One Cold December Night

                                                                                                             One Cold December Night

 

                                                                (A standalone story set in the Safe Haven/End of Everything universe)

 

Dan had made plenty of mistakes in the past but this was probably his biggest to date. He’d had such a clear plan in his head—stay hidden, don’t go into built-up areas, gather what was available from the houses on the periphery then head back out.

Leaving his family had been the most gut-wrenching thing he’d ever had to do. But where they were was well-hidden and, as far as anywhere was these days, easily defendable if the worst came to the worst.

“So we go on three. Yeah?” Carlos asked. The others, all with the same inane grins on their faces like they were taking part in some childish paintball shoot ’em up, all nodded.

Why did I get involved with these idiots? The answer was simple. Every house he’d entered in the search for supplies had already been raided and he’d had to move further and further towards town until he’d run across this bunch of yahoos. It’s not too late. I can still turn around and look for somewhere else.

“Dude… Yo! Dan the man, I said, are you ready?”

Crap! “Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready.”

“Sweet. One, two, THREE.”

They all broke cover at the same time, staying low with their weapons raised. Dan had learned early on that firing a gun was really a last resort, especially at night when confusion reigned. He just hoped that the rest of them knew that too.

                                                                                                                       *

Marie looked back into the depths of the cave. The glow of the fire was only just visible behind the rock partition they had built the week before. She turned back to the waterfall, watching it sparkle and glimmer in the moonlight as it flowed, then let out a huff of a laugh. Every now and again she needed to give herself a reality check.

It was only a couple of months before that they had been talking about Halloween costumes for the kids and trick or treating. A week later, they were desperately trying to stock up on ammunition and MREs. The first outbreaks had occurred in New York, California and Dallas and then the plague had spread like a raging wildfire. The same thing had happened all over the world but for the briefest, wonderful moment when it looked like their small town had escaped.

“Mom… Mom?” Marie jumped, almost as if waking from a nightmare.

“Sorry, darling,” she said, turning to see the shadow of her eldest daughter. “I was somewhere else entirely.”

“You should try to get some sleep. I’ll take over the watch.”

Nicole had always been older than her years and now she sounded more like Marie’s mother than her child. “Come and sit with me a while.”

Enough light shimmered through the waterfall for Nicole to see her mother’s gesture. She sat down beside her and felt the warm embrace of Marie’s arm as she pulled her close. They had soon figured out just how far away from the cascading water they needed to sit in order for their words to be heard over the sound of the fall and now this spot, just over forty feet back, had become permanently occupied by one of them in the dark hours. “Beth was crying out in her sleep again.”

“Did she ask for me?”

“She didn’t wake up this time.”

“That’s something at least. I’ll take any small victory we can get at the moment.”

There was a long silence before Nicole broke it. “You know that was the last of the food we ate tonight?”

Marie withdrew her arm and clasped both hands in her lap. “I know.”

“I don’t think Dad’s coming back,” Nicole said, her voice shaking a little as the words left her lips. “He should only have been a couple of hours. He’s been all day.”

“He’ll be back, darling. He’ll be back.”

“Just saying it doesn’t mean it’s true, Mom.”

“Listen. I’ve been married to your father for fifteen years and I knew him a long time before that. In his life, he’s never broken a promise to me. He’ll be back.” Marie reached across and took her daughter’s hand. “How’s Megan?”

“She’d sleep through a hurricane.”

“Listen. I don’t think I’m tired right now. Why don’t you go back to bed?”

“I think I’d prefer to sit up with you a while, if that’s okay.”

“Of course it’s okay.” Marie reached across and grabbed her thermos then poured the remains of its contents into the plastic cup. She pulled a small hip flask from her inside pocket, measured in a dram of whiskey and offered it to her daughter. “Make the most of it. That’s the last of the coffee until your dad gets back too.”

Nicole took a sip, winced a little and handed it to her mother. “This reminds of the time we camped out at Aunt Bernie’s.”

