Winter in Wyoming was beautiful. Crisp white snow that sparkled in the daytime, the crystal snowflakes shimmering subtle rainbow colors. Then shone in the night, reflecting the moon and practically glowing in the dark. Alma and Jenny made the most of it, dragging Ennis out to build snowmen with them, taking Jack out for snowball fights, and making hundreds of angels in front of the apartment. Jack would always have cups of hot cocoa ready for them when they came in, their noses and cheeks red from the stinging cold.
Christmas was approaching, a family holiday. It was the girl’s first Christmas without their mama. Jack’s first Christmas with his new family. Jack was determined to make it a good one. He was nervous about Christmas dinner. He knew Alma had been a better cook than he was, and he shuddered to think of the Thanksgiving disaster they’d had a month ago. The smell of that burnt bird hung in the apartment for a week after. Not to even mention his pathetic gravy. But Christmas would be different, he told himself.
Holiday preparations were underway. They had to get a tree, get the food, and of course, get gifts for their girls.
“We’ll start with a tree.” Ennis said to Jack as he put the hatchet and ropes in the bed of the truck. “Girls like it.”
Jack was wrapped up in as many layers as he could be comfortable in. A thermal shirt, flannel, and jacket. Gloves and the thickest pair of socks he owned. He was sweating beneath his jacket, but still his legs and ears were cold. Ennis was wearing a jacket, gloves, and his usual cowboy hat. “I don’t know how you do it.” Jack said, a little jealous. “It’s too friggin’ cold out for this.”
“It’s Christmas, Jack.” Ennis smiled, a small turn of his lips. “Go get the girls.”
Jack gladly retreated to the warmth of the apartment. He pulled scarves around the girls necks and pulled winter hats onto their heads. “Alright. You guys ready to go pick a tree?”
“Yes!” They shouted.
They started to run outside, about to go leaping down the stairs like they always did. Jack shouted in alarm, running after them and grabbing them by the backs of their coats.
“Stop! The steps are slippery.” He said.
The girls looked down at the stairs, which had a layer of ice over the tops. “Oh.” Jenny said. “Thanks Jack Jack.”
Jack sighed in relief. Then he held their hands and guided them down the stairs safely.
The Christmas tree farm was two towns over. The dirt roads had been snowed over, and were hard to see. Ennis drove a lot slower than they usually did. The girls sang along to Christmas songs on the radio. Jack joined in after a few. Jack could hardly ever resist the urge to sing to any music he heard.
It began to snow as they pulled into town. Lander Wyoming was the only place in the area with a Christmas tree farm. A few store fronts had painted their windows with holiday themes. Christmas lights adorned houses and there was a nativity display in front of their local church. The Christmas tree farm was on the farther edge of town, surrounded by other farms that grew wheat in the summer. Ennis carefully parked the truck.
The strong smell of pine was especially crisp in the cold air. Jenny turned her face skyward and tried to catch snowflakes on her tongue. Fluffy, fat snow that drifted down slowly. Alma’s eyes glowed from reflected strings of Christmas lights. Other families walked among the trees, trying to pick a tree appropriate for their house.
“Come on. Let’s get one before they’re all snatched up.” Jack said. He took the girls hands and Ennis walked behind them with the ropes and hatchet.
There were trees of various sizes. The girls ran through the snow, lifting their legs high to get through it. Up to their knees in fluffy white snow. Jack easily trudged after them. They had their sights set on the biggest, grandest, greenest trees in the farm. Frosted with layers of snow that clung to their branches.
“Daddy! Daddy! This one!” Alma shouted, leaning against the trunk of a tree. It stood twelve feet above them.
Jack laughed, looking at Ennis with amusement. “Your girls sure know how to pick em.”
“Baby we can’t fit that through our door.” Ennis tried to reason with their daughter. “I don’t think we can stand it up inside either.”
“That’s okay! We can put it outside!” Jenny said.
“Darlin’ I don’t think we have enough ornaments to cover that. Listen, we can get a perfectly nice tree. One that's smaller.”
The girls looked disappointed, but they didn’t try to argue. They followed Ennis to the middle of the farm, where there were moderately sized trees available for purchase. The girls inspected them carefully. Picky little girls that they were. They wanted the best. Jack watched them. His breath turned into silver mist as it came from his mouth. It rose into the air, curling and disappearing. Ennis wiped his nose. Jack looked over at him.
“God, I’m cold just looking at ya.” Jack said. He tugged at his scarf, pulling it further up around his ears.
“It ain’t so bad.” Ennis shrugged. “I’m glad. The girls seem to be happy again.”
Jack looked back at the children. Smiles peeking out over their scarves. He smiled, reflecting their happy faces. “Yeah. Guess so.”
“I was worried about em.” Ennis confessed. “I want this to be a good Christmas. It’s their first without their mama.”
“I know.” Jack sighed. “I think about it all the time.”
“I’m glad you’re here.” Ennis’s gloved hand wrapped around his own. “It would be just a little more lonesome without you.”
Jack was glad to be with them, too. Christmases weren’t historically happy for him. His father wasn’t exactly the warm “Christmassy” type. Either he was with his bastard father for the holidays or on the road. Alone in some shitty motel room watching Christmas specials on the television. Drinking cheap coffee in an unfamiliar bed. This Christmas would be different. He had a real family to spend it with.
“I feel the same way.” He whispered.
“Daddy! This one!” The girls shouted. They had picked a much more reasonable tree. One with big green branches Ennis would have trouble fitting through the door. But he’d be able to stand it up inside. Ennis decided he approved of his girl’s choice.
“Stand back, darlin’.”
Jack pulled the kids back, keeping them in place while Ennis swung the hatchet. The tree shuddered with every blow, and came down in just a few swings.
“Alright. Come help me tie it.” He said to Jack.
With the tree bound up, they dragged it back to the main building and paid for it. The shop owner, a man with a white beard, round belly, and gold frame glasses who looked humorously like Santa gave them a decent price on the tree. The girls looked up at him with wide eyes, whispering to each other.
Ennis grinned at his children’s antics. “You wanna say merry Christmas to Santa?”
The shopkeeper laughed. The girls said merry Christmas, talked a bit with the shop owner. He let them touch his beard and smiled at them.
“Cute kids.” He said.
“Yeah, they sure think so.” Jack joked. “That must happen all the time.”
“Oh yeah. It’s a good business model, too.” He gave them their receipt. “Have a good Christmas. Come back next year.”
“For sure.” Ennis said. Then they hauled the tree out and Jack helped him secure it to the truck.
The girls were still riding high from their encounter with “Santa.” The town was beautiful, just like a Christmas card. Ennis was driving slowly, because of the roads, which gave the girls time to get distracted by things. Especially a bright bakery with a big Christmas cake in the window.
“Oh daddy! Please daddy can we stop there pleeease!” They begged.
“I don’t know.” Ennis said. “We gotta have dinner later.”
“Oh, come on Ennis. It’s Christmas.” Jack said with an indulgent smile. “Get the girls a cookie.”
Ennis seemed to agree. He was a generous father. “Alright.” He pulled in front of the bakery store front and parked the truck. The girls screamed in the back, hopping out and running to the store in their excitement. Ennis clambered out after them. Running to them then open the door.
The inside of the bakery smelled like heaven. Like cinnamon and vanilla and caramel. Jack would be satisfied to stand there all day just breathing in the smell of the place. It was a sight to behold, too. Pristine glass displays showed off creme filled pastries, decorated cookies, and chocolates. Christmas music played softly in the background while Alma and Jenny smudged the glass, pressing their fingers and faces into its surface.
“Girls, don’t do that.” Ennis scolded, pulling them a few inches away.
The shopkeeper chuckled. “Don’t worry. Happens all the time.” He said kindly. “What can I get for you?”
“We’re just here to buy the girls a cookie.” Jack said, looking at the sparkling confections. “As a little Christmas treat.”
“That’s nice. We have lots of cookies. Take your time picking.”
“Ooooh.” The girls looked eagerly at the desserts. There was classic gingerbread, very old fashioned, with peppermint buttons and licorice smiles. Along with more modern sugar cookies with colored frosting. Snowman sugar cookies were covered in thick white frosting with sparkling crystal sugar. There were chocolate cookies, thin and snappy, that looked like reindeer. The girls seemed to have trouble choosing out of such a beautiful selection.
“Just one, Jack Jack?” Jenny asked, looking up with big, pleading puppy dog eyes.
Jack laughed. “Nice try, baby. Just one. But I’ll let you have ice cream after dinner if you’re a good girl.”
Jenny seemed to agree to those terms. Ennis crouched beside Alma, and discussed with her her choices. Alma wanted the sparkling snowman, but she was also tempted by the chocolate reindeer. Ennis nodded sagely, which just made Jack want to laugh. He helped Jenny in turn, who also wanted the snowman, but was also having trouble committing to any one decision.
Alma decided on the chocolate reindeer. Jenny ended up choosing the snowman sugar cookie. They made their purchase and left with two happy little girls. They had a Christmas tree, some cookies, and they were ready to head home. Jack felt as though it was a successful day out on the town.
The girls traded cookies in the truck, trying each other’s choices. But ultimately they were happy with what they got. They munched quietly on the way home.
Home, however. Is where they ran into the problem. Jack looked up and noticed that they had an issue. They were going to have trouble getting their tree up to their second floor apartment.
Getting the tree? No problem. Securing it to the truck and driving it home, even on the snowy dirt roads? No issues at all. But now they were home, and Jack was looking at the narrow stairs leading up to their second floor apartment. The sharp turn near the bottom. The icy metal steps. And he saw that this was going to be a problem.
“Uh… Ennis? How are we supposed to get this fucking thing up those stairs?”
Ennis turned around, and the look on his face confirmed everything Jack needed to know. “Same way I did last Christmas.” He said.
“Shit.” Jack sighed.
That was how they ended up hauling the tree up the stairs. The girls watched from the window upstairs, stashed safely in the apartment where they were warm. They were cheering their daddy on. Not that it did them any good. Jack took the top of the tree, and he was walking backwards up the stairs ahead of Ennis, who had the trunk firmly in his arms. Almost immediately Jack slipped on the icy steps. He grabbed the railing, flailing his other arm in an attempt to get balance, and dropped the tree on the stairs.
“Jesus, Jack!” Ennis yelled as pine needles showered all over the place. “Watch your damn step!”
“I’m trying!” Jack hissed.
The next problem was the sharp turn, exactly as Jack predicted. It took entirely too long to maneuver. Jack was wedged between the wall and the tree as Ennis shoved it through. Jack groaned as the branches pressed into his ribs. It involved at lot of yelling and forcing the damn thing through. Jack cursed the railing, which limited how far they could turn. Both men were panting by the time they finally got the tree straight.
The rest of the way was straightforward, but labor intensive. Jack had to be careful with every step. He vowed to salt these steps as soon as he had a free moment. His arms aches with their effort. By the time they’d finally pushed the tree into the apartment Jack was ready to collapse from exhaustion.
