Dog Days


Chapter 8


Zoner hadn’t left herself exactly flat-chested, but she no longer looked like she had traffic cones under her sweater either.  I glanced at Tommy and his eyes were as wide as mine must have been.  Zoner’s look turned into a glare and she asked, “What’s wrong with you, Paul?”


I gulped and blushed, “Me?  I … I’m speechless!”  Tommy nodded, his mouth fell open, and he pointed at his own chest to include himself in my comment.


Jim laughed and cried out, “Hey everyone, get a load of this.  Dunn says he’s speechless!”


I whispered loudly, “Shut up!” and smiled at Zoner.  “You look nice.”


She returned the smile, “Why thank you, Paul.  I feel a lot better without the weight of those dirigibles holding me down.  My back might actually last me a lifetime now.  You’re looking very well yourself, except for the hair of course.” 


I pouted and she frowned, “I’m sorry, that was unkind of me.  Your hair is what it is …”


“A challenge,” I said.


“It’s certainly that,” she replied, and turned around to mingle while we finished our food.


I put Lisa’s plate on top of mine and tossed them both in the trash.  “Let’s go see what you brought me.”


We walked toward the living room and ran into a breathless Dina who grabbed my sleeve.  “Come help!  Daisy got loose and took off.”


Oh, no.  I ran outside with no jacket and just sneakers on my feet and called to Gil, “Which way did he go?”


His voice came back, “Get a flashlight.  He went up the hill.”


I ran back in to get a light, and the guys were pulling their coats on to help.  I said, “He went up the hill,” thinking that was a lot better than the road.


“We’ll never catch him,” Tom said.  “Come to my house and I’ll see if I can take the snowmobile.”


The house emptied out and I wondered if Daisy would even dare to come back while the crowd was outside all calling to him at once.  Gil looked pretty distraught and I put a hand on his shoulder.  “Don’t worry, man.  Remember what the fence guy said about him going for a run.  Tom’s getting the snowmobile out, so ride with him.  Better bring a leash.”


“What if he goes in the road?”


“He went the wrong way for that.  You’ll see his tracks in the snow.  Here comes Tom.  Wait here and I’ll bring a leash.”


I ran inside for Daisy’s leash and thought to put some egg rolls in my pocket.  Daisy liked those and I thought Gil could use them to lure Daisy home.  I ran out and gave everything to Gil and he took them, put the helmet Tommy handed him on his head, and they took off up the hill.


We could hear the machine for a couple of minutes before it went out of earshot and I shooed people back inside where it was warm.  I turned some more of the outside lights on and glanced out through the kitchen window to make sure the ones I wanted were on.  I didn’t notice the lights because Daisy was staring back at me, panting out great gusts of steam from his mouth and nostrils.  I shook my head and went to the door.  Daisy trotted over when I opened it and I said, “What are you doing?  Get in here.”


Daisy seemed unsure of himself, but he came inside and squinted at me while the tip of his tail swirled in a gentle little circle.  Jim and Shea walked into the kitchen right then and Jim said, “They found him already?  Hi there, doggy!”


I said, “Tom and Gil are still out looking; Daisy found his own way home, though I don’t think he went very far.”  I pulled out my phone and called Tom.  His phone rang six times and went to voice mail.  I muttered, “They’ll never hear the phone on that machine,” and left a voice message at the signal. 


I heard a squeal from the living room and a general increase in the noise level followed right after.  I turned quickly, but it was just Daisy making his entrance.  Dory came out and looked around.  “Where’s Gil?  Did he come in?”


“No, just Daisy so far,” I said.  “They don’t know he’s here and Tom won’t hear his phone over the engine.  They’ll be back when they get cold.”


Hector was right beside Dory and said, “I’ll get them.  Just sit tight.”  He touched the screen on his phone and in a moment said, “I need a snowmobile right away.  Put the light bar on.  No, there’s no problem.  We have two kids out looking for a dog that isn’t missing.”  He pocketed his phone and turned to me.  “I just set the fire, so make sure it gets going.”  He went for his coat and while he was putting it on the room lit up briefly from the bright light of a snowmobile that I didn’t even know they had over there.  I wasn’t a bit surprised, though.


Hector’s coat had a collar that he could pull right up to his nose, and with his hat pulled down to his eyebrows he looked like he was getting ready to rob a bank.  Several of us followed him out to see his two compatriots disappearing down the driveway on a second snowmobile while Hector’s sat there rumbling with power.  Unlike every black car that company came up with, the snowmobile was resplendent in white.  A hoop that sported three bright lights sat atop a post near the back of the thing, and there were two normal looking headlights on the front.  When Hector sat on the machine he did something that made the top lights swing side-to-side and then rotate right over so they lit the area to the rear.  With his collar covering half his face I couldn’t see the grin I knew was there when he hit the gas and tore off up the hill, but my own mouth was busy shaping the word Oh.


I looked at Lisa and said, “That should do it,” and took her hand.  We went back in and I checked the fire.  It was burning brightly, so I sat in an armchair and pulled Lisa onto my lap.  I put my nose to hers and said, “Merry Christmas,” which earned me a smile and a quick kiss.


“Will you open your gift now?”


I looked under the tree wondering where all the packages came from.  It took a second to spot the one from Lisa, even though it appeared to be the largest package there.  I mumbled, “What is all this?” as I reached back to the wall.  Lisa’s present was big, and it was also soft and floppy so I sat on the floor to open it.  I pulled the bow and tag off and started tugging tentatively at the paper until I found a taped seam.  I got a finger under a flap of the paper and started pulling on it, which only revealed more paper for a few frustrating moments.  I finally tore enough wrapping off to reveal some patterned dark green cloth, and it wasn’t long after that I realized I was unwrapping a quilt … a very large quilt at that.


I smiled and turned my smile to Lisa.  She told me once that she and her mother made quilts but had never advised me when she made them.  I asked, “How big is this, anyhow?”


“It’s queen-size to fit your bed.  Here, I’ll help you.”  She knelt on the floor facing me from about five feet away and started pulling so I only had to hold on while the quilt was revealed, and it was a beauty.  It was a pattern of randomly sized squares all fit together.  The main color was a faded yellow that was almost beige, and the larger squares were outlined in the dark green I’d seen first and a somewhat lighter blue that verged on gray.  The centers of the squares and the rest of the borders were made of many different colors.  All of the borders were corduroy cloth and the centers were made of everything from denim to paisley prints.  It was gorgeous and I hated to even guess at how many stitches Lisa had sewn to create it.


I grinned at her, “It’s beautiful!  You didn’t use that shirt I gave you?”


Lisa stared at me and said sweetly, “It’s reversible, of course.  I just bet your old shirt is on the other side.”  She glanced around and said, “Gary, you’re tall, and you, Dan.  Hold this up so Paul can see the whole thing.”


With the help of Gary and Dan, Lisa managed to get the quilt up in their hands facing me.  Instead of being pleased she grimaced and grumbled, “It’s upside-down.  Let me help; it goes the other way.”


They fussed for a moment and Lisa stood back to look.  “That’s much better,” she said, but it looked the same to me.  I didn’t usually associate tops and bottoms with random geometric patterns, but then again I’m not an artist.  If Lisa said something said it should go one way, then that was it.


I said, “Oh, that’s much better,” and Lisa gave me an odd look.


“Turn it around and show Paul the other side.”


Dan had a straight face, but Gary looked like his face might explode from holding back a laugh and I dreaded seeing what was on the other side.


