Mellow. Or, perhaps, peaceful. They were the two best words Josiah could come up with to describe Ezra. Happy, relaxed, and satisfied were probably also good ones, he reflected as he sat on the couch and watched the younger many happily relaying a skiing adventure from when he was in college. And that, in and of itself, was surprising on a night that had, so far, been full of surprises. Ezra didn't tend to share stories of his past…at least not freely.
It had been at the tail end of Thanksgiving dinner that Ezra had ventured to tender an invitation to the other six men to his home for Christmas Eve. His invitation had stunned the others to silence leaving Ezra thinking he'd crossed some unknown line. He'd begun sputtering and apologizing saying he hadn't meant to make assumptions. It wasn't until Chris had smiled broadly and wished Ezra luck dealing with "this bunch of yahoos" that he'd known his invitation was accepted.
Josiah had been the first to arrive at Ezra's condo Christmas Eve thinking he'd come early and help him get ready if needed. His arrival had caught Ezra not too long out of the shower as his wet, finger combed hair attested. However, it was his choice of attire that caught Josiah by surprise. Instead of one of the designer suits they were all so used to seeing Ezra wear, he had on a pair of butter soft jeans, a white button-down shirt, and cashmere sweater. The deep, plum color of the sweater seemed to make his eyes seem an even more vivid green.
As it turned out, Ezra hadn't needed much help getting ready. The food was catered so it was just a matter of unwrapping everything and putting it out. It wasn't long after that that other men had shown up.
Josiah didn't think there was a single one of them who wasn't surprised to see Ezra dressed so casually and that the condo had been decorated for the holiday. True, it was all tastefully done with everything coordinating and looking like it came out of a magazine, but it was the first time any of them had seen Ezra's home with more than a simple wreath on the door during the holidays.
The biggest surprise had been Ezra's when, about an hour later, the doorbell rang. Busy refilling drinks, Ezra had asked Josiah to answer the door. Josiah had insisted Ezra should do so since he was the host, after all.
Giving the older man a quizzical look, Ezra went to the front door and pulled it open. Josiah knew it was cliché to say that Ezra's face lit up like a child's on Christmas morning when he opened the door but there was really no other way he could describe it.
"You're not just going to make me stand in the cold while you gape," Maude had asked as Ezra simply stood in the door staring at her.
Her words snapped him out of surprise. "I thought you said you wouldn't be able to get here…that you were going to spend Christmas with…" He gestured helplessly forgetting who his mother's current paramour was. "Whatever his name is," he finished helplessly.
"Michael," Maude supplied. "And he wouldn't hear of me not coming. I would have told you, but I wanted to surprise you. Surprise," she said gayly. "Now, are you going to give me a kiss and invite me in."
Ezra had done more than just kiss her. He'd wrapped her in a hug and pulled her into the condo as Maude happily hugged him back. Ever since Ezra had been hospitalized with appendicitis, the two of them had become more comfortable in their demonstrativeness.
And now, here they all were two hours later. The food had been eaten and they were relaxing with mugs of coffee or hot chocolate that may or may not have had a little something extra added to it.
Maude was seated in one of the wingback chairs across from the couch where Josiah was sitting. Ezra had chosen to sit on the floor in front of his mother's chair leaning back against her. His legs were crossed and in the hollow of his legs Kenny was curled. Ezra still insisted that Kenny was not a pet and that he and the feline simply cohabitated together. Almost unconsciously, Ezra would pat Kenny or scratch behind her ears. Josiah noticed that Maude, also almost unconsciously, would occasionally reach down and pat or squeeze her son's shoulder.
"The decorations are really nice," JD said from where he also sat on the floor in front of the couch. "How come you didn't get a live tree, though."
Buck, who was sitting on couch behind JD, reached down to give him a small shove. "The mess, JD, the mess," he said.
"Not the mess," Vin contradicted. "It's Kenny. She'd probably think it was a snack or something."
Hearing her name, the cat's head came up and she glared in Vin's direction. It was almost as if she understood the words and was insulted by them. Stretching, she climbed out of hollow of Ezra's legs and gracefully went to the kitchen.
"I think you insulted her, Vin," Nathan laughed.
Maude watched as the cat disappeared into the other room. "Really, Darlin', I thought you'd grown past the stage of having pets."
Ezra pulled in a breath and looked up at his mother trying to not let his impatience show. "As I told you mother, Kenny is not a pet. We simply..."
"Cohabitate," the other six men finished for him then they all laughed.
"Yes. Cohabitate." Ezra agreed. "I have plenty of room and I couldn't very well leave her outside to fend for herself in inclement weather.