“I’ll take your word for it. I don’t remember much of that at all.”

“You were wasted.”

“It was my fortieth.”

“Doesn’t matter. You were still wasted.”

“I admit I wasn’t at my best.”

“You begged me to make you and Aunt Bernie an Irish coffee, so I went inside and when I came back out, I found you both in the neighbour’s garden peeing in their water fountain.”

Marie laughed before taking a sip from the cup herself. “And if memory serves, you got a new iPad on the condition that particular event would never be spoken of again.”

“And to this day, I haven’t mentioned it to another soul.”

“Yeah, well, when I said not spoken of again, I meant to me too. I’d quite happily forgotten that little slice of ignominy.”

“I think we need to rewrite the terms of the agreement then.”

“I suppose offering you my iPhone won’t work.”

“Ha. Nice try.”

“Okay. Let me work on a fair and equitable bilateral arrangement.”

“You are such a lawyer. Was that the only time in your life you ever passed a bar?” Nicole giggled to herself and Marie groaned.

“That is the oldest, lamest lawyer joke there is. I am stunned a daughter of mine could come up with something so bad. No more coffee for you,” Marie said, placing the plastic cup out of the reach of her daughter. “I want you to sit there and think about what you’ve done.” They both laughed and Marie pulled her daughter closer. “I love you, button.”

“Love you too, Mom.”

                                                                                                                        *

Dan exhaled a long, relieved breath as they entered the store. It was an old-fashioned general store, a bit thin on the ground when it came to choice, but a full stomach was more important than a satisfied palate these days. He placed the Glock 19 back into its holster and pulled the almost empty rucksack from his back as the rest of the motley crew he had broken in with spread out through the small shopping area, scanning the shelves with their flashlights.

He retrieved his own mini Maglite, clicked it on and began his search. Dried stuff – that’s what we need. We’ve got an unending supply of fresh water at the fall, so let’s get a good food-to-space ratio. He glanced over to the other men who were dragging armfuls of tins from the shelves into their bags. One of them had gone straight over to the booze aisle, sacrificing food for alcohol, obviously intending to bow out happy if nothing else.

Dan placed the small torch between his teeth and carefully began to position packets of noodles, rice, soup, dried bolognese, chilli mix and assorted dried veg into his rucksack, carefully stacking them, making sure not an inch of space was wasted. He heard laughter from the other men and looked across to see one of them had put on a Michael Myers mask from the small Halloween display rack that stood by the non-food items. Idiots.

He edged along to the next drop of shelves and grabbed a few bottles of soy sauce and ketchup for Megan. He looked at it for a moment and his mouth curled into a smile, almost making him drop the torch. She was such a fussy kid. Just like her mom.

His nose curled a little as he walked by the refrigerator and into the adjacent aisle. He crouched down and grabbed handfuls of Chicken of the Sea tins of various contents, shapes and sizes—tuna, crabmeat, salmon—it didn’t matter.

Coffee. Got to get coffee. A few months before, Marie had decided she wanted to ween herself off caffeine. That had been the longest week of his life. Nicole had threatened to go live with her aunt and Beth and Megan had spent more time in their bedrooms than in any period he could previously remember. The thought of living through the apocalypse with an un-caffeinated Marie was a horror he did not even want to imagine. He wedged in two large jars of instant coffee and several packets of creamer before forcing the zip shut and sliding the rucksack onto his back. Dan cast one final glance over to Carlos and the others who were still trying on masks like a group of learning challenged baboons and began to make his way to the exit.

There was no point in wasting time saying goodbye. He would never see those people again and, in all likelihood, they would start asking questions he didn’t want to give the answer to. He had spent an afternoon with them and that was more than enough.

