Christmas Eve – Seattle
Twas Christmas Eve, and Rain was up early; at least early for him. As a member of a respected Estate Team, some would imagine this was not an unusual occurrence. Bruce knew better, and between getting ready for his flight home for the holidays, he was keeping an eye on the little man.
“Does anyone know where Mortimer would be at this time of day?” Rain asked the Mess room, currently only filled with Peggy at a table full of books and papers, and Algernon eating his breakfast of cereal, bacon and coffee all in one bowl. Both shook their heads, “Nevermind, I’ll find him…” He paused, noticing Peggy’s pile of work, “More than your usual mountain of research, what gives so close to Christmas?”
“My mother is twenty years behind current theoretical physics thinking. I’m putting together crib notes to take over later this morning.”
“Great, don’t go without me. Oh, and Algernon, you’ll come for a little trip to see the family won’t you?”
Algernon answered slowly, still not looking up from his breakfast. A bad sign.
“If you’re going,” He finally replied without enthusiasm.
“Er…great, we’ll talk about that. Right now, I need to find Mortimer.”
“Why don’t you try Admin,” Bruce suggested from the doorway. “He’s one of the recruits. They’ll have his schedule.”
“Twice in two days, they’ll love me!” Rain said more to himself before noticing Bruce for the first time, “Say, when are you leaving? You wouldn’t want to wish the Martin’s a Merry Christmas, would you?”
Bruce nodded thoughtfully, “I’d like to see how the boys are doing. I can get my ride to the airport to pick me up there.”
“Excellent! Ring me when you’re leaving.” He said, dashing out the doors.
Bruce’s eagle eyes followed Rain until he was out of sight, “I wonder what all that’s all about?”
“Christmas,” Peggy replied, gesturing with a piece of cold toast she’d been eating for half an hour, “You didn’t see him last year.
“Hey, you’re a hard man to track down, “ Rain panted, having finally caught up with Mortimer and a small knot of four other recruits, “Enjoying your time in the Estate then?”
Mortimer looked like he was unsure how to answer Rain’s question. He glanced at his companions, who just laughed good-naturedly at his discomfort.
“Ur…I’ve met several individuals whose skills complement my own. Our training is not taxing, and I find this world pleasant. Is that what you mean?”
“From you? Yes,” Rain smiled, and the joking amongst the friends continued. Rain appreciated the relaxed way the group behaved around Mortimer. Mortimer’s early life had not made him the easiest of people to get to know, and his relative assumed age could be seen as a hindrance to socialising. But, here he was with a group of friends, and it pleased Rain to know Mortimer had found a place.
“Rain Bigby,” He introduced himself to each group member, shaking hands and noting names.
“No introductions required, Mr Bigby,” Said one young woman who introduced her herself as Hilde, “We’ve been studying one of your group’s old reports.” She was not tall, a nice change around all the ex-military that made up the bulk of Estate Agents. Straight long white-blonde hair flowed unbound down her back moved gracefully with her every gesture. She was a Northern European pale in a way that Rain found exotic. In the overcast Seattle winter sunlight, she glowed.
“Ah, what not to do in the field?” He replied self-effacingly, ‘I assume it’s the official reports. Usually, mine are filed under fiction.”
“If we don’t get to study your version of events, do you provide private tuition?” Hilde asked, and her companions giggled. Rain laughed along with group until he noticed a blush rising up her slim neck. Though she was at least ten years older than Mortimer looked, at that moment she could have claimed to be in the same grade.
“For you? I would be enchanted,” Rain bowed graciously, and the crowd, excluding Mortimer, wolf-whistled and made other appreciative noises. Mortimer made a disgusted face and stepped between Hilde and Rain.
“Is there something I can help you with, Rain?”
Remembering now the reason for the run across campus, Rain returned his focus to Mortimer.
“I would hope I’d be helping you. We’re about to go out to your parents’ place, and I was wondering if you’d like to join us?”
The group’s general good-natured banter died down, and all turned to look at Mortimer. His expression darkened still further as he turned to his friends.
“I need to speak to Mr Bigby a moment. I’ll catch up, “ He said.
His companions knew when they weren’t needed. A few, including Hilde, gave expressions of wanting to talk later, but they all gave him his space.
“I don’t publicly recognise I have blood relations. Algernon is hard to ignore, being a senior agent of the Estate, but the others are nothing to me.”
The attitude, so opposed to his own, made Rain unsure how to respond. It was so cool that he involuntarily shivered.
