Congratulations to Phillip Sterling, winner of our Third Annual Dickens Christmas Contest!
Our gratitude goes out to everyone who participated this year. We were pleased to see such a robust group of writers coming out from behind their bookshelves to join us for this annual holiday festivity. We hope to see you all again for the next go ’round.
Without further adieu…
“Angels, We Have Heard” by Phillip Sterling
“Hold your noise!” cried Millicent Shield — Miss M to her charges — as a man started up from along a clutter of cardboard and plastic bags at the side of the No. 25 bus stop. As could be expected, five of the seven preschoolers from St. Nicholas Community Day Care silenced themselves immediately. Only Kendra-Noel and Monyka — facing each other, their tiny fingers entwined, their faces shiny with excitement — failed to heed Miss M’s imperative, ignorant of the impending danger. They were beset with chatter about which of the Dolly Polly action figures would be the best present ever: Wet Nurse Nelly or Prairie Home Cameron.
“Just quit,” said Miss M, more softly now, so as not to alarm the other children — the only pedestrians, besides herself and the man who had risen from among the garbage, within a two-block area.
She cursed her luck. Then she cursed Miss Linda, whose idea it had been to take the four- and five-year-olds on a holiday sightseeing adventure to see the lights and toys and animated window displays of the luxury department stores downtown and who, at the very last minute — this morning, in fact — had apparently come down with some “likely contagious flu,” complete with a temperature of 101.3°, which left Miss M to chaperone the girls solo, leaving herself (and seven innocent children) vulnerable to any number of accidents and threats, not the least of which was the man bearing down on them.
It was an uncertain approach, to be sure — he shuffled and swayed — but bore down all the same.
Had he been stalking them? She recognized the awkwardness. He was the same dreary man they’d seen when they first got off the bus. The same gaunt-faced, unshaven, stocking-capped man in a ragged army jacket who’d stepped into the street like a safety guard when they’d crossed the intersection of Washington and Delaware, holding his cardboard message aloft like a stop sign. She’d seen him on the way back, as well, lurking in the doorway of the Dollar Den, as she marched her row of seven ducklings back up Washington to the bus stop for the No. 25, which would be there — with any luck — in less than ten minutes.
Dead ducks by then, thought Miss M. Somebody’s Christmas dinner.
She cursed Miss Linda. She cursed the whole Christmas season.
“Shut it!” she hissed at Monyka and Kendra-Noel, who were tittering and giggling like squirrels. The tone of her voice made Junie Pinkle, the youngest of the group, whose mother helped part-time in the St. Nicholas kitchen during funerals, look as if she’d made poo in her big-girl panties.
The man closed in. “’Scuse,” he said, when he’d gotten so near Miss M she could see thin red streaks of blood in his eyes, could smell his tainted breath. Was it schnapps?
“Is okay?” he whispered, pulling from the bulging pockets of his ratty coat a fistful of small peppermint candy canes. He nodded toward the girls, who stood mute and pale. He spoke no other words. But Miss M understood. His eyes were asking if she’d allow him to give the children — her children — small gifts, in the spirit of Christmas.
It was herself she cursed then, unaware as to whether she was doing so silently or aloud.