“PEOPLE OF EARTH!” came the resounding roar, through every television, radio, or electronic device. All around the world, as citizens cleared the remnants of the Feast Of Thanks from the tables, the welcome voice boomed. “IT IS TIME ONCE AGAIN FOR THE FESTIVAL OF THE ANOINTMENT!”
They kept to the side roads. They had learned, each year, a little more. Some things, there was no way to stop: the star, for example – and who would want to? But given that, in all other things, until the right time, the less attention they drew themselves, the better.
The journey had to be made, every year. The actual location never mattered, provided that the distance traveled was the same as that first, and so long as it ended at a stable. Some things were immutable, some things were not. They no longer rode a donkey, for example.
This year, it was an armored halftrack.
“Where are the cattle?” whispered this year’s Joseph.
They couldn’t count on cows being there, they’d learned. If there was lowing to be done, they had to make sure it was ready to go.
Tom put down his dish towel. He looked at Lana. “I guess that’s it,” he said. “Will you be able to put the kids to bed?”
Lana nodded. She helped Trini through her bath, made sure Danny had brushed his teeth, at least (if not his hair!).
As she was tucking her daughter into bed, Trini asked: “Mom, how long until the Saint visits?”
“Just a few weeks, honey,” Lana told her, patting her head.
“Have I been good this year?”
“Uh-huh. Of course you have,” Lana reassured her. “You’re always such a good girl.”
“Mom?” Trini asked, as Lana stood up. “Does the Saint know I’ve been good?”
Lana nodded and kissed her little girl on her forehead. “Of course he does, Sweetie. He watches you, all the time – and of course on Xmas Eve he’ll come here and check one last time.” She looked at her watch. “OK. Enough for tonight. Listen, you stay in bed all night, okay? Danny is in his room if you need anything.”
Trini nodded. “Mom?” she asked.
“Yes,” Lana said, pausing at the door. “What is it?”
“Will you bring me something back?” Trini asked.
“Of course, sweetie!” Lana smiled. “That’s what it’s all about!”
Downstairs, Tom was at the door with his parka already on. “Don’t do this, Lana,” he said. “Stay home.”
Lana shook her head. “I’ve got to get to my post.”
Tom sighed. “You don’t have to. One per family is all the Immortal Saint asks.”
Lana folded her arms. “I know that’s all he asks, Tom. But it’s not all I want to give.”
“Lana, it’s dangerous out there. And we’re leaving the kids alone? It’s great you want to go out and be on the front lines but you don’t have to do it. Remember: it’s the thought that counts.”
“Tom,” Lana said: “This… is war.”
Joseph turned back to the private as the carrier was camouflaged for the day. “What about the Secrets?”
The private flipped up a computer monitor and made some gestures on it. A map resolved, showing glowing dots across the continent. “We’ve got them spread out, lots and lots of them. They won’t deploy, most of them, until the day before, if not the night before. But when they do they’ll be all through the house. The Saint’s people won’t suspect a thing.”
“Hopefully,” Joseph said. “I’d like it if they all heard the bells on Xmas Day.”
Lana was stationed at the Mall just off I-50. Tom tried to monitor the news reports on Huffington Post even as he watched his own, barely-visited artisanal street mall on the edge of town. Information was both abundant and unreliable: first it was reported that millions were staying home today, opting not to take part in this year’s Black Friday. Those reports were fed to the media every year, Tom knew, by both sides, in a massive disinformation campaign that lately had erupted into overflow of data on the Monday after the start of the Feast. He ignored them. While his own area might be quiet, he heard enough intercom chatter to know that there was plenty of action out there.
He saw a small crawl in one newsbox; it said that I-50 was shut down with traffic. Tom hoped it was just traffic. He was trying to click around and get more information when two elderly people got out of an old station wagon. He watched as the husband held the wife’s arm as she stepped up onto the sidewalk, still a little slippery despite the spreading of salt.
As they approached him, Tom shouldered his gun.
“Happy holidays,” he said.
