Charlie Meldrick shifted anxiously from where he was seated on his apartment's shabby armchair, his eyes flickering continually around the small combo kitchen/living room. The feeling was beginning to come over him again, slow, faint at first, but gradually growing stronger, more insistent.1

The little room bore few signs of the day's date, and none present had been put up by Charlie. He had wanted as little reminders in their dwelling as possible of the Christmas holiday, the holiday THEY had tainted for him and his daughter… a holiday that because of them and their malicious presence in their life, he could not risk celebrating with her. It broke Charlie's heart to know that because of them, he could not risk providing a Christmas for his eight-year-old daughter, and he had been trying to shield her from too much exposure to what she was missing.2

But still Alice had insisted upon showing the spirit of Christmas in the household adornments- still she had insisted that having some Christmas, even if she could have no gifts or activities, was better than nothing. And so the living room was adorned with Alice's childish crayon renditions of snowmen and reindeer, gingerbread and Christmas lights, elves and Santas and trees. It had made Charlie's heart wrench to watch her small blonde head bent so seriously over her paper and crayons, two of few items he was fairly certain were safe for her to use, trying so hard to keep a good attitude, to squeeze some amount of pleasure from drawing what she could no longer have.3

As his gaze darted about the living room now, however, his eyes barely noticed his daughter's efforts; his body was tensed, and he was straining his ears, listening. The cold dread was beginning to slowly fill up his chest, his stomach and heart and lungs, and he knew.4

They were coming… they had found them, somehow they had found them again. They were here, they were coming for Alice…5

Charlie jumped up abruptly, hurrying to check the door. It was locked, of course- he always made sure of that. He peeked through the tiny opening in its center and saw that no one was there- but then, of course not. They would not come up to the front door. They would be smarter than that.6

His eyes came back to the armchair that he had been sitting in, and he grabbed its back, dragging it over to put in front of the door. This would not stop them, they were far too determined, but maybe it would slow them enough that he could grab Alice and escape when he had to.7

Alice. She was taking a bath now; at eight years old, she had developed enough of a sense of modesty that she didn't want to allow her father to remain in the bathroom with her while she bathed. He had obliged her so far, although it made him nervous to think of her alone and naked in a room, even if he was nearby. She was utterly vulnerable to them in that state…8

What if they were in there now? What if they were already in the apartment? What if they had made their way to Alice's room and were just waiting for her to step inside? What if they were in the bathroom with her, had somehow silenced her? They could be doing anything to her…9

Had he checked the windows? Of course he had- but what if he'd missed something and they'd gotten in somehow? Why had he left Alice alone? Why would he ever think it okay to leave Alice alone when they were so determined to harm her?10

Charlie hurried to the small hallway, going to stand outside the bathroom door. He dared not speak, dared not knock or call his daughter's name. To do such a thing would alert them, if they were in there with her, to his presence and proximity- and who knew what such knowledge might make them do? They might grow so startled or panicked they would hurt Alice, even kill her, whether deliberately or not. Charlie did not know what they might do, what they might be capable of. He could not know when he still had no idea why they would want Alice so badly, want to much to break up his family.11

He strained his ears in the hall, listening. It was so quiet in there… too quiet. He could not hear Alice splashing around or talking to herself, did not even hear the voices of those he knew were after her. What if she was not in there- what if they had somehow escaped with her? Still worse- me unthinkable- what if she was dead? What if they had already killed her, made their escape, while Charlie had been idly sitting in the living room?12

His heart beginning to pulse, hard and steady in his chest, his hands sweating, Charlie withdrew the pocket knife from his jeans pocket. Slowly but with a sense of urgency, he slid it in the door crack, trying to be as quick and quiet as possible. The lock was undone easily, and he had a few seconds to both be grateful and to berate himself for renting an apartment with such flimsy locks before he threw the door open, his heart hammering wildly.13

Upon his sudden, loud entrance, his eyes scanned the room frantically, searching for them, any sign of their entrance. There was none… there was only Alice, Alice was there, she was okay, safe for the moment, seemingly unharmed.14

