I want to wish all my readers (both of you) a very Merry Christmas and I hope you enjoy this last story of the year.
Penny Wilkes sat on her couch, waiting. She had taken the initiative to put on her pajamas, mostly out of routine, and she stared at Tinkerbell and her fairy friends until she thought they were dancing across the flannel. Despite her dress, Penny was not ready for bed, was not even sleepy. She had waited for this night and had planned accordingly—sleeping through the day, taking naps when she could force her eyes to close, even making and gulping down some of the instant coffee her mother kept in the freezer for guests, as she didn’t drink it herself.
Penny had to be awake when he came. She knew the rules, knew that Santa only came to the children on his “nice” list when they were asleep, but she didn’t know of any other children who had so urgent a need to speak to Santa as she did.
She got up off the couch, looking up at the clock as she did. It was just past two in the morning—her mother had taught her how to read a clock not even six months before—and she wondered how much longer it would be. She paced the floor, a habit she had also learned from her mother, who would follow the same track from wall to wall in the small living room, circling the couch like a racecar on a test drive while she chewed on her fingers and mumbled to herself. She thought that Penny could not hear her talk about the medical bills, about Penny’s father walking out on them, about her worries for Christmas, but Penny heard it all.
Now, with her own worries, Penny mimicked her mother’s actions precisely, if unconsciously, her tiny feet in their flannel footies scuffling across the floor with barely a sound as she chewed her own tiny fingers. The only thing she did not copy was the mumbling. Penny was a very deliberate girl and had thought of nothing in advance to mumble, so her lips remained closed in a tight line.
The house in Queens where Penny lived with her mother was small and, without a fireplace or chimney, she wasn’t quite sure how Santa would get in. Every trip around the couch she would look at the front door, at the curtained windows, at the stairs that led up to her mother’s room, at the back door past the kitchen, and then back to the front door, checking with each like a night watchman making rounds. On every fifth circuit, she rearranged the cookies she had placed on the coffee table and checked the temperature of the milk, sticking her finger in to see if it was still cold enough. She listened hard for any sign of his approach—sleigh bells, the click-clack of reindeer hooves on the roof, even a distant “Ho, ho, ho”, but she heard nothing other than the whisper of her feet on the carpet and the ticking of the wall clock.
When the fireplace appeared against one wall where none had been before, she almost walked by it without realizing what it was. She jumped, her feet catching on a half-second later than the rest of her, and she nearly stumbled to the floor. Strong hands wearing black leather gloves trimmed in gray fur reached out and caught her, helping her back to her feet.
Penny righted herself and looked up at the one who had helped her. Just as she had hoped, he was there, his suit dotted here and there with ash as though someone had sprinkled pepper on him. He looked down at her with a kind, but confused, expression on his bearded face.
“Penny,” Santa said, “you’re up awfully late.”
“I had to wait for you, Santa.” She said. The only reason she could get the words out over her nervousness, was that she had been practicing them every waking moment for three days. She knew, when the moment came, she would have to plead her case without error, without stumbling over the words.
Only now did she notice the velvet bag slung over his shoulder. Santa lowered it the floor with an audible sigh. “Funny thing about this bag,” he said, smiling. “No matter how much I take out of it, it never feels any lighter.” He stepped over to the couch, sat down, and browsed the cookies a moment before selecting an oatmeal raisin. He took a small bite and chewed slowly, closing his eyes to savor the morsel, then washed it down with a swallow of milk. When he was done, he looked at Penny and smiled.
“Excellent cookie,” he said. “Now, Penny, you know I’m not supposed to stop until you’re asleep, right?”
“So,” Santa asked, taking another bite of the cookie. “What’s a nice girl like you doing up at an hour like this?”
“It’s my momma,” Penny said. “Come upstairs and I’ll show you.”
Penny led Santa up the dark, narrow flight of stairs and along a short hallway to a closed door. She opened the door without knocking and led Santa into the room as she flipped on the light.
“There she is,” Penny said, pointing at the bed. “I need you to help her. She won’t wake up.”