“Well. The tree looks a little worse for wear.” Ennis admitted. The branches were looking a little raggedy from being shoved against the wall so hard. “But close enough.”
“Alright.” Jack panted, throwing himself onto the couch without so much as taking his boots off. “Give me five minutes and I’ll be ready to decorate.”
Ennis shook his head. “Gotta set it up first.”
“Okay.” Jack said, pushing himself up to help. His arms shook under his own weight.
“Nah, you stay down, rodeo. I can handle it from here.” Ennis said. He leaned down and pulled Jack’s boots off. He looked at Jack fondly. “Thanks for the help.”
Jack felt his face heat, and his heart fluttered in his chest. “No problem.”
Ennis was true to his word. He did it all by himself while Jack rested. Jack drank the coffee Ennis brought him on the couch, lounging while he set up the tree in its stand and pulled the skirt around it. Jack eventually shed his jacket. The warmth of the coffee in his hands was wonderful after being in the cold for hours. Ennis tugged the skirt for a while, trying to arrange in perfectly. When he was finally done he turned around to look at Jack. “You warm now?”
“Well, I’m not. Scoot.”
Jack made room for Ennis. He shoved in beside Jack and they curled up together on the couch. He pulled the blanket up over their laps and slung an arm over his man. Ennis sighed. He sounded satisfied. “Well. I'm ready for a nap.” He said.
Jack looked over his shoulder at the tree Ennis had set up. It looked good, but it was lacking the ornaments to finish it off. “We should decorate the tree soon.” Jack reminded him.
Ennis hummed, tucking his head under Jack’s chin. “In a few minutes.”
Jack smiled. Snow drifted past the window outside, swirling in light breezes. The apartment was warm. Ennis was with him. The living room smelled like pine and coffee. It felt like Christmas.
“In a few more minutes.” Jack agreed.
Jack and Ennis have a night on the town. Christmas shopping and the first date in their several year relationship
Christmas was a busy time for businesses, even in small towns. People had family and friends to buy gifts for. The business never stopped around the holiday season. The church was collecting donations for various charity causes and hosting different social events for the town. The kid’s Christmas play, extra choir meetings, services, and coffee hours. Ennis was avoiding the church as much as possible. But Christmas shopping? That was something he was looking forward to.
Jack was the kind of guy who made shopping fun. He had running commentary on available merchandise and he made for good company.
He was walking beside Ennis, breathing deeply through his nose. His face relaxed and he sighed. “Jesus. Fresh air. I needed this.”
Ennis rolled his eyes at Jack’s dramatics. “You’re not a prisoner.”
“No. But like, do you ever want to do something? Something that isn’t working or taking care of the kids?” Jack asked.
“No.” Ennis said, and it was the truth. He was a simple man. He was never interested in doing much. He went to work, he came home to his family, and when shit hit the fan he went to the bar. Not that he didn’t drink plenty at home.
Jack scoffed. “Ennis, you never took your wife on a date?”
Ennis looked incredulous. “Why on earth would I need to do that?”
“Oh my–” Jack huffed. “Okay. So dates are supposed to keep the relationship healthy. You’re supposed to keep things fresh. Otherwise you’ll get bored of each other and argue. ‘Sides, a lot of parents feel like they lost their identity to parenthood. They’re no longer their own person, they’re just the caretaker of their kid. You never asked your wife out on a date? Or how she was feeling?”
Ennis shrugged a bit sheepishly.
Jack sighed. “Well I need to do something else every once in a while. Shoulda taken your poor wife on dates. You better take me on dates.”
Ennis smirked. “You my wife?”
“You should be so lucky to have a wife like me.” Jack shot back.
Ennis didn’t argue. “Where am I supposed to take you, anyway? Hmm?” Ennis turned a corner, walking them down to the general store. “Can’t take you dancing. Can’t look romantic with you in public. You know this is a secret.”
“Well people think I’m your cousin. It wouldn’t look weird if we got a burger at the local joint.” Jack said. “Or took a walk in the park. Or… we could go back to Brokeback. Leave the kids with Miss Mary Brown a couple days. Or Alma’s family. Just… have a vacation together.”
Ennis sucked in a breath. Returning to Brokeback. There was something appealing about the idea. Camping out in the summer under the stars on the mountain again. Being in the same place they fell in love. Falling in love on Brokeback was easy. It was painless. It made sense. Even if it didn’t make sense anywhere else in the world. The mountain was like that. It was powerful and secret. It was undeniably romantic.
He definitely wanted to go back to Brokeback someday.
“Someday. When we settle in a bit more.” Ennis agreed.
The smile Jack gave him was worth it. They slipped quietly into the store and tucked away the promise in their minds. Not forgotten, just put aside for now. Brokeback mountain was waiting for them someday.
The general store was set up differently for Christmas than it was the rest of the year. The same Christmas songs that played in all the other stores were present here. Shiny tinsel lined the displays, and there was a surplus of toys available. As well as other things. Neckties and jewelry and lotion that you could get your spouse. Books and dolls and manicure kits lined the shelves.
“God.” Ennis murmured, walking slowly down the first aisle. “Ain’t never gonna find something to buy em.”
“Of course you are.” Jack said. “They already have a lot of toys. You spoil em, Ennis.”
“You know them. Hard not to spoil.”
They were no closer to a decision. It was overwhelming, the amount of choice they had. Barbies and baby dolls. Little tea sets and etch a sketches. Jack was interested in the army men and the hot wheels. He knew they were girls, but who didn’t like little toy cars? He picked up a box to examine them.
“They already have so many dolls.” Ennis muttered. “Can’t get em another doll.”
“Yes you can.” Jack said. “If you wanna get them a doll.”
“I wanna get them something special. Dolls aren’t special if you already have a hundred of em.”
Jack looked up from his hot wheels. “Do they have a hundred dolls?”
Ennis huffed. “Wouldn’t surprise me.”
Jack considered that. “You’re right. Can’t get them a doll.”
They crouched beside one another and went over their choices. “Would it be weird to get army guys for Alma?”
Ennis looked at the plastic green toys. Miniature soldiers. They were cheap, too. And plentiful. They were boy toys, but Ennis wasn’t exactly concerned about that. As he already said, they had more than enough dolls. “Nah, that’s great. I’m sure they’ll find some use for them.”
Jack tucked the box under his arm. “What are you getting?”
“I’m thinking… a stuffed animal. But that’s in another aisle. I got Jenny King Charles a while ago, but I could get Alma something.”
“Hmmm.” Jack still had the hot wheels set in his hands. “Ennis. Talk me out of this.”
“I can’t talk you out of anything to save our asses and you know it.” Ennis said, irritated and affectionate in equal measure. “How about this. If you can’t come across something better we’ll come back and get it.”
“Fair.” Jack said, setting it back on the shelf.
The stuffed toy aisle was something to behold. Seven foot tall bears laid across the bottom shelves, shoved in by some sales associate who was too busy to figure out some neater way to arrange them. Then there were smaller ones. Little dragons and bunnies, foxes with unnaturally red fur and grey wolves. All sized to fit in a child’s arms perfectly.
Jack’s eyes were drawn to a plush frog. He was arranged to be laying on his stomach, long limbs stretched in front of his head and behind his rear. His little brown eyes glinted in the harsh store light. He was pillow sized. He could immediately picture Jenny, laid in for a nap with her head wedged beneath it.
He picked it up. “I’m still getting those hot wheels.” He said.
Ennis held up his hands in defeat. “Well I still gotta pick one.”
“Yeah. No, take your time.”
Ennis was very careful in picking. He spent a while standing there. Jack could see in his eyes the cogs turning in his head. He was considering carefully all his choices. His girls were very particular, after all. And he cared about what they really wanted. His eyes shifted from each animal. Considering them all. In the end he decided on a ragdoll cat plush, with loose, floppy limbs and shiny blue eyes. He picked it off the shelf. He seemed very sure of his choice.
Satisfied with their choices they explored the other aisles. Ennis picked a set of squirt guns for the girls to chase each other around with in the summer. Jack got a box of legos for them to scatter all over the apartment. Jack ended up going back for those hot wheels. Ennis got Alma a slinky. Ennis got a colorful toy piano for Jenny to drive him crazy with.
“The money we’re gonna spend today.” Ennis groaned as they got in line.
“Hell. That’s Christmas. Oh! Save our place.” Jack ran back off into the store. All to retrieve a new set of film for the camera.
“You’re buying more film?” Ennis said with a disapproving look.
“Hey, it’s Christmas. Don’t you want to save their Christmas smiles forever?” He threw it into the cart. “Then shut up.”
Jack knew what he was getting the girls for Christmas. Hell, kids were easy. It was Ennis he was stumped over. The man never seemed to want anything. He was simple. He lived minimally. Most of the things in the apartment belonged to the girls or Alma got them before she died. Their television, most of their kitchen equipment. Jack knew what Ennis could live on, and it was less than him that’s for sure. What was he supposed to get a man like that for Christmas? He didn’t want to get him any old gift. It had to be special. It had to be appreciated.
He’d come back to the store later. Without Ennis. Figure out something he could buy for him.
Ennis was right. They spent a lot of money. Jack couldn’t bring himself to feel bad about it. Not when everything was put into bags and they were walking back out into the flurry. Snow, glittering snow. Jack grinned.
“We should go on a date now.” He said.
“Now?” Ennis repeated.
“Yeah. Hell yeah. No time like the present.” Jack said, turning in a circle.
Ennis laughed. “Are you twirling?”
“It’s beautiful out.” Jack said simply.
“Yeah.” He said. “Okay. I’ll take you on a date. Let’s go.”
Jack stopped dead in his tracks. His brain raced to catch up with him, and his heart just about stopped. “Really?” He breathed.
“I just said so.”
Jack nearly slipped in the snow as he ran to catch up with Ennis. Ennis laughed at him, in a good natured way. Jack had the urge to slip his arm under his, lock their elbows together. But he couldn’t. Not in the street. Their romance was secret. No close gestures in public. He wanted to, though.
They tucked their bags under the footwell in the truck. The truck purred to life as Ennis turned the key.
“Where are ya taking me?” Jack said.
“Out to dinner. Ain’t much we can do in this town right now. Maybe in the summer we can do something else, I don’t know.”
Only one place to go in town. The little burger joint. It was the only restaurant in town, and it was one of the two places everyone went if they wanted to do something social. The other being the local bar. They were the typical burger joint you could find in any little town. They served burgers and fries, shakes, pies if you wanted it. Cold beer if you asked for it. It was the place people went for dates. That and the drive-in theater in Shoshoni. Ennis would probably take him there someday too.
“I think this is our first real date.” Jack realized.
“Well there wasn’t exactly an abundance of opportunities in the past.” Ennis said. Not that he would have taken Jack out in the past anyway. He wouldn’t have wanted to risk exposure like that. He was willing to take more chances nowadays. Jack brought that out in him. The taste for adventure. It was a quality Ennis found he liked.
The restaurant was busy. Well, as busy as things got in a town like this. It always was. People got off work and took their families or their sweethearts out. It was packed all year round.
