Thanksgiving at the Reynolds house began the day before. Christopher and Courtney had told Parker that the families took turns hosting holiday events. This year was their turn to host the Thanksgiving feast. Wednesday, Larkin set everyone to work chopping, grating, mixing, and so forth.
At four, the door chimes sounded. Courtney squealed, "They're here!" She grabbed Parker's hand. "Come on." He had no choice but to follow.
Albert and Dorothy Reynolds were in their seventies but still healthy and active. Albert was a little less than six feet with snow white hair. He was not overweight, but he had a little paunch. Dorothy was five-seven and weighed about one forty. She obviously colored her dark-brown hair. Her blue eyes, not as vivid as Ray's, snapped with authority as well as love. Albert scooped Courtney into his arms. "My goodness! You're getting too big for Papaw to pick up."
"Papaw, this is Parker. Are you gonna hug him, too?"
Albert put Courtney down. "When he tells me he's comfortable with it."
Dorothy snorted, "Well, I'm not waiting. Give your meemaw a hug."
Parker timidly hugged the forceful woman. Holding his chin lightly between her thumb and forefinger, Dorothy tipped his head to the side. "What happened to your eye?"
"I had a fight."
"My girlfriend's ex put his hand on her breast."
Dorothy widened her eyes. "Now did he? Well, I hope he looks worse than you do."
"I busted his lip."
"Good for you."
"Sheena already broke his nose. You'd think he'd get a clue."
"Sheena? Little Sheena Johnson?"
"Yeah…I mean yes, ma'am."
Dorothy chuckled. "Well, that's a good choice."
Courtney slipped under her grandmother's arm. Dorothy kissed the girl on the forehead. "Where's Christopher?"
"Outside helping Momma wash the crawfish for tonight."
Parker kept stealing glances at Albert, not sure what to do. The white-haired man seemed nice, but he was not as assertive as Meemaw. Albert sensed Parker’s confusion. He said, "Parker, I didn't bring in our luggage or the yams and ham yet. Will you give me a hand?"
"Sure. Yes, sir."
"Ladies, go help Larkin."
Albert opened the trunk of their elegant, BMW. "Do you want to talk about it?" he asked.
"What's that, sir?"
"What you're worried about."
"I'm not worried," Parker hastened to say.
"Yes, you are." The autumn breeze tinkled the wind chimes hung along the porch eve. The grandfather sighed and then smiled. "Ray told me that the first time he came to this house, those chimes gave him a sense of peace. This is a safe place, Parker. Talk to me. I know Meemaw can be a little scary, but I'm just a big teddy bear."
He looked at the kindly face. "Well, to tell the truth, I'm a little overwhelmed. I'm just afraid I'll wake up and all this will have been a dream. I don't understand why my mom never told Ray about me. I never met my other grandparents. I guess Mom was ashamed of me."
"Well, she should be ashamed of herself!" Albert's pale honey-brown eyes flashed. "Honestly, I resent having been cheated out of my grandson. I'm looking forward to getting to know you. As you've already figured out, our family is a bit unusual. That's what makes us strong. We love one another no matter what. None of us is perfect. We all mess up. I’m certain Larkin has already shared her faith with you."
"Trust what she says. Larkin is the glue in this family. She holds it together, even when the rest of us are falling apart. Ray calls her Angel. Maybe she is. Let her love you. She'll make you believe in yourself. Let us love you. We're not ashamed of you, Parker. We're a little overwhelmed, too, having never known about you, but we're proud to claim you as one of us. Now, do I get to give you my papaw hug that you're dying to receive? I'm afraid I can't pick you up, but just know I would have if I had been given the opportunity when you were younger. Come here and give your old papaw a hug."
Parker slipped safely into his grandfather's embrace. Albert whispered as he stroked his hair and kissed the top of his head, "Let us love you, sweet boy. We're thankful to have you in our lives. Let us show you."
Parker nodded against the man's chest. He breathed in the scent of Old Spice cologne and pipe tobacco. It was a scent he would never forget, one that brought comfort. The older man released his embrace, and the two carried in the items from the trunk.
Larkin was up early setting the turkey to roast. Parker came into the kitchen before anyone else.
"Well, good morning!" chirped Larkin. "I didn't expect anyone to be up for a while. Do you like coffee, Parker?"
"I've never had it."
