(c) 1999, Rat
This was a super-quickie--it was written in less than an hour. Every year I think I won't be able to come up with another Christmas story, and every year a little idea punches me in the head less than a week before the day. Happy holidays from the Magespace, everyone!
“Come on, Emily—hurry up! We don’t want Santa to go hungry, do we?” Five-year-old Mike Brown exhorted, shifting impatiently from one leg to the other as he watched his four-year-old sister crossing the room, a glass of milk clutched tightly in both hands.
“I’m coming!” Emily assured him, her movements slow and deliberate. She knew that spilling the milk would be a tragedy indeed—Mama had said it was all they could spare, and there would be no more for Santa if this was wasted.
Across the room, in the shadows, Stella Brown and her older daughter, Hannah, watched the two children with expressions that varied between sadness and pity. Hannah was twelve and she knew the score, but like Stella there were just some things she couldn’t do—such as sharing the reality of that score with Emily and Mike. “What’cha gonna do, Mama?” Hannah whispered under her breath as the two little ones carefully placed the glass of milk on the rickety table next to the tiny threadbare tree.
Stella sighed. “You know as well as I do, honey...there’s nothin’ we can do. We don’t have the money for presents, not with me not workin’. I hate to do this to ‘em when they’re still this young, but I don’t have a choice. I’ll tell ‘em in the morning, I guess. Let ‘em have their Christmas Eve.”
Hannah nodded solemnly. Life had never been easy for them, but this last year had been worse than all the others combined. When Dad had been around there had been two incomes, but that hadn’t made up for the fights and the loud voices and the bruises she sometimes saw on Mama’s face. At least the four of them were together—and maybe after the first of the year Mama could find a decent job again. Until then they’d have to make do.
The room was small, rotting, dilapidated. They had been lucky to find it, a space in an abandoned building that had mostly been taken over by squatters like themselves. It was cold in the winter, oppressively hot in the summer, and the roof leaked in places. At night they could hear ominous creaking sounds and the far-off crashes of pieces of the building coming loose, as well as the sounds of arguments, fights, and sometimes gunshots through the thin walls. But at least they had a roof over their head, and that was more than some people had.
As the two of them continued to watch Mike and Emily arranging their offering to Santa, Stella smiled faintly at Hannah. “I did get ‘em one thing, though...want to see?”
Moving quietly (although it wouldn’t have made any difference since the little ones were lost in their fantasies) Stella went over to the old mattress where she and Hannah slept and fumbled under the thin blanket. Shielding her efforts with her body, she triumphantly held up her prizes for Hannah to see.
The girl’s eyes widened. “Real oranges? Mama, where’d you get those?”
Stella was pleased by her daughter’s reaction. “McMillan’s. I sold that thing those...men dropped last week to Roberto, and I had enough extra after the groceries to buy them. I figured the little ones needed somethin’ in their stockings at least.” She glanced over at their ‘stockings’: two frayed athletic socks affixed to the wall with thumbtacks. At the children’s insistence she had carefully lettered “MIKE” on one and “Emily” on the other.
Hannah shivered, remembering. It had only been a week since their little world had been turned upside down by the sound of gunfire, pounding feet, and screams of pain. They had huddled in the corner of the room—all of them had, even Mama—as the men had passed by. The frightening intruders had paused a moment, looked around the room for several moments and gone by: two men, one ork and one human, dressed in leathers and dark glasses and carrying frightening weapons. Hannah didn’t know how they could have missed the four of them crouching there—it wasn’t a very good hiding place, and Emily and Mike had a hard time being quiet—but somehow they had. For a moment Hannah had been sure one of the men had looked right into her eyes, and her blood had turned to ice. But then they had muttered something softly to each other and gone on, hurrying after their quarry. After a time the gunfire had resumed. Hannah and her family had remained in the corner, holding onto each other for comfort, for almost an hour after that; only when they ventured out into the room did Emily discover the item that had been dropped on their floor. Mama had snatched it away from her, telling her it was dangerous—which indeed it was, in the wrong hands. But apparently the discarded clip that still contained two unused bullets had been enough for Mama to parlay into a tiny windfall for her two youngest children on Christmas Day. It had almost been worth the fear.
Almost. “That’s...great, Mama.” She paused a moment, then slowly gave voice to the thing she’d been fearing all week: “You don’t...think they’ll be back, do you?”
