Part Six - All I Want For Christmas
Tommy reached for the carved chest on the top of the bookcase. Glancing over his shoulder to make sure the girls were still occupied with getting ready, he raised the lid and unburied a small black box. Opening the case, he smiled, grateful to know the contents were still there.
You would have had this six Christmases ago if I'd have had it paid off, he mused, studying the glittering piece of jewelry thoughtfully. Why he had never taken it back, he couldn't say. Perhaps he'd been hoping against hope . . . . Maybe if you would have had this with you back then . . . .
However, there was no point in dwelling on the past. Just then, the phone rang, and Tommy tucked the box away. Soon, he promised himself.
"Tommy, can you get that?" Kim called out as the incessant ringing continued.
"Got it!" he confirmed. "Hello?"
"Tommy? It's Kenny."
"Hey man, what's up? Do you want me to get Kim?"
"Nope. I just wanted to tell you mission accomplished. Go ahead and send your letter."
Tommy had held off sending his missive to Mrs. Dumas on the advice of Kim's dad. Ken recommended that he and Kenny work on Caroline first to smooth the way for his note.
"That's awesome! How'd it go?"
"It wasn't easy. Mom was as surprised as all get out when I told her that I had found Kim, but the minute I started talking about the rape and the baby, I'm afraid she started in on that 'no good, long-haired, son-of-a-bitch of a boyfriend of hers' . . . ."
"Gee, and I used to think that she liked me," Tommy mused wryly. "How'd you change her tune?"
"I offered to fax her the hospital and police records that Dad subpoenaed. Mom got really quiet after that, so I went on to give her the details as if I didn't know she already knew about them."
"You didn't accuse her of turning her back on Kim or anything, did you?" Tommy asked anxiously; he'd been so careful not to do that in his letter, not wanting to make it any more difficult for Caroline to talk to Kim again than it already was going to be. He had even pulled Kim's journal entries from the packet.
"I didn't need to; I could almost hear her doing it to herself. You know, I almost feel sorry for Mom."
"What would you have done if she had asked for the faxes? Your dad didn't really subpoena the records--did he?" How could Ken have done that? Wouldn't he have needed Kim's signature or something?
"He sure did. One of the papers he had Kimberly sign while they were busy with the paperwork was a release form; although, I don't think she knew what it was."
Tommy remembered Kim and her father going over some financial papers--something about a small inheritance from an aunt. "Your dad isn't planning on doing anything like dredge all this up again, is he?"
"Dad would love to nail those bastards for miscarriage of justice or dereliction of duty
or something! With the descriptions Kim gave of her attackers, the police should have been able to find those creeps! It doesn't look to me like they even tried!"
Which had been Kim's perception, too. "Kenny, Kim may not want him to open the case again," Tommy pointed out worriedly.
"Dad knows he can't do anything without Kim's say so."
"Tommy, we're ready!" Olivia sang out as she scampered down the hall.
"I'll be right there, Princess," Tommy assured her. To Kenny, he said, "I've got to run. I'll get that sent out right away. Thanks, man."
"Thank you for doing this for Kim. Good luck; you're going to need it."
Tommy hung up the phone as Kim emerged from her bedroom.
"Who was that on the phone?" Kim asked.
"A salesman," he fibbed. As they headed out the door, Tommy paused to retrieve an envelope--stamped and ready to go--from the computer desk. "Do you mind if we stop by the post office on the way to the mall?"
Since Kim's father and brother had been in town the whole of Thanksgiving weekend, the three had had to postpone their visit to Santa. Secretly, Tommy had been hoping that the mall would be less crowded since it wasn't the official opening weekend of the Christmas shopping season (and really, Christmas shopping season opened way before Thanksgiving anymore); however, his hopes had been in vain. He, Kim, and Olivia bided their time in quite a lengthy line to have a talk with ol' St. Nick.
"I don't believe this," Kim sighed.
"How long we've been standing here?" Tommy wondered.
"No, I have to go to the bathroom," she sighed.
Tommy chuckled softly. "I thought you went before we left."
"I did," Olivia piped up.
"I was so busy worrying about you that I completely forgot about me."
"You can go to the potty, Mommy; me and Tommy will stay in line," Olivia offered.
"But I don't want to miss your visit with Santa."
Now Kim really did sound like Olivia--too busy and not wanting to miss anything to take a break for the necessities of life, like the bathroom or sleep! However, Tommy did his best not to laugh out loud. "Don't worry; we've got quite a while yet. We'll probably still be right here when you get back."
With another frustrated sigh, Kim slipped under the que rope and hurried off.
"I didn't want to say anything to Mommy, but I'm kind of scared," Olivia whispered as she clutched Tommy's hand more tightly.
"Why? You've been to visit Santa before, haven't you?"
Olivia shook her head. "Mommy would try to take me, but something would always happen and we couldn't get to see him before he was gone."
Intentional or coincidental, Tommy wondered. He could understand why Kim would have been reluctant to let Olivia visit Santa; if she'd asked for something Kim couldn't have afforded . . . Kim wouldn't have wanted Olivia to be disappointed. "Surely Santa brought you presents at Christmas."
"He did. Mommy would help me send him a letter when we missed him."
"Well, you don't have to worry about meeting him, Princess; Santa is the nicest person you could ever know."
"Tommy, is Santa really real?"
"Of course he is," Tommy answered.
"But that's not the real Santa up there, is it?" Olivia pursued. "He can't be because there's a Santa here, a Santa at the other big mall . . . there are Santas all over the place; they can't all be real."
Tommy had to think fast. Other interested ears were listening besides Olivia's. "The way my father explained it to me is that the Santas you see in the stores and everywhere are Santa's deputies; even Santa needs to have a little help. He can't be everywhere at once except on one special night of the year when his magic is the strongest--Christmas Eve. Santa gives his deputies each a little of his special magic so that whatever they hear, he hears. This is also how he knows who's been naughty and nice throughout the year."
"Nice save," the woman standing directly behind Tommy remarked.
"And he has other helpers--the elves to help him make the toys," Olivia added brightly. However, her little brow furrowed in consternation. "In Kindergarten the other day, Mrs. Blackman showed us a picture of the North Pole--where Santa's castle is supposed to be, but there was nothing in the pictures. How come?"
"More of Santa's magic," Tommy asserted. "Only those people who really believe in Santa can see it and then only on Christmas Eve."
