Jesse awoke slowly, finding himself once again in familiar surroundings. Since leaving the hospital, he had found the need to be reassured each morning that his ordeal there was, indeed, over - and that he was actually now at home... or at least in the care of his best friend. How long that would remain with him, he did not know, but as long as each day brought the reassurance that all was getting better within his world, he would live with it.
Such was the case for this morning, the day being Christmas Eve. The room immediately felt different, but at the same time relaxing and inviting. Although it was not exactly something he could refer to as his second bedroom, it came pretty close to it. That point was re-emphasized as he suddenly felt someone stir behind him. Gently pushing himself backward, the teenager spooned into the boy who had held him most of the night. He smiled, feeling both happy and content at how well they seemingly fitted together, as he grasped and hugged the arm that draped over him. He could even feel 'Little-Noah', soft but warm, nestled with Noah's pubes and rubbing between his butt cheeks. Although at one time that might have alarmed him somewhat, the feeling was now nothing new as they had grown so used to each other. On this morning especially, it seemed to take on a whole new meaning as well. The two had only exchanged a few words before falling asleep the night before, but in those few, precious moments, there was a heartfelt emotion exchanged by them both, and it was something Jesse knew he'd hold close for a long time to come.
The teenager recalled how Noah admitted to feeling like Jesse did, that the last, anticipated and practically ultimate act of their lovemaking, if not joyriding with each other, wasn't something they really needed to dwell on. Neither were afraid of doing it, but both acknowledged that it wasn't necessary. Although some guys let their hormones drive them crazy, and go all out to sow their seeds and lose their virginity, preferably to the prettiest skirt or girl of their dreams, Jesse and Noah didn't have to worry about it. Instead, they had found another way between themselves, just as intimate and personal, that satisfied their lustful moments - but with a sincere dedication to the friendship that Jesse believed few others could match. Neither of them had to question the other's motives when it came to sex, either. They both enjoyed the fun and passion as if they were two goofy kids, perhaps discovering ice cream for the first time in their lives.
Jesse sighed, although mostly just to himself. If there was anything that he hoped to avoid having to explain to his little brother, it was that. Not because of how touchy the subject would be, but rather because Jesse had no idea whatsoever how he would ever explain what happened between him and Noah. He had already faced the idea that one day Benji would learn that Jesse was gay, or at least bi-sexual, and then extending that revelation one step further he'd probably pick up on Noah's status as well. If it was just a kind of simple acknowledgement, Jesse felt it wouldn't matter - especially given how close the three of them had become. Sure, there was always a chance the youngster would find it outright appalling, but somehow Jesse didn't think it would turn out like that. What he found worrisome instead, was the thought of ever having to explain to his brother why he withheld it all this time. If the day arrived and he had to explain why he and Noah - two seemingly polar opposites when they first met - had come together and started loving one another so quickly and completely, then Jesse felt he would be doomed. It would be the one thing he'd have no idea how to explain. At least for now, the teen was just grateful that Benji wasn't ready to deal with something that complicated, and in that he found an element of comfort. Perhaps he'd feel different in the months or years to come, given he had at least a little time to think about it. He hoped so, anyway.
Jesse's thoughts began trailing back to the night before, and how what had happened ended up being so magical between them - not just for the youngster, but for him and Noah as well. It wasn't hormones that drove them, at least not in a way that fuels real seduction or sex. Both he and Noah had enjoyed playing the game, and stripping down, and would probably think little of their candidness in the months to come. Benji, however, would most likely hold the whole evening in his heart for years. That was not a bad thing, Jesse thought. Not only was it a first for the youngster, and the older teens too for that matter, but it also came at a time when the younger brother needed to do something at a new level - at least when it came to boys and their toys. Jesse knew the first times were always special, and he was kind of happy to have shared some of Benji's firsts in recent months. At least now, Jesse didn't have to worry about other kids teasing his brother, or talking about things of which he lacked any knowledge. Benji even admitted it himself - he recognized there was a naughtiness and taboo associated with what the three of them had done, but he didn't care. It was something he recognized as being privileged to see, feel and learn about, with the two people he trusted the most right now. Jesse knew that was the key for his little brother, too. Sure, it was a certain level of mischief, but it was the fun kind, and the result was the type of adventure that you held onto in your heart and mind for a long, long time. He wondered briefly if what they did would be enough to satisfy him for a while. Jesse didn't know, but then he really didn't care. He'd be there for his brother as always, and would continue to keep him close for anything the youngster needed. Just as he also now knew that Noah would be there, too.
Jesse smiled as he felt Noah suddenly move and spoon into him harder. There was a certain comfort from the contact, something that, in the last couple of months, had let him rest more peacefully than any other time he could remember. Their closeness, and the abundant cover they were now using, created a warmth that far offset the coolness of the rest of the room. Unfortunately, the teen eventually had to sigh again as he gradually realized that the coziness of the moment could not last. His bladder began pressing against him in one of those urgent ways, as if crying out 'Empty me! Empty me!' Closing his eyes, he tried to still the sensation through his own willpower, but he failed. Eventually he began to slowly pull away, but not before hearing the quietest of groans uttered from behind him. Finding his boxers, Jesse slowly pulled them as quietly as possible, his muscles still aching from the ordeal of the previous week. Still, he succeeded before making his way toward the bathroom.
After finishing and washing his hands, Jesse then paused to look himself over in the mirror. He thought he still detected that musky-like odor once again, and realized that for whatever the reason, it was coming from down low. It was unusual, he thought, but then again, he knew his body was changing in other ways and perhaps this was just one of them. Glancing at the shower, he decided now would be as good a time as any to rinse off, so stepping inside he activated the stream. In the time it took him to grab a towel and strip, the water had reached a nice temperature, so he proceeded to step in and close the door behind him. Moving under the stream, he paused a moment to absorb the heat it provided him while running down his body. That caused him to close his eyes and slowly turn, letting it strike and massage his skin all around, before stilling himself to lean against the wall.
He never heard the door open, but when he sensed someone joining his little paradise, he smiled. Opening his eyes, he found Benji standing there yawning, grunting sleepily even, before leaning in with him under the stream. "Hey, don't hog it all!" the boy complained quietly, but then paused. "It's okay.... right?" he asked. He didn't look up, but it was a question obviously directed to his bigger brother, who understood what he meant.
"Sure, I don't care. Come on in," Jesse nodded, but then grabbed the bottle of body wash and started to soap up his body as they both bumped and moved around under the flow. As he went along, the teen reached out and quickly did the same for his brother, deciding they should probably make haste and not waste any more water than they had to. Benji eventually became more alert, and together they teamed with each other to make quick work of the exercise.
Just as they were finishing, not surprisingly the shower door opened yet once again to reveal their host standing there yawning, in the buff. The newcomer then observed the two brothers with a smirk. "I guess three's a crowd, isn't it?" he remarked quietly. The shower was reasonably roomy for two people easily enough, but adding a third would certainly cause space to become a premium. It was Benji, however, who offered to make a quick exit.
"I'm done, anyway," Benji stated, stepping to the door. "Uh, hand me a towel though, will ya?"
Noah fulfilled the request, and then exchanged places with the youngster, stepping inside next to Jesse. "I placed another towel by the sink," he whispered into his friend's ear. As the water began to strike him, however, he suddenly frowned. "Sheesh! You guys could have at least saved me some hot water!"
Jesse chuckled, but decided he should probably exit the stall as well, leaving Noah to enjoy whatever was left. Outside, he found Benji by the sink and drying off, so the teenager grabbed the other towel and took a seat on the toilet. Both remained quiet initially, until Benji looked up. "Um, I don't think we brought any clothes, did we?"
"No, but it's okay. We can put on what we had from last night, and then change later once we get home," Jesse reasoned, which seemed to satisfy his little brother. Bending over, the youngster picked what clothes he had slept in and then headed back into the bedroom, with his brother following not far behind. As they approached the bed, Jesse leaned down and playfully pinched his brother on the butt. The youth halted sharply and turned, batting his brother's hand away afterwards.
"Just you wait!" he hissed, trying to reach out and return the favor, but Jesse was too quick for him, moving out of the way quickly - although afterwards he had to gasp, as the sudden movement made for some uncomfortable moments around his ribs. Benji gave up, but still grinned as he began pulling his t-shirt on, while Jesse sat down on the corner of the bed for a moment, observing him calmly. It was strange in a way, because Jesse knew most boys seemed to always prioritize getting their underwear on first, before moving on to t-shirts or other garments. That wasn't the case for Benji, though. For as long as Jesse could remember, his brother had always been more interested in pulling his shirts on first, and leaving his bottom half exposed for however long he wanted to. Of course, with it being just the two of them, there was always a limited audience and neither cared about modesty. Still, Jesse realized that, his brother doing things that way, may have been the spark that later defined their trust on a whole new level. He wondered if that would change down the road, especially as Benji got older, but it didn't matter. It was these things that warmed Jesse's heart sometimes, and made him appreciate the relationship they had even more.
Before long, the noise of Noah entering and toweling his hair caught Jesse's attention. The two met each other's gaze, but Jesse immediately picked up on the fact that his best friend was shivering. Quickly standing, he reached out and grasped the teen, pulling Noah up close before using his own towel to help wipe away any excess water. "Sheesh," Jesse spoke, frowning. "I don't remember the water ever getting cold that quick on us before!"
"Meh, M-mom or Dad p-probably had a shower this morning, too," Noah replied through clenched teeth, but then sighed as he shivered again. "It doesn't m-matter though, I'll be o-okay."
The teenager certainly didn't sound like it though, so after Jesse completed his task, he pulled himself close behind his friend, spooning in to share what he could of his body heat. "MMmm... you're warm!" he whispered. Benji ignored the two for the most part, trying to untangle and right his jeans from where he had left them the night before. After a moment, Jesse began to gently push his friend in the direction of his dresser. Arriving, their host opened and extracted fresh t-shirts for them both. "I c-can loan you some underwear t-too if you w-want."