With a minimum of fuss, they turned the quilt around and … well, holy primary colors, Batman!  Side-B was a cartoon!  A giant, queen-size cartoon in bright colors with BLAM spelled out in huge yellow letters, sparks and stars flying, as a boy on a bicycle crashed head on into either a big shark or a train.  It could have been a train with evil-looking teeth or a shark with a headlight and a smokestack, but what mattered was the bike rider was wearing my shirt.  It was the shirt I’d worn home from Lisa’s on the day I’d been forced off the road near my house.  I’d only worn it that once and now it was part of my present from Lisa, and I thought it was hysterical.


I grinned as I turned to her and said, “I love it!  I never saw a cartoon quilt before.”


Everyone was having a good chortle at the picture even though they probably never heard of my mishap.  There was no doubt that the rider was me, and that was achieved with a single cowlick that stood straight up and flopped over to one side near the tip.  Lisa had sewn my shirt in so I was spread-eagled and there were lots of cloth accents that brought motion and something like drama to the scene.


I looked at Lisa again and said, “Let’s put it on my bed and try it out.”  Lisa’s look became a bit icy so I changed direction and smiled, “I didn’t know you liked comic books.”


That seemed to startle her but she soon smiled, “My big brother has all the comic books.  I looked at some for ideas.”


I looked at the quilt again quickly and decided it would be rude to everyone else to spend any more time on it right then.  I said, “I’ll bring it upstairs.  Why don’t you start passing out the gifts?”




“I’ll be right back. Just get everyone in here and I’ll give things out.”


Gary gave me a hand folding the quilt, and I had to put my chin on top of it to see my way upstairs.  I left it on the bed and looked around to see if I’d left any gifts behind before I went back downstairs.  My phone vibrated in my pocket just before I turned into the living room.  It was Tommy, and he sounded a bit exasperated, “The dog’s down there?”


“Yeah.  He showed up right after you took off.  I tried to call you.”


“I know.  We’ll be there in an a few minutes.”


I put my phone in my pocket and remembered that my father had a Santa hat somewhere, and thought I knew where I could find it.  There was a little cubby underneath the stairs that we used for odd little things like that.  I found it in a plastic shopping bag and pulled it out.  It was in good shape so I put it on and went into the living room.


“Ho, ho, ho.  Let’s have some presents, ho, ho, ho.”


Shea cried, “Hey look!  It’s Santa Claus.  Hi, Santa.”


“And ho, ho, ho to you too little boy.  Let’s see if my elves thought of something for you.  Come on everyone, gather around the tree.”


Jim said, “Um, I think we’re already around the tree; we were just waiting for you.  Need any help?”


“Yeah, good idea.  You can hand things to me from under the tree; that should make this go faster.”


We got started but didn’t get very far before Tom and Gil came in.  Gil cuddled with Daisy while Tom gushed about Hector’s snowmobile.


“That thing is wicked fast and those lights made it just like day out there.  I was …” 


Bridgette grabbed Tom’s arm and pulled him down to sit beside her.  I could hear Hector stomping the snow off his boots so we waited until he came in and got settled.  Then I handed Dan the first gift, which was from me.


I’d gotten the same things for Jim, Dan, Tom and Shea:  Swany ski mitts.  I got them because mine kept my hands warm even when everyone else was complaining 


Gil said, “Oh, Swany!  Those gloves are the highest rated ones for the price.”


My jaw dropped and everyone stared at him.  “You’re an expert on ski gloves?” I asked.


“I read it in Consumer Reports.”


I was ready to jump on that when Shea nodded, “Oh yeah, you can learn a lot from them,” and he pulled a glove on.  He smiled, “Mmm, I see why you never get cold.  These are really nice.”


There were gifts and there were more gifts, and it took a long time to pass them all out; long enough that I had trouble straightening my knees out when I finally stood up.  Everyone followed my lead and got to their feet.  We’d been sitting for a long time so I pointed toward the front door and said, “One bathroom there and two more upstairs.  I’ll see what’s left to eat.”


Lisa led a pack of girls upstairs saying they’d use my bathroom, so I was worrying when I reached the kitchen.  I’d seen bathrooms after a lot of women have used them and I wondered how long it would take to straighten mine out.   I had to hope that Lisa would keep things orderly.


Dory was in the kitchen pulling things from the refrigerator when I got there.  She saw me and said, “I’ll take care of this, Paul, you just entertain your friends for ten more minutes.”


“Are you sure you don’t want any help?”


“All I have to do is uncover things and put some dishes out.  It’s really no trouble.”


I shrugged, “Okay, thanks.  If you change your mind just yell.”


I turned around and almost bumped into Billy Baldwin.  He stopped me by putting his hand out and smiled, “I have to go; my mother’s picking me up.”


“Oh, too bad.  Did you have fun?”


“Yeah, I did, and thanks for the scarf.  I didn’t know we’d be coming here so I didn’t bring anything.  Sorry.”


Roland appeared beside Billy carrying two coats.  He held Billy’s out to him and thanked me while he donned his own.  I told them they shouldn’t worry about not bringing presents and that they could watch for their ride from inside the kitchen.  I shook their hands and wished them Merry Christmas before I went back into the living room.


Gil and Dina were kneeling on either side of Daisy, both stroking him.  Daisy was loving it but Gil seemed nervous and kept looking around the room while Dina appeared to be trying to talk to him.  I felt for Gil because I knew exactly what it felt like to get totally tongue-tied around girls my own age.  I used to get so embarrassed I’m surprised the heat from my ears didn’t set my hair afire, but there wasn’t anything I could do to help Gil other than give him something to do.


I walked over and said, “Why don’t you two go and give Dory a hand in the kitchen?  She’s there by herself and I know she’d appreciate a little help.”


I smirked at Dina, “Sorry, I let some extra syllables escape.  Do I have to explain appreciate?”


I turned as they started to get to their feet.  My teasing got a rise from Dina and her face turned as red as Gil’s.


There were a few different quiet conversations in progress so I sat on the arm of Lisa’s chair and listened until Aldo asked me something, and everyone seemed contented when Gil came in and said there were snacks in the kitchen.


There was quite a lot of food out and I wasn’t really hungry.  I poured myself a small glass of eggnog and took a slice of spice cake, which I started eating while leaning against the counter by the sink.  I stayed in the kitchen with Lisa and some others while some people drifted back into the other rooms.  Within about an hour everyone had left for home and I helped Dory put the leftovers away.


I should have been tired but I wasn’t.  Dory was, though, and I offered to clean up if she wanted to go to bed.  She hesitated at first, but left when she realized that I was serious.  She was replaced almost immediately by Gil, who I thought had already gone to bed.


“Need help?” he asked.


I looked around and said, “Not really, but check out the other rooms for glasses and dishes.  I’ll straighten out in there when I finish here.  Where’s Daisy?”


Gil smirked, “He’s snoozing; I think all the attention wiped him out.”


I chuckled, “I guess I’d be tired too if twenty people took turns tickling my nose and stroking my ears.”


Gil gave me a look and headed out of the room muttering, “Better than picking your nose.”


I started cleaning in the kitchen.  It wasn’t a mess but there were crumbs and sticky spots on most of the surfaces.  I sprayed cleaner and wiped until everything looked good, by which time Gil had come back with a few glasses, dishes, and pieces of silverware.  He found room for those in the dishwasher and started it while I swept the floor.


