A STRIKE TEAM THANKSGIVING
a short story by Alexis Morgan
Tyson Dahl clutched the paper bag in his hand as if it were a lifeline. The three packages of store-bought dinner rolls it contained were the price of admission to an event he wasn't all that sure he wanted to attend. What did he know about celebrating a holiday in the first place?
Granted, during his years in the Marine Corps, the cooks pulled out all the stops when it came to holiday meals. Chowing down with his squad was one thing, and maybe eating with his fellow Paladins and their Kalith allies wouldn't be all that different. That wasn't what he was facing this time. No, inside there would be wives, sisters, parents, and kids. And from the ruckus he could hear through the door, lots of kids.
He hadn't hung out with little people since he'd been one himself. Back then, he'd been in foster care where his Thanksgiving meal could be anything from a peanut butter sandwich to the classic American dinner of turkey, dressing, and pumpkin pie. Despite being rare in his experience, those last ones had been the worst. He would've been better off never knowing what he was missing the rest of the time. Some foster homes were great; a few, not so much.
Would whatever was waiting on the other side of the door be one more thing he would regret experiencing?
He was about to turn tail and run when the door opened, and Eli Jervain stepped out. "You gonna stand out here all day or come inside?"
As tempting as it was to say something snarky, Tyson went with honest instead. "I'm not sure."
Eli glanced back over his shoulder. "Yeah, it is pretty overwhelming. It's not like I had a big family, either. Until I joined the army, most years it was just me and my grandparents. Not exactly boisterous."
He stepped back out of the way. "But if I can handle it, you can."
Tyson wanted to point out that Eli had Safara to help anchor him in the chaos, but even the thought sounded whiny to him. "Fine, but I reserve the right to bail early."
His friend grinned. "Fair enough, but let me know. I might want to bolt out the door right beside you."
Both men were relatively new to the world of the Paladins and were slowly learning their way. At least they had each other. Well, and Eli had Safara. She appeared out of the crowd with three beers in her hand. She offered them each one and then clinked her bottle against them in a show of unity. "I'm on the dessert serving crew, so I'm off duty until the main event is winding down."
Tyson nearly choked on his beer. No one said anything about crews. Was his name on a list somewhere or was he supposed to go sign up for something? "Was I supposed to volunteer to help out somehow? Because I didn't."
Safara patted him on the shoulder. "Not a problem. I signed you up to help babysit the toddler crowd. Eli said you'd like that."
He wasn't sure what expression he had on his face right then, but both of his companions cracked up big time. Clearly he'd just been had.
"Very funny." He held up the bag containing the rolls. "Where do these go?"
Safara looped her arm through Eli's. "Cut straight across and then hang a left. Laurel is in charge of arranging everything on the buffet table."
Then she leaned in closer and whispered, "Evidently she's not to be trusted with the actual preparation of food, not if we want it to be actually edible."
It was nice to know Dr. Bane wasn't perfect, because she was pretty damn intimidating when it came to running her medical lab. When the woman said jump even her husband asked how high. That was impressive considering Devlin Bane was the biggest and baddest in a group of truly scary men.
"I'll catch up with you two later."
Hoping he didn't sound too needy, he added, "Save me a seat at your table if there's room."
"Already done." Eli pointed toward the right. "We've staked out the second table from the front along that wall. Mike and Jamison will be there, too."
Good. Sitting with friends would help. Tyson braced himself and started wading through the crowd to locate Laurel. He dutifully dropped off the rolls and then looked around for a familiar face. He could hunt down Eli again, but the man hadn't sign on to babysit Tyson for the day. He was about to give up when DJ stepped into sight. He carried one little boy on his hip and had another identical one by the hand. There was no doubt they were his kids; they looked too much like him for it to be otherwise.
Did anyone else find the thought of two more DJs being unleashed on the world as scary has he did?
"Hey, Tyson, do me a solid and keep an eye on Caleb here for a minute while I take Ben to the restroom. We won't be gone long."
Before Tyson could refuse, DJ all but shoved the kid he was carrying into Tyson's arms before charging off in another direction. Meanwhile the mini-DJ stared at him, his lower lip quivering just a little. Tyson knew just how he felt.
He forced himself to sound like handling a kid was an everyday experience. "We'll be fine, Caleb. Your dad will be back before you know it."
It must have worked because the little guy gave him a solemn nod and then looked around. "I'm thirsty."
Okay, finding a glass of water shouldn't be too hard. "Let's see what we can do about that."
Caleb grabbed onto Tyson's shirt and settled in for the ride. Maybe it wasn't the first time the boy been toted around by a total stranger or maybe he recognized Tyson as another Paladin like his father and felt safe. Cutting through the crowd, Tyson aimed for the corner where he'd last seen Laurel Bane. Since she was in charge of organizing the food and drinks, she ought to know where he could score a bottle of water.
Luck was with him. She was just walking out of the industrial kitchen that prepared the food served in the Paladins' cafeteria. "Hey, Laurel, is there any bottled water handy?"
She set down a huge bowl of salad. "Sure thing. I'll grab two in case Ben wants one, too."
It was interesting that she knew it was Caleb clinging to Tyson. "So, how can you tell them apart?"
Caleb answered by pointing at the lock of hair curling down over the center of his forehead. "Mine's a clock. Ben's is an auntie."
It took Tyson a few seconds to decipher his explanation. Laurel just grinned and waited for him to figure out for himself. Then it finally made sense. Caleb had a cowlick that spun to the right-clockwise. Ben's must go the other direction-counterclockwise, otherwise known as anticlockwise. "Anti," not "Auntie."
