Christmas Day – Part the Second

"Don't you dare be eatin' none of that!"

Tommy shamelessly licked his fingers, ignoring his wife's aggrieved tone.

"No need to be so harsh, darlin'. It's Christmas!"

Kathleen shook her rolling pin at him. Tiny bits of pastry flew off and onto the floor.

"I won't have you eatin' all me crust! I don't have time to roll out another one."

"Alright, alright. I'll wait till the crust's coverin' a hot pie. How's dat?"

She turned back to her pastry. "Better. I've got a whole family plus guests to feed, or have ye forgotten?"

He stepped behind her, putting both hands on her shoulders and kissing her neck lightly.

"You have yer old husband to feed, too, or have you forgotten?"

"Oh, you'll get what's comin' to you, for sure," she said. He grinned at the double meaning.

"Ahem."

Tommy's hands dropped to his sides.

"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" It was hard not to smile at the sight of the two old married people blushing like teen-agers caught in the barn.

"Not at all, Mrs., not at all. Tommy's just off to feed Molly and Ned, aren't you?"

"Yes, right, that's what I was doin', alright." He winked at his wife and went to the breezeway for his coat.

"Has everyone opened their presents, Mrs?"

"Yes, they have. Mrs. O'Connor has the girls working on straightening up the parlor while the men are going to play cribbage."

"That sounds about right."

"By the way, thank you for the scones. Everyone loved them."

"Oh, good. That was me mother's recipe, God rest her soul. I have a few left, if you're still hungry."

The thought of eating made Chris' stomach roll over.

"No, thanks, I'm saving room for supper. Which I see you have well under way." It was true. Defying the cold temperatures outside, the kitchen was warm and almost humid. The double oven belched heat. On the burners, pots bubbled and steamed. Underlying it all was the the meaty smell of goose. It was too much of a good thing. The heat, the moisture, the competing smells, the thought of eating, was all combining into a wave of nausea. Chris broke out in a sweat. Funny, but the room seemed to be getting smaller. Was that possible? How did Kathleen get to be above her, and why did she look so worried? Her mouth was moving, but there was no sound coming out. How strange was that?

Suddenly sound returned. "Mrs., are you feeling alright? Do ye hear me?" Chris had to blink a few times and rub her eyes before she could answer.

"What happened? Did I fall?"

Kathleen rocked back to sit on her heels. "You fainted. Just went down like a house of cards, you did."

"No. I couldn't have."

"You could indeed, and you did. Wait just one quick moment." She tried to follow Kathleen's movement, but her peripheral vision didn't seem to be working. Then something cool and wet was on her face and neck. It seemed to wipe away all sorts of cobwebs cluttering her vision and brain. She tried to get up, but strong hands restrained her.

"Not too quick, unless you want to pass out all a second time." Chris blinked, wondering why the room seemed to be spinning slowly around her.

"How're you feeling now?"

"Better. I think. Then again, maybe not."

"I feared as much. Come on, let's get you to the water closet." She pulled Chris to her feet and steered her towards the toilet. Once there, Kathleen held her hair back while Chris fell to her knees and vomited. Afterwards, she collapsed on the tile floor, trembling and exhausted. Kathleen got another washcloth and wiped her face and neck again. Chris' color slowly went from greenish to an almost-normal pink.

"Let's get you to sit down, Mrs." Although she still felt weak, Chris was able to walk under her own power. Mostly. She sunk into a chair by the kitchen table, eyes closed. Only a moment later, Kathleen was offering her a glass.

"A little bicarbonate of soda with some bitters. Think you can keep it down?" Chris nodded and gratefully emptied the glass.

"Feeling better now?"

"Yes, thank you. Wow. I don't know what came over me."

"Don't you?" Chris turned her face away from that skeptical tone. She didn't want to answer that question just yet.

"I think you and I both know what came over you. Have you been having your regular time of the month?" Chris answered in a tiny voice.

"No."

"So . . . maybe six weeks?"

A small nod. "I think so. I guess so."

"And who knows?"

