Gertrude couldn’t figure why she was having so much trouble walking down California Avenue. After all, this Chicago storm had nothing on the abominable weather she was used to. The homefolk would laugh if they could see her half sliding, half stumbling along, holding her arms out for balance as she struggled to avoid the slick patches of dirty snow. With a grand harumph, she pulled her hood tighter around her head to protect herself from the icy rain. She really should have opted for a pair of ice skates rather than these furry boots she chose for tonight. Now wouldn’t that be a sight?
She took two more small steps, then stumbled, landing hard against the building. Already the ache in her shoulder was taking hold. Later, she knew she’d have to pull out the liniment, the old-time liniment she kept in a special drawer in her nightstand. None of that newfangled Icy Hot stuff for her.
She dug deep in her pocket for the comfort she’d brought along. Closing her eyes, she took a nip, then gave the bottle a kiss. It gurgled back affectionately. The bottle looked like one of those they sold for five dollars a pop on airplanes. But this comfort was by far better than anything an airline could offer. Warmer now, and much surer in her step, she replaced the bottle in her pocket, careful not to disturb the wrapping on the gift beside it.
She made her way to the building’s entrance and dug in her other pocket for the wilted piece of paper amidst the candy canes and root beer barrels. The paper was slightly damp from the ride here but she could still read the address and, more importantly, the name scrawled on it.
The Mary F. Greavy Memorial Home, 252 West California Avenue. Gertrude squinted up at the sign over the door and compared the name to the fading legend on the paper in her gloved fingers. “Yah.” She smacked her lips together, the remnants of the nip still a potent taste on her tongue. “Good stuff,” she said, pushing open the door.
“Can I help you?”
The reception area of the Mary F. Greavy Memorial Home was brightly lit, too bright, if you asked Gertrude. She pushed the hood off her head and wrinkled her nose at her surroundings, which were bathed in a cold light, a malevolent brilliance that Gertrude did not like one bit. Above the reception desk were red and green letters spread out to read Happy Holidays, although the s was hanging by a thread. No Merry Christmas here, even though it was December 24th. The Home was nothing if not politically correct. In the corner was a Christmas tree, unlit, boasting a meager collection of dusty ornaments hanging on the sagging branches like afterthoughts.
“Merry Christmas, Doreen.” Gertrude stood at the desk and placed a candy cane next to the receptionist’s hand, which held her place on page 12 of The National Enquirer. From the looks of it, Johnny Depp was having women trouble again.
Doreen lifted her head, her gaze was one of overwhelming disinterest dappled with impatience. Her face was long, thin and pale enough to make Gertrude think the woman hadn’t seen the sun since last summer. She wore pink scrubs, her name tag crooked on the breast pocket, a faded ketchup stain on the collar. At least Gertrude hoped it was ketchup and not some sort of bodily fluid.
“Can I help you?” This time the emphasis was on the word help. Impatience had now beaten disinterest into submission.
“Ah, yes, Doreen.” Gertrude dug out the paper again, which was now not only wilted but hopelessly crumpled as well. “I am here to see Miss Fiona Wingate.”
Doreen’s lips trembled, like she was about to laugh. But after a moment, she seemed to think better of it and returned her frown to its rightful place. “She’s in the lounge.” She waved one hand toward the corridor. “Down the end of the hall. Oh, and you’re lucky. She’s just had her meds.” This time the laugh escaped Doreen, sounding like a rough bark from an ailing hound.
“Thank you.” Gertrude heard the turn of a page as she headed down the hallway.
She made a pit stop at the ladies’ room to fix her hair and reapply her cherry red lipstick. Her white pillowy coiffure looked surprisingly put together despite the somewhat harrowing ride here in the drenching weather. Her cornflower blue eyes sparkled. Her face was round, her soft features making her seem both youthful and ancient. She had been called ageless, and she guessed in some ways it was true. She didn’t think Fiona Wingate would care what she looked like. She would probably think Gertrude was another social worker or a rotund volunteer who dipped into the Christmas cookie jar one too many times. It didn’t matter, really. She was here on a mission, and when it was complete, she would catch her ride home and be done with this sort of thing for another year.
She was already exhausted, and had no idea how Kris did what he did year after year.
After taking one more fortifying nip from her comfort, she straightened her back, pulled open the door, and walked purposefully to the lounge.
