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"I don't know, I think more people should have a grungy goth Santa." Wil said with a grin.
"I know the costume is a little bit old, but it isn't really that bad." Marc said hesitantly.
Christian shook his head at the statement, then said, "It must be because you remember this from back when it didn't look quite so freaky. But I'm with Wil, it's kinda awesome."
Marc looked again at 'Santa' and realized that there was some validity to Christian's observation. The Santa suit was severely discolored and ragged and the yellowed wig and beard looked dirty and were sticking out in all directions. Leaving sentimentality aside, 'Santa' looked disturbingly like a morbidly obese homeless person.
A shriek of terror sounded as one of the parents tried to take their three or four year old to visit with Santa.
Marc noticed Linda's downcast stare at the holiday 'festivities', and stepped to her side as he quietly said, "It's not so bad."
"Well, at least it can't get any worse." Linda said as she looked at her family who were trying to behave as if they were having a good time.
"Hey Linda, do you have a plunger?" Chuck asked loudly from the living room doorway.
Marc tried valiantly to hide his amusement, but wasn't up to the task.
"Shut up." Linda said with a quick glare at him, then after a slight huff of breath, started walking toward the door.
* * * * *
"I didn't think you'd have the nerve to show your face here." A woman said sternly as she approached the small group.
Christian immediately rushed away to join the formation that was protecting JD and Jody.
"Yeah. And a Merry Christmas to you too, Aunt Ruthie." Wil said dryly.
"Come on, Ruth. Wil is our nephew, we should be..." Marc began to say, but was interrupted.
"Of course you'd be on his side. Sodomites and drug addicts are cut from the same immoral cloth." Ruth said in a superior voice, then glanced at the formation of boys surrounding JD and Jody before saying, "But someone has to stand up for those who are too young and innocent to know better than to believe your godless teachings. It breaks my heart to know that those two little boys are going to grow up without a mother's love."
Before Wil or Marc could respond, Ruth took a step closer to the formation of boys protecting JD and Jody.
"If you're so worried about kids feeling loved, then why do you keep dumping your daughter off on other people to deal with? If that's what you call 'A Mother's Love' then I'll pass. Thanks." Christian said firmly.
"Yeah, Aunt Ruth. Where is your daughter right now?" Collin asked curiously.
Before she could answer, Christian asked, "And while we're on the subject of 'A Mother's Love', why do Jorry and Nick need someone they just met to step in and protect them when their father is drunk? What kind of a piss poor mother..."
"Christian!" Marc said firmly. "You need to stop before you go too far."
"Okay, Dad." Christian said quietly, then looked at Ruth, waiting for her to respond.
"You... That's not..." Ruth sputtered, then started looking around either to see if she had any allies nearby, or maybe for an escape.
"Lady, would you back off? You're scaring my kids." Cliff said firmly as he held Jody close to his chest.
"Mom? Why don't you take Nicky to see Santa?" Jorry asked his mother in a tone of voice that didn't reveal any emotions.
Nick flashed his brother an angry look, but then looked up at his mother with question.
"Yes... Come, Nixon. I'm sure you'll want to give Santa your Christmas list." Ruth said as she offered her hand.
* * * * *
There was a moment of silence until it was broken by Collin asking, "Do you think that Nick is going to be mad at you about that?"
"No. At least, not when he understands that he got sacrificed to protect the younger kids." Jorry said with certainty.
"Please excuse us." Ben said quickly as he nudged his way past the wall of boys and hurried toward the door.
Everyone could tell that JD was nearly trembling from the effort of holding Ben so tightly.
Christian and Collin shared a look of concern. Before Christian could even think of what to say, Collin was already following close behind.
"Should I go after him?" Galen asked Marc quietly.
"No. He may be able to help calm JD down. I'm sure that Ben will send him back if he's in the way." Marc said with concern, not nearly as certain as his words would indicate.
"Can we go home?" Jody asked Cliff quietly, but Christian was able to hear.
"You know you're safe while I'm holding you, don't you?" Cliff asked gently.
"Yeah. But I don't want JD to feel bad. And he's real scared." Jody said quietly.
"You're right. JD is extremely frightened right now, but if he can have a few minutes away from everyone, I'm sure he'll start to feel better." Cliff said slowly. "But if we went home right now, then I think that JD would feel very bad because he knows that you wanted to see Santa. He'll feel bad for a long time if he thinks you missed your chance because of him."
Jody looked up at Cliff, then over at Santa in the recliner.
"We promised you when we came here that if you really wanted to leave, that we wouldn't make you stay. But please think about how much JD would blame himself if we left right now." Cliff said carefully.
"Can we see Santa now, so we can leave if JD wants to?" Jody asked quietly.
"Sure. Anything you want." Cliff said as he gave the young boy a kiss on the cheek.
Marc and Galen watched with matching expressions of tenderness.
"If you want, Jorry and I can go with you." Christian said quietly, not wanting to startle the young boy.
"You want to see Santa too?" Jody asked with surprise.
"Yeah. I've already got everything I wanted for Christmas and a whole lot more. But I wouldn't mind visiting with Santa to tell him 'thanks'." Christian said with a gentle smile at the young boy.
Jody's inquisitive gaze moved to Jorry.
"Yeah. I'll take one for the team." Jorry said with an unconcerned shrug.
* * * * *
"Do you want to go home?" Ben asked as he held JD close to his chest.
"We gotta stay so Jody can talk to Santa." JD said in a trembling voice as he continued his 'death grip'.
"You don't have to worry, JD. We won't let Aunt Ruth or anyone hurt you." Collin offered quietly.
