Willie wondered if he had really heard it or if it was from a dream. Something had startled him awake. A clink, a scrape, or perhaps, just maybe, it was actually a jingle. Willie rubbed his eyes and held still, but his mind begged for an answer.
Tucking Gus, the one-eyed stuffed alligator, under his arm, Willie slid off the bed. The thick carpet welcomed his bare feet, making his steps to the bedroom door silent and reassuring. Willie pulled on the door cautiously, stopping at the hinges’ first pitiful whine, leaving barely enough space for him and Gus to slip through.
He stepped to the banister and peered into the living room below. Muddled moonlight through the curtains helped Willie’s eyes adjust to the darkness. He first made out the looming form in the corner. The Christmas tree. Unplugged, the tree seemed both lonely and monstrous.
Willie’s straining eyes soon noticed other forms emerging. Large ones, small ones, wrapped ones, exciting ones, all placed carefully near the tree. Willie remembered the sound. It had been a jingle, it had been a jingle! He had visited in the night and Willie had heard him!
After creeping quietly down the stairs, Willie tiptoed past his parents’ door and into the world of wishes come true. Oh how he wanted to plug in the Christmas tree and play! A baseball glove! A toy tank! A big yellow dump truck! A football uniform! Willie picked up the plastic helmet and slid it on. He adjusted the chinstrap and his fingers fought to button its plastic snap.
Willie froze. The stubborn snap echoed through the darkness. He glared from the helmet toward his parents’ door. All remained dark and still, but then…
Willie heard the noise again.
He knew it was the sound that woke him. It was a metal sound, a clink, perhaps a scrape, but definitely not a jingle. And then…another noise…something sliding…a window!
Plucking Gus from the floor, Willie scurried to the darkened corner and slid slowly behind the unlit Christmas tree. Its branches scraped across the plastic helmet and scratched his bare arms. A few of the hanging ornaments jingled as if a small breeze stirred them.
Willie’s heart pounded in his ears. He took deep breaths and told himself that his mind was only playing tricks. And then he felt another presence enter the room.
One hand held Gus tight against his chest. With his free hand, Willie slipped the helmet’s chinstrap to his mouth, biting it to calm his chattering front teeth.
Through the branches Willie saw movement. And then he saw a face.
It was not his father’s face.
It was not Santa returning with more gifts.
It was the face of a stranger, of a man he did not know, who stood in his living room while his parents slept. Seeping moonlight weakly revealed the stranger’s shape.
Willie prayed that his corner behind the tree remained hidden. He shut his eyes to dam the tears beginning to form.
He sensed the stranger moving closer.
The soft crinkle of wrapping paper told Willie that the man was on the opposite side of the tree, only a couple feet away. Willie wondered how many presents the man would take. Perhaps like Santa, Willie thought, the man had a big bag of his own for toting gifts.
Tears seeped down Willie’s cheeks and dampened the chinstrap.
And then the stranger’s hand, searching the shadows beneath the tree, touched Willie’s toe.
Willie gasped and stepped back, bringing his bare foot down directly on the tree’s outlet plug, which waited like a copperhead in the carpet. The pain shot through Willie’s body and erupted from his mouth.
The startled stranger cursed and Willie screamed again.
Lowering his helmet and raising his scrawny arms, Willie rammed the tree with all his frightened might, toppling it forward. More curses erupted from the darkness below as Willie darted wildly for his parents’ room.
A lamp light appeared beneath the door in front of him.
Tree branches thrashed and ornaments shattered behind him.
Willie bolted into his parents’ room, slamming and locking the door behind him. His mother sat upright, wide-eyed and frightened. His father was instantly on his feet.
Willie watched his mother grab the phone. He watched his father reach under the bed, knowing what he was getting. But from the thrashing and knocking and jingling beyond the door, it seemed the tree was still giving a good fight of its own.
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