The small girl shuffled down the street. She’d sold all her candies for the day, and had just enough money after the day’s sales to buy a day old cinnamon roll after she’d paid what was owed to Big Miss at the Center. She rubbed her dirty hands together for warmth and in excitement. Her stomach growled noisily. She hurried to the corner cafe.
As the door chime rang out, the clerk looked up from the paper he’d been reading. A smile softened his face as he saw the child enter.
“Georgina! How are you?”
The girl smiled shyly and cleared her throat. “I’m good, Mr. Brent. I need to use the loo, is that ok?”
“Go right ahead. I have a special treat for you when you come back.”
Georgina scurried down the corridor to the restroom. While washing her hands, she studied her reflection in the mirror. Her dirty blond hair was passably clean, but messy, so she tried her best to tidy it. This accomplished she gave her face a cursory scrub and tossed her paper towel in the bin on her way out.
Brent handed the girl a big cup of cocoa, complete with whipped cream and even a muffin to eat. Georgina’s eyes grew wide in surprise.
“Oh, Mr. Brent, thank you! But I can’t pay you for this, I don’t have enough money!” A deflated expression settled on her face.
“Georgina, no need to worry! It’s Christmas! My gift to you, little one.” He smiled at her and turned to go back to the counter.
Christmas? What was Christmas? She wondered while she nibbled her muffin and sipped her cocoa. It seemed like something she should know but the memory was elusive. She looked around the cafe. Did Christmas have something to do with all the evergreen boughs she’d seen strewn around? And the music that had been piping relentlessly from storefronts?
Georgina sat for a long time, savoring the rare treats she’d been given. Mr. Brent had given her the food as a gift… a long forgotten memory drifted in the back of her mind. Gifts. Christmas was about gifts. And… family? Did Georgina have a family? It was so hard for her to remember. She vaguely recalled the sensation of warm fur, strong arms and a deep, rumbly voice. Her father? She must be remembering wrong. People don’t have fur. He must have had a beard. Or maybe a fur coat. But where was he now? Why was she all alone?
“Georgina, kiddo, isn’t it about time you headed back to the Center?” Brent’s voice was mellow, soft, and kind, but startled Georgina from her reverie nonetheless. She looked at the clock on the wall. It was nearly five; if she wanted to avoid trouble she’d have to run to get back.
“Oh, thank you Mr. Brent! I didn’t know it was so late!” She wrapped her too-large coat around her and hurried to the door. “Thank you again for the cocoa. And the muffin. I do have to run, I have to be back before it’s too dark or Big Miss will be angry. G’bye!”
“Goodnight, Georgina. It shouldn’t be too dark, it’s nearly a full moon out. Take care of yourself. And Merry Christmas!”
Rushing back down the street toward the Center, Georgina overheard someone saying that Christmas was only three days away. Now that she’d become aware of the holiday, it seemed to permeate the air around her. A child yelled something about a person named Santa just as Georgina passed him and her mind filled with the color red and the sound of bells. She didn’t have time to process these memories as they surfaced, because she had arrived at the massive oak door of Miss Maloney’s Center for Unwanted Children. Georgina pulled the door open just wide enough to slip inside, where she promptly bumped into the ample bulk of Big Miss.
“Watch where you’re going, you little wretch!” the woman snapped. Georgina leapt back, apologizing.
“I’m so sorry, Miss. I didn’t see you, it won’t happen again.” She began to reach into her pocket to bring out her earnings from the day’s sales.
“See that it doesn’t. Have you got my money?”
Georgina nodded and handed the woman what she had. Big Miss counted the bills and coins, and handed the child a single dollar back.
“But Miss…. oh thank you, Miss.” The child’s eyes grew wide. A whole dollar?
Big Miss smirked. “Hmph. It’s not from me, kid. Miss Maloney herself ordered that you all get a pittance for Christmas.”
Georgina didn’t know what a pittance was, but she did know not to press her luck by sticking around Big Miss longer than necessary. She scurried up to the girl’s dormitory and ran to her bunk. Amy, a little older than Georgina, was sitting on her own bed and looking at a ragged piece of paper with a sad expression on her face.