“And…your parents? John and Athena?”
Mortimer gave a frustrated sigh, “Look Rain, I understand that familial links are important here on Earth. That often, children are expected to owe loyalty to their parents and siblings. But, I was given free will to make my own choices, right?”
“Yes.” Rain admitted, and as much as it pained him right now, he’d have had it no other way.
“And DNA donors do not hold much influence even in this world. In Ruk, even less.”
“Do you? You are so entrenched in this world’s culture, can you comprehend I want to make my own way, without the past impinging on my decision making?”
Rain flicked his eyes up to Mortimer’s. A sad little smile acknowledging the truth in Mortimer’s words.
“Better than you know.”
“Well… good,” Mortimer furrowed, confused at Rain’s response, “I wish the Martin’s and the other three well, but I don’t intend to be part of their lives, and I’d appreciate it if they didn’t try to be part of mine.” And with a short nod, he turned and jogged after his friends.
The car trip out to North-East Seattle was quiet. Algernon was quieter even than usual, keeping his eyes fixed out the window of the car. Peggy was in the back seat beside him, still adding finishing touches to her crib notes. As Bruce wouldn’t let Rain behind the wheel until he proved he could drive on the ‘right’ side of the road responsibly, he was driving, and Rain said beside him.
The car soon left the built-up city behind and wound along the tree-lined shores of Lake Washington. The arctic winds had blown the sky clear of clouds for a change, and the pale blue sky sparkled off the wavelets over the lake.
“Beautiful part of Seattle, don’t you think?” Rain asked the car in general.
“A credit to the Estate,” Bruce replied, which was more than the other two. Peggy mumbled something unintelligible, and Algernon made a sound of agreement.
“And not far from the Estate. Twenty minutes as the motorcycle weaves.”
Bruce’s eyes flickered quickly across to Rain who was sitting facing forward as if just making small talk. If Rain were a cat, his ears would have been turned straight back listening for any response from Algenon. He didn’t receive one.
“Maybe we can borrow bikes sometime in the new year and come out to see the family. What do you think, Algernon?”
“Sure, if you like,” Algernon replied noncommittally.
Rain frowned, “Your enthusiasm is contagious.”
Bruce turned the car into the cul-de-sac where the house stood; it’s back to the lake. Two storeys tall it was a neat and well-presented house that accommodated the nearly six adults currently trying to build a life together. When they arrived, the whole family, John and Athena academics in their early thirties, two boys who seemed to be twins aged aprroximately fourteen years old and another younger boy were all standing around a large box in the front yard.
“Happy Christmas, Martins!” Rain called from the car before joining the family. Peggy went straight up her mother, gave her a perfunctory kiss and stiffly received a hug from her father. Bruce walked up to the three boys and shook their hands. Algernon stood opposite the box and said nothing.
“This just arrived,” Athena said, looking around the group of visitors, “Is it something to do with you?”
“Just one of many presents I hope you will receive this season,” Rain beamed shaking hands with John, “Go ahead boys, open it up.”
Unlike three boys when presented with a mystery gift, Thomas, Richard and Jean-Luc were unsure what to do. This was their first Christmas, and they had no idea of how to behave. John stood back as if examining his three sons and started asking them questions about what they thought was appropriate behaviour.
“We should thank Rain?” Asked Jean-Luc tentatively as if answering a question in school.
“Yes, a very good start, but would you not like to see what’s inside it so you can speak intelligently about the gift?” John replied, and a light of realisation dawned on all three boys. The present was inside the box.
Athena ignored them with a look of disdain and turned her attention to Peggy.
“Have you brushed your hair today, it looks like a bird’s made a nest for the winter,” She said to her adult daughter only a few years younger than herself, “Here let me fix it.” And she pulled the pencil that perpetually held Peggy’s hair in place free.
“Mu…um!” Peggy exclaimed making two syllables out of the one word, “Please, after, when we’re inside.”
“Have you eaten? I made pancakes, but they…” She gestured her head towards the boys now tearing into the box, “Are still on meal supplements until their digestive systems are online or some such…looks like baby puke to me,” The disdainful look again, as if anything pertaining to the boys had a bad smell about it.
“I’d like some pancakes, “ Algernon piped up, and he was rewarded with a withering look from the woman who had taught Peggy her withering looks. He physically backed up, and she relented a little.
“Sure, they’ll only go to waste otherwise.”
