Star-Crossed: A Murphy's Law Christmas Tale

by K. F. Garrison

©December 20, 2000

Author's note: This story takes place the Christmas following "Something Worth Dying For"

Thursday, December 10, 3:59 p.m.

"1-Adam-12 PM watch clear," LAPD patrol officer Jim Reed spoke into the cruiser's radio mic.

"1-Adam-12, clear," The dispatcher parroted.

"1-Adam-12 roger." Reed placed the mic back onto the clip holder and looked over at his partner, Pete Malloy, as the older officer eased the black and white out into heavy afternoon Los Angeles traffic. "You, uh, have a good night's sleep?"

Malloy glanced over at Jim, an unreadable expression on his face. "Yeah," he said briefly, then turned his attention back to his driving.

"That's good," Jim commented. He continued to study his partner's face. Malloy was eight years Jim's senior, and sometimes the younger officer had a difficult time deciphering his partner's moods, even after riding together for over four years.

"Have I suddenly grown two heads or something?" Pete asked, his voice exasperated. "Or is my hair sticking up?"

"No, no," Jim assured him with a grin.

"Then why are you staring at me?"

"Sorry." Jim turned to look out the window.

"And what was with that question?" Pete asked. He stopped for a traffic light.

"What question?"

"The 'did you have a good night's sleep' question. What are you up to?"

"Me?" Jim said innocently. "Nothin'. Just makin' conversation."

"I see," Pete grinned lopsidedly and moved the unit through the intersection as the light changed.

"Just makin' conversation," Jim repeated.

"So you said," Pete said doubtfully, but his mouth still looped in a lopsided grin.

"Pete!" Jim objected.

"Oh, that's okay, Jim, I'm a patient man."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Jim asked.

Dispatch interrupted any reply Pete might have had.

"1-Adam-12, 1-Adam-12, see the man, a 459 report. 7216 Oakhurst. 7216 Oakhurst. 1-Adam-12, handle Code Two."

"1-Adam-12, roger."


8:10 p.m.

Pete leaned back and rubbed his stomach, a satisfied grin spreading over his face. "I'm glad you suggested this place," he said amiably. "The food is always great."

"Yeah, it is. You get enough?" Jim asked.

Pete laughed. "More than enough, I'm afraid." He patted his stomach again. "I'm gonna need an extra half-hour on the treadmill this week."

Jim laughed explosively, spewing coffee in all directions.

"Reed!" Pete swiped at stray droplets of coffee that landed on his shirt sleeve.

"I'm sorry, Pete, but ah, what was that about the treadmill?" Jim wiped coffee from his face, then swiped at the table in an attempt to clean his mess.

"All right, wiseguy, don't say it," Pete narrowed his eyes at Jim, but he couldn't hide the smile that lightened the look.

"All right, I won't," Jim returned the smile, then lifted his coffee cup. "We've got time for a second cup, partner."

"Sounds good. I'll get the waitress to bring the pot and the check." Pete motioned across the restaurant and caught their waitress's attention, then pointed to his coffee cup.

The waitress brought the pot over and refilled their cups. "You boys ready for your checks?" She asked.

"Yes, we are," Pete said.

The waitress fished in her pocket and retrieved a handful of tickets. "Let's," she looked at Jim, "had the hamburger steak, fries, and slaw."

"Right," Jim took the check from her.

"And you had the chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes & gravy, and corn."

"That's right," Pete agreed. He reached for the check, but Jim intercepted it.

"I'll take that," Jim said.

"Whatever, sugar," the waitress smiled, then sauntered off with a wink.

"Are you running a fever or something?" Pete asked. He reached toward the check, but Jim pulled it back.

"Can't a fella do a good deed once in while?"

"Jim, you're tighter with a dollar than the I.R.S. And now you're gonna pick up the dinner check?" Pete shook his head. "Come on, spill it."

"Spill what?"

"Don't give me that innocent look," Pete growled. "That might work with your wife, but I'm immune to it. You've been setting me up for the kill all day -- asking how I slept, writing my reports for me, and now this. Tell me what you're up to."

"Who says I'm up to anything?" Jim protested.

"I do," Pete insisted. "And so does that 'hand in the cookie jar' look you have on your face. It's that same look your son gets on his face when you catch him doing something he's not supposed to be doing. Not that little Jimmy ever does anything wrong, mind you."

"You love your godson, don'cha, Pete?" Jim asked.

Pete blinked at the sudden change of subject. "Of course I do. What's that got to do with the subject at hand?"

"Oh, pretty much everything," Jim grinned sheepishly. "What are you doing on Saturday?"

"Here it comes," Pete sighed. "Please tell me it's not another tree to take down."

"No, it's not a tree. Like I said, it's something for Jimmy."

"So, what? You need help buying a Christmas present or something?"

"Not exactly."

"So what, exactly?" Pete let exasperation creep into his voice. "You want me to baby-sit?"

"No. I need you to help me string Christmas lights."

"String Christmas lights," Pete repeated.


"I assume you don't mean on your Christmas tree," Pete commented dryly.

"How'd you guess?" Jim grinned. "See, Jimmy and I went to the store for Jean the other night, and we drove through this neighborhood that was all decorated for the holidays. Well, the boy had a fit. He's been begging me to put lights up on the house ever since."

"I thought you did string lights last year."

"Oh, I put some around the front window and on one bush. But that's not enough. Jimmy wants me to line the roof, and all the bushes, and he wants a star like baby Jesus's star on top of the house."

Pete laughed. "I think I'm beginning to see your problem. So, you're going to be the indulgent daddy and decorate the house up like he wants it, huh?"

Jim reddened. "Don't make it sound like a crime, Pete. You know little kids -- they love the lights."

"I think the big kids do, too," Pete teased. "What's Jean have to say about it?"

"She's all for it. She's been wanting to add some more to the outside, so I didn't have to twist her arm. She only has one stipulation."

"That I come over and help you because she's scared you'll fall off the roof," Pete guessed.

Jim turned even more red. "How'd you guess?"

"I've been listening to Jean worry over you for four years now. I think I've got a pretty good handle on how she thinks," Pete chuckled. "And in this case, I have to agree with her."

"Not you, too, Pete!"

"Face it, Jim, you and home improvement projects aren't exactly best of friends! You get a power tool in your hands and you get dangerous. I shudder to think what'll happen when you start messing with electricity."

"You're exaggerating," Jim accused. He reached for his wallet and took out a ten-dollar bill.

"Okay, let's have a history lesson," Pete held up a finger. "Three years ago, the garbage disposal fiasco, remember?"

"Aw, that coulda happened to anybody,"Jim flexed his fingers, remembering.

"And after that, remember what happened when you took the limb off that tree by the garage?"

"The knot slipped on the rope, Pete."

"Uh, huh. And I'm not even gonna mention our near-death experiences taking down those two trees in the yard."

"Okay, okay. Look, are you gonna help me, or not? Jean said bring Judy and David and we'll have a nice dinner after we're done. The girls can yak, the boys can play together, and we'll get those lights up in a jiffy."

"Sure, I'll help. Anything for my godson. I'll talk to Judy about it. I'm sure it won't be a problem; any excuse for her to get together with Jean is fine with her."

"Great. How about 2:00? That way, we'll be through way before dark."

"Sounds good." Pete glanced at his watch. "Time to roll, partner."

