It’s Christmas Everywhere But Here

To everyone who understands that a parent’s

honest love and concern can hurt like hell.

 

December 23

 

T
HE
EXCITEMENT
of the ringing phone turned into a groan when Russ saw the caller ID.

“Emily? Go with Uncle Max, please. Can you get some chocolate for Austin?”

“It’s not Daddy? On the phone?”

Russ smiled at his stepdaughter and shook his head. “No, it’s Grandma Doris. You may have a bar for yourself too.” Russ brought the phone up to his ear. “Hi, Mom.”

He heard Austin in the background, wailing.

“Honey, I’m so sorry to call you, but, well, you can probably hear him. What do I do?”

Russ pinched the bridge of his nose. Emily squeezed his hand, and Russ opened his eyes as she and Max vanished around the end of the aisle. “What happened?”

“Nothing! He just started howling!”

“Mom. Be honest with me. What happened?” Russ moved his cart over to the side of the aisle. Two days before Christmas the store was packed with holiday shoppers, and none of them needed him standing in the way.

“Don’t talk to me like that, Russell! There is no reason. He just started wailing.”

“Austin doesn’t
just
start wailing. He always has a reason.”

“Well, it wasn’t anything I did.”

“Okay. Well. Without being there, I would guess that either your dog spooked him, or his game unit ran out of power.”

“Paulie would do no such thing!”

“Then check the batteries in his DS.”

“I don’t know how to do that.”

“Then ask Dad.”

“Russell, you need to come home and quiet him down.”

“I’m going to finish my shopping, actually. We should be back in about forty minutes, depending on how long the checkout takes.”

“But—listen to him! How am I supposed to handle this?”

“Look….” Russ glanced up and tried to lower his voice. “I need you to listen to me and do exactly what I tell you, okay?”

“Russell, you need to come back and deal with this.”

“Mother. I am twenty minutes away. The shopping is nearly done. There is one vehicle. I am not abandoning Max and Emily here because someone couldn’t follow directions and leave Austin alone. Are you ready to listen now?”

The frosty silence from the phone warred with the chill from the frozen food section. “What did you want me to do?”

“First, tell him calmly that Papa will be home in forty minutes. Do
not
make it a threat. If you figure out what happened, have whoever did it apologize, again, calmly and matter-of-fact. That will sometimes get him to snap out of it. If not, he usually doesn’t flail around when he cries, but make sure he’s not hurting himself, and otherwise leave him the fuck alone like I told you to in the first place. Any questions?”

“No, but….”

“See you in a bit.” Russ hit End on the call. He wanted to turn off the phone, but that was where he’d made his grocery list.

“What’s wrong?” Emily was the one who asked, placing her items in the cart. Hadn’t they just bought that silly shirt? The sleeves were already several inches above her wrists.

“Austin’s crying.”

“Oh.” Emily’s mouth twisted. “I got him peanut butter cups.” The tone in Emily’s voice was hopeful.

“Thanks, Ems.” Russ reached out to ruffle her hair. “C’mon, let’s go this way.”

He let Ems drive but directed her back past frozen foods. “We were already in the bakery, Papa.”

“I know, Ems, but wine just got added to the list.”

“Grandma and Grandpa don’t drink wine.”

“Nope. But Papa does, and he’s going to need some.”

She turned back, looking at him with sad eyes. “I don’t like Grandma, you don’t like her, and she made Austin cry. Can we go home?”

“Emily.” Russ dropped to his knees and pulled her into a hug in the aisle between the hot dog buns and the wine.

“Is this like eating brussels sprouts? It’s good for us, but we hate it?”

Russ pulled back to look into her face, brushing her thick blonde hair out of the way to do so. “Yes, but let’s go with asparagus, because I’ll actually eat that.” The joke prompted a small smile. Russ kept one arm around her as he surveyed the wine offerings. He was glad she was still willing to hug him in public places. But she was only ten; that would probably be changing soon enough. “Teen” was far closer than he wanted to think about.

