“Josh?” Ruth took a half step forward towards the young man in his mid-twenties who was pushing a light-blue stroller through the mall. “Joshua Miller?”
The young man glanced over his shoulder, and his eyes widened. “Ruth Penny?”
“It’s Anderson now. I got married three years ago.”
“Congratulations, if a little late.” Joshua grinned as he gave her a hug. “I haven’t seen you in ages.”
The smile on Ruth’s face momentarily faded before coming back bigger than ever. “Over seven years. The last time was when you and my little brother graduated from high school and headed off to college.”
“That long?” Joshua chuckled. “He never liked you calling him your little brother, you know. He used to say it made him sound like a baby.”
“Speaking of which…” Ruth glanced down at the sleeping infant in the stroller. “Who’s this?”
Joshua grinned. “Rebecca. Named after her mother. She’s four-months old, but since she was up for half the night, I’m hoping she’ll sleep for a little longer. Otherwise, I’d get her out to introduce you properly.” He nodded his head towards the nearby Starbucks. “Have you got time for a coffee and chat? I was hoping to get a start on my Christmas shopping, but I wouldn’t mind catching up on what’s been happening with you.” He glanced down at Ruth’s protruding belly. “Can I ask…?”
Ruth chuckled. “I’m due in February. Mom’s very excited; it’ll be her first grandchild.”
“Second?” Ruth felt a chill as the implications of that statement sank in.
“Isaac’s had a baby girl.” Joshua frowned. “He never told you? He told me he had let everyone know.”
Ruth felt a lump in her throat, and her eyesight went blurry as tears started to form. “I…” She shook her head. “Can we sit down? I need to talk to you.”
A few minutes later, the two were seated at a table in the corner, Rebecca’s stroller next to Joshua, and coffees in front of both of the adults. Ruth also had an apricot Danish, apologizing to Joshua about always feeling peckish.
Joshua started the conversation. “What brings you here? It’s a long way from your folks’ place.”
Ruth smiled. “David — that’s my husband — has been given a promotion. As part of it, we had to move here. It’s worked out nicely, as I was just about to quit my job anyway to start preparing for motherly duties, so here we are. We moved just after Thanksgiving.”
“In that case, we’ll probably see more of each other,” Joshua said, “assuming you want to, of course. In fact, why don’t you come over on New Year’s Eve? We always invite a small group of friends at our apartment to bring in the New Year, and it would be great if you and David could join us.”
“I’d love that! It’s good to see a familiar face, even if it’s one that I haven’t seen for years, and I’d get a chance to meet your wife.” Ruth bit her lower lip. “Are you still keeping in touch with my brother?”
Joshua nodded. “I get the occasional email from him. He’s living with this guy, and the two of them are raising a baby daughter.”
Ruth dropped her eyes. “This guy… Do you know much about him?”
There was a long silence before Joshua responded. “I know him. The two started dating in their freshman year at college. I’ve been told by mutual friends that they make a wonderful couple.”
“So you know Isaac’s gay.” Ruth looked up. “I assume their daughter is adopted?”
Joshua shook his head. “No. They used a surrogate. It cost them a bit, but Isaac told me he wanted a baby that was his biologically as well as legally.” Joshua smiled. “I believe Isaac did all the chasing around and research before picking the mother. He mentioned once that he wanted them to be a real family, and he’d do whatever it took to make them one.”
Ruth flinched at that comment. “Did he ever tell you what happened at home when he came out to our parents?”
“Why don’t you tell me?” Joshua gave her a soft smile. “I’ve heard his side of the story, but I don’t know yours.”
“It was at Christmas time. We were seated at the dinner table and had just started on the pudding when Isaac told us he’s gay.” Ruth dropped her head again. “Dad went off at him, said things that should never have been said. Mom sided with Dad and I…” She swallowed and stared at her coffee. “I didn’t stick up for Isaac. It was such a mess. I can still remember the fight.” She sighed. “Dad told him not to come back, and Isaac said he’d only return if hell froze over.”
“Things didn’t get better after they’d both calmed down?”
