The Stolen Heart of Christmas: Chapter 1

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part 1 in a four-part exclusive story written by local comic book creator Dave Beaty. Watch verdenews.com for the continuing chapters and illustrations through the coming weeks of this holiday season.)

• Click here to read chapter 2, Spirits and Shadows

Chapter 1: Fallen Star

Despite being wrapped up in a blanket and dressed in warm pajamas, Karen Miller was cold. The night wind shook the glass as she sat in front of her bedroom window looking at her back yard, which was bathed in the glow of red and green Christmas lights.

Unconsciously, she fiddled with the top button of her white flannel Christmas pajamas. Her dad gave her these pajamas a year ago when she was 7. She had wished for a white Christmas that year and it didn't snow. But she didn't make the same wish this year - no, this year was different. She looked up from the snowflake pattern on her pajamas through the window and gazed at the stars.

She was waiting for a falling star so she could make her wish. It was the only thing this 8-year-old wanted for Christmas. Her dad's military unit had been activated and he had been sent to war. Recently things had become more difficult when her dad's unit went missing while on a mission. She knew that her mom missed him too, because she watched the news all the time hoping he would be OK. Karen hoped her mom would get to tell her dad how much she had missed him. All she wanted for Christmas was for them to be a family again.

Some of her friends at school said they had seen a bunch of shooting stars a couple of months ago and she had missed them. All she needed was one. One star. One wish. She was getting tired and had been sitting up for weeks since she'd heard about all those falling stars. That's when she saw it. Streaking across the sky. The brightest and most brilliant shooting star she'd ever seen. But it was red.

She closed her eyes and made her wish. As she opened them she saw the shooting star fall from the sky and punch a hole through the water tower at the old Windsock Farm. By the light of the winter moon Karen could see a plume of smoke rising into the night sky just beyond the tree line and the water tower. Suddenly it turned dark and began to snow and snow hard. This must be a blizzard. She knew if the old farmhouse had been hit by the shooting star it might catch fire. Someone should go look, she thought. Besides she wondered what a red shooting star would look like. It's probably just a burnt out rock but she wanted to know for sure. She jumped up and ran to her parents' room, which was at the end of the hall.

Sliding to a stop just outside their bedroom door, slowly she opened it and crept inside. She could see her mom had fallen asleep watching TV again. Finding the remote control on the bed Karen turned it off, which suddenly made the room very dark. Karen climbed into her mom's bed.

"Mom," she said, gently nudging her.

Startled, her mother asked, "What's wrong baby?"

"There was a shooting star Mom."

Her mom smiled, "Did you make a wish?"

"Yes," she replied. "But I think something's wrong with it."

"Oh baby," her mom said touching her daughter's brown hair, "I'm sure there's nothing wrong with what you wished for."

"No Mom. I think there's something wrong with the star. It crashed into the old Windsock Farm."

"It crashed?" exclaimed her mom, suddenly wide awake.

"It was glowing red before it crashed. It's not glowing anymore," Karen said. She hoped her mom would take her to see what happened to the star.

Her mom stood up and opened the curtains and looked outside to see the snow. "You're right. Looks like smoke," she said while reaching for her Sheriff's uniform.

Karen watched as her mom turned on the bedside lamp, slipped on her pants, and started putting on her boots.

"I doubt anything could burn in all this snow but I better check," with those words her mom looked up from the boots and noticed Karen was wearing her white Christmas pajamas.

"Well, you better put on some warm clothes if you're coming with me."

Karen smiled as she hurried back to her room.

A few minutes later she was all bundled up and ready to venture outside. She could see her mom was waiting and looking very official.

"Ready?" her mom asked.

With a nod from Karen they ventured out. It was beautiful. All was quiet except for the sound of the snow under their boots.

It was fun to ride in her mom's patrol car. Karen didn't get to ride in it very often. After they were strapped in her mom started talking to someone on the radio. Karen never understood what all the codes meant but knew when she said, "Ten four," they would be ready to go.

After a difficult drive through snow-covered roads they were close to where Karen saw the star crash. They would have to walk the rest of the way.

"OK, take this," said Karen's mom handing her a flashlight. "You do exactly as I say. Understand."

With a smile and a salute Karen replied, "Yes ma'am."

As they stepped out of the car and began to make their way into the woods Karen couldn't help but think about how exciting this was, but she was also a little worried they wouldn't be able to find the star. Shortly into their walk she could see a faint red glow.

"Look!" she called out.

"Quiet Karen," her mom whispered. Slowly she moved in front of Karen and placed a hand on her gun.

"Mom, don't hurt the star."

Pulling Karen down with her behind a large rock, her mom whispered, "I'm not going to hurt the star, but right now I'm not even sure it is a star. You stay here. I'll be right back."

Then for the first time since seeing the star Karen felt afraid as the faint light began to glow brighter and appeared to move.

Karen felt her body shiver as she watched her mom step out from behind the rock and pull the gun from its holster and walked toward the glowing red light. She could hear her mom saying, "Sheriff's Department," as she walked just out of sight. Then it was quiet - very quiet.

Breaking the silence her mom called out, "Karen, come to me but move slowly."

"Yes Mom," she said in a frightened voice as she stepped out from behind the rock. Slowly she walked toward her mother's voice. She was still shaking but she wasn't cold. The red glow became brighter and brighter until she could see her mom bathed in the red light. But everything must be OK, she thought, because her mom had put her gun away. Edging closer, Karen could see the source of the red light but couldn't believe her eyes.

It was a tiny glowing spiked ball, no bigger than a strawberry but just as red.

"That's not a star," said Karen.

"No it's not," said Mom. "But what is it?"

They both stood there puzzled over the strange glowing object. Karen stepped forward to get a better look.

"Careful," said Mom. "Don't touch that and don't get too close."

Just then they heard a noise. It sounded like someone walking. Karen's mother pulled out her gun.

"Karen, get behind me."

Stepping out from the darkness and illuminated by the red glow was a rather odd-looking man. Slightly taller than Karen, he had pale skin and spikes of white hair that hung over penetrating eyes.

He was wearing a blue-gray robe that came to points, layered and speckled like the scales of a mythical dragon.

"Pardon me," he said in a piercing voice as cold as the night air. He reached down and picked up the glowing red object.

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