Chapter 1 – Christmas Surprises
Time. It can be such a consistent mistress that brings change. The world is full of friends that make pacts and plan to stay together forever. Can it happen? Who’s to say it can’t, but that’s the challenge three young men must face.
Around Christmas is when things feel shaky, and their issues aren’t placed on hold. A brisk cold breeze and a blanket of powdery snow covers everything as everyone waits for one more person to arrive before presents get exchanged.
“Where in the blue blazes is he?” James asks, pacing up to the oversized living room window where he crosses his arm after pulling up the sleeves of his red and black plaid shirt.
One of his two best friends, Justin, replies snarkily.
“He’s probably screwing around with that Nikki chick would be my guess, bro.”
James takes his tall and slinky body back over to a seat and turns around in a deep huff.
“Well, they best hurry up!” He comments, exceedingly irritated.
A voice of reason comes from across the room when James’ mother, Paula Cline, a.k.a. Momma C, a middle-aged woman dressed like every other trucker from the 1990s, reminds them of a straightforward thing.
“Now boys, be patient, alright. He, or rather they, will be here, so relax and enjoy some eggnog.” She says in a lighthearted voice.
James gives her a look that expresses nothing short of sarcasm.
“Now, Jimmie, son, get that look off your face. You know that girl is a half-decent drive away. Besides, she’s been good for him. Look at how he’s changed since they started courtin’.” She reminds him, but it’s in one ear and straight out the other for James.
Muttering almost under his voice, James expresses how he feels about the young beauty that’s captured his best friend’s attention, “I don’t like her, Ma, she’s uppity, and she’s been controlling him. Selfish little bitch!”
Momma Cline’s instinct kicks in when she scolds James over his tone and language.
“James Emanuel Cline! I will wash your mouth out with soap if I hear that again! And you will apologize for that comment when she arrives and this is Josh’s first Christmas since his mother kicked him out. Y’all be growing apart just a bit, but he’s still like family.”
Drawn up in the seat feeling scorned, “Yes, ma, I’m sorry.” He tells her with a look of disappointment.
Not long after the conversation ends, they hear a car pull in, but to their surprise, it’s not who they expect.
“Is that… Can’t be…” Justin mumbles after adjusting his glasses when he sees a full-size GMC SUV parked in the driveway.
Curious about who’s parked in the driveway, Momma C gets out of her seat to open the front door for the unexpected guests. She notices a just below average height bright blonde woman in a bright blue hooded coat breathing into her hands.
“Oh, my Lord, it can’t be! Thank Jesus they got the time to come home!” Momma C squeals seeing her oldest child stand by the back door, lifting a baby from the car seat.
A renewed energy surrounds the living room as the buzz over the visitors takes control.
“Hi, momma, we’re here!” Audrey yells through the cold night air with snow still falling, carrying the baby while her husband, Tyler’s tall, rugged military man, has their bags standing behind her.
“Shake it for me, mommy!” He teases, watching Audrey’s ass in front of him as she turns red.
“Hey, Tyler, take it easy; it’s too soon for another one just yet.” Momma C states reaching out for Sara.
“Oh, come to grandma!” She says, snatching the baby to hold her close.
They get inside, where the familiar scent from the gas-powered fireplace warming musky smell in the living room and the greasy Giovanni’s Pizza brings back memories to Audrey.
Tyler takes the bags back to the last bedroom down the hallway that used to be Audrey’s until she moved out to live with her Aunt when Paula took a job driving as an over-the-road trucker a few years ago.
While he’s back there, Audrey slips out of her coat and relaxes on the loveseat.
“So, what’s new around here?” She asks, looking at James and Justin.
“Hey, where’s Josh?” She asks.
Justin and James both roll their eyes.
“We’re still waiting on him to show up. Ever since he got with ‘her,’ he hasn’t been the same. He’s changed his look, started lifting weights more, and has become more of a smartass, excuse my French. Had it not been for Whitney and her friends doing what they did a few months back, we wouldn’t be here like this right now.” James mutters with a hint of disdain.
Audrey looks a bit confused, “Do what?” She speaks with a scrunched-up expression.
Before she can retrieve an answer, a deep male voice calls out from the front door after it opens with a well-built teenage frame sporting a preppy fashion of Old Navy and baggy Paco jeans with spiky-styled blond tips and dark brown hair informs.
“He means that no one likes my girl,” Josh mentions with his eyes locked on his friends.
“Be nice because she’s upset a bit and sitting in the car waiting for me to wave her to come inside. Sorry, we’re late. Spent a little longer with her folks than I thought we would.” Josh lies through his teeth as the last thing he needs to admit is being alone with Nikki.
