Claudia found Owen in her room - again. "Hey, your coloring books are downstairs," she told him.
"Uh huh," he said, not lifting his head as he folded the paper a few more times. His lower lip was tucked in as the tip of his tongue stuck out. Both of his eyes narrowed in concentration.
She couldn't help but laugh as she stacked the origami books - again. "What did you do with my swan from Reed?" she asked. Ordinarily, she wouldn't stress out about it like Julia or Bailey would have. But, this particular item had sentimental value. She wanted to keep it for more than a few days, thinking back to the day she found it.
The yellow paper figurine sat on top of her books in her locker one day. A few clues made it obvious that Reed put it there: One, the two of them had been discussing the book, "One-Thousand Paper Cranes," for a few days. Two, she had made an off-handed remark that she wanted to learn origami, but didn't have the patience. And, three, he knew her combination, her favorite color paper and the mood she had been after failing yet another math test (Or at least in her opinion, a C- was close enough).
"I didn't touch it, Claudia. Honest," Owen answered. The paper art finished, he whispered, "Can I give this to Charlie, now?"
"What is it?" She couldn't make heads or tails out of it. On second thought, she didn't know if it even had a head or tail.
"It's a surprise for Charlie," he whispered as he tiptoed out of the room and down the hall.
Claudia went after him. "Let him sleep, all right, Owe?"
"Why is he so tired?" He looked up at her with wide eyes. Innocent, wide eyes, she thought.
"He's sick," she said. "He needs to sleep to get better."
Owen had a far away look as he stared down the stairs. The sun began to disappear from the living room windows. "Well," he said with a sigh, "my Magic Paper Duck can help him feel better." He continued his walk to Charlie's room purposefully.
"Owe!" She picked him up, but he squirmed. Afraid he'd cry out, she put him back down.
"I'm only going to give it to him," he explained, keeping his voice low. "You have to hush or you'll wake him!"
Claudia gave up. "All right."
Owen carefully placed the Magic Paper Duck on the base of the lamp on the nightstand as Claudia looked on from the doorway.
"Hey," Charlie whispered, smiling. "You don't have to be so quiet, buddy."
Owen's face changed to a more serious one. Claudia covered her mouth in an effort not to laugh, because she knew she, Julia and Bailey had given Owen that same look at one time or another. "You're suppose to be sleeping," Owen said. "How are you going to get better?"
"I will get better, Owen. Honest. What did you bring me?" He asked as he slowly sat up.
"Charlie," Claudia cautioned. He waved her off, though, so she said no more.
"It's... It's a Magic Paper Duck. It won't fly anywhere like those other birds did," Owen said, pointing to the abandoned bird feeder fastened to the bedroom window. "It will stay here and take away your 'owees' and whisper songs to you, too."
"It's pretty," Charlie said as he held it in his hand.
"It's not an it! And, it's not a he! It's a she. But, only if she wants to be a she. It could be an it, but because there's you and me and Griffin, it can't be a he. There's only Julia and Claudia, so it wants to be a she. Okay?"
Claudia and Charlie exchanged confused looks. "All right, Owe, it's a she. But, what about Bailey?"
"He's not here, so he doesn't count." Owen patted Charlie's hand with one hand and took the paper duck back with the other. "You have to go to sleep, now, Charlie." With that, the toddler walked out of the room and down the stairs.
"Smart kid," Charlie told Claudia with a wink of an eye.
A saddened look that flashed ever so briefly across his face didn't escape her. "He takes after either you or me or both of us," she replied with a grin. "I suppose you had the alarm set to get up in time, huh?"
He shut it off just at it began to sound. "Impeccable timing. Did you leave that message with Bailey?"
"Yeah. I called over there, like, five minutes ago, and Sarah said she'd tell him, again. He was still over at Annie's."
Charlie shook his head. "I know I'm not one to talk, but, the last thing he needs now is a co-dependent relationship. Promise me you and Reed won't do that to each other."
