Author's note: Many thanks to Jaz22 for the beta (and encouragement!) and to Owl for the use of her china. The characters do not belong to me and no profit is being made.

Chosen

By Ceebee

The November winds had begun to blow across Southern California, racing down the hillside and across the grounds at Gull's Way on their way to the sea. Trees bent and branches swayed back and forth as they surrendered to the gale force blow.

Mark lay in bed, listening to the incessant scraping of the tree branches on the side of the gatehouse. That sound had kept him up for most of the last hour and his body was weary of trying to ignore it. He could see in his mind's eye the work laid out for him in the morning; the pool would be a mess and Hardcastle would want the branches cleared off the driveway post-haste. Pushing those considerations aside—tomorrow would come soon enough- he let his thoughts drift to other times, other autumns.

Fall on the East Coast was very different than here. In the city, the sounds of the wind whistling between buildings and through fire escapes would lull him to sleep. It amazed him even now how quickly sounds and smells brought him back to his childhood in New Jersey. You're getting old, McCormick, he sighed, pulling himself to a sitting position and throwing his legs over the side of the bed. Chiding himself for not pruning the stupid branches when the judge had told him to, he yawned and reached for his discarded jeans and robe.

"If I get up, I'll need ice cream," he said aloud, as he pulled on his shoes. He knew full well that the little kitchenette in the gatehouse was painfully devoid of anything tasty—snack or otherwise. With that thought in mind, his gaze drifted out the paned windows to the main house.

"He's got Banana Surprise," he mumbled slipping on his robe and heading downstairs. The trip across the lawn was like navigating a mine field—branches and leaves were everywhere, making more work for the resident ex-con. Mark made it to the main house without tripping—a major accomplishment, especially on such a dark night. Taking the stairs two at a time, he was greeted with a bright shaft of light coming from the kitchen. 'At this hour? He better not have eaten all the ice cream…' he thought, as he knocked lightly on the back door.

Judge Milton C. Hardcastle was standing at the sink, up to his elbows in soap bubbles and china plates. Scattered about the kitchen were cups and saucers, gravy boats, soup tureens and dessert plates, all piled in short stacks. On the island sat 2 shoe boxes full of silverware and an army of white coffee carafes, all lined up in rows. There were cut glass pickle dishes and covered butter plates as well as matching salad bowls and salt and pepper shakers. The sudden knock on the door startled him, and he swung around, almost dropping the slippery plate in his hand.

Mark McCormick entered the bright kitchen, shielding his eyes from the light. "What the—" the jurist shouted, juggling the plate to keep it from falling.

"Judge—sorry. I didn't mean to scare you," he said as his eyes slowly adjusted to the scene before him. "What are you doing?" He approached the island and looked critically at the dishware piled about the kitchen. Smiling mischievously he quipped, "Couldn't sleep either, huh? When I can't sleep I go lookin' for a snack. I take it when you can't sleep, you wash the good china?"

Hardcastle put the plate down on the drain and turned back to the job at hand.

"Get your ice cream, wise-guy, and go back to bed" he huffed, sinking his hands down into the warm, soapy dishpan.

Mark thought for a minute and smiled. "Why didn't you tell me we were having a big Thanksgiving dinner? I would have helped you get that stuff down from the attic. I even would have sat here and kept you company while you washed and dried. Who's comin' anyway?"he asked, sitting himself down on a stool, still eyeing the up a salad plate, he noticed something peculiar.

"Judge, this isn't the china Sarah and I got out of the attic last Thanksgiving. That china had little roses and gold leaf around the edges."

Hardcastle pulled the last dish out of the suds and rinsed it off. "You and Sarah brought down the Windsor Rose. That's the special china, Nancy's favorite. We only use that on Thanksgiving and Christmas. And no, we're not having a big dinner." He offered no more explanation and went on with his washing.

Mark looked over the piles of matching dishes, a puzzled expression on his face.

"Now Judge, there's enough here to serve a small army—who's it for, then?" he asked, reaching into the freezer and pulling out the half gallon of Banana Surprise. Crossing the kitchen, he reached for a spoon, waiting for an answer.

The retired judge carefully placed six salad plates in the bubbles and continued his bathing.

"Put it in a bowl, would'ja? I hate it when you eat outta the container" he whined.

Mark didn't miss the fact that Hardcastle was avoiding the question.

"Not enough left for a bowl. We need more of this—it's really good" he commented, reaching into the fridge to remove a can of chocolate syrup. He poured a hefty helping over the remaining ice cream in the container and returned the can to the just rolled his eyes.

