Ho Ho Ho
“I don’t know.”
“We’ll have to see how things go.”
“What makes you think you’d want to stay? You’ve barely been here an hour…”
I tried. I didn’t want to deliver false hope. I tried every tactic I could think of…
And the only answer to stall Misty and Jenny’s pleading was, “If nothing else, I promise to glamour Hadley if Brian can’t trick her.”
The guarantee of a week in Shreveport was better than nothing.
I followed the girls to the dining room only to find the meal already in progress…
Since everyone else was eating, I lifted Misty and Jenny so they could reach the buffet to make their own plates and relieved Sookie of Magnusson so she could enjoy the use of both hands.
There was very little conversation at the table as I took my seat next to Sookie. Not that I expected there would be. Hadley was laying low and it was obvious those who could, were communicating telepathically. A concept made more obvious by how agitated Sookie was becoming and hiding it from everyone but me.
Corbett, Jason and Junior left the table to refill their plates after a few minutes and Hadley seemed to finally be bored with just staring at me…
I’d been exposed to enough football thanks to Corbett and Jason to be able to compare her posture to the slow motion replay of a kickoff.
It could be seen from the cheap seats.
“So how old are you?”
Sookie riled instantly, but I answered, “A thousand years old, give or take,” before Sookie could reply for me by telling her to shut up. Hadley was a far cry from the worst I’d ever seen. I had to remind myself I’d seen much more galling behavior… the trick was removing myself enough to be apathetic, while humoring her for the sake of the holiday.
Judging by the look on her face, my lifetime exceeded Hadley’s world history. “What was it like? To live back then?”
“Imagine a prolonged power outage with less whining and more working.”
“What kind of work?” If it wasn’t for her tone, one might have thought she was ‘getting to know’ me rather than trying to pick a fight.
“I was a fur trader. Saber tooth tiger and woolly mammoth were all the rage.” Most of the table snickered because she believed it for a moment. Even Shelly knew better.
“Is that code for something?”
“No. It was a joke. You aren’t curious. You’re looking for a tie-in to make it easier to insult me… Work when I was alive wasn’t something you can grasp. You punch the clock for your 25 hours of well lit, light labor in your blue smiley-face vest where you walk away with a paycheck and options… There were no ‘sick days’. If I didn’t work, my family didn’t eat. Work started before dawn and I went home when the work was done. I took breaks when I had to, not on a schedule. If my crops didn’t come in, neither did anyone else’s and that meant leaving my family for days, if not weeks, to find more and hope it didn’t spoil before I could return. If my cows didn’t breed, I’d have to hope the hunting and fishing seasons were fair enough to make up for the loss of meat. If my horses developed bloat, there wasn’t a veterinarian to be called, just a pyre to build to dispose of its eventual remains. If someone became ill, there wasn’t a doctor to be called, just a grave to be prepared. The closest thing to outsourcing one could find was when your wife traded domestic skills like sewing or midwifery in exchange for furs or preserves. We didn’t sell our surplus, we shared it within our family and community to celebrate the good fortune… because we suffered through barren times together. Does that answer the question you didn’t really want an answer to?”
She gaped for a moment, but snarled to poorly cover her embarrassment. “It sounds primitive. Was that… like the dark ages or something?”
“The ‘Dark Age’ is a blanket term. The short answer is, yes. To be more specific, I was alive at the beginning of what’s known as Sweden’s Viking Age…”
“You were a Viking!”
“No more than all Americans are celebrities. By definition, Vikings set sail. The village I was raised in had its skirmishes with others, but my family had roots.”
“Were you a fangbanger? Is that how you were turned?”
Magnusson had effectively saved Hadley’s wretched life for the second time in the same night. I didn’t care she didn’t know how inappropriate her question was. Even if it was innocent, even if it wasn’t ironic given other versions of her had been a fangbanger, even if she gawked as she waited for my answer while the rest of the family showed reactions to how poor her etiquette was.
I shook my head, pushing back Sookie’s rage with everything I could muster because Magnusson was minimizing mine. “No. My people didn’t have as much as Vampire lore. I discovered later the Slavics were keeping it for themselves… There were people who would taunt others without consideration for the ensuing consequences… We called them ‘ignorant whores’ though.”
While Hadley clamped her mouth shut, Sookie nearly drowned in her iced tea. If I didn’t know better, I would swear I heard Sookie’s maniacal laughter in our bond.
Hadley stewed for a moment, feeding her indignation with the stifled laugher circling the table. “Did you just call me an ignorant whore!?”
“No, but it’s ironic for you to make that connection, given that you seem feeble minded.”
“I. Am. Not. Feeble minded! Look at you! You’re feeble! Sitting there, hiding behind a baby…” Hiding?
“Don’t prove your mental incompetence by confusing feebleness with how much practice I have tolerating insufferable behavior from peons. You might be difficult, but I have Sookie and the children to temper the hardship of your company. I know you don’t want to be here because you’re jealous of your cousins’ lives and the comfort their hard work has given them. I know you’re misbehaving in an attempt to be asked to leave, but along with everything else, your hostility isn’t worth mentioning when you consider what the rest of the family has collectively endured…”
She spat, “Oh really!? What else do you know!?”
I stood so quickly, I was around the table and looming over her before she could gasp. I hissed, “I know I don’t need both hands to put you in your place, little girl. Watch. Your. Tongue. One more antagonizing act from you and you’ll be glamoured to stare into the fireplace while the rest of us continue our celebration without your interference.”
She gulped several times before she nodded. I was distracted from wondering how long she would feign her obedience this time by a ‘slow clap’.
Hadley shrunk into her chair wordlessly as Jason’s jeering applause spread around the table like a plague… her children and husband were part of the collective.
As I went back to my seat, Corbett shook his head and leaned back in his chair to finish his beer. “Hadley, I don’t know how the hell your bonnet got so full of bees, but your Momma’d be ashamed of you for acting like this… You got troubles, family is who you work through ‘em with. You can’t blow into town and punish everyone for not having the same troubles. Damn, girl. Sometimes life gives ya a shit sandwich. It happens to everyone. You can’t go ‘round putting shit on e’erthing.”
Pam shook her head and moaned, “Corbett, one more feces metaphor out of you and you’ll be drooling at the fireplace right next to Hadley.”
He jokingly whined, “Eric, Pam’s threatening me.” Since she’d discovered cheeking orange peels made his scent less noticeable, they behaved like squabbling children together. It was hilarious any other time.
“Nonsense. Feel free to poke her with your flatware. She won’t do anything to risk being put on Santa’s naughty list now.”
He reached for his fork, but when she snatched it from him, he threw a roll at her instead.
Suddenly, the mood had returned to what was typical for a Sunday dinner with the Stackhouses… all thanks to Hadley finally shutting her hateful mouth.
Hadley declined Lauren’s invitation to decorate cookies well before she heard Pam and I would be participating. Rather than joining everyone else, she took her cell phone and a pack of cigarettes to the deck and paced, too oblivious to realize there was only four individuals who couldn’t hear the way she was painting herself the victim to her boyfriend…
Jason, Brandon and Corbett constructed miniature pies and gingerbread houses that were to be taken to the hospital…
Sookie, Lauren and Ashley manned the ovens in an assembly line of mixing, rolling dough and cutting…
While Pam showed off her surprising talents with royal icing, Brian and I ‘helped’ the children.