"I bet that keeps it safe from the bad people who don't like Santa," Olivia reasoned. "Do you believe in Santa, Tommy?"
"I sure do, Princess," he replied, recalling a certain Christmas from what seemed like a lifetime ago.
"But not everybody believes in Santa," she pointed out. "Jamie from my class doesn't believe in Santa; she's Jewish, and her family has something called Han--han . . . ."
"Hanukkah," Tommy supplied.
"That's it. It has something to do with lots of candles," Olivia continued.
"There are lots of people all over the world who don't believe in Santa Claus."
"Does that make them bad people, and does Santa hate them because they don't believe in him?"
"Sweetheart, Santa doesn't hate anybody," Tommy said. "Just because someone doesn't believe in Santa doesn't mean he or she is a bad person. Santa loves everyone regardless of what they believe, and he respects their beliefs--just as we all should.
"You see, Santa and Christmas, however it's celebrated, are all about goodness, kindness and love. Other people may have other beliefs, but I think it's pretty safe to say that all people believe in goodness, kindness, and love. That's what really matters, not how you celebrate those things."
To Tommy's embarrassment, several of his listeners softly applauded.
"Well said," murmured a passerby who wore a yarmulke.
"More difficult questions?" Kim asked with amusement as she returned.
"Tommy was just telling me all about Santa," Olivia responded.
"So I gathered," she murmured; she gave Tommy's had a squeeze. "You never cease to amaze me."
"So, um, what are you going to ask Santa for?" Tommy wondered, trying to extricate himself from the more difficult topic.
"I'm not sure. Can Santa really make your wish come true?"
"If you've been a good girl . . . ."
"Have I, Mommy?"
"I think so."
". . . and it's something that you really, really want with all your heart and soul," Tommy continued then noticed Kim's inquiring gaze. "That's what my folks always told me. Mom and Dad told me not be greedy or selfish but to ask Santa for the one thing that I wanted more than anything, and if it was the right thing for me, Santa would grant my wish."
"Does Santa ever not give you what you wish for?" Olivia asked worriedly.
"Only very rarely," Tommy answered.
"But with his magic, can't he do anything he wants?"
"He won't give you something if it's hurtful to others or yourself, and there are some things that even Santa can't change." His tone was suddenly sad.
"What didn't Santa bring you that you wanted with all your heart?" Kim wondered, picking up on his melancholy.
"My real parents," Tommy replied. "The year I found out I was adopted--I was about Olivia's age--I asked Santa to bring my real parents back."
"And I thought not getting an elephant had been devastating," she murmured, thinking of her own childhood Christmas disappointments.
"I was so hurt that Christmas morning . . . and my folks tried to explain, but I wouldn't listen. I was pretty disillusioned about Santa until we got a letter a few weeks later. It was addressed to me from Santa. He said he tried, but all that he was able to find out was that my real parents were dead, and that not even he could bring back someone who died."
"That was sweet of your folks," Kim whispered.
Tommy nodded and whispered in reply, "They were so good about the whole thing; instead of being hurt, they really seemed to understand." For Olivia's benefit, he continued, "At least I knew Santa had tried, and sometimes, when you make a wish, it doesn't come true for a long time--until the time is right."
"Oh?" Kim queried.
Tommy flashed her an impish grin. "The year after that I wished for a brother!"
"So, Sweetheart, do you know what you'd like Santa to bring you?" Kim asked, returning to the original questions. Olivia's turn was next.
"I sure do!" she chirped.
"Gonna enlighten us?" Tommy wondered.
"I can't. If you tell a wish, it won't come true," Olivia insisted, and then Santa's helper came over to escort her up to Santa's chair.
"Now how are we supposed to find out what she wants for Christmas," Kim sighed with exasperation.
"We could always do what my dad did with me: take her to a toy store and see what grabs her attention," Tommy suggested.
"Sh! Maybe we can overhear . . . ."
"So, Olivia, what is it you want for Christmas?" Santa queried.
"All I want for Christmas is . . . ." Olivia leaned forward and whispered her request into the Santa's ear.
Tommy would have given anything to have known what Olivia said because he had never seen anyone look as completely flabbergasted as Santa did as Olivia sat back.
"What did she ask for?" Kim hissed, also taken aback by the man's expression.
"That's all you want for Christmas?" Santa gulped, trying to regain his composure.
"Uh huh," Olivia asserted.
"That's a pretty big wish, and Santa might need a little help with it."
"Just try, Santa. Please?" Olivia flashed him her biggest, most sincere puppy-eyes.
"Very well. However, is there anything else that you'd like?"
"I don't know; a pink bike of my very own so I don't have to ride Tommy's old one all the time would be okay, but I really want the other thing more."
With that, Santa handed Olivia a candy cane and sent her on her way. Before Kim or Tommy could slip away from Olivia to ask Santa what Olivia's request had been, another child scrambled up into his lap. They were left to puzzle over the mysterious request as Olivia all but dragged them off into the mall.
"Can we go see all the pretty trees and lights now?"
* * *
"You know something, Mommy; it sure doesn't seem like it's almost Christmas," Olivia complained on a particularly dreary Sunday afternoon.
Kim was inclined to agree. Christmas was just slightly over three weeks away, and yet for some reason, it just didn't feel like the holiday was right around the corner.
"I think I know why," Kim finally realized.
"Look around. What's missing?"
"Christmas decorations!" Olivia exclaimed.
Between working and trying to sneak in the shopping, the trimmings had gotten lost in the shuffle. They didn't even have a tree yet.
"Right. Why don't we fancy this place up while Tommy is out helping his uncle," Kim suggested.
Kim looked around to see if she could find Tommy's decorations but couldn't seem to locate them. He had to have some somewhere; Tommy always loved Christmas time. However, even though they couldn't find his holiday baubles, she knew were theirs were. She and Olivia may not have had much, but at least they had always managed to deck out their small room for the season.
It wasn't long before Kim had popcorn popping so they could string it for garlands, and Olivia was busy cutting and pasting colorful strips of paper to make a chain.
"How about we cut some snowflakes for the front window?"
"I'm big enough to help cut them this year," Olivia asserted.
Kim retrieved a pile of paper from the printer tray and started folding. Olivia looked to be the soul of concentration as she notched the paper with none-too-sharp safety scissors.
"Mommy, will I ever get to see real snow?" she asked suddenly.
