Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Perfect Christmas

The Perfect Christmas
By: Peter Last


            The boy tried to scream through the gag, but no sound came out. The action allowed the rag to sink further down his throat, and his attempt to scream broke off in a fit of coughing. Even if he had been able to scream, he knew that no help would come. His father was off on another business trip, and his younger sister was staying at their grandparent’s house. He was utterly alone in this plight.
            The man holding the boy’s hands behind his back wrapped a short cord around them and tied them tightly together. Then he picked the boy up and threw him over his shoulder. The boy only saw the ground bouncing up and down as he was carried out of the house to a running car parked in the driveway. The man carrying him threw him into the car’s trunk and slammed the lid, cutting off all light.

******

            “Can we go get the tree now?” Molly MacArthur asked her father.
            Daniel MacArthur lowered his paper down and looked at his ten-year old daughter from his recliner on the far side of the living room. She was playing with her dolls, giving them a tea party at the coffee table.
“You know that it’s almost time to go to church,” Daniel said as he checked his watch. “In fact you need to go start getting ready.”
“When can we get the tree?” Molly asked as she got up from the table.
“This afternoon after church,” Daniel answered and went back to his paper.
Molly left the room, and Daniel could hear her climb the stairs to her room. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted the nativity scene that was set up on a hutch to his right. The stable was there as well as Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, but the wise men were missing and the manger was empty. It was family tradition to not place Jesus in the manger until Christmas day. It was ten days after that that the wise men would be placed in the scene.
The nativity scene was far from the only Christmas decoration in the house. The living room was filled with candles, figures of angels, figures of Santa, and other things. A wreath hung in every window. Garlands ran down the banister of the stairs, and strings of Christmas cards hung in the hall.
Outside, the house was covered in Christmas lights. A life-size nativity scene sat in the front yard right next to a blowup figure of Santa. Over twenty other wire-frame figures were covered with lights, lighting up the MacArthurs’ entire yard at night. The only thing missing from the family’s decorations was the Christmas tree that Molly had mentioned.
“Danny, when are we going to get a tree?”
Daniel looked up to see his wife, Sabrina, standing in the doorway. At five feet nine inches she stood just four inches shorter than him. She was the type of woman that caused every breathing male to gawk when she walked into a room. Her dyed blond hair and blue contacts even looked real and added to her already beautiful figure.
“After church today,” Daniel answered as he folded his paper and stood up.
“Good,” Sabrina said. “We can’t have Christmas without a tree.”
“No we can’t,” Daniel agreed. He looked at his watch. “It’s just about time to go to church.”
“You go warm up the car,” Sabrina said, “and I’ll get the children.”

******

“Daddy, it’s almost time for church! You need to get up!”
Charles Mitchel forced his eyes open and looked at his daughter, Jennifer. For a moment he was seeing double, but almost immediately the two figures converged into one. At twelve, Jennifer was small for her age and could easily pass for nine or ten. She was as cute as a button, and Charles knew that with the way that boys were these days, he would have to start telling them “No” pretty soon.
“Come on, Daddy, you need to get ready,” Jennifer said and tugged at Charles’ shirt.
Charles sat up on the couch and rubbed his eyes. He looked around and his glaringly undecorated living room and for a moment guilt plagued him. He pushed the feeling away and stood up.
“How much time do we have, Jenny?” he asked his daughter, noting that she was already dressed to go to church.
“We need to leave in five minutes if we want to get there on time,” Jennifer answered.
            “I’ll be ready in five,” Charles said and stumbled up the stairs to his bedroom. He grabbed the first set of dress clothes that he saw in his closet and went into the bathroom. Despite showering in record time, it was ten minutes before he and his daughter were on their way to church.

