“Have you kids ever done a secret Santa?” Amanda asked, walking into Mike’s room where he and his siblings were hanging out.
“I did it for class last year,” Lucy said, looking up from her history book. She was sprawled across Mike’s bed with her homework spread in front of her. Matt was sitting on the ground next to her, reading one of Amanda’s old Christmas novels, while Mike was playing with Sophie.
“Well, I haven’t, what is it?” Matt looked up from his book.
“Everyone basically pulls a name from a hat and then buys a present for that person but it’s a secret. So they get a present and they don’t know who it’s from. Usually, it’s something small or handmade,” Amanda explained, taking Sophie from Mike and snuggling her close. Sophie giggled and grabbed onto Amanda’s hair, refusing to let go when Amanda yelped.
“So what? We’d all do it?” Mike asked, watching her struggle with a smile.
“Yeah,” Amanda finally gave up and let Sophie chew on her hair. “We could all do homemade gifts for whoever we get and label it from ‘Santa’ for Christmas Day.”
“That could be fun,” Lucy looked thoughtful. “What kind of presents?”
“It depends on the name you draw and what you like to do. If you want to draw, sew, knit, crochet, take pictures. Anything homemade and creative. Us older kids can help you in any way you need.”
“Hmm. Yeah, I wanna do this. Are Sam and Cas gonna do it too?” Lucy asked, looking intrigued.
“That’s the plan, we can tell Sam about it at school tomorrow.” Amanda laid down on the ground, resting her head on Mike’s back while balancing Sophie on her chest.
“When will we draw names?” Lucy turned back to her book.
“Hopefully they’re coming home with us after school tomorrow, so we can get started then.”
“Alright. Amanda, do you know anything about history? This textbook doesn’t make any sense to me.” Lucy dropped the book and buried her face in her arms.
“Sure, here,” Amanda stood up and passed Sophie back to Mike. “Whatcha studying?”
“Early American history.”
Amanda laid down on the bed next to Lucy and took her book, reading her assignment. They all worked near each other comfortably for an hour before Mike left to make dinner.
Over the last few days, they had settled into a comfortable routine. Mike learned quickly that Thanksgiving hadn’t been a fluke, Amanda just couldn’t cook anything. She burned water one day when trying to boil it and Mike still wasn’t sure how she’d done it. So Mike had settled into a routine of cooking for them all, while Amanda watched the kids and cleaned up after the meals.
Tomorrow was the first day back at school since Thanksgiving and the kids were just now getting to their homework. Amanda worked with them when she could, trying to get her own work done as well. She loved having them in her home; not being alone anymore.
The next morning was a mad scramble to get the kids to school and Sophie to a sitter’s, as they realized they underestimated how long it would take them to drive everywhere and then to the high school. Mike and Amanda slid into their classrooms just before the tardy bell rang.
Mike slid into a seat next to Hannah and smiled at her. She grinned back and started scribbling on a piece of paper. As soon as the teacher’s back was turned she tossed a note onto his desk.
Lunch? All four of us?
He grinned at her and gave her a nod before digging in his backpack for his books. The morning flew by, with their first lunch as a group since Thanksgiving as a reward. Mike didn’t have any more classes with them in the morning, but his afternoon was full of them.
He walked into the lunch room with a bounce in his step, trying to hide his excitement to see Sam. He could see Amanda and Hannah coming in through a door across the cafeteria, and after a second of looking, he spotted Sam’s back. Sam was slouching over his lunch, leaning on his arm and looking dejected. Mike hurried over and sat down next to him, startling him out of his thoughts.
“Hey, Mikey.” Sam wouldn’t meet his eyes but he didn’t quite hide enough of his face. Mike turned Sam’s head slightly more towards his to get a look at the fading black eye. Sam flinched away and looked down at his lunch as the girls sat down across from them.
“Hey Sammy, how’s Cassie?” Mike asked, turning to his own food.
“Fine, bugging me about going back to Amanda’s already.” Sam glanced up and the girls and gave them a weak smile. Amanda grinned back at him, eyes catching on the bruise and freezing.
“Well, do you two want to come over tonight?” Amanda offered.
“Of fucking course we do.” Sam rolled his eyes and threw a roll at her, laughing. She caught it and took a bite before throwing it back, breaking the tension. They all spent the rest of lunch joking with each other and complaining about being back at school.
After school everyone piled into Amanda’s car, driving to the elementary school to pick up their siblings. When Amanda pulled up, they saw Matt and Lucy already talking excitedly to Cas, pulling her over to the car as soon as they saw it.
“Hi, guys!” Hannah climbed out of the car and held the door open while the kids climbed in. “How was school?”
“Fine,” Cas gave them all a look before locking eyes on Sam and relaxing. “We have a ton of tests before Christmas, so our teachers are freaking out.”
“Are you freaking out?” Mike asked, turning around in the front seat to look at Cas. She shrugged in response and hugged her backpack to her chest, staring out the window. Sam leaned forward from the seat behind her and poked her in the back of her head until she turned around. The two of them had a whispered conversation while Mike talked to his siblings about their day.