"Of course you will. How about next Saturday after Tommy and I get finished with work, we all drive up to the ski resort in the mountains, and you'll get to see lots of snow."
"Really? All right!"
Tommy's nose was filled with the aroma of fresh popcorn as he opened the door, and the sights and sounds that immediately impacted him thereafter left him all but speechless. There were paper snowflakes and stars taped to the living room window, paper chains hung about the doorway, and on the coffee table sat a tiny Christmas tree. It couldn't have been more than the top portion of an artificial tree, but it was hung with colorful, homemade ornaments. Kim, her back to the door, was winding a garland of popcorn around the branches, and as she worked, she sang:
"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Everywhere you go . . . ."
He had forgotten what a beautiful singing voice she had.
"Olivia, stop eating the popcorn!" Kim chided suddenly.
Tommy felt his heart swelling with his surging emotions. He hadn't given decorating for Christmas a thought. Last year, he hadn't bothered. His heart just hadn't been into it, and it seemed pointless since he had spent the holidays with his folks. But seeing what a difference the simple touches Olivia and Kim made drove home the fact that his apartment had been very, very lonely this time last year.
"Mommy, where can I hang my sock?" Olivia queried, holding up a red and white bootie with her name emblazoned in glitter on the cuff.
"And how will Santa get in here to fill it since we don't have a chimney?" Tommy asked, announcing his presence.
"He'll come in through the window just like he did in Florida," Olivia answered, her tone telling Tommy that he was being dense.
"So, what do you think?" Kim inquired.
"You two have done an awesome job," he replied. "I should have done this sooner . . . I have a whole bunch of ornaments and things around here somewhere--stuff Mom's been saving for me for years."
"I looked but couldn't find anything."
"I think I know where they're at."
"Mommy, can I ask you something? What does Santa do if you ask for a present that won't fit under a Christmas tree?" Olivia wondered.
"He'll find some place to leave it," Kim assured her.
"Well, if you asked for something too big to put under a little tree, we'll just have to get us a tree big enough to put big presents underneath," Tommy interjected, his eyes lighting up at the thought. "Come on; grab your coats and let's go."
"Go where?" Kim asked.
"To get a Christmas tree."
"But we have a tree already," Olivia insisted.
"And it's a wonderful little tree, but I want to get a special one for our first Christmas together."
"Slow down, Tommy," Kim scolded as she struggled with her end of the plastic-bagged bundle. She was still shaking her head in amazement at Tommy's behavior. He was almost as giddy as a little kid.
"Whoa!" Tommy yelped as he momentarily lost his footing on the stairs and their burden shifted.
"Thomas Oliver, don't you dare fall on me!"
"Don't squish Mommy!" Olivia squeaked.
"Just open the door, Princess; this is heavy," Tommy grunted. None too soon they squeezed their load through the doorway and scarcely had it inside when Tommy started undoing the bindings.
"Why don't you wait until we know where we're going to put it," Kim recommended reasonably.
"How about right smack dab in the middle of the room?"
Kim merely gave him a hands-on-hips, don't-be-absurd look which took none of the air out of Tommy's bubble of happiness.
"Okay, how about against the far wall in front of the painting?" he compromised.
"Are you sure this tree is going to fit?" Kim wondered. Tommy had spent what seemed like hours searching for what he considered the perfect tree. "It's awfully tall."
"It's not that much taller than I am, and I clear the ceiling with room to spare."
"You're not going to be propped up in a tree stand either."
"Don't worry; it'll fit." So saying, Tommy stood the tree up on its trunk--or rather tried to stand it up. Kim rolled her eyes and shook her head. Olivia giggled.
"So we need to take a little off the bottom," he conceded sheepishly.
"I'll go down to the truck and get your tool box," Kim offered, biting back her laughter.
"There," Tommy declared happily, standing back and regarding the evergreen with satisfaction. It as yet sported no trimmings, but it was standing up straight--finally.
"We are going to be picking up needles for a month of Sundays," Kim sighed, wincing as she stepped on a sharp quill. "Why a live tree? Wouldn't an artificial one have been a lot easier?"
"Just take a deep breath," he instructed, inhaling. Then, he let out a pleased sigh. "Doesn't that take you back to Christmas time when you were Olivia's age?"
Indeed it did. Kim could remember bubbling over with excitement, scarcely able to sit still while her father and brother set up the tree. She had wanted to start decorating right away! Oh, and how the smell of that pine tree would fill the house. She could remember just sitting there watching the twinkling lights and smelling that wonderful fragrance.
"A real Christmas tree," Olivia breathed in wonder, her eyes saucer-wide and bright with excitement.
Kim felt warm all over as she basked in her daughter's joyous glow. Then, she noticed that Tommy wore almost the exact same expression. "As gorgeous as it is, don't you think we should fancy it up?"
"Come on, the boxes are under my bed," Tommy said, and the three of them quickly retrieved them.
"Where did you get all these?" Kim wondered as she began unpacking the ornaments.
"My grandparents mostly," Tommy explained as he attempted to untangle the lights. "Every Christmas since I was a baby, my Grandma and Grandpa Michaels would give me an ornament for Christmas. After they died, Aunt Elsa continued the tradition."
"That's a very good idea," Kim said with a meaningful glance at Olivia who was busy ogling the star for the tree top.
"Already taken care of," Tommy assured her softly.
"Some of these are absolutely gorgeous," she murmured as she examined a delicate angel of blown glass.
"Dad would bring things home from the places he'd travel to on business trips. Grandma Sarah divided up her ornament collection a few years ago, and my folks set Dad's share aside for me. That's where the lights and a few other goodies came from. The treeskirt was one my grandmother crocheted."
"That is so neat; I wish my family had traditions and stuff like that."
"You're welcome to share mine," Tommy offered.
Kim found herself blushing, wondering if Tommy realized just what that sounded like.
After several hours of tangled strings of lights, burned out bulbs, ornaments placed here then moved there, knotted garlands, and needle pricks, the trio stood back to admire their handiwork.
"Only one thing left," Tommy declared, holding up the star.
"Who gets to do the honors?" Kim wondered.
"Can I?" Olivia asked eagerly.
"How about we all do it," Tommy suggested.
"What do you mean?" Kim queried.
"Olivia, you take the star; Kim, you pick up Olivia while I pick up you."