By this time Thomas and Richard had the box open and Jean -Luc was pulling smaller boxes out, examining the bright packaging before passing it onto one of his brothers. They found a box of glass baubles, several strings of fairy lights, ropes of tinsel in several colours, a stained-glass star and a long narrow box that claimed to contain a 210cm tall Canadian Spruce tree (artificial).
“That would be right,” Jean Luc mumbled to his brothers, “A fake tree from Rain.” They snickered.
“Now boys, this is a mighty fine gift,” John said looking to his wife whose sour face softened for a moment, “We always enjoyed setting up the Christmas tree every December, remember honey?”
“Yes, but that tree is twenty years in the past,” She said as the bitterness returned. The sound made the boys pause in their unpacking, “ I don’t even know where to start anymore.”
“I’ll help, mamma,” Peggy said in a small childlike voice, placating and soothing the troubled adult. Bruce, Algernon and Rain exchanged glances.
Rain was about to offer to remove the offending gift , dismayed at the effect the tree was having on Athena , when John took charge.
“Of course, we’ll all help.” He caught Rain’s eye, who visibly breathed out in relief, “Boys, we’re going to start a new family tradition of setting up the Christmas tree…” And he started to rally the triplet into picking up and taking the boxes inside.
“No, “ Athena said firmly as the boys started picking up boxes, “Peggy and I will put up the tree, you stay outside…do something with John.” She turned in Algernon’s direction, but would not look him in the eye, “If you could help up with the boxes, I’ll fix you those pancakes.”
Bruce and Rain helped the boys load up Peggy and Algernon and watched them go inside. Rain took a quiet moment to apologise to John, who brushed the comment aside.
“Nothing to do with you or your gift. This has been the status quo since arriving at the house, I’m afraid.”
“I saw her remoteness to the boys when we first returned from Ruk, but I thought it shock or disbelief.” Rain winced, “I hadn’t expected her to be so…angry with them.”
“She’s not really angry with the boys…” John’s attention drifted over to the triplets. Thomas was disposing of the large delivery box as Richard and Jean-Luc pulled a tennis racquet and a football out of a large sports bag.
“…look,” John gestured quietly for Rain and Bruce to follow his lead, “ I’ve given the boys a variety of sporting equipment to explore. They’re responses are fascinating. You see, normal children learn very early about such tools as part of our culture, but these boys have learnt knowledge apart from culture and have no references to the tools I’ve provided. The suggestions they come up with show the intelligence of the human creature and how tool usage can change the mind. I’m writing a paper on it if you’re interested, though it won’t publish until sometime in the new year.”
“Naturally,” Rain looked to Bruce who shared his concerned look. It seemed John’s connection to the boys was no more healthy than was Athena’s.
“Maybe we can help, it is my knowledge that made the basis of their understanding,” Bruce suggested, and Rain readily agreed.
“I guess it’s time to bring in other stimuli,” John nodded, “I’d be interested to see how they boys relate to you in particular, Bruce.”
So Rain and Bruce joined the boys around the bag of sporting equipment. Rain found a packet of tennis balls and began to juggle. Thomas and Richard were fascinated with these items’ new use. Jean-Luc looked on blank-faced clutching the football.
“That’s a football you have here,” Bruce said and gestured for Jean-Luc to pass him the ball. Jean-Luc did, handing the ball to Bruce instead of tossing it to him as would be expected, “I used to be pretty good at this when I was at high school.”
“Please, can you inform me of its purpose? John insists we interact with these items, but neither I, Richard or Thomas can understand their use, and we are forbidden presently from looking them up on the Internet.”
“Well, maybe that because your father wants you to understand things in their context, learn about them from using them, not just reading about them,” Bruce replied, not sure that was what John had in mind, but it sounded good to him. It also sounded good to Jean-Luc, who nodded thoughtfully along with Bruce’s statement.
“So by getting to know the item, we would get to know their purpose in society?”
“Ur…something like that. But first, let me teach you how to catch and pass the ball.”
So as Rain taught juggling to Richard and Thomas, Bruce and Jean-Luc passed the football between them, noting the ball’s aerodynamics and ease of use in the hand. But, whereas Rain’s lessons ended when the two boys had become proficient with the movements required to keep the tennis balls in the air then tiring with the activity, Jean-Luc only had more questions to ask about the game the ball came from and how it fitted into Bruce’s life.
“I do not understand why it is called a football,” Thomas said as he and Richard joined the game of pass, “ The item’s characteristic shape make it ill-suited for use with the foot, we’ve tried, but this passing movement makes good use of the ball’s shape, texture and aerodynamics.”