The children spent more time chiding me for ‘confusing’ my holidays than decorating cookies though. I’d been reprimanded for icing the reindeer cookies with white, trimming their antlers to look like ears and giving them cottontails and pink noses. Angels became Tooth Fairies. Gingerbread men were dressed as pilgrims. Trees were flipped to make dreidels.
They cackled, ganging up on me to take my supplies to leave me with nothing more than round cookies meant to be ornaments and a limited range of colored icing… red, green and white…
They thought it was safe enough to leave me unsupervised… only to finally notice I’d painted little shamrocks on them all.
I was fired.
In my forced retirement from an illustrious hobby as a cookie artisan, I turned my attentions to the ladies in the kitchen…
The combination of cinnamon candies and low-cut sweaters made my time there more entertaining than I could have hoped. After a few minutes of tossing candies into their cleavage every time they turned to face me, Brandon and Jason joined my fun to develop a points system. 10 points for cleavage. 5 points for the pockets of their aprons. 5 points if the candy stayed in their hair for a 3-count. 20 points if we managed to get a candy into their mouths while they were talking.
Sookie, Lauren and Ashley scowled, threatened to ‘get’ us, returned fire, labeled me a ‘bad influence’… all while pretending they weren’t amused and probably without realizing the real fun was in watching them shake their hair and fish candy from their bras.
It was all the perfect camouflage so the children wouldn’t hear Hadley repeat how much she missed the mystery caller and lie about being forced to visit her husband’s family ‘for the last time’.
By the time all of the baking was done, Pam had opened the polls for voting… the children were deadlocked between watching Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and A Year Without Santa Claus… the dilemma was solved by flipping a cookie instead of a coin.
Jason, Brandon, Brian and I were sent to the den with orders to stage what would eventually look like Santa Claus went to Jonestown…
In the amount of time it took for us to collect pillows and blankets and inflate the air mattresses, the children had been sent upstairs to bathe, brush their teeth and change into their pajamas.
Meanwhile, Hadley should have been suffering from hypothermia. She’d paced the back deck for more than three hours. Granted, the temperature was in the 50s, but the dress she was wearing was hardly more than a slip and her skeletal figure wasn’t going to offer any insulation.
One of the most amusing events I’d witnessed in my time with the Stackhouse ‘clan’ was the game of Not Me… This time, a round of the game was played after Ashley asked if anyone was planning to ask Hadley to come in. Even Corbett participated, leaving only Brain and myself to not blurt, “Not me.” It was a verbal version of drawing straws.
Not Me was also played when Magnusson’s diaper needed to be changed and when Lauren’s parents called because they were still being very vocal about how they knew ‘that Jason’ would take her away from them eventually.
Since Brian wasn’t familiar with the game, and I wasn’t the slightest bit afraid of Hadley, he was given a pass.
Hadley startled when I stepped onto the deck. She knocked over two empty wine bottles that explained why she hadn’t caught a chill. “What do you want?”
“A little common courtesy since you’re at my home with my family, but since that seems to be too much to ask, you could tell me what kind of phone you have. I’m lucky to get an hour from my battery.”
“You interrupted me to ask me what kind of phone I have?”
“No. I came outside because your kin wants to know if you plan to join them… In light of your behavior, it suits me for you to stay outdoors. The boathouse has a heater and comfortable chaise.”
She snarled and put her phone back to her ear. “Do you hear how nasty this jerkoff is?”
The man on the other end placated her. “I know, Baby… don’t worry. Christmas only comes once a year.”
I chuckled, “Do you think I care what your lover thinks of me?”
She lost every bit of the rosy color the wine had given her. “Shane, I’m gonna have to call you back.”
I took her empty bottles to the railing and dropped them into the bins, knowing she’d be tacky enough to leave them for Sookie and Lauren. I let her gape for a moment before I took a seat. “Poor Hadley… no one told her how exceptional Vampire hearing is.”
“You’re going to bust me, aren’t you?”
“I’m not sure. What is my silence worth to you?”
“You’re going to blackmail me?”
“No. Out of curiosity, what does Shane have over Brian? Brian seems to be a decent man.”
“You couldn’t possibly understand…”
“You couldn’t possibly make yourself look like more of a whore. What do you have to lose by explaining?”
“I’m not a whore.”
“You have no self respect, only inflated pride. You excel in nothing but false advertising. You use people to get what you want…” If it looked like a whore and walked like a whore, it was probably a gold-digging, thankless, manipulative bitch. “When you discard Brian, you won’t be the one he misses because you hid your worthlessness behind a mask of how charming your children are. You’ve used them to make sure your idea of luxury is fulfilled, one income bracket at a time. So tell me about Shane, the man who makes someone who supports you and loves your children so disposable.”
“Look, I didn’t get to finish high school because I got knocked up. I’m not asking for any handouts. What the fuck is marriage if it isn’t a guy supporting his wife and kids?”
“That perspective certainly wins for spanning the ages, but you can’t use that defense when he believed you loved him. And you’re glossing over most of that particular social system.”
“Yeah? Like what?” It was the first time all night when she asked a question without lacing it with contempt.
“Such as… your husband would have the right to kill you and sell your children to recoup his losses when he discovered your adultery. Not to mention, your children would be second class citizens and possibly cast out once he had his own children, regardless of their age… Did I mention you’d be a slave, if not a punching bag and you’d have no one to turn to because wives were property?”
“Shit… was it like that when you were Human?”
“Hadley, it’s still ‘like that’ now in some places. Perhaps you’d appreciate Brian more if you’d been mistreated.”
She flopped onto a chair and whined, “I swear… sometimes I wish he did hit me. I wouldn’t be so fucking bored. Brian is so dull it makes me nuts, alright. He’s a regular buzz kill. He constantly uses the kids as excuses to not go anywhere or do anything… It’s time for me to move on before I die of boredom.”
“Does Shane like children?”
She stared blankly for a moment. She didn’t seem like she had an answer by the time it occurred to me…
“He doesn’t know you have children.” Perfect. Pathetic, if not depraved, but perfect.
When she turned to focus on the lake, I couldn’t help but laugh.
“What becomes of your children? Do you plan to leave Brian and hope Shane accepts them or do you plan to leave them with Brian?”
“I don’t have a plan. I…”
“You need an out.”
“You need an exit strategy. It doesn’t seem like you want to be with Brian anymore than your children.”
“I love my kids.”
“But you love yourself more. Even if you didn’t, that’s what they’re seeing. They’re excess baggage, yes? Souvenirs of past attempts to keep men who would have jumped ship otherwise, yes? Have you thought about the bigger picture? What happens when ‘Mr. Bigger Bank Account’ arrives on his white horse?”
She shook her head. “I’m 29, dude. I’m too old to bank on trading up anymore. Shane’s about as high up as I can get before the tables get turned and wives start getting traded in for trophies… Shane makes a good living and his parents are well off enough to want a prenup… When he gets bored with me, I’ll only have alimony to live on.” If nothing else, she had a firm grasp of her worth.