Dan stopped by one of the checkouts. There was a small display case of fashion jewellery. Megan and Beth had been excited beyond belief to get their ears pierced in the summer. Megan had lost one of her earrings the day they had escaped to the waterfall and, in a fit of temper with herself, thrown the other away too. Seeing how distraught her sister was, Beth had removed hers and tossed them into the water as a show of solidarity. Dan grabbed two pairs of sparkling studs and was about to make his way to the entrance when he stopped again. Tomorrow was Christmas Day. He doubted that Marie or the kids even knew that, but he’d kept a track. Even though Hell and Damnation had found them, wouldn’t it be nice to do a little something at least?

He grabbed a necklace each for Marie and Nicole, scooped up a handful of candy from the small display next to the cash register and stuffed it all in his inside pockets before turning off his torch.

Dan left the store and sucked in a long cool breath of fresh night air. He looked up and down the street to see it was all clear and took one, two steps out into the road before turning back. “Johnson’s” read the blue-and-white-painted wooden sign. I’ll have to remember this place. Thanks Carlos. See you around. Not.

He looked towards the majestic hills as they stood back in the moon’s icy glow, surveying the aftermath of whatever demon’s curse had beseeched this once beautiful town. Sadness overwhelmed him for a moment. His old life was gone, the future was bleak and the worst of the winter was still to come, but he had his family and that was something. No, that was everything. He threw a final glance back over his shoulder towards the storefront then pulled up his collar and started his trek home.

                                                                                                                      *

Marie felt Nicole’s head loll against her shoulder. She’s gone to sleep. She’s gone to sleep in her mom’s arms. That is so cute. A smile lit and warmed her face as she turned and gently kissed the top of her daughter’s head. The sound of the waterfall had been almost deafening on the first night in the cave, but gradually it had become little more than white noise for all of them, and this far back, its song was almost soothing. The moon’s glow made it look magical and despite everything that was going on, despite the world turning to crap in little more than the blink of an eye, Marie suddenly realised how lucky she was still to have her family, still to be living and breathing and able to see sights as beautiful and spectacular as this one.

She slowly began to drift too. The warming comfort radiating from her daughter and the effects from the booze she’d poured into her coffee made her eyelids feel like lead. The smile broadened on her face as her head leaned back against the cold black rock of the cave wall, only it wasn’t cold black rock anymore. It was the softest of pillows, welcoming her into slumber. A mutter of contentment left Nicole’s lips and Marie’s eye fluttered one last time before the inevitable decline into the land of dreams, but in an instant her journey into sleep came to a juddering halt and the snug cosiness was replaced by an icy terror.

She sucked in a frigid breath, slowly turning her head towards the fall. A dripping wet silhouette now stood between her and it, and even though she couldn’t see its eyes, she felt its gaze upon her.

                                                                                                                       *

Dan had been on the road for less than a minute when he heard the crack of gunfire from behind. “Oh shit!” he hissed, immediately changing pace from a brisk walk to an all-out run. There was one sure way to gain unwanted attention and that was to make noise. Any of the beasts in earshot would be heading towards it, and that meant he was in the line of fire. Another shot rang out and he was about to duck into an alley when he caught sight of it. Just one—that was fortunate; they often went around in groups or hordes if you were really unlucky. But one was enough. It broke into a sprint heading straight for him.

He abandoned all thoughts of the alley. It could easily be a dead end and if another of the infected got in on the act, an escape route could be the difference between life and death. Jesus, these things are fast. He watched it as it tore towards him in the moonlight. Since the outbreak he had killed two of these abominations. Killed? Is that the right word? How can you kill something that’s already dead?

The nightmarish images of those encounters had stayed with him. The milky grey eyes, the shattered black pupils like drops of paint on a plastic surface. The skin—God the skin, the ghoulish pallor, so unnatural, so impossible.

The creature began the by now familiar low animalistic guttural growl as it continued its beeline towards Dan. He reached inside his jacket, his fingers brushing his Glock briefly before taking hold of the hunting knife in his belt. Another shot sounded behind him. Those damn yahoos. I knew it was a mistake. Why? Why did I do it?

