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"Please don't think too badly of me, but if Denise swoops in to attack, I'm out of here." Jon said bluntly.
"That's okay, Jon. I understand." Galen said with a chuckle. "She really does hate gay people, doesn't she?"
"Oh yeah." Jon said with a smirk at the understatement, then quietly added, "And she hates Marc in particular."
"I can see that, but I don't understand why." Galen said gently. "Marc is such a decent, wonderful person. I can't imagine anyone not loving him."
"Well, I think that's actually part of the problem." Jon said frankly. "She lost her high school sweetheart to Marc."
"Really? Marc never mentioned anything about that." Galen said inquisitively.
"I wasn't there personally, but from what Elaine has said, it sounds like they were a group of teenagers discovering themselves and each other. In the end, Denise got hurt and Marc ended up with Javier."
Galen stared at Jon with surprise.
"All these years later, Javier is long since gone, but the hurt still remains."
"So that's why Denise hates him so much." Galen said with a shake of his head.
"Well, yeah. That and the fact that Marc is prettier than she is." Jon said frankly.
"You think so, too?" Galen asked with a smile.
"Galen. I may be straight, but I'm not blind." Jon said with a grin.
"I wasn't implying anything about you. I just love Marc so much that I'm not sure that I'm seeing him objectively." Galen said honestly.
"Galen, my friend, I sincerely hope that you can stay in that love induced fog for as long as possible. Reality isn't all that it's cracked up to be."
"Seriously Jon, how bad is it?" Galen asked gently.
Jon seemed to be considering for a moment, then a look of resignation came into his expression.
"This thing with Jordan has really thrown a wrench into everything. The money was a little bit tight before, due to Hailey's college expenses, but we could have managed it."
"And now?" Galen prompted.
"Now... the bills from Jordan's lawyer just keep coming and coming. Plus we have Jaxon and Jazmine to take care of. My insurance doesn't cover them and they're both underweight. The doctor bills are going to add up quick."
"Let me ask you something." Galen interrupted.
Jon stopped and looked at Galen with question.
"Knowing what you do now, what would you have done differently?" Galen asked simply.
Jon thought for a moment, then slowly shook his head.
"So you've done your best and things still went to hell. That's how life works sometimes. Just remember that you've got your friends and family to help, if you need it."
"I'm not going to ask anyone for money." Jon said immediately.
"That's your choice." Galen said simply. "But what I was thinking was maybe getting one of your sisters or brothers-in-law to babysit the twins so you and your wife can take a break and spend some time with just the two of you as a couple. After that, the two of you should be able to look at your situation and decide what's next."
"I thought you were a computer designer, not a therapist." Jon said with a smirk.
"I'm a computer designer who recently had to decide if his marriage was worth saving. So I've done a little research and have an idea about some of the pitfalls and priorities. You and Elaine need each other right now. Everything else won't seem nearly so big and overwhelming when you're facing it together."
After a moment of thought, Jon nodded and said, "I think you're right. Elaine really could use a break from all of it."
"I know that Marc will want to help as much as I do." Galen said sincerely, then added, "But just so you know, Collin's mother took care of him most of the time when he was a baby. I'd be willing to babysit one weekend, but you'd have to show me what to do."
Jon smiled at the offer, then said, "After I've talked with Elaine, I may be getting back with you about that."
"Good." Galen said happily, then added more seriously, "And if you need any other kind of help, keep us in mind for that, too."
"I will." Jon said past his welling emotions.
"I wonder what's taking Marc so long." Galen said as he glanced at the doorway, trying to change the subject to prevent Jon further discomfort.
"When you're with the babies, it's easy to lose track of time." Jon said, as he followed Galen's gaze.
"Yeah. I remember losing quite a few hours in the rocking chair when Collin was an infant." Galen said in fond remembrance.
"Good. Then you have the kind of baby experience that's most important." Jon said with a grin.
At Galen's questioning look, Jon continued, "Anyone can see that they're fed and changed. But I need to know that they'll be with people who'll love them. After what their mother did... they deserve at least that much."
"They'll get it. I promise." Galen said gently.
* * * * *
"Thank you, Ginny." Mrs. Stone said as the four boys followed the nurse into the room.
"Come over here, Nick and give your Grandma Ellen a hug."
Nick glanced nervously at his brother, then reluctantly took the few steps to his great grandmother and gave her a very gentle hug, seemingly afraid of hurting her if he held her too tightly.
"Such a good boy." Grandma Ellen said, as she patted his back.
Nick took this as an indication that the hug was over and pulled away.
Without prompting, Jorry took his brother's place and very carefully gave the elderly woman a hug.
"Look at you, Jorry. You're getting so big." Grandma Ellen said with a tone that was sort of a weary amusement.
"Yeah. I've been working on it." Jorry said quietly.
Grandma Ellen chuckled, then gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek as she patted his shoulder.
Collin and Christian both recognized that the patting seemed to be their code that the hug was finished.
Jorry took a step back and stood beside his brother, then glanced at Collin and Christian
"Now, who have we here?" Grandma Ellen asked as she looked Christian in the eyes.
The old woman's intense gaze took Christian by surprise and caused him to falter for a moment.