JD slowly turned his head and looked at Collin uncertainly.
"It's not just you and your brother and your dads. Me and Christian and our dads and Jorry and Nick will all make sure that you're safe." Collin said seriously.
"Just remember what Zeb said." Ben said in a soothing tone. "It's okay to be scared."
JD slowly nodded and seemed to be calming down.
"Are you guys alright?" Wil asked as he walked into the hall.
"Yeah. JD just had a little panic attack." Ben said softly.
"I think Aunt Ruth has that effect on a lot of people." Wil said with a tender smile at JD. "Don't let it get to you, man. We've got you covered."
JD seemed to be frozen for a moment, but finally released his grip on Ben and extended his arm toward Wil, inviting him into the hug.
"You're going to be fine, buddy." Wil said with a slight chuckle as he engulfed both Ben and JD in his hug.
Collin smiled as he watched, knowing that this was what a family should be like.
* * * * *
After a few minutes of waiting in a loosely formed line, Cliff was finally able to place Jody on Santa's lap.
"Are you okay?" Cliff asked before letting him go.
"It's Santa." Jody said as his only answer.
"I'll be over here. Just call if you need me." Cliff said gently as he stepped away to give them some privacy.
Christian and Jorry watched from their place in line as Jody talked animatedly with Santa, seeming to be completely at ease.
"Thanks." Cliff whispered at Christian's side.
"For what?" Christian asked as he looked up.
"Thanks for watching out for the boys. Neither of them are very good in a social situation, yet." Cliff said frankly, then continued, "I was afraid that with Ben and me being a same-sex couple, that the boys wouldn't have anyone treat them kindly."
"I was kind of scared of that too." Christian said honestly. "I guess maybe that's why I can understand a little bit of what JD and Jody are feeling."
"Well, Ben and I appreciate it." Cliff said with a smile at Christian. "I hope this will end up being a happy holiday memory for both the boys."
"We'll do our best." Christian said honestly, then noticed that Jody was wriggling to get down off Santa's lap.
"How are you doing, Champ?" Cliff asked as he squatted down and opened his arms to Jody.
"Santa said that since I been a good boy, that he's gonna give me what I want for Christmas!" Jody said happily.
"What's that?" Cliff asked curiously.
Jody seemed to be about to answer, but then clamped his mouth shut and thrust his arms into the air.
"Come on up here." Cliff chuckled as he pulled the boy into a hug.
Christian watched for a moment as Cliff hugged his son, then realized that it was his turn to sit on Santa's lap.
* * * * *
"Is everything okay?" Cliff asked as Ben walked into the room carrying JD.
"Yes. He just needed a minute to collect himself." Ben said gently.
"I got to see Santa!" Jody said proudly.
"Oh? What was Santa like?" Ben asked with an indulgent smile.
Jody considered for a moment, then said, "He was really nice... but he smelled funny."
Cliff smiled at the comment, then said, "I noticed it too. It seems that they must have a moth problem at the North Pole."
Collin chuckled at the statement, then looked around curiously.
His mouth nearly fell open when he spotted Christian sitting on Santa's lap.
"Christian and Jorry volunteered to visit with Santa so Jody wouldn't feel like he was going up there all alone." Cliff said with obvious admiration for their thoughtfulness.
Collin smiled as he watched his boyfriend from across the room.
* * * * *
"Well, young man, what can Santa do for you this Christmas?" Santa asked in a very fake sounding low voice.
Christian smiled, then said, "Actually, I just came up here so Jody wouldn't feel like he was away from everyone who protects him."
"As long as you're here, why don't you tell me what you'd like for Christmas?" Santa asked gently, dropping the fake tone of voice completely.
Christian looked at Santa with surprise.
"What could it hurt?" Santa prodded.
Christian chuckled, then said, "I don't know. I mean, everything is great right now. So I guess if I could have one Christmas wish, it would be for things to work out so I can stay with Marc and Uncle Galen. I really like it there."
"What would it take to make that happen?" Santa asked curiously.
"For Judge Robison to think it's a good idea, I guess." Christian said frankly.
"Judge Jamie Robison?" Santa asked curiously.
"Yeah. Do you know him?"
"I'm Santa, I know everyone." Santa said with a chuckle.
"Right." Christian said with a smile.
"You're really happy with Marc?" Santa asked seriously.
"He's like the dad that I always wanted... that I should have had all along." Christian finished quietly.
"Don't give up hope. Things have a way of working out for the best as long as you're willing to work for them." Santa said frankly.
"Hey, I thought Santa was supposed to 'give' you your Christmas wish, not make you earn it!" Christian said playfully.
"It's the things you earn that have the most value to you." Santa said sagely.
Christian thought about his iPod and slowly nodded.
"It's time to let Jorry have a turn. I don't think he's visited with Santa for quite a few years, now." Santa said with a smile.
"Thanks." Christian said as he got up from Santa's lap.
* * * * *
"Hey Erik, how are you doing?" Collin asked as he spotted the blond boy nearby.
"I'm okay. How are you?" Erik asked, seemingly not understanding why Collin was asking.
"If you've got a second, there's some people I'd like for you to meet." Collin said honestly.
"Um, yeah. Sure." Erik said uncertainly, then followed a few steps.
"JD and Jody. I brought someone to meet you." Collin said cheerfully.
Jody turned at the sound of his name, but it took JD a few seconds before he hesitantly turned in Ben's arms.
"This is Erik. I met him earlier and he seemed really nice, so I thought you two would like to meet him." Collin said frankly.
