Ray Valentine stood just outside the open door to his home, kicking his boots against the doorstep to dislodge the wet, slushy snow that had compacted in the treads while he shoveled his driveway. The blizzard conditions and fourteen inches of snow that fell overnight and through the morning closed the dealership and most of the area today, but he’d be expected at work tomorrow. He’d learned the hard way their first winter here that it was best to shovel in the daylight when at all possible, before everything froze over with nightfall.
Stepping over the threshold as he unwrapped the scarf from his neck and pulled the hat from his head, Ray caught his reflection in the hanging mirror his wife used to check herself before she left the house for work as a teacher aide at a nearby school. Not that she needed to, she was beautiful even when she thought she looked a mess. He was especially fond of the way she’d had her hair for the past few years: a beautiful auburn color in a sexy long bob. As for his own appearance, Ray had stopped being startled at least a year ago by the image in the mirror: his hair, cut shorter than it had ever been in his previous life and styled in a more “professional” look, though it was sticking out in several directions now, which he thought made him look a little younger, or at least hipper. That and the fact that he kept it darker than its natural color, so any grays that might pop up were conveniently covered soon after.
Had the thumping of little, pajama-clad feet not been enough to warn Ray of the impending collision, the happy squeal of “Daddy!” a moment before would have done the trick.
“Oomph!” he exaggerated when the child launched himself at Ray’s legs and wrapped his own tiny arms and legs around them. He plucked the three-year-old up into his arms for a proper hug. “Hey there Johnny Bravo! Did you have fun in the snow?”
“I not Johnny Bavo, silly. I Johnny Martin Balentine!”
“Oh that’s right, I keep forgetting. Good thing I have you to remind me,” Ray said, his typical response when they played this little game.
“I always amind you, Daddy,” came Johnny’s expected reply, followed by Ray’s favorite part: a wet kiss to wherever on his father’s face he could reach first. Today it was Ray’s ear.
“So what did you do outside that was so important you couldn’t help your old man shovel?” He asked as he walked them toward the kitchen.
“Me and mommy builded a snowman!”
“You built a snowman? Where is he? Is he on the couch?” Ray spun around quickly to look into the living room they’d just left. Turning back, he winked at his wife, standing at the stove stirring something. “Nope, I don’t see him there. Hmm, how about the bathroom—is he taking a shower?”
Johnny giggled and Ray’s still-damp feet warmed with the sound of it. “No, snowmans got to stay outside.”
“Snowmen have to stay outside? Are you sure?”
The boy nodded and looked at him with serious blue eyes, “Yes. If snowman come inside, he melt.”
“Oh, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?”
“No,” Johnny said with a small quiver of his lip.
“Hey, no need to get sad little man. We’ll make sure your snowman is okay tomorrow before you go to school and as soon as we get home too.” He put the child back down, “In the meantime, what is that deliciousness that I smell?”
“Mommy making tomato soup!”
“And grilled cheese,” Jen said. “It would be great if you two could set the table. Everything’s almost ready. And the mail’s on the counter, hon.”
Ray handed Johnny some paper plates and napkins to put on the table before locating the small pile of envelopes. One in particular caught his attention. The return address of a familiar post office box number indicated it had been sent by Lewis Ellis, the federal marshal assigned to Raymond and Jennifer Valentine since their relocation to Long Island, New York nearly four years ago.
The only time they got mail from Lewis was when he forwarded something from anyone in their past lives. Jen had her parents and a sister and he had Marty, and over the years they’d received the occasional bits of news and numerous gifts for Johnny. Scanning its contents, a myriad of expressions crossed Ray’s face, finally settling on a full-fledged smile when he turned it over. “Hot d-dog!” he said, making the last second switch from the “damn” he was about to utter.
“No daddy, we having gwilled cheese,” Johnny corrected from the table.
“What is it?” Jen asked.
“Lewis sent some mail from an old friend, and it’s about time,” Ray held up the paper for her to read. It was a print-out of a Wikipedia entry for the word “thing.” Hand-written on the back was an explanation only a few would understand: “It’s official – there IS a thing!”
“I don’t get it,” she said.
