It felt so good to hold them both in my arms. We didn't waste too much time as we high tailed it quickly to the car and straight to home. I soon came to learn that Ward gave Lori the entire weekend off just for the occasion. We spent just about every single minute in or around the house. Suddenly, it started to feel different to me. A good kind of different. We did discuss going out and doing something, but I was pretty adamant about whatever it is we did had to include Bernie so no bars or anything like that. We just ended up playing the perfect family instead. But at night, when Bernie was asleep, Lori and I more than made up for lost time. Looking back, that weekend was probably the best one we ever spent together. Just constant hugging and kissing and .... it was great, that's what I'm saying here.
Oddly enough, my conscious mind managed to bury my sinful actions out at sea. As the weekend expired and Monday morning came around, I drove myself back to the ship as happy as one could be. Lori had to work that night to make up for loss time over the weekend, and she would be working every night that week until next Sunday. After work Monday, I went by to see Bonnie and the twins. Just another time of celebration. They all liked the gifts I sent them, and I got to have another home cooked meal. In all honesty, Bonnie was a much better cook than Lori. And I got to wrestle with and play games with the twins. We all had a blast. The most shocking news I got came from Bonnie that night when she informed me at dinner, when the topic of Lori and I came up, that she and Lori had actually kind of bonded and .... Bonnie confessed to now kind of liking her. I couldn't believe it. "No way!"
"I know," she said, "I don't get it myself, but it's true. She's kind of okay."
I was pretty thrilled about it. Then on Tuesday night, after work, I rushed home to kiss Lori off to work and once she left, Tiffany started dinner for Bernie and herself. "Hungry?" She asked me.
"I'm good." I told her. "I'll get something later while I'm out."
"Yeah, going to go hang out with my friend Hrisko."
I could tell something was bugging her. Just for joking around's sake, I stood halfway in the kitchen watching her cook on the stove. "It's okay," I announced, "there's nothing wrong with it."
She peeked over at me. "What are you talking about?"
"I know you want to give me a welcome back hug. It's perfectly fine. Nothing wrong with friends hugging friends."
"I do not." She squealed with a smile, trying to hide it. "You're just full of yourself."
I stood there smiling. She kept taking turns looking over at me and back at the frying pan and then back at me. Finally, she could refrain no more. "Whatever." She quickly made a straight line to me and into my arms. I held her gently as she whispered. "It is good to have you back."
I kissed her on the forehead. "I knew it. You love me."
She let go and quickly returned to the stove. "God, you're so conceited, I swear."
Later that evening, Hrisko and I were at the mall and bouncing from store to store. "Going to buy some Christmas gifts?" He wondered.
"No, Lori and I are planning to do it together in a week or so." I informed him, when we walked by a store of which I stopped and walked back in front of to look in. Hrisko was right beside me. He turned to me. "Really? You're actually thinking about it?"
I took in a deep breath. "Let's just look around, okay?"
Yes, it was a jewelry store. And yes again, I was actually thinking about it. We had looked at some interesting rings when he just had to know. "Dude, after everything you did on the cruise, you honestly think this is the best thing?"
"I'm feeling it." I replied. "I can't explain it my man, but I think this is really what I want. I'm thinking, I could ask her on New Years Eve, at her class party."
"At the campus?" He wondered.
"No, they reserved seats at a restaurant and bar. I figure about 15 seconds before midnight, I will pull it out and ask her to marry me, and tell her she has to answer before the clock strikes new year. It'll be intense and exciting." I assumed.
He shook his head. "Everything has to be dramatic with you, doesn't it?"
"Screw dramatic." I snapped. "It'll be romantic, that's what it'll be."
I made my mind up on one and bought it. After the purchase, I looked at him, grinning from ear to ear. "This is gonna be the best New Years Eve ever."
His smile and eyes were wishing me the best. I even assured him that when the time came, he was my best man. And as the days passed, Lori and I did get around to the holiday shopping. We loaded up on gifts for Bernie. I wanted to spoil that boy so bad. I wanted to spoil her too. And I was honest when I said I was feeling it. All those doubts and questions I had those final two months of the cruise were being answered. I put Sevina behind me, and I was focused totally on Lori and Bernie. For the first time since I arrived in Norfolk, I finally felt like I had at long last, made the correct choice of all my options. I was choosing Lori. I was choosing Bernie. I was choosing love. For one brief moment, the man inside of me finally won out. I was feeling pretty good about it all too. Pretty good that is until about a week before Christmas when Lori happened to mention. "So, when is your leave going to start?"