Through the glass door Jack could see the set up of the restaurant. Red vinyl booths with white tables lined the walls of the restaurant. Metal chairs and tables filled the rest of the space in the middle. There was a counter where people took your order and gave you your food, and that was directly attached to the kitchen. Nothing was hidden. All one big room where you could see people flip burgers and fry mozzarella sticks.
A bell over the door jingled as it opened, drawing the eyes of the ladies working the counter. One middle aged lady, in her blue uniform, grinned at Ennis coming in.
“Well, Ennis Del Mar! You don’t come in here often! This your cousin?”
“Yeah. Just getting dinner.” He muttered.
Jack didn’t know how she heard him over the racket in the restaurant, but she smiled. “Well, you take your time deciding.”
“Don’t need to. I’m just getting the house burger, with everything, poppyseed roll.” Ennis rattled off. “And a beer with fries.”
“I’ll have the same.” Jack said. “But onion rings instead of fries.”
The lady, Mae her tag said, nodded. “You got it. It’ll be right out.” She turned around, shouted their order into the kitchen, and grabbed beers out of the case, sliding the cold bottles across the counter. Ennis and Jack put their hands against the edge of the counter, catching them as they came.
Things moved fast. Jack watched as their burgers were made, his onion rings were fried, ketchup was squirted into little paper cups for them to use. Then a sturdy blue tray was slid over the counter at them.
Ennis caught it. “Thanks, Mae.”
She winked at him and turned to take the next person’s order. They chose a booth in the corner. It was loud. Laughter, conversation, screaming children, and a little jukebox in the corner that blasted music as loud as it could. Every family in the place combined into a din that covered any conversation they might be having.
Jack cracked the top of his beer. “This place is nice.” He said conversationally.
“It’s loud.” Ennis said. “See that kid?” He pointed to a little boy, messy hands and short blond hair in a booth across the restaurant from them. “He has thrown up every time I’ve seen him here.”
Jack wrinkled his nose. “You think his parents would have the sense not to bring him.”
Ennis shrugged. “Maybe they’re just glad they won’t have to clean it up here.”
“Still. You think they’d bar them from coming in, or something.” Jack said, picking up his burger. The onion crunched as he bit into it. It was a well balanced burger. Juicy, tomato was just thick enough, and the blend of flavors was satisfying. “This is a good burger.”
“It’s local beef.” Ennis said.
“Figures.” Jack said. All that Wyoming was good for was cattle ranching. “So. What do people talk about on dates?”
“Don’t know. You probably been on more dates than I have.”
Jack bit into an onion ring. They were good too. He laughed. “You’d be surprised. You must have wooed your wife somehow.”
“More like she wooed me. I did some work on her daddy’s ranch and she was always somewhere nearby while I was working.” Ennis shrugged. “Don’t know what she saw in me. Not conversation, that’s for sure.”
“You’re probably the only cute boy she ever saw. Bet the other ranch hands were old roughnecks. Women need more excitement in their lives.” Jack said with a grin. “Eh, I ain’t been on a lot of dates. I flirted with a lot of girls in high school but mostly cause I was lookin’ for attention. Nothing ever went anywhere. Well… except for that one time I messed around with a girl under the bleachers. After midnight. Cops nearly caught us. Shoulda seen me. Running away with my pants halfway down my legs.”
Ennis laughed. The other patrons in the restaurant quieted down a little, collectively pausing their conversations as they looked at Ennis a little funny. Jack wondered if they’d ever heard Ennis laugh in the whole time he’d been living in Riverton.
“Why am I not surprised?” Ennis said as his laughter tapered off.
“Aw, you wound me.” Jack teased. “I ain’t so much trouble anymore. You made an honest man out of me.”
“Not that honest.” Ennis said. Under the table he reached out for his hand. Jack took it immediately. Their fingers fit together so perfectly.
He smiled secretively. “I guess not.”
They drank their beers and ate their burgers and enjoyed each other’s company. Occasionally Ennis would brush their knees together under the table or squeeze his hand. Jack entertained him with stories like he always did.
“Yeah. I was always getting in trouble in high school.” Jack was telling him. “My daddy never stopped giving me shit. I guess I actually did go on a date. Once. But even that was trouble. The girl was uh, Susie. Susie Speck. I took her out to a diner. She was a real girl next door type.”
“Why was she going out with a dumbass like you?” Ennis asked.
“I told you. Women need more excitement in their lives. Couldn’t just go to church and get good grades all the time. You need some adventure sometimes. But yeah, she didn’t end up too happy. I said some dumb shit she didn’t like too much. She smacked me in the face. Right in the middle of the diner. Threw cherry coke in my face. Stormed out in a huff.”
Ennis laughed, and again it drew the attention of the restaurant patrons. Jack shook his head. “Guess she musta said something to her friends cause none of the rest of her little posse would give me the time of day the rest of the time I was there.”
“Well you probably deserved it.” Ennis said.
“Oh of course.”
Jack finished off the last of his burger, licking the remnants off his fingers. Ennis’ eyes followed the movement of his lips, hungry for more than just food. Oh yeah.
“Suppose we should get out of here.” Jack said lightly. He was a bit eager for what would happen after the date. “Go pick up the kids. Put them to bed. Then… go to bed ourselves.”
“I s’ppose we should.” Ennis said, swinging the keys around his finger.
“Let’s go then.” He said, standing up. They threw out their trash and put their trays in the collection bin and got out of the restaurant.
“Well I guess that was a pretty good first date.” Jack said when they were in the car, away from the prying eyes of the rest of the world.
Ennis hummed his agreement. It wouldn’t kill them to go out every so often. Ennis could definitely see more dates in their future. “I’m going to hold you to your promise.” He said.
“What promise?” Jack asked. A bit too innocently.
“I’m taking you to bed at the end of the night.” Ennis said, bold as brass.
Jack grinned. “After the first date? I hope you don’t think I’m too fast.”
“Jack Twist I have never met a faster boy than you.” Ennis said. The way he said it made it seem like the finest compliment he could receive.
“We’ll see who’s really fast, cowboy.” Jack whispered, right next to Ennis’ ear, where the breath tickled the shell of his ear and heated the sensitive skin of his neck.
Ennis groaned. He prayed the girls would go down easy tonight.
They got the girls from Miss Mary Brown’s, who said they were angels like always. Then Ennis and Jack were racing home with the girls in tow, chattering away in the backseat about the Christmas special that was playing on television tomorrow. Ennis promised they could see it if they went to bed like good little girls tonight. The girls were quite eager to agree to those terms. Jack grinned.
Of course that didn’t mean they could jump each other immediately when they got home. There was still work to do. Watch the girls brush their teeth, help them into their pajamas, tuck them in, and Jack had to tell them a story. He told them a story about making Christmas pies with his mama as a little boy. His mama let him pinch the crusts shut and allowed him to eat a bit of the fruit filling out of the bowl she’d mixed it in. Then they bid the girls goodnight, turned out the lights, and closed the door.
Ennis was waiting outside the door for him. Looking positively predatory. “So.” He said. “All alone and no commitments.”
“Except for one.” Jack breathed.
“Hmm? What would that be?” Ennis nearly purred.
Jack pulled Ennis’ arms around his waist. “I said I was taking you to bed.” He whispered.
“Oh I remember that.” Ennis said.
Jack was going to give some kind of sly, flirty response. But Ennis had run out of patience for flirting. One arm clutched Jack’s waist, the other hand sliding up the length of his spine to cup the base of Jack’s head. His nail’s scraped the short hairs at the back of Jack’s neck as he pulled his partner into a consuming kiss.
Jack suppressed the moan that bubbled up naturally in the back of his throat, remembering that they were right outside the girl’s door and they weren’t quite asleep yet. Ennis knew how to light a fire in him. The heat of it scorched his nerves until he was a panting mess, leaning against Ennis and pressing him into the wall.
“Bed.” He gasped in between brushes of their lips. “Bed, now.”
Ennis twisted them off the wall and grabbed his hand. They practically ran to the bedroom, closing the door behind them as they went.
The lock clicked quietly into place.
The kids make Christmas crafts and the tree gets decorated
Hey guys! Sorry I haven’t updated in a minute. My sister came home from college and we were unpacking her stuff and I was hanging with her. She’s out with her friends now and I’m back to writing
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
School was out, work was out, and everyone was at home for the holidays. Some people went to get Christmas shopping done. Some went to church for the social events. But Ennis said they “weren’t ruining our Christmas with that damn nonsense.” So Jack had to find other ways to pass the time with the kids. It wasn’t good to spend all day in front of the TV. Kids needed more attention than that. Frankly he couldn’t spend another minute out in the cold making snowmen and chasing the girls around in the snow. He swore, those girls took more out of him than bull riding.
So he planned to distract them with arts and crafts. He had scissors, glue, scrap paper he’d pulled from newspapers and envelopes and all sorts of other places. Not to mention the pipe cleaners and beads. He had crayons and pencils and string, and he was ready to make some little ornaments.
“Hey girls! Get in here! We’re making snowflakes!” He shouted down the hall.
Jenny poked her head around the corner. “Making snowflakes?”
“Sure. And we’ll put em on the tree. Or tape em up in the window.” Jack said. “Here, I’ll show you how. We did this when I was a kid. I guess the teacher was tired of tryna teach us shit.”
Alma and Jenny giggled at his language. Jack sat down at the table, picking up scissors and paper. “Alright, so you fold it up, like this.” He demonstrated, folding the paper in half. Then into fourths, and then eights. “Then this corner, in the center of the paper, you cut off.”
The girls watched attentively as he cut. “Then like, I don’t know, some shapes along the line. Like some diamonds.” He turned his scissors. Little scraps of paper fell onto the tabletop. “Then you cut the outer edge. You know what a snowflake looks like. So some angles like this… and when you unfold it…” he unfolded the paper and revealed a paper snowflake.
“Ooooh.” Alma said. “Okay. I’ll try.”
“I wanna try!” Jenny said. “Jack Jack can I borrow your scissors?”
“What’s the magic word?” He asked.
Jack handed over the scissors. He’d go get another pair. He hauled himself to his feet with a grunt while the girls started on their snowflakes. There was another set of scissors in the junk drawer. He retrieved them easily, keeping one eye on the girls the whole time. He’d purposely given Jenny the smaller, blunter set of blades. Ennis would have his hide if she cut herself. He sat down quickly, bringing another piece of paper. He repeated the process, making another snowflake with the girls.
They unfolded their flakes together. Alma’s was certainly neater, being older. But Jenny’s wasn’t half bad. Not bad at all.
Jack grinned. “Those are real pretty. You wanna color them?”
“They’re snowflakes.” Jenny said, looking at Jack with all the condescension a three year old was capable of.
“Yeah, Jack Jack.” Alma said. “They’re meant to be white.”
“Fair enough.” He said. “Then we’ll leave them white.”
“What about the beads?” Jenny asked, easily distracted.
“Yeah, we have string.” Jack said, pulling it out of the pile. “But also pipe cleaners.”