"Me. And now you."

Kathleen sat down heavily across from her. She took both Chris' hands in hers. Chris looked up at her, surprised. Kathleen had never done that before.

"You'll have to tell the Doctor very soon. You can't hide this, you know. Not when the morning sickness is this bad."

Chris gripped the comforting hands hard. "I never was sick like this when I was pregnant before. I mean, I had some sickness, but nothing like this."

"You've never carried a boy before, have you? They can be hard to carry. Lord help me, I know that, I do." The broad Irish face was sympathetic.

"I'm really not ready do this again. I'm really not."

"Dear lady, who is? These little ones, they don't come when we're ready. They come when they're ready, and that's a fact. You already have two beautiful children. A third can only be a blessing."

"But . . . " Chris withdrew her hands and rubbed her eyes with her fists like a child, trying to wipe away the tears. "The timing's so wrong. I can't have a baby now. I just can't." She looked up, fearing judgment, but saw only kindness.

"I haven't told anyone yet, but I'm planning to enroll in college for the fall semester." Sympathy was replaced by surprise, but Kathleen didn't interrupt.

"Pat is so smart and educated, and so is everyone he knows. I mean, he's a doctor, for heaven's sake, a surgeon, an important man, and I didn't even finish high school, and don't you think his parents have ever let me forget that. I never know what to say to his friends, never. I mean, they speak languages and have college degrees, even master's degrees, and me? I quit school when I was 15, so I could train dogs and horses and take people on tours of Yellowstone. That's it. And I know they look down on me because of it. I figured, now that my children are more independent, I can take some time for myself."

"Me father used to tell us, man proposes, God disposes. And anyway, a son is a blessing. Your parents had sons, and so did your in-laws. It'll all turn out well."

"I wish I could believe that. You want to know the actual truth?" She let loose a deep sigh. "I'm supposed to be happy about this, but I'm not. And I can't tell anybody about it when all I want to do is cry, because it's going to ruin everything. Just . . . please don't tell anyone, will you? I just want everyone to have a good Christmas. Daddy's here for the first time with us, we've got two guests, and some minister I never heard of is coming here tomorrow. And heaven help me, the in-laws are here, too. I can't think about having a baby right now, not with a full house of people."

"Well, Mrs." Kathleen said, standing up. "That baby may have its own ideas. Just know, if you faint in front of your children, or get sick, they truly will be frightened. You have to tell everyone what's happening then and there."

"I promise, I'll tell Pat soon. In a day or two. Maybe."

Kathleen gave her a hard look, but let the comment pass. "What was it you came in here to do in the first place, Mrs?"

A rush of energy filled Chris. She stood up, and laughed. "I was going to check in with you about supper."

"Supper will be served at 4:00pm, in the dining room. Formal dress, by the other Mrs. O'Connor's request. I'll have some finger sandwiches out in the parlor around noontime, just to tide everyone over till the big meal."

"Isn't it part of my job to ask you what we're having?"

"Go have a lay down, Mrs. You handle your baby. I'll handle the food. And I have Tommy and your two fine young men to help me. Everything's taken care of."

Chris threw her arms around Kathleen and hugged her briefly, tightly. "Thank you."

"Don't forget what I said."

"I won't."

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By the time Chris got back to the parlor, the nausea had passed, but she was tired again; so tired, it felt like she barely had enough energy to lift her feet off the floor. The prospect of cleaning up and packing up all the gifts and the wrapping paper and the ribbons and whatever else was daunting by itself. Doing it with her judgmental mother-in-law . . . well, that was not her definition of fun. Pat wouldn't be angry at her if she got into another argument with Adelaide, but he would be hurt and disappointed, and that was infinitely worse.

When she stepped into the parlor, though, she stopped in her tracks. The room was still messy. Adelaide was sitting on the couch, Katie on one side, Annie on the other, listening to Adelaide read out loud. She blurted out "what're you doing?" before she could think of a more polite thing to say. Even more surprising, her mother-in-law looked abashed instead of angry.

