Darkness, when it came, closed down over Piedmont like the lid on a large cedar chest. The distant rumble of the shutters followed as the sound hurried to catch up with the shadow, like black thunder chasing the stroke of darkness. With only the light leak around the sun shutters to provide a pale imitation of moonlight, they had to step carefully as they made their way back to the house.
David shouted, “Hey look! Lights in the sky!”
And there were. First a dozen yellow lights scattered across the far side of the sky, then more, as farmers all through Piedmont lit the traditional Christmas Eve fire. Dot came out of the house, rubbing her hands on the towel at her waist. She, too, started up at the sight.
“Hurry and help me, David,” Fred said to his youngest. “We have to get our fire going.”
“Aww. Why do I have to...”
“None of that!” Fred spoke sharply. “Santa is coming in just a few hours. This is not the time to act up.”
“Yes, Davie,” taunted his sister. “If you’re naughty, Santa won’t give you anything.”
“Kim, “ commanded Dot, “come on and help me set the fireside table.” Kim’s face twisted as she realized she had trapped herself into helping her mother.
As the door closed, David heard his mother’s voice rise sharply. “Kim Jerret, what is that in your hair?”
David was not really strong enough to help much with the firebuilding, but his father believed in chores for the children, even if it meant more work for him. They had the stack of wood placed in the firepit, ready for lighting by the time the dinner was served.
“Can I light it now, Daddy?” David asked. Fred shook his head.
Dot looked up at her husband with a question in her eyes. He turned away, looking briefly at the road that led past the front of their property. Joey had been late getting home several times before. But it was Christmas Eve! He shook off a rising flood of anger and frustration. He couldn’t let Christmas be spoiled for the other kids.
He said, “Let’s just sit here for a little bit and enjoy the lights.”
Dot insisted they eat while the food was still hot. Helplessly, Fred felt the liquid trickle of an old hurt as they watched the lights flickering above. Empty places at the family table again.
Joey was at a difficult age. His older brother had been the same-staying out later and later with his friends. The role and restrictions of being a child were too much for him to bear. The harder his father fought to keep control, the more Joey managed to slip away.
His brother Tim had vanished one day, leaving a note saying that he had left to apprentice as a shuttle pilot. That had been two years ago. Christmas that first year had been hard, with that vacant chair as a constant reminder of a part of them that was gone.
The second year Tim sent Christmas presents for the kids, and a letter for his parents. They wrote back, but it was clear that their son had left for good. He was a regular pilot, with a regular run among the different orbital worlds. He had a life of his own, and it did not include Piedmont. Fred’s boy would never be a farmer like his father.
“Why do we light a fire on Christmas Eve, Daddy?” Kim asked.
His little girl was growing up, too. He smiled at her as she stared up at the display above.
“There are a couple of reasons. When I was a boy, my father told me that Piedmont had started the Christmas fires to remind us of the stars in the night sky of Earth.”
“What is the other reason?”
Fred went over to the storage shed and picked up a bag of powder from the shelf. He set it down on the bench before the kids. “This is seeding powder. We put it on the fire and it helps the formation of raindrops. Piedmont is a special world and we have to take care of it in a lot of little ways.”
David asked, as he stuck his finger in the grayish powder, “Does it make snow, too?”
Fred laughed. “Yes, it helps make snow, too.”
“Good, let’s light it!” David grabbed the bag and headed over to the fire.
Fred was quick on his feet and grabbed the bag before the boy had dumped it. “Okay. But we have to sprinkle the powder over the fire carefully.”
Kim wanted to help, but Fred ruled that since David had helped build the fire, he ought to be the one to start it. They soon had a blazing fire and he showed David the proper way to toss the little scoops of powder over the fire.
In the yellow light, Fred noticed tears in Dot’s eyes. He moved to her side. Christmas was a time for extremes. If you didn’t feel wonderful, you felt horrible. He held her hand as they watched the flames.
He tried to smile, to feel as happy as his two little ones. But it was so hard. He squeezed Dot’s hand. She squeezed back.
“Hey!” Kim pointed. “Here comes Joey!”
And sure enough, the bouncy white light of a bicycle on a dirt road was visible in the night. They all watched it as it pulled up and Joey walked up to the fireside.
He came right up to the flames and rubbed his hands. “This feels good. It’s getting cold.”
