Annd I'm back with my story for the December Writing Challenge. When I glanced over it again after writing I felt that the time period wasn't conveyed very well, so just so you can have it set in your head right: it's the late 1800's. ;) I hope you enjoy it!
Will was the kind of boy who did not give up easily. It would have been easier to give up, but as he had told Gruff Sandy once, "Giving up just ain't an option, bud." It never was, and it wasn't now. So Christmas Eve found Will clutching a very small, very precious bundle to him with one arm and grasping the hand of a little mousy-haired girl with the other as he ran along the back alleyways. A young boy and girl followed him with swift feet and drawn faces.
"Hey," Gruff Sandy, who was bigger than most men, popped out from behind a building and cut him off. "Where you going?"
"Somewhere," Will panted, shifting his bundle. "What's it to you?"
Gruff Sandy plopped his hands on his hips. "Just asking. Don't have to get all fussy on me. I thought we were friends, Will." He sniffed and raised a finger to the sky. "It's going to snow tonight."
Will glanced up anxiously. "I wish it wouldn't." He admitted.
The littler girl behind him crowded closer to his leg. She was only about seven. "When are we going home, Will? It's cold out here and I don't like playing your games running around anyways. Makes my chest hurt."
The older brother kept his face rigid, but his shoulders sagged a bit. What was he supposed to do, anyways? Since Ma had left them a week ago the landlady wouldn't let the children stay in their apartment, even though Will had tried to convince her that at sixteen he was old enough to bring in the rent. For some reason she did not believe him. He knew he couldn't count on Ma. She never had been much of a mother anyways, and he had read the note she had left-- gone to marry some fellow who was going out West. He didn't particularly like children, so of course Ma couldn't keep them anymore. It was all so simple to Ma--but it wasn't to Will. Not when he was left in charge of four younger siblings!
Gruff Sandy hooked his thumbs around his belt. He gave a low whistle. "Am I to understand...?"
Will motioned for him to stop. "Ain't there somewhere a little bit warm and snug for the little 'uns?" he asked. "I'd certainly be grateful if you could lend me a hand. And then we could--talk." A sizable amount of meaning traced his words.
The broad-shouldered fellow shrugged. "I guess I can fix you up--only you can't say a word, now, hear?"
"Not a word, Gruff Sandy." Will promised, breathing a sigh of relief. Not many could claim the older boy as a friend, and to be perfectly honest, Gruff Sandy was not always on the right side of the law. But if you managed to get the fellow to pay you mind, and care about you even a little bit, you had a thorough--albeit moody--friend for life. Will didn't know how he had managed to be on Gruff Sandy's "tolerable" list, but somehow it had happened--and Will was thankful for it now. If anyone knew secret refuges it would be the older boy, and if anyone knew how to scrape by on nothing, it was Gruff Sandy.
Within minutes Will and his brood were standing just inside an old brick building. At one point it had been used as a small textile factory, but the business had moved elsewhere and it was now empty, coated in dust, and a haven for all that the city did not want. Gruff Sandy nudged a limping stray dog away with his foot as they squeezed past gaps in broken walls until they ended up in a smaller room, one with a desk and chair still in it from the office of by-gone days. Little Sylvie sneezed with great force as soon as eleven year old Tom bounded onto the chair that Gruff Sandy hauled her up at once and stuffed a grimy handkerchief in her mouth. "Suit you, Will?" he asked, his eyes darting from one small child to the next.
"Yep, fine." Will managed a smile. "Sure am indebted to you, Gruff."
"Don't mention it." Gruff set Sylvie down, turned and disappeared.
Will stared about him with open admiration now. How Gruff knew these places was beyond him, but it would suit--suit just fine! "Violet, you and Sylvie sit still on the floor here." he directed his two little sisters. "And don't move much." He saw the stray dog slink in and snapped his fingers at it. "Come, Mr. Straggle," he cajoled, "Have tea with these fine ladies."
Sylvie laughed and threw her arms around the dog when it came closer, but Violet, who was almost eight, was silent. Finally she spoke. "This isn't much of a Christmas, Will."
Will bit his lip. "Don't I know it," he agreed, "But keep a smile on, Violet. We'll think of a way to make things merry anyways." He glanced down at the bundle he was holding. "It's baby's first Christmas, so we have to make merry, you see."
Tom scowled. "I don't see how. We don't even have anything to eat."
His older brother tossed him a sharp look. "You better keep your mouth shut," he warned. "I gotta go out, so you're the man while I'm gone, Tom. Do you hear me? Keep watch of the girls."
