Sunday, December 4, 2011

Footprints in the Snow

By Jennifer McMurrain

Julie swept her daughter up and wept into the child’s soft blonde hair.

“Mommy?” The child’s bottom lip quivered.

“It’s ok, honey. Mommy’s just having a moment.” She set the girl down and looked into her deep brown eyes. “Go get your pink suitcase and fill it with your favorite things. What doesn’t fit into the suitcase will have to stay here. Do you understand, baby?”

Emily shook her head. This wasn’t the first time they had to move and leave things behind. Julie bent and unplugged the Christmas tree. The first one they’d had since Emily was two. Maybe if they hadn’t bought the tree she could’ve paid the landlord some of what they owed. She sighed. It was too late now. The one at the shelter would have to do this Christmas Eve.

Over the next hour Julie gathered what she could fit into the old Ford she had driven since high school. Only the essentials got to come, mostly clothes and a couple of blankets so they wouldn’t have to use the heater and could save some on gas. Emily stood in the doorway of the tiny apartment, her pink suitcase in one hand and a ragged blonde doll in the other. “Good-bye Mrs. Stove. Good-bye Mr. Couch. Good-bye Ms. Fridgerator, thanks for all the food.”

Julie pulled her black coat closer to her body and crossed her arms trying to keep the chill out as she watched her daughter’s farewells. Emily did this every time they moved and for each piece of furniture she said good-bye to; the lump grew larger in Julie’s throat.

“I think I’ll miss you the most Mr. Christmas Tree.” Emily petted the small pine tree, covered in popcorn and red paper garlands.

Julie turned to hide the single tear that tracked down her cheek and cursed the landlord for throwing them out on Christmas Eve.

“I’m ready now, Mommy,” said Emily, lugging her suitcase to the car. “I hope the new owners are sweet to Ms. Fridgerator. She’s a good friend to have.”

Taking the little suitcase Julie kissed her daughter on the cheek. “It’ll be nice to get to the shelter and play with the other kids instead of furniture for change, won’t it, darling?”

“Yes, Mommy,” said Emily looking back through the window at the Christmas tree. “But I’ll miss Mr. Christmas Tree. He’s so new. I hope he doesn’t get lonely.”

Julie reached in the backseat. “I have a surprise for you.”

Emily squealed as Julie handed her a small angel made out of old silver wrapping paper. “It’s the angel from the tree!”

“We may not be able to fit Mr. Christmas Tree in the car, but she’s the most important part,” said Julie. “I thought you’d like to keep her.”

Emily smiled and nodded as she cradled the paper figure. “Can we go to the Lighthouse Shelter? They always have a tree. Maybe we can put her on their tree for the night?”

“Sure, baby,” said Julie as she put the car in drive. “I think they may have a special appearance by Santa, too.”

Emily’s eyes grew wide. “Really? I’ve never met Santa before.”

“Well, this could be your lucky night,” said Julie, smiling at her daughter. “Let’s go find out.”

The Lighthouse Shelter welcomed them with an electric candle in the window surrounded by white Christmas lights. Julie locked the car and shuffled her feet on the slick sidewalk to the front door. Emily copied, careful not to fall. A small ding in the back of the office announced their arrival as someone muttered a hasty, “Close the door!”

Looking around the lobby packed with people huddled in grey wool blankets, Julie’s heart sank. A small woman approached looking somber.

“I’m so sorry, but we’re full up tonight,” the small woman said. “The Fire Marshall won’t let us take in another single soul. But if you have a thermos I can give you some hot tomato soup to take with you.”

“Do you know if the other shelters are booked?” asked Julie.

The woman nodded. “I don’t know for sure, our phones are out. But it’s most likely that they are.”

Julie shook her head as she dug through her bag to find two Charlie Brown thermoses she had gotten at a garage sale for a dollar. She’d known the moment they walked through the door there was no room for them.

An hour later Julie sat in the parking lot of the local convenient store with her head on the steering wheel. They had been to every shelter in the city with no luck. Between the holiday and the weather there was not a bed to spare or gas voucher to be had. She stared at the fuel gage hugging the E and then looked at Emily asleep in the passenger seat. A knock at the window startled her.

A tall man with bushy black eyebrows glanced at the backseat as she rolled the window down a crack.

“Sorry lady, but you can’t squat in the parking lot. You’ve been sitting here for almost an hour, come in and buy something or move on.”

“Sir, do you know of any place we could stay tonight?” Julie asked. “All the shelters are full and I don’t believe we have enough gas to make it to the next town.”

The man furrowed his brow and looked at Emily. “No, I’m afraid not. Why don’t you two come in for a spell? I can’t give you any gas, but we can spare a cup of coffee and cocoa. You could warm up while you figure out what to do next.”

Julie nodded and rolled up the window. She woke Emily and led her into the store. As promised the man had a cup of coffee and cocoa sitting at the small booth in the corner. Julie said a quick thank you as she wrapped her hands around the steaming cup.