Gil was still finding little things to do after I put the broom away, and I looked in the refrigerator for something to nibble on.  I wasn’t really hungry, but still felt the need to munch on something.  I pulled out a wrapped dish of cut up celery and carrots and another with cherry tomatoes.  There was an open jar of ranch dressing and I took that as well.


I sat at the table and started munching on a carrot.  Gil noticed and asked, “You’re hungry again?”


“Not really hungry, just thought I’d nibble on some veggies.”


Gil looked closer and said, “Tomatoes aren’t veggies.  They’re fruits.”


“Yeah, sure they are.”


He sat down and reached for a stick of celery.  “I’m not kidding; you can look it up.  Tomatoes are fruits.”


“What’s the difference, then?” I asked, kind of hoping he wouldn’t know the answer.


“I think it’s like this,” he said.  “Vegetables are things like roots and leaves, flowers, stems … I think that’s it.  Fruits have the seeds in them, so even if they’re not sweet, tomatoes are still fruits.”


I stared at Gil.  He really was full of surprises, at least when it came to trivia.  “You’re sure about that?”


When he nodded I said, “Jeez, I’ll be sure to get the word out. You shouldn’t keep things like this to yourself.”


Gil wheezed out a little laugh, “I can’t win with you, can I?  I’m not keeping a secret; I’m just not going around telling people what makes a fruit a fruit.”


I smiled, “Yeah, since you put it that way maybe you should keep it to yourself.  A little dudelet like you could get himself hurt.”


Poor Gil put his elbows on the table and cradled his chin in his hands.  “Good God, will you ever quit?”


“What?  Am I distressing you?”


Gil scowled and then his look brightened right up.  “You know, I was worried about everyone coming here, and then you said they’d respect me.  I think they did, or at least they were all nice to me.  But you … you just get on something and don’t give it up.  I don’t think that’s a sign of respect, and I can’t tell if you don’t like me or don’t want me to like you, or maybe both.”


Oh, boy.  If I’d made Gil feel bad then he’d just doubled down on me.  I opened my mouth to say something, but closed it so I could think first.  I stared at Gil and he stared back, and I finally said, “Shit.  Did I go too far?  I’m not trying to pick on you Gil.  If I crossed the line with my teasing … I mean, I did cross the line I guess.  I’m sorry.  I like you just fine.  I can’t make you like me, but I don’t want to make you not like me either.”  I repeated, “I’m sorry.”


Gil stared for a moment longer before his mouth took on a little smile, and it spread to his eyes.  “Cool.  That’s cool.  Good.  I was getting worried.  I like you, too, but I thought I was getting everything wrong or something.”  He pointed at my plate, “Now give me one of those red fruits.”


I pushed the whole plate over to him and changed the subject.  “Since you brought up the subject of Charlemagne, what do you think about Dina?”


Gil made a gesture of exasperation that included a roll of his eyes that was exaggerated enough to hurt.  He ignored Charlemagne and said, “I don’t know; Dina’s nice.  Why?”


“I’m just curious.  She’s nice?  That’s all?”


Gil looked at me curiously.  “What should I say?  She’s a cute girl … looks just like Lisa.  She’s like you; she asks a lot of questions.”


I snorted, “Like me?  I don’t think so, man.  She doesn’t even like me.”


“Sure she does.  At least she said nice things about you.”


“Really?” I asked.  “What did she tell you?”


“Oh, she said you really hate your hair, but she thinks it’s cute, and you’re always in a good mood.”


“Good mood?  Really?  Oh yeah, she only sees me when I’m with Lisa.  That’s an automatic good mood.”


Gil smiled at the tomato in his hand and muttered, “That must be nice.”


I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the tomato or my good moods, so I kept my mouth shut.


He looked up at me like he was about to say something, but looked away again.  “What?” I asked.


“Oh, nothing.  I must be tired, because I can’t seem to follow you.”


I didn’t say anything.  Gil pushed his chair back and stood to leave.  “G’night, Charlie.”


When he started to walk away I said, “Charlie?”


He disappeared with a wagging Daisy in his wake, and finally said, “Mange.  Charlie Mange,” just before he thumped up the stairs.


+ + + + + + + +


The next morning I was startled awake when my door flew open and someone shouted, “Wake up!  Do you Southerners sleep all day?”


I would have expected that from Tommy and possibly from Gil, but I didn’t recognize the voice.  I opened my eyes and didn’t see anyone, so I leaned up on my elbow and looked around.  I blinked when I saw Russ Glover there grinning at me.  “Russ?  I … jeez, let me get up.  What brings you here?”


Russ smiled, “Dana brought me.  Why don’t you visit us anymore?”


I opened my mouth to reply, but Daisy crashed in before I could say anything.  He was so overjoyed by his good fortune at finding a new person in the room that he twisted himself almost into a pretzel with his full-body wag.  He wiggled right up to Russ and goosed him with his nose.


“Aaah!  Who’s this?” Russ gasped as he pushed Daisy back a step and rubbed his ears.  “Hey, doggy; you must be the famous Daisy dog.”


“That’s him,” I said while Daisy grinned.  “Where’s Dana?”


Russ looked at me and said, “On the couch.  I guess he was up late getting ready, then we left early and he drove here.  He just wanted to lie down for a bit.”


I would have liked to sleep some more myself, but I pulled my covers off and said, “You talk to the dog.  I need the bathroom.  Was anybody downstairs when you got here?”


“There’s a lady named Dora standing in the kitchen.”


I had taken clean underwear and socks from my drawer and was almost to the bathroom, but I stopped and turned to Russ.  “Her name’s Dory.  She’s standing there?”


Russ grinned, “I don’t mean like a statue.  She said she doesn’t know where to start.”


I nodded and closed the bathroom door behind me.  I figured that Dory had a few very busy days ahead of her, so it made sense that she’d want at least a mental plan for the day.


I took a very short shower and hurried as I got ready, but when I left the bathroom Russ was gone and Gil was sitting on the end of my bed looking nervous.  “What’s up?” I asked as I poked my head into the closet to find something to wear.  “Did you meet Russ?”


“Yeah; he was making a lot of noise with Daisy so I came in to see what’s going on.  He said Dana’s here.”


I pulled out a pair of Dockers tossed them onto the bed saying, “I know.  I didn’t think they’d be here so early.  Where’s Russ now?”


“Oh, we took Daisy out and he stayed to throw the ball.  Um …” Gil eyed me and said, “I wanted to ask you about Dana.”


“Ask away.  You met him before, didn’t you?”


“Yeah, but just for little while, and I never really talked to him.  What’s he like?”


I shrugged, “He likes to go fast.  He’s a ski racer, and I think he’ll be a fast driver. … not food, though.  He likes his food to be slower than his fork.  Oh, and he likes blondes in pink bikinis.”


Gil snickered, “I didn’t mean what does he like; I meant what is he like.”


I thought before I spoke, mainly because I didn’t have a clear answer.  “Dana’s pretty laid back.  I mean, he kicks ass big time on skis and he knows how good he is, but he doesn’t brag about it all that much.  He’s kind of fussy about some things, not so much about other things.  He likes most people and people like him.”  I looked at Gil, “Is that what you mean?”


“You guys all talk about what a good skier he is.  He must be really strong, huh?”


I shrugged, “I don’t know.  With skiing, the better you get the easier it is.  It’s good exercise, but it doesn’t get you muscle bound or anything.”  I smiled to myself, “He is kind of strong smelling, though.”