Mark settled himself back on the stool and started in on the ice cream.

"Wan thum help?" he offered, shoveling more into his mouth. As he sat and watched, it occurred to him that Hardcastle might have a difficult time coping with this Thanksgiving, seeing as it was the first one to his knowledge that the judge had spent without Sarah. She was his last link to the way life used to be, back when his wife and son were alive, and not having her around on a holiday might be quite lonely for the widower. Perhaps washing all this china made him feel more connected to them somehow? McCormick shook his head and smiled. He stared at the judge, who had totally clammed up and was deep in thought—and bubbles.

Realizing he wasn't getting anywhere, Mark walked over and stood beside the man with the dishpan hands.

"You wanna tell me what's going on?" he asked, very matter of fact.

"Nope." Milt kept washing.

"Maybe I can help," Mark said sincerely, looking intently for any chink in the armor the judge had seemingly put on.

Again, a denial ."Nope."

The judge continued washing, not taking his eyes off the dishes at hand.

Mark sighed. Hardcastle could put up some pretty high walls when he wanted to, and this seemed to be one of those times.

"Alright. I'll go to bed then," and he made for the door. With a furrowed brow, he took one last look at the china, then at the man at the sink and left without comment. ' There's something about that china…' he thought, as he left the warmth of the kitchen and headed back to the gatehouse.

Hardcastle heard him leave and stopped his washing. His gaze drifted out the window to the darkness beyond. Sarah and Nancy had always done this job, together with the other jurist's wives. But when Nancy died, Milt wanted to keep the tradition alive, so he and Sarah took to washing these dishes and packing them up for the ladies guild. But now Sarah was gone. He sighed and rubbed his finger under his nose, spreading bubbles across his upper lip. "Things change,' he mumbled to no one, watching the trees sway in the circle of light given off by the lamppost.

He wiped his face on his sleeve and dried the last of the dishes, stacking them in their wood crates neatly on the floor. He turned off the light and finally trudged up the stairs to bed.

Mark had downed the last of the ice cream and was back in bed, wide awake and on a sugar high. His mind was working overtime, jarred by a memory he couldn't quite put his finger on. He knew the dishes the judge was washing had triggered something—could it be they looked like his moms from when he was a kid? 'Nah" he thought. She had a mish mash of tag sale plates and cups, no two alike. He had no other relatives to speak of, and holidays were seldom spent any place other than their little apartment over the laundry in Hoboken. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. Mrs. O'Leary had always had them down to her flat for Thanksgiving. But her dishes were those white ones with little green flowers around the edges. He remembered because one year when he had tried to help clear, he had accidentally dropped one. She had told him that they were unbreakable and she had dropped one just to show him. It bounced benignly on the kitchen floor and they both had a good laugh. No, these were from somewhere more recent. Perhaps at Frank and Claudia's? He rolled over on his side, closed his eyes and fell into a restless sleep.

Hardcastle was up early, loading the dishes and finery into the pickup. Each plate was wrapped in white towels, each crate encased in heavy plastic wrap. He was loading up the coffee carafes when McCormick appeared in the kitchen door.

"Morning Judge. Got your dishes done, I see," he said, taking a sip from his freshly filled coffee mug. "I cleared the driveway for you—figured you might be goin' somewhere."

Hardcastle was looking intently at the boxes, counting to be sure he had everything.

"Is there anything left on the counter?" he asked, staring in deep thought at the load in the truck.

McCormick went back inside and surveyed the now clean kitchen. He noticed the 2 shoe boxes off to the side, with a pile of clean silverware stacked neatly next to the boxes.

"Just the silverware. I'll bring it out," he yelled, putting his mug aside and placing the errant pile of tableware with the others in the box. As he reached for the lids, he noticed something about the silverware that brought a gradual, knowing smile to his face. He rifled thru the boxes, just to be sure he was correct and chuckled in disbelief as he picked up the boxes and took them to his waiting friend.

Hardcastle was just pulling a blanket over the dishes when Mark handed him the boxed silver. The judge couldn't help but notice the wide grin on his side kick's face.

"What?" he asked, tucking the boxes under the blanket.

"Tomorrow's the Sunday before Thanksgiving," he stated, trying to bait the judge into a confession. Hardcastle just looked at him innocently.

'Yeah, and then comes Monday before Thanksgiving, and Tuesday before Thanksgiving and…" the judge groused.

Mark grinned and shook his head, looking out at the water.

