Christmas Cookies And Garland
“Go…go, go, go, go, go.” Sterling pointed his pudgy little finger at the door, and promptly stuck it in his mouth. He stared at Remi expectantly.
Remi glanced at the clock then down at his eighteen-month old brother. A lump the size of a grapefruit settled in his stomach. It was seven minutes after six o’clock. How did the kid do that? It never failed, around the same time every day Sterling decided it was time to go. Remi seriously doubted coincidence had anything to do with Sterling’s internal clock coincided with Dirk getting home from work.
Grinning, Remi set his book aside. Sterling actually had the “me” sound in Remi now. A few more months and he’d probably be able to get the R as well.
Sterling planted his hands on the ground, pushed himself up to his feet and toddled around his toys headed toward Remi as fast as he could. “Bye bye.” Sterling situated himself in between Remi’s spread legs. The little hand clutched at his shirt, like fear clutched at Remi’s chest. There was never a way to tell what six o’clock would bring.
Grabbing another stabling handful of fabric, Sterling peered up at Remi. He blinked his big brown eyes and cocked his head a little, studying Remi. “Me…Go!” He pointed toward the door and teetered for second before regaining his balance.
They should go. Sterling felt it. Remi felt it. So what was he waiting for? Kissing Sterling’s button nose, Remi picked up his brother and stood. “You’re wet.”
“Nooo…” Sterling shook his head.
“Yes, you are.” Remi snagged a diaper out of the diaper hanger on the end of Sterling’s crib and dropped it onto his bed. They had to make haste or they’d never make it out of the house before Dirk got home. Retrieving the wipies from the nightstand, Remi tossed Sterling in the middle of the bed.
Giggling, Sterling rolled over and tried to crawl away.
“Oh no, you don’t. We don’t have time for that.” Remi caught his foot.
Sterling squealed and kicked his feet. “Go.”
Remi dragged him back to the edge of the bed. “Yes, go. We’ll go to Chay’s.” Undoing the tapes on the diaper with one hand, he held Sterling’s leg with the other. With any luck the baby would cooperate. Sterling thought it was hilarious to take off crawling during a diaper change. Admittedly, it had been kinda cute until he’d peed on Remi’s bed. That wasn’t so cute.
Trying to slip from Remi’s hold, Sterling grinned. “A.”
Remi tightened his grip and flipped the wipey top open with one hand. “Yes. Chay.”
“Goofball.” Chuckling, Remi wiped his brother down, tossed the old diaper in the floor and replaced it with the new. The clock read 6:10. Shit. He found a pair of red sweat pants and some thick socks. With great difficulty—because Sterling realized they were indeed going and decided to clap and shout “go” and “A” repeatedly—Remi put the sweats and socks on his brother. “Stay there.”
Sterling rolled to his tummy and pushed himself onto his butt. He sat near the headboard of Remi’s bed and resumed his excited gibberish.
Remi found their coats and packed a diaper bag. It had only taken a couple of times of Sterling barfing or peeing himself, for Remi to learn to pack other clothes. He stuffed them both into their coats, grabbed his keys off the nightstand and a blanket out of Sterling’s crib. “Gotta go, gotta go.” His heart hammered ninety to nothing. They had no time to lose. He picked up Sterling, wrapped the blanket around his lower body and settled him against his chest.
Sterling swiped the keys and put them in his mouth.
Remi tossed the old diaper in the trash, retrieved the car seat from the foot of Sterling’s baby bed and gave one last glance at the clock—6:12—turned off the lights and shut the door. “Give me those.” He took the keys out of Sterling’s mouth. “Mom?”
“In the kitchen.”
It took a few moments, but he located her on the floor between the sink and the pantry. She was scrubbing something off the floor. “We’re going to Chay’s.”
Coming to her knees, she looked at him and then Sterling. She stood and went to the pantry. In a few seconds, she emerged with two jars of baby food and put them in the diaper bag on Remi’s shoulder. “What time will you be back?”
With any luck they’d be gone until Dirk was passed out drunk on the couch. Remi shrugged.
Sterling started waving. “Bye, bye, bye, bye, bye.” He was right. They needed to go.
“Well, have fun.” She glanced back at Sterling and held her arms out. “Give me a hug?”
“Nooooo… Go. Me.” Sterling griped Remi so hard his fingernails dug in.
