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The Talon House

What's the difference between me and you?

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What's the difference between me and you?????

Chapter Five, Book 2

By Nick

“Nick, are we going to have to go through this again?” Jim asked pointedly, giving Nick a disbelieving look. “We do this every year, son. Don’t you think you’re getting a little old for this?”

“It’s not fair,” Nick retorted tearfully. “Everyone get’s presents but me.”

“That’s not true, buddy,” Jim said matter of factly. “You always get something on daddy’s birthday.”

“But you always get more presents than me,” Nick pouted.

“That’s because it’s my birthday,” Jim said softly. “You know, your birthday’s in two more weeks. How many presents do you think you’re going to have then?”

“None!” Nick said bitterly, folding his arms and giving in to his tears.

“You know better than that,” Jim said knowingly. “Son, we have guests downstairs and they’re waiting for us. If you can’t behave, I’m going to leave you up here and go down myself. Is that what you want?”

“No sir,” Nick said sadly.

“Do you want to open your presents now or after everyone leaves?” Jim asked with a hopeful smile, prompting a small shrug from his son.”

“What did everyone get me?” Nick asked curiously.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Jim said. “Are you ready to stop crying and head downstairs?”

Nick quietly nodded, wiping his eyes one more time before he hopped off of Jim’s bed and held his hand out for his dad. Once Jim took his hand, they walked together down the stairs, where Lori, Tom, Linda and some of Jim and Lori’s friends were visiting. James was talking on the phone in the back yard, but as soon as Nick and his dad made it to the family room, Tom opened the back door and told him it was time to come in.

Nick instantly let go of his dad’s hand when he spotted Linda, who was sitting on the couch, and made a beeline for his grandmother. When he climbed up onto the couch next to her, she held her arms out and he moved to her for comfort.

“What’s wrong sweetheart?” she asked sympathetically.

“I want it to be my birthday,” Nick whined. “How come my dad always gets to have his birthday first?”

“Honey, it’s always going to be his birthday first,” she explained. “His birthday comes two weeks before yours.”

“But I want mine to come first,” Nick said jealously. “He always gets more presents than me.”

Instead of answering, Linda stroked the top of Nick’s head and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Nick watched ruefully as everyone around him enjoyed themselves, happily partaking in the food that was laid out and talking amongst themselves about the Super Bowl that had just gone down between the Rams and the Titans. Jim was predicting that the Raiders would go the following year, and Tom was laughing at his prediction.

“Son, I can promise you that as long as Al Davis keeps sticking his nose in their games, they’ll lose,” he said. “He keeps calling their plays, and they can’t go anywhere that way.”

“I get the feeling that next season’s going to be different,” Jim said, prompting another round of laughter from Tom.

Nick knew that where they lived, the Redskins were the team everyone supported, but his dad was a diehard Raider fan. Tom and Linda were huge Kansas City Chiefs fans, and the flag that waved from the antenna on Tom’s Explorer was proof of this. Nick had figured out long ago that there were no NFL teams in Virginia, no Major League baseball teams in Virginia and no NHL teams, either. What they did have was NASCAR, but that was nothing Nick was interested in.

“Who’s ready for cake?” Lori asked out of the blue, prompting Nick to look her way and smile.

“I am,” James answered happily, dipping passed her to the kitchen where the cake she made was sitting on the table.

“What about you, cutie?” she asked Nick, who smiled shyly and nodded.

“Grandma, do you want me to bring you some cake and ice cream?” Nick asked, more concerned about the fact that his grandmother was essentially unable to move from her spot unless it was absolutely necessary.

“That would be really nice, honey,” Linda said with a warm smile. “Thank you for being so polite.”

Nick gave his grandmother a quick peck on the cheek and hopped off the couch, beaming with pride at her compliment as he made his way into the kitchen, where everyone was gathering to sing Happy Birthday to his dad. As they all sang, Nick took a spot between his dad and Lori, who were standing arm in arm. When the song was over, Nick couldn’t resist the temptation of blowing the candles out with his dad.

“Did we get them all, buddy?” Jim asked, running his fingers through Nick’s hair.

“Uh huh,” Nick said as he happily nodded his head and waited for Jim to cut the first piece of cake. When he did, Nick held a small plate out and waited for his dad to put a piece on it, then he asked Lori to scoop some ice cream on top. When he was satisfied with the contents of the plate he was holding, he walked it carefully back to the family room and presented it to his grandmother with a happy grin.

When it was time for Jim to open his presents, Nick felt a surge of jealousy run through his body, but he managed to keep his composure and even found the ability to smile while his dad opened his gifts. When he got to the presents that Nick and James each got for him, he called them over and had them sit on each side of him as he opened them.

Lori had taken them shopping with her separately, and Nick had no idea what James had gotten for his dad. Nick’s present was a tie and a dress shirt that buttoned up. Lori told him that he really needed them, so they went to Dillard’s together and picked them out. Nick actually had fun shopping for an outfit for his dad, which was something he normally dreaded. He enjoyed being able to match the shirt and tie, holding them up to each other to make sure they went together.