“Hey, Georgie. D’ye hear about Lisbeth?” When Georgina shook her head, Amy went on. “She was taken away today. A lady came and wanted her and she adopted her.” Amy began to cry. Most of the children in the center were transient, and either ran away or were adopted within a few months. Whether they were adopted into loving families or adopted as servants was not the concern of the management, though the children speculated amongst themselves. Amy was one of the few children who’d been at the Center for more than two years. She had a weak leg which made it hard for her to work, and her plain looks and thin face didn’t make her stand out particularly well when potential families came around.
“Oh,” was the only thing Georgina could think to say. She didn’t really know what she was supposed to do when people started crying. She herself had only arrived at the center a few weeks before, and she didn’t remember much of her life before that. The child stuffed her dollar into a hole in her mattress and hurried down to the mess hall. If you missed supper, there was no more food until morning, and that was usually thin, salty porridge.
There were a few boys clustered together near the fireplace when Georgina entered the hall. She sat down near enough that she could hear their mumblings. More about this Santa Claus. After a moment Georgina gathered that the boys were arguing about whether Santa would find them in the Center or not, but they would put their stockings out on their beds come Christmas Eve just in case. This puzzled Georgina greatly; she didn’t understand what socks might have to do with Christmas. She finished her stew, which had by some miracle had actual meat in it, took her bowl to the kitchen and trudged upstairs for bed.
Amy seemed to be done crying and had fallen asleep on top of her bed. Georgina picked up the paper Amy had been looking at. It was a letter from someone named “Mommy” and said that she was sorry but she’d be back before too long. From the look of it, Amy had read and folded this paper countless times. Gently setting the paper back on top of the sleeping girl, Georgina climbed into her own bed to think. Darkness enveloped her, and eventually someone came in and lit the fire in the fireplace at the end of the long room. Georgina heard the last few girls come in and the squeak of bedsprings as they settled themselves. A few whispers, then silence. There were only seven, no, six girls now, since Lisbeth was gone. It was quiet, even as one of the oldest girls began to snore softly. Georgina was evidently the youngest, though she couldn’t remember exactly how old she was. She was certainly the smallest. She lay for a long time, trying to remember anything about her life before the Center. A few flashes of memory, about running through the snow with someone. She must have been much smaller then, because the ground seemed closer. Warm, crackling fires. The rumbling male voice that must be her father. Eventually the snippets of memory faded into snippets of dream, and the child slept.
When the girls woke the next morning, a thick blanket of snow covered the ground. The Center was not permitted to send the children outdoors on such days (rumors of children freezing to death in the snow had forced the policy), so they were confined to the Mess Hall. Despite the fact that Big Miss brought in a tub of tarnished silver for every pair of children, giving out rags for polishing, there was a jovial air about the place. Some of the boys started singing a song about a reindeer with a red nose, though they didn’t get far before the cook came in from the kitchen and scolded them to silence. There were whispers about Santa, gifts, wistful tales about the family they hoped would come and take them to a warm and cozy home. Some kids remembered the families they’d been born to, and told stories about mothers or fathers or grandparents. Eventually a boy named Donnie, who was sitting near Georgina, leaned over to her.
“Hey, kid. What you askin’ Santa for?”
The girl blinked. “Me? Why should I ask him for anything?”
Donnie laughed. “You for real? Cuz the man brings stuff to kids who’s good.” He shook his head at Georgina’s perplexity.
“Oh. I dunno. What would you ask for?”
“Eh, probly a mom. Maybe a penknife so’s I can make sumpin’ to sell. Make some coin, get outta here afore Big Miss can take it all.”
The girl paused in her silver polishing and looked at him. “Oh. I guess I’d ask him to make me remember then.”
“Remember what?” Donnie bent over the platter in front of him, but glanced at her, slightly puzzled.
“Everything. Where I was before this. Where I came from.”
Donnie looked down again. “You kinda weird, ya know?”
Georgina didn’t know what to say to that, so she kept quiet and Donnie didn’t talk to her any more.
The children were sent out to sell their wares (usually candy, though some of the older kids were given mittens or scarves to sell), as the snow had at least been cleared from the streets. Big Miss slammed the door behind them as they scattered.