“Hmmm.” Jenny seemed to consider it while Alma started on another snowflake. She picked up a pipe cleaner for examination. “Why is it a pipe cleaner?” Jenny asked.
“People used to smoke out of pipes.” Jack explained. “But uh, not one under the sink. A long skinny one made of wood with uh, a little bowl on the end. And people would smoke through them. When they got dirty they used these to clean them. But then we started using cigarettes to smoke and these to craft.”
Jack picked another pipe cleaner from the pile. “Because you can bend them really easily and they hold their shape. So people make things out of them. They come in a lot of colors, too. But all we got is white.”
Jenny looked interested. Alma had finished her snowflake and was starting on another. She experimented with the thing in her hands. Twisting and curling it. Jack sighed, leaning back in his chair. He was glad to be inside for a change. Given a break to sit down.
“Ooh!” Jenny said. She grabbed another pipe cleaner. She bent the very end. “Jack Jack, pass the beads,” then after a moment of thought she added, “please!”
Jack was more than willing to help out. Jenny started picking through their collection, which was a mixed jar of different plastic beads. Some were plain and opaque. Some sparkling and see through. All different colors.
Jenny started sorting into two piles. Red and white. Jack watched her. Alma put down her paper and scissors to watch her little sister. Jenny worked with surprising speed, shaking the jar to shift the beads occasionally to make new beads available to her. But mostly she just picked through them with her fingers.
Finally she seemed satisfied with what she had and began stringing the pipe cleaner in an alternating fashion. Red then white, red and white.
Jack recognized what she was doing. “Wow. That’s a great idea.” He said, genuinely impressed.
Jenny continued until she reached the end of her pipe cleaner, then twisted the end over the last bead to prevent slip off. Then she bent the end into a hook, making it into a candy cane of different shining beads.
“Woah.” Alma breathed. “I’m gonna make one!”
The front door opened. Ennis grunted, kicking his boots off and hanging his hat on the hook. “Alright. I scraped and salted the steps. You shouldn’t slip again.”
“I appreciate it.” Jack said. “Come see what your girls are doing.”
Ennis came into the kitchen. Snow clung to the shoulders of his jacket. Jack reached out to brush them off. Ennis peered over Jack to look at the table. “Snowflakes?”
“Among other things.” Jack pulled his hands away, ignoring the instinctive urge to kiss him. “Jenny just made a candy cane.”
Jenny proudly showed Ennis her beadwork.
“Wow.” Ennis said. “It looks great, darlin’.”
“Can we put it on the tree?” She asked.
“Sure.” He agreed. “Looks better than our other ornaments anyway.”
Jack sat back down, and Ennis sat beside him. “That reminds me. Are we decorating tonight? Looks sad when it’s bare.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Ennis said. “Good a time as any.”
Alma finished with her candy cane. “Daddy, look at mine!”
“Wow, that’s beautiful.” Ennis handed it to Jack. He nodded, examining the beads. They were really cute.
Speaking of cute. “You girls keep crafting.” Jack said, standing up out of his chair. “I’m getting the camera.”
Ennis shook his head. “You and that camera.”
“You’ll thank me one day!” Jack shouted from the other room. He said that every time he snapped a picture. He and Ennis were different like that. Ennis lived in the moment, and he never thought much about pictures, and certainly didn’t want to spend money on film. Jack didn’t mind the cost of film. He was interested in having a record of their fond memories. Ennis wasn’t less sentimental, per se. He had his own way of remembering things. He prefered keepsakes. Little souvenirs of his memories. Jack was surprised when he noticed a little wooden horse a month into living in the Del Mar apartment. The same wooden horse he’d carved on Brokeback. His own way of remembering the mountain.
Jack grabbed the camera anyway. They had plenty of knick knacks. It was time for some family pictures.
He came back into the kitchen, brandishing his camera at them. “Alright. Ennis! Get in with your daughters.”
Ennis furrows his brow and gets out of his chair. The girls look up at Jack, see the camera in his hands, and immediately break out into big smiles. They know the routine. Jack grins. “Good girls. Ennis! Smile.”
Ennis, to his credit, smiles as he’s asked. It’s a bit of an awkward smile, but his smiles are always awkward. Jack appreciates his effort. It’s charming, anyway. “Girls, hold up your crafts.” The girls pick something off the table to show off and Jack snaps a picture. “Aw. Can’t wait to get this developed.”
“Jack Jack, can we put the snowflakes up?”
“I got tape.” He said, holding it up. “Windows?”
“Yes!” Jenny agreed.
“Ennis. Come help us.”
Ennis was easily pulled along by his family. They taped the paper snowflakes to the window. Real snowflakes drifted outside, falling all over the walkway Ennis just shoveled. Alma and Jenny drew hearts and stars into the frosted window glass. Breathing hot air over the designs to make them pop.
They stepped back when they were done to admire their work. “Well. Doesn't that look nice?”
Jack looked over at the boxes holding their ornaments and the barren tree they belonged to. “We should decorate the tree then, while we’re at it. Girls?”
“Yes!” They agreed eagerly. They’d been waiting to decorate the tree since Ennis put it up. But Jack made them agree to wait until Ennis was ready to do it with them.
Jack snapped another picture while Ennis wrapped the tree in tinsel, resting in his arm Jenny on one hip as he did so. Then he helped unpack the ornaments. They were all packaged carefully in boxes, with protective wrappings to prevent breakage. There was an assortment. Some shiny glass things and some little wooden dolls. Even some fabric ornaments. A little grasshopper, a snowman, a reindeer. Jack laid them all out for the girls to choose from.
The girls were rather quick in picking out the ones they were most excited about. They covered the lower branches, the ones they could reach, in ornaments. Jack picked up a little wooden nutcracker on a string and hung him in the middle of the tree.
He was interrupted by Jenny tugging on his sweater. He looked down at her. “Yes?”
“Up, Jack Jack!” Jenny demanded.
Jack lifted her up by her armpits. Directed himself according to her reaching hands. She set the glittering ornament on the upper branches of their tree. When the job was done he set Jenny safely back on her feet.
Alma was sitting at the base of the tree, admiring the angel meant for the top. She had a delicate porcelain face, painted with big blue eyes. Brassy auburn curls laid on her dainty shoulders. Her white robe glittered with golden embroidered stars. A shiny gold halo framed her perfect hair. Her wings, silky white, extended from her back elegantly. She was a family keepsake, an ancient thing that had belonged to Alma’s great grandmother. Now passed down to them over a century later.
“Oh Jack.” She whispered in awe. “Do we have to put her up there?”
“Yes. She belongs there.” Jack said.
“But she’s so beautiful.” Alma hesitated to give her up.
“Yeah. Imagine how beautiful she’ll be on our tree. She’ll be there, right there. Where you can see her. Then we all get to appreciate how pretty she is.”
Alma still obviously didn’t want to give her up. “Can I put her on?”
“Of course.” Jack agreed easily.
Ennis lifted Alma up to put the angel on.
“No fair! I wanna put the angel on!” Jenny cried.
Jack ruffled her curly hair gently. “Oh, but baby. I have a special job for you.” Jack said, easily distracting her from her oncoming tantrum. He pulled out another heirloom set of ornaments. Glass doves, just as delicate, though a little less old. Another keepsake of Alma’s family, given to her when she got pregnant. “These are Christmas doves. Aren’t they pretty?”
Jenny nodded. They were pretty, delicate white glasswork. Why Alma’s family had so many fancy, beautiful ornaments was utterly beyond him. But he was glad for it. Their other ornaments were cheap. Some store-bought mass produced things. Some charming little crafts that the kids made, and one or two things Ennis said his mama owned once upon a time. Jack turned the little beaded candy cane over his his hand. He knew they were probably going to be hanging those on the tree long after the kids left the house. Ennis took the beaded candy cane and hung it on one of the top branches.
So Jenny was allowed to put the glass doves on the tree. In the middle branches. Their shiny, smooth surfaces reflected the sparkle of the tinsel. Jenny grinned at her work.
“Here, I’ve got another one for you.” Jack handed Jenny a little wooden Santa, riding a green sleigh with miniature presents in the back. Jenny took it and hung it as she pleased.
This continued on for a while. Jack pulled ornaments from his pocket to offer to Jenny while Ennis and Alma circled the tree on their own, doing the same. Until the tree was fully decorated. The boxes that held their ornaments were empty.
“Well.” Ennis set Alma on the ground. “What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful.” Alma sighed happily.
Jack agreed. The whole room smelled like pine. Sunlight from the window cast the shadows of snowflakes over the shag carpet. It looked like Christmas.
Jack set Jenny down. “I gotta make dinner, baby. How’s mac and cheese sound?”
Jack had a new cookbook. He’d been learning to bake mac and cheese the proper way. He was learning to roast vegetables and make tender steaks and mash potatoes. And he was going to make a good Christmas dinner this year. He promised himself.
As he was washing his hands in the kitchen sink he looked out the window. Out at the kids in the park in the distance, having a snowball fight. And the lights on the houses and the nativity scenes in the yards. In the other room he could hear Alma and Jenny sing Christmas songs while he shredded cheese.
It certainly was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
I don’t know if you guys find it boring but I kinda love all the little domestic things. Spending time with the kids, crafts, snowmen, Christmas tree decorating. It’s kinda what the holidays are about.
I got the candy cane idea because I made those as a kid. I have no memory of them but we still hang up my pipe cleaner and bead candy canes. My parents kept all the Christmas tree ornaments we made, so our tree is like. A sentimental display. I think it’s sweet that my dad cares so much about all the little things his kids made.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Lots of things to get through! 8,000 words. Jesus Christ. Let’s get into it
My publication dates are acting weird. I hope this shows up properly for you. I’m publishing this on the 28th of May. But it offered the 19th as the date automatically. For what? Weird
“Damn it Ennis, you fuckin’ fool.”
Ennis shrugged. Jack sucked an irritated breath in through his clenched teeth. He’d been out shoveling the walk again in 19° weather with chilling winds and no gloves. Of course the idiot got frostbite. Luckily the damage wasn’t severe. He hadn’t been out for too long, thank God. Jack put a warm bowl of water in front of him. Ennis’ hands, pale with red patches, were submerged in the water. Ennis grimaced at the feeling.
“I don’t want to hear a complaint from your mouth.” Jack said. He threw a blanket over Ennis’ shoulders. Then a quilt for good measure. “It’s your own fault. I keep telling you to wrap up!”
Jack really was like a nagging wife. He couldn’t help it. He worried about him. That was his right as his partner, wasn’t it? He wouldn’t have to worry if Ennis took better care of himself. Took care of himself without Jack hanging around, feeding and nagging.
“Is daddy gonna be okay?” Jenny asked, looking over the edge of the table with wide eyes at her father’s hands.
“I’m okay, little darlin’.” Ennis said. “All I have to do is warm them up.”
“Yeah. Warm them up.” Jack came into the kitchen with another blanket. He spread it over Ennis’ lap. He’d already made Ennis strip out of his wet clothes and change into his pajamas. With a pair of thermals underneath. And socks.
