A Very Brady Christmas, by TurtleBoy


A Very Brady Christmas

By TurtleBoy

-released 24-12-2012

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Snow had fallen to the ground, leaving a thick coat of fresh, wet snow as far as the eye could see.  The sun had just barely kissed the morning’s sky, and people were already out on their driveways struggling to remove enough snow to open their garage and, hopefully, get their cars out and onto the street.  Whether or not they could actually drive all the way to work and back, however, was another story.

Brady Jeston stared out of his bedroom window and across the street, a smile permanently stained across his face.  The sight before his eyes was too much.  A Brit, his youngest child, and Brady’s Mark, all bundled from head-to-toe bearing shovels in hand and bewilderment in mind.  Brady could see it in their eyes.  There was nothing that could prepare them for this.  Not even the countless stories and warnings that Brady had been strategically threatening them with.  Of course, they didn’t believe him.  It was impossible for one place to receive that much snow in a single night.

Now, at seven-thirty in the morning, as the gloom of night still clenched its fists to the fading clouds, they believed.

Their garage door was sealed shut, caked with mush and ice from last night’s storm, and the driveway had been buried underneath a foot of thick and heavy snow, so wet and slushy that the smallest of the three, James, was having enough trouble merely standing upright, much less moving a shovel filled of slosh off of the driveway.

Brady reached and unfastened the lock of his window, which creaked and groaned at the movement.  First giving the pane a series of hard but calculated jiggles, he was soon able to slide it open.  He leaned forward, grinning so wide that it hurt his lips that he feared he’d be unable to speak.  “Hey Mark?!” he bellowed cheerfully, but only half as loud as he had hoped.  “Having fun?!”

Beyond a knitted hat, which Brady had insisted he call a toque, and between the scarf, woven in circles around his neck, Mark stiffly turned his head and placed his mittened hand over his eyes before looking up toward the cooing voice from above.  “God?!  Is that you?!” Mark shouted in a muffled and shivering voice.

“Believe me now?!” Brady shouted back, snickering hard and holding back snorts.

Mark attempted to shrug his shoulders, but the effect was lost in his thick, plush coat.  “Get down here already!” He had attempted not to sound too desperate but knew that he’d failed miserably.  “We’re drowning down here!” he added before turning back around to resume his mission of picking up a shovel and obtaining a sturdy grip.  However, his gloves refused to cooperate.

Despite Brady’s evil desire to watch and wait from above, his longing to see Mark up close in that abominable outfit he was wearing outweighed all else.  And in a heartbeat, he had closed the window and jumped down from the chair he was standing on to collect some clothes from the floor.

His festive pyjama bottoms fell to the mountainous pile of discarded fabric as he leaned back and sat down on the end of his bed.  Sifting through a nearby canyon, Brady pulled out a ball of tightly folded socks, then another, and slid a pair on either foot.  In a flash he had scooped up a pair of jeans and was struggling with the legs as he waddled across the room in search of a shirt.

Before Brady even had his shirt on, he was stomping down the stairs, two at a time.  He could smell the burned air coming from the vents leading away from the furnace as the heat turned on for the first time in months.  His mother, Natalie, was standing in front of the stove with a large mug of coffee in one hand and a metal spatula in the other.

“Brady?!” she hollered inquisitively.  “What are you doing up so early?  Breakfast isn’t even ready yet.”

It was the first official day of winter break, because the weekend didn’t count.  School had closed on Friday, and Mark’s father, Peter, had rented a cabin on Three Legged Lake, Ontario, where both the Dawson and Jeston families would be sharing the holiday season.

Brady jumped to the landing, skipping the last few stairs, and dropped down on his behind.  “It snowed, Mom!” he replied and grabbed his winter boots from the floor.  “And Mark’s trying to shovel the drive!”

“So you’re going to help them, but not us?!” Natalie said in more of a bargaining tone.

Brady sighed and slid on his boots.  “No, Mom, I’ll do us after!” he ensured her as he jumped up to his feet and went to grab his coat off of the hook.  “I can’t miss this!”

“Okay,” she gave in.  “I’ll put your breakfast in the microwave.”

But her words were lost.  Brady had already grabbed his shovel and bolted out the door and into the snow.

Trudging through the yard, toward the street, Brady felt his speed rapidly decreasing.  The snow was much heavier than it looked.  In fact, it wasn’t snow at all.  It was more like quicksand, gripping at Brady’s boots and pulling him further and further into the ground.  With every step, as his feet touched the bottom, a pool of water would build around the thick rubber of his boot, causing a powerful suction, all the way up to his ankles, where the snow and water met and became thick like ice.

By the time Brady made it to where the street used to be, he could already feel his calves ache and burn from strain, but the sight of the three marshmallow-men across the street was too great an opportunity to pass up.

Brady crossed the road, or what he thought was the road, only to discover that the curb was not where it should have been.  His mind had told him that his next step would sink down further than before, so he had stepped heavier, stumbled, and just barely avoided a fall, as his foot made contact with more of the front lawn.

Looking down at the snow, Brady studied the slight dip of its surface, where the yard was supposed to meet with the street.  It didn’t make sense.  He was standing right in the middle of it, so he took another step.  Nothing.  Then another with the same result.

By now, Brady had decided that he was in the street after all, as he was sure his yard wasn’t nearly as big the snow made it out to be, despite the fact that the texture below his feet still felt like soggy grass.  So Brady continued his journey, and ventured toward the other side of the street, where Peter, Mark, and James were tossing load after load of snow off of their driveway and into the yard.

“Hey!” Brady waved cheerfully, announcing his presence and waving his shovel high in the air, just as his left foot was pulled down into the snow, like the road below had collapsed, and he fell face-first into the street.

Mark turned around to seek the source of the voice, but all he could see was a single, lonely shovel, standing upright on the other side of the street, casting an unusually large, blobby shadow.  “Who’s there?!” he queried, looking from the shovel and up at Brady’s bedroom window, across the street, before turning back around to continue his work on the driveway.

Brady grunted and pushed himself up onto his hands and knees.  Water had soaked into his coat and pants and was slowly trickling down into his boots.  His face burned from the cold, wet snow, biting at his cheeks like fire ants.  After wiping the wet from his face, he grabbed his shovel in hand, climbed to his feet, and continued across the road.

James was first to see him, and he turned around, ready to run at him. But Brady placed his thick, gloved finger to his lips and silently hushed the boy as he slowly crept up behind Mark.

Oblivious to his surroundings, Mark kicked his shovel hard into the snow then bent over to lift another heavy scoop.  His father had caught Brady’s shadow, and he watched closely as the teen stepped in behind his son with his hands raised out on either side, reaching toward Mark’s shoulders.

Brady swooped his hands down hard against Mark’s arms and gripped his coat, causing Mark to jump forward, skid to the side, and spin round to the ground before falling down onto his back with a cushioned thud.  As the air wheezed out of his jacket, like airbags deflating after a crash, Mark moved his hand to his toque and pushed it up out of his eyes.  “You suck,” he said plainly and stared up at Brady.

To the right, James was giggling like a banshee on helium, as Peter chuckled and went back to clearing the snow.  “Need a hand?” Brady finally asked after a long fight with a large, toothy grin.

Mark reached up and slapped Brady’s hand to the side then rolled onto his belly.  “About time you got here,” he said as he struggled back up to his feet.  “This is ridiculous!” Mark shouted, flailing his arms out at his sides.  “I mean, why today?!  Today!” he said even louder.

“I tried to warn you,” Brady reminded him and stuck the end of his shovel into the snow.

“Yeah, but how are we gonna drive in this?”

“We’re not leaving until after lunch,” said Brady.  “The highways’ll be cleared by then, if the sun hasn’t already melted it all.”

Mark shook his head.  “Nuh-uh.  This stuff is here to stay.  I mean, look at it!  It’s… it’s nuts!”

“There’s a high of eight degrees Celsius, though.  It’ll melt… mostly.”

Mark grabbed his shovel and stuck it into the snow.  “It better.  I want to go camping again!” he said mischievously and gave Brady a wink.

“We’re staying in a cabin.  That’s not camping; it’s sleeping over.”

Mark shrugged his invisible shoulders.  “So?  There’s only three bedrooms,” he whispered.  “One for your mum, one for my parents, and one for us.”

After tossing some snow into the yard, Brady nodded his head toward James.  “Don’t forget him.”

Mark looked over at the boy dismissively.  “Nah, he’s no problem.”

“Boys?” Peter butted in.  “Hate to interrupt, but if we don’t’ get this driveway cleared, we won’t make it to the mall in time, and you lads’ll have a feast-less Christmas.”

“You’re going out in this muck, Mr. Dawson?” asked Brady, turning to face the man.

“Well, the food’s not going to deliver itself.”

Brady stared down at the snow then back over at Peter, in worry.  “Maybe you should let my mom go.  She’s used to driving in the winter, and…”

“I’ll manage,” Peter said stubbornly.  “Besides, your mum mentioned she was taking her car to the shop to make sure it’ll hold up on the highway.”

“But you did put on your winter tires, right?”

Peter nodded.  “Last week,” he said proudly.  “Had them aligned and everything–even got some chains in the back in case we get stuck somewhere.”

“And a shovel?” continued Brady, worried more that Mark would be riding with them to the cabin, and he wanted to be sure he’d be safe.

“Take it easy, Brady,” chuckled Mark.  “If Dad puts any more winter-safety stuff in the trunk, we’re gonna have to ride on the roof.”

Brady stared into Mark’s beautiful blue-grey eyes and smiled nervously. “Sorry,” he said with a shiver, feeling the damp of his clothes soak into his skin.

Mark just smiled and patted him on the back, before turning around and continuing to shovel.

 

 

*                      Bookmark One                      *

 

 

Shortly after clearing the driveway, Mark’s parents went out to fetch the food for their vacation, as Brady, Mark, and James ventured across the street to tackle the next one.  Half of which had been squashed down when Natalie had backed out her car to bring it to the garage.

In the middle of the yard, James was happily assembling a snow fort and digging a series of small tunnels, as Mark and Brady fed him more snow to work with.

“We should have a war!” announced James, jumping up from behind a partially collapsed wall.  “I’ll be the king, and you two can be trying to take over my castle!”

“Can’t, James,” replied Mark, tossing the boy another scoop of snow.  “By the time we’re done this monster-of-a-driveway, we’ll have to start getting ready to leave.”

James’ lower-lip curled into a frown.  “Well that’s no fair,” he pouted and fell back into the snow.  “Can’t we just play for a bit?”

Mark looked over at Brady then down at the driveway behind them, and then back up at Brady.  “Well?”

“Well, what?” Brady asked and stopped shovelling to catch his breath.  “You’re just trying to make me out to be the bad guy!”

“No…” Mark grinned.  “I’m merely attempting to give my little brother the childhood he deserves.”

Brady rolled his eyes and drove his shovel into the snow.  “All right,” he said and bent down to grab a fist-full of snow. “Run.”

Mark gasped and threw his shovel to the ground and dove, belly-first, into snow.  “Wait!” he pleaded, rolling onto his back and kicking his feet in the snow to push himself further away.  “No fair!”

A large, heavy ball of snow exploded into small shards of beaded ice against the left side of Mark’s head, causing his padded body to fall limp in the middle of the yard.

James was shouting for them to stop, over and over, waving his hands in the air and demanding a time-out, but Brady ignored him and scooped up another ball of snow.

“Brady!” Mark begged.  “No!  Okay?!  I’m sorry!”

Watching Mark scamper back toward James’s fort, Brady grinned, packed the ball of snow between his hands, and took aim for Mark’s puffy gut.

“STOP!” demanded James, as he threw himself in front of Mark.  “Not near my castle!”

Mark raised an eyebrow after discovering his rescuer’s true motive. “Hey!” he yelled offensively.  “I thought you were on my side!?”

James whipped himself around and slapped his glove-covered fists to his hips.  “Nuh-uh,” he shook his head.  “You two are trying to take over the castle, remember?”

“Oh yeah…” Mark smirked at him, just as a loud, hollow boom scuffed off of his brother’s back and sent him falling forward with an abrasive shower of disintegrated snowball following him down to the ground.

Mark huffed and wheezed as the air was knocked out him, feeling his brother’s piercing hands crash hard into his abdomen.  The boy collapsed on top of him, moaning angrily at the interruption, then turned his head to stare Mark in the eyes.  “On second thought…”

“Teams?” Mark grinned so wide that even the Cheshire Cat would have blushed, then rolled James off to the side.

In near unison, Mark and James reached for the ground, packed a ball of snow in their hands, and charged toward Brady.

Just as Brady turned to run, a loud blaring horn turned his attention to the street, as two snowballs crashed against his back.

“You boys aren’t done yet?!” teased Natalie with her head poking out the window of the car.

Brady awkwardly dusted the snow off of his back and waddled over to his mom.  “No,” he replied, looking back over toward Mark and James.  “These two won’t stop clowning around.”

“Hey!” protested Mark, as he and James ran over to the car.  “Brady started it!”

“Did not!” chuckled Brady.

Natalie smiled and started to roll up her window.  “Why don’t you boys come in for something to eat, and maybe some hot chocolate, too?” she tempted them.

James’s head crooked to the side as his right eyebrow disappeared underneath his toque.  “With marshmallows?”