The lounge was even more depressing than the reception area. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” played low on a radio in the corner by a Keurig machine. A woman with wiry gray curls, wearing sweats and sandals, dozed in an easy chair next to it, her head bobbing in time with her snores. A balding man in flannel pajamas stared out the window at the storm as he conversed with his reflection. An aide in blue scrubs lay on the threadbare sofa, legs crossed, head against the armrest as she chatted on her cellphone. And seated by herself at the large round table in the center of the room was, Gertrude assumed by her attire, Miss Fiona Wingate. Miss Fiona wore gold satin pajamas beneath a purple robe. Her hair was as black as raven feathers, flowing down her back in long waves. On top of her head was a tiara that sparkled under the fluorescent lights. She was immersed in a book, one finger trembling as it moved across the page.
Gertrude approached the table, working out a kink in her bruised shoulder as she waddled along. “Merry Christmas, Fiona,” she said, standing by the table. After one long moment, Fiona raised her head from her book, keeping her finger firmly in place. Her skin looked as rough as tree bark, with deep lines around her eyes and mouth. But something in those gray eyes marked her as regal, and no amount of trouble in her life could take that away.
“I would appreciate you not disturbing me when I am reading Mr. Dickens.” Fiona’s gaze was steady, her brow furrowed. Her head trembled the same way as her hand.
“I’ve come a long way to visit with you, Fiona.”
“It’s Miss Fiona.”
“My apologies, Miss Fiona.” Gertrude shifted in place, hands gripping the back of a chair for support.
“Are you in pain, my dear?”
“My shoulder is bruised, Miss Fiona. And the ride here was quite long and somewhat harrowing.”
“Sit then.” Fiona made a brusque move with her free hand toward the chair. “The lazy wench, Sophia, will bring us tea.”
“No, it’s quite alright-”
“Sophia! Two teas, now!”
The woman on the sofa took the phone away from her ear. “You know how to use the Keurig, Fiona.”
“It is MISS Fiona, and I have a guest. Bring us tea. Now!”
The woman by the Keurig woke suddenly, blinked, then pushed herself out of her chair and shuffled out of the room.
The man by the window continued his chatter.
Sophia said something into the phone before heading to the Keurig to do Miss Fiona’s bidding.
Gertrude sat, then folded her hands on the table. “My name is Gertrude-”
“Well, now, Gertrude, I don’t like your sweater.” Fiona marked her place with a tattered cloth bookmark. “All those reds and greens. You would not wear that at any other time.”
“Actually, I would and I do.” Gertrude opened her coat a little wider. “Where I’m from these are the national colors.”
Fiona flapped her lips in disgust.
“Don’t you like Christmas, Miss Fiona?”
“No, it’s not for me.”
“It’s for everyone.”
“I said no.” Her trembling hands touched her face, her hair, before settling on the table again.
Sophia brought the teas on a plastic tray along with sugar packets and creamers. She set the tray between the two women and walked quickly to the sofa again, retrieving her phone from her scrubs pocket as she did.
“Thank you, Sophia,” Gertrude called, but the aide was already deep in conversation on her cell.
“Brat,” Miss Fiona said.
Gertrude added two sugars and a cream to her tea, then took a sip. It was surprisingly good, not as warming as comfort, but close. Fiona just stared at her, her tea left untouched. “Do I know you?”
“Don’t play games with me, madam.” Fiona’s eyes went wide as her mouth went tight and pale. There was sadness there, a sadness of someone who had been used, abused and lied to too many times.
“My apologies again.” Gertrude exhaled slowly. “And no, you don’t know me, not personally anyway.”
Fiona nodded once, holding her tiara in place as she did. “Then what do you want? I need to get back to Mr. Dickens before he misses me.”
“A Christmas Carol?”
Fiona gave Gertrude a hard stare. “It is not your typical Christmas story, now is it?”
“No, I would say it was. . .quite unique.”
They were silent for a few moments. The Little Drummer Boy was the song of the moment, Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. . .
“I have something for you.” Gertrude dipped into her coat pocket and retrieved the small square box wrapped in gold and silver paper.
“I don’t know you.” Fiona’s hands were restless now, opening and closing her book, touching her hair, her cheeks. “I don’t want anything from you.”
“My husband is an incredibly generous soul, who, on one special night, gives away many things.” Gertrude set the box in the center of the table. “I love him, but this task consumes him most of the year. He gets so caught up in it, it drives me crazy. I used to try to help but it was hard to keep up with him.” She shook her head. “He’s got it down to a science and I just got in the way.”
“Did he tell you this?” Fiona asked, suddenly very interested.
“Oh, no. He would never. I just felt I needed to get involved in something of my own.” She smiled and tapped the gift. “And I did with the help of the homefolk. I find lost things.”
Fiona reached up to make sure her tiara was still on top of her head. “You do what?”
