“Do you think Uncle Ricky is still mad at you guys for tying him to the bed with the dental floss?” Ryan asked as he stared at Noah and Elliot.
“I’m not sure, but we only did it because he pulled a prank on Benny, Wyatt, and the rest of you,” Elliot explained.
“But didn’t he do that to get even with you for putting the snowman in his car at Christmas?” Ryan pointed out.
“Maybe, but he went too far when he upset Noah so badly,” Elliot replied.
“Do you think he’s still mad?” Ryan pressed as he looked over at Noah.
“Nah, that happened over two years ago, so I’m sure he’s forgotten about it by now.”
“Maybe not,” Elliot interjected skeptically. “He didn’t come home for Thanksgiving OR Christmas last year, so it might mean he was still pissed about what happened. He might have even been using that time to plan his revenge.”
“That’s not exactly true,” I stated as I walked into the room. I’d overheard their discussion as I was coming to check on them. “Ricky explained that he didn’t join us last year because he was in the middle of a big project at work and didn’t want to waste time making the round trip here. He also didn’t want to spend the day alone, so his girlfriend talked him into spending the day with her family instead, seeing they also live in Philadelphia and it would be a much shorter trip. Ricky said he had a great time with them and was eager to get to know them better, so he accepted their invitation to join them for Christmas as well. I’ll admit that I wondered about his explanation at the time, because he usually prefers to be with the family on the holidays, but I decided to give him the benefit of doubt.”
“Well it doesn’t really matter, because he already paid us back for tying him up with dental floss when he came home for Christmas right after we did it,” Elliot added. “If you remember, we tied him up in August, when he came home for Grandpa Josh’s 65th birthday party. We thought he was going to try something when he came home for Thanksgiving, but he didn’t do anything and didn’t even act like he was still upset about it. We figured he’d decided to just let it go, but we were wrong. Regrettably, it just caused us to let down our guard so we weren’t prepared when he got us back at Christmas.”
“Yeah, and he got us good,” Noah agreed. “He didn’t act upset or mad when he got here, but we found out later that he was just laying low until the time was right. He waited until our dads went to bed and fell asleep after they’d put all of the presents under the tree. As soon as he thought he wouldn’t be noticed, he snuck down to the family room and stuffed all of our presents in a couple of duffle bags and hid them so we wouldn’t have anything to open Christmas morning.”
“But he didn’t take everyone’s presents, just ours,” Ryan countered.
“You’re right. He left the adults’ presents there, and that made us suffer even more,” Noah agreed. “He must have figured out that we were the ones who tied him to the bed and realized that we’d feel worse if there were presents under the tree, just none for us.”
“But not all of us helped you when you tied him up,” Joshie objected.
“No, but I guess Uncle Ricky didn’t want to take the chance that he’d miss getting even with everyone involved, so he took all of our gifts just to be sure,” Elliot reasoned.
“That was mean,” Wyatt whined.
“Yeah, it was, and Grandpa Josh was really mad at Uncle Ricky for doing that,” Benny chimed in.
“Yeah, he was,” Joshie confirmed. “He knew it was another one of Uncle Ricky’s pranks and thought he was ruining Christmas for everybody.”
“He did, and it was awful,” Wyatt nearly shouted. “I didn’t get to open my presents until Christmas night, and then I had to go to bed right after that, so I didn’t get to play with anything until the next day.”
“But you wouldn’t have had anything to play with if Grandpa Josh hadn’t threatened to do something awful to Uncle Ricky if he didn’t tell him where the presents were,” Ryan pointed out.
“Yeah, but then Grandpa Josh made ALL of us promise not to play any more pranks for the rest of the holiday before he made Uncle Ricky tell us where he’d put them,” Noah added.
“How come you guys didn’t find them earlier?” Joshie wanted to know. “I thought you searched the house looking for our presents, but you didn’t find nuttin, and they were just down in the basement.”