Glancing at the clock on the car’s dash, Natalie curled her lip at the thought of something so sweet so early in the morning.  “It’s only just after nine.”

All three boys gasped when they heard the time, and they suddenly felt cold and began to shiver.

“Wow, really?” Brady finally spoke up then looked down at the driveway.  “Can’t we just leave this for Carl?” he whined, remembering the boy down the street whom the boys’ parents had paid to keep the driveways cleared while they were away.

Natalie shook her head.  “He doesn’t start until tomorrow.  Are you going to pay him?”

As much as Brady wanted to, he couldn’t.  He had already spent his entire savings on Christmas gifts.  “Uh,” he contemplated.  “Can I get an advance on my allowance?”

Which was when Natalie shook her head and continued up the driveway to park the car.

 

 

*                      *                      *

 

 

All three boys were sitting at the kitchen table, sipping on their hot chocolate while eyeing the clock as it slowly counted each passing second.  Brady had just finished his breakfast of, what were now, soggy hash browns and cold eggs, and Natalie was on the phone trying to find out why the garage wasn’t open when she arrived for her appointment.

“Maybe its batteries are dying,” suggested Mark, thinking out loud.

Brady looked over at Mark and then up at the cord leading away from the clock to the outlet.  “Um, no.  It’s got a plug.”

“Then something’s wrong with it,” he decided in all certainty then took a loud sip of his hot drink.

Beside Mark, James was humming quietly as he slurped the tiny marshmallows against his puckered lips and smeared the white goo all over them in an attempt to blow a marshmallow bubble.  “When’s Mum getting back?” he asked in a muffled voice through his messy lips.  “I wanna go now.”

“We’re not leaving until after lunch, though,” said Mark.  “It’s only just after ten.”

Just then, Natalie dropped the cordless phone onto the table in frustration.  “I keep getting the machine,” she said and then sighed.  “It must have snowed heavier than we thought.”

Brady looked worried.  “Does that mean we can’t go today?” he asked, causing the other two boys to cringe at the thought, and they looked up at Natalie for an answer.

“No.  We’ll still go,” she assured them.  “I’m sure the car’s fine.  I just don’t like going out on the highway without a check-up.”

“How will Santa find us?” James asked out of nowhere.

Natalie’s heart melted.  It had been a few years since Brady stopped believing in the magic of Saint Nicholas, and James’s mention brought a flood of wonderful memories to the surface.  “He knows,” Natalie said to James reassuringly.  “Just like he knows that you moved from England to Canada, he knows you’ll be with us at the cabin.”

James didn’t look convinced.  “But what if he doesn’t?”

“He does.”  Natalie circled the table and placed her hands on James’s shoulders.  “How about you write him a letter, just in case,” she suggested.  “You can give him the address of the cabin, and he’ll write back.  I bet you anything, you’ll get his letter at the cabin before Christmas, and then you’ll know for sure that he can find you.”

James smiled and sat up straight.  “Okay!” he said excitedly.  “Where’s the paper?”

 

 

*                      *                      *

 

 

By twelve-thirty that afternoon, both the Jestons and the Dawsons were ready to embark upon their Christmas adventure.  However, Peter had stuffed the SUV so full with, what he called, necessities, that there wasn’t enough room to seat his own children.  Of course, this made Brady’s day, as he could now ride with Mark and not have to worry about Peter’s inexperience on Canada’s winter roads.

“We need to mail my letter,” James reminded Natalie, standing in the driveway with the sealed envelope in hand.  “You won’t forget, right?”

“Of course not, James!” Natalie smiled and ruffled the boy’s hair.  “There’s a mailbox at the end of this road, right at the first stop sign we pass.  We’ll stop there, and you can mail it yourself.”

James grinned, gripped the letter tight in his hand, and ran to the other side of the car. “Okay!” he agreed, and opened the passenger-side door.

Both Brady and Mark had slipped into the backseat so that they could sit next to each other on their way to the cabin.  In between them they had a few travel games, including Battleship, Connect Four, and Checkers.

“So how close to where we went camping is the cabin?” asked Mark, as Brady buckled up his seatbelt.

“I ‘unno,” Brady shrugged.  “I’ve never been to the cabin.”

Natalie slid into the front seat and reached for her seatbelt, while simultaneously attempting to turn the key in the ignition.  “It’s about a two hour hike in the snow,” she told them.  “But I don’t think we’ll be visiting this trip.”

From behind them, Peter honked the horn as he and his wife, Brittany, backed out of the driveway and onto the street.

“Everyone buckled up?” asked Natalie, peering over at James and then turned around to look at Mark and Brady in the back seat.

“Yup!” replied Brady.  “We’re all set, I think.”

With that said, Natalie backed out of the driveway and onto the road to follow in behind the Dawsons’ SUV, only stopping briefly at the end of the street so that James could drop his letter in the mailbox.

 

 

*                      *                      *

 

 

“…42 bottles of coke on the wall!  Forty-two bottle of coke!  You take one down…”

“James!” Mark shouted, “Please stop!” he begged, while shaking the back of the boy’s seat.

“Awww,” pouted the boy, “but I’m so close!”

Brady put his hand on Mark’s knee and gave it a gentle squeeze.  “Just let him try and finish.  We’re almost there, anyway.”

“But he started at 500!” Mark whined.  “I’m going crazy, Brady.  Make it stop.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Brady, “but if you stop him now than that last 458 bottles of coke would have been for nothing.”

Natalie smiled and looked at her son and Mark through the rear-view mirror.  “Shouldn’t be long now.  We just passed the turn-off into Holmur, which means we’ll be turning onto James Bay Junction right away.”

“James?” James perked up and stared out the window.  “I have a ‘Junction’?”

Natalie giggled and shook her head.  “It’s a road, James.  Looks like you’re famous around here, huh?”

James grinned proudly and examined the road in front of him.  “There it is!” he shouted and leaned forward to point at the sign on the side of the road.

“Great!” Natalie congratulated James as she turned onto the street. “Now keep an eye out for Blue Lake Road.”

“There’s an Otter Lake Road!” he pointed again.

“Nope, not that one.”

James’s face scrunched and he placed his hand over his brow.  “It’s hard to tell.  The snow’s all blowy.”

“Tell me about it,” Natalie agreed with a sigh.  “It’s getting hard to see.  It’s a good thing we’re almost there.  It looks like the weather’s turning into a storm.”

Just then, Natalie stomped on the brakes and her body tensed as the car slowly skidded forward.  “There it is!” she said in relief and stared up at the half-covered street sign on the side of the street.  “Almost missed it!”

Turning the corner, Natalie cautiously drove forward.  The street they were now on hadn’t been cleared.  Thankfully, the wind was so strong that it had blown enough snow so that Natalie could still partially see the gravel road they were driving on, and if she looked closely she could just barely see the tracks left by the Dawsons’ SUV.

“Looks like your Dad’s made it all right,” Natalie commented and glanced up at the rear-view mirror, toward Mark.

Mark looked out the window to look at the tracks and nodded.  “Yeah, I hope he starts a fire when he gets there.  I’m freezing.”

“That is weird, isn’t it?” realized Natalie, as she reached for thermostat control.  “The heater’s on full blast, but it keeps getting colder in here.”

“Connect four!” Brady shouted and clapped his hands together.  “I win again!”

Just as Natalie turned onto Three Legged Lake Road, the car started to rumble and shake.  “Uh-oh,” said Natalie.  “That can’t be good.”

“We better not be breaking down, Mom,” said Brady, as he leaned forward, grabbed onto the backs of both his mom’s and James’s chairs, and peered out the front window.  “How much further do we have to go?”

“Only a couple more kilometres,” replied Natalie.  “There should be a turn-off just up the road that goes straight to the cabin.”

The car started to shake and jolt as the engine struggled to keep moving.  “We’re not gonna make it!” shouted James, sitting up straight in his seat and grabbing onto his toque.  “We’re gonna freeze to death!”

Mark bopped his brother on the head with an empty glove.  “Shut up.  We’ll be fine.”

“Look!” Brady leaned forward, between the two front seats, and pointed ahead.  “There’s the road!”

But the car was not impressed.  It choked and shivered as its tires slowly groaned through the wet snow, moving slower and slower by the second, until finally the staggering engine spat one final chug before falling silent and creaking to a halt.

“See?!” cried James.  “We’re gonna die!”

“Don’t be such a girl,” Mark teased.  “We’re probably just out of gas.”

Natalie struggled with the ignition, turning the key over and over again, hoping that the car would spring back to life one more time and get them to the cabin.  But as the inside of the car became colder and colder, and the boys’ breath began to fog all of the windows, she realized that it was no use.

“Okay, everyone bundle up,” Natalie said as calmly as she could manage and reached for her gloves.  “We’re going to have to walk the rest of the way.”

“Why don’t you call my dad?” suggested Mark.  “He can come and pick us up.”

Natalie mentally face-palmed herself and reached for her purse to retrieve her cell phone.  “Good thinking, Mark.”

All three boys impatiently watched as Natalie rummaged through here purse and fished out her phone.  Her fingers were already beginning to numb by the time she found it and flipped it open to dial.  “What’s the number?  I seem to be having a brain cramp.”

“Uh…” Mark tried to think.  “Isn’t it in your phone?”

Natalie just shook her head.  “It doesn’t matter.  I don’t have a signal.”

“Hey, Mom?” asked Brady from the back seat.  “What are we gonna do about all the presents?”

“We’ll come back for them with Peter’s car.  Is everyone ready?”

“We’re gonna die,” pouted James as he slowly reached for the door handle.

Mark opened his door and climbed out.  “Come on, dumb-dumb,” he said to James.  “We won’t die as long as we keep moving.”

Realizing how still he was being, James whipped open the door and jumped out.  “Really?!” he asked in horror.

“No,” Natalie interrupted.  “We’re all going to be fine.  Just stay close to each other and watch for cars.”

Stepping out of the vehicle, Brady peered down the street the way they came, and then back in the other direction.  The roads were drenched with snow and the wind was so strong that it was creating mini, tornado-like spirals in the air.  “Uh, Mom?  I don’t think anyone’s going to be driving in this.  We’re probably the only ones stupid enough to come here in the winter.”

“Would you rather take the chance and miss a car passing us?” asked Brady’s mother as she secured her purse on the shoulder of her thick, white snow coat.

“Yeah, okay,” agreed Brady.  “But can James finish his song as we walk?”

Mark immediately gave Brady a shove.  “Hey!  Who’s side are you on, anyway?!”

“The side that gives us something to do instead of thinking about the cold,” replied Brady.  “Are you ready James?  We’ll join in this time.”

James shook his head no.  “It’s too cold to sing,” he said through shivering teeth.

“What number were you on?”

“Fo-four-forty-eight,” struggled James.

“Okay then…” Brady cleared his throat as he began to follow in behind his mom and James.  “Forty-eight bottles of coke on the wall!  Forty-eight bottles of coke…!”

 

 

*                      Bookmark Two                      *

 

 

By the time Brady had counted down to thirty-nine bottles of coke, even Mark had joined in on the song, but it didn’t take long before they had run out of coke bottles and were left to the blistering cold winds.  The falling snow was now blowing even harder than before, and everyone’s face was now so cold that that each snowflake that collided with their beaten red skin felt like sharp, lightning fast pins that were piercing deep into their flesh.

They had been walking for just over half an hour, when James spotted something flapping in the wind off the side of a small snow drift on the side of the road.  “What’s that?!” he yelled and pointed to the strange object.

“What’s what?” asked Mark, trying to follow his brother’s gloved fingers.  “I don’t see anything!”

“Over there, in the snow!” he shouted even louder and then ran toward it.

“James!” Natalie bellowed for him to come back.  “Let’s keep walking!  We’ll come back and take a look when the wind dies down!”

“No!” James insisted.  “I’ll be right back!”

Brady decided to follow the boy to help speed things up so they could continue walking.  “Wait for me!”

As soon as James reached the snow drift he fell down to his knees and grabbed for the still-flapping object.  “It’s a sleeping bag or something!” he observed and looked up at Brady beside him.  “But I can’t pull it out!”

Brady knew it would be pointless trying to convince James to forget about it, so he dropped onto his knees next to James and to help him clear the snow.  Within the first few brushes of his hand against the snow, Brady realized that the snowdrift wasn’t a snowdrift at all.  There was something inside of the sleeping bag.

By now, both Natalie and Mark had joined them, watching impatiently as their toes throbbed and ached.  Brady’s fingers were now so cold that the numbness had disappeared and his skin felt like it was tearing in his gloves, but just as he was about to give up something grabbed onto his hand.

“AHH!” Brady screamed and jumped back.  “It’s alive!” he shouted and grabbed James by the shoulders and pulled him back.

Natalie’s eye caught a glimpse of what looked like a glove, and her heart leapt up into her throat.  “Dig!” she shouted and fell to her knees.  “It’s a person!”

All three boys moved toward the pile and grabbed the corner of the sleeping bag.  “Grab it, Mom!” shouted Brady, as they all pulled back as hard as they could.

The sound of tearing fabric flooded through the wind and disappeared in its howl as the four stumbled back and tried to keep their balance.  By the time they looked back, the snowdrift had been flattened and in its place was a man, balled up in a torn, half-frozen sleeping bag, breathing small and shallow breaths.