The why didn’t matter now. All that mattered was the moment. Dan stepped further out into the street from the shadows of the buildings. The more light he had to see what was happening the better. His fist closed tightly around the grip of his knife and he flicked the rucksack from his back.

Ten yards. The pounding feet of the beast echoed up and down the street as his heartbeat began to race. Six yards. Its talon-like fingers reached out as if somehow they could already feel Dan’s flesh in their grasp. The moonlight made the single strand of disease-ridden saliva dribbling from the corner of the monster’s mouth glisten. Two yards, the creature pounced.

                                                                                                                        *

The few seconds that Marie sat there staring towards the black figure felt like an eternity. The crowbar that Dan had left for her remained leaning against the wall at her side, and as much as she wanted to grab it, there was a bigger part of her that didn’t want to move.

“This is my place.”

There was a time when finding out that something wasn’t a monstrous flesh-eating aberration would have been a relief, but in the short period since the demise of any construct that could be called civilisation Marie had learned there were all different types of monsters. This man’s words, his demeanour, everything about him—wandering in here in the middle of the night, standing staring at them while they rested—unsettling didn’t even begin to describe it.

“You’re wrong. This is ours. We found it first. My husband will be back any second. He’ll tell you.”

“Hmm. Mum. What?” Nicole roused slowly, rubbing her eyes as she lifted her head from Marie’s shoulder. She gasped as she spotted the silhouette. “Mum!” It was the panicked cry of a child, not the young woman she had become.

“It’s all right, honey. This man was just leaving.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” He spoke with a southern drawl and sounded as if he’d gargled razor blades every morning of his life. As he took a pace forward, the reek of his body odour hit them like a moving wall. “And I scouted the whole area for infected before I set foot in here. You’ve got no husband coming to your rescue, lady.”

A sudden sinking feeling gripped Marie. This is bad. This is really, really bad.

                                                                                                                         *

Dan felt like the world had suddenly begun to play in slow motion. He raised his boot, kicking out as hard as he could, making contact with the beast’s chest and knocking it backwards. Its arms flailed wildly as it flew, eventually crashing on the ground and skidding along the pavement for a few feet before springing up like some devilish jack-in-the-box once more. It lunged again, but this time Dan was a little more prepared. He parried the creature’s claw-like reach with his left arm, burying the hunting knife into its temple. Even in the limited light cast by the moon he could see the cavernous dancing pupils become nothing more than pin pricks in the space of a heartbeat.

The beast slumped to the ground and Dan pulled the blade free, bending down to wipe it thoroughly on the cleanest part of his victim’s shirt before placing it back in his belt.

He straightened up and took a breath then resumed his journey with a greater urgency than before. His walk became a jog, then finally a run. The sooner he was back with his family the better. More gunshots echoed behind him followed by a man’s scream.

“Carlos. Don’t leave me, man. CARLOS!”

                                                                                                                         *

“Please!” Nicole said, her fear evident in her tone.

“I’ll handle this, baby,” Marie replied, finally reaching out for the crowbar.

A low, menacing laugh filled the cave as her fingers closed around the cold metal. “So, you want to play, do you?”

“I want you to leave us alone,” she said, springing to her feet. Dammit, Marie. Could you act any more nervous and edgy?

“This has always been my place. It was my place before the dead rose. It will be my place long after. And you’re trespassing.”

“I… I’m not going to tell you again. I want you out of here. Now.” She heard Nicole shuffling to her feet behind her. Please baby, don’t make this worse. Don’t say anything, please.

“I’ve got a gun and I’m a good shot,” Nicole blurted.

Shit!

The man’s rasping laugh rolled towards them on the stench-filled air once more. His hands had been almost glued to his sides but now he put them up, revealing something resembling a machete clasped tightly in his right fist.

Oh no.

