable acts of cruelty… forgive me. I've just seen too much. Suffice it to say, I think James has made a wise decision."
"Ruthie, it's my hope that Denise can get the help she needs and find someone who will share in her life and bring her joy and happiness. If you look back on our marriage, you'll see that I was never able to do that. My wishes for her are love and happiness… with someone else." James said sincerely.
Ruthie slowly nodded, then quietly said, "I doubt that she'll be ready to hear that for a while, but I promise that, when she is, I'll pass that message along to her."
"You were always her best friend. Right now, I think she's going to need you more than ever." James said honestly.
"I don't know how much help I'll be. Nolan and I…" Ruthie trailed off as she looked at Jorry and Nick.
"Ruthie, just so you know, if there's anything we can do, we'll be happy to help." Marc offered gently.
"Thank you, Marc. You've already been a tremendous help, taking care of the boys while we had our talk." Ruthie said quietly.
"The offer stands. If you need our help, please let us know." Galen said clearly, wanting to let it be known that it wasn't just Marc making the offer.
Ruthie nodded that she had heard.
"Everyone, why don't you go into the living room and relax for a while? That is, unless you're ready for dessert." Marc said with a smile.
There was a chorus of groans at the suggestion, then one by one, people slowly made their way to standing and sluggishly left the dining room.
"Boys, we need to be leaving." Ruthie said from the living room doorway.
"But, they haven't opened their presents, yet." Collin said plaintively.
"Come on, Mom." Nick begged.
"It will just take a minute, Ruthie." Marc said quietly.
"Okay. Go ahead." Ruthie reluctantly agreed.
"I got you this one." Brucie said immediately as he handed a small, wrapped present to Nick.
Jorry watched carefully, to make sure that Brucie didn't get too close to his younger brother.
"Thanks, Brucie." Nick said happily as he started to tear off the wrapping paper.
Everyone watched as Nick revealed a handheld video game.
"Wow! I wanted one of these!" Nick said happily.
"I know. I saw you looking at it while we were shopping, so I bought it after you went to look at something else." Brucie said happily.
"Thanks, Brucie! This is great!" Nick said and rushed to Brucie to give him a hug, but stopped short and looked at Jorry inquiringly.
Jorry thought about it for a second, then gave a single nod.
"Thanks, Brucie." Nick said as he gave his cousin a quick, firm hug.
"Next is from me and Christian." Collin said as he held out another gift.
"You didn't have to get me nothin." Nick said as he backed away from Brucie and accepted the gift.
"Just open it." Christian said with a smile.
Nick made short work of the wrapping, then looked strangely at the Power Ranger action figure.
"I didn't know if you were into Power Rangers, but it comes with a DVD that looks like it might be fun." Collin quickly explained.
"Yeah. I mean, I watch Power Rangers sometimes. But I never got any of their stuff, before. Thanks, Collin." Nick finished enthusiastically and rushed over to give first Collin, then Christian, quick hugs.
"This one's for you, Jorry." Brucie said quietly as he held out a large, flat, wrapped gift.
"Thanks." Jorry said cautiously as he accepted the gift.
Feeling the stares of everyone present on him, he carefully unwrapped the gift to reveal a dark red plaid button up shirt and inside it was a packaged black tee shirt.
"I thought it'd look good on you." Brucie said timidly.
Jorry was stunned into silence for a moment, but finally was able to say, "I think it will, too. Thank you, Brucie."
A luminous smile was Brucie's only response.
"We got you this." Christian said as he thrust a box in Jorry's direction.
Jorry looked at Christian uncertainly as he accepted the box. He could tell that Christian was worried that he wouldn't like what they had chosen.
He carefully unwrapped the present and revealed a remote control car.
"I know it's kinda kiddie, but we thought it might be good for… I don't know… it's stupid…" Christian finished in a defeated mumble.
Jorry smiled at the reaction and moved to Christian to give him a firm hug. "It's great, Christian. I promise."
"Is that everything?" Ruthie asked quietly.