“Brady!” Natalie shouted.  “Run ahead to the cabin and get Brittany and Peter.  “Tell them to call an ambulance and bring the car!”

Before Brady could even think to move, Mark had already began running up the road.  “I’m faster!” he shouted and disappeared in the blowing snow.

“Grab hold, Brady!” Natalie yelled urgently.  “We need to get him inside!”

Doing as instructed, Brady gripped his hands onto an end of the sleeping bag, as he and Mom started pulling the man as fast as they could manage.  James stared down at the man uselessly, barely able to move.   He wanted to help, but he couldn’t bring himself to go any closer than he already was.  So, instead, he followed in behind them and tried not to look down.

 

 

*                      *                      *

 

 

Mark had tried to run all the way to the cabin, but after only a few minutes the cold air made his lungs feel like they were on fire.  By the time he stopped, he started to cough, causing his throat to become raw and dry.  But he refused to stop and recover.  He kept walking down the road as fast as he could manage, speeding up into a run every few minutes.  His chest was aching and felt like it was ready to burst and the wind only seemed to be getting stronger.

Finally, just as Mark began to fear he’d pass out, he saw his father’s SUV parked just outside of a two storey, log cabin.  When his eyes caught a glimpse of the chimney stack, spitting thick, inviting clouds of smoke from its top, his heart fluttered and his eyes lost track of the world as it started to spin and distort.

“Mark?!” he heard from somewhere beyond the trees.  “What are you doing?  Where’s everyone else?”

Mark turned toward the voice, unable to place it at first, until he felt something grabbing at the sides of his arms, and his father appeared right in front of him.

“What happened?!  Are you okay?!” Peter asked urgently and pulled Mark against his chest and wrapped him in his arms.  “Where’s your brother?!”

“A man,” Mark croaked as his body began to sweat and tingle.  “We found a man in the snow… the car broke down.”

“Brittany!” Peter yelled and lifted Mark into his arms while turning around.  “Brittany, open the door!”

At the entrance of the cabin, Brittany walked out through door and threw a tea towel over her shoulder.  “What’s going on?” she asked plainly as her eyes narrowed at the boy in her husband’s arms.  “Mark?!” she shouted, and ran toward them.  “What’s happening?!”

“There’s been an accident, I think,” explained Peter, running past his wife and into the cabin.  “He’s all right,” he continued.  “Just winded from running.”

“Where’s James?!” Brittany shouted as she followed Peter inside.

“They found a man.  They’re bringing him here… down the road.”  Peter fished through his pockets and pulled out the keys the SUV.  “I’ll be right back!”

 

 

*                      *                      *

 

 

Brady and his mother couldn’t see more than twenty feet in front of them, and James was crying from the pain of his frozen fingers and toes.  They could barely walk anymore.  The man was heavy, and the wind was only getting stronger.   Because of the blowing snow, they had moved off of the road in case Peter didn’t see them in the street when he came to get them, but now they were afraid that he would just pass them by.

“How much further do you think it is?” Brady asked his mom and then looked back at James.

Natalie frowned but kept moving.  “I don’t know.  We shouldn’t be too far now,” she guessed.  “James?  How’re you doing, bud?”

The boy sniffled and tried to clear his throat.  “My toes hurt.”

“I know, James,” said Natalie.  “Just keep moving and you’ll be fine, okay?”

“Mom?  Do you think he’ll live?” asked Brady.  “How are we going to get him to the hospital in this?”

“We’ll figure it out.  He probably just needs warming up.”

“How is he even alive?   I mean, we don’t even know how long he was there.”

Just then, down the road, they could hear the faint sound of a honking horn being pressed over and over, and getting louder by the second.

“It’s Dad!” shouted James, as he ran up ahead.

“James!”  Natalie let go of the sleeping bag and ran after him.  “Stay off the road!  Your Dad might not see you!”

The boy stopped and stared off into the blowing snow.  “What if he passes us?”

“He won’t,” promised Natalie, who then turned and walked toward the tree line.  “Brady!  Snap of some twigs and branches and start throwing them in the road.”

“What?  Why?”

“So that Peter doesn’t pass us.   If he doesn’t see the sticks, when he drives over them he’ll notice,” she explained and broke off a small limb of a tall pine tree.  “Hurry!”

The three struggled to break off as many branches as they could before Peter arrived, but despite their efforts, the SUV drove over the twigs and continued down the street.  In a panic, Brady snapped off one last stick, of about three feet in length, and chucked it like a miniature javelin at the rear window.

A loud thunk echoed back through the air when the tip of the stick hit the window and it fell to snow-covered road.  The vehicle immediately stopped, and Peter reversed down the road.  Before he could he even stop, the back door opened, and Natalie poked her head in.  “We need your help!” she begged, momentarily losing herself in the interior’s warmth.

Peter shifted into park and jumped out of the SUV then circled around to the other side, where Natalie and Brady were struggling to lift the man up into the car.  Seeing this, Peter ran back to the vehicle and pressed the trunk-release button.  “Bring him to the back!” he instructed.  “We’ll never get him in there!”

Grabbing the man’s feet, Peter guided the other two around to the trunk, and they carefully placed him in the back.  “Someone should stay with him,” he suggested, and Brady jumped inside without a word.

“He needs a hospital,” said Natalie, as Peter slammed the trunk door shut.

“We’ll never get there in all of this,” he said.  “We’ll take him back to the cabin and try calling for an ambulance.”

James had already climbed into the back seat and curled himself up into a ball by the time Natalie and Peter made it back to the front.

“You okay, James?” asked Peter, looking back at his son from the driver’s seat.

The boy just nodded and curled himself up even tighter.

As soon as the doors were shut, Peter backed up off of the road, and slowly turned the vehicle around.

“I don’t have a signal out here,” said Natalie, fearing that Peter’s phone wouldn’t work either.  “What are we going to do?”

“Brittany will know,” Peter replied in certainty.  “She was a nurse’s aide back in Cambridge for a few years.”

 

 

*                      *                      *

 

 

Within a few minutes they arrived at the cabin, and Brittany ran out toward the vehicle.  “Is he still breathing?!” she shouted, as Peter climbed out of the SUV.

“It’s faint, but he’s still alive,” Peter replied and released the hatch.

“Keep the car running,” instructed Brittany, and she crawled into the back next to Brady.  “Help me take off his clothes!”

Brady couldn’t help but to blush, and he was unable to move.  Brittany had taken control anyway and had already removed his balaclava and was working on his jacket.  “Take his boots off slowly!  Brady, can you run inside and get a quilt?”

Brady nodded and eased out the back of the vehicle.  When he got inside the cabin, Mark was sitting in front of the fire with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders as he stared out the window at the commotion outside.  “Are you okay?” he asked Mark.  “I need a blanket.”

“I’m good,” Mark croaked.  “A bit sore’s all.”

Wanting more than anything to run and hold Mark in his arms, Brady forced himself to look away and search for a blanket.  “Where are they?”

“The blankets?” Mark tried to recall.  “Here, take mine.  I’m okay now.”

“You sure?”  Brady approached Mark and reached for his cover before losing control and wrapping his arms around Mark’s shoulders.

Mark smiled and kissed the top of Brady’s head.  “You better hurry,” he said and pulled away from him while peeling off the blanket.  “I love you,” he whispered, trying to avoid irritating his throat even more.

“I love you, too,” Brady returned and then took the blanket from Mark’s hands.  “I’ll be right back, okay?”

Before Mark could reply, Brady had turned around and run for the door.  His toes were still half-frozen and every step felt as if they were shattering again and again, but he couldn’t afford to stop and think.

By the time he had made it back to the SUV, the half-dead man was naked, and James was covering his eyes as Peter guided him inside.  When he handed Brittany the blanket, she snatched it from hand and flung it over the man.  “We need to warm him slowly,” she said, as if it were an apology.  “Can you go to the front and turn down the heat?”

Without a word, Brady ran to the passenger-side door and crawled into the front and turned down the dial.  “Is four good?” he asked, looking at the display panel.

“That’s fine, thank you,” she replied.  “Can you stay there?  I need someone to turn up the heat every few minutes.”

Brady shifted in the seat he was kneeling on and sat down, then pulled the door closed to hide from the wind.  In the rear-view mirror, he could see his mom and Brittany climb into the back and lie down on either side of the man.  Just then, Peter opened the driver’s side door and climbed in.  “You can go inside and warm up.  I’ll keep an eye on the heat,” he offered.

“Okay,” agreed Brady, and he climbed out of the car and ran into the cabin.

 

 

*                      *                      *

 

 

The next morning was quiet.  Brady had fallen asleep on the couch, staring at the fire, in between Mark and James, snuggled underneath a heavy down-filled quilt.  When he opened his eyes, he saw his mother sleeping on an armchair on the other side of the room.  He could hear movement behind him, coming from the kitchen, accompanied by the smell of pancakes and syrup.

Wiggling his way out from between the two brothers, Brady stood up and draped the quilt back over Mark’s shoulders.

“Morning, Brady,” greeted Brittany, who was standing in front of the oven holding a plate in one hand and a spatula in the other.  “Are you hungry?”

Brady rubbed his eyes and then stretched out his arms.  “What happened last night?” he mumbled and walked into the kitchen.

Brittany placed a plate of three pancakes down at the table.  “He’ll live,” she said.  “We moved him into your mother’s room around one last night.  It doesn’t look like he was in the snow for too long.  Some minor frostbite on his face, fingers, and toes, but aside from that, he’s a lucky man,” she explained.

“Who is he?” asked Brady, as he sat down at the table.

Brittany shrugged and returned to the oven.  “No clue.  He has no identification.  We didn’t even find a wallet on him.”

“Do you think he was robbed?”

Brittany shook her head.  “I doubt it.  There’s no one out here.”

Just then, Mark stumbled into the kitchen and plunked down in a chair next to Brady, then dropped his forehead against the table with a loud thud.  “I think I’ve got a hangover,” he moaned and cradled his hands over the back of his head.  “Is that possible?”

Brady shook his head.  “Nah.  It’s not a hangover.  It’s what happens when you use your brother’s butt as a pillow.”

“Ugh,” groaned Mark.  “That would explain it.  So what are we gonna do about the Popsicle?”

“Mark!” scolded Brittany.  “That’s terrible!”

Mark shrugged and sat up.  “Sorry… but what are we gonna do with him?”

“We’re going to wait until he wakes up and then see if we can get him to the hospital,” explained Brittany.

“Did it finally stop snowing?”

Brittany nodded.  “Just a few hours ago.”

“I don’t think I like Canadian winters much.  What are we gonna do all week?  We don’t have to shovel the drive, do we?”

“Your dad’s brought tons of stuff for you boys to do,” said Brittany.  “That’s why you had to ride with Brady’s mom.”

“So we don’t have to shovel?”

“Oh yes you do,” said Peter as he walked into the kitchen.  “When you’re done that, you can help me get the chains on the car so we can fetch the presents from the boot of Natalie’s car.”

“Peter,” Brittany started, “you’ll never be able to drive through that much snow.  We best wait for the plough to come by.”

“Then it’s settled!” Mark stood up.  “We ditch the chores and go straight to the fun!”

“But first!” Brittany put her hand on Mark’s shoulder and guided him back down to his chair, “we finish our breakfast and get unpacked.”

Mark stared up at his mom and frowned.  “And I thought you were on our side.”

“No, I’m on my side,” Brittany smiled and walked back toward the oven.  “Now go wake up your brother.  Breakfast’s getting cold.”

 

 

*                      Bookmark Three                      *

 

 

“Brady!  Wait up!” begged Mark as he struggled to climb back up to his feet from the snow.  “I’m tangled!  Help!”

Brady turned around to see Mark sprawled in the snow with his legs crossed one over the other with his snowshoes tangled and wedged together.  “What did you do?” Brady chuckled and carefully walked back to Mark.  “I didn’t even know you could bend that way… interesting.”

“This is no time for perving!” Mark said in all seriousness.  “Help me, please?”

Just as Brady bent down to separate Mark’s snowshoes, a huge, packed snow ball smashed against the back of his head, and he fell forward over Mark.  “Hey!” he blurted and looked back to see James peeking from behind a large tree trunk.  “You’re gonna get it for that!”

“Nuh-uh!” shouted James.  “It wasn’t me!”

Brady rolled his eyes, just as he got Mark’s feet separated, then turned back to look at James.  “Then who was it?”

Another snowball exploded against Brady’s chest, sending him back into the snow, and James started laughing so hard that he fell over into the snow.

“What the…?!” Brady dusted himself off and looked over toward the cabin.  “Mom?!”

“That’s Mr. Mom to you, soldier!”

“You’re meant to be on my side!” demanded Brady as he struggled to climb to his feet.

Natalie raised an eyebrow and bent down to pack another ball of snow.  “Who says?”

“Um, God?”

Mark reached up for Brady, “Don’t worry, I won’t betray you.  Help me up?”

Brady offered his hand and pulled Mark up to his feet.  “Okay, you go left, I’ll go right.”

But Mark just screwed his brow up into his toque.  “What?  And then what?”

“You get James, I’ll take care of my mom,” he instructed.  “Got it?”

Mark nodded.  “Yes, Sir!”