Kim yelped as Tommy hoisted her up, and the three nearly toppled over into the tree, but they somehow managed to get the star in place.
It was almost dark outside, and Tommy shut off all the lights in the apartment except for the tree lights.
"It's the most beautifulest Christmas tree I've seen in my whole life," Olivia murmured.
"You know what, Princess; I think you're right," Tommy agreed.
As they stood in the glow of the colored lights, he slid his arm around Kim's shoulder, and she leaned into him. She noticed that they each had a hand on one of Olivia's shoulders, and she remembered her childhood again, standing with her parents before the newly decorated tree just as she and Tommy and Olivia stood now.
* * *
Tommy groggily rolled over and looked at the clock as the clamoring of the phone pulled him out of a sound sleep: 05:30.
"Aw man, go away!" Tommy groaned. Who in the hell would be calling at this hour of the morning? He was seriously tempted just to roll back over and bury his head under his pillow until the infernal device stopped ringing; however, the caller was being very persistent, and he was the one who had forgotten to turn on the answering machine. If he didn't get it, the noise was liable to wake up Kim and Olivia. Blearily, he plodded into the kitchen.
"Hello," he mumbled around a yawn.
"Is this Tommy Oliver?" a tremulous, accented voice on the other end queried.
Not at this hour of the morning! he thought with a surly grumble. "Speaking."
"I'm sorry . . . I know it's early there, but I just got your letter, and I simply couldn't wait any longer . . . ."
"Who is this?"
"Caroline Dumas. Kimberly's mother."
That was more sobering than a whole pot of sludge--which Tommy promptly put on to brew. Before he could say anything further, Caroline continued to ramble on anxiously.
"Did you really mean what you said in your letter--about Kimberly wanting to talk to me? Please, Tommy, you have no idea . . . . I'm sure she must have told you what happened between us. I never meant to do that to my baby! I never meant to cut her out of my life, but I was just so hurt and angry . . . when she told me, I didn't want to believe her . . . . I wanted so much for Kim, and her life was ruined just like mine was . . . I blamed her. I blamed you . . . ."
"Calm down, Mrs. Dumas," Tommy said when he could get a word in edgewise.
"I didn't want her to have to give up everything the way I did! I just didn't think . . . I didn't know she'd react like that . . . . I didn't mean to say such hurtful things! I wanted to apologize, but I didn't know how. I've wanted to talk to her for so long, but I was afraid that she hated me--and deservedly so . . . . Oh, god . . . .!"
"It's all right, Caroline; just take it easy," Tommy tried again to soothe her, feeling rather at a loss as to how to handle Kim's distraught mother. He'd been more prepared for cold fury, not repentant tears. "A lot of things got said and done in the heat of the moment that folks didn't intend to say and do. All that matters now is putting those things to rights."
"Can you ever forgive me . . . for what I said about you . . . for what I've done . . . ?"
"It isn't my place to offer you forgiveness; that's Kim's. However, I would never have sent that letter if she wasn't willing to work things out. Do you really want to talk to her and get things straightened out?"
"More than anything! Will you help me get in touch with my daughter?"
"Of course, Caroline."
"Bless you, Tommy . . . ."
"Tommy?" Olivia interrupted sleepily, tugging at the legs of his pajama bottoms.
"What are you doing up, Princess?" Tommy wondered.
"The phone woke me."
"I'm sorry, Tommy. I should have thought . . . I didn't mean to wake your daughter," Caroline apologized.
"Actually, that's Olivia," he replied, inspiration hitting.
"O-Olivia? You mean Kim's daughter?"
"Yes. Would you like to talk to her?"
"Who are you talking to, Tommy?" Olivia wondered.
"Mrs. Dumas; she an old friend of your mom's. Do you want to say 'hi?' I've gotta run down the hall a minute."
"I guess so."
"I'll be right back." Tommy handed Olivia the phone and as soon as the tot began to talk, he hurried down the hall to Kim's room.
"Kim," he called out as he entered.
"Huh? Wazzat the phone?" Kim mumbled.
"It's for you."
"Me? At this hour? Who is it?"
"They said it was important," Tommy answered evasively, trying to bite back a grin.
"Okay, I'll be right there."
Leaving Kim to get out of bed, Tommy returned to the kitchen.
"Okay, Princess, I'm back," he announced.
"Aw . . . ." Olivia pouted. "I gotta go, Mrs. Doo-ma; Tommy's here. Yeah, it was nice talking to you, too. Bye!" Olivia handed the receiver back to Tommy.
"Enjoy yourself?" Tommy queried as he took over.
"T-that was my granddaughter? She's such a bright little thing."
"She's a very special girl--just like her mother."
"I-is Kimberly there as well?"
"Uh huh, and here she is," Tommy declared as Kim ambled into the kitchen.
"Tommy, wait, I'm not sure I'm ready . . . ."
But Tommy never heard the rest of Caroline's protest as he handed the phone to an expectant, sleepy Kimberly.
"This is Kim . . . ." she began uncertainly, and Tommy hastily grabbed a chair as Kim went white and an expression of shock filled her face. She sank limply into the seat. She flashed Tommy a wild, almost frightened look, and he urged her on with a smile and a nod. "M-mom?"
"Come on, Olivia; let's give your mom some peace and quiet," Tommy suggested softly, ushering the puzzled little girl into the living room, allowing Kim to have her reunion in private.
"Why did Mommy call Mrs. Dumas 'mom?'" Olivia wondered.
"Because that's who she is."
"You mean that was my real grandma?"
"Wow!" Olivia gasped. "How come it sounds like Mommy is crying?"
"Sometimes, when grown ups are very, very happy, they cry," Tommy explained.
"That sounds silly!"
Cartoons weren't even on yet, and Olivia was much too excited to go back to sleep, so Tommy popped a video in the VCR for her. They had scarcely fast forwarded through the previews when Olivia announced, "I'm hungry; can I have some cereal?"
On his way to the kitchen, Tommy picked up the box of tissues. His back was to Olivia, but he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye; turning to look, he found the girl standing before the Christmas tree fingering this or that ornament. It'd been more than a week since they had put up the tree, but she was still fascinated with it. Tommy watched her for a few moments but didn't say anything. Kim had told Olivia not to play with the ornaments, but she wasn't hurting anything. He smiled fondly then headed on to the kitchen.
