Mack held the long matchstick to the kindling. Wisps of smoke wafted up the chimney as tiny flames began to dance through the fireplace.
“Why are we here?” Dan rubbed his hands together near a lantern in the middle of a splintered, old table. Puffs of steam dissipated into the dim room with every word. “Does anyone know we’re here?”
Mack nodded, stroking his fingers over two days worth of stubble lining his jaw. “Your mom knows we were heading to the mountains.” He tossed more twigs on the growing fire. “We’ll have to wait ‘til morning to dig the truck out.”
“We’re stuck here?” The youngster grunted his displeasure.
Flurries of snow and hail pelted the cabin wall as the windows rattled in the wind. The relentless cold pressed in on the pair, the fledgling fire a mere tease of warmth against the ruthless, frigid night. Hulking shadows bounced about the walls and ceiling in the flickering light, crafting an atmosphere of a late night horror movie; the crackling and popping of the flames only accentuated the somber mood.
Mack gestured toward a container near the window. “Grab a couple of small logs from the box.” He prodded the fire with the stoker.
The boy stared with uncertainty as he walked across the room. He tapped a couple pieces of wood together, dislodging an accumulation of dust from them. “Like these? … Oh my gosh.” He stumbled back from the window, dropping the logs on the floor. “There’s something out there.”
Mack scrambled to the window. Cupping his hands over his eyes, he squinted through the hazy glass. “Prob’ly just a deer or something.”
Concern welled up in Dan’s eyes. “Can I call my mom … on your cell phone?”
“There’s no signal here.” The middle-aged man patted the boy on the shoulder. “Everything’s gon’a be fine.” He squatted near the hearth and tossed the firewood into the growing blaze.
“Why’d we have to come here, anyway?” the boy spouted.
Mack ambled to a nearby cabinet. “I promised your mom I’d get something.” He pulled a dust-covered box from a shelf. “And she thought you might enjoy seeing my cabin.” He sat near the fire, placing the box on his lap. “Of course, getting my truck stuck in a snowdrift was a bonus.” He winked.
Mack picked up a matchstick from the holder and singed the end. He put the burnt end against the fireplace stone and drew an X. He placed the stick into the flame again.
“What’re you doing?” A quizzical expression etched Dan’s face.
“Counting the days.”
Dan scooted closer. “The days we’re stuck here?”
“The days until Christmas … It’s a tradition.” He penciled another X. “Today’s December fourth … I need to make four marks … Tomorrow I’ll make another.”
“When I was a little younger than you, my dad hung this funny looking, wooden calendar on our wall.” Mack made another mark. “I opened the first door and found a candy inside.”
“Is that the one you gave to mom?” Dan smiled. “She put chocolate kisses in the compartments.”
“You’re lucky; I only got peppermint candies.” Mack mussed the boy’s hair. “Every night I opened the little door and grabbed my candy. Then on Christmas Eve I opened the door, but there wasn’t any candy.”
The soft-spoken man opened the package on his lap. “Mom had put something else inside.”
He pulled a small figurine from the box and handed it to the boy.
“A baby?” Confusion hung from his words.
“The Baby Jesus … Mom told me to put him in the manger of the Nativity scene.” Mack set the open carton on the floor; other figures glistened in the flickering light. “That’s when I learned the true meaning of Christmas … I’ve counted the days ever since.”
“So why did you give us your dad’s calendar?” Dan placed the tiny sculpture into the box.
“I never had any kids of my own.” Mack slid the nativity figures toward the youngster. “And some traditions need to be passed on.”
Dan’ face beamed. He grabbed the charred matchstick and drew the fourth X on the fireplace stone.
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