The woman glared at him, and even as he tried to pull his gun down the man moved his arm to pull open his coat. Fire blazed up and out with a colossal roar…
24 hours in, thought Joseph, as the private reported heavy casualties. He was only this year’s Joseph, a man who a few days ago had been someone else but whose real name was as irrelevant now as Joseph was at the destination. He looked at this year’s Mary, who was barely 19.
“You doing okay?” he asked.
Mary patted her belly, lovingly. “I’m fine. Where are we?”
“In the woods, actually. We’re going to hide out again today, travel only by night.”
“Is that safe?”
“Safer than day. People have to sleep sometime.” Deep and dreamless sleep, he thought, watching the silent stars above go by into the edge of the horizon as the sun rose.
“I just don’t understand,” Danny said. “Why was Dad even there? Why would they kill him?”
“They’re crazy, Danny. Just obsessed.” Lana said. “They won’t let us just live our lives the way the Saint wants us to. They insist that we have to follow them, and do things their way. We can’t have that happen.” She didn’t want to get into the whole baby thing, either. Not with Trini in the car. It was too complicated. All three of them fell silent as they drove slowly away from the cemetery, where they’d gone each day since the funeral. Lana went there to strengthen her resolve. She felt the children needed to go there so they would not lose sight of the results of fighting this war each year. It was not enough to just enjoy the spoils of the battle; they must learn how much those things cost.
And learn that cost is no object, Lana found herself thinking. The weather outside the car was turning frightful, and they had no place to go.
“24 hours to go. 24! We’ve got this!” Joseph said. They were already at the site of the stable, and scouts had reported that the manger was set. Livestock were being slowly brought through the woods to the edge of town, ready to be stabled tonight. Reports came in: the three wise men had been found and provided their objects. Several privates had been detailed to shepherd duty. Everything was coming together. Maybe this year... Joseph hardly dared let himself hope. So many times they’d come so close.
“Joseph?” he heard behind him. In the confines of the armored carrier, the dim computer lights barely carried to the corner where Mary sat. He looked at her.
“I just wanted you to know, I appreciate this. We all do. You’re really doing a lot, here.”
“Someone has to,” Joseph said.
“Well, it didn’t have to be you,” Mary said. “Maybe… maybe after this is all over we could… you and I…?”
Joseph smiled ruefully. “Sweetheart, this may never be over.” Mary looked down, sadly.
Joseph went and knelt by her. “Unless this year we manage to pull it off…” he whispered.
Mary looked up at him hopefully.
Lana was so tired she could barely stand. She almost just lay down on Trini’s bed next to the little girl, but instead sat next to her, rubbing her soft hair as the girl relaxed.
“Mommy, will you say the poem one more time?”
Lana smiled sadly. “Sure,” she said, then began the creed everyone knew from memory:
Twas the night before Xmas and all round the world
Were nestled the good little boys and the girls.
While Mom in the bedroom and Dad on the stairs
Stand vigilant to protect what is theirs.
‘Til over the rooftop they hear the loud thunder
Of the Saint and his coursers, bearing their plunder.
From the far frozen north comes the Saint in his quest
To destroy and remove any claims someone’s blessed,
And he’ll search every house, search them all one-by-one
Until in the morning his grim task is done.
Then, upon making certain no spirit is lurking
He’ll throw wide the curtains and go back to working,
Allowing the sun to shine in, as he goes,
On the presents for the faithful that he has bestowed.
Lana paused. The rest of it could wait. Trini was sound asleep, a small smile on her face.
“This is it, people,” Joseph hissed into his wrist communicator.
Mary was breathing more heavily, and Joseph held her hand as she bore down with the next contraction.
“That was great, Mary, just great,” he encouraged her. “Only a few more.”
They were coming upon midnight, and all was clear. Joseph began to hope, just a little.
Lana went downstairs to make one last sweep of the house, ensure everything was in order. She found Danny in the recroom by the third tree they’d put up – couldn’t be too supportive!—with some new girl Lana hadn’t met before.
“Who’s this?” Lana asked.
“Oh. Um. Mom. This is. This.” Danny began to blush.
“I’m Susan,” the girl said. “Danny’s… friend.”
Lana narrowed her eyes. “I don’t think I’ve heard of you before, Susan. Shouldn’t you be home with your family?”