“Well I’ll be more careful in the future.” Ennis promised in an attempt to appease Jack.
“You shouldn’t have to learn the hard way. You’re a grown man. Christ.” Jack threw up his hands and went into the next room. Jenny watched him go.
Jenny turned to her father again. “Jack Jack’s mad.” She said.
Ennis nodded. Jack didn’t get mad a lot. He complained, but he also laughed more. He was the more vocal and openly emotional of the two. But anger was one emotion he wasn’t quick to. “He’s just worried.”
“And pissed off.” Jenny added.
Ennis huffed. “Alright. That’s my fault.” He admitted. “Don’t say things like that in front of Jack. He’s already gonna blow his lid at me.”
Jenny pressed a finger to her lips. “Shhh.”
Really, the frostbite wasn’t that bad. His skin was a little damaged, but the tissue underneath wasn’t. He’d heal by New Years. Jack made him coffee and Ennis wrapped his hands around the warm mug.
The girls watched Christmas specials on television. Rudolph the red nosed reindeer had come out a few years earlier, and the television station had at least three reruns of it that December. Alma and Jenny ate popcorn Jack made for them while they watched. Slowly Jack got over his anger. He could never stay mad at Ennis for long.
Christmas was getting closer and closer. Jack was thawing the ham and reading the cookbook while the girls watched television. Ennis went out for some last minute Christmas shopping, as did Jack the day after that. Then all they had to do was wrap the gifts. Which proved more difficult than either of them had imagined. Ennis, with his fingers still a little damaged from frostbite, struggled with getting the tape and paper wrapped cleanly.
Jack was doing no better. He wasn’t so used to delicate tasks. He was a rodeo cowboy. He was used to rough ranch work and animal herding and staying on animals that wanted to throw him off their backs. He tried to fold the paper nicely, but he ended up using a lot of tape and his folds didn’t look so nice. He consoled himself with the thought that the girls wouldn’t care so much. They were just going to rip it apart anyway. He used ribbons to cover the wrinkles he’d made in his careless treatment of the paper.
The days passed easily. Watching Christmas TV with the girls, getting ingredients at the market with Ennis, shoveling the walk because he refused to let Ennis out in the cold again. Then it was Christmas Eve. A celebration in its own right. The girls were vibrating with anticipation of the day ahead tomorrow. It was up to Ennis and Jack to make the day entertaining for them.
Christmas Eve was special. Jack brought home a bag of chocolate coins. The girls ate as much chocolate as they wanted while Jack told them Christmas tales. Ennis sat on the couch opposite the girls, listening with amusement.
Some of them were tales Jack got from an old book his mama used to have. With delicate, old fashioned ink illustrations. The kind where every candle casts dark shadows across the picture, the faces are full of life, the hair is delicately curled. Jack remembered poring over that book for hours, and he recounted the tales from memory. Others he made up as he went.
He told stories of the Christmas spider. A German woman had a Christmas tree that was tragically bare. In the night a spider wove webs over her evergreen, covering it in spider silk. When the morning sun came through the frosty windows the webs turned into silver and gold, making the tree sparkle. From then on the poor woman had good fortune, and that’s why we hang tinsel on our trees. Or so the story says. That story was one he remembered from his childhood Christmas book.
One he made up, however, was a rather wild story. But his best stories were full of strange details. It was about a little girl in a cabin in England. Her family needed firewood, and she was sent out into the dark, cold woods to gather the wood. She obviously got lost in the dark. Afraid and alone, she ran through the trees. Until she saw a light further in. Thinking she found home, she ran through the trees towards the light. But she hadn’t found her home. She found Santa Claus.
“She found Santa Claus?” Ennis asked skeptically.
“Yes.” Jack said. “Shush.”
He continued with his story.
The girl was terribly cold. Santa pulled from his magical sack a gleaming fur coat and draped it over her shoulders. ‘What is wrong my child?’ Santa asked. ‘I’m hungry and there’s nothing to eat at home!’ The girl cried.
Santa drew a glass of warm milk and hot bread from his bag, and the girl ate her fill.
“This is a weird story, Jack Jack.” Alma said bluntly.
Ennis laughed. Jack grinned over his shoulder and shook his head at Ennis. “Yeah. I guess it is. Does that mean you don’t want to hear the end?”
“Well now I’ve gotta hear the end.” Ennis said in between little chuckles.
“I wanna hear it.” Jenny said.
“Well alright.” Jack said. “Let’s see… oh yeah. So…”
The little girl realized that Santa’s bag was magic. And that she wanted it for herself. So she snatched the bag from the sleigh and ran off into the woods. Away from Santa, who called after her, warning her against what she was doing. But the girl didn’t listen.
She finally found her way home. She took the bag inside and set it on the floor in front of the fire. She wished for money. She wished for food and blankets and baby dolls and all the things she wanted. She reached into the bag and pulled.
Out came Santa himself.
“ Santa came out of the bag?” Jenny asked incredulously.
“Yeah.” Jack confirmed. “And he scolded the little girl! He said ‘don’t you know not to steal? You’re a naughty, terrible little girl to take from those who would give you gifts!’”
“Wow.” Alma said.
The little girl cried. ‘I am desperate and poor! Have pity!’ Santa is a kind man at heart, and loves children. He could not stand to see the girl cry.
‘Christmas is about generosity.’ Santa said. ‘So I shall help you, but you must never steal again.’
The little girl promised not to steal. Santa drew firewood from the bag. And a steaming hot Christmas dinner. He pulled blankets and water and kettles and the cabin was soon furnished.
‘But nothing comes for free, you see.’ Santa said when he was finished. ‘Good behavior is the payment for gifts on Christmas. Generosity, honesty, and kindness. I must see a turn around in behavior from you by the summer solstice. Or else this shall all go away.’
“Oh.” Ennis said. “That’s interesting. So Santa is blackmailing the kid.”
“Not blackmail!” Jack insisted.
“What exactly would you call that?” He asked, lighting a cigarette.
Jack struggled with it for a minute. Trying to come up with a better word. “Okay. Okay. Maybe it’s kinda blackmail. Put out that damn cigarette, Ennis. It’s Christmas.”
Ennis shrugged and tossed it into the ashtray.
So the little girl thanked Santa, and he was on his way. Then in the coming months, the little girl did not improve her behavior. She snatched apples from stalls and threw rocks at the boys she knew from school. Ennis laughed at that. By the summer solstice, the little girl had forgotten all her promises to Santa. The gifts disappeared, and the greedy little girl was left in an empty cabin, with nothing but her rotten little heart.
“That was a sad story.” Alma said. “Kinda. I mean, I don’t feel bad for her, she was rotten. But it’s too bad she didn’t improve.”
“Well. You gotta keep your promises. And be good. That’s the moral. Otherwise you lose what matters.” Jack said. “Alright, kiddos. It’s time for bed. Speaking of Santa. You want to leave milk and cookies out for Santa?”
The girls agreed. They left cookies they’d bought at the store earlier out with a glass of cold milk. Then the girls brushed their teeth, Ennis helped them into their pajamas, and he tucked them into bed.
Jack sat in the living room, eating the cookies and the milk when Ennis came back. He waved the cookie in his hand in Ennis’ direction. “You want one? They’re good.”
Ennis looked at the sugar cookies. He shrugged. “Sure. Why not.”
They drank milk and ate cookies together. Then they set out the Christmas presents together. Arranged them around the base of the tree and looked at each other.
“That was a real interesting story.” Ennis said.
“Well thank you.” Jack said. “I like to think of myself as a man of many talents.”
“Yeah. I know you do.” Ennis said with a smirk.
Jack grinned. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing.” Ennis said lightly. “Come on, rodeo. It’s time for bed.”
“Oh, I guess it is.” Jack sighed. “I’m not very tired though. I think I need to be tired out. Any ideas on that?”
“I’ve got some.” Ennis said. “Go brush your teeth and I’ll show you.”
Jack rushed into the bathroom. It was already a great Christmas.
Jack woke up early Christmas morning. The sky was grey outside with the early morning light. His pajamas were still around his ankles. He groaned, pressing his face into Ennis’ chest.
“Too early.” Ennis muttered. “Back to sleep.”
“Yes sir.” Jack slurred. “Wait… fuck. We can’t.”
The girls were pounding on the door within an instant of Ennis asking. Jack pulled his head out from under Ennis’ chin to give him an I-told-you-so look.
Squeals of excitement pierced the thin, cheap material of their bedroom door. “Santa came daddy! Daddy come look!” The girls were shouting from the other side of the door.
“I’m comin’.” Ennis mumbled. Then repeated himself louder so the girls could hear. “Ugh. You need a tissue?”
“Mmmm.” Jack shifted, pulling the pants up his legs. “No. Thanks.”
“Alright. Guess we gotta get out there then.”
Jack planted a kiss on Ennis’ cheek. “Let’s get em.”
The girls swarmed around their feet the moment the door was open. Grabbing their hands and practically corralling them into the living room. Jack tried his best to look at least a little surprised at the presents under the tree. “Wow. Good haul from Santa.” He said.
“Jack Jack sit!”
“Can do.” He said, sitting down. “Oh wait. Ennis can you get the coffee?”
Ennis nodded, shuffling into the kitchen to start the machine. Jack sighed in relief. “You’re an angel!” He called after his partner.
The girls were kneeling at the foot of the tree, sifting through their haul. The labels Ennis had stuck on them were scrawled in his same messy writing. He said that when Alma was alive she would write them in cursive, something she nearly never did otherwise, to make them feel like a real package from Santa. But Ennis couldn’t write in cursive, and he felt a little guilty that he wouldn’t be able to write like Santa did. The girls, however, hardly seemed to notice. Jenny couldn’t read yet anyway.
Junior helped her sister sort through the packages. She turned a box over in her hands, a little box, one Jack thought might be the hot wheels he got. But then she shuffled over on her knees to the couch where he sat. She handed him the package.
It was for him. From Ennis. Jack couldn’t help the smile that came to his face. “Thanks baby.”
She nodded. Then went back over to keep looking through the pile.
Ennis came back quickly, with two mugs of coffee in hands. Jack’s mouth watered at the earthy aroma. He took it gratefully. They sat beside each other and watched the girls sort through their gifts.
“Daddy, this is for you.” Alma handed a package to Ennis, just as she had for Jack. It was Jack’s gift to Ennis for the season.
“You open your first.” Jack said to the girls. He had his camera set on the coffee table for this purpose in mind.
The girls didn’t bother arguing with that. They were thrilled to rip into the paper Jack had painstakingly wrapped the boxes in.
Alma gasped. She pulled from the package the ragdoll cat Ennis had gotten her. “Oh wow.” She whispered. Her little fingers combed through the fur on it’s back. The she traced the grey patterns on its face and ears. “She’s beautiful. Thank you, daddy.”
Jack snapped a picture. Ennis smiled. “Mhmm.” He hummed.
Jenny pulled the little toy piano from the package she’d picked. She squealed with delight, immediately banging the rainbow keys.