The two bent down and scooped up a hand full of snow and waddled off in different directions, struggling to stay upright with their snowshoes.  “You’ll pay for that!” yelled Brady as he tossed his snowball at his mom and ducked in behind a tree.

Natalie dodged the snowball without a problem and chucked her own back at her son.  “We’ll see!” she shouted back and watched her snowball fly up into the air, ten feet above Brady’s head, and then explode against a tree branch.

“Haha!” Brady said in ridicule then bent down to gather some more snow.  “You missed!” Just before Brady could stand back up, a slop of snow fell down onto his head from the above branches.

“Haha!” mocked Natalie, as she started tiptoeing through the snow toward her son.

“BRADY!” Mark called out in terror, “Brady HELP!”

Turning his head toward the voice, a large snowball crashed against the side of his head and caused him to fall to the ground.  Mark was in front of the tree where James had been hiding, sprawled out on the ground with his little brother sitting on his back.

Before Brady could climb back up to his feet, his mother was standing over him with a snowball in both of her hands.  “Mom?” he said as pitifully as he could manage.  “Please…” Both snowballs crashed against either of Brady’s shoulders and Natalie ran back behind a tree.  “…don’t.”

“BRADY!” Mark begged for rescue.  “Get ‘em off!”

When Brady sat up and looked toward the voice, James was still sitting on Mark’s back, burying him in snow as fast as he could, while Mark struggled to flip over onto his back.  Unfortunately, his snowshoes had tangled again.

“I’m coming!” replied Brady and he used the trunk of a tree to pull himself up onto his feet, but before he could start walking toward Mark, Brittany stepped out of the cabin.

“Natalie!” she said, trying not to sound too shaken.  “He’s awake!”

Everyone froze where they were.  They knew the man they had found would wake up at eventually, but up until this point last night’s events hadn’t even seemed real, and Natalie’s expression revealed no difference in her thoughts.  “What can I do?” Natalie finally replied and dropped the snowball in her hand to the ground.

Brittany turned and opened the door, then looked back at Brady’s mom.  “Just be with him.  He’s asking for you.”

Natalie couldn’t help but feel confused.  “How?” was all she could muster from her thoughts.

“I don’t know,” Brittany replied honestly.  “It’s the only thing he’s said.”  Looking at her sons and Brady, who was starting toward the door, Brittany shook her head and held out her hand.  “You boys stay here.  Let’s not crowd the poor man just yet.”

The three boys stopped in their tracks and watched curiously as the two women disappeared in through the door, and then looked over at each other curiously.  “Do you think he was awake last night when we were pulling him?” Mark thought out loud, asking no one in particular.

James climbed off of his brother and took a few steps closer to the cabin.  “No way,” he said in certainty.  “I bet he’s magic.”

Mark giggled at his brother and rolled onto his back.  “Yeah, that must be it,” he teased.  “Brady?!  Can you help?”

As Brady walked over to Mark, James tiptoed toward the cabin.  “He is magic,” he repeated and walked around to the side of the cabin and looked up at the second storey window to the room where the man was resting.  “I bet Santa sent him.”

“James,” started Mark, as Brady pulled him up to his feet again, “don’t be such a dork.”

“Hey, don’t be mean,” Brady said to Mark and nudged him on the shoulder.  “Christmas is meant to be magic.”

Mark just rolled his eyes and started walking toward the cabin.  “Okay, fine,” he decided.  “But I’m sick of snowshoeing.  Can we do something else now?”

“Like what?”

Mark grinned and wiggled his eyebrows as deviously as he could manage.  “Bet we could find a nice, quiet spot.”

“Right,” Brady replied sarcastically, “because we’re not stranded in a small cabin, surrounded by our parents, and some strange elf from the North Pole.”

“Well you’re no fun.” Mark walked up in behind James and stared up at the window with him.  “What are you looking at?”

“I’m trying to see if the window’s frosted,” James replied without batting an eye.

“What?”

“If he was sent by Santa, that means he’s probably an elf, and that means he’s got magic, and that means that the windows will go all frosty with those cool spiral thingies in the glass.”

Mark stretched out his neck and tilted his head to the side as he attempted to focus on the window.  “I’m not seeing anything yet.”

“Well, maybe it just takes a while.  He did just wake up,” decided James.

“Anyway…” Mark looked over at Brady, “what do you want to do now?”

Brady sat down on the step leading into the cabin and bent down to untie his snowshoes.  “I dunno,” he shrugged.  “What else did your dad bring?”

“Damned if I know,” Mark chuckled.  “The better question is what didn’t he bring?”

“Good point.  Wanna go check it out?”

“All right,” agreed Brady.  “James?  You coming?”

James was still staring up at the window as if he were in a trance.  When he heard Brady’s voice, he slowly turned his head and nodded.  “Uh-huh.”

“While we’re in there, maybe we can get your mom to make us some more of that hot chocolate,” suggested Mark, just as he stumbled over his own feet.  “Uh, but first—can you help me get these things off?”

 

*                      *                      *

 

Venturing into the cabin, the boys quietly slid off their boots and placed them by the electric heater to dry.  They could hear muffled voices coming from upstairs but their eavesdropping couldn’t translate what was being said, so the three continued into the kitchen.

“Why do you think he was in the snow to begin with?” said Mark, as Brady opened a cupboard to look for the hot chocolate powder.

“Who knows?” replied Brady.  “Maybe he robbed a bank and had to ditch his car, so he tried to cut through the woods.”

“No,” James interrupted, “he’s an elf.”

“He’s not an elf, James,” Mark said in certainty.  “Elves are short and weird looking.  The guy upstairs is all old and normal looking.”

“Nuh-uh!” James refuted.  “He’s not old.  He’s like Mum’s age!”

“Yeah,” Mark chuckled quietly, “and Mum’s old…”

“I heard that!”  All three boys turned their heads toward the voice to see Brittany sitting in front of the fire while folding some clothes.  “His name’s Chris,” she continued.  “His car broke down on the other side of the lake.  He was trying to make it to the highway.”

Mark turned his head toward his brother and grinned in an I-told-you-he-wasn’t-an-elf fashion, then he looked back to his mom.  “So how long was he out there?”

“There’s no way to tell for sure.  It couldn’t have been very long, though.”

“Then how did he get buried in the snow like that?” asked Brady.

Brittany looked to her left, out the window, then back at Brady.  “With all that wind and snow last night, it wouldn’t have taken long to bury the poor man,” she explained.  “I hope your mum’s car wasn’t buried.  When the ploughs go by, they may not even see it until it’s too late.”

“Brittany!” shouted the voice of Peter from up the stairs, “How’s that soup coming?!”

Brittany gasped and dropped a pair of jeans on the couch.  “Oh dear,” she said with a chuckle.  “Seems I got distracted,” she told the boys then turned her head toward the stairs.  “Just a minute!”

Jumping to her feet, Brittany tossed a tea towel over her shoulder and rushed into the kitchen.  “Mark, can you grab a pot from the cupboard next to the fridge?” she asked, as she opened another cupboard and pulled out a can of chicken noodle.

Shuffling past Brady, who was mixing the hot chocolate in three mugs, Mark retrieved a small pot and handed it to his mother.  “Brain farting, Mum?” he asked.

“You better believe it,” Brittany agreed and took the pot from Mark’s hand.  “It’s hard to explain, but I’m almost positive that I’ve met this man before,” she explained while opening the can and dumping its contents into the pot.

Mark raised an eyebrow.  “Please don’t tell me you’re crushing on this guy,” he pleaded.  “I don’t think I can take it.”

“Nothing like that,” Brittany assured her son.  “He just looks incredibly familiar.  Your dad says the same thing.”

“He’s an elf!” James piped in.  “Are the windows frosty yet?”

Mark rolled his eyes and shook his head.  “He’s not an elf, James.  Give it up.”

“Is too!”

Brady placed his hand on Mark’s shoulder to get his attention.  “Let him have some fun,” he said, “and help me with the drinks.  I can’t find the marshmallows.”

Within a few minutes, Brittany had the soup to a boil and was pouring it into a bowl.  “All right, you boys try to entertain yourselves for just a little longer, okay?  Once we’ve figured out what we’re doing with Christopher up there, we’ll take you out for some cross-country skiing.”

“All right, Mum,” agreed Mark, as he helped Brady by bringing his mug to the table.

 

 

***

 

While drinking their hot chocolate, the boys started a game of Monopoly.  It was their eleventh pass around the board, and James had collected and built hotels on the entire last half of the board.  “Okay,” started Mark, holding three property cards in his hand.  I’ll give you all of my orange properties, with hotels, plus my two railroads, AND five hundred bucks for your Boardwalk and Park Place, without hotels,” he tried to bargain.  However, James wasn’t budging.

“No!”  James placed both of his hands over his cards and stared at Mark’s thimble that had landed on Boardwalk.  “You owe me $2000, plus $6350 from before.”

With a frown on his face, Mark studied his remaining properties, along with his chump-change in bills that he had just collected from Brady.  “Come on, it’s a good deal,” he tried again.  “No one ever lands on the blue ones anyway.”

Brady started to laugh and patted Mark on the back.  “This is your third time landing on Boardwalk in four trips around the board.  He’s making a killing off of those.”

“Shhh,” Mark hissed, and nudged Brady in the side with his elbow.  “I’m making a deal here!”

“How about this,” James sat up and reached for his brother’s property cards.  “You give me the orange properties, with hotels, and the $500, and I’ll let you stay in the game.”

“But then I only have the railroads,” Mark whined.  “I’d be dead for sure.”

“You’re already dead,” chuckled Brady.  “Just take the offer.  It’s either that or bankruptcy.”

Just as Mark was about to give in, Peter came into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of water.  “You boys ready for some skiing?  It’s a beautiful day out there.”

“Yes!” Mark dropped his property cards on the board and stood up.  “Let’s go!”

“Hey!” James reached for his brother’s shirt and tried to pull him back down to his chair.  “We’re not done yet!”

Brady stood up as well.  “You win, James.  Mark’s already dead, and there’s no way I’m going to win with what I have.”

James frowned and looked down at his silver puppy.  “But one more turn and I pass Go!”

Looking at James’s stack of bills and pile of properties, Mark ruffled his brother’s hair and giggled.  “You can’t collect $200 if you have all the bank’s money anyway, James.  Let’s just pack up and go skiing.”

“Fine,” James sighed and stood up.  “But I still win!”

“You won ages ago,” Brady assured the boy.  “Loser sorts the money!”

James grinned up at his brother, grabbed his stack of cash, and dropped it in front of him.  “Have fun.”

 

* Bookmark Four *

 

While the boys cleaned up, Peter gathered the skiing equipment and took it outside and got everything ready.  In no time, everyone was standing outside struggling to fasten their skis to their boots, with the exception of Brittany, who had volunteered to stay behind and watch over Chris.

“Alright!” Peter said to get everyone’s attention.  “We’re going to take the toboggans with us, and we’re going to try and find the car to collect the presents.  We’ve got three toboggans and two adults, so which one of you boys wants to pull the last one?”

James was first to raise his hand, and he ran over to the toboggans, standing upright in the snow, before his dad could say anything.   “And then we can get the tree, right Dad?!” asked James, while trying to tie the toboggan’s rope to his waist.

“Right,” Peter agreed.  “But maybe we should let Mark or Brady pull the toboggan, James.  It’s a bit, um, awkward to pull.”

“I can do it!” James looked offended.  “Besides, Mark doesn’t know how to ski.”

“Nor do you!” Mark replied immediately.

“Nuh-huh!  I’ve done it lots’uv times!”

“When?!” challenged Mark.  “This is probably the first time you even saw a pair of skis.”

“No.” James waddled back over to his skis with the toboggan awkwardly following behind him.  “I did it lots on the PlayStation.”

Mark groaned and face-palmed himself with his gloves.  “I don’t think that’s the same thing, James.”

“Just let him try,” suggested Brady.  “If he can’t do it, we’ll switch.”

“Alright, but you know how stubborn he can be.  Don’t you remember the Monopoly game?”

“That’s not being stubborn, it’s being smart.  He creamed us both.”

“Okay,” Natalie interrupted while fastening a toboggan to her waist, with her skis already on her feet, “let’s get our skis on and head out.  We’ll freeze to death before you boys settle things,” she teased.

“Um,” Mark stared down at a pair of skis that were lying in the snow then at his boots, “how do I get these things on?”

Brady giggled and walked over to Mark, grabbed his hand, and steered him over to the wooden step at the cabin’s door.  “Sit down,” he instructed.  “I’ll help you out.”

“You know how to ski?” asked Mark, looking up at Brady.

“Nope,” Brady shook his head and went to fetch Mark’s skis, “but I know how to put them on.”

“So we’re all gonna die then, huh?”

Brady nodded.  “Of course,” he confirmed.  “I think my mom’s the only one who knows what she’s doing.”

“I’ve never even heard of cross-country skiing before.  I always thought we’d need a hill to ski,” Mark explained as he watched Brady fasten the skis to his feet.  “This better not be as hard to do as snow shoeing.”

Brady immediately recalled Mark’s tangled legs in the snow and burst out laughing.  “Well, it’s a bit easier.  At least it should be.  You don’t have to move your feet as much—ish.”

