Note: I don't own Four Brothers or Fairy Tale by Blue October
I haven't been quite the same
So sure the story of my life would never change
"I don't see why you waited until now to buy a tree." Jack blew on his frozen fingers in a futile attempt to warm them up. It wasn't working. Detroit, as usual, was fucking freezing.
"Didn't want you to miss out on all the fun, Princess," Bobby said as he wandered around the lot for the third time. Buying a tree on Christmas Eve meant you were left with all the shitty trees nobody else wanted – a fact that was somehow lost on his older brother who seemed determined to find the perfect tree, or in the very least get one for dirt cheap.
"Hey," Bobby shouted at the guy leaning on the makeshift counter the diner had set up in the parking lot. "How much for this one?"
Jack could hear the guy sigh from clear across the lot. "It's marked," he answered, not bothering to look up from the newspaper he was reading.
"I can see that it's fucking marked, but I want to know how much you want for it."
Jack rolled his eyes and looked up at the cloudy sky for some divine intervention. It was going to be a long day. He was barely recovered from the trip home from New York that had been immediately followed by the world's longest Christmas pageant ever. Every grade in Daniela's school performed a skit. Every goddamn one of them. At first it was cute but by the time the fourth graders rolled out their off-key rendition of Jingle Bell Rock, complete with interpretive dance, Jack was ready to stab someone with a candy cane.
At least Daniela kept up the Mercer family tradition of never letting an opportunity to make a fool of yourself go to waste. Her class performed Rudolph as well as any group of six year olds could be expected to perform Rudolph. Half were terrified and staring at the audience like they were facing down the world's largest firing squad and the other half were singing loudly and two beats behind the woman playing the piano.
Around the time Rudolph started to bitch about being called names, Daniela decided she was going to twirl in place. Around and around and around. Jack sat up straighter in his seat, trying not to disturb Amelia who was asleep in his lap, and he watched, waiting for the inevitable. His niece finally stopped spinning, just as the music wrapped up. She wobbled for a second or two, clearly dizzy and then her legs gave out from under her and she plopped down, butt first, onto the stage.
Bobby jumped up from his seat, clapping loudly and whistling through his teeth. The crowd of parents sitting near them erupted in laughter and Jerry awkwardly reached over Jack, trying to grab a hold of Bobby to force him to sit down. Bobby simply dodged to the left, avoiding Jerry's grasp as he started chanting, "Encore." Angel was standing off to the side in the aisle and he looked over, giving the thumbs up. He'd caught the whole thing on video. It was a classic Mercer moment and it made Jack's long trip home worth it.
Now Jack was wondering if he was about to experience another classic Mercer moment: getting arrested for stupid shit Bobby does. The tree guy was ignoring Bobby and, well, you don't ignore Bobby, that just adds fuel to the fire.
"I asked you how much for the tree," his brother barked a second time.
"And I answered you. It's marked." Jack sighed. Great, tree guy was going to argue back. "You're lucky I don't charge you double for coming out here on Christmas Eve."
Jack took a step toward Bobby. "Let's just get it and go," he said wearily.
"No, I wanna know what happened to this asshole's Christmas spirit? You ever hear of that, jackass?" He stalked up to the cash register. "Merry Christmas? Deck the halls? Fa la la … all that happy shit?"
The guy raised his head, his expression blank. "I'm Jewish."
Somehow they were able to make it home with the tree and without having to post bail.
Now Jack was in his room, the door shut, blinds down, guitar untouched across his lap as he stared at the ceiling. He was trying to write a song, the lyrics just out of reach, the tune trying to break free from the clutter in his mind.
Bobby wanted to start decorating the tree right away, but the minute they went into the basement to start bringing up the carefully labeled boxes, Jack felt claustrophobia and panic sweep over him. Maybe it was the box that said "Jack" that did it, the box full of the ornaments Evelyn had set aside for him for when he had a home and a family of his own. She did it for all of them, swearing they would be thankful one day even if they couldn't care less at the time.
He left the basement before Bobby could make some half-assed joke and then he locked himself in his room, surrounded by all the reminders of growing up in that house. He remembered joking to Bobby that Evelyn hadn't changed anything, and it was true – his room was just as frozen in time as hers had been. The posters were the same, the desk, the dresser he couldn't believe at the time was his and only his, the pictures he had on the shelf above his bed, the crap scattered all over the place. He'd been back home for a year, but redecorating hadn't been his number one priority.
