The Heart of Sycamore
By Michael Rodriguez
Published by Michael Rodriguez at Shakespir
Copyright © 2017 Michael Rodriguez
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each reader. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please visit your favorite ebook retailer to purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Sometimes characters reach out from the pages and grab you by the throat, others by the heart. It’s the heart that swells when you meet the MacDonald-Berger’s.
In this short story, it’s Christmas time and all the MacDonald-Berger’s are back to celebrate together. Alex and Jeremy have their daughter Jessica, Brenda is heavily pregnant with Max’s first and lovely Judy has just told Jax of his impending fatherhood.
The town of Sycamore spread itself tidily along the coast of Oxnard with the lively waters of the Pacific Sea splashing at its feet. The hills and cliffs rolled green above it, even now in the desolate winter. Some said when the air was quiet and the stars were glimmering studs in the night sky, a keen ear could catch the distant sound of drums and flutes playing from the lush beneath the fairy hill where a cozy cottage made its home.
There were some who believed the music was real, and that it played for soul mates.
But on Christmas Eve music pumped into the chilly winter air made by the clashing of glass pitchers and voices.
MacDonald-Berger’s Pub was packed with friends, family, and the occasional paying customer. It was the one night of the year the pub would close its doors early, and those who lived in Merryland crammed in to celebrate the holiday with pints and songs.
Behind the walnut bar, Alex MacDonald-Berger pulled those pints and held four conversations at once. He did so with the skill and pleasure of a born diplomat. At the far end of the bar, his dad did the same.
It was good, Alex thought, to have his parents home for a change. And to show off his bar skills with the man who’d passed MacDonald-Berger’s into his hands. He could hear his mother’s voice raised in cheerful song while she bounced Jessica, his child, the light of his life, on her knee. And while he filled another Guinness with one hand, made change with the other, he could watch his wife Jasmine, his honeycomb, delight the crowd with taking orders.
Jasmine’s grandma sat by the fireplace gossiping with old Mr. Hicks, and his sister Judy’s in-laws, the Queens from New York City. The scent of sweet smoke fill the air, with the yeasty aroma of beer, and when his sister-in-law swung through from the kitchen with a tray, the rich, full scent of his brother’s beef stew joined the mix.
“You’re almost eight months along,” Alex called out as she carted the tray through the pass-through. “That’s too heavy.”
“I’m tough as a stallion.” She tossed her blonde curls, and there was a gleam in her eyes. “And if I stay in the kitchen with Max another five minutes, I’ll be forced to drown him in his own stew pot for nagging me about putting my feet up. If I wanted them up, they’d be up.”
She moved off, the baby she carried like a basketball under her faded sweater. Alex had only to catch Jasmine’s eye, nod in Brenda’s direction to have the matter dealt with. Jasmine wound her way around to Kendra, had a quick word. Moments later Kendra had the tray in hand and her very pregnant daughter in a chair.
So everyone’s where they should be, Alex thought. Or nearly. There was one he missed seeing moving through the crowd, serving pints and bowls, adding her voice to the conversations. Without his sister Judy arguing with Max, flirting with the customers or stopping by the taps for a quick gossip, it wasn’t quite Christmas.
Judy had a life of her own, he reminded himself. A new husband, a new job. In the four months since her wedding, she’d been seeing the world as she’d always wanted to. In a first class leisure. And he was thrilled for her, content that she was happy and that the man she loved was one he could respect, one he appreciated as a friend.
But, she was missing from him.
Of course she wasn’t just traveling and basking in the luxuries of hotel suites. She was working and working tirelessly. Her voice might have been a natural gift–that was the MacDonald-Berger way–but recording for a man like Jax Queens would be no walk through the park, Alex was sure.
“Three pints of Harp, two ginger ales, pint of Guinness.” Jasmine touched a hand to his before he reached for the glasses.
“What’s the matter, you sad?”
“Just missing Judy.”
“They’ll be here tomorrow, the next day at the latest.” She paused a moment. “But I know, it’s not the same.”
“It’s not, no. It’s awesome having my parents here, and your G-moms, Jax’s parents. It’s Jessica’s first Christmas.” He glanced toward his daughter again, cooing under his mother’s lullabies. And his heart simply swelled. “It should be enough for anyone.”
Not for you, Jasmine thought, not at Christmas. Not for a man with such deep love for his family and such a deep appreciation for tradition. She loved him for it. It had been Alex who’d hauled down all the five boxes of decorations for the pub, for their home. And both places that were so dear to him, and to her, were alive with the spirit of giving.
Twinkling lights hung from the eaves outside, from the rafters in. A little white tree stood on the bar counter and was dripping with ornaments. A smiling angel hung on a wall holding a trumpet, and tiny plump dwarfs swung over the windows. There were sleigh bells on the door and gift wrapped boxes on the corners.
He was turned away when those sleigh bells jingled, so didn’t see who walked in, or his wife’s wide, pleasant smile. But he heard the voice pick up the chorus on Joy to the World, and swung around as Judy plucked his daughter off his mother’s lap.
She sat the happy baby on her hip, started toward the bar. Alex flipped up the pass through, met her halfway. Then squeezed them both between his arms.
“I’ve missed you so much.”
“Don’t make me cry, honey,” she murmured. “I worked forever on my face.”
“You don’t need paint to look beautiful.”