“It has to do with the game it comes from and its history,” He said, giving the boys a basic history of the game he loved while showing them how to kick the odd-shaped ball.
“Coming from New Or’lins, The Saints are my team, but when you boys get a chance you could do worse than follow the Seahawks, they’re doing well this season.” He added proudly and started singing his team’s song, When the Saints, come marching in.
Rain, who had been sitting on the doorstep with Peggy and Algernon eating pancakes responded instantly with the echo to the old jazz standard. Their two voices blended well, Bruce’s bass and Rain’s clear tenor taking opposed but harmonious parts capturing the song’s spirit and the battle-cry.
Oh, when the Saint, Oh, when the Saints.
Come marchin’ in Come marchin’ in
Oh when the Saints come marchin’ in
Well, I want to be in that number.
When the Saints come marchin’ in.
“Football encourages impromptu communal music?” Richard, the quietest of the three seemed the most interested in the song.
“That’s the point..” Bruce passed the ball back to him, who fumbled it and had to chase it through the garden bed, “Not everyone can play, only the very best become part of a team. But, everyone can join in on the team’s victories and defeats. One way is through singing.” Bruce explained.
“So football builds a community that follows and supports their heroes in their battles against the enemy,” Richard summed up having had something of a lightbulb moment.
“Sounds about right, but we don’t call them enemies, just the opposition,” Bruce nodded, and all three boys nodded along with him.
Rain watched from the doorstep where he’d landed after Thomas and Richard gave up on learning to juggle. A little jealous at the easy way Bruce talked to the young men, Rain wondered if it was just Bruce’s easy-going nature or if the shared knowledge they all had from him was making the difference. Rain decided the later, he’d never found Bruce that easy-going and vowed to make more of an impact on the boy’s lives going forward.
It was then Rain noticed his puzzlebox was in his hand and rolled it around from palm to palm for a moment. Habit had brought it out, though in practice Rain was finding it meant less. With a little trepidation, he put the box down on the step beside him.
Algernon walked through the front door, a large stack of pancakes on a plate in one hand, in the other he ate a rolled pancake dipped into syrup from a small bowl.
“Athena makes good pancakes,” He said, sitting down next to Rain. Rain stretched out a hand to peel one from the stack, and Algernon yanked the plate out of reach.
“Get our own!”
“Are there any left?”
“So, can I have one of yours?”
Algernon offered the plate without another thought and Rain took a pancake, eating it as Algernon did, dipped in syrup.
“You didn’t want to come earlier today, “ Rain said between mouthfuls, “Changed your mind?”
Algernon shook his head, his mouth too full to speak.
“I would have thought you’d be interested in understanding where you came from.” Rain expressed his own deep desire to know.
“I know where I came from, Doctor Strangelove’s laboratory.”
“I mean, a lot of who we are comes from our families, not just our experiences.”
Algernon stuffed another whole pancake in his mouth as he thought over his friend’s words.
“All things considered, it just seems like a lot of hard work for pancakes.”
Rain was about to agree when Peggy also left the house and sat down beside the two boys. She didn’t’ ask for a pancake, just took one, tore into small chunks before stuffing each piece into her mouth.
“And what did that pancake ever do to you?” Rain asked, sure that Athena had something to do with Peggy’s current mood.
“Huh? Nuffin…” She said glumly around the dry pancake, “I dust gotta getta ‘way fum my mutha.”
“You were so keen to come earlier today, what happened?”
Peggy sighed, finished her pancake and reached for another.
“Nothing really. I love having my mother back. I love talking to her about all the things she’s missed in the world and my life. I love being there for her, she’s going through a tough time, and I know how that feels. But, she dismisses my thoughts, never takes me seriously and treats me like a child. You saw how she pulled my hair out earlier…” She sighed again.
“At the same time, I bet it’s nice to have someone to fuss over you. Someone that makes you feel loved.” Rain looked out into the distance, passed the front garden and Washington Lake.
“Huh? What does that mean?”
“Just I felt a very similar way only a few months ago. I was mourning the loss of what could have been. But, you can’t remake the past. You just have to live with the present you’ve got, and try and make a future for yourself.”
“I do. But what if the other person doesn’t?” Peggy argued as she looked back behind her through the door.
“I guess you get to be the patient one until they do.”
“Ur…” She frowned.
“I’m not very patient.”
Surprising them out of their conversation, Bruce started singing When the Saints go marchin’ in and, not to be one to refuse a jazz performance, Rain started singing along.