He was starting to think he should have toughed it out and not run off to New York back in November. Maybe the whole "It's been a year" thing would have eased over him gradually, instead of smacking him in the face the minute he stepped back into the house. Part of him knew he'd made the right decision, though – in some ass backwards way, running away had made him realize just how screwed up his life was. He'd been standing still ever since he'd gotten out of the hospital, idling in neutral, not caring if his life ever moved forward.
Now he had his music to think about, a career to figure out and …
He sighed, lightly strumming his guitar.
He couldn't stop thinking about Kathy. How could you miss someone after just being with them for a few hours? It didn't make any sense.
He wished Evelyn was there so he could talk to her about the whole thing. She'd know what to do, would help him sort through the jumbled mess of his feelings. If anything, it would give her a chance to say, "I told you so."
"Pick your favorites," Evelyn insisted and Jack shrugged as he slumped onto the couch, grabbing a pillow and propping his feet up on the coffee table. She gave him that look – the one that said he was going to have to answer her if he had any hope of getting on with his life.
"Whatever," he mumbled, pulling at the pillow's frayed trim.
She was standing in front of him, knee deep in boxes, holding out a pair of ornaments she had just taken off the tree. It was February and the Detroit fire codes had won out and Evelyn had finally decided to take down the Christmas tree. Jack didn't dare sneak a smoke within a twenty foot radius of the thing because it looked like it could spontaneously combust at any second.
He had a feeling she held onto that tree so long because in her mind taking it down would mean it was time for Jack to leave. He'd wanted to go the second he was handed his diploma, but he'd promised his mom he'd get a job and save some money before hightailing it for New York. He was itching to get his life started, but part of him felt guilty that he'd be leaving her behind in an empty house.
He knew she also wanted him where she could keep an eye on him to make sure he was clean for good. He'd screwed up so badly and disappointed her so completely, but she stood by him, never letting go when he needed her the most.
Because he was the only one left in the house, he'd been "volunteered" against his will to help take the tree down. Jerry had his place with his family, Angel had been overseas since January, and Bobby was … well, Bobby was where ever in the hell he happened to be – he hadn't even bothered to call that Christmas, let alone show up for dinner and presents.
"I want to set aside the ones that mean something to you so that you'll have them for your family."
That stopped his brain in its tracks. Family? People like him didn't have families, did they? He couldn't imagine himself coming home every night from work, kissing his wife on the cheek, tucking his kids in for bed, reading them a story or two. Maybe if things had turned out differently, maybe if he hadn't grown up in the system, maybe then things would be different. But he just felt like he was wired wrong; something had been broken in him ages ago and try as she might, Evelyn Mercer couldn't put everything back together again.
He stared at the ornaments in her hands and really studied them for a minute instead of blowing if off like he'd been doing with everything else lately. The one in her right hand was just some random Santa he couldn't even remember seeing before. The one in her left hand Bobby had handed to him that first year he'd been with them, joking that the fairy should put all the fairy ornaments on the tree. It was delicate and pretty and the girliest ornament Evelyn owned.
Sighing, Jack pointed at her left hand and from the glint in her eye Jack knew she remembered Bobby's attempt at breaking the ice with the new kid at Christmas.
"That wasn't so hard, now was it?" she asked and he shrugged again, eyes downcast, shoulders hunched. Carefully sitting the ornaments on the table, she motioned for him to scoot over and make room on the couch so she could sit down next to him. She nudged his arm with her elbow. "What's bugging you today, Jackie?"
"Nothing," he said, his voice tired and flat.
"You never were a good liar, kiddo."
He smiled at that. "It just …" he faltered and took a deep breath. He sucked at these heart to heart things. "It feels stupid to pick out stuff for when I have a family of my own."
She narrowed her eyes. "What's so stupid about that?"
He shrugged for the millionth time, studying the ink under his fingernails from his marathon songwriting session the night before. "I dunno. I mean … guys like me …"
"Guys like you?" Evelyn pushed just like his therapist always did. Last time he had a session, the woman told him she was going grey because of how frustrating it was to get him to talk. He didn't think she was going to miss him when he moved to New York.
Evelyn was staring at him, waiting for him to answer. He closed his eyes, focusing just on the words, forcing them out. "Guys like me don't have the happy endings, Ma. We just don't."
"Jackie," she said firmly, yet quietly. It was that tone she got with him when she wanted him to know he was not a complete waste and that she believed in him. It was a tone he'd heard a lot growing up. "I know it's hard to believe because you're eighteen and you're itching to get out on your own with your band and you have all these dreams to chase, but one day you're going to find someone special."
