Since this is sort of a longish story, I've decided to give it to you in chunks, serialized every few hours over the course of today and tomorrow. This wasn't originally a stand-alone story. It was intended to be one part (a chapter perhaps) of one of the far-too-many novels I am currently working on. But, as so often happens, once written, this scene didn't really fit into the rest of the narrative, and so it was doomed to end up on the writer's equivalent of the cutting room floor. But I had enough of a fondness for the scene to rework it enough over the past few days to make it its own story, set in the same fictional world as a longer novel, which you may or may not see soon -- soon being a very flexible term in my personal lexicon.
Part One: The Ziggurat
By Bill Willingham
Typically, the Gilbert kids came downstairs as early as they thought they could get away with on Christmas morning, just like the normal mortal children who lived in the same South Lancaster neighborhood. Ethan and Hannah Gilbert didn’t believe in segregating their children from the mortals they’d one day have to love, protect and possibly rule.
At nine years, Elizabeth was older than the twins, Daniel and Matthew, by twenty months. They came downstairs together, after rendezvousing in the twins’ room to plan their strategy. Safety in numbers. Any repercussions for sneaking down too early would at least be spread around.
It was dark in the living room, the morning sun being at least another hour away, but the tiny lights on the plastic tree provided all the illumination they needed. Carolina of the Deep Green had decreed that no one in the state could take living trees for the holidays this year, nor for any subsequent year, until Pennsylvania returned more to the original sylvan paradise of its name. Of course this decree only applied to mortals, but the Gilberts were determined to live as much of an egalitarian life as was possible, given the seemingly random nature of their rise into divinity. “Those who win the god lottery aren’t any better or worse than those who don’t,” Ethan had once said. “It’s just the luck of the draw.” If their neighbors were limited to artificial Christmas trees, then the Gilberts would follow suit. They were determined to raise their kids with as scant a sense of entitlement and privilege as their unearned elite status would allow.
By the lights from the tree, Daniel, Matthew and Elizabeth, peeking desperately through the banister railings like convicts through the bars of their cells, could make out the entire glorious panorama from mid stairway. First and most obvious were the bicycles. They stood out from the tree at three of the four cardinal points of the compass, like proud sentinels on guard. There were two identical bright red tricycles with hard plastic streamlining attachments over the wheels and metal frames, in a retro 1950’s imitation of what the future would look like. They looked sleek and fast just sitting still. Those would be for the twins, obviously. For Elizabeth there was a pink two-wheeler bike with fat white tires, dark purple racing spokes, and long pink tassels flowing from the handlebars. It was standing upright, supported by attached training wheels. Those will come off in just a few days, Elizabeth silently vowed to herself.
“It’s beautiful,” she said aloud.
There were other presents – a vast mountain of them – wrapped in every possible combination of colors and designs. Some were under and around the tree, but the largest concentration of gifts were stacked to one side in a great and gaudy ziggurat of different-sized boxes that reached nearly as high as the tree itself.
“He’s been here and gone!” Matthew gasped, trying, and failing, to keep his voice at a whisper. “But I heard him last night. I woke up and heard him.”
“And I can hear the three of you,” their mother called in her decidedly unwhispery voice. It didn’t come from upstairs, where their parents’ room was located, at the end of the hall from theirs. It came from down below. “Come into the kitchen,” she added, “and don’t touch a single thing on the way here.”
They obeyed, mindful of the consequences of not doing so, even though it was torture to pass so close to the wonderland laid out in the living room, and not even to be able to pause there for a moment. In stockinged feet they shuffled along like refugees over carpet, rugs and wood floors, through the dining room and then around the corner, passing through bat-winged doors into the fully lighted kitchen.
Their mother Hannah was at the counter, mixing batter in a large metal bowl. She was dressed in slippers and her blue robe. Without looking at them she said, “I’m afraid Christmas will be delayed this morning, until your father gets home. So we’re going to have a full sit-down breakfast first and then, if he’s still not back, we’ll find other ways to wait patiently for him.”
“How?” Daniel said.
“Where is he?” Matthew said.
“The police came to get him earlier this morning,” Hannah said.
“Daddy was arrested?” Elizabeth said.
“No, of course not. There was some trouble out on the interstate that the police couldn’t handle on their own, and so they asked for your father’s help. It’s part of the Gods on Patrol Program we told you about last summer.”
“Sky Screamer to the rescue!” Daniel shouted.
“Hush,” Hannah said, turning away to hide the smile that played along her lips. “You know I don’t like that name.”
“But daddy does,” Elizabeth said.
“Sometimes your father can be more of a child than you are.” She worked at the mixing bowl for a while, and then she said, “But that’s not always a bad thing, so don’t think I’m criticizing him behind his back.”
“We don’t do that in this household,” Elizabeth said.
“No, we don’t. Now, boys, sit at the table. Elizabeth, will you get the orange juice out of the fridge?”
Copyright 2008, Bill Willingham. All rights reserved.