Mildred finished styling her hair into an old fashioned, but modest, afro, slipped into the little black party dress she’d found packed away in moth balls in a cedar chest in the closet, and a pair of black pumps with chunky heels. She’d rather have had high heels, but that was probably a good thing if the evening went to hell and she had to run.
She wondered if anyone would recognize just how old this hair style was. She knew J.B. couldn’t. He wasn’t old enough. Hell, his grandfather wouldn’t be old enough. She laughed to herself.
Smiling at herself in the mirror. She felt good, excited. This was going to be a special evening.
She strode into the living room and stood in the corner formed by the stone fireplace jutting into the room. From there she could see both the front door and the back door through the kitchen. She picked up the pump shotgun, checked to see that the chamber was loaded, and waited for J.B. to come home.
It was nearly three in the afternoon, the time J. B. was supposed to arrive at the back door and rap their arranged signal. If she heard the correct signal, her holiday was going to be a success, if not, she was going to have to start shooting and maybe start dying.
The smell of the pine boughs arranged around the room and over the fireplace relaxed her. Her shoulders dropped. He arms lowered the weapon to waist height. The decorated tree standing in front of the picture window, now partially boarded over and barricaded, made her smile. Unless some unwelcome guests showed up with J.B. or he brought home some bad news, there was no reason to believe they wouldn’t be safe to enjoy this evening.
The house was sited in a hollow at the base of a saddle connecting two roughly parallel ridges somewhere in the mountains of West Virginia. At least that’s what J.B. said based on his neat little mini-sextant.
When the friends had found this place, they were a bit awed at the quality of construction. This was no pre-dark house. Thanks to the lack of human maintenance and the nukecaust no pre-dark houses remained. The people who built this house knew their stuff. It was as good as predark, maybe better. It had plank walls instead of drywall or plaster; and even a flush toilet. And it was trouble. Whoever built it was probably coming back.
In the living room in front of the picture window stood a skeleton of a tree with glass ornaments and strings of electric lights still hanging on the bare branches. The dry needles littered the plank floor.
Mildred and Doc knew what the tree had been and what it represented but the others had only heard stories about the old holidays. They had never celebrated them.
Skydark had happened on New Year’s Eve, only a week after Christmas of course, so all over America--all over the world--millions of homes and apartments were still decorated for the holidays. All of those homes had been reduced to overgrown piles of debris by neglect and looting.
As Ryan was about to drag the dead tree out into the yard, Mildred, touched by a sudden nostalgia, stopped him.
“Wait Ryan,” she said, “I . . . I would like to keep the ornaments. If we’re going to be here awhile I could hang a few around to brighten up the place a little. Besides, I think it would be a shame to destroy them. They’ve survived so long. Kind of like us, ya know?” She felt all of her companions’ eyes on her, questioning her. They were all suddenly, awkwardly silent. Sentimentality was something more likely to be expressed by Doc than any of the others. She guessed they were puzzled by her departure from her usual pragmatic approach to coping, but she didn’t offer any further explanations.
Ryan looked at her with his one blue eye under an arched brow, looked at the tree, looked at the others and nodded.
“Good idea, Mildred. We’ve been running and gunnin’ a long time. Maybe they’ll brighten us up some as well.”
“Well, good, “she said. “I’ll just look for something to put them in.”
“I”ll help you, Milly,” J.B. said.
“And I’ll be happy to dust them for you, Dr. Wyeth,” said Doc.
“And while you’re all doing that look for signs of who was here and if they’re coming back,” Ryan said, moving to the front door,” I”ll do a sweep outside. Check the outbuildings. This place is too good to be true, but for now it’s ours.”
Actually Mildred didn’t really know what she would do with the ornaments. She couldn’t even explain to herself why it was suddenly important to save them. She only knew that in that tiny moment when Ryan took hold of the tree some of the ornaments had sparkled in the dim light triggering memories of all the Christmases she’d celebrated in her past life, whether as a child or an adult. Memories of the trees she’d decorated with her parents, family dinners, office parties, parties with friends, gifts given and received, even memories of the irritations of frantic last minute shopping, and she knew she had to save them.
