It was finally over. My boss let me cash in some of my vacation days right before Christmas so, with the days off I had already negotiated, I had almost the entire week free. His scowl as I left didn’t bode well, but that was a problem for another day. He was just upset because I managed to evade the worst of the last-minute shoppers. They had been bad enough during the past week, much less the final days before Christmas. Someone had actually thrown an I-phone box at my head that morning. But finally, it was over.
I pulled into the end of my driveway and got out to check the mailbox—nothing but a flyer from Best Buy—like I didn’t see enough of their products every day at work.
“Hey, Mark.” I turned to wave at Kevin, my neighbor. Bundled up in a red winter coat and hat, he was studying the finished layout of Christmas decorations which covered his house and yard.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Santa and the reindeer on the roof; snowmen, real and inflated, in the front yard; lights everywhere—it was your typical power-sucking Christmas extravaganza. The lights flickered off the layer of ice that covered the snow, and the stars overhead beamed in vain competition with the lights that lined our street.
“Very nice,” I told him, turning to the decorations on my own house. I smiled for a second, before realizing that the giant snowflake light I had spent the whole weekend hanging from the roof was missing. Kevin had an identical one hanging from the corner of his roof. I paused, looking from his to the dark space where mine should be.
I shook my head. The cold was getting to me. Every breath flared up in front of my face, and I rubbed by arms through my too-thin jacket. “Have a good night,” I told Kevin, climbing back into my car with the flyer. I parked in the garage and let myself into the house as the garage door slid shut with a grinding complaint.
“Daddy!” called a young voice as I stepped into the kitchen. Lacey was at the sink finishing some dishes, and little Nolan, all of five years old, spun around and fired two Nerf darts into my chest. The plastic helmet on his head wobbled as he reloaded with all the speed his short fingers could manage.
“Oh!” I cried, managing to find some melodrama amidst my mental exhaustion. I collapsed against the door frame with my hand over my wounds and slid to the floor.
“Daddy?” asked Nolan, his voice softer. I left my head tilted downward and my eyes closed. I heard his bare feet patter toward me and Lacey’s soft chuckle as she watched.
“Daddy?” he asked again, right beside me. “You ok?”
“Got you!” I yelled, grabbing him and pulling him toward me. We scuffled for a moment, a moment that ended with the handle of the Nerf gun catching me in the lip. I stopped as surprisingly intense pain shot through my face. Nolan felt me stiffen and stopped fighting.
“Go on and play,” I told his questioning expression, urging him toward the other room with as normal a voice as I could manage. He scurried away to shoot the aliens in the living room.
“You alright?” laughed Lacey as I kissed her.
“I’ll live,” I told her, checking my lip for blood. “I thought you didn’t like him playing with that.”
“He thinks he’s a little soldier,” she answered. “There’s no stopping him right now. I’ve cut back on what he’s watching, and hopefully he’ll grow out of it soon. How was your day?”
“Terrifying,” I told her, grinning now that the pain had diminished. “Rabid shoppers everywhere. One of them threw a phone at my head.”
“Really?” she asked. “What did you do?”
“Not much. Security arrived a moment later.”
“Were you scared?”
“Not until the customer was told he had to pay for the phone.” Lacey laughed again and went to check the oven.
“What are we having?” I asked.
There was a crash in the other room, followed by silence. “Oh no,” Lacey said. She started toward the door, but I grabbed her arm and pulled her back, wrapping my arms around her.
“It’s been chaos all day,” I told her. “Let’s just stay here for a moment.” She hugged me back and laid her head on my chest.
“OK,” she answered. Frank Sinatra sang “White Christmas” on the radio. It began snowing outside the window.
“Mommy? Daddy? Uh oh.”
Lacey sighed. “I know that tone. I better go check.”
I nodded and let her go. While she sorted out the battle carnage in the other room, I went to the window and looked at the giant snowflake on Kevin’s house.
Lacey returned with two halves and other assorted shards of our brand-new lamp. “Something else you can get me for Christmas,” she said. I admired the smile she still had on her face. It was one thing she could always do better than me. Nolan’s eyes peered around the doorway behind her, wide with anxiety.
“I took the gun away,” Lacey said as she threw the lamp in the trash. “He’ll have to find something peaceful to do for a while.”
“Did something happen to our snowflake?” I asked, changing the subject.
“The big light-up one?” I nodded. “I don’t think so. Isn’t it on the house?”
“It was gone when I came home.”
She obviously saw something more in my expression. “What is it?”
