Do Not Open ‘Till Christmas
A Story by Wendy Vogel
Martin stood in the garage, looking through the pile of discarded cardboard boxes. His wife Gina always fussed about his refusal to throw anything away, but today he nodded in satisfaction. That one would be perfect. It once contained Meggie’s new soccer ball, ordered online as a surprise when she joined the neighborhood’s team. The ball was blue and white, and matched the uniform and knee pads she was so proud of. The ball itself was probably buried in the bottom of her closet, but the box was just right.
He turned on a Christmas music station as he trudged through the house with the box. Gina always kept the wrapping paper in the guest room closet, and he paused in the doorway, considering the options. Hello Kitty in a Santa hat? Dora the Explorer at the North Pole? He settled on Disney princesses, and chose matching ribbon and a stick-on gift tag.
Bing Crosby sang about silver bells. Martin sat at the kitchen table, cutting the paper to size. Meggie hated crumpled paper on her gifts. When Gina let her help wrap presents, Meggie’s little face would always crease into a scowl, her fingers struggling to make the crisp creases her mom made with ease. The presents hadn’t looked as nice last Christmas without Gina there to wrap them. This year would be different.
Martin taped up the box and smoothed the sides of the paper, using his fingernail to stick the cellophane around the edges. White ribbon tied into a bow. Curl the excess with the blade of the scissors. The gift tag said, “Do Not Open ‘Till Christmas,” and he labeled it To Meggie from Dad. There was so much more he could have written, but she would understand. She’d been waiting for this.
He set the box on the back seat of his SUV next to his gym bag and backed out of the driveway. Across the street, the Mulligan house was dark. Old Jack Mulligan had been so helpful during Gina’s illness, watching Meggie while Martin drove back and forth from the hospital. And after Gina died, he’d continued to babysit after school, never asking for a penny. Such a good neighbor. Martin would never forget the night old Jack had walked shoulder to shoulder with him, calling into the fields behind the subdivision.
The streetlights blinked on as Martin drove, turning in past the high stone wall, Santa on the way to deliver a Christmas treat. He pulled off into the grass and grabbed the gift and his gym bag, locking the car door behind him.
There was never any doubt in his mind. When the school called to ask why Meggie was not in class, an icy grip grabbed Martin’s spine. Every night for a week they combed the fields and woods, searching in vain for a six-year-old in a blue and white soccer uniform. When the dry days of autumn made streams dry up and lakes recede from their banks, a hiker noticed a flash of white under a submerged log, and Meggie Sternham joined her mother beneath the landscaped, manicured grass of St. Martin’s Cemetery.
The lawn was brittle and brown now, and the old oak tree bare of leaves. Martin stopped at Gina’s grave. He pulled his phone out and set it to play Gina’s favorite Christmas song, the Eagles’ “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
“Hi, honey.” He pulled a wrapped bouquet of carnations from his gym bag and laid them on her headstone. “I brought Meggie a present. Wrapped it myself.”
The stone next to Gina’s was engraved in the same font as hers. Megan Sternham, November 12, 2013- May 14, 2019. Beloved daughter. Martin set the wrapped gift on top of the stone, and sat on the dry grass in front of it, cross-legged and facing it.
He’d thought he was doing such a good job, wrapping it so carefully. But the plastic inside must have slipped when he flipped it upside-down to smooth the paper. Martin pulled it off the gravestone. It left a dark stain on the pale granite. He set it beside him instead, and swiveled to lean his back up against the stone.
It hadn’t taken much. Old Jack needed less convincing than Martin expected. “The truth will set you free,” he murmured, running the curled ribbon through his fingers.
He sighed. Not much time now. “Meggie,” he said, “I’m here, baby. Daddy’s here. And Daddy brought you a present.” He could smell it now, the metallic smell that clung to him for hours after he crossed the street with Meggie’s gift secured in plastic wrap under his arm.
“It’s done. It’s over Rest easy, little princess.”
Don Henley sang that there would be no more sorrow. No grief or pain.
Martin pulled a pistol from his bag and set the barrel against his bottom teeth.
“Merry Christmas, sweet girl.” He whispered the words around the barrel, and squeezed the trigger.
D.W. Vogel is a veterinarian, SCUBA diver, cancer warrior, marathon runner, and game designer. She is the author of the bestselling Horizon Alpha sci-fi series and Super Dungeon Explore: The Forgotten King from Future Home Publishing, along with Flamewalker, a feminist fantasy available from Amazon. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and cats.