Jack snorted a laugh. "Right."
Evelyn grinned at him, her eyes crinkling up in the corners. "I am right, sweetie. Trust me. One day. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not in a year. Hell, maybe not in ten years. But one day, you're going to find that girl who is so perfect for you that every doubt you've ever had will disappear." She patted him on the knee. "And she's going to love you for you and not care about your past and your scars and the things you try so hard to hide. That's how love works."
He felt tears prick behind his eyes and he wanted to scream at himself for being such a baby. Keeping his voice steady, he said, "If you say so …"
"I know so."
The room was stuffy and warm. Sofi insisted on having a fire lit in the fireplace, despite the fact that Bobby had cranked the heat up to what felt like a hundred degrees earlier in the day. She also wanted the lights dimmed to "set the mood" and then she insisted Jack play some Christmas music. So there he was, sweating his ass off as he strummed his guitar, playing the saddest Christmas song he could think of. He tried a cheerful one at first, but it didn't work.
Bobby groaned and Jack shut his eyes and started to hum, trying to block him out.
"Jesus, Jack, can you at least try for something a little less depressing. Santa just jumped off the roof and Rudolph's got a gun in his fucking mouth."
Jerry sighed dramatically and glared at his older brother. "The kids, man." Daniela and Amelia were playing Barbies behind the Christmas tree and not paying an ounce of attention to Jack and his guitar, but Jerry was convinced they were storing away every curse word Bobby ever uttered in their presence. He was probably right.
"Hey, whatever, Jer – you want your kids to sit here and listen to The Twelve Depressing Days of Christmas, that's up to you." Bobby took a swig of his beer, a half full cup of eggnog abandoned on the end table next to him.
Camille walked up behind him, returning from the kitchen with a plate full of store bought cookies. She swatted him on the arm. "It's romantic and pretty. Women like pretty and romantic things, Bobby. You should take notes."
Bobby snorted a laugh. "Chicks, man. You'll fall for anything."
"Like you know anything about women," Sofi joined in, crossing her arms over the swell of her pregnant stomach. She was six months pregnant and Jack couldn't decide if he should be happy or horrified for Angel. Watching the way Angel had walked around in a confused daze ever since finding out he was going to be a father, Jack had a feeling Angel didn't know how to feel about the whole thing either.
"I know plenty," Bobby bit back and Jack coughed through a sudden laugh. Even without looking up, he could tell his brother was glaring at him.
"Why don't we do one present each tonight," Camille interrupted. "Jack, I heard you got the girls something really special."
Jack took a long drag off his cigarette, ignoring the cold as he got his nicotine fix. It felt good to be out of the house - the whole family thing was making him feel trapped, like the walls were closing in on him.
His mind drifted to Kathy and her tiny apartment and he wondered what she was up to – if she was feeling just as lonely as he was. He had no idea what was wrong with him – home was home and this was his family and he should be happy to be with them, and he was, but it was a hollow happiness. Something was missing.
The back door opened, flooding the backyard with a very loud and very disorganized drum solo. It slammed shut, but the noise was only slightly muffled. "Hey, Bobby," Jack mumbled, staring at the ground.
Bobby walked over to the tree stump Jack was sitting on, kicking the aged bark with his boot. "So, it looks like we're stuck with moody-Jack now, is that it?"
Jack looked up and squinted at his big brother. "Huh?"
Bobby rolled his eyes. "Don't give me that 'huh' shit. You know what I'm talking about. You've been cranky as hell since you got home yesterday."
"So? What's it matter to you?"
"It don't matter to me, but I don't feel like being sent after your ass by every female in this family because they think you need to talk."
Jack was still confused. "You got sent after me?"
"Yeah, and ten bucks says they're watching from the window right now."
Bobby had his back to the house and Jack leaned forward a bit, peering around his stocky frame to get a clear look without being too obvious about it. He blew out a sigh with an exhale of smoke, grinding his cigarette out on the stump. "Yeah, they're watchin'."
Bobby stood there for a minute, staring down at him, an angry look on his face. "Well, talk."
"About what?" Jack wished he was anywhere but there at that moment. Pouring out his heart to Bobby was never high on his to-do list.
"Whatever in the hell is bugging you. It's cold and I want to go inside. So fucking talk before I pound you into the ground."
"Jeez, Merry Christmas to you too." Bobby took a step forward and Jack flinched. "Okay, fine. It's just stuff."
"Stuff? What the fuck kind of answer is 'stuff'?"