Jim put the two checks and the ten-dollar bill on the table, then stood and retrieved his hat.

"And, by the way," Pete said with a grin, as he and Jim headed for the door, "I'd have done it without the bribe."


Saturday, December 12, 1:57 p.m.

Jim crawled on hands and knees between the bushes in front of his home when he heard Pete's car horn honk. He stuck his head out in time to see his partner pull his yellow Matador X into the drive. Jim wriggled out the rest of the way and stood, wiping dirt from the legs of his jeans.

"Well, well, looks like you've already done the hard part," Pete said, surveying the proliferation of Christmas lights on the bushes. He turned and helped his girlfriend, Judy, out of the car. Judy's ten-year-old son, David, crawled out from the back seat, raced around Pete and up to Jim.

"Hi, Uncle Jim!" The boy grinned.

"Hey, there, David," Jim reached out and tapped David on his befreckled nose with a relatively clean knuckle. "Jimmy's been asking when you were coming over since he got up this morning."

David's grin widened. "We'll play ball in the backyard, if that's okay. He always wants to play ball!"

"Sure. That's great. Just take it easy on him, okay? He thinks he can do anything, but remember, he's not even four yet."

"I'll remember, Uncle Jim. Can I go on in, now?" David asked.

"You bet. Have fun," Jim called after the boy's retreating back.

"Jim, this looks like a very ambitious project," Judy commented. She craned her neck at the roof of the house. "You're really going to get up on the roof?"

"Sure. It's no sweat," Jim assured her. "I go up there all the time."

"You two just be careful, okay?" Judy warned.

"We will," both men said, in unison.

Judy smiled and went into the house.

"Okay, boss, what do we do first?" Pete asked, rubbing his hands together.

"I gotta test these lights. I was just about to go plug 'em in when you drove up."

"How long did it take you to get these lights up?" Pete wondered. "You must have eight or nine strands along here."

"About two and a half hours," Jim sighed. "And that was after I spent all morning at the store buying all this stuff."

"Jim...all these lights are blue," Pete blurted.

"No kidding!" Jim laughed.

"I take it these were specially ordered by Jimmy."

"You got it. 'Bwoo' is his favorite color. All the lights are blue except the star, which will be yellow."

"Did you buy all these blue already or did you have to...." Pete trailed off when Jim pulled two sacks of bulbs out from behind the bushes. One sack held blue bulbs, the other multicolors. "You had to do these by hand." Pete shook his head and grinned. "You're such a good daddy," he teased.

"Yeah, well, it's Christmas and all," Jim shrugged, "I'm gonna plug in the lights now. Let me know if they work."


Jim disappeared into the house and plugged in the extension cord for the lights. When he came back out, Pete was frowning.


"They're all working but this one strand," Pete pointed out the darkened bulbs.

"Oh, great. Pass me the blue bulbs."


2:40 p.m.

"It never fails! It's always the last bulb you test!" Despite a chilly afternoon, Jim wiped sweat from his forehead and got to his feet after finally locating and replacing the bad bulb.

"Yeah, because when you find it, you don't test any more!" Pete pointed out.

Jim scowled. "You know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do. Anyway, they're working now. What's next?"

"To the roof, partner," Jim pointed. "You wanna drive nails, or string lights?"

"I'll leave that up to you."

"Why don't you nail? That'd be easier, once you get the pattern down."

"Pattern?" Pete asked.

"Yeah. You gotta space the nails out just right. I want the lights to be tight and straight," Jim explained. "If I'm gonna line the roof, I want it to look good."

"What's the pattern?" Pete asked. The expression on his face looked as if Pete felt less than sanguine about his role.

"Don't look so spooked," Jim chided. "It's just a straight line, right along the roof, one every four inches."

"Every four inches?" Pete squeaked. "Do you know how many nails that is?"

"A lot. So we'd better get started."


2:55 p.m.

"I've got the ladder and the bags of lights," Jim called over his shoulder to Pete. "Can you get the nails and the hammer?"

"Yeah," Pete called back from the rear of the garage, "If this big bag on the bench is the one you mean."

"It's the one from Bill's Hardware."

"Okay, got it. Now, where's a hammer? Jim, how do you find anything in here?" Pete asked. "I thought you were organized."

"I haven't gotten around to organizing the garage yet," Jim admitted. "I've got three different hammers in that steel box on the end of the bench. See 'em?"

"Yeah. Okay. I think I do."

"Bring two...I can help drive nails, too until we get a good bit in, then I'll start stringing." Jim dragged the ladder out of the garage.

"Sounds good."

"Meet you in front. We'll start there."

"Okay." Pete began to rummage through the box for the hammers.

Jim tucked his extension ladder under his left arm and got a grip on it, then struggled with the numerous bags of lights with his right. He headed for the front of the house, juggling the bulging bags. He got even with the side of the house when he heard Pete call him.

"Hey, Jim!"

"What?" Instinct made Jim turn around to look for Pete. It only took two seconds for him to regret that instinct. When he turned, the ladder turned with him. The tail end of it crashed through a side window of the house, sending shattered glass flying with a sickening crunch. "Oh, man..." Jim muttered.

Pete came out of the garage then. "What was that?" he demanded.

"Uh, part of the back bedroom window," Jim answered, scowling at the destroyed panes.

"Jim, what on earth are you doing?" Jean came out of the back door and stood glaring at her husband, hands on her hips. "You broke a window!"

"I know I broke a window, honey. Don't worry, I'll fix it. Nobody was back there, were they?"

"No," Jean assured him, but she sounded less than pleased. "We were in the kitchen. The boys are having a snack. But if you're out here breaking windows...."

"Jean, it was an accident. I'll fix the window later. I've got some plywood to cover it with until I can replace the panes. You want me to come in and clean up the glass?"

"No," Jean sighed. "I'll get it up." She paused, and the irritated look on her face softened into concern. "Will you just please be careful? This little project isn't starting out too well."

"Jean, just go back in the house and stop worrying. It's under control." Jim said impatiently.

"Famous last words," Jean shot back, but she went back into the house.

After Jean disappeared Pete walked up to Jim.

"What was it you wanted?" Jim asked, trying to stay calm.

"I could only find one hammer," Pete responded, hefting the one he'd found.

Jim rolled his eyes. "Here, take this stuff around front. I gotta fix the window, anyway." He shoved the ladder and bags into Pete's hands and stalked back to the garage.


3:30 p.m.

"Pete, you're spacing the nails too far apart," Jim complained. He looked down at Pete from his vantage point on the roof, where he crouched on his knees, stringing lights. "The line's starting to sag."

Pete glared up at his partner. "They're the same distance apart that they've been since we started," he argued.

"No, look, Pete...the line's sagging here. See?" Jim pointed out the spot.

Pete sighed. "Okay, maybe a little..."

"Just drive a nail here, and here...and then space them closer from here on out."

"Would you like me to tell you where I'd love to drive a nail right now?" Pete asked, eyes narrowed.

Jim blinked. "What are you mad about?" he asked.

"Never mind. Just get those last six nails unwrapped and I'll drive the new ones."

"Don't you think you'd better move the ladder back?" Jim asked. "That's a pretty long reach."

"I've got long arms. And I don't want to go down that ladder again until I have to."

"Whatever you say, partner." Jim scrambled over to destring the length Pete had indicated.

