TUFFER'S CHRISTMAS WISH
The car cooled, waking the young footballer. The red sunset alerted him to the time. He was scheduled to be at Lexie’s house at five, and it was four thirty. He turned on the engine, blasted the heat, and pulled onto the road.
How am I going to eat dinner and sing carols with Coach’s family when my guts have been kicked out? His adoptive parents were arriving at nine o’clock. Tuffer had to pull himself together.
He left the vehicle by the curb and made his way up the wide, flagstone path to Coach Sebastian’s huge, seaside home. Lights blazed inside. He spied the family through the large, square picture window. Lexie was setting the table, Lyssa was playing piano, and Jo was stretched out on the sofa. They looked happy, normal.
Shame at his beginnings filled his gut. A bastard son. He hesitated to join the festive group. He wanted to crawl into bed and sleep for a month. Instead, he took a big, shuddering breath, stepped up, and rang the bell. The door popped open to a rush of warm air and Lexie’s smiling face. Delicate features, golden hair, perfect body.
“Come in, come in, it’s cold out there,” she said, tugging on his arm.
He entered the house.
“What’s that?” she asked, her gaze dropping to a small shopping bag clutched tightly in his big hand.
“The small box is for you. The bottle of wine for your mom. Merry Christmas.” He thrust it at her.
“Come in, Demson,” Coach called from across the room. “How about trying this hot, mulled wine I made. It’ll warm you up.” Pete handed the glass mug to Tuffer.
Nothing could warm me up inside. Tuffer took a sip. “It’s good.”
“See. I can do some stuff, like cooking.”
“Mulled wine is far from cooking a gourmet meal, daddy,” Lexie said. “Come on, let’s do our presents.” She led the linebacker into the living room. There was a gigantic tree in the corner. Lexie rummaged through a few wrapped packages and plucked out one in red and green paper. “This is for you. You open first.”
Embarrassment rose through his chest to his neck. All eyes were on him as he slowly ripped open the wrapping and lifted off the cover. Inside was a soft, green, wool sweater. He fingered the material.
“The color brings out the green in your eyes,” she whispered.
“It’s beautiful.” Tuffer circled her waist and drew her to him for a kiss, forgetting his coach was watching.
“That’s enough, Demson.”
“Your turn,” the linebacker said, releasing his girl
“Okay.” She sat down, cross-legged, and tore the paper off the small box he’d handed her. She gasped as she opened it to reveal a gold bracelet with a few charms dangling. A football, a helmet, and a little man in a football uniform swung from the thick chain. It had set him back him fifteen hundred bucks. “Is this real gold?”
“Yep. Eighteen carat.”
“That must have cost a fortune.”
“Nothing’s too good for you,” he said quietly, stealing a kiss.
Lexie touched his arm. “Will you put it on for me?”
After he secured it, he threaded his fingers through her hair and kissed her again.
“Let’s eat,” she said, offering him her hand.
The dining room sideboard groaned with a sumptuous spread. There was cold shrimp with cocktail sauce, boiled lobsters, homemade biscuits, salad, and cups of steaming New England clam chowder.
Tuffer hadn’t eaten a lobster before. His family had never had money for such extravagance. He had no idea how to approach the red beast. “Uh, Lex, I’ve never had lobster before.”
She patted his hand. “Don’t worry. It’s easy.”
They filled their plates from the buffet and sat down at the table. Dinner was one scrumptious dish after another. They finished up with a German chocolate cake and homemade Christmas cookies. He was stuffed.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Lexie suggested.
They bundled up, and she led him to the sea, not far from her house. They joined hands and strolled through the sand, listening to the waves.
He couldn’t get the meeting with Rusty out of his mind. Tuffer had never thought of himself as a bastard before.
“Are you okay? You’ve been so quiet,” she asked, raising her voice to be heard above the tide.
“You have such a nice life. So normal. Mine isn’t like that. It’s messy.”
“Mine’s messier than you know.”
“You eat lobster. This was my first time. You live in a mansion. I grew up in a small house. Your parents are big, important people. Mine run a nursery school. I’m not sophisticated like you are Lexie. I don’t belong here.”
They headed back to Coach’s place.
“That doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me. I’m an idiot around you and your family. I don’t belong.” He glanced at his watch. “My parents are arriving in half an hour. I need to go.”
Once inside, Tuffer thanked the coach, his wife, and Lyssa. Lexie walked him to his car.
“You need to find someone from your class. I’ll never fit in. You’ll get tired of being with a guy who doesn’t know how to eat a lobster or which fork to use. You’re sweet. I like you. But I’m not in your league.”
“Tuffer Demson! You have some nerve dumping me on Christmas Eve!” Her eyes flashed then teared up.
He put an arm around her. “I’m not dumping you. You can do better than me, that’s all.”
“Go to hell!” She shoved him off and flounced into the house, slamming the door. He buckled his seatbelt and turned the car toward home.
I don’t belong with those people. I’m just the bastard son of a pro football has-been. I need to stick to my own.
His depression deepened as he drove by house after house, lit up in jewel tones of red, green, and blue. Some places had flashing lights, some had steady. The little town of Monroe put on a beautiful show at the holidays. Snowmen in front yards wore warm, winter scarves, and silver and blue Christmas trees were visible in living rooms on street after street.
He’d expected the decorations and music on the radio to cheer him up, but it didn’t. He’d finally gotten his wish, the one he’d had year after year. And how did it turn out? Badly.
He climbed the stairs to his place about a mile from downtown. Once inside, he tidied up. The work made him feel a little better. He couldn’t wait for his folks to arrive. He missed them. They were proud of his achievements and came to all the home games they could. They lived outside of Kingston, New York, it was a bit of a trip.