“Marty finally got together with his partner!” When that didn’t seem to help clarify the issue, Ray explained about Kensi’s nickname and his insistence that romance would bloom between Marty and the brunette, despite what his friend claimed at the time. “I could always tell when Marty was crushing on a girl back in the day, but he never denied it or hesitated to act on it before. With those baby blue eyes and long blond hair, he didn’t have any trouble making time with the ladies. Unlike me, he never dated more than one girl at a time, but was more what they’d call a ‘serial monogamist’ now because he was faithful but didn’t want the long-term commitment. So when I saw the way he looked at Kensi, and the way she looked back, I knew the potential was there. The fact that he kept refusing to admit it, though, made me think he saw the potential too, but was afraid she was someone he might really want to commit to.”
“And it took him almost four years to get over his supposed fear of commitment?”
“Looks that way. But now that he has, I fully expect to get a wedding announcement within a year.”
Jen nudged her husband away from the stove, “Well you’re getting lunch within ten seconds, so go sit.”
“They’re moving slower than summer Friday traffic to the Hamptons,” Ray said as he rubbed Jen’s heavily pregnant abdomen with belly butter.
“Why do you say that? They only just got together a little over a year ago, and now they’re living together.” Jen said, shifting onto her side to get more comfortable in bed and so that her husband could reach the far side of her stomach.
Ray had received another piece of mail forwarded from his former best friend via their federal marshal that day. This time it was a picture of a bunch of moving boxes stacked in several piles in what looked like an already decorated apartment. It was hard to tell due to the angle, which Ray was sure was a deliberate choice in order to make the background as anonymous as possible. Written on the back in Marty’s scrawl was “Home is wherever we are together, and now it’s at the same address; hopefully it won’t look like an episode of Hoarders forever…”
“Considering I saw there was something between them five years ago, why the hell are they dragging their feet?”
“Maybe they wanted to make sure it would work out before they let you in on it. It would be awful if they told you about it right away and it ended just a few months later.”
He kissed his wife and then her belly. “You’re right,” his words were tinged with sadness, “and we know that better than most, don’t we?”
“Yeah,” she let out on a sigh. “I know you want to send him a sonogram picture to tell them about this little one, but I just… need to wait until she’s born.”
“Or he’s born,” Ray said with a gentle smile. “You’re well past the point at which we lost the last pregnancy, and your doctor is confident this one will end with a live birth, but I understand,” he assured her.
“So do you want to send a picture of the baby’s foot with her…or his gender, weight, and a hint about the name this time too?”
“We can probably send a shot including the kid’s face, don’t you think? I mean, they’re pretty generic looking as newborns. Plus I don’t think we need to say anything about the name, since we’re not naming this one after Marty.”
“You sure you don’t want to put Martina back on the list of girl’s names?” Jen asked.
“Nah, that’d be overkill. Marty was thrilled that we honored him with Johnny’s middle name, but we owe him a lot and that was the only way we could really acknowledge it. It was good, though, because he understands the importance of names. That’s why he ditched his old man’s last name and took his mother’s.”
“That must have meant a lot to her.”
“Probably. But it sure as hell confused me back when we ran into each other while he was undercover. I went along with everyone calling him Max Gentry at first, and then when that was over and I could call him Marty again, he forgot to mention he was no longer Brandel. The first time I called him as his informant and he answered the phone with ‘Deeks,’ I hung up, thinking I had the wrong number. We went through that about three times before he finally figured out it was me,” Ray laughed at the memory.
Jen’s smile turned into a yawn. “Before I fall asleep, did you remember to ask Ms. Emma if she can sit for Johnny while I’m in labor?”
“Check. I also reminded Bob that you’re due in the next few weeks and he said he’ll cover me on short notice.”
“That’s nice of him.”
Ray scoffed, “It’s not like he’s not getting the commission on any sales he makes while he’s taking my shifts. We need to plan the next pregnancy better so you don’t deliver during the build-up to Memorial Day.”
“You complain one more time about losing money while I’m pushing a baby out of my body and you won’t have to worry about me getting pregnant ever again, honey.” She pulled his head down and kissed him goodnight before rolling onto her back and closing her eyes.
“Yes ma’am.” Ray chuckled as he reached to turn off the lamp. Settling himself into bed alongside his wife, he said, “I love you, darlin’.”
“Love you too,” she muttered on the edge of sleep.
“What are you still doing up? I thought you were going to crash after putting Johnny to bed,” Jen asked in a whisper so as not to startle their six-month-old while he fed greedily at her breast. A stapled pile of papers rested on her knee, an assignment she was editing for the teacher education program she had begun two months before.