Clearing the doorway, he noticed that Kim had pulled the chair over to the table; the way she leaned against the surface gave him the impression that the piece of furniture was the only thing holding her up. She hadn't the strength to do it on her own. Tears coursed down her cheeks in tiny rivers which she made no move to wipe away. Without a word, he set the tissues down next to her; however, before he could set about fetching Olivia's breakfast, Kim caught his hand and held him fast.
"Uh huh," she mumbled into the receiver, her voice choked with her overwhelming emotions. She gave Tommy's hand a fierce squeeze as she beamed up at him. "Yes . . . me, too. Okay, Mom . . . I'll talk to you later . . . I-I love you, too."
Almost in a daze, Kim hung up the phone.
"That was a quick call," Tommy noted softly.
"She's going to call back later when I'm more awake and we're both calmer," Kim said numbly.
"Sounds like a good idea to me," he agreed.
"Oh, Tommy, you were right! It was just like you told me," she sniffled. "Mom never meant for this to happen, and she's been just as scared to get in touch with me as I was to get in touch with her."
"So now what?"
"We still have a lot of things to discuss. We both know it's going to take some time to get everything worked out and rebuild our relationship, but . . . I have my mom back!" Kim threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "Thank you, Tommy; thank you so much. First my dad and Kenny, now this . . . ."
"Hey, all I did was send a letter; you and your mom were the ones who decided to take the risk and try to reach out to each other after all this time," he replied, returning the embrace and softly stroking her hair.
Just then Olivia wandered into the kitchen. Tommy noted her arrival and was puzzled by the look on her face. She regarded him and Kim as if she knew something they didn't.
"What's wrong, Mommy?" she asked, concerned.
"Nothing, Sweetie," Kim assured her, wiping her eyes and opening her arms to her daughter. Olivia scampered into the hug.
"Then why are you crying?"
"Because I'm happy."
"Are you and your mommy friends again?"
"Yes, honey, we are."
"Goody! Now I have another grandma!"
Kim gave Olivia a jubilant squeeze, and Tommy laughed and tousled her hair.
"Tommy, I'm still hungry," Olivia declared plaintively.
"You're always hungry," Tommy teased. "Maybe I should start calling you 'Rocky.'"
Olivia giggled and stuck her tongue out at him.
* * *
Kim could not suppress the grin which spread across her face as she wrote across Dr. Carter's bill with a triumphant flourish: PAID IN FULL. For a moment, all she could do was sit there and stare at the check and the statement; there had been times when she despaired of ever seeing this day, and she wanted to savor the moment.
Of course, it hadn't quite come by her own efforts. She had her father and Great Aunt Madelyne to thank for it. She and her father had gone 'round and 'round Thanksgiving weekend about the issue of financial assistance.
"I don't want your money! Don't you understand? This is something I need to do on my own!"
Ultimately, she had told him that if he really wanted to give her money to set up a college fund for Olivia. However, the inheritance was another matter. Her father's aunt had never married, and upon her death, she had made bequests to her nieces and nephews (Kim's father had been one of her favorites), and in some cases, great-nieces and -nephews. That was money Kim felt entitled to. It wasn't a large sum; although, it had accumulated some interest in the time her father had held it for her. Yet, it was enough to pay off Dr. Carter and a few of her other small credit cards debts and, most importantly, Tommy.
That was something she wanted so desperately to clear up: her debts with Tommy. She felt like such a hypocrite talking about not accepting her father's charity when she was still accepting Tommy's. She wouldn't really be able to feel good about herself until she could honestly say that she could stand on her own two feet. Paying off the money she owed him went a long way to getting her on the right track.
Now, if I can just afford a place for Olivia and me to live so I wouldn't have to rely on Tommy for that, too . . . .
Kim set the bills aside and reached for the classified ad section of the newspaper.
Tommy headed into the kitchen with an armload of groceries. He noticed that Kim had her bills spread out all over the table, but remarkably, he found her smiling! That had never happened before.
"What's up?" he wondered as he began putting the food away.
"Some good news," she answered, bounding up from her chair happily.
"While doing your bills?" he queried warily.
"Uh huh. Here."
"What's this?" he asked as she handed him a check. Then, she handed him the billing statement he had generated at her insistence. He noticed that it said "paid in full" in big red letters.
"Just what it says," she responded.
"But how . . . ?"
"The money Aunt Madelyne left me. I had enough to cover one large bill and several smaller ones, leaving me with my Visa and the hospital bill."
"I can't accept this, Kim," he demurred, handing the check back to her. She refused to take it.
"Why not? After all, we agreed that I would pay you back."
"When your other obligations were taken care of."
"Tommy, please. I want to pay you back," she insisted. "It's the very least I can do; rightfully, I owe you for back rent and utilities and groceries . . . ."
"Kim, you don't owe me anything for living expenses; we've been over this," Tommy sighed. "I'm not paying anything to live here; I own the building now. And as far as utilities go, I'm not using that much more electricity or water than I did before you guys lived here."
"I just don't feel right letting you take care of all this for me. I want to be able to pay my share," Kim asserted.
"I know you do, and you will, when you can. Right now, though, you have other expenses you need to take care of."
"Actually, I'm pretty close to a point where I think I can contribute, even with my last two bills," Kim announced with a bright smile.
"Yeah, come see." She dragged him back over to the table. Tommy hadn't paid much attention to the newspaper, but now he saw that she had circled several ads in the classifieds. Next to the notebook with her figures were last month's utility bills. He began to feel very uneasy, a nervous lump forming in the pit of his stomach.
"I've found some apartments for rent," Kim began. "They're small, one bedroom places, but a couple are in this area so I wouldn't have to change Olivia's school. It'd be rather like living in the dorm again, but the rents are reasonable. I estimated the utility expense based on your past charges. With food and a monthly bus pass and making minimum payments on my bills, I figure that once I get Christmas paid for Olivia and I could move into a place of our own--probably around February or March. We wouldn't have a lot left over for extras or anything like that, but still . . . ."
Tommy felt like someone had kicked him in the stomach. From the start, Kim had said that she hadn't intended to stay with him indefinitely--only until she got her feet under her--but why did it have to be so soon?
"Tommy?" Kim prompted when he didn't say anything. "Is something wrong?"
"N-no," he stammered, trying to get a grip on his emotions.
"Isn't that great?" she beamed happily.
