A. Elizabeth Herting
The house is dark, the only light being the moon that shines brightly down on an immaculate carpet of snow. The family is safely abed, locked in for the long night, the children fitfully dreaming. Even the family pets are at peace. In a rare form of solidarity, dogs, cats and the occasional mouse are all resting as one in their peaceful slumber. Into this perfect winter’s night steps a man, large and intimidating, as he circles the house looking for a way to gain entry. The assorted human and animal inhabitants sleep on, blissfully unaware of the man’s intentions as the clock strikes twelve.
He creeps around the house, circling it twice, peeking through the windows at the darkened rooms within. He is dressed warmly for the weather, the fur of his coat helping to cut the winter chill as he continues to case the house, his bag thrown over his shoulder. He tries the front window, but it is locked up tight, the soft glow of the holiday lights illuminating his eager face. He makes his way around to the back of the house, only to find the basement windows encased in bars, there would be no entry there.
The man becomes frustrated as he checks each window and door, finding every possible way to get inside barred to him. He inspects the garage door, wondering if he could find a way to get in without alerting the family. Could he pry it open somehow? He hears a sudden movement down the street and leaps into the nearest bush, his heart hammering away in his chest. There has to be a way to get inside, I must be losing my touch, he thinks desperately. The car passes by leaving him in blessed darkness once again as he carefully climbs out of his hiding spot, resolute in his mission. There is one place that he hasn’t tried yet, it is risky but it just might work. He was an experienced climber in his younger years, maybe he could do it again? He hops over the backyard fence and onto the deck. A cloud slides by, the winter moon revealing a blanket of bright stars, momentarily distracting him from his goal. It temporarily lights up the sky, revealing the wide, snow covered roof above. He gauges the distance to the roof, he can’t see it from this angle, but he knows it is there. Thinking that he has run out of all other options, the man decides to try the chimney.
He begins by stacking a patio chair on top of the giant aluminum trash can sitting up against the back of the house. Carefully he tests his weight, making sure he won’t topple off before he can scale his way up to the first window ledge. He hears an animal sound, almost like a snort and freezes in sudden fear, his body pressed up against the cream-colored siding. He waits for a full minute before resuming his climb, the frigid night air making his nose and ears painfully numb. He latches onto the decorative lattice halfway up the side of the house, causing the dried-out vines to crackle and break away, his heavy boots hitting each rung of the makeshift ladder. Slowly he manages to climb up, one step at a time while using the storm drain running alongside of the lattice as a handrail. He is a good sized fellow and every step feels like it will send him crashing to the ground, but still he ascends.
Anyone seeing him in such a state would surely have laughed, his undignified assault upon the quiet home would be amusing if it wasn’t so perilous. As if on cue, a light sprinkling of snow begins to fall upon his face as he looks up and sees the end in sight. The roof is there, just a few steps away.
The man begins to imagine what will happen, how he will handle things when he finally gets inside. He starts to feel fatigued, forcing his feet to scale the last few steps as his hands latch on to the top of the storm drain and he hoists himself onto the roof in a final burst of determined strength. He flops onto his back, breathing heavily while laying in an inch of cold, fresh snow. All he needs to do now is get to the chimney and lower himself inside. The house is older, there is a very good chance that the chimney will be wide enough to accommodate him. He flips over onto all fours, beginning the final crawl to his destination when a sudden movement stops him cold.
A large black boot comes directly into his line of sight, first one and then the other, barring his final path to the chimney. He freezes in place and slowly looks up, thinking that he must have lost his mind, this simply cannot be happening. A huge man dressed all in red towers over him, his bemused expression partially hidden by a full, snowy-white beard. A look to the man’s left reveals an animal, bigger than any he has ever seen before, with a majestic head of antlers and a shiny, glowing red nose. He swallows hard, the fear and disbelief waging a war inside of his mind as the big red man leans down and places a hand on his shoulder.
“You’ve been a very naughty boy this evening, Charlie. Almost as bad as the year that you threw the ball inside of the house with your sisters and broke your mother’s good china cabinet,” the big man says, laughter coloring his voice. “Just because you are all grown up and in college doesn’t mean that I can’t still see you.”
Charlie is too astonished to notice that he is beginning to slide backwards down the roof. He picks up speed and goes halfway over the edge, precariously clinging to the greatly-distressed storm drain. The big man effortlessly makes his way over to him as Charlie hangs on for dear life.
“Merry Christmas, Charlie,” he chuckles, his eyes bright with amusement. “The next time you come home to visit and stay out all night with your friends, please do remember to bring a key.”
Charlie loses his grip and falls backwards into the night. In an instant, the enormous reindeer leaps off of the roof and catches him mid-air, depositing him gently onto a snowbank in the backyard. He watches in amazement as the noble creature gently nuzzles him before shooting straight up into the air and rejoining the man on the roof.
The big man throws a giant red sack onto his glittering, gold sleigh. He laughs loudly as he climbs in and gives a shrill whistle, his team of reindeer springing into action with his red-nosed reindeer in the lead. Charlie sees them silhouetted against the glow of the winter moon, the man raising his arm in a final wave before disappearing into thin air. As he stands up and brushes himself off, Charlie sees that the back door has been propped open, just enough to let him in. He picks up his backpack and makes his way to the door. He had lost his key months ago and keeps forgetting to ask his parents for a new one. The warmth of his childhood home envelops him as he tiptoes up to his room as quietly as possible and instantly falls asleep.
Charlie wakes up to the sounds of his twin eight-year old sisters pounding on his door, up at first light to see if Santa has come on Christmas morning. He slowly swings his legs over the side of the bed, cradling his head in his hands and tries to make sense of his crazy dream. The door had been left open the whole time, he must have dreamt the rest. It was the only explanation that made any sense. The smells of freshly-brewed coffee and bacon frying compel him the rest of the way out of the bed, he has always had a very healthy appetite.
A quick look outside revealed very little of what had happened the night before. The vines on the lattice were pretty demolished, but the snow covered up any traces of his incredibly foolish attempt on the roof. He must have landed into the snowbank, breaking his fall–he was very lucky he didn’t break anything or worse. His parents would be furious with him if they knew, but so far no one had said a word. No, the big man was a figment of an overactive imagination, nothing more.
His sisters are squealing with delight, jumping around the cornucopia of gifts that surround their Christmas tree. His parents smile fondly at them as his father hands him a cup of steaming hot coffee, the adults trying to chase the sleep away while the children dance all around them in anticipation.
An hour later, the entire room is covered in ribbons, tinsel and bits of ripped wrapping paper, his sisters curled up together playing with their brand new dolls. Charlie looks over at the tree and sees one last present, small and unassuming sitting on an outstretched branch. He can hardly believe the “twin tornados” missed one, they are a force of nature where Christmas gifts are concerned. He picks it up and sees that it is for him, somehow they had missed it.
He tears away the simple red wrapping paper and finds a small velvet pouch, Santa’s bag in miniature, trimmed in white. He opens the bag and reaches in, pulling out the small object and holding it in his hand. He can feel goosebumps break out all over him as he realizes just who must have placed it here and why, its message clear and concise.
Charlie holds the brand new house key up in front of his face, its golden exterior reflecting the lights on the tree. It is attached to a key chain with a portrait of the big man himself, exactly as Charlie had seen him the night before. His parents look at him quizzically, each of them wondering if the other had put that gift on the tree the night before.
The intruder sits next to the tree, holding his magical key. He smiles as he relives every detail of his midnight encounter, his face filled with awe and wonder. He is a child again, reveling in the excitement of Christmas morning and the absolute certainty that Santa has come and reindeer really do know how to fly.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
Sometimes when we picture beauty, I think we go big.
The majestic tableau of a sunset over the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon at daybreak. The vastness of a starry sky with a full moon reflected in calm ocean waters. A symphony playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” or the heartbreaking perfection of your favorite movie star up on the big screen. There is beauty all around us in the world, grand and epic in scale.
I believe that the most profound beauty can also be found in the quieter moments of life when you are least expecting it. The sound of a loved one walking in the door at the end of a long day, the kids playing down the street. A line drive barreling into the outfield or the ring of a perfectly tuned barbershop chord. The smell of the rain after a storm, a lingering memory from childhood.
The beauty we discover in our families every day. The pride in our children’s accomplishments, the love of a spouse. Coming home again or in the case of “The Intruder,” rediscovering the magic of Christmas no matter how old you are!
A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. Her other great love (besides writing) is singing Lead in Deja Vu ladies barbershop quartet and in a 140 member, award winning chorus called Skyline. She has had stories featured in Dark Fire Fiction, Bewildering Stories, Friday Fiction and Under the Bed. She recently completed a novel called Wet Birds Don’t Fly at Night that she is hoping to find a home for one day. More at: sites.google.com/site/aehertingwriter.