Those of you who are writers will know that sometimes thoughts come to you, and you’re not sure what to do with them except just write them out and see what happens. This is one of those times. I would like this to be my present to you, but I can’t be so bold to assume such a thing.
One, maybe two questions at the end. I hope the story bothers you.
A girl sat in one of four bedrooms in what was the biggest house she had ever set foot in through all of her short years. Had it been daytime, she would have been even more impressed than she already was. Had it been daytime, she would have been shivering a little less, but she pulled the faded blanket around her bony shoulders as tightly as she could.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “Daddy will be back soon, and then we’ll be warmer. And maybe we’ll have something to eat, too.” The worn and ripped version of Raggedy Ann answered back, “Okay, Theresa,” in a voice that sounded much like that of the girl holding the doll. It smiled too, one of the few smiles that Theresa knew. She held the doll in front of her, its arms to the side and black eyes looking back, even the ripped one. Like a marionette, it walked in small circles and hopped from one of her knees to the other as she sat cross-legged against the wall between two windows.
On the other side of those windows was a full moon, but not a regular one. It was the kind of full moon from storybooks, like when a train runs into town on rusted, abandoned tracks and takes kids to the North Pole, or the kind when shadows of tall trees morph into mythical creatures. In most houses, that full moon threw itself through the glass, making shadows and producing light strong enough to read a book, but not in this house, not in the biggest house Theresa had ever entered. It’s windows were covered, boarded up to keep out not just the full moon, not just the midday sun, but to keep out the eyes of those who knew nobody was supposed to be inside this house or any in this neighborhood that dried up when the banks crashed and the builders fled.
Raggedy Ann was still dancing when footsteps reached the top of the steps and Theresa smiled greatly for her father’s return. She was wrong, but she still smiled.
“Hello there,” she said to the stranger who didn’t seem as surprised as she was.
“Hello,” he said, nearly whispering. “You here alone?”
“Daddy will be back soon, but you can stay if you want. I didn’t know you had a key to our house.” Raggedy Ann continued, now walking instead of dancing along jeans that were a little too big for the girl and were last worn by a boy whose mother couldn’t figure out how they disappeared from a dryer in an apartment complex laundry room.
The man, much older than both she and her father combined, eased into the room, checking corners and hallways as if something might be hiding. Despite most of his face hidden by puffs of white hair, mustache, and years of a beard, she welcomed him like an old friend.
“Do you live in one of the other houses here?” she asked.
“Uh, no. No, I don’t.”
“Where do you live?”
“Oh, far from here. Very far.”
“Then why are you here? I thought maybe you were a nice neighbor who came to say ‘hi’ to the new people.”
“Well,” the old man’s massive gut got in the way as he attempted to sit cross-legged like the girl, “you are partly right. I saw you going into this house, and I just thought maybe you needed help, being it was just the two of you.”
Her head tilted with curiosity, much like a puppy, as she studied his eyes that seemed to reflect the moon that wasn’t coming through the covered window. “What made you think we needed help?”
He studied her eyes equally but differently. “You speak very well for such a little girl, but you seem too young to go to school yet.”
“I don’t go to school because Daddy is still trying to decide what school is the best for me.”
“How did you learn to speak so well?” the old man shifted his legs, unable to keep them folded, and leaned against the wall as his tree-trunk legs stretched out before him.
“My dad. He used to be a teacher.” Raggedy Ann picked up the pace, closer to dancing but not quite.
“Used to be?”
“Yes, but then he said that the other teachers were not very nice to the children, so he left school.”
“What does he do now?”
“He teaches me. And we look for food and places to go. I’ve been to almost all fifty-one states.”
“Yes. Daddy says that Washington DC will be a state someday, so he taught me to be ahead of everyone else.”
“Well,” the old man cocked his ear towards the steps he had come up, then turned back to the girl, “you certainly are ahead of everyone else. What’s your name?”
“Theresa, but Ann calls me Terri.”
“Who is Ann?” She turned the doll towards the old man and made it wave to him, and he smiled and nodded to Ann. “Oh, that’s right. I should have known.”
“What’s your name?”
“My name,” he scratched at his dirty white beard, “some people call me Nick.”
“Nice to meet you, Nick. What’s your last name?”
“Cross?” She tilted her head again. “That can be good or bad.”
“How do you mean?”
“Cross can be good, like the cross that Jesus was on, like a crucifix. Or it could mean cross like mad or angry.” Raggedy Ann stopped and turned to the man again. “Which one are you?”
He was taken by the surprise question. “I hope the good one, but we all have days when we don’t feel quite so good, right?”
“Right, but I cough a lot at night, and it keeps Daddy awake sometimes. I don’t usually sleep well because of the cough. So those are my days when I don’t feel so good. Which is really every day.”
It was his turn to cock his head like a puppy. “But I haven’t heard you cough once the whole time I have been here.” The doll stopped again somewhere in the middle of his response, and she slowly looked up, eyebrows twitching.
