A cat, a Christmas tree, and a meteor
The first to hit the floor was a pale blue sphere laced with silver swirls and dusted with glitter. The plastic ornament bounced on the hardwood with a hollow knock and rolled until it came to rest against a chair leg, leaving a faint trail of sparkles. The tree shivered and jingled while the ornament undertook this pilgrimage. Mephisto, naturally, was long gone by the time the bauble came to rest.
“Stupid cat,” Ruth muttered as she rehung the ornament.
The next to go was a string of lights, or the portion thereof draped across the lowest branches on the left, which became tangled with Mephisto’s paw and refused to relinquish its grip until he’d dragged it a foot off the branch. The tree shook as though fending off an arctic blast, but somehow no ornament lost its grip.
“This,” Ruth’s husband Martin grumbled while restoring the lights to their rightful position, “is why we can’t have a nice tree.”
“It’s nice,” Ruth said, although not with conviction. “It’s just . . .”
Martin stepped back to inspect the repairs. “Cheap. And weird.”
She couldn’t deny it. Every ornament from apex down was shatterproof plastic. The bottom two tiers of fake foliage stretched out bare except for the lights. No point in decorating them. Mephisto would have scattered all such low-hanging ornaments around the house in record time. And forget tinsel, which if ingested by the feline would play havoc with his intestines.
“Still.” Ruth sidled up to Martin and slipped her arms around him.
“I guess,” he grudgingly agreed.
The next day, Mephisto slithered up the wood dowel trunk to the fourth branch on the left which bent under his weight, displacing a green teardrop, a silver sphere, and a snowman Vicki had made nine years ago in second grade, not to mention gnarling a length of lights. The crime occurred in the middle of the day when only old Al, Ruth’s father, was home. Reading or sleeping through one of his history books, he hadn’t witnessed anything. Vicki arrived home from school, made a sandwich, and shuttered herself in her room with her cell phone and tablet computer. She had nothing to report, either. Ruth and Martin only discovered the crime scene after work. Martin spent ten minutes ungnarling, rearranging, and rehanging while Al slept in the recliner across the room, covered in a cheery red and green blanket, and Mephisto slept in Al’s lap.
“Chicken wire,” Martin suggested at dinner.
Ruth, ladling out chili, paused. Drops dripped back into the steaming pan. “What?”
“Chicken wire. For the tree.” He made an encircling motion with his finger.
Ruth rolled her eyes and continued serving.
Vicki swiped her phone a few times. “We don’t have chickens, Dad.”
“I didn’t say — “
Al peered into his bowl as his daughter filled it. “Bad idea, bringing chickens into a house with a cat.” He inhaled deeply and smiled. “This looks good, Ruthy.”
Martin shook his head. “Forget it. I’ll think of something else.”
Vicki made a face and changed the subject. “I have to do a science thing tonight. Can you help me, Dad?”
Ruth finished serving and sat down. Martin lifted a spoonful of chili and gently blew on it. The steam enveloped his face. “Calculating how many cats fit in a Christmas tree?”
Having perfected the “my Dad is the stupidest man in the world” look, Vicki gave it to him. “No. Meteors.”
“How many meteors fit in a Christmas tree?”
“No! Counting meteors! In the sky! There’s supposed to be a meteor shower tonight. See?” She shoved her phone at him.
Martin read the assignment. “Geminids. Radiant. Hourly rate. Best seen a couple hours before dawn! What, the teacher wants you kids to stay up all night?”
“You could call me in sick tomorrow,” Vicki suggested.
“Dream on.” He reread the assignment. “Dark skies? Where are we supposed to find those? So you get to spend an hour freezing to death searching a light-polluted sky for meteors you won’t be able to see. Brilliant.”
Vicki snatched her phone back. “Fine, don’t help me.”
“I didn’t say that. We’ll go out at eleven. We might get lucky.”
Ruth looked up. “Eleven? When’s she supposed to sleep?”