“If you don’t know if Shane likes children, how are you sure he won’t like little girls like your uncle did?”
She was already unstable when I joined her outside, but she swayed as she turned green. “Who told you!?”
“Sookie shared what happened to her and only mentioned her suspicions about Bartlett’s interest in you.”
“I didn’t… I didn’t know he got to her too…” She scanned the scenery, seemingly pondering something she hadn’t considered. She finally admitted, “I guess I can’t be sure.”
“So you’ll discard Misty and Tina with Brian, yes?”
She shook her head. “No. Brian would…”
“Be too embittered?”
“You think? Let me know if you have any brilliant ideas, Mr. Perfect.”
“Short of settling for Brian, whom you know wouldn’t harm them, you don’t really have many options…. In spite of what you think of them, your family does care about you… Sookie had high hopes for this visit. She was hoping to begin mending fences between you two and invite you to bring the children to stay for the summer…” Hadley didn’t rate high enough to deserve a lie… it was Misty and Jenny who were worth it. There was still some hope they’d survive their childhood with some self respect.
“I was getting to that… Sookie mentioned that your daughters have a similar list of mysterious ailments as she did when she was their age. She was hoping the doctor who helped her could help Misty and Tina.”
Her eyes lit up and it seemed too easy. “You’re kidding!”
“No. Brandon was still suffering when he met his family…”
“What is it!?”
“Medicine wasn’t as advanced when I was alive and I haven’t had a reason to remain current.”
“But Brandon’s getting better?”
I nodded. “Their headaches could be your opening.”
She furrowed her brow, but she was grinning. “How?” It was like fishing with dynamite.
“Sookie was going to offer to keep the children for you, a grand gesture, just until the end of their Christmas vacation from school… Something about giving you and Brian ‘alone time’. You could ask her about doctors in Shreveport… leaving them with Sookie so they can get medical attention paints you in a better light than exposing them to being objectified by your sugar-daddy.”
She shook her head. “And what if the girls go a whole week without getting a headache?” The fact she wasn’t offended by the gold-digging suggestion didn’t escape me. ‘Not a whore’, my pale ass.
“When was the last time that happened?”
She huffed, “Shit, like never.”
I stood to go inside and she followed. “Hadley, think what you want about Sookie, but she has more heart than you give her credit for. If the doctor thinks she can help the girls, Sookie wouldn’t deny them. It could buy months for you while their testing is done and dosages are adjusted. The only drawback I can think of is you’d need to convince Sookie to have custody of them officially so they can attend school…”
“And the doctor thing too…”
I offered, “I’m sure my lawyers could take care of it, but it would have to wait until after the holidays. Given how often they’re affected, medical attention may very well be a concern.” I was going to owe Ludwig a huge fucking favor for her part in substantiating that fuckery.
“Yeah… good point… hey, you never answered me. Are you going to bust me?” If there was anyone who didn’t already know what she was, I would.
I shook my head. “I don’t see a point if you’re planning to leave Brian. I’d only tell him if you were planning to make a fool out of him. As it stands your plan seems to be leaving Brian free to find someone who will make him happy, arranging for someone to tend to your children and embarking on a venture to secure your finances… If everyone is going to benefit, the ends justify the means.”
She stared at me for a moment before she sighed, “Thanks… you aren’t the jerk I thought you were.” Rank fucking amateur.
I smiled and stepped inside. There was no fucking art to using a hard-on as a leash… any gash could accomplish that for a short period… the true art of manipulation was making the other individual think something was their idea.
She whispered, “So… when… how do I…?”
“Just play nicely. It won’t take much to remind Sookie why she wanted to make the effort.”
There was a den full of children who would’ve seen through that charade… it had been too easy to be any fun.
Sookie’s excitement lured me to the den with Hadley following closely behind me.
Sookie was perched on the back of the sofa with a large gift clutched to her chest and the children were watching a young, red-headed Santa frolic on television.
“I was beginning to wonder if you were coming back…” She held the package out to me with both hands. “You get the first gift.”
“And what did I do to deserve the honor?”
She smirked. “Everything… I can’t believe I held it this long. I’ve wanted to give it to you since I found it.”
Tina dashed out of her place to snatch the remote from the coffee table and pause the movie… all of the children rushed to lean over the back of the sofa and watch…
I ripped the paper slowly, assuming by its shape I was opening a framed photo of the children.
Dark wood frame… rich brown and cream matting, encasing an antique newspaper… The Troy, New York Sentinel. Tuesday, December 23rd, 1823…
Sookie gave me a moment to try to place it… I hadn’t ever been to Troy. Other than the death of a Pope, which was always a clusterfuck (and not mentioned on the page), 1823 was as monotonous as any other year.
My audience seemed to be as anxious as they could be while I scanned the text and finally realized what I was looking at…
For the Sentinel.
ACCOUNT OF A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS.
Sookie felt it as my eyes finally made it to the margin and her anxiety was replaced with excitement…
I asked, “The first printing?”
Her grin was ear to ear as she nodded. “It’s not a book, but…”
I leaned over to kiss her. “It’s better… thank you. How did you find it?”
“Paulette mentioned an estate auction in Troy. I looked into it on the off chance to find some lesser known Herman Melvilles since you already have Moby Dick. He lived there… I already slipped first editions of Typee and Omoo into your stacks and you didn’t notice.” Perhaps it was because my new pastime had been keeping me enjoyably busy.
“Well done. I might let you talk me into establishing a birthday if I have surprises like this to look forward to.”
Sookie giggled, “I’m glad you like it…” and leaned to kiss me again, but Hadley interrupted.
“What is it?”
In the interest of ‘playing nicely’, I rolled my eyes instead of growling and turned to show her my gift. “I collect books. Sookie found the newspaper issue that first printed ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.”
When I pointed to the column, Hadley narrowed her eyes and studied it closely before she faked, “That’s really cool.” Poorly faked, but the attempt was there.
As I nodded, Sookie chirped, “So, ‘tis the night before Christmas… Do you think we can convince you to read it to us?” The children excitedly pleaded, not knowing they didn’t have to ask.
Fuck that it was more stereotypically Norman Rockwellian than I would have been willing to behave on a dare a year earlier… I joined the children on the sofa with Sookie curled against my side, and read the iconic poem of a holiday I’d spent centuries ridiculing.
By the time the first of the children’s shows was over, Shelly was the only one left awake. She’d quietly padded into the living room where the adults were gathered to ask Pam to start the second show, but she finally succumbed to the wear of the day within a few minutes…
The conversation, which even Hadley was politely participating in, came to a screeching halt as soon as we established Shelly was asleep and replaced it with complete bedlam.
Sookie and Brandon had been clever and impatient children and shared some of their old gift spoiling techniques in an effort to make sure the brood of little telepaths was surprised…
As it turned out, placing presents under the tree guaranteed that a telepath would know what they were getting. It only took as much as shaking the gift in the company of the giver to inspire them to think about its contents. The only gifts they were given access to were the ones sent from Brian, Lauren, Ashley and Sam’s families.