“’ish’!?  What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means,” Brady looked back at his mom who was helping Peter fasten his skis to his feet, “it’s a bit easier not to fall, but when you do fall it’s a lot harder to get back up… But that’s okay because it gives me an excuse to help you back up and touch your bum without anyone noticing.”

Mark gasped.  “You’re a pervert!” he yelled, causing Brady to blush and panic.

“Shhh,” Brady begged him. “They know about us… but not that much!”

“Well maybe they should,” Mark teased.  “Now help me up!”

Grabbing Mark’s right hand, Brady helped pull Mark up to his feet.  As soon as he was standing Mark slid forward, swung his left hand around Brady’s waist, and then pinched a handful Brady’s backside.

Brady immediately jumped, yelped, and panicked.  His head whipped around to make sure no one was watching, his foot stepped over Mark’s ski, and then he tumbled to the ground with Mark right behind him.

“Oooph!” Brady huffed when Mark’s weight crashed down on him and forced the air out of his lungs.

Mark’s skis had crossed and his legs were in jumbled mess, but all he could do was laugh.  “Well that was successful,” he eventually said and stared down into Brady’s eyes. “So, umm, how do we get up?”

“All right, let’s get going!” announced Natalie.  “Brady?  You don’t even have your skis on yet.”

Brady sighed and rolled Mark off of his chest.  “I know, Mom.  Mark’s having ski problems.”

“Hey!” Mark said in offence.  “Am not!”

“Well you boys can just catch up,” Natalie decided.  “If we don’t start moving now, James will get tired before we even get on the road,” she explained, looking over at James who was having problems standing up.

“Okay, Mom,” Brady agreed.  “We’ll be right behind you.”

 

***

 

By the time the Brady had climbed back up to his feet and fastened the skis to his boots, the other three had disappeared behind the trees and were already travelling down the road.  Mark was attempting to keep his balance with the ski poles, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate.

“This is impossible!” he shouted in frustration.  “How do I move?!”

Sliding beside Mark, Brady giggled as he bent down to help straighten Mark’s legs.  “You have to push forward with your legs to start.  Once you get moving you can use your poles to keep you moving.”

Mark attempted push himself by lifting his foot and stepping forward, but instead the back of his ski prodded him in the behind and sent him back down to the snow.  “Ugh,” he moaned.  “I don’t get this.”

“Watch,” said Brady, as he lifted his foot slightly and slid forward while using his poles to gain momentum and stay upright.  After sliding a few feet he slowed to a halt and then turned his head to see if Mark was moving yet.  “Come on, get up!”

“Help me!” Mark begged.  “These things are death traps!  I gonna drown in the snow before I get back up!”

“Geeze,” Brady slowly turned around and slid back toward Mark, “I didn’t realize anyone could be so pathetic.  I thought you were the sporty one.”

Mark reached up for Brady’s hand.  “Yeah, if you wanna get into football or tennis or track, I’m your man, but this snow stuff is pissing me off.”

“Well hold still,” Brady grunted as he attempted to pull Mark back up to his feet.  “Straighten your legs!”

“I can’t!” Mark whined.  “They’re unstraightenable!”

“Well try!”

Mark pulled his left leg in and struggled to remove the tip of his right ski out of the snow.  “I am trying!  It’s impossible!”

It was then that Brady realized this would never work, so he let go of Mark and pushed him back into the snow.

“Hey!?” yelled Mark, staring up at Brady with is knees awkwardly bent upward and his backside planted on the ends of his skis.  “What did you do that for?!”

“Just watch.”  Brady bent down and pulled Mark’s legs forward and then placed them down flat in the snow.  “Grab my hands,” he instructed while crossing his skis over Mark’s to hopefully prevent him from sliding.

Mark reached up for Brady’s hands and gripped tight.

“Okay, ready?” asked Brady.

“Yup, go for it,” replied Mark, as Brady pulled back and he was lifted upright.  “Oh, thank God!”

“See?  Was that so hard?”

Mark raised an eyebrow and nodded.  “Yeah, it was.  And if I fall again, just leave me.”

“I will,” Brady agreed and then slowly turned back around.  “Now let’s get going.”

 

***

 

By the time the two made it to the road, their parents and James already looked like tiny black dots against the snow.  The trees on either side of them were covered in leaves made from thick, heavy snow, and there were massive drifts that had consumed two-thirds of the street, some standing nearly four feet tall.

“Jesus,” gasped Mark.  “How is this even possible?”

Brady nodded in disbelief.  “I dunno.  We haven’t had a storm this bad in years.”

“Oh thank God!  I thought this was normal!”

“Nah,” Brady assured him.  “It was probably the elf man back at the cabin.  He probably brought the North Pole back with him.”

“I wonder what’s up with that guy,” said Mark, as he struggled to keep up with Brady.  “I mean, why was he even out there?”

“We already know why,” reminded Brady.  “His car broke down, like ours, and he got stranded.”

“So why didn’t he just stay in his car?”

“Why didn’t we?”

Mark became silent for a while.  “Okay, good point.  But I still find him kind of weird.  I mean, we don’t even know the guy and he’s sleeping in the same place as us.  What if he’s a serial killer?”

“I don’t think he’s going to do any serial killing.  He’s all frostbitten and sick and stuff,” said Brady.  “Now keep up.  I can’t even see your brother anymore.”

“I’m trying to keep up!  My legs are hurting!”

“Don’t be such a baby…”

Without realizing that Brady had stopped, Mark crashed into him and nearly sent the both tumbling to the snow.  “Hey!  Why’d you stop?!”

Brady pointed down to the snow.  “Isn’t this where we found him?”

“I dunno,” Mark shrugged.  “Let’s go.  I’m getting cold.”

“Wait, let’s check it out.”

“Why?” Mark watched as Brady carefully treaded to the side of the road.  “Come on, Brady.  Let’s just keep going—please?”

“Since when did you become the baby?”

Mark wrinkled his nose and cheeks reddened.  “I’m not a baby, I’m just cold.”

“Come on, I just wanna check it out.”

Holding his pole out in front of him, Brady started poking it into the snow.

“What are you doing?” asked Mark, coming closer.  “Did you see something?”

“I thought I did, but I must be seeing things because I can’t find it.”

“Move aside lame poker!” shouted Mark as he nudged his way past Brady and started jabbing both of his poles into the snow as fast as he could.  “If anything’s here, I’ll find it!”  Although Brady was laughing, he didn’t want Mark to break whatever might be under the snow with his poles, so he reached for his arms to try to stop him.  “Hey!” Mark said happily.  “Stop, I think I found something!”

“What?!” Brady dropped down to his knees.  “What is it?!”

“Well if I knew that, I wouldn’t have said ‘something’,” teased Mark.  It’s below my pole.  Pull it out!”

Brady turned his head to face Mark and raised an eyebrow.  “Now is not the time, Mark!”

“What?!  No!  Wait…  Yeah, no!”  As soon as Mark felt Brady tugging at the object he removed his ski pole from the snow.  “What is it?!”

“It’s a bag or something,” replied Brady, as he retrieved a medium sized, black backpack made from a thick canvas out from the snow.  “It’s pretty heavy, too.”

“Well what’s inside?!” Mark demanded to know.  “Open it!”

Brady fought against the frost to unzip the bag and then slowly slid his hand inside.  Mark studied his expression closely and watched as his eyes went from wonder to confusion.  “Hmm,” Brady hummed as he fished his hand around.

“What?  What, ‘hmm’?!  What is it?!”

“I don’t know,” replied Brady.  Everything’s frozen together.  The bag’s soaked through.”

“Well?!  Pull it out!” demanded Mark.

A smirk crossed Brady’s cheek and he raised an eyebrow as he looked at Mark.  “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh shut up, prevert!  Let’s see it!”

“Okay, one sec.”  Brady removed his hand from the bag and tipped it upside down then gave it a shake.  At first its contents wouldn’t budge, so Brady shook harder until he could feel whatever it was giving way.  “It’s coming,” he said excitedly, just as a large, mangled brick of cold, hard cash dropped out of the bag and into the snow.

“Holy shit!” Mark shouted and lunged at the money.  “Holy shit!  We’re rich!”

Brady watched as Mark grabbed the lump of dough in his hands and lifted it up to eye level.  “How much do you think is there?” asked Brady, as he studied frozen lump.

“At least…  I dunno, a lot!”

Suddenly, a surge of dread flooded through Brady’s veins.  “Wait, who carries around this much cash?”

Mark shrugged.  “I dunno.  Rich people, bank robbers, drug dealers… oh.  Shit.”

“Yeah—what are we gonna do?” Brady asked, as he reached for the ball of cash.  “There’s gotta be a couple hundred thousand here at least, and we’re harbouring the man in my mother’s bed.”

“We hide it,” said Mark after a moment of deep thought.  “We’ll bring it back to the cabin and hide it somewhere, and if the guy asks about it we’ll say we don’t know what he’s talking about.”

“We can’t keep it, Mark.  This has to be stolen.”

“I know, but what if we tell him we found it and he gets angry and goes all serial killer on us?”

“Good point.”

“And if he doesn’t ask about it, we can return—most of it—to the authorities.”

“Mark, we’re not keeping any of it.  It’s someone else’s money.”

“It’ll be a finder’s fee,” Mark tried to negotiate.  “Just a couple thousand.”

Brady rolled his eyes and shook his head.  “You know we can’t.  If there’s a reward we’ll take it, but right now we should worry about the guy being in the same cabin as us.”

“We’ll just tell my dad,” suggested Mark.

“No!” shouted Brady.  “If we tell anyone, they’ll try to do something.  We’ll put everyone else in danger.  We hide it and pretend nothing happened.  We’ll just wait for the man to go.”

“What if he doesn’t go?”

“He’ll have to go eventually.  As soon as the snow gets cleared your mom said we’d be taking him to the hospital.”

Mark shook his head.  “Uh, but if he’s a criminal, I doubt he’ll want to go to the hospital.”

“You’re probably right.  Let’s just worry about the cash for now.  We’ll hide it in the trees somewhere and come back for it later.”

Looking around at all the snow and trees, Mark’s attention was steered to their tracks.  “How are we going to hide it?  The snow’s ratting us out.”

Brady thought for a second, staring at their tracks and the snow and then back to the back.  “We say we had to pee,” he finally said.  “No one knows about the money, so they won’t think anything of it, right?”

“Good!” Mark handed Brady the ball of money and carefully climbed back up to his feet.  “And to make it authentic, I’m really gonna pee.”

“Okay, me too,” decided Brady as he returned the money to the inside of the bag and zipped it back up.  “Where should we hide it?”

“Not here.”  Mark grabbed his poles and cautiously stepped back around toward the street.  “We’ll do it down the road,” he pointed, “at that big tree over there.  We’ll be able to find that, right?”

As Brady secured the bag on his back, he stared down the street at the large pine tree that towered the other trees by a good ten feet.  “That’s perfect!”

“Great, ‘cause I really need to pee.”

Grabbing his ski poles and standing back up, Brady turned around and followed in behind Mark toward their chosen tree.  Before they even got there, Mark was already trying to unzip his jacket and ski pants, which was slowing him down and causing Brady to constantly crash into the backs of Mark’s skis.

“Come on, Mark,” Brady said with a chuckle.  “We need to catch up to the others before they think we ditched them.”

“I’m trying!” Mark snapped in frustration.  “This stuff is pissing me off.  There’s zippers and Velcro and poppers and strings, and my gloves are fat, and…”

“Okay, I get it.  Just why not worry about them when we get to the tree?”

“Because I’m gonna explode!” replied Mark.  “That hot chocolate made my bladder all bloated, and the cold’s making everything worse.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve already squirted my pants!”

“Well, just hold out another ten seconds, okay?  It’s right ahead.”

Mark grumbled and resumed moving forward.  “Okay, fine.  But you’re helping me!”

“Fine.” Brady grinned, reached forward, and pinched Mark’s padded behind.  “I’ll even hold it for you if you want.”

“Ooh, NOW you want to hold it?!  Where were you when I was hurtin’ and lonely, huh?  You rejected me!”

“I didn’t reject you.  I just didn’t think it was a good idea to do anything with your brother in the room.”

“He sleeps like a brick!”

“You mean a log?”

Mark stopped in front of the tall pine tree, dropped his poles to the ground and looked back at Brady as if he were crazy.  “Logs don’t sleep, dummy.”

 

 

***

 

 

“All right, I think we managed to get everything,” said Natalie as she placed the last black garbage bag full of presents onto Peter’s toboggan.  “I wonder what’s taking Mark and Brady?”

“Who knows with those two,” said Peter.  “Mark’s probably still trying to get his skis on.”

James finished tying the rope to the toboggan around his waist.  “I bet they drowned in the snow.”

“Wait a minute, I think I see them,” said Natalie, and she pointed her finger down the road.  “Is that them?”

James framed his eyes with his hands like binoculars and squinted his eyelids.  “I think so!  One of ‘em’s moving like he’s got Jell-O in his pants.  I bet it’s Mark!”

“Good,” said Peter.  “Just in time to turn around and follow us back.” Peter looked down at James.  “You’re probably going to need a hand with that sleigh of yours, Rudolph.”

“Nuh-uh!” James said defensively.  “I can do it.  I’m awesome!”