When they were finished shopping, they went to the food court at the mall and had pizza from Sbarro. Nick couldn’t quite finish his piece of pizza, and was a little worried that Miss Lori was going to get mad at him when he dripped sauce on his shirt, but she never batted an eye. Instead, she took a napkin and dipped it in Sprite, then she dabbed the stain away. When they got home, Jim and James were at their counseling session with Miss Sue, so the two of them sat at the table and wrapped the gifts, then they filled out a card from Nick to his dad.

When it was James’ turn to go with her, Nick felt a little jealous but also excited for his cousin, who he knew was going to have a good time. Nick also knew that while James was with Lori, Nick could have all of his dad’s attention to himself. When they got back, Nick noticed, they went across the street to Lori’s house to wrap the presents instead of coming home and doing it in James’ room. When they finally did come back, Nick noticed that James was grinning from ear to ear and acting a little girlish, which made him giggle to himself.

Nick sat still next to his dad and watched with bitterness as he opened present after present, trying to figure out in his head why Jim had to have a party with presents anyway. When Jim handed him a gift with his name on it, it was of little consolation to him, even when he opened it and found a new game for his Playstation. James looked a little confused when Nick opened a present, but he didn’t say a word. Instead, he turned his attention back toward Jim and everyone else while Nick silently stewed, wondering where the rest of his gifts were. Just when it seemed like there were no presents left, Jim pulled a chair out from the table that had three more gifts on it. He handed Nick another present, then he handed one to James.

“It’s not my birthday, dad,” James said in a confused tone.

“I know buddy, but I always get a couple things for Nick to open, and I wanted you to have some gifts too,” Jim explained.

“Thanks,” James said with a smile as he tore open his present. His eyes lit up when he realized it was a new watch, then he smiled at Jim and gave him a long hug. “Happy birthday dad.”

When Nick opened his next present and realized it was the same watch James got, he smiled politely at everyone and tried to hide his anger while he waited for his next present, which never came. Instead, everyone dispersed around the house and James happily took his gifts up to his room. When he reappeared, Nick noticed that he was clinging to Lori and his dad and being good. Finally, Nick couldn’t stand it anymore. He grabbed his game and took it upstairs to his room, where he intentionally closed his door with more force than normal and brooded.

Nick sat on his bed with his arms crossed and waited for someone to come to his room and talk to him, but as time passed, it became obvious to him that no one was coming.

“I hate everyone,” Nick pouted to himself, laying flat on his bed and looking at the ceiling in his room, watching as the shadow of the afternoon got bigger and bigger against the white spackling. He heard a car start in the front yard, so he got up and walked out of his room and into the guest room, where he was able to look out the window and see who was leaving. It was one of Jim and Lori’s friends, and Nick was glad they were leaving because he had decided that he really hated them for not bringing him a present.

When they pulled off, Nick walked away from the window and laid down on the bed, thinking about his papu and wondering when he was going to be back. He knew he’d promised to come back for the birth of the new baby, which wasn’t too far off. In fact, Nick thought, it could happen anytime, even on his birthday. That would ruin his party and he probably wouldn’t get any gifts, especially from his grandparents.

“I hope the baby stays in my grandma’s tummy forever,” Nick said to himself out-loud, then he rolled over and buried his face in the pillow on the bed and let himself sob, feeling sorry for himself because he didn’t get as many gifts as his dad got.

Nick felt the bed dip, and when he lifted his head, he realized it was dark and that he’d fallen asleep. His dad was sitting on the edge of the bed, giving him a gentle shake and smiling down at him.

“Are you alright, buddy?” Jim asked, helping him turn over and sit up.

“I fell asleep,” Nick yawned.

“I see that,” Jim said, brushing Nick’s bangs out of his eyes. “I think you needed a little nap anyway.”

“Why?” Nick whined.

“Because you’re cranky today,” Jim said, holding his arms out for Nick, who moved to them so that his dad could comfort him.

“I’m not cranky,” Nick pouted as Jim wrapped him in a tight hug and lifted him off the bed.

“Okay, buddy,” Jim said softly, standing up with Nick in his arms. “You forgot your new watch downstairs.”

“How come I only got two presents, daddy?” Nick asked as they moved across the hallway to Nick’s room. “I wanted to get more than that.”

“Why do you think you needed more than that?” Jim asked.

“Because it’s not fair,” Nick pouted. “I never get to open as many presents as you do on your birthday.”

“How many presents does daddy get to open on your birthday?” Jim asked, setting Nick down and going to his dresser for a pair of pajamas.

“A lot,” Nick fibbed, prompting Jim to give him a sideways stare.

“That’s not true, honey,” Jim said, walking back to Nick’s bed with a pair of pajamas in his hands and sitting on the edge.

“But I’m little, and you’re a grown up,” Nick whined. “I’m supposed to have a lot of presents and you aren’t.”

“Is that how it works?” Jim asked with an amused smile, pulling Nick’s shirt up over his head and tossing it into the laundry basket by the door. Nick nodded with a frown and waited patiently while his dad stripped him down to his undies, then leaned forward and sniffed him.

From the look on his dad’s face, Nick knew he was going to be soaking in the tub. He hadn’t had a bath in two days, way longer than Jim normally allowed him to go between baths. Nick followed his dad to the bathroom and sat on the toilet while Jim rinsed the tub, then filled it with warm water. When he was finished, he hopped off and got in.