Junior, Tina and Shelly had been complaining about empty stockings and ‘naked’ tree skirts for weeks.
Unfortunately, Misty and Jenny would have to wait until next year to enjoy complete surprise, but as for the rest of the children… they were irritated by how much they had to learn about covert tactics.
The ten adults scattered to gather the gifts from the attic, boathouse, car trunks, pool shed, and one of Pam’s storage units.
Within the first half hour, the spaces under every fucking tree downstairs were filled and by the time we were done… we’d built a false wall behind the tree in the foyer that followed the staircase up to the landing on the second floor.
It was as indulgent as anything I could have imagined once they were all accumulated… Pam was so excited one might have thought they were all for her.
Even Hadley made the appearance of being in the ‘holiday spirit’.
By midnight the adults had gathered in the living room again… Sookie was nursing Magnusson while we all debated whether to retire for a while before the children (Corbett) would wake everyone…
The sudden ‘clatter’ caught everyone’s attention in quick succession…
Pam, Ashley and I heard the door leading from the deck to the den open and close…
Then Brandon and Sookie sensed the children stirring…
Lauren, Jason, Hadley, Brian and Corbett weren’t completely aware until the tiny telepathic collective shrieked, “SANTA?”
Pam and I were the first to reach the den to investigate the so-called Santa with everyone else following behind us in a panicked rush.
The tiny man was still rolling his eyes when we reached the room.
The children were smiling in spite of their skeptically narrowed eyes…
He had a large, brown velvet bag slung over his shoulder behind him but that was where the ‘legend’ of Santa stopped…
Barely taller than Tina, the annoyed little ‘man’ was wearing a black leather coat and jeans. Sookie pressed against my side and breathed, “Not Human… Elf?” Yes, Elf.
He scowled at her. “You know what, Jugs… I should be offended. I could just be a midget robber!”
Sookie didn’t bother hiding how confused she was… and the children had no idea of how to take that…
They traded puzzled glances with each other before taking a moment to study Pam and me.
Misty finally asked, “Are you Santa then?”
He groaned, “I hate this. What happened to sleeping in a damn bedroom? Yes and no… I’m an Elf.”
“Then where’s Santa?”
“Santa is… shit, kid… Santa is pretend… sort of… I don’t have time to explain it. Do you want your present or not? You’re Misty, right?”
Her eyes couldn’t have widened more with help. “You know who I am?”
He huffed, “I’m not going to get out of this, am I? Every year, there’s always one house… Alright… you’ve got a couple Vampires…” He leaned to get a better view of Ashley and whistled. “And check out the Fox. Why don’t you come over here and be my helper, sweet thing?”
Ashley shook her head and snickered.
The Elf grumbled, “Figures… how about you, Lauren? I could use some…”
Misty urged, “Focus… who are you, Mister?”
“Elliot? An Elf named Elliot?”
He snarked, “Legolas was taken… okay, look… Vampires did their own PR. The garlic thing, the mirror thing… Humans invented the fat guy in the coat with the cookie fetish. He’s just an image applied to what we did long before the first pictures of him were sketched… see, we have to fulfill a certain amount of magical public service…” Such as Elvin doctors with the bedside manner of a rattlesnake?
I groaned, “So some of you cheat and get it all out of the way in one night.”
“Hey! Don’t judge me, Vampire! It wasn’t always ‘one night’. I have other pursuits…” He wiggled his eyebrows at Sookie. “How about you, Jugs? Wanna sit on Santa’s lap?”
The children were rapt in spite of his leering. Misty pressed, “Why do you have to do nice stuff?”
“There’s a side effect… if we don’t… well, let’s just say contact isn’t pleasant…” He eye-fucked Pam and licked his lips. “And I enjoy the tactile.”
Pam shook her head and lifted her hand to her waist. “Don’t even think about it. You aren’t tall enough for this ride.” The horny little asshole wasn’t discouraged.
Junior finally spoke up to ask, “Is the sleigh you?”
“We’ve been at this for a while. Sleighs were just a fact of life anywhere you got snow, kid. Carriages can’t slush. Dogs and horses though. You can’t get deer to organize to be part of a team. Too dumb.”
“So what do you use now?”
“That depends…” He splayed open his bag and reached into it, pulling out a large bow attached to a key. “Normally, I drive a Navigator, but someone here was good enough to get a Virage Volante.” He tossed the key to Pam and her mouth fell open after she caught it. “You’re going to need to slide the seat back a little.” Pam gaped at the glass key in her hand making it hard to not laugh at her.
Tina piped, “Pointy ears?”
He rolled his eyes and groaned, “That would be faeries.” Junior, Tina and Shelly snickered when he eyed Corbett. Brian and Hadley chuckled, assuming it was all make believe.
Jenny slowly shook her head in disbelief. “Sooooo… not all Elves are Santa Elves, but Santa is Elves?”
He wobbled his head back and forth. “Not all cats are panthers, but all panthers are cats… Right. Unless that particular Troll is trying to earn his ‘touch’ back, yeah… Don’t go telling your friends though… Elves aren’t out and Humans can’t tell the difference between us and Human dwarves.”
Little Shelly raised her hand and asked, “Misser Elliot, wha’bout Santa’s workshop?”
“Oh, those were real… Thing is, times are different. Used to be kids would wake up under a new quilt and have a feast waiting. We’d work our magic on whatever seed, crops or livestock their parents had so they’d have a good year. Now there’s grocery stores and Amazon.com…. You out of questions yet? I still have three neighborhoods on my route.”
Misty smiled and nodded knowingly… “You have routes… that explains how ‘Santa’ can go to all the houses in one night.”
He nodded and reached into his bag again. “This wasn’t as big of a pain in the ass as I thought it would be… I usually have to sneak away while someone is fetching cookies… Junior, catch!”
He chuckled as he caught the parcel. “Fetching cookies… is that why we leave ‘em? Do Elves have a thing for cookies?”
He shrugged and tossed another gift. “Heads up, Corbett… We don’t dislike them as a rule. That goes back to the pagan thing, you know, leaving offerings. Foxy, go long! Personally, my favorite dessert is Black Forest cake.”
Lauren gasped, “Oh my God… Do you want some!? I made it this afternoon!”
He nodded and tossed a gift to her. “That would be lovely, Lauren.” She handed her gift to Jason and ran to the kitchen and Ashley followed to help her. Sookie, still confused. Pam, still gazing at the key to her new car occasionally studying the tag to confirm it was for her.
‘Santa’ distributed the rest of the gifts and hung knitted stockings full of candies while he waited for his snack and let the children convince him to let us take his picture with them. As he took his leave (with the whole cake), he mentioned that he lived nearby, so if the children were to see him in passing they should just call him ‘Elliot’ to keep Santa’s secret.
While EVERYONE stared at the door as though they were waiting for an encore, I scanned the room… with the video camera on my phone. I initially wanted to have a keepsake of the children’s reactions, but when I realized the adults were just as enthralled, I couldn’t help but record them as well…
Not a single one of them noticed.
I watched until Pam remembered she was holding a key and disappeared, darting to the front of the house to run outside looking for her gift.
I asked Sookie, “Should we open our gifts from Santa now, or…?”