Santa moved to the side of the bed and looked down at the figure before him. To a young girl like Penny, he supposed, she might look like she was sleeping, covered up in bed with her eyes closed. But Santa saw the pallor of her skin and the way the covers above her chest never moved. He took off one of his black gloves and felt the woman’s neck, finding no pulse beneath skin as cold as his backyard. Leaned over the bed, he saw the empty pill bottle still clutched in her hand.
“Make her wake up, Santa,” Penny said. “That’s all I want for Christmas. For my momma to wake up.”
Santa stood motionless for some time, tears sliding down over his red cheeks into his beard. He looked at Penny and saw the same tears running down her cheeks. Santa knew that, despite her age, she understood that her mother was gone, that he was her only hope of getting her back.
Yet, despite all the powers he possessed as Santa Claus, this was one gift he could not give.
He put his hand on Penny’s shoulder and led her out of the room as the girl burst into loud sobs. To Santa, it seemed like a dam bursting, all the fear and pain she had hidden behind her hope in him gushing out of her in a great flood of misery.
“No, Santa!” she wailed. “You have to help her! You have to make her wake up!”
Santa picked her up and carried her back down the stairs to the couch. There, he sat with her in his arms, rocking back and forth until her sobs, little by little, tapered off into quiet snuffling. In some part of his mind, he knew he was falling behind schedule, but nothing in the world—not the cookies or the reindeer or the gifts–mattered more to him in that moment than little Penny Wilkes.
Then, just when he thought he could do nothing for her, Santa had an idea.
“Penny,” he said, his voice gentle and low. “Penny, are you listening to me?”
She gave a loud snuffle and wiped her dripping nose with the sleeve of her pajamas. “Yes, Santa.”
He propped her up on his knee so he could look at her. “Penny, I’m afraid that not even I can wake up your mother. I’m very sorry.”
Penny looked as though she was about to break down again, but she took a deep, shuddering breath, closed her red-rimmed eyes, and nodded.
“But,” he said. “I do have another present for you. It won’t bring your mommy back, but you might like it. Do you want to see it?”
“I can open it now?” she asked.
“I insist,” Santa said. He moved her onto the couch and reached for his bag. Reaching inside, he rummaged around for some time before he found what he was looking for and, when he removed his hand, he held a wrapped present. He held it out to Penny and she took it, removing the bow and paper with care. When she opened the box, she saw a small, glittering snowglobe.
“It’s pretty,” Penny said.
“It’s more than pretty,” Santa said. “It’s magical.”
“What’s it do?”
Santa took the snowglobe from the box and stood it up on the coffee table. The snow inside shifted and swirled as though a blizzard raged within the glass sphere, revealing nothing of the scene within.
“I can’t tell you that,” Santa said. “Right now, you go to sleep and when you wake up in the morning, you’ll figure it out.”
“But I’m not sleepy,” Penny said, her wide eyes fixed on the snowglobe.
Santa reached into a pocket of his coat and pulled out a pinch of silver powder. He reached out and sprinkled it over Penny’s head. At once, her eyes grew heavy and closed. She leaned back against the couch and, a moment later, was softly snoring.
“Sleep now, Penny Wilkes,” Santa said as he moved to the fireplace. “And Merry Christmas.”
In a flash of light, both Santa and the fireplace were gone.
Penny woke on Christmas morning and saw from the light squeezing through the ice-crusted windows that the sun was up. She sat up on the couch, wiped her eyes, and looked around as she tried to remember what had happened. Only when she saw the snowglobe where Santa had left it on the coffee table did the pieces come together.
She picked up the snowglobe, surprised at how light it was in her tiny hands. The snow, still swirling inside, changed at her touch, the white flakes inside slowing until she could see an image begin to take shape within the glass sphere. As she watched, she saw a tiny figure that looked very much like her, dressed in her coat and boots, hat and gloves, opening a front door that looked very much like the one that stood only a few feet away from her.
Penny set the snowglobe back on the table and stared at it in wonder. No longer touching it, the snow swirled inside again, a miniature blizzard just inside the glass. With one tentative finger, she touched it again and gasped as the snow halted to reveal the same scene as before, the tiny version of her going out the door of the house.
