Jeff Tracy was exhausted and frustrated. An unexpected blizzard had grounded all eastern seaboard air traffic, stranding him and countless other holiday travelers in New York City just two days before Christmas.
It never failed to humble the entrepreneur that even with all his money and resources, when push came to shove he was still as much at the mercy of bad weather as the next guy.
And it sucked.
His cell phone buzzing in his pocket distracted Jeff from glaring out the large window overlooking the runways of swirling snow and ice. Glancing at the number, a warm smiled twisted at his lips when he saw it was his oldest son calling – probably wanting an update on his flight. Jeff really shouldn't have given into corporate pressure to stay an extra day for a meet and greet with potential investors and gone home yesterday instead.
"Hey, Scott," he greeted with a sigh. "Everything okay?" The sixteen- year-old was holding down the fort as Jeff's mother was also weather stranded in Boston where she'd been visiting an ill friend.
"Dad? We have a problem."
Scott didn't mince words and something tightened in Jeff's chest.
"What's going on?" he demanded, hoping to God it was something as benign as nine-year-old Gordon refusing to get out of the pool until Jeff got home. The determined redhead had pulled that stunt the last time his father was late.
"It's Alan," Scott stated.
Jeff cut him off with a sigh. "Is he out of pop-tarts again?" Sometimes he'd swear the kid lived off the sweet pasty product. Heaven knew he gave them all enough grief when his 'fix' went dry. And fifteen-year-old John didn't help. Having just as much a sweet tooth as the younger blond, John had been known to hide the box when the supplies ran low.
Jeff could easily imagine the dark head shaking as Scott huffed out, "It's worse."
Before the man could start to panic, after all his oldest son was very good at handling his younger brothers, all four of them, Scott continued. "He wants Rudolph for Christmas."
"Rudolph?" Scott's impatience was barely concealed. "The red-nosed reindeer? You know, Santa's Rudolph?"
Frowning, Jeff turned his back to the window and moved away from a loud speaking Asian couple. He cupped his hand over his other ear so he could hear better. "Oh, that Rudolph…"
"Yeah, that Rudolph," his oldest son patronized.
"Scott," Jeff warned, not liking the impertinence in his son's tone. It was uncalled for.
"Sorry, Dad," his son sighed out. "It's just…" Jeff didn't need to see him to know Scott was running his hand through his dark hair. It was Jeff's own habit that Scott mirrored when he was agitated. "Well, he just won't listen to reason when I tell him no."
Jeff almost laughed out loud at that. With two kids under the age of ten and three more between the ages of twelve and sixteen, all under one roof, there was very little reason in the Tracy household on a good day. Let alone two days before the biggest kid holiday in the whole year. "He is only five," he did feel the need to remind his frustrated sounding young man-in-charge.
"Daaad!" Scott didn't appreciate the reminder and his protest came out as a whine. "I asked him where we'd put a reindeer; he said, the backyard. I tried to point out that it'd get wet when it rained; he pointed out we could put it in one of the sheds… Then I told him that you wouldn't want reindeer poop on everything and he told me that reindeer don't poop! He is being impossible! Oh and, by the way, he doesn't want anything else but Rudolph for Christmas! Not even that new Action Man action figure he and Gordon have been going on about for the last two months!" The poor teen sounded downright frazzled.
"Okay, okay, son." Jeff held up a hand in a placating manner although Scott couldn't see it. Shaking his head as he smiled, the man tried to keep from chuckling out loud at the sheer ridiculousness of the drama – God he loved his boys. "Put your brother on and let me talk to him."
"ALAN!" Jeff winced as Scott yelled for his brother, the phone too close to his mouth. "DAD WANTS TO TALK TO YOU!"
A moment later the man heard another extension being picked up but it wasn't the expected cheery voice of his youngest that he heard. "Hey, Dad, can I go to Roy's house to hang out for a bit? He got a new easel for Christmas and asked me to come check it out." It was Virgil.
"He has it already?" Roy was Virgil's best friend.
"Yeah, his uncle dropped off the gifts early and wanted everyone to open them while he was still there; he's gone until the New Year or something. So can I go? " The young artist sounded hopeful but being only twelve, Jeff wasn't comfortable with him being out after nine at night. And it was already just a little past nine.
"I don't know," Jeff started but Virgil cut him off.
"Please, Dad. Johnny said he'd walk over with me."
Of course John would, Jeff surmised as he reached up to rub at what could be the start of a headache, John had a crush on Roy's older sister… but as tempted as Jeff was to give in (especially since Virgil didn't usually ask for much), he held his ground. The rules he made kept his sons safe. "No, Virgil. Not tonight."
"Awww, Dad-" Virgil started then broke off in a loud yelp "Ow! Al!"
"It's my turn!"
"Ouch! Stop kicking me, you little beast!"
"Give me the phone! Daddy wants to talk to me!"
"Virgil!" Jeff practically had to yell to be heard over the commotion of voices. A few people stopped to look at him but one glare had them hurrying away. "Put your brother on the phone. Now!" It wasn't hard to figure out what was going on. Boys.
"Alan, did you kick your brother?" he demanded as soon as heard the change of breathing on the other end of the phone. Quick, almost panting, meant Alan. The kid was forever in a hurry. It really was no wonder he was born over a month premature. "Alan…"
"I'm sorry, Daddy," his youngest rushed out. "But me and Gordy were playing hide'n seek and it was my turn to hide and then Scott tolded me you wanted to talk to me and I don't want Gordy to find me so I had to sneak down here and Virgil wouldn't give me the phone and – and – Daddy, are you coming home?"
"I'm trying, Sprout, really trying but the weather has me still snowed in." Jeff found himself looking back out the window as he spoke to his youngest. He wished he was home. "You still need to apologize to your brother, regardless of what he was doing. We don't kick each other, Alan, you know that," he reminded his son.
"No, buts, Alan," Jeff reinforced sternly then added, his tone softening. "Don't worry, I'll talk to Virgil about this too. Now… Scott tells me you want something special this year for Christmas."
"Oh yes," the little boy stated emphatically, his voice so serious, it made Jeff's heart lurch. "I want Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer."
"I'll take real good care of him, Daddy. I promise. I'll feed him and give him water and brush his fur – just like my teacher did with the mice we had in our class. Well he doesn't brush their fur… at least I don't think he does- hey, Johnny, do you think Mr. Green brush his mices fur?"
Jeff heard a chuckled emphatic "No" and then a "and it's mice, not mices, you goof", in the background before Alan continued.
"Johnny says he don't –"
"Alan." Again Jeff tried in interrupt but the little boy continued on, talking over him.
"And when it rains, I'll put him in one of the sheds, unless you'd let me put him in the hangar with Tracy One. It's big enough and I promise I won't let him touch anything he isn't supposed to."
Jeff was smiling when Alan finally stopped. In the background, he could hear Scott, John and Virgil's voices as they laughed about something and knew they were in the kitchen. Most likely drinking hot chocolate with big marshmallows and finishing off the last of the shortbread cookies his mother would have made before she left two days earlier. God, he really wished he were there… Closing his eyes, Jeff leaned his head against the cool glass.
His eyes burned at the sweet sincerity of his youngest son. At five, Alan still believed in Santa and bless Jeff's older boys because they still let him believe, even when they had to put up with impossible conversations like this one.
"You know," Jeff finally spoke. "Rudolph is a pretty important team member on Santa's team." He could practically feel Alan's sharp attention on him, even through the phone. "I don't know what Santa would do without him. That wonderful nose of his helps guide the sleigh through fog and all sorts of bad weather." Be kinda nice, he thought to himself, pretty certain strong winds wouldn't deter Santa's sleigh.
Alan remained silent.
"He's also the youngest reindeer, the baby brother of reindeer-" he heard the sharp intake of breath.
"Exactly like you," Jeff did chuckle this time. "His big brothers would really miss him if he came to live with us. I know your brothers would certainly miss you if you went to live somewhere else… even Virgil although you did kick him…"
"Oh," Alan started and then burst out, "I don't want to go away, Daddy! I don't! Please don't make me leave, please!"
"Hey, Allie, what's wrong?" Jeff heard Scott's voice.
"I don't want a reindeer, anymore," Alan practically wailed. "I don't want Rudolph to not be with his family. I don't wanna go either. I wanna stay here!"
"Go?" Jeff could hear the confusion in Scott's voice and then his older son was on the phone. "Dad, what'd you say to Alan? He's really upset. Hey, Al, its okay – c'mon, kid, you aren't going anywhere… Me and the guys won't let it happen. Hey, there's Gordon – Gordon, get your ass in here! - Weren't you and Gordon playing hide'n seek?"
"Scott!" Jeff was once again having to yell to make himself heard. "Put Alan back on the phone!"
"Al – here, calm down. Dad wants to talk to you again."
Jeff heard a loud sniffle and then, "Daddy?"
"Awww, kiddo. You aren't going anywhere. I just wanted to show you why you can't have Rudolph for Christmas. Do you understand now?" He felt bad for practically traumatizing the little boy and should have guessed that Alan would play leap frog with the conversation.
"Yeah," another loud sniffle, "Can I have an Action Man doll instead then?"
"Action Man FIGURE, Alan. FIGURE. Not a doll. Girls play with dolls," Gordon corrected emphatically in the background making Jeff chuckle again. Yup, these were his boys.
"Fine. Action Man figure then, okay, Daddy?"
"Sounds good to me," Jeff agreed and then perked up as he noticed the wind seemed to be dying down and he heard an actual boarding call for one of the commercial flights. "Hey, Alan, I have to go. Keep your fingers crossed and I should be home in a couple of hours."
"'kay, Daddy, I got my fingers crossed – can I cross my toes too? Scott wants to say good-bye. Love ya, Daddy and don't worry, I'll 'pologize to Virgil, even if he was being a big meanie!" And then Alan was gone and Scott was back on the phone.
"Alan – be nice," his oldest son chastised but Jeff could hear the grin in his voice. "Thanks, Dad, for sorting things out with Al. He was being near impossible about the reindeer thing."
"No problem, son. You boys take care. The wind is dropping so I might be able to get Tracy Two in the air."
"John just showed me the Doppler – Boston looks to be clearing up too," Scott tried to be subtle.
"If I can get out, I'll grab your grandma on the way. Look, I really have to go…" He was anxious to get in the air. "Love you boys. Take care of your brothers, Scott, and I'll see you in a few hours."
"Don't worry, Dad, I will. Have a safe flight. Bye… Gordon! Get your fingers off that -" and then Scott was gone and so was Jeff.
In less then three hours it would be Christmas Eve and Jeff would be damned first before he'd miss spending it with his family.