Most of the characters and situations in this story belong to Alliance Atlantis, CBS, Anthony Zuicker and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them; all others are mine, and if you want to borrow them, you have to ask me first. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
For everyone who's missing someone this Christmas. By VR Trakowski.
There's just something about coming home.
I let out a happy breath. Yeah, I love being independent, or mostly independent, but every so often I have to come back to the nest. And it hasn't really changed over the years. Mom has it how she likes it, and that's the way it stays.
That's how I like it too. Basic psychology, first-semester stuff, but still true--you're most comfortable in a familiar setting.
I'm early. I was supposed to come on Wednesday, but my math prof came down with the flu, and postponed his exam until next week. So I took some of my birthday money, changed my flight, and skipped my last classes without shame. An extra vacation day's not to be wasted, after all.
'Course, I didn't tell Mom, either. It's more fun to surprise her. My carry-on has two bottles of real maple syrup for her--she says she's making lots more pancakes these days--and I really hope they haven't leaked.
I'm halfway up the front steps when I remember that she got the lock changed after that stalker was harassing her earlier this year. So I hop back down and head into the garage. My key should still work on that door.
I took a red-eye flight, and I've beaten Mom home, the garage is empty. So I let myself in; there's a light on in the living room, but I know she hates to come home to an empty house. I can't help grinning--she won't come home to one today!
I head down the hall to my room, wondering if I have time to grab a shower before she gets here, and I'm just passing the bathroom door when it opens--and I jump a mile.
Big hairy naked man!
We both make noises at the same time--I think he says "Whoa," but all I do is squeak. We're staring at each other--he looks as surprised as I feel--
Okay, not so naked, he has a towel around his waist. For a second I wonder if I should punch him, or run, but then I figure out who he must be. Before I can open my mouth, though, he opens his.
"Zoë, I presume?" he says, and his voice is a lot lower than I expected, kind of gravelly.
I swallow. "Yeah. You must be Captain Brass." He's not so big as all that, either, I realize, but he's definitely built. And hairy.
What do you do when you meet your mom's first serious boyfriend in ages and he's practically naked? The only thing I can think of to do is offer to shake hands, so I do. He shifts his grip on the towel and takes my hand; his is big and warm, and damp. Yeah, well, he just got out of the shower. I guess. Oh, this is embarrassing.
Must be for him, too. We're staring at each other, and all of a sudden I'm trying not to laugh--half nervous, but half because this is really funny. He raises one brow, and I can see he's smiling a little, even though his ears are getting red. "Weren't you supposed to come tomorrow?" he asks.
If he'd been the last twit Mom dated, I would have dissed him on the spot. But he doesn't sound snotty, he sounds curious. "Yeah--I got an earlier flight." It's like answering him unlocks my babble guard, because I start--well, babbling. "I didn't call Mom because she likes surprises, and I didn't know anybody would be here, not that I expected anybody to be here besides you, and--"
"Hey," he says, and his voice is all firm but nice. "It's your house. I'm just going to get dressed."
He starts edging past me towards Mom's room, and I back up a step so he can get by. "Yeah. I'm just going to dump my stuff in my room. I was going to take a shower, but--"
Captain Brass disappears into her room, but his voice comes back out the door before he closes it. "It's all yours, kiddo."
Geez, the door to my room hasn't looked this good in years. I dive inside and shut it, positive that he's not the only one with a blush.
My case goes on the desk, and I flop back on the bed. That was SO awkward. But...
Okay, on the one hand, there's really not much point in making a snap judgment about somebody on a few seconds of meeting. But on the other, it was a stressful situation, which tends to make people show more of their true selves. And the overall impression I got was niceness. He could have been pissed, he could have been all, like, flirty, though I don't think Mom would really go out this long with somebody if he were like that. He could have gone adult on me and treated me like a kid. But he didn't.
As my face cools off I decide that, as first meetings go, it could have been a lot worse. And judging by the way Mom's been going on about him for months now, he's pretty serious.
Time to see if he passes the old Zoë-meter. You can fool the girlfriend, but you can never fool the kid.
I close the door to Heather's room behind me and resist the urge to lock it. Not that I think she'd come in here, but...oh man! Am I glad I decided not to streak it back down the hall.
Out of the many ways I could have met Heather's daughter, that really wasn't at the top of the list. Though I suppose it could have been worse. For instance, if I'd gotten here any later, it occurs to me, I might have met her coming out of the shower in a towel, or less.
I didn't get all that good a look at her in the hall, but that was a hell of a first meeting, and some details stuck. She's tall--not more than an inch or so shorter than me--and she's got her mom's build, but her eyes are dark. She's got her mom's manners, too, the ability to be gracious in a weird setting.
Though I guess growing up with a dominatrix for a mother would make a kid--open-minded...
This is going to take some rethinking. It's not like Heather and I had any real plans for this morning besides dinner and snuggling, but I don't really know what those two do when they're together, and I suddenly wonder if I should take myself out of the way. After all, it's been months since they've seen each other, what with Zoë working in Massachusetts this summer. They'll want to catch up on girly things, I'll bet. Probably won't want anyone with a Y chromosome hanging around.
