Eric and Jane had a two week vacation from their tutoring and Pieter had given them a minimal amount of homework over the holiday. Eric was already enrolled for the next semester in private school and had met his new principal and teachers. Jane was so delighted at learning to read that she didnt want a vacation until Deet assured her that things worked that way.
Eric had his homework finished the first day but spent time every afternoon with Jane, helping her with her reading. Deidre had found an old set of reading primers in the attic and obtained Pieters permission for Jane to practice with them if she wanted to.
Look, Jane, youre famous, Eric said the first afternoon he helped his foster sister work her way through an old Dick and Jane primer.
Not for long, she whispered back. Member?
Christmas Eve day arrived and the children were primed for excitement from the party the night before. They were both up early and were finishing breakfast when Deet finally work up and made his way to the coffee pot.
Youre up early, he said. I thought youd both sleep a little late today. You were up past your bedtime last night.
Couldnt sleep, Dad, Eric returned. Consuelas picking us up at nine. Shes taking us to a Christmas party for some of the kids she knows from her school district. Were going to pretend to be elves and help give out Christmas presents.
Yeah, Jane added. Were going to be Consuelas elves this year and Elf Louises elves next year.
Deet nibbled at toast and drank his coffee while the children chattered excitedly and Deidre cleared the kitchen.
Youre sure you know your schedule for today? Deidre asked Deet.
The only thing Im doing differently this year is spending part of my morning with a therapist, Deet confirmed. I have to be at the Fuentes house by six for dinner and exchanging gifts. Then well all go to the river to listen to the carolers before we go to midnight services. Then its home and bed. Did I forget anything?
The presents, Dad, Eric reminded him.
Which presents? Deet asked.
For Judge Solari and Mr. Milhauser, Jane replied. You promised not to forget.
Oh, those presents, Deet said laughing. I thought you meant some other ones. Theyre on the table inside the front door so that Ill see them on my way out. Dont worry, I wouldnt forget those special presents.
Everything is ready for you to put in the oven for dinner tomorrow, Deidre said. Try to leave me a piece of pecan pie.
Are you sure you wont spend the day with us? Deet asked.
I promised Aunt Minnie Id spend Christmas with her. Besides, she added, its a family day and the three of you need to have a quiet day alone. Ill be back on the twenty-seventh.
Turning to Eric and Jane she said, Come and give me a Christmas hug. When I come back youll have to show me everything Santa brought you.
Jane whispered to her, Thanks for pretending theres a Santa. Eric doesnt know the truth yet.
Deidre laughed and kissed her forehead. There are some secrets Ill keep to my grave, she said. Now, its time for me to go. Merry Christmas.
Consuela was right on time, picking Eric and Jane up at nine oclock.
Be sure you bring your clothes for church tonight, she said as Jane checked and double-checked the packages they had in the two boxes in the foyer.
Ive got them, Eric said as he headed down the stairs with two sets of Sunday clothes on hangars.
Youll be at the house by six, wont you? Consuela asked Deet.
Im hoping to be earlier than that, Deet told her. I have to deliver the childrens presents, spend an hour telling Dr. Tran that I didnt spend my childhood lusting after my father, and pick up a last minute gift.
Turning to Eric and Jane he said, You two have a good time and Ill see you later. He was overwhelmed at the strength of the hugs they gave him before collecting their things and heading off with Consuela.
. . .
You know, Mr. Graschel, Judge Solari said when he was admitted to her private office, I dont accept gifts. Its unethical.
This isnt from me, Judge, Deet said. Its from Eric and Jane. I dont even know what it is because they were very secretive about it.
She accepted the wrapped box and shook it gently. Would they be upset if I didnt take it? she asked.
Im sure theyd cry hysterically and launch a campaign to remove you from the bench, Deet said smiling.
Well, if you promise not to run against me in the next election and accuse me of accepting bribes then I think I should see whats in this box.
With all the curiosity and delight of a child Angelina Solari untied the bow and opened the box. The first thing she saw was a small card on which Eric had written, Mr. Fuentes said we should ask for a fifth if you tell anyone we gave you this. She laughed at the reference to Erics appearance in her court.
Oh my, she said as the removed her gift from the box. This is beautiful.
In her hands she held a coffee mug, not an unusual item and quite popular as generic gifts. But this one was special for there was a gavel hand-painted on the side with Judge Angelina Solari, Childrens Court in flowing script. The interior bottom contained another inscription that read, Our favorite Judge, with the childrens names.
Please tell them that I love it, she told Deet. And, Mr. Graschel, I want you and the children back here in my court right after New Years. I want to tell them myself, with a reminder that I cannot accept another gift from them so long as Janes adoption remains an open issue.
Deets next stop was to the local office of Freeman, Freeman, and Birch where he asked the perky blonde secretary if Milhauser was available for a few moments.
