Higher Education

Christmastime

by Adele


"Tell me their names again," Kirk demanded.

It was a cold winter evening in late December. Wade was comfortable and perfectly happy driving the rental car through the fading light on the winding, two-lane, state highway with Kirk rattling on from the seat beside him. Kirk was a little tense, and Wade knew that, but mostly Kirk was happy too.

"Wouldn't it make more sense to wait until you meet them and can put a face to the names?" Wade asked.

"No, if I meet a mass of people with no idea who they are and how they relate to you, I'll never remember their names."

"I hardly think nine or ten people is a 'mass'."

"Wade, just tell me, please?"

"Fine, Cole and Megan, Heather, J-"

"Did you not hear the 'how they relate to you' part?" There was a definite edge to Kirk's voice now. Wade patted Kirk's leg.

"Relax, Kirk, my family is going to love you. I promise." Kirk had his doubts, but he kept them to himself.

They passed through the small farming community that was part of Wade's family's address, though the house was not actually within the town limits. Just beyond the far side of the village Wade turned the car off the highway onto a gravel county road. They drove up and down gentle hills with fields covered in snow. Sooner than Kirk wanted, they were turning left onto a short drive that petered-out in a large, cluttered space in front of a small farmhouse.

There were at least seven cars and trucks parked randomly about the property as well as a large barn, a tool shed, and several other buildings of various sizes. One of the barns appeared to be in the process of slowly falling down and there was a sizeable hole in the roof. Two dogs immediately came forward to investigate the new arrivals. One looked to have a lot of German Shepherd in it and the other was an unidentifiable medium-sized mutt. The approaching dogs were silent, the mutt wagging his tail a little, but Kirk could hear a large dog that appeared to be chained barking from the other side of the yard as well as yapping from some much smaller dog in the house.

Wade gave Kirk a quick smile and then jumped out of the car. The dogs recognized him and their tail-wagging got a lot more enthusiastic. The barking had brought people to the door. It opened and a tall man called out, "Hey! Wade's here!"

Kirk slowly climbed out of the car and trailed behind Wade into a warm well-lit kitchen filled with what certainly qualified as a "mass" of people in Kirk's book. An older woman was hugging Wade. Kirk figured she must be Wade's mother, Mrs. Johnson, but as more people crowded around hugging Wade, shaking his hand, and all talking at once, Kirk stopped trying to identify them. He shrank back towards the kitchen door. He had only taken a few steps when Wade reached out and snagged Kirk's arm and pulled him to Wade's side right in the middle of the commotion.

"This is my roommate, Kirk," Wade announced to the room in general.

"Hi!" said a cute, and very tall, teen-age girl with a big grin, "Do you have a girlfriend?"

"Jessica!" cried at least three different voices, which only made Jessica smile bigger.

"I'm Wade's brother, Cole," said a rough, strong-looking man, slightly shorter and older than Wade, wearing faded jeans and dirty work boots. "This is my wife, Megan," Cole gestured to a woman who was probably average-sized, but who looked tiny surrounded by the Johnsons. She was the shortest person in the room by at least six inches. At least she was until Cole called out, "Boys! Come say hello to your Uncle Wade!" and two small boys and one larger one charged into the room.

"Hi, Uncle Wade!" the two younger boys cried giving Wade a hug before immediately turning to Kirk. "I'm Tyler, and that's my little brother, Carter, and that's my uncle Garrett. Who are you?" a bundle of energy with blond hair and blue eyes demanded.

"I'm Kirk. I'm a friend of your Uncle Wade," Kirk replied, amused.

Tyler made a lightning-fast assessment. "We need you to make the teams even. Come play with us," he ordered.

Megan started to protest, but Kirk knew an escape opportunity when he saw one. "You bet," he said and cheerfully followed Wade's nephews and youngest brother out of the kitchen.

Later, after a dinner of baked chicken, Cole put his sons to bed and Jessica went out to the movies with her boyfriend. Mr. Johnson and Garrett settled down in front of the TV. Mrs. Johnson, Megan, Wade, Kirk, and Wade's older sister, Heather, gathered around the kitchen table. Megan had brought out a three-dimensional puzzle consisting of a bunch of translucent, red, plastic pieces that fitted together to form an apple. They were supposedly solving the puzzle together, but mostly they were all watching Wade solve it. He had quickly figured out the trick that the main axis the other pieces all fit around was not the "core" of the apple as one might expect, but rather went across the apple horizontally. Now he was turning the partially formed apple in his hand, fitting in pieces, and muttering to himself.