“That’s because we were looking for presents in wrapping paper,” Noah explained. “We saw the duffle bags mixed in with the other things stored down there, but we thought they were just stuff Grandpa Josh or Grandpa Jake had put there. That’s why we didn’t unzip them, cuz we thought they might get mad if we did.”
“It was actually pretty clever of Uncle Ricky to bring the duffle bags with him so he could do that,” Elliot reasoned. “He must have figured that we wouldn’t mess with anything we thought one of the adults had put down there.” Everyone nodded in agreement.
“Hey, Uncle Frankie’s here,” Benny shouted after his head stopped bobbing up and down.
While he’d been agreeing with Benny, he obviously glanced out the picture window and spotted Frankie’s SUV pulling in. As soon as he pointed that fact out to the rest of us, he jumped up and raced to the foyer. “Uncle Frankie’s here. Uncle Frankie’s here,” he screeched, alerting the others.
Benny and Frankie had formed an unusually strong bond after Frankie had rescued him from the kennel his mother was keeping him in, and Frankie eventually brought him here to live with us. Benny was beaming as Frankie opened the front door.
“Hi, Uncle Frankie,” he shouted as he raced over and wrapped his arms around Frankie’s waist.
“Hello to you too, kiddo. Man, I’m not used to being greeted like this. It’s even better than having a dog.”
“I like it when you’re here, cuz I get to spend time with you.”
“I can see that, and I like spending time with you too. I take it you still like living here?”
“I love it, but it’s better when you’re here too.”
During their conversation Frankie managed to close the front door to keep out the chilly autumn air. As he made his way farther into the house, with Benny still attached to his hip, he said hello to the rest of us.
“I’m shocked that you’re the first one here this year,” Dad said as he gave Frankie a hug.
“I started out early this morning so I could spend as much time with you as possible.”
“But don’t you usually work on the holidays?” Pop followed as he shook Frankie’s hand.
“I used to, but now that I have more seniority I managed to get the holiday and Friday off. Unfortunately, I have to leave Friday night, because I’ve got to work this weekend.”
“We’re just glad you could make it for Thanksgiving,” Dad assured him.
Dad and Pop followed Frankie into the living room so they could sit down and chat some more, and Benny never left Frankie’s side. A few of us followed them so we could listen to what Frankie had to say, but I warned the boys who came with us not to interrupt.
On most holidays, Dad wouldn’t have had time to do this, because he would have been in the kitchen preparing dinner. However, Trey and Brandon had taken over that duty while Dad was spending time in Atlanta while Shannon was recuperating from his injuries. They thought Dad would want to take over again once he returned, but he was more than willing to let them do it from now on.
Dad, Pop, and Frankie had only been chatting for about fifteen minutes when Ryan suddenly jumped up and raced toward the door. “Where do you think you’re going?” I asked as I followed him.
“Uncle Richard is here,” he replied.
I assumed Ryan must have been able to see out the window from where he was sitting and noticed Richard’s car pull into the driveway. Ryan had formed a bond with Little Ricky, as the family still likes to call him, similar to Benny’s bond with Frankie, because Little Ricky had been the one who’d brought Ryan to live with us. Ryan greeted his hero as enthusiastically as Benny had greeted Frankie and was now dragging him toward the living room.
“I’m glad someone is happy to see me,” Little Ricky quipped, since no one else had gone out to the foyer to welcome him.
“We’re all happy to see you,” Dad responded, “although maybe not as happy as Ryan.”
“That’s cuz I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Uncle Richard,” Ryan explained. The rest of us merely nodded in agreement.
Throughout the morning the rest of the family continued showing up, one carload at a time. I was busy chatting with my brothers when Wyatt rushed into the room. He had stayed in the family room to watch TV when the rest of us moved to the living room. “Uncle Ricky’s here and he’s got a girl with him.”
“That must be his girlfriend,” I explained “He told us he was bringing her with him this year to make up for spending the holidays with her family last year.”
After they’d entered the house, Ricky decided to introduce her to all of us at once. “This is my girlfriend, Tiffany Gonzales. I challenged her to come with me this year to see if she could make it through the weekend in this nuthouse with the Looney Tunes I call a family.”