“No argument here,” Peter assured him.  “But why do all the work when you can have a slave?”

James grinned his best Grinch smile and looked up at his dad.  “I like that idea.  Mark!  Dad says you’re my slave!”

What?!” shouted Mark as they neared.  “Bologna!”

“Nuh-huh!  Dad said!”

Mark looked to his side, at Brady, then back to James.  “Well if I’m your slave then Brady’s my slave, and whatever you command me to do I’ll make Brady do!”

Brady stopped moving forward and stared at Mark.  “Hey, wait, what?!”

“Just accept it, Brady,” said Mark.  “You know you want nothing more than to be my man servant.”

“Shh!” Brady blushed, afraid that Mark’s dad would overhear.  “Let’s not freak anyone out.”

“Hush Man Servant!” Mark commanded as he stopped in front of Natalie’s snow-covered car.  “Geeze, this things a gonner, huh?”

“What took you so long?” James asked before Natalie could reply.  “We’ve been waiting for ages!”

“Uh,” Brady struggled for an excuse.  “Mark couldn’t get his skis on.”

“And we stopped to pee on the trees,” added Mark.

James suddenly looked angry and glared up at his dad.  “See?!  I told you we were supposed to do it!”

“We’re not peeing on the trees, James.” Peter sighed and adjusted his toque.  “Now let’s get moving before my toes realize they’re still attached to my feet.”

 

 

* Bookmark Five *

 

 

Both Brady and Mark felt their stomachs begin to twist and churn as they neared the cabin.  The thought of going back into that place with a possible killer was gnawing at their brains like a rabid animal trapped in a cage.  But they couldn’t let their thoughts reach the surface.  They knew that much.  If anyone else were to discover the truth behind their unfortunate guest, they’d all be placed in imminent danger.

James, who had pawned the toboggan off to Mark, then Mark to Brady, was clumsily rushing ahead, while trying not to trip over his skis.  Under normal circumstances, Mark would find this hilarious, but all he could feel was dread over allowing his brother to enter the cabin alone.  Not only this, but the fact that his mother had been left behind to watch over the man for almost two hours now was causing Mark’s head to scramble with visions of every horror movie he had ever seen.

“Mark?” said Peter, noticing the troubled expression on his son’s face.  “What’s the matter?  Can’t feel your toes?”

Forcing himself away from his thoughts, Mark shook his head and smiled up at his dad.  “No, I’m fine.  Just tired, I guess.”

“I hear you on that one.  My legs feel like jelly and needles at the same time.  And the next time we go out, I’m doubling-up on socks.”

“And I’m doubling-down on distance,” decided Mark.  “That was way too far to ski.”

Just as Mark noticed that James had already ripped off his skis and was running up toward the cabin, and just before he could call out for him to wait, the cabin door opened and his mother stepped out.  “What took you guys so long?” asked Brittany with a smile on her face.  “I was about to send out a search party.”

“Mum!” shouted James as he ran toward her.  “Mum, Mark peed on a tree, and Dad said I couldn’t!”  Before Brittany could reply, James jumped into her arms and gave her a long, tight hug.  “Mum, you’re all warm.”

Brittany gasped and shivered.  “And you’re freezing!  Run inside and warm up, love.  I’ll make you some lunch.”

“That boy’s the only one who’s going to be running for a long time,” said Peter, stopping by the cabin’s steps and untying the toboggan from his waist.  “I can barely move.  I don’t understand how he’s still upright.”

“Did you manage to get everything on the first trip?” Brittany asked.

“Yup.  At least, everything we’re going to need,” replied Natalie.  “I would have liked to bring the car back.  I don’t like leaving it in the road like it is, but we cleared the snow off of it so the plough driver will see it.”

 Just as Brittany was about to complain about the roads not being cleared yet, she noticed Mark and Brady trying to sneak by into the cabin.  “Hold it!” she said and grabbed Mark by the shoulders.  Why don’t you boys bring a couple bags into the house?  Leave them by the stairs and then go warm up by the fire.”

Mark nodded and turned back around with Brady to collect two massive bags of presents each.  “This good, Mum?” Mark asked and waited for Brittany’s approval.

“Good,” she confirmed.  “Just try not to drag them on the ground and tear the bags.  We didn’t bring extra wrapping paper.”

Mark nodded again then carefully followed Brady into the cabin.  Once they were inside and the door was closed behind them, Mark dropped the bags and ripped off his boots to go look for his brother and make sure the serial killer hadn’t gotten to him.  Then, turning the corner into the living room, his eyes met with someone else’s, someone unfamiliar.

“Hi there,” greeted the serial killer, who was sitting in the reclining chair next to the fire, across from James.  “How’s the weather outside?”

Mark couldn’t speak at first.  His throat seemed to have become plugged by his heart.  “Hi…” Mark croaked, staring at the serial killer who didn’t look like a serial killer at all.  “Fine.”

The man smiled and then turned his gaze toward James on the couch.  “So I hear I have you to thank for finding me,” he said.

James grinned and nodded.  “Yup.  I saw your blanket in the snow,” he said proudly.

Leaning forward and offering out his hand toward James, the serial killer clutched James’s hand in his own, and James happily shook it with great enthusiasm.  “Then thank you, James.  I owe you my life.”

James’s lips stretched out even further than before. “I know.”

“And modest, too,” the man chuckled then turned his attention back to Mark, who was now standing next to an equally silent Brady.  “Why don’t you two come and sit down.  I don’t bite, honest.”

The boys didn’t reply but forced themselves to cautiously make their way over to the couch.  Mark sat down as close to James as he could without making it look weird, and Brady kept his distance on the far end.

“My names Chris,” the man introduced himself and looked over at Brady.  “You must be Brady,” then over to Mark, “and you’re Mark, right?”

Both boys nodded in unison.

Chris smiled awkwardly and looked back at James.  “Are they always this quiet?” he whispered.

James shook his head.  “No way.  Mark never shuts up, but Brady’s quiet more because he loves my brother.”

Mark’s and Brady’s face immediately flushed a deep red, and Brady rapidly directed his attention to the floor while Mark gave a firm nudge to his brother’s side.  “James?!” Mark hissed at him through gritted teeth.

“It’s okay,” said Chris.  “I’ve got no problem with who-loves-who.  In fact, I’ve got a friend who just got married to another man.  I was their best man—well, one of them, anyway.”

Brady looked back up and studied the man to try and see if he was lying.

“Actually,” Chris continued, “I was a bit disappointed.”

“Why?” asked James.

“I wanted to be the flower girl.”

James burst out in laughter and fell back against the couch, but Mark wasn’t ready to budge.  “Where were you going?” he blurted.

“I’m sorry?” replied Chris, redirecting his attention.

“You said your car broke down.  Where were you going?”

“Oh, right, of course.” The man sat up in his chair, reached for a glass of orange juice beside him, and took a long sip before continuing.  “I was going home to my family.  I have a wife, two daughters, and a son about James’s age.  I came out here to sell my cottage to a couple of men.”

“Oh,” Mark looked over at Brady to see if he was buying the story.

“Couldn’t you have done that from home?” Brady asked.

“Sure, I suppose, but they wanted to see it first.”

“Okay boys,” said Natalie as she walked into the room.  “Stop interrogating our guest.”

“It’s fine,” Chris assured her.  “They’re just curious.  I don’t mind.”

Natalie smiled at the man and sat down in the chair beside him.  “How are you feeling?”

“Much better.  My fingers and toes are still a bit sore, but all things considered I feel great.”

“Can I get you anything?  Are you hungry?”

Brady groaned when he saw his mother’s googly eyes, and he stood up to leave the room.  He couldn’t watch his mother swooning over the man like she was.  “I’m gonna go upstairs and unpack,” he announced and looked down at Mark to see if he was coming.

“Yeah,” Mark jumped up to his feet and followed Brady toward the stairs.  “Me too.

“All right,” said Natalie.  “We’ll call you when lunch is ready.”

The boys squeezed their way past the gathering of bagged Christmas presents at the landing and climbed up the stairs.  The moment they found their room they closed the door behind themselves.  “Shit!” said Mark as he threw himself down on a bed.  “What are we gonna do now?”

Brady paced back and forth, trying to work his brain.  “I don’t know.  Do you think he’s telling the truth?”

“Hell no!” Mark replied in certainty.  “If he isn’t lying then why hasn’t he mentioned the big fat bag of cash yet?”

“Good point.  But what if he just doesn’t trust us?”

“No way.” Mark stood up.  “He’s too calm, isn’t he?  I bet he’s a professional thief.”

“I guess that’s better than a serial killer,” Brady decided.  “But what do we do now?”

“Duh, we stick to the plan.”

Brady turned around to be greeted by Mark’s arms wrapping around his waist.  “We have a plan?” he asked and pulled Mark close.

“Sure.  We go back, grab the money, and hide it.”

“That’s not much of a plan.  Maybe we should just leave it where it is.”

“No way,” Mark shook his head, stopped briefly and took a calming whiff of Brady’s chest, then looked him in the eyes.  “He’ll find it there.  It’s like minutes away from where we found him, and we left a bunch of tracks.  It’s too obvious.”

Brady squeezed Mark tight against his chest and kissed his forehead.  “Okay, but where should we stash it?  Everywhere we go we’ll leave tracks.”

“Hrmm, true.  Maybe we should hide it in here.”

“Definitely not,” Brady broke their hug and walked over to the window.  “If we bring it in here, he’ll find it.  It’ll be the first thing he suspects.”

“Then where?” asked Mark, joining Brady at the window.

“Over there.” Brady pressed his finger to the glass and pointed at a small shack that was almost completely buried in snow.

“In that thing?  How is that not obvious?”

Brady stepped away from the window and sat down on one of the beds.  “We’ll make a bunch of tracks all over the place.  We can build a fort, go snow shoeing, skiing, dig a bunch of paths to the ice for ice skating, and before long it’ll be such a mess of tracks, forts, and paths that no one will even remember the shack.”

“I know!  We can bury it in snow after.  Maybe everyone will forget it’s there.”

“Cool, so we got a plan.  All we need to do now is get everything ready before we go back for the loot.”

Mark giggled with excitement and threw his arm behind Brady and rested it on his shoulder.  “This is awesome!” he said, attempting to keep his voice at a whisper.  “We should make a map, too!”

“What?  Are you crazy?!”

“Not a real map, dummy.  It’ll be a fake map.  We’ll make a bunch of them, but none of them will be real.  So if Chris gets suspicious and starts following the maps, he’ll just be running in circles.”

“Um, okay,” Brady turned and kissed Mark on the cheek again.  “But you’re making the maps.”

 

 

***

 

 

That afternoon Brady and Mark took James out back to play.  Last night’s storm had left them with tons of snow to work with, and the day’s sunlight had melted the snow just enough so that the boys could shape it into anything they pleased.

Below the blue sky, in the middle of large, open area behind the cabin, James was down on his knees pushing an every-growing ball of snow against the ground.  “I’m gonna make an army!” he announced and continued to push with all his might.

“That’s great!” Mark replied while trudging around in random circles with a pair of snowshoes on his feet.  “What are you doing, Brady?”

Brady turned around and leaned against the handle of the shovel he’d been pushing through the snow and wiped his brow with the back of his glove.  “I’m trying to make a maze,” he said.  “But I think it would be better if we built some walls, too.”

As soon as Brady said this, James perked his head up and jumped to his feet.  “A maze?!” he shouted eagerly. “Can I help?!”

Mark grinned and walked over to his brother.  “Sure,” he said and placed his hand on James’s shoulder.  “Why don’t we use your snowman army to make the walls?”

“But,” James frowned and looked over at his two perfect snowmarines, “why can’t we just make new ones?”

“Okay,” Mark agreed.  “We’ll use the ones you got as guards to the entrance then.  Let’s start making walls behind them.”

James nodded and dropped back down to his knees and grabbed the ball of snow he’d been rolling.  “K then.  This one will be the first part!”

“Cool!  I’ll get started on the other side.  You take the left, I’ll do the right.”

With that said, Mark and James went to work on the walls’ construction, while Brady continued to map out the path for the maze.  After about an hour, only a small portion of the walls were up.  The paths were traced out in the snow, and the snowmarines hand been decorated with stick arms, guns, and spears, and the shack out back had disappeared from sight.

“I’m tired,” said James as he sat down and leaned against one of the snow walls.  “Can we go in and warm up?”

Poking his head out from behind another wall, Mark draped his arms over the top and rested his chin on his hands.  “That’s a good idea.  My gloves are so wet that they’re sticking to the snow, and I think I got pool in my boots.”  Mark then turned around to look for Brady, but he couldn’t see him anywhere.  “Brady?!  Brady, where’d you go?!”

“Over here!” he shouted back and peeked out from behind another wall, about twenty feet away.  “I’m digging a tunnel!”

“A tunnel to what?!” asked Mark.

“To the secret dungeon, duh!”

With that said, Mark and James raced past the walls toward Brady.  “What dungeon?!” James asked curiously.  “I didn’t know we had a dungeon!”

We don’t,” replied Brady in a secretively hushed voice. “It’s a top-secret dungeon… and I haven’t built it yet.”

James gasped in awe, and moved closer to Brady.  “When are we building it?” he asked in a failed whisper.  “Can I help?