"Promise," she said. "Speaking of Reed, he gave me a book he thought you might like." She handed him a worn copy of 'Mosquito Coast' by Paul Theroux.
"Yeah. Dad has a copy of this, I think. It's on the third shelf to the left of the..." His voice trailed off as he got up from the bed and went downstairs. Curious, Claudia followed. They knelt by the fireplace as Charlie found it where he said he would. "Yep! I forgot I left this bookmark in here, too." He read the quote aloud. "'Growing my hair... You may have noticed I have long hair? There's a reason for it." He finished reading the paragraph.
"Why that one?" she asked reaching for her journal he gave her for Christmas to copy it down.
"It made sense at the time," Charlie said. "I mean, in an odd sort of way, you found out what kind of man Charlie Fox was with a remark like that, wanting to get away from it all, down to the littlest detail."
Claudia sighed, realizing he was reading from the eighth chapter of the book. "Well, I'm only on the third chapter."
"Good. I can catch up with you by tomorrow."
She liked the fact that Charlie got involved with their book talks. He always listened to the comments and questions Reed brought up, never condescended him, or patronized him. Reed became more and more a part of the family each day, it seemed, and Claudia enjoyed that most of all. She felt sad that he couldn't join them for dinner at the restaurant tonight.
Claudia adjusted Griffin's stocking she made for him before school ended for break. It matched Julia's down to the same color of felt his name was sewn on. "I'm surprised we left this stuff up so long."
The smell of Christmas pine and cranberry potpourri poured throughout the house, even days since the holiday passed.
"Well, Griffin and Julia said they'll help take it all down after dinner. What's a few more hours?"
Owen, dressed and ready to go to the outing, waited on his tricycle, a cardboard tube left over from the wrapping paper in his hand, and declared. "I'm Don Key Hokey! And you are a demon I must strike down!" He charged passed Charlie on his tricycle, a gift from last year's Christmas, and pretended to strike the demon down.
Obliging, Griffin, who entered unnoticed by the others, fell to the floor.
"Y- You go on without me," Griffin gasped. "J- Just look out for Julia." With that, Charlie and Claudia watched as their brother-in- law closed his eyes and feigned death.
"Great, Owe, kill the driver's husband. Now how do you think we're getting to the restaurant?" Claudia joked.
Charlie gave her a mock look of terror. "Understood," he whispered back as they followed Sharell to their usual spot. "Has Bailey arrived, yet?" Charlie asked once they sat down.
Sharell shook her head. "When he does, do you want him in the kitchen or out here?"
"He's suppose to be here," Julia said, concerned that something might have happened.
Griffin handed Owen the thinner of two envelops he had in his pocket. "Here are your pictures, buddy."
Owen's eyes lit up as he made room on the table. He pushed his sleeves up as he prepared his audience. "I have one for everyone," he said, explaining each one before passing them around.
Charlie held up the collection. "These are great, Owen! I see you were very careful with Griffin's camera, too. That takes a great deal of trust." Of the seven, the one that caught Charlie off guard was the photo of him sleeping in the armchair, a book resting on his lap. "When did you take these?"
"Before the presents, silly." Owen pointed at a photo of Julia wrapping Claudia's gift - a sweater with matching gloves. Julia was sitting on the floor of the cottage, a smile on her face as she cut the paper and ribbon.
"Must have," Claudia said. The picture in her hands was one of her playing the violin, Stuart accompanying her on the piano. She had enjoyed his company, even if it was shorter than last time.
Griffin pocketed two photos, the first one being of Griffin with his arms around Julia as they stood in their lit cabin looking up at the Christmas tree. Surprisingly, Griffin hadn't been aware that the child was there.
The other one was of him and Owen sitting together on his motorcycle. It was quite a balancing act, to have one arm around Owen and the other stretched out to take the picture. What amazed him was the fact Owen could duplicate it. He studied the self portrait of the toddler in the mirror, Mr. Bear in hand. The flash had not gone off in that picture.