Larkin realized more each day that this child she had brought into her home had been severely deprived. How he displayed any semblance of normalcy was beyond her. She smiled. "Let me make you my special English toffee coffee."
Parker laughed. "That's funny."
Larkin set a cup of her favorite coffee along with a hot cinnamon roll in front of Parker as he sat in one of the bar chairs. "So, try it. Remember it's hot."
Parker sipped the beverage. "This is great! I thought coffee was bitter. Miss Maxi said it was and it made little boys hyper."
"Both can be true, but if you make coffee right, even unflavored, it's not bitter. Now, Uncle Raif's coffee is bitter." She shook her head and grimaced. "It's too strong for me. I always have to add hot water. As for hyper—the caffeine does bother some people. Miss Maxi did well by you. She tried to protect you from something she thought was harmful to you. Was Maxi her first or last name?"
"First. Her name was Maxine Carmichael."
"Well, Ray wants to thank her for taking care of you, so now we know the right person to call. Now, please, tell me you've had cinnamon rolls."
"Yes, but never hot. You must think awful things about me."
"No, Parker, I think you've had a rough life." She leaned on the bar across from him and laid her hand on top of his. "You know, my parents were killed when I was five, and I lived with my grandmother until I was thirteen. Then, she died. After that, I lived for a while in a children's home before I went to live with Pastor Moore and his wife. Believe it or not, they were killed when I was seventeen, so I struck out on my own. You see, I know what it feels like to be bumped around, but I was blessed because all the people I lived with cared for me. I don't think anything bad about you. I think you're amazing considering the hell you've been through." She squeezed his hand and let go. "To be honest, I'd like to bitch-slap your mother."
Parker's mind wandered a moment as he tried to picture Larkin bitch-slapping anybody, most of all, his mother, but he tuned back in quickly as Larkin continued to talk. "If I ever meet her, I might just do it. Children are gifts from God, and they should be treated as the prizes they are. I know you haven't been here long, but I already love you. I promise to treat you like the treasure you are."
"You love me?" he said in disbelief. "Even though I'm Ray's son by another woman?"
Larkin reached out and stroked Parker's cheek. "Parker, one reason I love you is because you are Ray's son. I love Ray more than my own life. You're a part of him. That love extends to you. Maybe one day you can love me back. I can wait for that."
"It's not hard to love you. You're so nice. I wish Mom was as nice as you."
"She's your mother. You should love her."
"I do, but sometimes I don't like her. She has never treated me as if I were a prize—a toy sometimes—but not a treasure. I think she was ashamed of me."
"I'm sorry, Parker. I wish I could make the pain go away."
"Can I have a hug?"
She walked around the bar and held Parker in her arms tightly for several seconds before they heard Ray joke in the doorway, "Hey! You've got your own woman. Leave mine alone."
"Ignore him," whispered Larkin.
"I love you, Larkin. Thank you for loving me."
She brushed Parker's hair from his eyes and kissed him on the forehead. "You're very welcome."
Mid-afternoon, the house came to life as all the dinner guests began to arrive. Raif, Chris, Patrick, and Trista arrived first. They brought with them seven-layer salad, cranberry salad, and a huge bag of potatoes to make mashed potatoes. With them also came Dupree, Lindsay, and Roxanne Parks, along with Dupree's mother, Estelle Funchess. They brought crescent rolls to bake and Estelle's apple pie. Meemaw was already baking a honey-glazed ham and making candied yams. Larkin was roasting the turkey and making her special squash stuffing and pumpkin and pecan pie.
Parker helped carry in food items and whispered to Patrick, "This kitchen is as big as the one at school. Larkin says there are two full ovens, eight burners, a convection oven, and a microwave."
His cousin nodded. "Yeah, and it used to be wood burning and they had an outdoor kitchen for cooking in summer because it got too hot inside. That’s where Uncle Ray’s grill is set up." They set the food on a counter, and Patrick said, "Come meet Dupree and Lindsay."
Parker followed Patrick to the famous R & B recording artist. "Guys," Patrick said. "This is Parker, our new cousin."
"Welcome to the best family ever," Dupree said, extending his hand, which Parker shook. "Hang around with me a while and let me tell you how I became a part." Dupree went on to tell Parker about how he had thrown a book at Larkin his first day in her class and sent her into a life-and-death struggle. "But she forgave me, and now look at me. I would have been dead by now if it hadn’t been for Aunt Larkin."
