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The Christmas Gift

December 10, 2010

            Brittany watched the snowflakes hit the window and slowly melt, the meager heat from their apartment warming the glass just enough.  Snow was forming on the brick ledge, hiding its yellowed discoloration.  Below, cars drove through the storm on their way home, or to last minute shopping; their headlights illuminated the slick midnight of the pavement.
            Across the street, the neon from a bar flashed green and red.  Christmas colors reflected off the white that was beginning to cling to the few bare trees that hadn’t been knocked over by drunk drivers, or died from elm disease. 
            She wondered if her mother was in that bar.  It was a thought that curdled inside her stomach and mixed with all the other fears she carried with her everyday.
            In the dark of the night when God seemed more real she used to pray that her mom would get better.  That she would be the way she used to be, when daddy was still with them.  But her prayers went unanswered and a small part of her wondered if it was because she didn’t have enough faith.
            Brittany had a lot of things to be afraid of and her five-year old sister, Aspen, was one of them.  Behind her, Aspen was dancing in the living room with Brittany’s Barbie and humming a Christmas song.  The doll was one of the few gifts Brittany’s father had ever given her before he was gone from their lives.
            Brittany turned from the window, “we should get something to eat.”
            Aspen stopped dancing for a moment to look at Brittany with her large, innocent eyes, “I wanna wait for mom.”
            “Mom’s going to be late,” which wasn’t a lie.  Brittany was good at not telling direct lies.  “We can leave some for her.”
            Aspen thought about that for a moment, then nodded before resuming her twirl around the living room that was empty of everything but an old worn sofa with a blanket over it to cover the holes, a 13 inch color T.V. with a VCR, and the rusty twisted pipes of the hot water furnace that leaked lukewarm water into an old aluminum pie pan.  This year there wasn’t a Christmas tree; the ornaments remained hidden, but not forgotten, in the closet.
             Brittany went into the kitchen and pulled some ravioli’s out of the cupboard and removed the paper wrapper off of the can.  The bit of paper with the fat and jolly chef went into the trash.  She was good at keeping things clean.  It was important to keep things clean.  
             Sometimes she woke up early in the morning, her stomach burning, and she went to pick things up from the night before.  If there were a lot of cans or bottles, she’d take them to the trash before any of the neighbors woke up.
            She put the can directly on the one burner that worked on the stove.  It was one less dish to clean and saved the soap.  Brittany put the heat on low, but to be safe she watched it carefully so that it didn’t boil over and make a mess.
            When it was warm enough, she placed two bowls in the sink to keep the counter clean and carefully poured the contents.  She put more in her sister’s bowl.
            The people at school didn’t look twice at two skinny, waif-like girls, but if her sister complained of being hungry then the social workers might get involved.  Social workers haunted Brittany’s nightmares.  
            Brittany knew all about social workers.  Over-weight women, in clothing that didn’t fit right, smiling their fake smiles beneath shadowy, haunted eyes.  They came to the classrooms sometimes, or during recess, and they would whisper in a teacher’s ear and then a child’s name would be called.  The unfortunate boy or girl would leave with the social worker, looking back over their shoulder at their classmates with the horrified expression of the condemned.
            Sometimes the student came back to class.  Sometimes they didn’t.   Each time the social workers came to the school, Brittany wondered if they were coming for her.  She would keep her eyes down on her desk at her schoolwork hoping that they wouldn’t notice her.  
            She was good at not being noticed.  She kept to herself and didn’t make any trouble.  But it wasn’t enough.  She wished she was invisible then nothing bad would happen to her and no one could take her away from her sister.  But she wasn’t invisible and someday she was going to be noticed.
            That was why her sister scared her.  Aspen didn’t know about the social workers.  She believed everything the teachers told her, like the school resource officer was her friend.  The resource officer scared her as much as the social workers.  He was a big man with short, even hair and a smile that remind Brittany of the villains in the Disney movies that mom sometimes bought at the pawnshop.  Usually he wore intentionally casual clothes, as if the beige pants and flannel shirt could disguise the fact that he wore a uniform so blue that it looked black.
            Someday Aspen would say something to the teachers and then Brittany would be noticed and the social workers would come and take her from her mom.
            Aspen came to the table when Brittany called her.
            She seemed more interested in talking then eating as she drew close to the table.  “Do you know what tomorrow is?”
            “Eat your dinner.”
            Aspen made a face,  “Aren’t you excited ‘bout Christmas?  It’s the most wonderful day of the year.”  She breathed the last with dreamy enthusiasm.
            “It’s just a day.”
            “No it’s not.  My teacher said tonight Santa’s gonna come and bring presents to all the good kids an’ I’ve been good.”  Aspen said, her face glowing with excitement.
            Brittany concentrated on her ravioli, cutting the food into little pieces.  She couldn’t look at that face without imagining the disappointment she’d feel tomorrow.  Maybe there would be presents, last year there had been some, but Brittany had looked all over in the usual hiding places and she hadn’t found any.  She hoped her mom would come through.
            “What do ya think I’ll get?”
            “Don’t be foolish,” anger flaring because she was afraid, “there’s no Santa.”
            “There is too!” Aspen’s voice quivered,  “You just got to believe in him!  He won’t come unless you believe!  Take it back!”
            Brittany didn’t say anything.
            Aspen left the table in a rush.
            “Come back and eat.”
            “I’m not hungry.”  Aspen called back.
            That night, when her sister was asleep, Brittany found a scrap of wrapping paper from last year and wrapped her Barbie in it and then msde a tag out of a scrap of school paper wrote her sister’s name on it.  It was after midnight and her mom still wasn’t home yet.
            Sometimes mom brought a man home with her.   Brittany hated that.  She hoped her mom didn’t do that tonight.
            She set the wrapped doll by the window where her sister would see it in the morning.  Then checked the door to make sure it was locked before turning off all the lights except one for her mother to see by.
            Crawling into bed, she went to sleep wishing there really was a Santa Claus and dreading the morning.
            For once her sister was up before she was.  The excitement of Christmas was too much to keep her in bed.  Brittany got out of bed as her sister ran into the living room.  The sound of her small, bare feet on the floor stopped suddenly.
            Brittany left the bedroom and passed her mom’s bedroom to the sound of her sister tearing open the wrapping paper.  The door was slightly open and she saw her mom, still dressed, asleep on the bed.  She stepped into the living room.
            Aspen was facing the window, her tiny body silhouetted by the gray light of the early winter morning.  Tiny pieces of wrapping paper were strewn on the floor around her feet.
            She turned when Brittany enter the room, clutching the Barbie to her body, her lips quivered.  “This is your doll.”
            “Not anymore, it’s yours now.”
            Aspen looked helplessly around the room, tears started to trickle down her cheeks, “There’s nothin’ else.  He didn’ come.  He didn’ come.  Why didn’ he come?”  The last came out as a wail.
            Brittany didn’t answer.
            “I was good.  I believed.  He didn’ come.”  Her body shook.
            “It’s o.k.”  Brittany tried to comfort her sister.
            Aspen pushed her away, “he didn’ come because you didn’ believe.  He won’ come if you don’ believe.  It’s your fault!  It’s your fault!” 
            Aspen ran back to her bedroom, leaving Brittany to pick up the torn pieces of wrapping paper on the floor.

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