“Margrita! Margrita, where are you?” Athena’s voice, high and stressed called out to the trio sitting at the door.
Peggy sighed, finished her pancake.
“Good luck, Doctor Peggy,” Algernon said. Rain waved her luck without interrupting the singing, and she stood and walked back inside.
The tree was finished, immaculate as expected, it sat expectantly in the dark corner of the lounge. All that was needed was to turn on the lights. It wasn’t the tree giving Athena problems. Peggy found her mother poking her smartphone as if trying to wake a recalcitrant child.
“Peggy, an important message came up on this blasted thing and as soon as I touched it, it went away. Can you bring it up again?” Athena said, holding out the top of the range smartphone as if it were a bag of excrement. Peggy took it, punched in the passcode and opened the messages app. A short message from the Dean of a local University stated that he could not offer her any role in their teaching staff without current credentials.
“Teaching? I didn’t know you were thinking of teaching.” Peggy handed back the phone and watched her mother’s shoulder’s slumped.
“Needs must, I can’t live on the generosity of the Estate forever, and frankly I’m going stir-crazy cooped up here,” Her eye glanced up to where Bruce was instructing the boys, “It doesn’t matter does it. My resume is twenty years out of date. I can’t go back to my old work without questions being raised about where I’ve been, let alone being completely out of touch…” Athena was pacing the room, each new point only adding to her agitation.
It was a feeling that Peggy knew well.
“Mum! You’re getting worked up, sit down…” She looked out the window at Bruce and Rain, both much better at talking to people. Both were singing, neither looking in her direction.
“I can’t sit down. I got to do something. The world is falling apart around me a…”
“You just need to stop and breathe…”
“Don’t tell me…” Athena snapped, only to be grabbed by both arms and manoeuvred into a chair by Peggy.
“Will you shut up and listen…just listen to me for a minute!”
“I hear you, no need to shout!” She pulled away from Peggy’s grasp and looked back, reproachfully, “What sort of mother do you think I am?”
Peggy paused, took a deep breath and began.
“One that’s hurting and lost in a world you prided yourself in understanding. I get it. Dad loves you, but his solution is time and space. For us, our minds are moving so fast that time seems lightyears. The more space we have, the more we feel alone and have to do it all ourselves. I was there! For twenty years, I was there! I know!” Peggy punctuated the last word with her fist striking the arm of the chair where her mother sat. Athena flinched, surprised at her daughter’s vehemence. It surprised Peggy too as she realised tears were rolling down her face.
“My poor little girl-” Athena’s hand reached out to brush a tear from Peggy’s cheek, Peggy slapped it away.
“And I’m not your little girl. I had to grow up fast when you disappeared. I don’t need mothering and don’t appreciate it. I’m a grown woman, treat like one!” She snapped back, then thought better of her words, “Respectfully.”
“Respectfully?” Athena repeated, giving Peggy an appraising look and found the truth of Peggy’s words. She sighed heavily.
“What am I going to do, Margarita?”
Peggy’s heart leapt, and she had to hold herself from overwhelming her mother with the mental list she’d composed.
“Well, I’m sure Hertzfeld would be interested in your theoretical expertise on The Strange. You’re twenty years in your future, give yourself time to get to know your world a little and…” Peggy pointed out the window at the three boys sitting on the doorstep with Rain, Bruce and Algernon, “…if you really want to teach, there are three brilliant young men trying to find their place in a world they don’t understand. You could be the mother to them that you couldn’t be for Simon and me.”
The last stung like a slap and Athena glanced from the boys talking on the front lawn back to Peggy. Tears started welling up in her eyes. She let them go unchecked down her face.
“They say…they say they’re my boys, John and mine. They don’t…feel like mine. I never grew them or birthed them. I never held them new in my arms. They’re…strangers.” Her words were full of so much emotion that Peggy could no longer feel angry at her mother if she ever had. Crouching down, she took her mother’s hands in hers.
“Does it really matter? They need a mom, and you need a purpose. How would you treat them if they were someone else’s that needed help?”
Athena smiled a sad sort of expression, “How did you get so wise?”
“What are you talking about?” Peggy smiled with relief, “I’ve always been wise.”
“Everything alright in here?” John said, looking around the front door. Taking in the scene and recognising that everything was…satisfactory, his eyes drifted to the newly dressed Christmas tree, “Say, the tree looks great, we should toast the tree with our new friends.”
“What with, my love, “ Athena brushed her face clear of tears and stood beside Peggy, “We have nothing in the house beside a few bottles of soda.”
