Read Christmas Countdown Online

Authors: Susannah McFarlane

Tags: #BISAC code “Juvenile Fiction: Action & Adventure / General”

Christmas Countdown

It was hot, hot, even for December. The dry, gusty wind blew long into the evening. All the windows in the Jacks' house were open, waiting for the cool change to blow through.

The heat made it hard to sleep but that wasn't the only reason Emma Jacks was tossing and turning in her bed. It was just three days until Christmas and she could barely contain her excitement. She lay awake, the smell of the Christmas tree wafting down the hallway reminding her about all those presents under it, particularly the ones for her. Emma couldn't stop thinking about them. Finally she couldn't resist taking another look. She got out of bed and crept down the hallway. Inky, her black cat, followed her. Emma made it to the tree undetected and crouched down in front of all the brightly wrapped presents. Inky played with some wrapping ribbon. Reaching out for a large, square box in green wrapping with red stars, Emma was just giving it a preliminary shake when …

‘Emma! You're not feeling those presents again, are you?'

Aaaaarrgghh! How did her mum know she was there?

‘Me?' cried Emma, quickly putting the present back under the tree. ‘I'm just untangling some ribbon from Inky's paw.'

‘Well do that and then go back to bed,' her mum called out. ‘And no more feeling the presents!'

Emma slunk back to bed but she was still too excited to sleep. She did love the presents but it wasn't just them that got her excited about Christmas. It was the whole feeling that was in the air in the days before. It was family coming over, sometimes from other states and other countries. It was the getting ready—the cooking and the decorating of the house and the tree. And, yes, it was the presents. But it wasn't just getting them, it was making lists of what people might like, people sneaking off into bedrooms for secret wrapping moments and Bob, her brother, joking that he had bought Emma a wooden spoon (at least Emma hoped he was joking).

Jokes were another part of Christmas that Emma looked forward to. They were one of many family traditions, the same things done every year. Emma even loved the boring ones. Like the Christmas tree and all the family rules about when it could be decorated. The tree could not come into the house until a week before Christmas Eve.

‘You can't have the tree up before you finish school,' Dad always said. ‘That would be ridiculous. When I was a child …'

Emma had heard all this before. The whole family had. Her dad was from Sweden and in his family they only bought the tree the day before Christmas Eve. Her mum was born in Australia and her family used to put it up about two weeks before. So the Jacks family had agreed on a middle ground and put their tree up one week before Christmas Eve. Even though she heard it every December, Emma liked the story; she liked knowing how things came to be the way they were.

There were also rules about decorating the tree, again mainly from Emma's dad, who let everyone know that because Sweden had Christmas in winter, he was the Christmas expert.

‘I mean, you guys have Christmas in a swimming pool!' he teased. ‘And in Sweden we live closer to Father Christmas. He doesn't even need a sleigh pulled by reindeer to get to us!'

‘Well, we have Christmas Day before you,' replied Emma's mum, laughing. ‘So you just follow us.'

Emma loved this squabble. It was the same every year with perhaps a few changes, a few additions, a few improved arguments. Because she and Bob were half-Swedish, half-Australian they just sat back and enjoyed the best of both worlds, including having two Christmas dinners! They had Swedish Christmas on Christmas Eve where they would light candles (even though it was still light outside) and have the traditional Swedish Christmas table, a smorgasbord of meatballs and ham and specially cooked fish like salmon and herring. There were special songs to sing and they would open the presents from the family in Sweden.

The next day they would have Australian Christmas. The Australian Christmas was a traditional English Christmas modified for the hot summer. They ate hot meat and vegetables but cold salads. It was how they did it and it seemed to work. Emma's mum's mum and dad would normally host the lunch and everyone would bring something. Someone would bring the ham and salad and someone else the turkey and potatoes. And Emma's grandma had to be the one to make the brandy butter for the pudding and to boil up the coins that were then hidden inside it. None of the grandchildren really liked the Christmas pudding (Emma's mum told her she didn't really either) but EVERYONE loved the brandy butter and ice-cream and no one wanted to miss out on their share of the coins. Once the pudding was ready, the lights would be turned off and the blinds pulled down to block out the midday sun so everyone could see the flames leap off the pudding as Grandma lit the brandy on the serving plate. Everyone would sing ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas' as the pudding was brought in flaming.