"My husband is right," said Lindsay. "This is the best family ever. Although Mom gave me up for adoption when she was fourteen, I came here after my adoptive parents died. I found total happiness."
Parker continued to get to know Lindsay and Dupree until Grandma Audrey and Grandpa Walter arrived. They brought green bean casserole and pitchers of sweet tea and lemonade.
There were already coolers with soft drinks and Bud Light, Killian's, and
beers on ice. A few minutes after
them, Dr. Fairchild and her husband Augustine, called Auggie, arrived, bearing
platters of deviled eggs and fresh vegetables—carrots, broccoli, cauliflower,
cucumber, and cherry tomatoes—with ranch and curry dips. Corona
Parker looked at the people already there and knew more were expected. Good thing this house is huge. Wow! This is a little mindboggling.
About four-thirty, the Johnsons finally arrived. Their family was made up of Terry and Carol, along with Sheena and three younger children, Tasha, Townes, and Wesley. They brought several bottles of Zinfandel and rum and tequila with margarita mix and various flavors of daiquiri mix. Last to come were Brian Baker and his family, his wife, Olivia, and their three children, Brandi, Royce, and Trent, home from college. Baker brought the four FBI agents, Lawrence Dantzler, Joyce Lyon, Carey French, and the profiler, Austin Chancellor, with him since they could not go home for Thanksgiving. They brought with them broccoli-rice casserole, cranberry sauce, a
brownie cake, and several more cases
of beer. Texas
Parker had never seen so much food at one meal. Neither had he seen so many people who actually seemed to like one another in one place. However, there was only one person he really wanted to spend some quiet time with, but it would have to wait.
With all the hustle and bustle inside the house and the rain threatening outside, nobody was aware of the unwelcomed interloper watching the hoopla from outside. Mia Godchaux seemed much calmer as she watched the happy chaos, and a small part of her wished she could be inside. Still, she fought that feeling as she realized Parker seemed completely happy, and she slowly began to be angry again.
The adults began cocktails around five. The men congregated in front of the television for Thanksgiving Day football while the women set the food out around the kitchen counters and bar like a buffet. A little before six, Larkin whispered in Ray's ear. He excused himself and went into the kitchen to carve the turkey and ham. At six, Ray actually rang a dinner bell. The guests crammed into the dining room for a short time as the head of the house made a Thanksgiving speech.
"As host of this annual event this year, I have to tell y'all some things I'm thankful for. As always, I'm most thankful for my faith, my family, and my friends. However, I must announce to all of you that my family has grown. First, I'd like to introduce all of you to my son. Parker, come here." Parker went to Ray's side. "I only found out Parker is my son a couple of weeks ago, but I'm very thankful to have him in my life. Second, I'm thankful to Raif, Chris, Rona, and a few Munchkins for keeping my next announcement a secret. Guys and gals"—Ray motioned Larkin to his side and put his arm around her—"we're having another baby. He or she will be here in late June."
Ray and Larkin's guests applauded for them. Outside, Mia wished she could hear what was being said. Obviously, some of it had to do with Parker.
Inside, it was apparent that Lindsay and Dupree were having a disagreement. Finally, it appeared Dupree lost as he said, "Uncle Ray, my very insistent wife would like to know if she can steal your thunder."
"Are you expecting, too?" asked Ray.
Ray raised his beer. "The more, the merrier. A toast—to this crazy, wonderful family! Now, a prayer."
Ray blessed the food and offered a prayer of thanksgiving before he joked, "Can we eat already?"
The dining room, the kitchen dining nook, and several more temporary tables with folding chairs were packed. A myriad of conversations went on simultaneously. Even in all the frenzy, Larkin Sloan Reynolds was not a glutton for punishment. They ate on biodegradable disposable plates and drank from biodegradable disposable cups or recyclable cans or bottles. After the meal, the clean up was easy. The leftovers were stored and the few dirty dishes washed. The men returned to football until the women joined them. Then a game of Taboo ensued. The younger boys hit the video games in the game room above the garage, and the girls fell to dressing Roxanne like a little doll in Courtney's room. The college students left with night plans with friends.
As the drizzle set in, Sheena caught Parker's eye. She gave him the come-hither finger. When he crossed the room, she grabbed his hand and dragged him out the back door to the gazebo by the pond.
"Are you crazy?" asked Parker as they dashed into the gazebo to escape the rain.
