————–

Parker’s Private Wooden Lodge-December 23rd

“Can I?” Debbie asked her dad as she was all dressed up tightly to play in the snow.

“Uh. Uh. Sure.” Broots tried to concentrate on her, but Onyssius was crying for a bottle, and Angel was just crabby and wanted held. “Miss Parker should be back around 3:00.”

“She really had to travel?” Debbie said disappointed. “It’s Christmastime.”

“Oh, the world never stops for  a Parker,” Broots said. “Go on, have fun, sweetie.” He moved toward the room they called the nursery for the vacation and placed Angel down a moment. “I know, I know. I gotta get your brother fed though.” She was throwing a fit. “Please try and calm down?” He took back off to the kitchen and placed Onyssius in a little bassinet as he checked the degree of the formula. “Aw, shoot, too hot!”

Onyssius started crying again. “It just needs to cool,” Broots insisted as he picked him up, but Angel’s hollering still hadn’t ceased. On his way to the nursery though, he noticed her hollering stopped. Hopefully she fell asleep. He moved back to the kitchen and checked the milk. “Still too hot?” Onyssius was still crying. “There, there. Okay. Uh? Let’s see.” He looked around for a pacifier to help him out. He found it lying on the floor. “Oh great, now I have to clean that.” He placed Onyssius back in his high chair and stooped down to grab and clean the pacifier. Then he went over and checked the milk. “Finally ready.”

But, Angel was hollering again. She woke up? Of course. If he worked fast, he should be able to get her back down. If she hollered for too long, he’d have no chance. He moved toward the nursery again. “Calm down, can’t you go back to sleep?” Her feet and arms and whole body were moving with displeasure as her crying only rose higher. “Okay, okay.” He picked her up and headed back to the kitchen. “At least Onyssius isn’t . . .” Crying? His heart started to beat fast. He knew he left him in the high chair. Right? “Oh? I? Uh?” He went back to the nursery to see if he could see him.

What?! “Uh. Uh. Uh.” His breathing was erratic. Where was he? Where was he?! “Okay, Okay. You stay right here, okay?” He put her back down in the crib and looked out the door. He looked around the house, but kept his eye on the nursery as much as possible.

He wasn’t  there. He wasn’t anywhere! Broots grabbed at the hair at his head. Someone took him! He ran to dial Miss Parker, but remembered Angel in the crib too. He ran back to the nursery . . . and she was gone?! “No, no, no!” Did The Triumvirate figure out their identity? Did the clone lie when he said he wasn’t going to tell them? He headed all over the house, calling each of their names, until he found the main living room.

He breathed a thousand different types of relief. In front of a roaring fireplace, there was Jarod, rocking both of them in a rocking chair.

Jarod looked back toward him, but not with a kind smile or look. He was either unaware or uncaring of the trouble he just caused. “Hello, Mister Broots.”

Broots sighed. “Hi. What are you doing here? No, that came out wrong.”

“The Centre has holiday leave.” Jarod said as he rocked them. “Where else would I be but with family at the holidays? Except that, apparently you skipped off with Miss Parker to a private lodge for the week?”

Ooh. Those weren’t minty words of goodness and neither was that look. “I don’t know about that? Miss Parker wanted to be up here this year. She didn’t contact you?”

Then, just like that, Jarod relaxed again. “Oh. Did you cool off the formula yet?”

“Oh yeah, I better get it.” Broots moved back to the kitchen and prepared it, bringing it back to Jarod. “Here you go.”

Jarod took it and with only the grace of his genius, continued to hold both of them while he gave Onyssius his bottle, and continued holding it in the correct position with his fingertips as he rocked them.

Seeing now that his presence wasn’t needed, and thankful for the break, Broots headed out of the room. With Jarod there, he would be able to concentrate on his own daughter now.

Jarod stared at the fire, looked out the window at the falling snow, and down towards his children in his arms. “I’ve had many Christmases since leaving The Centre. Discovered a whole lot about it, but none of it really mattered.  There was this guy, named Harry,” he told him. “He was grieving for his friend, telling me about him and what he did. His friend’s name was Christmas George.”

He felt Angel gripping his coat.  ”He told me something, something I never forgot, even though it’s been five years. It’ll never leave me.” He brushed his head across Angel’s. “He said, ‘Christmas doesn’t count for squat without family son’.”