Lovely party last night, Herbert said as he ushered Deet into his private office. Bettys going to talk about it for months. Shes delighted that youre going to let her see some of the things in your attic, of course, but I think the highlight of her evening was when Rick Jordan asked her to dance. Its a damned good thing hes gay or shed leave me for him in two seconds flat. Hell, its a good thing Im straight or Id leave her for him. Ive never seen anyone make the tango look that damned sexy. It was all I could do to keep little Herbie under control, if you catch my meaning.
Rick has that affect on people, Deet managed to say. He enjoys making women feel like theyre desirable as long as everyone understands that its just playing. Hes got this theory that straight men have no idea how to be romantic and thats why so many marriages fail.
I know youre not here to talk about the party, so why the visit? Herbert asked. Is there a problem with Eric or Jane?
Not a problem, but theyre why Im here, Deet said as he produced the present. Im playing Santa today and delivering their gifts to an exclusive circle of friends.
They didnt! Herbert exclaimed.
They did, Deet replied, and I think Ive got an idea what it is. I think youll like it.
Herbert quickly opened the package and held up Eric and Janes gift. Well Ill be damned, he said as he looked at the porcelain cup, like and yet not like the one for the judge. This one was more delicate in nature, fitting with Bettys love of fine antiques.
The wife is going to love this, Herbert said as he held the cup, the script on which said, Lawyers do whats best for children. And again, scripted at the bottom were their names.
I have to give you this, Deet, Herbert said. Youve given those kids a good home. I had some reservations at first, which Im sure you understand, but now I know I made the right decision when I agreed to work with Manuel to help you keep those kids. Tell them Ill call tomorrow afternoon and let them know how much I appreciate this.
. . .
How are things between you and Rick Jordan? Dr. Tran asked Deet during their session an hour later.
What do you mean? Deet asked.
I sensed a lot of hostility last night. Is it something youd like to talk about?
Theres not really much to say, Deet finally replied. I fell in love with Ramon when we were in high school. He wanted to come out in college; I didnt. Then he met Rick. I stayed in the closet; Ramon didnt. And I didnt fall in love again. The end.
Is it something that can be worked out? Jane will begin to pick up on the animosity, you know. Shes quite fond of Rick and it might make her think that she has to decide between you as her foster father and Rick as a friend.
Rick and I had a long talk last night, Deet said. He hit me with some harsh truths that hurt, but he was right. I didnt want to admit that it was my fault I lost Ramon so I spent years blaming Rick. He made me realize that Im to blame.
Not entirely, Dr. Tran said. I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He saw; he wanted; he conquered, to very badly paraphrase Caesar. He was older, out, experienced. Ramon was vulnerable and open to Ricks advances and you were just plain clueless.
So what happens now? Deet asked.
You go forward. Youre surrounded by love in more ways than you know. And you have so much love in your heart to give. Thats evident in how much Eric and Jane have progressed in such a short time. Eric doesnt surprise me because he had stability before his mother died so he knows what its like. Jane, on the other hand, never knew love. The police have determined that her mother was a prostitute in New Orleans so there is no way to determine who her father is. Jane was prostituted as young as seven. She had no childhood, no love at all. Her mother used the money to pay for drugs. It amazes me that the child is free from any type of STD, but I guess the Lord was taking care of her as best he could. Im not an extremely religious man but I think there was a reason you saw that late news report, Mr. Graschel. Jane belongs with you as much as you belong with her. The children have begun to melt that ice-sculpture you have as a heart. Dont keep yourself from letting the right man finish the process.
Deet looked deep into himself as the session concluded and remembered the package hed left in the waiting room.
Eric and Jane sent you a Christmas gift, he said and handed the wrapped box to the psychiatrist.
I didnt expect this, Dr. Tran said as he unwrapped and opened the box. Inside was another coffee mug, this one saying, You helped to shrink our fears.
This is wonderful, he said. Please tell them how much it means to me. And let them know that Im especially grateful for their names on the inside.
. . .
Christmas Eve was one of the best Deet could remember as he watched Eric and Jane exchange gifts with the Fuentes children. Dolls with assorted dress were exchanged between the girls while Eric and Jorge gave each other signed basketballs. It had taken several telephone calls to Indianapolis for Herbert to get one signed by the entire Pacers team for Jorge to give Eric. Erics signed ball for Jorge was much easier since Manuel simply passed on Erics request to Don Taylor. An assortment of video games and CDs were included until the living room floor was littered with wrapping paper.
The childrens excitement grew as they sat, bundled in coats and gloves, at tables on the cobbled walk along the San Antonio River and listened to the lovely strains of Christmas carols as barge after barge of carolers passed. When it was almost eleven they made their way to the churches they would be attending. Deet hurried Eric, Jane, Jorge, and Connie to the Lutheran church located three blocks from the Catholic church the rest of the Fuentes family would be attending. They agreed to meet in front of the Alamo when services were over.