Ray crossed the room and bent to gently kiss both Jen and the baby on the tops of their heads. He sat on the ottoman in front of the glider rocker in which his wife preferred to nurse first Johnny and now Kevin. He felt such gratitude for all the second chances he’d been given in life that had led to this moment: surviving an abusive childhood, becoming Marty’s informant, entering WITSEC with Jenna (now Jennifer), being a better father than his old man could ever imagine being.
On a deep sigh he said, “Got a disturbing note from Marty today and I can’t sleep.”
“Is everything okay?”
He shook his head and took a folded piece of paper from the pocket of his sweats and read aloud, “Please send prayers. My partner in all things has been in a coma for weeks.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Jen said. “We’ll definitely send plenty of prayers and positive thoughts their way.”
“I feel awful because I know how much Kensi means to him. But I also just can’t stop thinking about how close I came to losing you both not that long ago,” he murmured, looking at mother and infant.
“Shh, sweetheart we’re alright,” she reached for his hand.
“You know, when all that bleeding started and they rushed you into surgery shouting things like ‘placental abruption’ and ‘reduced fetal oxygen’ there was no one I could call in the middle of the night to come be with me, or even pray for you two. Sure, we have friends here. People we work with, some from the neighborhood. But at that moment I was desperate to hear someone I knew from our previous life tell me you two would be okay.” He paused for several moments and watched their healthy son continue to suckle. “Did I tell you I actually dialed your parents’ number?” At Jen’s alarmed look, Ray assured her, “I never put the call through. But I admit I came pretty damned close. I think the only reason I didn’t was because it wouldn’t have been fair to tell them what was going on and then leave them hanging for so long.”
“Not to mention the fact that we would have had to be relocated for breaching a major security protocol.”
“Wasn’t really my priority at the time,” he admitted.
With a gentle smile, Jen said, “If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, please know that not upending our lives again will always be your wife’s priority.” She took his hand, “But I get it. We’ve been in this program for five and a half years now, and we’ve adjusted well, I think. But when we agreed to come into it, I guess we were so focused on the safety of our soon-to-be family that we didn’t give a lot of thought to what we’d be leaving behind.”
“Probably a smart idea, otherwise we might not have done it.”
“True. Better to be alive and have only sporadic and indirect contact with our loved ones than be dead. But when we’re at our lowest, like when an emergency C-section terrifies us, or our happiest, like when we hold our babies for the first time, I think that’s when we miss the rest of our family the most.”
Ray nodded, “Even though Marty and I spent about a decade out of touch and going in completely different directions, he’s still the closest thing I have to a brother. We had a lot of similar experiences growing up – I can’t even count how many times each of us went to the ER, or at least should have. He was always the first person I showed my latest cast or stitches to, and vice versa. And believe it or not, only about half of it was from our fathers, not that we ever told the hospital staff the truth about that. The rest was us just being stupid and reckless. Like the time I thought he was faking being unconscious after a skateboarding stunt went bad, so I shoved fruit snacks up his nose,” he shook his head at the memory. “I just wish I could be there for him right now, you know?”
“I do, baby. And you are, in your own way. I’m sure that list of ‘helpful suggestions’ you sent him when he and Kensi moved in together was invaluable,” she smiled.
“Had to give him the benefit of my experience,” Ray said with a smirk.
“Why don’t you do the same thing now? Let him know what happened when Kevin was born and tell him what helped you get through it.”
“Not sure my few hours of worry can compare to what he’s been living through for weeks now.”
“It’s not a competition, Ray. Your friend is suffering through something you’ve survived. Let him know. It’ll give him some hope.”
Kevin detached and started crying just then. “You want me to take him?” Ray offered.
“No thanks. Go write Marty, it’s not like you’re going to be able to sleep through this anyway.”
Ray sat on the living room floor leaning against the couch, Kevin in his bouncy seat on his left and Johnny on his right building with his new Lego set, a recent birthday present. He occupied the baby with the colorful, noisy, spinning toys that hung above the seat when he wasn’t helping the newly-minted five-year-old locate the occasional difficult-to find piece. It was the only help the boy would accept as he dutifully followed the directions to make a space shuttle with the foot-killing blocks. Keeping the kids out of the kitchen was Ray’s only job today, the day before Thanksgiving, while Jen worked her culinary magic in advance of tomorrow’s big meal. Except for the idiotic cartoon playing on the TV that Johnny wouldn’t let him turn off – what happened to classics like Transformers and Thundercats, he wondered – it was a perfect day.