He couldn't bear the thought of Kim and Olivia moving out, and he murmured without conviction, "It's wonderful news." The thing was, he knew how much being able to hold her own meant to Kim. As miserable as the thought made him, he had to say, "I'm so happy and proud of you."
"I know I'd have to borrow some furniture and a few things, but . . . ." she gushed, heedless of the light that had faded from Tommy's eyes as he listened to her enthusiastic plans.
* * *
"Oh, Maggie, I just can't believe it!" Kim chirped as Maggie handed her the end of the garland to fasten over the top of the door frame.
They were part of the bevy of parents helping decorate the Youth Center for the annual holiday party for the children of Little Angel's Haven. This year, Kelly's junior high class was a sponsor, and she had asked Kim and Tommy to be chaperones along with her mother.
"After all this time, I'm finally going to be able stand on my own!" Kim continued in an elated rush.
"That's wonderful, Kim," Maggie congratulated her.
"Yeah, but I don't think Tommy thinks so," Kim remarked, glancing over to where Tommy was helping Olivia put the star on the top of the Christmas tree. Suddenly, Kim recalled Tommy and another little girl placing a star a-top the Youth Center tree; unlike that long ago Christmas, there seemed to be no happiness in Tommy now. Although he was smiling, there was a sadness about him; his smile never seemed to reach his eyes.
"I was going to ask if you had had a fight," Maggie said delicately. "The two of you have seemed so happy together since Thanksgiving . . . ."
"I don't know what it is."
"Maybe he received some bad news."
"Actually, I think I first noticed him being so gloomy right after I told him about being able to afford to my own place."
"As I said, maybe he received some bad news."
"What do you mean?" Kim wondered, not following Maggie's train of thought.
"Kim, are you really planning on moving out of Tommy's place?" Maggie asked, "because I think Tommy believes that you are. He really loves you and Olivia, and having you live with him has brought him a lot of happiness--anyone who knows him could tell you that. I think he's afraid he might lose you again if you leave."
"I guess I hadn't thought about it from his perspective."
"I think maybe the two of you need to have a little talk."
"You may be right. I'll sit him down after we finish up here. Would you hand me the sprig of mistletoe?"
Tommy cast about trying to see where Olivia had wandered off to. There were so many children underfoot . . . . He finally spied her with Min oohing and aahing over the presents under the tree. Then, he looked around for Kim. He located her over by the doorway working on decorations with Maggie. He sighed; he knew he shouldn't let Kim's announcement about wanting to move out get to him, but he couldn't help it. He didn't want her to go.
Then why don't you just tell her!
There were other things he wanted to tell her as well, but now . . . . He thought of the little black box hidden away a-top the bookcase. There was no way he could give it to her now. It'd come across as a bribe to get her to stay and not a genuine token of his love, and if she accepted it, how could he ever be certain she did so because she felt the same way or because she felt she owed it to him. No, that was going to have to wait a little longer, too.
He noticed that Maggie had wandered off, and someone had taken the step ladder Kim had been using. Presently, she was jumping up, trying to reach something in a way that made his heart ache with deja vu. She was trying to hang the mistletoe.
"Hey, need some help?" he queried as he wandered over.
"Yes, I do," she answered, handing him the sprig.
He reached up and fastened it to the garland. "There you go."
"Thank you!" And she playfully offered him her cheek to kiss. Without Bulk and Skull to interrupt them as they had once upon a time, Tommy gave her the requisite peck, but it lacked real feeling. Kim frowned at him. "Tommy, what's wrong? You've been moping around for days," she said.
"I know. I'm sorry," he sighed.
"Is it because of what I told you about being able to move out?"
"Yes," he replied, deciding he had nothing to lose by being up-front with her. "Kim, I don't want you and Olivia to move out. These last five months have been the best five months that I can remember. I enjoy having you guys around; it'd be very lonely without you."
"Oh, Tommy . . . ." she sighed with a kind smile as she smoothed a hand up and down his arm. For a moment, she couldn't meet his imploring gaze, but when she did, it was with bright eyes and a glowing smile. "Just because I'm able to move out doesn't mean I will."
Tommy just stared at her, uncomprehending and unable to find his voice.
"Olivia and I will have to move out eventually--simply because we'll need more space as she gets bigger, but until then, as long as you'll have us, there's no real reason for us to move. Your apartment is home now, and I don't want to disrupt Olivia's sense of security if I don't have to."
"You're not moving out?" Tommy stammered.
Kim shook her head.
"Then what was all that talk about the apartment and budgets and . . . ?"
"It was important for me to know that I could move out if I wanted to, that I could make it on my own and support Olivia. I needed to know that I wasn't just depending on you. I'm staying with you because I want to, not because I have to."
"You're not moving out!" Tommy declared happily, and he pulled Kim into a fierce hug. Then, for the sheer joy of it, he lifted her into the air and spun her around.
"Tommy!" she laughed as she flew about.
"You have no idea how happy you've made me!" he insisted. "I have been going nuts ever since you started talking about leaving . . . ."
"Did you really believe you'd be rid of us just like that?" Kim smirked. "Olivia would make my life a living hell if I made her leave! However, we are going to renegotiate the terms of our living arrangement. Once the dust from Christmas settles, I want to start contributing financially."
"And I want you to pay off your other bills first," Tommy insisted, "but we can discuss this later, right now . . . ."
"Mommy! Tommy! Guess what!" Olivia chirped excitedly as she raced up to them and began tugging on their clothing.
"What is it, Princess?" Tommy asked.
"You're standing under the misty-toad," she announced.
"Mistletoe," Kim corrected.
"An' Mrs. Maggie said that the rules say that when two people stand under the misty-toad they have to kiss," she declared with a look of triumph in her expression.
Both Tommy and Kim shot Maggie inquiring gazes, and she assumed a "who me?" air of innocence then went back to decorating. The two turned their attention to each other.
"So . . . ?" Kim began, chewing on her bottom lip, a tiny, bashful grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.
"You know you don't have to if you really don't want to," Tommy assured her more out of habit than anything else. Kim hadn't displayed any fear of being close to him in a while.
"But I want to," she replied, grabbing his jacket and pulling him closer. "After all, I love you."
Tommy's eyes went saucer-wide at her admission, and before he could say anything, Kim pressed her mouth to his in a lingering, emotion-laden kiss. Tommy had forgotten how soft and warm Kim's lips were and how well they seemed to mold against his own. He tightened the embrace, kissing her back with the full force of his pent up emotions. The exchange left them both more than a little breathless when they finally parted.