After his dad scrubbed him from head to toe, he drained the tub and refilled it so Nick could soak and play with his toys. When it was time for him to get out, Jim came into the bathroom with a towel and sat on the edge of the tub to talk to him.

“Buddy, I know you were upset about not getting presents from everyone,” he started. “But you know what? Your birthday is in a couple of weeks, and you get to have two parties. We’ll have one on the weekend and then we’ll have one on Monday, when it’s your real birthday. And I promise you’ll have plenty of presents to open at each one, okay?”

“You promise?” Nick asked, running his hand back and forth across the top of the water and watching it ripple.

“I promise buddy,” Jim said with a smile. With that, Nick stood up and let his dad wrap him up in a towel and dry him off, then they went to Nick’s room where his pajamas were still sitting on his bed. Once he was dressed for bed, he followed his dad back downstairs, where James and Lori were sitting on the couch watching a movie on HBO. James was snuggled up to Lori, which was just fine as far as Nick was concerned, because it gave him Jim’s lap.

Nick fell asleep again, this time in his dad’s lap, but was roused by his dad’s and Lori’s voices. He blinked as he started to come around, and as their conversation carried into his ears, he found himself fully alert and a little stunned by his dad’s words.

“I know I’ve spoiled him rotten,” Jim said. “But it’s hard when I know that his feelings are hurt because he feels left out, so I give in and make sure he has something to open.”

“I don’t think he’s spoiled, but he definitely seems to know how to get his way,” Lori replied. “Maybe you should just start putting your foot down more often.”

“I try to be strict,” Jim said, still unaware that Nick was awake. “Sometimes I feel like I’m too hard on him.”

With that, Nick shifted in his dad’s lap and Jim looked down at him.

“Hey buddy,” Jim said softly. “Are you ready to go to bed?”

“I’m thirsty,” Nick said sleepily.

“It’s getting a little close to your bedtime for something to drink,” Jim said. “Maybe just a sip, okay?”

“Okay,” Nick said through a yawn, stretching his arms out as wide as he could. Jim scooted him off his lap and Nick followed his dad into the kitchen, where he took a couple of sips from a glass of milk Jim poured. He handed the glass back to his dad, who downed it with one huge gulp and set the glass in the sink, then he handed Nick a vitamin to chew up. They walked back out to the family room, where Lori was sitting alone on the couch and Nick scratched his head and wondered out loud where James and Skalaki were.

“They’re in James’s room,” Jim said. “He said he wanted to watch TV in his bed and he took Skalaki with him.”

“Can I watch TV in my bed too?” Nick asked, and Jim sighed.

“As long as you don’t watch anything scary,” Jim said. “Do you want to watch a DVD or cartoons?”

“A DVD, please,” Nick said, leaning in to give Lori a hug and kiss before going to his room for the night.

“Goodnight honey,” she said, returning the gesture. “You have sweet dreams, okay?”

“I will,” Nick said with another long yawn before following his dad up the stairs to the bathroom, where Jim told him to pee before he went to bed. When they got to his room, Nick climbed into his bed and watched while Jim fished out the DVD he asked for, then he closed his eyes for what seemed like a few seconds.

When he reopened them, it was early in the morning and the house was quiet except for the sound of Jim’s loud snoring. Nick got up and went to the bathroom, then he went downstairs, where it seemed dark because the curtains were all drawn closed. He pulled back the curtain in front of the back door and let the rays of sunlight into the family room.

Nick ventured into the kitchen and looked around, wondering if there was anything he could grab for himself to eat. He saw an assortment of fruit in a bowl on the counter, and next to it sat the remnants of Jim’s birthday cake. Nick dared himself to cut a piece and eat it before anyone woke up, but backed out at the last minute. He knew that the consequences would be swift and punishing if he was caught by his dad, or even James, who would tattle in an instant.

Instead, Nick opened the refrigerator and spotted a dozen eggs and a package of hot dogs. He thought back to the last time he spent the night at his papu’s house in California and remembered that his papu had cut up some hot dogs and scrambled some eggs, mixing them all together in the pan. It tasted good, and he thought to himself that it would be easy for him to make something just like that for his dad, Lori and James. It could be a surprise, he thought, so he smiled and took the eggs and hot dogs out of the fridge.

There was a cast iron skillet on the stove already, so he turned the burner on and got a knife out. While the pan was getting good and hot, Nick set the hot dogs on the cutting board and used the knife to cut them up, then he started to break the eggs into the pan, which was smoking hot by that time. He quickly tried to toss the cut up hot dog pieces into the eggs before they burnt, but it was no use. For some reason, the eggs were burning and an awful smelling smoke was coming from the pan where they were supposed to be cooking. Nick started to panic because he knew that the smell would wake his dad up, and that he was about to be in big trouble, so he tried to pick the pan up and move it, but it was too high up on the stove and he couldn’t lift it. Besides, the handle was too hot.

The sound of the fire alarm pierced Nick’s ears like a knife, but it was nothing compared to the sound of Jim bounding down the stairs with so much force that his every footstep sounded like approaching doom. When he rounded the corner and saw what was happening, his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree and his voice seemed to echo off of the walls as he vocally projected his displeasure at what he found Nick’s way.