When he heard the neighbor’s dog barking wildly and checked the time, Ray got up to glance out the front window. Seeing the mail carrier a few houses down, he said, “Keep an eye on your brother, Johnny. I’m getting the mail.”
When he came back in, he caught Jen’s eye at the stove. She immediately spied the familiar envelope in his hand and came to the doorway between the rooms. “Could just be a holiday card,” she tried to reassure him as she reached for it.
The fact that he hadn’t heard anything more from Marty regarding Kensi’s health in just over three weeks didn’t bode well to Ray, and he had taken to having Jen open anything forwarded by Lewis, just in case. He noted the browns and oranges, and the glittery “Happy Thanksgiving” on the cover of the store-bought greeting card and relaxed. When he saw Jen’s brow furrow, his worry returned until she finally read it to him, “She’s awake and has a long road ahead of her, but we’re hopeful for a full recovery. Thank you for your letter; it really helped and I read it often. Wish I could have been as useful when you were struggling. After our inauspicious beginnings, who would think we’d have so much to be thankful for?”
She held him for several moments as he let out a long breath. They returned to their tasks, certainly feeling thankful.
“Kevin Jesse Valentine, you get back here right now!” Jen called from the bathroom.
It wasn’t two seconds later that their mostly wet and completely naked toddler squealed as he streaked past Ray and Johnny while they read a book together on the couch. The five-year-old said, “Kevin doesn’t want to go to bed yet. But he has to, right, ‘cause he’s still a baby?”
“Kevin doesn’t want to put any clothes on is more like it,” Ray kissed Johnny’s head as he got up to grab his younger son, who was now bouncing up and down on the far end of the sectional.
“That’s silly,” Johnny replied.
“You used to do the same thing, mister. In fact, you’re the reason we have wall to wall carpeting. Didn’t want you getting hurt again after you slipped on the floor running away from me and mommy with wet feet.”
“I’m a big boy now, I wear clothes all the time. Grown-up clothes like you, Daddy. With zippers and buttons. Only little babies wear diapers and baby things with snaps.”
“You are definitely just like your old man, buddy.” Ray assured his eldest as he scooped up his youngest and held him close, fully aware of how slippery a squirmy, wet, naked child could be.
Jen waited in the doorway of the bathroom with a towel, an eye roll, and a muttered, “Uh huh. If only he knew that you used to walk around naked whenever you got the chance.”
“Hey, I can’t help it if Benny and the Jets hate to be cooped up.” He handed their son off so Jen could finish getting him ready for bed. “We’ve got a pile of about 10 books to get through,” he nodded toward Johnny in the living room, “So let me know when you’re ready to switch.”
Ninety minutes later, both kids were in bed and both parents had earned a beer. Ray swiped the mail off the kitchen counter as he carried the bottles of brew and a bag of chips into the living room.
“No word from Jeremy yet, I assume?” Jen asked about his manager after taking her first sip.
“Nah, I would have told you as soon as I got home from work if I’d heard anything. They’re supposed to let us know by the end of the week, but Jeremy’s thinking my chances are good. And if not, I’ve got enough experience at this point to get hired to sell new cars at the next place. Either way, it’s time for me to move on from used vehicles.”
He started flipping through the mail, “Now let’s see who’s asking us for money this week… ooh, an envelope from Lewis. Wonder what it is, since Marty, your sister, and your folks sent birthday gifts for Kevin last month.” He put the corner of the envelope against his head and said, “Carnac the Magnificent predicts that Marty and Wikipedia are married and pregnant.”
“They only just moved in together last year, give them time. My guess is that Andrea has found the one.”
“That’s cheating; your sister finds ‘the one’ at least twice a year.”
He pulled out a picture of a man’s left hand with a thin black circle of metal dangling from the ring finger.
“What is that? Looks like a keychain.” Jen wondered.
While Raymond Valentine would have made the same guess as his wife, Ray Martindale, former weapons-runner extraordinaire, immediately recognized the pull ring and safety pin from some type of grenade. But he said, “I think you’re right.”
He turned the picture over and found Marty’s print that said, “We’ve never been the most traditional couple—after
three tries the ‘normal’ way, she asked and I said yes!” Ray grinned when he followed the arrow from the crossed-out word to what he assumed was Kensi’s script explaining, “He did NOT propose 3 times! One was a pre-proposal, one was when I was unconscious, and one was incomplete! Hopefully planning the wedding doesn’t take this long…”
“Think they’d be offended if I write back and tell them that a nice quick ceremony by a justice of the peace is the way to go?”
