The Gift

by D K Daniels

A young boy stood under the cover of a concrete canopy for shelter, with his feet burning raw, to the point his toes felt like rubber. Long periods of walking will do that to you. The fresh arctic sheet of snow and slush had soaked its way through the thin canvas of his shoes. The only sign of life along the deserted street came from a pair of tracks made from the kid through the snow. All that remained now was whether Max had any feeling left in his little legs. The boy could sense it, his limbs beginning to fail him. Never before has it been so cold that Max wished he could curl up and expire. Even huddling into your knees on the sidewalk on top of a spread cardboard box to die seemed fraught. Two days prior, Max recalled watching a news broadcast in a homeless shelter he'd frequent at the heart of St Clement. How the cold front was supposed to break, but unfortunately it didn't.

Except, for tonight, the child did not have the energy to make it much further. Even if the boy did, he certainly did not possess the money for a warm welcome and full belly. Max knew Reggie would not turn him away in a bitter storm. Yet, rightly so, Reggie has a couple of hundred people to take care of. Max met Reggie when the man was out canvassing for donations to support the local soup kitchen. The thirty-something or other offered him some insightful advice and that evening, Max checked himself into a shelter where the kid was fed; given a clean set of clothes, and Max's personal favourite… a hot shower.

The accumulation evolved multiple times over. It turned from snowflake to slush within twenty-four-hours and back to a small untouched heap of snowdrift. Above, the bleak December sky blanketed the city with an icy blackness, in the lightyears away, dead stars continued to glimmer in the distance. The frigid temperature cauterized Max's tired eyes and strung a weary face. A pale reflection refracted against a darkened shape looking at some cold glass. A red knitted beanie warmed the crisp picture in the representation. Except, the child's small fingers ceased having any feeling after the walk from the subway, six blocks back.

Inside the storefront window, Max scanned over a sleepy town nestled in a valley. Each red brick building brimmed with festive cheer and an abundance of fresh fake confetti snow sprinkled the thin crust of plywood roofs. The youngster let loose a ghost from his mouth and his chest deflated. The apparition floated off to the right and wafted throughout the sleepy neighbourhood under the streetlights until the warmth succumbed to the chilly December evening. I wish I had a home to live in, a warm bed to sleep, and a family who loves me, the child would ponder deeply.

Just, what Max did not count on, is at this morning hour, a ragged old man dragged on, equally tired and humiliated. The gentleman walked on with a shopping cart in front, and pretty much in his own world. In doing so, the guy passed by Max standing at the window without batting an eye. It was not until the man progressed a building and a half away that a flash of knowledge flooded his brain, and the bum stopped in his tracks. The guy would retort to himself silently… mumbling perhaps with wet chapped lips. 'Did I just see a little boy, or is it the whiskey.'

The down-and-out parried on the spot and pivoted over his shoulder. There beneath a concrete shelter by the craft store, a young boy, roughly ten glared back at him. Red and white light illuminated the child's face; leaving the burrow of his eyes cast in deep shadow. A glassy forlorn expression bestowed the kid's features, and for the first time all evening, Joe concluded that he should talk. It's not every day the man spoke to another human, but this seemed appropriate. What if the youngster were lost, Joe affirmed. Glancing up and down the length of the road, the homeless man looked for a sign of a parent. Reverting attention to the child, Joe scanned head to toe and made an assumption based on the way the kids' clothing appeared worn with little beads of tread and grubby from lack of wash.

Sceptically Joe persisted on the spot; Max glared back until Joe worked up the courage to say anything.

"Are you on your own?" Joe asked hesitantly.

Max returned his attention to the display, hoping that the man would walk off. Instead, Joe closed the distance between the two lost souls; dragging his trolley with a clinking and clanking collection of scrap metal and no other essential clutter. The man stood along next to the younger boy and sighed. A recent thought lingered on his mind. 'Is the boy homeless like I am?' Joe somehow found the understanding he needed without having to ask the child why he was out all alone at this freezing hour.

Joe took a moment, thinking to himself; how do I ask if he is okay? Then Joe assumed that he'd be able to fool the kid by asking if he is having trouble at home with his parents.

"Having a rough time at home?" Joe queried.

Max peered ahead, unsure what to say about the man's intrusion. The kid questioned why he was here in the first place. Why is the man asking me if I am having a difficult time at home? Even if I had one, I doubt I'd be out here at this time of year in the cold for the sake of it.

"No…" Max sighed.

Joe remained quiet and gazed in the window at the display and felt the calming effects of the village wash over him. For a moment, Joe wishes his life were like a dream in this window. A warm house to call his own, to start a family in. Joe looked down to the boy, who stared on forward. Deciding to cut the bullshit, Joe reflected on a time when he was a young lad. Once when things were comfortable, the man had a train set he had acquired from his parents one Christmas morning.