“What the f**k are you doing?” he exploded, grabbing an oven mitt and picking the scorched pan up from the bright orange burner. He hastily took it to the sink, where he ran cold water into it and shook his head in disbelief. When he dropped the pan into the sink and turned to face Nick, he had fire in his eyes.

“Who told you it was okay to cook on the stove?” Jim demanded in a booming voice. Nick was speechless in the presence of his dad, who seemed like he wanted to do something but was restraining himself. “Nick, I asked you a question. Who said you could cook on the stove?”

“No one sir,” Nick answered in a small voice, a fresh set of tears streaming down his cheeks.

“Go to your room,” Jim said in a very calm, quiet voice. Nick followed his dad’s instructions without delay, turning on his heel and moving ashamedly up the stairs. When he closed the door, it wasn’t because he was mad at his dad for yelling at him, or even because he was embarrassed. Instead, it was because he wanted to hide from Jim, whose explosion at him didn’t seem quite finished. Without giving it a second thought, Nick opened his closet door, went inside, and closed it behind him, hoping his dad wouldn’t think to look for him there.

From where he was hiding, Nick could hear James and Lori’s voices interacting with Jim’s, and he wondered what they were all talking about. He could hear little bits of their conversation, and it sounded mostly like Jim was telling them what he saw when he came downstairs. Then he heard the one thing he knew was going to be his undoing.

“He could he been badly burned,” Lori exclaimed, sounding outraged. When Jim agreed with her out loud, he sighed and closed his eyes, silently praying that his dad would forget to spank him. There was an extended period of silence, then he heard footsteps coming up the stairs and he knew they weren’t James’.

He heard his door open and a loud sigh, then his dad spoke.

“Nick, where are you?” he asked.

“I’m not hiding in the closet,” Nick said out loud, hoping to deter his dad’s plans.

“Son, I know you’re hiding in the closet,” Jim said. “I’m going to give you to the count of three to come out yourself.”

“I’m not hiding in here,” Nick fibbed again. “I’m under the bed.”

“Son, I’m not going to spank you,” Jim said with a sigh.

“You aren’t?” Nick asked hopefully.

“Not if you come out and talk to me right now,” Jim said. With that, Nick stood up and opened the closet door. Using both hands to cling to the door knob, he peeked around the edge of the door at his dad, who was sitting on the edge of his bed with a serious look on his face. Jim’s expression softened a little when he spotted his son, so Nick let go of the door knob and cautiously approached his dad, who patted the spot next to him on the bed.

“So what do you have to say for yourself?” Jim asked, giving Nick a pointed look.

“I just wanted to surprise you by making breakfast for everyone,” Nick said bitterly. “I didn’t know you were going to get me in trouble.”

“Buddy, it was very sweet of you to want to make us breakfast,” Jim said. “But you aren’t allowed to cook on the stove. That’s for grown-ups to do, not kids. Did you see how dangerous it was?”

“Yes sir,” Nick nodded. “But it doesn’t look that way when you do it.”

“That’s because daddy knows how to cook,” Jim said. “When you’re bigger, I’ll show you what to do. Until then, you can’t ever do that again, okay?”

“Okay daddy,” Nick said ashamedly. “Are you mad at me?”

“A little bit,” Jim said. “You could have been hurt really bad, sweetheart.”

“I’m sorry,” Nick said, still weeping because of the scare he had and because Jim had yelled at him in such an explosive fashion. “I don’t want you to be mad at me, daddy.”

“Come here, buddy,” Jim said, lifting Nick into his lap. “I’m only mad because I love you and I don’t want anything to hurt you.”

“Will I get grounded?” Nick asked, and Jim shook his head no.

“Are you still hungry?” Jim asked and Nick shook his head, too upset to think about food at the moment.

“Well the rest of us are,” Jim said. “Why don’t we go back downstairs and see about breakfast?”

“Can I just stay in here for a little while?” Nick asked, still smarting from the way Jim hollered at him and not wanting to face James and Lori yet.

“If you want to, babe,” Jim said. “Do you want daddy to stay with you?”

Nick rested his head against his dad’s chest and nodded his answer In reply, Jim gave him a kiss on top of the head, then he turned and laid down on the bed so that Nick was laying on top of him. When they got comfortable, Jim reached for the remote and turned Nick’s TV on and they watched cartoons alone for the next half hour.

When the cartoon they were watching was over, Jim shut the TV off and gave Nick a gentle squeeze before sitting back up and addressing his son.

“You’ve had a rough couple of days, haven’t you buddy?” Jim said, and Nick nodded sadly before his dad went on. “Well why don’t we try to make today a better day for you, okay? We’ll forget about yesterday and this morning and just start over. Do you think you’d like that?”

“Yes,” Nick answered silently. “How are we going to do that, daddy?”

“Well, for starters, it’s a nice day outside,” Jim said. “So why don’t we see how cold it’s going to get, then we can decide what we want to do. Maybe we can go to Mount Trashmore if it’s windy enough and fly a kite.”