“There’s the merlot you like.” Emily pointed but didn’t touch.

Russ shook his head and reached for the bottle. “Teen” was too close, but “little mother” was already upon him.

“Why do we have to visit? Grandma Doris doesn’t like you and Daddy being together.”

“Grandma asked us to. Possibly because she realized you’re the only grandkids she’s going to get for a while.”

“So, if Uncle Max got married and had a baby, we wouldn’t have to visit?”

Russ couldn’t tell if that was the child’s logic or the reasoning miniature adult talking. He was saved from deciding when Max came around the corner, arms full of what he’d been sent off to get.

“What’re you guys talking about?” Russ’s younger brother was all smiles and smooth moves in designer jeans and a light Henley. Max had always had the easy charm and good looks that would have taken Russ hours he didn’t have to attain. “What?” Max straightened after dumping his armful in the cart.

Russ glanced at Emily, who was glancing back up at him. Her arms crossed over her chest as her eyes slid back over to Max, decidedly unimpressed. Russ gave his brother another once-over. Why
couldn’t
the stupid hot idiot have a girlfriend and kids? He
was
in his midthirties.

Russ ignored the fact he’d been thirty-eight when he and Dave got married, grabbed a second bottle of wine, and turned his back on Max to direct the cart back toward frozen foods.

“What? What did I do?” Max followed after them. “Russellllll….”

 

 

A
USTIN
WAS
still going full force when Russ, Max, and Emily hauled the groceries through the door, the sound immediately audible when they entered the house. Russ smelled the sugar cookies before he saw them, neat lines of pale dough against the brown paper bags covering the kitchen island. Russ eyed the rows and rows of unfrosted cookies and the old highchair-slash-stool perched nearby.

“Russell, he’s still going….” Doris, was a plump, rosy-cheeked woman in a red-checked apron. There was white flour dusted over the red fabric, some on her cheek. He had never liked the smell of flour on his mother.

“Ems, please help your Uncle Max bring the groceries in and put them away.” He ignored his mother, set his bags on the table, and went into the living room.

Austin’s DS lay on the far couch cushion where he’d been curled when they left for the store. Russ picked it up and hit the power button. It came on, the indicator showing the battery almost full.

“Russ.” His father, Randall, stood in the hall, the taller, gray-haired version of Max. The source of Russ’s height and Max’s lean build, Randall’s midsection was thickening now, hence his new interest in jogging. “He’s just sobbing. Has been for half an hour at least. He always like that?”

“When he gets upset. Did Mom have you check the batteries in this?” He gestured with the DS.

“No.” Randall shook his head at the toy.

“Mom try and get him to frost cookies?”

“I don’t know. I was outside raking the yard. Heard him start crying. Time I made it in, they were standing by the couch, your mom had him by the shoulders, and he was howling.”

“Where was the dog?”

“Outside with me. Paulie and Max’s dog both.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

Randall stepped out of the way so Russ could move down the hall, following the sound. Austin hunkered in the corner of the guest bedroom Russ used, practically in his suitcase. Russ pushed the door shut, sat down on the floor, and hauled the bawling seven-year-old into his lap.

Austin’s howl went up another few decibels. “It’s okay, buddy. It’s Papa. And I promise I won’t leave you alone again while we’re here.” Russ rocked slowly, rubbing and patting the shaking back. He tugged the hoodie up into place over the dark hair, so unlike his own that went gold at the slightest touch of the sun. “Sissy got you peanut butter cups, buddy. We can have those later, if you want.”

Austin unwound enough to throw his arms around Russ’s neck, the thin legs around Russ’s waist.

“I know, buddy, I know.” Russ leaned back against the bed and got comfortable, wishing he’d thought to take his shoes off. This could be a long one.

 

 

I
T
WAS
just under an hour later when Russ finally felt comfortable leaving Austin for a moment. Well, until Austin would let him stand up without starting to howl again.