"Smart man. I'll be back with your waters in a jiff."
She returned with two small bottles. After popping the top on one, she offered it to Caleb and then handed the other one to Tyson for safekeeping. "They're about to announce everyone should find their seats. The tables are numbered, and we'll call them in order so there's not a mad rush all at once."
"If you see DJ, tell him Caleb and I will be at a table over against the far wall." Then he whispered to Caleb, "What do you say to the lady?"
Laurel smiled. "You're welcome, Caleb."
Tyson kept an eye out for DJ as he made his way across the room, but evidently the quick trip to the restroom hadn't turned out to be so quick after all. When he reached the table, Eli and Safara were already there.
Eli didn't bother to hide his surprise that Tyson had somehow acquired a kid. "Isn't that one of DJ's boys?"
"Yes, this is Caleb. Caleb, that's Eli. The pretty lady is Safara." After they waved at the little guy, Tyson continued with the introductions. "That's Doc and that's Mike. They're friends of mine."
Evidently him vouching for them was enough to keep Caleb happy. Tyson pulled out his chair and then one for Caleb. To his surprise, the little guy tightened his hold on him. Surrendering to the inevitable, Tyson sat down and settled Caleb on his knee.
Devlin's deep voice rang out over the room through the sound system. "Listen up, everybody. Dinner is about to be served. This year, we'll be calling out table numbers. You will remain seated until your number is called- and there will be no cheating on this-then, and only then, you can come up to get your food. We don't want a repeat of what happened last year, do we? Penn and Cody, I'm talking to you."
A ripple of laughter flowed across the room. Tyson exchanged an amused look with Eli. All things considered, he was pretty sure he didn't want to know what had happened.
Eli pointed behind Tyson. "Looks like DJ is here to reclaim his kid."
The man in question stepped into sight, towing Ben along in his wake. "Sorry to take so long, Tyson. Things got complicated."
He shuddered. "Really, really complicated."
If whatever had happened was responsible for the slightly panicky look in the man's eyes, it must have been pretty bad. Not much ever disturbed DJ, and they'd faced some pretty horrific situations together in the short time Tyson had been with the Paladins.
On the other hand, Caleb perked right up at the sight of his father and brother. He pointed at the extra bottle of water sitting on the table and tugged on Tyson's sleeve. "Give Ben his."
He loosened the lid before handing it to the other twin. "Here, Ben. We thought you might like a bottle of water, too."
DJ held out his hand. "Come on, Caleb. Mom's waiting for us. She's already got your food waiting for you."
When Tyson tried to set him down, Caleb shook his head and stubbornly tightened his hold on him. "No, I want to eat with Ty."
Eli laughed. "Looks like you've made a friend, Tyson. Bet you weren't expecting that."
Before he could figure out what to do, Ben let go of DJ's hand and did his best to climb onto Tyson's lap, too.
"Come on, kids. Let the man eat his dinner in peace."
Two pairs of eyes stared up at Tyson filled with hope and determination. How could he say no to that?
"Tell you what, DJ. Bring their plates over here. We've got room for them, and we'll keep an eye on the boys so you and Reggie can enjoy your dinner."
DJ looked as if he'd been just offered the prize of a lifetime. "Are you sure? Things could get pretty messy."
Right then Devlin called out their table number. Eli and Safara stood up. "We'll fix Tyson's plate and bring it back. Go on, DJ. We've got this."
The boys waited to see what their father would say. He patted each one on the head. "Be good for these folks. Mom and I are about four tables away in that direction. I'll be right back with your food."
After he walked away, Tyson settled each of the boys in the chairs on each side of his. Meanwhile, DJ was back a minute later with two plates piled high with food. Everything was already cut up in bite-sized pieces. DJ gave them a stern look as he set the plates down. "Mom says you have to try everything on your plates. Eat a good dinner, and we'll check out the dessert table together."
Ben sat up taller. "Pie?"
DJ gave him a solemn look and nodded. "Lots of different kinds. You can have whichever one you want."
The boys immediately picked up their forks and dug right in. Satisfied his boys would be okay, DJ said, "Thanks again, man. You don't know what a minute alone with Reggie means to me."
Then he headed back to his wife with a huge smile on his face.
With only a couple of minor mishaps, dinner went pretty smoothly. Tyson wasn't sure if he'd ever answered more questions in such a short amount of time in his whole life. Evidently his opinion on whether cranberry sauce was icky carried a lot of weight with the five-year-old crowd. When he pronounced it was necessary to the real enjoyment of turkey, both boys finished off the tablespoonful of the stuff their mom had put on their plates.
As it turned out, sharing the occasion with the twins made for a more memorable meal for all of the adults at the table. Safara had more experience dealing with kids than any of the men did, but they all had fun.
Finally, Ben pushed his plate back out of reach. Caleb did the same and asked, "Nuf for pie, Tyson?"
He carefully checked each of their plates. "Yep, you guys ate a little of everything, and a lot of others. Your folks will be happy. Are you ready to go find them?"
The boys hopped down from their chairs. When Tyson stood up, they immediately took hold of his hands. Their simple trust in him warmed a spot in his chest that had been cold for a long time.
He led them across to where their parents were waiting. Along the way, other people called out greetings, and more than a few grinned at the sight of him being pulled along by his pint-sized companions. When Reggie and DJ invited him to inspect the dessert table with them, he didn't hesitate to accept, which made Caleb and Ben both happy. Him, too, for that matter.
Thanks to them, he now knew what Thanksgiving was all about.