Jesse finally backed away briefly and hesitated, before shaking his head. "I better not. I don't think my you-know-whatsits down below are ready for close quarters again, yet." Benji, still struggling with his jeans, suddenly looked up and snickered at the two before returning to his task.
"Ah, I didn't think about that, sorry," Noah admitted. "Leave your shirt here though, and I'll make sure it gets washed later with my stuff. Oh, and hey..." he added, pausing before reaching into another side of the drawer. "Short-Stuff, here's a t-shirt you left when you stayed last week."
Benji grinned happily, reaching up and catching the garment being tossed to him. "Thanks!" he said, before finally letting out a sigh of frustration. "Jess, this stupid zipper-thingy is stuck again," he moaned, which cause Jesse to grunt. Walking over, he fixed the problem quickly, but not before Benji turned and stuck his tongue out at Noah. "Don't even think about it!"
Noah, amused, feigned mock indignation. "Think about what?" he purred innocently.
"I can put my own clothes on just fine, thank-you-very-much. It's just this zipper, it's uh... possessed or something!" the young boy whined, causing the other two to chuckle.
"It's okay, Ben... He'll behave, or he'll have to answer to me later," Jesse promised with a wink.
"No way... if they're possessed, I want no part of whatever they think they're possessing!" Noah teased, but then frowned. "Uh, I think I said that right... didn't I?" Neither of the other boys answered him.
When the trio had finally dressed, they made their way upstairs to find Jennifer cooking several dishes in the kitchen. When she turned to see all three standing in the doorway, she scoffed. "Oh, I'm sorry boys... did I wake you? I know it has been a little busy up here!"
"No ma'am," Jesse answered as Noah squeezed through and walked over to give his mother a quick hug. "To be honest, I think mother nature woke us up. She did me, anyway."
Jennifer giggled. "Yes, she has a way of doing that sometimes, I know," the woman admitted, before pointing to the table. "Sit," she commanded, which they willingly obliged. "So, you know what day it is, right?"
"Oh yeah!" Benji piped up. "And tomorrow is Christmas!"
Jesse laughed, before addressing the woman. "Have you guys figured out how you're going to do it and everything, yet?"
Jennifer laughed. "We should by now, I hope!" Drawing a carton from the refrigerator, she set about filling three juice glasses with a cold, creamy-looking liquid, but as she served them to the boys, the contents was far from fruit juice. Before anyone could speak up, however, she explained. "It's custard. Kind of like Eggnog, but made differently - although I'm not exactly sure how."
"Eggnog usually has rum, or some kind of alcohol in it, I think," Noah offered.
"True," Jennifer acknowledged, "but not this stuff. That was mostly done in the old days, I think. This is just a very rich, very sweet drink - not unlike ice cream, if you melt it down. Still, it's a nice little treat if you drink it sparingly."
"Thanks!" Benji announced, taking his glass.
"I'm almost afraid to ask, but... have you two had this before?" Jennifer asked Jesse and Benji.
Jesse nodded. "Yeah, a few times. I think Dad gets it sometimes during the holidays. I had no idea about what is in it, though - especially if it had anything like rum in it."
Jennifer laughed, then shook her head. "Well, no worries about that. The stuff we get from the grocers is alcohol-free." She became thoughtful for a second. "In fact, I think the difference is that one of them is cooked, where one isn't - although which is which escapes me. Maybe I'll look that up on the internet before long, since it's got my curiosity going." The boys grinned at one another while she turned back to the stove. "I made biscuits this morning, and I've got the makings for some gravy here. How would that sound to you boys for breakfast? Maybe some sausages to go with it, too?"
"Sounds good," Jesse replied. "Um, what about dinner? When...?"
"Oh, that's right - I got completely sidetracked, didn't I!" Jennifer exclaimed, before turning to them once more. "Well, we tossed several ideas back and forth, but I think the consensus is we're going to enjoy dinner here late this afternoon, then each of us will have our own Christmas Eve tonight. Then you guys will be come back over here tomorrow and we'll all have some leftovers, watch some ball games, play or goof off - just spend a bunch of time together. By doing dinner today, we don't have to do so much work or worried about doing all this fuss tomorrow, you see?"
"I think that's a great idea, Mom!" Noah announced, and the other two boys agreed.
Following the hearty breakfast, it wasn't long before the phone rang. Jennifer answered it and talked briefly to someone before hanging it up. "That was your Mother," she informed Jesse and Benji. "I was told to tell you boys to get your shoes on and go on along home. She has a few tasks of some sort that she wants you to help her with." Benji looked up crestfallen, but then Jennifer smiled and added, "Don't worry, you'll be back over around the middle of the afternoon or so. Besides..."
"It's Christmas, yeah," Jesse announced. "Hey Ben, run downstairs and get our shoes for us, okay?" The youngster nodded and took off, which then gave Jesse the opening he needed to explain. "He's fine. I think he was just hoping to stay over here today, that's all."
Jennifer rounded the corner and approached until she stood beside him. "Believe me, I understand, although I think you two will be in for some treats of your own when you get home. Not only then, but later tonight and tomorrow, too. Just like..." Glancing at Noah, she smiled. "A certain snooper of hiding places over here has done that in the past."
As Jesse snickered, Noah rolled his eyes. "I only did it that once, Mom!" he declared, but upon seeing the look she gave her son, he relented. "Okay, maybe two or three times, but still...!"
Jennifer laughed, but then bent over and wrapped Noah up in her arms from behind. "I'm not worried about it," she whispered to him, then turned back to Jesse. "Just so you know, I have a bag in the hall closet that has your pictures and things you two wanted to give your parents. You can give them while you're here tonight if you want, or take them back with you, whichever you prefer. If you want to sneak them over, we'll get this guinea pig here to do it after we eat." Noah made a face as she hugged him tightly again, but then he softly added an amused, "Oink! Oink!"
Jesse smiled, feeling extra happy for some reason. "Let me know how much more I owe you, ma'am. I'll take care of it as soon as I can."
Jennifer then stood up and stretched, shaking her head. "Oh, you'll pay for it, trust me. Maybe not in the way you're thinking, but... you'll see," she added mysteriously, before returning to the stove. Jesse watched her curiously, but did not press the issue any further
Benji returned then, and the two made to don their outdoor clothes with Noah watching in the background. Once accomplished, there was little left to do, so Jesse and Benji both bumped fists with their friend, and bade Jennifer farewell, with a promise to be back later.
As the McAllister brothers approached the house, they both noticed an unfamiliar sedan sitting in the driveway. It wasn't until they entered, however, that they saw who their visitors were. Jim Hunt was seated in the living room, along with a certain teenager of their acquaintance. Both of their parents were seated as well, and all four appeared to be enjoying cups of coffee. "Come on in, boys," James invited them, waving for them to approach. Although Jesse walked forward slowly, it was Benji who stopped in the doorway completely with a frown. "You, too, Short-Stuff. Come on over here and sit by me," his father encouraged. Benji first glanced up at Jesse, but then obeyed, all the while the teenager moved over to sit next to his mother.
"It's good to see you boys again," Jim Hunt offered in lieu of greeting. When an awkward silence followed, the man cleared his throat. "Don't worry boys, nothing is amiss. As Pete here has been explaining to your parents, he asked me this morning if we could pay you boys a short visit."
Makalah picked up from that note. "Yes, he has indeed. Pete was just apologizing to your father and myself, for all the problems we've been experiencing."
Jesse's eyebrows arched upward. "Really?"
"Yes, really," James answered, before sitting back. "He also requested that he be allowed to speak with the both of you, too. That's why your mother phoned and asked that you come back over."
When all eyes in the room turned to the other teenager, Pete's eyes suddenly shifted to the floor. There was an observable nervousness surrounding him as he sat there, wringing his hands in the silence. Still, no one spoke again, choosing instead to wait patiently until the young man looked up once more. When he spoke, his voice was low, but surprisingly calm. In his mind, it was simply now or never, and he didn't want to back away from that which made him nervous. "I think I understand now, why things got so out of hand, not only that night at the gym, but the last couple of months leading up to it, too. I'm to blame for part of it, I know, but there's also some things that, well, even I didn't know about until a couple of days ago."
Before anyone could respond, the teen stood up and crossed the floor until he was in front of where Benji was sitting. Once there, he dropped to one knee before the youngster, steadying himself in such a way that he could observe the youth at eye level. "So, right off, first things first: I made your brother a promise the other day, but - I want you to know I'm not here just because of that, okay? I'm here because, well, the last few days have really made me take a step back and see some things not only as they were, but how they should have been. That includes things involving you, Benji. It wasn't very smart of me, especially at first when all this stuff started happening. Please believe me, though - I know that now. I'm sorry. Getting those other guys and their little brothers and cousins involved, just to give you a hard time - that was wrong. It wasn't your fault, but it was mine, okay? I got you involved in something that should have just stayed between your brother and me. You didn't have anything to do with what was going on, but I made you a part of it anyway, and I shouldn't have done so. So, I'm very sorry I wasn't man enough to see it then, and I'm also very sorry that you got hurt. I never wanted that, really, but I know it happened anyway, and I know why. So, for that, you can blame me, and I'll... I'll understand."
Benji stared at the older teenager in disbelief, before glancing up to his Dad. "Who is this weirdo? I don't... is this Pete? Is this... you know...?" he whispered loudly. He father glanced down into the youthful face, but maintained a neutral mask for the moment.
The teenager in front of him snorted, however, as a thin smile worked its way to the surface. "Yeah, it's me Benji. Believe me, I'm not the Pete I remember, either," he replied back in a lower voice. "But... the weirdo, yep - it's me. I promise."