Joe wishes he'd had held onto the antique. Despite his run-in with the tax department some years ago. Joe sold the prized item for less than a week's worth of groceries for a family of four. Instead, the contribution to Joe's bank account did not satisfy the bankers. Yet, a few months later his house was repossessed by the bank, his mortgage was in arrears, and he owed a colossal sum to a vendor whose order of business cannot be spoken for in a legal manner.

Now Joe views his childhood nestled in a valley with a wintery wonderland surrounding it. Gosh, I miss my wife something awful. The fifty-year-old sensed a tear forming. Except, before the straggler can break free, Joe stifles the hollow emptiness by wiping the shame from an eye.

Solemnly Joe murmurs, "I used to have a train set like that."

The boy regarded Joe's statement before saying, "I've never had one before."

Max's background never amounted to much either. The kid has never remained in one foster parent's house for longer than a month; and if he did, it was because the folks who took him in were waiting for the slow upkeep from the child services to arrive. From a young age, the boy has lived out of a backpack, and the kid has gotten used to that lifestyle… living from a bag. Before Max ran away, the kid used to be a good student, achieved high grades, was affectionate, loved hugs and attention. But, now Max has closed himself off to adoration and never unpacks his belongings. The boy knows that he is not welcome in one place very long. So, as he saw it; what is the point of unhitching all his clothes; not that Max has many, but still… What is the point?

Silence fills the air between the two for a moment until Max pivoted up to Joe, "what are you doing out here all alone?" Max asked.

Gesturing with his hand, Joe indicated his clothing, "I am on my way home from a crazy party."

Max giggled knowingly. Who are you fooling, the kid retorted in a silent note to himself.

Joe peered down to the kid and smiled. It has been so long since I have talked to anyone, the man reflected deeply. Max's legs, however, gave out, and the kid fell toward the window. Extending his arms, Max plopped his palms to the windowpane and let a whimper out.

With genuine concern, Joe would ask, "are you okay?" While offering out a helping hand.

"I'm okay… it's just my legs are so cold," Max rattled, as his words gave life to the meaning.

"And where is it you're heading?" Joe asked, reaching out to support Max from falling.

"To a crazy party," Max chuckled.

Therefore, Joe gave his belly a happy dance too. The man glanced from the boy to his trolley and back to the boy. An idea formed, only just, however, he'd have to sacrifice some of his personal belongings. Everything the man owned was self-contained in that little basket.

"I know it's not the most ideal mode of transportation, but would you like me to wheel you to a shelter," Joe asked.

Max looked over at the contraption and his eyebrows arched. The kid could not afford to be prejudiced. Except, he who has nothing, offers all he has. When he who has everything, offers a pittance. The man seemed kind, and Max offered a meek grin, to where Joe offered a modest smile.

For the next couple of minutes, Joe set about emptying the cart out onto the street as the pair conversed quietly to one another.

"So, have you ever had Santa leave you a gift?" Joe enquired.

"No, maybe..."I don't know. I can't remember," Max replied.

The man scanned the boy's eyes for a sign of hindrance in his sincerity; yet established that Max's version of reality was inherently the truth.

"Climb on in," Joe announced when the cart had about enough room for a small person.

Joe watched on as the young boy scaled the side of the cart and tumbled down into the bottom of the basket. Joe's heart swelled in his chest at receiving the latest information on the boy. Santa ought to be present in all kids' lives. Children need something to believe in; it may not be what he had in mind all evening, but nonetheless, Joe set off from the craft store with a child in his cart. Both conversed for some time as Joe pushed rigidly; the effects were gruelling work. The man had not expected how hard it could be to drive his pushcart through the forlorn avenues.

After some time, Max would fall asleep, completely trusting of Joe's goodwill. Gazing down at the fragile life form now nestled around his sleeping bag in the trolley, Joe took pity on the outcome. Before long, an augmentation of light in the distances neared, and Joe reached the door of a busy shelter. Many folks had taken refuge that night, but Joe would not be one of them. What little cash the man had made from begging was coughed up to support a child in need. Joe took pride in this; his gift to the child. As no child should be without a gift on Christmas.

When Max awoke the next morning, Joe had left. With joy, Max sat up in his cot surrounded by many bustling people. In the corner of the room, a small Christmas tree had been erected the week earlier. Only, the child smiled because being this close to the festive spirit warmed his bones. The youngster scanned around for his friend; he was nowhere to be seen. Somewhere out there, in the icy-knee conditions, a man lay on a cardboard box dying; proud to comprehend that a child in unfortunate circumstances is celebrating Christmas. Because the way Joe looked at it, if the cold didn't get him first, cancer would.

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