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Rafe put down the receiver and walked over to wake Keith up. The younger man had been dozing on the floor, preparing to take over the next shift on the radio. Rafe shook Keith by the shoulders and told tell him that Noel’s plan to get them back to the States was finally in motion.
“It’s done,” he said.
Keith looked up. “You got in touch with them?”
“Yes. They’ll pick us up tomorrow night. But we need to get to where they can land. The Santa that I spoke with said that there is a clearing a few miles from where we are. If we want to get there in time, we will need to leave early tomorrow.”
“Or you can take the tunnels beneath the temple,” a voice remarked. They turned around and saw the monk that had spoken to Rafe a few days earlier standing in the doorway. “I suggest using the tunnels. It’s a much warmer voyage.” He grinned.
Rafe grinned back. “Tunnels?”
“This temple has given refuge to people in need for centuries. And there are times when a quick escape is necessary. You see Mr. Dalton, we may not be as involved as you in the matters of the rest of the world, but we understand.
“Get some rest. I’ll show you the way tomorrow.” And as quietly as the monk came, he left Rafe and Keith alone in the room again
“Jordan and the troops will be on the radio in a few minutes. We need to let them know.” Keith broke the silence.
Once they had informed everybody that the Santas had agreed to give them a lift back to the States, Rafe and Keith tried to get some sleep. But the adrenaline was pumping through their veins, so they just lay on the floor wide awake. In a matter of hours, the fate of their nation and perhaps even the rest of the world would be in their hands.
Before sunup, both men had given up the pretense of sleeping and had changed into the clothes they’d had on when they got to the temple. Phil, the agent that had gotten injured when they were attacked in the mountains, would not be able to go with them yet. The monks had assured them that he would be cared for.
They were shown the tunnels and given enough rations to last them the journey. Before they turned to leave, Rafe bowed respectfully to the monks who had helped them in their time of need.
“Remember… the wolf doesn’t always show his true form. He often goes around pretending to be part of the herd.” Their favorite monk’s cryptic message troubled Rafe and he thought about it the entire time they were in the tunnel.
He knew it meant that nobody was as they appeared. So, the Brotherhood’s leader… could it be someone they all knew? Was he hiding out in the open as the monk had said? But who was it?
The clearing seemed worlds away from the snow-covered mountains where the temple was located. Rafe looked around the clearing and expected to see a woman twirling around and singing. The surroundings looked almost like a scene from his grandmother’s favorite musical.
The sky was clear, and there was no sign of snow anywhere. Was that tunnel actually a portal? Had he and Keith been teleported to the other side of the world? The ground and the trees around them were a vibrant green… and he could see the flowers. Clara would love it there. A lump formed in his throat as he thought about his family.
He knew they needed to succeed. Because secluded or not, Clara and the kids could not stay in hiding forever. The longer they all waited to fight back, the higher the risk of them being found.
If he thought everything already seemed surreal, nothing could have prepared him for the sight of the Santa plane. It had reindeer images painted on the site. He watched it fly past the mountain and approach the clearing to land. The bright red shade it was painted was a stark contrast to the blue sky. That plane could not go incognito anywhere, he thought.
Despite the striking façade, nothing could’ve prepared him for what he saw when they boarded. Inside, it was made to look like the living room of jolly old Saint Nick. There was even a fireplace on one side, without an actual fire of course.
Keith and Rafe were welcomed on board by a dark-haired teenager wearing horn-rimmed eyeglasses. Her smile reminded them of sales associates in the mall. There was a huge difference, though. Hers felt genuine.
“Hi! Mr. President and… Mr. Friend! I’m Anna! Please… please, take a seat. I would like you to meet the Santa Clauses of the world.” She motioned to the group of similarly clothed men who still looked festive despite their worried expressions.
Anna led them to two comfortable looking seats that looked like plush armchairs. If they didn’t have seat belts, Rafe could’ve forgotten he was on a plane.
“I’ll have refreshments for you gentlemen as soon as we take off,” Anna promised with that warm smile of hers.
They soon found themselves in conversation with the Santas while sipping hot mugs of cocoa. There was even a plate of cookies in front of them. Rafe grinned when Keith reached out to take one.
“What?” Keith asked. “Sugar gives me energy. And with what we’ll be doing when we land, we’ll need a lot of that.”
“By the way, sir…” Rafe turned to look at Anna, who sat right across them. “There’s no reason to worry about your son’s pair of Stackers.”
Rafe was surprised at the mention of the brand of sneakers that his son had wanted. He remembered that night they all sat in the kitchen eating ice cream. It seemed like it had happened years ago.
“We have them all packed and ready to be delivered. We received the letter right on time. It was very lucky that Santa Ari knew somebody from Stackers. We were able to call in favor.”
“Noel wrote to Santa Claus?” It was hard to picture his son writing a letter to jolly old Saint Nick.
“Oh no, sir!” Anna laughed out loud. “It was your son Brice who wrote and asked for them.”
Rafe wished his sons were there with him. Never had he wanted to hug them as much as he did at that moment. “What did Brice ask for? I bet it’s that new game console he’s been hinting about.”
He saw the smile disappear from Anna’s face and wondered if he’d said anything wrong. He looked at the Santas who had been listening quietly to their exchange. Santa Ari stood up and walked over to the stack of gifts on the side. He nodded at Anna, who looked at Rafe quite seriously.
“No sir… he didn’t. He asked for something else.”
Santa Ari had picked up one of the gifts and handed it to Rafe. “This is what he asked for.”
“Why give it to me?” The images that popped in his mind were not pleasant. Why were they giving Brice’s gift to him? “Has something happened to him?” He hearing what they were going to say.
“No Mr. President,” Santa Ari replied. “He is still safe with the rest of your family. Open it, and you’ll understand.”
Rafe’s hands shook as he unwrapped the gift he had just been handed. When he opened the box, he felt his eyes brim with tears. That lump in his throat was back. Inside the gaily wrapped box was a Kevlar vest. On it was written ‘World’s best dad.’
“That’s what he asked for,” Anna explained. She held a box of tissues. She remembered bawling her eyes out when she read Brice’s letter. If she had been so affected, she knew the President’s reaction would be ten times more.
“You have good kids, sir,” she stated.
Rafe nodded and put on the vest. He looked at Santa Ari and nodded. The rotund man with the twinkling eyes nodded back. He clearly understood Rafe’s need for the topic to be changed.
“I’m afraid we cannot join the fight,” Ari apologized. “Despite the war, children, both young and old, will need to receive their gifts. It is how we can help you. Keep the hope alive as you fight to free the world.”
“We understand,” Rafe responded. “What you will be doing is worth more than waging war. We all need to do our part in winning this.”
“And we have another gift for you.” Ari turned to the other Santa’s who were all nodding and smiling.
Anna walked to the stack where Brice’s gift had been and came back carrying a bigger box. When Rafe opened it, he found numerous burner phones and walkie-talkies inside. “Something to help you and your men.”