There was a brief period of silence as the young boy and the teenager stared at one another, as if trying to find some balance between them. Pete remained perfectly still, not attempting to reach out or touch the youth in any way, yet also not back away from having offered his apology with a complete genuineness. This was a moment of sincerity, not to be confused with redemption, and in his own subtle way, he wanted it to be defined for the right reason. Even Jesse was impressed, having observed them both quietly and wondering if his brother realized what was at stake here. He was happily rewarded, however, when Benji finally smiled and offered the visitor a mid-air fist-bump.
Pete breathed a sigh of relief then, and then met the small handful with a bump from his own. "Thanks, buddy," he whispered haltingly, holding their connection briefly before rocking back onto his heels to stand again. Instead of returning to his seat, however, he turned and moved over to Jesse. "You know, all of that goes the same for you, too. We've already had this talk once, between you, me and Noah, I know, but... I'll do it again: I never intended that night at the gym to get so far out of hand like it did. The other guys, I- I don't know what happened, really. They made it a lot worse than I was, I don't know, expecting, I guess. Don't worry, that still doesn't excuse what happened, I know, because I was still there, and I still did a few things up front... but I am honestly, really sorry it ever happened. If I could go back and stop it, I would do so in any way that I could, but I can't... and I know that. Mr. Hunt," he paused, nodding toward the Sheriff. "I've told him the names of everyone involved that I knew, so they won't be getting away with it, I promise."
Jesse didn't wait as long in the silence that fell afterwards, as he slowly climbed to his feet and extended his own hand. Pete accepted it, shaking hands with the teenager as a sign of acceptance between them, but held their grip as he added one final promise. "Jesse, it will never, ever happen again. I swear it."
Jesse nodded. "I know it won't, Pete." He held onto the hand firmly too, both to validate the exchange between them, and to ensure that he held the other teen's attention. "You don't have to swear it, either. I promise - I know."
Pete finally smiled again as they parted, before turning toward the Sheriff. "Thank you, too. This... is what I needed, sir." Turning to the James and Makalah, he also added, "And to the both of you, too. Thank you for at least hearing me out."
James glanced at his wife briefly before rising to his own feet and facing the teenager directly. "You're welcome, and thank you. I can imagine this wasn't easy, but I think it will go a long way towards mending the hurt," he said, extending his own hand and shaking it with the teenager. When he observed the teen's sheepish expression, he added, "I think everything will be okay, you'll see."
Jim Hunt then made a noise before climbing to his own feet. "Well, I hope you folks will forgive me, but... I'm afraid duty still calls. I'm going to take Pete back to the house, then I need to go into the office for a little while. One of the boys called while we were on the way over here, and as I understand it, there were a few, ah, spirited young men making a little too much merry last night." As he shook hands with both Mr. and Mrs. McAllister, Jesse turned to Pete, his eyebrows arched for the second time.
Pete understood the curiosity, so he lowered his voice and explained. "The Sheriff, he's letting me stay with them through the weekend."
Makalah overheard the remark and turned in utter surprise to the Sheriff. "Why, that's awfully thoughtful for you and... Martha, isn't it?" she remarked.
Jim Hunt grunted, but then shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so. Social services were all booked up, and well, neither of us liked the idea of this racoon being stuck down in some room all by himself for Christmas, of all the days of the year." The man glanced at the boy and saw a continued look of awkwardness, before he relented. "That being said, so far it has been a win-win, I believe. He's behaving himself, and keeping me from having to put on a blasted apron to help the better half!" the man added with a wink. As Pete finally smiled, James chuckled, but then walked with their guests to the front door and out on the porch.
A moment later James returned to the room and decidedly stood before both his sons. Makalah had already sat down again, using care with her injured ankle. She observed her husband in silence, however, as he addressed their sons. "You know boys, that... was something. It took a lot of guts for him to walk in here and do that - not just for you, but your Mom and me as well."
"We know, Dad," Jesse replied. "I was surprised, too."
"Yeah, we know. I mean, maybe he was probably trying to get in a few last-minute feel-good deeds with Santa, you think?" Benji added, grinning widely. Seeing the serious expressions that met him from both their parents, however, caused the youngster to throw both hands up in exasperation. "Okay, I'm kidding! I'm kidding!"
Makalah reached out and drew the boy close to her, wrapping him in her arms. "Well, maybe, but I get the feeling Pete is trying to do better. I mean, your father's right - Pete is genuinely trying make things right. It doesn't matter what he may have or may not have done, you see? What he did just now, in this room, is probably one of the hardest things he's ever yet faced in life. Considering what his life has been like so far, I can imagine that is saying something. It's obvious he doesn't have the answers all figured out yet, but he's trying to do what he feels is right - and insofar as we're all concerned, I can't imagine it being done any better than that, really."
"I agree with your mother. It's also good to know he's in better hands now, too. I know Jim will treat him fairly, once everything is said and done," James added.
"What did we miss before we got here, Dad? I mean, anything special?" Jesse asked conservatively.
"Well, we found out Pete wasn't involved with the water pipes outside, but according to Jim they've already figured out who was really behind it. It also turns out that, although Pete was called and did join those guys at the gym that night against you Jesse, you were right. He admitted he helped them strip you down, but when the others started going all out punching on you and everything, he said he tried to stop them. When they wouldn't, he got scared and ran." James shook his head. "I know it would have been better if he'd stayed, or at least tried to get help or something, but... remember, not everyone thinks the same way as the rest of us do. I mean, some people actually do panic or just freeze up, not knowing what to do when stuff like that happens. Sadly, they end up running, as what appeared to happen in his case. I got the impression that Pete was scared out of his wits also, because he knew he could get caught at the worst of possible times. He strikes me as one of those who doesn't usually think very fast on his feet, so in a weird sort of way - it kind of makes sense, don't you think?"
Jesse nodded, smiling. "Oh yeah, definitely! And I can tell you, from what I know and all? He fits that description just like you said it."
"What was that he said about having promised you something, though?" Makalah asked, turning to her older son.
"Nothing really, Mom," Jesse replied. "When we talked at the park that night, he was saying he was sorry so much, see? Then somehow, we brought up the stuff about what happened to Benji and all, and he was, you know, he couldn't stop feeling down so much about it. That's when I told him what he really needed to do was apologize to Short-Round here, instead of just me and Noah, and that he ought to do it in person." That earned him a look from his brother, followed by a roll of the youngster's eyes. The move made the others chuckle, but the boy then moved over to stand close to Jesse in appreciation.
James nodded, smiling once again. "I would say that is a part of what drove him into visiting us this morning, then. You know, that was something he didn't have to do, and I'm sure Jim could have said no and not obliged him at all. But, well, the fact that he remembered it, and was trying to follow-up on it on his own, well... That speaks a lot more for his character than what I would have given him credit for beforehand. It's really a good thing."
When the foursome grew quiet, Makalah reached for her crutches. "Okay, boys, enough of this for now. You two are going to have to help me this morning. We've got a gift for Noah and his parents that still needs to be wrapped, and we need to fix a couple of dishes to take along with us this afternoon, too. Plus, you two eventually need a shower, and-"
"Ah, but-" Benji had started to blurt out that he and Jesse had already showered, but a quick nudge from his brother stopped it.
"But... what?" Makalah asked.
"He means we didn't do anything hot or sweaty yesterday, probably," Jesse filled in quickly, before putting his arms around his brother. "But, never mind. We'll grab a shower before we go back over there later." Benji nodded in agreement, before both started following their mother toward the kitchen.
Instead of heading back to the house, Jim Hunt changed his mind and steered in direction of the Corrections Building, where he had worked for the last 22 years, the most recent nine of them in his current role. In all of his days in law enforcement, he had seen some strange things happen with people in his custody. Reactions that ranged from constant bickering and bemoaning the law, and its corresponding enforcement, to total breakdowns, including crying and begging for mercy. It happened with all ages, really, from the very young to the elderly alike, and there were times he could not help but feel trapped in a world where his say-so would determine their fates for the better or the worse.
In that experience, however, he had never come across anyone like the seemingly whipped teenager that was riding next to him at the moment. The transformation was as distinct as night and day, really. One moment, the teenager was the king of the hill, as if abiding by some kind of inner code of conduct, within a circle of friends at school he couldn't back away from. Then the next, as if flipping some invisible switch, Pete became a creature of humility, and not afraid of distancing himself far from the real-life people who had come to know him. It was such a transparent change that it actually mystified the Sheriff, and that caused him to tread cautiously. Could the teenager be doing all of it for a show, perhaps to try and ease whatever fate awaited him?
Possibly, but Jim Hunt thought back to the instances of the last few days, where the boy had given them all valuable information, without hesitation. They now had names, places, and timelines for when and how various events took place, and who was involved - at least, as far as the teenager knew. He openly admitted that one of the six people responsible that night in the gymnasium was someone he had seen before, but had no idea who he was. Still, the man knew the county attorney would be having a field day with the information after the holidays.
In fact, the more Jim studied about it, the more he grew to actually respect the teen. To date, Pete had also been forthcoming on almost every question that had been asked of him, and even some of those he hadn't. He was never once elusive, simply electing to admit he didn't know something at times, rather than lead him astray or invent things otherwise. Jim was willing to accept that, especially given the more he learned about this elusive group of middleman and suppliers running not just through his county, but throughout the south-central region of the state. Although he had wondered if the teenager could have been mixed up within the group, his conversation with Walter the evening before actually negated possibility. The prisoner had shed further light on the boy's past and lack of involvement, and appeared to be for the right reasons - all of which leaned toward cleaning up the boy's past and present status.