"Grandma Ellen, I'd like for you to meet my new friends, Christian Stone and Collin Anderson." Jorry said, somewhat formally.
"Stone, you say?" Grandma Ellen asked curiously.
"Yes Ma'am." Christian said respectfully. "Marc and I were both surprised when we found out that we had the same last name."
"What's your father's name?" Grandma Ellen asked, inquisitively.
"Nate... erm, Nathaniel." Christian said nervously.
Grandma Ellen sat silently for a moment, obviously casting her memory back and trying to find the name.
Finally she shook her head in defeat and asked, "Do you know your grandfather's name?"
"Dad wouldn't talk about him, but I think I remember my mom saying once that his name was Walter." Christian said reluctantly.
"Oh really?" Grandma Ellen asked with surprise.
"Did you know him?" Christian asked cautiously.
"I should say so!" Grandma Ellen said with delight.
Christian waited expectantly.
"Although, I never thought Walter would have any legitimate children to carry the family name." Grandma Ellen chuckled to the nurse over her shoulder. "He had a penchant for the married ladies."
When her attention turned back toward Christian, she could see the desperate questions in his eyes.
"Walter was the first member of the Stone family that I ever met." Ellen said distantly as she seemed to be looking into the past. "In fact, if not for Walter, I might not have ever met my Harry."
"So does that mean that I'm related to Marc?" Christian asked hesitantly.
"Well, if we assume that your Walter Stone is the same one I'm remembering, then yes. Let me see..." Grandma Ellen said as she drifted off, then looked to her nurse and asked, "Christian and Marc would be second cousins, right?"
"I'm not sure, but it sounds like they share a common great grandfather. If that's the case, then yes, they are second cousins." Ginny said thoughtfully.
"We'll look at it more later, just to be sure." Grandma Ellen said decisively. "Would you make a note, dear?"
"Yes Ma'am." Ginny said quickly, then rushed to grab a spiral bound notebook.
"Collin, was it?" Grandma Ellen asked as she turned her attention to him.
"Yes, Ma'am. Collin Anderson." Collin said shyly.
"And how did you come to be here with us?" Grandma Ellen asked curiously.
"My dad and Marc are a couple. So Marc invited us to come here tonight to meet his family." Collin said hesitantly, watching carefully for Ellen's reaction.
Ellen nodded slowly, then glanced at Christian and asked, "How is it that Marc brought you?"
"It's kind of a long story..." Christian said, reluctantly.
"The most interesting stories are." Grandma Ellen said with a grin.
Christian nodded, looking to be slightly more at ease.
"My parents divorced a few years ago. It was ugly. I guess the judge must have got as sick of it as the rest of us. So rather than making a real decision, he gave both of them shared custody of me." Christian said thoughtfully.
"Maybe if he would have picked one or the other of them to have custody, they might have been able to get over it and move on. But me having to travel back and forth between them has kept the hurt fresh and alive between them." Christian said reflectively, then quietly added, "I think maybe that they hate each other so much, that some of it spilled over onto me."
Grandma Ellen looked concerned, but nodded for him to continue.
"Well, since it's Christmas, it was time for me to be with dad. On the trip here, I met Collin." Christian said with a glance and a smile to Collin at his side.
"When we got to Orlando, Collin introduced me to his dad and Marc, and they invited me to come over and visit with them during the holiday... you know, just for something to do." Christian said as he returned the majority of his attention back toward Grandma Ellen. "They went home and then my dad showed up at the airport to pick me up."
Without thought, Collin moved closer to Christian and put one arm around him to offer him comfort.
Christian smiled at the move, then continued, "When my dad showed up, he was drunk... I mean, really drunk."
"I really don't remember what happened next very well. I must have said or did something to piss... I mean, make him mad." Christian said with an apologetic blush.
Grandma Ellen smiled and nodded for him to continue.
"Like I said, I don't remember much except that he punched and kicked me until the cops jumped in and dragged him off me." Christian said distantly.
Nick moved from beside his brother to Christian's other side and also began to hug him.
Christian smiled as he draped an arm around the younger boy and said, "The next thing I remember clearly is being in the ambulance and the cop there asking me if there was anyone they could call for me. I gave them Marc's card... and after a bunch of stuff, it ended up that Marc and Uncle Galen said that I could stay with them over Christmas and that they'd take care of me."
"How are they taking care of you?" Ellen asked gently.
Christian smiled and said, "I'm happier right now than I can ever remember being. Marc and Uncle Galen and Collin have been great."
"And their... proclivities... don't bother you?" Ellen asked cautiously.
Christian puzzled over the question for a moment, then hesitantly asked, "Are you asking if it bothers me that they're gay?"
Ellen nodded and waited expectantly for an answer.
"Even if I wasn't gay, it still wouldn't bother me." Christian said thoughtfully, "Marc and Uncle Galen are both good people... probably the best people that I've ever met."
Ellen seemed to be considering the response, then looked at Collin with question.
"I'm gay too." Collin said proudly, "Christian and I are boyfriends."
Ellen seemed surprised by the declaration, then slowly turned to look at Jorry, standing on his own, a few feet away from the other boys.
"Jorry, are you going to be comfortable staying at Marc's house now that you know about this?" Ellen asked gently.