Jack was happy to listen to the reactions of the girls all day. Drinking coffee while they opened gifts. Alma tore open her slinky from Santa.
“Daddy what is it?” She asked.
“It’s a slinky.” He answered. “Ya put it at the top of the stairs and it walks itself down. They’re fun.”
“Wow.” Alma said. “I can’t wait to put it on the stairs.”
“When the weather’s a little warmer.” Ennis promised.
Jenny finally found the frog Jack got her. She melted with happiness. Bringing the frog into her arms for a hug. Jack snapped another picture.
Ennis gave him a look.
“What? She’s cute.”
He couldn’t argue with that. So he didn’t.
Alma was surprisingly happy with her army guys and hot wheels. She didn’t complain a bit about them being boy toys. She had plans to put them in her dollhouse “for defense.” The hot wheels, she explained, would be their cars. Since they were of similar sizes.
Jenny was delighted to get Legos. Apparently one of the boys at the playground had them, and she’d wanted them ever since she’d seen them. But of course that little boy didn’t give up a single Lego to her. Now she had her own set.
The girls had a blast. They loved their gifts and Jack got a heap of pictures. Paper was scattered all over the floor. The only packages left untouched were the ones in their laps. Jack and Ennis’ gifts to each other.
“Aren’t you gonna open it, daddy?”
“Yeah.” He said. “Alright. Here goes.”
Jack held his breath while Ennis ripped away the paper and cut the tape on the box. He folded away the top to reveal his gift underneath.
Ennis pulled the clothing from its box. It was a jacket. With a green polyester exterior, a thick hood, and a quilted lining. There were multiple sets of pockets, very utilitarian. Exactly Ennis’ style. With a set of gloves to go with it.
“Because you got frostbite.” Jack explained. “A proper damn coat for you to wear.”
Ennis looked touched. “This is great.” He said sincerely.
“And you better make use of it!”
“I will.” Ennis tapped the present in Jack’s lap. “Open yours.”
Jack had been dying to know since Ennis bought and secretly wrapped his present what he got. The box was relatively small, and whatever it was inside was sort of heavy, making thunk sounds against the sides of the box when he rattled it. Jack ripped away the paper and opened it to find a brand new harmonica.
“Oh.” He said quietly.
“Yeah. You broke yours.” Ennis said.
“Yeah.” How could he forget? Ennis complained about it on the mountain all the time. But he still let him play. And now he got him a new one. It was high quality, too. It must have been an expensive little instrument. There were definitely cheaper harmonicas available. He got this one because it was beautiful and he knew Jack would have liked it. It was the most considerate gift anyone had ever given Jack. “I love it.”
Ennis smiled, just a little turn of the corners of his lips. Jack wanted to kiss him. Couldn’t in front of the kids. His lips tingled with anticipation for an urge he couldn’t fill. He vowed to kiss him later.
“I already know I’m gonna regret it. You’re enough of a noise maker on yer own.” Ennis said.
Cheeky bastard. “Aw. But I can’t make better music with this! Imagine how it’ll sound when it’s not half flat.”
“Better sound amazing. Paid well for it.”
Jack is going to take much better care of this instrument. It won’t be flattened carelessly by a rowdy mare. It would be cared for. It would be just as cherished as Jack felt the moment he took it into his hands.
The girls were already distracted from their daddy’s. Bored by the, in their eyes, uninteresting gifts they’d given each other. They turned their eyes back to the little pile of toys they’d accumulated. Alma and Jenny gorged themselves on the last of the chocolate coins from the day before and took their new things to their room.
As soon as the girls were out of sight Jack took his mama by the collar and hauled him in for a kiss. Ennis’ arms wound tightly around Jack’s waist, just as eager for the contact as he had been. They listened for the girls, careful not to get too lost in their stolen moment of intimacy.
Jack broke the kiss for a much needed breath. “Thank you for the jacket.” Ennis said against Jack’s lips.
“And thank you for my harmonica.” He replied. “I love it.”
Ennis might have said more if they didn’t hear the girls running back down the hall. They had only moments to wrench themselves out of each other’s arms and look casual. Jack picked his coffee back up. There was nothing left in the mug. But he put it up to his lips anyway to hide how swollen they were.
“Jack Jack!” Alma cried, leaping into his lap. If there had been any coffee left in the mug he might have spilled it down his shirt. He passed it off to Ennis. “What are we doing the rest of the day?”
“Well, I have to make dinner.” He said. “Then we’ll eat dinner, sing, be jolly. All that holiday stuff.”
“It’s A Wonderful Life is on TV in the evening.” Ennis said.
“Ooooh. I love that movie.” Jack looked at his partner. “After dinner?”
“If we get it done before five, yeah.”
“Mmm. Can do. What before then? It’s only five.” Jack sighed, dropping his head back against the couch. He wished they could have slept in. Just for a while. Maybe next Christmas Jack could convince the girls to just. Sleep for a little while longer.
“We need breakfast. Coffee don’t count.” Ennis pointed out. “Girls ain’t had nothing but chocolate yet.”
“Hmmm. How does Christmas pancakes sound?”
“What makes them Christmas pancakes?” Alma asked.
Jack grinned. “You’ll see.”
“Well now I gotta know.” Ennis said.
“Christmas pancakes it is.”
The kitchen was a place Jack was beginning to grow fond of. As he got more comfortable cooking he started to enjoy it. He turned on the radio while he pulled the pancake batter out of the pantry.
Of course everything on the radio was Christmas songs at the moment. Not that Jack minded. He didn’t have many good Christmas memories of his childhood. But one of the nostalgic ones was his mother listening to Bing Crosby’s Christmas record while she made Christmas cookies. She let him lick the frosting spoon as long as his daddy wasn’t around. Then she’d bend down, smelling like vanilla and raw flour, cup his face in her damp hands, and kiss his forehead.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” He sang. “Everywhere you go.”
“Take a look at the five and ten, it’s glistening once again.” The girls had joined him. Jack lifted Jenny onto the counter, setting her down where she could watch him while he cooked. Alma quickly followed. They swung their feet off the counter while they watched him crack eggs into the batter. “With candy canes and silver lanes that glow.”
He poured milk into the batter, whisking until it was smooth. Ribbons of batter poured off his whisk as he withdrew it. He put the milk back in the fridge. “It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” He sang with the radio. “Toys in every store. But the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be on your own front door.”
The batter sizzled when it hit the buttered pan. The kitchen began to smell like fresh pancakes. Jack sprinkled peppermint chips into the puddle of batter in the pan. “A pair of Hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots is the wish of Barney and Ben. Dolls that'll talk and will go for a walk
Is the hope of Janice and Jen.”
“And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again!” Jack and the girls shouted together.
Jack took out the hand crank beater to whip his cream. It was Christmas. They’d be having a lot of whipped cream. Starting with breakfast. He put sugar in his heavy cream and twisted the crank to beat air into the cream.
“It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Everywhere you go. There's a tree in the Grand Hotel, one in the park as well. It's the sturdy kind that doesn't mind the snow.” He flipped the pancake and gave the girls some peppermint chips to entertain themselves with. They sang through mouthfuls of candy. “It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Soon the bells will start. And the thing that'll make 'em ring is the carol that you sing. Right within your heart.”
Ennis was in the kitchen now. Retrieving another cup of coffee. The cream was beginning to solidify. Ennis pulled the pancake out of the skillet while Jack finished whipping it. He poured another batch of batter in its place. Jack tossed more peppermint chips in.
“It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Toys in every store.” Jack sang. “But the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be on your own front door.”
Ennis joined in the last part, with Jack and the girls, although his voice was much quieter in comparison to them. “Sure it's Christmas once more.”
The girls clapped at the end of the song. The pancakes were coming fast now that he was in the rhythm of it. By the end of the next song, a nice rendition of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, he had an entire stack of pancakes ready. He put them on plates, heaped whipped cream over the top, and finished them off with red and green sprinkles.
“There. Christmas pancakes.”
“Ooooooh.” Jenny wiped her mouth with her sleeve. “Those look good.”
“Alright. Go sit down and we’ll get some forks.” Ennis said as he let them down off the counter.
The girls were squirming with impatience while Jack set the plates out at their places. Ennis brought the silverware, butter, and syrup. The girls shoveled the pancakes into their mouths as soon as they had a fork in their hands.
Jack grinned. “So I take it they’re a hit.”
Ennis shrugged, taking a much more patient bite of his pancakes than his girls. Then his face was surprised and pleased. “Yeah. Maybe a new tradition.”
“Really?” He tried the pancakes himself. They were warm and fluffy, he’d done a good job cooking them properly. The peppermint was a great decision, although mostly impulse on his part. They were sweet, but the tingling sensation of the mint was fresh and left you craving more. The whipped cream was also good, because of course whipped cream was good, and the crunch of the sprinkles satisfied. “Damn. That turned out better than I expected.”
“At least try to sound like you did it on purpose.” Ennis teased.
“Oh yeah. I’m a genius.”
Jack swiped the last crumbs from his plate with his finger, licking them off.
“Daddy! Look at the snow! It’s so pretty outside.” Alma sighed happily. “We should go outside!”
“Oh. Well, we do have hours to fill.” Ennis said, glancing at the clock. “I wonder if I still got that sled.”
“You had a sled all this time and you didn’t bother to tell us?” Jack huffed.
“Just one. Me and Alma went sledding when we was first married. But when she got pregnant that was a no go and with babies it wasn’t a good idea. They just big enough now, though.” Ennis stood, and the rest of them stood with him, ready to follow. He lead them down the hall to their bedroom. Even combined Jack and Ennis didn’t own enough clothes to fill their closet. Not that it was a particularly large closet. They only had a few outfits. The rest of the space was used for storage. Some boxes with Alma’s old things, packed up for safekeeping after she died, and things from Ennis’ childhood. He shifted the boxes aside, and sure enough, a large sled was tucked behind them.
“Gosh. It’s beautiful.” Junior gushed. “We gotta go now!”
Ennis pulled out the sled carefully. “Sure. Let’s go to the park.”
With that decided Jack helped the girls into their winter clothes. He’d gotten pretty good at it. The first time he layered them up it took an hour. Now it took only twenty minutes for him to get them in several layers, socks, a jacket, mittens and a hat. Their snow boots were laced, and Jack got into his thermals and jacket in moments. Then as a last minute thought he grabbed his camera and stuffed it into his jacket pocket.
Ennis donned the new jacket Jack had given him. The gloves too. Thick wool with colorful stripes. Then they were off, Ennis carrying the sled tucked under his arm.
“Damn.” Jack swore. The truck was buried halfway in the snow. “You think it’ll even start in this weather?”
“Not worth it. We’ll get it out later.” Ennis agreed.
“We’re walking then.” Jack took the sled from Ennis and set it on the ground. “Get on!”
The girls rode the sled. Jack dragged it on a rope and they walked through the snow to the park. It was only a few blocks away, anyway. There was nobody in the park, which was unusual, people had been playing in the snow for the whole month. But it was Christmas. People were probably inside opening gifts, decorating gingerbread houses, or sitting around in front of the fire. Made it perfect, in Jack’s opinion. Nobody else to worry about.