"The first holiday I spent in prison was Thanksgiving, Judge. And the Sunday before, I was taken out of the chow line, and me and about fifteen or twenty other guys were herded down to the Warden's dining room. We all thought we were in some kind of trouble, but when we got there, there was this huge spread laid out for us; linen table cloths, matching dishes and real silverware, 5 turkeys and all the fixing's. We couldn't believe it. The guards told us to sit and eat and man, did we ever. When we were done, they escorted us out and no one ever said a word about it. I asked around and no one seemed to know who or why. The guards just said I should shut up and be happy I was chosen. That was it."

"Well, there you go. I'm glad you have at least one good memory of your time in the big house," Milt responded, pushing past Mark and getting in the truck.

"Ju—udge. The strange thing was that the following year, I was chosen again. What are the chances? There're a lot of guys in Quentin—"

"Guess it was your lucky day," the judge said, starting up the truck. Mark walked over and peered in the truck window, a disbelieving smile on his face.

"You still don't want to tell me?" he stated incredulously.

Hardcastle took a deep breath and rubbed his hand over his face. The kid had figured it out; he could deny it no longer.

"Well, kiddo, it wasn't my idea—it was my wife's. She wanted to give a good meal to those less fortunate and I guess she thought the people who were being fed by the State of California were in the top ten. So she rallied other judge's wives, and they all would make this meal and bring it up to the prison. She did it for twenty years, every Sunday before Thanksgiving. It made her happy, knowing she was helping someone feel like they weren't forgotten. When she died, Sarah and I kept helping out, washing the dishes and bringing them over to Judge Pendington's house." He took a swipe at his nose and stared out the windshield. "But now it's just me. There. Now you know." He sighed and disengaged the parking brake.

Mark stood speechless. The judge's wives? Dinner for me? It was all a little too much to process.

"But Judge, why…." Before Mark could formulate a reply, Milt was speaking again.

"I told ya. She didn't want anyone to feel forgotten. She didn't know anything about the cases that stood before my bench, but she did know that there were people now separated from their families on a holiday—and Nancy was all about holidays."

Mark shook his head, confusion still painted on his face. Milt continued.

"All the guys at the dinners were chosen by the ladies guild because they had few or no visitors. To Nancy, there wasn't anything worse than not being thought of on a holiday, so she did what she could to fix that problem for as many people as she could."

Mark let the quiet confession wash over him. This man never ceased to amaze him, and his wife must have been every bit as unique as the judge himself. Mark smiled guiltily, feeling a bit embarrassed that he had forced Hardcastle to give up his secret. Not often at loss for words, he shook himself out of his thoughts and smiled.

"Can I come with you? I can help carry the dishes." The sincerity in the kid's voice brought Milt's gaze upward, his tired eyes locking on McCormick's.

"It's the least I can do, Judge. That meal was a bright spot in a really dark place, and it did make me feel like I wasn't forgotten."

Hardcastle grinned and waved his hand at the passenger side.

"C'mon, I'm gonna be late," he said good heartedly, reaching over and unlocking the door. Mark circled the truck and climbed in.

"Was it the dishes? Nancy bought those special, just for the prison dinners," Milt said, slowly driving down the driveway.

"Nah. It was the silverware—no knives," Mark answered with a chuckle.

The judge laughed, shaking his head.

"Hey, stop at the gatehouse—I left my shoes back in the kitchen." McCormick remembered, opening the door.

"What'ya running around here with no shoes for?" Milt grumbled, as he pulled up to the front door. Mark climbed out and started for the gatehouse, looking back with a smile.

"Thanks, Hardcase," he said, blue eyes sparkling in the morning sun.

"Get your shoes—I don't have all day" he bellowed, taking a swipe at his nose and looking out across the rose gardens.

'You were right, Nance. Those meals did make a difference, even now' he thought, closing his eyes and feeling the sun on his face. A wave of loneliness swept over him as he remembered his beloved wife and friend.

As if on cue, Mark came bounding out the door and back into the truck, ready to go.

"You okay?" he asked, seeing the wistful look on his friend's face.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just miss her, ya know?" he confided. Mark knew the feeling all too well.

"Look, Judge. Let's stop and get a turkey—you and I can cook and we'll call Teddy. He doesn't care how anything tastes, he'll enjoy the company! And we can call Frank and Claudia and maybe they can come for dessert. And we'll eat and watch the games and fall asleep on the couch and later we'll have left over turkey sandwiches and…."

The judge smiled as they drove out the drive, listening to the constant chatter. This would be a very different Thanksgiving for sure, but with McCormick around, it certainly wouldn't be dull!