Tina jerked her head to glare at me and declare, “Not. Waiting.”
While Lauren and Ashley blinded everyone with flash bulbs, the children tore into their gifts.
Misty, Jenny, Junior, Tina and Shelly all received new laptops (miniatures for the youngest two) and bags for them…
While the others unboxed their laptops and plugged them in for a ‘test drive’, Jenny and Tina inspected the stockings…
Along with chocolates and candies, they found mice, ear buds, thumb drives, memory cards, digital cameras, and gift certificates for games.
Junior was the first to notice that his background photo was specific to him… The San Francisco Giants logo had his attention immediately.
While Jason joked that Santa accidently gave Junior his gift, Misty and Jenny compared theirs to mention ‘Santa knew’ about Jenny’s love for horses and Misty’s enthusiasm for camping.
When Tina and Shelly’s computers lit up, they were just as impressed with their respective full moon and pool scenes.
For nearly half an hour we watched and helped the children when they needed it. The older children were more familiar with computers, because Jason and Brian let them use theirs, but Tina and Shelly seemed to be doing well enough thanks to their Leap Pads…
Pam returned from the driveway, smitten and reeking of her new car’s scent… I’d swear she’d rubbed herself over every inch the interior.
When Ashley urged Sookie to open Magnusson’s gift, Sookie gave him to me so she could unwrap the baby’s new, personalized diaper bag full of blankets and clothing embroidered with his name.
Pam waited long enough for Sookie to inspect and show each item, cooing as she went, before she blurted, “You’re all daft. I. Got. An. Aston. Martin… And you’re holding God knows what? OPEN. OPEN!”
When no one could decide who would go first, Pam ordered Ashley and Brandon to open their joint gift first.
As soon as their package was opened, Ashley squealed at the sight of the Burberry scarves inside. Considering how many gifts she would open before dawn, I asked Pam if Sookie and I could open ours next in the hopes there were ear plugs in ours. I was pinched and told I’d get the last turn… from both sides.
Ashley was wrapping her scarf around her neck when Brandon cleared his throat. There had been a small scroll included in the box… “Uh… Foxy.”
She rubbed the cashmere against her cheek and hummed, “Yeah?”
“You… might… wanna… look… at… this.”
She giggled and took the other scarf out to wrap Brandon’s for him and giggled, “What is it?”
She exaggerated her accent to agree, “Right. Burberry. London. Yay.” Well put.
He chuckled and grabbed the ends of her scarf like he was holding a leash. He pulled her closer to say, “Santa is sending us to London.”
The look on her face was hilarious. For a split second she wanted to hit him for teasing her… and when she realized he was serious, she squealed again.
He smirked in my direction and added, “For New Year’s.” I wouldn’t have been ridiculous enough to cover my own ears like a child, but because I was holding Magnusson, I didn’t have the option. I might have faulted him for it if a hundred variations on the theme weren’t in mind.
Before Ashley released another squeal, Sookie reached up in just enough time to cover my ears and then blew a raspberry at her brother for successfully thwarting his plans to make me bleed from my ears.
Ashley was reading the scroll, reeling from the notion of watching the New Year’s fireworks from the London Eye and staying at the Savoy, when Lauren elbowed Jason and ordered him to open their gift.
As soon as the gift wrap was out of the way, Lauren snatched the scroll out of the box, leaving Jason to inspect the Louis Vuitton wallets left inside…
Lauren moved her lips, mumbling as she read what was written on the scroll… She was practically hyperventilating by the time she gasped, “Paris. Eiffel Tower. Paris. Hotel de Crillon. A. Week. In. Paris. PARIS!”
She bounced to wrap herself around Jason, making him drop the box… At least she didn’t squeal.
Hadley actually laughed at Lauren’s reaction, while Brian became more serious. He seemed to be afraid of what was in the box as he took his cue from Pam to tear the wrapping away and let Hadley be the one to read the scroll.
I watched her eyes drift to the end of the message and she was smiling when she started at the top again…
Brian urged, “Well?”
Hadley’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “Well… Sydney. The Shangri-La Hotel, Chi Spa, Luna Park… Australia.”
His eyes lit up, but something was still off. “Yeah!?”
She nodded and took the Sass & Bide sunglasses out of the box and slid them onto her face. “Yeah… Time zone-wise, would we be the first or the last to celebrate New Year’s?”
He took the scroll from her when she offered it and answered, “First. Unless Sookie and Eric’s trip is to somewhere like Samoa, Sydney is the earliest.”
He shrugged. “I’m just not sure the kids would have much fun… You know they don’t like crowds.” She rolled her eyes, annoyed that he’d ‘use them as an excuse’.
Sookie offered, “Don’t worry about that… We can always put our trip off until y’all get back and they can stay with us…” Not that I’d expect a pair of untrained telepaths to get any joy from a crowded amusement park and mobs of New Year’s partiers, but… Did I get any say in the matter? Sookie giggled and shook our gift. “Besides, you’re assuming there’s anything in this box but coal. Between me and Eric, who knows? Daddy, go ahead.”
Hadley glared at her ‘buzz kill’ husband for the time it took for Corbett to get to his scroll… which was no small feat. Since Corbett didn’t have an accessory that seemed to hint to where the scroll was sending him, he paid more attention to what was there instead… without a word, he dropped the box, scattering tickets and access badges on lanyards at his feet. The poor bastard stared at them for a moment before he bent to pick them up. “Hey Ash, do me a solid and squeak for me.”
“If I was ever gonna squeal, this’d be it… but I can’t… I might shit.”
Sookie giggled and reached up to cover my ears just in time. Again.
Brandon laughed, “So what is it?”
Corbett handed the box to Brandon once it had been refilled and stood up, already reading the scroll. “Santa’s sending me and my boys to…”
Brandon took a ticket from the box and choked, “THE SUPER BOWL!? HOLY-”
Corbett finished, “SHIT. HOLY SHIT.”
“Dad! There’s… tickets to the game… and VIP passes… the Super Bowl Village… press conferences, conventions, a tour of the field!” Jason snatched the box from his brother to riffle through it.
“The scroll mentions some hotel, Conrad… I’m going to fuckin’ cry.”
Brandon and Jason said, “You aren’t the only one,” in unison while Ashley and Lauren glared at them. The men didn’t notice.
Pam did. She shook her head and pointed at them. “Don’t even. They aren’t less excited about their getaways with you… I’ve even got a boner over that trip. Your turn. Go on, Sookie.”
Sookie took a deep breath and began pulling the paper away from the box. I barely laid my eyes on the pair of Swiss Army Knife cases in the box before Sookie’s legs folded under her.
Her ass hit the floor so quickly, I felt it.
We’d been huddled together, leaving the children to enjoy their gifts… I don’t think I was the only one surprised they’d been paying attention.
Shelly giggled into the back of the sofa, “Where ya goin’?”
Sookie’s mouth was hanging open, so I answered, “Judging by the Swiss Army knives, I’d guess Switzerland… Sookie, are you going to read the-?”
Before I was finished asking, she’d tossed the scroll up to me. “Too nervous. You do it.”