"I wanna see everyone open the presents we got them." Nick said urgently to his mother.
Marc had just walked into the room as Nick was saying that and quietly said, "Everyone else will open their gifts in the morning. Next time you see them, they'll be able to thank you and tell you all about it."
Ruthie looked at Marc gratefully for supporting her.
"And these are for you. They're the recipes that I promised you." Marc said as he handed her some folded papers.
"Marc, I'm so sorry for everything. I don't know how everything got so far out of hand." Ruthie said repentantly.
"I don't know either, Ruthie. How about we not worry about it? Just know that if you and Nolan need us for anything, we're here for you." Marc said gently.
"I'll keep that in mind." Ruthie responded quietly.
"Boys, get your coats on. It's time to go." Marc said to Jorry and Nick.
"Can't we stay long enough to have dessert? I wanted some of your chocolate cake. It smelled really, really good." Nick begged.
"I'm sure your mother has lots of things that she needs to get done, tonight. So you guys need to be on your way. But I tell you what, why don't I pack up a little something for you to take with you? I'll be sure to give you an extra large piece of that chocolate cake." Marc said and dashed out of the room before anyone could respond.
"Thanks again for the game, Brucie. This is the one that I really wanted." Nick said as he pulled on his coat.
"I'm glad you like it." Brucie said timidly.
"You guys remember that we're over here. If you get bored or anything you can come over and visit again." Christian said seriously, then glanced at Ruthie to see her reaction.
"Maybe, after things settle down at home, the boys could invite you over to visit us." Ruthie said tentatively.
"Yeah. Let's do that." Collin answered immediately, apparently completely missing the tension underlying the suggestion.
Christian smiled fondly at Collin's obliviousness.
"Oh, and Ruthie…" Galen said, drawing her attention. "If you happen to come across a telephone handset, would you set it aside for us? Nolan seems to have forgotten that he was carrying it when he left last time."
"Yes. I'll keep an eye out for it." Ruthie said slowly.
"Here you go. I've got a plate of desserts for each of the boys, and a little bit of the leftovers from dinner, in case the boys get hungry again, later." Marc said as he handed her two plastic shopping bags.
"Thank you again, Marc. I hope that you and your family have a very Merry Christmas." Ruthie said in a voice that was more sincere than he would have expected.
"You, too, Ruthie." Marc said gently, then watched as Ruthie led the boys out of the room.
"Pardon me for saying so, but that woman sure does cast a gloom when she walks into a room." Maurice said honestly.
"She has her own little raincloud that follows her around." Christian said with a grin.
"Is anyone in the mood for some coffee and dessert?" Marc asked curiously.
The boys all perked up at the suggestion. The adults were considerably less enthusiastic.
"The coffee sounds good." Galen said frankly, then quietly added, "You might ask me about the desserts again, say, after New Year's."
James and Maurice gave nods of agreement.
Marc chuckled, then rushed out of the room.
"Is he always so upbeat and enthusiastic?" Maurice asked Galen curiously.
"Mostly, but I think it's amplified by Christmas. He's the type of person who enjoys doing things for others. So this gives him an opportunity to do what he loves doing most." Galen said thoughtfully.
"What do you do for him?" Christian asked Galen curiously.
After a moment to consider, Galen quietly admitted, "I don't know. I guess I accept the things he does for me and I let him know that I'm grateful for them. Sometimes, I'll come up with something I can do for him, and I can tell that it means the world to him when I do that. It sounds kind of one sided when I talk about it, but it doesn't really feel like it is. We're two pieces of a puzzle that fit together to make 'us'."
Christian glanced at Collin, who seemed to be fascinated by the little train running around under the Christmas tree, then broke into a smile.
When Marc walked back into the living room, he quietly said, "Sorry that took so long. In all the chaos of the cooking, I sort of lost the coffee maker."
"As long as you find it by morning…" Galen began to say.
"No. I found it. The coffee will be ready in just a minute." Marc hurried to explain.
"Marc, I was wondering about something." Collin said as he finally dragged his attention away from the train.