"You're pretty." Jody said with a shy smile at Erik as he noticed the festive Christmas sweater that he was wearing.
Erik was surprised by the declaration, but only took a moment to respond, "Thanks. So are you."
JD stared at Erik, but didn't make a sound.
"This is my house, so later, if you guys feel like it, we could go up to my room. I have lots of toys, and maybe you'll find some that you like playing with." Erik said frankly.
"You have toys?" JD asked hesitantly.
Erik nodded, then explained, "I don't play with them too much now. But I still have most of the toys that I did when I was your age."
JD nodded that the explanation seemed to make sense to him.
"Thank you, Erik. I don't know how long we'll be staying, but we appreciate the offer." Ben said as he held JD protectively.
"Hang on. I want to show you something." Erik said, then dashed away.
"He's nice." Jody said with a smile.
"Yeah. That's why I thought you'd like to meet him." Collin said happily.
"This is my Christmas present." Erik said proudly as he returned.
"A blanket?" Jody asked incredulously.
"No. It's a quilt. Look. Someone took the time to take all these little pieces of cloth and stitch them together to make this." Erik said as he pointed at the pattern.
Before anyone could think of what to say next, a voice intruded on their discussion.
"Thank you, Ginny." Grandma Ellen said as her nurse wheeled her up to the little group.
"Wil, I'm so glad you could make it tonight. Come over here and give your grandma a hug." Grandma Ellen said as she held out her arms to him.
"You are?" Wil asked hesitantly, not making any move toward her.
Ellen's expression filled with sadness when she realized the source of Wil's reluctance. "Of course I am. Who do you think it is that invited you?"
"Oh, I just thought I was on the family list and got invited automatically." Wil said honestly.
"Denise handled the invitations." Marc said frankly.
Wil carefully leaned in to give his grandmother a gentle hug.
"I brought a present for you, but ended up giving it to someone else, since I thought you weren't coming. He wouldn't have received a gift, otherwise." Grandma Ellen said regretfully.
"That's fine, I didn't come for presents. Thank you for seeing that I got invited." Wil said gently.
"Nora did most of the work, but I wanted to be sure that all of the family that could possibly be here got an invitation." Grandma Ellen said honestly.
"So does that mean that David didn't want to come?" Wil asked as he stood.
"We don't know where he is." Grandma Ellen said honestly. "That's part of the reason that I made a special effort to keep track of you, young man. After that spat you had with your parents and the unfortunate business with Jordan, I made it my business to keep tabs on you."
Wil stared at his Grandmother with astonishment at the effort she had put forth on his behalf.
"And before I forget to tell you, I'm very proud of how you've been able to make a decent life for yourself without any help from anyone." Grandma Ellen said with an admiring smile.
"You know about that?" Wil asked hesitantly.
"Wil, I didn't interfere in your life, but I had a private detective friend of mine keep an eye on you from a distance. If things had turned out differently for you, I wouldn't have allowed you to end up homeless." Grandma Ellen said frankly.
"Thank you, but, to be honest, I didn't do it all myself. Todd, a guy I work with, he took me in when Jordan went off the deep end with the drugs. And I've had Ben's help to deal with the stuff about my parents. Without Ben, I probably wouldn't have come here tonight."
Ellen was about to respond when a voice intruded on their conversation.
"Grandma, he's a drug addict..." Louise began to say.
"Don't start, Louise." Grandma Ellen said firmly.
To everyone's surprise, Louise actually listened to her grandmother and closed her mouth.
"Wil, you know you can come see me any time, right?" Grandma Ellen said to him as she looked him in the eyes.
"And us, you're still our grandson." Gene said gently as he and Jon joined the gathering.
"And us too." Jon added, with a baby in his arms.
"Is that Jaxon?" Wil asked in astonishment. "He's got so big!"
"Yes, it is." Jon said with a tender smile at the baby in his arms, then looked Wil in the eyes and said, "The day after Jordan got sentenced, his girlfriend dropped Jaxon and Jazmine off with us and left town."
"I'm so sorry, Uncle Jon." Wil mumbled regretfully.
"Why?" Jon asked with honest dismay, "You stood by Jordan when no one else in the family would. I got a reminder tonight of what it means to be family, and you were family to Jordan when everyone else gave up on him. Even though it ended up not working out, what you did is something to be proud of, Wil, not ashamed."
"Grandma Ellen..." Louise began to say, but Ellen cut her off.
"So who are these folks?" Ellen asked, motioning to Cliff and Ben.
"These are my friends Cliff Grant and Ben Stone, and their boys JD and Jody." Will answered proudly.
"Stone?" Ellen asked with surprise.
"He's Kendrick's great-grandson; we talked ancestors." Wil said timidly.
"That's wonderful. And what family names do the boys carry?" Ellen asked curiously.
"JD took the last name Stone when they adopted him and Jody took Grant." Wil said, feeling that it should be Cliff or Ben answering questions about their family.
A broad smile spread across Ellen's face. "Then this is the first time in years that all three branches of the Stones are represented at a family gathering. My and Harry's branch are all over the place..." she gestured broadly, "...but we have Ben from Kendrick's branch, and young Christian here from Walter's branch too."
Christian looked up, startled at being singled out.
"You two little ones, come here and give your Great-aunt Ellen a hug." she said to JD and Jody. The boys both squeezed tighter to Cliff and Ben.
"Grandma, the boys have been through some horrible abuse." Wil said quietly. "It's made them very afraid of women."
Ellen smiled warmly. "JD?"
He looked at her warily from the safety of Cliff's arms.