The idea hurts a whole lot more than I thought it would. I tell myself it's only natural--after all, they're family, and I'm not. I can see Heather any time. This is a special occasion.
But my jaw aches a little as I pull on my jeans and shirt. I was really looking forward to spending time with Heather today; we see each other most days, but funky schedules have kept us apart this week.
Normally I go barefoot here; Heather's carpet is thick and plushy, and I love the squish of it under my soles. But today I pull on clean socks I meant to wear tonight, and hunt up my shoes. Funny--it's the first time in a really long time that I've felt like a stranger here.
The sound of the shower starts up as I open the bedroom door, and I stick my head out first to make sure that the bathroom door is shut. Not that I think Zoë'd leave it open, but one of the first things I learned in police work is "cover your ass." But the door's definitely closed, and I head down the hall toward the living room.
I can hear the grind of the garage door opening as I pass the kitchen, and I detour to wait for Heather, opening the side door and leaning in the space. She unfolds herself from her car with that gorgeous sensual grace, smiling at me like I'm the only thing in her world, and it feels great.
"Good morning, darling," she purrs, and I brace one hand against the doorframe, smirking.
"Gotta pay a toll to get through here, lady."
"Oh dear. And here I am, out of cash." She walks over and slips her arms around my waist, the corner of her mouth twitching with amusement.
"That's okay," I tell her, putting one arm around her. "I'm sure you have something else I can accept."
"Hmmm..." She pretends to think about it, then taps me lightly on the nose and kisses me, not too long but nice and warm and full. "Will that do?"
"Sure." But I don't let her pass by yet. "Hey, don't forget your change."
This one's a little sweeter, a little hotter. When we finish, she reaches up and wipes something from my upper lip--her lipstick, I presume--and grins. "What a way to end the night."
I step aside so she can get by into the kitchen. "It isn't over yet," I say, suddenly wondering if Zoë still wants to surprise her mom, but Heather stops short. I follow her gaze and see two bottles of maple syrup on the kitchen counter that weren't there when I came in an hour ago.
Heather's face lights up like I've never seen it, and it does something to my gut that I can't quite identify. "Zoë's here," she says confidently, and I nod even though she isn't looking at me.
"She got here a little after me. I think she's in the shower."
She shoots me a smile, all excited. "You two have met then. Excellent!"
"Yeah." I shift a little, uncomfortable. "You know, you ladies probably have a lot to catch up on. I think I'll just take off, I could use an early morning."
I thought I was keeping my voice level, but Heather's head comes up, and she fixes me with one of those sharp stares that no doubt pin clients to her Dominion's wall. Her hands go to her hips, and while I've got so used to her work clothes that usually I don't notice them--besides how good they make her look--all of a sudden I'm aware that her stilettos have boosted her up until our eyes are almost level, and hers are looking right into my soul. The problem with sharing time with someone as smart and insightful as Heather is that it's really hard to keep secrets.
"James Thomas Brass," she says sternly. "Don't you dare think we don't want you here."
Okay, maybe it's not a problem exactly. I speak over the rush of warmth inside me. "Are you sure? Zoë hasn't seen you for a while, she might want to catch up without me around..."
Heather chuckles, and stalks back over, lifting a hand to my cheek. "Zoë's been dying to meet you, Jim. She pesters me for details about you every time she calls. If I let you go home she'd never forgive me."
I can't help smiling back. "Guess I'd better stick around, then."
She laughs. "Smart man." Patting my chest, she moves away again, and I take the time to admire the back view. Stilettos may be murder on a woman's feet, but...yeah.
"I'm going to go change. If you'll make the coffee, I'll start dinner in a minute."
"Nothing doing," I tell her, and she pauses to look back over her shoulder. "I've got a better idea. Let's go out, the three of us, my treat."
Heather arches a brow, that haughty amused look that I love, and smiles. "You've talked me into it."
She disappears down the hall as I gear up the coffeemaker. I'm tempted to follow and give her a hand, but now's not the time. I get the feeling that Heather and Zoë don't have a "knock on the door" room policy, and I'm not ready for the kid to catch us in a liplock just yet.
Mom's waiting for me when I get out of the shower, sitting on my bed with a big grin on her face, and the minute we see each other we can't help squealing. It's such a girly thing, I know, but it happens every time. We squish each other in a nice big hug, and she kisses my forehead in that old way she has, like she's bestowing a blessing. When I was little I used to think that her kisses could keep away bad stuff.
Then she lets me go. "Zoë, Zoë, up to your tricks again! You know very well I wasn't expecting you until Wednesday. You're lucky I kicked out the guy renting your room last week."
I stick my tongue out at her. "More fun to surprise you, and aren't I cuter than any tenant?"
Mom laughs at the old joke and sits down again. "Of course you are. I can't wait to catch up with you, but get dressed while you talk, because Jim's taking us out to dinner."
For the first time it dawns on me that I might have interrupted their plans. "Ohh--Mom, were you two going to go somewhere this morning? Because--"
"No, no." She leans back against the wall, crossing her ankles under her denim skirt. "We just tend to spend most days together. No special plans."