"What was that, Collin?" Marc asked pleasantly.
"That turkey you fixed for dinner. I don't think I've ever seen one that big. How did you cook it?" Collin asked curiously.
"Do you want me to write the recipe down for you?" Marc asked uncertainly.
"No. I mean, that thing was bigger than the oven. How did you cook it?" Collin asked seriously.
"Oh. I bought a roaster." Marc said, then noticed Collin's vacant expression. "It's something like a gigantic crock pot. It's out on the back porch if you want to see it."
"No. That's okay. I just couldn't figure out how you cooked that ginormous thing along with all the other stuff that you had to bake." Collin said frankly.
"He's a kitchen wizard. He has mystical, super-human cooking abilities." Christian said with a grin.
"After tasting that meal, I'd have to agree with you." Maurice chuckled.
"I'm glad you enjoyed it." Marc beamed, then quickly asked, "Does anyone need anything? The coffee should be just about ready."
"Didn't you say something about dessert?" Christian asked hopefully.
"You can't be serious." Galen groaned.
Christian looked at him with the most innocent expression that screamed out, 'I don't know what you mean'.
Marc laughed at the exchange, then said, "You boys follow me into the kitchen and you can help yourselves to dessert."
Collin, Christian and Brucie immediately hopped up and happily followed Marc out of the room.
"How is Christian doing?" Maurice asked Galen quietly.
"I took him to see his father in the hospital this afternoon. That was kind of hard on him, but I think he's doing alright." Galen said honestly.
"How is his father?" Maurice asked with concern.
"From what Marc has told me, the doctors haven't seemed too optimistic for his long term prognosis." Galen said seriously.
Maurice slowly nodded.
James was looking back and forth between them, but didn't want to intrude on their conversation.
When Maurice noticed him, he said, "I heard what you said at dinner about your home situation. I just wanted to say again, I think you're making the right decision both for you and for your son."
"Thanks. It's good to hear that. I'm sure that by the time Denise is done telling her side of the story, everyone's going to think that I abandoned her and kidnapped Brucie." James said anxiously.
"I'm sure that anyone who knows Denise will take anything she says with a grain of salt." Galen said frankly.
"Salt substitute." James corrected automatically, then broke into a smile when he realized what he had said.
Galen broke into laughter at the comment, as Maurice looked on curiously.
"James and Brucie haven't had any salt, sugar, real eggs or dairy products in a very long time. It seems that Denise got the idea that she should believe every health food fad that comes along and banish actual food completely from their diets." Galen explained.
"It's been going on for so long, I didn't realize what I'd been missing. The food that Brucie and I have had since we've been here has been incredible." James said honestly.
"Well, thank you, James." Marc said happily as he walked into the room carrying a tray that was fashioned to look like drifting snow and a coffee service that was comprised of a variety of Christmas characters.
Galen stared at the coffee service for a moment, then turned away to hide his smile.
"You certainly do seem to enjoy the holidays." Maurice said as he tried to fight down his own grin.
"Not all the holidays. Mostly just Christmas. I hardly decorate at all for Martin Luther King day." Marc said as he carefully set the coffee service on the coffee table.
Looks passed amongst Maurice, James and Galen, none of them quite sure if Marc were joking or not.
"Anyone ready for dessert, yet?" Marc asked as he looked around.
"Maybe after some coffee." Galen said slowly.
"I've got to get back to the boys. Will you serve?" Marc asked hopefully.
"Yeah. I've got it." Galen assured him with a smile.
A moment after Marc left the room, Maurice looked at Galen with question.
"No clue." Galen said honestly, then asked, "What do you take in your coffee?"
"Would you guys like to help me with something, tonight?" Marc asked as he walked into the kitchen.
"Sure. What can we do?" Collin answered immediately.
"Well, I know that we probably have enough desserts already, but I was really wanting to make some fresh gingerbread cookies." Marc said with a smile.
"Gingerbread men?" Collin asked curiously.
"Yeah. We can do that." Marc said with a nod.