“And this is coming from the worst Looney Tune,” Brandon teased. “If you haven’t scared her off by now, she’ll have no trouble with the rest of us. It’s nice to meet you, Tiffany. I’m Brandon.”
“Rather than taking time to introduce her to each of you now, we’ll do it throughout the weekend. There are just too many of you and she probably wouldn’t remember your names anyway, so I’ll just introduce her to Dad and Pop for now.”
“That’s fine,” I agreed, “and it will probably be better for her as well.”
“It’s still nice to meet all of you,” she said. And then she sniffed the air. “Something smells wonderful.”
“You can thank Brandon and Trey for that,” I responded, “because they’re the ones preparing dinner. Trey’s the one in the kitchen.”
Tiffany glanced around the corner and waved at Trey. She appeared to be the complete opposite of Ricky. She had jet black hair and dark brown eyes, compared with Ricky’s golden locks and smoky-gray irises. She also seemed quiet and demure, as opposed to Ricky’s overpowering gregarious nature, but then again it’s possible that this is merely due to her meeting us for the first time. However, I suspect it might be her usual comportment, but only time would tell.
We continued to visit with one another until I was finally able to get Ricky alone so I could speak with him in private. “Do you guys require separate bedrooms or will you be sharing one?”
“We aren’t living together yet and have our own places, but we usually sleep together on the weekends.”
“In that case, you two can use Vinnie’s old bedroom off the rec room and share the downstairs bathroom with Dad and Pop. That way I won’t have to worry about the boys running around naked upstairs.”
“That’s true, but Tiffany might get a kick out of seeing that.”
“Possibly, but it might embarrass you and mess up your relationship.”
“It’s because some of those boys are hung better than you are.”
“Yes, Joshie seems to be taking after his dad, and Ryan will give you a run for your money in that department as well, and Noah’s hung extremely well too.”
“Damn, what kind of vitamins are you giving these boys?” Ricky asked with a chuckle. “Ok, if that’s the case I’ll keep her downstairs.”
Regrettably, not everyone was showing up for the holiday this year, because some of the married family members were obligated to spend the holiday with their spouse’s family instead. There was still a huge crowd, though, just not as many as when everyone was here. As soon as we were all seated around the various tables, seeing we wouldn’t all fit around the dining room table, Ricky made an announcement.
“I’ve filled Tiffany in about a lot of things, including the various pranks we’ve pulled on each other over the years.” Immediately after he said this the sound of snickering could be heard, but Ricky ignored it and continued. “I’ve also told her that Dad makes us go around the table on Thanksgiving and tell what we’re thankful for, but before we do that I want to apologize. I’m sorry for pulling pranks on you guys in the past and promise I won’t do it in the future. I hope you’ll accept my apology and promise that you won’t pull any pranks on us either.”
This not only shocked the collective gathering, but it left us speechless as well. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wondered if Ricky was serious, or if he was just setting us up for later. I also considered that maybe Tiffany had urged him to do this after he told her about the pranks, so she wouldn’t be caught in the middle of a prank war.
“Well I’m thankful for that,” Dad roared, which brought each of us out of our personal reverie. We either verbally concurred or nodded in agreement.
After we’d each stated what we were thankful for, including Tiffany, she made another comment. “I really love this tradition. It’s so sweet that I’m going to talk my family into doing it from now on.”
“Do you come from a large family?” Pop asked.
“Not compared to yours,” she giggled. “Besides my mom and dad, there’s only my brother and sister.”
“Are your siblings older or younger?” Dion followed.
“I’m the oldest,” she replied.
“That’s good, because you’re probably used to taking charge of your siblings at home, so maybe you’ll be able to keep Ricky under control as well,” Trey quipped.
“I’m not sure anyone can do that,” she responded as she glanced over at Ricky and nudged him. Obviously, she was well aware of Ricky’s devilish side.
While we were eating, different family members were engaged in private conversations, and that continued until Sammy addressed someone at the opposite end of the table. “Little Ricky, are you running D.S.S. now?”