Jorry smiled at the question, then answered, "I don't think being gay or straight is really that important. What matters is if a person is good or bad. I know that Uncle Marc is a good person and these guys seem okay."
"My feelings exactly." Grandma Ellen said with an approving smile at Jorry. "After what I witnessed in the living room, I just wanted to be sure about what you were getting into. You and your brother are very special to me."
"We are?" Jorry asked cautiously.
Before Grandma Ellen could answer, a woman's voice from the hallway called, "Jorry honey, where are you baby?"
"Crap. It's mom." Jorry said under his breath.
At Grandma Ellen's curious look, Jorry explained, "She only calls me 'Jorry honey' when she wants something."
"I bet she's gonna try to stick us with 'The Pooper'." Nick said as he stepped to his brother's side.
"What's that?" Collin asked curiously.
"Our little sister. All she does is scream and poop." Nick said frankly.
"Nicky's right. Mom dumped 'The Pooper' on Aunt Linda when we got here, so I'm betting that Aunt Linda just found mom and gave her back." Jorry said as he looked at the door.
"And you believe your mother is going to make you watch after your sister while she enjoys the gathering?" Grandma Ellen asked curiously.
"Unless she can find someone else to dump her on." Nick said with resignation.
"Why don't you boys go back to the family room now?" Grandma Ellen said sweetly, then glanced at Ginny and said, "I think I need to have a little talk with Ruth."
Ginny nodded once, then headed out of the room.
"Thanks Grandma Ellen." Jorry said as he moved in to give her a quick gentle hug.
"It's my pleasure Jorry." Ellen said with a chuckle as she returned the hug.
"I love you Grandma Ellen." Nick said as he took his turn.
"I love you too Nick." Grandma Ellen said, then gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
Collin and Christian shared a smile at the touching scene.
"Come over here Christian. Until I have proof to the contrary, I'm considering you part of the family, so you're entitled to your share of hugs." Grandma Ellen said as she looked him in the eyes.
Christian seemed somewhat reluctant, but by the time he was receiving his hug, he appeared to be at peace.
"Come on Collin. Being my great-grand nephew's boyfriend makes you a part of the family too." Grandma Ellen said with delight.
Collin happily moved forward and hugged the elderly woman.
"You four should go and try to have some fun now. I'm sure dinner will be ready soon and you'll need to sit still and behave so it's best if you get it out of your system." Grandma Ellen said as she released Collin from the hug.
The four exchanged glances to see that everyone was ready, then moved as a group toward the door.
"There you are!" Ruth said as she walked into the room carrying a fussy baby. A moment later, Ginny followed her into the room.
"Come in Ruth, and have a seat. We need to talk for a minute." Grandma Ellen said seriously.
"Of course." Ruth said immediately, then turned to Jorry and asked, "Jorry honey, will you take your sister..."
"The boys are doing something for me right now, Ruthie. Come in and sit down." Ellen said in a more commanding voice.
Jorry was the first one out of the room, but was quickly followed by the others.
* * * * *
"How are you doing love?" Marc asked as he walked to Galen's side.
"I'm fine. Jon has been good company." Galen said with a smile.
"I just spent some quality time with your grandkids, Jon. Those are some beautiful babies." Marc said with a broad grin.
"Considering all the cards that have been stacked against them, I'd have to say that they're two little miracles." Jon said tenderly.
"Well, I can't argue with that." Marc said with a chuckle.
"I should go in and watch them for a while so Elaine can have some time to visit." Jon said as he glanced at the doorway.
"I think she'd like that." Marc said gently.
* * * * *
"Grandma Ellen really saved our asses." Jorry said as they walked back toward the family room.
"Is it really that bad watching your sister?" Collin asked curiously.
"She screams and cries all the time." Jorry said frankly.
"And poops." Nick added from Jorry's side.
Jorry nodded his agreement, then continued, "You can't do anything else while you're taking care of her. You can't even think."
"There's Dad and Marc." Collin said as he pointed into the living room as they passed.
"They look like they're doing okay." Christian commented as they continued to walk.
"Give it time." Jorry said darkly.
Collin chuckled at the response as Jorry led the group across the room to what seemed to be his favorite place, by the window.
"Would one of you boys go down to the basement and find the serving platters for me?" An elegantly dressed woman asked as she poked her head in the doorway.
"Yeah, Aunt Linda. I'll do it." Brucie said as he bounded up from his chair on the other side of the room.
"I bet he's going to 'need help'. Does anyone want to go get a Christmas treat?" Jorry asked in a bored tone.
Christian looked at Collin with question, letting it be known with his expression that Collin was free to go if he wanted to.
"I think Christian has the only Christmas treat that I'm going to want." Collin said frankly.
Christian smiled at the answer and nodded, silently agreeing that he felt the same way.
"Would one of you guys help me? If the box with the platters is on a top shelf, I'll need help getting it off." Brucie asked as he approached.
Collin shook his head as Christian said, "No."
"It looks like you're going to need to get it off with someone else." Jorry said frankly.
"I'll help you." Erik said as he walked up to Brucie's side.
Brucie glanced at him appraisingly for a moment, then broke into a smile and said, "Great! Come on!"