Russ popped two aspirin in the bathroom before braving the front of the house. It didn’t feel like Christmas. Not with the clear blue sky and bright sunlight blazing in through the windows. It was cooler at home, enough you might want a sweater in the house. Here, a long-sleeved shirt was almost a bit much.

He followed voices and the Christmas music into the kitchen.

Nearly the entire batch of cookies had been frosted, and Ems was looking peeved.

“Emily, where are Austin’s peanut butter cups?”

“Grandma took them.”

“Excuse me?” Russ looked up at his mother.

“She took my crunch bar too.”

“They’ll spoil their appetites.” Doris wiped her hands on her apron and kept her eyes on the cookies.

“Where are they, please.”

“Dinner is soon, Russ.”

“Mom, where did you put them?”

“Russell, they don’t need to be eating those—”

“Emily,” Russ cut his mother off, “please go in the other room with Grandpa.”

Ems dropped the frosting knife on the counter, set down the half-frosted cookie, and strode off, licking her fingers.

“Russell! I was frosting cookies with her!”
That
got her to look him in the eye.

“Which always involved eating them, as I recall. So, she can eat
your
cookies but not a candy bar?” Russ kept his gaze on her face and took a few defiant steps closer.

“It’s not the same.”

“Where did you put the candy bars, Mother?”

“Russell, they don’t need—”

“They are
my
children. The candy was purchased with
my
money, and you will tell me where it is, right now.” Russ jabbed a finger at the counter in time with the final two words.

“You’re being childish, Russell.”

“And
you’re
being passive-aggressive and controlling, hiding things from me that I purchased.”

Doris glared at him. “They’re in the tin on the shelf. But I really don’t think they need them, Russ.”

Russ popped the tin, found all of the candy unopened, and extracted it. “This conversation isn’t finished,” he tossed over his shoulder as he strode into the living room. “Ems.” Her face lit up, and she abandoned her position next to Randall’s chair and scurried over as he knelt down. “Please give Austin his cups, and you can have as much of your candy bar as you want now.”

“Thanks, Papa.” She pecked a kiss on his cheek before disappearing down the hall.

Randall scowled at the book he was holding, a pencil in one hand.

“She solving your sudoku puzzles for you again, old man?”

“Crossword,” Randall grumped.

“New interest. Peachy.”

Russ strode back into the kitchen. In what he hoped was a sign of truce, he took Emily’s vacated chair and resumed frosting the cookie she’d dropped.

“They do not need candy before dinner, Russell.”

“And I’ll repeat the question about eating cookies instead.”

Doris’s mouth clicked shut with an audible sound.

“Did you try and get Austin to frost cookies?”

“Russell! How could you ask that!”

“Because the dogs were outside with Dad, Austin’s DS has plenty of power, and he didn’t have an accident.”

Doris dried her hands on the dishtowel, threw it into the corner, picked it up, and began scrubbing again.

Russ sighed, putting the cookie down before he threw it against the wall. “I told you.” He kept his voice soft and even. “I told you to leave him alone and let him play his game.”

“I didn’t do anything!”

Russ took a deep breath and let it out before speaking. “I used to get paddled when I lied to you.”

“Russell Edward Moore! Are you calling your mother a liar?”

“You’re sure as hell not telling me the whole truth. There are still sins of omission, aren’t there?”

“I can’t—believe….” Doris had tears behind her glasses. She turned her back on him to wipe them away. “Christmas is supposed to be about family! And you won’t even let me spend time with my grandchildren.”

“Mom. You have this preconceived notion in your head of how Christmas with your grandkids is supposed to be, and you’ve got to get rid of it. Austin is not a typical kid. Neither is Ems, for that matter. Austin needs his routine; he needs expected parameters. We are 300 miles away from his routine, okay? So when I tell you that he needs to sit and play his video game? I mean just that. That’s how he copes. And when you try to force something on him outside his expected? He screams for two hours.”

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