The thing was though, seeing such a drastic change in someone like that of the teen would normally put Jim's senses on high alert, as if he were being 'played'. For some reason, however, it was not that way with Pete, not with THIS teenager sitting by his side. Evidently too much had happened to the young man since he initially eluded capture, and the day Principal Green walked through the front door and escorted him inside, Jim recalled the broken and exhausted spirit he displayed. Even now, early in the day as it was, he observed that the teen still seemed to be incredibly exhausted. "Hey, are you okay over there, son? You look like you're about ready to collapse or something," the man eventually announced as they approached the station.
"I'm fine," Pete replied softly, but it was not very convincingly.
Jim Hunt grunted as he parked the vehicle. "Why don't you come on inside then. This shouldn't take too long really, then we can head back out to the house. I might even end up putting on that damned apron after all, if Martha has her way about it."
Pete smiled again at the reference, but was otherwise obedient, opening the car door and climbing to his feet. They both traipsed across the mixture of slush and snow toward the main doors, until they reached and entered the building. Once through the checkpoint, the Sheriff then led them through the main hallway that routed back into the station, until they reached what the staff liked to call the 'Common Room', which was more of a command center for the offices. Seated behind one of the desks was Fred Spence, who looked up in recognition as they approached. "Oh, hey boss! Just a second..." he announced holding up a single index-finger, before turning to quickly finish the conversation he was having on the phone. When he hung up, he immediately directed his attention to the Sheriff. "That was Judge Wallace. He said to tell you that he'd leave it up to us, on how you wanted to deal with that bunch we picked up last night." The man then chuckled. "He wasn't very happy, though. I don't think he liked being called on Christmas Eve like that. Sounded like a party going on in the background."
"At this time of the morning?" Jim asked, but then nodded. "He usually has a rather large family that gets together over the holiday, so that may have been some of them you were hearing. Last count, I think he told me there were over 40 of them now, when they all get together."
"No shit! That's a big, ah, promiscuous bundle then, isn't it!" the deputy exclaimed, before finally turning to Pete and nodding. "So, how's it going, big guy?"
"Okay, I guess," Pete acknowledged, but without conviction. Internally, he felt a mixture of relief and liberation from the call they made on the McAllisters. Physically, however, he felt drained, and the other two saw it plainly. Seeing their glance, he blushed and then recanted. "Okay, okay, I'm doing fine, thanks. Just... tired is all. I just, I don't know, maybe I didn't sleep well or something."
Jim nodded. "Now, that is something I can readily accept. It takes a little getting used to changing beds like you have been doing, I know. Maybe you'll do better tonight." He then turned back to his deputy. "Alright, how many merry-makers are we talking about?"
"We've got five of them downstairs boss. Only one really gave us any trouble to speak of, but he calmed down after a bit. The other four were just tag-alongs, from the looks of it. One of the boys caught them on the road to Russel Springs, swerving all over the place about half-past three this morning," Fred explained. "Dangerous kind though, that's why we brought them all in here to sober up. Thankfully, no one was hurt - although the coffee supply downstairs took a rather extensive hit."
"What was the BL?" Hunt asked, grunting.
"Blood-alcohol level ranged from-"
"Stop," the Sheriff interrupted, suddenly holding up his hand. "On second thought, I don't think I want to know. What's their story, actually?"
Fred shrugged. "Coming in from a party somewhere, got a little heavy on the eggnog from the sounds of it. Spiked, I'm sure. They claimed to be students up in Lexington."
"Priors? Records?" the Sheriff asked, clearly thinking.
"None, boss. All of them came back surprisingly squeaky clean," Fred responded.
Jim Hunt fell silent then, contemplating those details heavily before finally shaking his head. "Then let them go. I don't want to know who they are or any more about where they're from. Just make sure they get a good boot up their ass, and a riot act about public endangerment and intoxication - especially while driving under the influence. Then... yeah, let it all slide so they can go home to their families. If they insist on any reparation, well... tell them they can send us a container or two of coffee."
Overhearing the conversation caused Pete to suddenly look up in surprise at his benefactor, as if he couldn't believe what he had just heard. Even Fred leaned back in his chair and scratched his head, observing his boss with his own mild expression of disbelief. "Uh, are you sure, boss? I mean..."
Jim Hunt nodded. "Yeah, I'm sure. Like I said, give them the riot act, but then cut them loose - before I change my mind, I think," the sheriff responded. Looking about, he glanced at his watch. "Half-past ten, it looks like. You should be able to process them and do all of that before noon. You boys have a good Christmas, okay? If nothing else comes up, I'll see some of you on Monday."
Fred nodded, rising to his feet. "You got it, boss. You and Martha have a good Christmas weekend, too."
On the way back out to the car, Jim paused just inside the outer doors as the teenager followed a few steps behind, deep in thought. "So, do you think I should have booked them?" he asked out of the blue, clearly startling Pete from his reverie.
"I... I don't know, really... I mean, it's n-not my p-place to say," Pete stammered, having to think through the question before he could reply.
"Why not? Your opinion is just as valid as anyone else's, I think," the man announced before heaving a huge sigh. "This is what goes along with the territory, Pete. I see things happen in this county every day, and I have to find a balance between myself and the law, meaning my duty, with what to do with people all the time. You heard the man, they were at a party, confessed to having a little too much to drink, and got caught going home - or that's the way it looked. So, given everything we just learned, I have a choice: book and charge them, which would then put them in the system and give them a record. Or, I can choose to believe they simply made a mistake, and then give them the benefit of the doubt. Since none of them had any record of doing anything before, I chose the latter." He then turned to observe the teenager closely. "It is not unlike you, son. I have a choice, see? Of all that has happened, I think the only thing left is that you have to answer for what happened on the school grounds - which, if I recall correctly, means finding those drugs in your locker, and the assault, I think. Now, I can choose to push you into the system - a system, I might add, that thus far has never dealt with you before now. That means no record, no teenage delinquencies - nothing that will tarnish you with a record to date. Or... I can choose to believe you've simply made a few mistakes along the way, and you're owning up to them. In that, I can give you the benefit of the doubt if I desire."
Pete felt the man was trying to explain something important here. "And... is that what you're doing with me? I mean... No one has ever given me a chance like that before, and... I mean... What I did, well..."
Jim grunted, turning his gaze to the scene outside the glass doorway. "Well, maybe not at school, but can you honestly blame them? Look at what you've stirred up in your time over there, kid. It's not easy being the school badass, and then maintaining it for as long as you have. That... is almost laughable, I know, but it's also true." He sighed. "But out here beyond the school walls, where life is important, it's a far different story, you see? Far too many of you youngens just want to hurry things along, and get the hell out of here. Not that I blame you - we don't live in the most prosperous of places, I get it. But at the same time, most people that do live here are content to live a simple life, and they actually appreciate some of the quietness our old town has to offer. There's a certain value in that, for young and old alike, to anyone who wants to grasp hold and hang on. Even though it may not look like it, that's why we do prosper to some extent, as a community. It's why a lot of people like it here, including myself and Martha. She is always telling people how much she adores it here, and for mostly those same reasons."
Pete thought about that for a moment before he nodded. "I- I think I can see that, yeah," he whispered, causing the older man to turn back to him.
"Then, let me ask the question again: what choice would you have me make, hmm? No, I don't mean for you to answer it now, just... Think about that over the next couple of days, and let's talk again when the weekend is over. Until then, remember what Martha and I both told you last night: you need to relax and get your bearings again, and while you're at it, try to enjoy being a kid for a little while - at least for the weekend. Alright? Don't let this dark cloud that's hanging over you fall so low that you can't see the sunshine that is surely outside of it. In other words, it's not the end of the world for you, not by a longshot."
Dejectedly, the teen stepped up to the glass as well and nodded. "It is though, Sheriff, as far as I'm concerned. I gave up, not because I expected any special treatment, but because... I had nowhere else to go. I had no one to turn to anymore, see? I just... I knew it was either that or..." The teen sighed, but then stood up a little taller. "But... it doesn't matter anymore, really. I'm grateful for everything you people are doing for me, but..."
"You still think of yourself as being a lost cause of some sort, is that it?" Surprisingly, the man laughed. "Well, you're no more of a lost cause than those boys down in the lockup, or me for that matter. Remember, son, no one is perfect in the world, not by a long shot. And as to that special treatment, as you called it, meh - I'm not so sure it's all that special. I understand it may feel that way, but truth be told, we've never dealt with this before. It's new territory for all of us, so we'll wing it as we go."
Jim Hunt then took a step closer, before placing his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Do something, alright? I'd really like you to try and believe in nothing but the fact that, for the next few days, that there are no strings attached, okay? We'll sort your situation out next week, but until then - we're all going to be busy, eating and laughing and who knows what else, once we get back to the house. You'll get to see what a real family like ours gets to enjoy during this time of year - at least, in our homestead. The Hunt homestead, as Martha and I have lived and made it for the last 30-plus years. It'll be different, I'm sure, but I suspect you might find it halfway enjoyable."
Pete smiled tiredly. "I'll do my best sir, I promise."
"I believe you will, so I'm not worried," the man replied with a smile of his own. "Listen, you do look mighty beat for some reason. If it'll help, try and grab a little nap this afternoon. The kids, they won't be showing up before, oh, say four or a little after anyway. Chelsea won't be here with her bunch until at least six or a little after, too. You'll have a little time, I'm sure."
"Okay," the teen agreed. "By the way, uh, thanks again for this morning. I mean, for taking me to see those people and, well, you know."
Jim Hunt nodded. "What you did this morning was noble, whether you looked at it that way or not."
"I- I wasn't trying for that, really. I... I just made a promise, and I needed to see it through, honest. I just... I needed to do it, that's all," Pete explained, although his voice had dropped considerably with a trace of emotion that was unmistakable.