Gil groaned, “Only you.  I just don’t want to say the wrong thing and get him mad at me.  Does he have a bad temper or anything like that?”


“You know, Dana doesn’t ever seem to get very mad about anything or anybody.  I’ve seen him upset and even embarrassed, but never really pissed off.”  I smirked, “Maybe you could be the first one to get him going; set some kind of record.”


Gil frowned and mumbled, “That’d be my style.”  He pointed at my feet and said, “Your socks don’t match.  I’ll see you downstairs.”


I looked at my feet.  Not only didn’t my socks match, they didn’t even come close; one was red and the other gray.  I don’t think I ever owned red socks so it had to be a laundry mix up.  I put on a matching set and left the odd ones on my dresser, then cinched my bathrobe, got my slippers on, and looked in the mirror.  I hadn’t combed my hair when it was wet and it had dried into a full-head cowlick that made me wince.  Everyone was used to my head though, so I decided to leave it alone until my mother arrived, and I’d only try to fix it if she complained.


I went downstairs expecting some activity, but things were quiet.  Russ and Daisy had joined Dana and they were all napping in the living room.  I didn’t run into Gil, and supposed that Dory had him busy somewhere.  Then I found a note in the kitchen that said Dory and Gil had gone to the store and that we should help ourselves to breakfast.  Since I was the only person moving, I put some bread in the toaster and poured a small glass of juice.  I decided on something light for right then, and had the toast with butter and jelly.  Then I fixed a cup of coffee to bring upstairs with me.


I did a last check on my mother’s room and found it spotless, so I straightened things out in my own room.  I dumped my coffee out in the bathroom sink because it tasted old, and decided against getting another one.  I sat at my desk, turned the television and the computer on.  The television came up before the computer.  An ad was running on the local station so I left it there to wait for the weather forecast.  I wasn’t concerned about the weather for that day or the next, only the day after Christmas when we’d fly to Vancouver.


The ad was followed by several more, and I was looking through my email when the news came on.  I heard the news anchor open with what he breathlessly called an urgent update, and glanced at the screen to see the face of Frederick Schiffer, the Stockton killer.  The news anchor practically screamed that the attorney for Mr. Schiffer had just announced that Schiffer would change his plea to guilty later that day.  I was halfway down the stairs in a second, and I made enough racket to set Daisy off barking.  I yelled, “Turn the TV on!” before I turned the corner and ran into the living room.  Russ and Dana were still stretched out and they both looked at me as if I’d gone mad.


I said, “Watch this,” as I picked up the remote and pressed the on button.  “Schiffer’s pleading guilty!”


Dana and Russ both sat bolt upright, the blood drained from their faces.  I found the station and turned the volume up, then the phone rang.  I ran to pick it up and it was my father.


“Did you hear the news, Paul?”


“We’re watching right now.  Did you know about this?”


“No, not a clue.  Go ahead and watch. I’ll call back after we absorb this.  I’m going to call Bernie to find out if there are any implications for Russ, though I don’t see why there would be.  I’ll talk to you in a while.”


He was gone before I could say goodbye, so I sat to follow the story on television.  Like always, the news people said what they knew, and then started what I figured would be at least a full day of recaps, speculation, interviews with people in the know, more interviews with people not in the know, and by lunchtime they’d be interviewing each other when they weren’t repeating everything, all the while running pictures of Stockton, the victims, Schiffer, and anything else they could think of.


What they did know was that William Goda, the head of Schiffer’s defense team, announced that he had delivered a letter to the prosecutor’s office, and that letter stated Mr. Schiffer’s decision to plead guilty to the charges against him.  That’s all they knew as fact, but they sure seemed happy to stretch that fact into a full day’s worth of news.  The prosecutor was no help, only acknowledging receipt of the attorney’s letter.


We were silent while we watched and listened.  I kept glancing at Russ, who was paying rapt attention to the program and seemed unaware of my presence.  When I looked toward Dana he was looking back at me and simply raised his eyebrows expectantly.  I looked back at Russ, who finally noticed me.


“What do you think?” I asked.


Russ inhaled deeply enough that his shoulders lifted before he breathed out.  He shook his head a little and said, “It’s still sinking in.”  He glanced at Dana and then back at me, “I guess it means I won’t have to testify, and to tell the truth I’ve been scared to death of that.  I know there’s a lot of evidence against Schiffer, but I’m the only witness who can put him in Stockton that day.  If his lawyer could trip me up I might ruin the whole thing.”


The phone rang, and Dana said something to Russ while I went to answer it.  It was Mr. Glover.  “Paul, Brian Glover here.  Is Russell up and about?”


I said, “Yeah.  Some news, huh?”


“The best news,” he said as I brought the phone over to Russ.


I held it out, “Your father.”


Russ smiled and took the phone, and I beckoned Dana to follow me to the kitchen while they talked.


“I didn’t expect to see Russ,” I said.  “Did he just feel like taking a ride?”


Dana grinned, “I guess he likes long rides.  He’s going to Canada with us.”


“Really?  How come I didn’t know about this?”


Dana looked at me for a moment with a question on his face, and then lifted his finger like he had an idea.  “I bet nobody told you; that’s why.  That’s gotta be it.”


I shoved him, “Doof.  What’ll he do all day while we’re skiing?”


Dana checked the coffee pot and started dumping the old brew out in the sink.  “I guess he’ll have to ski.  He’s been bored long enough.”


I smiled my surprise, “You’re serious?  I thought he wouldn’t be able to ski at all this year.”


“That’s what everyone thought.”  Dana was looking in cabinets until he found the coffee.  “He healed better than they expected, and Dad got him a hot shit helmet to keep his head from collapsing.”


I tried not to picture that.  “So, is he free to ski or is he limited to something or other?”


“He’s got limits, but it’s mostly up to him to avoid risky things.  He’s been looking at the trail maps and doesn’t think he’ll get too bored.”


I felt good for Russ.  “He must be thrilled.”


Dana grinned, “He is.  I think he’s really kinda thrilled about everything he can do these days.  He kept it mostly to himself, but he told me once he was worried about never getting all the way back to the things he did … before.  I mean, you should have seen him grinning when he came back to work, and again when school started and he could just go like always.  The doctors didn’t really promise him anything, and now they kicked him out of therapy and said to have fun skiing.”


Russ appeared in the doorway just then and I said, “Speak of the devil.”  I grinned, “Dana’s just telling me about your recovery.  That makes my day before it even gets started.”


Russ glanced at Dana before he smiled at me, “If it makes your day, just imagine what it does for mine.”


“I bet you can’t wait to go skiing,” I said.


Dana piped up, “He might as well wait.  The speed he’s skiing these days, he won’t even set off a motion detector.”


Russ looked at Dana, “Thanks, Dana.  You’re a special person.”


Dana bowed his head, “A lot of people tell me that.”


“Yeah,” I said, “But most of us slip the word needs in there.”


Russ wheezed out a laugh and said, “I see you haven’t lost your touch.”


I shrugged, “Lots of sparring partners around here.  It’s almost too easy.”  I looked from Russ to Dana, “Who’s hungry?”


Dana pointed at Russ and said, “He is, but since you’re cooking anyhow …”


“Never mind, what do you want?  We should have all the usual things.”


“Eggs are good for me,” Dana said.  “Russ?”


Russ shrugged, “Sure.  Do you have any bacon or ham or anything like that?”


“I’ll find something.  You guys set the table.”


Dory and Gill came in just when I was ready to sit down with my plate, so I handed it to Gil and made eggs for myself and Dory and we all ate together.