“Ow. Dude, you’re so getting your fingernails cut when we get to Chay’s.” Remi was fairly certain there were clippers in the bag.
Mom sighed. “Yes, you can go with Remi. I just want a hug, I’m not going to take you away.”
There was no time for her to play mommy. Holding in a groan, Remi forced Sterling from him long enough for his mom to get a hug.
Sterling wailed, but as soon as she handed him back he clutched Remi again and ceased his crying.
Remi didn’t waste any time. He practically ran out the door. “Bye, mom.”
“Bye, Ma,” Sterling echoed.
Once outside, Remi pulled the blanket up over his brother’s head. The air was chilly and the clouds loomed, making the remaining daylight scarce. It looked like it was going to snow. With any luck they’d get stranded at the Winston’s house for the entire Christmas vacation. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Gibbering, Sterling pushed the quilted blue fabric off of his head.
“I put that there for a reason.”
Brow furrowed, Sterling shook his head.
Whatever. They were getting in the car anyway. Remi opened the door and shoved his seat forward. He settled the car seat in, stuck Sterling inside and buckled him up.
Remi shut the back door. By the time he got his mom’s ancient Nova started, snowflakes were just beginning to flutter down. Shit, they had to go now. If mom saw it was snowing, she might call them back. He cranked the heater on high, hoping Sterling’s clothes and the blanket were warm enough, and put the car in reverse.
“Oooh… oooooh…” Sterling cooed from the backseat.
After backing out of the drive, Remi stepped on it trying to get away and gravel pelted the wheel wells. It was 6:18 already and the weather was less than perfect. A swarm of butterflies fluttered in his stomach, and he swore his heart would beat right out of his chest. Dirk could come around the corner at anytime.
“I see it. It’s snow.” Remi glanced in the rearview mirror. The house was a speck and there were no car lights following them. They were nearly to Chay’s house.
“Yes, snow. Sss-nu-oh,” Remi enunciated carefully still watching his surroundings for any sign of their father.
“Very good. Sss-no-oh.”
“Sss. Oh.” Sterling practiced saying snow until they reached Chay’s house.
Remi gave one last look around as he killed the engine.
Obviously realizing where they were, Sterling let out a resounding yay and a series of claps. Or maybe that was an A for Chay. Smart baby.
The front door opened and Joe Winston appeared with the warm glow of lights behind him. He spotted Remi and waved.
Waving back, Remi relaxed a bit.
Joe trotted down the steps with a smile on his face. “Should you be out in this?”
“Probably not, but I, uh—” Remi shrugged.
“Say no more. You know you’re always welcome here.” Joe turned his attention to the backseat. “Hey there, little bit.” He opened the door, unbuckled Sterling and pulled him free of his car seat.
Rubbing his arms, Chay stepped off the porch. “Hey. What’s up, man?” He passed his father and Sterling and stopped next to Remi. “Come in, we’re decorating the tree.” Taking the diaper bag out of the back floorboard, he shut the door.
Lena had come out on the porch to see what was going on. Her face lit up, and she held her arms out as Joe stepped up the last step with Sterling.
Remi was torn. He took the bag from Chay. “Man, I don’t want to intrude.”
Rolling his eyes, Chay slugged him in the arm. “Don’t be an idiot. You aren’t intruding. And besides, if you think my mom is going to turn loose of your brother anytime soon you’ve lost it.” Grinning, Chay took the bag back and shoved Remi toward the door. “Come on. Mom made cookies, and we’re are about to order pizza.”
As if on cue, Remi’s stomach growled. He should go. He shouldn’t intrude on his best friend’s family, but he was selfish. The Winston’s always made him feel…safe.
“Boys, get in here. We’re not heating New Mexico.” Joe’s voice carried out the open door.
Chay and Remi both laughed and hurried into the house.
Inside was small but inviting. Not as pristine as Remi’s own house, because Joe didn’t beat Lena if it wasn’t perfect, but homey and lived in. It looked like a picture perfect Christmas card, but the smell of freshly baked cookies made it real. It was heaven and everything Remi wanted in life. A warmth that had nothing to do with the small wood burning stove in the corner filled him. He smiled and let the rest of his tension go.
Sterling was already absconded in Lena’s lap staring up at the lighted tree with a sugar cookie in one hand. Opening and closing his fist, he reached toward a puddle of red, sparkly garland on the floor with the other hand.
