“Please, Uncle Mike, you’ve got to help me write a letter to Santa. There’s less than a month ’til Christmas and I’m behind shed-sked-shed-u-al.”
“Schedule?” Mike drawled, smiling down at his precocious six-year-old nephew.
“That’s the word! Now how do I start off a letter?”
“How about ‘Dear Santa,’ Bobby?” Mike suggested.
“That’s good. That’s good!” Bobby exclaimed, taking up his pencil and carefully printing it on his paper.
Mike smiled as he watched his nephew concentrate on writing the perfect letter to Santa. He looked adorable with his tongue peeking out the corner of his mouth as he slowly shaped each letter. It was good to see the boy in high spirits. Mike thought that his nephew would never smile again after losing his parents nearly a year ago.
For that matter, Mike thought he would never smile again either. He had been exceptionally close to his twin sister, Michelle, and her husband, Robert. Their deaths had left him nearly as devastated as his nephew. Bobby had retreated into himself, remaining mute for weeks afterward. Mike had put away his own pain as he helped his nephew fight his way through the grief.
Michelle and Robert had named him godfather and guardian of Bobby in their will. Robert’s family had not accepted their son’s wishes and a nasty custody battle had ensued, complete with attacks on Mike’s sexual preference. They’d even gone so far as to bribe his lover at the time into making up allegations of child molestation. Thankfully, the attempt to assassinate his character had been very transparent and the judge had not only cleared him of all charges but awarded him custody of Bobby. Still, he had been left with scars that seemed to have cut right into his soul.
It was no wonder that last Christmas had been a disaster. Thankfully, this year was going to be different. Bobby had come alive over the summer, thanks to a friend he had met in the park.
Unfortunately, Mike had little time to spend with Bobby and his friend. He was working a nine-to-five job plus any overtime he could get to pay the exorbitant lawyer bills after the custody fight. So, Bobby had a part-time nanny who kept watch over him while his uncle was at work.
Rachel had been a godsend. She was a psych major, working on her dissertation. She not only helped Bobby through the rough times, but made a mean macaroni and cheese. Mike didn’t know what he would do without her. She spoke often of Bobby’s friend, Veronica, as did Bobby. He knew that Veronica loved ice cream, hated cake, and lived with her father in a brownstone a few blocks from the park. Bobby never spoke about Veronica’s mother, and he assumed that she was not in the picture.
However, Bobby had begged him for days to invite Veronica and her dad over for Christmas dinner and he’d finally agreed. Bobby was over the moon. They’d gone down to the card store and picked out the invitations. Bobby had made one for Veronica and her father, Lucas Townsend. He’d also made one for Rachel. Even Mike had received one.
Now Bobby was writing a letter to Santa asking for the perfect gift. It had to be just right, enough to impress Veronica but something that they could share. He wanted the latest video game console, and Mike had no idea how he was going to get one for him. He was barely scraping by as it was and had managed to put away about a hundred dollars in the months since last December. He doubted he’d be able to put another couple of hundred aside by Christmas, and felt terrible at the thought of disappointing Bobby.
As expected, Bobby asked for the video game in his best manuscript and then paused to study his handiwork with a frown.
“What’s wrong, Bobby?” Mike asked.
“I need to think about this for a little bit before I send it to Santa,” he replied broodingly. “I think I’ll go to bed now and finish it tomorrow.”
“All right then, in you go,” Mike said, pulling back the bedcovers so that his nephew could scrabble underneath them. He tucked him in with a kiss.
“Good night, Uncle Mike,” Bobby said with a gapped-tooth smile.
“Good night, Bobby.” Mike gave him another kiss before turning off the light.
He made sure that the nightlight was on before leaving. Mike puttered around the small apartment at loose ends before reluctantly retiring to his own lonely room. Mike looked at the California king bed and sighed; just looking at it made him depressed. He had bought it after Christopher had complained of feeling claustrophobic in his old bed.
The bed was a reminder of Christopher’s betrayal and he wished that he could afford to get rid of it. He had been humiliated when police had cuffed him in the courtroom after Christopher had tearfully revealed how he’d found pictures of naked little boys in sexually explicit positions on his computer. He had actually apologized, saying that he had to tell the truth for Bobby’s sake.
It took less than a day for Mike’s lawyers to find the money trail from the Thirskes to Christopher and wrangle a confession out of him. Christopher had been furious when confronted, blaming Mike for his actions, saying that everything had been perfect between them until he’d brought the little ankle-biter into their lives. Christopher had gone on to revile him further as the police dragged him away, lambasting him for his lack of skill and passion in bed and shredding Mike’s illusions of love. Nearly a year later, Mike was still unable to bring himself to date.
Yet as afraid as he was of entanglement, Mike was still terribly lonely. Most of Mike’s friends had deserted him, either believing Christopher’s lies or distancing themselves due to fear of persecution by association. He hated his life with its big empty bed. He’d lost his sister, his best friend, and his love in a very short time frame, leaving him utterly bereft. He had no one, and after what Christopher had done, felt as though he never would again.