My ears prick up at that. "Most days?" I unzip my carry-on and rummage for clean clothes. "This is a change."
Oh, revenge is so sweet. All those years when she would ask me who I was seeing, what they were like--now it's my turn. I watch the color creep up her cheeks, and grin. That's basic too, the desire to best the parent, but turnabout is fair play, and besides it's in fun.
Mom clears her throat and shoots me a look. "You should be glad your poor aged mother isn't sitting at home alone each morning!"
"You're right," I agree. "Stimulation's good for the brain--keeps you young."
It's good to be home.
We're still giggling when we make it to the kitchen, and Captain Brass looks up from the table, that small smile reappearing. "Coffee's ready, ladies," he says, and he's already got a mug of his own. For a second it feels kind of odd. I was looking forward to a long slow morning with Mom, probably making French toast and sausage and talking until almost noon, and here's this guy sitting in the kitchen.
But we'll have our private chat sooner or later. And I can tell right away, just from the way the captain looks at Mom, that he's serious about her.
I have to admit, I'm pretty pleased. It's way past time that she had somebody in her life. She was really too busy when I was growing up to date much, and she hasn't had much luck since. Either they turned out to be low-level sleazeballs, or there was something else wrong--too dedicated to their work or something. I mean, it's hard enough for her to find somebody who can see past what she does for a living.
I fetch the cups and Mom pours, and we end up sitting around the table, with Captain Brass asking Mom about something to do with the Dominion's security system. I take a minute to look at him closer.
First off, he's no rock star. He's over fifty, and losing his hair, though he's not dumb enough to try a comb-over. He's got one of those faces that people say is full of character, partly because it is and partly because he probably never WAS a rock star. But he has gorgeous eyes, I have to admit; they're a very very dark blue, so they look black most of the time. Nice long eyelashes, too.
He's got great shoulders under that suit jacket, and while his tummy's a little soft, I guess he's entitled. And he's got to be smart. Mom has dated a couple of jackasses, but none of them were ever dumb.
After a minute he leans back in his chair and looks at both us. "So where would you like to go for dinner?" he asks, and he's asking both of us, not just Mom. She looks at me.
"You're the one who's come home, my baby. It's up to you."
You know, it should bother me that she calls me that, but it doesn't, I don't know why. I wrap my hands around my mug, but I don't have to think long. "Waffles!"
Waffle World's always been one of my favorite restaurants. We used to come here when I was really small, before Mom and Dad split up, and after that for special occasions. It's tacky, I know, but the food's really good, and they don't just do waffles.
The captain holds the door open for both of us when we go in, which isn't too surprising I guess, considering his generation. We get a corner table, and he settles in next to Mom when I sit down on the other side of the table. He still looks a little uncomfortable.
But he barely glances at the menu, and it occurs to me all of a sudden that he's been here before. "Going for the pumpkin pancakes again?" he asks Mom.
My stomach lurches a little. It's not just that he's been here before, it's that they've been here together. Our special place, Mom's and mine, and she's brought him here without me.
But I get a grip. I'm not fifteen any more. Mom has the right to take him anywhere she likes--and for all I know, it was HIS idea. Just because I perceive Waffle World as special to the two of us, the reverse is not necessarily true for Mom.
It changes things a little, though. Suddenly I'm not as comfortable as I was a minute ago. So I ask Mom how things are going at work; if she's talking, she's less likely to notice that I'm a little upset.
It takes her about ten minutes to describe the plans she has for upgrades on her Web site, and I calm down a little while I listen. I'm tired and jetlagged and hungry, and all of that's put me kinda on edge.
The server comes by to take our orders, and we chat for a while, Mom asking me about classes and Captain Brass keeping pretty much quiet. Then this deep voice behind me speaks up. "Hey, Jim."
The captain's head comes up, and his eyebrows go up, and he looks almost dismayed, for a second, before he smiles. But the smile's real, and before I can turn around, the owner of the voice walks past me to stand next to our table.
And man, is he cute.
He's tall, with wide shoulders and a buzz-cut, and I wonder if he's military or even a cop like Captain Brass. "Hey, Nicky," the captain says. "What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be pulling a double shift or something?"
He's teasing, and this Nicky grins, making his whole face crease and showing really white teeth. It's an all-American look, makes him look younger for a second, but I can see the little lines at the corners of his eyes and I know he's got to be at least ten years older than me. Darn it.
"Nah, that was last week. A bunch of us came in for breakfast, want to join us?" He looks from the captain to Mom to me, and there's something extra in his expression, a sort of gentleness that I didn't expect to see on someone who looks like he played college football.
"Not today, Nick. Permit me to introduce my lovely companions, Heather and Zoë Marazek. Ladies, Nick Stokes." Captain Brass is teasing again, but not very hard, and Nick holds out a big hand first to Mom and then me, nodding and smiling still.
"Pleased to meet you." His hand's gentle too.
"Nick's a crime scene investigator," the captain elaborates. "I used to be his boss."
"Those were the days," Nick says, and he's teasing right back, it's clear. "Now you get to run Homicide--nice cushy job--"
Captain Brass snorts. "Yeah. Well, give the others my best. I'll see YOU tonight on that Zlewiski case."
