Toni pulled his long legs up to his chin, as he sat on the window sill. He liked to watch the sun wake up the city, reflecting like a thousand beacons on the glass panes of the high risers. A flock of pigeons fluttered from one fire escape to the other.
“I’m hungry,” whispered Tisha, dragging her tattered favorite blanket across the bare floor.
“Here’s some toast and milk.” Toni brushed a curl from her eyes. “It’s Christmas, and I have a surprise for you.”
Her eyes lit up. “A surprise?”
He helped her find her sneakers and coat, and they hurried down the stairwells, into the crisp winter air and freshly-fallen snow.
As they passed the dumpster, Toni peeked inside out of habit. “Hey, I found a princess sleigh!” He pulled out a shopping cart, with a plastic liner. It had one wobbly wheel, but that didn’t matter.
“That’s not a sleigh,” said Tisha.
Lifting his little sister into the basket, he shouted, “Fly away, my Lady!” There was hardly anyone on the sidewalks, already edged with dirtied snow. Tisha squealed as they whizzed block after block.
Toni stopped to catch his breath. Chimes from a nearby church rang through the morning air. Tisha asked, “Can we go look at the Baby Jesus?” Up close, the figures looked much taller and faker. Tisha touched the hands of the plastic baby.
They peered into one store window after another, looking at the displays of Santas and toy trains. Toni started a favorite game. “I spy a little doll with a blue dotted dress.” When Tisha found the item, she would spy one for Toni.
At the park. Tisha gasped at the wide expanse of white snow. At one of the stone arched bridges, Toni stopped and lifted Tisha out. She looked down at the crystal stream gurgling beneath them.
Toni dug out his little bent harmonica and began playing Christmas Carols. Tisha didn’t know the words, so she swayed and pirouetted in time to the music, pretending she was a princess. An older couple walked by and dropped some coins into Toni’s hat.
“Thank you,” Tisha called after them.
There weren’t many people in the park today either. After playing for an hour, Toni said, “Let’s go sledding!” He pushed her cart up and down the pathways until he found just the right spot. Stopping at the top of a hill, he lifted Tisha out and pulled out the plastic liner.
“Come,” he said, “Sit on my lap.” With a yell and a whoop, they swished down the sparkling slope, again and again until they were tired and wet.
Continuing around the park, they came upon a woman, wearing a man’s hat and overcoat. She sat on a bench tossing cracker crumbs at her feet. Dozens of birds and squirrels surrounded her, some even eating out of her hand.
“Hello,” said Tisha. “Can I feed them too?”
The woman smiled a one-toothed grin and patted the bench next to her. She poured some crumbs into Tisha’s hand. She giggled when a little chickadee landed on her finger.
Toni shivered in the cool breeze. “Let’s go, Tisha.”
“Can we give her a quarter?” she whispered in his ear.
Dropping the coin in the lady’s hand, she said, “Merry Christmas!”
Sitting in her sleigh again, she asked, “Where are we going now, Toni?”
“We’re off to the royal dining hall!”
After buying some big sweet rolls and cups of steaming chocolate at Pete’s bakery, cheaper because Toni worked for him, they rattled back toward home.
Looking once more in the dumpster, Toni found a branch of a fir tree.
“Look, Tisha, a Christmas tree!” He dug around and found some shiny foil and a magazine. Leaning way over he wiggled his fingers to get one more thing.
Climbing up the dingy, crumbling stairs, they hurried past walls decorated with graffiti and yelling voices behind locked doors. Toni was glad for their little room on the sixth floor, away from the noise and grime.
Standing their little tree in a crack between the floor boards, they draped its needles with foil circles and a bright paper chain.
“Tisha, look at what else I found.”
“Oh, Toni, a real doll! Thank you; thank you!”
Later as night filled the room, they watched the foil reflect the blinking neon lights, and Tisha asked, “Toni, are we poor?”
“No, Tisha, we’re not poor. We have everything we need and each other.”
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