Gil asked, “Did you hear the guy that killed all those people up north is going to plead guilty?”


We all mumbled our answers, and it occurred to me that Gil had no idea that Russ was a surviving victim, and that Russ and Dana both knew the killer personally.  I asked, “Did you follow that story?  Do you remember that one person got beat up by Schiffer and survived?”


Gil nodded, “I remember that.  I wonder what ever happened to him.”


Dana said, “That was Russ!”


Gil turned and asked, “This Russ?  Really?  Holy shit!”


Dory’s eyes were wide as she took a good look at Russ, “Oh, dear.  Is that true?”


Russ nodded and took a bite of toast, which I took to mean he didn’t want to talk about it right then.  I’d opened my big mouth to start it, so I said, “It’s true, but let’s finish breakfast, and maybe ask Russ if he feels like talking about that before starting the questions.”


Dory nodded and said, “Sorry.”


I said, “No need, but Russ just learned when we did that he won’t have to testify …”


Russ grinned, “I can speak for myself.  Paul’s right, though; I’ve been afraid of this trial for months, and now that I won’t have to testify I just want to get used to that idea, and not have to think about anything at all for awhile.”


We went back to our meal in silence until I happened to look outside.  “Whose car is that?” I asked when I noticed a new-looking Mercedes out by Dory’s car.


“That’s mine,” Dana said.  “My Christmas present.”


I looked at him with my eyes narrowed, trying to discern the truth.  “You got a Mercedes for Christmas?”


“Yeah, didn’t you?”


I said, “I know that’s not your car, Dana.”


He looked offended, “Why would you say that?”


“For starters it’s not pink or yellow, and I don’t know anyone who likes you enough to buy you something like that.”


Dana smiled, “You don’t know everyone.  Lots of people want to give me cars.”


I rolled my eyes, “For instance?”


“Dad gave me a car, too.  It’s a nice Grand Cherokee.”


“Uh, huh.  Let me guess: it’s nine years old and kind of battleship gray, right?”


“Well, sure it is, but that Mercedes is royal blue and about half a day old.”


I looked at Russ and said, “Help me out here.”


Russ sighed, “That Mercedes is the car we came in, and Dana drove.  That’s all I know.”


“Okay, who was in the back seat?”


Dana cried, “Never mind the back seat.  I want to know what you got me for Christmas.”


This was my chance.  “Gee, Dana, I got you something but I can’t compete with a car.  Now I’m too embarrassed to give it to you.”


I think I left Dana speechless for a moment, and I took the opportunity to get up from the table.  “I’m going to run over to Tommy’s for a while.  I won’t be long.”


I really just wanted some exercise, but it wasn’t to be because Tom burst into the back room, scuffed his feet on the mat, and rushed into the kitchen.  His excited expression suggested that he’d come to tell us about Schiffer, but that expression turned to one of surprised delight when he saw Russ sitting there.  “Russ, you’re here!  I just heard the news about the murder case.  Man, it’s good to see you!”


Russ had stood, and he held his hand out to shake with Tommy.  “Yeah, it was out of the blue.  How’s everything going?”


Dory said, “Excuse me, boys, but I have a lot to do in here.  Do any of you want anything else?”


We took the hint and moved into the living room, where the television was still on, and the news people were still fixated on the Stockton murders.  I turned the volume down and looked at Russ to ask, “Don’t they know who you are?  I don’t think I’ve ever heard your name mentioned since this thing happened.”


Russ sat on a hassock and said, “They kept my name out of the news in the beginning pretty much because I could have died.  I was still in the hospital when they arrested Mr. Schiffer, and the prosecution got what they call a gag order on me, and the press can’t use my name anyhow because of my age.  That means that, unless I go saying something in public, only certain people know I’m the witness.”


“Yeah, like only everybody in Stockton,” I said.


Dana replied, “Good luck with that.  An outsider can’t find out anything about people in town by asking someone else.  They just get dirty looks.”


Thinking about that made me smile at the truth of it.  The image a lot of people have of New Englanders being somewhat taciturn is based solidly in fact.  I’ve found Vermonters, especially, to be great conversationalists, but only with friends and family.  Strangers who want to buy something get the royal treatment, but won’t learn anything by asking questions about people.  I could picture some news reporter trying to learn something other than the most direct route out of town from the people in Stockton.


We hung around like that for a while, just goofing on each other and whatever struck us as interesting or funny.  Gil was sitting on the floor with his back to the sofa, Daisy stretching out away from him.  Gil gasped all of a sudden, and when I turned he looked like he might if he was drowning.  One hand was reaching up and flapping around as he tried to move away from Daisy.  I found that odd until my nose picked up on the reason for Gil’s distress.  I let out a gasp of my own before holding my breath and trying desperately to disengage from what must have been a forty-inch long dog fart of the worst kind.


Everyone else was dressed, and they ran for their coats so they could get outside in the fresh air.  Going out involved putting clothes on in my case, so I went upstairs to get ready while the guys bundled up to go out.


I didn’t hurry really, but I was ready to go in a few minutes and turned down the stairs just as I heard my mother’s voice call, “We’re here!  Can someone help us?”


“Ma!” I cried, and ran downstairs just in time to see her stumbling into the hall with her arms full.  I took her packages from her, and leaned over them for a kiss as she pulled her coat off.  Ally appeared right behind her, so I took a few steps backwards to give them room.  Dory came up beside me and offered to take the packages.


“I have these; help Ally.  Where do you want these things, Ma?”


She looked at what I had and said, “Oh, I don’t know.  Upstairs for now.”


I heard her greeting Dory while I took the stairs up, and when I returned there were more packages in the hall.  The door was open to the outside and I could see Mom leading Dory and Ally back to the house, so I made another trip up with my arms full.


Later, my legs felt rubbery from so many heavily laden trips up the stairs, while my recollection of the Audi’s interior volume seemed to contradict reality.  I went to my room and into my bathroom to sit down and recover.   I’d been met at the bottom of the stairs each time I went down, so I never saw how the car was packed; I just lugged stuff up to Mom’s bedroom.  Mom and Ally brought luggage enough for a family … sack after sack of Christmas gifts, more gifts that weren’t in bags, a ton or more of groceries, and some new baking implements still in their boxes.  Mom’s room was full, along with a big corner of the kitchen.  My father can stuff a car pretty full, but Ally has him beat by a mile.


“Paul?” Gil’s voice came from my room.


“I’m in the bathroom.”


“Oh, okay.”  He paused, “How long do you think you’ll be?”




“I mean, are you done or do you need some help?”


What?  Open the door; I’m not hearing you right.”


Gil’s voice became nervous, “Isn’t that kinda weird?”


“What are you talking about?  What’s weird?”


“Um, you want me to open the door while you’re in there?”


“What’s the difference?  I’m just sitting here.”


“You don’t think that sounds strange?”


I gave up and pulled the door open, only to find Gil’s hand attached to the outside knob.  He came flying in and bumped right into me.  I thought he’d fall, so I put my hands on his shoulders.  “How hard was that?”


Gil’s look was wild at first, but it morphed into an uneasy smile as he looked behind himself, “Not so bad, I guess.  You’re really just hanging out in here?”


I said, “Yeah.  Close the door and have a seat.”  I stood and leaned against the vanity, while I gestured to the toilet for Gil.


Gil sat down and stared at me for a moment before asking, “So what are we doing?”


“I guess you could call it hanging out.”