                                                                                                                           *

Dan wasn’t sure how long he had been running flat out before finally slowing to a walk once more. He almost hugged the buildings as he continued his journey. On this side of the street there was shadow that was hardly an impenetrable shield, but it was something. It might give him the split-second advantage he would need to get out of trouble. He looked towards the looming hills. They beckoned him. They called his name in the voice of his wife, his children.

It would not be long before the concrete gave way to earth and trees and he would be able to breathe in a lungful of air without it feeling contaminated by what was going on in the rest of the town.

The sound of screeching tyres a few streets away made him pause again. He waited … and waited, making sure they were travelling away from him before continuing. The infected responded to sound and movement and cars ticked both columns. In a town like this, they were a recipe for disaster. Out on the open road, they were a ticket to freedom. He and Marie had spoken about heading north to their cabin on the lake. To do that, he’d have to think about getting hold of another vehicle. His own had been concertinaed in a slow-motion pile up heading out of town on the first day. They’d had the good sense to abandon it, taking their family and belongings and escaping on foot. From higher ground they saw a horde converge on those desperately trying to salvage their vehicles and the situation. The attack was brutal and, barring the few who dived back into their cars to become imprisoned by the surrounding savagery until they finally gave into the death, it was total and relentless. They had made a brief trip back home before heading into the hills, heading to where Dan had spent many a happy day in his youth.

Dan turned onto the final road out of town, remaining in the shadows when a familiar, low, menacing grow rose into the air once more.

Crap!

                                                                                                                         *

Nicole was doing everything she could to avoid breaking down in tears. Each breath she exhaled trembled and Marie could feel the intruder’s confidence growing by the minute. This is what he likes. He likes having power, invoking fear.

He lowered his hands and the machete disappeared by his side once more. “I guess I must be going blind and deaf, ’cause I don’t see a gun and I don’t hear no shots.”

“I’ve had enough of this. Just get out of here now. Get out, get out, GET OUT!” Marie yelled and the ominous laugh drifted in her direction once more.

The figure edged forward again for no other reason than to prove he could.

“Mom. Mommy.” The call came from the back of the cave behind the stone partition where the fire gently crackled away.

Oh please God, no.

The silhouette angled his head to see. “Well, I do believe you’ve been keeping a little secret from me. And here I was thinking it was just the three of us.”

He’s enjoying this. The bastard’s enjoying every second of this.

“Mommy?” Beth cried out again.

“It’s okay, honey. Go back to sleep. Mom’s coming to bed soon. Everything’s okay.”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Lying to your daughter. What kind of example is that to set? Darlin’, you and I both know everything is far from okay.”

                                                                                                                          *

There was something different about this growl. For a start, Dan couldn’t actually figure out where it was coming from. He placed his back against the wall and turned his head a full one hundred and eighty degrees but he couldn’t see anything out of place. He scanned the area again and finally caught movement out of the corner of his eye. There was a bus stop with a bench on the opposite side of the road and something was slithering across the ground.

He cautiously crossed the street to investigate. Over here, the moonlight made things clearer. It was one of the infected, but its body was broken. The creature’s legs jutted at impossible angles. One of its arms was snapped at the elbow and it used its other to drag itself along. In all likelihood, its back was broken too, but seemingly there was nothing wrong with its vocal cords as its deathly song continued.

Dan’s eyes were drawn to the full rucksack on its back. Once this thing had probably just been like him, scavenging for his family, trying to protect them, doing everything he could to keep them together. Now it was an abomination and, although these were monsters in every sense of the word, there was a big part of Dan that felt sorry for it … well, sorry for the man it used to be.

He withdrew his knife and plunged it into the creature’s skull rendering it silent. He wiped the blade off once more and unhitched the rucksack from the creature’s back, setting it down on the wooden bench and opening it up.