"Gotcha." Nick makes a gun of his thumb and forefinger, pointing at the captain, and winks at Mom and me. "Nice meeting you, ladies." And he's gone.
Whew. Nick's going to grill me later, but he's too polite to do it here, bless the kid. There's no real reason to hide my relationship with Heather, but if Cath or Sara's part of the crew it could be awkward, and if Gil's there it definitely would be.
Zoë's eyes follow him for a second. I'm not surprised. Nick's a good-looking guy. A little too old for a college girl, but--
I shake my head. I've only just met Zoë, I shouldn't be making snap judgments for at least another hour or two.
"I remember him," Heather says thoughtfully. "He was one of the investigators when poor Mona Taylor died."
"Oh yeah." What a memory--the first time I knocked on the Dominion's door, the first time I saw her--
"When was this?" Zoë asks, a little challengingly, looking back and forth between us.
"Oh, a couple of years ago," Heather says easily. "Remember, I told you, one of my employees was killed accidentally. Mr. Stokes was one of the criminalists who worked on the case."
And what an eye-opener it was for him, too. But I don't say that. The truth is, I'm willing to bet that Nick remembers Heather too, or will put the pieces together very soon.
Our food arrives just then, and that sort of derails the conversation, and I'm a little relieved. I don't know how much Heather tells Zoë about what goes on at the Dominion, or how much she's told her about the deaths connected with it. Not that there have been all that many, but I'm also willing to bet that Heather doesn't want Zoë worrying about her mom too much.
Meeting Zoë is answering a lot of questions I have, and it's showing me a new side of Heather, but it's also raising a bunch more questions. Like, what is her father like? Heather knows a little about my ex, but I know next to nothing about hers--it's just not something we've ever discussed, probably because our marriages are so long over. Why couldn't they make it work? She's scarcely mentioned him, so I figure they aren't really friends, but he's also in a few of the family photos in her living room, which tells me that she probably doesn't hate the sight of him.
Oh well. None of my questions have to be answered right this minute, and there's a big plate of corned beef hash in front of me. Waffle World does a mean hash.
Heather asks Zoë about someone named Noel, and they get into this long discussion that seems to involve as much teasing as it does debate. I work my way through my hash, and eventually one of Heather's pancakes, listening to them and grinning as Zoë gives as good as she gets. It kind of surprises me--Heather doesn't seem so much like a mom right now as an older sister. But maybe that's what you do with daughters who are grown up.
I wouldn't know.
I cut off that line of thought fast. I'm tired, and in an unfamiliar situation, and now's no time to start brooding. And just like that, Zoë turns to me and starts asking about the life of a homicide detective, and judging by the gleam in her eye, I have to wonder just what Heather's been telling her...
Poor Jim. He's learning that while he may be a trained investigator, there's nothing quite like my daughter when she's on a mission to find out all about someone. Her use of psychology is still a little blatant, but she's always been good at drawing people out, and Jim's no different. Before he knows it, he's telling her about growing up in New Jersey, including a few stories I've never heard before...t.p.ing someone's house on Halloween, Jim, really?...and I sit back and enjoy.
It's quite a relief, actually. They like each other. They're still wary, each of them in their own way, but it's clear that they'll get along. And I'm so pleased. For many years there have been two people who were at the core of my heart, and now there are three, and if they like each other it means so much.
Of course, I haven't let Jim and my mother get anywhere near each other yet, but that's not as big an issue as Zoë. I love my mother--make no mistake--but it's best to have a judicious distance between us. She has her old-country friends in Tahoe, and other ladies she can beat at Mahjongg, and we call each other several times a week and I go up and visit every month. And we're both happy.
Though I do hope that Zoë and I will never need the same distance.
Eventually we finish eating, and when all of us yawn at the same time, I start laughing. "Time to go home, I think."
Jim drops us off, declining to come in, saying that he'll see us both later. I don't push. He's obviously not comfortable with the idea of spending the day in my bed with Zoë just down the hall, and I can't blame him--I'm not entirely comfortable with it myself just yet. It's not like our relationship is any kind of secret from Zoë, but all along it has been such a private thing that I'm a bit reluctant to share it with anyone, even my daughter.
Who turns to me, as soon as we're in the house, and looks me in the eye. "I like him, Mom."
I smile. I knew so, but it's still a relief to hear her confirm it. "I'm very glad, my baby. I know he likes you too."
She kicks off her shoes and collapses onto the couch, and I take the other end. We're both tired, but there's time for a good talk before we sleep.
"He really is a visual communicator," she muses. "He watches people."
"He does it for a living," I point out, pulling off my own shoes and swinging my legs up onto the couch. She follows suit in the old happy habit, and we tangle our feet together.
"Does that bug you, that he's a cop?"
"Detective," I correct, automatically. "And yes, it does a little, Zoë." She's watching me, all serious big eyes, and it's interesting to be on the other side of this kind of questioning, born out of love. "But homicide detectives don't run the same risks as beat cops. And he's careful."
"And he doesn't have a problem with your job." Half a question.
