The hands ticked.
“What time is it?” Sam asked.
Jesse peered at the round clock set upon his stomach. One pointed arm hung straight down while the other neared the twelve.
“Almost six,” he whispered.
Sam lay back in his twin bed and squirmed into the superheroes decorating his pillow.
“When did mom say we could get up?”
“Seven,” answered Jesse.
Sam flung the blankets over his head in frustration then threw the comforter back again so he could breath.
“Did you hear anything last night?”
Jesse shrugged and tucked an arm under his head as he stared at the dimming glow-in-the-dark galaxy adhered to the ceiling. “I thought I heard something on the roof.”
“Me too,” said Sam. He reached up and pulled aside the heavy curtain over the window set between their beds. “Hey!”
“It’s snowing,” Sam said in a hoarse whisper.
Jesse rolled over and took his own peek through the curtain. Frost clung to the corners of the panes. Large flakes drifted down like a slow motion pour from a cereal box. The blanket of thickening snow from the previous days softened the street and made all the cars along the road look like marshmallows.
Jesse’s nose began growing cold. He tucked back into the warmth of the blankets and took another look at the clock.
The thin rod continued in its quick circular path around the numbers. Then the larger hand moved to stand straight up.
He tossed the clock to the side. The round device rolled and blended in with the baseballs on the sheets. Throwing off his blankets gave Jesse a quick chill. He swung his legs off the bed and squirreled his feet into his waiting hockey puck slippers.
“What?!” Sam dropped the curtain and propped himself up on his elbows. He stared with wide eyes. “Mom said seven.”
“Mom said we couldn’t get up AND bother her and dad until seven.” Jesse stood and made sure to keep his voice low. “I’m not going to bother them.”
He padded across dusty blue carpet of the recently tidied room and pressed his ear to the football poster on the door. The thick paper crackled. The house on the other side gave a few settling groans. His hand gripped the door knob. The clicks of his slow turn seemed to roar.
He pulled the door open enough to peer into the hallway. A gust of unheated air coiled inside and caused him to shiver. Snow softened light trickled through the window outside their room and fell on the thin rug laying upon the wood floor. The scent of pine and the lingering smoke from the fire the night before clung to the walls.
Glancing up the stairs, he saw their parent’s door closed.
Behind him the springs in Sam’s bed snapped. He felt his brother’s warm hand on his back as Sam peered over his shoulder.
“I’m just going to look.” Jesse crept into the hall. His heart thrummed against his new set of baseball themed pajamas. “Stay here if you’re scared.”
“I’m not scared,” mumbled Sam.
Jesse laid his fingers on the banister winding toward the second set of stairs. The cold metal between the garlands ran up his arms. He heard Sam padding along behind him and, perched on his toes, he continued on.
He waited at the top of the stairs to the bottom floor and held up a hand. Sam stopped at his side, lower lip chewed upon like a stick of gum.
Another rustle and thump sounded by the front door a mile down the stairs.
“You think it’s him?” Sam squatted down and tilted his head to peer downstairs as if he had bendable and binocular vision.
“Maybe,” said Jesse.
“But it’s morning already.”
“Could be he’s running late,” said Jesse with a shrug.
Sam frowned. “I hope he didn’t forget my new bike.”
“Let’s find out.”
Jesse put one foot on the edge of the first stair, where the wood creaked less and shifted his weight. Then he lifted his second foot and placed it at a similar spot on the next stair. After he had managed four silent steps, Sam began the same process.
“Can you see anything yet?” asked Sam. One of the middle stairs gave a groan as he stepped.
“Watch it,” snapped Jesse. He leaned forward though, peering through the railing toward the living room around the corner. “No, not yet.”
They reached the bottom step, hands gripping the rail and making the decorations rustle. Angling forward gave Jesse a glimpse of the tree’s lower branches and the glittering lights twinkling from the night before.
Above them the floor crackled.
Jesse and Sam looked at one another, frozen like the cars outside.
Footsteps began a slow march down the top flight of stairs.
The two boys turned in unison, shoulders bashing into one another as they started a noisy creep back up the steps.
“I bet it’s dad…”
“I told you to be quiet,” muttered Jesse.
They reached the top of the stairs and began a scamper toward their bed room. Their dad met them. His hands rested on his sweat pant covered hips and his greasy hair carried the press of his pillow.
“You know the rules, boys.”
“It was Jesse’s idea,” pleaded Sam.
“I was just going to look,” argued Jesse. He jabbed Sam with his elbow. “It was his fault you woke up.”
Their dad raised a pointed finger. “I don’t want to hear it.”
The two hung their heads. Jesse wiggled his toes in his slippers and suddenly missed the warmth of his blankets.
On the top floor, another set of steps began a slow walk.
Mom, thought Jesse with a wince.
“Alright,” said their dad.
Jesse looked up in tempo with Sam. Their father’s stern expression broke into a weary grin. “You know how this goes. One with breakfast.”
Jesse bounced on his toes while Sam quivered in anticipation of a quick flight. He watched his dad’s smiling face and waited for the final command. “Go on,” he said with a playful swipe at their heads.
The two sprinted around the corner and dove down the stairs.
“Bring them to the kitchen,” their dad said after a yawn. He began down the second flight of stairs and the door to the kitchen swung but Jesse barely heard the noise. His thoughts had no other notion except the colorful packages packed beneath the tree and the weighty decision of which to open first.