He thought they would look like people, but they didn’t. Only ever glimpsed through the narrow gaps between the fortifying wooden planks, he could not say what they looked like exactly. But they weren’t people.
“Just the one left, Daddy,” the little girl said, indicating the final, wrapped gift.
The little plastic Christmas tree bent beneath the weight of the girl’s homemade ornaments, mostly tinfoil balls coated with the last of her nail polish. He thought it was the most beautiful Christmas tree he’d ever seen.
“I wonder what it is,” he said, eyes darting between his daughter and the wooden planks as the murky dawn light was obstructed by movement outside. At least they stopped pounding, for the moment.
Throughout the night they pounded. He told her it was Santa’s reindeer. She nodded and smiled as she slipped into sleep. He slept beside her, flinching as the mobile home shuddered from the onslaught. It was their refuge, though not their home. In the midst of the chaos he was glad to have found it. But it was no fortress.
She held the gift in her small hands, her words issuing in frosty clouds, “It says it’s from Mommy.”
The man blinked tears away. She had not noticed it was his handwriting.
“That’s wonderful, sweetie.”
She looked toward the door, which was crisscrossed with planks.
“Is she coming back?” she asked in a voice as light as a feather.
She proposed the question, in various forms, over the past three weeks. His affirmations lost vigor over time.
“Baby, I promise you’ll see her soon, maybe even today.”
There was a cracking sound from the bedroom followed by a rippling chorus of inhuman voices. The shadows in the room shifted as the invaders migrated toward the rear of the home.
There were too many.
Every other thought in his mind was there are too many.
Her head was turned, following the noise of the disturbance.
“Open it, sweetie,” he said, dabbing his eyes with his knuckles.
She clenched her mittens between her teeth and tugged them free. The electricity went out two weeks prior, so they made do with winter clothes and blankets. Fortunately, the previous owner of the home was influenced by conspiracy culture, judging by the literature on the bookshelf Therefore, the home was both remote and well-provisioned.
At first, he made it seem like an adventure. Up in the mountains, eating beef jerky for breakfast. When she slept he listened to the radio and tried to imagine what they looked like, the things now outside his door, now ripping through the brittle walls. In the chaos of their exodus, he had the presence of mind to pack a few gifts on the off chance their adventure endured until Christmas.
She shivered in her Snow White dress, the first gift opened that morning. He draped a blanket over her shoulders and then stood between his daughter and the rising din of snapping wood and shattering glass.
“Don’t worry, sweetie. This place is magic, remember? They will never get to you. Open it,” he said again, mouth dancing between a smile and a frown.
She nodded and flipped the present over, searching for the seam in the gray light. There was a tremendous crash from behind and her face showed fear for the first time. She was at that tender age where her desire to believe in magic constantly abraded against the reality of life. Maybe the house was not magic. Maybe Santa had not followed her snores to this strange, new home.
“Please open it,” he begged, hands secured behind him, back stiffening as the bedroom was breached.
She found the seam and slid her tiny fingers between the paper, breaking the tape.
“I wonder what it could be,” she said, voice dreamy, pulled back to the magic again.
Her passions were as varied as her outfits on any given day. In their former life, time was communicated through the piles of clothing strewn about the house. A nightgown represented morning. A leotard and ballet shoes indicated mid-morning. Princess dresses were a sign of the early afternoon. And so, he was only momentarily surprised when her Christmas list to Santa included what she then unwrapped.
“A cuckoo clock!” she said.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“I love it!”
The house shook as the invaders funneled inside. The locked bedroom door was the only barrier between the two groups.
He hugged his daughter with one arm, tears spilling onto the crown of her head.
“Push the minute hand until just before twelve and you’ll see the little bird come out,” he said.
She did as she was told and said, “It’s probably going to scare me!”
The bedroom door handle rattled. His muscles were toxic with adrenaline.
“Sweetie, you know I love you, right?”
“Of course, Daddy.”
“And you know your mommy loves you, too?”
“Yes, Daddy,” she said, eyes narrowed in concentration at the clock.
Blood rushed to his face, the sound of his heartbeat drowning out the violence behind him. For a sliver of time it was just the two of them. His little girl in her new dress, wrapped in a blanket, calmly breathing out steam as the bedroom door buckled. His little girl who believed in magic.
“You’re the most special girl in the world to me.”
“I know, Daddy,” she smiled, returning her attention to the clock.
“Just a few seconds now,” he said, moving behind her.
The world shrunk until it was only the space between them. He felt his love for her as if it was produced by its own organ within him.
“Here it comes!” she said as the seconds ticked.
The bird popped out, providing coverage for the sound of him flipping the safety off. The invaders crawled into the hallway, but he did not look that direction.
In his head, he began his own countdown.