by Jan Fenimore
(Rio Rancho, NM, USA)
The weak winter sun slid past the horizon and with darkness came the bitter cold. Tiny flakes of snow fell from a heavy sky, touching the girl's cheeks. The eleven-year-old blew on her hands and stamped her feet, numb from the cold. She wished for the gloves her grandmother had knitted for her but, in moving from one foster home to another, she had lost them long ago.
She had been standing on this city street since early this Christmas Eve morning when her latest foster dad had dropped her off.
"Here is your basket full of lighters," he growled, giving her a push out the car door. "With all these Christmas shoppers milling about, the basket should be empty in no time. Save enough coins so you can call me to pick you up. Don't bother calling until the basket is empty."
A corner newsstand caught her eye and she staked claim nearby. Perhaps people stopping to buy a magazine or newspaper would see her and buy a lighter. Cheap little things, they lasted for only a couple of smokes. But fewer and fewer people smoked these days. Sales had been poor. She had sold only enough to buy a hot dog at noon and a candy bar before the newsstand closed.
The girl had no money left to call for a ride home and, besides, the basket heaped with lighters. She thought of her foster dad's gruff manner and how he yelled at her and made her feel useless. Her foster mom was no better. A woman, who sipped hidden liquor bottles as she moved from room to room, had no affection for her. The girl rubbed her cheek, remembering a stinging slap for chores undone. She didn't want to go back there.
If only Grams had lived, she thought. I could still be with her and we could care for each other. Left with her grandmother at age three, she had no memory of her parents. All that remained was a photo of them smiling at their new born daughter. They must have loved her. She touched the picture safely tucked away in her pants pocket.
Something in a store window caught her eye. She looked closer. On the top rung of a display sat a crystal cat like the one in Gram's collection. Had Gram been here this Christmas, this cat, an exact copy, would be under their tree.
A price tag of $2.50 hung from the curled tail. If she could sell just one lighter the cat would be hers, something to remind her of Grams. She noticed a young man on the corner, struggling to get his lighter to work.
"Mister," she said. "These lighters work just fine and I'll sell you two for $3.00."
"Sounds good to me," he said. "I'm in a hurry and you've saved me some time. Here's your $3.00 and thanks. Merry Christmas."
The girl smiled, happy for the quick sale. The holiday greeting meant nothing to her, not without Grams.
She hurried into the store, just as the owner counted out his cash register.
"Oh, please, mister. May I buy the crystal cat in your window?" she asked, showing him the cash.
"Well," he said, clearing his throat. "You've caught me just in time. Five more minutes and the lights would have been out. A gift for someone special?"
"Yes, very special," she said.
Outside in the cold, she clutched the small box. She decided to walk. With several blocks behind her, she stopped at an alley, dark except for a light shining above a green door. Below the light stood a woman wrapped in bundles of clothing, trying to light wet paper in a trash barrel. The woman struck match after match with no luck. She hung her head, looking defeated.
"I have a whole basket of lighters. Maybe they can get a fire going," the girl said, pushing her basket under the woman's drooping head.
The woman looked at her through dull eyes. "They won't do no good either. Everything's too wet. I just wanted to warm my hands and feet. I can't feel them no more."
"Me neither," the girl said. "But we need something dry to burn. Those trash bags against the building might have some. Would you mind holding the lighters while I look?" The girl handed them to the woman, not waiting for an answer. She stuffed the box with the crystal cat deep into her pants pocket and pawed through the bags.
Within minutes, her arms overflowed with paper, small cardboard boxes and straw used for packaging.
"Look at this," said the girl. "We'll have a bonfire going soon."
She dumped it all in the barrel and took the lighters back. Soon, a roaring blaze danced in the darkness. The two held their hands near the flames, rubbing them back to warmth.
A smile crept onto the old woman's face and a spark of something familiar touched the young girl. She looks like my Grams. But the vision disappeared as the fire sputtered and went out, drowned by heavier snowflakes and a gust of wind.
"Now, what'll we do?" the old woman whined. "I knew it was too good to last. Just like everything good in my life. Too good to last."
"We'll start again, that's what," said the girl. "We just need more dry stuff."
Rummaging through the bags once again, the girl found more paper and some wooden slats used to protect something for shipping. These will burn even longer. But, with the heavier snow and the swirling wind, it took longer to get the fire going. She used lighter after lighter, throwing them on the ground once they lost their flames. The dark, shiny lighters sparkled on the white ground like discarded precious jewels.
The flames won the battle for the moment and sparks jumped in the air like a fireworks display. She looked at the old woman closely then, noticing her long gray hair crawling out from beneath her cap and the deep lines etched in her face. She wondered why the old woman lived on the streets.
"What do you see when you look into the flames?" the girl asked, encouraging the woman with her own vision. "I see a room with a fireplace and a Christmas tree decorated with twinkling lights. Reminds me of home with my Grandma."
"I had a home once," the old woman sighed. "And a small granddaughter to love, but her drug-dealing parents took her back and I found myself living on the streets." The words drifted into the fading embers.
"I don't know if I can find anything else to burn," said the girl.
"Well, try little darlin'. We don't want to freeze to death tonight, not on Christmas Eve." The woman grabbed the basket with lighters this time, eager to help in some way.
The girl searched the bags and found barely enough to get the fire going. They would have to move on after this. Glancing in the basket, she could see only a few lighters left. How could they survive this storm with no heat?
As the flames leapt toward the sky the visions in the little girl's head seemed more real than ever. The old woman was Grams. They sat in their home on Christmas Eve opening their modest gifts. The little girl pulled the box from her pocket. She opened the lid and held the crystal cat near the light of the fire.
"This is for you, Grams. You have your crystal cat again. I'm so happy I found it for you."
A smile lit up the old woman's face, melting away lines of sadness. She took the crystal cat, then stroked the girl's cold cheek. The old woman's touch warmed the girl, banishing the last of the icy cold. She reached out to hug the old woman. This vision was real. She had her Grams back.
No one missed the two that night or any other night. They had no one in the world to miss them. But they could be somewhere . . . anywhere, hovering over a small fire.
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