She found some baskets in a closet under the stairs to the second floor. A quick look into the master bedroom had found a couple of old shirts in a dresser drawer. She’d given those to Doc for dust rags.
One of the things she and the others noticed about the house was that there weren’t many clothing or other personal items around. The former owners had not left in a hurry that last Christmas, but had taken their time to pack clothes and food before leaving.
Their arrival had been-what-six, eight months ago? She wasn’t sure. Let’s see, she thought, Doc left about two months after we got here. Looking for his family, we think. Then Ryan ups and leaves. At least he told us he was going and is supposed to be comin’ back.
It wasn’t until after Ryan had left that she had begun keeping track of the passing days with a crude calendar stick.
Time. Time seemed so important these days. Yet there was no one in the present world who could calculate a calendar or tell what day of the week it was, or what month. The best she had been able to do was to erect a short shadow pole to determine local noon. With that information she had been able to synchronize the old mechanical watches she and J. B. carried. It was never going to be exact, but at least, it allowed them to establish routines, and coordinate their movements when they were separated. And with that ability she knew how to make the best use of her time to decorate the house and get ready to surprise J. B.
J.B. Dix sat in the shallow cave up on the ridge west of the house watching the falling snow, and listening. It was quiet, a good quiet, the kind of quiet that let a man relax into himself and his thoughts, take inventory, add it up and know he was content. Around him nothing but the occasional rustle of small animals or bird calls, and the quiet tick tick of icy snow flakes falling on the dead litter of the forest floor. He hadn’t seen any sign that anyone had found their hideaway. He assumed that some day the builders would return, or someone would find the place. He and his friends had found it so why wouldn’t they. As unpopulated as the world now was, it was still a very dangerous world, and those who would continue to survive and thrive never forgot that.
J.B. had come to the cave, really just a hollow beneath an overhang of limestone mid-way up the ridge, to check on the cache of food and weapons hidden there. He had a similar cache on the ridge east of the house. Each cache was on an emergency escape route from the house. They had forted up the house as best they could, but they knew that it couldn’t be defended indefinitely and had made escape plans. Of course those plans depended on how large a force came against them. The house might become what Mildred and Doc had called their Alamo. Listening to his friends tell that tale had made J.B. determined to take Mildred and escape if possible. Dying while defending a piece of land was not the way to continue the life with Mildred he had come to enjoy. He would easily give his life for Mildred, or his other friends, but in this world, you fought back when you could, but almost always, the smart ones ran away to have a chance to strike back, or just to live. And staying alive was always the number one priority. This world was a grim old place, but for the last several months he and Milly had found contentment in each others company, and even moments of joy. When it ended they would do what was necessary to stay alive and find another period of respite.
J.B. left the cave and made his way generally south along the ridge and angling down to where the foot of the ridge met the old driveway to the house. Once there he squatted near a bush to listen and survey both the lane out to the road and his back trail. He saw faint traces of his tracks in the accumulating snow. He hoped it would cover his trail. Then J.B. heard a voice or voices out on the road. Clicking off the safety on his Uzi as quietly as he could, he crept along the lane toward the road. Each two steps he stopped to listen. It was definitely a rough voice of a man, and maybe that also of a woman. J.B. continued by crawling on his belly until he got to a spot where he could clearly hear what was being said.
Parting the brush growing along the road, he saw a man dressed in a ground length robe and holding a staff longer than the man was tall. The robe was gray and covered in long shaggy hair of some kind. The deep hood covered the man’s face, but a long white or silver beard trailed down his front, bobbing up and down as he spoke. No one else was there, but he was speaking and gesturing earnestly to someone. The spooky part was that he was responding to himself in a voice that was distincly female.
“Dear Theo, are you quite sure you’re not exaggerating some what?” “She” asked.
“Oh my dear. I wish I could adequately describe for you the things that I have seen or that came into existence in what would have been our future. Oh Emily. I will never leave you again. To you I have been gone but a short while, and for that I am glad, believing that your anxiety was brief, but in that far future realm to which I was cruelly abducted, terrible, even more cruel years passed before I could find my way back to your graceful presence.”