Just like a child, Emma's mum would complain to her mum that Emma got more coins than she did, and Grandma would tell Mum off for stealing some of the brandy butter out of the bowl, just like she would a child.

‘Yes, she is very naughty, Grandma,' Emma would agree. ‘I don't how you put up with her.' Everyone would laugh.

It was the same every year. Emma loved it and wouldn't change a thing. She smiled to herself, remembering it all, as she cuddled her little soft snowman. She'd had it since she was four and it always found its way back to her bed each Christmas. One of her bests friends in Kinder, Nema, had given it to her and Emma had immediately fallen in love with its cute little carrot nose and squishy body. Even though she still loved the snowman, Nema and Emma were not really friends anymore, despite still going to the same school. Around Year Two, Nema had changed and become mean and bossy. Every now and then Emma saw glimpses of the old Nema but the new, mean Nema was there too often. But Emma didn't worry about it too much and she had her best friends Hannah, Elle and Isi to help when Nema got mean. And she could get really mean …

But it's Christmas,
thought Emma.
I shouldn't think about that now. Who knows? Maybe Nema will come back from holidays and be nice. What I really need to think about is the message on that green with red stars present!

Christmas messages were another Jacks family tradition—from the Swedish side—where instead of the cards on the Christmas presents just saying, for example, ‘Happy Christmas, Em! Love Mum and Dad', there would be a clue as to what the present was. It added to the excitement as people tried to guess. Needless to say, Emma had looked at the messages and one in particular was driving her crazy: the message on the green with red stars present.

What did it mean? It was really irritating Emma that she couldn't work it out. After all, she was the leading code-cracker in the under-twelve division of international spy agency,
SHINE
.

Emma had been so successful in her missions against evil agency
SHADOW
that she was the leader in the
SHINE
Shining Stars Spy of the Year competition. But it was very close—EJ had earned an amazing 1660 points since her polar mission, but one of her best spy-buddies, CC12, had 1600—who was going to win Spy of the Year?

Not me at this rate!
thought Emma.
I can't even crack my own Christmas present message!

She didn't know it yet but she would soon be concentrating on a much more important message. Evil agency
SHADOW
was working on a plan that would ruin a lot of people's Christmas.

It was two days before Christmas and one day before Christmas Eve and Swedish Christmas! Emma had gone with her mum to Grandma's house for some final planning for Christmas lunch.

Emma loved her grandma and grandpa and, while she loved the big family dinners, she also loved spending time with them alone, having them all to herself. Sometimes she would sit in her grandpa's study and help him sort out his film collection while they chatted. Then they would go out to a café and have hot chocolates and grandpa would pretend he wouldn't be able to eat a piece of cake and then eat two. Sometimes she would help her grandma sort through her earrings, or her silver, it didn't really matter what, and they would talk. Talk about what Emma had done at school, what she had done at gym, and some of the problems she had. Her grandma was particularly good at mean-girl problems. She would tell Emma stories about girls when she was at school—it seemed there were mean girls in the olden days too! Today was nice too, just Emma, her mum and grandma, sitting at the kitchen table going through the final, final shopping list.

Grandma put down her pen. ‘Do you know, I think we're finished. So I think we need a girls' trip to see the Delia Stones' Christmas windows.' She smiled at Emma. ‘I know someone has been dying to see them and I want to see the beautiful diamond collection they have on display.'

‘You do?' asked Emma's mum. ‘Since when?'

For as long as Emma could remember, Delia Stones, the big department store in the city, transformed the twelve large windows at the front of the store into a Christmas story every December. One year it was the nativity; one year the twelve days of Christmas; one year a popular children's book. It changed every year but it was always wonderful, with each window a scene with moving models and lights. And every year Emma and her family would go to see the windows.

‘We can't go without the boys!' exclaimed Emma.

‘Heavens no! We can go and look at them properly all together later,' reassured Grandma. ‘I just thought we might take a little sneak peek at those diamonds. The boys wouldn't want to see them anyway. It will be a girls' secret.'

‘I read about the diamonds in the paper,' said Emma. ‘This year the theme of the window is “The Sparkle of Christmas” and the Aurora Collection, the largest private collection of diamonds in the world, is on view.'