"As you can see, child, I'm stuck in this wheelchair. I wouldn't ever do anything to hurt you, but even if I wanted to, these old legs wouldn't let me. You could run away. But my arms still work just fine to give grandma-style hugs to little boys who are feeling scared, don't they, Nicky?"
Nick looked up at the sound of his name and quickly answered, "Uh huh."
"Now, the reason I'm telling you this." Ellen went on, "is that I'm getting really old. And by the time you aren't afraid of women any more, I may be long gone."
"Don't say that, mother!" Gene said lovingly.
"It's true, boy, and you know it." Ellen said to him. "So while I'm willing to wait until you're ready, JD, I want you to promise me one thing: As soon as you feel brave enough to give it a try, have your Daddy bring you to see me, so we can get to know each other before I'm gone. Is that fair?"
JD's eyes were large as saucers. Hesitantly he loosed his grip on Cliff, his signal to be put down. Ben and Cliff held their breaths as he stood in front of them.
"C'mon, Jody." he said in a small voice.
"You sure?" came the whispered response.
Ben set Jody down. JD took his hand, and they slowly and resolutely walked the few steps over to Grandma Ellen's wheelchair. In unison, they hesitantly climbed up into her lap. She wrapped them in a warm hug. Slowly the tension left their small frames.
Collin was surprised to find himself applauding, and even more surprised when Christian, Jorry, Nick, Wil, Ben, Cliff, Marc, and his father joined in.
After a moment, JD quietly said, "Daddy? Poppa? Come get us."
Cliff and Ben hurried over to retrieve their boys.
"Thank you, Aunt Ellen." Ben said as tears welled in his eyes.
There was a long moment of silence as no one seemed to know what to do next.
"Would you guys like to see my Christmas gift? I left it over by the tree." Christian asked the younger boys.
JD looked over at the tree, then at Jody with question.
"We'll be right here if you need us." Ben said gently.
JD seemed to be uncertain, but slowly nodded before reluctantly walking away with the group of boys.
* * * * *
"What's that?" Collin asked as he pointed at a booklet inside the box with the sword.
Christian took it out, then smiled as he said, "It's a book that tells who owned the sword and when it was made and stuff like that."
"So it's a REAL sword? I mean, that was used in wars and stuff?" JD asked with wide eyed wonder.
"Yeah. Do you want to see?" Christian asked as he offered the box to JD.
"I don't want to break it." JD said hesitantly, then asked, "Can I read the book?"
"Sure. If you want." Christian said as he handed the book to the younger boy.
All the boys watched as JD seemed to be immediately enthralled by the story of the sword.
* * * * *
Cliff, Ben, Marc, Galen and Wil were all silently watching the boys.
They were all startled when Grandma Ellen started talking in a loud, firm voice from the front of the room.
"Please, everyone, allow me a moment of your time, then you won't have to lay eyes on me again for another year." Ellen said sternly to the room.
As Ellen spoke, the boys automatically drifted as a group back over to Cliff and the other adults.
After a moment for the room to quiet and for her to collect her thoughts, Ellen said, "Nothing can destroy a family like money matters. My Harry remembered that too late. For those of you not familiar with the family history, here's a summary of what happened. I will try to keep it brief."
"When my father-in-law passed away, he left the family business to his children. Harry, Kendrick and Walter were in business together for a time, but always seemed to be working against each other. It was a constant struggle, but they kept afloat year after year, making enough of a living to support their families and live relatively comfortably. Looking back, I suppose those were the good days. As the business grew, both Walter and Kendrick seemed to lose interest in the day-to-day operations of the company. Harry wanted his brothers to be happy, so he offered to buy them out of their shares of the business. They were happy to accept the money and be relieved of the burden of going to work each day doing something that didn't interest them."
"After that, Walter left for... God only knows where, but he disappeared and I don't think Harry ever heard from him again. Walter seemed to have gotten the notion that Harry bought him out just to be rid of him. From time to time, Harry would get the occasional report that Walter had been seen somewhere, usually doing something scandalous... that was his way." Ellen said fondly.
"Kendrick, on the other hand, took the money from the buy-out and put it to good use. He used it as seed money to invest in several small businesses. From what I've heard over the years, he did very well with that." Ellen said thoughtfully.
"I suppose that should have been the end of the story. And if it had been, then everyone would have been happy. But then the most tragic thing happened. The Stone family business that had been in the family for generations, suddenly... flourished. Harry's good investments, sound business practices and the good will of clients and competitors alike coalesced into a 'perfect storm', if you will. The company was operating at optimum efficiency and pulling in so much money, they literally didn't know what to do with it. Because as Harry used to say, money that's sitting and doing nothing has no value."
"Some of you may wonder why I said this was tragic." Ellen said, then slowly looked around the room. "The end result of all that money has been nothing but heartache. Kendrick resented Harry, feeling that he had been cheated out of his birthright. Their children... our children... we did our best to shelter them. But looking around this room, I can tell you that many of the hurts and heartaches that still carry on today stem from the largess of those bountiful years."
Ellen felt sadness in her heart at the hungry looks of hope and anticipation in the eyes of most of the adults in the room. She knew that look too well, and nothing good ever came of it. But the course was set, so the only thing to do was to stick to it.
"I can see that many of you have already guessed at what I'm leading up to." Ellen said frankly. "I've been administering the Stone family business holdings in Harry's stead since his passing. In accordance with his wishes, as stated in his will, I'm going to liquidate the business assets and holdings of his estate and distribute them to the family."
A rush of excitement passed through the assembled group.