There was a moment of silence as everyone watched them leave.
Finally, Collin asked, "Do you think Erik has any idea of what he's getting into?"
"Probably not." Jorry said thoughtfully, then seemed to cheer up as he said, "Maybe it'll be good for him, you know, like an early Christmas present."
"But how will he handle the way Brucie treats him afterward?" Collin asked with concern.
"Don't worry too much about that. Erik is clueless. Brucie's drama will probably fly right over his head. It may work out so everyone ends up getting what they want out of it. No harm, no foul."
"I hope so." Collin said quietly, not feeling particularly assured.
* * * * *
"So, how did your visit go with your sister?" Galen asked pleasantly.
Marc chuckled before saying, "Well, if things get ugly, I think I'll have a few more allies."
Galen looked at Marc curiously.
"Linda and Dave are really upset with Denise, and Linda isn't at all happy with Ruth." Marc said frankly.
"I thought you said that Linda and Denise were close." Galen said cautiously.
"They always have been. But I guess Denise has been planning to have this get together at her house since Thanksgiving. Then, two days ago, it seems that Denise suddenly noticed that she lives in a small house and doesn't have anywhere near enough parking for everyone."
"So all of this was dumped on Linda at the last minute." Galen said speculatively.
"Yeah. Linda and Dave have been struggling with finances since buying this place, so they really didn't need this sudden stress on top of all of that." Marc said quietly.
"I can imagine." Galen muttered thoughtfully.
"So Linda's been running around for two days trying to pull things together. And Denise has been 'helping' by calling her constantly and telling her things that need to be done." Marc said with a withering look.
"Ouch. I can see why she'd be upset." Galen said with a wince.
"Oh, but Ruthie was the one to add insult to injury." Marc said with an ironic chuckle.
"How so?" Galen asked cautiously.
"I guess Linda and Denise were kind of tag-teaming the door, getting everyone settled in. When Ruth arrived, Linda let her in and wanted to see the baby... the next thing she knows, she's standing there, holding a screaming baby and Ruth is nowhere to be found." Marc said as he tried to restrain a chuckle.
"Oh no." Galen said, trying to not join Marc in laughter.
"So after all the work and worry of the past few days, the time is finally here and Linda is trapped in the back room trying to get Ruth's daughter to quiet down." Marc said with a shake of his head.
"Do you think we should go back and offer to help her out?" Galen asked cautiously.
"I already offered, but Linda wouldn't hear of it. It seems that her 'shit threshold' has been reached." Marc said bluntly, then quietly added, "Her words, not mine."
"What's she going to do?" Galen asked cautiously.
"I don't know, but I wouldn't want to be Ruthie or Denise when she does it." Marc said frankly.
"Well, if there's nothing that we can do to help Linda, I suppose all that's left for us to do is to get good seats for the show." Galen said with a smile.
Marc nodded his agreement, then thought to ask, "How was your visit with Jon?"
"We had a good talk, but from the sound of it, him and Elaine have their hands full." Galen said frankly.
Marc sadly nodded and said, "Elaine told me a little bit of what it was like going through the trial with Jordan... I can't even imagine what it must have been like."
"It's not over yet." Galen said regretfully. "From what Jon was saying, they're just about broke."
"Try 'in debt up to their eyes'." Marc said quietly.
"And they've got a daughter in college and two babies to care for." Galen said with a shake of his head.
Marc nodded, then quietly said, "I hope you don't mind, but I told Elaine that we'd be willing to watch the babies one weekend to give them a little time off."
"I don't think it will be a problem." Galen chuckled, then added more quietly, "I told Jon the same thing."
"How are you guys doing?"
"Linda. I'd like for you to meet my boyfriend, Galen." Marc said quickly.
"It's nice to finally meet you. I'm glad that my sister's plans were foiled and that you could make it." Linda said a bit shyly.
"I'm glad too. You have a beautiful home." Galen said warmly.
"Thank you. Have you met everyone?" Linda asked curiously.
"Not really. Everyone has been leaving us alone." Galen said honestly, "But all things considered, that may be best."
Linda chuckled then whispered conspiratorially, "Enjoy it while you can."
Galen smiled and said, "I'll do that."
Linda then turned to Marc and asked, "Have you seen Denise around?"
"She's over there by the snack table. Guarding it, I think." Marc said as he looked across the room.
Linda rolled her eyes, then muttered, "I bet she's trying to push people to eat those nasty crab puffs of hers."
"That sounds like something she'd do." Marc said with a grin.
Linda nodded, then said, "From the look of things in the kitchen, dinner will be ready in about ten minutes."
"Is there anything we can do to help?" Marc asked hopefully.
"No. It's all just finishing touches at this point." Linda said seriously, then looked Marc in the eyes and said more quietly, "I'm really glad that you're here."
"I am too, Lin. It's good to see you." Marc said gently.
Linda smiled, then gave Marc a quick hug.
Galen watched and smiled, feeling that this moment had made the entire trip worth it.
* * * * *
"There's Brucie." Nick said as he looked at the door.
"Do you think they did it?" Collin asked, not being able to find any clues in Brucie's expression.
"Probably. Once Brucie gets you alone, it's pretty much going to happen." Jorry said frankly.