“Hey,” she said. “You’re right. That’s weird. Very weird.” With each short sentence, her head turned from the doll to the old man and back again. Each time, her hair, dirty but brushed into a ponytail, shivered back and forth.
“You must be hungry,” Nick said. “What did you have for dinner tonight?”
“Daddy’s bringing back dinner. Most nights we have squirrels. Daddy says there are too many squirrels around and we need to help get rid of them.” She looked up at him again. “Did you know that almost every attic has squirrels hiding in it?”
“No, I did not know that. How do you know that?”
“Daddy told me. He’s been in a lot of houses, trying to find the right one for us.” She stood and allowed Raggedy Ann to fly around the room, dancing in the air as if on an invisible floor as she was careful not to step on Nick’s outstretched legs as he watched and admired her.
“Are you always this nice to strangers?” he asked, his right hand searching his jacket pocket for something.
“No, but I don’t feel like you’re a stranger. I feel like I know you already.”
“I am quite sure we have never met before, not that I know of.”
“Then maybe I’ve seen you before?”
“Probably, that’s probably it.”
“Usually I’m nice to someone unless I have a reason not to be nice. You didn’t come in here and try to take my doll. You just came in and acted all nice, so I acted nice too.”
“You’re a very smart girl,” Nick said, “but you still have to be smarter. It isn’t good for strangers to walk into your house.”
“Well,” her voice dropped a bit, “this isn’t really our house yet. Daddy likes it, but he’s going to get permission for us to stay here.”
“Who gives permission for that?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me that part.”
“Do you know where he went?” asked the old man, again looking towards the stairs.
“Will he be gone long?”
“I don’t know.” She looked up from her doll, letting it fall between her ankles in her still cross-legged position. “Why do you ask?”
“Because a little girl like you should not be alone for a long time.”
“Well, because it’s,” he wavered between smiling and not, “well, what if something happened?”
“Like if you fell and hurt yourself. Who would help you?”
“Daddy would.” She nodded, satisfied with her answer.
“But he’s not here.”
“But he will be back.”
“I know but,” the old man struggled with words, “I mean, let’s say that you – or if someone were to.” He struggled further until he realized there was no defense against innocence. “Maybe I should go look for him.”
“I’m sure he’d be glad to meet you,” she said, standing and brushing sawdust from her pants. “I’ll go with you.”
“No, you should stay here. It’s very cold outside. I won’t be gone long.”
“Okay.” She returned to the floor and returned her attention to the doll. “But it’s not much fun here without my dad. We play lots of games.”
“You tell me about that when I get back,” the old man said. As he slipped into the darkness of the hallway from whence he came, he could hear her cough begin again. He walked faster.
How much time passed from when the old man left to when her father returned cannot be known, but Theresa was not happy when she sat up.
“Dad,” she said. “That’s not very safe.” In the middle of the bedroom was a metal, five-gallon bucket. Inside was a yellow-orange glow with faint smoke rising.
“I know Sweetie, but we have to keep you warm.” Her father arranged several twigs, added a few more, and held his hands over the small fire. He brought the bucket closer to her, but immediately she began to cough. He pulled it slightly away.
“I got some medicine, but you need to take it with water. I didn’t want to leave you alone for so long, but I had to find medicine for you. I’ll go get some water now.”
“I wasn’t alone the whole time,” she croaked, still sleepy.
“No. A nice old man came to visit.”
“I have to get you some water, honey. Stay there and don’t get up. Tell me about the old man when I get back.”
As her coughs echoed, so did his footsteps as he descended the stairs before opening and closing the solid front door, though it was less solid than when they first found the empty house. Not long after, footsteps returned, but more slowly this time.
“Hi, Nick.” She let go a string of weak wheezes as if fighting for air.
“Cough came back?” he said.
“Dad is getting some water so I can take some medicine. See,” she pointed to a small, white and red box, her hand unsteady as she continued to cough. He ignored the box but instead focused on her face, now more visible in the glow of the fire. Her sunken eyes, never fully open, stood out most. He watched as her dry, peeling lips sometimes stuck together as she spoke. He waved his hand near the fire, and it slightly intensified. Then he looked back to her face.
“How did you do that?” she whispered, eyes ready.
“Make the fire get bigger. Can you do magic?”
“No, no,” he smiled. “I just fanned a little more oxygen on it.”
“What’s ox-uh-gin?” she asked, then coughed and gagged slightly.
“Just a fancy word for air, what you’re breathing, or what you’re trying to breathe. Maybe your dad should take you to a doctor.” Before he finished, she slumped back to the floor, eyes staring blankly.
“Nah, he says we don’t have money for that.” She closed her eyes and pulled her doll and the blanket closer to her chest. “What did you say your name was?”
“Nick.” He reached into his pocket. “Here. Let’s take that medicine now.” He opened a bottle of something clear, then opened the package and removed two tablets.
“I’m not good with taking pills,” she said. “They usually get stuck in my throat.”