The park was rather large for a town like Riverton. There was the playground of course, but also a field where kids liked to play baseball and couples liked to picnic. There was a pond people fed ducks at in the summer and ice skated on in the winter. There were trees for shade, and hills farther past the field. That was where people went sledding. That was where they were going.
The girls got to relax on the sled while Jack and Ennis trekked across the park and climbed the hill. Then they were at the top.
“Alright. Get off so we can all sit on.”
The girls did as they were told. “How are we going to do this? I never fit so many people on the sled.” Ennis muttered.
“Well, they’re really tiny. Obviously we’ll sit and they’ll be in front of us.” Jack said. “There’s room. See?”
He sat in the back, patting the space in front of him for Ennis to sit down. Jack wrapped his arms around Ennis’ waist automatically. “Then the kids.”
“Okay, come on, little darlin’.” Ennis gestured for Alma. Alma sat between his legs, then Jenny sat in front of her sister in the same fashion. Ennis put his arms around the two of them, holding his girls close. “Ready?”
“Go!” Jenny shouted.
Jack pushed off, using his legs to pull them further to the incline of the hill. It took a moment, and a bit of exertion, but soon they hit the tipping point, and Jack tucked his legs up against Ennis’ sides as they went racing down the hill.
Cold air rushed against Jack’s face. Snowflakes wet his cheeks. The girls screamed in delight. Ennis yelled, and Jack laughed. Blood roared in his veins, and exhilaration rose from the pit of his stomach, filling his chest until he was bursting with it. He tightened his arms around Ennis’ waist as they leveled out, the runners shook over bumps in the snow, and they came to a slow stop, all miraculously still on the sled.
“Again.” Jack breathed.
“Yes.” The girls agreed. “Up again!”
So they all ran back up the hill together. Jenny lagged behind, little legs struggling to drag her through the snow. Jack lifted her onto his shoulders and ran up the rest of the hill. Then they piled back on the sled. Pushing off into another rousing ride down the hill. The snow glided under the runners, and again Jack had that weightless feeling as they rushed down the hill.
They filled hours like that, climbing the hill until they were exhausted and going down on their sled. Then when they were too tired to climb the hill again they collapsed against an evergreen, the sled discarded at their side. Alma laid sprawled out in the snow, new snow powdered the front of her jacket as it fell from the sky. She spread her arms and legs, making an angel imprint in the snow.
Jenny made a large snowball, and was pushing it around to gather more snow, trying to start on a snowman. Jack and Ennis laced their fingers together. Jack rested his head on Ennis’ shoulder and watched Alma get off the ground to help her sister. They watched the kids for a while. They made one snowball large enough, and started on the other. The girls strained, grunting and shouting while they pushed the ball through the snow. Then when they finally grew the second enough to put it on top the first, they found they’d made it too large and heavy for them to lift it without breaking.
“Daddy, help!” They cried.
Ennis sighed. He squeezed Jack's hand before he got up and let it go, their fingers brushing against each other, trying for lingering contact even through their gloves. Then he was at the girls' sides, lifting their snowball up and putting it down on the base.
“You gonna come help us make the head? Or you gonna sit there like a lump?”
Jack rolled his eyes and smiled fondly. “You could just ask me to get up.”
Ennis held out his hand to help Jack to his feet. He took the help. “Alright. I’m off my ass.”
“Jack Jack! Help me with the head!” Jenny shouted over her shoulder.
“We need eyes, Jack Jack.” Alma said to him. “Can you find eyes and good sticks for his arms?”
“Uuuuh.” Jack looked around. He could find sticks of course, with the trees around. But eyes were debatable. There were pine cones around, and if he dug in the snow he might find a suitable set of rocks. He started with the sticks, shuffling off into the snow to find some sticks that would meet Alma’s expectations.
Ennis stayed behind and helped the girls make a snowball to fit on top of the snowman’s shoulders. This was easier than the last two. Smaller and more manageable. Alma carved a smile into his face with her finger.
Jack came back with a set of stones he’d dug out of the snow and two thick sticks. Alma pushed them into the sides of his snow body and Jenny put the eyes in place. Alma pulled the scarf off her neck and wrapped it around the snowman.
“There. He’s done.” Alma said, satisfied.
Jack felt the weight of the camera in his pocket. “Can you guys pose for another picture?” He asked.
Ennis turned to him, shocked. “You brought your damn camera here?”
“Yeah! It’s Christmas. We should get a lot of pictures.” He pulled it out of his pocket. “Now get in with your kids.”
“Uh-uh.” Ennis shook his head. “You get in. You got no pictures with the girls yet. Might as well.”
“Really? You’ll take one?”
“Get in, before I change my mind.”
Jack ran to crouch beside the snowman. He smiled big. Alma sat on his knee, and Jenny flung his arms around his side. Both of them smiled big. They were good sports. The camera clicked.
“Alright. Try not to take pictures the rest of the day.” Ennis said, handing Jack’s camera back.
Alma had already run off to make more snow angels. But she didn’t get the chance to make many. Jenny sneezed. “Jack Jack it’s cold.” She complained.
Their pants were wet from slogging through the snow for hours, and it was cold out. “Maybe it’s time to leave.”
Ennis turned around to retrieve their sled. Jack shoved his camera back in his pocket. “Alma, get back over here!”
The trek back home was cold and windy, and they were glad to get back to their cozy little apartment above the laundromat.
When they got back they started stripping their wet clothes immediately to change back into their pajamas. Ennis put their boots and socks on top of the heater to dry out. Jack sighed in relief when he pulled a fresh sweater over his head. He glanced at the clock. They’d passed hours in the park. It was nearly three. “Oh. I better get cookin’!”
Jack stood, went back to the kitchen. There was a lot to get done. He had to mash potatoes, cook the ham, make the cherry pie, and glaze carrots. He started by setting up the oven to preheat.
Alma was at his feet looking to be entertained again. “I wanna help!”
“Sure. Use all the help I can get. You can help mash the potatoes.” He’d peel them for her. He could only imagine what a disaster it would be if she scraped her knuckles with the peeler. Then they had to be boiled, of course. Which he would do. But she could mash and butter them.
So they got started on Christmas dinner. Jack got the ham into the oven to cook and started on the pie crust while the potatoes boiled. He had canned filling from the store, but he had to make the crust. He had a cookbook open on the counter, the can weighed down the pages to keep the cook open, and he followed the recipe carefully. Glancing at it often and reading lines twice, three times to be sure. Slowly but surely the crust came into shape. He rolled it out and pressed it into his pie tin.
The potatoes were ready. He drained them of the water and put them in a bowl for Alma. Handed her the tool for smashing. “Mash away, kid.” He said.
Alma started with the task given to her. Perched on a chair she’d pulled up to the counter. “Jack Jack!” Jenny called. “What do I do?”
“Uuuuh.” He didn’t have another easy task he trusted a three year old with in the kitchen. But he had to give the little one something to do. He picked up some of the spare pie dough, the things he’d cut off the edge. “Why don’t you make decorations for the top of the pie?”
“Yes!” She agreed quickly.
“Okay. Go wash your hands.” Jenny ran off to wash up while Jack pulled a chair up for Jenny to stand on. He put the spare pie dough on the counter in front of it. With that done he turned back to pour the filling into his pie crust. He still had to make the lattice crust. He cut strips of dough and began to lay them down, weaving the strips over one another and pinching them down at the edges.
Jenny was molding her provided dough like clay, making flowers and hearts and little men. Alma was still working on mashing the potatoes, focused on her task and happy with it. The kitchen began to smell like ham. Jack was happy. That was a sign it was cooking properly.
He finished with the lattice and started cutting the carrots. Alma finished mashing the potatoes. Jack tossed a few chunks of butter into her bowl and let them melt. Then sprinkled salt and pepper over it. He quartered his carrots and got them ready for glazing. With butter, syrup and cinnamon.
“Jack Jack! I’m done.”
Jack glanced over the counter to look at her work. They were charming little shapes. “Great work, baby.” He gave her the pie. “Put those on.”
While she arranged the pie as she wanted to Jack started the syrup mixture boiling. The ham was getting closer to being fully cooked. He put the carrots in to be glazed, stirred them so they were coated in syrup.
Jack took the pie off Jenny’s hands and slid it into the oven, on the rack above the ham. Then he set the timer for it. When the pie was done the ham would be, and he’d check the temperature.
The carrots glazed nicely. Jack stirred them again as the syrup thickened and caramelized, sticking to the vegetables.
“Dinner smells great.” Ennis said from the doorway.
“Thank god. Cause we’re eating it either way.” Jack joked. “What are you doing in here?”
“Refreshments.” Ennis replied vaguely.
Ennis pulled the eggnog out of the fridge. They’d bought it impulsively at the market. Because Christmas is the time for joy and impulse buying. He poured them two glasses. Gave one to Jack, and then held his out for a toast. Jack clinked their glasses together and took a sip.
“Hmmm. Needs something.” It was well spiced, creamy, but it lacked the satisfying element.
“Way ahead of ya.” Ennis pulled their whiskey out of the cupboard and poured a generous serving directly into their glasses. Ennis swirled his glass around, and Jack followed suit, mixing in the alcohol. He took another drink, and it burned with the taste of whiskey.
“Mmmm. Much better.” He said.
Ennis drank happily from his glass.
Jack took a good drink out of his and set it aside. No sense in getting wasted before dinner. Although he was sorely tempted. It was good eggnog.
Dinner was done when the pie was. Jack took it out to cool. The ham was at the recommended internal temperature. The carrots had cooked down and glazed. And the potatoes were ready. He set out their dinner at the table, which had already been set by Ennis.
“Mmm.” Ennis hummed. “Looks good.”
“It better. After that Thanksgiving crap? Ain’t get much worse than that.” Jack set his eggnog beside his plate at the table.
“Don’t remind me. I think you gave me food poisoning.” Ennis sat down at his place. “Girls! Dinner’s ready!”
The girls came flying into the kitchen. They looked over the table at the dinner. They didn’t say anything, but they seemed pleased. They sat down without complaint and spread their napkins over their laps.
Jack got out the carving tools. He looked at Ennis, but he made no move to take them. Jack shrugged and began to carve the meat into workable pieces. Ennis served carrots and potatoes to the girls while Jack worked on it. Then Jack put slices of ham on the spaces Ennis left for him. Ennis scooped mashed potatoes onto Jack’s place and tucked in.
He cut off a piece of ham and popped it in his mouth. Jack waited with baited breath for the reviews.
“It’s good.” Ennis said simply.
Alma tried her potatoes first. “Mmm. Needs more butter. But I like it! Jack Jack, can you pass the butter please?”
Jack gladly gave her the butter dish. Jenny needed help from Ennis to cut her ham up further. She wasn’t so good with stuff like that, being so little. He reached across the table and cut Jenny’s ham into little cubes for her to eat easily. Jack tried the ham while they ate. It was good. Juice, flavorful, and the honey mustard glaze complimented it’s salty interior well. The glazed carrots were good too. Soft, sweet, and salty. It paired well with the eggnog. Still strong with whiskey.