Emily took a small sip of her cocoa. “Mommy, how’s Santa going to find me if we keep moving around?”

Julie’s heart sank. There had been no money for presents this year, not even something small. Emily’s big brown eyes filled with sadness as her mother’s pause lengthened. Julie shook her head.

“Santa doesn’t need you to stay in one place, baby. He’ll find you.” She’d find a present for her little girl, if for no other reason than to try to hang onto her daughter’s innocence.

They stayed at the convenient store until the old man had to lock up. Julie thanked him again before heading to the car.

“I hope things work out for you and your young’un,” the man said as he locked the door behind them.

Julie drove down the highway and prayed they could make it to the next town. It was a bit smaller, but the Red Cross offices were there and they would find them some place warm to sleep. The old Ford began to slow.

“Come on only five miles to go,” Julie yelled at the car. “Please!”

The car continued to slow as Julie pulled onto the shoulder and once again laid her head on the steering wheel as the car let out one last sputter.

“Now what I am going to do?” Julie whispered. “It’s too cold to sleep in the car and we’re in the middle of no where.”

Emily tugged on her mother’s sleeve. “Mommy, should we go to that house and see if they’ll help us?”

Julie looked up and stared through the trees trying to see the house that Emily was pointing out. Just off the road, down in a valley, stood a little shack. Julie could barely make out a smoke stack. It would be a little tricky getting down the hill, but without some heat they wouldn’t make it through the night.

“Ready to go on an adventure, baby?” Julie asked. “Grab what you need for the night and we’ll go on a little snow hike.”

Emily grabbed her doll and the angel and shook her head. Julie zipped up Emily’s coat and tied her hood.

Taking a deep breath, Julie pulled the keys from the ignition and pulled her own hood up. “Here we go.”

The two huddled close as the picked their way down the hill, holding onto branches and bushes so they wouldn’t slip. Then they jogged across the snow covered valley to the little house. Right beside the front door sat enough firewood for the night.

Julie smiled as the front door slid open with only a groan of restraint. She hurried Emily inside, and then gathered the firewood and kindling. A box of long steamed matches and a kerosene lap sat on the windowsill beside the wood burning stove.

Lighting the lamp, Julie turned and started working on the fire as Emily surveyed their temporary shelter. She ran to the window on the opposite side of the stove and hung the silver angel on a small hook. “She might not have a tree, but this way she can still look over us.”

“Great idea, sweetie,” said Julie. The fire began to crackle and she motioned for Emily. “Come here, baby, and get warm. This beats that smelly old shelter, now we’ve got the warmest spots, without having to sleep on the floor.”

“And nobody’s gonna snore,” Emily said, giggling.

The black stove filled the one room shack with heat in no time and soon Julie and Emily were shedding their coats and shoes. Julie opened her duffle and pulled out a tattered copy of Twas the Night Before Christmas.

“Oh you brought it,” Emily squealed.

“Of course,” said Julie. “It’s not Christmas Eve until we’ve read this book. I could never leave it behind.”

After the story was finished, Julie and Emily sang every Christmas song they could remember, ending with a short jitterbug while Julie sang Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.

“Mommy, this has been the best Christmas Eve ever,” said Emily, sliding to the floor in front of the stove after their dance.

“Its late honey, you should go to bed.” Julie carried her daughter to the small cot in the corner and covered her with her coat. “I’m glad you’ve had fun. Sleep well, baby.”

She sat on the floor beside the bed and smoothed Emily’s hair away from her eyes. She stared at her daughter for a long time. As much fun as they had that night, there was a moment Julie was afraid they’d freeze to death in the car. She couldn’t let that happen again. In the morning they’d walk to the next town and call her parents. She hadn’t wanted to take their help before, but now she knew it would be the best thing for Emily. Julie felt the world lift off her shoulders, before gradually falling asleep.

“Mommy wake up its Christmas and Santa didn’t come!” cried Emily. “I must’ve been a bad girl.”

Julie looked around the room, trying to remember where they were. Soon it all flooded back and her eyes focused on her crying daughter.

“It’s ok, darling,” she said, hugging her daughter tightly. “I’m sure Santa just got lost. You’ve been a very good girl. Its ok sweetie, I promise Santa will be able to find you next year and you’ll have more gifts than you can count.”

As she rocked her little girl, Julie looked around the one room shack they had taken refuge in during the storm. The stove no longer popped, but remained hot and other than the cot and a small chair there was nothing that could pass as a child’s present.

Julie looked up at the small silver angel and silently prayed, “Please help her understand.”

A light tap at the door brought Julie back to reality. Her daughter jumped, “Are they going to kick us out?”

“Hush now,” said Julie as she opened the door. There at her feet lay a five gallon gas can and a colorful present with a note attached: “Sorry I was late. Love, Santa.”

Julie ran out to the porch, looking for the secret Santa, finding only footprints in the snow.

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