By the time they picked up Sophie and made it back to Amanda’s house, Cassie was more relaxed but she still seemed on edge.
Mike stopped Sam on the way in, cradling Sophie in his arms. “Hey Sam, can you put Sophie down for a nap while I get the other kids set up with their homework?”
“Sure, make sure Cassie starts with her math. If she saves it for the end she won’t do it.” Sam took Sophie and disappeared up the stairs. Mike smiled fondly at Sam as he walked away before heading into the dining room where the kids were already setting up for homework. Hannah had also sat down with them, working on her geometry and being a person that the kids could ask for help if they needed it.
Mike sat down next to Lucy and across from Hannah, pulling out his history and making a face at it. Before he could even start working on his own homework, Lucy was passing him her own assignment and asking for help. Matt was working with Hannah and Cas looked a little lost as she stared down at her math homework.
“Alright, no homework is complete without snacks.” Amanda walked into the room with a tray with six cups of water and two plates piled high with snack food. She set it down on the middle of the table and sat down next to Cas, throwing an arm over the back of her chair and studying her homework.
“Thanks ‘Manda!” Hannah grabbed an apple and a cup of water before turning back to Matt and working with him. The six of them worked in together quietly, Hannah, Amanda, and Mike helping the younger kids as they needed it. Sam eventually made a reappearance, sitting down next to Amanda and begrudgingly pulling out his own homework.
“And done!” Cas stood up and threw down her pencil, glaring at the paper she just finished filling out. “Can I go read, Sammy?”
“Sure,” Sam waved her off with a smile. Lucy and Matt had been done for a half an hour, and now that Cas was done they could finally focus on their own homework. Sam had half-assed all of his homework, and, as soon as Cas finished up and left, he threw down his own pencil.
“Fucking hell, I hate homework.” He slammed his head into the table and groaned. He heard Amanda move around next to him for a second before he felt her hands scratching through his hair. He felt the tension bleed out of his back and after a few minutes he had to wave her away because she was putting him to sleep.
“Feel better?” Amanda asked, giving him a smile. He grinned back and stretched before standing up and glancing at the clock on the wall.
“I feel wonderful, but I’m going to go make dinner for everyone. Any preference before I start cooking?”
“Not really,” Amanda hesitated for a second before her eyes lit up. “Oh! Sam, have you ever done Secret Santa?”
“What do you think of doing a secret Santa with Cas and Mike’s siblings. This way the kids won’t feel like they have to try and get everyone a gift if they have one specific person they’re supposed to get for. And then we’ll participate too so again, no one feels like they need to get everyone gifts.”
“Is this cause we’re poor?” Mike suddenly asked, glaring at the table and refusing to look at them.
“No!” Amanda immediately backtracked. “Shit, Mike, no, it’s because this time of year is busy as shit, and when you aren’t planning to buy for anyone it can get overwhelming. This way, each person will get one individual and specific gift.”
“But you’re going to buy for everyone right?” Sam gave her a suspicious look.
“Well,” Amanda hesitated for a second before she was interrupted by Hannah.
“I was too. I like Christmas shopping, but I don’t expect anything from everyone.”
“Plus,” Amanda cut in again. “Gifts don’t have to be expensive. That’s the point of the secret Santa was for the gifts to be simple and homemade.”
“Okay, how about this,” Mike said after a second of silence. “How about you don’t buy me a gift, but I won’t ever stop you from giving my siblings the Christmas they deserve.”
“You deserve a nice Christmas too,” Sam was giving him a strange look. “But I agree. Buy Cassie whatever the hell you want.”
“Alright, fine. But you’re alright with the Secret Santa?” Amanda clarified.
“Yeah, as long as I don’t have to set it up.” Sam took a deep breath before he gave them all a grin. “Ok, now can I go make dinner?”
“Yeah, we’re going to finish up homework unless you need help?” Mike gave him a pleading look and Sam responded with a grin.
“Yeah, I could always use help.” Sam gestured for Mike to follow him and the two of them walked out to the kitchen. “Soup and sandwiches sound good?”
“That sounds great, Lucy like Grilled ham and cheese, Matt likes cold sandwiches with his soup but he doesn’t care what’s in it.”
“What about you?”
“I will eat anything even vaguely edible, you know that.”
“Yeah, but what do you prefer?” Sam gave him a significant look as he started pulling out the ingredients he needed.
“I, uh, I don’t really like soup with different textures,” Mike admitted after a second.
“So do you like tomato soup?”
“Yeah, tomato is great.” Mike started putting together the sandwiches while Sam started making three different kinds of soup from cans.
“So,” Sam said after a few minutes of working in silence. “What do you actually think of the gift-giving plans?”
“I don’t know,” Mike admitted, rubbing at the back of his neck. “I want the kids to have a good Christmas but I hate the idea of us being a charity case for Amanda. What happens when she gets over whatever weird guilt she’s holding onto that’s making her do this?”