“I return lost things their owners. Things that you swear you had just a minute ago, they somehow end up up North with me. Now the single gloves and socks, I don’t make much of an effort with. That’s just carelessness, and the homefolk love them. They turn them into puppets and hand warmers and all sorts of things.”
“Hand warmers. . . “
“Yes, they’re lovely.”
For the first time that night, Fiona's face lit up.
“Now, the most special of those lost things I make an effort to return to their owners. The homefolk do that all year. But I. . .” Winking, Gertrude pushed the present closer to Fiona. “I deliver the one I deem most special on Christmas eve.”
“I’m not a special person.” Fiona shook her head. “I’ve been told this many times.”
“But you’ve told them you're an heiress?”
“Well, of course.” She sniffed and sat a little straighter in her chair.
“And they don’t believe you?”
“My dear,” Fiona said with a resigned sigh. “I think my family has paid them not to believe me.”
“Hmm.” Gertrude tapped her chin. “Would you like to open your gift now?”
Fiona stared at the box like it was from outer space. She touched it with one finger, then quickly drew her finger back as if she’d been scalded. “I think you must have the wrong person.”
“When you open the box,” Gertrude said, her smile widening slowly, “I think you’ll see I don’t.”
With shaky hands, Fiona attempted to remove the ribbon from the package. Each time she tried, the box would fall from her hands onto the table. “Oh, dear, I don’t think I can do this.” She met Gertrude’s gaze, tears shivering in her eyes, her cheeks blushing in embarrassment.
“Let me, Miss Fiona.” Gertrude slipped the ribbon and paper off the box. After lifting off the top, she returned the box to Fiona.
“Oh, my. . .” Fiona’s gaze shifted from what was in the box to Gertrude, then back again. “I thought I’d lost this years ago. Oh, my. Oh, my. Oh, my.” Her thin shoulders shook from the force of her sobs.
“Would you like me to help you put it on?” Gertrude said.
“If you would.” Fiona snuffled and removed a linen handkerchief from the pocket of her robe. She dabbed at her eyes and cheeks as Gertrude moved behind her. With some effort, Gertrude leaned forward and removed the contents of the box. The heavy chain, she knew, was pure silver. Attached to it was a jeweled coat of arms. Inside the box remained a photo of a dapper gentleman dressed in a fine gray suit. His hair was raven black. He wore the coat of arms that was now around Fiona’s neck.
“This was my father’s.” Fiona lifted the photo from the box and held it between her thumb and forefinger. “When he and Mother died, and I was taken in by my aunt, so long ago, I lost track of it.” After setting the photo gently back in the box, Fiona dabbed at her eyes again. “My aunt took everything from me, my birthright, my heritage. I thought she had taken this too.”
Gertrude took her seat again, while Fiona ran her hands over the coat of arms like it was a cherished pet.
“One of my homefolk, Digsby, will be by tomorrow,” Gertrude said. “He will have the paperwork that was lost with the medallion. That paperwork proves without a doubt that you are the heir to your father’s legacy.”
“But what do I do then?” She had a panicked look that Gertrude eased by taking one of her cold, thin hands in her chubby, warm ones.
“Digsby will take care of you. He’ll take you to a safe place up North until he can get the legal things worked out.”
“But. . . tomorrow is Christmas.”
“What better day to give you back your life?” Gertrude pushed herself to her feet, thinking about a hot bath and old-time liniment while she buttoned her coat.
“Oh, don’t go, please,” Fiona’s lower lip trembled. It looked as if the tears were on their way again.
“My ride will be here soon, Miss Fiona.”
Fiona ran her fingers along the jewels on the medallion and nodded. “Thank you, Miss Gertrude.”
“It was an honor,” Gertrude said, before pulling her hood tight around her head and making her way toward the exit. As she stepped out the door, she turned for one last look at Fiona and was heartened to see the chatty balding man had transported himself from his solitary place by the window to seat himself across from her.
“Merry Christmas, Miss Fiona.’
Fiona’s face lit up for the second time that Christmas eve. “Why, hello, Charlie.”
“That is a mighty fine necklace you got there.”
A mischievous light appeared in Fiona’s eyes. “There is a story behind it. Would you like to hear my story, Charlie?”
“I like stories, “ Charlie moved to a chair closer to Fiona. “Does it have a happy ending?”
“Oh, my. Oh, my,” she said, those tears threatening again. “I believe it does.”
The last thing Gertrude heard before pushing out into the frigid Chicago night, where the sound of sleigh bells were growing ever nearer, was Miss Fiona Wingate shouting for more tea. Now.
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