Mount Trashmore used to be a landfill, but when there was no more room, the city of Virginia Beach turned it into a park with a lake and it was a good place to fly a kite. The park was always someplace Nick wanted to visit but never had the chance to see before, so he was excited about the possibility that they would get to go.

“Will we eat breakfast first?” Nick asked, and Jim chuckled.

“Of course we will,” Jim answered. “Maybe we’ll get something at McDonald’s on the way there.”

“Okay,” Nick said with a smile. “Can I have hash browns?”

“Sure buddy,” Jim said, returning his dad’s smile. “Why don’t we go downstairs and see if that’s what James and Miss Lori want?”

With that, Jim scooted Nick out of his lap and they headed back downstairs, where any sign of the debacle earlier in the morning was gone. The kitchen was clean and the windows were open in the kitchen and the family room, allowing a cool breeze to flow through the house that Nick found refreshing. Jim sent James and Nick back upstairs to brush their teeth and get dressed, and he and Lori came up right behind them.

On the way to the park, Jim stopped at Walgreens and let James and Nick each pick out a kite. From there they pulled into the McDonald’s drive thru for breakfast, where Nick got the same thing he always got at McDonalds; a platter of eggs and sausage patties and two hash browns. He quickly devoured his hash browns, then he picked at his sausage and didn’t touch his eggs, even though Jim was on his case about finishing his food.

When they got to the park and got out of the car, the wind was whipping heavily, but it carried with it a cold that Nick could feel in his bones. He waited in the warm car with James and Lori while Jim opened the trunk and worked on putting the kites together, but by the time he was finished, Nick knew he wanted to leave.

“Do we really want to do this?” he asked when he got back in the car. “My fingers are frozen, guys. We didn’t bring mittens to wear, and I’m worried you’ll get sick.”

“Yeah let’s wait,” James spoke up first, and Nick nodded in agreement with his cousin.

“Well I’m not going out there,” Lori said, and that made it final. Jim put the car in reverse and they backed out of their parking space, then they drove home. They got back on the interstate and as they drove past the park, Nick could see a few people with their kites in the air and thought they were crazy.

When they pulled into the driveway, it seemed like the sun had taken some of the edge off of the chilly weather, but it was still too cold to play outside, so when they went in, Nick asked his dad if it was okay to call Taylor and see if he could come over.

“That’s fine, son,” Jim said. “As long as his parents don’t care if he goes out in this cold weather.”

“Can’t we pick him up?” Nick asked, and Jim gave him a sideways stare before nodding his answer.

Nick smiled sweetly at his dad and before he took the phone off of its charger and dialed Taylor’s number. Much to his chagrin, though, all he got was their answering machine, so he left a message and hung up, feeling let down that he hadn’t had a chance to spend any time that weekend with Taylor. He wandered into the family room and plopped down on the couch with a sigh.

“What’s wrong, buddy?” Jim asked.

“They aren’t home,” Nick whined. “Now I’m going to be bored all day. Can we go somewhere, dad?”

“Where to?” Jim asked, and James spoke up.

“Can we go see a movie?” he asked.

“What movie do you want to go see?” Jim asked, then he looked over at Lori. “Is there anything you wanted to see?”

“Why don’t we let the boys pick something?” she said, smiling at nick and James.

“Can we go see Stuart Little?” Nick asked hopefully, but James had another movie in mind.

“I wanted to see Next Friday,” he said, giving Nick a challenging glare.

“I can’t watch Next Friday, James,” Nick said bitterly.

“Yeah I don’t think you should see it before I have a chance to watch it first, son,” Jim told James, whose shoulders slumped.

“Fine, Stuart Little then,” James mumbled.

“We never got to see Deuce Bigelow,” Nick said, trying to offer his cousin a compromise.

“Can we see that one, dad?” James asked hopefully, and Jim smiled and said, “Well, if it’s still at the theatre we can.”

With that, James dashed to the kitchen table, where Jim’s unopened Saturday newspaper was sitting, still in its plastic sleeve, with Nick hot on his heels. They unwrapped the paper and James found the ads for the movie theatre closest to them.

“It’s still there,” he said excitedly. The boys hurriedly reported their findings to Jim and told him the times it was playing, and Jim told them to be ready to go at least a half hour ahead of time. Nick tried in vain to call Taylor and ask him if he could go with them, but there was still no answer, so he finally just gave up. As they were about to leave, he went to his room and into his top dresser drawer, where he found the money he still had left over from the last time his papu was visiting, thirty dollars, and shoved it into his front pocket.

The sun was shining when they went into the crowded theatre, and as soon they had their tickets, Nick and James both hurried to the snack bar, where all of the lines were long. When their turn came, Nick got a snack pack and waited for everyone else to order. He was about to pull his money out and pay for everything when the cashier said, “Thirty-seven dollars.”

With that, Nick quietly took his hand out of his pocket and let his dad pay the bill. He was ready to grab his snack pack when they set it on the counter, but Jim beat him to the punch.

“Let me carry it for you, buddy,” he said, lifting it off the counter along with his own tray. “I don’t want you to drop it and have me up there spending another seven dollars.”