Georgina wandered about, offering candy to the women with children because they were most likely to buy it. Today she had peppermints, and one little boy squealed with delight when his mother bought him one. It seemed that more people were rushing around than usual, but maybe that had to do with Christmas. One of the big girls had explained to the smallest kids that people in families buy presents for each other for Christmas, so they have to buy them before the day arrives. Georgina thought that sounded nice. She had sold about half of her candy when she spied a storefront with a tiny baker doll in the window display. Walking closer, she thought it would be a lovely gift for Mr. Brent, if she could afford it. He was always so kind to her. True, she needed a new sweater, but her old one was warm enough for now. Georgina entered the store, her precious dollar clutched in her hand. The young lady clerk smiled at her and told her that the doll was ninety cents. Georgina lit up when she bought it, thanking the lady and returning to the street with a smile on her face.
The next hours dragged by as Georgina wished her candy would sell faster so she could take the gift to Mr. Brent. At last there was only one piece left. They were ten cents each, so Georgina put her remaining dime in the money pouch and savored the peppermint as she walked to the cafe. She was so excited to see Mr. Brent that she hardly noticed how hungry she was.
The bell over the door rang, and Brent welcomed her as usual. Suddenly shy, Georgina stuffed her hands into her pockets and withdrew his gift. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Brent. I thought you might like this.”
As he opened the small parcel, his smile broadened. “Oh, Georgina. Thank you. I think he will live right here, on the shelf, and watch me bake.”
The little girl grinned as she watched Brent place the doll on a shelf above the counter, and she started toward the door.
“Wait, Georgina! I was hoping you’d come in today. I have an extra cookie for you.” With a smile, he handed her a sugar cookie as big as her hand. It was frosted to look like a large bearded man in a red suit.
“Thanks, Mr. Brent. Is this Santa?”
“Of course!” Brent replied, with a small chuckle. “You’d better scoot though, it’s nearly dark. I’d hate for you to get in trouble on Christmas Eve!”
“Oh, thank you Mr. Brent. Have a good Christmas!” She hurried out the door, his “Merry Christmas” following her into the chilly air. The sun was nearly set, and the moon had not yet risen. In spite of the happiness that infused her entire being, something seemed to prickle the back of her neck. She was suddenly very eager and anxious to get back to the Center. Georgina ate her cookie as she hurried down the streets, finishing just before she arrived in front of the great doors. A boy named Mike got there just after her and opened the door to bring them both in from the cold evening. As usual, Big Miss was waiting just inside for her money. Mike handed his over first but got a lecture about not having sold everything again. Georgina deposited her own earnings into Big Miss’s doughy hand and rushed off to the Mess Hall.
As the evening progressed, Georgina felt more anxious and uncomfortable. The creeping feeling was strangely familiar but not at all comforting. The girl began to feel ill and frightened. After picking at her supper of boiled chicken and unidentifiable limp vegetables, she went upstairs to bed. Nobody else was in the dormitory, and she changed into her nightgown and crawled under the covers until not even her head poked out. Her skin felt prickly and goose-pimply. She wasn’t cold, but she was shivering violently. A shaft of moonlight from the full, white face of the moon peeked in the window and fell across her blanket. With one final shudder, she squeezed her eyes shut and was finally able to force her little body into peace and sleep.
Some time later, she woke. She smelled the smoke from the fireplace. Somehow, Georgina could even smell the other girls in their beds. They smelled warm and salty-sweet and alive. Her brain tried briefly to question the fact that she could smell these things tonight when she couldn’t remember smelling them before, but the inability to remember seemed to be her lot in life and the thoughts drifted away. She pushed her nose out from her blankets. There was someone else in the room. She sniffed. A man? He smelled like… soot. And large animals. Reindeer? Something else. Sweets. Peppermint and gingerbread? She wriggled further out from the covers, a soft whine working its way out.
The man whirled around. His sparkling eyes caught sight of the pup on the bed, caught in a nightdress.
“Georgina! Sweet child! I wondered where you had gotten to.” He strode to her and scooped her up in his big arms, tucking her tail beneath her and gently scratching her head. “Your Da has so been worried about you. He has hardly been able to keep guard of the reindeer. Let’s go home, little one. You’ve got quite a story to tell, I’m sure, but now, you rest. The story can wait.”
The deep rumbly voice was familiar, comforting, and soon the little girl was asleep. She hardly noticed when she was placed in a sledge and wrapped in a quilt at the man’s feet. Georgina’s dreams were filled with jingling bells, snorting reindeer, and her father’s warm embrace.