“What makes you think it’s a guilt thing?”
“She doesn’t acknowledge my existence for years, but as soon as we get back from space she suddenly wants to take care of me and my siblings? That can’t just be for no reason.”
Sam hesitated for a second before he turned around at the stove to look at him. “Have you considered, that she might not have known you existed because you worked really hard to make sure people didn’t notice you?”
Mike glared at him for a second before sighing and looking down.
“You’re probably right, but hecking shut up.”
“You shut up!” Sam said in mock indignation before flicking a few drops of cold soup at him. Mike laughed and wiped them off before flipping him off.
They went back to cooking in more comfortable silence, quickly putting together a meal for their siblings and the girls.
“What’s for dinner?” Matt’s voice came from the door, surprising them both.
“Soup and sandwiches, you hungry bud?” Mike put the last sandwich on the platter before turning to Matt.
“Great! Do you want to help us out by setting the table?”
“Sure,” Matt walked over to the cupboards, already familiar with the setup of the kitchen. “Can Lucy help?”
“As long as you both work together.” Mike smiles at him again before moving to help Sam get the soups from the pots into serving dishes.
“Yes sir!” Matt hurried out of the kitchen, plates clutched in his arms. A few seconds later they heard him calling for Lucy.
“You’re amazing with them,” Sam said suddenly.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, Cas and I fight all the time and here you are with three siblings and you all are so… Picturesque.”
“Not even close,” Mike laughed. “Lucy and Matt usually are at each other’s throats when they have to be around each other too much. The new situation means they’re latching onto each other.”
“And how do you handle it? Cas overwhelms the shit out of me and you don’t ever seem phased.”
“I have an amazing poker face.” Mike made a face at Sam, making him laugh. Lucy and Matt came back into the kitchen, grabbing cups and silverware.
“Are we really going to do a secret Santa? I don’t know what I’ll do for anyone,” Lucy asked Mike while filling the cups with water.
“Well, it depends on who you get, make it personal for them.”
“We can help!” Sam spoke up, giving her a smile before carrying a tray with the soup and sandwiches out of the room. Mike, Matt, and Lucy followed, each of them carrying a couple of drinks. In the dining room Amanda, Hannah, and Cas were putting away the school work and helping Sam distribute the food. Hannah was holding a sleepy Sophie who was just blinking around at all the noise.
“Alright!” Sam clapped his hands together to get everyone’s attention. “Mike, Matt, and Lucy all have specific sandwiches. Everyone else can fight for what they want.”
Sam handed Mike, Matt, and Lucy their sandwiches before grabbing his own and leaning back. The girls all looked at each other before scrambling for their own sandwiches. Mike laughed before he started pouring soup into his own and his siblings' bowls.
Everyone dug in happily, Cas looking relaxed for the first time since they saw her at school. By the end of the meal, everyone was satisfied and relaxed.
“Alright! Who’s ready to draw names?” Amanda stood up and pulled a Santa hat down from a cabinet, and they could hear the crinkling of paper inside. She held out the hat to Cas first, then Lucy, Matt, Hannah, Sam, and Matt.
“Alright, as long as you don’t have your own name you’re fine. You have until Christmas to make a gift and you can ask anyone who isn’t the giftee for help!” Amanda explained happily. “Now, since Sam and Mike made dinner, and Lucy and Matt set the table, Cas and Hannah and I will clean up.”
“Hey Mike, can I talk to you?” Lucy grabbed Mike’s arm and pulled him out of the room.
“Sure, what’s up?”
“I got Sam’s name and I don’t know to get for him.”
“Well,” Mike thought about it for a second before grinning. “I bet he’d love a sketch of himself and Sophie.”
“Hmmm, do you think I can do that?”
“Well, I know you can draw Sophie. And you’re a great artist.”
“Well, I guess I can try.”
“That’s the most important thing, Luce, this is going to be fun.” Mike gave her a reassuring smile before pulling her into a hug.
Back in the dining room Matt glanced at Sam, then down at the name in his hand, then back at Sam.
“Sam, can I ask your advice?”
“Sure, kid,” Sam gave him a curious look and leaned on the back of a chair.
“What do you think your sister wants for Christmas?”
“Ah, you pulled her name.” Sam looked at the ceiling and thought for a minute. “She loves reading, you could make her some bookmarks for each of her favorite books?”
“Out of what?”
“I’ll help you get some special paper, and I can also get you her favorite five to ten books.”
“Thanks, Sam.” Matt grinned at him before darting out of the room towards where Lucy and Mike disappeared. Sam stood there for a second, before looking at his own name and thinking about what he would get Hannah.
In the kitchen, Amanda and Cas were facing a similar problem, wondering about what they would get for Mike and Lucy respectively. Hannah advised them to get something personal and meaningful while holding Amanda’s name in her pocket. She was far more excited now for Christmas, with the idea of Amanda’s face while opening a homemade present taunting her mind.