Jack smacked his lips. Satisfied. It was a victory. A miracle compared to his Thanksgiving performance. All his hard work in the kitchen was paying off. It was satisfying to know that his efforts made a difference.
Alma sighed. “Jack Jack, these carrots are real good.”
“Yeah? I’m glad you like it baby.” All he had left to worry about was that pie. The filling was store bought, so there’s no way he fucked that up. It was the crust he had to worry about. His first time making a pie crust. It looked like the picture in the book and he’d followed the instructions. So he hoped it all turned out well enough.
“Yeah. Think you’re the new chef of the family.” Ennis said. He was very satisfied with his meal. But Ennis would eat just about anything. Including his disastrous, sickness-inducing Thanksgiving turkey.
Jack blushed. Honest to god blushed. It was a good Christmas Day.
The dinner went down easy. As did another glass of eggnog. Then they were sitting down to watch It’s A Wonderful Life with slices of pie. George Bailey navigated the dark world without him while they sank their jaws into warm cherry pie, still decorated with Jenny’s charming creations. It was a good pie. But how could one go wrong with canned filling? Jack vowed to try making his own filling over the course of next year. He hoped to master it by next Christmas.
Next Christmas. Another one just like this. With his new family. Jack’s heart fluttered at the very thought. It was the best Christmas he’d had in his life. Maybe every Christmas from now could be cherry pies and peppermint pancakes and sledding in the park. How lucky would he be?
George embraced his wife and children. Feeling blessed and grateful to have the life he did. To be a part of his town and his family. It’s a wonderful life.
“Hmm. That’s a good way to spend Christmas.” Ennis said.
Jack shifted Jenny on his lap so that he could lay back more comfortably. “You’re just glad we didn’t go to church.”
“We could do anything to avoid goin’ to church. This was a good way to do it.” Ennis said. “Good pie, Jack.”
“You want another?” He asked, passing Jenny off to Ennis so he could stand.
“Nah. Wouldn’t say no to more eggnog though.” Ennis held out his glass. Jack gathered the plates to bring to the kitchen. “I think it’s bedtime for some little girls.”
“Nooooo.” The girls whined as Jack took the dishes to the kitchen. Ennis took on the task of convincing the girls to go to bed while Jack poured them more glasses of eggnog and whiskey. He started the dishes while he waited for Ennis to put the girls down.
It didn’t take too long, evidently. With the way Ennis came in only twenty minutes later. “They complain about bedtime as if they ain’t ready to collapse as soon as they’re at the mattress.” He said.
“Well. You know how kids are. I was the same way at that age. I’d beg to stay up later and then fall asleep wherever I sat down.” Jack knew what it was really about. It wasn’t bed. It was about control over their lives. He’d learned to appreciate the value of going to bed early as an adult who could choose his own bedtime.
Ennis immediately went for his eggnog. Jack could see the redness in his ears and face. The first signs that Ennis was going to get drunk. He smiled. Christmas was a time for indulgence. He’d join him once he got the dishes done. “Mind helping me?” He asked.
Ennis nodded. He grabbed a stack of dishes Jack had already done. He set himself on the task of drying them and putting them away. Jack started with the pots and sheets he’d used first. Then he’d do the dishes and cutlery they ate with. They worked faster as a team. The kitchen was cleared up quickly. With Ennis drying things, putting them away, and wiping down the counter. Jack had a lot less to worry about. Then they were done. Christmas was over.
Well. Not over yet. They still had eggnog left to spare. Jack turned to Ennis while he wiped his damp hands off on his shirt. “You wanna get wasted?”
Ennis gave him a look. Real classy, Jack . But Ennis wasn’t the kind of man who could resist the allure of whiskey. “Yeah.” He answered.
That’s how Jack and Ennis ended up sprawled out on their bed, with an empty carton of eggnog on the nightstand and a bottle of whiskey nearly drained beside it. Jack was in the better part of drunkenness. He felt warm. His eyelids seemed to stick together when he blinked, which he did often. A syrupy smile spread over his face. Ennis was scratching the top of his head lightly. It felt great. He hummed a little Christmas tune while he twisted the sheets in his free hand, the one that wasn’t tucked under Ennis’ neck.
“So good.” Jack slurred. “Good Christmas.”
“Mhmm.” Ennis answered. He sounded content.
“Look Ennis. Snowin’ again.” He lifted his arm to point at the window, but his arm felt heavy. He gave up and let it drop back to the bed. “Fuck.”
“Tempting.” Ennis muttered. Jack laughed.
“Mmmm. Later.” He felt tired. Happy and comfortable as he was. It was nice to just be there with Ennis. Drinking wasn’t nearly as much fun alone.
“I think I’m fallin’ asleep.” He said.
“Then sleep.” Ennis whispered.
“Don’t wanna.” Jack slurred. “Miss this.”
Ennis twisted his neck to look at Jack. “Miss Christmas?”
“Yeah! It was the best holiday I ever had.” Jack said wistfully.
Ennis hummed thoughtfully. “Ya know, it’s not just Christmas. You’re with us always. Gonna…” he struggled to collect his thoughts, “gonna be with us. A family. Christmas or not.”
Jack nodded. In his mind, fogged by the alcohol, that did make sense. And it soothed him. “Merry Christmas.” Jack said. “Love you.”
“Merry Christmas.” Ennis kissed his cheek. Pulled the blanket over them and curled into Jack’s side. “Sleep, darlin’.”
Jack closed his eyes. He’d go to sleep for now. There would be more holidays. More time to spend with the kids and more pictures to take. He could hardly wait. He would leave this Christmas behind, but there was more to look forward to.
The new year comes in. Who knows what it has in store?
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It was New Year's Eve. It had only been a few short days since Christmas. Their tree was still up and decorated in the living room. They didn’t do anything special during the day. They did the usual. Eat Christmas leftovers, give the kids more candy than they should probably be having, drink beers, and they promised the girls they’d let them stay up late. To watch the new year come in. Alma and Jenny were thrilled. Jack bet they’d only stay awake until ten. Ennis bed they’d only make it until eight. The girls ended up collapsing close to nine, and Ennis had scooped them up and carried them off to bed.
New Years was much less of an affair than Christmas had been. But still a celebration to be had. It was the end of their first year together as a family, and they had many more to look forward to. They’d all get older next year, Alma would move to first grade, and Jenny would start learning to ride a bike. They might move house next year. There were lots of things ahead of them. Jack was taking the day to reflect on the year he’d had.
What a year it had been. The death of Alma had changed many things. Where would Jack be if she hadn’t? Still having secret affairs with Ennis. Occasionally stealing him away for quick sex on the mountain. Eating canned meat and beans over a campfire. Now he had an apartment, kids, and a man who said he loved him, and said it often. Jack sometimes felt guilty about rejoicing at the end of a woman’s life. The mother of two young children who wouldn’t get to grow up with her in their lives. But he couldn’t deny it. He’d never been happier in his life.
So Jack occasionally left flowers next to Alma’s urn. Paid his respects to the woman. He never really knew her. And her existence in life directly opposed what he’d wanted. But she was a good woman, from what he’d heard, and she bore the girls he was going to raise as his own. The least he could do was give her a prayer of thanks every once in a while and try not to hold any grudge against her for keeping Ennis from him in those years she was alive.
“What’re ya thinking about?” Ennis asked, sitting next to his partner with a beer in hand.
“Nothin’.” Jack shrugged. “Just the year.”
“You sad it’s ending?” Ennis knew how Jack got about these things. He was sad for moments to end. He was upset when their affairs on Brokeback ended, he was upset when Christmas ended, and he was probably hung up on the year ending. Ennis just had to remind him that there was another year to look forward to.
“No.” Jack said. Ennis gave him a look. “Honest. There’s just a lot to think about. It was a busy year.”
“Yeah. It was.” Ennis agreed quietly.
They sat in thoughtful silence for a while. Ennis broke it with another question. “What’d’ya want out of the new year?”
Jack sighed through his nose. “I want to not fuck up next Thanksgiving.”
Ennis chuckled. “Never gonna get over that, are you?”
Jack shook his head. Things were never that easy with Jack Twist. “Not until I make it right.”
“You made it right with Christmas.”
“No. No.” Jack looked at Ennis like he was being purposefully ignorant. “I just didn’t fuck up another holiday. Christmas and Thanksgiving are different. I gotta make Thanksgiving right.”
“I never knew you to be a perfectionist.” Ennis said.
“Never had anything worth perfecting.” Jack returned.
Ennis gave another of his rare smiles. Smiles that were becoming more common all the time.
“And you?” Jack quipped.
“Oh. I want…” he thought about it. “For the girls to not get a stomach bug this year.”
Jack laughed loudly. “Oh, I remember that. God, you were a mess.”
“Don’t think I’d’ve survived if you hadn’t shown up.” Ennis admitted. He’d been pissed at the time. Annoyed Jack had ignored his request to stay away and angry that he wouldn’t leave them alone to their misery. But he was glad now. Happy that Jack didn’t abandon him when he was suffering. “Did I ever say thanks for that?”
“I don’t know. But I’d appreciate hearing it again.”
“Thank you.” Ennis said sincerely. “For showing up. And not going away.”
Jack’s heart fluttered like a schoolgirl near her crush. “You're welcome.”
Ennis glanced at the clock. It was 11:48. The year was fading away even as they talked. It had been quite a year. It was hard to believe that only a year ago Ennis had been sitting on that same couch with his wife. Smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio on its quietest setting with no clue of what the next year had in store. Ennis had found who he was that year. He’d decided what he was going to do with the rest of his life. So far he hasn't regretted his decision.
He knew the next year wouldn’t be easy. Or the next or the next. Jack and Ennis would argue. They’d have to hide. Both outside the walls and inside. There was a tension between them and the children, one the girls were blissfully unaware of. The one where Jack and Ennis had a terrible secret to keep from them. It was a struggle every day. Nobody said the life he chose would be easy.
He put his hand over Jack’s and neither of them flinched away. It wouldn’t be fun if it was too easy.
11:50. He glanced between Jack and the clock. Jack smiled at his lover. “You wanna kiss when the new year drops?”
Ennis rolled his eyes at the corny suggestion. To hell with that. Why wait? He leaned forward and pressed his lips to Jack’s. It was just as magical and as wonderful as it would have been when the hour struck. Jack moaned into the kiss and pressed forward, falling into Ennis’ lap. Ennis’ lips were warm. They tasted salty and metallic. They split in the cold, leaving little cuts over the soft flesh. Jack licked them, tasting them. It was an enticing incentive to keep kissing.
They didn’t notice the hour pass. Too wrapped up in each other to celebrate the end of the year before. They were already looking forward to the new one.
BOY OH BOY I can’t wait to write more. Sorry updates are slower. Lots of stuff to do over the summer. My sister demands a lot of my time. I’m happy to give it to her, I’ve missed her. But it leaves less for writing updates. Don’t worry. They’ll come