“But we’re in the bathroom,” Gil argued.


“Yeah, well what are you missing in here?”


Gil looked around and shrugged, “Nothing, I guess.  It’s nice enough.”


“Well, we are missing something, and it’s a big something.”


“What’s that?”


“Noise.  People asking us to do things; giving us orders.  That’s what’s missing.  That’s why it’s nice.”


Gil looked around again, appreciatively this time.  “Oh, yeah.  This is pretty quiet.”


It was until Dana’s voice rang out, “Paul?”


“In the bathroom.”


“Oh, okay.  Do you know where Gil is?”


“Gil is with me.”


Dana was silent, so I asked, “Do you need something?  You can come in, too.”


There was another silence, but the doorknob turned just before I said something else.  The door opened a crack.  I couldn’t see anything, but Gil smiled and said, “Come on in.”


The door opened wider and Dana’s face appeared.  His worried expression became a blank stare when he found me sitting up on the vanity.  I said, “What’s up?  You can sit on the edge of the tub if you’re staying.”


Dana kept his eyes on me as he walked past, and while he was sitting down he asked, “Why are we hanging out in the bathroom?”


Gil answered for me, “Because it’s quiet and nobody asks us to do more work when we’re in here.”


That wasn’t good enough, so I added, “I was in here by myself and Gil wanted to know if I needed help.”


Dana gave Gil a quick dirty look, but kept his mouth shut at first.  Then he said, “So, what should I do?  Do you want me to tell Dad you’re in here, or should I say I can’t find you?”


I had an answer, but Dana’s words caught up with me.  “Dad’s here?  Why didn’t you say so?”  I got up and tore out of there just as Dad walked into the bedroom.


Daisy was beside him and ran to me barking, as if to say, “Look who I found!”


I gave Daisy a pat and hurried into a hug with my father.  He said, “Hi, Paulie.  I was starting to wonder if you were home.”


I grinned, “Oh, I’m here alright.  Your messengers didn’t mention that you were home till just now.”


Dad put a hand on my shoulder and looked me over, saying, “I’ll have to dock their pay.  You’re looking good; everything’s alright here?”


“Yeah, everything’s great.  Look at the bed.”


Dad looked over there and said, “New quilt?  That’s really nice,” as he went for a closer look.


The tame side was up.  “Yeah, Lisa made it for my Christmas present.  It’s reversible.  She gave it to me last night.”


Dad seemed surprised.  “Really?”  He reached out and stroked the quilt, then traced a seam with his finger.  “Wow!  This is really nice work.”  He turned to me and added, “You know, we could sell work like this.  We get quilts once in a while, but nothing this nice.”


“I think it took her a long time to make.  The other side is finished too.  It’s … different.”


“A different color?”  Dad asked.


“Oh yeah,” I said absently.  “Many colors on the flip side.”


Dad took hold of the closest edge and said, “Give me a hand.  I want to see it.”


I kept my mouth shut and helped him, and he started walking around the bed once the quilt was turned over.  “What am I looking at here?”  He pointed at the hairdo and said “That’s you, I can tell that much.”  He looked at me, “Is this from real life?  Did you crash your bike into a … a what?  What is that, a blast furnace?  A cigar-smoking hippopotamus?”


I said, “Lisa used some dramatic license there.  It was a, um, it was a pricker bush, a big sucker.”  I pointed, “See?  You can tell where the shirt got torn up, where all these seemingly unnecessary stitches are.  The red is from me bleeding.”


Dad was obviously amused.  “Well, isn’t that just the ultimate in personalization?  You get a day-in-the-life picture that could have been done by Stan Lee himself.  Most people are lucky to get their initials embroidered.”


I smiled, “I’m lucky to know Lisa.”  I looked at Dad, “She’s the nicest girl I ever met.”


Dad smiled and patted my shoulder, “For what it’s worth, that’s exactly what I think, too.  Got a minute?  I want to show you something to see what you think.”


I shrugged and said, “Sure.”


Dad stepped over by the door to the hall and picked up a briefcase that was sitting there on the floor.  He brought it to the desk and popped it open, saying, “Stand over here on this side so we can both look.”


I stood beside him and he pulled out a large photograph.  It was a picture of an old house that might have been a setting for a horror movie.  It was what I think they call Victorian style.  It was whitewashed brick and, while it didn’t seem in danger of falling down, it was in serious need of attention.  The ground it was sitting on was overgrown with small trees and weeds, while vines were growing up and over the porch railings.  I looked at Dad and asked, “Why am I looking at this?  Are you making a movie or something?”


Dad was looking at the picture and said absently, “A movie?  No, no; I’m thinking it would make a nice summer place.”


I looked again, more closely this time.  We had a little cottage on Cape Cod at one time, and that was the image I had of a summer place.  It wasn’t spooky, and it had a yard of mostly grass with a few shrubs and flowers around.  The picture didn’t show much of the surrounding area, but it didn’t look like it was anywhere near a beach.


I looked my question at my father and he said, “Well, that picture doesn’t show you much.  I have some aerials in here.”


He pulled a stack of papers from the briefcase and began unfolding some, until he had a black and white picture that was about two by three feet in size.  It showed water and land, and there were various dotted lines in different colors, as well as arrows, circles, and miscellaneous notations all over it.  There, looking tiny from above, was the old house, sitting on a peninsula of some size that jutted out into a body of water.


Dad said, “This is Great Badger Lake in Maine.  This white outline shows the entire property, while the area outlined in yellow is the piece that’s for sale.  You can see that there are several houses, a barn, and some miscellaneous outbuildings.  Everything is in various states of disrepair and most of them should be torn down.  The main house is in rough shape, but it’s probably worth restoring.  Two of the smaller houses are built of fieldstone and they can be revived.  There’s a thumb drive here with lots of pictures.  I’ll bring it along to Canada and we can all spend some time looking them over and come up with ideas for the place.”


I just stared at the big aerial picture, and finally asked, “What brought this on?”


Dad smiled, “I guess I still miss that cottage on Cape Cod.  This is different, but the idea is the same.”


“How is this the same?  It’s a big place on a lake.  The house on the Cape was in a little neighborhood, so there were lots of other people to do things with.  I don’t see how a wilderness place is anything like that.”


Dad said, “Sorry.  I guess that’s the impression you’d get from this, but this property is the exception.  The west side of the lake is in a state forest, but the other side is pretty well settled.  There are a lot of individual cabins scattered around and several small developments.  There’s a big KOA campground, a summer camp for kids, and a state park with a sandy beach.  There’s a town at the southern end that I’m told is pretty lively in the summer.  It’s popular with tourists so there are some amusements there, like a town beach with an arcade, a public boat launch, some decent restaurants, and a whole lot of motels and inns.”


That actually sounded inviting to me.  “So what’s the deal?  Why this place, and why now?”


Dad nodded, “Good questions.  This property has been tied up in probate for two decades, long enough that the named heirs are either deceased or no longer interested.  By the terms of the will, the developed property will be sold, the rest donated to a land trust, and the money from the sale will go to the summer camp down the lake.  As to the timing, the probate just came up for disbursal and Bernie wanted me to have right of first refusal as long as I don’t dicker over the set price.”


It figured that Bernie Sutton would have his hand in this.  I may actually have heard some of the stories about a singularly difficult probate.  If this was the one, Bernie swore he could write a best seller about all the concurrent dramas in that particular family. 


I took a guess and said, “A piece of land like that is probably pretty rare these days, right?”


