Happiest of birthdays to you, Amber! Thanks for having me on your blog 🙂
Last year, I had an excerpt from “Mighty Casey” because it fit the theme of weddings. This year, the theme is taking a vacation, and the sequel — “Home Run” — fits like a glove. Nate and Casey have been married for some time now, and Casey’s been thinking good and hard about whether they’re ready for kids. First, though, they have to make it through a three day weekend at the Rule Family Reunion. There’s nothing like going home for the holidays, and if Casey can get a little hands-on experience in mini-Rule-wrangling then it’s all to the good. Right?
“Mighty Casey: Home Run” (http://www.loose-id.com/mighty-casey-home-run.html)
“Which brings us—finally—to the end of the seventh inning stretch. Hallelujah and glory be.”
“Frank, you’re such a Grinch. The seventh inning stretch is as worthy of celebration as any tradition in baseball.”
“The seventh inning stretch is an excuse for an extra-long bathroom break.”
Casey would have to agree with that one. He adjusted the radio volume and wiggled on his perch behind the steering wheel of Nate’s affectionately nicknamed Monster Truck. The things Nate could do during an extra-long bathroom break…
The things Nate could do with five minutes of stolen time and a barricaded stall, actually. Casey pursed his lips in an awed whistle at the memory, and polished his still-shiny wedding band against the crew neck of his jersey.
“‘Tisn’t the season for Grinches, Janice.”
“Come on, Frank. You too, Bruce. Let’s talk seventh inning stretch, and don’t make those faces at me. There are as many traditions for the seventh inning as there are stadiums to start them in. Do you remember the time with the Clydesdales—”
“And the miniature horses? And the beer kegs filled with Veggemented?”
“Ugh, I can taste it now.”
“Can’t beat Poppernutter Crunch, if you ask me. And then there was the time that New York team—”
Whatever the New York team might have done, Casey decided he was destined never to know. Alas. The playback from Nate’s iPod died when he guided the truck into a hopefully wide enough parking space in front of the school where Nate taught and killed the engine. He patted the steering wheel in wary thanks. Nate said the old beast was temperamental enough to appreciate small tokens of affection, and honestly, Casey wouldn’t question it. Driving Nate’s truck was a test of strength and will on a good day, let alone one where he’d packed her to the gills with brightly wrapped parcels, carefully balanced cake boxes that would, please God, not shift during transit, and a sleeping bag staked out down the middle of the truck bed like a red carpet.
Or an invitation.
They had a six-hour drive ahead of them, and Nate should have been waiting under the overhang in front of the school. Casey checked the sports watch he’d appropriated from Nate’s dresser just to watch him beam with pride. The strap was too big for his wrist, but Nate loved the way it looked, and as a rule Casey took advantage of every opportunity he could to indulge the man.
Also, it kept excellent time. Three fifteen, no doubt about it, and no Nate in sight. Hmm. Casey had just enough room to crack the driver’s side door open and slide from seat to street in a peculiar land-based torpedo dive without denting the Hummer he’d parked next to. As he did, he noticed the slightly open window and, more interestingly, the massive mutt inside watching him with considerable interest.
The dog barked, as if to assess Casey’s relative threat level.
Casey barked back.
Startled silent, the dog cocked its head in polite questioning: Have you gone quite mad, sir?
Casey chuckled. “Yes, I have. Life’s much more fun this way. You should try it.” Darn it if that wasn’t one of the cuter pooches he’d ever come across. It had a lion’s mane of fur that looked as soft as cashmere, and a lolling pink tongue. Adorable. He’d mentioned, a time or two on lazy Saturdays with Nate, the idea of getting a hound of their own. He’d had a hankering for some reason he couldn’t pinpoint.
“Woof!” Casey added for good measure.
The dog licked the window.
“Whoa, there.” A voice came from behind him. “Easy on the sugar. If Coach Vernon found out you’d been corrupting his mighty manly macho friend…he’d probably turn tail and weep. Carry on.”
Casey looked up and grinned. Not Nate, but as substitutes went Kenneth wasn’t half bad. The former nearly pro ball player and current instructor of mathematics at eighth-grade level leaned out the open front door of the school and waved at him.
“No one has to know,” Casey said, waving back. “Did Nate send you to make his excuses?”
“He got tied up. Not like that. I figured I’d come fetch you.” Kenneth let the door close behind him, and jerked a thumb toward the side of the main building. “We’re headed around back. Not like that. You two are corruptors, I tell you.”
“Aren’t we just, though?” Casey asked, breaking into an easy jog that brought them abreast of one another.