The Sheriff smiled. "Even though I had an inkling of what you were going to do, you still surprised both me and that family alike. I can live with honoring little things like that, most of the time. Right now, though, we've got other things to worry about. We've got to get going... or Martha will have both our hides tanning outside in this cold, hard sun!"
"You know, since our get-together at Thanksgiving this year, I've sat back a few times and reflected on our lives. All our lives, in fact. Because of that, with each day that passes by, I cannot imagine our worlds being brought together without a better purpose than the sharing of our friendships, helping one another and just being ourselves," Allen announced.
Both the Cook and McAllister families were seated around the dining room table, quietly listening and contemplating the words being spoken. Even Benji, whose excitement had been rather rambunctious since their arrival, grew still while they were now gathered around. The table before them was spread with a variety of dishes, with none other than a huge, golden-roasted turkey parading as the main feature in the middle. As to the rest, Jennifer had gone out of her way, breaking her promise of a rather simple meal. The table held mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans, corn, rolls and more - and certainly in quantities that looked as if it could practically feed a small army. Although a few dishes were exchanged here and there, other than in quantity it was a meal no different, really, from the one they had enjoyed together at Thanksgiving. Only this time, it had been successfully assembled without the chaos they had all previously endured. For the seven of them, it was a table splendidly spread, one that would be fit for a king.
"I think there are a few things in life that we all take for granted," Allen continued. "We do it with a lot of our friendships, for certain. Sometimes we don't realize how special those friendships are until we're faced with adversity, and the Good Lord knows, we've had plenty of that lately- enough so we could probably write a whole book about. Still, just as I was telling James the other day, nothing has happened that we can't all endure. I believe life will settle down, at least from the chaos, and we'll plunge ahead for the better in the months coming around the corner. I mean that for both of our families, too - all seven of us. We're going to have plenty of adventures to face down the road, and I cannot honestly imagine any better people to share them with, than the ones sitting here, at this table, right now."
"Hear, hear!" James exclaimed softly, grasping his wife's hand and holding it.
Allen smiled and then turned to the boys. "Just like James asked of you at Thanksgiving, Jesse, I'm going to ask the same of Noah, today. Son, your mother and I are proud of you, and I fear we don't tell you that often enough. I don't think James will mind though, if we start recognizing that we have a new generation of boys growing up in our families here. I understood his reasoning at Thanksgiving, and I don't disagree with it at all. I think it would be good if we started to include you guys now, more than ever before, because that's how much we all have come to respect you for. So, how about it Noah, hmm? Would you do us all the honor of saying grace today?"
Noah, stared back in surprise. "But... D-Dad, I've never, I mean... I don't know what to do, or s-say! I'm not like you, or Jesse, or..."
"I think you just start by saying the things your thankful for, son," James spoke with a smile, his voice quietly reverberating throughout the room. "This is Christmas, and the meaning of it notwithstanding, this is a time where things come out from the heart. Honestly, that's all you need to know, because your heart will guide you... just like it did Jesse last time." The man stole a glance to the seat next to Noah and winked at him.
Noah let go of a long breath he had been holding, before sitting up slowly. Glancing at his mother, he saw an encouraging smile waiting for him there that he would never forget. In fact, everyone around the table was smiling at him, but not in amusement. It was the kind of expression that lent him both strength and hope, which he desperately felt he needed just then. Reaching out, however, the teen took hold of Jesse's hand on one side, and then Benji's on the other. Soon the rest of the table joined hands together and all bowed their heads. Noah tried for an instant to recall what Jesse had done before, but he really couldn't. Though nervous, he took another breath and decided he would have to face this, on his own.
"Um, thank you Dear Lord, for this day, and this chance to come together again. Thank you for our parents, for being who they are, that love us and take care of us, no matter what. Thank you for our friends, our brothers as we like to call each other now, because that is what they mean to us. Thank you for not..." Noah paused, his voice catching briefly, before he could continue. When he did, it was as if the whole room grew even quieter as his tone fell lower. "Thank you for not letting any of us feel alone anymore, and for... for being here with each other. Nothing is more special than just being able to do that, and say it with our heart. Thank you for Christmas, and what it means to us all, too. May you always help us, may you keep us, and... and always bless us, both of our families. In all things we thank you, from our hearts. Amen."
Raising his head finally, Noah could not help but see several sets of moist eyes around him, especially in their parents. He smiled weakly, thinking about the words for himself. Right or wrong, he did exactly what James had instructed him to do. He spoke from his heart, and in doing so the teen laid bare everything that he had come to finally learn about family, about peace, and about holding on to having a belief in one another. When he turned to Jesse, he noticed the teen still held his hand, and was squeezing it affectionately. In a sense, Noah felt relieved then, but even more so after his friend leaned in and whispered. "That was a lot better than I did, bro. You did great!"
As Noah suddenly blushed, Allen observed and overheard enough of the whisper to understand its sentiment. Standing, both he and Jennifer walked around the table to their son and gave him a heartfelt embrace. Before returning to his seat, however, Allen stopped behind Jesse and placed both of his hands upon the teen's shoulders. "No, it wasn't any better kiddo, but it was just as good and just as acceptable as anyone else could have done, in this room or elsewhere."
"Like James said," Makalah offered from her seat. "'Hear, hear!' Anytime someone speaks from the heart, Noah, it means that it comes unabashed and unfiltered. People know it then, because it is something they feel, see? When that happens, that's all it takes," she added, as James also rose to walk around and give the boy a quick embrace. When he finished, Noah recognized that Makalah, still under restrictions while recuperating on her own, could not easily do the same. So, without any hesitation, the teen got up and approached her all the same. After a warm embrace, he returned to his seat to meet the fist-bump that Benji gave him to show his own support. The youngster didn't quite understand all of what was going on, but as his mother had said - he felt something in the moment, and understood it was, indeed, something special.
"Okay, troopers... let's get to it!" Allen announced, and then what followed was a feast to behold. Although it was in the late afternoon, none of them had stopped for lunch, except for Benji, who bashfully admitted to having had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich earlier. It did not keep him from enjoying a sizable portion of food for himself though, even given his smaller size. For the most part, all three boys feasted, clowning around and giggling, and laughing while the adults entertained themselves. Over an hour was spent at the table, before Jennifer rose and started moving some of the dishes to the countertops. Noah and Benji also hopped up to help, but after a few were more transported and safely set aside, she ushered the boys back into their seats. Then after a slight excursion out onto the back porch, the woman returned bringing a round, snowball-like coconut cake to the table.
James gave the lady a hurt expression. "What, you pull that out now, after we've already eaten so much?" he feigned, rubbing his belly. "If I eat anything more, someone will have to stuff my stuffing back into me, because I'm pretty sure I'll pop! I don't have any more room!"
They all laughed, but Jennifer ignored him for the most part, pulling a stack of smaller dessert plates out of the cabinet and placing them onto the table. She then proceeded to place small slices of the sweet concoction, along with small scoops of ice cream, onto the plates before passing them around the table accordingly. Jesse, not a big fan of coconut, tentatively took a bite of the cake, and then arched his eyebrows in surprise. Glancing at Noah, he saw the smug look that met him, causing him to pause in suspicion. "You made this, didn't you?"
"Mom, you weren't supposed to tell!" the teen hissed at his mother, causing everyone at the table to break out in laughter.
"I didn't, I swear!" Jennifer announced, before continuing her task.
"It's... it's really good. I mean..." Jesse started, but Noah ended up grinning.
"That's what I spent my morning working on while you guys went home," the teen explained. "Mom sort of, well..."
"I sort of, well is right," Jennifer filled in. "The kid can cook, when someone puts him to doing it. I don't intend to let him grow up wasting that talent, either!" Everyone else at the table then sampled the treat and declared it was excellent, something that caused the teen to blush, but also gave him an enormous amount of pride.
When dinner was over, the crew chipped in all around, getting the table cleared and the leftovers stored away safely. Jennifer reminded their guests of the promise to return the next day, so as to help with consuming what was left, but James ended up chuckling. "Finish this off?" He was holding the turkey plate just then, and indeed it appeared to have already been devoured heavily. Cleaning it would not leave much in the way of meat to hold over, for sure, but then Jennifer revealed another item she had been holding out on.
"Well, I figured it might go that way, so... I thought we might sink our hooks into this tomorrow," she announced, opening the refrigerator door and showing both him and Makalah a spiral sliced ham, waiting to be warmed and served. "Do you think that will work?"
Makalah grasped the lady from behind with a brief embrace. "Are you kidding? You bet it will!" she whispered.
Allen, gazed upon them with a look of relief. "Good! I'd hate to think we'd be stuck with having ham for the next week or more, all by ourselves!" Jennifer punched him playfully on the arm while the others laughed.
In short order, Allen bade the families to come together in the living room, where the Cooks had their Christmas tree setup, fully lit and decorated. The blazing fire was going in the fireplace, producing a beneficial heat into the room that knocked off any chill to be had. After settling down and finding seats, either in chairs or nearby on the floor, as Benji and Noah had decided to do. Jesse, already beginning to feel stiff and tired again, decided to sit beside his father on the couch. Seeing the questioning glance that met him, the teen shook his head and whispered, "I'm fine Dad, really. Don't worry about me." The man smiled and placed an arm around him just the same.
Allen also smiled before waving at Benji to join him under the tree. Surprised, the youngster quickly crawled across the floor as beckoned, before Allen bent down and whispered something quietly into his ear. Benji, surprised, looked up to be sure, but saw the smile that met him and the encouraging nod. With that, the boy glanced up and noted, perhaps for the first time, the seven stockings that were hung over the fireplace. Upon closer inspection, he also found that their names were attached to each. He rose and, after a final glance at the man who nodded again, lifted each one from their hangers and passed them out around the room. Each was filled with various candies, fruits and nuts, as well as tiny keepsakes and toys, customized particularly for each recipient. Makalah's eyes watered, along with her husband, as they realized the sentiment of the gesture. They had hung stockings before, but they were only just that - stocking hung by the chimney. Each vowed to themselves though, that now it would become a new tradition added to their own household in the years to come.