"Daddy!" she cried, her voice a mix of surprise, fear, and embarrassed indignation. The little girl had been lying down in the tub, her hair and most of her body submerged, when he had entered. She had sat up quickly, trying to hunch enough to cover herself as she stared at her father, her long blonde hair sodden and dripping down her back.15

"Daddy! I'm taking a bath! I told you to stay in the living room!"16

Charlie's relief at seeing his daughter, hearing her chiding tone, faded quickly as he realized that it did not matter. His stomach was still knotted in dread, for though they were not yet here, as he had feared, they were coming…17

"Get yourself dressed and dry, Alice," he said urgently, throwing the child a towel. "We have to go again. Grab a suitcase, we don't' have much time."18

The little girl's eyes widened, and her scrawny bare shoulders grew rigid.19

"They are? Daddy-"20

"Yes, come on. It'll be okay if we hurry- Daddy won't let them come, Alice, and he's not leaving you alone anymore," Charlie promised. "Not now, not when they're so damn determined…"21

Charlie glanced about repeatedly as he drove, watching for anything out of ordinary in his surroundings, any sign of them. It could be anything, even a small thing such as a homeless person standing with his buggy of clothes, a car following two lengths behind them. That was what made them so dangerous; they could be anywhere, anyone, using anything to track them down…22

They had been driving for over an hour now, with no real destination in mind. Charlie was just trying to shake them off, confuse them enough so he might lose them, throw them off track, at least temporarily. He had circled and backtracked, getting no further than ten miles away from their previous destination. He hoped it would work… but what if it wasn't? What if they had somehow managed to bug his car? What if they knew exactly where he was going and they were just waiting, biding their time until he and Alice finally settled somewhere?23

Maybe they should go somewhere to trade the car, throw them further off track. Maybe he should rent a car, or buy a new one.24

No, he couldn't do that. For one thing, he couldn't afford it. With no current job, other than preserving the life of his daughter, that is, Charlie was on a tight enough budget as it was. Between gas, food, and renting motels and apartments, he would not have much left for very long. Buying a car was out of the question.25

But what would they do then? What if it was bugged- what if driving this car would lead to Alice's death or abduction?26

Could he steal a car- was there a way he could do that? Could he really do that- commit a serious crime that would only set even more after him?27

Yes, Charlie knew, he could. If he needed to, he would do it. He would do whatever he had to for Alice, in order to protect her.28

"Daddy?" piped a small voice from the backseat, and Charlie jumped, shocked at the sound. Somehow, even with his thoughts concentrated so intently on his daughter, he had forgotten she was right behind him. 29

She was lying facedown on the back seat, as flat and still as she could, to make herself as hard to spot as possible. Charlie could not remember the last time he had felt it safe for Alice to ride sitting upright, let alone in the front seat with him.30

"Daddy," she said again, her voice still tiny and scared. "Are we almost there? Are they still coming?"31

It hurt Charlie physically to hear her fear, the anxiety no child her age should know. It was not enough for them to hurt him; no, they had to hurt his child as well, steal from her the chance of a happy childhood- a normal childhood.32

"Shh, baby," he said gently, trying not to move his lips too much, nor glance back at her. If someone was watching, they might see, might realize that Alice was in the car with him.33

"Daddy's trying to think, baby. Don't worry- we'll find somewhere to go. Daddy won't let them get you."34

It had all started a little over a year ago, when Charlie's wife had died. Her death had been very sudden, very unexpected- and devastating, for Charlie and Alice both. Maxine had been only 32, strong, vivacious, and healthy… and yet, Charlie had come home from work late one day to find her cool and unresponsive on the couch. Alice, seven years old at the time, had fortunately gone home with a classmate that day and so saw nothing.35

The doctors who examined Maxine's body had said she had suffered an unusual form of heart failure, that she had a heart abnormality that had gone undetected in previous doctor trips in her life. But Charlie had known this was not so… the moment he had seen his wife's body, he knew she had been murdered. For what reason and by whom, he did not know… but somehow he knew that whoever had killed his wife was not finished.36