Stella shook her head vigorously and took Hannah by the shoulders. “No, I do not. Hannah, love, those men were shadowrunners. They aren’t the kind who stay anywhere very long—’specially not someplace like this. They did their business, got out, and we’ll never see ‘em again. You mark my words.”
Hannah nodded. “So...they won’t want it back?”
“Nope. Don’t you worry, child. Everything’s gonna be fine. Now come on—let’s get Mike and Emily ready for bed.”
For once the two children did not object to being hustled off. “The sooner morning gets here, the sooner we can see what Santa brought,” Emily chirped as she snuggled up beneath the old army blanket on one side of a second mattress. “Do you think he’ll like the milk, Mama?” She was already sounding sleepy. On the other side of the bed, Mike was already beginning to drop off, trying desperately not to.
“I think he’ll love anything you give him,” Stella murmured, leaning over to kiss first Emily, then Mike goodnight. “That’s the way Santa is. Now go to sleep and remember that no matter what happens, your Mama loves you.”
“‘Night, Mama,” Mike said sleepily. “I hope Santa brings lotsa good stuff for you and Hannah too...” And then he was asleep.
Stella rose and looked at Hannah; there were tears glimmering in her eyes. Impulsively, Hannah gave her a hug. “It’ll be okay, Mama,” she whispered. “We all know you love us.”
“I know, child,” she whispered back. She looked at the table with the little tree—just a branch, really—meticulously decorated with pieces of shiny foil and bits of wrapping paper and one broken ornament the kids had rescued from a trash can, then at the chipped glass of milk sitting next to it. She closed her eyes. “I know...”
“Mama! Mama!” The excited voices of Mike and Emily struggled with each other for supremacy in the cold light of the early morning. “Look! Santa came! He came, Mama! Look!!”
Stella struggled to wakefulness as her two youngest children piled on top of her, tugging at her sleeve, urging her to a seated position. She allowed them to pull her up. “What—?”
Her jaw dropped.
The room had been transformed. The crooked branch had been replaced by a beautiful little tree brimming with tinsel and ornaments and a star on top; the milk was gone, and in its place was a plate of cookies shaped like reindeer and snowmen and Santas; instead of the two old athletic socks were four fuzzy red stockings, each one brimming with candy, two more oranges supplementing Stella’s two. But most incredible of all, the floor around the wooden crate where the tree sat was covered with presents. There had to be at least twenty of them, all wrapped in bright paper.
Stella stared. “But...how?”
The kids didn’t seem to care how. “It’s Santa! He was here! Mama, can we open them? Please, can we?”
Stella nodded numbly.
Needing no further invitation, Mike and Emily lit into the packages and soon wrapping paper was flying everywhere. Before they were finished, they had unwrapped an equal amount of toys and practical items such as warm coats, sweaters, socks, and boxes of food. There were things for each of the four of them; no one had been forgotten. The only odd thing was that the gifts were all labeled “From Santa,” and had no names for the recipients.
Again, Mike and Emily didn’t seem to be worried about such mundane concerns. Emily grinned triumphantly up at her mother from amid a pile of wrapping paper, clutching a rag doll and munching a cookie. “See, Mama? I told you he’d come! Santa wouldn’t forget us! He’d never forget us!”
“It certainly looks like you’re right, child,” Stella had to agree, looking down at the credstick in her hands. It wasn't a fortune, but it was enough to keep her little family going for a month or two if they were careful. Long enough for her to find work, if she was lucky. Under her breath, she murmured, “I just wish I knew how he got here...”
Unseen in the corner, Hannah sat up on her side of the mattress and smiled to herself as she watched her family and their unexpected booty. She ran a hand over the fuzzy arm of her new sweater and looked down at the locking diary in her lap, the kind with a tiny gold key. She knew the first thing she would write in it, later on that day when she could be alone for awhile: she would write about how she had awakened in the middle of the night and seen figures moving in the room. She would write about how she was afraid at first until she saw them placing shiny boxes under a strangely larger-looking tree. She would write about how one of them was big, like an ork, and the other smaller, like a human.
Mama had been wrong. Sometimes men like that did come back. But she wouldn’t tell, not ever.
Santa deserved to keep some of his secrets.
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