Nick didn’t say anything. Instead, he walked carefully but excitedly in front of everyone, thinking to himself that it was a good idea for his dad to carry his stuff just in case it was dropped. Then Jim wouldn’t be able to blame it on him.

By the time they came out of the theatre, the sun had disappeared and in its place were clouds and a cold, gray sky. There was a misty moisture in the air, a certain sign that it was either going to rain or snow, and Nick was anxious to get home and try to call Taylor one more time before the weather got too bad for him to come over and spend the night.

When they got in the car, Jim leaned over and planted a kiss on Lori’s lips, then he told the boys to get buckled in.

“We should stop at the store,” Jim said. “We have almost zero food in the house.”

“Do we have to?” Nick whined from the back seat. “I want to go home.”

“What’s wrong, babe?” Jim asked from the front seat. “Do you have to go to the bathroom or something?”

“No I just want to go home and call Taylor to see if he can spend the night,” Nick said a little dejectedly.

“It won’t take long,” Jim told him. “Besides, how do you even know if he’s home yet? Maybe they went somewhere for the weekend.”

With that, Nick crossed his arms and pouted as Jim drove through the parking lot that the theatre was located in to a Farm Fresh, which was on the other side of the lot. They pulled into a spot close to the front of the store and everyone got out, but Jim let Lori and James walk ahead while he talked to Nick.

“Son, we’ll call Taylor when we get home, okay?” Jim said, putting his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “If we can get a hold of him and his mom and dad say it’s alright for him to spend the night, we’ll go pick him up and rent DVD’s tonight. Does that sound good to you?”

“Yeah,” Nick said through a smile. “But what if he doesn’t get home till late?”

“Then we’ll still go rent DVD’s and do something else, like make cookies,” Jim said in a reassuring tone.

“Will we still get to make cookies if he comes over?” Nick asked, and Jim nodded while he made a silly face at him that made him giggle as they walked through the automatic doors that slid open from side to side. When they caught up to James and Lori, the basket was already full of things James was picking out, like Capri Sun and Chips Ahoy cookies. Nick ran up to the Hostess section and picked out a box of Twinkies and a box of Ding Dongs, his two favorite snacks, then he grabbed a back of Tollhouse Chocolate Chips and tossed them in as well.

When they got to the frozen food aisle, Nick and James picked out an assortment of snacks like corn dogs, burritos and frozen pretzels stuffed with cheese. They agreed on a carton of cookie dough ice cream, but Jim showed them a special on another kind that was buy one get one free, so they got a cookie dough and a peanut butter cup of that brand.

In the midst of James and Nick filling the cart with snacks and junk food they liked, Jim and Lori managed to add staples like meat and vegetables before they moved to the section of the store that held soap, shampoo, toilet paper and toothpaste. Nick and James managed to slip away from Jim long enough to find a package of Ex-Lax laxatives to sneak into the basket so Jim would have to tell the cashier he didn’t want it, then they waited gleefully for Jim and Lori to take the basket to the register.

As the cashier was scanning the items, James was taking them out of the cart and putting them on the conveyor. Nick rubbed his palms together when he saw the box of Ex-Lax hit the conveyor, and he laughed to himself when the cashier scanned the box. Jim spotted it as it went across the scanner and gave Nick and James a knowing look before picking it up and holding it up for everyone to see, then he made a loud statement.

“This is for him,” he said, pointing to Nick, who could feel his cheeks heating up as he blushed, then Jim pointed at James and said, “Him too. They both need laxatives.”

With that, Jim put the box back down on the conveyor and let it ride to the end of the counter, where the bagger chuckled and put it in a bag. As Jim was writing the check, Lori was resting her head against the back of his shoulder, and she looked like she was trying to contain her laughter. James smiled shyly and moved past Jim to stand by Nick, who couldn’t believe what his dad just did.

Daaad,” Nick whined. “You weren’t supposed to do that.”

“Why not?” Jim asked with a self serving grin. “You guys obviously wanted it. I mean, you did put it in the cart.”

“We were just joking,” James said with a grin.

“Oh,” Jim exclaimed, feigning ignorance. “I thought you two were constipated.”

“Ha-ha,” James replied sarcastically. “You’re the one who needs it.”

“Yeah, that’s why he didn’t put it back,” Nick chimed in, and James giggled.

Jim smiled at them in the rearview mirror as Lori hooked his arm before they pulled out of the parking lot and drove off. When they got home, Jim, James, and Lori carried the bags of groceries in while Nick ran upstairs to pee, then he found the phone and dialed Taylor’s number again. He sighed when the answering machine picked up again, but he left one more hopeful message before hanging up and going into the family room, where Jim had turned his stereo on and was starting his CD player.

“Dad, what’s this?” James complained as the opening lyrics of an Air Supply song rang out.

“It’s Air Supply, boy!” Jim exclaimed with a shocked expression. “You’ve never heard this song before?”

“Um, no,” James said, his eyes shifting from side to side. “This sounds like elevator music.”

“Elevator music?” Jim said with a gasp. “This is classic rock, kiddo.”

“This is rock?” James asked. “I thought it was opera or something.”

“Holy Christ,” Jim swore. “This was all there was on the radio when I was a kid.”