"We were going through the gifts and decided to take a look at this book. I thought maybe we'd take a reading break before we tackled the clean-up. Right, Katie?"

Next to her, Katie snuggled a little closer. "Don't stop, grandma."

"I was afraid you'd be mad at me for taking so long to come back."

"Did you really? I can't imagine why you got that impression. It is Christmas, after all."

Chris blinked. That was not the answer she expected.

Adelaide squinted and looked at her more closely. "Are you feeling well? You look a little green around the gills."

"I'm more tired than I thought I'd be, after being out so late last night. In fact . . . it looks like you're holding down the fort just fine. If you can do without me, I'd like to take a quick nap. I really don't care if this room gets cleaned up today, just as long as it's organized before your guest arrives tomorrow."

"We've plenty of time to organize later, don't we girls?" Two heads nodded sleepily and sunk lower on the plush couch. "Go rest." She looked fondly at each grandchild in turn. "It seems like napping is the proper order of the morning."

"Thanks. I really appreciate it." Chris walked thoughtfully back to the bedroom she shared with her husband. She had never believed in the story of Christmas miracles until now. As her mother used to say, wonders never cease. Apparently, it was true.

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"Grandma, I'm tired." The complaint was punctuated by deep yawns.

Adelaide raised the little chin gently with two fingers. "Child, I think you need to take a nap before dinner. Why don't we go upstairs and get you and your sister settled on your beds, hmm?"

"Okay." Another deep, jaw-creaking yawn.

Next to her, Annie straightened up. "I'm not that tired, Grandma."

"Not yet, maybe. But soon. I'm going up to get your sister settled. Can you take care of yourself?"

"Yes, Grandma." Annie stifled a yawn. "I'm thirsty."

"Go to the kitchen and have some tea."

"Yes, Grandma." Annie pushed off the soft cushions and headed for the kitchen. She found Kathleen there, sitting at the table and holding a mug between her hands.

"Good morning, Miss Anne. And Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas." She settled on a chair next to Kathleen's and looked around the kitchen as if it were new to her. "It smells good here."

"Indeed, it does. Would you believe it – do you know some people think I work hard? I tell them, I don't. Being in the kitchen, baking, cooking, why, there's nothing I love better. All these wonderful smells, like that fine soda bread cooling now. . . some people, Miss Anne, lock themselves up in an office building, and they spend every day, all day, sitting at some desk. Can you imagine? I feel sorry for them, truly I do."

"I'm glad you work here instead of in an office."

"Me, too, Miss Anne. And would you be liking a piece of me soda bread right now? Maybe with some of that fresh butter we get from Harbert, and some of me own blueberry jam? And tea on the side?"

Annie's smile gave her answer. "You just wait, Miss Anne." She watched Kathleen prepare a butter and jam sandwich.

"I like your kitchen, too."

"You're right about that. It is my kitchen." She winked broadly. "Don't tell your parents. They still think it's theirs, but you and I, we know better. Crusts or no?"

"Crusts."

"Good choice. Here you go." She sat and watched the child eat, sipping her tea and occasionally glancing at the pots on the stove. In record time, the plate was clean.

"Did you like me bread?" Annie burped. "Is that my answer, then?"

"I liked it a lot. It's good." Kathleen picked up the dishes and put them in the sink. Annie watched her move over to the stove and lift lids from the pots, occasionally stirring the contents.

"That smells good, too."

"It does, doesn't it? Everything's proceeding to plan. Now, where did I put me oven mitts?"

Annie pointed. "Oh, there they are. Thank you, child. I'd lose me head, if it weren't attached." She put on the heavy mitts and bent down to open the oven door. A wave of heat poured out. She pulled out the top rack and took the heavy lid off a broiler, putting it on the stove top.

"Take a look at this, child. What do you think?"

Annie stepped over to the stove. There was so much heat coming from the oven, she couldn't get as close to the bird as she'd like, but the rich aroma reached her.

"Is that the goose?"

"Indeed it is, child. One of them. Time for some basting, I think. Would you like to help? I'll show you how."