"Can we make them anatomically correct?" Christian asked with a teasing grin.
After a moment to consider, Marc finally said, "Yeah. Sure. Why not?"
"Seriously?" Christian asked happily.
"Yeah. There aren't any little kids here. Let me go ahead and get the gingerbread started." Marc said as he pulled a mixing bowl from one of the lower cabinets.
"Thanks, Marc." Collin said quickly, then turned to Brucie and Christian and said, "This is gonna be great!"
"How's everyone doing in here?" Marc asked happily as he walked into the living room.
"I think we're good." Galen said contentedly.
"Can I tempt anyone with dessert?" Marc asked with a smile.
"If you keep this up, I'm not going to be able to fit into my uniform when I go back to work on Monday." Maurice said hesitantly.
"Indulge yourself today and let your belt loose a notch on Monday. It's Christmas, you've got permission." Marc said happily.
"Okay. Yes." Maurice said in a resigned tone.
"I've got triple chocolate cake with hot fudge topping, rainbow jello cake with coconut frosting or toffee crusted cheesecake with caramel sauce." Marc said with a smile.
"I think my blood sugar went up about fifty points just hearing that." Maurice said cautiously.
"Well, I also have pies, cookies and cupcakes in the kitchen, if you'd rather have something like that. I just wanted to present you with the more adult selections." Marc said frankly.
"I know I'm going to regret this, but that toffee cheesecake sounds wonderful." Maurice said reluctantly.
"Coming right up!" Marc said happily, then turned and asked James, "What sounds good to you?"
"When I was in the kitchen earlier, I thought I saw an apple pie…" James said cautiously.
"I have three of them, actually. Would you like cinnamon apple, blueberry apple or extra tart apple pucker pie?" Marc asked with an evil grin.
"Pucker pie?" Galen laughed.
"You have to have it with ice cream to offset the tartness. It's sort of like a roller coaster ride of sweet and sour."
"I think I'd like some blueberry apple pie, and some vanilla ice cream, if I could." James asked hopefully.
"Vanilla? I'll have to check, but if not, I'm sure I'll find something close." Marc said thoughtfully, then looked at Galen with question.
"Give me a pucker." Galen said with a grin.
Marc smiled, then made a show of puckering up and giving him a smacking kiss, before hurrying out of the room.
This time, James didn't look away at the display of affection. He simply watched with a neutral expression.
"I'd have to spend half of every day in the gym if I lived here. I don't know how you do it." Maurice said with a smile.
"Trust me, this is just a holiday thing. We can go weeks at a time without having any sweets in the house." Galen said frankly.
"When you invited me over, I didn't have any idea that I'd be treated to such a feast." Maurice said with a smile.
"We're glad that you were able to join us. But I know that it's even more important for Marc. Since he's been existing, as he puts it, 'on the fringe of the family'. Doing something like this has a lot more meaning for him than it would for a lot of people. He hasn't spoken much about it, but I get the feeling that he's spent quite a few Christmases alone in the past few years. That's why he's done a little bit of overcompensating." Galen quietly explained.
"A little bit." Maurice agreed with a smile.
"I'm just glad that Marc invited us. As caught up as I've been with my problems with Denise, I don't know how much of a Christmas I could have given Brucie if we hadn't come here." James said frankly.
"We're glad that you're here, James. I hope that being here with Collin and Christian will help Brucie to be comfortable and able to enjoy his holiday." Galen said sincerely.
"Sorry that took so long. I wanted to make some fresh caramel for your cheesecake, Maurice." Marc said as he rushed into the room.
"Fresh? You made fresh, homemade caramel, just now?" Maurice asked cautiously as he accepted his cheesecake from Marc.
"Yeah. I just made some yesterday, so I had everything close at hand." Marc said with a smile at Maurice's wonder, then handed first Galen, then James, their plates.
"Is there anything I need to know about this before I start?" Galen asked as he looked down at his apple pie and ice cream.
"Fasten your seatbelt." Marc said, then dashed out of the room again.