******

            “I like this one, daddy,” Molly said as she tugged Daniel’s sleeve.
            Daniel turned to look at the pine that his daughter had indicated. It looked awful. It was only about four feet tall but had to be at least five or six feet wide. To make things worse, its branches didn’t start until a good two feet off of the ground. Finally, one whole side of it was completely brown and dead.
            “Maybe we should keep looking,” Daniel suggested to his daughter.
            “But I like this one,” Molly insisted.
            “That one looks like a dead stick,” Benjamin, Molly’s older brother, said. “Besides that, it’s too fat.”
            “How about this one over here,” Sabrina called. “It’s a good height and a good shape. I like the color too.”
            “Yes, and if we make sure to water it every day this year,” Daniel said with a meaningful look at his son, “it will stay green all the way until Christmas.”
            “Well, how was I supposed to know that it couldn’t go a week without water?” Benjamin complained.
            “Well now you do,” Sabrina said. “And if you don’t want to ruin everybody’s Christmas, you’ll water at least until Christmas day.”
            “Alright, I get it,” Benjamin said. “But isn’t the reason for Christmas Jesus anyway?” he added as an afterthought. “If the tree died, he’d still be around.”
            “Yes, the meaning of Christmas is Jesus,” Daniel agreed. “But as long as the tree is alive, let’s try to keep it that way.”
            “Alright, already,” Benjamin grumbled. “Let’s just get a tree. I’m tired of being here.”

******

            “Can we go get a tree?” Jennifer asked hopefully.
            “Not right now, baby, I have to work right now,” Charles answered without looking at his daughter. “Maybe later.”
            “But it’s almost Christmas,” Jennifer said. “If we don’t get one now we might not have one at all.”
            “I know,” Charles said, “but I’m really busy right now. We might have to go without the tree this year.”
            Jennifer looked at her father in his study surrounded by folders of paper. He had seemed preoccupied with work lately. He hadn’t looked at her once during their previous exchange. Well, that was okay; a tree wasn’t what made Christmas. There was only one thing that Jennifer really wanted for Christmas.
            “Daddy, when is Samuel coming home?”
            That question did make Charles look up from his reading. He laid the folder on his desk and took off his glasses.
            “He’ll be home by Christmas, maybe a little bit earlier than that,” Charles promised.
            “Well, he’d better hurry,” Jennifer said. “There’s only four more day’s until Christmas.”
            “He’s hurrying as fast as he can, baby,” Charles said.
            He hugged his daughter, then watched as she left the room. With a sigh he picked his papers up from where he had placed them but his eye was caught by a family picture of him, his late wife, and his two children. Ever since the children’s mother had died, they had become very close. The seemingly sudden disappearance of Samuel had had a profound impact on Jennifer. Charles turned back to the folder in his hands and began to read it again. He would make sure that Samuel was home by Christmas.

******

            The MacArthur’s tree was now standing in their living room in one corner. The ornaments were still in their boxes, waiting for the lights to be put on the tree. Sabrina was standing on a ladder, stringing the lights around the tree, and was about half done when she felt a tug on her pant leg. She looked down to see Molly standing there with the plug on the Christmas light string.
            “What are you doing with that, Molly?” Sabrina asked.
            “It’s broken, mommy,” Molly said. “The lights aren’t lit up.”
            “That’s because it’s not plugged in, sweetheart,” Sabrina said as she took the plug from Molly’s hands. “When we plug them in, they’ll light up.”
            “I know that,” Molly said. “I just plugged them in, and they still didn’t light up.”
            “Let me see,” Sabrina said and crossed the room to an outlet. She inserted the light string’s plug and turned to look at the tree. It was still as dark as it had been before.
            “Danny?” Sabrina called. “There’s something wrong with the Christmas tree lights.”
            “What is it?” Daniel called from another room.
            “They won’t light up at all.”
“Did you try plugging them in?”
            “Of course I did, and nothing happened.”
            There was the sound of a chair being scraped across a floor and a moment later Daniel entered the room. He looked at the lights, unplugged and plug them in a few times, then stood up.
            “They’re broken,” Daniel said matter-of-factly.
            “I know that,” Sabrina said. “How bad are they and can you fix them?”
            “They should just need a new fuse,” Daniel said. “We don’t have any, so you’ll have to send Ben to the store to get some more.
            “Why do I have to go?” Benjamin asked when Sabrina told him what to get. “Why does the tree even need lights?”
            “You can’t have a Christmas tree without lights,” Sabrina answered.
            Eventually Benjamin left to get the fuses, but he was grumbling as he left.