"I need a convex piece about an inch wide with a 45 degree beveled edge . . ." Kirk was tired and focusing most of his attention on not leaning against Wade's shoulder. His sleepy mind built an image in his head from Wade's words. A piece matching that description would look like . . . well, like that piece right there. Kirk picked up the piece he had spotted and held it out to Wade.

"Like this?"

"Yes! Exactly like that!" Wade took the offered piece and slipped it into the gap in the puzzle. It fit perfectly. Wade's family looked from Kirk to Wade obviously impressed. That the piece was the specific one Wade needed was pure luck of course, but Kirk was not inclined to point that out.

Wade continued to add pieces from the dwindling pile on the table until he triumphantly inserted the last one. He set the completed plastic apple on the table with a flourish to the laughter and applause of his little audience. Kirk's smile turned into a yawn and Wade asked his mother, "We sleeping in my old room?"

Mrs. Johnson was a little uncomfortable, "Yes, if that's all right. We're packed full with all you kids home, but I could move Tyler and Carter to the sofa and -"

"We'll be fine, Mom," Wade interrupted. He stood up and beckoned to Kirk to follow him. They walked down a short hallway from the kitchen that ended in a door to a bathroom. Wade entered a door on the left side of the hall. Kirk got a vague impression of a corner room that was probably reasonably sized, but was over-filled with a full-sized bed, furniture that could conceivably have been a high-school boy's, plus an extra table, stacks of boxes, and assorted other odds and ends obviously stored "temporarily" and never moved again.

Kirk brushed his teeth and stripped off his clothes in record time and was sound asleep within minutes. Wade returned to the kitchen for a glass of water and found his mother alone in the room doing some last minute, and completely unnecessary, tidying-up. Wade offered to help, but Mrs. Johnson requested that he sit down and keep her company instead. They talked about school and life on the farm as the rest of the family settled down for the night and the house gradually grew quiet. Just before Wade was going to say good-night for the second time, Mrs. Johnson observed, "Kirk seems like a real nice boy."

"Yes, he is," Wade agreed carefully.

"He's more than your roommate, isn't he? More than a friend, too?"

Wade wasn't sure what to say. Finally, he simply nodded and watched mixed emotions travel across his mother's face. He could practically see her writing off a third daughter-in-law and a couple extra grandkids. In the end she gave him a gentle smile and a hug and said, "Whatever makes you happy, dear."

Mrs. Johnson started to leave the room for bed and Wade quickly requested, "Don't tell Dad, OK, Mom? Please?"

Mrs. Johnson gave her son a disapproving look. "I won't, but your father is an intelligent and perceptive man, Wade. I have no doubt he will figure it out if he hasn't already."

*****

The next morning Kirk was awakened by Wade saying something about going out with his father and brother. To get groceries maybe? Whatever. Kirk instantly forgot about it and rolled over to go back to sleep. A short while later he awoke again to a persistent sound outside the bedroom door.

"Kirk. Kirrrrkkkk. KIIIIIIRRRRRRKKKKK!"

"What!" Kirk threw open the door to find an indignant, snowsuit-clad Carter.

"Tyler and Garrett say they are going to stomp you and me in the snowball fight, Kirk!"

"Well, that's crap."

Carter's eyes got big and round. He broke into an enormous grin and ran down the hall, awkward in his snow boots, calling out before he even turned the corner, "Tyler! Tyler! Kirk said . . ."

Kirk grinned too and hurried into jeans, a flannel shirt, coat, hat, and gloves. Heather let him borrow a pair of snowmobile boots bemoaning all the while that they would probably fit him, or if anything, be too big. In no time Kirk was out in the yard helping Carter pack snow into the front wall of a fort defiantly positioned directly across the path from where Garrett and Tyler were hard at work on their own fortress.

It was a perfect day for a snowball fight - still and sunny with the temperature hovering around twenty degrees. Carter and Kirk completed a roomy fort with high side walls for extra protection, and then started stockpiling snowballs, making disparaging remarks about their opponents' snow-molding skills all the while. Finally Kirk called out, "Are we going to fight or just talk about it all day?"

The response was immediate and unequivocal. A barrage of snowballs rained down on Kirk and Carter who dove for the safety of their fort. They both grabbed snowballs and returned fire. Kirk didn't hold back at all, mercilessly winging snowballs with the same accuracy and cutthroat attitude he showed playing pool. They blasted through what had seemed like an endless supply of ammunition in about ten minutes. When there were only four snowballs remaining, Kirk got Carter to pause for a quick strategy session.

Kirk took two snowballs and made a sacrificial charge across the path toward the left side of Garrett and Tyler's fort. He wasted his two snowballs in useless shots against the snow wall and then tried to pack a snowball on the run. As he had hoped, an unarmed man out in the open was too tempting a target for Garrett and Tyler to pass up. Both boys stood up in their fort and turned completely toward Kirk to pummel him with snowballs. Just as instructed, Carter snuck around behind his brother and uncle and dumped an entire shovelful of snow over their heads.