"The disbursement will go as follows, once again, in accordance with Harry's wishes." Ellen said to the family, then glanced at Ginny and said, "Make sure you get this, dear."
Ginny nodded and handed Grandma Ellen a stack of papers, then stood ready with her notebook in hand.
"I'm just going to read the highlights of this. Most of it's a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo that doesn't make a lick of sense." Grandma Ellen said in prelude, then began reading aloud, "At the reading of this document, my personal assets will have already been distributed to my loving wife, Ellen and to our surviving children."
"...my greatest regret is that I didn't choose to liquidate the family business holdings and distribute the assets at our father's passing. For the sake of some prideful, imagined thing called 'the family legacy', I held on to the business and allowed money to drive a wedge between us and destroy our family. No amount of money can restore what we've lost."
"It was later that I realized what a fool I had really been. The series of choices that I made led me to this day, to the writing of this will, and the realization that it is time to take the thing that caused so much heartache and woe, the thing that destroyed my relationship with my brothers, and pass it on to my children and their children so it can destroy them as well."
"To compound my failure, my beloved Ellen is burdened with the task that I couldn't bring myself to accomplish during my life. So, to that end, it is my wish that the businesses and holdings I worked all my life to accumulate, be liquidated and distributed in the following manner."
"I'll just paraphrase this next bit. It's a little bit too thick with legalese to be understood easily." Ellen said honestly, then continued, "At a time chosen by the executor, me, the family should be gathered. Only those present will be eligible to receive a share of the inheritance. Since we have representatives from Walter and Kendrick's branches of the family with us tonight, I feel that this is the perfect time to do it. I know Harry would have been pleased."
Some murmurs of excitement went around the room at the announcement as one by one everyone was realizing what Grandma Ellen was about to do.
"Harry gave his reasons for this next part, something about 'a shameless money-grubbing pit of vipers', but I'll skip right to the chase. You can read it later if you're interested." Ellen said frankly, then continued, "It was Harry's wish that only the youngest members of each family line will be the heirs, those under 18 receiving their inheritance in the form of a trust. The inheritance will be a single share given to that family branch, divided amongst those eligible."
The stunned silence that had filled the room pleased her.
"The heirs with the last name of 'Stone' will receive a larger inheritance than the others, that being half again as large as a regular share, simply because they're responsible for carrying on the family name." Ellen said carefully, then turned the page.
After a moment of reading, Grandma Ellen said, "As executor, I am the final authority on who is eligible and what they get. Now, before you start wheedling and scheming, I'm going to spell this out in no uncertain terms. When I call your family, pay attention, because this is how it's going to be."
Ellen's gaze turned toward Marc, and he straightened his posture a little.
"Marc's last name is Stone. He's considered the youngest of his branch of the family, so he gets a large share, all his own." Ellen said seriously.
A few looks of surprise flashed around the room at the announcement.
"Christian, if I understand your situation, you don't have any legal relationship to Marc. Is that right?" Ellen asked carefully, directing her question only to him.
"I think he's my guardian. At least, the judge said that I could stay with him through Christmas." Christian said uncertainly.
"But you haven't been adopted, or anything like that?" Ellen confirmed.
"No, ma'am. Not yet." Christian said timidly.
Ellen directed her attention back to the group as she said, "Then, since Christian isn't officially adopted yet, his case is seen as completely separate. Christian, being the youngest present in the branch of Walter's family and a Stone, also gets a large share to himself, and since he's under eighteen, it will be in the form of a trust fund."
"But we don't know if he's really related to us at all! He's probably some homeless kid that they picked up off the street for their sick, perverted thrills! Just look at him!" Ruth exploded.
"Ruth, if you don't shut up, I'll have to ask you and your family to leave. And if you leave before I've distributed your inheritance, you get NOTHING. Understood?" Grandma Ellen asked in an icy voice.
After a moment, Ruth nodded.
"Where was I? Oh, yes. Benjamin Stone, descended from Kendrick's branch of the family would be eligible for a large share except that he's adopted two children, that makes him ineligible. But since one of his sons carries the last name of Stone, it's my judgement that their branch of the family receive one large share that will be split into two equal trust funds for the boys."
There were murmurs going around the room, but no one seemed to be upset enough to speak up about it.
"Ruth, where is your daughter?" Ellen asked cautiously.
It took a moment, but Ruth finally found her daughter being held by Linda's husband, Dave.
Ellen nodded, then said, "Ruth and Nolan, since your last name is Stone, your three children will split one large share of the inheritance, in the form of trust funds." Ellen said simply.
Ruth slowly nodded, and remained blessedly silent.
"Linda and Dave, since your last name is Howard, your family will be eligible for a regular size share. But only Erik and Erika will be eligible to receive the inheritance. Since David Jr isn't here with us tonight, he isn't eligible." Ellen said regretfully.
Linda seemed like she wanted to say something, but her husband put an arm around her and nodded his agreement.
"Chuck and Louise, I'm sure you've figured this out by now, but I'll say it anyway to make it official. Your last name is Hale, so your family line gets a regular share, that is to be split into a trust fund for Kirsten and a full disbursement for Wil, just as soon as the assets are liquidated." Ellen said seriously.
"But you can't do that! He'll just blow it all on drugs and booze!" Louise barked.
"Louise, if you were at all involved in your son's life, you'd know that he's a responsible young man who has been making his own way in the world without the support of his family. I'm proud of what Wil has been able to achieve all on his own and have no doubt that he'll put his inheritance to good use. But if he were to 'blow it all' as you say, what of it? It's his, not yours." Ellen said firmly.