The glaring three-way contest ends when Tyler walks off the steps to make his point of view the best one the boys could hear.
“Hey! Knock it off. I’ve known the three of you since y’all met way back in elementary school. You’re in high school now, so act like it! If she makes Josh happy, then be happy for him. By the way, bubby, I dig the new threads and highlights. It is very nice. It brings out that nice little gold feature with your eyes. Now stop wasting time and heat and go get your girl!”
With a smirk, that’s all Josh needs to hear to vanish. He slips down the icy steps and reaches the passenger side door of his mid-90s Ford Probe GT; Josh pops the door open, giving Nikki a hand to help her out of the car.
“They still hate me, don’t they?” Nikki asks, looking at her beau in his blue with sunflower gold glowing eyes.
“No. They don’t know what to expect when it comes to you. Remember how stand-offish I was when we had our first date? It’s kind of like that, but even if they don’t, screw ’em, baby doll, I want you here.” Josh tells her with a rare softness to his voice.
Nikki smiles, wiping her eyes and double-checking her makeup in the mirror before she hurries out of the car.
“I’ll get the presents. You just stand there and look fly, babe, because you’re just damn fine tonight!” He teases with a wink, causing her to smile and blush.
The hatch opens with the click of a button, and Josh wipes off the collecting snow and takes out a bag of gifts.
“Let’s head inside!” He yells as the hatch falls back and latches shut and hurls the bag over his shoulder, and together walk into the house.
It’s the first time Audrey and Tyler get to meet Nikki, and the instant she walks through the door, they’re in awe.
Nikki uses her hand, moving a strand of sandy brown hair behind her ear. She stands almost three inches shorter than Josh. She’s slender with icy blue eyes and a stare that can make any man stop and stare when they gaze into her eyes.
“Oh wow, she is a beauty! I have to say my other little brother, she’s a sight for sure, and sorry for his lack of manners. Hi, I’m Audrey, and this is my husband Tyler, and that’s Sara, our little girl that my mother is bouncing on her knee.”
Nikki moves over so Josh can drop the bag by the tree only a few feet from the door. Once he’s free of the gifts, they take a seat on the floor in the beanbag chair, where Josh wraps his arms around his girlfriend.
“Hey, now you two, just remember there is no hanky-panky in this house. Since there’s nowhere else to sit right now, I’ll allow it, but this is the only exception.” Momma C says to the couple as Josh gives her an evil, smart-ass grin.
“Yes, Momma C, I know, but hey, it’s Christmas, you know. Can’t deny us this chance to keep each other warm.” Josh mentions as the room cracks up laughing.
“Yeah, well, that’s why we have a gas fireplace right here to keep us warm, or did you forget?” She retorts with the baby in her arms.
The tension splits the room. As it settles deeper, Josh and Nikki appear relaxed, but she can feel eyes peering into the back of her skull. Justin stares out the window as James is the one staring.
Tyler takes it upon himself to address the elephant in the room.
“Alright, I’ve had about enough of this, girls; you stay up here and chat. Boys down in the basement pronto. We’re settling this childish garbage tonight!” He orders, waving the three of them to follow.
A hateful expression comes across all three faces. Justin’s the first to head down the steps. James follows him as Josh is last, giving Nikki a quick kiss on her cheek before he struts down the steps.
“I’ll be back, ladies; play nice, or you’re next!” He warns them and shoots Nikki a wink and a smirk.
“Well, I think he’s smitten towards you, young lady!” Momma C teases with a smile.
Nikki hunkers down with her cheeks glowing with embarrassment.
“I don’t know why they don’t like me,” Nikki says, straightening her shirt after sitting up straight in the chair on the floor.
Audrey breaks it down that two of the three best friends aren’t much for life changes beyond their control.
“Sweetie, it’s not you but what you represent. You’ve changed Josh, which means another wedge in the team’s machine. They ever tell you about how they became known as the troublesome trio?”
The expression etched on her face says it all.
“No…” Nikki lets out, scooching in her seat as intrigue snatches her.
Momma C interjects, sitting forward with her hand out at Audrey to give Nikki the information about the boys’ past.
“I think it would be best to let them explain that part. Those three have been through a lot in the last couple of years. Josh especially, you know his mother kicked him out.”
Nikki shakes her head, wiping away another tear.
“I know, and he won’t talk about it. I’ve tried, and all it does is cause us to fight,” Nikki says.
“It’ll take ’em some time to come around. It’s only been about what now a month and a half or so, but he’ll come around. Just be patient.” Momma C explains, getting to her feet.
Paula walks into the kitchen, taking a couple of plastic cups from the cabinet. She pours Nikki and Audrey both a glass of homemade sweet tea. When Paula places the pitcher back onto the refrigerator shelf, then reaches into the drawer for a Budlight.