"I wonder where Erik is." Collin asked with concern.
"Maybe he went to his room. Him and Erika live here." Jorry said frankly.
"Oh, I didn't realize that." Collin said distractedly.
"You're really worried about him." Christian said with concern from Collin's side.
"Yeah." Collin admitted shyly. "I am."
"I'm sure he'll be alright." Jorry said, not sounding particularly certain of it. "Let's not worry about it."
"If that just happened to Nick, would you want him to be alone right now to figure it out by himself?" Collin asked seriously.
"No. I wouldn't want that." Jorry admitted quietly. "We can go and try to find him if you want."
"I think we should." Collin said, then turned at a movement and saw Erik walking slowly into the room.
The first thing that Collin noticed was that Erik looked worried.
"Let's go see how he's doing." Collin said decisively and started walking.
Jorry looked at Christian with question.
"I know. Just go with it. From what I hear, his dad's the same way." Christian said quietly as the group walked.
"How are you doing, Erik?" Collin asked as he approached.
Erik looked at Collin with confusion.
"Erik, this is Collin and this other guy is Christian." Jorry said quickly.
It appeared at first that Erik was about to speak, but after a moment it seemed more likely that he either didn't know what to say, or that if he tried to speak, he might burst into tears.
"Come on over here where we can talk." Jorry said and motioned for the group to follow him back to his secluded spot by the window.
Erik seemed to be hesitant at first, but eventually went along.
"It's okay Erik. You can talk to us." Jorry said quietly.
"But you don't like me." Erik whispered.
Jorry seemed to be about to refute the statement, then thought better of it.
"I don't *not* like you." Jorry offered weakly.
At Erik's uncomprehending stare, Jorry continued, "It's not like I hate you or anything. We just don't have anything in common."
"Until now." Christian said simply.
Erik glanced at Christian, then back at Jorry with question.
"You don't have to worry about us, Erik. We're not going to cause you any trouble. We can just see that something is bothering you and want to help if we can." Collin said gently.
"I think I did something wrong." Erik whispered.
"I think it's more likely that you were talked into doing something that you weren't ready for." Collin said gently.
Erik looked at Collin with surprise at the statement, then asked in a shuttering voice, "You know?"
Collin looked at Jorry to see if he wanted to explain.
"You aren't the only one Brucie has asked for help." Jorry said frankly.
"I thought... he said...." Erik stammered as tears filled his eyes.
"Don't worry about what he said." Collin said firmly, drawing Erik's attention. "Whatever Brucie said to you wasn't the truth, it was what he wanted the truth to be."
"Huh?" Erik asked with confusion.
Jorry shook his head in frustration, then looked Erik in the eyes and said, "Did Brucie talk you into doing something?"
Erik hesitantly nodded.
"And when it was done, did he tell you that you had done something bad and that it was your fault?" Jorry asked carefully.
Erik nodded again.
Jorry seemed to falter and looked to Collin and Christian helplessly.
"Erik, what you did wasn't wrong, you just did it with the wrong person." Collin said gently. "When it's with the right person, it's wonderful and it makes you feel beautiful and special and... just perfect."
"But... does this mean I'm gay?" Erik asked in a whisper.
"No." Christian said immediately. "Something like this doesn't mean anything like that at all."
"He's right, Erik. Someday you'll fall in love with a woman... or a man. And when that happens, you'll know if you're gay or straight." Collin said seriously.
Erik looked around the group as he seemed to be considering the words.
"I'm not sure which way I am yet." Jorry admitted shyly. "So you're not alone."
"It sounds like you two have something else in common now that you can talk about." Christian said with a smile.
"Yeah." Jorry said to Christian, then turned to Erik and said, "If you ever need to talk about this stuff, or anything else, you can call me."
Erik considered the words for a moment, then hesitantly smiled and said, "Yeah."
Collin smiled, relieved that Erik seemed to be feeling better.
"So, did all you guys... do that with Brucie?" Erik asked cautiously.
"No. Just me." Jorry said carefully. "But I know he's been with David and Will... and Jordan."
Erik's eyes went wide at the admission, then he hesitantly asked, "But what should I do... I don't want that to happen again."
"Now that you know what he's really asking when he asks for your 'help', you can just tell him 'no'." Jorry said frankly.
"And if he gives you any trouble, you can tell Jorry. Brucie won't mess with him." Nick said seriously.
Jorry smiled and gave his younger brother a quick hug.
"Thanks for talking to me. I think I need to find Erika now." Erik said quietly.
"She's over there, by the tree." Jorry said as he pointed.
"Thanks Jorry." Erik said with a sincere smile, then turned and walked across the room to join his sister.
"Do you think he'll be okay?" Collin asked quietly.
"Probably." Jorry said, then added, "But if he's not, he knows that he has people that he can talk to."
Collin nodded his agreement to the statement.
* * * * *
Although the boys were all more or less participating in general conversation, it was unspoken and known to all that they were watching Erik and Erika's conversation across the room.
The conversation suddenly stopped as they watched the smallish, delicate fair haired girl walk away from her brother and approach Brucie.
Collin glanced at Christian to be sure that he had noticed what was going on.