Ruth shook her head. “Those two are so alike. They could give stubbornness lessons to mules.” She didn’t see what was in front of her. Instead, she saw the memory of her father and brother standing in the dining room, yelling at each other across the table that was full of food and Christmas decorations, while she and her mom watched in shock. “Dad won’t let Isaac’s name be mentioned, and Isaac changed his cell phone and email address immediately afterwards. He’s stopped using his Facebook and Twitter accounts, and he hasn’t used any other social media that I’ve been able to find. We know he graduated from college, but other than that, none of us have heard anything from him since that Christmas.” She gave Joshua a look of pleading. “Tell me what you know. Tell me what’s happening with my little brother.”
Joshua sat there for a moment and then grimaced. “I really should check with Isaac before I say anything. If you and David can come, I’ll try my best to make sure he’s there New Year’s Eve.”
Ruth reached over and took Joshua’s hand. “Please? Tell him I’m sorry and that I’d love to see him again. He’s welcome to come to our place for Christmas, too, if he wants. I’d like him to meet David, and I would love to get to know his partner and baby girl.”
“You’re not going home for Christmas?” Joshua seemed surprised.
“Mom and Dad don’t celebrate Christmas anymore. Not since that night.” Ruth closed her eyes from the remembered pain. “Dad won’t admit it, but I think that’s the penance he’s placed on himself for what he did. He never says it, but I think he misses Isaac.”
A gurgle and then a cry interrupted their conversation. Joshua smiled down at his daughter. “I think someone needs a new diaper. If you’ll excuse me,” he said as he stood up.
“Wait!” Ruth scrambled through her purse and pulled out a pen and business card. She wrote quickly. “This is David’s business card and my number. Knowing Isaac, he probably deleted it from his phone when he stormed out.” She sighed. “Not that I blame him. I wasn’t a good big sister.”
Joshua took the card and then placed a hand on Ruth’s shoulder. “I’ll let him know. I can’t promise he’ll do anything, but I’ll pass on what you’ve told me.”
“Thanks, Josh. Please call me later to let me know what he says. If there’s one thing I want more than anything else this Christmas, it’s to have my brother back.”
David Anderson dropped his briefcase on the bench and then gave Ruth a quick kiss on the lips. “Work’s done until the New Year. Now I can concentrate on you and getting ready for Christmas.” He leaned back to contemplate his wife, while still keeping her in a light grip. “Still nothing?”
Ruth sighed. “It’s been over a week now, and I haven’t heard from Isaac. Just that one message from Josh saying he’d passed on our details to my brother.”
“It’ll happen, or it won’t happen. There’s nothing more you can do.”
“I’m thinking of inviting my parents…”
“It’s only three days until Christmas! There’s no way they’ll be able to come, even if they want to.”
“Mom’s been hinting that if Isaac will be here, she’d like to be here, too. She doesn’t often tell Dad what to do, but if we offer, she’ll make sure they’ll come.”
“Remember what happened three years ago when we had both families at our old place for Christmas just after we got married.” David screwed up his face. “It was a disaster that was only saved from being a catastrophe by your parents walking out halfway through the day. Do you really want to go through that again?”
“It’ll be different this time. I’m expecting, and Mom wants to see me. She’ll tell Dad that he’s not allowed to stress me out because I’m pregnant. I’ve also told her about Isaac’s baby and how we’ve asked Josh to ask Isaac.” She looked into David’s eyes in that special way that he could never resist. “Dad said Isaac could never go home, and Isaac said he would never want to, but this is a neutral place. If they could just relax their stupid stubbornness for one day, they could both be here without having to go back on what they’ve said.”
“Okay.” David sighed. “We don’t know if your brother will show up, but I’d better warn my family about the possibility of fireworks. This time my brother and sister will have their kids along, which might help keep your dad from flying off the handle. I’m hoping he’ll be more restrained if there are young kids around.”