Maude found herself laughing at her son's explanation. "That's the same argument you used when you were a little boy." She took in the other men. "Did I ever tell you about the time Ezra stayed with his Aunt Loretta during the summer. I think he was ten at the time."
Ezra quickly got to his feet and reached out to grasp the mug his mother held. "Really, Mother, I don't think we need to bore these gentlemen with tales of my youth. More coffee?"
"Don't worry, Ez. I don't think we're ever bored by those tales," Vin reassured him then held out his mug as he smiled broadly. "I'd love more coffee...especially is if it's as good as the last one."
"I was asking Mother," Ezra pointed out although he did take the offered mug. "Anyone else?" Five other mugs were quickly held out. "I'll get the pot."
"So...Aunt Loretta," Josiah prompted as Ezra left the room.
"I believe Ezra was ten at the time. I was going to be occupied during the summer and couldn't take Ezra with me."
"Buttering up step-father number two," Ezra muttered as he came back to the living room with the pot of coffee. He refilled his mother's mug then placed it on the coffee table where the others could help themselves.
"Yes...well..." Maude agreed as she shifted slightly uncomfortable in her seat. "Anyways..." She looked over to Ezra to see if he had anything else to add. This time, instead of trying to derail her story, he smiled and gestured for her to continue. "Ezra was supposed to stay with Aunt Loretta for the summer. She had a lovely home just outside of Charleston. Since she didn't have any children, she had plenty of room for Ezra. It would have been perfect except that's when my darlin' baby boy decided to go through a phase of wanting to be a veterinarian or some such and would bring home every stray he could find. Every week when I called to check on him, Loretta would tell me about some other animal that he'd brought home. Poor woman just kept getting more and more exasperated with it. It was the beginning of August and he was supposed to be there for a few more weeks when she'd finally had enough and demanded either I come get him or she was going to drop him off at the nearest police department and tell them he'd been abandoned. Well...I couldn't let that happen to my baby boy. Thankfully, Louis wasn't too terribly upset at having to cut our European tour short."
"Step-father number two," Ezra mouthed when Maude mentioned Louis. "I never was sure if it was the baby skunk, the field mice, or the snake that was the last straw," he said aloud with an innocent expression. "She shrieked the loudest when she saw the snake."
The other six men laughed aloud at the image of Ezra and what sounded like a zoo. It was hard to reconcile the image with the man in the room.
"I know she wasn't the ideal guardian, but did you have to torture the woman?" Maude asked in a tone that indicated this wasn't the first time she'd asked. Ezra shrugged as if to say there was nothing else he could have done.
"But why no real tree?" JD asked going back to the original topic of discussion.
Before Ezra had a chance to answer the question, Maude jumped in with, "Allergies". As she did, Ezra groaned inwardly knowing she'd likely launch into another story of his childhood. At the rate she was going, the others would know every detail of his youth
"You're allergic to Christmas trees," JD asked aghast.
"Pine trees," Ezra corrected.
"We found out the hard way," Maude added. "When he was four, we decided to get a real tree. It wasn't up more than a couple of hours and Ezra started sneezing and itching. We thought he was coming down with something but it kept coming and going. After about a week, we took him to the pediatrician. Poor little Bean was allergic to the tree."
Ezra cringed when he heard his mother refer to him by the childhood nickname and hoped no one else picked up on it. When he'd gone back into the office after Buck and JD found out about Kenny, he'd found pictures of himself with the cat sleeping on him plastered all over the place. He could only imagine what would happen if they caught on to the nickname.
"I guess you had to take it down when you found out," Nathan suggested.
"That was the plan, but Ezra wouldn't let us. He'd grown attached to that tree and there was nothing Matthew or I could say to convince him he'd feel better if it wasn't there. Thankfully, it was only a couple more days until Christmas and the doctor gave us a prescription for Benadryl." Maude leaned down, resting her hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Do you remember that argument you had with Daddy the day after Christmas when he did take it down." She sat back up and didn't giver her son a chance to answer. "I'm not sure who took it worse…Ezra or Matthew. Ezra's daddy hated seeing him cry but down it came." She reached down and rested her hand on her son's face. "You looked so sad standing where that tree had been. You just kept asking us where Christmas was going to go without a tree."
Ezra looked up at his mother and smiled wistfully. "It goes right to your heart," he whispered.
"You remember," Maude said softly. For just a moment, it was as if they were the only two in the room.
"I do. I remember Daddy told me to close my eyes and remember and, when I did, Christmas would be wherever I was because it goes right to your heart."