"No, child of mine. That's how we met, remember? He came to the Dominion for an investigation. He knew right from the start."
She nods, and runs a hand through her curly hair. She got that from my side of the family, even if it did skip my generation. In a moment of strange clarity I really see her, as though she were a stranger, a poised young lady superimposed over the soul I love.
"Does he make you happy, Mom?"
So many layers to that question, but I can answer them all. "Oh yes. He does, Zoë. Like no one since your father."
She nods again, a firm acknowledgment. "Good. That's all I needed to know."
Then, slowly, she grins her wicked grin. "But not all I WANT to know. Does he snore?"
"Zoë!" And we start to laugh.
Well, that was definitely not the morning I expected.
I peel off my clothes and drop into bed, feeling very tired for some reason. As soon as it looked like things were going long-term between Heather and me, I started expecting to meet her daughter someday, and then when she said she'd be home for Christmas...but Heather didn't tell me her kid was a bit of a practical joker.
Oh well, it's not Zoë's fault, really. There's no way she could know I was going to be at Heather's place at all, let alone by myself.
She's a good kid. That's the first impression I've gotten from this morning. I already knew she was smart, but I'm glad to see she's her mother's daughter in more ways than just that. She seems to approve of me, which is good, 'cause if she didn't we'd have a fight on our hands. And she seems to have no problem, so far, with sharing her mom's time with me.
And I like her. She's bright, polite, and funny. Still a girl in some ways, but she's got a handle on adulthood. I'd lay long odds that I'll never be sent out to her place to deal with the aftermath of some screwup.
So why do I feel so down?
Not a question I want to answer, but I do anyway, because this is not something it's good to hide from. The truth is, I'm jealous. It's one of the reasons I didn't go in with them after dinner. I felt my bad mood coming and I didn't want to take it out on Heather.
Zoë's everything...that I don't have.
It's not just that she's alive while Ellie's dead. That's basic, obvious. Natural. Who hasn't lost someone and then looked around and said "it's not fair"? It's part of the "grieving process," or whatever term they're using these days for missing somebody for the rest of your life.
No, it's that she's everything I wanted for my daughter. Ellie was a good person, a brave and shining soul, but she was so angry. At me, at life, I don't know, but she made all the wrong choices. Hell, the last time I saw her she'd been picked up for smuggling drugs. The truth was, her life was being wasted, and while she might have straightened out eventually, she didn't get the time.
Zoë's a good student, a hard worker, someone determined to make the world a better place. She's making a success of her life on a bunch of different levels. And she and her mom seem to get along just fine.
It isn't fair.
I give myself about twenty minutes to wallow, because I know I have to work through this before I see Heather and Zoë again. And then I tell myself that's enough, and roll over to shut off the lamp.
It's not Zoë's fault, and it's not Heather's, and while it is mine in a way, there's no way to change things. I close my eyes.
Time to stop thinking for a while.
The warm spot on my face confuses me a little when I wake up, until I open my eyes and realize that I'm back at home, and that it's afternoon sunlight peeking through the blinds. I stretch a little, enjoying it. It's weird, but I never seem to have much trouble switching my sleeping schedule to Mom's when I come home. Maybe the jetlag helps.
Switch or not, though, I'm done sleeping for the day. I find my old furry slippers under the bed where I left them the last time, and grab my robe, and go in search of coffee.
Mom's door is still closed, so I figure she's still asleep; when I look at the clock I realize that this is pretty much the crack of dawn for her. But there's a crumby plate sitting next to the kitchen sink, our old signal. It tells me that she got up and made her blood sugar check earlier, and I don't have to worry.
Mom's lucky. Her disease has stayed pretty manageable. It could get worse at any time, we both know that; she could lose her sight, or a limb, or maybe her life. She's careful, but there's always that risk.
I shudder a little, remembering the time that made us come up with the signal. I was only twelve; it took me way too long to wonder why Mom was sleeping in so late. I finally went in to wake her up...and I couldn't.
Luckily, she'd trained me to call 911 if she was even just a little fuzzy, let alone unconscious. We got out of that one okay. But it makes me glad that she has someone around more often now, even though I know Pauline at the Dominion checks on her. And if he's a cop, he's got to have some basic first aid training, and probably won't panic.
I fill the coffeemaker with water, and dig up the beans. Mom's switched brands, and I wonder if that's the captain's influence. She did say he was a foodie.
More power to them. They can trade recipes all night long. Me, I hate to cook.
I'm on my second cup of coffee and the third chapter of a sappy romance novel by the time Mom gets up. I wave as she passes the couch on the way to the kitchen, and eventually she comes back out with her own mug. "Sleep well?" she asks me, taking the armchair.
"Gorgeous," I assure her. "How about you? Nobody to cuddle with last night--"
She tosses a cushion at me, but I can see a little color on her cheekbones. "Careful, Zoë, or I'll start in on Noel."
I hold up a hand in surrender. "Okay, okay. So what's the plan for today? You have to work?"
She arches a brow at me. "Well, since you were SUPPOSED to arrive this evening, I'm not scheduled to be in until midnight. After that, it's Christmas Eve and the Dominion will be closed."