Jen gently smacked his chest, “You can bet that if I wasn’t pregnant and we hadn’t just been relocated here, where we knew absolutely no one, we would have had more than just a quickie wedding by a JP. Although your proposal was very romantic,” she leaned over and gave him a kiss.
“Man, I wish I could hear the stories behind all these proposals. Guessing they’re still agents if she was unconscious for one of them, though. And what the hell is a pre-proposal?”
His wife rolled her eyes, “Exactly what you did when we first felt Johnny kick and you said, ‘Hey, you think we should get married before he actually starts pushing his way out of you?’”
“Ah,” Ray nodded and had the grace to grimace slightly. “What can I say, I got carried away in the moment. But you liked the on-my-knee popping of the question at the top of the Montauk Lighthouse at sunset?”
“I was very impressed with that. Even more impressive was the fact that you had a back-up plan in the event that I didn’t want to climb all those stairs, given that I was six months pregnant.”
He chuckled, “Between you and me I was kinda hoping you weren’t up to it. Asking you while I was pushing you on a swing set within view of the lighthouse was a lot less pressure.” Sighing, Ray continued, “That was actually a time I really wanted Marty’s input. He was always more suave with the ladies when it came to romantic stuff like that. Did I ever tell you about how he asked his date to the prom?”
“Keep in mind this was before all those ‘promposals’ were big on the internet. Hell, this was before we even knew there was an internet. But anyway, one day he cut English class to go to the In-N-Out, bought her favorite burger, and presented it to her at lunch. On the napkin he’d written, ‘Are you In to go Out to the prom with me?’”
“That’s cute. Not internet worthy, but definitely creative,” Jen said.
“Which is why it really boggles the mind that Wikipedia ended up popping the question. Must have been a hell of a proposal, though.”
“You think the kids will notice if we put off decorating for Christmas until a little later this year?” Jen whispered as she brought the rest of the dinner dishes to the sink for Ray to wash, the kids in the next room watching TV.
“Considering it’s all he’s been talking about for the past month, I’d say Johnny will be a hard one to fool.” Noticing his wife’s moist eyes, Ray quickly rinsed a plate, dried his hands and pulled her into a hug. “Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry you’re hurting so much and that we can’t even tell the kids why you’ve been sad lately.”
Jen grabbed onto him, hid her face against his chest, and let the tears flow. A few minutes later she turned her head to the side and said, “It’s not like I was probably ever going to see him again, but it’s so hard knowing that he’s not here anymore, you know? And the fact that he was sick for so long and they never told me… it just kills me that I couldn’t offer him any kind of comfort because they didn’t want to upset me.”
“Your folks love you, and your dad was very protective of you. He would have known you’d have wanted to go home to see him.”
“They make exceptions sometimes, Lewis said! Dad and I could have both flown to another location for a short visit… it’s just not fair.”
“Your mom explained in the letter that your father didn’t want to run any risk of exposing you. He loved you so much, baby. He still does.”
“Mom! Kevin spilled his sippy cup,” Johnny called from the living room.
“I’ll handle it,” Ray said, giving Jen a brief kiss and grabbing some paper towels before heading toward the kids.
He returned a few minutes later to find Jen at the table, fixing a cup of tea and opening the day’s mail. “Here,” she said, holding a piece out to him.
Ray sat and studied his wife for a moment before determining that she was done crying and talking about her father for the time being. The past few weeks had been a roller coaster of emotion for Jen since being notified of her father’s death, made worse he was sure, by their status as protected witnesses. Turning his attention to the envelope, he opened it and found a picture of a bar’s specials board, the name of the establishment cropped off. On the back Deeks had written, “Part-time for now, but we may have found our retirement gig.”
“Huh,” he said.
“What?” Jen asked.
“Looks like Marty and Wikipedia own a bar.”
“Really? Did they leave their jobs as agents?”
“Doesn’t look like it. He said it’s still part-time.”
“Why do you look so surprised?”
He shrugged, “Guess I can’t picture Marty choosing to deal with drunks every day after the childhood he had.”
“Not everyone who goes to a bar gets drunk,” Jen said.
