When the tractor stopped, Craig did not want to get off. December cold was bearing down. A chill wind blew, and he had forgotten to wear a scarf. The hilltop tree farm could not have picked a colder, more desolate place, he thought.
His wife, Janey, and his two daughters, Jessica and Jillann, looked around excitedly with rosy cheeks and runny noses at the sea of Christmas trees that surrounded them.
“Okay, folks,” the tractor driver said. “I’ll swing back this way in a little while. Good luck.”
Several other brave souls occupied the trailer wagon, pruning saws in hand. They stood and stepped off one by one and dispersed into the rows of evergreens.
“Craig, c’mon.” Janey beckoned.
Jessica and Jillann, bundled with the care of an Arctic expedition, leaped off the trailer and ran off down the nearest row, their red wintery coats swishing in unison.
“Sorry. I didn’t hear you. My ears are frozen.”
His wife frowned. “I told you to wear a hat.”
At last, Craig committed himself to this venture. He stepped off the trailer and gave the driver a wave. “You are coming back, right?” he asked the driver.
The driver smiled and revved the John Deere’s engine, then pulled away in a puff of white exhaust.
With the tractor gone, Craig suddenly felt alone on this hilltop. He squinted his eyes. The Sun was half an hour from setting and shone from an almost perpendicular angle. It provided no warmth at all. The breeze gusted, and he zipped up his coat collar. The zipper grated against his chin, but it kept his hot breath close to his face.
Craig followed his wife’s voice down between the stands of six-foot-high spruce. The ground was spongy with trampled grass; it crackled beneath his feet. “What?”
“Oh, there you are. I almost didn’t see you with that coat of yours.”
“What’s wrong with my coat?”
“It’s green, silly.”
“And yours is red, so what?”
His wife rolled her eyes in frustration. She turned her attention to the tree before them. “What do you think?”
Craig stumbled over a freshly cut stump. “God damn it!” Jillann giggled. “Yeah, that one looks nice. Want me to cut it?”
“Wait, I don’t like it,” said Janey. “It’s got a bare spot.”
“How about this one, Mommy?” called Jessica from two rows over.
“That one’s ugly!” said Jillann.
“I see some good ones over there.” Janey pointed, and the two girls disappeared through the boughs. “Stay close!” she shouted.
“Janey, jeez, not so loud. I think they heard you from two valleys over.”
“What?” she said, agitated. And for the first time, Craig could see himself through his wife’s eyes. Whatever he had to offer, it didn’t help. He was useless.
“Never mind,” he said, and his wife headed off in the direction of the children.
“I thought this one was just fine,” Craig voiced to no one in particular.
Another gust of wind rose. It made Craig’s eyes tear. The tree in front of him shook.
They couldn’t just pick a tree up outside the grocery store or at one of those roadside pull-offs where pickups parked and sold a dozen trees or so for cheap. No, that would be too easy.
Craig looked up and saw that one of the other families had already found their tree. They dragged it to the center tractor road that divided the field in half and huddled close round it like a prized marlin pulled from the sea. They stood in the sunlight and waited for the tractor to return.
Again, Craig heard his wife calling for him. This time, he deliberately aimed himself in the opposite direction.
The Sun dimmed as he walked deeper into the rows. The downhill slope provided a welcome blind from the intermittent wind gusts. It actually felt warmer down here, Craig thought. Either that, or hypothermia was setting in. He examined each and every tree he came upon. But with each stop, his wife’s voice echoed in his ear as if it were his own.
Too ugly. And when he finally thought he had found perfection, invariably, the tree had been tagged for pick-up by someone else.
If only they had got an earlier start. But there was the outdoor decorating to do, the setting up of the Nativity and the stringing of the lights around the house. The days were shorter now, and the remaining weekends were growing scarce. Not to mention the shopping. Janey was always on the go, dragging him here and there. And the girls were Janeys-in-training. When was the last time they did something he wanted to do? And more importantly, when did he cease being the man of the house? He used to be the center of things, but now, with the children and the house and the bills and the responsibility, he was nothing more than a prop that provided appearances and a weekly paycheck.
The call made its way faintly through the trees and down the well of his coat collar into his ears. They were probably looking for him. Maybe they’d found a tree? Maybe they were ready to leave now?
He wasn’t. He would make them wait, abide by his time schedule for once.
He wove deeper into the thicket.
The trees seemed to swallow him. He listened as his footfalls became distant thumps beneath his legs. He covered his ears with his gloves and could hear his heartbeat pounding from some place deep inside his body. When he heard the rustling of footsteps, he ducked between two trees, not wanting to be seen. I’ll show them, he thought. I’ll make them worry, make them miss me for once, see what it’s like not to have Ol’ Sad-Eyes Craig to drag around…
The trees held him firmly with their soft boughs. He closed his eyes as the footsteps neared, then veered off in another direction. He was alone once again. But this self-imposed isolation only reminded him how invisible he had become. What he really wanted was to regain that position at the center, a position he once held back when he and Janey first started dating, back when she used to look at him as if was the only thing that mattered.
Just then, there came a soft humming like a children’s lullaby. It sounded so close. Craig turned and stared into the depths of the boughs beside him.
He saw movement.
At first, he thought it just an animal lodged in the branches, a raccoon or wolverine. But as it uncurled from its fetal position, he realized it was a child. His presence must have awakened it. But this child was unlike any child Craig had ever seen, except in fairy tale books with stories about wood sprites and bugbears and other unseen creatures of the forest—creatures that granted nightmares instead of wishes. It had bark for skin and pine needles for hair, and it continued to sing—a hypnotic drone of a song—even as it wormed its way toward him. Its mouth yawned open and Craig saw that it had several rows of twig-like teeth. Craig was frozen, unable to call out or break free as the creature’s eyes lit up like two embers, pinning him in place as if he had grown roots. A strange mist enveloped him, blinding him to his surroundings. As the creature disappeared from view, Craig realized that he had invaded its territory. Now it would invade his.
When footsteps returned to this part of the field, they were all but lost by the time they reached his ears.
“Oh, it’s perfect.”
The voices were familiar, yet something inside of him did not want to acknowledge it. All he could do was stand there invisible to their holiday madness.
He heard cutting noises and felt a slight tingle down by his feet.
“Hurry, mom, it’s cold.”
“A little bit more… There!”
Craig felt the world turn sideways. A whumph greeted his ears as his head hit the frozen ground. The next thing he knew, he was being dragged. One minute he was looking up at the cold blue sky, the next minute the frozen ground was scraping against his cheek.
Finally, the dragging stopped.
“Oh, what a beautiful tree,” someone said.
“Thank you,” replied a voice, a voice Craig recalled belonging to a woman named Janey.
“Where’s Daddy?” asked a smaller voice.
“I think I saw him walking back,” said another small voice.
“I’m sure he’ll meet us at the car. Now, bundle up, here comes our ride.”
As he lay there, the rumble of the tractor shook the ground. The cold and the painlessness seeped into his bones, making him feel almost wooden. Craig was saddened by this strange turn of events. Tears welled from his eyes and hardened like pine sap on his wind-burned cheeks. But a part of him was also glad. For, even though he would be just another holiday prop, he would finally be the center of attention.
At least for a little while.
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