Howling with outrage the victims turned on Carter. Kirk abandoned his half-finished snowball to rush to his teammate's aid. The snowball fight dissolved into a four-way wrestling match. Finally all four boys collapsed on their backs in the snow laughing and breathing out clouds of smoke.

When he had calmed down somewhat and was starting to feel chilly, Kirk sat up and noticed something about the position of the nearest fort that he hadn't before.

"You know what this fort would be perfect for?" Kirk observed, "An ambush."

Garret saw what Kirk had in mind right away. They quickly explained their idea to the younger boys and soon all four were busily making snowballs again as fast as they could. They sent Tyler to climb a hill on the east side of the house and act as a lookout. When Tyler saw his grandfather's truck turn off the state highway onto the county road, he dashed back to warn the others. The boys crouched down in the repaired and expanded fort to listen and wait.

They heard the sound of the truck pulling into the yard and then the engine cut off. Two car doors opened and then slammed shut one after the other. Then quite clearly they heard men's voices and footsteps in the snow steadily approaching. Carter was so excited he had to be physically restrained by Garrett to keep him from moving too soon and ruining the plan. When Kirk's ears told him the three men were directly in front of the fort, he hissed, "Now!"

In unison, Kirk, Garrett, Tyler, and Carter rose up in the fort and let loose a volley of snowballs on the unsuspecting men below. The effect was greater than the boys could possibly have dreamed. Mr. Johnson, Cole, and Wade all had their arms full with sacks of groceries and were completely defenseless. A large wet snowball smashed into the side of Wade's face trickling ice down into his collar. Mr. Johnson was relatively lucky and only took several snowballs on his coat. Poor Cole got the worst of it. Four snowballs blasted his head and body sending him stumbling backwards. He slipped and sat down in the snow alongside the path dropping the bags and spilling groceries everywhere.

There was a moment of stunned silence. Mr. Johnson set his sacks down on the path and reached to help his son to his feet. Even as he was getting up, Cole roared, "Tyler! Carter! Get your butts down here!"

The scared boys hurried to obey their father. Kirk was right behind them. As soon as he could be heard without yelling, Kirk said, "It was all my idea. The others just went along with me."

Cole turned on Kirk and snarled, "What the hell is wrong with you?"

Before Kirk could think how to respond, Wade pushed between Kirk and Cole. Wade said fiercely, "It was a joke, Cole! You want to lose your temper and completely overreact, take it out on your own kids. Don't you ever, _ever_ talk to my friend that way again."

The brothers glared at each other. The tension was so thick Kirk could almost believe it was visible in the air. He would not have been surprised if Wade and Cole had started circling like a couple of dogs vying for dominance. Instead, Mr. Johnson's voice, quiet, but with absolute authority, diffused the situation effortlessly when he said calmly, "Let's pick up the groceries and get them in the house. You kids go get out of those wet clothes."

Tyler and Carter bolted for the door, Garrett on their heels. Kirk paused long enough to look questioningly at Wade. Wade gave an almost imperceptible nod and Kirk turned and walked, not ran, to the porch, up the steps, and into the house.

As soon as the door closed behind him, Kirk gave a sigh of relief. He took off the boots, left them by the door to drip on the mat, and walked in stocking feet to Wade's room. He peeled off his wet clothes and put on a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt. Then he lay down on the bed to wait for Wade.

It felt like an hour, but was probably closer to fifteen minutes before Wade knocked once on the bedroom door and then entered without waiting for a response. He stood looking down at Kirk with his arms folded. Kirk searched Wade's face trying to get a sense of how much trouble he was in. Wade rolled his eyes and said, "idiot," then dove on the bed and tackled Kirk.

Clearly Wade was not super angry about this, so Kirk felt free to fight back. Wade was bigger and heavier, but Kirk was wiry and determined to keep Wade from pinning his shoulders. Unfortunately for Kirk, that was not Wade's goal. When Kirk tried to roll away from Wade, Wade trapped him face-down on the bed leaning across his waist and capturing Kirk's wrist with his left hand. Wade used his free right hand to pull down the sweatpants Kirk had just put on.

Ignoring Kirk's frantic protests at this turn of events, Wade smacked Kirk's ass rapid-fire, quickly covering every inch with hard, stinging slaps. Kirk looked over his shoulder and saw that Wade was _smiling_. Kirk redoubled his efforts to get away, but to no avail. Wade just kept warming Kirk's butt with occasional forays down his thighs until Kirk wailed, "I'm sorry!" Wade stopped as if Kirk had flipped a switch. Or cried "uncle."