The others held their breath not daring to break the spell between mother and son as that long-ago Christmas was remembered. It was Chris who finally broke the quiet. "Adam used to ask questions like that, too," he softly said. "How do the reindeer fly? How does Santa fit down the chimney? Do the elves really make everything?" He chuckled softly. "The questions never stopped. I wasn't sure how to answer half his questions but Sara…Sara seemed to find an answer for everything."
"Mom was like that," JD said softly. "Work was always busy for her around this time of year, but she always had time for all my questions. And visits to Santa Claus. No matter what, Mom always made sure there was time to visit Santa even when I stopped believing." A chuckle escaped from him. "I didn't have the heart to tell her I knew the truth. She worked so hard to make sure there were gifts under the tree, and I was surprised, I just couldn't tell her. One year, she even saved up enough money that we were able to get a real tree. It was the scraggliest one on the lot – looked a lot like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree – but I loved that little tree."
As JD reached up to wipe away a tear that escaped, Buck patted him on the shoulder. "She was a good mom, Kid."
Soon the other chimed in stories of long-ago Christmases with the loved ones that were no longer with them. Some of them shared funny stories like the time Josiah's sister was an angel in the children's Nativity play and started dancing to the music. All their stories though were filled with love and smiles. It should have made for a sad night but, somehow, sharing the stories of those they'd lost made it feel that they were there with them and a feeling of love and peace filled the room.
Before any of them knew it, it was nearly midnight. "We best be heading out," Buck said as he got up for the couch. "Gotta get JD here into bed before Santa comes or he's going to be a mighty disappointed boy tomorrow," he joked with a broad smile on his face.
"Ha ha," JD mock laughed. "Just because you're getting old…" he taunted.
"Just who are you calling old," Buck laughed as he swatted JD on the back of his head.
As the others got up as well, Ezra went to the coat closet and began retrieving the other's outer wear. "I never asked where you're staying, Mother. Do you a need a ride somewhere?"
"I think I can make it to your guest room without a ride," Maude answered. She almost laughed at the surprised look on Ezra's face. "Josiah was kind enough to leave my luggage in there earlier today when he picked me up at the airport."
"I don't remember," Ezra began only to be interrupted by Josiah.
"When you were out picking everything up at the caterer. Chris give me the copy of your house key that he has. I was in and out before you got back."
"Were you all in on Mother's surprise," Ezra demanded.
Five of the other men nodded while JD shook his head. "How come everyone knew but me?" he demanded.
"'Cause you're not very good at keeping secrets," Vin answered.
As Chris took his coat from Ezra, he reminded the others, "Dinner at my place at 3:00. Try not to be late." He looked over to Maude. "You, too Ma'am."
"I can't wait," Maude responded with a smile.
Soon, the others had said their goodbyes and it was just Maude and Ezra. Since they'd been cleaning up throughout the night, all that was left were the mugs they'd been using for the coffee and hot chocolate. As he was collecting the cups, Maude saw Ezra yawning widely and took the mugs he was holding. "You go on to bed, Darlin'. I can put these in the dishwasher."
Normally, Ezra would have said no but he was exhausted and gratefully yielded the clean up duties to his mother. As he made his way to his bedroom, Kenny slipped from the kitchen to follow him.
It took only a few minutes for Maude to collect all the used mugs and load them into the dishwasher. Once that was done, she checked the front and back doors to be sure they were locked even though Ezra had already done so then turned out all lights. Before making her way to the guestroom, she stopped to look in her son's room. In the short time it had taken her to cleanup, he was already in bed and asleep.
She slipped quietly in, pulling up the comforter and tucking it in over his shoulders. She gave Kenny, who was curled up against Ezra's back, a quick scratch behind the ears then bent down to kiss her son gently on the forehead. "Merry Christmas, Bean," she whispered. "Mama loves you."
As she turned to leave the room, for just the briefest of moments, she could have sworn she saw a shadowy figure in the corner and smiled sadly. "Merry Christmas, Mattie," she whispered knowing that her husband would always be there to watch over their son.
As she walked through the quiet, dark condo to the guestroom, she couldn't help but think of bits of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care. She'd noticed the three stockings Ezra had hung from the living room mantle: one with an "E" on it, one with a "K", and one with an "M" even though he hadn't known she'd be there. She shook her head and chuckled at the thought that here son had hung a stocking for a cat. Most would be surprised by the action, but she knew it was so like him…or at least so like the child he'd been.
She changed into her night clothes and settled into bed. Just before drifting off to sleep she smiled and thought of the camaraderie and familial feeling she'd been part of that night. "Merry Christmas to all," she said softly, echoing the words of Clement C. Moore, "And to all a good night."