“On AM?” James asked, and Jim shook his head and rolled his eyes. When the song was over, Jim used his remote to change CD’s and a Tears For Fears song played that everyone knew, Head Over Heels. While it was playing, Jim took Lori’s hand and danced with her in the middle of the floor while Nick and James watched and smiled.

When the song was over, another one came on that they all knew called Shout!, but it wasn’t romantic or anything, so everyone seemed to scatter out of the family room. Jim and Lori were in the kitchen, trying to decide what to cook for dinner. James said he wanted pizza, and after a discussion regarding what kind to get, Jim ordered a large pepperoni and a large Hawaiian Veggie. When it arrived, they sat down at the table with two opened boxes and paper plates and dug in. Then, true to his word, Jim let the boys make chocolate chip cookie dough. When it was ready and on a cookie sheet, Jim stuck it in the oven and watched it bake. When the cookies were done, he pulled them out and put them on a cooling rack while Nick and James put more dough on the cookie sheet.

“So have we figured out what movie we want to watch tonight?” Jim asked everyone, and Nick scratched his head and answered, “No.”

“Well, if we’re going to go to Video Update, we need to decide before we leave,” Jim said.

“There’s a Scooby Doo movie on Cartoon Network at eight,” James said, and Nick perked up.

“Can we watch that instead of a DVD?” he asked his dad. Jim looked at Lori, who shrugged and nodded at him as Nick watched hopefully.

“Sure buddy,” Jim said. “Why don’t the two of you go get ready for bed, then come back down here and we’ll set up the cookies and some milk in the family room.”

Nick and James grinned at each other, then they both tore off, trying to beat each other up the stairs the way they always did. They both went to their rooms to get out of their regular clothes, then they met up in the bathroom to brush their teeth before racing back down the stairs to the family room. Jim called them to the kitchen, where he handed both of them their vitamins and told them to wait at the table for him to pull the last of the cookies out of the oven.

He pulled a chair out and sat down, then he called them over to him for a hug and kiss.

“I love you boys,” he said, giving them both a squeeze. “You’ve both been so good today. I’m really proud of you.”

“I love you too daddy,” Nick said, leaning into his dad as he watched James wrap his arm around Jim’s neck and rest his head on his shoulder.

“Did you have a good day today, buddy?” Jim asked him.

“Yeah,” Nick said with a smile.

“What about you babe?” Jim asked James, who grinned sweetly and nodded.

“I want to sit with you when we watch the movie dad,” James said, and Jim planted a kiss on his cheek.

“Do you guys want to sample one of your cookies?” Jim asked, and they both nodded, so he let them go and got up. Right at that moment, the timer went off for the last batch, so they waited patiently for Jim to take them out.

When they came out, Jim put them on the cooling rack and brought James and Nick each a cookie from the first batch they made and took his chair. The first bite melted in Nick’s mouth, and he vocalized his bliss with a long “Mmmm.”

“It’s almost eight, guys,” Jim said. “Let’s carry these into the family room and I’ll pour us some milk.”

As James and Nick got comfortable on the couch, Jim and Lori brought the milk and cookies out for them, then they sat in the middle of the boys. Lori held her arm out for Nick, who happily snuggled up to her side and got comfortable while James settled in on Jim’s side. When the movie started, Nick got excited and almost forgot about his cookies and milk, but when he saw Jim holding James’s cup of milk while James dunked a cookie into it, he reached out for his cup and a cookie and tried to do the same.

“Do you want me to hold your cup for you?” Lori asked, and Nick smiled politely and handed her his milk. “Thank you Miss Lori.”

“You’re welcome sweetheart,” she said gently.

The movie turned out to be about an hour and a half long, so when it was over Nick and James were still awake. Still, they were so comfortable on the couch together that he hoped they wouldn’t move. Unfortunately, everyone had milk, so they all got up to go to the bathroom. James beat Nick to the bathroom downstairs, so he made a dash for the bathroom upstairs instead. When he was done, he came back down and reclaimed his spot on the couch, where his cousin had settled in again too.

“Are you cold?” James asked Nick, and he shook his head. “Me either. I kinda want dad to make a fire though.”

“How come?” Nick asked, and James shrugged.

“I don’t know, I just do,” James said, grabbing another cookie from the plate in front of them and taking a bite. Nick reached out and took a cookie for himself, and as he chewed his first bite, he heard his dad’s shower come on.

Twenty minutes later, a freshly showered Jim came downstairs in a pair of sweat pants and a tea shirt.

“Boys, you’re both going to get cold tonight,” he said, sitting between them. “Don’t you want jammie bottoms?”

“No sir,” Nick said, moving over so he could snuggle with his dad. “I’m cozy with my undies and my shirt.”

“What about you buddy?” Jim asked James, who shook his head. “Okay, but if it gets too cold, I want you put something on your legs. Understood?”

“Yes sir,” James said.

“Do you want me to bring you blankets?” Jim asked, and Nick shook his head again.

“I want you to make a fire,” James said, resting his head on Jim’s chest.

“A fire?” Jim asked, and James nodded. “Why do you want a fire, babe?”

“I just do,” James said quietly.

“Are you sure you aren’t cold?” Jim asked, and James shook his head no. “I’ll tell you what, buddy. If it gets cold enough tomorrow, daddy will build you a fire, okay?”

