Tree Lighting

by K.M. Zahrt

(Note: The following is a non-qualifying example entry for our Third Annual Dickens Christmas Contest by one of our Senior Editors. View the guidelines and enter by Friday, December 18, and you could win a handsome Christmas present from Michiganders Post.)

“Hold your noise!” cried Tommy, as a man started up from among the trees at the side of the school. Tommy, Jake, and I pressed against the brick wall as we watched the man rush our way.

Jiminy Christmas, what was I doing? Why had I begged to go along? It was true I didn’t get a chance to participate in my brothers’ misadventures every day. I was usually their audience for the grand retelling of their wild tales. My role was to believe in them.

“It’s Mr. Niederschlagen,” Jake said. “We’re gonna get caught, and we’re not gonna get the PlayStation.”

“Mom said you weren’t getting one anyway,” I said.

“We’re getting it,” Jake said. “I saw it hiding in the laundry room under the towels.”

“Who goes power walking on Christmas Eve?” Tommy said. “He’s such a dork.”

Mr. Niederschlagen was getting dangerously close.

“Should we run for it?” I whispered.

“Cram it, Gene,” Jake said.

He suddenly took a sharp turn and followed the sidewalk even though everything was a sheet of white. He headed for a path at the edge of the playground.

“Do you pansies want to go for a hike with Niederschlagen,” Tommy said, pulling on the window again, “or do you want to have some fun?”

“I want to,” Jake said, “but can’t we wait until after we get the PlayStation?”

The old window opened from the bottom with a crotchety screech. Tommy pushed me down on my knees. “Give me a boost.”

Stepping on my back, Tommy and Jake squeezed through the opening.

“What about me?”

“Shut. Up. Gene,” Jake said.

“Keep watch,” Tommy added.

There was a bang, then clanging and shuffling around inside the bathroom, then thudding — industrial-sized rolls of TP were hitting the ground all around me.

“Grab ’em, Gene,” Tommy said.

“Don’t let ’em get all snowy,” Jake said.

Tommy gave Jake a lift before struggling to work himself out the window. By the time I collected all ten rolls, three were a soggy mess.

“Stupid, Gene,” Jake said, smacking me over the head. “Ready to go home, yet?”

“I don’t want to go home,” I said. I was afraid Tommy might do something stupid and Jake, something really mean.

“Enough,” Tommy said.

We followed Mr. Niederschlagen’s footprints through the snow, under some evergreens, to his back yard. The trail continued around to the side of the darkened house. Mr. Niederschlagen must’ve gone to bed.

“Let’s go,” Tommy said, launching a roll over a branch. Jake spun another roll around a tree.

I decorated the low-hanging branches of a white pine, trying to do enough not to disappoint Tommy or aggravate Jake while hoping it wouldn’t take Mr. Niederschlagen much effort to remove.

We were almost out of TP when his silhouette appeared in the frame of the door on the porch and his voice boomed, “Who’s that? Scram, you!”

We scattered like mice.

We each ran a different way home. Reconvening at the side door to our house, we burst into the entryway with red cheeks and chests heaving.

The house was filled with Christmas music, chatter, and laughing. Nobody could’ve noticed.

“Don’t. Say. Anything, Gene,” Jake said.

“You don’t know nothin’,” Tommy said. “None of us do.”

Just then, Mom appeared with a glass of red wine in her hand. “Boys, put your snow stuff away, then showers, then PJ’s, then bed. You hear me? Don’t mess around, or no Christmas.”

That night I had a nightmare. In my sleep, I swear I heard a knock at the door. Mr. Niederschlagen’s voice. Mom’s voice. Her disappointed tone. Our footprints! Trails in the snow leading straight home. How could we be so stupid? No presents. No PlayStation. No Christmas. Tommy and Jake would hold this against me. I’d begged to go along.

I woke to a quiet house.

“Boys,” Mom called from below. “Christmas!”

Tripping over each other, we raced down the stairs, desperate to be the first to see the presents. All at once, we stopped, horrified at the sight. Sure enough. No presents. No PlayStation. But, seven industrial-sized rolls worth of TP covered the Christmas tree.

“Merry Christmas,” Mom said, hiding her snicker behind a coffee mug.

“I don’t believe this,” Jake said, and he ran to the laundry room. I could hear laundry baskets being overturned and towels tossed about. “It was here. It was just here,” Jake said, making his return to the scene.

Tommy ripped at the strands of TP in disgust.

“There,” I said, catching a glimpse of something shimmering under the tree. “There’s a present under there.”

Jake picked up the small red rectangle with a green bow.

“Who’s it for?” Mom said, teasingly.

“Says it’s for Gene,” Jake said. He slapped the gift to my chest.

“Open it,” Tommy said.

I untied the bow and unwrapped the brilliant paper without causing a single tear. Inside was a book. The corners were frayed, and the cover image, faded — a boy in overalls painting a fence with a brush as big as a broom.

A note was attached:  “Gene, you can whitewash a fence any day you like; don’t get hoodwinked into paying for it. You’re smarter than that. Merry Christmas. –Mr. Niederschlagen”

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