Pete picked up a nail, leaned over, and drove the first one in. "Better?" he asked.

"Yeah. That'll work."

Pete had to stretch to reach the spot where Jim wanted the second nail driven.

"Pete," Jim warned.

"I got it, I got it," Pete insisted. He leaned over the extra inch he needed -- and overbalanced. He dropped the hammer and waved his arms wildly, reaching for the roof to keep from falling off the ladder.

"Pete!" Jim reached over, grabbed Pete by the collar of his shirt and jerked him back upright. The ladder wobbled, and the bag of nails fell to the ground, but Jim held on and Pete regained his balance.

Pete took a deep breath and blew it out in a rush. "I guess I shoulda moved the ladder, huh?"

Jim closed his eyes and shook his head, with a deep breath of his own. "You okay?" He asked.

"I will be when you let go of my shirt. I'm getting an armpit wedgie."


4:15 p.m.

"Jim, have you taken a good look at the sky lately?" Pete asked. He had joined Jim on the roof to drive nails from the top, having come to a part of the roof the ladder couldn't reach.

"Huh?" Jim's muffled voice came back. He was practically lying on his stomach, pulling the wires taut around the corner of the roof.

"I said, have you taken a good look at the sky lately?" Pete repeated.

When Jim looked up Pete pointed to the western sky, where a dark, thick bank of clouds had appeared.

"It's going to rain," Pete announced.

"Aw, that's way in the distance, Pete." Jim went back to his lights.

"The weather guy said it might start this afternoon."

"Those guys are never right," Jim scoffed. "It doesn't rain in Southern California, remember?" he joked.

"Just in case, maybe we'd better hurry," Pete suggested.

"Jim! Jim, honey!" Jean's voice filtered up from the ground.

"What?" Jim called back.

"Where are you?"

"Over here on the side, honey."

"Oh, there you are. Hey, you've gotten a lot done. It looks good," Jean complimented.

"Thanks. We're gettin' there. Whatcha need?"

"Judy and I are going to take the boys and make a run to the store. We need to pick up a few things for dinner. We should be back in an hour."

"Okay. You taking our car?" Jim asked.

"Yes, we need Jimmy's car seat."

"Okay, just be careful, honey," Jim warned.

"Will you be through soon, Jim?" Jean asked.

"We're almost done with the roof outline. Then I gotta mount the star. We shouldn't be too much longer."

"Good. I can plan dinner for 6:30-ish?"

"Probably." Jim responded distractedly.

"I'm going to go round up the boys, get my purse, and we're going."

"Okay. 'Bye." Jim turned his full attention back to stringing lights.

"I don't believe it," Pete muttered from across the roof.

"What?" Jim asked.

"I'm out of nails and I've got about three feet left to cover. You got any more?"

"Yeah, I can scrounge a few more up from the garage. How many do you need?" Jim straightened and rubbed at his back, sore from bending over the rooftop.

"Ten should do it," Pete called back.

"Be right back." Jim clambered down the ladder and headed for the garage.

Pete took the opportunity to stretch his own tired muscles. He sat back on the rooftop and stretched his legs out, enjoying a few moments' rest. He looked with concern at the advancing bank of clouds as a breeze ruffled his hair. Rain's definitely coming. We're gonna have to hurry.

He heard the ladder rattle, and the sound of someone walking up. But it didn't sound like Jim's heavy steps and he hadn't seen his partner come out of the garage. A bad feeling settled in the pit of his stomach. He turned to face the ladder just in time to see a small blond head appear at roof's edge.

"Hewwo, Unca Pete," Jimmy lisped, a shy smile on his face.

Pete's heart slammed into his throat. His first instinct was to rush over and grab his godson, but he checked that instinct out of fear of frightening the boy and maybe causing him to fall. Instead, he spoke firmly but calmly. "Jimmy, don't move. Stay right where you are, and Uncle Pete will come and get you. Don't move."

"I come on the woof wif you and daddy," Jimmy announced, oblivious to the danger he was in.

"No, no....don't move. Jim!" Pete yelled as he got to his feet. "Jim, get out here, now!" Pete made his way across the roof, slowly. He heard Jim run out of the garage, but he didn't take the time to call out to him. "Stay right there, buddy, I'm coming to get you, okay?"

"I come on the woof," Jimmy repeated. He took another step up.

"Hold on tight to that ladder, Jimmy, don't let go." Pete quickened his pace as he scrambled across the roof. He just needed another few steps.

"Pete, what's going...oh, God..." Jim ran around the corner of the house and caught sight of Jimmy at the top of the ladder.

"It's all right, I've got him," Pete reached the boy and scooped him up into his arms. He hugged him close and tried to bring his racing heart under control. Pete's legs suddenly felt like rubber, and he had a real need to sit down.

"Hey, Unca Pete," Jimmy hugged his godfather's neck.

"Hey, tiger," Pete gave him a kiss on the top of the head. "You shouldn't have climbed the ladder. It's too dangerous for a little boy like you."

"Young man, you are about to get the spanking of your life," Jim announced, his voice loud but shaky. He climbed up the ladder, and stopped when his shoulders cleared the roofline. His face was a combination of anger and total fear.

"I a big boy!" Jimmy objected. "I hep you wif the wights!"

"You know you're not supposed to climb the ladder!" Jim recovered his voice and yelled at his toddler. "I've told you never to get on this ladder!"

"I hep, daddy!"

"No, you're coming with me right now! You're in trouble, little boy!" Jim growled. He reached up for Pete to hand him his son.

Jimmy tightened his grip on Pete's neck, apparently realizing how angry his daddy was.

His eyes widened.

"Take a deep breath, Jim," Pete urged. "Calm down."

"Jimmy!" Jean came out of the door and called for her son. "Jimmy? Jimmy Reed, where are you, young man?"

"Should I tell her, Pete?" Jim asked, obviously still angry.

"Don't yell at your wife, either," Pete chided, sensing Jim was ready to blow his stack at Jean.

"Why not? She's the one who was supposed to be watching him! He could have broken his neck...or worse!" Jim snapped.

"But he didn't, and yelling at each other isn't gonna help," Pete pointed out. "And besides..."

A gasp from Jean interrupted Pete. "What is my son doing on the roof?" She demanded loudly.

"Tell her that." Jim grumped.

"Tell you what -- you go down and calmly explain what happened, and I'll bring Jimmy down. I don't trust you with him right now."

"Pete!" Jim objected. "He has to know what he did was wrong."

"Jim, what's going on?" Jean demanded.

"Go, Jim," Pete nodded toward the ground. "We all need a break."


4:40 p.m.

The distant rumble of thunder sounded an ominous accompaniment to Jim's hammering. Clouds hung dark and heavy over the city, looking as if they would open up with a deluge at any moment. It had become so dark, Jim had rigged up a light so they could see.

"Jim, did you hear that?" Pete asked.

"Hear what?" Jim asked. He continued to hammer on the base for the star atop the roof.

"Thunder. We should probably stop now. It's almost completely dark, and it's about to pour," Pete tried to reason with Jim. However, since the incident with Jimmy, Jim hadn't been in much of a mood to reason about anything. Probably the only thing that had kept Jim and Jean from putting on a spectacular fight had been the fact that David had come running out of the house, ready to leave for the store. As it was, Jim had fussed at Jimmy until the little boy dissolved into tears. He was still crying in the backseat when Jean had driven off for the store.

