One Christmas Story
He woke up. A small boy in a small bed. He looked around at the small, barren room he slept in, as he had done for the last three hundred sixty four mornings. A timid child by nature, he crawled quietly onto the floor; his bed mat lay only inches off of the filthy ground.
A little boy, he possessed more devastating memory than any weathered adult. His story was all too familiar, to him. The other boys he knew were all good boys too. Yet this morning, they were waking to warmth and comfort. It wasn't fair, spun the mental wording that wrapped around his mind every moment of every morning he awoke here. They wakened up to carpeted floors, bowls of sugary cereal and to an atmosphere of love and support.
Not him. He lived every day, even Christmas day in a leaking, basement apartment. He lived with a woman-mother-figure, but a woman with no sense of compassion. She held him no higher than the rodents that invaded his sleep each night. She wasn't his mother but she was the mother-type creature he was saddled with. For now. The boy often wondered what it was that kept them together. It wasn't any type of love. What miserable fate had brought them together?
He was so young and so capable of adult thought. He had no choice in that. His world held no base, no grounding. He was used to living morsel to morsel, day to day, but he was so damned young.
He drew back the tattered sheet blocking the streetlight from above the little broken kitchen window and stood there, looking out unseeing at the early morning sky. A sound of shuffling feet from behind him signalled her entrance into his thoughts. He dropped the curtain back into place and turned around, already bracing himself against the charges that were sure to come.
He was an ignorant, little beast she always said. He woke her up too early, she always said. She wrestled with the pantry door that sometimes stuck as he eased his way around her. He made for the shoes and ratty sweatshirt that constituted his winter attire as she spun around and scowled at him.
"Where do you think you're going?" she spat out, literally. And he recognized the hoarseness of her voice; the frazzled expression, lacking focus. She hadn't come home until this morning, he remembered. He recognized the contempt emanating from her very soul. He expected it. But he didn't recognize the voice calling her from her bedroom. The male gruffness, yes, he immediately knew, but the distinguishing aspects of it were foreign to him. He's new, thought the boy.
"I'm going outside to play," he replied, smiling to ease the tension and slipping his scrawny arms into the sleeves of the shirt.
"Oh, no you're not!" she slurred. "You're spending Christmas with me and...and...him!" She now flung her pointed fingers towards the bedroom door. He almost said, 'Who's him?' But experience with this woman had taught him better.
"Mr. Kowalchuk said he'd give us some turkey if I went early enough," he said instead, and she waved him away like she would an annoying insect. Mr. Kowalchuk was the grocer next door and he and his wife were kind and knowing. Every day the boy would stop in at their shop and every day he would be fed. At least once, for their own peace of mind. The old couple had taken to the little boy as soon as they had met him two years earlier. A foster child in a corner of a city overrun with foster children, the boy had been placed with 'that woman' as Mrs. Kowalchuk often referred to her, at the age of six. The Kowalchuks were the only loving, stable guardians that the boy, now eight going on nine years old, knew of in this life.
They fed him on the sly and sent him home with extra food to share with Margaret, his foster mother. And the boy was clever. He inherently knew not to mention all of the food and pocket money that he received each day from the pair, unbeknownst to Margaret and apart from the rations he brought to her. She showed leniency toward him, so long as there was something in it for her. Fresh bread, a pound of beef or a bag of potatoes would buy him a night of peace. The Kowalchuks knew this and so they, struggling to make ends meet themselves, provided the boy with his trade-offs.
They had children, grown now with children of their own but the boy occupied much of their thoughts. They loved him, simply. They would have helped him had he been any child but they truly loved him. They had seen other foster children come to and go from their neighbour's home over the years, but they had never become so attached to any of them like they were to this lonely boy.
Aiden, his name was, and he was clanging the door shut behind him as he now entered the little grocer's shop that spelled home to him.
"Mind you don't knock over that box of apples," Mrs. Kowalchuk checked him as she rounded the counter towards the shivering child. The snow on his shoes, full of holes, was already melting into a puddle where he stood on the rubber doormat.