Susan nodded. “I was getting ready to leave in a bit, but I got Danny in the gift exchange at school and came over to give him his present. We were just going to…” she trailed off, gesturing at the backpack sitting near her leg.
“All right,” Lana said. “But Danny, not too late. The Saint won’t come until we’re all asleep, remember.”
“I remember, Mom. I remember.”
Lana wouldn’t have ordinarily left him alone in the basement with a girl, like that, but she figured it couldn’t hurt, this year, and Danny needed some cheering up since Tom… she headed back upstairs.
“He’s beautiful,” said Mary. She was crying, holding the baby.
“Swaddle him. Swaddle him!” Joseph was already peering at the sky, and: there it was. The star. The star! They’d done it. This time, for sure. Nobody was even near them. He muttered orders into his communicator, got jingled confirmations from the shepherds. They were on their way.
“Cue the cattle,” he said, as the little baby fell asleep. This would be the second test: would the poor baby wake? Without making a sound?
Danny excused himself to go get Susan a Coke ™, and as soon as she heard his feet going up the stairs, she opened up the backpack. After pulling out a gaudily-wrapped box that she set on the sofa, she dug deeper, and came up with several little bells shaped like angels, each with a cord attached to its head. She quickly moved to the tree, hanging them from branches – not hidden, but not obtrusive, either. Then she went back to the backpack.
“Do you want ice?” Danny yelled from the top of the stairs, nearly giving her a heart attack.
“Um. Yeah! Lots of it,” she said. She heard his footsteps move away again.
She pulled from the backpack a treetopper star – six pointed, gleaming with gold and silver and what she assumed were fake diamonds but which looked real. On its face was a small engraving of a baby in a manger.
Would he notice it? She pulled off the topper the tree had had on it – a Star Wars™ figure, and put the star up there. She kicked Xmas Vader under the couch just as Danny got down the stairs, and as he turned the corner she said “Can I take off my sweater? It’s hot in here,” thereby guaranteeing that Danny would not be looking at the tree.
Secret Santa 117, mission accomplished, she would later text to the code source on her way home.
“Now!” said Joseph, urgently into his commlink. Around the country, operatives pressed buttons and activated switches. Joseph could hear bells start to ring through his radio set, and then in the town around him.
He turned back to Mary. “Hopefully that’s enough,” he said.
Lana woke to a roaring, gnashing howl. She immediately assumed they were under attack, and rose from her bed to see what was the matter. She pulled on night-vision goggles while running downstairs, holding her gun. “STAY IN YOUR ROOMS!” she yelled to the children. The sound was coming from the rec room -- but upon entering, her wondering eyes began to goggle, and she dropped her weapon.
She flicked on the light.
“Lana,” the voice said. It was a voice that could have, in different circumstances, been jovial, even jolly, coming from so deep in a belly like that, then pouring out through a curly, wispy beard. “Lana, I’m so disappointed in you…”
She said “What…?” Her eyes followed to where the Saint was pointing, his mitten dusted with soot and a little damp from the snow outside. She saw the star, and on closer inspection the tiny angel bells, which were ringing. She hadn’t noticed it when she first entered the room; they were soft but clear chimes, like bells carrying from far away across a frozen field, on a quiet still night.
“I thought you were a good girl, Lana,” the Saint said.
Lana dropped to her knees. “I am! I don’t know how…” but before she could do anything, the Saint said “What?”
She looked up. The Saint was gazing into a snowglobe, from which a voice came, telling him some news about a manger… Lana held her breath.
“No!” the Saint yelled. He put a finger alongside his nose and disappeared. In his place were three small lumps of coal. Lana began crying.
Joseph – for he was Joseph now, having earned the name – flipped from channel to channel on the television in the small hotel room they’d checked into just after sunrise. Nothing said he had to stay in the manger, after all.
“The President will address a joint session of Congress…” one anchor said. On the next station a reporter in front of the Kremlin said: “Mr. Putin said that his nation would join…” On the third station, the anchor said, solemnly, “And so I and everyone at Channel 3 would like to say: Glory to the newborn King.” His voice lilted as he said it, turning it into a song.
“Come here,” Mary said. “Come look at him.” Joseph did. The kid was so cute.