Kenneth pretended to scowl. Casey didn’t take it personally. Kenneth could be an acquired taste, but the man had lost a fair portion of his rough edges since he’d met his new husband Roger at a softball tournament the year before. He had not, however, gone blind. Casey watched Kenneth eyeball the top of his head while fighting to hold back a snicker. “Okay then. Mohawk’s an interesting look for you. Do I want to know what kind of bet you lost?”
“Almost definitely not,” Casey said cheerfully. He ruffled the stand-up swatch that ran down the middle of his head. Not quite the thing prospective clients were prepared to see on a wedding planner, but after his own wedding on a pitcher’s mound he’d booked enough couples interested in the unorthodox to fill his calendar for months to come. He hooked a crinkling cellophane pouch from his pocket and tossed it overhand to Kenneth. “You like rum balls, don’t you?”
“Shi—nola.” Kenneth fumbled the bag and clutched it to his chest. “Man, you don’t just say ‘rum balls’ out in the open like that.”
Casey frowned. “Because it’s a school? I brought them to the holiday party and no one complained then.”
Kenneth clasped the bag tighter. “Exactly. I’m liable to get mugged for these before I make it two st—”
A tiny, birdlike hand snaffled the bag of balls away from Kenneth with an orgasmic moan and a joyous crumbling of cellophane. “Is it Christmas again? Already?”
“See?” Kenneth demanded, glowering.
Casey tipped his head back and laughed. Enter Mimi. Petite as a June bug and topped with a firework explosion of riotously red hair, she didn’t stand higher than his shoulder but what she lacked in inches, she made up for with glitter and personality enough for a party of ten. She beamed at Casey as she liberated a rum ball from the packet and popped it in her mouth.
“One of these days you’re going to come down off your sugar rush, and they’ll be able to hear the crash from space,” Kenneth told her.
“Hasn’t happened yet in twenty-seven years and counting,” she chirped, undeterred. “I heard Nate send Kenneth to come fetch you, and you’re never not bearing treats of one kind or another.” Mimi looped one arm through Casey’s, and tugged at Kenneth’s sleeve with the other, walking between them. “He’s on the peewee field.”
Casey blinked. “The what, now?”
“Mini-junior sports,” Kenneth said, making an unsuccessful swipe at Mimi’s purloined treats. “The kindergarten teacher who usually takes after-school practice had to head out early.”
“She ate the cafeteria meatloaf,” Mimi said gravely. “Never, ever eat the cafeteria meatloaf.”
“Nate being Nate, he figured you wouldn’t get too irked if he stayed to lend a hand.” Kenneth scratched at one eyebrow. “I had meant to ask… Seems like he’s been off his feed today. Didn’t want to talk about wherever you guys are headed this weekend. Everything all right?”
Mimi hummed a chocolate-rum agreement. “He does seem about as enthusiastic as if he’s planning a safari to the orthodontist. Does it have anything to do with the women’s underwear he’s got on?”
As quickly as the man whipped his head around, Casey feared for the orthopedic bill in Kenneth’s future. “He’s what?”
Mimi shrugged. “I poked my head in the staff bathroom at lunch when I needed to ask a question. It’s nice underwear. Definitely not box-store shopping.”
“Crimson silk and pointed lace,” Casey said. He smoothed his Mohawk. “Some bets I lose. Some bets I win. But it’s unrelated, sorry.”
“Where are you going, anyway? Nate wouldn’t say.”
“Do you want the long version, or the short one?” Casey asked.
“How about the one that takes as long to tell as it does to finish the walk to the field?”
“Which means, talk fast,” Mimi advised. She drew exaggerated depictions of jug handles on both sides of her head. “Do go on. I’m all ears. Ears and rum. It’s a winning combination.”
“Shortest version possible? We’re headed home for the holidays. Nate’s family home, I mean. Where he grew up.”
Kenneth frowned. “Why’s that a problem? I met Nate’s family at your wedding. They’re good folks.”
“That they are. But you only met some of Nate’s family at the wedding,” Casey corrected as gently as possible. He’d just caught sight of Nate holding court on a miniature soccer pitch with a gaggle of rapt kindergarteners. Well, as rapt as kindergartners could be, when not picking their noses or poking one another. One girl, a bit smaller and slighter than the rest, wore glasses easily half the size of her head and chewed raptly on her left pigtail, but Casey doubted an earthquake could have distracted her from her focus on Mr. Nate.
He couldn’t blame her. Tall and lean, with clear hazel eyes that sparkled, Nate had never lost his own childlike enthusiasm for life. Kids recognized that, and liked Mr. Nate all the better for it.