“It—” I debated telling her. “I just noticed that Kevin has an identical one hanging up, and it wasn’t there yesterday.”
It took a moment for Lacey to understand what I meant. When she did, she burst out laughing. “You think Kevin took our snowflake? I’ve been here all day, and I haven’t seen any sign of him on our property. Besides, he and Kate have always been wonderful neighbors.”
“How well do we really know them?” I countered. “And if they didn’t take it, then what happened?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged, still chuckling to herself. The timer rang, and she turned to pull out the pan of lasagna. I looked back out the window. Of course she was right. It didn’t make any sense. But…she could at least take it a little seriously.
“Come eat, Sherlock,” she said, setting some hot mats on the table—lasagna, broccoli, and peppermint brownies for desert.
We sat around the small table in the kitchen to eat. Everything went smoothly until Nolan saw a bad guy peeking around the door to the kitchen and tried to slay it with a piece of “icky broccoli.” While Lacey retrieved the misplaced veggie, I gave Nolan another talking to about his behavior. He turned red and promised not to do it again.
The rest of the evening, Nolan sat gazing at the flashing lights on the Christmas tree while Lacey and I cleaned up from dinner and danced to Christmas carols playing from the radio. After, we found “Frosty the Snowman” on television and sat with Nolan to watch it.
“I should put him to bed,” Lacey told me as the show ended. She ignored Nolan’s protests and carted him off to his room while I poured two glasses of wine. As we sat at the kitchen table and drank them, Lacey noticed my eyes continuing to drift to the lights from next door which were shining in through the window.
“Just forget it,” she said, the humor wearing thin. “We’ll figure it out tomorrow.”
“You’re right,” I told her. “You’re right. It’s been a long day. Let’s go to bed.”
We spent the next day out—a visit to the mall, a walk in the park to look at the frosted trees, lunch at Subway, a movie at the theater. We got back a little after four, and something caught my eyes as I pulled into the driveway. I stopped the car and stared at our house.
“What is it?” asked Lacey. She turned around from handing Nolan something in the back seat.
“How many snowmen did we have in our yard?” I asked her.
“Why are there only two?”
Together, we stared at our front yard for a moment. It was unnecessary really; there were clearly only two snowmen standing by the front door.
“That’s just great,” Lacey said. “Could it have blown away?” She saw my eyes drift to the yard next door.
“How many snowmen did Kevin have in his yard yesterday?”
“Mark, come on…”
“How many were there?” She must have seen the determination in my eyes.
“I don’t know,” she sighed, “six or seven probably.”
“Which was it?”
“You’re the one who was staring at the yard all night, you tell me.”
I couldn’t remember how many there had been the night before, but there were certainly seven snowmen in his yard now. And one of them was the exact same style as the one missing from our house.
“Look at that one with the funny hat,” I told Lacey.
“Listen,” she said, turning fully in her seat to face me, “I know where you’re going with this. There was a whole shelf full of that exact type when I bought it. Kevin could easily have one of his own. Do you really think he would take ours and put it in his own yard?”
At that moment, Kevin stepped out his front door. Seeing us, he waved merrily and went to check his mail. I could feel Lacey’s eyes boring into me even without looking directly at her.
“Fine, I’ll let it go,” I told her. And I did. We finished the night without any mention of the missing decorations. I told Lacey I wasn’t tired and watched some late-night news while I stewed over the missing decorations.
Near midnight, I went to the bathroom to get ready for bed. As I brushed my teeth, something about the window looked funny. I stared at it for a minute before it hit me, and when it did, my stomach dropped—the icicle lights that should be hanging outside were gone.
I dropped my toothbrush in the sink and went to the front door where I threw on a coat and boots. Maybe the lights had just fallen off the roof—please just let them have fallen off. I jogged around to the back of the house. The roof was bare. So was the ground beneath it. I stared for a few minutes in shock, my feet growing cold in the snow. Then I turned to look at Kevin’s house.
I saw them—mocking me—a strand of icicle lights was strung along the side of Kevin’s house. They had definitely not been there earlier. I walked to the edge of our lawn and stared at his decorations. The snowmen stared back, challenging me. I took a step. The snowmen watched. I ignored them.
My first stop was the snowflake. I had to stand on tip-toes to see it clearly. Luckily there was no window at that part of the house. I ran my numb fingers over the plastic. Then I found it—the chunk that had been knocked out of the second point up from the bottom the first time I ever put it up. It was the exact same shape. This was my snowflake. I took a step back, unsure what to do now. The roof was too high to reach without a ladder. I rubbed my hands together and thought.