After a moment to see if there were any more objections, Ellen continued, "Frank and Sandra, your last name is Stone and you have no children. You get a large share for yourselves."
"That's not fair!" Ruth whined.
"Life's not fair. Deal with it." Ellen said shortly, then continued, "Needless to say that since Denise, James and Brucie aren't here, they aren't eligible for a share."
"Jon and Elaine, since your last name is Masters, you're eligible for a regular share. Hailey isn't here, so she's not eligible. Even if Jordan had been here, he wouldn't be eligible because the next generation has been born. Jaxon and Jazmine will split a share in the form of trust funds." Ellen said, then waited for a moment to see if anyone had a question.
"I suppose I should clarify about the trust funds. The trustees will be appointed by ME. And I'll tell you now, it won't be anyone in the family. I want the children to have something waiting for them when they become adults. The trust funds will cover all medical, legal and educational expenses until they are of legal age." Ellen said firmly, then looked around and waited for questions.
From his place at Christian's side, Collin looked around curiously at everyone's frozen stares as they listened to Ellen continue on through the other members of the family, bestowing an untold number of shares to the nieces, nephews and cousins who were attending the family gathering.
He felt love swell in his heart as he saw his dad holding Marc in a casual hug, watching the spectacle unfold. In all his life, Collin had never felt so close to his father, so 'in tune'. It was a wonderful feeling and a bond that he never imagined that he would experience.
Suddenly, he felt Christian's hand take hold of his and squeeze it gently.
Collin turned to face him and saw Christian mouth the words 'love you'.
With a smile, Collin mouthed, 'love you, too'.
Suddenly, a change in Ellen's tone of voice drew Collin's attention back to the events at the front of the room.
"So that's it. Once the business holdings have been liquidated, those named will receive their inheritance. It was Harry's wish, and mine as well, that the next generation might avoid the mistakes of our past and not let the money overshadow the important things in their lives. This was our best attempt to set things right."
* * * * *
As the group broke up, Ellen motioned Gene down next to her. In a much lower voice than she had used for the distribution, she said, "As my executor, you need to know this, just in case, but be very sure not to let a word leak to the rest of these." She made a sweeping gesture that made clear whom she meant. "I'll be having Christmas dinner at your sister's, and do the same distribution there. And I have a lawyer lined up to do the same for me at your brother's out West. With the three special distributions you'll notice in your father's notes, that will cover the whole family." She sighed. "And I will finally have done what Harry wanted."
Gene's answer was not in words. Instead, he just gave his frail, wheelchair-bound mother a loving embrace.
* * * * *
"What did all that mean?" Jody asked quietly.
"I think Grandma Ellen just said that she's gonna give us lots and lots of money." JD said uncertainly, then looked up at the others to see if they could explain it better.
"What do we have to do?" Jody asked cautiously.
"All we have to do is wait. We don't get anything until we're eighteen." Jorry said frankly.
"Oh. So it's not like 'real' money or anything. If we can't touch it or use it, then it isn't really real. It's just an idea." JD said thoughtfully.
"Well, yeah, maybe. But on the day that you turn eighteen, it'll be VERY real." Christian said with a grin.
JD shook his head firmly and said, "People do really stupid stuff when they start believing in money that they can't touch."
After a moment to think it over, Christian slowly nodded and said, "I think he's right. My dad... my 'real' dad always had big dreams that never worked out because he believed too much in things that weren't real. He'd do the same things over and over again and think somehow that this time they might turn out different."
"Like what?" Collin asked curiously.
"There were a few times, when I was little, he spent all our food money on lottery tickets. Mom had to go to the churches and charities to beg for enough food to get us through the week. Of course, he bought his beer BEFORE he bought the lottery tickets, but that's a whole other thing." Christian said frankly.
"That sucks." Jorry said honestly.
"At least Dad's never done that." Nick said frankly.
"He's not there yet, but give him time. He's headed that way." Jorry said sadly to his younger brother.
"Well, I guess if anyone asks you what you got for Christmas this year, you can say 'a trust fund'. It sounds kind of impressive, even if you can't do anything with it." Collin said, trying to inject cheer into the conversation.
"Yeah. If I go around telling people something like that, I'm going to get my ass kicked. Nobody anywhere wants to hear a spoiled rich kid flaunting his trust fund." Christian said frankly.
"Really?" Nick asked uncertainly, not knowing if Christian was teasing or not.
"Oh yeah. It's the same as showing off your new iPod or something. It's like, I got one and you don't! So I'm better than you!" Christian finished in a snotty sing-song voice.
Nick, JD and Jody giggled at Christian's tone.
* * * * *
"What are you two scheming?" Grandma Ellen asked as she approached Nolan and Louise.
They shared a look before Louise said, "We're going to contest the will."
"You're welcomed to try, but Harry and his lawyers made sure that the will was iron clad. So you'll accomplish nothing except lining your lawyer's pockets with your hard earned money. I suggest that you accept it and be happy for your children's good fortune." Grandma Ellen said frankly.
"We'll see." Louise said darkly.
* * * * *
The group of five adults were keeping close watch on the boys, but everything seemed to be going well for the moment.
"I kind of lost track, who over here hit the jackpot?" Jon asked as he approached with his wife at his side, each of them holding a baby.
"I guess that would be me." Marc said quietly, then tentatively held out his hands as he asked, "May I?"
Elaine transferred Jazmine into Marc's waiting arms with a tender smile.
"Are you two disappointed about being left out of the will?" Gene asked gently as he walked up and put a hand on Jon's shoulder.