“Alright, girls, when the boys come back up from the basement, we’ll get presents passed out and rip ’em open.” Momma C announces, juggling the glasses and beer in her wrinkled oversized hands.
“Oh, Mrs. Cline, let me help you with that!” Nikki mentions when she notices the juggling act.
“I think I got it but thank you, sweetheart,” Paula says, nearly dropping the beer.
Nikki rushes to take the tea glasses, quickly turns around, returns to the living room, and sits Audrey’s glass down on the end table.
“Thank you.” She says softly, with Sara falling asleep in her arms.
With a smile after a sip of tea, the only thing Nikki can say is, “you’re welcome,” when she adjusts her dress and sits down on the couch.
Tyler is royally ripping the boy’s backsides in the dimly lit, musk-stinking basement.
“I don’t get it, guys. You’ve been through worse in the past year or so. So now what the hell is the issue, or are you just prone to being seventeen-year-old boys acting like ten-year-olds throwing a goddamn temper tantrum? You’ve been best friends almost what ten years already, so what gives?”
Josh stands silently with his arms folded. James leans against the wall, reluctant to open his mouth. Justin looks down at the floor, kicking his foot back and forth across the concrete.
Blown away by their lack of responses, Tyler throws his arms out, ready to walk away, “Really? So that’s how it’s going to be with me. Am I not in the loop any longer? Now what gives? Is it because of this new girl upstairs? Does she hound you two, or does she run her mouth about anyone in the family?” Tyler questions, tapping his foot on the floor.
When silence maintains control, Tyler takes a few steps letting his frustration out, “C’mon, y’all don’t talk all at once.”
“I can’t tell ya, bub. All I know is that when I showed up with my new look, Justin didn’t say much. But, James has had an attitude since that day.” Josh explains with his eyes locked on James.
Instinctively James shoves Josh’s shoulder, and Josh pushes James back. Tyler and Justin prepare to step in-between if fists start flying.
“You think it’s only that! I mean, c’mon, dawg, ever since you met this girl last year, you’ve been stuck up her ass. Even while you were with Whitney, you couldn’t leave ‘her’ alone. She’s dug in her claws and took control of you.” James spits out, and after he’s finished, he runs his hand through his long dirty brown greasy looking hair.
Tyler steps between them and stares at James.
“That’s not what I’ve seen so far. What I saw upstairs was Josh bringing in a girl that’s made him smile. That’s a rarity from what I hear anymore. So if that’s what you think, then you better open your eyes. Besides, let me give all three of you a life lesson. If Josh’s happy, then deal with it and be happy for him, because when and if they break up, then she’s gone, but friendships are tougher to repair.”
Still dressed like an alter boy, Justin comes off the wall to break his silence on his experience with the girl he’s dating.
“I don’t say much anymore because you know how much Tina and I fight and argue. I keep my mouth shut because you’re right it ain’t my place to say anything. If he’s happy, then cool beans, bro. Although Josh, you have changed, but if you’re cool, I am too, and that’s all I have to say. It’s hard, but I’m trying to be more in touch with God, ya know.” Just frowns and tries to hide the guilty feeling behind his wire-frame glasses.
“Thanks, bub and James, you’re just going to have to get over it. She’s here to stay, and I feel something real for this girl.” Josh mentions extending a hand to offer his best friend a mutual gesture of forgiveness.
James stands there for a moment to think it over, “If you say dawg, but don’t come crying to me when it hits the fan.”
Suddenly it hits Justin like a sack of potatoes that they’re still waiting to open presents.
“Oh man, y’all, they’re still waiting on us to hand out gifts!”
The boys fight for position stumbling over each other to make it out of the basement. Finally, Tyler wins the battle royal being the first one to step back into the outdated country-style kitchen.
“We didn’t forget about presents, but we managed to work some stuff out,” Tyler mentions taking a seat beside his wife and child.
Momma C looks at James and reminds him that he still owes Nikki something after holding an open hand out in Nikki’s direction.
“Oh, speaking of which, Nikki, I owe you an apology. My temper got the best of me earlier, and I unintentionally called you a bitch. For that, I am sorry.”
Before Nikki can acknowledge the apology, Josh, instantly filled with rage, shoves James between the shoulder blades sending him into the middle of the living room.
“Seriously, Nikki ain’t done a damn thing to you, and you wanna start calling her names, you tool!” Josh yells, nose to nose, with James.
Nikki doesn’t waste time getting to her feet and forces her way between. Josh and James smell her vanilla perfume while keeping their eyes on each other.
She stares into Josh’s eyes, getting him to stand down, “He said he was sorry and you gotta bad temper too, babycakes. I accept his apology, and you need to accept it too. But, it’s said and done; nothing you can do about it.”