"How's this?" Brucie asked as he leaned back to examine his handiwork.
Christian looked over at Brucie's gingerbread creation and froze in astonishment.
"Does it not look right?" Brucie asked anxiously.
"It looks great! Wow!" Christian said in wonder, then looked at Collin to see if he were paying attention.
"It's perfect." Collin said in amazement.
"Really?" Brucie asked cautiously.
"Yeah. Totally. I've just got a blobby little gingerbread guy with a head, arms, legs and a dick. You've got… man, he's got abs, pecs, a belly button…" Christian said slowly.
"Nipples." Collin added.
"And that cock, it's… Brucie, this thing is amazing." Christian finally said as he looked up.
"How are you guys coming along?" Marc asked as he hurried back into the kitchen.
"Look at what Brucie did." Collin said quickly.
Marc walked over to the table and froze at the sight.
"Isn't that something?" Collin asked as Marc continued to examine the gingerbread masterpiece.
"Do you like it, Uncle Marc?" Brucie asked cautiously.
"It's fantastic, Brucie. I didn't realize you had so much talent." Marc said honestly.
"Can you do it again? I mean, can you make another one?" Collin asked curiously.
"Yeah. I could make these all day." Brucie said with a smile.
"Okay. Then we have a change of plan. You make the gingerbread cookies and we'll get the dough ready and help you however we can." Collin said seriously.
"I haven't told the other adults what you guys are doing in here. I want it to be a surprise." Marc told the boys quietly.
Christian looked down at the amazingly accurate gingerbread sculpture, then up at Marc and said, "I'm pretty sure it will be."
"Does he ever slow down?" James asked as he looked toward the door.
"Sure. For about three or four hours every night, while he sleeps." Galen said casually.
At Maurice's wide eyed look of surprise, he laughed and said, "Not really. Marc's just excited about the holiday and having guests. Usually he's fairly laid back… in a fussy kind of a way."
Maurice nodded, then took his first bite of the cheesecake.
He slowly chewed, just a little, then stopped to savor the incredible flavor.
Galen smiled at Maurice's reaction, then took a large bite of his apple pie.
Tart didn't begin to describe the sensation.
He could have sworn that his mouth was going to turn inside out.
A full body cringe assaulted him as he tried to swallow the insanely sour piece of pastry in his mouth.
"A little sour?" James asked past a chuckle.
When Galen was finally able to force himself to swallow, he said, "That's not a pie, it's a culinary weapon!"
"The look on your face was priceless! I wish I'd had a camera!" James laughed.
Galen hurried to take a bite of his ice cream, trying to dilute the intense sourness with something sweet.
"I think I sprained a tastebud." Galen finally said.
James was holding his sides and nearly fell out of his chair, he was laughing so hard.
Maurice smiled at their reactions, then slowly and reverently took another bite of his incredibly good cheesecake.
"Okay, guys. I've done a little Internet research on the subject and I think I know how to keep your gingerbread men from turning into grotesque monsters when they're baked." Marc said seriously.
"You can really do that?" Collin asked with surprise.
"I think so. We're going to have to be really careful and cook them extremely slowly. And even then, Brucie's going to have to do some touch-up work afterward. But if I understood it right, we should be able to make it work." Marc said confidently.
"Dad's gonna freak when he sees these." Collin said happily.
Marc finally looked at the table to find that Brucie had made another gingerbread masterpiece.
"Who's she?" Marc asked curiously.
"No one, really. I just thought I'd do a girl, too." Brucie said frankly.
"She's really beautiful, Brucie. You've got an amazing talent." Marc said quietly.
"Let's make another. We've got to make one for everyone." Collin said urgently.
"I'm going to give her to my dad." Brucie said seriously.
"Yeah! And make another girl, so you can give her to Maurice." Christian said happily.
"When I suggested that we make gingerbread cookies, I never imagined that it would turn out like this." Marc said with a smile.
"Big boobs, Brucie. I bet that Maurice likes 'em big." Christian said seriously.