"I'm not watching three girls." Tom's chin jutted out.
"No, just two." Will nodded. "I'm taking the baby with me." He slipped out, still clutching the bundle to him. "No noise!" he called back, trying to ignore Tom's groan.
Back on the streets, Will tucked the baby under his coat and buttoned it to where just her head could be seen. She was an unusually quiet baby, and now she slept. Will wrapped one arm across her and then began to run towards the main part of town. He always felt better when he was running--it somehow cleared his head.
Once he had reached the more prosperous section of town, Will slowed down. His heart was thumping. He could already feel the heat rising to his cheeks, but undeterred he walked up to the front door of one of the town houses and knocked. A maid answered the door, her apron stiff with starch and her backbone stiffer. "What d'ye want?"
"I'd like some work--anything. Just to get a little bit of money so my family can eat tonight." Will straightened up. "I'm a good worker, I promise."
"No work here," the maid said, and shut the door.
Will bit his lip and then ducked his chin to kiss the top of the baby's head. "Next house, then," he mumbled, and with a weary step turned to the next building. Here he was more fortunate. The man who answered the door had a child hanging on each leg and wore a tolerating air.
"How can I help you?" he asked over the ruckus of little ones playing behind him.
"I just want a job, mister, just for today. I'll find another one later, but I gotta have a little money to feed my brother and sisters." Will rubbed his forehead. "Don't have anything, you see."
The man surveyed him sharply, his eyes running from the top of his head down to his tattered shoes and then back up again. "Where are your parents?"
"Here and there, mister." Will shrugged. He knew what would happen if he admitted that there were no parents any more. All his little siblings straight to the orphanage, just because this man before him was the kind to pull a 'good deed' like that. Only it wasn't really a good deed, because Will would be left alone, and Tom would be in one place, and the three girls in another. Like an orphanage would suit them, anyways.
The man squinted. "That doesn't strike me as a very satisfactory answer." He rested his hand on the coppery head at his knee. "But alright then-- come in I'll set you to work."
Will flashed him a grateful smile. "Thank you, mister!"
The man chuckled. "Oh, don't thank me yet. You are about to black seventeen pairs of shoes." He let Will in and then added as if in explanation, "I have a large family."
Will's head shot up. "Seventeen in your family, mister?" He could not hide his surprise.
"Well, yes. Thirteen children, their mother, and I, and a set of grandparents. It's a very full house, you know." The man led Will into a small coat room off to the side. Half the shoes were lined neatly up like a row of soldiers, and the other half--rather dirty black ones-- were in disarray all over the floor. The man sighed. "My name is Mr. Booth. If you can shine this up as good as a new penny before their Christmas dinner I'll pay you well."
Mr. Booth left him then, after pointing out the polish and brushes, and Will set the baby down on the floor on top of a girl's red coat. "Just sit tight," Will whispered to the baby as he whipped out a rag and sat next to the baby, Indian style. He worked in silence for about fifteen minutes, until a ringlet-y head popped in at the door.
"I say," the girl walked in, her hazel eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Who are you?"
Will kept his head bent, his eyes fastened on the shoes. "Will," he mumbled, swiping at the shoe with great gusto.
"Just Will, is it? I'm Lucy. I guess you're a bit older than me." Lucy crossed her arms. "But you know we have servants to do this. So why are you here?"
"Just doing what your father asked," Will returned, his spirits rising. "I ain't no beggar, I'm here for honest work and this is what he asked me to do."
Lucy tossed back a curl. "Father is so odd sometimes." She sniffed and then pointed at the baby. "But what have you got a baby for? Goodness, you're all dirty, the baby is going to get sick." Will felt his cheeks burning. He wanted to ask the girl to leave him alone, but he bit his tongue instead and kept his focus on his work. Lucy bent down and studied the baby. "She sure looks peaky to me." She giggled. "And what a mop of hair she already has!"
Will set his rag down with a snap and snatched up the baby. "You leave Evaleen alone," he growled. "Ain't you got something better to do 'sides bothering me?"
Lucy danced back a few steps and stuck her tongue out at him. "No, not really,"
An older boy, perhaps about seventeen, poked his head in. "Come on, Lucy, stop being such a nuisance."
"Ah, no, I'm not being a nuisance," Lucy chuckled, but she followed the boy out and left Will and the baby alone.
He worked in solitude for the rest of the time, and finished all the shoes just as the baby was beginning to fuss. Mr. Booth came back in, his arms full.