“No, Aunt Sally says she isn’t ready to retire yet, but she promoted me to assistant director,” he answered, blushing slightly.
“And he’s doing a great job too,” Aunt Sally stated enthusiastically. “I’ve considered retiring, but I love my job and don’t want to give it up. I live alone and don’t relish the thought of spending so much time by myself, so I’ve decide to keep working for as long as I can. I’ve been able to take off more time from work, though, and have used up some of my accrued vacation time in the process. That’s allowed me to do some traveling with my friends, something I’ve been reluctant to do in the past, but I feel better about doing it now, knowing I’m leaving the agency in good hands.”
“I think she’s only doing it to see if I screw up while she’s gone,” Little Ricky quipped.
“No, I trust your judgment and know you’ll do fine,” Aunt Sally replied. “I’ve been putting my friends off for years when they’ve asked me to go places or do things with them, because I didn’t feel anyone else could do my job. Now, I’m finally able to enjoy spending time with them, because I know Richard can handle any problems that arise.” Besides displaying her confidence in him, it was also apparent that she called him Richard at work.
The Shays had joined us as well and were sitting next to Vinnie and Kevin. They’d been quietly chatting with each other until someone at the far end of the table asked one of them a question. “How about you, Uncle Steve? Are you thinking about retiring yet?” Cole wondered.
“I’ve talked to my wife about whether I should do that, but we both agree that I should remain in my job as long as there are more boys to be adopted by this incredible family.”
“Then you’re never going to retire,” Pat joked.
“Maybe not, but the reward of seeing more smiling faces in this house is worth it,” he replied.
“So you only adopt boys?” Tiffany asked Dad before glancing around the tables.
“Yes, I was a widower when I started and felt it would be best if I only took in boys. I felt it was safer to continue doing that as the family grew, because the temptations are far greater for boys and girls living in the same household that aren’t related by blood. I’ve got two daughters, though, from my previous marriage, as well as a couple of granddaughters and several daughters-in-law.”
“I see,” she stated thoughtfully before Ricky spoke.
“You would definitely see plenty if you lived here, because during the summer these guys don’t wear very much, and sometimes nothing at all. That’s because they like to go skinny dipping in the pool.”
She giggled and asked, “Did you do that too?”
“Of course, since it was just us guys, and it’s a great way to cool off on a hot summer day.”
“There’s even more to you than I imagined,” she mused, although none of us knew whether it was a good or bad thing.
After we finished eating, we split into different groups, with some going into the living room to talk, while others headed to the family room to watch the football game on TV. Some even headed back to the rec room to play games, but that was primarily the boys. During this time I found an opportunity to get Graham alone so I could ask him a question that had been on my mind.
“Do you still see ghosts in the house when you’re here?”
“Yes, but most of the time it’s just Cody and Brent. They seem to like being here with the rest of you, but sometimes the others show up as well. That mainly happens on the holidays, though, at least as far as I can tell.”
“Who else are you talking about?”
“That would include Dad’s wife, Elliot’s father, Vinnie’s parents, Trey’s parents, and Sammy and Andrew’s grandparents, along with the Spencers and the Beckers. They all show up from time to time, but they don’t usually stay very long. It’s seems they just want to make sure everyone is doing well and things are going fine.”
“I was wondering about that, including whether they are here at other times.”
“I think Cody and Brent might be here most of the time, but not the others. I think they only show up on the holidays and the birthdays of those they’re related too.”
“I see. I guess that means sometimes it’s even more crowded in here than we realize,” I joked. “Do you think Cody and Brent are aware that we named different parts of the Health Center after them?”
“Oh yes, they definitely know that, because they’ve each showed me images of them standing next to the sign with their name on it. I think they’re really proud you did that for them.”
“I hope so, because it was our way of honoring them. It was also to let them know we haven’t forgotten them.”
“And they seem to appreciate it, and I think it’s what keeps them hanging around here so much as well. They apparently feel the ‘Hotel’ is still their home and the place they feel most comfortable.”