John joined her in the middle of the lounge, taking her effortlessly into his arms, “Then we’ll toast with soda, or water or whatever, but we need to celebrate such a beautiful moment.”
Peggy was sure her father wasn’t talking about the tree. At that moment, bathed in the love of her parents for each other, she felt both joyously happy and awkward at the same time.
“I’ll…go get the drinks and glasses,” She said and left the room to her parents.
The yelling from the house had been loud, violent and brief. The three boys lost interested in the sporting equipment and looked towards the house.
“Is Athena being attacked, should we help?” Thomas found a baseball bat and experimentally swung it to determine its merit as a weapon.
“Oh no,” Algernon said, speaking from his wealth of experience on families, “It’s called a discussion, families do it on occasion.”
“Does it have to be so loud and angry?” Richard winced, the more sensitive of the three.
“The louder, the better it seems,” Algernon replied knowingly. Bruce and Rain watched on with interest at their young companion’s wisdom. John looked like he needed to take notes.
The three boys looked at their “older brother” and nodded sagely.
“Does your family have discussions?” Thomas asked, glancing around the three companions who nodded their heads.
“All the time, almost constantly. That’s how you know.” Algernon ate his last pancake, thoughtfully, “When things are silent, you know that trouble is coming.”
The house was quiet. All eyes looked to John to make sense of the omens.
“I’ll just go in and…” He said, not finishing his sentence. He quietly opened the door and stepped inside, “Everything alright in here?”
The familiar click of the puzzle box made Rain turn to see Jean-Luc sitting beside him, his doubled hand holding the puzzle box open at the first compartment.
“Oh! Was that supposed to happen?”
Rain just stared at him in shocked awe. No one had ever moved the first tile, let alone opened the first compartment before. Ni-Challan had shown even him. Jean-Luc looked up to see Rain’s shocked expression and instantly felt guilty.
“I didn’t break it, did I?” He lamented, holding the puzzle box out like it was a small injured animal.
“Huh? No….no, not at all!” Rain exclaimed, finally finding his voice and enveloping the small boy in a bear hug. The hug scared Jean-Luc more than the shocked expression had, and he wriggled out of reach once released.
“Say shrimp, would you like to learn magic?”
“No,” Jean-Luc replied simply. He held up the puzzle box. “What is it?”
“A puzzle, I’ve had it a very long time. Did I ever tell you the story of how I got it?”
Jean-Luc rolled his eyes. It was a common expression on the young man’s face whenever Rain offered to tell one of his stories.
“Can’t you just tell me, without all the words?”
Unappreciated again, Rain shook his head, “Hey Little-Jean, do you want to find out about the box or what?”
The two stared at each other for a moment, neither willing to give ground. Finally, Jean-Luc relented.
“Yeah, alright,” He said, fussing with the box once more, “But, don’t call me little!”
“Whatever you say, short-stuff.”
“Everyone! Martins and friends, please gather in the lounge” John’s voice rang from inside the house, and they were all made aware of the tinkle of glass.
Without feeling the need to take back the puzzlebox from Jean-Luc, they both followed the other two boys, Bruce and Algernon inside to John’s summons.
Everyone gathered around the tree and were handed a tumbler and their choice of soda by John and Peggy.
“I just want to say a few words before we light this beautiful tree and start our Christmas celebrations…” John announced, giving a generic Christmas and New year wishes for the Martins and their new friends from the Estate. He flicked the switch for the lights, and the tree bloomed with multi-coloured sparkles that lit the faces of everyone present.
He then offered the floor to anyone who wanted to speak, and Bruce stepped into the circle.
“I’m proud and pleased to see you all getting on with your lives. I wish you the best in your adventurers together.”
“I find it hard to believe you’re here,” Peggy said as she toasted her parents, “I look forward to exercising that belief in the years to come.”
“My wish for you all, “ Rain offered his blessings, “Is that you grow in appreciation of each other. Discovering everyday how lucky you are,” He looked at Jean-Luc still holding the puzzlebox, “Especially you, you need all the growing you can get!”
John now looked to Algernon who seemed to be trying to hide behind Bruce.
“Algernon, I am coming to realise you are a man of wisdom,” He said to the young man he shared his floppy fringe and general easy-going manner, “Do you have a toast to share, son?”
Algernon’s lips twitched at the casual use of the familial title, “Yes, I would like to toast the new Martin family, but I didn’t bring any bread.”