It soon became apparent to him that it was not just one person who was stalking the Meldrick family, not only one person intent on haunting their lives, but several… there was some kind of conspiracy, some kind of interconnected group that was working together, using the most twisted and subtle ways they could to ensnare them. There were signs- small signs, to be sure, but signs all the same, enough of them that Charlie knew his suspicions were well founded. People watching him and Alice when they walked by, cars following him for blocks and blocks… people calling him number and hanging up without a word, people whispering or talking intently on their cell phones as they glanced his way… oh, he knew, Charlie knew they were coming for him- and for Alice.37

He had not moved right away, right after Maxine's death. No, he had believed somehow that he could protect his child without having to uproot her, disrupt her world and the way they'd been living. But it soon became apparent he could not… they kept coming, kept showing all their threatening signs, even though they did not yet actually cause him or Alice physical harm. They kept stalking her, making their presence known… and Charlie knew what they were doing. They were toying with him, enjoying unnerving him- and when he least expected it, they would swoop in, taking Alice away from him. He could not allow that, could not…38

And so he had begun the course of life they had lived for the past year, the life of fugitives. He had taken Alice out of school, moving her to another apartment, but still they kept coming, stilly they kept following them, finding them. He had moved her again and again, so many times he had lost count. They lived in a state of perpetual fear, perpetual wariness and anxiety; Charlie had grown so used to their approach that he now felt them coming, almost like a mental precognition, even without overt signs of their presence. It seemed they could never lose them, and yet never find them in order to do away with them.39

Charlie had not had a restful night's sleep in months, could barely eat, dared not look a stranger in the eye. He was never apart from Alice, and she had not been to school in months, had not seen or played with another child in as long. He tried to shield her from all others, concealing her very existence, for knowledge of her existence was a threat to her life. Charlie's and Alice's lives had narrowed down to one with room only for each other… each other, and them.40

And now here it was, Christmas Eve, and they had ruined it, they still pursued the Meldricks, denying them the joy supposed to come from the season. Even could Charlie had afforded to give his daughter a real Christmas, which he couldn't- even had he not feared to take her out in public, to leave her for the time it would take to buy her gifts, there were hardly any gifts he could be sure were safe to buy her. Toys, whether electronic or stuffed, dolls or games, might contain some kind of hidden camera or bug, a tracking device. Alice couldn't drive around with him to look at Christmas lights, go to plays or church or the movies, for fear that they would find her. Charlie had thought if okay for her to at least listen to Christmas songs, but each declaration of joy and peace seemed to mock them, and he had finally decided it was better to travel in silence. Even their face could not be enjoyed in peace; Charlie did not allow Alice to eat anything not canned or boxed, for they had poisoned it somehow. Even so, he always tasted her food first, to be sure it was okay.41

They were always hiding, always running, always on the lookout for the nameless, faceless people who wished them harm… and always, always they were afraid. 42

When Charlie finally decided on a motel several hours away, relatively sure that he had shaken them off at least for a while, he went around to Alice in the backseat, wrapping her, as usual, in a blanket and pulling the hood of her little jacket up over her head. Then, lifting her up onto his hip, he carried her with him into the motel lobby, with Alice hiding her face against his neck. In this way, a technique he had devised out of necessity long ago, he was not leaving Alice alone in the car, and yet no one saw her face. The blanket even concealed her body shape, making in near impossible for anyone to identify her by appearance or even age.43

Holding Alice in this way, Charlie had reserved a motel room for one night, not certain if it was safe to stay any longer. He had felt his daughter's shallow warm breath against his neck, felt her small body trembling in his arms, and the pain of making her live in such a way, a way of fear and invisibility- a way that was not living at all- had momentarily stopped all his thoughts. How could they do this- how could they bring such suffering upon a child, even if it was really he they longed to make suffer? Who were they to want to bring them such misery? Who wished them such malice?44