“No, but you’ll find more inebriated people at a bar than most other places.”
Jen nodded her agreement. “His father was a mean drunk, wasn’t he?”
“Meaner than a junkyard dog by the time we met,” Ray confirmed. “Marty always said his old man wasn’t that bad when he was younger. Kinda absent because he worked a lot, but once he got laid off and started spending his days at the local bar, things went downhill fast and he started using his wife, and then Marty, as a punching bag. Only thing worse is someone who’s that nasty when he’s sober, like my old man.”
Jen considered him for several long moments. “I’m sorry that’s what bonded the two of you initially, your terrible fathers. Makes me appreciate my wonderful dad all the more though,” she said, offering Ray the first smile he’d seen in weeks.
Ray groaned as he straightened up, a chunk of smooshed cake in his hand, “I think Johnny had the right idea when he suggested a bowling party.” He looked out the nearest window overlooking the backyard to make sure his oldest son was still safely digging up worms with his best friend. Ray shook his head as he recalled the one time he and Marty had done something similar not too long after they’d met. They had planned to sell the worms for bait and hide the cash from their fathers. Unfortunately, old man Brandel came home early and saw all the holes before they had thought to fill them in. Ray figured the only reason Marty hadn’t gotten the shit kicked out of him was because Ray was there and Marty was smart enough to leave with him for a while.
“A bunch of three-year-olds throwing bowling balls around? That’s not asking for trouble. Johnny can have that for his next birthday if he still wants it,” Jen said.
“As long as it’s not in the house, I’m all for it. Keeping control of six toddlers is tougher than herding cats, even with their parents here. I’m glad we saved the gift opening until after Kev’s nap so we can clean one mess before making another.”
“Speaking of, a package arrived from Lewis during the party. We should probably add it to the pile.” With that, Jen went to the hall closet and pulled out a shipping box.
Ray returned from the kitchen with clean hands and a knife to slice through the packing tape. The box inside had clearly been unwrapped and re-wrapped. “You’d think after all this time the marshals service would stop opening the gifts for the kids to check their contents. It’s bad enough they read all the mail, coming and going.”
“This is how they keep us safe; they need to make sure there’s nothing in there that will identify us or the senders. I imagine after several years people tend to get complacent so it’s just as important now as it was in the beginning,” Jen shrugged.
“Complacent -listen to you and the fancy words. Your teacher training program certainly has expanded your vocabulary.”
She grinned, “Can’t teach the fancy words if you don’t know them.”
An envelope was under the gift, and contained a picture of an ornate wedding cake with a brunette bride and blond groom topper. The back said simply, “She’s stuck with me forever now; we said our ‘I Do’s.’”
Ray had a huge smile on his face when he said, “I was beginning to worry that they’d broken up, it’s been so long. I’m betting we missed some party if it took them two years to plan it.”
“Has it really been two years?” Jen asked, wandering around the living room and tossing paper plates, plastic cups, and juice boxes into a large garbage bag.
He nodded, “We got the news of their engagement right around Kevin’s first birthday. I hope it doesn’t take them much longer to have a kid.”
“I think you’re more excited about the idea of them having a baby than you were about us,” Jen teased.
“You know what they say about misery loving company.”
“It’s a good thing I know you’re joking about that.”
“That I am. Truth is I want Marty to experience what it’s like to be a good dad; to be the opposite of our own lousy fathers. To know what it’s like to make your kids happy instead of miserable and afraid.”
“What makes you think they even want children? You can’t tell me this is something the two of you ever talked about.”
“More like complaining about the crap our fathers did and agreeing it wasn’t something we’d wish on anyone else. Though there was a time when a girl Marty was dating thought she might be pregnant and he told me he’d prove that he could raise a kid better than his old man had, even if he was a teenaged father with no job prospects.”
Jen stopped cleaning and approached Ray as he picked up the couch cushions checking for any messy surprises they wouldn’t want to find later. She put her hands on his shoulders, “It’s a shame he doesn’t have you as a role model, then, because you’re a wonderful father, sweetheart. And husband.”
Ray pulled his wife into his arms for a long embrace, “Thank you, baby. That’s all I need to be.”
“Come on Dad,” Johnny whined while moving his fingers quicker than Ray thought humanly possible on his game console, “I’m about to level up.”
“If you don’t get to bed soon, Santa’s going to fly right over this house,” he said.