The group laughed politely, and fresh drinks handed around. A little separate from the others Rain observed as Algernon gather his thoughts. Algernon had not shown a lot of interest in the family all day. Rain felt skittish after the run-in with Mortimer and the upset the simple tree had caused, . He tried thinking up excuses for Algernon and him to leave before his young friend could put words to his thoughts. Like watching a car crash, he instead waited for his glass to be refilled, put his trust in Algernon and feared the worst.
Algernon stepped into the centre of the room as the other had and turned to John and Athena sitting together on the lounge comfortable in each other arms.
“When I first came to Earth, I watched many documentaries, including the Brady Bunch. To me, they were the…example of a family, a group of strangers taking on roles as father, mother, brother, sister for some greater purpose.”
“When we found you all in Strangelove’s secret lab, you were already separate parts of a greater whole of experience. You were already the image of a family.”
“I realised a while ago that the Brady’s lied. Being a group of people stuck together, even ones related by blood doesn’t make you a family. This, what we’ve seen today, what you’re experiencing right now is living in a real family. It’s noisy, messy, ugly and stupid at times, but if you all…” And he stopped to look at the triplets at this point, “All try to make it work, you will become something greater than you can alone. You’ll belong.”
He glanced at Peggy, clutching her mother’s hand, Bruce standing beside the triplets and finally Rain standing alone to one side and he smiled.
“Now, I have my family. We are messy and ugly and often stupid, but we’ve also shared with, saved, encouraged and built up each other, becoming something greater than ourselves. That’s what I want for you, Martin’s, I wish for you to build each other up and become something greater.“
He raised his glass, “To the Martins.”
Rain and Bruce raised theirs in response, “To the Martins.”
Peggy squeezed her mother’s hand and raised her glass, ”To all the Martins.”
Athena stared at the triplets, may be looking at them for the first time and raised her glass. John followed suit.
Athena’s phone rang, breaking the happy bustling noise of people chatting and being together. Without looking at it, she handed it to Peggy.
“Please, could you answer it? Tomorrow, I will step into the future.”
Peggy took the phone with a nod and answered the call,
“Yes?” She said in her usual abrupt manner and listened to the response. Her face visibly greyed as her eyes flicked across to Rain leaning quietly against a wall.
“Simon?… It’s Peggy…Y..yes, yes they’re here…”
“Maybe we should take our leave… “ Bruce said, putting his glass down before and wishing the boys a good Christmas. Peggy pulled the phone away from her ear and pressed for speaker.
“…look, I got a call from your work yesterday. As I said, someone wanted me to know that mum and dad were found and I could…mum, dad are you…?”
Algernon took his cue from Bruce as he moved quietly towards the door. He grabbed Rain’s arm and dragged him along as he passed.
“Just a few minutes…I’ll be silent…can I just?” Rain whispered. He turned to watch Peggy and the Martin family gather around the phone as John and Athena acknowledged their eldest son.
Outside, the day had turned cold, and there was the damp smell of snow in the air. The taxi arrived to pick up Bruce, and he dismissed it with a generous tip and a hearty Merry Christmas before joined Rain and Algernon in the relative warmth of the car. Now it was Rain’s turn to sit silently looking out the window as Algernon tried to engage him in conversation.
“Did you like my speech? I tried to imagine how you’d say it.” He said from his regular seat in the back.
“Uh-hmm.” Rain replied, he eyes locked to the front door of the house.
“The tree looked good. It doesn’t smell as good as our dead one, but the lights were colourful,”
“And Simon ringing. Now I understand why you had to see Admin twice in two days, once to find Mortimer and once to ask them to contact Simon.”
Algernon tried another tack, “What do you say to a mum and dad you thought were dead for twenty years?”
“I don’t know,” Rain replied distractedly, “But I’d really love to find out…” His voice trailed away as the front door opened. Peggy stepped out, accepted one last handshake from Richard before turning to the car, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. She stopped as she saw all three of them watching through the windows of the car. She smiled and continued her march to the curb.
“He’s engaged, they have a little girl, and he’s happy,” She said with finality flopping down into the backseat, “He told his fiance his parents were dead. It’s only natural. They legally were dead for thirteen years. He doesn’t know how he’ll tell her.”
“But he will?” Bruce asked, starting the car engine and pulling away.
“I think so. He’s mellowed since we were kids.” Peggy mused, “Maybe being a dad, maybe it’s thinking of the future for his partner and girl,” She turned to Rain who had twisted around in his seat reverently listening to everything she said. Her face went from whistful to severe in a heartbeat. “I should box your ears, that could have gone very badly.”