Lena smiled at Remi, ignoring the grunts from Sterling as he squirmed to get down. “Pizza is on the way, and I will put on some potatoes and macaroni and cheese for Sterling. You two help Joe finish the tree.”
“Thank you.” Meeting Lena’s eyes, Remi knew she understood that he was thanking her for everything she and Joe had done for him over the years. In that moment, he could almost forget everything but being here, in this house with a family that truly cared about one another and him.
“My pleasure.” She met his eyes, serious as could be, then she smiled. “I think we should give Sterling a bit of pizza too.”
Remi nodded. “I’ve been giving him some of my food at dinner, like you told me. He makes a huge mess, but he seems to like it better than the baby food.” Lena was his mentor when it came to babies. After the initial, it’s-not-your-responsibility speech, she’d given advice freely. He and Sterling would never have survived Sterling’s first year without her talking Remi through things.
Chay nudged Remi. “Here.” He handed over a couple of ornaments. “Put these on, and help me watch my dad. He tries to put those hideous ornaments I made in grade school on the front of the tree.” Chay lowered his voice. “Just move them to the back when he’s not looking.”
“Chayton Montgomery Winston.” Lena laughed. She shook her head and finally let Sterling down.
Dropping his cookie, Sterling hightailed it straight for the extra garland.
Joe shoved Chay’s head and stooped to pick up the dropped cookie. He set the cookie on the coffee table. “Don’t move my hideous ornaments, Remi.”
“Absolutely not.” Remi agreed. “I’m all for Chay’s embarrassment.” How cool was it to have someone who liked crappy glittery plates and construction paper just because you made them?
Joe smile. “Good. Ya’ll help me watch and make sure the baby doesn’t stick that garland in his mouth.”
Chay groaned at his father conspiring with Remi, but it was good natured. He hung an ornament the plucked another from the box.
Sterling had the garland wrapped around him and was shaking it. Then the blinking lights caught his attention and he hauled butt, with red sparkly garland roped around his waist, over to the tree.
Chay caught him before he grabbed a handful of tree. “Hang on a minute.” He swooped Sterling up and handed him an ornament. “Put this here.” Chay pointed to an empty branch and hung up another ornament to show Sterling.
The baby squealed and bounced a little in Chay’s arms. He reached for the orna—
“You gonna help?”
Brought out of his memory, Remi turned toward his mate. “Huh?”
Jake sat down on the couch next to him. “You gonna help decorate?”
Remi glanced toward Sterling. “Yeah. I was just thinking.”
Wrapped up in the garland, Sterling dug through a box of ornaments. He pulled out a glittery plate and frowned. “Why do you still have this?” he asked Remi.
“Because you made it for me.” Remi had kept every elementary craft his brother had ever made. Just like Joe…
“Like ten years ago.” Sterling made to fling the homemade ornament.
“Don’t you dare.” Remi pointed at him. “Rhys, control him.”
Rhys, who sat in the floor untangling a string of outside lights, snagged the ornament from Sterling’s hand and stuck it on the tree.
Groaning, Sterling shook his head and flipped the dangling end of tinsel over his shoulder. “It’s ugly and doesn’t match the tree.” He took the last cookie off the plate on the coffee table and shoved it into his mouth whole.
“Tough.” Remi chuckled, feeling warm down to his bones. He leaned into Jake, resting his head on Jake’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
“For what?” Jake looped an arm around him and kissed his head.
“For this.” Remi swept his hand out indicating everything.
Holding him even tighter, Jake somehow managed to meet his gaze. A slow grin curved his lips. “No. Thank you, pup. This is all you.”
It wasn’t, but Remi wasn’t going to argue. Standing, he grabbed Jake’s hand and pulled him toward the kitchen. “Come help me make more cookies and I’ll tell you about the first time Sterling decorated a Christmas tree.”
Rhys grunted at something. A loud thud sounded, followed by Sterling’s laughter.
Remi stopped just short of the kitchen and looked over his shoulder.
Jake did the same, but didn’t let go of Remi’s hand.
In the middle of the living room floor, Sterling lay flat on his back with Rhys straddling his hips. The lights and tinsel were caught between them and Rhys was trying to get the homemade plate ornament, clutched against Sterling’s chest. During the tussle the garland ended up on Sterling’s face, and his laughter filled the living room.
Smiling, Remi shook his head. “He was wrapped up in the garland then too.” Only now, the loving family was his own.