It had been difficult for Charlie to carry even their few possessions into the room, for he continued to hold Alice in the same manner as he did so, leaving him only one hand to carry their suitcases, Alice's paper and crayons, and their boxes and cans of food. It would have been much easier to set her down, allow her to help him, but he could not do it. What if someone saw her face, or somehow separated her? No, for as long as they were out in public, Alice would not leave his arms, let alone his sight.45

In the room Charlie still felt edgy, although the sense of their approach had faded. He did not believe they were coming yet… but they would, he knew. They would.46

He had locked the door, of course, and with Alice's help had moved the heavy dresser in front of it. He had checked the room for cameras and found none… but that did not mean there were none, only that he could find none. He still worried that the car might somehow be bugged, and that in this way they might find him and Alice.47

Regardless, Charlie had tried to reassure his daughter, to give her hope for their safety and comfort for her fears. The most he had managed to elicit from her, however, was a weak smile. It had been a long time since he had heard Alice laugh, seen her truly relaxed. They were taking her innocence, they were aging, jading her, long before any child should be, and Charlie could not make her the way she had been again.48

At last he had told Alice to try and sleep; he would tell her stories until she did. He and she both knew she could not watch TV, for it too might somehow be a tracking device, and there was nothing much else for her to do beyond sit and worry. So it was with Charlie sitting beside her on the queen bed, re-telling the plot of every book he could recall, that Alice finally drifted off into an uneasy sleep, a child with nothing to look forward to on Christmas morning than another day of hiding.49

Charlie had sat at the edge of the bed, staring at the sleeping little girl with a strange mix of love fear, and fierce anger stirring in his chest. It grieved him to know that his daughter could not experience the excitement of every other child on Christmas morning, that he could not ever see the happiness she might have experienced on her eighth Christmas. No, in all likeliness they would be forced to move again, if not the next day, then soon after. They took no days off- not even, Charlie suspected, for Christmas. 50

It was not fair, Charlie thought fiercely as he gazed at Alice's sleeping form. It was simply not fair… how long could he expect her to live in this way? How long could Alice herself endure it? Was it selfish of him to expect her to? But what other option did he have if he wanted her to live- what else could he do to save her life but condemn her to the life she now led?51

He sat there for a long moment, his thoughts drifting in all directions… he knew they would be coming, knew they would show up. Some day they would stop their games and simply burst through the door of wherever he and Alice happened to be staying, and they would take his child away from him. They would take his only reason for existing, the one thing that kept him from total despair, and leave him with nothing. By drawing it out, they were only torturing him and Alice both.52

As he looked at Alice, he found himself suddenly thinking of Christmas. Not the day or season in general… but rather, how Christmas had begun so long ago.53

Charlie had never considered himself very religious, and he certainly did not go to church, but he did believe in God, and he vaguely believed in the Christmas story. He had never really understood it once he became an adult, however, and especially not since he'd had Alice. How could any father give up his son, allow him to be killed, regardless of whether or not he was God? Charlie didn't care how much God had loved the world… how could anyone be so cold as to let their child die, even, in essence, causing their death? He himself would never allow such a thing to happen to his child, no matter what the consequences.54

But as he kept thinking it- Jesus's life and birth, his death and the torment he had undergone before death claimed him- Charlie reluctantly admitted that a new idea was forming in his mind, shifting his previous state. It was cruel, no doubt, what God had done to his son… but in a way it was selfless, even merciful. Jesus had suffered by that point so that death must surely have been a relief. And surely it had hurt God to do as He had done. As God who loved even those who tortured His son- how much more could it have wounded Him to allow His son, whom He surely loved more, to be tortured? And yet somehow He had had the strength to let him be, and then to release him from his anguish.55

Why are you thinking such thoughts? Charlie demanded of himself, shaking himself inwardly. You are not God, and this story does not apply to you or your life. For all you know, maybe that's all it is anyway- a story.56

But was it? Did he truly believe that? And in a way, it did apply to what was going on his life.57

People, nameless, faceless people were after his daughter, just as they had been after Jesus, through no fault of her own, just as Jesus had carried no blame in their desire to harm him. Like Jesus, Alice was wholly innocent and pure. And like Jesus, Alice was now suffering from their persecution of her.58