Dad grinned, “It sure is.  Once things settle out, the lake property will be completely protected from encroachment.  All we have to do is make it livable, and that’s going to be less daunting than these few pictures might have you believe.”


I looked at the big aerial picture again and smiled.  “Can I get a jet ski?”


Dad didn’t even look at me.  “Absolutely not.  Maybe a paddle board, or even a kayak…”


I groaned and Dad said, “Let me finish.  If you want to use a jet ski you’ll have to borrow mine.”


I was ready to say something when Daisy suddenly growled, lifted his head, and then barked as he jumped to his feet.  The bathroom door opened and Dana walked out followed by Gil, and they were both yammering like long lost friends.  That surprised the heck out of me because I thought they’d left when I came out.  Dad had a rather hopeless expression on his face, but neither of us said anything.  When Dana and Gil noticed us, which I think was only because Daisy came from our direction, Dana said, “We’ll be in Gil’s room,” and they walked out.


I turned to Dad and he said, “They were in the bathroom together?”


“Yeah.  I thought they came out when I did, but they obviously didn’t.”


Dad just looked at me so I added, “I can explain.”


He put his hand on his forehead and said, “I was afraid you were going to say that, but please don’t.  Some things are best left in the twilight zone.”


I nodded at the truth of that and asked, “Where’s Elenora?  Did you check in at the hotel already?”


“She’s downstairs with the rest of the ladies.  We decided to stop here and head up to the hotel later on.  We have dinner with Ally and your mother planned there and you’re welcome to join us if you want to.  Dana figured you’d say no, so he’s going to stay here with Russ.  He doesn’t want to break his training diet, and he gets bored when he’s out with just us.”


“He has a training diet?”


Dad grinned, “For sure, and he says fancy restaurants don’t give him nearly enough food to ski on.”


I laughed at that, and heard Elenora calling my father’s name.  I went to the door and said, “He’s in here.”


She came in smiling and pulled me into a hug.  Then she backed off and looked at me, “My, you’re taller every time I see you.”


“I’m not really taller, it just looks that way when I’m wearing pants instead of a skirt.”


Elenora made a face and said, “Oh you …  She turned to my father and said, “We need your help downstairs for a minute when you have a chance.”


Dad said, “I’m free.  Just me?”


“Oh, definitely just you.”


“Can I help?” I offered.


“Just stay upstairs for ten minutes, and keep Dana busy if you see him.”


I gave her a salute and said, “Yes, ma’am!” which earned me a pat on the cheek.


When they left the room I went over to Gil’s room.  Gil was on the bed, stretched out on his side facing Dana who was sitting at the desk.  They both looked up when I walked in and I asked, “What’s up?”


Dana said, “Just talking.  What do you like better, cats or dogs?”


I shrugged, “I like dogs.  It’s not that I hate cats, they just don’t do much.”


Dana grinned, “Tell him what you told me, Gil.”


Gil rolled his eyes.  “I just said I like dogs because they’re always happy to see you and they want to do things.  Cats … I don’t know, to me they act like I should be paying them or something.”


I laughed, “That’s good.  It’s true, too.  Cats are cute when they’re little and it’s fun to watch them play, but they won’t play with you.  Even little baby dogs like to play with people.”


Gil grinned, “Yeah, and dogs don’t get all embarrassed when they look dumb.  The snow’s sticky out there, and Daisy came back with his ball one time with like long things of snow coming out from his nose holes.  We all laughed at him and he didn’t care.  He just liked the attention.”


I looked at Dana and we both mouthed the words nose holes at the same time, which set us off laughing..


Gil stared at us for a second and then asked, “Now what did I do?”


I laughed, “You came up with a new synonym for nostrils.”


“Oh, yeah.  Sorry, it just came out that way.”


Dana said, “I have my eye on Gil’s blanket.  You ever see anything like it before?”


“I’ve seen them in pictures, but never a real one.  Did you feel it?  That thing weighs a ton.”


“I know.  I wish I had a blanket like that.”


I said, “Maybe they sell them in Whistler.  Even if they don’t, there must be a Hudson’s Bay in Vancouver.”  I could see Dana’s confusion so I added, “It’s a store ... a chain of stores.  It used to be a trading company way back, and they used the blankets to trade with the natives for furs.  They still sell them.”


Dory called up to Gil and asked him to come downstairs to help her with something.  I stayed with Dana.  We hadn’t really had any time together since the wedding and there was plenty to talk about.  Dana was really wired up about the trip to Whistler and he kept bringing it up.  He was looking forward to the racing season after that.  He’d been skiing well and was sure he’d have a good season, maybe good enough to get him a crack at the national team next year.


Dana had been talking to Gil and I was curious about that, so I asked, “What do you think of Gil?”


Dana smiled, “He’s pretty cool.  You must have fun with him around, huh?”


That wasn’t the kind of answer I expected and it caught me off guard.  “Fun?  Um, I guess … yeah, you could say that.  I mean, it’s only been a month.”


Dana’s eyes narrowed, “Are you saying you don’t know yet?  Christ, it took me ten minutes to figure out that he’s a nice kid.”


“Don’t get me wrong.  I met Gil under different circumstances.  He was being a jerk, a real asshole, so I didn’t like him from the beginning.  When I found out the reason he was like that, the first impression was already there.  Now I know he’s okay, but I have to think past what he was like then.”  I smiled sadly at Dana, “This is coming out wrong.  Gil’s smart, he can be funny, and I really do like him.  There’s no but involved, just one sour little memory.  It’s my problem, not Gil’s, but getting rid of that memory is like trying to un-say something, or un-hear it.”


Dana’s gaze softened and he smiled, “You know, I actually understand that, and from both sides.  I know there are people in Stockton who have it in their heads that they can’t trust me, and the flip side is that I know it, and it makes me not really trust them even when I know I should.  So what was Gil’s problem?”


I opened my mouth to talk and thought better of it.  I shook my head, “No, let’s not go there, okay?  Gil was in a bad situation, but it’s something personal that he’s getting help with.  I really doubt that he wants to be reminded, or to think the whole world knows.”


Dana just said, “That’s fine.  Let’s go see what they’re doing downstairs.”


That’s what we did, and we spent the afternoon snacking, listening to honeymoon stories, and greeting the various friends and neighbors who stopped by to visit.  Dad and Elenora left for their hotel around four o’clock.  Ally and Mom convinced Dory that she deserved a break, so she left to have dinner with them at seven, and we had the house to ourselves for a few hours. 


It was just Gil, Dana, Russ and me for a while.  We made sandwiches and ate in the kitchen.  Tom and Shea came by after their family dinners and I opened a bottle of wine, which disappeared quickly so I opened another.  Hector and Arizona showed up after their dinner out, and that called for more wine.  When Tom noticed a bottle of Godiva he convinced me that there was nothing quite like hot chocolate laced with chocolate liqueur and marshmallows to lend warmth and cheer to a Christmas gathering.


Russ, it turned out, did not inherit his father’s drinking gene.  He was looking woozy after two small glasses of wine, and fell asleep after a sip from the third glass.  Gil never finished his first glass, though he sipped from it occasionally.  Tom found my father’s stash of Beck’s beer, and once he determined that there was a lot of it, he helped himself to a few.  When Arizona showed an interest in the Beck’s, Tom kept her generously supplied with beer as well.


Dana announced that he had forsworn alcohol for the racing season.  We thought that was admirable even though it didn’t sound like much fun.  Shea Luellen pretty much matched my wine intake sip-for-sip and, since he wasn’t doing much else, I put him in charge of keeping our glasses up to date.