The child rolled his eyes briefly before returning them to his screen, “Save it for Kev. I know who really puts the gifts under the tree.”
“Then know this,” Jen said as she collapsed next to her husband on the couch. Their 11-year-old son was on the floor in front of them, only giving them the time of day now that they had announced he needed to put the game away and go to bed. “If you’re not in bed with the lights out in the next sixty seconds your father and I will be in ours, and whatever presents we might have put under the tree tonight will stay well-hidden until next Christmas.” With that, she set a timer on her phone and showed it to the boy.
Johnny promptly stormed off, muttering under his breath.
Ray called after him, “Don’t wake your brother up!” He shook his head and placed a hand on his wife’s thigh, squeezing gently. “I can’t believe he hasn’t even officially reached puberty yet.”
“I’m sure he will have by the time of his next physical. He probably has all those nasty hormones running through his blood right now, just waiting to grow hair on my little boy’s body,” Jen shuddered at the thought.
“That was a good comeback by the way, but don’t forget you should only make threats you’re willing to follow through on.”
“Oh I know. I don’t bluff anymore – being a mom and a teacher has served me well. And we both know I’m a big softy and probably would have relented and given him the Christmas presents for his birthday.”
“His birthday’s in November.”
“Exactly,” she winked. “Oh here, I almost forgot. I’m guessing this is from Marty and Kensi, since the kids received holiday gifts from my mom and sister already,” she pulled an envelope from her bathrobe and handed it to Ray.
“You think? Usually they send a package with actual presents,” he confirmed the return address of their federal marshal’s P.O. Box.
He ripped it open and pulled out an Amazon gift card with a note paper-clipped to it: “Sorry, man, but can you buy the gifts this year… things are a little busy here!” Clipped behind the note was a picture of a child on a swing set, taken from behind, in what looked like a backyard. Ray held it out for Jen to see before turning it over to read: “No, we did not have the longest pregnancy on record; we decided to skip all the diaper-changing and colic and started our family with a 3 y/o. Hope I’m as good at it as I’m sure you are!”
“Woo hoo!” Ray said with a huge smile.
Looking closely at the picture, Jen said, “It’s hard to tell for sure, but the kid looks big for three. I bet if we send them some of the clothes Kevin outgrew last year, they’ll fit soon enough.”
“Can’t see if it’s a boy or a girl.” Ray re-read the note, “And Marty didn’t say.”
“He or she is not wearing a dress, so girl or boy, they obviously wear those cute little kiddie jeans and tees we have so many of.”
“I’m assuming they adopted, which I hope means this kid has less of a chance of being the daredevil Marty was.” He tapped the picture and said, “We sometimes hung out at the school playground after the little kids and their folks left for dinner. This way no one would see us try to come up with ways to do a three-sixty on the swings.”
“Pretty sure that’s impossible.”
“Ha! Try telling that to two adolescents with a lot of time to kill and nowhere to be. I think we came closest with one of us pushing the other all the way up as we ran under the swing. But we knew we’d need more consistent power. Pity we were never able to swipe a fire extinguisher from the school like we talked about,” Ray said with a small shake of his head.
They continued to stare at the photo and Ray let out a sigh. “I’m happy for them. He’ll be a good dad, no doubt. And Wikipedia will probably be the most protective mama bear there ever was.”
“I wonder if they’re still agents. You think it’s possible they run the bar full-time?”
“I doubt they can make enough money from a bar to support a family of three after more than two years of COVID restrictions, but I hope they’re out of the line of fire. They deserve to be safe.”
“We all do,” Jen agreed with a peck to her husband’s cheek. “Now let’s put the presents under the tree and then celebrate the fact that we still are.”
“Sign here, here, here, and initial there, there, and at the bottom of every page. And everywhere we crossed something out.”
Ray did so quietly for several pages, passing each along to Jen for her signature. He paused, looking over a sheet of paper, “What’s this one for again?”
Lewis Ellis put on his glasses and perused it. “Releases the federal government of any liability should you be injured or killed by anyone having to do with Nelson Sanders once you leave the Witness Protection Program.”
“Didn’t we sign that one already?” Jen asked.
“That one specifically releases the marshals service of liability,” Lewis explained.
“You guys really cover your asses, don’t you?” Ray said.
“Most people who leave the program aren’t doing it under such favorable circumstances.”
“It helps to have friends in the right places,” Ray said.