Red velum with a gold bow tied around it… the message was written in gold and the handwriting was Pam’s. I raised an eyebrow in her direction before I began reading…
“Merry Christmas, Eric and Sookie.
Enjoy your stay at the Mont Cervin Palace in Zermatt, Switzerland.
Spend the week skiing and celebrate with a New Year’s Ball at the Matterhorn.
Your travel details and itinerary will be delivered tomorrow.
She grunted, nothing more.
“Did you see the Matterhorn while you lived in Switzerland?”
She shook her head. “Don’t. Tease. Me.”
I chuckled. “I’m not teasing…”
“I’m going to scream.”
“Please don’t. If you’re down there, who will cover my ears?”
“We’re… we’re going to Switzerland?”
“That seems to be the case.”
“You don’t seem happy about that.”
“Personally, I’d rather go to Longyearbyen, but if we’re going to be in the neighborhood, maybe you can be convinced to take a detour before we come home. Did you see the Matterhorn?”
“We’re going to Switzerland?”
“Unless you don’t like the idea…”
She pushed herself from the floor quickly. “Oh, we’re going.”
Shelly giggled, “Wha we gonna do?”
Sookie cringed, I assumed she didn’t know if the trip was meant to include the children… Even if they weren’t meant to join us, plans could change. I relieved Sookie by answering, “We’re going to teach you how to ski.”
Shelly gasped, “SNOW!?” Tina and Shelly squealed, but even in stereo, it wasn’t as intense as Ashley’s super-sonic torture. The girls had complained they wouldn’t ever see a ‘white Christmas’ in Louisiana. I’d done my best, going as far as including Pam on my search, but I couldn’t find a company available to rent snow machines for the property…
I nodded. “A lot of it. You should use your computer to research the Matterhorn…”
I was halfway through spelling it for them when Tina’s hand appeared over the spine of the sofa. She wanted to research the hotel as well, so she was asking for our scroll.
I offered, “That seems to solve your dilemma, Brian. If Misty and Jenny aren’t fond of crowds, they might be more inclined to peaceful slopes than they would be to the bustle of a large city.”
He tilted his head, still balking. “Y’all want to take our kids on your vacation?”
I shrugged. “They won’t be a bother if that’s what they choose…”
Junior piped, “If they get to go skiing, I wanna go with Eric and Sookie! Paris is dumb. And… made for girls.”
As Junior was swatted by Tina and Jenny, Jason grumbled, “Watch it, boy…”
“I’d rather ski than see the Awful Tower. What is that? The ball sounds funner. What sport does that?”
The women covered their mouths to snicker at him. I asked, “Do you have a tuxedo?”
He nearly dropped his laptop when he spun around to scowl. “A TUX!?”
I nodded. “A ball is a formal party… It’s probably better that you don’t have one. You would look like a goon.”
“I would not! And I’ll wear whatever… I want a snowball fight… HEY! HIDE AND SEEK IN THE SNOW!” Bonus.
Lauren interrupted, “You guys don’t have to do that…”
Sookie snorted, “You think we mind? It’s not like I’d leave the kids here with Teddi. Mag is still nursing and you know damn good and well I’d roll in bacon and face wild dogs just to go back… We’ll already have our kids with us and they’ll have more fun as a group anyway.”
Lauren grinned and hugged Sookie’s shoulders. “I love you so frickin’ much… When we get home, you and Eric WILL plan something for just the two of you. Got it?”
Sookie giggled, “Yes ma’am… You don’t have to twist my arm… What about y’all? Brian, Hadley? The offer stands. You two can do your thing Down Under…”
Junior blurted, “THAT would’ve been my second choice. An amusement park.”
Pam shook her head and asked, “Would England have been higher on your list than Paris too?”
He nodded. “Yup. England can’t be so bad cuz‘a you and Ashley… and at least England can win a war. Wimps and Awful Towers in Paris. I’ll skip that.” The boy made a fair point.
When the adults were done ‘not encouraging’ Junior, we practically had to pry the children away from their new computers so they would go to the living room… even then, ‘Team Old People’ only won because we offered to help them navigate the web site Santa gave them game credits for and help them try their new cameras.
For the next three hours, 16 people opened presents, cycling in order of youngest to oldest.
What took months to purchase, and possibly just as long to gift wrap, was opened in a blur of smiles and strewn paper.
Doll houses, dolls, craft supplies, Barbies, telescopes, books, action figures, a lesson about keeping a toy called ‘Magnetix’ away from anything electronic, GPS navigators, iPods, iPhones, iPads, a toast shared between me and Jason because we had stock in Apple, DVDs, jewelry, clothing, coats, lighthearted attempts to steal envied gifts from each other, board games, spa certificates, kitchen ware, small appliances, bedding, perfumes and colognes, jokes about needing to rent a moving truck to take gifts home…
14 garbage bags full of the wrapping that couldn’t be burned in the fireplace.
112 AA batteries.
97 AAA batteries.
17 C batteries.
4 memory cards full of photos.
3 bottles of wine.
2 batches of eggnog.
5 visits back to the driveway so Pam could make sure her car was still there.
Anything and everything… no mall had been left unturned.
Even if I wasn’t watching for hints, I was engrossed.
Burberry, England. Louis Vuitton, France. Sass & Bide, Australia. The football tickets were a given. Swiss Army, Switzerland.
It didn’t seem like the Morses received anything else pertaining to Australia or from Australian companies… the same could be said for the rest of us.
Everyone had given and gotten on the same scale and within the spending limits established by Sookie and Lauren.
And try as I did to find one, there wasn’t a single hint as to who was responsible for the mysterious little pervert who’d visited earlier.
All the while, Sookie’s sweet natured taunt managed to whisper through my mind… she’d warned me weeks ago, that she’d persuade me to celebrate Christmas, warning me to ‘wait until I get drunk from the smiles on the kids’ faces while they rip open their gifts’…
That point went in Sookie’s favor…
I was making notes for next Christmas long before I opened my ring…
The contents of my stocking had been entertaining. I had to give everyone credit for managing to fill it when the usual contents were sweets. Some were jokes, such as the twin-pack of toothbrushes and the set of Twilight Pez dispensers. I mistakenly thought my favorite gift was the small digital countdown to my retirement (and our permanent vacation)…
But buried in the toe of the stocking, was an unmistakable velvet cube with rounded corners.
And as soon as I pulled it from the stocking, Tina and Shelly abandoned their gifts (Tina was modeling a pink fur coat and Shelly was taking pictures with Junior’s camera because she’d filled her memory card) to climb onto my lap to watch because they helped shop for it.
One didn’t have to dig to find a metaphor. Two thirds of it was on my lap.
I was studied while I slid the ring onto my ring finger… reminding Sookie we agreed not to exchange rings for Christmas only made her laughingly explain the ring was from the children.
Sookie was too happy to have found a loophole to our agreement and the girls were too excited by how pleased I was with my gift…
I thanked them all for being so thoughtful and waited…
When Sookie finally reached the depths of her stocking (yes, we’d used identical methods), she poorly faked a scowl in my direction. The girls leapt onto her lap, defending my honor by proclaiming the gift was from them like mine had been.
