He checked his watch and nodded in satisfaction. It was five o’clock and he was ready. Ready for their first Christmas together as husband and wife. Glancing round the lounge, he checked one last time to ensure that everything was in place and just right. She would be home from work soon and he wanted it all to be perfect for her. It was a shame that she had to work on Christmas Eve, but he had just lost his job. That meant that she had to work as many hours as possible to keep up with the bills and payments. He felt bad about it, but he did his best to make sure the house was tidy for her and that there was always a meal ready for her when she came home. He was satisfied. The room looked like a scene from a Christmas movie. The logs in the fireplace were burning brightly and the mantelpiece was festooned with a festive garland of holly, ivy and spruce. Pinned to the mantelpiece were their Christmas stockings, two green and blue oversized socks, complete with embroidered names. They were a surprise for her, she didn’t know that he had ordered them. He had decided to hang them early, in an attempt to make her laugh when she got home. He hoped that she would find it funny, and it just might become one of their personal Christmas traditions.
The Christmas tree sat in the corner of the lounge, resplendent with twinkling lights and sparkling baubles. They had gone out the previous weekend to a local tree farm to select the perfect tree. It was a little big for the room, but it was the perfect shape. And you couldn’t beat having a real tree.
He had placed various Christmas decorations round the room. A pair of small pottery Victorian street scenes, backlit with tea-lights, sat on the mantelpiece. On the dresser was a small porcelain Christmas tree, complete with a tiny train winding its way up towards the star that crowned the top. Candles, dotted around the room added to the ambience of the room.
From the kitchen came the delicious smells of wine being mulled, ham being baked and chestnuts being roasted. He was planning a very traditional Christmas Eve meal for them. The turkey, the star of the show, was waiting in the refrigerator, ready for the big day.
He glanced at his watch, if her train had been on schedule she would be at the train station by now, climbing into her car to make the short drive home. He knew the roads were clear of snow, so it shouldn’t take her too long.
Glancing once more round the room, he realized that the fire could do with more wood. Stepping outside, he paused to reflect on just how perfect the scene was. Their house was rural, with only one close neighbor. From the front door he could see sweeping vistas of fields and trees. Winter had only just arrived in the region. It had been green until just a few days ago, then the snow had arrived blanketing the area in a thick coat. The fir trees in the garden now looked like the snow covered trees depicted in Christmas cards. The driveway had been ploughed, but apart from that, the snow was pristine and untouched. Moonlight bathed the front garden in a cold light. It was so beautiful. He decided that he would suggest to her that after their meal they wrap up warm and go outside to admire the view after.
He walked to the wood pile that lay about thirty feet away from the house. The wood had been stacked under the overhanging branches of an evergreen tree, to protect it from the worst of the snow. Despite that precaution the wood on the top was lightly dusted. He glanced back at the house, their home. It was a nineteenth century farmhouse, red-brick with a wooden veranda on three sides. It was solid, welcoming house, especially now, with the amber light shining through the front windows, contrasting against the whiteness of the world outside.
Suddenly he froze. The firewood that he held in his arms fell to the ground. The vision in front of him had changed. Instead of that welcoming home at Christmastime, he saw a terrifying vision. It was the same house he was looking at, but it was no longer his home. This version of the house was dark and cold, and in the moonlight he could see that the roof was gone and the windows were dark and broken. It was the burnt-out shell of the home that he knew and loved. His breath froze as he stared at the scene. He felt something as he stared at that dreadful sight, something horribly familiar was stirring in his memory. A vision unbidden and unwanted flashed through his mind. In the vision he was back in the house. There was fire, smoke, screams. The smell of burning flesh. He clutched his throat, he couldn’t breathe. His arms flailed about in front of him. He couldn’t see, couldn’t find his way out. He could feel the heat on his face, vaguely aware of the flames as they exploded from the fireplace and flowed like liquid over the Christmas tree. He felt himself stumble over furniture as he tried to escape. A sudden horror enveloped him. Where was she? He couldn’t see her, couldn’t hear her. The noise of cracking wood and collapsing timbers was too loud. The whole house was in flames. He shouted her name, screamed it, but he felt the smoke choking him; his throat was raw and he was unable to continue calling for her. He couldn’t find her. He had lost her. He fell to his knees in the smoke, blinded and choking.
Cool air brought him back to his senses. The terrifying sensations subsided and he found that his vision had cleared and his breathing had eased. He was still outside, kneeling in the cold snow next to the woodpile.
He glanced up at the house, expecting the worst, but it was back to normal. The idyllic Christmas home was back, with no sign of the derelict wreck that had terrified him just a few moments ago. He shook his head, but the memory of the burning, choking sensations remained. It had all been too real. As if it had really happened. Forgetting the extra firewood, he suddenly knew that he had to get back to the house. If he didn’t all would be lost. He would be lost. He started to run, stumbling in the knee-deep snow. He didn’t look where he was running, his eyes were fixed firmly on the house, praying it would stay as the warm, welcoming home he loved. He knew, absolutely knew, that if he didn’t make it back to the house then he would never see her again. The house would remain as the burnt out shell and they would never have their first Christmas together. He had to make it.
Stumbling onto the veranda, feeling more exhausted than he ever had done before, he pushed open the front door. Was it too late? Was everything lost? Warm amber light welcomed him. He felt tears in his eyes. He had made it in time. He walked into the lounge and saw her, standing by the fire. She turned and smiled at him.
“Merry Christmas, my love.”
Copyright © 2014 by Richard Meldrum