"This one was the easiest," Owen said. "He hardily moves."
The four of them were surprised to see a picture of Thurber sleeping under the Christmas tree.
Julia asked, "Where's-," but interrupted herself at Charlie's silent signal. "Where's that picture of you and Santa, when you saw him at the mall?" she asked instead.
Owen looked at her briefly. "Oh, when I told him I wanted Charlie to be better and that I promised to be good even when I go to college? I hid it. That candy cane he gave me was small."
Out of the corner of her eye, Julia saw her older brother press his fist to his lips, holding back what, she didn't know. She rubbed her brow, wondering why some kids always told more than they needed to. "I've an idea. Let's plan for a New Year's party."
"Count me in!" Claudia said.
Charlie nodded as he motioned Sharell for a pen. "I like that idea." He was about to take notes on some napkins when Sharell gave him a pad of paper, but an envelope as well.
"Who's it from?" Claudia asked.
He read it silently to himself, a small smile crossed his face. "Pete Terry. Haven't seen him in over a year, not since that holiday..." His voice faded. "I'm glad Sharell and Louis were able to take over."
"Well," Griffin offered, "if you want, we could save ourselves the trouble of a party and just join them here. A bit noisy, I imagine, but..."
"Forget it," Charlie said. "I like the idea of a small celebration. Let's add some names to that list!"
Griffin watched his brother-in-law shake his head as he began the slow climb upstairs. Somehow, he knew the older man would prefer sleep over a confrontation. He wished for once that a day could go by where one of the siblings wasn't yelling at another. Peace in the family was sensible, he thought. Julia, on the other hand...
"Bailey!" she yelled. Nothing remained of the holiday decorations, not even the cards or wreaths, so her voice echoed nicely off the walls.
Griffin decided it was best to usher Claudia and Owen to bed. After reading Owen a bedtime story, he whispered, "Let's replace that homemade storytelling video with something else, like 'Toy Story,' all right, pal?" The sleeping toddler didn't reply.
Closing Owen's door behind him, Griffin thought about what happened at dinner. Turning to his right, he saw Charlie's door was closed. Below him, he could hear Julia and Bailey's voices quite clearly. To his left, he could hear water running and Claudia humming. From the other end of the hall, the light shining through the open door, he heard music. It wasn't classical, as he'd come to expect, but Spanish guitar.
Curiosity got the best of him as he went to see which recording it was. The last person he expected to see was Charlie looking out the window. Griffin leaned up against the door frame of Claudia's room. A typical looking room for an untypical teen, he thought. Behind the door hung a knick-knack shelf Nick had made Diane years ago, some of the original collectibles in the same places she had them. Beside that was a poster of Izak Perlman, Claudia's admired violinist, along with other posters mostly from Broadway shows, like Les Miserables and Gypsy. The more he looked around, the more it reminded him of his sister, Jill, and how she kept her room.
He decided it was time to make his presence known. "How are things going for you? Aside from the obvious, I mean."
Charlie's eyebrows rose and fell as he held a closed journal in his hands. "I don't know. In church this morning, I listened to Reverend Ruebens' sermon and knew, inside, what the season is about. Yet, it seems so... empty. I'm not counting the material things like gifts and stuff. Those were too few as it was and I apologize-."
"Why? We know funds need to be saved, especially with your medical bills. And it isn't as if Julia or I needed anything more than the heater you gave us. Th- this holiday isn't suppose to be about who gets the most toys. It's valuing what you have now, and a chance to plan goals for the upcoming year."
"Tell me, is there much value in having two siblings at each other's throats all the time?" Charlie asked. "No, seriously, I wish we had one more family member here. But, Jake wanted a clean break rather than have us worry about him."
Griffin didn't know what to say to that, sensing there was much more than Charlie let on to. The silence hung there between them for a while.
Both of them could hear voices rising from the kitchen. "I'll go and make certain that there won't be a case of fratricide or sororicide for you to deal with," Griffin said as he dismissed himself. The more he thought about what wasn't said from Charlie, the more he wondered about what he hadn't said to his own parents over the years. Perhaps the time had come for him to renew ties. He wished.