We sat in the living room, which was crowded with gifts.  It was cozy with a nice fire going, the tree lights lit, electric candles in the windows, and Mom’s oil lanterns burning cheerily.  I played a CD of Christmas music and fixed up a tray of snacks from the bounty in the kitchen.  I kept it simple in a Greek way, with chunks of feta cheese drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with oregano, an assortment of olives, some Loukanika salami, and a loaf of Ally’s crusty bread.  Tom, of course, searched out a jar of Cheez Whiz and a box of crackers.


Dana woke Russ when I brought the olives out because he knew Russ loved them.  I don’t know much about olives, but there were some big purple ones that were really delicious.  Tom loved the salami on crackers with Cheez Whiz, which was not a huge surprise.


Daisy just played along, happily defending his floor and scarfing up everything that fell on it.  Shea gave the dog a black olive, and it rolled out of his mouth when he tried to eat it.  He stretched out and got it with his tongue, but it rolled out of his mouth again.  After losing it a few more times he stood up and smashed it with his paw before licking it up off the rug.  Gil got a cloth to wipe the spot, and he was laughing too much to mind doing it.


We were having a good time.  Hector kept bugging me to tell my pig joke, so I finally did, but everyone had heard it so Hector was the only one who laughed.  We just talked and sang along with a couple of the songs when we knew the words.


We learned the ladies were back when Daisy, who had been snoozing at Gil’s feet, suddenly woofed, then jumped up and ran toward the door barking.  Gil cried, “Daisy!” and leapt to his feet.  He was wearing socks without shoes and failed to gain enough traction to catch the dog. 


The next thing I heard was my mother, who sounded tipsy, saying, “Oh look!  The nice doggy is here to welcome us home.  Hello, Daisy.  Let me get my coat off, and I have a yummy treat for you.  Oh look at how he licks my fingers.”


I looked at Tom and shrugged as she continued in baby talk.  He smiled and leaned against the wall in a way that made me realize he’d had a lot to drink.  It reminded me of the first time we’d drunk alcohol together, not long after Dad and I had moved here.  We’d had dinner with Tom’s family at their house, and afterwards Tom’s father had friends over to get to know my father.  The men were all drinking and telling stories, which I wanted to stay and hear.  It wasn’t to be, because Tom’s mother shooed us out to protect our tender little ears from hearing such talk.  We went to my house and started sampling the liquor supply.


I got buzzed.  Tom got pretty drunk, and when I managed to get him upstairs I had to lean him against the wall in my bedroom while I pulled the trundle bed out.  He wasn’t nearly as soused this time, but he wouldn’t be allowed to stay over on Christmas Eve so I had to sober him up some before he could go home.  I had to do it without Mom, Ally or Dory catching on.  Thankfully, Mom and Ally weren’t in much condition to notice, and they headed up to their room after calling out Christmas greetings and good wishes to everyone.  Dory came by and looked twice at Tom, but she excused herself to go to bed without mentioning him.


As soon as she disappeared, I pulled Tom into the kitchen and sat him at the table.  He stared happily at nothing while I filled a big glass with water and put it in front of him.  “Drink this.”


Tom lifted his head and stared at the glass, “All of it?  Is it gin or vodka?  I don’t like gin too very much.”


I patted his shoulder and said, “Try it, you’ll like it,” and went to pick up the dishes and leftovers from the living room.  I passed Gil and Dana who were on their way outside with Daisy.


Hector and Arizona were already picking up in the living room.  Russ was sprawled awkwardly on a chair, sound asleep, so I quietly walked around behind him to turn off the music and put the CDs away.  We hadn’t really made a mess at all, and the room looked fine once we brought the dishes to the kitchen and straightened out the sofa cushions.


There were only a handful of plates and glasses, so I decided to wash them by hand instead of using the dishwasher.  Arizona said she’d help, but I could see that Hector wanted to leave so I saw them out.  I got a kiss from Zoner and a handshake from Hector, who said he’d be back for breakfast.  I was just finishing the dishes when Gil and Dana came in with the dog.


“Cold out?” I asked.


“Not really,” Dana replied.  “Um, where are we sleeping?”


I hadn’t considered that.  I had figured on Dana sleeping on the roll-out in Gil’s room, but that was before Russ Glover showed up.  I thought it would be best to put Russ somewhere with Dana, and only Gil’s room had two beds.  I wasn’t exactly keen on having Gil sleep with me, so I looked at him and asked, “Do you mind if Dana and Russ take your room and you use mine?  I can sleep on the couch.”


Gil said, “It’s your house.  I can sleep on the couch.”


I glared at Gil.  “It’s your house too, man; I’ve told you that.  Anyhow, I want to sleep in the living room.  Maybe this year I’ll get to see Santa.  I always try, but I always fall asleep.”


Gil’s eyes opened wide?  “Are you serious?  When Santa gets a look at that tree he’ll go right back up the chimney and outta here.  There’s no room for any more presents.”


“There’s always room,” I informed him, and nodded sharply at Dana so he got the message too.


That settled it.  Dana roused Russ and led him upstairs with Gil and Daisy following.  I went to see how Tom was doing and found him napping, his arms folded on the kitchen table and his head resting on his forearm.  The water glass was empty.


I shook his shoulder gently, “Tom … Tom!”  He stirred and I said, “Come on, time to go home.  You okay?”


He squinted at me and mumbled, “Okay?  Fine.  Yeah, fine.  Why are you here so early?”


“It’s not early, it’s late.  Everybody’s gone to bed, and you have to go home.  Get up, and I’ll walk over with you.”


Tom nodded, and though it took him a while to get on his feet he seemed pretty steady once he was up.  He used the bathroom and got into his outerwear while I got ready to go with him.  He protested a little, but I went with him anyhow.  His house was dark when we got to the door, so I felt it was safe for him to go in alone.  We said our goodbyes and I hurried back home.


I went up to my room to change into pajamas and to get a bathrobe.  I tiptoed in, but Gil said softly, “I’m awake.  You want the light on?”


“Yeah, thanks,” I said.  “I just need a minute to change.  You comfortable?”


“Uh-huh.  You really don’t mind the couch?”


I was looking in a drawer for pajama bottoms and came up with a pair of sweat pants first.  “The sofa’s fine.  I sleep down there a lot when I’m too lazy to come up here.”


I emptied my pockets onto the dresser, dropped my clothes on the floor, pulled on the sweats and my slippers, and unhooked my robe from the hook in the bathroom.  I brushed my teeth while I was there, then said, “I’m all set.  Merry Christmas, Gil.”


Gil said, “Yeah, it is, isn’t it?  Merry Christmas, Paul.”


I heard Daisy’s tail thumping gently on the floor as I left.  I said, “Merry Christmas, Daisy,” and smiled on my way downstairs.  I had gotten used to having Gil around.  We had some awkward moments and would undoubtedly have more of them.


It may have just been the Christmas spirit, but while I got myself comfy on the sofa it occurred to me that there was more to Gil than I gave him credit for at first.  He was bolder, brighter, funnier, and a whole lot more agreeable than I expected, and I found myself enjoying his presence.  I considered Dana my brother, and it was official now that Dad married Elenora, but we’d never lived under the same roof like I did with Gil.  Except for my time at Barent’s, I’d never lived with anyone other than my parents, and I liked the change.


It was like having my very own runt.