“Of course.  But first we need to build more walls in front so that no one can see what we’re doing,” Brady explained.  “We’ll come back and do it after supper.”

James agreed in a slow but intensely serious nod of his head.  “All right then.  I’ll bring the other shovels.

“Okay!” Mark yelled, startling both James and Brady.  “Let’s go have more hot chocolate!”

Shhhhh,” James and Brady hissed urgently.

“Mark!  It’s a secret!” James reminded him.  “Be quiet, fool!”

“Fool?”  Mark crouched down toward his brother.  “Did you just call me a fool?!”

James’s eyes widened and he started backing up.  “Uh, no…  I…”  Turning around as fast as his over-padded body would allow, James bolted off down the aisle of the partially built maze and disappeared around the corner, toward the exit.  “I’m winning!”

 

 

* Bookmark Six *

 

 

That night, Brady and Mark were having trouble sleeping.  Their minds were soaring with gruesome thoughts of horror and mayhem over what would happen to them and their families if Chris found out they had his bag of money.  Even without him finding out, there was still the chance that he was serial killer, or at the very least an evil thief waiting for an opportunity to steal away their Christmas.

Every noise, from the howling wind outside to the constant creaking and moaning of old floorboards throughout the cabin, would cause their hearts to leap into their throats.  James, however, was sound asleep on the bed closest to the door across the room.

“Are you sleeping?” Mark asked Brady and propped himself up on his elbows, over his pillow.

“No,” Brady grumbled and turned his head to face Mark.

“Do you think our maze will keep him away?”

Brady sighed and rubbed his face into his pillow.  “It should, if we ever get it done.”

“What about that little shack?  How are we gonna get the bag in there.  You buried it pretty good.”

“Not all the way.  I dug a hole around to the back.  There’s a little window there.”

“Is that why you made the dungeon?”

Brady nodded, even though he knew Mark couldn’t see him.  “Yeah.  Once you’re inside, there’s a ball of snow.  If you roll it to the side there’s a tunnel.  I hid it by making a bunch of other balls of snow and cutting them in half to decorate the walls.”

“Hehehe, you said ‘balls’,” chuckled Mark.  “What time do you think it is?”

“I ‘unno.  Maybe two-thirty.”

“Do you think we’ll ever fall asleep?”

“Ugh, I hope so,” Brady moaned.  “I hurt from all that building, and my eyes feel like they are burning.”

“Brady?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

 

 

***

 

 

 

Over the next few days, Mark, James, and Brady worked on their maze, adding twists, turns, and tunnels anywhere that they could.  Every day they’d set out right after breakfast and work until lunch, and then head straight back to building once they were done.  Unfortunately, the adults insisted that they spend the evenings with them playing board games, watching movies, and telling stories by the fire, which wouldn’t have been so bad if the serial killer didn’t tell the best ghost stories.

Chris was better, but he didn’t leave.   His excuse was that the snow plough still hadn’t come to clear the roads, but as the days passed by, and despite the fact that he had the man’s bag, Brady was beginning to see the man’s true intent: his mother.  There was no denying that Natalie had grown fond of Chris.  She followed him everywhere.  They were always talking and laughing, and they’d spend their days skiing through the trees and down the road.  And their outings were only getting longer.

 

The morning of their fifth day at the cabin marked the start of another warm, sunny day.  The sky was blue and the wind was almost nonexistent: the perfect weather for completing a snow maze.  By the time Brady had woken from his whopping five hour nap it was already after nine.  Regardless of how hard he and Mark tried, they still couldn’t catch a decent night’s sleep. 

After going to the bathroom, and just as he neared the top of the stairs, Brady heard his mother laughing from inside the living room.  Normally Brady wouldn’t think anything of it, but today his mom’s laugh was different.  It was goofy sounding and overly enthusiastic, like she had just returned home from her bi-weekly ladies’ night out.  And to make matters worse, just when Brady was about to dismiss it, he heard Chris’s voice, followed by more laughter.

“Watcha doing?” Mark asked, walking over from the bathroom.

“Just listening.”

Mark leaned over the banister and peered down the stairs.  “You mean spying, right?”

Brady turned his head to face Mark.  “I guess you could call it that.”

“What are they saying?”

Brady shrugged his shoulders.  “Don’t know.  But my mom’s laughing like a school girl.”

“Hmm, well that’s never good.”

“Tell me about it,” said Brady in a huff.  “At least we should finish the maze today.”

“Yeah right,” Mark groaned.  “That things never gonna be done.  We’ve still gotta shape the walls by the lake, build a roof for the dungeon and the main headquarters, and I seriously don’t think James is ever going to be done making his snowmarine army.”

“But that’s just finishing touches.  Other than the back walls, we’re done, which means we can go get the bag by this afternoon.”

Mark watched as Brady started down the stairs.  He knew that the bag was the whole reason for building the maze, but it also gave him something else to think about instead of the thieving serial killer, who was also turning into cheating womanizer.  And the thought of actually being done with the maze and going back down the road gave his stomach an uneasy feeling.  He wanted to just forget about the whole thing and pretend it never happened, but he knew Brady was far too dedicated to the plan to back out now.

“You coming?” asked Brady from the bottom of the stairs.  “I’ll make you breakfast.”

Mark nodded and scratched at the back of his head before forcing himself to yawn.  “Yeah, sorry.  Still a bit tired, I guess.”

 

 

***

 

 

This was it.  Their skis were fastened to their boots, James was inside the cabin playing cards with his parents, and Chris had taken Brady’s mom back to the skiing trails right after lunch.  There wouldn’t be a better time for Mark and Brady to retrieve the bag of loot.

Brady slipped his hands through the hoops of his skiing poles and looked back at Mark.  “You ready?”

“Yeah.  Ready as I’ll ever be,” said Mark with a sigh. “You sure you want to do this?”

“We don’t have a choice.”

“Sure we do,” Mark assured him.  “He hasn’t found the cash so far, and we’re doing just fine the way we are.  Why hex it?”

“Because, Mark, what if my mom finds it, or your mom, dad, or even James?  They’ll come back here and show it off, and what do you think Chris will do?”

“Tell us it’s his?”

“No way.  If he was going to tell us about the BIG bag of cash he lost, don’t you think he would have said something by now?  Honest people don’t act so normal when they lose that much money.”

“Actually,” started Mark, “honest people don’t carry around that much cash.”

“See what I mean?”

Mark dropped his head and stared at the snow.  “Yeah, I get it,” he sighed again before looking back up to see Brady already pushing himself toward the road.  “Hey!  Wait up!”

 

 

***

 

“I don’t get why we couldn’t just use the snowshoes,” said Mark.  “I mean, sure they’re a pain in the ass, and sure they’re really annoying when you fall, but at least they don’t make my legs hurt like this.”

“These are faster,” replied Brady for the fifth time since they left.  “Just hold up another minute or two.  We’re almost there.”

Sure enough, when Mark looked ahead he could see the top of the extra-tall pine tree, where they had buried the backpack earlier that week.  He thought he’d be relieved when they got there so that he could have a rest, but now that they had actually arrived all Mark could feel was dread.  It was true that he’d still be able to rest his legs for a while, but then they’d have to turn back around and head back to the cabin, all without being seen by anyone.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Mark tried again as he neared the tree. “Today’s Christmas Eve, and we’re doing pretty darn good so far.”

“Do you really want Chris hanging around for Christmas?” replied Brady, who was already on his knees in the snow, digging for the backpack.  “And what about New Year’s?  What if he doesn’t leave?  What if we’re stuck with him until we go back home?”

“The plough will be here before the New Year, and then my dad can drive him to the bus station or something.”

Brady sighed in frustration.  “He’s not going to leave without this bag, and I don’t want to take the chance that someone else finds it and brings it back to the cabin.”

“Okay, okay,” Mark gave in again and rolled onto his knees to help Brady dig.  “But once we’ve hidden this thing, if we can even get it back, we can forget about it, right?”

“Right,” Brady agreed.  “Then we can work on getting my mom to stop falling in love with the guy.”

“Yeah… I don’t think that’s going to happen, Brady.  Your mum’s fallen hard for the guy, and I don’t think building another maze is going to work.”

“I’ll think of something.”  Just then, Brady’s fingers brushed against the canvas material of the backpack.  “Aha!  Found it!”

“Great,” Mark said in a sarcastic tone.  “Now we can sneak it back to the cabin, pull Mission Impossible around to the back, find our way through the maze, pull the massive snow ball away from the secret passage, crawl around in behind that teeny-tiny shack out back, and hopefully get that window open enough to squeeze the bag inside.”

“Right,” Brady nodded happily.  “And then we can have some more hot chocolate.”

The thought of Natalie’s hot chocolate caused Mark’s mouth to water, and he suddenly found himself with enough motivation to climb back up to his feet and ski back to the cabin.  “Alright then,” he said and offered his hands to Brady to help him up, “what are we waiting for?!”

Throwing the bag over his shoulders and reaching up for Mark’s hands, Brady pulled with all his might, causing Mark to slide forward on his skis, freak out, and fumble down on top of him.  After the initial shock wore off, the two started giggling, and soon after their giggles turned into belly chuckles, and directly after that, their belly chuckles warped themselves into random snorts and sniffles.

Which was when Brady heard someone else’s laughter in the distance.

“Shh!” Brady reached for Mark’s head and covered his mouth.  “Someone’s coming!”

Mark snatched at Brady’s hand and pulled it away from his nose.  “Well don’t yell then,” he said with a chuckle.

The laughing continued, getting closer by the second.

“Shit!” Brady tried to whisper.  “It’s my mom! Hide!”

Grabbing Mark by the shoulder, Brady dragged him behind the tree and then back behind a small drift of snow.  Mark winced in pain, while trying to keep himself quiet, as he tried to untangle his legs from his skis.  Then, peering out over the top of the snow drift, he watched as Natalie and Chris slid on by.  “Do you think they heard us?”

“Don’t think so,” replied Brady.  “If they did, I’m guessing they would have come over here.”

“Shut up!” said Mark, and he slapped Brady on the arm with the back of his glove.

The two waited quietly for nearly fifteen minutes, neither one of them wanting to take the chance that they were still around.   Of course, they would have stayed in hiding longer, but the snow and cool winter air was nipping at their fingers and toes, and their legs were already half-numb.

“Do you think they’re gone yet?” said Mark as he slowly crawled over the snow drift, slid down to the other side, and slithered toward the road.

“They have to be,” decided Brady.  “And if not then we’ll just have to travel back through the trees.  I’m too cold to keep lying here.”

“Yeah, me too,” agreed Mark.  “Can you help me up?”

Brady climbed up to his feet and carefully stepped over the drift of snow.  “Yeah, okay.  But don’t pull too hard.  If I fall over, there’s no guarantee that I’ll ever get up again.”

With that in mind, Mark allowed Brady to slowly pull him upright again, and after they were both standing, they cautiously approached the road.

“I think the coast is clear,” Mark observed while studying the road.  “Should we chance it?”

“Definitely.  The cabin’s only about twenty minutes away, so they’re probably back by now.”

“Okay then.  Let’s go!”

 

 

* Bookmark Seven *

 

 

When Brady and Mark made it back to the cabin the sun was already setting against the horizon.  The road behind them was becoming darker by the second, but the trail leading up to the cabin had never looked so consumed with light.

“Okay, Smarty Pants.  How are we gonna get the bag to the back?” asked Mark, peering out from behind a tree.

“We run,” Brady replied simply.  “We’ll take off our skis and carry them to the cabin, drop them at the door, then run to the back without stopping.”

Mark turned around and stared at Brady in the eye.  “That’s a stupid plan!”

“Do you got a better one?”

Mark dropped his head and gave it a slow side-to-side shake.  “No,” he frowned then looked back toward the cabin.  “At least the curtains are closed.”

“Can you see my mom’s skis?”

Mark nodded.  “Yup. They’re right next to my dad’s, standing up in the snow.  Is that bad?”

“Well, at least we know they’re not behind us, right?” said Brady as he unfastened his skis.

Mark nodded again.  “True.”

“All right then, let’s go!”

And before Mark could react, Brady had picked up his skis and was running for the back.  “Shit!” Mark panicked and bent down to release the clasp of his skis, but in the commotion he lost his balance and fell face first into the snow.

Brady had never fan so fast in his life.  He could feel the cold air stinging his lungs, and the snow attempting to slow his pace, but he wouldn’t give in.  In no time flat he had passed the cabin door and dropped his skis in the snow, and now, in only a few more seconds, he’d be in the maze and home free.

“Where you running to, Brady?” asked the serial killer, seemingly appearing out of thin air directly in front of him, and forcing Brady to stop dead in his tracks.

“Uh…”

Chris laughed and stepped off to the side.  “You going into the maze?”

Brady nodded.  “Yeah.”

“You boys did an awesome job on that.  I’ve never seen three kids work so hard on a snow fort before.”

“I’m not a kid.”

The man frowned and looked away briefly.  “That’s right, I’m sorry,” he said then looked back at Brady.  “You’ll have to take me and your mom on a tour sometime soon.”

“Okay,” Brady agreed, hoping to get into the maze before the serial killer saw what he had on his back.  “Uh…  Mark’s kinda waiting for me.”