******

            It was only two days until Christmas, and the Mitchels’ house was still as non-festive as humanly possible. There were no decorations of any kind, there were no presents to be seen, and there were no Christmas cookies on the premises. Charles was in his study surrounded by folders again, but this time he was working on the computer.
            “Dad, are you busy?” Jennifer asked as she peeked into the room.
            “Yes,” Charles answered. “What do you need?”
            “I want to make Christmas cookies,” Jennifer said.
            “I don’t have time right now,” Charles said without looking up from his computer screen. “We can make them later, but I have to work right now.”
            “Daddy, there’s only two more days until Christmas,” Jennifer said. “If we don’t make them now, we won’t have time to make them at all.”
            “Well, I can’t make them now,” Charles said. “I have to do this work right now.”
            “Okay, Daddy,” Jennifer said. “Can I try to make them by myself?”
            “Sure,” Charles answered.
            He was so engrossed in his work that he didn’t really notice that Jennifer had gone. Thirty minutes later, he noticed the smell of cookies cooking and smiled to himself. He always knew that his daughter could make them by herself. Apparently he had finally given her the proper motivation. At the same time he was slightly sad that he hadn’t been able to help her. Of course there was no help for it; this work had to get done before Christmas.

******

            It was Christmas Eve, and the MacArthur family had everything in order for Christmas day. The tree was hung with working lights and ornaments, and presents had been laid underneath it. They had bells hung outside that created festive sounds every time the wind blew. Everything was perfect to Sabrina’s eye. The cookies had been baked and were being put on a tray to be taken into the den where the family would watch a Christmas film. Of course there was the usual arguing about what film to watch, but that was as much a tradition as the rest of it.
            After the film, Molly and Benjamin would put out cookies and milk for Santa, even though Benjamin would complain that he was too old for such things. Of course, Molly would ask why, and then an interesting explanation would have to be formulated in order to not tell her that Santa wasn’t real. But that would be worth it because belief in Santa was just as much a part of Christmas as a tree with lights, presents, or ringing bells. Without any of these things, there would be no Christmas at the MacArthur house.
            The nativity scene was still visible in the living room in one darkened corner, but everyone ignored it. Sure it was fine for a decoration, to stand around as Christmas carols were sung, and to hear a sermon preached on during Sunday worship service, but it couldn’t get in the way of any of the Christmas traditions. Yes, Christmas was perfect at the MacArthur house.