Erika tapped Bruce on the shoulder and waited until he turned around to face her.
The boys couldn't tell if she said anything to him or not, but they were silent as they watched her slowly put a hand on his shoulder.
"What do you think..." Collin started to ask, then stopped when, in a flash of movement, Erika suddenly kneed Bruce in the groin.
As he began to double over, Erika brought her fist up in an uppercut to meet his jaw.
All the boys watched as the small, delicate girl laid Bruce out flat with one punch. He hit the ground like a sack of potatoes.
At the sound of the commotion behind him, Uncle Chuck muttered without looking away from the TV, "Hey, hey! Stop screwing around."
The four boys continued to watch from their secluded spot by the window as some of the other kids in the room gathered around Brucie to see if he was seriously hurt.
"Mental note, don't mess with Erika." Christian said absently, breaking the silence.
"Or Erik." Collin added as he stared at Brucie, who was now curled into a ball in the floor.
Jorry slowly nodded.
"Do you think he's going to be okay?" Nick asked as he watched Brucie with concern.
"No." Jorry said immediately, then added, "But that's only because he wasn't okay to begin with."
Nick rolled his eyes at his brother, then said in a condescending tone, "I mean, do you think he needs a doctor or something?"
Jorry flashed a grin at his brother, then looked at Brucie appraisingly.
"No. Actually, I think he's alright now. He's just milking it for the attention." Jorry said slowly.
Collin and Christian both looked at Brucie more carefully and could easily see signs that he was being overly dramatic to elicit sympathy from the small group gathered around him.
"Dinner's on the table. Everyone come into the dining room." A woman called into the room from the doorway.
Collin, Christian, Jorry and Nick moved toward the door in unison.
"Is something wrong with Brucie?" She asked as she noticed him laying in the floor.
"I've been asking myself that for years." Jorry muttered as he walked past her.
Collin and Christian tried to restrain their chuckles as they followed along.
* * * * *
"Oh, come on in. Jorry, you too Nick, you sit right over here." Denise said as she ushered him into the dining room.
Jorry rolled his eyes and let out an aggravated sigh as he walked to the place she was indicating at what seemed to be a kitchen table at the side of the room.
"The 'kids' table." Christian whispered to Collin at his side.
"And I made up a place just for you boys." Denise said as she motioned for Collin and Christian to follow her.
They walked away from the kids table and around the end of the truly massive dining room table that dominated the room.
When it became obvious where she was leading them, Christian slowed his pace and said, "No way."
"We just have to get through it." Collin said, not looking any happier than Christian. "For Marc."
Christian sat down in the folding chair at the battered little card table in the corner of the room, then reluctantly muttered under his breath, "For Marc."
"No, no Frank, not there. Over here." Denise said as she scurried away.
"So we get to sit by ourselves on the other side of the room." Christian grumbled.
"Yeah. I feel soooo welcomed." Collin said sarcastically, not holding back his own displeasure at this development.
"Marc, you and your.... whatever, can sit over there." Denise said as she pointed to the far side of the main table.
"I guess that makes you a son of a whatever." Christian said with a grin.
"Works for me. Like I want to be classified as one of *them*." Collin said with a slight tilt of his head toward the main table.
"This is going to suck." Christian said sourly. "Let's just get it over with."
"Yeah. Then we can get the hell out of here." Collin said firmly.
"How are you boys doing?"
Both boys turned to see Marc looking at them with concern.
"We were doing fine until that bitch decided that we weren't good enough to sit with 'decent' people." Christian said frankly.
Marc looked back at the massive 'main' table, then back at the card table.
"Give me a minute." Marc said, then rushed away.
Collin and Christian watched as Marc went to talk to the woman who had called them to dinner.
A moment later, Marc ducked out through the main door.
"What do you think he's going to do?" Collin asked curiously.
"I don't know. But whatever it is, it can't be worse than this." Christian said frankly.
Collin looked down at the rickety old card table, and couldn't help but agree.
Marc walked back into the room, carrying two folding chairs, then made a motion with his head at Galen, indicating for him to follow.
"No Marc, you and your... you're supposed to be over here." Denise said quickly.
"I'm eating with my family, Neesie." Marc said as he continued to walk the length of the room. "Deal with it."
Galen was walking down the opposite side of the long table and met Marc at the end.
"You don't mind do you?" Marc asked as he offered one of the folded chairs to Galen.
"Not at all." Galen said immediately as he accepted the chair and unfolded it.
"Scoot out the table a little bit." Marc said as he walked behind Christian.
"What are you doing Linda? You're supposed to be over here?" Denise asked in an aggrieved tone.
"I'm sitting with my family." Linda said as she moved a chair over to the 'kids' table.
"Can I sit with you and Dad?" Brucie asked Denise as he stood from his place at the 'kids' table to make room for Linda.
"I suppose so. Come on over here baby." Denise said in a defeated tone.
"I'll get us some plates and utensils." Marc said as he got up and pushed in his chair.
The murmur of conversation seemed to dissolve as soon as Grandma Ellen entered the room in her wheelchair.
Ginny pushed her to a place at the end of the table, then took a step back and waited patiently.
"Nolan, move down. Ginny needs a place to sit." Grandma Ellen said firmly.