“Where have you been?” Fred tried to keep his voice level. There would be nothing good in having another shouting match like last time he returned home late.
Joey looked at his father’s face and then looked back to the fire. “Mr. Grey, the scout troop leader, he asked me to help. Troop Two was supposed to handle the count on the Common.” He shrugged, carefully watching the flames. “It took longer than we thought.”
Fred nodded. He had heard it before. He sighed. “Dot, could you heat up something for Joey?” To Joey, he said, “David had to do your chores today. He gets your allowance, too.”
David squealed in delight. Joey started to protest, then thought better of it.
It took an hour or more for the fire to die down to a red piping bed of coals. With Dot leading, they sang Christmas carols.
David asked, “How can Santa get to every house in one night?”
Kim eagerly explained, “He has a magic flier so he can land and take off real quick. He comes in a red shuttle and visits all the worlds in the circuit all in one night.”
Fred always held his breath when the little ones asked about Santa. He dreaded the moment when they would ask if Santa was real. For David, at least, the moment had not yet come. He was just a little too young to guess at such a great conspiracy. At least his older ones were firmly coached not to give away the secret to the younger ones, at least not on purpose.
Across the landscape, like a metallic rolling thunder, the clank of the great doors of the Northport docking hangar clanked shut.
Kim and David started shouting, “Santa’s here! Santa’s ship is here!
Distant voices, far too distant to resolve into anything more than the sound of humanity, told of all the world’s children cheering the coming of Santa.
Dot said, “Okay. Bedtime, kids. “ She hustled them off to bed, giving David his medicine and getting Kim to wash her hair. Bedtime was never quick and easy with kids, not even on Christmas Eve.
It was much later that Dot came back to join Fred as he tended the bed of coals. “Woooo! It’s cold.” She rubbed her hands together before the warmth of the coals, then sat down on the bench next to him. He put his arm around her.
Quiet moments, and a spot of warmth on a cold n’ght-that and love can drain the stress of the day. They sat and breathed the frosty air, and enjoyed the moment.
“Oh,” Fred asked, “did you upload the clipboard file?”
“Mmm. I plugged it into house storage. The midnight poll will upload it to central.” She leaned her head against his shoulder and laughed. “Did you see Kim’s hair? She must have rolled in the leaves! “
“No, “ he contradicted. “David dumped those on her. I caught them at it in the woods.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I gave her quite a scold.”
“If she didn’t snitch on him, why should I? Besides, I would have liked to play in the leaves, too, if they would have let me.”
She poked him in the ribs. “Impossible. Farm kids! And you’re the worst of the lot.”
Fred nodded. “Good kids,” he said quietly.
“All of them,” she agreed.
Then, a touch of wetness on her cheek turned Dot’s eyes to the sky above them. “Snow! It’s starting to snow.”
Drifting down in lazy swirls, large snowflakes were suddenly filling the air. Minute by minute, the white stuff increased, until it became clear that they had to get up and go inside or get wet from all the snow melting on them.
“It will be a good snow this year,” Fred said, getting to his feet and helping his wife up. “Good for snowmen.”
“And don’t forget Santa.”
Almost on cue, they heard a strange sound faintly through the snow-muffled air. The sound of a flier. But no one would be flying on a night like this! And the sound was becoming louder, as if the flyer was coming down.
Neither of them spoke. Her hand gripped his tighter when the flier flickered into view at the edge of the field. The wings tilted up, the sputtering died. A man in a heavy suit, carrying a large bag over his shoulder, set the flier back on its struts. He walked toward them.
“Tim?” Dot spoke.
“Son?” Fred asked.
The young man’s face, dimly lit by the rosy glow of the coals, was one big smile. “Mom, Dad. Sorry I’m late.” Then words were lost in a joyous round of bear hugs and happy tears.
“I couldn’t get here any sooner,” he explained. “Northport control had me delay docking so that I could be Santa’s ship this year. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you I was coming. It took some fancy last-minute schedule swapping with the regular pilot to get me here. And then I almost got lost in the snow.” He shook his head in embarrassment. “I had forgotten about the snow.”
“Just so you are here. “ His mother gave him another hug. “All my children are here.”
“Dot!” said Fred, as the thought struck him. “Go correct the count, quickly before the midnight upload. Our family is six--in our Christmas Count tonight.”