Annie dipped a spoon in the fragrant juices several times, drizzling liquid over the pale bird.

"Good job. That's going to make the bird's skin a beautiful golden color." Kathleen covered the bird and closed the oven door. Annie yawned hugely.

"Well, child, why don't I take over. A nap might be best for you." She took off the heavy mitts and hung them on a hook over the stove. "You'll need all your strength and energy to eat this fine goose we're cooking here. Now march on out of here and to your bed."

"Yes, ma'am." Annie yawned again.

"Go now, child. Get some rest."

Rubbing her eyes, Annie went down the hall. In the parlor, she saw that no one was settled in the bed upstairs. Instead, her sister and Grandmother O'Connor were laying side by side on the couch, sleeping. Someone was snoring softly. Annie headed up the stairs towards her room, but the door to Grandpa's room was slightly open. She peaked inside.

Thaddeus was laying on his back, making no sound. Annie went over to stand next to him, curious. He was so still, she couldn't tell if he was breathing or not.

"Grandpa?" she whispered. "Are you sleeping?" He didn't move or answer. That didn't seem right to her. She put one small hand on his shoulder and shoved him a little. "Grandpa! Wake up!"

Suddenly his hand reached over and grabbed her wrist, hard. His eyes were still closed. Annie was scared. He was holding on too tight.

"Grandpa! Stop it!" She tried to pull away, but it was like being caught in a vise. She couldn't get free.

"Stop it, Grandpa! You're hurting me!"

Startled into wakefulness, Thaddeus' eyes opened wide at the sight of his own hand grasping his granddaughter's wrist. He released her and sat up quickly. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears.

"What happened?"

"You were asleep and you didn't look like you were breathing, and I got scared, so I pushed you, and you grabbed me, and now it hurts."

"Honey, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, I'm so damn sorry! Does it hurt?"

Annie shook her head no, but she still rubbed her wrist. He put his arms around her and drew her close to him. He rubbed her back with one hand, trying to soothe her.

"I was having a bad dream, and I didn't know if I was awake or not. I'm sorry I hurt you, pumpkin."

"Were you scared in your bad dream?"

"Yeah, sweetheart, I was scared. Real scared. Bad men were chasing me and my friend, and we were running away from them."

Annie pulled away from him and took a step back to look at him straight on.

"Sometimes I have bad dreams, too, but nobody ever chased me in a dream."

"Well, that's a good thing. You don't want to be chased, ever. It's scary."

"Did that ever really happen to you, or did you make it up in your dream?"

Thaddeus sighed, and looked away from the intense blue eyes of this innocent girl. How much should he say to a child? He owed her some honesty, at least. Just not so much as to scare her.

"Yeah, I was. When I was young. Some bad men were chasing me and my friend. They followed us for days because they mistook us for a couple of train robbers."

"Did they catch you?"

A brief smile crossed his face. "No, they didn't. I'm here, aren't I?" Annie smiled in return, calmer now. "But my friend and me, we were in bad trouble. It seemed like we couldn't get away, no matter how hard and fast we rode our horses We finally decided we had to split up; that way, there'd be two trails, and the men following us wouldn't know which trail to follow."

"That sounds like a good idea. It worked, didn't it?"

"Eventually. But it meant my friend and me, we were running in different directions. I went off-trail and got lost, and it took days for me to find my way back. Then it snowed, and when it snows in that country, you get feet of snow. Some people felt sorry for me and let me stay with them. By the time I could travel, months had passed. I tried to find my friend, but it was too late. He wasn't at the place we were supposed to meet. I didn't know where he had gone."

She sat down on the bed next to him.

"Do you know if your friend got away from the bad men or not?"

"I think so. I hope so. I don't know for sure. I never saw him again."

"Never?"

"Nope. Never."

"If I had a good friend, I'd go looking for him."

"I know you would, pumpkin. I should've done that, too, but I didn't. While I was snowed in for the winter in Montana, I met your grandmother Therese. After that . . . well, when a man finds the right woman, he makes her his own, if he's got any sense. Like your papa found your mama in Yellowstone country, same as I found my wife."