Dan let out a sad sigh as he rifled through the contents. Whether the man had been to Johnson’s or not he didn’t know but his intention had been the same as his own but with a skew towards the holiday season rather than day-to-day existence. There were at least a dozen cans of turkey breast, canned carrots, canned potatoes and another of yams.  There were a couple of jars of cranberry sauce and packet after packet of dehydrated mashed potato. Nestled in among those items and a variety of other foodstuffs were Travel Monopoly, Travel Clue, Travel Scrabble and a pocket games compendium as well as a vast array of candy. He heard the grind of glass against glass and opened one of the pockets to find two bottles of Jack Daniels carefully wrapped in a towel.

“Shit,” Dan said, fastening the rucksack up once more. He looked down at the dead creature, only now he saw himself. One wrong turn. One bad decision and that could be me lying there. He hoisted the second rucksack onto his shoulder and continued down the street. He threw one final glance back. “I’m sorry, buddy. I’ll be sure to raise a glass to you and one to your family wherever they are … wherever you are.”

He turned, crossed the road and headed into the thick woodland.

                                                                                                                           *

Nicole desperately wanted to run. She wanted to run back to the far reaches of the cave, hide in her sleeping bag and wake up tomorrow to find out all this was a dream, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t leave her mom to face this alone. She remained with her back against the cold stone wall just waiting to see who would make the first move and what that would be.

“You got any more surprises for me?” the man asked, leaning once more to peer into the back of the cave.

Nicole’s foot knocked against a heavy stone that clacked against the ground. She looked towards her mom and even in this light she could see that her body was tense. She could see the crowbar jutting from her fist at a virtual right angle to the rest of her. Any second. Any second.

Nicole’s breathing became increasingly erratic and she felt another anguished tear run down her cheek. No. No more. No more.

“STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP IT! JUST GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!” Her scream was deafening as it echoed around the cave. Beth and even Megan began to cry out for their mom in the back, and the outburst made Marie stagger a little.

Nicole crouched down scooping up the stone by her foot and threw it with all the strength she could muster. She had the advantage of being almost invisible against the black wall. There was no light behind her and the water-distorted moon beams faded into shadow long before they reached her feet. The fist-sized rock travelled towards the intruder like a bullet and the crack as it smashed him square in the forehead reverberated around the walls of the cave.

Marie only spotted the missile at the last moment, but as soon as she heard the impact she ran forward. The intruder was already staggering, wondering what the hell had just hit him.

“M—wh—tha.” No matter how he tried, he couldn’t form a word; he couldn’t really form a thought. His eyes rolled and when he finally saw Marie in front of him, it was too late to act even if he wanted to.

The cold black metal of the crowbar smashed against his chin with the speed of a bullet train. He felt his jaw snap and an animalistic cry of pain left his lips. He continued to reel, trying to co-ordinate his movements, but now it was taking everything he had just to stay upright.

He heard another whooshing sound and this time an agonising jolt fired from his temple through the rest of his body. He dropped like a sack of stones, the back of his head bouncing on the hard, cold cave floor.

Marie felt bile in the back of her throat as the vile stink of the man at her feet assaulted her senses, but she needed to finish what she had started. There was a white glint in his black eyes as they looked up at her, and she wasn’t going to stop until that last flicker was gone for good. She brought the crowbar down again and again and again. “Bastard. Bastard. Bastard.” Tears were pouring down her face as she struck him time after time. And it wasn’t until she felt her daughter’s gentle hand on her shoulder and heard the howls from Megan and Beth further back in the cave that she stopped.

“It’s okay, Mom. It’s over.”

Above the stink of the intruder, Marie could smell the scent of his blood coating the inside of her nose. She could feel it on her hands and taste it on her lips as the spatter exploded more with each strike.

A cry left her mouth, but she sucked in a cool breath of air and shouted back into the cave. “It’s okay, babies. Mommy and Nicole will be there in a minute.”