"Life stuff. I dunno. I want to talk about this even less than you do," Jack said, pushing off the stump and, shoulders hunched, walking toward the backdoor.
When they got inside, the impromptu rock band was in full swing. Daniela was swaying back and forth, plucking at the guitar strings with all her might. Jack made a mental note to get a supply of strings because he had a feeling he was going to be restringing the poor thing in the not too distant future. Amelia was pounding away on the drums and Angel was laughing and clapping along.
Jerry walked over to Jack when he entered the family room. He leaned close, so Jack could hear. "What did I do to you, kiddo? I thought we got along good. Drums, man? That's just cruel."
Jack shrugged. "Figured I needed backup band."
"Does that mean you're volunteering to keep all this here at your house?" Camille said, rubbing her temples.
"No fucking way," Bobby jumped in. "The drums are going home with you."
Jack was about to add something else when he stopped. There was a sound that definitely wasn't coming from the drums or the guitar. Something out of place. It happened again and he sighed with relief. The doorbell. He could escape, even if for a second.
"I'll get that," he announced loudly over the noise.
"Probably the cops – here to haul Jerry's kids away to jail for all the noise," Angel said with a laugh. At least one member of the family saw the humor in Jack's gift.
Jack swung the door open and stopped so suddenly he almost stumbled down the front steps.
"Hi, Jack," the person on the other side said softly.
"K-Kathy?" he stammered, certain his mind was playing tricks on him. But there she was on his doorstep, a cab pulling away from the curb and a suitcase and bags at her feet.
She bit her bottom lip, looking just as awkward and unsure of herself as she had that first day they'd met outside the buses in middle school. "Yep. It's me. Happy Holidays."
"What …" he started, his mind suddenly blank.
"Well, I had the turkey and it was defrosted but way too big for just one person and you had said that Bobby probably forgot to buy one so I thought I would just bring it here so it wouldn't all go to waste, but now I know that was just a silly idea and you have your family and you guys are busy and I'll just be going. The drums sound great by the way; and I'm sure I can just find a hotel that takes cats since I brought Horatio with me since no one was home to watch him and he can't stand to be away from me for even a - "
Jack gave up on waiting for her to take a breath and he stopped her rambling with a kiss. The kiss deepened as she took a step up and he took a step down, her hands grasping his waist and his fingers trailed over the nape of her neck. She moaned softly into his mouth and he grinned as a sense of contentment, of rightness settled over him. Pulling back, he looked down at her. "I missed you," he said and she smiled.
"I missed you, too."
They stared at each other and it took Jack a few minutes to realize that it had grown quiet – too quiet. Glancing over his shoulder, he let out a groan. Everyone, kids included, had their faces pressed against the porch windows, watching the show.
Clearing his throat, Jack said as nonchalantly as he could, rocking back on his heels. "So a turkey and your cat?"
"Yep," she said with a nod. "You don't mind?"
"Nah, not at all. Bobby's allergic to cats, so it's perfect." He took her hand in his and laced their fingers together. "There's this song I've been trying to write," he said quietly, leaning down, his eyes locked with hers.
Kathy tilted her head to the side, the orange pompom on her hat dangling in the air. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Maybe you can help me write it?"
"What's it about? More sad stuff?"
"Nah, not this time. It's about this girl I know."
Kathy's eyebrows arched above her glasses. "Oh."
Running his thumb over her knuckles, he looked at the ground, suddenly feeling like a bashful teenager asking out his first date. He couldn't stop the corny shit that was pouring out of his mouth and for some strange reason he didn't want it to. "She's pretty special," he said. "I think she might be the one."
She took a deep breath. "You don't say."
"Just need some help figuring out the ending."
Kathy reached up and brushed his hair off his forehead. She smiled and finally said, "I think I can help with that."
"I was hoping you'd say that." He held the door open as she stepped into the house and his family immediately swarmed over her. He watched for a second before turning to grab her bags from the sidewalk. Something stopped him, though, a familiar sound he hadn't hear in forever. His mind was playing tricks on him, but then he heard it again. A soft chuckle that sounded just like his mom. He turned and saw her sitting there in her rocking chair, a length of yarn in her lap as she knitted a scarf. She looked up at him, a twinkle in her eye and she winked.
"Told you so, Jackie."
A/N - Yep - it's the end. For real, lol. Thank you so much for reading and to everyone who reviewed and all my friends at GHMB for letting me bug them as I was writing. I'm going miss Kathy, so don't be too surprised if she shows up in stories later on down the road. Now I need to get back to Write Your Own Song and that darn cliffhanger I left it on ...