“Oh, okay.  I’m sorry.  I’ll talk to you later then,” said Chris, as Brady slowly circled around him without turning around.  “Brady?”

“Yeah…?”

“What are you hiding?”

Brady shrugged and looked down at the snow.  “Nothing,” he replied as casually as possible before losing his nerve and turning around and making a break for it.

“Brady, what’s wrong?!” the man bellowed, still standing along the side of the cabin before his eye placed the bag on Brady’s back.  Chris’s eyes bulged from head and his jaw dropped.  He tried to call out to Brady, but his throat wouldn’t work.

Just as Brady reached the entrance of the maze, he looked over his shoulder to see Chris running after him.  The realization that his worst fears were coming true caused his legs to automatically turn to Jell-O, and when he tried to scream nothing came out but a wimpy, school girl screech.  And just as Chris was almost close enough to grab him, Brady managed to regain control and he disappeared into the maze.

Twisting and turning around every corner that he came across, Brady quickly became lost, despite the fact that he was the one who designed the maze.  He could hear Chris calling for him only to walls away, and not one part of his surroundings looked familiar.

In a panic, Brady dropped down on his knees and began punching at the base of the wall.  Piece by dense piece, the hardened, almost iced, wall gave way.  His fists were aching and the flesh of his knuckles felt like it was on fire, but the repeated bellowing of the psychopath somewhere behind him urged him to keep trying.

Finally, a small stream of light bled through the bottom of the way, and Brady whipped himself around and started kicking at it the tiny hole with feet.  In a matter of seconds the hole was finally big enough to crawl through, and Brady wasted no time squeezing into the next partition.

Taking but a moment to catch his breath, Brady recognized where he was and bolted down another aisle.  First taking a right, then a left, and another right, Brady dropped down on his knees and crawled through a narrow tunnel, which was barely wide enough for himself.  As soon as he was on the other side, he darted to the side and grabbed a large block of snow and rolled it in front of the tunnel.

Brady fell back onto his behind and leaned up against the wall.  They were all decorated with halves of two-foot tall balls of snow, only one of which led to the secret shack out back.  It took him a moment to remember which one, convincing him further that his hiding place was genius, and carefully he pulled back on the large ball of icy snow and rolled it to the side.

Without a second’s thought, Brady shook the backpack off from behind his shoulders and threw it out in front of him, into the narrow tunnel.  He could still hear the constant hollering of Chris somewhere in the maze, coming closer by the second.

Brady crouched down and shimmied his way into the tube-like passage and continued until he reached a small opening behind the shack, next to the window.  Grabbing the canvas bag from the ground, Brady clutched it to his chest while jiggling the window pane, just like he’d done back home, until it finally creaked open.

Just as Brady had dropped the bag in the window, he heard the scuffling of gloved hands and kicking feet trying to force their way through the narrow passage into the dungeon.  Brady panicked, and his limbs fell numb and gave out on him.  Collapsing to the ground and scooting as far into the corner as he could get, Brady waited for the serial killer to catch up with him.

As the remaining light in the tunnel was obscured by the shadow of Chris’s head, Brady’s heart leapt and twisted in chest, but just as he was about to give up hope he heard Mark calling out to him.

“Mark?!  Mark!  I’m in here!” Brady shouted without thinking.

“I know you’re in here,” said the serial killer, as his head peeked out at the end of the tunnel, looking Brady right in the eyes.  “I just want my bag, Brady.  I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Mark!” Brady screamed and kicked his feet in snow, hoping he’d muster a heel full of dirt and somehow blind the man, still prying his way out of the narrow passage.  “Mark!  Help!”

“Brady,” the man stopped moving, causing Brady to believe he was stuck.  “This is ridiculous, kid.  Just give me my bag.  Please?”

“Go away!  When my mom hears me, she’ll call the cops.”

Chris just rolled his eyes and dropped his head in frustration.  “That’s fine.  I don’t care.  I just need my bag, Brady.”

Suddenly, the man hissed and growled, like a savage beast approaching his prey, and he started thrashing about.

“Get the hell out of there!” Brady heard from the outside of the tunnel.  “Brady?!  Are you okay?!”

“Mark?!”

“Yeah!  I’m bashing his legs with a ski pole!” yelled Mark.  “And if he doesn’t back off, there’s a crazy sharp looking spike at the end!”

As soon as Chris heard this, he started backing out.  “Okay!  All right, I’m coming out.”

Brady watched as the man disappeared into the tunnel and the light was returned to its walls.  He waited for a moment, hoping he’d hear Mark say it was okay to come out, but nothing happened.  There was just silence.

The longer Brady waited, the more he was overcome with fear that Chris had done something to Mark.  He couldn’t cower in the dark any longer.  He had to know that his Mark was all right.  And with that thought in mind, he was able to regain control over his quivering limbs and rush out into the dungeon.  “Mark?  Are you okay?” he asked, just before his head poked out the other end.

As soon as he looked up, the shoulder of Brady’s jacket was grabbed, and he was pulled out of the tunnel and forced up to his feet.  After the rapid movement stopped, Brady realized that he had been snatched up by the serial killer and held tightly in the clutches of his right hand, with Mark firmly held with his left.

“What do you want?!  What are going to do?” Brady asked through a trembling voice as his eyes began to water.

“You know what I want, but I’m taking you inside to your mother!” snapped the man in anger.

“I’m sorry, Brady,” whimpered Mark as the man started kicking at the wall of snow.  “He grabbed the pole before I…”

“Jesus Christ.  What’s the matter with you two?” asked the man.  “Have I hurt you?  Have I done anything to make you think I was going to hurt you—uh, well besides right now?”

“Just take your money and go!” pleaded Brady, but the man ignored him and walked through the collapsed wall.

“We won’t tell anyone,” added Mark, as the man dragged them through the endless twists and turns of the maze.

“Take a left,” Brady murmured as tears streamed down his cheeks.

“Then a right and straight down,” Mark finished.

Chris just shook his head and rolled his eyes while he dragged the boys out of the maze and back toward the cabin.  “You two are incredibly messed up, you know that?”

 

 

* Bookmark Eight *

 

 

Brittany stood next to James, as the two crouched down staring in through the glass of the oven door, waiting for their shortbread cookies to be done.  James was impatiently wobbling from side to side to side, purposely colliding with his mother’s shoulder every third or fourth wibble, dressed in his favourite pair of Spider Man pyjamas.  “Mum?  How much longer do we got?  I’m hungry now.”

“Just a minute longer, love.  When the edges tan, just slightly golden-brown, they’ll be done.”

Out of nowhere, the cabin door crashed open and slammed off of the wall.  Natalie and Peter, who were playing cards at the coffee table, both jumped up to their feet and whipped around to face the commotion, as Brittany and James jumped back in a sudden fright.

The moment Natalie saw her son clenched to Chris’s fist she ran across the room and pushed slapped the man’s hand away from her son.  The sharp, stinging pain caused Chris to release both boys, and they ran into the living next to Peter.

“Don’t you ever grab my son like that again!” Natalie shouted as she prodded her finger hard against the man’s chest.  “What the hell gives you the right?!”

Chris stepped back, away from Natalie’s finger.  “They found my bag, Natalie.”

Natalie immediately stopped what she was doing and let her hand drop down to her side.  “They did?  Where was it?”

The man shrugged and looked over at the boys.  “I found your son trying to sneak it into that maze they built.”

“So you decided to man handle them into the house?” Natalie asked angrily.

“No,” the man held his hands out in front of himself defensively.  “I didn’t grab them until Mark started beating me with a ski pole.”

All three parents turned their heads to Mark and crooked their brows.

“Mark?!” Brittany slapped her tea towel against the table.  “What on Earth were you thinking?”

“He’s got money!” Brady interrupted.  “Lots of it!  We found it in his bag,” he said, knowing that it would at least raise everyone’s suspicions.

However, no one, but James, seemed the least bit surprised.

“We know, Brady,” said Natalie.  “Why do you think me and Chris were skiing up and down the roads all week?”

“You know?!” shouted Mark as his jaw dropped.  “Well, what the…”

“Two hundred and sixty thousand dollars,” said Chris as he walked into the room.  “I told you boys before that I sold my cottage.”

But Brady wasn’t buying it.  “No one buys something worth that much money with cash.”

Chris nodded in agreement.  “And that’s what I thought, too.  I sold my cottage to a couple of spoiled trust-fund kids who thought it was gangsta to pay for the place with cash.  I tried to get them to transfer the money electronically, but they threatened to walk.  I can’t afford to wait around for another buyer, Brady.  I had no choice but to take it.”

“So wait,” Mark interrupted.  “Everyone knew about this, and no one told us?  That’s messed up!”

Brittany sighed, tossed her tea towel over her shoulder, and walked over to her son.  “We thought it would be better to let you three enjoy your vacation instead of searching day and night for a bag that may have never reappeared, and we thought it worked,” she explained, then gestured her gaze toward the back window.  “Just look at that fort you boys made.  I’ve never seen you and James get along so well for so long.”

“But we only did it because we were trying to hide the money from him, Mum,” Mark confessed.  “We thought he was a thief, like a bank robber, or maybe even a serial killer.”

“A serial killer?!” Chris chuckled in amusement.  “Do I really look that scary?”

Both boys shook their heads no.

“Then is it safe for me to go back into your fort and get my family’s money, so that I can finally go back home to my wife and kids?”

Both boys nodded.

“Great,” replied Chris.  “I’ll be right back then.”

The very second Chris was outside and the door was closed, both Brady and Mark ran to their mothers and wrapped their arms around them.

“I thought he was gonna kill us, Mum,” explained Mark as he held his mother tight.

“Why don’t you nutters run upstairs and get changed,” suggested Brittany as she patted her son on the head.  “Natalie was just about to make some hot chocolate, and I’ve got cookies baking in the oven.”

 

 

***

 

 

The next morning, Brady woke up to find Mark sleeping at his side.  For a moment he forgot where they were, and he wrapped his arm around him and pulled him in tight against his chest.  Mark groaned as he was pulled away from his dreams and smiled when he saw Brady at his side.

“What are you doing in my bed, you cheeky monkey?” Mark asked in a happy whisper.

“You’re in my bed,” Brady chuckled and kissed his forehead.  “Guess what?”

Mark burrowed his face into the covers against Brady’s chest as he lazily stretched out his legs.  “You got a stiffy?”

“Uh, maybe, but not that.”

“Then what?”

“It’s Christmas,” Brady grinned and hugged Mark tight.  “Wanna get up and go downstairs?”

“Mmm, no way.  I’m too comfy.”

“But it’s Christmas.  We can’t just stay in bed.”

“Sure we can,” said Mark.  “I already got what I wanted.”

“Oh?  What did you get?”

Mark smiled and placed a gentle kiss on Brady’s cheek.  “To wake up next you, dumb-dumb!”

Brady’s heart skipped a beat as it melted in his chest, and a smile spread across his face.  “Good point.  But if we don’t get up, we’ll be late for Christmas, and your dad will walk in on us in bed together.”

Suddenly Mark sat up and kicked his feet over the edge of the bed. “Okay, that’s an even better good point,” he decided.  “Downstairs we go!”

Following in behind Mark across the hall and down the stairs, Brady walked into the living room to see his mom, James, and Mark’s parents sitting by the tree surrounded by presents.  Of course, James wasn’t exactly sitting.  More like wobbling back and forth with untethered energy as he tried to control himself from jumping down on the floor and tearing the paper off of every last parcel he could find.

As the two boys entered the room, Brady realized they were short one person.  “Where’s Chris?” he asked and sat down in between James and Mark on the couch.

Natalie shrugged with a frown and passed him a folded piece of paper.  Brady took it from her hand and opened it up.  The paper was a note from Chris that said “Thanks for the hospitality,” and nothing more.

“He left sometime in the night, I guess,” said Natalie.  “Guess he had no reason to stay once he found his money.”

Just as Natalie had finished that sentence, there was a loud knocking on the door.  Thinking it was Chris returning after discovering the roads were still too caked with snow, Natalie stood up to go answer the door.

“Excuse me, Miss,” said a police officer.  “We’re sorry to bother you on Christmas morning, but we’re canvassing the area and were hoping we could have a quick moment of your time.”

Natalie nodded her head and tried to cover herself up when she remembered she was still in her pyjamas.  “Yes, of course,” she said and stepped back to let the two policemen inside.

Their presence attracted James’s attention immediately, which was quickly followed by everyone else’s.

The man wiped his feet against the door mat and took a step into the cabin.  “We were wondering if you’ve seen this man,” he explained and opened his clipboard to show Natalie a picture.

The moment Natalie looked down she gasped and took a step back.  “What is this?” she asked, hoping that the policemen were playing a joke.

“This is Alex Keaton,” the policeman continued.  “He’s wanted for armed robbery and assault.  Have you seen him, Miss?”

By now everyone had gathered at the door, and James was tugging at the policeman’s clipboard to see what had made Natalie go all wonky.  After several attempts, the officer gave in and let the boy hold the clipboard.

“Holy smokes!” shouted James.  “It’s Chris!”

TurtleBoy

I'm a writer, web designer, illustrator, student, mentor, movie-buff, bookworm and I'm also gay. My goal is to help make the Shack Out Back community more interactive and expressive.

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