“I didn’t give her the assignment.”
Before Ruth could further object, a cacophony of clattering ornaments sounded in the living room.
Al blew on a spoonful of chili and chuckled. “I told you not to name that cat after the devil.”
A light snowfall the day before left half an inch of powder coating the grass, dotted with a few footprints from passing critters. Clear, cold air followed. Bundled in their winter coats, hats, and gloves, Martin and Vicki dragged a pair of lawn chairs onto the driveway, sat, and looked up. Gradually their eyes adjusted to the not-quite dark of suburbia. Above, a handful of brilliant stars dotted the heavens, connected by lesser points of light.
“Your Grandpa taught me some of this,” Martin said, pointing. “Let’s see if I remember. There’s Orion. That’s Sirius, the Dog Star, and Aldeberan, the eye of Taurus. Those stars around Aldeberan are the Hyades, and up there, the Pleiades. Over there is Capella, and right there’s what we’re looking for. Gemini, the twins. Pollux is the brighter star, Castor the other. The meteors will appear to come from right about there. Not bad for an old man, huh?”
Vicki’s fingers, shoved deep into her pockets, itched for her cell phone.
Father and daughter sat silent in the night, accompanied by nothing but stars and an occasional passing car. Fifteen minutes passed. Twenty minutes. Thirty. More. Nothing.
“I’m cold,” Vicki said. “Let’s go in.”
Martin shivered. “Give it an hour at least.”
“How can you report an hourly rate if you don’t give it at least an hour?”
“By multiplying zero by two.”
Why, Martin wondered, are you only clever when trying to wiggle out of something?
They watched the sky for another ten minutes. The stars only twinkled. Nothing fell.
“Dad, let’s just — “
A blaze of light flashed overhead. Vicki gasped. Martin’s breath caught in his throat. It lasted but two seconds, then was gone, but it felt portentous, a promise of great things to come.
They waited, but no. Just the one.
Gradually, they relaxed. The show was over. But what a show it had been.
“Zero times two equals one,” Martin chided.
“Shut up, Dad.”
He smiled in the dark.
The following evening, Mephisto resumed his career of destruction. His next incursion breached the fifth circle of branches, bent another two boughs, and sparked a rain of ornaments onto the floor. The cacophony brought Martin, Ruth, and Vicki on the run, and even woke up old Al, who as usual had been snoozing in the recliner, that cheery red and green blanket covering his lap. Mephisto tumbled to the floor and dematerialized while the tree tottered. Martin gathered it into his arms like a giant child just in time to prevent its felling. Fake needles poked his face and filled his mouth. Sputtering, he righted the tree, but not before the topper toppled. Helpless, they all watched the star plummet and bounce across the floor.
“This time,” Martin decreed, “he’s gone too far!” Steadying the tree, he inspected the misaligned and broken branches. “That’s the Star of Bethlehem he’s defiled!”
Ruth bent down to gather up the scattered ornaments. She waved Vicki over to help, since Martin was basically useless when angry. “It’s just a piece of plastic, dear. No harm done.”
“You call this no harm?” Martin’s hands flailed erratically at the tree. Vicki sniggered. “What’s so funny, young lady? What’s at all funny?”
“Falling star,” she said. “Just like last night.” She covered her mouth and chuckled some more, then picked up the ornament and handed it to her father.
Martin huffed and inspected it for damage. “The Star of Bethlehem was not a falling star.”
Al leaned forward in his chair. “Certainly not. A falling star is like us, just a flash in the pan.”
Although the old man retained most of his marbles, he had his moments, so Martin ignored him. He presented the star for all to see. “How about that. It actually is shatterproof. I guess this won’t be its last year, after all.”
“Well, of course not.” Al tugged the blanket around his shoulders. Mephisto instantly rematerialized and jumped into his lap. He scratched the cat behind the ears. “Even you can’t destroy it. Can you?”
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