It's the only holiday that the place is closed. Technically, Mom says, she has enough personnel to keep it open, but according to her it makes a good ceremonial break and gives her a little time off, and she also pays extra to have a cleaning and repair crew go over the place from top to bottom. Her maintenance manager, Francisco, is a self-proclaimed atheist--I've met the guy--and loves making a point of supervising the annual overhaul. It all works really well.
"So..." She takes a sip of coffee. "It's about five p.m. We have until...hmm...eleven, say, to give me enough time to change and get to work. It's Las Vegas. Whatever should we do?"
We're both grinning at this point, because we know. Two days before Christmas--it's so going to be a madhouse out there. But this IS Las Vegas. When is it not insane?
We say it together. "Shopping!"
Man, my feet hurt. But it's a good hurt. I collapse on my bed again, surrounded by bags. Mom's just left for work--we ran a bit late--and now I have the fun of going through all the stuff I bought. I always buy more than I think I'm going to.
Oh, that reminds me--I still have some stuff to wrap. I push myself off the bed and open my suitcase again. No time like now, with Mom out of the house.
One of the great things about having the job I do is that I not only make a reasonable amount of money, I see some really gorgeous things come into the store, and I not only have first dibs, I have an employee discount. So this year I have a necklace-and-earrings set for Mom--silver and pearls--very elegant. She'll roll her eyes at me for spending so much, but it'll be worth it. I also have a new Harvard sweatshirt, since she's been griping that her other one wore out, and a couple of other little things I picked up during the year.
The problem was what to bring the captain, 'specially since I hadn't met him. I mean, Mom asked me ahead of time if I minded his coming over for Christmas dinner, and of course I didn't; I've been dying to meet the guy ever since they got serious. But what the heck do you get your mom's boyfriend for Christmas when you don't know him? Mom said I didn't have to get him anything, but yeah right.
So I went with the safe stuff--food. New England food, to be exact. See, that way it's not something available around here, and if he doesn't like it, he can throw it away or give it away, not like some knickknack or something. So I picked up a box of maple sugar candy and some cranberry pepper jelly.
Now, I only have to remember where Mom keeps the wrapping paper.
There's no putting this off any longer. I have to get it done. Tonight.
I hate shopping.
Lucky for me it's a pretty ordinary night at work, which means that I have time to take a lunch break if I force it. So I take it early, and head out for the big bookstore on Tropicana.
I'm a methodical sort of guy, and I always get my Christmas shopping done early BECAUSE I hate shopping. No sense in dealing with the last-minute crowds if I don't have to. And I have to admit, this year, it was almost fun. It's been a while since I had anyone close by to buy presents for--close enough that I could watch while they opened them, if you know what I mean.
Though at least one of those packages is going to have to wait until Zoë's not in the room. Ahem. Thank God for the Internet--just the idea of walking into Jezebel's always weirds me out.
I didn't know if I should get Zoë something or not. It's not a situation that's ever come up before. But we will be spending Christmas Day together, the three of us, at least what passes for afternoon among night owls, and it seems like the polite thing to do.
Besides, I like the kid. And it's always been one of my things, giving presents to people I like. A way of showing affection, I guess.
The place is a madhouse. People everywhere, and bare spots on the shelves. But I'm not worried--I was in here just last week, and I saw the perfect gift for Zoë even if I didn't know it at the time. And my guess is that it's still here.
I ride up the escalator to the Hobbies section, and I guessed right. The table display is still there, a bunch of different books on everything from woodworking to card collecting...including one on vintage jewelry. It's nothing major, just a paperback, but it caught my eye last week because of the Art Deco pin on the cover, and I know that its photos are really good.
I spend more time waiting in line to buy the book than I did finding it, but I'm too pleased at my good fortune to grumble much. Not only that, but the store has one of those charity wrapping stations set up, and I'm more than happy to stick a couple of dollar bills into their pot if it'll generate a nicely-wrapped package. Hell, I'm feeling pleased enough to make it a five.
I stow the present in my desk at work; I'll take it home tomorrow morning and add it to the stash waiting to go to Heather's on Christmas Day. I'm scheduled to go over for a meal at their place after work tonight too.
It felt really good, you know? Telling people who asked me over for Christmas dinner "thanks, but I've already got plans." Not that all that many people asked, but still, when you're a known bachelor with no local family, you do get picked as a sort of charity guest.
Not that I minded in the past. Christmas can get awfully lonely, and getting stuffed with food at Warrick's grandma's place or munching appetizers at Lt. Chang's dinner party is a good alternative to a solo supper and whatever sappy movie's on TV. But this year, I have plans.
And it feels damn good.
The presents will have to wait for tomorrow, but I don't show up empty-handed--I picked up a poinsettia from Husky earlier in the week, and I've got some Christmas cookies too. I know Heather can't have more than a couple at a time, but I'm willing to bet that Zoë will help make 'em disappear.
It's Zoë who answers the door, and the big grin she gives me goes a long way towards reassuring me that we're okay. "Come on in, Captain," she says, holding the door open, and I hand her the cookies as I pass by.