The man continued on in that manner, and the more he talked the more familiar his voice became to J.B.
Emily, J.B. thought. Can it be? Dark night, can that be Doc Tanner? J.B. slid back out of sight of the gray stranger. I need to be real careful here. If that is Doc and he’s talking to his dead wife, he may not recognize me. Sounds like he’s out of his mind for good this time. Well, I’ll just have to risk it.
J.B. stood up, glanced around his position once more, then stepped into the open. The old man was still talking.
“Airplanes Emily! They had flying machines that could carry hundreds of people at one time, and travel around the world! I know it all seems farfetched, but I tell you truly, Emily, before our lives are done, you will live to see the beginnings of these things.”
“Doc Tanner?” J.B. said.
“And medicines. Medicines that actually cure illnesses. Think of it!”
“Doc Tanner!” J.B. shouted to interrupt the man’s rambling.
The old man went quiet, but his right hand disappeared into the voluminous sleeve of his robe.
J.B. seeing the old man was reaching for a weapon, brought his own weapon to bear and shouted, “Stop right there, Doc. It’s me. J.B. . . J.B. Dix.”
The old man’s hand reappeared with the much used LeMat pistol, but he didn’t raise it.
“Who calls me ‘Doc’? None but a few lost friends ever called me by that abbreviated term of respect.”
“It’s me, J.B. Dix, Doc. Really. Don’t you recognize me?”
“Dix? John Barrymore Dix?”
“That’s right, Doc. And you’re the only friend of mine, lost or otherwise, who ever calls me by my full name.”
“That is so isn’t it? Come closer.”
“How ‘bout holstering that hand cannon first, Doc. I think you’ll find you don’t need it just now.”
The hand with the pistol disappeared into the robe and came back empty.
As J.B. approached, the old man swept the hood from his head revealing shoulder-length white hair around a thin tired face covered in a mass of snow white beard.
If J.B. hadn’t heard the rambling monologue and seen the antique pistol he probably wouldn’t have believed this was the same man. But when they stood face to face, the man’s identity was confirmed when he saw the broad smile of perfect teeth appear in the middle of that mass of facial hair.
“John Barrymore Dix. It is really you, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Doc, it really is.”
With that, Doc enveloped the smaller man in his arms and kept repeating his name, all the while thumping him on the back with his staff.
“Okay, Doc. Okay, I’m glad to see you too.” J.B. laughed and disentangled himself.
“And I am both glad and sorry to see you, because it means that I am still living in this awful time.”
“Yeah, Doc. You and me both.”
“I have missed you all so.”
“We’ve missed you too, but let’s do our catching up back at the house. I have a set time to be back and we could be late as it is. I don’t want to worry Milly.”
“Milly?” Doc asked. “You mean Doctor Wyeth? She is still with you?”
“She sure is. And she plans to shoot anyone that tries to come in the door that isn’t me.”
“Oh. Well, dear sir, in that case, indeed let’s get going.”
The two men entered the old lane leading deep into the holler to the house. Doc began to recount some of his experiences while he was off by himself, but J.B. only made listening noises as he set a quick pace. And anyway, it seemed Doc was talking to Emily again so J.B. decided to just let the old man talk as long as it kept him from falling behind.
“. . . dear friend Ryan . . . .”
J. B. whirled on his friend.
“What’s that? Whad you say? What about Ryan? Have you seen him?”
“He’s not here then?” asked the old man. “Yes, I’ve seen him. Up in old Minnesota. He sent me to find you. But then my mind wandered. Then I wandered. He and Casey are doing really well.”
“She’s Ryan’s new love I believe. They seem quite happy.”
“Ryan has a new woman. That’ll be real news to Milly. Come on. We need to move.”
Back at the house Mildred checked her watch again. One minute to go. J.B. was going to be late. It wouldn’t be the first time, but it was rare, and he usually arrived early, making a noisy approach or even calling out. As the last seconds ticked off, she mounted the weapon, pointed toward the back door. When the knock came she nearly fired. She wanted so much from this evening. God! Was it the right signal? Knock, pause, knock, knock, knock. Yes!