"I took the liberty," he explained as he lowered a basket to rest it on a chair, "Of splitting your payment up between money and a hot supper. See here," his face was serious, but Will could detect a light in his eyes. "The cook always makes us far too much food, and my boys are about to split their clothes for the second time in half a year. So I put in some things for you. And here's the rest of your pay." He pressed a few coins into Will's hand.
Will smiled, a little bit dizzy. "Thank you."
Mr. Booth pulled a small book out of his pocket. "You do read, I suppose?" Although his words were sharp, there was something kind about the man.
"Yes, a little." Will nodded.
"Good," Mr. Booth handed him the book. "It's a Bible. My eldest, Ana, was quite insistent that you have it."
Will rubbed the back of his neck as he carefully took the Book. "Never had one before," he mumbled. "Thank you." Mr. Booth smiled then, and Will gathered up the baby and the basket of food, laying the Bible on top of it.
"It's the greatest love--this Book." Mr. Booth's tone grew gentle. "And if you read the beginnings of Luke and Matthew tonight, you'll see the reason for Christmas right there."
Will nodded, and before he knew it he was once again outside running. But this time, the basket of food had more heaviness in it than his heart had only hours earlier.
"Merry Christmas!" he whispered as he slipped into the room. Tom jumped up right away and snatched the basket from him.
"Where'd you get this, Will?" He set each article of food out on the ground before him in a line, as if to see all of the goodness at once. Roast beef, and bread, and soup and coffee. The younger boy's stomach growled.
Will found Violet and Sylvie tumbled in the corner, asleep. He shook them lightly. "Wake up, wouldn't you like the handsomest feast you ever did see?" His two sisters stumbled drowsily over to where Tom had laid out the food, and WIll joined them with the baby tucked in his arms. His eyes fell on the Bible that Tom had lined up with the rest of the food. "Look," he said, pointing to it. Just then Gruff Sandy popped in.
"I thought I smelled something tasty." He sat down cross-legged, ready to help himself.
Will didn't mind. "See here, Gruff, this is my Christmas dinner, and I aim to see it done the right way. That fellow that gave me these things gave me that Bible, too, and said as it was the greatest love."
Gruff Sandy snorted. "Love? Well, I'm not too keen on that mushiness, but I heard a preacher once say it was the greatest gift, and I'm alright with that."
"Let's read some then, before eating." Will urged.
Tom groaned. "Before eating, Will?" He touched the hot pot of soup with one finger. "Fine, hurry then." With some grumbling, the others got situated, and Will opened the Bible.
After much searching he found Luke, and began reading. His words were halting and slow, but the more he read, the quieter everyone else got and before long even Gruff Sandy was leaning forward to hear better.
"'And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'" Will paused, staring at the words. "That's it then--the greatest love."
Gruff Sandy coughed. "You mean the greatest gift. Let's not get all mushy, I say."
Will hardly heard the older boy. "That's it." he shook his head in wonder. "And do you reckon that God still cares then for us, like he did them shepherds?"
"Course." Gruff Sandy didn't have a doubt. "I heard the preacher say before that God cares for everybody. It's a gift I say, a gift. The preacher who stands outside the bakery says you just have to take it."
Tom shifted. "But how? It ain't something you can just take."
"The preacher would know." Gruff Sandy was sure of himself. "We can scoot over there tomorrow and ask. He'll be there, he always is."
Once again, Will was amazed by Gruff Sandy's knowledge. "Let's do it, then." He brightened. "I figure we ought to pray before we eat so--" he closed his eyes a second. "Thank you, God!"
The coffee was accidentally knocked over by Tom in his haste to reach for the bread, and Will found himself thinking that if his mother had been there she would have shouted at the younger brother and slapped him. Something twisted around Will's stomach--he missed her, but somehow, the Book he had slipped into his pocket seemed to fill in all the holes of his heart with something so beautiful, so real, that he could hardly comprehend it. It had to be true then, it being the greatest love--because while he was reading the words within it he felt the same way he did when he thought about Tom or the little girls. The strangest thing of all, he decided, was that Someone so long ago loved him as much as he loved his siblings. If there was love like that in this Book, he had to find out more-- he just had to.
Well there you have it! The final challenge story for the year. Whew! What a fun time we have had. Now we have collected 12 stories where we stretched our imaginations and our writing muscles and although we might not like them all, we can still be pleased with the fact that we did it. Great practice, and fun times, too. ;) I really enjoyed reading all of your stories and it was always interesting to see the many different styles, directions, and takes on the challenges! Comment below to let me know what your favorite challenge this year was, which of your stories you liked best, and which of mine! ;)
You all have a lovely day!