“I’m really glad to hear that, and I’m going to let Dad know about this too. I think he’ll be as happy to learn about it as I was.”
Later, after we’d all enjoyed a snack and had some pie or another dessert, those living in the area returned to their homes. Once they had gone the others began heading to the bedrooms they were using. For most of them it was a different bedroom than they’d used while growing up, seeing the younger boys were currently using many of those rooms. No one complained, though, as they went to turn in, but before I went up to say goodnight to the boys I stopped by Dad’s room to tell him about my conversation with Graham.
“That makes me feel a little better, because I’ve always felt guilty that I let Brent go on that trip when he got killed. I also thought there might have been more I could have done for Cody and possibly prevented him from dying so young as well.”
“Neither of their deaths were your fault and they obviously don’t blame you or hold any grudges. They both seem to have enjoyed the time they lived here and are happy to continue hanging around.”
“Thanks for telling me this and I’m glad you asked Graham that question. Sweet dreams and I’ll see you in the morning.”
As soon as I got to my bedroom, Brandon and I went to say goodnight to each of the boys and tuck them in. Well, we didn’t actually tuck Elliot and Noah in, but they appreciated that we came by to say goodnight before they fell asleep. Once that had been taken care of, Brandon and I returned to our room and turned in as well.
The next morning we found Dad and Pop in the kitchen making breakfast for everyone as they got up. We offered to help, but they said they didn’t mind doing it, so we sat down at the table with a few of the others while we waited for the chefs to bring in the food.
“Doing this reminds me of when you boys were growing up and I was doing most of the cooking,” Dad said as he and Pop brought the food to the table. “Those were great times and this helps me relive some of those memories.”
“If you say so, but we could still chip in so you don’t have to do all the work,” Brandon offered.
“You and Trey took care of Thanksgiving dinner, and you help with the other meals as well, so that’s more than enough. Besides, I like making breakfast.”
“We like it when you make breakfast too,” Noah chipped in. “Otherwise we’d probably just have cereal and toast.”
“Oh, come on,” Trey objected. “Brandon and I fed you better than that while your grandfather was away.”
“Ok, I guess maybe you did, but we like it better when Grandpa Josh does it.”
I’m not sure if any of the adults followed his logic, but the other boys were all nodding in agreement.
“You guys do really well fixing meals,” Tiffany offered. “Thanksgiving dinner was wonderful, the pies were delicious, and this breakfast is incredible. I didn’t know a bunch of guys could do this well on their own, because I’ve never seen my dad or brother helping out in the kitchen.”
“It’s not really that unusual,” Dad replied. “If you think about it, some of the best chefs are men.”
“You’re right and I never considered that,” she agreed pensively.
After we finished our meal, a few of us helped clear the table and load the dishwasher. After that, some of the gang went to the family room to see what was on TV while the rest us went to the living room to chat. During that time we got to learn more about Tiffany and how she and Ricky had first met, and then we regaled her with stories about what Ricky was like when he was younger. She laughed a lot while listening to what we had to say, and there were other times when she would glance over at Ricky strangely. He spent most of the time protesting about the accuracy of the incidents we were recalling, but Tiffany appeared to believe us over her boyfriend’s objections.
Those who lived locally and didn’t spend the night showed up before lunch, and then later that afternoon we all went outside to choose up teams for our annual Thanksgiving weekend touch football game. Tiffany joined in and played too, while Dad and Pop refereed. They said they were getting too old to compete with the younger crowd, since the boys were eager to join in this activity as well. It turned out to be a very competitive game and nearly everyone enjoyed it, with the exception of Trey. He managed to turn an ankle and then had to sit out, and now Dion was helping him as he limped toward the house.
“Are you hurt, Poppy?” Wyatt asked concerned.
“Yes, but it’s not that bad. I just hurt my ankle, but it should be better in a day or two.”
That seemed to be sufficient for Wyatt, because he merely said “K” and then raced off to catch up with the other boys.