"My what?" I gasped, lying on the couch as she entered the living room on a Sunday evening. "My leave?"
"Carroll," She mildly scolded, "don't tell me you're not taking leave during Christmas? I got the day before and the day after off. I thought you would have at least put in for that."
I looked up at her, feeling a bit stupid. She didn't know I burned my time in Italy. Suddenly, something from the cruise had affected my relationship. "I don't know if I have any days on the books." I lied.
"Bullshit." She argued. "You told me before you left you had about 4 or 5 days."
"I'll have to check." I kept on lying. "If I have any, I'll use them."
"They will approve it on such short notice?"
"If I have it, yes. Besides," I countered, "I'm pretty sure I'll get the time off. At worst, I'll have to work half the day Christmas Eve. I'll be home for Christmas day."
She didn't seem too pleased about it. "Damn it, Carroll. Why do I get the feeling you're hiding something from me?"
I studied her face. I was almost at a loss. "I'm not hiding anything, Lori. I said I'll put in for it tomorrow. Can we please drop it?"
"I'll drop it for tonight," she said, "but we're picking this conversation up again tomorrow, you can bet on that, mister."
I got to my feet and followed her upstairs. "Then you'll lose that bet." I announced. She turned to me. "What?"
"I have fire watch tomorrow. I'll be stuck on the ship all day."
"Then Bernie and I will come visit you. I'll submit the request for you myself to Burke."
I was not liking how this was taking shape. For now, I had to blow it off. "Whatever. I'll be able to sign you on around 1630 hours."
She pointed at me sternly. "We're not done with this. I know you had days on the books. They better still be there. We're spending Christmas together damn it." But then, she started to read my body language. "You used them while you were away, didn't you? Jesus Christ, Carroll, what the hell?"
"I didn't use anything." I retaliated. "We'll get this resolved tomorrow, okay?"
She wasn't buying it. At least, I wasn't sure if she was or not, but it didn't look like she was to me. "Fine, we'll resolve this tomorrow. I'll see you at 4:30 then."
She walked out of the bedroom. I stood there by the doorway exasperated. My goose was cooked. "Damn it." I muttered to myself.
The next day, I was returning from taking a shower shortly after work. When I made it down the stairs into the berthing area, someone shouted out. "Carroll, you're old lady is waiting for you on the hanger."
"Shit." I responded, moving to hurry up to my rack and get my clothes on. She arrived early.
"Hammy went up to sign her on board." He said.
I got dressed quickly and raced to the hanger bay as fast as I could. Popping out an open hatch, I saw them walking in my direction. Once they saw me, Hammy did an about face and headed back the opposite direction. "Where the hell were you?' She fired off, handing Bernie over to me.
"You were a little early." I argued.
"Did you put in your request for leave?" Was the first thing on her mind.
"I haven't been able to find Burke all day." I told her. "He hasn't been in his office."
"Have you tried the sales office?" She was adroit to ask. Come to think of it, that's the one place I never looked.
"Fine." I reasoned. "We'll go there now."
Sure enough, as soon as we entered, there he was, sitting behind a desk and talking to Kaps and O'Brien, who were also hanging out. Once the formalities of pointless conversation subsided, Lori stood in front of me and directed her question to Burke. "Can Carroll get a few days leave for Christmas?"
Burke was taken by surprise. He glanced pass her at me before answering. His confusion was obvious. I held Bernie in my right arm while sliding my left hand in rapid motion under my chin, hoping he would pick up on my silent transmission. "I don't know." He half stuttered. "I'll have to take a look at his personnel file." He got to his feet slowly, still mystified, but I could see he was catching on. Kaps and O'Brien were sitting silently off to the side being amused I'm sure.
Burke found my folder and reclaimed his seat. "I thought I had some days available." I threw in, Burke looking through the file. "I'm not seeing it." He slowly progressed, still trying to pick up on my vibe. I decided to try and assist to help make it easier for him. "The last time I took leave was after my training in Mississippi, two weeks of it before reporting to Norfolk." I stressed. Burke picked up on what I was alluding to when he saw I really only took ten days at that time instead of 14.