Tina and Misty were the only children to stay awake through the festivities. Shelly had been so blatant as to climb onto my lap while yawning and pull my new cashmere sweater over herself, but Jenny and Junior were sitting on the floor at my feet and slumped against my legs when they finally succumbed.
With some help freeing my legs, I took Shelly to the den… then Junior… When I returned for Jenny, Brian warned me that she’d ‘freak out’ if I touched her while she was sleeping… knowing that would be the case if it was possible for her to have a sudden barrage of my thoughts invading her dreams like she would from a Human, I took her hand while Sookie assured him I knew what I was doing. Jenny’s eyes fluttered open for just long enough for me to explain I was taking her to her bed before she grinned. As I carried her from the room, Tina and Misty shared a loaded stare.
I could only assume Tina was explaining to Misty how restful their sleep had been since they’d come to live with me… As full as the house was, the five little telepaths were sleeping in the den just to be closer to my resting place.
When I joined the family, the adults were cleaning and organizing, controlled chaos to put everyone’s gifts away.
Pam asked me to help take her things to her car… she wanted to talk to me and show it off.
I barely managed to close the front door behind me thanks to my load and asked, “Are you not staying for the day?”
“Hell no… I need the excuse to drive my new car… and then drive it back tomorrow night.” Predictable.
“I can’t imagine anyone would begrudge you for driving it now, but it’s your choice. What did you want to discuss?” As if I didn’t already know.
“What an asshole you are… I can’t believe after all these years… You were like Father fucking Christmas in there.”
“I’m allowed to have fun… I think.”
She opened her trunk and nodded. “It suits you.”
“Are you bitter because I’ve always given you grief?”
She snorted, “Of course not. I loved the way you toyed with me… I’m loving this game too. That Santa bit was phenomenal.”
“Yes it was… I can’t believe you bought yourself an Aston Martin to sell it though. I almost believed you were shocked…”
“ME!? What the hell makes you think it was me?”
I rolled my eyes. “The scrolls, Pam. They were in your handwriting.”
She gasped, “You son of a bitch! You’re framing me!?”
I chuckled, neither confirming or denying anything. “And it was a little telling that all the boxes contained accessories of some kind. Sunglasses, scarves, wallets, keychains… all brands corresponding to the respective destinations…”
“You. Are. Diabolical!” That wasn’t news.
“And of course you’d try to throw everyone off your scent by buying yourself a gratuitous gift that would make it seem as though I was buying your silence or rewarding you for agreeing to stand in for me while I’m away.”
She cackled and threw her arms around my neck. “You sneaky bastard… Leave it to you, a fucking Pagan, to stage the best Christmas ever.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re referring to.”
She chuckled, still not letting go of me. “I love you… and that you can still get me… Now, two things.”
“One. You will not marry Sookie on your little trip. I want to be there.”
“What makes you think I’d marry her? She doesn’t want to remarry.”
She snorted and finally let go of me to step back. “You’ve only mentioned how many Sookies and Erics are married about a dozen times since that skip I missed. And you mentioned making a detour to that icy fjord you’re so fond of… I know you want to marry her and it’s not that she doesn’t want to, it’s that she wants to give the kids some time.”
I huffed, “I won’t marry Sookie without you there. Back to the ‘two things’. What is ‘two’?”
“What the fuck is up with Hadley? Did you glamour her or is she bipolar?”
“She thinks I’m her ally. She…”
I turned when I heard the front door open to see Sookie jogging our way with a camera in hand. “I’m not interrupting, am I?”
I nodded. “Yes, but it’s nothing we’re keeping from you. I was just explaining to Pam… Hadley has all the complexity of Play-Doh. When I joined her on the deck, we discussed her new lover and the possibility that he might lose interest in her responsibilities to her children. What have you heard from her?”
“That you used what Bartlett did to worm your way into her psyche. Now she’s terrified she’ll end up with someone who’d do that to Misty and Jenny. The girls’ resistance to being touched has made her wonder if her last husband might have been a Bartlett… Part of me wants to be pissed that you’d go there. The rest of me wants to bow at your brilliant feet…. Brian’s right about her using them if she finds out, but she’s so damn simple she’d let someone hurt them with the right pitch. It’s a good fucking thing you got to her first because right now, her only dilemma is how to bring up the girls’ health to ‘trick’ me into keeping them so she can pursue her goals of being a grass widow with a monthly check… Hey Pam, pose with your new baby so I can get some pics. It’s my cover for freezing my girls off…”
Pam sprawled over the hood of her car while Sookie took photo after photo of Pam’s vamping.
Sookie continued, “Anyway… I’m a spoiled bitch, but I’m stable. Hadley got melancholy when Jenny fell asleep against your leg because she hasn’t been able to touch her since she could walk. With the way the girls have always paired off, she’s a little resentful… since she doesn’t understand why, she thinks the girls hate her anyway and thinks that we seem relatively stable and thinks being with us would be better for them because they seem happier here… Honestly, Eric, I think she has the same thing going on as Jason. Maybe not as strong, but… I was in a bad mood earlier, we were all tense… I know you talked to her and gave her a fire exit, but when she came inside, she got swept up in the fun.”
“Is it possible Jason was affecting her?”
She shook her head. “I might think so if he hadn’t been watching her all night and waiting for her to bring out the bitch again. And no, it isn’t the wine she chugged. She’s a belligerent drunk according to Brian’s thoughts. The last time she had a bottle of wine to herself, she threw a small TV through the window because she wanted to watch Leno and he was watching something else.”
“We were hostile, so she was hostile…”
Pam finished, “We were ‘merry and bright’ and she was too. It would make sense. She was described as ‘diplomatic’ in the journals. It’s possible she got a handle on that once she was brought over.”
I nodded. “What were the children thinking during dinner?”
“When you first joined us, Tina and Junior were telling Misty and Jenny about you and Pam and how awesome it is to be with you guys… Brandon and I were commiserating for them… Brian was pissed that he was going to lose them since they’re the only reason he’s stayed with Hadley for 4 years.”
“Curiosity and acrimony would explain her line of questioning… And I was actually disappointed by how easy it was to influence her, but if she’s empathic, it would explain why it was so easy for me to manipulate her to think she was manipulating you.”
Sookie snorted, “Especially since everyone is walking on eggshells to accomplish what’s in the best interest of the kids.”
Pam added, “Don’t forget there are five little people in there who want Misty and Jenny to join the commune.”
Sookie shook her head. “It’s going to be easier than we thought… is it the right thing to do? I mean… I feel like I’m taking candy away from a baby. What if we explained she’s affected too?”
“That would…” When the front door opened again, Brian emerged and Hadley surprised him by following. I whispered, “That would risk her discovering the girls’ ability…”
Sookie nodded and breathed, “I hate variables.” A woman after my own heart.
Brian started, “Are y’all sure about taking the girls with you?”
I nodded. “They’ll enjoy the quiet. Most of the tiny mountain towns have noise and pollution laws.”
“What if they get sick?”
“Mind if I make a suggestion?”
Hadley offered, “Go ahead,” before her husband had his mouth open.
“Go online and find a website with a blank temporary custody agreement. I’ll have my accountant come to the house in the morning to…”
Sookie interrupted, “Hon, Bruce has kids.”