"Merry Christmas. Call me Jim, okay? 'Captain' reminds me too much of work."
She looks a little surprised, but not displeased, so I figure that's okay. Heather appears in the kitchen doorway, looking great in jeans and that purple blouse, and the place smells heavenly. Twelve Clove Chicken again if I don't miss my guess.
Heather's smiling, and I walk over to give her both the plant and a kiss. Nothing too intimate, but definitely a good hello kiss, and she doesn't hesitate to return it. "Merry Christmas," I tell her.
"And to you, Jim. Thank you." She lifts the pot for a better look, and I glance back into the living room. Zoë's opening the cookie box, not looking at us now, but she's got a little smirk, and I relax just that much more. Okay, no problem with kissing in front of the daughter.
"What can I do?" I ask, shucking my jacket and walking over to put it in the hall closet. Heather puts the poinsettia on the end table near the couch.
"Wash up, and then you can make the salad."
I nod, and start rolling up my sleeves as I head for the bathroom.
Zoë's setting the table when I come out, and she gives me another grin. "Great cookies. Where'd you get them?"
She's teasing me, and I smirk back. "House of Brass, actually. Good bakery, even if they only have a limited selection."
She laughs, and I wink and start assembling salad ingredients.
Dinner's...easy. That's kind of a strange way to describe it, I guess, but it is. We were feeling each other out yesterday, Zoë and me each trying to figure out what the other person was like and Heather waiting to see what we decided, but today we've got the basics down, and we can get to know each other. I've pretty much got over my little fit of jealousy, or at least put it away, and I can look at Zoë and see a nice young woman who's sweet and smart and still has a little growing up to do--not a symbol of what I've lost. We laugh and eat and talk, the three of us, and if I still feel a little bit of an outsider, that's okay. This is a family, here, and a good one.
Whether I can become a part of it is something to think about later.
When we run out of room for food, we move to the living room for a game of Trivial Pursuit. Heather and I have played before, one on one for some interesting forfeits, but it's a different game when it's three-way, and it turns out that Zoë's got her mother's competitive streak. She doesn't really stand a chance against the two of us--we've had more years to memorize trivia--but she doesn't go down easy. And when I win, and Heather glares at me for a laughing second, Zoë applauds my victory, which feels ridiculously good.
We break for cookies, and then I have to call it a night. I stop off in the bathroom, and when I come back I lean on the doorframe for a minute, watching Heather and Zoë. They're taking turns reading questions from the game and making up silly answers, and a pang goes through me as they laugh. I'm happy because they're happy, but at the same time...
I shake it off. Melancholy can wait until I'm by myself.
I say goodnight to Zoë, and Heather walks me to the door and leans out to give me a last kiss. "What are your plans for tonight?"
I shrug. "Work. Midnight service at First Methodist. Then more work."
She lifts a brow. "Do you want us to move dinner to the evening so you can get some sleep first?"
It's sweet of her to offer, but-- "Nah. I'm looking forward to the morning, believe me." I give her a slightly evil grin, and she scoffs at me with a smile.
"Very well, Jim, we'll see you then. Don't be late, or Zoë will raid your stocking for the chocolate."
"Yeah, that's what she said about you." I have to laugh when her eyes narrow.
"I see a little mother-daughter talk is in order. Have a safe night, darling, and we'll see you in the morning."
I watch Jim's car pull away, then lock the door and return to the kitchen. Zoë's just finished loading the dishwasher, and I start running water into the sink for the pots. "Do you want to go to Christmas Eve service tonight, my baby?"
I suppose I shouldn't still call her that, but in a way she will always be my baby. And she's never complained about it.
"Sounds nice." She pours in detergent and shuts the washer, and I can tell she's got something on her mind. "He's troubled about something, Mom."
I'm proud of her. She's always been empathic, but she doesn't really know Jim, and he's very good at concealing his emotions when he wants to.
Of course, he can't hide them from me. And over the past months, I've learned what that particular crease in his forehead means, what endless little loop he's circling. Or, rather, who.
"He misses his daughter," I say quietly.
"Ohh." Zoë sits down, eyes widening. "Oh, right. Christmastime, family, right."
I have to smile. My daughter, the precise scientist...usually. She looks up at me. "How old was she?"
We've only spoken of Ellie once, when Jim had to go to New Jersey, and I only told her the bare facts; it wasn't something I felt comfortable discussing with anyone at the time. But now Zoë and Jim have met, and approved each other.
"About your age, I think." I add dish soap to the water. "I never met her, Zoë, so I can't tell you much, but I understand she was a free spirit, and she and Jim weren't on very good terms."
"Mm." She winces. "That must make it harder."
"Yes, it does." Almost infinitely, I think; Jim will forever be plagued by regrets as well as loss.
I sink the first pot in the water, and Zoë gets up, fetching a dishtowel and looking thoughtful. For a little while we share silence, me scrubbing and she drying and putting away.
Finally, as I remove the sink plug and Zoë folds up the towel, she speaks. "He must be feeling very alone this year. Even with you."
This isn't the psychology major talking. This is my big-hearted little girl, who could never pass by someone in trouble without stopping to help.