They were full of news of friends back home and amusing stories. Tuffer kicked back with a beer and munched on cookies while he listened. He shared his football war stories from away games and his tussle with his first lobster.
“Never had a lobster. Was it worth it?” his dad asked, opening a brew.
“It was okay,” Tuffer lied. Actually, he’d loved it. “You’re not missing anything.” No way could Ralph Demson afford the fancy dish.
The room filled with laughter and warmth as they heated up the meal his mother had prepared and wolfed down the delicious food. They retired early. The linebacker too. It had been an exhausting day.
Christmas morning, Bev whipped up a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and leftover ham before they opened gifts.
Christmas morning, Bev whipped up a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and leftover ham before they opened gifts.
“What’s the matter?” she asked Tuffer.
He tried to slough it off, but she persisted. “You can’t fool me. Something’s wrong. Come on, you know you can tell me anything.”
Ralph joined them, fastening his robe over flannel pajamas. “She’s right, Tuff. You know you can’t keep anything from your mother. She’ll worm it out of you one way or another.” He chuckled.
The young man cast a worried glance at his father. “I finally got my Christmas wish.”
“A new bike?” his dad joked.
But Bev got it right away. She gasped. “Really? You met him?”
“Who? What’s going on? What’s this about a Christmas wish?” Ralph glared at his wife.
She sighed. “When he was little, he wrote to Santa, asking to meet his birth parents. After he met Shayna, there was only one wish left. To meet his biological father. We didn’t tell you, because we didn’t want to upset you.”
“Your real father?” Ralph sank down on a chair in the kitchen. Bev poured a mug of coffee and placed it in front of him.
“Rusty Fowler. He came to the diner yesterday while I was having breakfast with Shayna. Did you know who he was?” Tuffer asked.
“No, Shayna wouldn’t say.”
Tuffer watched the color drain from his father’s face.
“So, what’s the word?” Ralph asked, his hand shaking slightly as he picked up his beverage.
“I’m the bastard son of a washed-up pro football player.”
There was silence in the room.
“He gave me reasons, excuses, as to why he never got in touch. I’d actually seen him at a few college games. We called him ‘The Stalker.’ The team thought he was stalking the quarterback. I had no idea.”
“Did he tell you why he disappeared?”
“Some lame excuse about avoiding an expensive, public divorce.”
His parents winced.
“I suppose he wants to be in your life now. Pick up where he left off, or should have left off. The rotten son-of-a-bitch!” Ralph rose from his seat, color returning to his face. “Where was he when you needed him? He had plenty of dough. He could have helped out. Taken you fishing or thrown a ball with you. So, he’s gonna use his pro football days to steal my son?” Ralph paced, his voice rising, tears clouding his eyes.
Tuffer jumped up and corralled his dad. He grabbed the older man’s upper arms and forced him to stand still. “That’s not gonna happen! You’re my real dad. Not him.”
“You’re not gonna hang with him?”
Tuffer shook his head. “I told him we have nothing to talk about.”
Ralph hugged his boy.
“You’ve been a great dad,” Tuffer said.
Bev dabbed her eyes with a napkin.
“I need a drink.” Ralph headed for the liquor cabinet. He poured brandy for all three and settled on the sofa.
“What happened?” Bev asked.
Tuffer took them through his encounter with Rusty Fowler. They finished their drinks, added wood and stoked the fire, and then opened presents. Tuffer got another sweater, handmade by Bev, a scarf, and gloves. Presents were modest because his parents simply didn’t have much money.
He didn’t care. He didn’t need much, and now, as an NFL player, he had the money to buy whatever he wanted.
“I know you didn’t have much time to shop, with practice and traveling…” his mother said.
Tuffer held up his hand. “Wait!” He handed a small box to his mother. “This is for both of you.” He grinned to see the disappointed looks on their faces.
Bev unwrapped the package.
“New house keys? Our house keys work fine, son,” Ralph said.
“No, no. Com’ere.” Tuffer ushered them to the door. He opened it and pointed. “See?”
“Yeah. A car. So?”
“These are the keys. That’s your new car.”
“Our car? No, the blue one is ours,” Bev said, her face a mask of confusion.
“Mom, Dad, I bought the Rav 4 for you. It’s my Christmas present to you.”
Jaws dropped as the truth sunk in.
“You did what?” Ralph’s eyebrows jerked up.
“You can’t drive that old wreck. It isn’t safe. This is your new set of wheels. Come on. Let’s take a drive. Wait until you see all the stuff it has.”
“You bought us an automobile? That’s so expensive.”
“Don’t worry about the money, Mom. Piece of cake. I even got the heated seats.” Tuffer grabbed his coat and turned on the outside light.
“I love the silver, Tuff. Great choice,” Bev said, sliding into the front passenger side while her son held the door.
They marveled at every little thing, oohing and aahing as if the vehicle was a new baby. Ralph put it in gear. They drove around the block. Tuffer’s heart swelled. This was the first time he’d had the means to give them a huge gift. They badly needed a new one, and now, they had it. Both parents hugged him hard.
Bev put up a pot of coffee. They dug into her cookies again. Tuffer loved the gingerbread, molasses cookies, and chocolate pixies best. The linebacker retired early. He pulled up his comforter and smiled at the memory of his dad behind the wheel. His thoughts turned to Rusty Fowler, a man who had sacrificed nothing for his blood child. Tuffer frowned. The man had looked so pathetic, with a hangdog expression. Hatred toward the cold, selfish man who had given him life still flowed through the young man’s veins.
He thought about how Rusty had missed his chance, year after year. Tuffer was twenty-three. Rusty had had twenty-three Christmases to contact the boy. But he hadn’t. Meeting face-to-face had opened the old wound. Pain flowed through him again. Now, the old man was interested in basking in his son’s limelight as a football pro.
And then, there was Lexie…