Smart kids. Lucky Casey.
Kenneth made a grumbling noise. “You mean there’s some who didn’t want to come on account of…”
“What? No, no, nothing like that,” Casey said, distracted by the sight of Nate crouching to gently tug a pigtail end out of the tiny mite’s mouth. “We kept the crowd as small as possible for the wedding. Just his sisters, all seven of them, and their husbands.”
“And?” Mimi prompted, making swirly hand motions.
“And?” Casey echoed. The little girl’s glasses had slid down her nose to the point of nearly falling off. Nate’s smile dawned as warm as sunrise as he nudged them back into place. Whatever he had to say to her—and to the impatient, tow-headed boy who wedged his way in—kept them fascinated. “Oh! Right. Seven sisters, with seven husbands. Seven sisters who all had children. Given that Nate’s the youngest, some of his nephews and nieces are now old enough to start bringing in spouses and infants of their own. And then there are his parents, who between the three of them—”
“And thus it makes the softball tournament last year look sparsely attended by comparison,” Mimi summarized. “Yowzah.”
Casey waggled his hand from side to side. “It’s less the size of the crowd, and more the fact that most of them have embarrassing stories to tell about when he was three years old and decided clothing was for sissies. Or when he was fifteen and blew a year’s allowance on an autographed Swayze poster. His mother won’t hear of letting him trash it. With ammunition like that, his sisters have teasing down to an art form.”
Kenneth chortled behind one hand. Mimi cackled. “Say you’ll bring back pictures. Please?”
“I’m not that cruel,” Casey chided. “Lacy red thongs notwithstanding. He’ll be fine once he gets there. It’s just that convincing him to start is always a task for the heroic or the foolishly in love.”
“Holidays, though?” Kenneth asked.
Casey considered his explanation. “I suppose it’d be more accurate to say ‘family reunion.’ With a family that size, gathering to celebrate individual occasions—Christmas, Hanukkah, Memorial Day, anniversaries, birthdays—it’s just not possible. They pick one weekend a year for an all-inclusive jamboree, and give gifts at the end. Efficient and fun.”
Nate had edged closer to the edge of the field. Close enough for Casey to see he wasn’t just gesturing to no purpose as he spoke, and he hadn’t knelt for the sake of condescension. He finger-spelled and employed basic signs as he addressed the boy, and made sure the girl could read his lips. Casey had, before now, not had the slightest clue Nate knew American Sign Language.
That giant marshmallow. What am I going to do with you, Nate?
Mimi made a cooing noise. She scooted to one side and poked Kenneth out of the way. “Go get ’im, boy. But I still want pictures!” She considered briefly. “Or I’ll take the Swayze poster if you can sneak it out.”
“And if there’s any cookies left over…” Kenneth added.
“I know who to call.” Casey patted his shoulder as he stepped past. While Frick and Frack would no doubt linger there to watch his every move, he turned his attention wholly to Nate and Nate’s conversation with teeny tiny tykes engulfed in soccer gear.
One of the first things Casey had thought of the man upon meeting Nate was that he’d be a wonderful father. Even so, children weren’t something Casey had wanted, nor was parenting a thing he’d ever figured he’d be particularly good at. Nate hadn’t seemed bothered by his preference, and they’d let it fall comfortably to one side.
This wasn’t the first time the notion of changing his mind had occurred to Casey. Nor even the second or third. More like the twentieth, and each time he went round and round in his head he came closer to making his decision. And watching this? Well. It went a fair way toward tipping the scales, to be honest.
Nate would be a fantastic dad.
Before Casey could call out to Nate, a gate at the far end of the field rattled open and a woman who shouted “soccer mom”—literally, in this case—stepped through, waving at the children. A trickle, and then a flood of parents followed her. Practice over.
Nate tousled the towhead’s cowlick and stood up with a creaking crack of his knees that made Casey wince on his behalf. His grin broadened and brightened. “There you are! Time for me to man up and face my fate?”
“Afraid so, but you’ll survive.” Casey held one arm open for Nate to snuggle into—which he did, dropping a loud kiss on the top of Casey’s head as he went. He put his arm around Nate’s waist. “If you’re done here, time to hit the road, big man. Soonest begun…soonest we can go parking in your favorite spot.”
Nate perked up like hot coffee on a cold morning. “What are we waiting around for again?”
Casey glanced behind them at the little ones disappearing from the field, either tugging at their parents’ hands or being carried while chattering at top volume. “All things in their own time,” he said. He twined his fingers with Nate’s. “And all good things come, sooner or later, to those who’ve waited.”