Marc shook his head as he left the room.
"So, how did everybody like the desserts?" Marc asked with a knowing smile at Galen.
"You're evil." Galen said with a grin in return.
"I warned you."
"Marc, this is without a doubt, the best cheesecake that I've ever tasted." Maurice said honestly.
"I'm glad it turned out. When I decided to make cheesecake, I thought I'd just find a recipe and make it, but I ended up having to go to the library to do research and I really had to hunt to find an authentic 'classic' cheesecake recipe." Marc said seriously.
"I don't think they made classic cheesecake with toffee and caramel." Galen said frankly.
"Well, no. What I did was take the classic recipe to make the cheesecake, itself. Then I went through a few of the modern twists that people have done and added them to that recipe." Marc admitted shyly.
"If you ever decide to enter a baking competition, I'm certain that you could win with that cheesecake." Maurice said frankly.
"I'm glad you enjoyed it… but I just came in to tell you to save room for a special surprise that the boys are making in the kitchen." Marc finished with a smile.
"It's getting late, I should probably be going." Maurice said quietly as he looked at the clock on the entertainment center.
"Please stay, at least until the boys are done. I overheard them talking and they're making something special for each person that's here." Marc asked hopefully.
"What are they making?" Galen asked curiously.
"I don't want to spoil their surprise. But I promise, it's going to be worth the wait." Marc said seriously.
"Okay. If it's for the boys, I'll stay." Maurice said as he relaxed back into the couch.
"Do you guys mind if I turn the TV down? The boys are about ready to make their presentation." Marc asked as he hurried into the living room.
"Sure. I don't think any of us were really watching it." Galen said honestly.
Marc smiled as he walked to the television and turned down the sound, then turned to look at the door with anticipation.
Brucie walked in first, proudly carrying a plate.
"Dad, I made this especially for you." Brucie said as he placed the plate on the coffee table in front of his father.
"Thank you… Oh my God!" James gasped as his face blushed scarlet.
"Don't you like it?" Brucie asked cautiously.
"Go get the next one and you can ask him when everyone's got theirs." Marc said urgently.
Brucie looked at his father with concern, but finally did as Marc had said.
"What in the world would possess him to do something like this?" James asked in horror.
"James, take a good look at what you're seeing. Don't look at it as a father, look at it for what it really is. Brucie has an amazing talent." Marc implored him to understand.
"But, how could he? We've been so careful. How could he do something so… degrading?" James asked helplessly.
Marc stared at him for a moment, then got a sense of what James was seeing.
"He made this for you, James. He wanted to create something that he thought you would find pleasing to look at." Marc said carefully.
"I would never want to objectify women like this." James said as he finally looked away from the cookie and up at Marc.
"Try thinking about it this way. The great master sculptors in the ancient times created incredible masterpieces to capture and preserve the beauty in the world that they witnessed. If you take a good look at what Brucie has created here, he's done that." Marc said gently.
"Uncle Galen, we made this for you." Christian said proudly as he presented a cookie that somewhat resembled Marc, at least in general appearance.
Brucie was standing in the doorway, watching carefully for Galen's reaction.
"It's beautiful. Thank you." Galen said with a smile.
Collin and Christian had beaming smiles as they ran for the door.
"I think that when you get to Pennsylvania, you should seriously look into getting Brucie into some kind of art program so he can develop his gift. It would be a crime to let him continue on without professional training." Marc said quietly.
James looked down at the cookie again, then over at Galen's before saying, "He does have talent, doesn't he?"
"Yes. And I think that you'll have to tread very delicately to keep from discouraging him from developing it." Marc said honestly.
"But, at the same time, I think it might also be a good idea if you found a way to express your feelings about how he represents people. If you've never talked to him about your feelings on the matter, he may not understand the difference between an artistic nude and a pornographic naked lady… or man." Maurice said carefully.
"Yes. That's a good idea…" Marc began to say when the three boys appeared and placed a naked female gingerbread cookie in front of Maurice.
"Well, um… She certainly looks… healthy." Maurice stammered.