“Here’s what I want you to do. Hold one tablet between your teeth. Like this.” He demonstrated with the cap from the small bottle. “Then put the bottle to your lips. Take a mouthful. Then tilt your head back, open your teeth, let the tablet fall into the water, and just swallow it all down.”
“I don’t know if I can do all that,” she said weakly.
“But you can try. Go ahead.”
She did, and she did well. “Eww. That tastes gross.”
“This is for grown up’s, not kids, so it makes sense you wouldn’t like the taste. If you were older you would have to take two tablets, but kids can get away with just one.”
“What happens if I take two? Maybe I’ll get better faster.”
“Possible. More likely you’ll just fall asleep for a long time. Or your body won’t like it, and you’ll just regurgitate.”
“Throwing up. Puking.”
“Sure, it’s bad. Why?”
“I throw up all the time. Dad says my stomach does it when I eat something bad.”
“Probably right,” said the old man. With the fire’s glow, Theresa could see him better too. His hair was longer and curlier than she originally thought. He wore what seemed like a cloak-like blanket around him held by a belt. In the semi-darkness, it seemed black to her, but she wasn’t sure. Hers eyes locked on the buckle.
“Oh, oh dear,” he said. He stood, unbuckled his belt, and removed the thick blanket. Then he draped it over her small frame. “I forgot all about this. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I like my blanket, but it’s not very warm. What color is this?”
“That’s not a color,” she smiled, eyes still closed.
“It might not be a color, but it’s important.”
He watched as her body shifted, and he could tell she was close to asleep until a string of coughs startled her awake again. With one strong hand he reached and petted her head, feeling the matted hair that hadn’t been washed in weeks. With the other strong hand, he raised the bottle from which she had drunk and noticed a slight reddish tinge steeping through the liquid.
“Do you know what today is?” he asked.
“Yes. December twenty-fourth.”
“Does that day mean anything to you?”
“Yes.” Her voice softened. “It’s the day before Jesus’ birthday.”
“Yes,” he said. “Anything else?”
Her mouth moved slightly, but before she could speak, her breathing slowed, as did her heart, and she drifted to a softer place.
Not long after, her father returned with an aluminum beer can filled with icy water. His hands were nearly numb after having cupped enough handfuls of snow long enough to melt them, letting it drip into the can for her to take the medicine he had stolen from a pharmacy roughly a mile away.
The fire in the bucket had gone out. Next to the bucket was Theresa’s blanket. Neatly wrapped inside was her Raggedy Ann doll, still smiling, but its one ripped eye was now mended. He crouched down, picked up the doll and the blanket, and brought them to his face as if to hide in them. His body shook with great sobs, as great as could be with what little strength he had left.
He fell to the floor, curled and rolled until resting with his back against the wall between the boarded up windows, right where he first left Theresa. With his face still in the blanket, he felt a hand on his head and looked up to see a stocky, old man. Theresa did not know how to interpret the puffy beard and cheeks or the gentle smile, but had her father been less distraught, he would have had a better idea of who it might be. As Theresa had also seen, the old man was wrapped in a thick cloak with a belt around the middle. The cloak appeared to be black, but it was hard to tell in the darkness.
“Why?” he asked. “Why did you take her? I had medicine, and water. You could have given me a chance.”
Somewhere far, but not too far, a clock chimed midnight.
“Couldn’t you just bring her a coat, or some food, something to keep her going?”
“I am sorry,” the old man said. He turned and began to walk towards the stairs.
Through tears, the father said, “Couldn’t you just bring a present, like every other kid gets?”
The old man stopped, turned again, and approached the father, still on the floor.
“Stand up, my son.” The man stood but wearily, with fewer tears than if he had not been so dehydrated. “This was my present, but it was my present to you, so that you would not have to watch her suffer so helplessly.”
The man fell forward, crying against the old man’s chest.
“But what do I do now?”
“You do the same thing you have done all along.” He pulled the father away so he could see his eyes. “You do your best. And you think about her every chance you get. Because there will be a day when you will see her again. And if you don’t think about her often enough – she will know. If you believe in anything, then believe she will know.”
The father fell again towards the old man’s chest and again sobbed more than ever. The old man guided him towards the wall again between the two boarded windows and eased him to the floor. The man instinctively hugged his daughter’s blanket and doll, and there he cried until crying himself to sleep.
In the morning, as the sun pried through the sides of the window boards, he awoke. He was still holding the doll and blanket. Nearby was an empty bottle that had spilled out on the floor and a metal bucket in which a fire had long gone cold.
As he attempted to stand, he realized that there was an extra thick blanket around him, the same one that the old man had put around Theresa. As his eyes adjusted to the morning, he held up the blanket and admired its weight and softness. And he smiled, because it was not black as he thought earlier. No, it was not at all black. Its color was much more appropriate for the day that it was.
Question 1. There should be at least two possibilities, maybe three, who the old man was. Who do you think it was? Feel free to offer more than one suggestion.
Question 2: It should be clear that the father and daughter have been homeless for a long time. Does it matter why? Is it good enough just “that” they are homeless?