"Besides," Kim continued with a mischievous grin, glancing down at Olivia, who was just beside herself with delight, "it's the rules."
* * *
"That's the last of it," Kim declared with a yawn, placing the package under the tree. She inhaled deeply, the strong pine scent filling her senses. Looking over the explosion of brightly colored paper and ribbons, Kim shook her head. "It just seems like so much...."
"Those aren't all for Olivia, you know," Tommy reminded her as he put the finishing touches on the training wheels of a pint-sized pink bicycle. "There are yours, mine, my parents', your parents' . . . we really didn't go overboard."
"I can't believe my Mom's going to be here the day after Christmas," Kim murmured for the umpteenth time that day. They had received a Christmas card from her mother, and in it was a note with her flight information. She and Adrian were joining them for the holidays. "I'm going to see my mother for the first time in almost six years!"
"Hey, none of that," Tommy chided her gently, wiping a glistening teardrop from her cheek. He wrapped her in his arms, and Kim relaxed into the feeling of warmth and security that rushed through her--a feeling that was still very much brand new to her, and one that she was grateful to know.
"Thank you, Tommy. For everything. I've never seen Olivia so happy; she's going to remember this Christmas forever."
"What about you? I'd like to think that I've made you happy, too," Tommy said quietly, "because having you and Olivia here has brought me more joy than I can say."
"You have, Tommy; you have."
Tommy crossed over to her and pulled her into a gentle hug. "I love you," he murmured.
Kim rested her head against his chest. "You know, when you first told me that, I almost couldn't believe you. I didn't think I deserved your love after everything that's happened."
"Do you believe me now?"
"Yes. That night, I wanted so badly to tell you how I felt, but I didn't think I had the right--not until I knew I could say 'I love you' and know that it wasn't just out of gratitude."
"Do you have any idea how badly I wanted to hear you say that?" Tommy sighed.
"About as badly as I wanted to say it," she responded with a grin. "I love you, Tommy."
Tommy reached for her chin and gently tilted it up.
"We're not standing under the 'misty-toad,'" Kim teased quietly.
"Do we really need it?"
Their lips met, and the two were lost in a kiss that seemed to envelope them completely in the warmth of their emotions. So involved were they that they jumped when the clock struck midnight.
"Merry Christmas, Kim," Tommy murmured.
"Merry Christmas, Tommy," Kim replied, barely able to tear her lips from his. Then, Tommy released her, and she frowned puzzledly as he reached into the branches of the tree.
"I have been wanting to give you this for forever," he announced eagerly as he pulled out a small, gold foil-wrapped box and presented it to her.
With trembling fingers, Kim untied the ribbon and tore away the paper. Inside the white cardboard she found a black jeweler's box. She looked up at Tommy with brimming eyes, her heart pounding in her chest. Tommy took the box and opened it, revealing a sparkling diamond solitaire ring.
"I've always wanted to give this to you," Tommy repeated, sliding the ring out of the notch. He held her left hand, softly stroking the back. Kim shivered with the memory of the first time he had ever done that to her--the afternoon they shared their first kiss. "I fell for you the moment I laid eyes on you, and as that deepened into love, I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you. I'd like for you to spend the rest of your life with me--as my wife. Kimberly, will you marry me?"
Time seemed to stand still for Kim as she looked up into the depths of Tommy's love-filled, imploring eyes. There were still so many fears and uncertainties locked inside her that she hadn't even begun to address yet--things that would affect a relationship with Tommy. However, she now knew and truly believed that she could face them--and overcome them.
"Yes, Tommy, I will."
Kim could not believe the joy she felt swelling in her heart as Tommy, with trembling fingers, slid the engagement ring onto her finger. Happy tears spilled down her cheeks as he crushed her in a jubilant hug.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," he whispered over and over, holding her as if he'd never let her go. Kim knew she'd never let him go--ever again.
When he finally released her, all she could do was stare at the glittering rock perched on her finger. "I can't believe it," she murmured.
"Me either," Tommy confessed, his relief evident. Kim placed a hand over his heart and found it pounding a mile a minute.
"So, were you more nervous about asking me to marry you or asking me out that first time?" she teased.
"I'm not sure. If my ribs still hurt when I wake up in the morning, I think proposing will be the winner."
Kim flashed him a radiant smile. "How long have you had this? Since October?"
Tommy ran his hand up under his hair and around his neck. "Actually, I've had it since before you went to Florida."
"Well, not actually had it, more like paying on it," he confessed. "I wanted so badly to give this to you before you left, but . . . ."
"Have you any idea how badly I hoped you'd do something like that back then?" she laughed. "That Christmas, I wanted more than anything for you to propose or ask me to stay or something! I guess you were right when you told Olivia that sometimes Santa doesn't give you what you want until the time is right."
The two stood in each other's arms for a long, long time, reveling in the warmth and safety of their love.
"You know, we should probably get to bed," Kim murmured. "Olivia's liable to be up in a few hours."
"I know. It's just that I still can't believe you said yes," Tommy replied, taking Kim's left hand once again and regarding the token he had placed upon her finger. "It looks so small," he sighed. "I wanted to get you a larger one, but back then it was all I could afford. We could always take this one in and . . . ."
"No. Don't you dare!" Kim insisted. "I don't want any other ring but this one. It means more to me because you got it for me at a time when all we knew was that we loved each other; we didn't know what it meant to be hurt or frightened or lonely. We do now, and this ring--and our love--made it through those dark times, and both shine just as brightly now as they did then."
She hoped Tommy understood what she was trying to say and saw that he did.
Just then the pair heard a plaintive cry. Kim quickly disengaged herself and hurried down the hall; she paused in the doorway of her room and discovered Olivia sitting up in the big bed, not really awake. She shivered with cold. Kim groaned.
"Oh, Sweetie . . . ."
"What happened?" Tommy asked, coming up behind her.
"Someone had an accident in my bed," Kim sighed resignedly. "I guess she was so excited about Santa and everything that she forgot to go to the bathroom."
Tommy bit back a chuckle, and the two of them tended to the mess. Kim dressed Olivia in fresh panties and a nightgown while Tommy stripped the bed. He brought in the Lysol to spray down the mattress as Kim tucked the girl back into her trundle bed.