She knew what she had to do now. She just didn’t know if she could.
With slow steps, Penny climbed the stairs, going first to her room. She dressed, putting on the dress her mother had gotten her for Christmas only a few weeks before. Then, she brushed her hair and teeth in the bathroom before going to the door to her mother’s room. She stopped there, afraid that if she went in, saw her mother still lying in the bed, that she would not be able to leave her behind, no matter what her magical snowglobe wanted her to do.
She opened the door and went inside.
The room was different than it had been the previous night. Instead of the piles of laundry that lay scattered like islands upon the floor, the room was clean. Light streamed in through the open curtains that had been shut the night before. Still, Penny saw none of this. Her eyes rested only on the empty, made bed before her. A piece of folded paper rested on the pillow where her mother’s cold head should have been and Penny picked it up, opened it, and read the two sentences written in a neat hand:
She will be taken care of.
Be brave, Penny.
At that moment, Penny did not want to be brave. She fell to her knees at the side of the bed and cried for her mother, now truly lost to her. She wailed, burying her face into the bed linens that still smelled of her mother’s perfume, and cried until she could summon no more tears. When she was done, she pulled herself to her feet and, without looking back, left the room, shutting the door behind her. The click of the door was drowned out by what sounded like a string, pulled taut like a piano wire, breaking in her heart.
Penny walked back downstairs and put on her coat, her boots, her hat and her gloves. Then, she picked up the snowglobe and, just like the tiny girl inside, opened the front door and stepped out into the snowy morning.
The sunlight reflecting off the snow was blinding, and as her eyes adjusted, she looked around for some sign of what she was supposed to do next. The street looked just as it always did, save for the new coat of snow upon the ground. A few people milled about outside the tightly packed buildings, some shoveling the snow, others playing in it. A few children near the corner gave Penny a quizzical look, wondering if she was coming out to play with them after being shut up inside for so long. A taxi cab passed by, leaving a slushy trail in the street.
Penny looked again at the snowglobe, pulling it so close that her nose touched the glass. When it did, the snow cleared again and showed the tiny girl inside entering the subway tunnel two blocks away, the one near the pizzeria her mother always took her to on her birthday.
Adjusting her scarf to keep out the cold, Penny walked down the steps to the sidewalk, the snowglobe cradled against her chest. The snow was past her ankles, but dry, the kind she would normally kick into the air as she walked just so she could see the sunlight reflecting off the tiny flakes. Now, though, setting off alone in the world with nothing but a snowglobe for company, she dragged her feet, turning back every few steps as her view of the house grew more narrow. Finally, at the corner, she could no longer see the house, just the outline of the front steps, and it felt as though another string broke in her heart.
She crossed through the slick intersection without another look back, checking for traffic and waiting for the signal as her mother had taught her. Traffic in either direction was light in this part of the city and especially so on Christmas morning. On the next block, she found it the same as her own—a few people working or playing, a passing car—and soon came to the subway entrance. The pizzeria was closed for the holiday, but the sight of it, the memories that flooded her mind as she gazed inside the darkened windows, nearly made her turn back and return to the house.
But her mother was not there, so Penny walked down the steps to the subway station. When she reached the bottom, she consulted the snowglobe again, removing one glove with her teeth to touch it with her bare fingers. Again, the snow parted and showed the girl swiping a card through an electronic reader at the gate, then walking through and getting on a train just as it arrived in the station.
Penny felt a moment of panic. Her mother had never given her a subway pass, preferring to take taxis whenever she had to travel any distance. Just as she was about to head back up the steps, she reached into her pocket and found a hard piece of plastic tucked inside. She pulled it out and, just like the girl in the snowglobe, swiped it through the reader. The gate opened for her just as she heard the approaching train rumble into the station, its brakes hissing like her mother’s tea kettle.
She moved across the platform and, when the doors to one of the cars opened, she stepped inside and found it empty except for a large black man, huddled in a heavy coat on the opposite end of the car. He wore dark sunglasses that reminded Penny of a movie she had watched with her mother about a guy who played piano, even though he was blind. Ray something, she thought.