Shi whiz, its cold, Jorge said as he waited for his parents and sisters next to the lighted tree in Alamo Plaza. Its never been this cold before on Christmas Eve!
Think itll snow? Eric asked.
In your dreams, Yankee boy, Jorge answered. Theres Mom and Dad. Cmon, Connie, lets go. Ill call you tomorrow, Dude, he said and hurried his sister toward their parents and the promised warmth of the ride home and comfortable beds.
. . .
Deet didnt know what was the more disturbing when he woke Christmas morning a child on either side of him, fully dressed in pajamas and robes or Benji licking his chin while Miracle stumbled across his eyes.
Coffee, he whispered.
Not until you get out of bed and see what Santa brought! two young voices said.
Cant I drink coffee at the same time? Deet managed.
Just come and see, Dad! Eric exclaimed.
Deet pulled on his robe, found an intact pair of slippers, and stumbled toward his bathroom pushing his hair back from his forehead. I dont function without coffee, he mumbled.
The children had opted to open their presents in front of the family tree on the second floor. Jane took Deets hands and led him to a chair in the hallway and directed him to sit as Eric placed a cup of coffee on a nearby table holding a Jade plant.
The smell of the coffee was almost as potent as the first sip and Deet remarked, This is delicious.
Deidre showed me how to do it, Jane announced. Now can we open presents? Pleeeease?
Deet made a great show of yawning, stretching, and seeming to come awake. Okay, he said, but you said something about Santa?
Totally awesome, Dad! Eric said. Look at this great saddle he got me for my new horse. I can hardly wait to show Jorge! This is beyond rad! His eyes conveyed that he was keeping up a pretext for Jane.
And what did he bring you, Jane? Deet asked as he yawned again and took another swallow of the high king of all drugs and aphrodisiacs.
The most beautiful doll I ever saw, Jane said as she showed her foster father Santas gift. The doll was two feet tall, porcelain with curly black hair and dressed like a Victorian lady in a gown of velvet and brocade. It had cost Deet close to five hundred dollars to have hand-crafted in Germany based on several photographs, requested mere weeks earlier, and asked to have made a priority. The photographs had been the deciding factor for the Deusseldorf doll manufacturer to recreate one designed by an ancestor.
Are you going to unwrap your other gifts? Deet asked as the coffee spread through his veins.
You bet! Eric said and he played Santa. There was the usual assortment of things, socks for Deet because children always buy their fathers socks and after shave. Eric and Jane opened more Playstation2 games and CDs.
Somethings missing, Deet muttered as he stared at the mound of torn wrapping paper on the floor. I hope I didnt lose those other presents. Maybe I hid them in my bedroom. Stay here; Ill be right back.
Several minutes passed before he returned. I found them, he said. Theyre up in my old bedroom and I need help bringing them down.
Eric and Jane bounded up the stairs to the third floor and stopped to stare at the door to Deets childhood bedroom. The bed had been pushed to one side and a complete HO electric train set was running around the center of the room, stopping at the station, speeding on its way past mountains and streams, through tunnels.
Wow! This is totally like super rad! Eric exclaimed.
This is the way my father gave it to me the Christmas I was fourteen, Deet said. I was in love with electric trains that year.
I love it, Dad! Thanks! Eric said as he hugged Deet. But what about Jane?
I think Janes gift is sitting on the bed, Deet replied.
Jane took her eyes away from the train set long enough to see the doll on the bed. Its just like the other one! she said, only its got blonde hair and it looks a lot older.
This was my great-grandmothers doll, Deet told her just before Jane cut off his breathing with her arm wrapped around his windpipe.
We, uh, got one more for you, Dad, Eric said as he rescued his father from imminent death. Its a surprise and Consuela and Deidre helped us with it. Its back downstairs under the tree.
Deet let Eric and Jane lead him back down to the second floor and retrieve the gift they had hidden under the tree-skirt. Deet dutifully shook it and listened to it before remarking that he couldnt begin to guess what it was.
Open it! Jane insisted and Deet made a great show of carefully loosening each piece of tape that held the package shut.
Oh my God! Deet exclaimed when he opened the box and wiped away the tears that ran down his face. Its the most precious gift I ever got.
From that moment, for the rest of the years that the Graschel House would exist on Guenter Street, an eleven by fourteen portrait of the two children in front of the family Christmas tree sat in the center of the mantle over the fireplace in the parlor. Forever locked in time Eric smiled as he attempted to keep Benji from squirming away while his foster sister sat placidly holding a black kitten with round blue eyes. The sterling silver frame was engraved and read, Our first Christmas with our Dad, Eric and Katia.