Frankie left for Allentown after dinner, because he had to work the rest of the weekend, and then those living in the area started taking off as well. Before long it was just those of us who either lived here or were currently staying at the house, and we decided to watch a movie before turning in.
We spent the next day helping Dad get the house ready for Christmas. A small group went outside to put the lights up along the eves and over the front porch, while another group arranged the various decorations in the yard. Those who were left assembled the artificial tree in the family room and trimmed it, and then they went around the rest of the house putting up the other decorations. Pop kept loading Christmas CDs into the system that could be heard both inside and outside the house to get us in the holiday spirit. The only time we weren’t involved in doing one of those things was when Brandon, Trey, and Tiffany left to fix the next meal. The house was completely decorated by the end of the day, and needless to say we were all exhausted by the time we turned in.
The next morning Dad woke everyone early so we could get ready for church, because he wanted us to attend together. When we got there we spent a great deal of time, both before and after the service, chatting with various members of the congregation that we knew. As soon as we were finally able to break away, Dad took us out for brunch.
Shortly after we returned to the house, Andrew pulled me aside so we could discuss something in private. “I happened to see Benny naked this morning when he was getting ready for church, and I was a little surprised to see he’s already started puberty.”
“You’re right, and even though he may not look it, he’s actually thirteen.”
“I guess I forgot about that because he looks so young, but I’m glad he’s maturing so he won’t have to go through what I endured by starting later than everyone else. I was nearly sixteen before I started and had been the brunt of a lot of jokes and a great deal of teasing”
“Yes, the other kids at school weren’t very nice to you. Benny and Joshie started showing the early signs of entering puberty shortly after Christmas, even though Bennie is sixteen months older. He might have started a little later than Joshie did, age wise, but the process has continued over the summer and they’re both well into puberty now.”
“I can’t believe Benny is that much older than Joshie. I thought they were in the same grade.”
“They are, but it’s only because Benny had fallen behind due to the way his mother had treated him. It’s actually worked out well, though, because the boys are very close and like being in the same grade, and they do nearly everything together.”
“Do you think that might include helping each other with other stuff as well?”
“If you mean sex, they’ve been messing around with each other for a while now, but they haven’t tried anal sex yet.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s because I’ve talked to Benny about it and he’s expressed some concerns. As he put it, “Joshie has a big one and I’m afraid it might hurt.”
“Yes, I happened to see Joshie naked this morning as well and noticed that he’s really well hung for his age.”
“Yes, he apparently takes after his dad and might even surpass him before it’s over.”
“So what did you tell Benny?”
“I explained there are plenty of other things they can do in the meantime, and I promised to advise him of various ways he can prepare himself, if he eventually decides he’s ready to try it.”
“I’m glad he’s able to come to you about those kinds of things, like we were able to talk to Dad.”
“I’m doing my best, and I’m not the only one. Dion and I have both sat down with the boys several times since Benny’s been here, and we’ve discussed many issues with them, just like Dad did with us.”
“I’m pleased to see that you guys are picking up where Dad left off.”
When we finished our conversation, we noticed that some of the others were already packing up and preparing to leave, Including those Andrew was riding with, so he went off to do the same. Each one thanked us for the wonderful time before they left, and most of them promised to see us again at Christmas. A few wouldn’t be returning this year, because it was their turn to spend the holiday with their spouse’s family instead.
“It was great meeting all of you,” Tiffany said as she and Ricky were getting ready to leave. “I can’t wait to see what Christmas is like here, seeing Thanksgiving was so interesting.”
“I’m pleased to hear this mob hasn’t scared you off and you’re still eager to come back to celebrate Christmas with us,” Dad said as he gave her a hug and kissed her on the cheek.
“Oh, I’m definitely going to do that. I just want to talk to Ricky about some of the things his brothers told me about him before we see you again.”
“They were all lies,” Ricky protested with a grunt. “And you’d better be careful about what you ask me, or I may not bring you back here for Christmas.”
Tiffany punched Ricky in the shoulder as they walked to the car, so it appeared she’s a match for him and won’t take his crap. I smiled mischievously while waving at them as they drove off.