Before long, Benji turned to the gifts under the tree and started to read the various name tags. Pulling at several of the packages, he grouped the boxes together and started handing them out. "Whoa, ho-ho-ho!" Jesse teased him, after receiving a wrapped container. "Look at you, playing Mr. Santa!"
Benji turned and stuck his tongue out in reply, but the smile on his face was irresistible. In fact, there were a lot of smiles that followed in that room just then. Jennifer was in the background, snapping a few pictures here and there, while the event unfolded. It seemed that at one point in the evening, Allen had somehow slipped out for a moment, and retrieved a bag that James had skillfully dropped unnoticed in their garage. Without anyone even spotting his absence, the man had found places for its contents under the tree. They each began opening the various wrappings, to find sweaters, gloves, scarves, and more awaiting them inside. When Jennifer opened her own package, she gasped. Inside was a hand-knitted blanket adorned in swirling, vividly bright colors. As it unrolled, she gasped again when she realized that it was large enough for their bed. "Makalah, oh my gosh - how long.... Did you crochet this?"
Makalah beamed with pride as she nodded. "It took me a while, but yes. It gave me something to do during all those times you weren't around."
James made a face. "And how! But not without a little help, that is!" he added, raising his fingers to point upwards and wiggle them, causing his wife to laugh.
"Okay, okay... yes, with a little help," she replied, amending her statement. "Is it big enough? I tried to make sure it could cover your bed."
"Oh, Good Lord, yes! I think it will be absolutely perfect!" Jennifer declared, before nodding toward the floor. Sitting next to her chair, Makalah saw another rather large bag had appeared at some point. Leaning down, the woman opened it to find two crafted pillows inside, each with her and James' names stitched across the top. "Before you ask, yes, I made them - but I'm sure they didn't take anywhere as long to do as you spent on this blanket!"
"They're still lovely, though! Thank you!" was the quick reply, as she pulled one up to her face to feel the softness of the material.
As the women continued to converse, Allen opened his own package to find a new skill saw enclosed. Looking up, he grinned. "How did you know...?"
"Well, didn't you just say last week that your other one was about to give out?" James asked with a smirk.
"Well, I admit, I hinted at that, but it wasn't because I... never mind. I was going to wait and see if Kris Kringle might bring one in," Allen replied with a wink. "Thank you, though! Now, if I could just get that miter saw I've been after..." Everyone laughed, all the while Noah and his mother exchanged a knowing glance.
Both James and Makalah were also recipients of a new set of cookware, something that surprised them both. "We know you got some skillets and pots at the benefit, but really, they were all a pretty mixed-up bunch," Jennifer explained. "So, we put our heads together and decided you might like to have a heavier duty set, like these."
"Yeah," Allen added. "I mean, I didn't get you anything specific, James, but-"
"These are just fine, and very much appreciated! They'll be used by all of us," the man replied.
When it came time for the boys, Noah took the initiative. Picking up a large, heavy box, he placed it carefully into Jesse's lap, using caution not to set it too far inland. When his friend raised both eyebrows again, Noah only grinned in return. "Just open it, alright? It's from me to both you and Short-Stuff, really."
Hearing his name, Benji turned quickly and scooted across the floor to where Jesse sat. "Yeah, that was the heavy one," he announced, as if that explained everything as to why he didn't pull it out with the rest of his 'deliveries'. Benji reached out to observe the tag once again, however, but frowned. "Wait - you said both of us? It just has Jesse's name on the tag here, though," he noted with curiosity.
"Well, that's my fault, really. See, you guys were at the back door the other night when I was filling out the tag for it and all, and I didn't have time to finish filling it out," Noah explained, stepping back to let the younger brother gather in closer. "And I kind of forgot to go back and finish it later. Still, go on, I promise - it's for the both of you, so open it!"
Jesse grinned and, with Benji's assistance along one side while the teenager worked from the other, both tore at the paper until they met in the middle. As the wrapping fell away, however, all the two could see was what looked to be a blank piece of wood, although nicely smoothed out and finished. Benji glanced at their host again, but Noah rolled his eyes. "Turn it over, you two goofballs!" As instructed, Jesse flipped the board over before breaking into a wide grin. "Wow!" he exclaimed.
A silence fell upon the room, as their parents gathered around to see the result. In Jesse's lap was now a game board, containing a mixture of precise, methodically drilled holes and indentions, as well as neatly-trimmed painted marks surrounding them. Without question, the board's layout represented a customized version of the Aggravation! game that the brothers had been introduced to only a short time before, and had fallen in love with playing. "We tried, really, to find one like we had. Mom searched all over the internet and everything, but we couldn't locate it anymore," Noah explained. "They stopped producing them a few years ago, I think."
"That's when Noah came up with the idea of creating one for you guys from scratch, and giving it to you as a Christmas present. You see the little boxes on the edges there? They flip back," Allen explained, pointing out one of two smaller panels made from balsa wood. Reaching in, Noah flipped one of the edges away, revealing a storage slot behind it, made to hold dice, along with a set of color-coded marbles that would represent the players of the game.
"This is neat-o!" Benji exclaimed, closing and opening the hatch again.
Jesse nodded. "I agree. This is... this is... it's awesome, Noah. Thank you!" He looked up and met the offered fist bump in mid-air. Benji, for his part, jumped up and practically tackled the teen to the floor, hugging him fiercely around the neck and pulling him half-way into his lap in the process. The others in the room laughed as Noah blushed, but otherwise accepted the thanks all the same. Jennifer, however, picked up another package from near the tree and handed it over to the youngster, distracting him enough to finally pull away from the older teen and take it.
"That is from Allen and myself," she announced, taking a seat on the sofa's sidearm next to Jesse. With all eyes now observing him, Benji wasted no time in removing the wrapping. Once it had fallen clear, he stopped and stared at the gift with amazement. It was a replication of Harry Potter's wand from the movies, something he had from time to time always played make-believe using a ruler, or stick. "That one wasn't as hard to find, though. We figured you might like playing with the real thing... well, a replica of it at least, but still."
With renewed exuberance, Benji turned and hugged the woman smartly, before duplicating the effort with Allen. The man laughed and ruffled his hair, but was deeply appreciative of seeing they had done well. When the youth turned to Noah again, this time the teen held his arms up in defense. "No, no, not again! Not me, Short-Stuff! My parents got you that one," he exclaimed, much to the amusement of the others.
Benji, calming down, accepted the distinction and began opening the box with his new wand, while Jennifer handed another package to Jesse. The teen opened it to find the next three books in the Harry Potter series enclosed. "Thanks!" he exclaimed.
"Noah told us you had the first two, so that will get you over the half-way point, at least," the woman replied kindly with a smile. "Maybe someone will finish off with the last two for your birthday or something," she teased, winking at him.
Benji finally got his wand free from the packaging and started waving it. He had only been at it a few seconds though, before he felt Jesse nudge him. Looking up, he and his brother exchanged an unspoken message, so rising to his feet, Benji quietly exited the room. Jennifer's curiosity was piqued, but before she could remark, the boy suddenly re-appeared, carrying a rather large box. Crossing the floor, he placed it in front of Noah. "That's from me and Jesse. Well, Mom and Dad, too. It, uh, well... you'll see," he announced mysteriously, suddenly backing up and leaning in against his brother to watch.
Noah glanced at them both before staring down at the package. The large size caused him to hesitate at first, but as he pulled it forward, he was surprised to find that it didn't seem to be very heavy. Curiously, the teen placed it in his lap, but not without hearing the sounds of something rattling about inside. Again, with all eyes watching him, another cone of silence descended in the room as he began to tear at the paper. Within seconds, he was staring in surprise at something total bereft of his imagination. The box contained a model of NASA's Space Shuttle, complete with booster rockets and fuel tank! As he rotated the box around, he observed in one corner a label describing the kit as a Skill Level 3 assembly, and containing over 400+ parts.
"Wow!" Noah recalled Jesse talking sometime back, about how he used to assemble and paint models as a hobby. Unfortunately, all of them had been lost to the tornado, and since then the teen had downplayed the loss. In truth, it had never been much of a topic of conversation between them. Noah had never really assembled models of any type before, although he admittedly had always wanted to try it. Now to have one sitting in front of him, and with such sophistication, caused him to look up in disbelief. "How...? Where...?"
"It's my fault, partially," James spoke up, confessing to the crime. "You see, your father and I were having a nice long conversation one afternoon back around Thanksgiving, and somehow we came across the topic of models. I told him Jesse had always loved doing them, and that he had had quite a few at one point, probably nine or ten of them, around his room. He's developed a pretty good knack about how to put them together and all, including painting and the like. Your Dad told me you had talked about trying it out before, but then you suddenly lost interest and never pursued it in the last little while, I think."
"Well, yeah, kind of... but... these, especially this one, they're expensive, and... and..." Noah stammered still, frowning as he traded glances with both of his parents. He did indeed recall his fascination with them, but had dropped it altogether shortly after attending a certain birthday party. A party that had changed his outlook on life for the worst.
"It wasn't that bad, Noah," Jesse finally spoke up, feeling he was the one to blame for Noah's hesitancy. He was still pleased to see his friend was surprised though, and he felt with a level of assuredness that they had hit a home run with the idea. "I know, I talk about not having very much money sometimes, but that's not the point. Dad and I talked about it one night, and, well... I thought this might be something kind of nice. You know, something maybe you and I could do together, if you wanted to."