"No, I'm very sane. I wanted to spend some time alone with you." She shook her wet hair. "I love getting caught in the rain even if this rain is really cold." She shivered.
"They'll be looking for us."
"No, they won't. The girls are too busy dressing Roxanne up, the boys are obsessed with the video games, and the adults are really into that Taboo game, not to mention a little inebriated. This is the perfect time to get to know each other a little better." She latched her arms around his neck. "Unless you don't want to. I'm sure you'll like me better than your other girlfriends."
Unknown to the two teenagers, an adult was watching them with interest. "Not bad, Parker boy," murmured Mia. "Let's see what you've got."
Parker slipped his arms around Sheena's waist as he confided honestly, "Actually, I've never had a girlfriend before."
"You're kidding, right?"
He shook his head.
Sheena teased, "Do I need to mentor you in that as well?"
He shook his head again. "No, I think I'll wing it."
Mia whispered, "Good line," as she watched her son lean in for what proved to be a very sensuous kiss, albeit his first.
Sheena breathed after he released her, "Not bad for somebody who's winging it, but you might need a little practice."
"Is that so?" he commented as he kissed her again.
"Nice move," mumbled Mia.
Parker pulled back from Sheena and asked, "Did you hear something?"
"No, Parker. It's just the rain and the wind. You need to be paying attention to me, not the weather." She shivered. "Getting closer could warm us up."
"Yeah?" he leaned in and nibbled her on the neck. She giggled before he kissed her again.
Sheena sighed, "If you play your cards right, I might let you get away with more than kissing."
"Is that so? And just what might I get away with?"
"You'll have to experiment and find out."
From her hiding place Mia murmured encouragement. "Go for it, Parker! This girl obviously wants to make out with you."
The adolescent boy decided he would experiment. He kissed Sheena again and slipped his hands under her sweater, inching up her rib cage.
Sheena shook as the air became colder. Her breath showed in the moist air as she breathed against Parker's neck.
A twig snapped as Mia moved slightly. Parker jerked back. "Who's there?"
Sheena puffed irritably, "It's nobody. It's a deer being thankful we are not having venison tonight. Now, get back over here! That experiment failed miserably. Try again." She grabbed the waist of his jeans and pulled him close to her.
"Yes, ma'am," he said, duly chastised.
Parker's closeness to Sheena told the girl that he absolutely wanted to experiment. She brushed her body against his.
He groaned, "Are you sure you told that Derrick guy no?"
She laughed lightly in his ear. "I never said I didn't make out. I just wasn't ready to go as far as he wanted to, but you aren't Derrick."
Parker ran his hands across Sheena's breasts on the outside of her sweater. "You're getting warmer and so am I even if it is freezing out here," she whispered. "Sit down on the bench."
He backed into the bench without letting go of Sheena's body. She straddled his lap. She could tell he definitely wanted to play. "Lift my sweater up, Parker," she whispered.
"Way to go, Parker!" Mia mumbled.
Parker looked over his shoulder. "There's somebody out there, Sheena."
"Parker Reynolds!" Sheena hollered as she hit Parker flat-handed on both shoulders.
"Parker who?" Mia screamed before she could control her temper. The temperature dropped another ten degrees.
Parker stood still holding on to Sheena. "Mom? Where are you? Mom? Show yourself."
Mia slunk back into the fully bloomed cattails and took off to where she had left her motorcycle, fuming all the way, "I'll get you for this, Ray. Parker! How could you betray me like that? You're as heartless as your father—Ray."
Parker grabbed Sheena's hand. "Come on."
She clutched his arm. "Parker?"
"Come on, Sheena. Now!" He paused a moment as mugginess returned to the air. Weird weather.
"Parker, you're scaring me."
"It's not me that you should be afraid of. Now, come on."
Sheena balked. "Parker, did she hurt you?"
"You'll never understand. Now, please, come on." He tugged her forward.
Parker burst into the Taboo game with Sheena in tow. "Ray!"
Ray turned toward his son with a questioning look. "What's wrong? Where have you been?"
"Walking in the rain," he lied, and Ray knew it, but said nothing else about it.
"What's wrong, Parker?"
"She's outside somewhere. She heard Sheena call me Parker Reynolds. She's mad. I'm scared, Ray."
At that moment, Ray realized that not all of Parker's abuse had been from foster parents.