Nikki heightens her tone to grab Josh’s attention more, “Please, baby, for me.”
Josh puts his hands in the air, taking a step back.
Nikki turns her attention, staring James down with a finger resting at the tip of his skinny nose, “As for you, I haven’t done anything to you, and you disrespect me. I’m not the ‘bitch’ you think I am. I could be if you truly want to see that side of me. I’ve been nothing but nice to you since that first night we all met.”
James begins to soften his stare and realizes he’s holding a grudge with no substance.
“You’re right, and I am really sorry, f’real. You haven’t given me a reason to hate you, and I hope you don’t. I was wrong, so again, I am sorry. I’m sorry to you too, Josh. I’m starting to get what Tyler meant down in the basement.”
Paula gets out of her chair, picking up the TV remote to put on a Christmas movie.
“You heard what Nikki said, and it’s time to put it to bed. Thank you, son, for apologizing. Josh, you can get under the tree to hand out presents. Time to unwrap and then get everyone settled in for the night. Well, except for miss Nikki. You’ll have to run her home and be careful about it when you take her home. The snow is still coming down awfully fast.”
“Yes, momma,” Josh replies, moving to the tree, dropping to the floor, and handing out gifts.
One by one, Josh gives out beautifully wrapped gifts in sparkling bright wrapping paper. Except for Tyler and Audrey, theirs had been shipped out a few days prior by UPS. They sit and watch as everyone else tears off the shimmering paper and the shocking expressions that follow.
Momma C gets a new blue and white thermos for her job and a set of brand-new multi-colored flannels and black cotton socks.
“I love them, thanks, kids!” She says, inhaling the scent of brand new shirts.
Justin is thrilled with a white leather-wrapped Bible, “Holy cow, this is awesome! Thank you, James. I love it, bro!”
Josh receives several new burnt CDs with hand-written labels for the nights he goes out to ‘Cruise Avenue’ alone.
“Sweet burnt CDs, and they best not be any junk songs or sappy crappy tunes on them.”
Everyone enjoys a good laugh when Josh pulls out the final gift of the night. Something no one was expecting.
“What’s this?” Nikki asks, taking the long skinny item.
Josh huffs and tells her, “just open it and find out,” before he takes a step back with his hands folded together, nervous.
Nikki doesn’t hesitate to rip the shiny silver and blue wrapping off to expose a white jewelry box with tape holding the ends together. She struggles for a moment as James snickers after Nikki gives Josh an evil look.
“I hate you!” She says playfully.
He smiles and points to the box, waiting for her to open it.
Hidden inside, she sees a custom-made tennis bracelet with both of their birthstones.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s beautiful! Sapphire and Topaz, but how could you afford this? Weren’t you let go from your job or something because the boss is your ex’s dad or something like that?” Nikki babbles on as Josh attaches the ends to admire the bracelet.
“Actually, no, he’s the owner of the dealership, and honestly, just because his daughter is a tramp doesn’t mean he’s going to take it out on Justin and me. Besides, she dumped me, and he likes us and our work. Not only that, but we’re only detailers, not like we mean anything to that place.” Josh clarifies, surprising Justin.
“Wait, what… if we weren’t fired, what was with putting us off work?” Justin wonders out loud.
When the light comes on, Josh’s eyes shine, “Oh! They’re remodeling from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. This means we’re getting more space, and he’s placed in more office room. So we can finally have our spots to chill and get away from that doofus we call a boss,” Josh explains.
Justin nods, glad to learn that he still has a job.
“Cool dealio…” That is all he can muster to say as everyone returns to the movie while Nikki admires her bracelet until it’s time for Josh to run her home.
Momma C speaks up when the credits roll.
“Time to take her home, son. Be careful, and Nikki, my dear, you are welcome here any time I’m here or when my brother is here to supervise.”
“Thank you, ma’am, and I hope I can see you all again soon. Take care, MERRY CHRISTMAS!” She yells out as everyone exchanges “Merry Christmas” with each other.
Josh goes out to warm up the car. Once he returns inside, he waves bye to everyone.
“I’ll be back soon, I promise. Don’t wait up for me!” He announces, taking Nikki’s hand, walking outside, feeling the frigid winter air.
Soon after they’re gone, the energy begins to dwindle when Justin is the next one to depart.
“It’s about time I head to church. My parents are expecting me. Night y’all, I’ll see ya soon, and Merry Christmas.”
Soon after, Tyler and Audrey take Sara to bed with them before James retreats to his bedroom. Momma C stays up to wait for Josh to return. She’s happy that the tension between the boys has finally started to fade before she heads back out on the road the day after New Year’s.