She eased back, smiling. “Aww, my sweet baby. I couldn’t stay away from you.” She wrapped her free arm around him, pressed her cheek to his. “I had to wake up Christmas morning in Sycamore.” She grinned fiercely over his shoulder as Max came out of the kitchen.
“Well it’s about damn time,” he said. “These steaks aren’t going to season themselves.”
“Can you grab her a moment?” She passed the baby to Alex. “I won’t feel at home until I’ve thrown something at Max.”
Because she didn’t have anything handy, she threw herself at him the minute he stepped around the bar. After a quick exchange of words and friendly slaps, they were dancing.
“Thanks for bringing her back,” Alex said to Jax. “She was the missing ornament.” Jax skimmed a finger over the baby’s cheek as he glanced toward his parents, around the pub to the people who’d become his extended family.
“I’ve missed this place, too.”
Later, when the pub was closed it was the MacDonald-Berger house that strained at the seams with overcrowded relatives and catching up. A great wooden bowl held the wassail Jasmine had made herself from Max’s recipe. Cups of it were passed lavishly while the MacDonald-Bergers, in the MacDonald-Berger way, made music with piano and guitar, with voice and with squeezebox.
In the front window, a glowing snow man showered light within and without. Beneath it, children huddled around. Between the songs, there were stories, and through it all there was laughter.
But despite the heartwarming occasion, Alex felt there was something yet missing.
He put the baby to bed himself, lingering over her long after she had closed her pretty eyes. “Soon,” he murmured as he bent one last time to kiss her cheek, “you’ll be adding to conversations. Adding to the noise and people and scratching away at presents. It’s family and years of roots and magic. It’s one night out of the year everyone remembers there’s magic left in the world.”
When he left her, he didn’t see the fairy that hung over her crib glow and spin. Or his daughter’s sucking her thumb.
It was nearing midnight when Judy drew him aside. “Get Jasmine, will you, and come outside.”
“It’s freezing outside.”
She whisked the wassail cup away from him before he could drink. “Out,” she insisted. “Front of the house.” Before he could argue, she walked away to drag Max from the guitar.
“Easy for you,” Brenda complained when she followed Judy outside. “In your smart fur coat. It’s freaking freezing out here.”
“Is it smart?” Judy smiled smugly as she rubbed her cheek against her soft collar. “I hadn’t noticed. Oh, stop complaining for five icy minutes, all of you.” She tossed back her head and looked up. The sky was cloudless with the stars brilliant against that black sheen.
She could hear the clashing sea, feel her baby’s heartbeat, and the carols that played inside her childhood home, another heart.
“I wanted the six of us first,” she began. “We’ve all been part of something special, and bigger than ourselves. That stays with us–like this place and these people stay with us–wherever we go, whatever we do. We have Sycamore, and the pub, and soon the .”
“If you’re going to give long speech, can’t we do it by the fire?” Max complained.
“Quiet, you dullard.” Judy huffed out a breath. “As I was saying, you’re all dearest to me,” she continued. “Even this monkey over here. So I wanted the six of us out here when I gave Jax his first present.”
She turned to him. “It was outside, down the beach over there where you finally mustered up the courage to ask for my hand in marriage. Our love joined our lives, once and always, and made my dreams come true. But since I don’t think this bunch will troop down there for this, we’ll settle for here, outside the house, where we can hear the music of the sea. Stop stomping your boots, Brenda, this is a heartfelt moment.”
“Then get on with it. I’m freezing my ass off.”
Ignoring her, Judy took Jax’s hand. “There are gifts for you inside, wrapped in white. I know you’ll like them, I know you. And there best be plenty of those boxes for me as well. With nice glittery items tucked neatly inside.”
“Wow,” he said with a smiling grin. “I wouldn’t offer it any other way.”
“I have one gift for you that will is very unexpected. It’s wrapped, too and if I do say so myself in prettiest package of them all.” With her eyes on his she took his hand and led it to her belly.
She heard Jasmine’s quiet sob an instant before she saw understanding come into Jax’s eyes and the joy that rushed over his whole face. Then she was caught in his arms, laughing as tears slid down her cheeks. “I think he likes it.”
“When?” He could barely get the single word out as emotion swamped him.
“I’ll have your child at the end of next year’s summer. Let’s go in and tell the others.”
“Give her over,” Max demanded and pulled her away for a hug. The tears and laughter continued as she let herself be passed from hug to hug and kiss to kiss. Then it was Alex’s arms around her.
“My girl,” he murmured. “Oh, someone give me a damn napkin or a sleeve.”
“Look,” Jasmine said quietly and gestured to the sky as a comet drew across between the stars.
Over the rhythm of the sea came a choir of angels. They watched as the she turned her head, as he bent to her. When they kissed it was like a shower of fireworks–red, blue, green–rained down into the dark sea and made it sparkle.
As they hurried inside, one by one, Alex felt everything coming together beyond what he expected. “This gift is perfect.” He took Jasmine’s hand, brought it to his lips and kissed it tenderly. “Merry Christmas. To all of us.”
Sometimes characters reach out from the pages and grab you by the throat, others by the heart. It's the heart that swells when you meet the MacDonald-Berger’s. In this short story, it's Christmas time and all the MacDonald-Berger’s are back to celebrate together. Alex and Jeremy have their daughter Jessica, Brenda is heavily pregnant with Max’s first and lovely Judy has just told Jax of his impending fatherhood.