Ruth gave him a hug. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet, and we don’t know if Isaac will show up. I hope he does, though, because I’d like to finally meet this brother-in-law of mine. All I’ve seen are those high-school photos of him.” David smiled at Ruth. “And if he doesn’t, you said there’s a chance he’ll be there for Joshua’s New Year’s Eve party. He was invited, wasn’t he?”
“That’s what Josh said.” Ruth started to wring her hands. “I hope he doesn’t still hate me. I was an idiot all those years ago. I knew what Dad did was wrong, but I didn’t have the courage to say anything. Isaac must have thought I’m a homophobe, too.”
“It’s not all on you. From what you’ve told me, Isaac didn’t go out of his way to make things easy. He sprung it on everyone as a surprise and then pretty much said to accept it or fuck off. He never gave you a chance to come to terms with what he had said.”
“I know, but he’s my brother! I should’ve stood up for him. I should’ve…” Ruth buried her head into David chest as she started to sob.
David held her tight while murmuring soothing words. It was apparent to him that a joyous Christmas in their new home was doubtful. But for Ruth’s sake, he would do what he could.
Eventually, Ruth pulled away. She gave David a wan smile. “All I want for Christmas is to be with my family. All of my family, and that includes you and your relations, too. Is that too much to wish for?”
It was a couple of hours later, just after the finished dinner, that Ruth’s phone rang. She glanced at the caller ID and then stared at her husband in wide-eyed hope. “Josh?”
“Hi, Ruth. I’m sorry it’s taken this long to get back to you, but Isaac’s been stubborn.”
Ruth gave David a smile while she held the phone to her ear. “Isaac and his father are the same. It takes a lot of work to get them to change their minds.”
“Very true. Anyway, I’ve enlisted the help of Isaac’s husband and—”
“Husband!” Ruth’s jaw dropped.
“Yes. Didn’t you know? He and Isaac got married during their senior year at college.”
A small sob escaped Ruth’s lips. There was so much of her brother’s life that she’d missed out on, but she could only blame herself. It wasn’t just the initial incident; she also blamed herself for not doing more in the intervening years. She’d made sporadic attempts to get back in touch but had never even made the effort to go to Isaac’s college to try to see him. She couldn’t help wonder how things would’ve been different if she’d made more of an effort.
David moved over and wrapped his arms around Ruth, giving her the comfort and a sense of protection she needed. Ruth gave him a quick but weak smile of thanks before returning her attention to the phone, where Joshua was beginning to sound worried. “Sorry, Josh. There’s just so much I want to learn about what Isaac’s been doing. I don’t even know his husband’s or daughter’s name!”
There was a long silence. “Sorry, but Isaac explicitly told me that I can’t tell you. He doesn’t want you to know.”
Ruth felt a flash of anger, followed immediately by pain as she guessed the reason. “I can understand he’s hurt, but is he really that petty that he doesn’t want his sister to know the names of her brother-in-law or niece?” Ruth rested her head on David’s chest while guilty tears started to fall.
“That’s not it at all,” Joshua replied quickly. “He’s not petty; he’s paranoid. He googled his name and theirs and found too many matches. If I gave you either name, you’d be able to track him down, and he’s not ready for that. I’m sorry. I think he’s being stupid, but he doesn’t want you to know who they are. Not yet. Not until he’s sure it’s safe.”
“I’ve done searches on Isaac’s name but I haven’t found anything. There’s nothing recent for Isaac Penny at all!”
There was another pause. “He changed his name when he got married. He goes by his husband’s last name now.”
Ruth closed her eyes and sighed. She was reminded again of how much Isaac had been hurt that Christmas Day so many years ago. “You were saying you’ve got Isaac’s husband’s help.”
“Yes. Isaac is now considering coming to your place for Christmas, but he wants to know if your parents will be there.”
“I’ve invited them,” Ruth admitted reluctantly. “Mom’s coming, and she’ll drag Dad along. Isaac doesn’t have to do anything with Dad if he doesn’t want to, but Mom wants to see him and her granddaughter. Both of us have bought Isaac’s daughter Christmas presents, but if Isaac doesn’t come, can I give them to you to pass on?”