“I figured he didn’t have to ring if he didn’t want to, but, if my parents were found alive, I’d like someone to send me their phone number.” Rain replied almost inaudible from emotion.
Peggy nodded, “Okay, don’t do it again.”
She now turned her attention to Bruce sitting in the driver’s seat in front of her, “So, what are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be on a plane heading south?”
“I can catch a later flight,” Bruce replied, responsibly not taking his eyes off the road, “It just seemed there was still work here. Besides, I couldn’t leave you two to the mercy of Rain’s driving. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
“I have you know I’m an excellent driver,” Rain complained, cheering considerably, the balance restored.
“Is that so? I’d like to see it one day.”
“I can drive,” Algernon said as per the script for every car trip they’d ever taken.
“I’m sure you could. Get a licence.”
“I’m not sitting in a car with Algernon driving, “Peggy added her penny’s worth, “There’s no knowing where he’ll take us…”
“As opposed to one of your portals…”
The friendly bickering continued all the way to the airport.
Much later, Christmas Eve – New Orleans
Bruce’s heavy work boots boomed on the old wood of the verandah as he stepped up the front door of his childhood home.
“Is that you, Bruce James Johnson?” Came a call from inside. It was a woman’s voice, use to yelling through the house to be heard. “Skulking around like a polecat ‘round the chicken coop?”
“Yeah, Ma, sorry I’m late,” He dropped his bag at the door and slipped off his boots. Ma didn’t hold with work boots in the house, and in his stocking feet he felt like he was finally home, “I was caught up with my new family.”
A clatter from the kitchen signalled the fall of more than one pan crashing to the ground.
“You wha…? What have you been up to, boy?”
“Oh, same old,” He smiled and went in to help his mother prepare for dinner.
Boxing day – Seattle
“Why are we here again?” Mortimer mumbled as he was shoved along the path to the Martin’s front door.
“Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, George Santayana.” Replied Hilde with a self-satisfied grin.
“Spinners, I bet George Santayana was a Spinner. Always telling people how to live their lives.”
“You got it, Vector,” She pressed the doorbell and stepped back, “Look, you need context for your life, everyone does, and maybe they need a little context too.”
They stood in silence. Mortimer looked to her for when they could give up and go. Hilde faced the door with an engaging smile ready to spring to life in a moment’s notice.
The door opened, and one of the two taller triplets opened it. Not having a lot to do with the triplets, Mortimer found it hard to tell Thomas and Richard apart. He’d imagined seeing them would be like looking in a mirror, but like Algernon, some differences showed they were merely brothers and not clones. Thomas…or Richard’s hair was growing in, and it was developing the soft curly frizz of Athena and Peggy’s hair, not the straight black hair of himself, Algernon and John.
“Oh, it’s the other one,” The triplet said, barring the door with his lanky frame as if declaring ownership, “Are you here to make Athena cry too?”
“Wha…no! Look, Thomas…”
“Richard, that is not the intent of this visit.”
“Well, what is the intent of your visit?”
From inside, Athena’s voice called, “Thomas, who’s at the door?”
Thomas smiled innocently. Mortimer knew that look. He’d used it enough times himself to get out of trouble.
“Some stranger. Says he knows you.”
A soft padding tread made its way to the door before Athena’s sharp-eyed face stood behind Thomas, blinking.
“Mortimer?” She said. She stood still, watching like a wild creature, unsure if to advance or flee.
Mortimer nodded respectfully and very formally.
“And…?” Athena noticed for the first time, Hilde standing behind.
“My name is Hilde, Mortimer and I were recruited at the same time,” She reached her hand past both Mortimer and Thomas to Athena who took it automatically.
“Ur…it’s been brought to my attention that I should learn a little about my past, to better make decisions for the future,” Mortimer blurted out.
Athena looked at her wayward son, her eyes burning uncomfortable holes through Mortimer’s resolve.
“John!” She called over her shoulder before placing a hand on her defending son’s shoulder, “Thomas, why don’t you let your brother and his charming friend in.”
“But Mom! Thomas complained, so like the teen boy he seemed, that Athena’s mouth twitched up into a brief smile.
“He’s our guest. This is your home.” She said simply before turning away from the door.
“That means you don’t get to stay,” Thomas smirked but stepped back to let Mortimer through.
“Suits me,” Mortimer growled, and as Hilde elbowed him to the ribs they both entered the house.