******

            “I have to leave now, Jenny,” Charles said from the front hall. He had pulled on his coat and had a large duffle bag with him.
            “But it’s Christmas Eve,” Jennifer said and looked at her father with the most stricken look ever. “We’re supposed to eat cookies and watch It’s a Wonderful Life.”
            “I know, dear,” Charles said, putting his duffle bag down and hugging his daughter, “and I’m proud of you for making your own cookies this year, but I have some work that has to be done before Christmas. Obviously I’m running out of time, so I need to finish it tonight.”
            “Okay, daddy,” Jennifer said and gave Charles and kiss on the cheek, but the tone in which she said it tore at his heart. It almost made him stay home and let the other people take care of work, but not quite. He needed to oversee this job.
            He hugged his daughter one more time before picking his duffle bag up and leaving the house. He threw his bag in the trunk of his car and set the new alarm system for his house. Then he got into his car and drove away into the night. The trip took about thirty minutes to make, and he knew he had arrived when he saw the flashing red and blue lights. He parked, grabbed his bag, and walked toward a large group of people who were conspicuously quiet.
            “Where’s Captain Landers?” Charles asked a cop in uniform. The cop pointed toward a car with people gathered around it. Charles pushed his way through the crowd until he saw the Captain standing over a large map spread out on the hood of his car.
            “I’m here Captain,” Charles said.
            “Mitchel,” the Captain acknowledged Charles. “Thanks for the intel.”
            “What’s going to happen?” Charles asked. “I want to go in with the teams.”
            “You brought your gear?” the Captain asked. Charles nodded and motioned to his bag. “Okay, you’ll be with Garret and his men.” The Captain motioned toward a SWAT team just to the north.
            “Thank you, sir,” Charles said. He forced his way back through the crowd and approached the SWAT team. He located the leader by the name of his shirt.
            “I was told that I was to join your team,” Charles told Garret. “Don’t worry, I won’t get in the way. I know how to handle myself.”
            “Very well,” Garret said and shook Charles’ hand. “You have your own gear?”
            “Yes,” Charles answered.
            “Well, you might want to get into it,” Garret said. “The other teams have just about circled into position behind the house.”
            “Yes sir,” Charles answered and opened his duffle bag.
            He pulled a Kevlar vest with the letters SWAT printed across the front and back from the bag. Next came metal plates which were put into the front and back of the vest. He strapped the vest on, then retrieved an assault rifle from the bag as well as half a dozen clips. He loaded one into the rifle and put the others into the pockets on his vest. A pair of gloves and a helmet completed the suit.
            “Time to move out, Mitchel,” Garret said.
            Charles threw his rifle’s sling over his shoulder and followed the SWAT team toward the south at a fast clip. Five minutes later, the team was within sight of the target house.
            “The lights are still on, so it looks like we’ll be going in without night vision,” Garret said. “Everyone get ready for my mark. Mitchel, you’ll be with me at the rear. We’re supposed to be locating a cellar and securing a boy inside.”
            Charles nodded to show his understanding. A few moments later, Garret gave the signal and the team sprinted out of cover and onto the house’s lawn. Charles was hot on Garret’s heels the entire way to the house. The team quickly took positions around the front door. In his peripheral vision, Charles could see more cops set up a perimeter around the house. The lead member of the SWAT team reached for the door’s nob. It turned, and the door swung open. The team stormed into the house yelling for the occupants to put their weapons down and put their hands up.
            A commotion from the back of the house indicated that the same thing had happened there as well. Garret’s team worked its way through the house, taking prisoners that surrendered and putting bullets into those that refused. Calls of “clear” were heard as each room was declared safe. Soon the entire house was cleared, and the call that the cellar had been located was given. Garret and Charles arrived to see that the doors were chained shut. A bolt cutters was produced, and the chain gave way with a loud pop. The teams entered the cellar and reappeared moments later with a boy of sixteen with them.
            “Dad!” the boy called as he saw Charles and broke across the house toward him.
            Charles heard a noise to his left and saw a motion out of the corner of his eye. Acting purely on instinct, he rolled sideways to protect his son’s boy and raised his rifle to a firing position. In an instant his eyes registered the civilian pointing a .45 at him. The man’s chest came into his rifle’s sights and he squeezed off two shots before feeling the rounds from the .45 slam into his chest plates. The civilian slumped to the ground, quickly bleeding out from the two holes through his heart.

******

            It was quarter to midnight before Charles and Samuel Mitchel arrived back at their house. After the raid on the house, they had both been checked by medics and debriefed on the situation. Now, two and half hours later, they were bone tired.
            “Daddy, is that you?” Jennifer called from the other room as Charles opened the door.
            “Yes, me and someone else, too,” Charles said. “You probably want to see this person.”
            Jennifer entered the room. She stood still and silent for a moment before shrieking and running to Samuel. Charles smiled to himself as he watched his two children hugging. His gaze drifted to the house completely devoid of decorations or any presents, and his smile got bigger.
            “Merry Christmas, kids!” he said. “You know,” he added as an afterthought, “if we leave now, we can make it to church in time for midnight service.”
            “Let’s go, daddy!” Jennifer said. She ran to get her and Samuel’s coats. One minute later, the family was leaving the driveway, headed for church on Christmas Eve.

******

            It was Christmas day, and the MacArthur house was a mess. Wrapping paper was everywhere from where presents had been opened. Molly was playing with her toys in a very loud manner, and Benjamin had retreated to his room to play his new video games. The smell of breakfast was in the air, and Christmas music was playing. Sabrina smiled to herself and sipped her hot chocolate. Yes, Christmas was perfect at the MacArthur house.

******

            At the Mitchel house, everyone was asleep. There were no decorations at all, no presents, and no good smell of food. The sound of Christmas music was not in the air, and there was no sound of people playing with their toys. But both Jennifer and Samuel were sleeping, safe in their beds. Charles smiled in his sleep. Yes, Christmas was perfect at the Mitchel house.


The End

Hope that you all have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Have a safe holiday and God Bless.

Sincerely,
Peter Last

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