"I thought Ginny could get something to eat in the kitchen, after we're done." Denise said quickly.
"You thought wrong." Grandma Ellen said as she looked Denise in the eyes.
Without a word, Nolan got up from his place and relocated to an empty spot further down the table.
Marc appeared at the side of the table and started placing plates and silverware for Galen and himself.
Silence fell over the room as everyone waited to see what was going to happen next.
"Denise, where do you want us?" Jon asked as he and his wife walked into the dining room, each carrying a baby.
"Down at the end. There's a playpen in the corner where you can put the babies down." Denise said quickly, then guided other people to their seats.
"Are you boys alright?" Marc asked quietly.
Collin looked to see if Christian was going to answer. When it was apparent that he wasn't, Collin said, "We're better now that you're here."
Christian nodded his wholehearted agreement.
"How about you? How are you doing?" Collin asked, directing his question more at his father than at Marc.
"You know, I'm okay." Galen said with a considering smile.
"Good." Collin said happily.
"Why aren't we eating?" Grandma Ellen asked in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear.
The four at the card table looked around and found that everyone seemed to be seated and no one had any food on their plates.
"I thought we might go around the room and have everyone tell a little bit about how their family are doing this year. You know, just to bring everyone up to date." Denise said cheerfully.
"Denise, you're the biggest gossip in three states. I'm sure you know what's going on with everyone here and have already spread the word to the rest of the family." Grandma Ellen said seriously. "I'm 96 years old and I'm hungry. Start passing the food."
Chuckles went around the room along with murmurs of agreement.
"I love her." Marc said with an admiring chuckle.
"Yeah. She's great." Collin said as he looked down the length of the room at Grandma Ellen.
"Did you get a chance to talk to her?" Marc asked with surprise.
"Yeah. She wanted to talk to us and Jorry and Nick before we went back to our house tonight." Collin said frankly.
Marc glanced back at Grandma Ellen with concern at the statement.
Christian noticed and hurried to say, "It's really fine. She wasn't being mean or anything at all. She was just making sure everyone was okay with the 'gay' thing. I don't think she was worried that you'd do something as much as she was worried that Jorry or Nick might not really understand what was going on and then might get freaked out when we got home."
Marc looked from Collin to Christian, then quietly said, "I guess I'm used to my family automatically thinking the worst about me. It's hard for me to assume that anything they say or do isn't automatically an indictment of me or my life."
"That sounds reasonable to me." Collin said offhandedly. "Speaking strictly as the son of a 'whatever'."
"Hey, do you guys want some food?"
They turned as one to see Frank holding out a platter of ham toward them.
"Yeah. Thanks, Frank." Marc said quickly, then got up to accept the platter of ham.
"Here boys, take what you want." Marc said as he held the platter over the center of the card table.
"Do you want some, Marc?" Christian asked as he served himself.
"One slice." Marc said with a grateful smile.
Christian quickly relocated a slice of ham from the platter to Marc's plate.
As soon as Marc handed the platter back to Frank, he was handed a large bowl of mashed potatoes.
"This could take a while." Marc chuckled to Frank.
"Thank Denise's expert planning." Frank said seriously, "I imagine she'll be wolfing down seconds before the last of her guests has a chance to eat." Frank said seriously.
Marc nodded, then carried the mashed potatoes to the card table.
"Do you want some?" Christian asked as he dug into the bowl of mashed potatoes.
"No, I saw some sweet potato casserole when I was in the kitchen. I think I'll have that instead." Marc said conspiratorially.
"I'm having both." Galen said as he helped himself to a decent size portion of the mashed potatoes.
Marc waited for everyone to be finished, then went back to the table
* * * * *
"Watch out for the deviled eggs. Denise made them." Marc said as he held out a relish tray for everyone to help themselves to eggs, pickles and olives.
"How bad could they be?" Galen asked cautiously.
"I guess that depends on how much you like horseradish." Marc said frankly.
"That settles it. The woman is evil." Galen said with a shake of his head.
"Is that about all of the food?" Christian asked, looking at his mounded plate.
"Yeah. I see some gravy headed this way, but I think that's it." Marc said as he worked to maneuver a few olives onto his plate, one handed.
"Good. I'm starved." Christian said frankly.
"Then start eating. I think everyone else has, except maybe the kids' table. They're still getting food." Marc said before heading back to the main table.
"This sucks." Collin said frankly.
"Some things do. You just have to get through them." Galen said with resignation.
"Gravy?" Marc asked as he brought a gravy boat over to the table.
"Right here." Galen said as he pointed at his plate.
Marc grinned at the boys, then dutifully poured gravy over Galen's mashed potatoes.
"Do you boys want any?" Marc asked as he stood.
"Could I have some butter? That's how I usually like my mashed potatoes." Collin asked hopefully.
"I'll see what I can do." Marc said as he moved back to the main table.
"Come on guys, dig in before it gets cold." Galen said as he started cutting his slice of ham.
His cutting motion caused the whole card table to shake.
"Nice." Christian said sarcastically, then held on to the sides of the card table to brace it and said, "Try now, Uncle Galen."
Galen grinned at Christian, then cut his piece of ham into some decent bite sized pieces.