Wade gently pulled Kirk's pants back into place, gave his bottom one final pat and then released him. Wade started to get up from the bed, but this time Kirk caught Wade's wrist restraining him.

"Cole's not going to hurt Tyler or Carter, is he? I would hate to have gotten them in trouble."

"Nah. Cole doesn't like to be made to look foolish and he hates looking like he can't control his sons in front of Dad, but honestly, he really can't. Those boys are spoiled rotten. They probably didn't even get scolded."

Wade got serious as he continued, "But if Cole touches you or even says something to you out of line, I want to know about it, all right?"

"All right."

*****

That night the whole family gathered in the living room. They talked and told stories, passed around bowls of popcorn, and drank apple cider while a fire crackled merrily in the fireplace. When Cole added the last two logs in the box to the blaze, Mr. Johnson stood up and said, "Wade, come help me get some more wood."

It was not a request. Wade left the couch where he had been relaxing next to Kirk and obediently followed after his father. They each took a jacket from the hooks near the kitchen door and stepped out into the cold. The fact that he was accompanying his father out to the woodshed was not lost on Wade, but he tried not to jump to any conclusions.

Once they were in the shed out of the wind, Mr. Johnson said, "You seem awfully attached to that Kirk fellow."

Wade didn't say anything.

"That concerns me," Mr. Johnson continued.

"Why?" Wade asked.

"Well, he seems kinda immature, even for a nineteen-year-old kid."

This was totally not what Wade was expecting to hear. He was so surprised he blurted out, "Wait, you are concerned that my boyfriend is a brat?"

Anger and disgust twisted Mr. Johnson's features. "Don't use that word. I don't want to hear that."

Wade was instantly defensive. "My 'boyfriend' is what he is, Dad, so you're just going to have to get used to hearing it."

Mr. Johnson's face hardened. He stepped close to Wade invading his space and snapped, "You watch your tone with me, boy."

Wade remained silent and still and Mr. Johnson pressed, "You hear me?"

Wade had no problem standing up to his older brother, but his father was another matter. Through gritted teeth, Wade forced out, "Yes, Sir."

"Now," Mr. Johnson pointed a finger at Wade emphasizing his point, "The word I have a problem with is 'brat'. Or rather the two in combination. I don't think you ought to be calling someone who you say is your boyfriend a brat. Who you spend time with and what you call them is your own business, but I see you getting real serious, and I'm afraid Kirk is just playing around. I don't want to see you get hurt, son."

For the second time in less than five minutes Wade was completely taken aback. He opened and closed his mouth repeatedly before finally stammering, "Uh . . ."

Wade stopped and gathered his thoughts. Then with quiet intensity and absolute conviction he said, "Kirk is not playing games with me."

Mr. Johnson examined Wade's face and nodded to himself. "Okay. Then you keep him in line. I won't have him causing conflict between you and your brother and ruining your mother's Christmas, understand?"

"Yes, but . . ."

"I already had a word with Cole. He's not going to start anything."

Wade felt a tremendous weight lifted from his shoulders. The confrontation with his father he had been dreading was over, and it had gone astonishingly, amazingly well.

"Thanks, Dad."

"Grab some wood and let's get back in the house where it's warm," Mr. Johnson said gruffly.

*****

The Johnson family traditionally opened presents on Christmas Eve. Mr. Johnson took the presents out from under the tree one at a time, read each tag aloud, and then handed the present to the recipient. Everyone watched as the present was opened and the giver was thanked before moving on to the next gift. The whole process took hours, but Kirk found himself enjoying it. The family's obvious love and respect for each other made him feel honored to share in their ritual.

When Kirk opened the box from Wade he found eight books. Wade's relatives seemed a little puzzled, but Kirk knew immediately what he was looking at: a complete series written by his favorite author under a pseudonym, all of them out of print.

"You must have gone to every bookstore in the city!" Kirk exclaimed.

"Only four," Wade said with a smile.

Kirk opened the first book and was instantly enthralled. Wade had to nudge his shoulder to remind him to put the book away and focus on the next gift being opened.

Kirk had considered saving his gift to Wade for later in private, but then it would have appeared like he hadn't given Wade anything at all, and it wasn't as if he were giving Wade a sex toy or something, so he had added his present to the pile under the tree. Still, he was nervous when Mr. Johnson handed the small box to Wade.

Wade carefully removed the paper and lifted the lid off the plain, white, cardboard box inside. He took out a silver bracelet and held it up for everyone to see. The bracelet was simple log-chain links, understated and masculine.

"It's perfect," Wade said.

Wade put the bracelet on his right wrist and did not take it off again.

~ Adele

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