‘Yes,' said Grandma. ‘And did you know that it will also be auctioned to raise money for a new family services house?'

‘No,' replied Emma. ‘Someone is giving away their diamonds?'

‘How do you know so much about this?' asked Emma's mum, looking, Emma noticed, at Grandma rather suspiciously.

‘Oh, I don't know,' said Grandma, looking rather pointedly at Emma's mum. ‘Now, Emma dear, will you pop the kettle on please?'

Emma got up from the table and went over to the stove. As she looked back, she saw Grandma lean towards Mum and say quietly, ‘I just took a bit of a shine to the whole thing.'

Emma's mum smiled at Grandma.

Shine? Emma's ears pricked up at that. She looked back at the kettle, hoping they didn't realise she had heard. She didn't think they did.

‘Mum,' whispered Emma's mum, ‘you're supposed to be retired.'

‘Oh,' laughed Grandma. ‘Anyway, so are you!'

‘What do you mean?' replied Mum. ‘I am!'

‘Oh really? What about flying my granddaughter to outer space?'

‘Oh that,' said Emma's mum.

‘Yes, that,' replied Grandma with a smile. ‘Emma, my darling, let's not worry about tea. Let's get into the city!'

Emma's head was still spinning as the three of them walked to the bus stop. Had Emma heard correctly? Was her grandma also a
SHINE
agent?

The city was bustling as people rushed to get their last minute Christmas shopping done. Buskers played Christmas carols and shop assistants wore Santa hats. It was hot, sticky and crowded but exciting and the crowds and the excitement increased as they approached Delia Stones Department Store. Not surprisingly, the biggest crowd was gathered to see the Aurora Collection. There were also three security guards around the collection, one inside the window and two outside. Emma could see why—there were so many diamonds, large and small. They were stacked in a sparking, glittering tower. Everyone in the crowd seemed struck dumb by the number and the beauty of the jewels. Everyone, Emma noticed, except Grandma.

‘Hmmm,' said Grandma, peering at the diamonds over her reading glasses.

Then Emma heard a noise.

 

Piinngg!

 

Emma quickly took out her phone but was surprised to not see an indigo mission alert flash. She was sure it was a mission ping she had heard. She looked around her. There were people everywhere—might there be another
SHINE
agent here? Emma's thoughts were interrupted.

‘Oh dear, look at the time!' said Grandma. ‘I've just remembered that I have an appointment.'

‘You have?' asked Mum, giving her mum a suspicious look. ‘Where exactly?'

‘Silly me,' said Grandma. ‘I'm meeting someone in the store … for tea!'

Emma's mum didn't look convinced. ‘Okay, Mum, but be careful,' she said.

‘Oh darling, thank you but why do I need to be careful having a cup of tea?' laughed Grandma. ‘Goodness, your mum is a worrier!' she said to Emma, giving her a big hug. Emma loved the smell of grandma hugs, she wasn't sure if it was her perfume or just her but it smelt lovely and safe.

‘See you both tomorrow,' cried Grandma as she hurried into Delia Stones.

‘Let's head off too, Em,' said Mum, taking Emma's hand. ‘But maybe first an ice-cream?'

Emma was happy with that plan. She and her mum walked slowly back to the bus stop, licking on ice-creams, looking in windows and chatting. And it was only one more sleep until Christmas Eve! Emma could not have been happier. She smiled all the way home. She was so happy she almost hugged her brother, Bob, when she walked in. Almost.

‘You were at Delia Stones and you didn't go to Christmas Wonderland?' asked Bob, incredulous. ‘Are you insane?'

Christmas Wonderland was an indoor Christmas fun park that had been built right next to Delia Stones. It had opened on the first of December and would close on Christmas Eve after a grand parade. Bob had been dying to go but her father, of course wouldn't dream of it.

‘It's all snow and wintertime—how ridiculous! Here, in the middle of summer! Very suspicious, if you ask me. Why would anyone want to go?'

‘Because it is seriously cool,' suggested Bob. ‘Because there are awesome rides like the Chimney Drop and the Santa Express and a Snow Slide!'

Emma didn't like admitting it but Bob was right. Christmas Wonderland seemed very cool—particularly in a hot December.

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