Jim had chosen to work off his anger and fear through quickening his work to a feverish pace. As a result, he'd strung the roof lights in record time, and had started on the placement of the star.

"I'm ten minutes from being finished with this whole thing," Jim objected. "I want to get it done. Can you move that light a little closer?"

"Jim, this is as far as it's gonna go," Pete said, tugging on the extension cord that powered the worklight.

The wind picked up considerably, lighting flashed in the western sky, and within seconds, the basso peal of thunder followed. In the distance, a dog began to howl and bark.

"Pete, is this centered?" Jim asked, apparently choosing to ignore the ominous storm warnings. He held up the star he'd fashioned in the area he wanted to place it.

"Uh, lemme see." Pete held up the light and peered at the star. "It's hard to tell without it being lighted. But it seems right."

A brighter, closer flash of lightning streaked across the sky, followed almost immediately by the thunder. The wind whipped high enough to blow dust and debris around the roof. The sound of the barking dog got louder and closer.

"Jim, we need to get off this roof," Pete urged.

Jim glanced up at the sky out from under hair that had blown into his face. "You go on down. I'm gonna hammer this in."

"Jim, you're being ridiculous," Pete chided. "You can finish the star tomorrow."

"I want to finish it now," Jim reiterated.

Pete sighed. And he thinks his kid is stubborn. "Jim, you really...."

The barking dog was close enough now to cause Pete to break off what he was saying and look down at the ground for the howling animal. He saw a rather large German Shepherd running full tilt across Jim's yard. "What's with that dog?"

"That's 'Killer' from down the street. When it storms, he goes nuts. He digs out from under the fence and roams the neighborhood, howling and crying and generally making a nuisance out of himself," Jim explained between hammer blows. "Yell at him and he'll probably leave."

Another flash of lightning and a crack of thunder precluded Pete's reply. "I'm pulling rank, Jim -- get off this roof now."

Jim put down the hammer as Killer ran in circles, yelping and barking below. The first few drops of rain began to fall. "I guess you're right. Help me gather this stuff."

"About time," Pete muttered. He reached around him for the few tools that lay at his feet. The rain picked up in intensity, and fell at a moderate rate, as more lightning streaked across the darkened sky and thunder rolled in reply.

"Hey, stupid dog, scram!" Pete yelled over at Killer, who had apparently decided to set up shop in Jim's yard. The terrified canine ran in circles, now, yelping, barking, whining, and whimpering. The dog ignored Pete's yell. Pete made his way carefully toward the ladder.

The dog followed, running around to the side of the house where the ladder rested.

"Watch your step, Jim, it's getting really wet up here," Pete called over his shoulder.

Another lightning flash brought a crescendo of thunder and a literal downpour of wind-whipped rain.

"Ah, man!" Pete moaned. "Where is this coming from?"

Killer apparently shared Pete's discomfort. The dog ran as if possessed down the side of the house, streaking for the open garage. Unfortunately, the ladder stood directly in the crazed canine's path.

"Hey, dog! Killer, don't!" Pete yelled, foreseeing disaster.

The dog moved faster than Pete did. The frightened animal hit the bottom of the ladder, running at full speed. The dog hit the lightweight aluminum ladder and knocked it off balance. Pete made a lunge for the top of it, but it was just out of his reach, and it fell to the ground with a muffled clatter.

Pete cursed. "Great! Just great!"

"What happened?" Jim asked, as he joined Pete, shouting over the wind and rain.

"That dog knocked over the ladder!" Pete pointed to the fallen equipment.

Jim looked at the ladder lying on the ground then looked to Pete, his mouth open in disbelief. "I'm gonna kill that dog!" he finally exclaimed.

Another bolt of lightning, this one much closer, caused both men to flinch. The thunder boomed loudly a few seconds later. It set Killer to howling and barking again. Assorted crashing and clanging noises came from the garage where the dog now thrashed around.

"We've got to get down from here or we're gonna be human lightning rods!" Pete cried.

"I'll jump down and get the ladder," Jim offered.

"Are you crazy? You'll break your leg! Or your neck!" Pete objected. Cold rain ran down his face and neck and he shivered.

"I can hang onto the ledge and drop down," Jim said.

"No way, no way," Pete shook his head. "I'm not gonna have Jean come home and find you with even a sprained ankle!"

"It's not that far. We sure can't stay up here!" Jim pointed out. More lightning and thunder underscored his statement.

"You'd think your neighbors would see us up here!" Pete complained.

"They probably do, and they probably think we've lost our minds! It's so dark, they probably don't know the ladder's fallen. And no way they're gonna hear us yelling over this wind." Jim wiped water from his face. "And no way anyone's coming outside in this weather so they could see us."

"What about the dormer windows?" Pete asked. "Can't we crawl through there to the attic?"

"They're locked, Pete. We'll have to break one. But what the hey? I've already broken one window today...what's one more?"

"I'm sorry...I'll pay for this one."

"No, it's no problem. We've gotta get in out of this weather." Jim hefted his hammer. "Maybe I'll send the bill to Killer's owners. Dumb mutt."

They made their way to the dormer window as the wind-driven rain pelted them, soaking them both to the skin.

"Stand back," Jim warned. He took the hammer and crashed it through the glass, sending shards flying into the attic. Jim used the tool to clear the jagged shards as best he could. "Okay, that's about as good as I can get it. Watch yourself."

"You first," Pete urged. "You'll have to show me where to step."

"Okay." Jim leaned in and slithered through the broken window. He found an attic beam and managed to get a good footing despite the water that dripped off his face and clothing. He reached up and used a roof beam to help balance himself and turned back toward Pete. "Come on, Pete. Stay on the beams here...and here. I'm sure that the wood in between isn't load-bearing. It's dark as everything in here, so let your eyes get adjusted. The light switch is by the folding stairs. I'll have to work my way over."

Pete followed Jim's lead and managed to get inside. He got both feet securely on the first beam and stood to his full height. The attic was just tall enough to accommodate his six-foot height without Pete worrying that he'd knock himself silly on a roof support. He could barely see Jim's outline in the dark. "Thank God we're out of that storm," he breathed.

"Yeah, it's a bad one. I hope the girls are all right," Jim fretted. "I hope they'll stay put until this thing passes."

"I'm sure they're fine," Pete smiled, glad Jim couldn't see it in the dark. Obviously any residual irritation Jim felt toward his wife and child had vanished in his concern for their safety.

"Jimmy's scared of storms," Jim muttered. "So's Jean, for that matter."

"Don't worry. They're probably in the store, trying to send your checkbook into a negative balance," Pete said reassuringly. "How about we get out of the attic and get dried off?"

"Oh. Sure, sorry. Just step where I step," Jim instructed. "Basically only step where insulation isn't. Not that you can see the insulation." Jim started across to the fold-up stairs taking the attic beams in shortened, slow strides.

Pete followed him, stepping carefully. He'd only taken two steps when one damp foot slipped off the beam, wet from Jim's dripping clothing. Pete dropped the tools he held in his hand and swiped at the roof supports, trying to find a purchase. Unfortunately, he swiped at only air. His foot hit insulation, which didn't support his weight. With a yelp accompanied by the sickening crack of plaster, Pete's right leg crashed through the attic floor. He tried to get his left foot more secure, but with no purchase for balance, it too slipped, and crashed through insulation and ceiling on the opposite side of the beam. He sat down hard, trying not to tip over and crash the rest of his body through, and wound up straddling the beam, one leg trapped in the broken attic floor on either side.