“Okay dad,” James said, adjusting himself so that he was under Jim’s arm.

“Are you boys ready to pray?” Jim asked, and Nick and James both nodded. James held his hand out for Nick, who took it in his left hand and gave Jim his right hand then closed his eyes. Jim said the prayer that night, and when he was finished, they all said “amen” and sat quietly on the couch and talked about their day.

“Who took Skalaki out tonight?” Jim asked, and James answered him.

“I did,” James said in a soft voice. “I took him out to go potty all day today.”

“Nick that means it’s your turn tomorrow, okay?” Jim said, and Nick nodded silently.

“Do you want me to take him out one more time?” James asked, and Jim shook his head no.

“I’ll do it sweetheart,” he said. “Thank you for offering, though. Are you getting sleepy?”

With that, James nodded and Nick answered with a long yawn, so Jim gave them each a kiss and told them to go to the bathroom while he cleaned up and took the dog out. Nick waited patiently for James to finish in the downstairs bathroom, then he went in and drained his bladder one last time before bed. He and James both waited on the couch for Jim, who was still putting everything away and hadn’t gotten around to taking Skalaki out yet. When Jim was finished cleaning up, he came back into the family room and smiled at Nick and James, who were both resting their heads on the arm rests at either end of the couch.

“I take it you guys are waiting for me to tuck you in,” he said with a smile, and Nick watched from his end of the couch as James nodded sleepily. Jim reached out with his hands, so James got up off the couch and held his arms up for Jim, who hoisted him up and gave him a kiss.

“I love you daddy,” James said, returning the kiss, then resting the side of his head on Jim’s shoulder and yawning again as they headed up the stairs. Nick closed his eyes for a moment, and thought that at some point he could hear the door between the garage and the laundry room open and close. He heard it again, then he felt his dad hoisting him up and he knew he was on his way to bed. Jim laid him down and gave him a goodnight kiss before pulling his covers up to his chest and handing him his Pooh Bear, then he turned the lamp off and Nick drifted off again.

The next morning Nick felt his bed dip, so he opened his eyes and saw his dad smiling down at him. There was a soft, steady beat of raindrops on the roof that helped to rouse him from his slumber, and after a long stretch and loud yawn, he sat up and let Jim lead him to the bathroom. From there, they walked downstairs, where the unmistakable sound of a crackling fire and the warm glow against an otherwise dark family room told Nick why his dad was waking him up so early.

James was up too, sitting cross legged in front of the fire next to Skalaki, who looked content to sleep in front of the hearth of the fireplace. Nick took a spot on the floor next to Skalaki and James so he could watch the fire blaze and pet his dog. He turned to say something to his dad, but he had disappeared into the kitchen, and from where Nick was sitting, he could hear his dad pouring a cup of coffee.

When Jim came back into the family room, he took a seat in his recliner and talked to the boys.

“Nick, James, I want you to come sit closer to me so we can have a talk,” he said gently. They both wound up taking an arm on the recliner, so Jim pulled them both to him for a long hug before he went on.

“You know I love you boys more than anything,” he said quietly, kissing each one of them on the cheek. “Is the fire nice and comfy?”

Both boys nodded, and Jim went on.

“Daddy would do anything for you guys,” he said, sounding a little emotional. “I want you to know that I would never do anything to hurt you, and that I’d die to protect you from harm. I need you to listen to what I’m about to tell you.”

“Okay, daddy,” Nick said, feeling scared about what his dad was about to tell him. James just stayed quiet and gave Jim his full attention.

“You know that I love Miss Lori very much, don’t you?” he asked, and both boys nodded. “I love her so much, that I never want to be away from her. I always want her to be here with me.”

“And never go home?” Nick asked, and Jim smiled at him.

“Actually, I want this to be her home too,” Jim said. “I want to marry Miss Lori, boys. How does that make you feel?”

“It makes me feel good,” James said with a smile, prompting Jim to give him a kiss on the cheek.

“What about you little boy?” Jim asked Nick with a hopeful smile.

“I want you to get married to her,” Nick said truthfully. “I love Miss Lori.”

“Well so do I buddy,” Jim said. “You know what else? Miss Lori loves both of you too.”

“Will she be my mom?” Nick asked a little guardedly.

“Baby, you only have one mom,” Jim said with a smile. “And I love your mom very much, and I’ll never forget her. But if you want Miss Lori to be a second mom to you, I know that would make her very happy.”

“Will you guys have a baby?” James asked, and Jim chuckled and said, “Maybe. Anything’s possible, son.”

“Will you get married today when we go to church?” Nick asked, eliciting another chuckle from his dad who shook his head and said, “We haven’t picked a date yet. We want to tell Grandma and Grandpa first, okay?”

“Okay,” Nick said, looking at James, who had a thoughtful look on his face.

“So you boys are okay with this?” Jim asked, and James and Nick both nodded quietly. After that, they didn’t say anything else about the subject. Instead, the three of them sat quietly in the recliner. Nick and James snuggled closely with Jim, and oddly enough, with each other, and enjoyed the time they were spending alone with their dad, who was going to be a married man.

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