He continued to rock them as he moved his fingers up to tip Onyssius’ bottle more. “I never got to spend a Christmas with my mom, my dad, my brothers, or my sister,” Jarod admitted. “But, I’m going to spend it with you.” He hadn’t been gone terribly long, but the last time he held them, they had just been born. About a week ago, yet they were still important days. Time he couldn’t get back. He saw them a little in The Centre, but it wasn’t easy to explain to people like Lyle why they were bringing two infants down to see Jarod. “I will do all I can to make sure I never spend a Christmas without you.”

Onyssius stopped drinking from his bottle, pulled his lips away, and grabbed at Jarod’s nose, patting it. In the background, he heard ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’ start to play. He looked to his side and saw Debbie.

“Jarod, you’re back to see them?” What a radiant little smile. “They’re a handful, but so cute. Do you get to stay?”

“A whole week,” Jarod said. “I’m not leaving for anything.” But he did wonder why Parker hadn’t said anything? He had to do a little extra investigating to find out where they had gone. As soon as he could, he had made his way back to her home, only to find it, and his children, gone.

She wouldn’t try to run away, there’d be no reason to. Why’d she do that? Did she expect him not to actually come up and see them during Christmas?

“Really, you’ll be here for Christmas too?” She asked. “That’s neat. It’ll be us three this year with you and the babies.”

“Us three?” Jarod asked.

“Sydney and Miss Parker. We all come together now for the holidays,” Debbie said.

“You celebrate with Sydney too?” For the holidays? When did that start? “Don’t you have other family to spend it with?”

“Used to, but daddy just brushes it off.” She shrugged. “My grandparents are okay, but there are some in the family that daddy’s never got along with, so the holidays are better with them instead. Besides,” she smiled. “They are family. Ooh!” She said excitedly. “You could help decorate the tree too!”

Jarod smiled. “Yeah, I guess I can.” She was excitable. A lot of kids were at Christmas time. One day, Angel and Onyssius would be the same way. His mind reflected back to all those foster children. They had been so excited when he was there, reading to them, and . . . “Maybe. It might bring back some sad memories though.” He heard the sound of the door opening again.

“Hey, Sydney,” Broots voice came from the front. “Miss Parker’s gone ‘til 3:00.”

“That is fine,” Sydney said. “Mister Parker found it hard to get away even on these days too,” he said.

“Well, I hope they give her more of a break. I mean, she’s had like only two weeks to recover, and they kept making her work for most of that time.”

“The Centre never lets anything go for too long. Don’t worry. I don’t think they are going to pile too much upon her, Broots. Did you and Debbie get everything set out yet?”

“We will!” Debbie yelled from next to Jarod. “We’re decorating the tree soon. Won’t start until Miss Parker comes home. It’s up to you if you want to join. If not, that’s cool. I don’t want to make you sad.” She moved from his side and ran down the hall, greeting Sydney.

Then, Jarod heard another door open and what sounded like a briefcase on a table.

“Miss Parker?” Broots voice sounded through the distance. “I thought you had to work ‘til 3:00.”

“Travel isn’t happening with me yet. I made it quite clear to them, very clear, that I wasn’t doing anything right now.” Her footsteps were heard down the hallways until she entered the same room Jarod had been in. “Did you scare Broots half to death, not knocking again?”

Jarod looked toward the doorway at her. “Merry Christmas, Miss Parker.” He looked down toward his twins. “Their first Christmas.” He looked back toward her. “When did you start spending the holidays with Sydney and Broots? And why didn’t you tell me you’d be way out here?”

“Mm. We weren’t interesting enough to watch over the holidays for long, were we?” she teased him. “Some time ago. We realized . . .” She shrugged. “We’d rather just spend it with each other. Daddy never had any time for me. When Jacob was gone, Sydney had no one but his son, but  he’s got his own thing going on now. And Broots, he couldn’t stand his brother or his family. So, it just sort of happened.”

“Broots can’t stand his family?” Jarod asked. He didn’t know that one either. When did that happen? He had known many things about them years ago, especially for their trip to Oz he set up. But as he got interested in his own family and life, they each fell off his radar more.

Each of them moved on, just like he did apparently. Life never stopped, always shifting, always moving. “Sorry I didn’t know.”

“Why would you need to?” She sighed. “I was going to call you, but I figured you’d probably know before I even picked up the phone. How much time are you wanting to spend with them?”

“I cleared out the whole week,” Jarod said.

“Good. They are up to you then,” she said. “Do you want me to tell Sydney that you’re here or are you just going to hang back out here for awhile?”

She knew. She didn’t say anything about it, but she knew it. That his heart wanted to celebrate Christmas, but his heart was hurt over such an immense death. So many children. Right at Christmas. “I don’t know yet,” he admitted. “I just want to see Angel and Onyssius right now.”

