OCFW Christmas serial story
this chapter by Lacy Williams
Copyright © OKC Christian Fiction Writers
“…so that’s why I decided to go ahead with the procedure.”
Eleanor looked around the now-silent dinner table, noting the tears standing in her mother’s eyes, the serious stares from all of her sisters, her dad’s clamped jaw. Even the kids were quiet.
An hour after she and Tad had trudged up the walk, and her mother’s table was full-to-bursting. They’d been the last to arrive. In addition to Janice’s bunch, Eleanor’s older sisters Alyson and Carrie plus two neighbors and Great-Aunt Ida had shown up for the traditional Christmas Eve supper.
Tad and Ellie had been the only ones to have car trouble.
Tad’s stoic presence across from her only made her conscious that he’d taken Robbie’s chair, that Robbie’s chair had been empty in the first place. Why hadn’t he left when they’d returned home? She knew he hadn’t wanted to stay.
“I’m—I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. At first I wanted it to be a surprise… but then Robbie died and everything just…”
Eleanor’s words trailed off. She stared down at her plate, unable to keep watching their faces when her family stayed silent. Why didn’t anyone say anything? She should have waited—shouldn’t have ruined the big Christmas Eve dinner like this.
“I think it’s a good thing,” Tad burst out. He clapped his hands, the sound harsh in the complete silence. “Good for Ellie.”
“Oh, honey…” Her mom’s voice wavered with emotion. “I’m so proud of you!”
Eleanor’s head jerked up in time to see her mom jump out of her seat and rush over to wrap Eleanor in a hug. “So proud, baby,” Ruth whispered.
“I am, too,” the patriarch of the family echoed, though he stayed in his seat. Eleanor knew her dad didn’t like getting too emotional. Just the fact that he’d said something made warmth bloom in Eleanor’s chest.
“Yay, Aunt Ellie!” “Whoohoo!” The twins followed Tad’s example and clapped, their noisy congratulations causing everyone to laugh, even though Eleanor doubted the boys really knew what was going on.
Even Janice leaned over and put her arm around Eleanor’s shoulders. “I’m happy for you. I really am.”
And Eleanor knew that for once, her sister was sincere. It was truly a Christmas miracle.
She locked eyes with Tad. His lips were turned up in a tiny smile. Why had he supported her, speaking out when her family hadn’t been able to find words?
Earlier, as they’d stumbled their way up the street, arms linked, she’d thought there had been something… almost a spark between them that she’d never felt before with anyone else.
Was it because they’d been friends, of a sort, for so long? He’d been her first crush. Her longest. She’d always thought her feelings were one-sided… but with the way Tad had looked at her out in the snow, she couldn’t be sure.
Or were the sparks between them just because they always argued? Even though most of the time the heat was in jest…
She didn’t know what to think anymore.
As her family settled back down to the normal eating and chatter, she saw Tad glance down, then realized what had caught his attention.
His phone was ringing.
Tad flipped his phone closed, head down. He didn’t want to leave the Clark’s Christmas gathering.
He couldn’t stay. Could he?
The Clark’s foyer was dim; he hadn’t turned on any lights when he’d escaped here to take the call from his secretary. The only light came from the outdoor Christmas lights, filtered through the long windows on either side of the front door.
The sound of a throat clearing made him turn. He was surprised to see Robert Sr. standing in the doorway to one of the living areas.
“Still coming down out there,” the older man said.
“Mmm.” Tad had been watching the snow continue to fall while he’d been on the phone with his secretary. The forecasters said it would go all night—the worst blizzard in a century.
Which meant even if he made it to the airport, no doubt the planes were grounded too.
He was well and truly stuck here with the Clarks—with Ellie—and his rioting emotions. For a man who prided himself on always being in control, the events of the last 24 hours had shaken him considerably. A real snowstorm in his heart.
Was his foundation—the faith Ellie professed so wholeheartedly—really the problem?
Robert Sr. moved to put a hand on Tad’s shoulder. “We’re all hurting without our boy. But I’m glad you’re here and I know the missus is too.”
Tad didn’t know what to say to the man he’d idolized for so long. The man he’d wished had been his father so many times during his lonely childhood.
“You’ve been a part of this family a long time. Even moving away didn’t change it. Robbie always shared what was going on in your life, your achievements.”
Robbie was my brother, even though we didn’t share the same blood in our veins.
Tad couldn’t get the words past the obstruction that had taken root in his throat, but Robert Sr. seemed to understand. He squeezed Tad’s shoulder.
“We’re glad you’re here, Theodore. Tad. Glad you’ve come back to be with us.”
Proud that he’d come back for a family occasion, or proud of Tad’s achievements? Either way, it was more of an acknowledgement than Tad had ever received from his own father.
“I just wish it didn’t take Robbie’s death to make me see what was really important. My life back home might be busy, but there’s not a lot of meaning in it. No… family. No… faith.”
The older man sat down on the third step of the staircase and motioned Tad to the bench across the foyer, covered with kids’ coats. Tad shoved them aside and sat down.
“You know, sometimes it takes a big event to remind us what’s really important. I know it did for me, before Ruth and I ever tied the knot.”
Tad waited while the other man seemed to gather his thoughts. After a moment, Robert Sr. went on.
“We were dating… I knew she wanted something more serious—wanted to get married. But I thought I had all the time in the world to play games. We took a break…”
Tad spared a moment to wonder if the other Clark kids knew about this. He’d certainly never heard the story before and Robbie had never mentioned it.