“Come on,” Nicole said, suddenly becoming the woman she needed to be, taking charge, giving her mom a break from the horror for just a moment. She guided Marie towards the mouth of the cave. “Clean yourself up, Mom. I’ll take care of everything else.” She disappeared into the darkness leaving Marie to gaze towards the dancing beams of the moon through the falling water.

She reached out and icy droplets caressed her fingers before she plunged her hands wrist deep into the flowing torrent. She cupped them and pulled them back out, splashing first her arms then her face with the water’s revitalising power. She washed away the blood; she washed away the tears. This close to the fall, she couldn’t hear the cries of her youngest from deep inside the cave, all she could hear was the water. She saw movement in the periphery of her vision and turned to see her daughter manhandling the intruder’s body over the ledge. And just like that he was gone.

Nicole came to stand by her side mirroring her actions, cleansing herself of the horror and the torment of the last few minutes too.

“I’m so proud of you,” Marie shouted above the sound of the gushing water.

Nicole wiped more tears from her eyes. “I was so scared.”

“I was too, honey. But what you did… I’m so proud.” She said again.

“I’m not sorry.”

“What?”

“I’m not sorry for what either of us did. He was going to hurt us. I’m not sorry.”

“I’m not sorry either, baby girl,” Marie replied, leaning across and kissing her daughter on the cheek. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Mom.”

                                                                                                                        *

It took nearly an hour to get Megan and Beth back to sleep. When they finally drifted off, Marie and Nicole resumed their lookout duties. There was no way either of them would get any shuteye, so they just sat in the darkness, holding hands and silently praying that Dan was still out there somewhere safe.

An echoing symphony of falling water against canvas made both of them jump to their feet. A second later, a figure emerged into the cave. He flicked his torch on. “It’s me,” Dan shouted, shining the beam in his face and then towards his wife and daughter as they ran towards him. Suddenly, the nightmare was over and the horror and trauma they had both suffered abated for a few moments at least. He shook the tarpaulin he’d used to cover himself before placing it over a rock to drip dry.

Marie had thought him a fool when he had insisted on bringing two pieces with him, but she had been grateful that he had, especially in this cold weather. Soaking wet clothes were bad. Soaking wet clothes in winter could be the difference between life and death. There were plenty of bushes and shrubs hiding the ledge that led into the cave, and it was easy to conceal one of the brightly coloured squares of canvas in those without attracting attention.

The intruder had stated this had always been his cave. Maybe like Dan he had come here as a boy, played here, had adventures here. Well, he wouldn’t be having any more adventures. It didn’t matter now, though, because her knight in shining armour was back. She threw her arms around him and pressed her head against his shoulder while Nicole jostled for position on the other side. “You were gone so long,” Marie said, her voice quivering a little.

“Yeah. Things didn’t exactly go to plan.”

She took a step back from him, grabbing the torch from his hand. “You went with one rucksack, you come back with two.”

“Yeah. I got a few extras.”

“What kind of extras?”

“I think it was near midnight when I left town and I’m guessing it took me at least an hour to get here.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Do you know what today is?”

Marie’s brow creased in confusion and she angled the torch from the rucksack back to Dan’s face. “It’s Friday… I think.”

“Yeah. It’s Friday. It’s Christmas Day too.”

“Oh God. We can’t tell the kids. They’re going to be devastated.”

“No, we can tell the kids.”

“What are you talking about, Dad?” Nicole asked.

Dan kissed the top of her head. “We’re going to have Christmas. We’re going to have Christmas, and it’s going to be the best damn Christmas that we’ve ever had, because even though the world’s gone to hell, we’ve got presents, we’ve got food, but more important than any of that, we’ve got each other.”

“What have you got in those rucksacks?” Marie asked.

“You’ll see in the morning,” he replied, kissing her softly on the lips. “Just remember, Christmas is a time for miracles and tonight I think we got ours.”

 

                                                                                                                       The End

 

© Christopher Artinian 2023