“Fine.” She headed out the doorway. “Might change your mind later.”

How strange. Jarod didn’t see that coming. His Centre hunters . . . had formed their own little family together? While he looked back toward his babies, he made his decision and got up.

This was Christmas. A time for hope and peace and family. No matter how painful it would be, he would help his children celebrate it too. He went towards the front and just surveyed everyone at first.

“Not that way, the other. You’re going to break the bottom,” Miss Parker said as she straightened out the top of a giant Christmas tree they were setting up.

“Well, fake trees are a lot easier than real trees,” Broots said as he tried to drive the screws in to hold it in place.

“But real trees smell better,” Debbie said. “Right, Miss Parker?”

“Yep. Genuine. Momma liked genuine.” She smiled at Debbie. She looked behind her toward Sydney. “Almost ready.”

“Yes, we just must be careful.”

“I know by now, Freud,” Miss Parker teased him.

“They are so old. This part is always unnerving.” He smiled at Miss Parker. “It is always worth it when they are on there.”

Jarod didn’t even want to enter into the scene. Sydney was putting the old Christmas decorations of his family line on there. In fact, it looked like everyone would be doing that. The first ornaments that went up though were put up by Miss Parker.

Bulbs, homemade with the year and the names Onyssius and Angel. “You have ornaments.” As soon as he said that, he knew he’d been discovered.

“Ah, Jarod. You are here to spend time with them?” Sydney asked, gesturing toward his children.

“The whole week,” Jarod said coming toward the tree. It had been awhile since he’d been in front of a decent tree. He noticed Angel and Onyssius were reaching toward the branches. He looked toward Miss Parker too. She still hadn’t quite lost all the baby weight.

Then, during that precious moment, Jarod heard it. Another knock on the door. He would have to move toward the back again. Before he even made it, Miss Parker looked out the window and opened up the door.

Right in front of him . . . was his mom. With gifts in her arms. “Merry Christmas, Jarod.”

——————-

It was. The best Christmas. Ever. None of them could compare, none of them. And it wasn’t even Christmas day yet!

 Jarod chatted with his mom as he held Angel and she held Onyssius. Cookies were baking in the oven, a recipe from Miss Parker’s books that she baked with Debbie. Broots was making snowflakes now with Debbie, while Sydney was still examining the tree for the best place to put the last of his bulbs.

“How long can you stay?” Jarod asked his mom.

“All week,” his mom said. “We’re both fine, Miss Parker is in her private family lodge for a reason this week. I am in the room in the far back. I already worked that out with Miss Parker.” She handed Onyssius back to him as she went toward the oven. “Oh, I haven’t tasted those cookies in forever. I’ll be back.”

Jarod watched his mother with Miss Parker. No mistrust. It was clear they had talked more.

“You.” His mom came back over to him trying one of the cookies. “Really need to show up more, Jarod. You’d know more.”

“I’ve been busy down in Africa,” Jarod said. “I want us . . . freed.”

“I know,” she said, “but it’s called a phone. Numbers?” She sighed. “You can be a Pretender and still keep in touch.”

Jarod heard the door again. Miss Parker answered it again.

“Greetings. I mean, hello.” Gemini waved at her as he held Ethan’s hand. He looked toward Jarod. “Hello, Jarod.”

No way. “Ethan? Gemini?” His mother took the babies this time as he went over toward them and hugged them. “I can’t believe this! Everyone’s here?”

“Except dad,” Ethan said. “He’s still in Africa.

“And Emily,” Gemini added, “for the obvious reason we don’t want her murdering Miss Parker.”

“The Major never was a gigantic season lover,” his mother said bitterly from the background. “I’m sorry Jarod, it’s me.”

Jarod didn’t care the reason, he had his brothers there now too. “Well, come in, come in!” Jarod hugged each of them again. He brought them over to meet Onyssius and Angel.

“Behind the glass, and being enemies. It looks like it worked,” Ethan smiled at Jarod. “I’m glad.”

His mom patted Jarod’s lap. “I tried to get the Major to come. He’s not . . . happy with me right now since I told him the truth about myself. Emily is fine with me, but she’s not happy about . . . well, Miss Parker.”

“Oh.” That was too bad. “I’m sorry, mom.”

“It’s okay.” She finished her cookie. “Since I hid it for so long, and with what happened, I think he’s blaming a lot of it all on me. I knew he would, but, a lot of years have passed by since I’ve seen him, Jarod. I wasn’t naïve. I’m better with it than you might think.” She patted his chest. “Anyhow, I heard what happened with the devil.”