"It was grandpa Harry's decision to make, and I think I understand what he was trying to do." Elaine said gently.
"Although a little more money would have been nice, I can't even imagine how it would have changed everyone if the money had been divvied up amongst your children." Jon said frankly to his father-in-law.
"We're barely holding together as a family now. I'm sure it would have destroyed what's left." Gene said frankly, then looked at Elaine with concern and asked, "How bad are things for you now?"
"Bad." Elaine said simply. "The Christmas gift will help a lot, but... with Hailey in college and Jordan in prison and now the babies... the money will help for a while, but I just don't know how we're going to do it long term."
"I tell you what. After the holidays, why don't the two of you come over to the house and sit down with me so we can discuss your financial situation? My father left me a substantial inheritance from his personal estate, so I'm not without means to help. I'm sure that if we put our heads together we can come up with a financial plan for you that makes sense."
"Thanks Dad." Elaine whispered as she hugged her father gently.
"I think this little lady just made a poop." Marc said cautiously, not wanting to interrupt Gene and Elaine's moment.
"If you'll hold Jax for a few minutes, I'll take care of that." Jon said with a grin.
"Can I hold him?" Wil asked hopefully and appeared to be poised for rejection.
"As long as Jax is happy, I'm happy." Jon said with a sincere smile at Wil, then turned his attention to the little girl in his arms and started talking to her in baby talk as he walked away.
"So Ben, are you disappointed about the inheritance?" Gene asked curiously.
"No, not really." Ben said honestly. "Cliff and I live well within our means and my writing career has been going well, so even though it might have been nice, we're not in any need."
"I'm really happy to hear that. I felt kind of guilty getting a large share to myself when so many others got left out." Marc said honestly.
"There's no need for you to feel guilty. This was something completely out of your control." Gene said honestly.
"I guess the reason I feel that way is because even though I know it shouldn't matter, I really wanted the money. To tell you the truth, this inheritance is going to take a load off my mind." Marc said quietly. "The job that I've been working at for the past several years is going to end before long. I make good money and have some savings and a few investments, but I wouldn't be able to go on indefinitely with no income."
"You know you'd never have to do without anything." Galen said as he bumped hips with Marc playfully.
"I know." Marc said with a loving smile at his beloved partner. "But I'll still feel better knowing that I have some money stashed away if there's not another job waiting for me right around the corner."
A moment of silence fell over the group that was broken by Wil quietly saying, "I'm just worried that I'll live down to my mom's expectations of me."
"Wil, if you're ever feeling uncertain about a decision, you can come to us anytime you want and we'll do our best to help you make a wise choice." Ben said seriously.
"Count us in on that, too. We're as close as the nearest phone." Marc said firmly.
Wil looked around and could tell that Cliff and Galen agreed.
"Thanks, guys. I'll remember." Wil said quietly.
* * * * *
"Can I talk to you for a minute?" Gene asked quietly and motioned for Cliff to follow him.
"Sure." Cliff said hesitantly as he followed.
"You're Jody's father, right?" Gene asked as he looked around to see that no one else was listening.
Cliff smiled, not recalling anyone calling him that before, then he answered, "Yes. I am."
"Do you know what your son wants for Christmas?" Gene asked quietly.
"No. He hasn't told anyone, not even his brother. Did he tell you?" Cliff asked quickly as he glanced over by the tree to see that the boys weren't paying attention to him.
"He told Santa, and that conversation is held in the strictest confidence." Gene said seriously.
"Please, tell me. This is going to be Jody's first Christmas with us and I want to be sure to get him the gift that he really wants." Cliff said desperately.
"Okay. I'll tell you. Just, remember that Jody would only tell this to Santa, he wouldn't tell his own brother. That means that he realizes that you might not react well to what he's asking for." Gene said quietly.
"Please, just tell me. Tomorrow is Christmas eve." Cliff said in a begging tone.
"He wants a Barbie doll." Gene said frankly.
Cliff thought for a moment, then finally nodded and said, "That's no problem."
"Actually, it may be more of a problem for Jody than it is for you." Gene said seriously.
"How's that?" Cliff asked curiously.
"The only toy that Jody wants for Christmas is a Barbie. He's fixated on it. He won't even discuss other toys. I think that if he has this much single-minded determination as young as he is... well, it might well be an indication of his lifestyle." Gene said carefully.
"Are you saying that you think Jody's gay because he wants a doll for Christmas?" Cliff asked cautiously.
"I hate to use the word 'gay' because it implies sexual orientation, and that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking more about gender identity. From the way he tried to hide the fact from you that he wanted a doll, he already associates some sense of shame with the desire. To me that says that Jody is very fragile right now and that you need to be very careful how you handle things until he's become more secure." Gene said carefully.
"I hadn't thought of that. I'll be careful." Cliff said thoughtfully.
"Just remember that whether he wants to dress in blue or in pink, he's still your son." Gene said gently.
"That's some good advice." Cliff said with a smile.
Gene shrugged, then said, "I've got a gay son. So I've done a lot of reading about such things."
"From the fantastic things that Wil has said about Marc, I think you must have done a fine job raising him." Cliff said frankly.
"I AM rather proud of the way he turned out. Some of the others... not so much." Gene finished weakly.
"You can only do so much. Once they leave the nest, it's out of your hands." Cliff said seriously.
"I know that logically, but when I hear Denise go off on one of her rants or see Nolan destroying his life with alcohol... I feel like maybe if I had done something differently, they would have turned out better." Gene said as tears welled in his eyes.