"I expect so." I look at her, my precious daughter, who is whole and healthy and with whom I have never had an argument that lasted more than a day, and I realize yet again how fortunate I am.
I take two steps forward and put my arms around her, and she hugs me back, and we just stand there for a bit, holding each other against all the world's sorrow and loss.
Sometimes I think that the only true light--aside from God, if you believe--comes from the human heart.
When our arms loosen at last, Zoë has a speculative look on her face, and I know she's up to something.
"Mom...I have an idea."
It's a tradition with me. No matter how many Sundays I don't make it to church; no how many times I look at the wreck of life that gives my job its purpose, and doubt; no matter how little I consider the work of Hands, if there are any--I make it to Christmas Eve service. I like to joke that my mother will rise from her grave in Jersey and come haunting me if I don't go, and it makes a good story when I'm scheduling along with every other cop who wants that night off, but the truth is I need it. I need that time, that moment to remember and hope.
It makes it a little easier most years because I'm not too picky about which service I go to. It doesn't even have to be Protestant, or at night, though that's what I prefer. I can go at high noon to anyplace that has candles and an altar. It's not as--mysterious--during the day, of course, but we creatures of the night can't be too picky.
This year, though, it feels...I dunno...more important, somehow. And I can tell you why.
Y'see, growing up, Christmas for me was pretty much textbook, all the things it should be for a kid. Presents, stockings, anticipation, snow and cookies and even choir singing before my voice changed. I grew out of it, of course, and the traditions pretty much fell by the wayside when my dad died, but when Ellie was born I started them up again. I mean, Christmas is for kids, right? At least it should be, if possible.
The first few years it was great. It didn't matter how much Karen and I argued during the rest of the year, or even the day before; Christmas Eve would roll around, and we'd put it all away, and concentrate on making our daughter smile. Even when we split up, it stayed special. Ellie would stay with her mom and stepfather on Christmas Day, but Christmas Eve was mine; it was a given. We'd go out for dinner, and swap presents, and go to the late service, though Karen always claimed that didn't make Ellie sleep any later the next morning. I'd slide into a pew and hold that little hand in mine, and listen to her sing.
She couldn't carry a tune worth a damn, but ask me if I cared.
That worked right up until the year she was thirteen, but that was the year our relationship fell apart anyway. After that--well, she had some excuse as to why she couldn't make it, even when I was back in town for a visit.
This year I need to go. More than usual. I got my name in early, so I could take the time I wanted. I've got the church picked out, a clean tie in my locker, and an extra hankie in my pocket. Because I think I'm going to need it.
It was bad enough after my mom died. Christmas brought back all the memories, and I'd sit in the back the first couple of years so nobody could see me. This year...this year it's going to be ten times worse.
It's a kind of penance, I guess. There's a reason I've picked First Methodist Church of Las Vegas, beyond the fact that it does a nifty midnight candlelight service.
A few years back, about five I guess, Ellie came by to visit. She'd had a fight with Karen, and wanted to get away for a while, and it surprised the hell out of me that she came even though I'd told her my door was always open. She was here for three days and nine hours; we had an argument on the way home from the airport, and a huge fight just before she left. But it was Christmas, and in between, we went to church. This church, in fact.
It was like Karen and I used to do, only it wasn't even deliberate. The minute we stepped into the sanctuary, all our problems and hurts seemed to be left outside. It was the most peaceful time we'd spent with each other in years on end. We shared a hymnbook, and I lit her candle with mine, and she sang.
She still couldn't carry a tune.
And now, as I slide into a back pew, it's her image I've got in my head as the organ warms up with "O Holy Night." Her hair shimmering in the candlelight, her voice wandering somewhere near the tune, her little smile up at me when they passed the collection plate, her hand squeezing mine for just a second when we walk out the doors.
Oh, Ellie. My baby girl. I'll never get another Christmas with you. No more chances to make peace between us.
It's a good thing I remembered that extra handkerchief.
The congregation is standing now; we must be about halfway through the service because they're starting to pass the flame for the candles. I pull mine out of the hymnbook pocket in front of me and stare at it, waiting tiredly for the flame to make it back here. There's nobody really close by, I'll have to edge down the pew to get it.
I lose track of time for a second, drifting with the choir music. In a city of so many souls, in a church crowded with worshipers, I feel empty. And old.
And then there's somebody at my elbow, somebody holding out a candle to light mine.
I look up, and I have to blink a couple of times before I can connect the face with the place. It's Zoë, smiling her mother's smile, offering me the light.
The knot inside my chest eases. Slowly I hold out my candle, and she touches it with hers, and the new flame makes the sanctuary just that much brighter. As I pull it back, a hand slips into my free one, and I look over to see Heather on my other side. She's smiling her daughter's smile, and holding out her own candle.
I light it. Heather laces her fingers through mine, and the three of us stand there together and sing, and somehow what was empty in me starts to be filled. And when my face gets wet again, it's Heather's handkerchief that takes care of things.
I don't know where Ellie is now, and I figure that if she's watching now she's rolling her eyes a little. But it's Christmas. I'm pretty sure she's singing.
I just hope the angels don't mind.