It wasn’t like the other Christmas where everyone was gathered around the mistletoe, sneaking peeks at the girls across the circle to see if they would be interested in him pecking them on the cheek or not. There wasn’t any bright package sitting in a heap of other colorful wraps of plastic and paper with neat little bowties of red, green or yellow enclosing them. The floor was bare of a rug, of a fireplace; thought there was plenty, plenty of heat. God-awful heat sometimes.
This Christmas was the loneliest he had ever experienced. Where there would have been stark blue skies lanced with sharp billowy white clouds that spiked the sky with twinkles of snow and ice, and laced the overhead drains of the homes with icicles, there were only stalactites and stalagmites. Rocks with pointed ends, sometimes rounded, that went up or down along the path the wandered.
Where there might have been walls of Christmas card greetings dangling from strips of foil or string so they could all be read, there were fungus and mold of varying colors of green and mustard that glowed in the absolute, stygian darkness that surrounded them at times. It was a mausoleum of stone cold silence and absolute, terrifying preponderance of stone and weight that overhung them like a sword of Damocles waiting to drop and take their lives.
Whenever the earth rumbled and moved, which seemed more and more often these days, everyone would stop their march and listen, feel. Feel the ground, the rock, the litter of rocks and moss that covered their narrow path. Feel if this might be the start of the next Big One, the one they had fought so far to stop. And now were seemingly still so far from ever reaching an end that would bring a conclusion to their journey to the center of the earth.
What had started out as a solemn column of Special Forces determined to discover the source of the Big One and stop it from ever happening again had become a march of desolation and despair at times. Especially when Christmas came.
Justin took a deep breath of the dry air about him, and eyed the solemn groups of Special Forces, who were some singing Christmas Carols, others using spare charges to illuminate make shift fires, burning up their own valuable paper, just to have something that resembled a real fire, a friendly fire again.
“Suck it up, soldier!” Commanded Miles. General Miles to be exact.
He dropped beside Justin. “This is Christmas. Don’t bring it down for the others.”
Justin eyed him. The man was like a father to him and the others. Probably the closest they would ever get to one again, if they never returned to the surface, which seemed more and more likely as they descended into the bowels of the earth.
“I’m sorry, General Miles. I miss home is all.”
“We all do, Private.” General Miles told him, not sternly, but with a gentle force. The crack of a smile eased his lips and he made himself more comfortable. “Just between you and me, I’d rather be sitting in front of a fire with mistletoe overhead and the love of my life next to my elbow, waiting for that special moment, when…”
Justin grinned. “When!”
General Miles nodded. “You hang onto that image, Private, and you’ll find this journey goes faster and safer. We all need to keep our wits about us, and our courage up, if not for ourselves then for each other. This…” He nodded to the other Forces. “This is our family for now. Appreciate them while. Love them. For this is what God has given us for now to share.”
“Yes, sir!” I’ll remember that Private Justin Winters replied, really meaning it at the time, but knowing that once the magical voice of General Miles passed on to the next soldier, he’d begin his descent into his personal hell again.
But at least for a few moments he could see his way out of the darkness they lived in, the weight of the god-awful earth above them.
He savored that feeling for several moments, and then felt something scuttle past him. It was a rodent. It looked like a hamster. But down here?
He watched it go to the nearest wall and sniff at it, as if it were something eatable. His curiosity got the better of him, and he forgot about it being Christmas and lonely and all the sad stuff that had been driving him down into the dirt.
He stood up slowly, so as not to startle the creature, and then watched as it made its way along the way, past the huddled soldiers, who had no attention for the creature. Even the Cook, who would toss anything into their pot to eat, ignored it. He was snoozing with his large kitchen pan over his face to keep the flickering fires from his face.
And there was Snookers, his pal from Fifth, who had elected to come with them when he could have had a cushy job back up earth side. But who was he to criticize anyone; he didn’t have to come either. Everyone was a volunteer; because there was always the chance none of them would make it back alive. Sometimes he thought he was a death freak who lived on being on the edge, but in his less morose moments, he knew he just wanted to save lives.
What was that?
He blinked closely as the rodent slipped into what appeared to be a crack of some sort. It hadn’t been there earlier when he had passed it before. He went over and reached his hand out to the wall above the crack, but his hand vanished. He almost screamed in terror, but then he recovered his senses. He didn’t want to alarm anyone. Everyone needed the rest they could get.
He followed his hand with his arm, then his shoulder and the rest of himself. He found himself in a small, but cozy room with white walls and Christmas decorations everywhere. A warm fire was burning in a fireplace, and mistletoe hung from the rocky ceiling overhead. The rodent was nowhere to be seen. But on a small table was a heap of shiny present packages, a plate of cookies, and a glass of milk with its glass shimmering with frost.
He went closer and felt the glass. It was cold to touch. He couldn’t believe his luck. He began eating cookies like he was starving, and gulping milk. No matter how much milk he drank the glass never seemed to empty.
Finally, he couldn’t squeeze anymore into his stomach.
He almost wanted to throw up he had made such a pig of himself. He was grinning from ear to ear. Then he realized he was standing beneath the mistletoe.
“Does this mean I get to kiss you?”
He turned around, surprised at the sound of the voice. “Madelyn!”
She had vanished in the Big One. No one had found her body. It was what had driven him into the service, to try and make up for the loss of her. She had been the only reason he wanted to be alive and she had been taken from him.
“Unless you know something I don’t.” She snickered.
He laughed and threw his arms around her. She hugged him back, and then pulled back.
He kissed her.
She put a finger to his lips.
“Now close your eyes and I have a big surprise for you.”
He closed his eyes.
He felt her move close, then her lips press close to his once more. He felt her warm breath upon his face, then nothing.
He opened his eyes and saw General Miles standing in front of him.
“Something wrong, Private?”
He shook his head, dazed. “No sir. Not a darned thing.”
“Good, Merry Christmas! Now get some shuteye before we start moving again.”
He nodded, then went back to his bedroll and threw himself down on it.
He shut his eyes. He could still see her smiling face in his mind. She was real. He knew she was. But how could he ever tell anyone else. None of it made any sense.
Then he remembered her putting her finger to his lips to stop the questions. Didn’t matter. It was happening. Had happened.
And for the first time in a very, very long time, he slept deeply and peacefully.
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