Lewis nodded, “Just the knowledge that Nelson Sanders was killed in prison might not have been enough to convince me to leave protection, personally. It was good of your pals in NCIS to plant information that you’d been spotted in the Midwest to your other former associates, get a feel for how hot things are for you now.”
“Gotta say, I think I’m a little insulted that no one wants me dead anymore.”
“The way I heard it, a couple of them even said, ‘Ray who?’” Lewis chuckled. “But there’s no point in pressing your luck, so as we discussed you all will keep your current aliases, social security numbers, and other documentation when you leave here. You definitely heading back to L.A.?”
Ray nodded, “We should easily be able to land jobs there. I can sell cars anywhere, and the schools are in desperate need of good teachers like Jen.”
Jen said, “Most importantly, my family is there, as well as the best friend Ray ever had. We can finally tell the kids that they have a grandmother, aunts, and uncles now that we don’t have to come up with excuses why we don’t see them or even talk to them on the phone.”
“Does that mean we also have to give them credit for all the extra gifts over the years?” Ray wondered.
“Where are the boys, by the way? It’s awfully quiet in here.” Lewis asked.
“Down the block at the only house with a pool. When we told them almost everyone has a pool in L.A., they couldn’t wait to move.” He checked his cell, “Speaking of, the moving company will be here in about an hour.”
“Well then it seems like you’ve got everything covered. I’d suggest you keep the minor changes you made to your appearance when you first relocated.”
“I prefer the auburn hair, so I was planning to. And Ray now wears glasses for reading that I think he’s going to have to upgrade to a pair of progressives soon, so they’re not going anywhere either,” Jen said with a grin.
“I wouldn’t even want to know what I’d look like if I stopped darkening my hair,” Ray admitted.
“Even though I’m no longer officially responsible for you, if anything worrisome comes up, give me a call. And on that note, we’re finished with all the paperwork and the only thing left is to wish you good luck,” Lewis said as he held out his hand.
“Thanks, man,” Ray said, shaking hands with the marshal.
Lewis hugged Jen goodbye and headed toward the door of their house, fully stacked with boxes awaiting the moving company. “Oh, I almost forgot. This came for you today.” He pulled an envelope from his suit jacket pocket and handed it to Ray.
“Wow, no P.O. Box return address,” Ray observed.
“No need to keep information from your previous life away from this one anymore. Take care of yourselves,” Lewis said as he walked out the door.
Left in the quiet of the completely packed house they’d lived in for the more than 13 years since entering WITSEC, Ray and Jen looked at each other. “How do you feel?” she asked.
“A little nervous, if I’m honest. It feels like he just took our invisibility cloak away.”
“It’s not too late you know, we can stay on Long Island even if we’re not in the program. Tell the kids they have family and have everyone come visit us here.”
“Nah, we’ve been all through this. We both want to be back home with the rest of the people we love. Nobody in L.A. wants me dead and as long as I keep working legitimate jobs, that shouldn’t change.”
“I can’t wait,” Jen said as she pulled him into an embrace and they both let out a long breath. “Who was the mail from?” she asked eventually.
“Marty. Good news is we now have his address, so I can write him directly that we’re coming back. Or we can just drop by his house one day and surprise them.”
“He might already know. I bet that’s a welcome home card or something.” Jen said.
Ray opened the envelope and pulled out a photo of a very chiseled and bare-chested Marty Deeks – if the scruff on his chin and hints of his longish hair brushing his well-defined shoulders were any indication – holding a newborn, skin to skin. The note on the back explained, “Guess we won’t be avoiding the diapers and colic after all.”
Handing the picture to Jen, Ray said, “Correction: we’re stopping at their house first thing because I gotta get the name of Marty’s trainer. Look at that gun show. Do you have any idea how many cars I could sell if I looked like that?”
“Kensi is one very lucky woman,” Jen said with a low whistle, fanning herself with the picture, a sly grin on her face.
“What? Wait, what do you – you know what? Maybe we should stay in New York. I mean both have beaches, and access to mountains and the country. Plus you can’t build snowmen in L.A. Not to mention I’m finally in line for the next manager opening. And I already had one wife prefer my best friend over me-”
“Aww honey,” Jen said, wrapping herself around him again, “Don’t worry, you’re the only DILF for me.”
“That’s good, because Wikipedia has a gun and knows how to use it.”
She laughed and pulled Ray toward the door. “Come on, let’s go get our kids. Our next adventure awaits.”