The front light of the house flicked on, glaring in the night. I stopped thinking. I ran.
I sprinted across the lawn, stumbling in the snow, not looking back. I don’t know what it was that scared me, maybe the thought of appearing as a thief or a creep. Whatever the reason, I reached the darkness of my meager back yard without incident and collapsed against the wall, panting. Pathetic, it wasn’t even that far.
The lights next door turned off again. No one came out. My heart still pounding, wondering if I had been seen, I went inside. I undressed and slid into bed with Lacey. Now she would have to believe me.
“You went to his house in the middle of the night?” Thankfully, she was torn between amusement and horror, rather than anger and horror. I think we each had a different perspective on the previous night’s events. I still wasn’t certain she had gotten what I was trying to tell her.
“It’s our snowflake,” I repeated. “I’m sure of it. It’s broken in the same place.”
“So ask him about it,” Lacey insisted. “Stop sneaking around like this. You’re going to get yourself in trouble.” I shrugged. “Mark.” It was the voice she used when disciplining Nolan.
“I’ll talk to him,” I agreed.
Nolan stared at the two of us, seemingly lost by the conversation. I smelled the gingerbread that Lacey had in the oven. The only question now was what I would say.
When breakfast was cleaned up, I threw on my jacket and walked across the lawn to Kevin’s house and knocked on the front door. I felt the snowmen watching from behind me, the way a peon feels enforcers watching him while he meets with the godfather.
“Mark, good morning,” smiled Kevin when he opened the door. “What can I do for you?”
Now, face-to-face with him, I felt all my certainties melt away. He looked at me questioningly. “Kevin, I just wanted to ask you a question.”
“Sure.” He stepped out onto the stoop. He wore a thick red sweater but clearly still felt the chill. “What is it?”
“I…I noticed that you seem to have more decorations in your yard every time I look out here,” I said, trying to keep my voice neutral.
“Yeah?” Kevin said, apparently not understanding.
“It’s just—I thought you had finished a couple days ago. Are you still finding more, or buying them?”
“Feeling threatened?” he laughed, clapping me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll try not to outdo you too badly.”
I tried to chuckle along with him, but he saw the question that remained in my expression. “You really want to know, huh? Fair enough, a friend of mine wanted to cut back on decorations this year. He’s been passing some stuff along to me.”
“Well, be careful of them,” I told him, forcing my face into a smile. “I think someone’s been taking decorations out of my yard. Wouldn’t want anyone taking anything that belonged to you.” His expression didn’t so much as flicker.
“Now that you mention it,” he said, leaning forward as if to impart a secret. “I do think there was someone in my yard last night. I turned the light on, but he was gone before I got a look. Maybe he was after my stuff too. Thanks for telling me. If it happens again, I’ll be sure to call the cops.”
He grabbed my hand in a vice of a handshake. “Good to see you, but I’ve got to get back. Kate’s expecting company this afternoon, and she wants help preparing.”
“Of course,” I said. “Sorry to bother you.”
“Hey, have a good day.” He went back inside and left me standing in front of the blank door, rubbing my fingers.
“It was him.”
Lacey looked up from the floor where she was playing a board game with Nolan. “He admitted it?” she asked.
“No, he said they were from a friend, but I’m sure of it.”
“He had a logical explanation for his decorations, and that confirmed for you that he stole ours, why?”
“I—I don’t—I can just tell,” I said, knowing immediately how lame it sounded. Lacey shook her head and turned back to the game, not even giving my statement consideration of a response. I can’t say I blame her.
“He shook my hand and smiled at me,” I burst out after watching their game for a few minutes. “He was so smug while my decorations that he stole were just a few feet away.”
“Your decorations or ours? Mark, enough,” snapped Lacey. She took a breath and forced a slight smile onto her face. “It was an interesting theory and funny at first, but it’s getting old. Leave the man in peace. If it bothers you that much, we can file a report with the police and let them handle it.”
“Fine,” I told her. She went back to the game.
At 1 am, I slipped out of bed. Still in my pajamas, I pulled on my winter gear and got a ladder from the garage. I left it on the lawn and crept toward the snowman that I was certain was mine. I lifted it up, eyes regularly checking the house windows for movement. It had to be there. It had to be.
I nearly exclaimed in victory when I saw it. There, on the tag, were my and Lacey’s initials and the date we had bought the snowman—a corny tradition we had started when we first got married that now paid off. The snowman was mine, which meant that everything else had to be too. I was right!
I went back for the ladder and set it up against the roof beside the pilfered snowflake. In doing so, I knocked a couple large icicles off the gutter. They shattered in the frozen bushes below, and I froze as my heart stopped. I waited. There was no sound.
Breathing a little easier, I climbed the ladder until I reached the clasps which held the snowflake in place. Kevin had screwed them to the roof. Who does that? I shoved my gloves in my pockets and grabbed the first clasp with both hands. It refused to move. I pulled harder. Suddenly, my grip gave out. I felt myself go over backwards into empty space. The snow rushed up to meet me. I landed with a crunch of ice and spine and a puff of fine white powder.
Suddenly, I had an image of myself—lying on my back in the snow, in the middle of the night, with a ladder up against my neighbor’s house. This was bad. But, above me, the snowflake continued to shine. I turned my head to look at the snowman. He stared back at me where I lay. “Help me,” said those dark eyes. I could see the end of the icicle strand hung on the far side of the house. This would not be allowed to stand. I got to my feet and stomped across the yard.
My toolbox wasn’t in the garage. I went into the house to look for it. “Daddy?” I jumped a foot in the air and barely managed to bite back a scream that would have destroyed my son’s image of me for all eternity, not to mention the fact that it would have woken Lacey who would have proceeded to kill me in front of our son for what I was doing.
“What are you doing?” Nolan, dressed in footie pajamas, clasped his stuffed polar bear under one arm and stared at me, his head tilted slightly to one side. Dressed in pajama pants and a thick coat, still covered in snow, what could I say?
“I was just fighting the aliens,” I told him. I don’t know what made me say it, and I knew immediately it was a mistake, but his face lit up the moment he heard the words.
“Can I help?” he asked, tossing the bear aside.
“No,” I told him. “You need to go to bed.” But even as I said it, I knew he would only follow me the moment I left. I had made sure of that. The only way to keep him in the house now would be to have Lacey watch him, and that certainly wasn’t an option. I banished all rational thoughts from my head and looked at him again.
“Get your boots and coat on,” I said. “You can be my lookout.” His downcast expression was instantly transformed into an ear-to-ear grin. “But, there are rules,” I told him, grabbing his arm as he pounded past me. “We have to be very quiet. And we can’t tell mom, ever.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“She doesn’t know about the aliens,” I told him. “And I don’t want to scare her.”
“I promise,” he said.
“Then go get ready.” What was I doing?
While he got dressed, I found my tool box and stuffed some basic tools into my pockets, leaving my gloves on the floor; they would only get in the way.
“Ready, dad,” said Nolan, decked out in boots, snow pants, coat, gloves, goggles, hat, and helmet. One hand held a bunch of Nerf darts and the other held the gun itself.
“Let’s go,” I told him.
“You sit here,” I said when we reached the edge of our property. “Like a scout, right?”
He gave me a salute and promptly began building a low snow wall to hide behind. “Let me know if you see anyone.”
I returned to the ladder. It had not moved, and Kevin’s house was still. There were no lights other than the decorations themselves. The street, likewise, was deserted.
The screws holding the snowflake to the roof would not come loose willingly. I forced each one out and dropped them in my pocket. Finally, the snowflake came free. And I dropped it.
With a crack, it landed on the ground, and one of the points snapped off, still loosely connected to the rest by wires. Two of the lights were now broken. I stared at it in disbelief for a moment, and then looked to where Nolan was hunkered down in the snow. His Nerf gun was positioned on the top of his snow fortress, ready to repel enemies.
I climbed down the ladder and unplugged the snowflake from Kevin’s extension cord. The snowman was easy. I unplugged it as well and set the snowflake beside it. Almost done. I dragged the ladder around to the side of the house. My bare hands stuck to the metal, but I got it positioned, winking at Nolan as I climbed up. He waved back.
The maniac had screwed the icicles to the siding as well! I set to work releasing them.
“Aliens!” called Kevin. I turned to tell him to be quiet when I heard them—sirens. I scrambled down the ladder and, for the second time that night, fell. This time, sharp pain shot up my side as I landed on my hip. Despite the fact that my stomach had now clenched to the size of a raisin and adrenaline was now coursing through my body, despite the fact that Nolan was calling for me to get up, that he would cover my escape, despite the urgency that now saturated the situation, there could be no quick recovery from that fall.
I gingerly got to my feet and dodged the ladder as it tried to knock me unconscious. It landed, instead, harmlessly on the ground as blinding blue lights appeared at the end of the street. I ran to Nolan but already saw it was useless to hide. The headlights of the police cars had caught both of us and my name was on the lawn ornaments in the middle of the yard. There was no way we would not be connected to this. Two police cars pulled up to the sidewalk.
Lights flicked on in other houses up and down the street and I felt heat rising in my cheeks. But the rest of me went cold. “Run, Dad!” called Nolan.
“Let me see your hands!” I lifted my hands and walked slowly toward the blue lights. Three officers approached. Two stood back while the third patted me down, relieving me of the tools I carried.
“This your house, sir?” asked the middle-aged woman who seemed to be in charge. Bradley said her name badge.
“No, I live right there,” I said, pointing to my house.
“Put your hands down,” said the groping officer. I obeyed.
“Bang! Bang!” Two Nerf darts flew out of the darkness and hit the female officer in the leg. All three turned to see Nolan emerge from his bunker. “I got you,” he cried happily. Officer Bradley did not look impressed. I shook my head at Nolan and, for once, he got the message immediately. He took his place close beside me and said nothing more.
“We got a report of an attempted break in at this address.” Bradley turned her attention back to me. I had no idea what to tell her. I decided on the truth. When I had finished my brief explanation, she looked me up and down. In a green coat and plaid pajama pants, I hardly looked the part of a hardened criminal. She looked at Nolan next. Kevin’s door opened.
“Mark?” he asked, sounding surprised. “It was you?”
“Don’t give me that,” I snapped, turning to glare at him. I had had enough. “Officer, if you’ll check that snowman over there, you’ll see it has my and my wife’s initials on it as well as the date 12/9/2003 written on the tag. That’s the date we bought it as well as the year we were married. Kevin here didn’t think about that when he decided to borrow my decorations while I was gone. The snowman is mine, as well as that snowflake and the icicles on the house there.” I pointed at the items in question.
“He’s right,” said one of the other officers, checking the tag on the snowman. I fully expected them to turn on Kevin and arrest him on the spot. Instead, Bradley sighed and looked from me to Kevin. At that moment, she looked like someone questioning what she had done to deserve such punishment.
“Sir,” she remained looking at me while beckoning Kevin over. “Regardless of whether these are yours or not, you are on your neighbor’s property, with your son, at two o’clock in the morning with tools and a ladder. Do you know how much of a problem that is?”
I looked at the three officers and the assorted curious faces now plastered to windows up and down the street. I nodded. “Now then,” she turned to Kevin. “Do you admit to taking these decorations?”
There was a pause during which I was sure he would deny it. That stupid grin still hadn’t left his face. Then, “I do,” he said. Not even a trace of remorse!
“Very well. Now, I can drag both of you down to the station and create a headache’s worth of paperwork, or we can set this straight right now.” She turned to Kevin. “You return the items in question and agree not to press charges.” Then me, “You keep to your own property in the future and agree not to press charges. There are more appropriate ways to handle something like this.” I nodded, now quite red in the face.
“Fine,” she gestured to the other officers who collected the snowflake and snowman, and finished taking the icicles from the roof. “I just need statements from each of you.” They dropped all the decorations on the edge of my lawn as I finished my statement and the three returned to their cars.
I turned to see Lacey, looking from the pile of decorations to me. Nolan stood beside her, clearly spilling the beans of everything that had happened. She was still in her nightie and wrapped in a long winter coat. Her boots were undone and her expression filled me with more terror than anything that had happened so far that night. Already chastened, I walked across the yard, not meeting her eyes.
“What is wrong with you?” she snapped, the moment I reached her.
“I’m sorry,” I told her.
“You better be. Turning our son into a criminal!”
“I didn’t—” She silenced me with a glance. We stood in silence for a moment.
“At least…” I gestured toward the broken pile of decorations.
“Don’t even say it.” She took Nolan by the hand and led him back to the house. I watched them go as my spirit sank to new depths than I had thought possible.
“Mark.” I turned to see Kevin walking toward me. His wife stood on the stoop behind him, wrapped in a blanket. “Sorry about all this,” he said, extending a hand toward me. I shook it and regretted the decision immediately as the vice snapped closed once more. I remained composed. “I feel like a fool. It won’t happen again.” There was a glint in his eyes. It made me not trust him. I’ll be watching you it said.
Same to you I said back, while the words that came from my mouth were “don’t worry about it. I think we’ve both learned something here.”
“Good night,” he said.