“OK, John, come in.”
“Milly! Coming in,” yelled J.B. opening the door.
“John, I’m glad you’re home. I’ve a surprise for you.”
J.B. was through the Kitchen.
“And I’ve a surprise for you too, but . . . .” He stopped upon seeing her new look, “Milly, is that you? You are . . . . You are . . . . Dark knight! You’re beautiful. What a great surprise!”
“Like my outfit? Black dress, black shoes, and the perfect accessory every post nuke-caust girl needs. A black pump shotgun. Do you like the tree, too?” she asked, embracing him with a kiss.
“The tree. What tree,” he said. “ I just noticed. It’s a sight alright. So that’s a Christmas tree!”
“Yeah, John. I don’t know if it really is Christmas, but today seemed like the right day.”
“If it suits you, it suits me,” he said.
“And there’s lights too if we can run the generator. Just long enough to see it lit.”
“Of course. I’ll get it started,” he said.
“Didn’t you say you had a surprise for me, John.”
“Yeah, I did.” He hoped Doc hadn’t wandered off. “Tell ya what. I’ll start the geni. You turn on the lights and keep lookin’ at it while I bring it in. How’s that?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
J B hurried out the back door. “ And no shooting,” he yelled over his shoulder.
“Alright, “ she laughed. The shotgun was still in her hand.
Mildred quickly checked that all the light cords were connected and plugged into the power cord leading to the generator.
Wow! she thought, my first Christmas in over a hundred years. It was both a grand thought and a sad one. Tonight though, Christmas was not going to be another casualty lost to the nukecaust. Tonight in this house, on this lonely little spot on earth, Christmas returns from the dead.
The generator started. She turned toward the tree just as the lights came on. She skipped a breath. Then the tears started.
J.B. came back in. “Oh John. It’s gorgeous!”
“Wow, he said.” I’ve never seen these lights decorate anything but a gaudy house before. It’s somethin’, but it doesn’t out shine you.” He took her in his arms and kissed her.
“O. K. Milly. Don’t turn around until I say.”
She heard his footsteps behind but they were different somehow. Was he carrying something heavy? Then a voice.
“Merry Christmas, my dear Doctor Wyeth,” said Doc.
She gasped. Whirling around and bringing up her shotgun. “Who the hell are you? Where’s John?”
“I’m right here,” said J.B. stepping forward to push down the muzzle. “Don’t you recognize him? Push that hood back. Let her have a better look.”
Doc did so. “Perhaps you’ll know me by this,” he said, and drew out his lion headed cane. It sparkled, reflecting the colors of the tree lights.
Mildred looked at the man in his shaggy gray robe and beard.
“That’s Doc Tanner’s cane.”
“It still is,” Doc said and smiled.
That did it. She thrust the gun in J.B.’s hands and grabbed the old man’s robe and gave him a shake.
“Doc. Doc. You old coot. Where in the hell have you been? I’ve . . . .”
“Missed me,” he asked.
“Well, a little,” and she hugged him. “And what’s with the Gandalf getup?”
“You’d be amazed how many people will ignore the insane mumblings of an old wizard. I didn’t know I’d arrive in time for Christmas,” he said. “And if J. B. hadn’t found me on the road I might have kept on going.”
“It’s Christmas today only because I decid\d it was,” she said.
“Well in that case, I’ve a present for you both.” He reached into his robe and pulled out a scruffy sack and from it took two items.
“Oranges!” yelled Mildred, in delight, and hugged him again.
“All the way from Florida no less,” said Doc grinning.
“Damn, Doc,” said J.B., “You did get around, huh?”
“A gate here and there didn’t hurt. But I’m glad I found you again, or rather you found me again. Did I compliment you, Dr. Wyeth, and your beautiful tree?”
“Oh it doesn’t matter who found who,” she said. “And it is a beautiful tree. And we’re together again. And it’s Christmas, and . . . and I feel like singing.”
Mildred took the hands of her loyal lover and her dear friend, faced the glittering tree, and with tears of joy began to sing in a beautiful alto, Silent Night.