In case you need a little cheer ten days before Christmas, mid Hanukah and, uhm, as we head toward the end of the world, I've teamed up with my old His for the Holidays co-conspirators Josh Lanyon, ZA Maxfield, and Harper Fox to offer you a special pick me up--a gift. Today, each of us will post a little story slice. Just for you. Josh calls them codas, and has offered them all month. They're wonderful. I'm so happy to be included in the fun, J. Merry Holiday everyone!
For Owen and Caleb
Christmas Coda Mistletoe at Midnight.
Christmas Coda Mistletoe at Midnight.
“Sorry I’m late.” Caleb nudged the kitchen door shut with the heel of his boot, cutting off a wave of cold Vermont air. The entire house instantly grew warmer, or maybe it was just homier with Caleb inside.
“We have some time left. Did you get everything on the list?” I knotted the noose tight around my neck. Wearing a damn tie would only be worthwhile if my mother fainted from the shock. I even had a blazer and some kind of stylishly gay, tapered trouser Caleb had forced me into—and hopefully would peel me out of later tonight. I checked the clock on the oven. 6:20. We still had time for a little pre-yuletide rendezvous. “Hey. Ryan said they’re running late. We have a few minutes if you want to—
“Uhm…” Caleb parked himself next to the new fridge and I finally noticed he had one hand shucked deep inside his down parka. Strands of boyishly blond hair poked from beneath a blue wool cap flecked with melting snow. He made no move to remove his hat or his coat. A worn Stop and Shop bag dangled from his free hand. “About the store—I didn’t go.”
My smile dimmed.
“There better be a wealth of cheese and crackers in that magic bag of yours, Black, or we’re screwed. They’re on the way. All of them.” My Uncles Archie and Duncan. My parents. Ryan. And behind him, May. The whole McKenzie mini-clan would arrive to drink with unrestrained gusto and eat like Vikings—for an unprecedented week of merriment and gluttony. “That bag looks a little light. Tell me there are twenty full ones in the truck. We need a turkey and a ham.” And maybe a side of beef.
“I can go back to the store later.”
“Tonight?” I blinked cautiously. “It’s Christmas Eve. You really didn’t go?”
“Really. Something came up. I’m sorry. We can shop later. I’m sure everyone will understand.”
My heart cramped a little. Caleb looked worried—and nervous. His pants were dusty and wrinkled. He was too still. No kiss hello. No ‘hi’ even for Jake, who hadn’t raised his head from the rug since noon, true, but his tail had thumped a few times when Caleb had come home. Nothing.
“Is everything okay?”
Caleb leaned against the fridge, hand still buried inside his coat. “Yes. I promise. Everything will be fine.”
“Fine,” I found myself repeating. “No problem. Maybe we can order something in tonight. It’s too late to cook, anyway.” It’s only Christmas Eve. “As long as we have enough wine.”
He opened his mouth to say more, but before he could tell me yea or nay about the wine, a muffled yelp emerged from his chest.
“What the—“ I frowned at his coat. “Did you hear that?”
Caleb’s jaw snapped shut and a hot pink stain crawled from his neck and settled on his cheeks. He shifted uncomfortably. “So, this afternoon, when I left work —”
“Mew,” Caleb’s coat interrupted. “Mew. Mew.”
Jake lifted his muzzle from the rug and replied, “Woof.”
The grocery bag dropped to the floor and Caleb clutched his chest with both hands. What the hell did he think I’d do? Attack? “Seriously,” he said. “Let me explain.”
“Take your coat off.” It was my turn to bark. Obviously the something that was up with Caleb was tucked beneath his parka, cradled in a grapefruit-sized lump against his chest and whimpering.
He wasn’t surprising me with something pleasant for Christmas. Like good wine, or better, scotch. He had something less than thrilling. “Tell me you didn’t get me a cat.”
Please. But I knew, as soon as Caleb looked at me, I was in trouble.
It’s not that I don’t like cats—I deal with them daily. I treat them. I have scars crisscrossing my forearms, my palms, and my fingers to prove it. Cats are wonderful companions for anyone other than me—they don’t like me— which is why I have enough sense to have a dog. Cats are claws and sharp teeth and hissing. Yowling and scratching. Not to mention the puncturing and piercing. They’re lithe killing machines and, trust me, they aren’t nearly so wonderful when you have one attached to your flesh by tooth and claw.
I handled cats all the time. I didn’t need to keep one in my home.
And, until just this minute, Jake had agreed.
My dog finally rose from his bed to check out Caleb’s cool smelling surprise and that traitorous beagle tail ticked like a metronome. We were both in trouble.
“We don’t have to keep him.” Caleb was clearly lying to himself and to me. “And it’s not a cat, Dr. McKenzie. It’s a homeless kitten. I’m not saying we have to keep him permanently. We can foster him.” Every time Caleb used the words we, us, our instead of you or me, he distracted me. “I found him sheltering in the parking garage. It’s been two full days. He slept in that garage last night. Someone dumped him with a bowl of chow and a towel. They just left him. Will you just look at him? See if he’s well enough to help.”
“Fine.” The kitten was probably at death’s door anyway. “Prepare yourself.”
Caleb nodded and took his damp hat off. His hair stuck in a million directions. Gently, he handed over a gray ball of soft cashmere and inside Caleb’s scarf, a scraggly, skinny, yellow-haired kitten blinked wide-eyed back at me. Possibly it had mange. Probably it had worms. Definitely, the little bugger had fleas.
My heart softened with one look into those green eyes. They were bottle green and much darker than Caleb’s. His kitten was small, and blond, and half starved for love, but viable. A lot like Caleb had been, a million years ago.
“I’m never going to live this down.” I broke.
“It’s Christmas.” Caleb’s smiling gaze held mine. “Thank you. He just needs a little work.”
“She needs a miracle,” I muttered.
“She has one. Miracle. I like that. I had to crawl under the truck to grab her. I tore a hole in my coat. It’s a Goddamn miracle I got her. Maybe your brother needs a kitten. Or your mom. Or Uncle Archie.”
“No. Obviously, we do. Welcome to the family.” I stroke the kitten’s chin and Jake butted my hand just as tiny teeth dug deep into my thumb. “Son of bitch.”
“See? She loves you already.”