He smiled. "No. I just wanted to tell you that I love you. And, that no matter what, I want you to know you deserve the best. From all of us. We're family and we can't let any of us fall."
"Too bad Grandpa Jake wasn't around to hear you say that. Maybe then he would have stayed. It was so right having him here last year, decorating the tree, listening to him read..." She sighed as she sank to the bed. "I guess it was only sensible to give away his gifts, huh?"
"You didn't have to do that, Claudia," Charlie said.
She wrinkled her brow. "I didn't. And it wasn't Julia or Griffin, so, I thought you did it."
It was Charlie's turn to sigh. "Nevermind that," he told her. "Tomorrow, we shop for the party items, and then we have fun creating a family album together. How does that sound?"
"Great," she said as he kissed her on the forehead. He turned off the lights, leaving her in the dark to ponder her wishes.
"The magic paper duck Owen gave me. Why can't you leave things alone? I mean, you are letting yourself get so distracted by this Annie that you skip family functions, and-."
"Don't bring her into this!" he said defensively. "So I forgot one meal and toss a crumpled paper duck, disown me!"
"Lower your voice," Charlie told him. "I'm not disowning you. Yet. Just ask yourself if she's worth it, Bai. It's as if you're trying to fulfil some sort of wish to be man of the house or something. The woman's a divorced, single parent and trying to recover from her problem. What do you have to offer her? What makes her so special that Nat sees more of you than your own siblings do?"
"Hey, I'm here! I come here every morning before classes and help you out at the restaurant, and-."
"But, do you really spend time with them? We all have to support Claudia and Owen together as best we can. There's no way we can give as much as Mom and Dad did, but, if you turn away from your chance with them now, you'll never get it back, Bai. You'll never get it back."
Bailey heard, yet didn't hear what his brother was saying, even though it was vaguely similar to what Sarah had told him a while ago. Everyone had thrown in their two cents about his relationship with Annie. What he wanted was a chance to be happy. For that to happen, he had to succeed, to-."
"To be happy?" Charlie asked.
"What?" Bailey cursed himself, not realizing he said that last part aloud. "I only want to be happy. To want things to return to before."
Charlie smiled. "You can't go backwards in time, not yet at least. Seriously, though, what do you want?"
He thought about it, along with something Griffin told him after Julia stormed out of the house. It had to do with wishes and treasures. 'What do you wish for? Now, what do you have? Which one holds the better value for now and how do you secure it?' "Can I help plan this party you plan on throwing?" he asked.
Owen placed his paper flower beside Claudia's white dove. Bailey carefully laid a brass vase in front of the marker. Julia and Griffin each placed a silk rose, one white, one red, inside while Charlie set a small, ribbon-tied scroll in front of it.
They told stories to each other, memories of holidays past. After an hour, they went home, feeling renewed, reunited.
Griffin wasn't certain what surprised him more about the celebration that night. Whether it was the number of friends invited, or the joy shared. Either way, he doubted an 'outsider' remained in the group. He picked up Claudia's journal, and following the quote written in Sarah's handwriting, he added one of his own. When he had finished, he felt Julia's arms around him as she drew him back to the warmth of family.
Charlie watched from a distance, Owen sitting on his lap with a disposable camera in hand. "Can I shoot them now, Charlie?" he asked.
"Almost, pal," he replied. He waited until Justin,Claudia, Reed, Sarah and Bailey were closer to the couple. None of them knew what the brothers were up to. "Now, Owen." The flash went off, giving them away.
Russ Petrocelli came up behind Charlie and said, "To do this right, it should be a family thing."
"I doubt if that thing has a timer," Charlie said.
Ross Werkman smiled. "This one does."
As the camera was set, family and friends gathered for a portrait, showing people as individual as snowflakes, yet together like a winterland scene, in a time when wishes could be as bright as snow.