The Muldel family was not quite ready for Christmas, but here it was anyway. Theirs was a house of half finished projects at the best of times, but maybe especially this holiday season. Tommy was supposed to have cleaned up his toys, but he had gotten less than halfway through before Christmas came and he had new toys to scatter over the floor of his room and the loft. Chrissy had been trying to sort through her gadgets to decide which ones should go to electronics recycling, but now she had a new iPhone and a new iPod, with a new dancing Lady Gaga docking station alarm clock for the iPod, and manuals and cords were scattered all over her room.
The living room was always cluttered with of old books and magazines Mr. Muldel had been meaning to drop off at the library as donations, but the piles kept growing. For now, all that had been swept into a corner to make room for a live tree, and the tree itself was crowded over against the coffee table to clear the view to an enormous new flat panel TV. This was a gift to the whole family that Mr. Muldel had spent all afternoon unpacking and assembling and mounting on the wall. The tools and the directions were still lying out on the floor, of course.
In the kitchen, Mrs. Muldel had started packing away an old set of dishes earlier in the week, but somehow time had gotten away from her. Only half the dishes had made it into boxes and the other half were lined up on the floor by the hutch with the phone, forgotten for now. The Christmas dinner had been good, but its preparation was quite chaotic. Mrs. Muldel’s sister had called during a particularly delicate moment in the preparation of the turkey, when it needed to be pulled out of the oven and basted with two separate preparations of spices. In the process of trying to do this with the cordless phone tucked in the crook of her neck, Mrs. Muldel had scalded herself when hot turkey juices sloshed out of the tray. She had to drop the phone and douse her wrist with water. Ultimately, the burn was minor and the dinner was delicious.
It bothered them all that the house was such a mess, just not enough that anyone was willing to change. Mr. Muldel often thought that someday they would all die tripping over things if they needed to get out of the house quickly, in the event of the fire. But since he was no better, he had a hard time lecturing other members of his family on this point.
He wasn’t thinking about any of this on Christmas as he settled into his armchair, next to a pile of half sorted tax receipts, sipping spiked eggnog and watching a stupid but harmless Christmas special.
Mrs. Muldel found him there, snoring, after the kids had gone to bed. Having drunk a bit too much of the spiked eggnog herself, she looked at her husband as another mess she didn’t feel like cleaning up right now. Besides, he looked comfortable enough once she propped his bare feet up on the footstool. They lived in Florida, but she took a moment to tuck a blanket around him. She took off his glasses and put them on the coffee table, made a few adjustments to make things more cheery, and went up to bed.
Sometime after 2 a.m., Mr. Muldel started awake at the sound of crackling fire and saw that an entire wall of the room was covered in flames. He groped for his glasses but couldn’t find them. Gazing in horror on the blurry blaze, he yelled, “Fire, fire!” at the top of his lungs. Surely, the tree would catch too at any moment. Why wasn’t the alarm sounding? “Fire, fire!”
He lurched to his feet, tripped over a pile of tax receipts and fell headfirst into the box the new TV had come in. Recovering, he ran into the kitchen. “Fire, fire!” The damn smoke alarm went off every time he made bacon, so why wasn’t it sounding now? He slipped on a puddle of turkey grease, and he went sliding across the floor, like a base runner coming into third. He and smashed bare feet first into the stack of old dishes. Crash, bang, tinkle!
He grabbed for the phone to call 911 but found only the empty wireless base station sitting on the hutch (the phone itself was resting on the spice rack, but he didn’t know that).
Upstairs, Mrs. Muldel heard her husband sound the alarm, but she tripped over a laundry basket on the way to the bedroom door and came up with staticy socks clinging to her nightgown. Chrissy had fallen asleep with earphones in her ears and nearly strangled herself leaping to her feet because the cord was wrapped around the bedpost. She spun around, crashed into a pile of obsolete electronics and got to her feet with cords and power adapters dangling from every limb. Tommy tripped on tinker toys and Legos and crash landed in a battlefield of model space ships.
Meanwhile, Mr. Muldel had managed to grope around under the sink for the fire extinguisher, rush back into the living room, pull the pin, and spray for all he was worth. His family found him standing there, panting, at the end of a trail of blood left by the cuts in his feet. He had Styrofoam peanuts in his hair, he had drained the fire extinguisher, and the expression on his face was somewhere between triumphant and puzzled. The flames seemed to have disappeared, but he could still hear the crackle of fire. Mrs. Muldel silently crossed the room and handed him his glasses — which were the only thing that had been put away neatly, just not where he expected them to be.
As the world came into focus, Mr. Muldel saw that the family’s new flat screen TV was dripping with fire extinguisher foam, with real smoke rising from the wires. Mrs. Muldel picked up the remote and clicked off the virtual fireplace DVD she had left playing in a loop. The crackle of fire stopped sounding from the surround sound speakers, but in that same moment the smoke alarm went off.
As you might imagine, it was quite a while before anyone got back to bed that night. There was crying and yelling, and I’m sorry to say much cursing. First, they did pull the plugs from the electronics and wave old magazines (of which they had plenty) at the fire alarms to dissipate the smoke. Mr. Muldel bandaged up the cuts on his feet, which fortunately were minor, and Chrissy was nice enough to spray carpet cleaner on the rug and scrub until most of the blood stains faded away.
Over the next week, they began to see the humor of their situation, particularly once it became clear that the Sony warranty department was willing to replace their TV with few questions asked. They had reported, quite truthfully, that the wires had been smoking.
The family New Year’s resolution, of course, was to try to be neater. And although they wouldn’t win any Best Housekeeping awards, they’ve been doing much better.