"This is just wonderful," Kim muttered as she rummaged through her drawer for her own nightwear. She grabbed the first thing she laid her hands on. She snatched up a pillow then marched out to the hall closet to grab a spare blanket. "I hope Santa doesn't mind me sleeping on the couch."
"Kim, take my bed. I'll sleep on the couch; it's not all that comfortable," Tommy offered.
"Couldn't prove it by you on Sunday afternoons," Kim said. "You're always sprawled all over the thing."
"That's to avoid all the lumps," he quipped.
"I'll be fine, Tommy."
"If you're really sure, but if you change your mind, come wake me up, and I'll trade," he said.
Kim popped into the bathroom to get dressed for bed and blushed when she realized just what she had grabbed to wear to bed: Tommy's pajama top. She hadn't returned it after she had borrowed it last August. Somehow, though, she found it fitting.
When she emerged all ready for bed, she found that Tommy was, too--dressed in the mates to her top. The two shared sheepish smiles. He had also fixed up the couch for her.
"Now, you're sure you don't want to trade places?" he asked again.
"Trust me; if I can't sleep, I'll be in to wake you. I don't want to be cranky for the best Christmas my daughter will ever have."
"All right. 'Night, Beautiful."
"Good night, Tommy."
Kim tossed and turned, and tossed and turned some more. Finally, she sat up and looked at the clock. It was almost two. She groaned. Tommy hadn't been kidding about the couch. Maybe I should have bought him a sofa for Christmas, she mused ruefully. As much as she hated to, she was going to have to take Tommy up on his offer. Pillow tucked up under her arm, she plodded down the hall to Tommy's room.
He had left the door open, so she wandered right in. He lay splayed out on his bed most comfortably; Kim sighed enviously.
"Okay, Tommy, your turn to have the couch," she said around a yawn. She sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to shake him awake. He didn't even budge. "Aw, come on, Tommy; this is not fair."
Kim blew a strand of hair out her face. Tommy was sound asleep. With a frustrated sigh, she flopped back on the bed, trying to figure out just how she was going to get some sleep.
A sharp jab in the ribs brought Tommy almost out of his deep sleep. His eyes flickered open, and the mocking numbers on the clock read 03:00.
"C'mon, Sweetie, quit hogging the bed; scoot over and give mommy some room," said a sleepy voice, followed by another poke in the back.
Tommy rolled over, startled into wakefulness. To his amazement, Kim lay snuggled up next to him. He had absolutely no idea how she got there, but if she wanted to share his bed instead of crashing on the lumpy couch, he had no complaints. She was pulled into a tight ball, shivering as if cold. He reached down and pulled the blanket up over both of them. Then, he lay on his side, gazing at Kim and gently stroking her hair until he lulled himself back into a contented sleep.
* * *
"Tommy! Tommy, wake up! I can't find Mommy!"
Wakefulness was not slow in returning as a thirty-some-odd-pound bundle of energy pounced on him most insistently. Tommy unburied his head and smiled up at the concerned tot. "Merry Christmas, Princess."
"Tommy, where's Mommy?" Olivia repeated.
"Easy, honey, Mommy's right . . . ."
Tommy grinned from ear to ear as Kim woke up and found herself in his bed. Her expression of surprise and confusion were priceless.
"Mommy, why are you sleeping in Tommy's bed?" Olivia wondered.
"I was sort of wondering the same thing myself," Tommy interjected teasingly.
"I came in here to boot you out onto the couch; I don't know . . . ." she began, totally flabbergasted. Then, she shrugged sheepishly. "I guess when I couldn't wake you up, I just fell asleep again."
"I don't mind," he said more softly. "I think I could get used to waking up next to you really quickly."
Kim flushed scarlet and brushed the hair out of her eyes.
"Ooh, Mommy, what a pretty ring!" Olivia gasped. She grabbed Kim's hand and pulled it towards her for a closer look. "Where'd you get it?"
"It was my Christmas present from Tommy," Kim answered with quiet pride.
"Is it what you always wanted?"
"Yes, honey, it is. Very much so."
"Can I ask you something?" Olivia continued without letting either adult get a word in edgewise. "On TV and stuff, mommies and daddies sleep together in the same bed, don't they?"
"Generally, yes," Tommy answered. He had a feeling he knew where this was headed, but he couldn't tell if Kim had a clue or not.
"Well, since you and Mommy are sleeping in your bed, does that mean you're going to be my daddy now?" she asked.
"Olivia!" Kim gasped.
"Actually, Princess, the ring means I'm going to be your daddy," Tommy said. "Last night, I asked your mom to marry me, and she said she would."
"YES!" Olivia shouted, pumping her little fists into the air and bouncing on the bed excitedly. "You were right, Tommy; Santa does bring you what you want if you really, really wanted it with all your heart and soul!"
"What do you mean?" Kim asked.
"Well, when I saw Santa, I told him that all I wanted for Christmas was for Tommy to be my daddy."
"No wondered he looked so stunned," Tommy murmured.
"And he did! Santa made Tommy my daddy!"
"I can't believe she did that," Kim groaned, burying her face in Tommy's chest.
"Well, Santa gave me the thing I really, really wanted for Christmas--for you to say yes," Tommy whispered.
"It's a good thing for you two, then, that Santa felt like leaving other presents to open, or we'd be all finished with Christmas," Kim snorted.
"You mean Santa left me other presents, too?" Olivia squealed and made a dash for the bedroom door.
"You know, I think Santa was pretty good to all of us this year," Tommy said as he sat in his bed with his arms around Kim, hugging her tightly. She beamed up at him happily, unable to find her voice. "I think this will be a Christmas we all remember for a long time." Kim reached up to cup his cheek, and he leaned down, capturing her mouth in a sweet kiss.
"Mommy! Tommy! Come see!" Olivia exclaimed, dashing back into the room.
Tommy peered up past Kim's shoulder and noticed Olivia watching them, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
"We're coming, Sweetie," Kim said as they reluctantly parted and emerged from under the covers.
"Santa brought me a pink bike!" Olivia babbled on. Then, she paused, eyeing the two critically. "Your pajamas match!"
"You know, this explains all those looks she's been giving us for the last month," Tommy said as he caught Kim's hands.
"I had the feeling she was setting us up for something," Kim added.
"Hurry up!" Olivia insisted, marching over and taking the pair by the hand, dragging them along with her. "Tommy, when can I start calling you 'Daddy?'"