"Pete! You okay?" Jim exclaimed.

Pete tried to catch his breath and shake away the stars he saw as pain assaulted various parts of his lower anatomy. He tried to answer Jim, but nothing came out but a strangled moan.

"Pete!" Jim repeated urgently.

"I'm.....okay...." Pete squeaked, not all that certain he was telling the truth. Just embarrassed as hell.

"Let me get the light," Jim said.

Pete heard him stumble across the beams, then the light flashed on.

"Pete! Good grief! Are you sure you're okay?" Jim repeated once he could see the full extent of his partner's predicament. He made his way quickly back to Pete's side.

"Well," Pete hedged, finally able to get a good breath, "I don't think anything's broken, but my ability to sire children in the future may be in jeopardy."

"Owwwch," Jim sympathized, trying rather unsuccessfully to look more concerned than amused at Pete's proclamation.

"If you so much as crack a smile...." Pete pointed a finger in warning at his young friend.

Jim held up his hands. "I'm not laughing. Are you sure nothing's broken?"

"I'm sure your attic floor's broken," Pete informed him. "What room did I crash into, anyway?"

"Uh, lemme see," Jim looked around the attic in an attempt to get his bearings. "I think our bedroom."

"Great," Pete moaned. "This is really gonna put me in the doghouse with your wife."

Jim shrugged. "Don't worry about it. She'll be happy you didn't break your legs. Here. Give me your arm and I'll get you up."

"I don't think I have the leverage," Pete speculated. "And you sure don't need to fall, too."

"You can't stay here. Let's give it a try."

Jim offered Pete his arms, and they grasped each other's forearms in a strong grip. Jim braced his feet. "Ready, Pete?"


"We'll go slow." Jim heaved slowly, straining against Pete's weight.

Pete raised up off the beam a couple of inches, gritting his teeth against the general discomfort, when a sudden pain in his right calf caused him to cry out. "Stop! Stop!"

"What's wrong? You did break something!" Jim exclaimed, worried.

"No, I didn't but something's digging into my right calf. It must be a sliver of the ceiling."

"Maybe I should call the fire department."

"No way! Just check it out. I'm sure we can get me up from here without calling the cavalry."

"Will you be okay here if I go down and see?" Jim asked.

"Yeah, yeah, go on." Pete waved him off.

"Okay, I won't be a minute." Jim patted Pete on the back and walked beams over to the fold down stairs. After a few seconds of awkward maneuvering, Jim managed to get the stairs unfolded and on the floor in the hallway below.


Jim clambered down the stairs, taking them two at a time. He wasn't so sure that Pete was telling the truth when he said he was okay. Jim ran into the bedroom he and Jean shared and, as he feared, he saw Pete's legs dangling through the bedroom ceiling right over their bed. Pieces of ceiling hung loosely or were scattered over the bed and floor.

Plaster dust lay scattered throughout the room.

"Pete, can you hear me?" Jim called up toward the ceiling.

"Yeah," Pete's muffled voice came filtering back. "Can you see the problem?"

"Give me a second." Jim stepped up on the bed, noticing too late that he left wet, muddy footprints on the bedcovers. Oh, brother, Jean's gonna kill me. When he got to the better vantage point, he saw that a jagged strip of lath had pressed down onto Pete's right leg. "Yeah, I see the problem. Hang on and don't move." Jim reached up and tore the piece of material away. As he studied Pete's dangling feet, an idea came to him. "Okay, Pete, let's try something. I'm gonna push up on your feet -- see if you can pull yourself up."



"Yeah, go."

Jim positioned himself under Pete's legs, and though the bed gave unsteady support, he put a hand under each of Pete's feet and pushed. Jim hadn't stopped to consider the laws of physics at work, which, unfortunately, worked against him. As Jim pushed on Pete, of course Pete's weight pushed back on him. The mattress wasn't up to the task of supporting such a force. Jim lost his balance as the mattress gave underneath him, and Pete's feet slipped out of his hands. One of Pete's muddy feet kicked Jim in the face, and Jim heard another dull thump and Pete yell. Jim jumped off the bed to keep from falling himself. "You okay?" Jim called, trying to rub feeling back into his bruised and dirtied cheekbone.

"What happened down there?" Pete roared back. "I was making progress and you dropped me! And this isn't any feather bed I'm stradding!"

"Ah, the bed's too soft. Why don't I just try to push one leg up, then I can come back up there and help you stand."

"Okay, but if you drop me like that again, I'm gonna send you the doctor bills!"

"There won't be any dropping. I'm just gonna push up on your right leg. You bend it and see if you can get it back on the beam. Understand?"

"Yeah. I gotcha."

"You ready?" Jim asked.

"Why not?"

Jim climbed back up on the bed and cupped his hands around Pete's right foot. He pushed gently, and Pete's leg disappeared through the ceiling. More dust and debris from the ruined ceiling rained down on Jim and the bed.

"How was that?" Jim called.

"Good. The leg's okay. I think I can get the other one by myself." Pete's left leg wiggled a bit, then disappeared as well.

By the time Jim got back up the attic stairs, Pete had regained his footing. He stood, bent over, apparently trying to catch his breath and recover a bit of dignity.

"You okay, partner?" Jim asked.

"I guess so," Pete allowed. "But I probably could sing soprano with the LA Mass Choir right now. Just give me a minute."

"I could always use the fireman's carry." Despite the circumstances, Jim couldn't resist a grin.

"You just try it," Pete growled. "This is all your fault anyway!"

"My fault? I can't help the weird weather, and the psycho mutt knocking over the ladder!" Jim objected. His grin quickly disappeared.

"If we'd gotten off the roof before the dog went berserk, we wouldn't be in this mess," Pete reminded him irritably. "But noooooo, you had to keep on hammering until the bottom fell out and the dog went wild."

"Okay, okay," Jim growled back. "I'll just add you to the list of people who hate me tonight. Come on, let's get outta here and get into dry clothes."


5:45 p.m.

"I'm a dead man," Jim moaned. He looked forlornly up at the two massive holes in his bedroom ceiling, the pile of rubble and dust from the devastation that littered the bed and floor, and the wet, muddy carpeting and bedspread. "I've got two broken windows, two holes in the ceiling, debris and dust everywhere, a muddy, wet bed mess, half-done lights...."

"And a partridge in a pear tree," Pete quipped. He gave his hair a final rub with the towel Jim had given him and finger combed it into place. Apparently dry clothing and time to recover had put Pete in a better mood.

"Cute," Jim scowled. "Just scratch me off your Christmas list, because when Jean get's home she's gonna kill me. Look at this mess. It started out as a nice, easy, little project. Now the house is a wreck, Jimmy's gonna be disappointed the lights aren't ready, and Jean'll have me sleeping on the front porch."

"Based on the looks of this room, she'll be sleeping out there with you," Pete observed wryly.

"When did it get so out of control?" Jim asked.

"I dunno, but it sure jumped the track somewhere," Pete agreed.

Jim sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I can't just stand here and wait for Jean to come home and see this." Jim knelt and started picking up pieces of ceiling.