"It would be wonderful if they could all make you proud every day. But real people sometimes make bad choices, believe wrong things and even just screw up for no good reason. It's not you, it's life." Cliff said quietly.
"Go spend time with that wonderful family of yours. And remember that JD and Jody have a Grandma and Grandpa here if we're ever needed." Gene said seriously.
"I'll take you up on that." Cliff said gently. "Ben's family cut ties with him when he came out to them. My own family... we just aren't close. So if you really wouldn't mind us visiting, I think it would be good for the boys to have grandparents in their lives."
"Consider it settled." Gene said as he patted Cliff on the shoulder.
* * * * *
"Christian, will you let the others know that we'll be leaving in a few minutes?" Marc asked hopefully.
"Sure, Dad." Christian said quickly, then dashed away to find the other boys.
"You're really lucky. He's a fantastic boy." Ben said from Marc's side.
"He really is." Marc said with a distant smile.
"I'd like for us to keep in touch, maybe find a way for our families to get together and do something." Ben said thoughtfully.
"Well, since I live in Orlando, I think we may have one or two attractions that might be good for a family outing." Marc said with a smile.
"I can't even imagine what it would be like to take the boys to an amusement park. It may be a little while before we're ready for that step." Ben said frankly.
"Then we'll do something else. All you need is an open space and a Frisbee to keep the boys entertained for hours on end." Marc said with a grin.
"You're right, it's not about the activity. It's the company." Ben said with a smile.
Christian approached carrying his sword in its box and was followed by the rest of the boys.
"Jorry and Nick. If you need kisses or hugs or anything, you'd better get it taken care of now. We'll be leaving in just a minute." Marc said frankly.
Jorry looked up at Marc with a 'yeah, right' expression. But Nick seemed to be really thinking it over.
After a moment, Nick turned and shyly said, "I like you, JD. You're nice."
"I think you're nice, too." JD said honestly.
Nick quickly looked around to see if anyone was watching, then leaned in and gave JD a quick kiss, right on the lips.
JD looked at Nick with surprise, then a blush covered his face.
Nick smiled at the reaction, then waved as he walked to join his brother and said, "Merry Christmas."
"We'd better think about leaving, too." Cliff said with a tender smile at JD's shocked expression.
Seeing the blond hair and distinctive Christmas sweater, Jody quickly said, "There's Erik. Let's say 'bye' to him."
JD glanced at Nick again before walking to Jody's side and calling out, "Erik!"
"I'm Erika." the girl said as she turned around. JD tensed in sudden panic, then ran as quickly as he could to Cliff.
"What's wrong with him?" Erika asked, mystified by the boy's obvious fear of her.
"A woman hurt him... really badly... to the point he's afraid of all women." Wil explained to his young cousin in a quiet voice.
"Little boy?" Erika said gently.
JD looked at her with one eye, still pressed tight to Cliff's side, holding on with all his might.
"I'm sorry I scared you. I'd never hurt you." She paused. "In fact, if anybody scares you, you come find me and I'll kick their butt for doing it."
"She would, too." Jorry said as he and his brother stepped closer.
"Yeah! You should have seen what she did to Brucie!" Nick added with a giggle.
JD peeked at Erika with one eye, then hid his face again. What he now seemed to be feeling, though, was more shyness than fear.
* * * * *
"Ready?" Galen asked as he walked up to the boys.
"Just about." Collin answered for them. The four boys waved goodbye to JD and Jody.
"Keep in touch." Marc said to Ben as he pocketed the slip of paper with Ben's address, phone number, and e-mail.
"We will." Ben responded, a promise implicit in his words.
"Come down to visit when you get a chance." Marc said to Wil. "You'll always be welcome."
"Thanks for coming." Dave said as he walked up to see them off. "I'm sorry for..."
"Don't be." Galen said firmly. "You're not responsible for Denise or Ruth, and you and Linda made us feel welcome. Much more than we could have expected."
"You're always welcome here." Dave replied sincerely.
"Come back up and visit us when you can." Erika said from her place, tucked under her father's arm.
Slowly, Marc and Galen made their way out to the car, making sure that all the boys were accounted for.
"Here, Christian." Marc said, handing him a set of keys. "Go unlock the car."
With a grin, Christian took them and darted ahead to do what Marc had asked.
Everyone else followed along at a slower pace.
This is a wonderful chapter to appear at this time of the year. Once again, MultiMapper has given us a touching, heartwarming chapter of a story with quite a few life lessons.
I had to go grab the box of tissues, and I almost finished the box.
Thanks to D and B for making it more complete.
You have managed to communicate with the people in the story very well. They seem to talk to you the same way they do to MM.
I can hardly wait for the next chapter.
Darryl The Radio Rancher
Thank you, Darryl. I need to acknowledge D&B's contribution to this chapter... If not for their contribution, y'all would probably be waiting until NEXT Christmas before it was done. Thanks for getting the gears turning again. I owe you one... okay, another one. ;)
I do appreciate Multimapper letting his cast come play in my head ... I think! "grin" They decided to give me several small pieces which he incorporated seamlessly into this chapter. It was bad enough when J.D. showed up, put (gloved) hands on his hips akimbo, and told me what happened to him this chapter. But when Grandma Ellen wheeled her chair into my head, looked me in the eye, and said, "Now write this down, young man!" (At my age you don't get called 'young man' that often!) ... well, when that happens, you hasten to obey.
I absolutely love Multimapper's stories, and it's always icing on the cake when I have an opportunity to contribute to one. Thanks, again, MM, for letting me 'play in your yard.'
- "D" of D&B