“I dated a couple of other girls and there was no comparison between them and Ruth. But still I hesitated. And then she was in a car accident. A bad one. Almost didn’t make it through. Back then we didn’t wear seatbelts all the time, you know?”
Tad nodded, needing the man to go on.
“I sat by her bed in the hospital for two days, waiting for her to wake up… and she finally did. I felt like I’d been given a second chance. My path was clear to me—to marry her as soon as I could—and so many other things were too. Including the faith that I had dabbled in.
“Before Ruth’s accident, I went to church. Nearly every Sunday. But I hadn’t made a real commitment—I just rolled along. But when she almost died—for those two days—I was broken. A crazed man. I had nothing—nothing—to hold onto.”
That was exactly how Tad felt. He had nothing to hold onto. And with his life thrown into a maelstrom without Robbie in it… He was in chaos. No matter how many hours he worked, how much he accomplished, he still felt empty.
Tad leaned forward, forearms on his knees. “How did you… how did you get back? Or find God…?”
Robert Sr. wasn’t afraid to show the compassion he felt on his face. “I’d be happy to tell you.”
Tad still felt he should’ve left last night—this morning opening gifts should have been a joyous occasion for the Clarks, but the tears hidden by quickly-turned heads, sniffles that weren’t quite silent… everyone in Robbie’s family missed him.
And what part did Tad have in sharing their grief? Really? He wasn’t their son, their brother. No matter how much he had wanted to be throughout the years.
Even with Robert Sr.’s assurances last night, and Tad’s new peace with his Heavenly Father, he felt a little out-of-place. Probably because he still had unresolved emotions surrounding the woman with violet eyes and sleek dark hair coming toward him right this very moment.
“This is from me.” Ellie pressed a gaily-wrapped package with a jaunty red bow into his hands. Instead of leaving, she surprised him by sitting cross-legged next to him, her pink and red candy-cane pajamas pulling a reluctant smile from him.
She spoke as he slid his thumb under the perfectly-centered Scotch tape. “I’m sorry if I came on strong yesterday about… about what I believe.”
“You… didn’t.” Tad paused. Swallowed. Considered exactly how much he should reveal to her. Went for it. “You said just what I needed to hear.”
He looked up from the paper crinkling under his hands to see a soft glow suffuse her face. “I’m glad.”
When he looked back down to see the photo of himself with Robbie, a lump got stuck in his chest.
Ellie’s hand gently covered the back of his wrist. “Robbie would be glad, too.”
“Yeah.” Tad cleared his throat. “He probably would’ve wrestled me down until I listened to him. Your way wasn’t pain-free, but probably would’ve hurt me worse.”
She smiled and bumped his shoulder with hers, unobtrusively wiping a crystal tear from her cheek. “I’ve finally realized it’s okay to miss him. But I know we’ll see him again someday.”
She squeezed his hand and he realized she’d been giving him comfort for these moments with her hand on his. She was something else, Ellie was.
He turned over his hand and captured her palm. “Can we talk for a minute?” He glanced around at the madness around them, kids ripping into gifts, Ellie’s siblings laughing with each other. “Umm… privately?”
She followed him into the kitchen, snatching an iced cookie—Christmas tree-shaped, of course—on her way.
When she leaned back against the counter, braced casually on both arms, Tad’s stomach clenched. Was he really going to do this? He exhaled through his nose.
“Look, Ellie—I’m…” Fear lodged in his sternum, making it impossible to speak. What if she said ‘no’? But he had to go on.
“I’m going to be making some changes in my life.” He rushed on before he lost his nerve. “Your dad, Robbie, you… you’ve all inspired me.”
A flush crept up her neck and into her cheeks. Had she guessed where he was going with this?
“When we get back home, I’ll only be a two hour commute from you, and I’d like to see you. Socially.”
She raised her fine brows at him. “You mean, like a date?”
He felt heat climbing into his cheeks now, knew he was flushing. “Yes. Exactly like that.”
“I thought you worked weekends. All of them.”
“Not anymore. I’m starting to figure out what’s really important in my life.”
She just kept looking at him with those raised brows, so he continued, “Like… having a life.”
Her lips quirked. Was she holding back a smile? She’d accused him of throwing his life away on work enough times, back when Robbie had been around.
“And I’m not saying I’m going to be perfect… you’ll probably have to remind me to leave work on time when I get caught up in a project—”
Tad recognized the teasing glint in her violet eyes. He grabbed the end of the piece of ribbon she’d tied around her wrist after opening a gift earlier; Tad used the ribbon to reel her in, finally capturing her in his arms. Where she belonged.
This close, he could see the golden flecks in her beautiful eyes. The vulnerability behind them that she hid with her teasing words. It gave him the courage to say what he really wanted to.
“I think we both know there’s more between us than a brotherly affection. Has been since about… seventh grade, right?”
Surprise flared in her eyes. She didn’t realize he’d felt it, too? But she nodded gravely, still silent. Still afraid?
He rewarded her for that answer with an Eskimo kiss—rubbed the tip of her nose with his—and briefly squeezed her tighter in his arms. “Don’t you think it’s time we did something about it?”
Again she nodded, this time the vulnerability in her eyes changing to a sweet joy. When he leaned down, she stretched up and met his kiss.
A war whoop from behind them pulled Tad’s head up just in time to see Eric—or Ian?—turn back to the living room and shout, “Uncle Tad and Aunt Eleanor are kissing in the kitchen!”
The decibel level in the other room ratcheted up another notch as the rest of the family got wind of this new development.
But Tad didn’t care one bit. This was right where he wanted to be. He drew Ellie—his Ellie—close for another kiss.
Merry Christmas, indeed.