"Oh yeah, here it is." He followed my cue. "Yeah, no, you haven't any days on the books."
Lori turned to me in disgust. Her eyes killing me deadly. "I thought I had four days at least." I spoke, as poor Burke appeared a little flustered before catching my drift. Lori's eyes were still assaulting me silently when Burke suddenly saved the day. "Oh yeah, here is the problem." Lori turned back around to look at him. "You did have four days before we pulled out, but what happened was that disbursing only credited you with 10 days for that time instead of the full 14. Midway through the cruise they made the adjustment. Didn't anyone inform you of it?" He addressed at me.
I played along. "No. That's okay though." Lori turned back at me again. "That's disbursing for ya." I quipped. She still wasn't satisfied.
"So he hasn't any days available to take for leave?" She pressed. Burke closed the file. "No. Zero days available."
"It was a clerical error." I explained to her. "No big deal."
"You can still take leave though." Burke intervened. This got her and my attention. "I can?" I questioned.
Burke started going through some papers. "Sure, you can submit a request for what, three days you say?" Lori nodded her head. "Yeah, Christmas Eve, Christmas day and the day after."
"You can get advanced days." He said. "I'm sure three days would be fine. Just sign this request form and I'll fill out the rest for you and push it through the chain of command. I'll give you your copy in a couple of days."
I handed Bernie over to her and walked to the desk to sign it. "You see," I told her, "I can still get the days off."
After signing it, I walked back over to her and took Bernie back into my arms. "You see, everything worked out." For some reason, she still had a look about her. A look I didn't like. "Come on," I initiated, "let's go to the mess deck and grab something to eat."
We left the sales office, I was trailing behind her. I gave Burke one last glance with thankful eyes. I also scoured Kaps and O'Brien, they were both holding back their laughter. I rolled my eyes at them before disappearing out the door.
All's well that ends well, that was my attitude. While it appeared that Lori was somewhat satisfied, there was still an invisible wedge lurking in the air. "Look," I mentioned at one point, "I got the days off, isn't that what you wanted?"
She just stared at me and shook her head slightly. She was still a little miffed about something. And when I finally walked her and Bernie back to the hanger bay to sign them out, she still had yet to say more than a few words to me. I allowed it to roll off. For me, I literally dodged a bullet. When I made my way back to the berthing area, Burke was there to greet me.
"Don't you ever put me in that kind of position again, do you understand me, Carroll?"
"I'm really sorry, Burke."
"Sorry just ain't gonna cut it." He shot back. "This is what happens when you build a relationship on a foundation of lies. You need to get your house in order young man, do you hear what I'm saying to you?"
"I hear you." I assured him. "Thanks though. I really do appreciate it."
"Hrisko tells me you're going to ask her to marry you soon?"
"I bought the ring and everything."
He shook his head in disappointment. "I hope you know what you're doing. Marriage is a pretty big step. All things considered, I don't see this turning out too well. But I do wish you all the best. I'm not doing this for you again."
I watched him as he climbed up the stairs and vanished. He was really upset with me. But I got his message loud and clear.
Things seemed to drag after that leading up to Christmas. I got my three days and everything seemed to get back to normal, whatever normal was at this point. On Christmas Eve, Lori and I took Bernie to Bonnie's house for a dinner. Glen didn't show up. This was when she told me that they had officially ended it a few days earlier, even though she knew it was over before then. She didn't appear too distraught over it. That or she was just a good actress. My heart still went out to her, and we all got to open up some presents that evening. It was good to see her and Lori getting along so well. But just as things took on the appearance of being all fine and dandy, that attitude of hers, which showed itself that day on the ship, continued to linger. It was more apparent on Christmas day.
We watched as Bernie got to open his presents from Santa. She was sitting on the couch, I was sitting in the chair. We both held onto our cups of coffee. Once Bernie got involved with playing with his toys, we gathered up the wrapping paper and ventured into the kitchen. She sat on one end of the table, and I on the other. As cold as the wind sounded outside the window, it felt a little colder where we sat. We looked each other eye to eye. If ever there was something brewing in the air, it went on display with our next words to each other. "Merry Christmas." She issued in my direction.
"Merry Christmas to you, too."