"I'll help you," Pete offered.

"No, you're probably still, uh, well..." Jim shrugged. "You sure you don't want to sit on an ice pack or something?"

Pete rolled his eyes. "I don't want to sit anywhere right now."

"Well, then, go get me a garbage bag out of the pantry for this...." Jim stopped as the sound of a car pulling into the drive distracted him. "Uh oh, she's home."

"I think I'll just make myself scarce," Pete said, sidling toward the door. "I hate to see the bloodletting."

"Oh, no, you don't," Jim reached out and grabbed Pete by the arm. "You're the only one who can save me. Go hobble into the living room so Jean'll feel sorry for you and that'll take the heat off me!"

"No way, partner. We're not telling the girls about my little accident," Pete shook his head, flushing slightly.

"It's gonna be kinda hard to miss, you walking around bent over and hobbling like that."

Pete straightened. "I'll cop out to falling through your ceiling, but I'm not gonna explain just exactly how I fell, if you don't mind."

"I dunno, Pete, you might get a lot of sympathy from Judy," Jim pointed out. "It might even...."

"Don't say it," Pete cut him off with a half-hearted glare and a gesture.

"Jim, honey, where are you?" Jean's voice filtered through to them.

"Back here, hon," Jim called back. He turned to Pete. "Oh, boy, time to face the music."

But it was Jimmy who came barrelling back into the bedroom first. "Daddy! Daddy! The lights awen't on yet! Ohhhhh!" the boy gasped, catching sight of the holes in the ceiling and the mess on the bed and floor. "Somebody make a big boo-boo! Mommmmmiiiieeeee!"

"Jimmy, hush," Jim admonished.

"Mommmmiiieeee, come woook!" Jimmy dashed back out of the room.

"I can hardly blame him for ratting me out," Jim pouted. "For once, there's a big mess he didn't make. He probably wants to watch me get yelled at."

"Jim, what's this Jimmy's saying about, my....." Jean walked in with Jimmy in her arms and Judy and David on her heels. "Jim! What did you do?"

"Daddy, you in twoubuh!" Jimmy announced, with way too much delight, in Jim's opinion.

"Oh, goodness," Judy gasped when she got close enough to see the mess.

"Groovy!" David offered.

"Jim, there are two holes in the ceiling!" Jean exclaimed. "And the bed is wet and muddy! What in the world? Are you trying to tear the entire house apart?"

"Mommy, you gonna spank daddy?" Jimmy asked.

David burst out laughing but stopped when the adults in the room glowered at him.

"David!" Judy scolded. "Don't make it worse."

"I'm waiting for an explanation!" Jean said hotly, tapping her foot.

"Honey, it's a long story," Jim began. "I'm really sorry, but you'll understand when you hear it."

"I understand that the ceiling's destroyed and the bed's a mess...and look, there's water leaking through! Where's water coming from?"

"Probably rain coming through the broken dormer window," Jim explained sheepishly.

"You broke broke another window?" Jean cried in disbelief.

"Uh, yeah, we had to, uh, to get in out of the storm, because Killer -- you know, Killer the psycho dog down the street? Well, he knocked the ladder over because of the storm and it was lightning and raining and we had to get in and we couldn't just jump off the roof and the windows were locked so I broke it with a hammer and then we came in and then Pete slipped and he, ah, fell and his feet went through the plaster and then I hadda come help Pete get out and that's how the mud got there and I guess now the rain is blowing in and...." Jim finally took a breath and ended his run-on explanation.

David started to snicker, but Judy clamped a hand over his mouth. "David, take Jimmy and go watch TV or something," she said firmly.

"Aw, mom!" David protested.

"Go!" Judy pointed. She took Jimmy from Jean's arms and gave him to David.

"Come on, Jimmy, let's go. Grownups always make you leave when it starts to get good." David walked off.

Jean continued to glare at her husband. "None of that made a bit of sense," she declared.

"I'm sorry, honey, but that's what happened. Don't worry, I'll fix it." Jim apologized.

"I don't think you'd better touch anything else!" Jean exclaimed. "Maybe I'll go call Daddy and have him come over!"

Jim had been doing a good job controlling his temper -- until that point. His face reddened. "I don't need your father's help!" he shouted. "I've got it under control!"

"That's what you said this afternoon!" Jean huffed. "But I don't see any lights working! All I see is destruction!"

"I said I'll fix it! You just go...fix dinner or something and let me worry about this!" Jim waved his arm toward the door. He lowered his voice slightly, but it still held a lot of heat.

"James Reed..." Jean began threateningly, but Judy intervened.

"Dinner sounds like a great idea," Judy seconded, gently taking Jean by the arm. "I know the boys are hungry." She tried to pull Jean from the room, but the younger woman stood her ground. "It'll be all right," Judy urged.

Jean blew out an angry breath, then turned on her heel and left the room without a word.

Judy shrugged. "I'll see what I can do," she whispered, then followed Jean.


7:10 p.m.

Pete took a bite of spaghetti from his plate and looked around at his dinner companions. This may be southern California, but it feels more like the arctic in here.

A tense silence had fallen over the house after the brief blowup in the bedroom. Jean and Judy had made dinner, and Jim had taken to repairing the damage. The silence had followed them all to the dinner table where only polite snippets of conversation took place, consisting mostly of phrases similar to"Pass the salt, please." Conspicuously absent from the table was Jim; he'd refused to stop his repair efforts to eat. In fact, the most consistent noise in the house was Jim's hammering as he nailed plywood and plastic over the broken windows and the damaged ceiling.

Pete had helped for a little while, but much of the work was a one-man job, especially in the cramped attic. Bending and crouching had proven to be difficult for the still-bruised and sore Pete, so Jim had told Pete to go and be with the others and eat. Pete figured that Jim considered it some sort of penance to work alone, so he'd left the younger man to it.

But the atmosphere at dinner had been, and continued to be, most uncomfortable. Even the boys seemed to be affected by the tense feelings. Jimmy looked particularly sad. He glanced often at the empty spot where his daddy should have been sitting. The three-year-old only picked at his food.

"Mommy," the little boy finally said.

"What, Jimmy?" Jean answered.

"When Daddy gonna eat?" Jimmy asked.

"Daddy's busy right now. He's fixing the window and the ceiling. Eat your dinner." Jean's voice softened somewhat when she talked with her son, but the irritation still came through clearly.

"But his 'psgetti wiw get cowd, Mommy."

"It'll be all right, son. Now eat your dinner."

Jimmy bent his head and toyed with a small bite, but soon looked up again. "Unca Pete, did it huwt when you fe-uh fwew the woof?

Everyone looked at Pete expectantly. Jean looked a trifle guilty, perhaps because the youngest one of all had been the first to ask if he was hurt.

"Oh, just a little," Pete admitted. He didn't want to lie to the boy, but it would be many years before Jimmy could understand the full impact of what happened to his Uncle Pete.

"I sowwy." Jimmy lisped.

"It's okay, sport, it wasn't your fault," Pete smiled. "It was just an accident. Accidents happen."

"Okay." Jimmy said quietly. He still looked troubled, though, and didn't pick up his fork. He dropped his head down again.

"Jimmy, son, please eat," Jean reached over and tapped him gently on the hand.

Jim walked into the room, then, passing through on his way to the kitchen.