The door of the car slid shut behind her and, with a jolt that nearly sent Penny tumbling onto the floor, the train started forward.
“Merry Christmas,” the black man said from the front of the car. He never looked at her, his face tilted toward the ceiling as though he was staring at the sun.
Penny said nothing; her mother had told her not to talk to strangers. Instead, she sat down on the seat furthest from the man and clutched the snowglobe to her chest.
“Not in the holiday spirit, eh?” the man said. “Can’t say I blame you. World’s a hard place.”
Penny did not look up at him, afraid that, even blind, he would continue to talk to her. To her relief, he said nothing more, only sat back staring at the same spot on the ceiling, rocking with the motion of the train as it sped beneath the New York streets.
The train passed by several stations, but did not stop. Penny saw them out the window, flashes of light and blurred faces breaking the monotony of the dark tunnels. In every station they passed, she looked for the blurred face of her mother, knowing she wouldn’t be there but hoping she would. She imagined herself stepping off the train into her mother’s arms, her mother healthy and happy, ready for them to be a family again.
Penny touched the snowglobe again, hoping the image in her head would appear within its snowy recesses, but instead she saw only herself exiting the train at the other end, near the blind man, and entering another station, a large sign reading Fifth Avenue on one wall.
She felt the train start to slow and stood up. She was wary of the large man, even blind, and she walked as quietly as she could the length of the car in the hopes that he would not hear her. If he did, he showed no sign of it and continued to look up at the ceiling, almost as though he was expecting something to happen there. Penny stayed on the side opposite from him, as close to the seats as possible, and moved into position to exit the car as soon as the doors opened.
The doors slid apart and, at the same time, the train came to a full stop, jolting Penny again. This time, the snowglobe slipped from her grasp. She gasped and reached for it, knowing in that moment she would never be able to catch it. Her eyes closed as she listened for the noise of shattered glass and broken dreams.
There was no smash of the snowglobe hitting the floor of the train. Even when Penny was sure it should have hit the ground, there was no sound of impact.
Penny opened her eyes and saw the snowglobe was whole and unbroken. A large hand, gloved fingers spread around the glass sphere, held the object a few inches above the ground. The blind man, kneeling in the floor beside her, his arm outstretched to its fullest length to catch the snowglobe, smiled and held it out to her.
Penny stood there for several seconds before she realized she wasn’t breathing. When at last she took a breath, a gasped “Thank You” came out, barely audible.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Can’t be too careful. Now, you go on before the door closes.”
Penny stepped out of the car and looked back at the blind man.
“You have a Merry Christmas, Penny,” he said to her just as the doors slid shut again. With another lurch, the train moved on to its next stop.
Penny touched the snowglobe again and saw herself walked up the steps to the outside. It wasn’t until the fourth step that she wondered how the blind man had known her name.
She found herself in a part of the city she didn’t recognize. Tall buildings stood on one side of her and a snow-covered park stood on the opposite side of the busy street. Kids played in the park, throwing snowballs and building snowmen and making snow angels. On her side, a steady stream of people walked in both directions, passing her as though she was an island in the center of a great river.
Penny touched the snowglobe again and this time it showed her entering a building with a green canopy stretching out over the sidewalk. Looking up, she could see the canopy half a block away and she started walking toward it, falling in line with the flow of people moving in that direction. The adults jostled her as their long strides carried them past her and the children, some tagging along at the heels of the adults, gave Penny interested looks as they struggled to keep up. Penny ignored them all, intent only on keeping hold of the snowglobe and reaching the building with the green canopy.
When she reached the correct building, she saw a doorman standing in the snow just outside the door. His face was lean and red from the cold, but when he saw Penny it broke into a warm smile.
“You must be Penny,” he said, bending down to address her at eye level. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“Expecting me?” Penny asked, her voice barely a whisper.
“Absolutely,” the doorman replied. “Please go on in.” He opened the glass door for her and half-pushed her through into a spacious lobby dominated by the biggest Christmas tree Penny had ever seen. It soared upward like the building itself, almost too tall to be believed, and was covered top to bottom with silvery lights that twinkled like stars.