"Jesse mentioned to me that a good sailing ship, or airplane or something would be really nice, so that's what we set out for. One of the ladies that works with me though, went into Louisville about a week or two after your father and I talked. She was going after some kind of model rockets for her grandsons, I think. I thought maybe that was along the same line of what we were looking for, but... no, I learned differently. It didn't matter, though. While she was up there in some hobby shop or something, she saw this and called me up." James then approached the teen and placed a hand on his shoulder. "But listen to me, son - and please, listen very carefully: it's not the expense that matters, alright? It's what comes behind giving someone something special, like Jesse said. Believe me - these two were racking their heads for a while, trying to come up with an idea to do just that: find something special that they wanted to give you, but also have it be something fun. As for me, I remember all too well how much fun Jesse had building these things before, too, so we all figured you would, too. Okay?"
"Don't worry, I'll help you put it together - if you want me to," Jesse spoke again, this time eliciting a smile from his friend.
"Oh yeah, you'll have to help. Thanks though, I love it," Noah announced.
"You'll have to do it without me though," Benji announced. "I... well, I don't do too good with stuff like that. Too messy for me, I think."
Everyone around the youngster laughed out loud, but Noah set the box aside and pulled Benji into another one of those warm embraces all the same. "Don't worry, little bro, I love it!" he whispered into the youngster's ear. When he looked out over the shoulder of the boy in his arms, he could see yet another smile reaching out from Jesse. 'Thank you' he mouthed wordlessly, to which Jesse nodded. The two would definitely have to get together afterwards, and Noah had every intention of expressing his thanks more whole heartedly when they did.
"Okay, is that it then?" Makalah spoke up, her eyes once again moistened by the emotions floating around the room.
"Not quite," Jesse announced, looking in Jennifer's direction. "Since we're doing all this mushy stuff, do you think we can just go ahead and give Mom and Dad our present to them now?"
Jennifer smiled and climbed to her feet again, before walking over to the coat closet. Opening the door, she pulled out yet another wrapped box. Returning to the teen, she handed it over to Jesse, who took it before looking up to his parents. "Mom? Dad? This is something from Benji and me, but you should know that Benji was the one who came up with the idea. We know... well, you guys lost a lot of things that will never get replaced in the storm, see, and-"
James nodded. "We all did, son. Not just your mother and me."
"Yeah, I know, Dad," Jesse replied. "It's just, we had to have a little help putting this together and making it happen, see. Just like we got you guys to help us with our things for Noah and all, we kind of got Jennifer and Allen to help us some, too. So, this comes from - well, it comes from both of us, but just, people helped us, that's all." The teen then smiled and forwarded the box to his mother. "Benji and I hope you like it."
"I'm sure we will," Makalah whispered, smiling all the same. If there were ever tears of happiness that fell that evening, unbidden from not only their mother, but in a moving moment by their father as well, it was then. Both parents worked together to open the box and pull out the photo album, along with a few pictures already enlarged and mounted in frames, carefully wrapped and placed underneath. The pictures of the boys were as professional-looking as Jesse could have ever hoped for, highlighting Mrs. Cook's talent along with that of the other photographer they visited. Their mother cried quietly as she pulled each print out and looked it over with her husband, and then again as she opened the album and found the first pages filled with more various images of their sons. Once she turned the first few pages, she began laughing merrily at seeing more of the pages filled, this time with silly antics that included Noah. James, in a rare display of emotion, wiped at his own eyes and grasped Benji in a tender, fatherly hug, before getting up and approaching where Jesse was still seated. With a gentle assistance, the man helped the teenager stand to his feet so that he could embrace him too, without holding anything back. "You boys did good, you know that? You... you did s-super," he said thickly, before separating and grabbing both of his sons and pulling them with him over to their mother. Makalah set the book down and rose to her feet as well, where all three took up a rare family embrace like never before.
Looking out over Jesse's shoulder, Makalah also saw there was not a dry eye to be found in the room, and when she finally pulled back, she addressed both of her sons. "This is, by far, the best present anyone has given me in my whole life! I love all of it, and I love you."
"Ditto," James breathed beside her.
Jesse smiled, extending his arm around Benji's shoulders and giving his brother a gentle squeeze. The effort had been worthwhile, as he knew it would be. When Benji first proposed it, he already knew in his heart it would be a hit, and right now seeing their parents' reactions proved it. Surprisingly though, that was not quite the end of it, as Noah suddenly produced one more 8x10 frame of his own from somewhere, and handed it over to the brothers. Mounted within it was a picture of the three of them, grouped together nicely in a portrait-like style. "That's for you two, so you can hang it in your room if you want. I've got one, too, that I'm going to hang up downstairs."
Jesse grinned, shaking his head in disbelief. "Thanks," he whispered.
Before long, having finished with their gift exchange, Jennifer disappeared into the kitchen, only to return a moment later with seven cups filled with a rich holiday drink. "Come on everybody, let's make a toast."
"Um, Eggnog or Custard? And does it have anything 'extra' in it?" Noah whispered, teasing her as he took his cup.
Jennifer gave him the eye, but continued until all the other cups had been distributed before she took hers and raised it to the group. "To friends, but even more importantly, to family. May we each make this Christmas the happiest one of them all yet!"
A chorus of "Hear, hear!" went up all around the circle. Among friends, it would be a Christmas hard to forget. Among family, however, it would be sealed in their hearts forever.
"So, we want to talk to you boys about something," Makalah announced, having finally taken a seat in their own living room.
The hour was not necessarily late, but given the time of year the nights had become long, and the corresponding days short by comparison. The group had finally broken away from their stay with the Cooks, but only after promising repeatedly that they would return the next day and continue spending time with them. There were to be plenty of leftovers to continue digging into, as well a special edition football game to be broadcast. It had already been an enjoyable and mesmerizing get-together, and Jesse felt pleased as it was. The boys had gone downstairs to Noah's room, where Noah opened the box of his model and marveled, almost to the point of bewilderment, at all the pieces that it contained inside. Jesse assured him, however, that the model didn't appear to be all that complicated, and the two made plans to get started with it in the next few days, as time allowed. After closing the box back up, Noah then crossed to his bedroom door and closed it, before turning around. "Come here, both of you," he commanded quietly, to which both obeyed. Once there, the teen started with Benji, kneeling down on one knee and taking hold of the boy for a second time, thanking him again. He inserted his hands inside the boy's sweater and rubbed the youngsters back, something that Benji seemed to really enjoy.
When it became Jesse's turn, Noah just stood in front of his friend, the two staring at each other for a moment. "I don't know what to say," Noah finally whispered.
"Then don't say anything," Jesse whispered back. "We each already know how the other feels, right? Sometimes, that's hard to put into words, anyway, you know?" The two then embraced, before Benji engulfed them both together from below. They held on briefly, as mutual feelings were silently exchanged. Before long, however, the three eventually separated and began an all-out wrestling match, using the youngster as a tickling bag of sorts. The laughter, combined with the physical interaction, was a release from all the intense, pent-up emotions they had just lived through - both amongst themselves and with their parents.
On their walk back towards the house, all four of the McAllisters were laden with their various gifts, along with generous slices of the coconut cake to delight themselves with before bedtime. Once they entered the house, each set their respective items down on the kitchen table, and then herded toward the coat closet near the front entrance. It was then that Makalah sat down and made her announcement. When the boys stepped up, neither was aware of anything going on, so they met the moment with curiosity. Also, neither noticed as James quietly left the room, while their mother spoke again.
"Benji, Petey's mother called me the other night, and we had an interesting discussion about something. It seems that, thanks to Petey and his brother, they've been talking or telling you about something, haven't they?" Makalah began, but then paused.
Benji's face fell, crestfallen before his mother. "Yeah, Mom," he replied worriedly.
Makalah smiled, however. "You know, your Father and I understood you would find out about these things eventually, honey, but... believe me, if it had been ours to choose, it would not have happened for a long, long time. Jesse didn't learn about it until he was older, and I know of some others who were around nine or ten before they started figuring it all out, too. You understand though, right? Your Father and I, even Jesse - we didn't want you to stop believing in the miracle of Christmas, or the magic behind it."
Benji sort of smiled, feeling more relieved. "I know, Mom. Honest, it's okay."
Glancing at her older son, their mother paused. Jesse took the initiative and slowly lowered himself as Noah had done earlier, until he was kneeling awkwardly on one knee, but keeping himself steady. "The magic doesn't go away, Ben. Honest, it never does. It has always been there, and it'll continue to always be there, even from here on out. I mean, look at me, I'm 14, and I still believe in the magic of Christmas! I always have little bro."
Benji smiled just a little more as he turned to face his brother. "I know, Jess. I guess I just, I don't know... I thought it might end or something now, since I'm the last one in the family and all. That was what, I don't know, what bothered me the most, you know?"
"Nothing is stopping, honey," Makalah reassured him. "Besides, how could it? You are loved just as much now as you ever were, by all of us. I'm sorry someone had to ruin that for you right now, but we can't change it. What we can do though, is accept the truth of it, and know that nothing else will change. Christmas isn't about the presents and tinsel and trees anyway, right? I mean, it's the kind of thing that runs a lot deeper, inside of you in your heart. How could anyone really take that away from you? We certainly don't intend to - ever!"
Benji grinned then and stepped forward to give his mother a huge hug, which made Jesse smile. He recalled a conversation he had himself some years before, that followed along these same lines, and he agreed with his mother - the holiday ran a lot deeper than some in the world gave it credit for. Reflecting on what Noah had told him, Jesse had been meaning, but thus far failed, to bring this up with his brother. Now that it was out in the open though, the teenager felt somewhat relieved.
It wasn't long before the sound of rustling paper came from behind the boys, and that caused Jesse to turn around and find his father sitting several packages, along with a huge cloth sack, on the floor. Seeing the look of curiosity, James just shook his head and shrugged. "Be right back," he announced. The trio then watched as he left the room yet again, only this time to return seconds later carrying two rather large bean bags, stuffed in clear plastic bags. "Umph! Do NOT ask me why we didn't try and wrap these up, please!" he declared with a grin.