Thaddeus watched Annie think about what he said.

"Do you ever wonder where your friend is today?"

Thaddeus had to look away from her before he could answer. Memories flooded his mind. Days of riding exhausted horses, using every trick they'd ever heard of to elude their pursuers, and nothing had worked. They'd tried to joke about Apaches in the posse; they'd prayed for rain to wash out their trail; they hadn't slept or eaten or come up with any good ideas, except the last, most desperate option – they split up, planning to meet up later, but he'd lost his way, and then the first winter storm came, and there was no choice anymore but to wait it out. At the last moment, he turned around, and he saw Heyes stopping for a moment, looking back, the same as him. Each raised a hand in farewell to the other, and then each turned his back and rode away. All the years he'd known Heyes, all the travels and adventures and robberies and even jail time, and that was the memory they stuck with him – Heyes turning to look at him, raising a gloved hand in farewell, and then riding away.

"Yeah, I do, pumpkin. He was my best friend, since I was a boy. In my day, we called that kind of friend a partner. He was my partner. He was like a brother to me."

"I'm sorry you lost your friend, Grandpa. My teacher, Mrs. Kroger, said that friends are precious. We don't get too many of them, and we should keep the ones we have."

"Mrs. Kroger sounds like a wise woman to me. She's right. Friends are precious. You know what the scariest part of my dream was?"

"What?"

"In my dream, my friend and I were riding Ned and Molly. And you know how slow they are."

She laughed, pain forgotten.

"Are you sleepy?" She nodded.

"Want to take a little nap with your old Grandad?" She nodded again.

"Okay. Grab that blanket hanging on the rack, will you? We'll lay down under that for a little bit."

Thaddeus arranged the soft blanket over them. Annie lay on her side next to him, arms folded.

"Are you comfortable now?"

"Yes."

"Warm enough?"

"Yes."

"Do you care if I snore?"

She laughed. "Don't snore! It's rude."

"Rude? Who says so?"

"People." She lay down again.

"Oh. I see. Well, I'll try not to snore then. I don't want people thinking I'm rude. You won't tell anyone if I do snore, will you? I mean, we got to have some secrets."

"I won't tell." She snuggled closer. "I wish you could see your friend again."

"Yeah, me too. At this point, it'd take a miracle."

"Last night at church, the Reverend was talking about miracles. He said Christmas is the time of year when miracles happen, if you ask and have a little faith. Maybe you should ask."

"I don't know, pumpkin. You think miracles can really happen?"

"I know they do. You're here because a miracle happened."

"I am?" She nodded. "How'd that happen?"

"I heard Mama and Papa talking about you when they looked at this house. They thought you might come here to live with us, but they thought you wouldn't want to come. Mama said, it'd take a miracle to pry him out of the mountains. I told Katie about it, and we decided to pray for a miracle to bring you here. And here you are, so I know miracles work."

He looked at her, astonished. "The miracle you prayed for was to make me move here?"

"Yes. You lived too far away, and we all wanted you to be with us. So I know miracles are real."

"Huh. You think an old man like me can get a miracle to happen?"

"You never know until you ask for one. You just have to have a little faith."

"You know what your Grandma Therese used to say?"

"No, what?"

"She said, wonders never cease. And she was a smart lady. Kind of like you, only a little older."

"You're funny, Grandpa. I'll say a prayer and ask for you, okay?"

"You'd do that for me?"

"Of course. Because I love you."

"I love you, too, pumpkin, always and forever. Close your eyes, and think happy thoughts. No bad dreams."

Her breathing softened and deepened. Thaddeus adjusted the blanket with his free hand, and stared at the ceiling. He'd already napped a bit and wasn't feeling so tired anymore. But he'd stay like this, in this position, with his sweet granddaughter curled up next to him, to doomsday, if that's what she wanted to do. He twisted his head to kiss her forehead. Settling back, he closed his eyes and thought about miracles.

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