“I’ll make it worth his time. Notarizing the papers would only take a moment. He can squeeze it into his agenda… If I notarized them, there could appear to be a conflict. Laws might be more or less forgiving in Switzerland.”
Hadley nodded. “Better safe than sorry.”
Sookie giggled, “Besides, Junior would kick somebody’s ass if you guys don’t let them go. They’re the only reason Lauren’s letting him go… When else are you going to get the chance to be alone like that anyway?” She paused for a moment before breathing, “Heeeeyyyyy, you know what? If… only if you’re okay with it, I could look into getting them in to see my doctors when we get back. That woman has worked wonders with my sinuses. You have no idea how many doctors told me I was fine.” She felt guilty for lying, but the show was spectacular. Brian was seeing the plans come together and Hadley thought she’d played nice enough to garner the favor. Beautiful.
Hadley squeaked, “Really? The girls have been through every test. They’ve had their tonsils and adenoids taken out. They’ve been on meds that gorked ‘em out… we’re at the point we’d make a deal with the devil just to get answers.”
Sookie nodded. “Been there. Sometimes I swear it’s why my mother started drinking.”
Brian asked, “What will they do about school?”
Sookie’s mouth was open to answer, but Hadley screeched, “Brian! Who cares!? At this rate they miss so much school they barely pass… If they get some help, like Sookie, this could be the last year they have to struggle!”
Sookie nodded. “I started getting straight As as soon as my doc figured me out… I was going to say that we’d know more once I got them in to see her. If she wants to see them on the regular for a while, they could enroll here… if… if you guys are okay with that. I mean, in the long term, would y’all be able to move here?”
Hadley looked stricken. Yes, she could join the staff at any number of local Wal-Marts, but that wasn’t part of her plans… Brian simply shrugged.
Sookie shook her head and relieved them from answering. “Nevermind that now guys… Yes, Eric and I are 100% fine with having Misty and Jenny join us in Switzerland. Yes, when we get home, we’ll take them to the doctor and see about getting them squared away. It’s not a problem… I don’t want to be pushy though… It’s really all up to you.”
Sookie looked like she’d rather be hugging a cactus when Hadley’s arms went around her.
The most bizarre thing about it was that Hadley’s appreciation seemed genuine. If Sookie was right about her nature, it was possible she was feeling the reason for Brian’s relieved smile.
After Pam left, everyone said their goodnights…
The living room had been organized, leaving only the gifts meant to be given to tomorrow night’s company. The dishwasher was running and the only lights left on were in the decorations.
Sookie bounced onto my back and giggled, “Alone at last,” but she’d spoken too soon.
Misty was stretched out along the sofa on her side, entertaining Magnusson. He was batting at a ringlet of her hair. “He woke up while you were outside. I took him out of his thingy over there. He doesn’t want anything.”
Sookie whispered, “It’s a hammock. It’s his favorite place to sleep when he can’t have Eric… He doesn’t usually wake up this time of night, but Eric was so far away…”
Misty finished, “And there’s a lot of people here… He’s like us too, isn’t he?”
I offered, “We have new reasons to believe so every night… Would you like news?”
Her eyes lit up, but she stayed calm, directing her answer to Mag while she played with his foot. “More than anything.”
Sookie slid from my back as I approached the sofa and I rested my elbows on the spine. “We have new information about your mother…”
“Y’all didn’t already know she’s a pain in the butt?”
I nodded and resisted the urge to laugh while Sookie joked, “Just what this family needs, another sarcastic blonde.”
I defended us, “Don’t mind her, Misty. Sarcasm is an art and she doesn’t have a gift for it… As for your mother, she wished everyone a Merry Christmas on her way to use Brian’s computer to find custody forms…”
She blurted, “JUST…” and corrected her volume to a whisper to continue, “Just like that? She’s just…”
I held my hand up to stop her. “She isn’t casting you aside. Admittedly, I assumed the same thing in the beginning… We think it’s possible for your mother to have a gift of her own. Jason is what’s known as an empath. He can sense the feelings of others… Before he knew he had the gift, when he was a child, he was easily lied to and manipulated. Until recently, he’s been able to sense moods.”
She gasped and covered her mouth to whimper, “She… she never argued… If me and Jenny didn’t want to do something, she’d just say ‘okay’… Do you… do you think it’s why she has so many boyfriends?” That was the one thing I hadn’t considered.
“Honestly? It could have something to do with it… If a man shows an interest in her, she could be reciprocating that feeling.”
Her eyes welled and she sniveled, “I hated her… are you saying she can’t help it?”
“I’m saying there are several things at work… Right now, what we know is she was easily convinced to leave you in Sookie’s care. It may very well have something to do with the fact she’s surrounded by people who want you and your sister to get the help you need to control your ability… We used your headaches as an excuse and since Sookie has been listening to her thoughts, we know your mother wholeheartedly believes she’s doing what’s best for you. Yes, she is looking at your new living arrangements as an opportunity to leave Brian, but her boyfriend could be influencing her.”
“We live with you and Sookie… Mom takes off with Shane… What happens to Brian?”
Sookie offered, “You’ll have to get his email address so you can stay in touch with him. Hopefully, he’ll find a woman who loves him back, right?”
Misty nodded. “Right… We still need to be here, huh? ‘Cuz if… if Mom can get played by y’all…”
I nodded. “The right tactic could earn someone a pair of telepathic slaves. I can protect you from that and Sookie will nurture your ability.”
Sookie snorted, “He forgot to mention that he’s going to spoil you rotten.”
I grumbled, “Don’t heckle.”
Misty snickered quietly and asked, “What’s the plan then?”
“Your mother and Brian are going to leave for Fayetteville during the day tomorrow. They’re going to gather the things they need for their trip to Australia and pack your things. They’ll return in a couple of days so they can leave for Sydney from here. In the meantime, shopping needs to be done for our trip… When we return from Switzerland, you’ll enroll in school. By then you should have better control of your shields.”
She nodded. “Sounds good.”
I nodded as I stood up. “What about the rest of you? Do you approve?” Fakers.
They all giggled while I took Mag from the sofa. Just being so close to me helped him doze off again despite the conversation happening over him.
Misty climbed the sofa as I lifted it. “By the time I see you tonight, you’ll both be Lwizyané… Bienvenue à Shreveport. Good night.”
The children were happily chattering about snowball fights and going to a ball when the hatch closed behind me.
When I turned around after placing Magnusson in his bassinet, Sookie was waiting in my path.
She scowled and whispered, “Don’t. You. Ever. Confirm anything about Santa.” I’d spent two weeks planning that production from my seat at Fangtasia…
What breed of creature to hire.
How to avoid having little telepaths catch me lying.
How to maneuver Sookie to spend a week in Longyearbyen alone…
Since Sookie had only heard about Dr. Ludwig, she was playing a guessing game… Elliot’s gift for improvisation gave me a few surprises, which I knew suspicious mind readers would be watching me for… Taking the children skiing did exactly as I hoped. Lauren insisted on taking the children so we could have our own getaway.
It all worked perfectly.
And I had 364 nights to plan a way to top it.