“It’s terrible,” Ethan agreed, looking toward Jarod. “My sister and your mother put a great amount of time to get us all together, so this year wouldn’t be as hard.”

“Yes, it wasn’t easy to leave Africa with Ethan,” Gemini said.

Miss Parker? “Miss Parker helped with this?”

“Of course she helped.” His mother moved closer to his ear. “She is your angel, Jarod.”

Jarod turned to look at Miss Parker again. She was eating a cookie with Debbie now.

“Did you take my advice with Thomas Gates?” His mother asked him in a whisper.

Jarod looked back toward her, then looked back at Miss Parker, then back at her. “I . . . talked,” he whispered back.

“And?”

“And . . .” Jarod didn’t know what to say. “He’s not going to meet her until I introduce them.”

“Well, it’s a start,” Margaret whispered back. “Hope you get it figured out though this week. You do remember Broots is marrying her in three?”

“Yeah.” Jarod moved his attention to Broots. He was busy with Sydney instead now. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”

His mother rolled her eyes. “Why?”

He whispered back to her. “I’ve been setting up for a fake marriage, and that bridge isn’t going off without a hitch.”

She smiled at him. “That’s my boy. Want me to bring you a cookie?” She looked toward Gemini. “Would you like one? They are very good.”

“Cookies even from an instant box where you only add eggs and water are special enough. I am sure having confections from-“

“Debbie, over here, you can help put up the star.” Broots interrupted Gemini and pulled his daughter away.

“In a second, dad, I was going to talk to my friend,” Debbie said. “No one even told me he was coming!” She waved toward him, her smile even more brilliant.

“No time to find out like the present,” Broots said, looking toward Miss Parker with less than pleasant eyes.

Oops. Jarod remembered he had told Broots about his daughter’s crush when he thought he’d betrayed him. Not only did Broots steal her away before she could talk to Gemini, he was interrupting his ‘funky talk’. Not only that, but the way Broots was looking at Miss Parker? She didn’t tell him either that his family was coming. Even Sydney had seemed surprised.

She hid it, even from them, so everything really was a secret. They could all spend Christmas together, without worry about someone finding out about them.

 “I will have a cookie soon,” Gemini said getting up. “I would like to go talk to Debbie and see if she needs any assistance with placing the fabricated star on top of the large tree that is now inside the house.”

Ethan watched as he left over toward her. He looked back toward Jarod. “He likes her.”

“Yeah, he does,” Jarod admitted.

“Reciprocal,” Ethan said looking toward them. “Broots isn’t happy about it though.”

“Usually daddies don’t want to think about their daughters growing up,” Margaret said, “or getting felt up.”

Jarod winced. “Mom? A little more subtlety?”

“I thought that was subtle?” She laughed at him. “Open your presents.” She waved toward Gemini to come over too. “These are special ones for today.”

“Major Charles has not done a Christmas,” Gemini said as he took the present Margaret passed out. “I’m afraid I will not get the tradition right.”

“I don’t do much Christmas either,” Ethan said shaking it.

“Just open,” Jarod said to them. He took a minute to look at it. Festive wrapping paper with hues of blue and gold. He opened it up and saw a box with an ornament on it. It had the year and his name in glitter, like Miss Parker had for Onyssius and Angel.

“A round Christmas ornament with my name and the year marked in a glitter substance, with glue peeking out beneath the glitter in spots?” Gemini held up his own ornament.

“I have one too.” Debbie crept up to him, having escaped her father’s eye. “Come on, come put it on the tree.”

Gemini smiled at her, got up and put it on the tree.

“I have the same thing,” Ethan said. “The glitter is red though.”

“Miss Parker did yours. She used similar colors to hers,” Margaret said to him. She sat up and picked up her own ornament that had been hiding in a box, unwrapped. “Come on, Jarod. Let’s go put up the ornaments.”

“You bet. Can you take one of them?” He gave Angel to her as he took his ornament and Onyssius. He went over toward the tree that was finally decorated.

Debbie was helping Gemini place his in a good spot. Ethan found a spot on the side. Margaret placed hers front and center.

Jarod looked at the tree, seeing everyone’s names. Everyone’s ornaments. Then he spied Miss Parker’s toward the top. He placed his toward the top, a little close to hers, but not touching.

It was a sight to behold. It was a large tree for a reason, carrying over three different family generations worth of ornaments. It was the most beautiful tree Jarod had ever seen.

He had seen a variety of Christmas trees, especially during his analysis’ in the past, but this one was it. It was the most beautiful one ever.

Because it was his first family Christmas tree.