“Mother! Mother!! boomed the earth-shattering below from the foyer, prompting the grand lady to quicken her pace out of the parlor.
“Land sake, Nicholas, must you shout?” she berated with one hand over her right ear.
“Sorry Mother. I though maybe you were upstairs and wouldn’t hear me if I whispered,” Nick replied sarcastically but with a devilish grin.
“I wonder if you are capable of whispering,” she quipped, rolling her eyes in exasperation.
“I’m going into town to pick up the gifts. Anything else I can fetch for you while I’m there?”
“As a matter of fact there is. There’s supposed to be a package addressed to my name at the post office. More of a box actually.”
Nick’s face broke into a smug. “A present for me?”
“No actually it’s for your brother Heath. I asked Hannah to send it to me from Strawberry.”
“Strawberry heh? What is it?” he asked with an insatiable curiosity.
“You’ll find out at Christmas.”
“Aw come on, Mother,” Nick whined. “I can keep a secret.”
“I know you can…most of the time, but in this case I just assume not take any chances.”
“I’m hurt,” Nick affected with a pout.
“I’m sure the wound will heal once you unwrap your presents.”
Nick’s face lit up with glee. “Argh! You know I can’t stay mad at you.” He leaned forward to place a wonted kiss on her cheeks. “Where should I put that express delivery once I get here?”
“If Heath isn’t here you would be kind to carry it upstairs to my room. Otherwise bring it down to the basement. You might want to ask a hand to help you for it might weigh a few pounds.”
“Pounds? What’s in that box?”
“Hush! And go on or you’ll be late returning for supper,” she said, waving her son out the door.
In the hush of a bright moonlit night, not a creature was stirring in the Barkley household as each member slumbered peacefully before rousing to partake in the traditional Christmas Eve midnight dinner. Every one was in Morpheus’s arms save for Heath who found it hard to sleep on this his first Christmas with his newfound family.
Nick awoke with a powerful thirst that only a tall glass of warm milk could quench. He crept down the stairs and made his way to the kitchen. As he turned the corner, he heard a slight noise wafting from the living room. He retraced his steps and went to investigate the mysterious sound. He squinted against the light emanating from the fireplace to make out a silhouette in the armchair.
“Heath? What are you doing here? Hoping to get a peek at Santa Claus?”
“I couldn’t sleep. I’m too excited. I came down here to sit and look at the tree. It’s so beautiful,” he sighed with a marked melancholia that wasn’t lost on Nick. “Growing up in Strawberry we never had a tree like this. Sure we had a resemblance of a tree with strings that mama and I would make out of popcorn but it didn’t hold a candle to this one.”
“Wait till it’s lit. It’ll blow you away.”
“It’s beautiful just the way it is now. You can see the glass figurines and tinsels sparkle in the firelight. That’s plenty enough for me.”
With a heavy heart Nick placed a hand on Heath’s shoulder and squeezed it lightly. “I’m on my way to the kitchen to fix myself a glass of milk. Want some?”
“No thanks. I’m fine. I’ll just sit here for a little while.”
“Okay. I’ll see you in two hours.”
Heath nodded and returned his gaze upon the tree while Nick quietly slipped away to the kitchen.
Heath had dozed off in his chair when he suddenly felt a friendly arm on his shoulder. “Come on sleepy head, wake up,” urged the soft voice, shaking him lightly. “Heath my boy, open your eyes.”
Heath moaned and shifted position, but the hand kept nudging at his shoulder. “Heath, look at me,” the voice insisted.
Finally Heath pried open his eyes and blinked away the fog to make out the figure squatted down before him. “Mama?” he quavered in a whisper, blinking hard to ensure the woman smiling at him was no figment of his imagination. “Mama, is that you?”
“It me, Heath.” She said softly, her outstretched arms beckoning her son to respond in a soul-stirring hug.
Without hesitation Heath fell into her arms, squeezing and groping her to make sure she was real. “Mama I can touch you. I can smell you. You’re here. You’re really here,” Heath squealed with ecstasy, refusing to disengage the embrace afraid she might disappear if he did.
Reluctantly she broke free to gaze into her son’s bewitching baby blues. “Just as I remember them.” She caressed his cheek and looped a string of hair behind his ear. He in turn leaned into her hand to feel her soft skin; her gentle touch sending shivers coursing through his body. “Are you happy?”
“Yes mama, I am. I found my family thanks to you.”
“You must forgive me for denying you a normal childhood with a home full of siblings. That’s what you deserved. But I…”
“I know mama,” he sobbed, clasping both her hands. “You were afraid Tom Barkley might have taken me away from you.”
“Yes. I couldn’t have survived without my precious boy. I’m aware it was selfish of me.”
“Looking back I don’t think I would have survived without you either. What happened happened for a reason. No sense dwelling on a past that you can’t change.”
“You’ve always been a intelligent boy.” She placed a light kiss on his cheek.
As she retreated Heath noticed the cameo she wore at her neck. “You still have it,” he motioned to the gem.
She glanced down at the cameo and brushed her fingers over it. “I’ve never parted with it. This was the second best gift you’d given me, next to you being born.” The light from the fireplace paled in comparison to her radiant smile.
“Mama, Oh God I’m missed you so much,” Heath wept, tears flowing freely from his eyes. She leaned in to dry each pearl drop with her fingers.
“I’m always with you, son.” She pressed her hand against his heart. “In there. Do you feel it?” Heath closed his eyes and felt his heart swell up with love. “Remember I’m always there for you.”
“Heath! Hey Heath wake up. It’s time.” The low voice spurred with a light nudge on the arm.
“Nick?” Heath droned out, still half asleep.
“Yeah. Time to open our gifts,” a galvanized Nick informed, pointing at the two dozens colourful gift wrapped boxes spread under the tree.
“Already?” he yawned, his blurry eyes trying to establish clear focus on the surrounding. Ten heavy blinks later and he was in raptures. “Wow! All those presents for one family?” he exulted.
“You bet!” Nick replied proudly. “We have more this year because of a very special person.” Heath looked up at his brother who responded with a beaming grin. “You want to get the ball rolling, Little Brother?”
Heath was showered with gifts, from saddlebags, to shiny new boots and sticks of peppermints. Last but not least came his mother’s special gift that Nick and Jarrod carried from the parlour.
“I’m sorry it couldn’t be gift wrapped.”
“My mama’s treasure chest,” he choked out, overwhelmed with emotions.
“I had Hannah send it to Stockton so you could have it in your room.” Heath’s elation was the reaction she had hoped for to qualm her fears of possible resentment for stirring up the past.
Heath knelt down and unlatched the cover to reveal a lifetime of memories. The family stood back and allowed the young blond to bask in the childhood delights that the precious heirlooms offered. Minutes later Audra roused him out of his reverie when she presented him with another small gift.
“Here’s another one for you, but there’s no name on the card. I don’t know who it’s from.” Her eyes roamed over the three family members standing in the room. Each shrugged and shook their heads in negation.
Heath trembled as he eagerly unwrapped the gift, sensing that this last token would prove itself extra special. He held the tiny black velvet box in the palm of his hand and slowly popped it open. He gasped and his face blenched at the sight of the cameo staring back at him.
“Heath, what is it?” Victoria asked worriedly.
“It’s…it’s my…my mama’s cameo,” he stuttered, his voice cracking with emotions. “It can’t be. She was buried with it.”
Jarrod, Nick, Audra and Victoria all exchanged puzzled looks, each wondering who could have left this heirloom under the tree with no one being the wiser.
“Remember I’m always there for you,’ the voice whispered in his heart.