Jesse couldn't help but return the grin, but it was Benji who took a step forward just then with uncertainty. "What's going on?" he whispered.
"Well, your father and I were talking, and we decided that maybe, just this once, given how strangely we've managed Christmas this year already so far, and the fact the cat was let out of the bag..." Seeing her son's sudden look of confusion caused her to stop and giggle. "I mean, given that Petey and his brother opened their big mouths, see... Anyway, maybe we could as a family, celebrate our own little holiday get-together tonight, instead of waiting until the morning. Wouldn't you like to do that for a change?" Makalah explained.
Benji's frown gradually turned upside down as he fell to his knees. "Wow! You mean it? Really?"
"Yes, really," James replied, decidedly dropping to sit in the floor next to him. "We're proud of you boys, you know that, right? I know I don't say it very often, but... after today, how can we not be?"
Jesse joined them, sitting carefully on a cushion his mother tossed to him. "How can we not know?" he whispered in reply, repeating the man's own assessment.
"Do you want to hand them out?" James asked his older son, but Jesse immediately shook his head.
"Let Ben do it, Dad. He did a pretty good job earlier, didn't he?"
"Oh yes, he sure did," Makalah answered from behind them. "You two move over a little bit though, okay? That way I can watch everything, too. If it wasn't for this stupid ankle, I'd probably just plop right down there in the floor with the three of you!"
"You know, you still could," James stated, turning back to her. "I'm sure we can manage to get you back up afterwards."
Makalah smiled. "I know you probably could, but I'm alright up here, I think. It'll be easier on all of us anyway."
James finally nodded as he and Jesse both complied, scooting off to the side before the man nodded to Benji. The boy's face lit up for a second time, before he started going through the multicolored packages of presents.
Before long, the youngster had set aside a stack of the packages for himself, while handing Jesse a few of the boxes. James and Makalah had already been given their gift from the boys, with the exception of the toaster oven, but it did not keep James from reaching out and handing a small box over to his wife. Opening it, Makalah found a locket and necklace within, which when opened, caused her to gasp. Inside each half, was a picture of each of their sons. "I was going to let the boys give you that, but I think it was Jennifer suggested I waited until afterwards. I now see why." Makalah leaned in and gave her husband a quick kiss, all the while Benji finished and turned to the bag. James, however, held his hand out. "Not yet... Let's open yours up first, hmm?"
"But... but Jesse doesn't have but two packages, Dad! I mean..."
"Don't worry about Jesse. The rest of his are in this bag here, so I promise, he'll be alright," James whispered with a smile. With a bewildered expression, the youngster finally nodded and then sat down again in front of his pile. As he opened one after another, the whole family celebrated with him as the toy cars, various army-related figurines, and other toys found their way in front of him. Benji was beside himself, really, his exuberance rubbing off on the others in the room. When Jesse opened one of his packages, he found a new set of warm, winter gloves inside one with a scarf that had been crocheted by their mother. Both pleased him to no end.
It was when they had finished that James spoke again. "There is also something up at the store for you both, that I intended to bring back with me this morning, but our day just got away from us. Your mother and I picked up two bicycles for you, so you can get back to riding all over the neighborhood again, come fair weather."
"Really? Wow!" Benji exclaimed, dropping his playthings and jumping into his Dad's arms.
"Yeah, thanks, Dad!" Jesse added. He felt pleased, seeing his brother get so much of the attention as he had hoped. Looking around them, and considering the day as it was, he was content at how it had all turned out. His brother had gotten a little more in the way of presents than they were used to, but given their situation, he wasn't surprised. Now that Benji had toys to play with again, Jesse felt it would go a long way in restoring things back to normal. He opened his box to find a new set of tennis shoes. They were not the name brand that some kids raved over, but honestly Jesse had no desire to pursue having Nikes or Reeboks as it were. He was just as happy with the pair he got, and even happier when Benji opened up a matching pair he had received for himself.
Their parents, however, were not finished yet, as James finally picked up and handed the cloth bag over to his older son. "We didn't forget you, Jess. We just hope you like them." When he didn't say more, Jesse looked at the bag humbly before opening it. Inside, he found three wrapped boxes, each bearing his name. The largest of the three he opened first, and was really surprised to find inside a radio-controlled car, complete with transmitter and spare parts.
"This is cool!" the teenager exclaimed, pulling the box up close so that he and Benji could both examine the contents through the transparent plastic. They chatted excitedly for a moment before the teen finally set it aside. Opening his second package, however, and seeing what it contained caused Jesse to gasp. "You're kidding me, right? Dad?" he whispered. He held the box in his hands, stunned to find that it was an Apple iPad, similar to the one Noah that had loaned them just a short while before.
"Yippeee!" Benji exclaimed, giggling profusely and completely oblivious to his brother's astonishment, who had turned to stare at both parents.
"No, we're not kidding, honey. We both heard about Noah loaning you his iPad that night, and how you had had a bunch of fun with it," Makalah explained. "We know we could, maybe even should, have picked you guys up some more clothes, but then - where would be the fun in that, you know? So, your father and I decided we needed to start thinking about moving you boys into the 21st century, eventually."
"There is one thing you should know, though," James interjected. "It's not what you'd call brand new, okay? I mean, this is a refurbished one, but it's guaranteed to be like a new one, and-"
"I don't care, Dad! This... this..." Jesse started, but he couldn't finish the thought. To his parents, however, the expression told them all that they had hoped for.
Before the teen could go any further, however, James picked up the third package and put it in his son's hand. "Go on, open this one, too," James whispered, so Jesse set the iPad aside and began carefully tearing the paper away. When he flipped it over and stared at the cover of the box, he almost lost it then. That's when James laid a reassuring hand on his knee. "I need you to listen to me for a minute, alright? I know what's going through your head, but really, hang on for a minute, and let me explain something."
Jesse looked up and waited, his eyes watering to the point of tears. "First of all, you should know that Noah is also going to be opening up one similar to this, so you both are going to each have one. As to the why, Allen and I kind of got to thinking and, well, we coordinated this a bit. You see, we know you're going to turn 15 next month, and that means you and Noah are both only about a year away from driving and all. Plus, the two of you are beginning to spread your wings a little more, and your mother and I, well, we wanted you to have some of that freedom that comes with it while you're growing up. To do that though, we all knew - us, Jennifer and Allen, too - that you boys will need some tools to get by. So, this is one of those ways of being able to reach out, see? I mean, should you get in trouble, or go out somewhere and get stuck, or maybe you just simply need to find us, or talk to us for some reason in a given moment - then this is a way to do that."
"But...Dad, this... it's... how can we even afford-"
"Will you, for once, stop worrying about things like that?" Makalah interrupted him, with a certain amount of her own frustration creeping into her voice before she laughed. "Really, honey, we appreciate that you're so... so responsible and all about it, but - for once, just shut up and listen to what your father is trying to tell you!" she whispered, though smiling through her own tears that had begun to build up.
"Your mother's right," James picked up afterwards. "I've told you once, and if I have to, I'll tell you a hundred times again until you start to believe it: let me, or rather let your mother and I, worry about things like that. This isn't going to break the bank, I promise, and besides - that cell phone, you'll notice it's not one of the fanciest ones out there with all the bells and whistles. It'll do quite a bit though, from what Allen and I understand. We researched it and asked the advice of some people we know. The bottom line though, just like you told us earlier about the pictures, is that it's from us to you. It's yours, just for being the son, the brother and more, that all three of us could not be prouder of having in this family. So, let me worry about all the little things, okay? Just don't go and run up a bunch of minutes, or start sending thousands of text messages on it. Although, I think we're all supposed to have unlimited texts, if I'm not mistaken. I should probably check that out..." he teased, winking at the teenager. "Seriously, son, we'll do fine, I promise."
Jesse stared at the box for a moment before whispered, "I won't, Dad... I mean, I promise... I'll respect it and everything."
"I know you will," James whispered back to him, moving his hand upon the boy's shoulder and fondly squeezing it again.
"There is one other thing though, this time for you Benji," Makalah added, glancing at the younger boy. "Be mindful, okay? I'm sure Jesse will share with you somewhat, but these - they're not playthings, alright? They're not like your other gifts here, at least. These are the kind of things that need to be carefully taken care of, and-"
"I know, Mom... I understand," Benji replied, but still wearing the jubilant smile he had held throughout most of the day.
Makalah then cleared her throat and pulled another package that she had hidden until that moment, handing it over to the youngster, who was again surprised. "Another present?" He quickly tore the wrapping away to find that he, too, was the happy recipient of an iPad as well, although his looked somewhat smaller. "Wow!"
"Well, we couldn't let your brother have something that you'd probably be begging to use half the time," James explained. "Yours is smaller, and a little more restricted though, alright? You won't be able to do all the things the others do, and you..." he turned to Jesse pointedly. "You be careful with him around yours, alright? We're trusting you, both of you in fact, to do what's right with these things. Don't get into things you shouldn't be doing with them, okay?"
Jesse, still stunned, looked onward at his parents, but eventually in the silence that followed he slowly made his way onto his knees and embraced his father once again. He couldn't speak, however, as he burrowed himself into the man's shoulder and just clung on tightly. There was no need for words, really, as both parents understood the sentiments completely. Makalah even moved from her chair to engulf them both, and for a time, their warmth and love shared with the teen could be felt all around. Eventually, the trio pulled Benji inside their little nest.
"Merry Christmas," Makalah whispered, which was repeated by both James and Benji. When they pulled back, they saw that Jesse was still overcome with emotion, but his smile told them once again, everything that needed to be said.
It was definitely one of the best Christmases they had ever had.