“Of course, but I’m hopeful he’ll be there.” Joshua chuckled. “I’ve been told Isaac’s husband can be very persuasive. Your parents showing up may keep Isaac away, but his husband thinks it would be good for him to see his family, so I’m still hopeful they’ll go.”
“I hope so. If Isaac could come, it would be the best Christmas present I could ever hope for.”
“Hey, relax,” David said as he wrapped his arms above Ruth’s waist. “Everything’s ready for tomorrow, why don’t you sit down and rest. I’ll get you a fruit juice and something to nibble on.”
“We still have to set the table and get the snacks ready.” Ruth sighed as she stared at the Christmas tree that was already guarding a collection of presents.
“That can wait until tomorrow morning. No one is showing up until lunchtime, so we’ve got the morning to finish things.”
“I wish Isaac was coming. If it wasn’t for me, he’d be celebrating Christmas with us, too.”
“Hey, don’t be like that! You told me that Josh said it was because of your parents, and your father in particular, not you. Didn’t Josh make a point of saying that Isaac would see us at the New Year’s Eve party? It’s not you that’s the problem.”
“But if I hadn’t invited my parents…”
David kissed the side of her neck. “You did what you thought was the right thing to do. I would have done the same thing. Now, I think it’s time you stopped and let me do whatever else needs to be done tonight. You need your rest.”
Ruth smiled as she sighed. “I could do with a nap because my back is killing me, but a comfy chair would be just as nice.” She twisted around to give her husband a kiss.
Before she could move away, the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it. You sit down,” David said.
She had just entered the den when she heard David speaking. “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for Ruth Anderson. Are you David?”
“I am, and you are?”
“Isaac, her brother.”
Ruth suddenly felt faint. Her legs collapsed underneath her, and she felt a sharp pain as her left arm made contact with a small side table that they had positioned earlier to hold drinks and snacks for their Christmas Day guests. Before she could do much more, David was there, asking if she’s okay.
“I’m fine!” she said with more than a touch of exasperation. She looked past him to see a long unseen but never forgotten face. Isaac seemed older than she expected, though she knew her last memories were from when he was nineteen. The intervening seven years had aged him, in mainly good ways, but there was an aura of innocence and naivety that had been lost. “Isaac?”
He gave her a tentative smile. “Merry Christmas, Ruth.”
“Help me up,” she told David, though she kept her eyes on her brother. “Merry Christmas, Isaac. Can you ever forgive me for what I did all those years ago?”
His smile grew stronger, and he nodded his head. “Josh told me you were feeling guilty, but it wasn’t you that kept me away.”
“But you never responded when I tried to reach out to you.”
“I was still angry then. I didn’t know if it was a trick, so I kept my distance.” He glanced down at her swollen belly and then back up. “Will you accept a hug as an apology?”
Ruth opened her arms up for him. She was becoming too choked up to speak. It was only when there was a noise at the door did they let go of each other.
“Is that your husband?” Ruth asked as David headed out of the room.
“And our daughter.” Isaac smiled. “He’s the one who convinced me that I needed to be here tonight, even if I won’t be tomorrow. He sent me ahead while he got our little girl out of the car.”
“Josh told me he could be persuasive.”
Isaac laughed. “True, very true.” He turned as David returned with Isaac’s husband in tow.
David’s attention was mainly on the bundle in his arms. “She’s adorable.” He smiled at Isaac. “You have a beautiful daughter. What’s her name?”
Isaac moved over and put an arm around his husband’s waist while beaming at David and Ruth. Ruth felt faint again but this time managed to collapse into the closest chair. Her eyes never left Isaac and his husband.
“Her name’s Rebecca,” Joshua said. He smiled down at Ruth as he gave Isaac a squeeze with one arm. “My sister-in-law told me she wanted nothing more for Christmas than to see her brother again. Well, here he is.
“Merry Christmas, Ruth.”
Copyright Notice — Copyright © December 2015 by Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form — physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise — without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank C James and MikeL for the advice they gave on early versions, rec for editing this story for me, and ricky for that critical final review.