"Come in! Come in, you're freezing!" She reprimanded him, but her eyes were full of tenderness as she moved behind him and pushed him by the shoulders into the back room. Not that he needed a guide, by now. He had automatically headed in that direction the moment she had touched him. This was the way to salvation. He honed in on the doorway leading to the shop's private quarters as though they were his own. The sight of jarred preserves and canned goods lining the shelves on either side of him acted like a salve on the deep rooted wounds that not even she could soothe.
The door was open. It always was and as they passed through from the shop to the cozy living area, he sub-consciously exhaled. This is where I always want to be, he thought. This is where I want to wake up on Christmas morning.
Once she had him seated on the worn sofa, Rosa Kowalchuk stood over him, looking down and asked (already knowing the answer), "Are you hungry?"
Of course the boy was hungry, but tradition dictated that the question be put forth. "I'm starving, Rosa," he answered truthfully and to this she said, almost to herself, 'I know you are, dear.'
She left him then, shrugging himself out of his hooded, gray sweatshirt and went to the oven. On the stove the kettle was already boiling and after handing him a cup of weak tea she resumed her position in the kitchen while he curled his legs up and under him, and sipped from the cup.
"So," she started, "How long can you stay?" He was openly relishing the warmth of the hot drink within his laced fingers and he cocked his head to the side for a moment before answering, "I think for a while. She has a friend over."
Rosa began to angrily beat the eggs in the bowl but her voice was calm when she asked him, "Did you meet him? Is he nice?"
Aiden responded, "No, I didn't meet him. I think he's new."
Rosa's first instinct was to curse the woman to hell but instead she replied, "Hmm." For the boy was here, she thought, safe and sound and would be as long as she could keep him. For that she was thankful. "Did you tell her you'd be off to get some turkey from us like Mr. Kowalchuk told you to?" she asked.
"Yep!" he said, grinning.
"Good boy," she told him as she flipped his omelette.
Five minutes later the boy was at the kitchen table, shovelling in his breakfast when Mr. Kowalchuk made his appearance, sleepy-eyed and yawning. "Did you leave any for me?" he chuckled as he patted the boy's head and sat down beside him.
"Nope," Aiden quipped, "You slept too late," and he resumed the devouring of his meal.
The old couple exchanged peaceful glances before Rosa, getting up from her chair said quietly to her husband, "He's here for a while yet," and took her empty cup to the sink. As she began to make a second batch of breakfast her husband remarked to the child beside him, "You've got a week off school, Aiden. Would you like to help me in the store over the holidays?"
Thomas Kowalchuk had been waiting for this opportunity for months. Waiting and planning. He was well aware of the boy's 'mother's' habits and tendencies. He knew very well that the boy would be malnourished to the point of fatality if it weren't for him and his wife and he knew, too, that the boy reciprocated the heartfelt feeling they had for him. If Aiden could manage to be with them, even just during business hours this Christmas, perhaps it could be a start. Perhaps it could be the first step in securing what he and his wife had been talking about for the longest time; custody of the boy.
He looked now to Aiden, the child's fork held mid-air and his mouth full of egg, toast and happiness, and reiterated, "Well? Do you want to work here for the Christmas break or not? You'll be a paid employee, mind you, and Margaret will still get her tidbits out of the deal, although that'll be counted with your meals here and out of your wages."
He could have offered the boy the world itself and not gotten a more grateful or enthusiastic response. "Yes!" Aiden exclaimed, after swallowing. "If Margaret lets me," he ended sombrely.
"You just leave Margaret to me, boy, and wipe your face for god's sake," Thomas said, handing the child a napkin. His voice was stern but his heart was full. Margaret would pose no significant problem. Not if he had anything to say about it. And he planned to say a lot.
As Rosa placed the old man's plate in front of him, she grasped his forearm briefly and smiled down on her husband. With his large, strong hand sheltering the delicate bones of hers, he returned the smile, though twice as wide and nodded at the boy who as usual, was taking it all in with adoration in his eyes.
To Be Continued...