"Daddy," Jimmy called, "you gonna eat wif us now?"

"No, son," Jim answered. "I'm still cleaning up."

"Pweese, daddy," Jimmy whined. His eyes brimmed with tears and his lower lip trembled.

"I'll be through in just a minute, son, then I'll come eat," Jim assured him.

"Need some help?" Pete asked cheerfully, trying to lighten the mood. Jimmy seemed to be getting more distraught, and Jean had not once looked at Jim.

"No, thanks, I've patched everything up and now I'm cleaning up in the bedroom. I'll be done in a jiffy." Jim looked over at his wife, but she had turned her attention to Jimmy, so he continued through to the kitchen.

Jimmy continued to sniffle a little, so David tried to cheer him up as Jean urged him to eat.

"Hey, Jimmy, I'll play Candy Land with you when you finish eating," David offered. "You can go first and be the blue player."

"Don' wanna," Jimmy pouted.

"Jimmy, be sweet," Jean chided. "David's being very nice. Say you're sorry."

"I sowwy," Jimmy said dutifully. He rubbed at his eyes, obviously growing tired and cranky.

"It's okay, Jimmy," David assured him.

Jim walked back through with two large garbage bags in his hand. He smiled and winked at his son, then moved on through to the bedroom.

Jimmy watched his daddy walk through, and when Jim disappeared from sight, Jimmy began to wail.

"Jimmy, son, what's wrong?" Jean asked. She picked up her son and cradled him in her arms.

"Mommy," Jimmy sobbed, "If Unca Pete bwoke the ceiwing, why awe you mad at daddy? Pwease don't be mad at daddy." He buried his face in Jean's shoulder and cried harder.

"Oh, Jimmy, baby, don't cry," Jean soothed him, gently stroking his hair and rocking him back and forth. She looked up at met Pete's eyes. He gave her a sympathetic look. "I'm not really mad at your daddy. I was just upset when I saw the holes in the ceiling. It was an accident, just like your Uncle Pete says. Sometimes grownups say things they really don't mean when they get upset." Jean kissed Jimmy's forehead a couple of times. "I'm sorry if I upset you, baby. Hush, now, don't cry."

Jimmy continued to sob quietly as Jean did her best to console him.

Pete heard a noise behind him and turned to see Jim standing at the door to the dining room, watching Jimmy with obvious concern.

"Jean," Pete whispered. He nodded his head toward Jim.

Jean looked up and met Jim's worried gaze. "He's okay," she mouthed quietly. She raised a finger to her lips so that Jim wouldn't speak. "Overtired," she whispered.

Jim nodded and went back into the bedroom.

Jimmy's sobs subsided into little whimpers. He stuck his thumb in his mouth, and his eyes closed tiredly. It didn't take long for him to cry himself to sleep.

"Poor boy's had a rough day," Judy observed as Jimmy grew still and quiet.

"Is he okay?" David asked.

"Sure," Jean whispered. She leaned over and gave Jimmy a kiss on the cheek. "He didn't get a nap today, then you two played so hard. And then his daddy fussed at him about the ladder, which really upset him -- he just worships his daddy. I guess me yelling at Jim was just the last straw." Jean looked toward the back of the house, her expression more than a little guilty.

"I'll hold him," Pete offered, "if you want to go talk to Jim."

Jean smiled. "How'd you know?" she asked.

Pete shrugged and grinned. "Lucky guess." He got up from his place at the table and walked over and took Jimmy from Jean. "Come here, sport. You sleep on Uncle Pete's shoulder, okay?" Pete settled Jimmy on his shoulder and rubbed his back comfortingly.

"I'll be right back," Jean promised.


When Jean walked into the master bedroom, Jim had his back turned to the door. He had picked up all the large pieces of plaster and was fastening the ties on the garbage bags.

"Jim?" she said quietly.

Jim whirled, obviously startled by her approach. "Hi, honey, I'm just about done. I just need to vacuum the carpet and get the comforter and sheets in the laundry. Jimmy okay?"

"He's fine. Just overtired. He cried himself to sleep."

"What set him off? He upset about not having the lights on?"

"No...he was worried about you," Jean told him.


"He was worried that you weren't eating. And that I was mad at you."

"Awwww." Jim smiled. "What a boy we have. Not even four and already thinking of others."

"Don't puff up too much," Jean warned with a smile of her own. "When he wakes up he's liable to be his usual adorable selfish self." She paused and walked over to Jim. "I'm sorry,"she apologized. "I overreacted."

"It's okay, honey,"Jim assured her. "I don't blame you. I made a huge mess. An expensive, huge mess."

"But you didn't do it deliberately. You were only trying to make Jimmy happy -- and me, too." Jean took Jim's hands in hers. "And I never even asked if Pete was okay. If I'm more worried about the ceiling than about Pete, then my priorities are out of whack."

"Don't be so hard on yourself," Jim squeezed Jean's hands.

"You forgive me?" Jean asked.

"If you forgive me," Jim grinned. "I yelled a little, too."


Jim pulled on Jean's hands until she was close enough to draw into an embrace. They shared a long, lingering kiss, then Jean lay her head on Jim's chest and relaxed in his arms.

"Honey," Jim said, after a few moments of blissful silence, "I think maybe we had better call your dad."

"Why?" Jean asked. She didn't lift her head, enjoying being wrapped up in Jim's arms too much.

"I'm afraid this ceiling job is outta my league," Jim admitted. "Since he's in construction, maybe he can recommend someone who won't take us for our life's savings to do the job."

"I'm sure he can, love." Jean carefully hid her smile.

"And I've been thinking, Jean....this would be the perfect time to redo the bedroom like you've been wanting to. If we have to redo the ceiling, we might as well paint -- and I can do that myself."

"Jim, are you serious?" Jean did lift her head then and looked up at him.

"Sure. And go ahead and get the new bedding and curtains, too." Jim grinned at her.

"Are you sure you didn't fall through the ceiling?" Jean asked, incredulous. "You've been telling me for two years we couldn't afford it."

"Consider it an early Christmas present," Jim said.

"Thanks, honey," Jean wrapped her arms around Jim's neck and gave him another long kiss.

"Just promise me one thing, honey," Jim said, when the kiss ended.


"Please don't pick out anything pink."


8:15 p.m.

"Jim, I really wish you wouldn't do this," Jean fretted. "The roof's still wet."

"It'll be okay, honey," Jim promised. All I have to do is mount the star, plug it in, and the whole house will be ready. When Jimmy wakes up from his little nap, it'll be a great surprise for him."

"I'll keep an eye on him, Jean," Pete assured her. "This time the ladder won't fall over."

"Well, just be careful, honey, please," Jean got up on her tiptoes and kissed Jim on the cheek. "Try not to break anything else," she teased, "including your neck."

"It's under control," Jim said yet again.

"I wish you wouldn't say that," Jean moaned. She went back into the house, shaking her head.

"Given our track record on this project, she's got a point," Pete agreed.

"This won't take long." Jim climbed up the ladder.


8:35 p.m.

"Okay, Pete, is this straight?" Jim called. He had found it difficult to see in the dark, even with a worklight, so he'd gone ahead and plugged in the star so that he could see and Pete could give him advice on placement. Jim had hammered and worked with the star until he had it positioned correctly on the base he'd built earlier in the evening.