"Christian thought you'd like the big boobs." Brucie quickly explained.
"Thank you. I can honestly say that I'm at a loss for words." Maurice said as he stared at the cookie before him.
All the boys filed out of the room again, rushing back to the kitchen.
"This has turned out to be the most unique Christmas gathering that I've ever attended." Maurice nervously chuckled.
"Every day has been a new adventure with the boys around." Marc smiled.
"Well, aren't you going to eat them?" Christian asked when the last of the cookie masterpieces had been revealed.
Predictably, Marc's had looked much like Galen, Christian's like Collin, and Collin's looked remarkably… eerily like Christian. Brucie's own cookie had a rather average looking physique and didn't look like anyone any of the others had met.
"I hate to destroy all your hard work." Maurice quietly explained.
"They're cookies. I can make you another one whenever you want." Brucie said simply.
Maurice paused for a moment, then cautiously picked up the cookie and took a bite.
"Mmmm… that's good." Galen said after his first bite.
"Marc made the cookie dough, I just shaped them." Brucie said timidly.
"Well, my compliments to the chefs." Maurice said cordially.
"On behalf of my assistant chefs, I thank you." Marc said happily.
"But I really do need to be going, now. I'd like to thank all of you for including me in your holiday celebration." Maurice said as he stood.
"We'll see you on Monday." Christian said happily.
"Yes. I'll see you then. All of you, have a very Merry Christmas." Maurice said as he started walking to the door.
"Hold on, I'll pack up some leftovers for you to take with you." Marc said quickly, as he followed.
"Did you have anything else planned for tonight?" Galen asked as Marc walked back into the living room.
"I still have a little more cleanup to do in the kitchen. But I didn't have anything else planned to do." Marc said as he looked around.
"Do you need some help?" Collin asked pleasantly.
"No, thank you, Collin. All I have to do is empty the dishwasher and load it again. I've already washed all the big stuff, so that should finish it off." Marc said warmly.
"Would you boys mind sleeping out here again, tonight?" Galen asked curiously.
"No problem. Do you mind if we watch TV?" Christian asked hopefully.
"Just don't turn it up too loud." Galen said with a smile.
"We won't." Christian quickly agreed.
"How was it?" Marc asked in a sleepy whisper.
"Everything was perfect." Galen said warmly.
"I made too much food." Marc said regretfully.
"Everyone ate their fill and enjoyed every bite. I don't know what more you could ask for." Galen said gently.
"Do you think the boys had a good time?"
"Yeah. I'm pretty sure they did."
"They're really special."
"So are you."
To Be Continued…
I always enjoy a freshly baked chapter of Holiday Handoff, don't you?
Ruthie's appearance was stunning. I think it was so cool when she tasted Mark's oyster stuffing. The fact that she actually complimented him on it without making it into a left handed compliment was precious.
James and Brucie both have some issues they need to deal with, but it looks as if they may be able to help each other to come to terms with the situation and both grow into better people. Let's hope so.
Brucie sure has an amazing talent, maybe somewhat misplaced for someone his age, but with his abilities, and his dad's more mature sensibilities, if they can really communicate with each other, then maybe something good can come from all the hurt they have both endured.
Marc's enthusiasm in preparing a spectacular Christmas feast certainly did make for an enjoyable meal and follow up gathering.
It certainly has been a roller coaster ride from one chapter to another, so far.
I am so happy to finally get through the Christmas Eve festivities, after all this time. I can't believe how long it has taken for us to not quite get to Christmas, but maybe before the next two or three chapters, we can finally get to Christmas Day and then on to the court appearance.
Thank you so much, MM for another wonderful chapter of what has become a holiday tradition.
What started out as an interesting short story, has become a wonderful heartwarming saga and has even given us extra pleasure from the spin-off.
In case you haven't found the spinoff, look for Spider. I am sure you will enjoy that story as well.
You have already met some of the people from Spider in a previous chapter of HH, so it will be nice to get to know them better from a different perspective.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher