Third Christmas Since...
Jack stood and stared. Trees, trees and more trees; how could there be some many of them?
This was supposed to have been a simple mission, in and out. No muss, no fuss. But... that first tree, he'd slowed his not-quite trot at the sight of it, then skirted it at a fast walk and covered his unease by shifting his burden.
Then he'd seen the second one, very much like the first, and just as alone and unique in its isolation. Neither were like any of the others they stood amongst. Jack's fast walk slowed to a thoughtful pace, the better to take in the horrific sight.
And horrific it was as he stood opposite the fifth such tree. He could not move away from it, something about it compelled him closer, close enough to reach out and touch. Against his will his hand stretched out to poke at the crude red construction paper bell. A child's name scrawled in crayon across its folded double-thickness of the paper, hung with more ribbon than was strictly necessary to suspend it from the artificial tree bough.
Jack's sharp eyes had caught at many of the names that hung from the trees. He'd spotted Charlie more than once, that name could not be hidden from him. If it existed anywhere within sight, he saw it.
He didn't live a sheltered life, even if he worked at a top-secret base and had pretty much no life to speak of. Jack wasn't dead either, so even if he wasn't listening to the TV that filled the house with sound just to hide the silence, information did filter in; the odd fact here, the occasional news item or ad. He knew these trees existed and wondered why this was the first time he'd ever seen one. Course it might be the fact that he didn't do Christmas, not since...
'And there were so many ornaments on the trees,' his mind blurted out before that train of thought could go any further.
His thoughts whirling and churning over the idea that so many children might go without a Christmas and just how he really didn't want to contemplate it at all, blinded him to his own act. Strong fingers plucked the childish ornament from the tree and his feet resumed their path to the exit of the store. He didn't even remember to look for traffic as he strode across the parking lot in his haste to get away from the tree and the feeling it caused in him.
And then he was there - safe - chest heaving as if he'd run full tilt rather than walked. He slumped into the seat of the big dark green Ford F250. He felt like a purse-snatcher.
Jack wondered just what he should do with the ornament. His first thought was to dash into the store and put it back. His eyes snapped around the parking lot, because his second thought was he shouldn't have this in his hand. Shouldn't someone be chasing him down demanding its return?
He may have heard about these special ornaments, but that didn't mean he knew how it all worked. And why did possessing it feel so wrong - and - so right at the same time?
Since no one seemed the least interested in him, what he had done hadn't been unexpected he reasoned - at least to anyone watching. To him - yes, very unexpected, baffling even.
He was just out here getting a few gifts for his team and a few others at the base. Better to show some interest than get trapped into doing something like that stint of delivering toys to the community center last year.
At the thought, Jack drifted back to what had happened. He could still feel the tiny glow that had been kindled in his heart almost a year ago. He still found it hard to believe that he could feel that, not after losing Charlie. He'd never expected to ever feel that again, and felt just a little guilty about it. How did he rate?
His eyes fell to the paper in his hand, somehow he'd turned it over and there was the answer to some of the questions his possession of it had created. A white square of instructions had been glued to the back of the child's bell. Jack carefully read them and nodded.
Being a man of action meant he got things done. So with a determined air - though he felt like he was stepping up in front of a firing squad - he exited his temporary safe haven and returned to the store. With the red paper bell as his guide he purchased the item requested and delivered it and the bell to the customer service desk.
Yet the compulsion of the trees didn't stop there. Jack proceeded to return to each tree to chose an ornament and fulfill the wish inscribed within each.
Darkness had finally fallen as Jack worked his way back to his truck, dodging hurrying shoppers and crawling vehicles. A light snow had begun to fall and getting in out of the chill felt good. His mission was complete. Actually he'd exceeded his mission parameters he'd realized with a grin. That initial goal had been met more than six hours previously.
Who would have believed that the simple act of shopping for a child he'd never met would have been so much work. Of course there had been more than one child, there had been five trees and therefore five children.
And three of the requests could not be met by the inventory of the store the ornament's tree had been in. Jack still couldn't figure why he'd gone to all the trouble. But he felt good about it. Very good.
It wasn't until he was almost home that he realized that he was singing Jingle Bells.
Not the END...
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Title: Third Christmas Since...