"Looks pretty good," Pete called back. "Twist the right side just a little bit to the back."

"Okay." Jim manipulated the star as Pete had instructed. "How's that?"

"Perfect!" Pete assured him. "It looks great. Looks just like it's floating over your house. Jimmy'll love it!"

"Great." Jim straightened. He took a couple of steps sideways to get a better view. Unfortunately, he forgot that he'd dropped the hammer beside him on the roof. He stepped on the tool, and his ankle turned underneath him. Jim lost his balance, waved his arms trying to regain his balance, but grasped only air. His back foot slipped on the wet shingles, and he went down with a thump and a yell, and started to slide.

"Jim!" Pete yelled. He ran up to the ladder and braced it against the house, hoping Jim could catch a purchase on it.

Jim clawed frantically at roof shingles and dug his heels in, trying to stop his inexorable slide toward the edge of the roof. But nothing worked. Almost in slow-motion, he slid on his back to the ledge. He made a last-ditch, frantic grab for the ladder, which he missed, then tried to reorient himself so that he could grab the gutter and hang on. All that accomplished was to turn Jim forward, so that when he reached the edge, he rolled off head over heels.

"Jim!" Pete reached out in a final attempt to help break Jim's fall, but came up empty. Jim flew past just inches out of Pete's reach, and fell with a crash into the bushes below.

He landed with a grunt and a whoosh of forcibly exhaled breath.

"Jim! Jim, are you okay?" Pete rushed over to check on his partner.

"" Jim moaned. He lay on his back , arms and legs splayed out from his sides, deep in a large bush.

"Did you break anything?" Pete asked anxiously.

The front door squeaked and Jean ran out of the house. "What was that thump? Jim? Pete? Oh, Jim!" Jean exclaimed, when she finally caught sight of her husband lying in the bushes. "You didn't!"

"I did," Jim squeaked.

"Are you hurt?" Jean cried.

"Nothing but my pride," Jim moaned. "And a few sticks in the back."

"Are you sure?" Pete questioned. "That was some ride you took down the roof, there, Santa!"

"I'm sure, I'm sure," Jim, inexplicably, began to laugh.

"Jim! This isn't funny!" Jean fussed.

"Oh, yes, it is, it is," Jim insisted, between hysterical laughter. "It's the perfect end to this exercise in Murphy's Law."

The front door opened again, and David ran out, with Judy close behind. "What happened?" David asked. "Whoa! Uncle Jim! Did you fall off the roof?"

"Jim, are you all right?" Judy echoed.

"I'm okay," Jim assured them. "I just can't get up. No leverage."

"Here," Pete offered him a hand. "Let's get you out of the bushes."

Pete offered Jim his hands and tugged gently. After some shifting, grunting and groaning, Jim rolled out of the bushes and shakily got to his feet.

"Are you sure you're okay, honey?" Jean asked. She looked him over carefully.

"Yeah. Just a few scratches. The bushes broke my fall. Man, I hope I didn't break any of those bulbs!"

"It's too dark to see without turning on the lights," Pete pointed out.

"Might as well debut it all, then," Jim sighed. He stretched out his back.

"Oh, honey, you're sure you're okay?" Jean repeated her concerns.

"Yeah, but I'm not guaranteeing I'll be able to get out of bed in the morning!" Jim declared with a rueful tone. "Go wake up Jimmy, and I'll get ready to plug it all in."

"Okay," Jean agreed.

"Everybody wait here, and I'll light her up!" Jim took Jean by the hand and they walked into the house.


9:01 p.m.

"Okay, is everybody ready?" Jim asked. He stuck his head out the front door and made sure everyone was assembled.

"We're ready, honey," Jean called back. "Hurry, it's chilly out."

"Okay, I'm plugging in now!" Jim disappeared, and fifteen seconds later, the house was illuminated in a soft blue light. The bulbs in the bushes and along the roof's edge lighted completely. The yellow star shone brightly above the roof.

"Oooooh! Pwetty!" Jimmy, still a little groggy from sleep, perked up instantly when the lights came on. He clapped his hands in delight. "I see the sta-uhw! Baby Jesus's sta-uhw!"

"All right! That looks so cool!" David exclaimed.

"It does look nice," Judy agreed. She and Pete stood arm-in-arm admiring the lights.

"How does it look?" Jim came out of the house.

"It looks great, honey!" Jean exclaimed. "You and Pete did a great job."

Jim put his arm around his wife and looked approvingly at the house. "Hey, it's not half-bad!" he said proudly.

"The star looks like it's floating up there," David said with awe. "That's really groovy."

"I had my doubts about all that blue," Pete admitted, "But it looks nice and a winter night, and then the star up there is a perfect touch. Nice contrast."

Jim laughed. "You sound like an art critic!"

"I have many hidden talents," Pete grinned.

"What about you, tiger?" Jim tapped his son on the nose. "Do you like it?"

"It's bootifuh, daddy," Jimmy said, staring at the star. "I wike it a whowe wot! You'we the bestsest daddy in the whow wouwd. I wuv you."

"I love you, too, and I'm glad you like it, buddy," Jim tousled his son's hair, feeling more than a little proud and warmed inside at his son's declaration. "But thank your Uncle Pete, too...he helped a whole lot."

"Fank you, Unca Pete," Jimmy said. "I wuv you, too."

"You're welcome, Jimmy. Love you, too, sport." Pete returned the sentiment. Judging by the grin on his face, Jim figured Pete was feeling a little warm inside, himself.

"Okay, little man, it's past your bedtime," Jean informed Jimmy, kissing him on the cheek. "Time for a bath!"

"Oh, mommy, can't I wook at Baby Jesus's sta-uhw some mowe?" Jimmy whined.

"You can see it more tomorrow. Right now you need a bath and the bed. You've had a busy day and I know you're tired."

"You go with Mommy and I'll come read you a story before you go to sleep," Jim promised.

"Okay, daddy." Jimmy agreed.

"I'll help you, Jean," Judy volunteered.

"Great. Come on, let's get the water started. Come on, David, you can help, too." Jean walked into the house. Judy and David followed.

"Well, partner, thanks for all your help," Jim clapped Pete on the shoulder as they stood admiring their handiwork a bit longer. "I couldn't have done it without you."

"Well," Pete laughed, "falling through your ceiling didn't help much! How much is this little escapade going to wind up costing you anyway?"

"Without a doubt it's the most expensive Christmas light project in history," Jim admitted. "Let's just say I'll be bringing my lunch for the next two to three years." He smiled. "But it's worth it to make my son happy."

"Yeah. Those 'I wuv you's' kinda get you right here." Pete tapped his chest with a fist. "I guess walking funny a couple of hours was a small price to pay to hear that."

"Next year, we'll know better, and it'll go a lot smoother," Jim stated.

"Next year?" Pete cried. "Let's recover from this year, first, partner."

Before Jim could reply, a crackling sound came from the rear of the house, and suddenly everything went black. Christmas lights and house lights alike went from brightly burning to dead, leaving them standing in the dark.

"Jim!" Jean's voice filtered through the door. "What did you do now?"

"Ah, nuts!" Jim moaned.

Merry Christmas to all out there in Adam-12 land. Thanks to Lisa, who urged me to try my hand at a little comedy (very little) and to Cathy, who always gives great advice. Happy Holidays!

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