Penny stared at the tree for sometime before realizing that she had no idea what to do next. She consulted the snowglobe, which showed her entering the elevator near where she was standing and pressing the topmost button on the panel inside. Penny did as the image showed, the doors of the elevator sliding open at her approach and closing as she pushed the appropriate button.
The elevator traveled for what seemed like, to Penny, days. When it finally stopped and the doors opened, she found herself facing a short hallway, at the end of which stood a single door on which hung a large wreath.
Penny touched the snowglobe again, but this time the blizzard inside did not clear to reveal the next step of her journey. She set it down in the elevator, stepped out, and watched the doors close before she heard the car descend. This, Penny realized, she would have to do alone.
Taking a deep breath, Penny padded down the hall and knocked on the door. She could smell the deep pine scent from the wreath. The smell reminded her of the cleaner her mother had used on their tile floors and it calmed her even as it reminded her of her loss. Still, wherever she was and whatever she was supposed to do there, the smell of the pine wreath made her sure that her mother approved.
The door opened and Penny saw two people inside, a man and a woman. They were both still wearing their pajamas, matching red flannel, and both looked as though they had been crying right before she had knocked on the door. They both stared at her, red-eyed and weary, as if they could not believe what was standing on their doorstep. Then, they stepped aside, an unspoken invitation.
Penny walked into a large, open apartment. The rooms she could see were decorated with the type of furniture—dark woods and soft fabrics—her mother always talked about wanting to have. A television, bigger than her old bed, dominated one wall in the living room above a lit fireplace. A massive kitchen stood off to one side, spotless and filled with stainless steel. On the far side of the apartment, large windows offered a spectacular view of Central Park and the city beyond. In one corner, a Christmas tree stood in the middle of a mountain of presents, more than she had ever seen in one place.
Then, Penny noticed the pictures. On the walls, on the tables, even on the mantle beneath the billboard-sized television, the young face of a girl, no older than herself, stared out at her. In some of them, she was alone, but in others, she was with the two people-obviously her parents—who still stood by the open front door staring at Penny. There she was with them at the Grand Canyon. There she was again with the Sydney Opera House in the background. There she was again, standing with her parents, the Eiffel Tower rising up behind them.
Penny picked up one of the pictures from a nearby end table. The girl wore a school uniform with a backpack slung over her shoulder. She smiled into the camera with two missing front teeth.
The man and woman shut the door, but continued to stare at Penny.
“Where is she?” Penny asked, holding out the photograph of the girl.
Instead of answering, the couple exchanged glances. The woman buried her face in her hands and began to sob quietly. The man led his wife to the couch and sat her down.
“That’s our daughter,” the man explained. “Jillian. She . . . she died last week.”
When he spoke, the woman cried harder and he put his arm around her.
Penny put the picture down, ashamed she had asked. She turned away from the crying lady and looked at the Christmas tree. Now that she was closer, she saw the tags on the packages, the name “Jillian” on nearly every one. Presents for a girl who would never open them. Penny knelt before the tree and, feeling the sting of her own loss mirrored in the woman behind her, began to cry herself.
Two pairs of strong arms lifted her from the floor.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” the man said. “She had been sick a long time.”
Penny shook her head. “No,” she said through her tears, “My mother . . . .”
They all cried for some time, each suffering from his or her own loss, each feeling the others’ pain. Finally, when they could cry no more, they sat before the Christmas tree and looked at each other.
“What’s your name?” the man asked.
“Penny.” She thought of giving her last name, but, with her mother gone, her family name didn’t seem to matter.
“I’m Max,” the man said.
“And I’m Susan,” the woman said, still wiping her eyes.
Penny, remembering her manners, shook their hands. Then she stood up and went back to the window. She looked out over snow-covered park and at the tiny people and cars milling about.
“Penny,” Max said. “Would you like to stay with us tonight? We . . . we would love to have you.”
Penny looked out over the city. She thought about Santa and her mother and these new people in her life and how she came to be with them. She thought about the snowglobe.
“Yes,” she said. “I think I would like that.”