The more he thought about it, the more uneasy Charlie grew. Should he be doing something more, something different from what he was doing for Alice now? By trying so hard to hide her, protect her, was he actually prolonging her suffering? By forcing her to lead such a life, was he actually being cruel and selfish?59

The thought dazed him, and he sat there numbly, turning it over in his mind. The more he considered it, the more he began to believe that it might be true.60

But what could he do? He could not let them kill Alice- he could not possibly let them touch her, let alone harm her in any way. He could not let her leave him…61

Or could he? Could he do it, if he had to, if it was in Alice's best interest, the only way to end her suffering? Could he give her up, let her be brought into peace? Could he be selfless enough- love her enough- to give her up?62

No… no! He could never let them touch her! He could never let them harm her, no matter what!63

But the question was… could he do it? Could he himself do something to help Alice… could he himself give her up to a better life, a life he could not provide for her?64

Charlie's breathing rasped in his chest, and he was trembling as he stared wretchedly down at his little daughter's face… for he believed he could. Yes, he believed that when it came down to it, he could love Alice enough to do anything for her that would make her at peace.65

Even kill her.66

No, no, I can't… you can't, not your child, not Alice. No.67

But suddenly he knew that this was what he must do… this is what he had to do. Charlie knew this with a clarity and logic he had not possessed in months, felt it with a pain that was somehow cleansing, comforting in its agony. For now, for the first time in months, he believed he knew what needed to be done.68

He could no longer hold Alice down to this world, this life, clutching her to him because he loved her and needed her… he could not continue to force her to live a life of fear and instability, a life where her every move was watched, her very existence threatened… a life where she could not play, could not eat or sleep without fear. By continuing to keep her alive, Charlie was slowly killing her… emotionally, if not physically, he was harming her beyond repair.69

For several moments he sat there, his head bowed as tears choked his throat and blurred his vision. He could not do this… but he had to. If he truly loved Alice, as God had truly loved His son, then he would do this for her. He would disregard his need for her and focus only on what it was that she needed…70

Charlie stood then, his legs feeling weak and shaky underneath him, and slowly, falteringly went over to his suitcase. With trembling hands he unzipped it, pushing aside his clothes to remove the gun he had hidden underneath…the gun he had began to carry nearly a year ago, when they had first started to pursue him and Alice. Holding it in his hands, he wanted to recoil at its heavy hardness, its coldness. To think that such a thing could end the life of his daughter…71

Not end it- begin it. Her life had ended the day Maxine died… all you are doing is allowing her to begin it once more, in a world much better than this one.72

His arms, his legs, were shaking so much as he stood over Alice's sleeping form that he could barely stand, barely hold the gun at all. Sharp pangs rippled through his stomach, choking him, and tears coursed down his cheeks. Oh god… god… how could he do this? And yet, how could he not?73

Charlie Meldrick gazed down at his child, the little girl he had given up so much to protect… the child he had loved and cared for, held in his arms as an infant, the child he had fed and diapered, wrestled and read to. He had done so much for her… and now, he must do this.74

More tears streamed down his face, and a rattling sob escaped him. To his horror, Alice stirred but did not wake. He could not wake her- she must sleep. She would never know, never even feel it in her sleep…75

With a badly shaking left hand, he touched a strand of Alice's long blond hair, holding it between his shaking fingers as another sob forced out of his throat. His eyes were burning so badly he could barely see.76

"I love you, baby," he whispered brokenly. "I just want you to have a merry Christmas, baby… Daddy loves you so much."77

It was then, as the harsh crying threatened to overtake him, that Charlie stuck the barrel of the gun up to Alice's little blonde head… stuck it there, and pulled the trigger.78

As his crying shuddered his body, wracking him in violent heaves, it occurred to Charlie that as terrible as he felt, as stricken with grief and anguish, there was an odd peace spreading slowly in his mind… for she was finally safe now. Alice was free, could never be hurt again….79

It was only he that was left to hurt. But what father would not gladly take on the pain of his child, so that child might escape suffering?80