"Here you go Collin. Do you need anything else?" Marc asked as he looked around the table.
"I think I'm set up, but you and Dad might like something to drink." Collin said as he looked up to meet Marc's eyes.
"Drinks. Right." Marc said seriously, then walked away from the table.
"Does someone want to brace it so I can cut my ham?" Christian asked as he looked around the table.
"I've got you covered." Galen said immediately and held the table to steady it.
As Christian cut his ham, Galen asked, "How about you Collin, do you need to cut your ham up?"
"Yeah. Just let me finish with the butter." Collin said quickly.
"Here you go, love." Marc said as he placed a drink beside Galen's plate.
"Thanks." Galen said with a grateful smile as he continued to hold the card table steady.
"What are you doing?" Marc asked curiously.
"Collin, show him." Galen said as he took his hands away from the card table slightly.
As Collin started cutting his ham, the top of the table started to rattle with the motion.
Galen quickly took hold of the tabletop, then said, "If you want to cut up your ham, now would be a good time."
"Thanks, love." Marc said with a grin.
* * * * *
"How are you guys doing?"
Everyone looked up to find Erik standing shyly by the table, looking at them.
"We're fine. How are you?" Collin asked with concern.
"Oh, I'm fine." Erik said quickly, then quietly added, "Mom just wanted me to come over and see if you guys needed anything since you got stuck over here in BFE... whatever that means."
"Tell her we're fine and that we appreciate her checking on us." Marc said gratefully.
Erik nodded, then rushed back to the 'kids' table.
"I can't believe how fast he's growing up." Marc said distantly as he watched Erik sit down beside his mother.
Collin and Christian shared a look and came to immediate agreement that they shouldn't share just how much growing up Erik had done recently.
* * * * *
"When everyone is finished, we're going to have coffee in the living room. Dessert will be served in there." Denise said loudly.
"I wonder if we're invited." Christian said casually.
"What do you mean?" Marc asked curiously.
"Well, they separated us from you as soon as we got here, then tried to stick us in the corner away from everyone else at dinner. So I'm betting that when we go in there, they'll probably find another way to make it obvious that we don't belong here." Christian said frankly.
"I tell you what, Christian. If they do that, we'll leave." Marc said firmly.
"What about Jorry and Nick?" Collin asked quietly.
"We'll ask them if they want to go too." Marc said simply.
"Sounds good." Christian said with a decisive nod.
"Do you think Erik could come over too?" Collin asked quietly.
"Did you already invite him?" Marc asked hesitantly.
"No. But we had a chance to talk to him and he seemed nice." Collin said quickly.
"Well, I wouldn't have a problem with Erik coming over except that he lives up here. Getting him back home would be a long trip." Marc said gently.
"I see what you mean." Collin said with disappointment. "It just would have been nice."
"How about this? I'll talk to Linda and Dave and let them know that you'd like to visit with Erik. That way, if they have plans that take them to Orlando sometime, they could stop by on the way into town." Marc said cautiously.
"Yeah. That'd work." Collin said with a smile.
"So, are we done here?" Galen asked as he looked around.
"Yeah. It looks like it. Let's go see what's in store for us in the living room." Christian said as he stood.
"Remember, if it's too bad. We'll leave." Marc said gently.
"Yeah. I'll remember." Christian said with a smile at Marc.
* * * * *
"Marc." A man's voice said from behind the group.
"Hi Nolan. I don't think you've met Galen and the boys, Collin and Christian." Marc said hesitantly.
"Hi." Nolan said to the others absently, then looked at Marc and said, "Ruth said that the boys are going to stay over at your place tonight."
"Yes. Collin and Christian thought it would be fun to have a sleep-over." Marc said cautiously.
Nolan glanced at the boys without revealing any emotion, then quietly said to Marc, "She said some other stuff."
Marc nodded slowly.
"I would never hurt them." Nolan said as he looked into Marc's eyes. "I love those boys."
"Come back and tell me that when you're sober and I'll talk about it all you want." Marc said seriously.
A weird smile came across Nolan's face, then he loudly whispered, "I'm really hammered."
"It shows, Nolan." Marc said regretfully.
"Anyway... Um, what was it?" Nolan asked into the air, then said, "Oh yeah. Ruthie wanted me to let you know that she'll be bringing the boys some things... you know, pajamas and stuff."
"Fine." Marc said quietly.
Nolan nodded, and looked like he was going to say something else, but then lost his train of thought again and wandered away.
"Is that your brother?" Christian asked quietly.
"Yeah. My oldest brother." Marc said as he watched Nolan walk out the dining room door.
"He's got a problem." Christian said frankly.
"More than one." Marc said simply. "Imagine being married to Ruthie."
"Yeah, um. I'd rather not, if you don't mind." Christian said with a pained look.
Marc chuckled and nodded his agreement.
"Come on guys. The living room awaits."
Editor's Notes: Boy that was quite an experience in any number of ways. It looks as if Erik is going to turn out to be a nice kid, after all, and Erika is going to be a real help, too. Bruce is a real piece of work, isn't he?
This might have turned out to be the nicest family get together that Marc has ever attended. I was really happy to get another chapter of this wonderful story. Of course, I am already for another one, any time, now!
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher