“Heritage” – a “Finding Mister Wright” holiday short
Once again, I hadn’t planned on writing a holiday story. But sometimes a line or scene or emotion gets stuck in my head, and I have to put it down on paper. Scroll to the end to skip straight to my notes, or read my 2018 holiday story, “Heritage”, below.
Christmas eve day meant that work had been crazy, traffic on the Loop had been a mess, and last-minute wine shopping had been a really bad idea, but Daniel Wright somehow made it home before Rob got back from his veterans’ group holiday coffee party. He’d had the foresight to prep the roast chicken Rob had requested for their quiet holiday dinner, and the shallots and potatoes would be a quick, easy bake alongside. That meant he could grab a hot shower, open the bottle of Beaujolais – recommended by his brother Marshall, whose knowledge of wines rivaled a sommelier’s – to breathe, maybe even queue up a playlist populated with some of Rob’s relaxing jazz favorites before the evening would get busy. Or, at least, before they would get busy for the evening.
Daniel snickered to himself as he opened the front door, only to falter on the threshold when he smelled the unmistakable aroma of burning kindling.
“Rob?” he called, but it was Paige who called back.
Daniel blinked, set the wine on the table next to the door, and walked into the living room with his coat still on. Paige was sitting in front of the fireplace, coaxing a flame with a bundle of sticks while Buckle rolled, purring, beside her.
“What are you doing here?” Daniel asked.
Paige looked round at him. “Making a fire.”
“That, I can see,” Daniel said with a half-hearted roll of his eyes. “I meant, aren’t you supposed to be with your mum?”
“I wanted to come home.” Her green eyes glimmered at him. “That’s okay, right?”
He felt abruptly shamed. “Of course!” He crossed to her and joined her on his knees, taking her in a quick hug. “You just surprised me. We weren’t expecting you until the 28th.”
She stayed close to him, smelling of sandalwood soap, and shrugged. “Well, Brad had a heart attack.”
Daniel jerked back. “Oh, my God! Is he all right?”
Paige shrugged again. “He didn’t die or anything,” she said, rather coolly. “My mom kind of freaked out, though.”
“I can imagine,” Daniel mumbled, even if he couldn’t quite; Paige’s mother had always projected an air of supreme – and haughty – control in every interaction he’d ever had with her. That wasn’t saying much, of course, being the man her ex-husband had married.
He was about to ask what had happened when the front lock clicked, the door swung open, and Rob called:
“Babe? You here?”
“We’re in the living room,” Daniel returned.
“Buck with you?” Rob said, when he stopped in the entryway at sight of Paige. A confused grin split his all-American face. “Hey, kiddo! What are you doing here so early?”
“Brad had a heart attack,” Daniel said.
Rob’s reaction was to shrug one shoulder from his jacket and grunt. “Huh. That’s too bad.”
Daniel pulled a face. “That’s all you’re going to say?”
“It’s not like I’m married to him,” Rob replied in a grumble before flinging off his jacket and opening his arms for his daughter. “You okay?”
Paige rose and crossed to his welcoming embrace, pressing her cheek to his chest. “Yeah.”
“You want to talk about it?” Rob asked.
Paige drew back with a twisted-lipped grimace. “What’s there to talk about? He tries his best, but those kids run him ragged. I offered to look after Bailey and Dex, but Mom said that’s what she pays Alexis for.”
Rob met her expression with a frown of his own. “Did you want to stay?”
“Not really.” Paige let go a little sigh as she bent to Buckle, reaching out with her mechanical hand to scratch him behind one ear. She smiled a bit for his murmuring purr, and said, “I mean, I didn’t want to just bail, but she was all, ‘Oh, honey, it’s going to be so crazy here,’” she said, affecting a sneer for her loose mimicry of her mother. “‘Why don’t you just go back to your dad?’” She lifted her shoulders one more time. “So I was like, ‘All right, fine. You don’t want me here, change my flight and I’ll go home.’”
A pang of love urged Daniel to comfort her. “I’m sure that’s not what she meant.”
But Paige just rolled her eyes. “Whatever. I feel bad for Brad – he’s a nice guy – but I couldn’t hang around just Mom bossing around the kids, and Alexis, and a bunch of hospital folks, on top of everything else.”
Rob smiled and stroked her hair, once. “Well, you’re always welcome with us.”
Paige smiled, wider and somewhat sadly. “You don’t mind me crashing your holiday date dinner?”
“Not at all,” Daniel assured her, and grinned. “It’s a big chicken anyway.”
“You want to help?” Rob asked.
Paige shot him her familiar snarky snigger. “I thought Daniel cooks this dinner.”
Rob puffed. “I make the potatoes.”
“And he pours the wine,” Daniel added.
“Oo!” Paige goggled her eyes. “Can I have wine, too?”
“Sure,” Rob said, and beckoned her to the kitchen.
Daniel followed them, foregoing the notion, now, of the shower and playlist in favor of spending time with his two most-loved. The three of them together – with Buckle predictably underfoot – made meal preparation go faster, easing them into a pleasantly conversational mien about all things familial.
“Where’s Marshall?” Paige asked as she took over sieving duty from Rob.
Daniel didn’t look up from slicing apples for the salad. “He and Caitlin took the kids to Cleveland.”
“What’s in Cleveland?” Paige asked with an expected level of disdain.
“Caitlin’s folks,” Daniel told her.
“They wanted to go there instead of here,” Rob said, and Daniel could hear him making his condescending face for what would come next. “Apparently, Chicago is too scary for them.”
“That’s not what she said,” Daniel chided softly.
“They just don’t want to be on your brother’s home turf,” Rob said.
Paige hummed as she returned to work on the potatoes. “I don’t know why they don’t like Marshall.”
“I can think of a few reasons,” Daniel mumbled, mostly to himself. Rob must have heard him, though, because Daniel immediately felt a light slap of towel against his hip. He snickered. “They’ll be back on the 28th.”
“Because Marshall can’t spend more than three whole days with them?” Paige guessed, and they all laughed.
Daniel moved over to the sink to wash his hands, sparing a glance at the oven timer. “Chicken should be ready in about ten minutes. How are potatoes?”
“Almost done,” Paige said, scraping her spatula over a final layer through the sieve.
“Mind if I grab a fast shower?” Rob asked; he was already headed toward the doorway.
Daniel nodded him on. “Go ahead.”
“But you’re doing dishes!” Paige called after him.
“That’s what you think!” Rob cried back gleefully, followed by the thud-thud sound of him taking the steps two at a time to the second floor.
“We’ll run the dishwasher tonight,” Daniel said in appeasement.
Paige tilted her head toward a shoulder. “I don’t really mind washing. I just hate drying.” Finished with her job, she licked the spatula and tossed it into the sink. “What’s next?”
Daniel pressed his mouth into a brief but suitably scolding line before offering her a more tolerant smile. “Just the table. Get the wine glasses, please? The good ones, from the hutch. I’ll get cutlery.”
He started to move toward the dinnerware drawer when the sudden press of her body against his back made him stiffen in surprise. She put her arms around him a moment, squeezed, and said:
“I love you.”
He chuckled. “I love you, too, sweetheart.” As she released him, he turned, facing her with an uneasy and uneven grin. “Are you all right?”
Her face, beautiful with youth and hope, glowed with affection. “You’ve always treated me like a regular person. Even with this,” she said, waving her mechanical prosthetic arm. “My mom…!” She swung her gaze to the ceiling, shook her head, and exhaled an exasperated little breath. “I love her but… You know she still makes me use plastic glasses? I get why she has them – the twins are still little – but I’m nineteen! I know how to handle a glass glass! I’m not going to fumble and break them. Or, at least, you know, not more often than she would.”
Daniel drew his own labored breath.
Getting between Paige and her mother was always a complicated and dangerous prospect. Rob had no trouble with it, but he was Paige’s father; he had equal claim to her upbringing. Daniel was a latecomer, though, and a non-traditional one, at that. He tried his best to be fair to Paige’s mother…as much as his hackles might rise in defense of the girl who was his daughter by way only of marriage.
“I know what your arm is capable of,” he said softly, “because I helped build it.”
“It’s more than that.” Her whole body tensed with a kind of quiet, barely-held-in anger. “I know there’s stuff I can’t do with my arm. But there’s lots of stuff I can! She looks at me, and it’s like I’m…broken. And I hate that.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way around her.” He held her shoulder and dipped his chin. “But you should never feel that way around us.”
As she looked up at him, her smile returned. “I know. And, I don’t.” She closed her eyes and shook her head again. “This whole thing with Brad, it made me think.” She raised her eyes to him once more. “If anything ever happened to my dad, I could still live with you, right? You wouldn’t make me go be with my mom?”
It felt like an intangible hand reached into his chest and clutched his heart for a pulse-stopping pause. He blinked to keep tears from forming.
“Of course, I’d want you to stay with me!” He gave a gentle chuckle. “But, you’re an adult, now—”
“I know,” she drawled in her still-teenage know-it-all voice. “I know, legally, the custody stuff doesn’t mean anything, anymore.” She inhaled with an air of resolve that straightened her posture and lifted her chin. “But you’ve always felt like family, to me. More than my mom does, now.” She twisted her mouth to one side. “I don’t think I even want to go back to St. Louis, anymore. It’s like, she’s got her life there, and I’ve got my life here, with you and Dad. You know?”
He nodded and smiled; the pressure in his throat and behind his eyes was almost overwhelming. Despite that, he managed to get out without his voice cracking, “I do.” He pulled a slightly-stuttering breath and looked around. “I think I left the good napkins in the dryer. Do you mind taking care of glasses and plates while I run up and get them?”
She beamed. “Sure,” she said, and bounced out of the kitchen toward the dining room.
Daniel hurried around the short side of the room to the stairs, rushing up them faster than Rob had done. He stumbled into the laundry room nearly in gasps, and flung open the dryer to grab one of the limp linens, which he pressed to his face to muffle his sudden and uncontrollable sobbing,
Rob’s hushed murmur made Daniel sniffle and turn. His husband was in typical date-night dinner-in wear – a crewneck tee shirt and jogging pants – but his face was blanched with worry.
“What’s wrong?” Rob asked, opening both arms.
Daniel stepped into them, at once calmed and uplifted in that loose but powerful embrace. “Nothing,” he said against Rob’s cheek, rough from vacation-stubble.
“You’re crying into our good napkins over nothing?” Rob said quizzically.
Daniel sniffed and let out a shaky breath. “I wish I hadn’t been afraid to adopt Paige when she was little.”
Rob blew a sigh close to his ear. “It wasn’t worth fighting with Serena over, trust me,” he murmured against Daniel’s cheek. “And you were still there for her. She still thinks of you as her dad.” He stroked the other side of Daniel’s face. “So do I.”
Daniel stood straight with another sniffle and a still-slightly-weepy smile. “I’m lucky to have you, Mister McAllister. And that amazing daughter of yours.”
“I’m lucky to have you and yours, too, Doctor Wright,” Rob said, and bumped their heads together.
A staccato clomping signaled Paige’s arrival up the stairs.
“Hello-o-oh?” she called. “Are we eating, or what?”
“Be right there,” Rob told her, still holding on.
As Paige’s clomping tread retreated down the steps again, Daniel drew up. “Our amazing daughter.”
Rob nodded. “Our amazing, impatient, opinionated daughter.”
They blinked, looked at each other, and said at the same time:
“She gets that from you.”
I’ve mentioned before how my sister and I used to write stories on Christmas eve/Christmas morning, to keep ourselves occupied before we were allowed to rush down to the presents tucked under the tree. Those years – and stories – are long gone, but I’ve renewed the tradition in recent years, if only for myself, and if only to stay in touch with my writing.
I always seem to return to the crew of my “Finding Mister Wright” universe for these holiday stories. I suppose because I wrote the very first “Finding Mister Wright” novella over the winter break of 2013, in a rush of words and emotion. In the five years since, I’ve written 27 stories starring these characters. Later stories (including this one) have swung the spotlight from the original Mister Wright Marshall to the McAllister/Wright family of Rob, Paige, and Daniel. Which is only fitting, I suppose, since Rob and Paige were the initial inspiration for a 2012 NaNoWriMo that never happened.
These stories are about family life and love, though they may not be the kind of life and love that everyone considers “normal” or “regular.” But then, what’s “normal”? What’s “regular”? Everybody deserves a chance at happiness, no matter how different one may look to any other of us. That’s especially true during the holidays.
Are you writing any stories for the holidays? Feel free to share in the comments below!