The next day was Christmas day, even if it was only Friday back home, and Christmas there would not arrive until Monday. Chris and Merry walked, side by side, and felt a bit like they were on a date, walking through the street faire. They bought each other little Christmas pins—Christmas wreaths, and Chris only fumbled a little when he pinned his gift on Merry. They had sweets, roasted chestnuts, and hot tea against the cold. More than once, they were mistaken for a married couple, and neither denied it.
“This is how Christmas ought to be celebrated,” Chris decided. “People should share the love and joy with friends, neighbors, even strangers in the streets. It should be a day of fun, with plays and puppets, games and contests, and all sorts of treats and little things to buy and share, and all in the public square. Back home, Christmas has become a time of isolation. Families might visit, but basically people hide in their homes. Nothing is open. Nothing moves in the streets. People avoid their neighbors. How did we turn this great celebration into a time of seclusion and loneliness? It is sad, to think of it.”
“It is sad,” Merry agreed.
“Plum?” Chris called.
“We are on the right road,” Plum said. “I believe we are catching up.”
Chris nodded. He prayed for Lily, that she be all right. He really had no other choice but to trust Plum and Roy. He blew up once in the morning, and yelled, which was not his style. Merry also spent about five minutes before noon giving poor Plum a tongue lashing.
“How much longer?” she said, and, “This has gone on long enough.”
Roy stayed stoic, but Plum wilted a little. All he could say was, “We are on the right road, and catching up.”
After lunch in a small cafe, they headed into more residential streets, and away from the faire. The buildings stayed between three to five stories tall, but the lovely townhouses in the city became tenements for the poor. They passed warehouses and offices for lawyers and money lenders that showed their signs down narrow side streets. The white snow quickly turned yellow and brown where the mules, horses, and other animals trod. They still saw children in the streets, and grown-ups, but the children looked unwashed, and the adults looked to be in clothes that might barely keep them warm in the winter. Chris’ heart went out to the people who struggled so hard to keep those children fed and make ends meet. And around each corner, conditions appeared worse. Finally, they turned into an alleyway.
This was the worst, most decrepit neighborhood they found so far. It made Chris think of the bombed-out places Ricky used to describe, like something from the middle of a war zone.
Down a short alley, they found a building that appeared to be on fire.
Chris dropped Merry’s hand with a word. “Get the fire department.” He ran toward the few elderly people that started to gather outside. He figured this might be an apartment building of sorts, or a dirty tenement that probably ought to be an abandoned building. He raised his voice. “Did everyone get out?”
One elderly people began to nod when a woman came from the door, coughing from the smoke. “The children are playing in the basement.”
“The basement,” one of the old men said, and looked back, fear in his eyes.
Chris did not hesitate. He covered his mouth with his own sleeve and ran in the door. The stairs were right there, and he raced down to the bottom level. He thought the fire mostly burned above him, but he had no way of knowing when the building might collapse. The fire looked well along by the time he arrived.
Chris burst through a door to a room full of coal and coal dust, with a ratty old furnace that appeared to be smoking. He imagined the fire above might be backing down into the pipes. He heard the coughing, and knew he had to move fast. He found six children, all Lilly’s age, in the five to seven-year-old range. They huddled in a corner of the room, behind an old curtain. They stared at him, suddenly afraid he might yell at them for starting the fire, or some such thing.
Chris just smiled and picked up the smallest little girl. “Hold hands and follow me,” he said in his kind and comforting voice. He reached for a hand of one of the bigger kids while he shifted the little one to his hip. “Hold hands. Let’s go,” he said, never ceasing to smile. “Make sure the little ones keep up,” he added, and the children looked at each other and grabbed hands as he started walking.
The door to the room opened easily enough. The stairs were not far, and shortly, the children dropped each other’s hands and raced out the door to where the adults—mostly grandparents gathered. Chris went to set down the little one, but she had a question.
“Are you Father Christmas?” she asked, as one of the older adults came up to take her hand.
Chris shook his head. “I’m just a Shepherd,” he said. “You can call me the Christmas Shepherd.” He smiled and added, “Christopher,” for the adult, before he turned to look for Merry.
By then, people hauling buckets had come up the alley, and some people from other, nearby buildings, who wanted to help, crowded the area. The men looked concerned to keep the fire from spreading to the next building, and two, with scarves over their faces, went into the building, having talked to the older people.
Chris wanted to help, but Merry took his hand and led him to a door in the warehouse, opposite the burning building. Roy held the door open and Plum encouraged them to hurry.
“You have done all you can,” Merry told him, and they passed the threshold into a small room that smelled of pine, apples, and cinnamon.
“How far back are we going?” Chris asked. He figured the door on the other side of the small room would let them out in a new time.
“Eighteen-eleven,” Roy said, as they came out in a big barn full of horses and hay.
“While you were playing with the fire, I popped ahead and made arrangements with the stable master,” Plum said. “We got bread, cheese, potatoes, carrots, and a bit of beef boiling in the pot. I’m not much of a cook, but it will do. We got bunks in the barn. Roy will show you where we will be sleeping. Tomorrow, we wagon into the west, into the Ohio Valley, down into Indiana territory. Not much we can do about that.”
Chris gave the man a hard look. He said one word. “Lilly.”
Plum looked down at his feet. “She is in this time zone, for sure.”
“This place, only she is at the other side. She is safe, for the present. You can trust me on that. I’m sorry, I can’t say more.”
Chris turned his eyes on Merry, but she put her hands up in surrender. “I have never been here. I don’t even know where we are. It is well before my time. You know what I know.”
“Obviously, you know nothing. Which is fine because I know nothing.”
“We could maybe know nothing together?” she asked.
Chris and Merry stared at one another for a long time. Merry became anxious. Chris did not move a muscle, and his expression appeared equally unmoving, like a marble statue. Merry felt the tears coming, but fought it. Finally, Chris spoke.
“I would like that,” he said, and a radiant smile broke out on Merry’s face. “I would like that very much.” Merry stepped up for a kiss. Plum went to fiddle with the cooking. Roy turned around and went back to the bunks.
When they finished their supper, Chris avoided the bunks and went to sit on the pile of hay in the doorway. Merry followed and sat beside him.
“I’m not going to undress,” he declared. “Whoever keeps taking my clothes and giving me new ones is going to have to do it while I am still wearing them.”
Merry just smiled at him, like she did not hear a word he said. When he laid back on the hay, he slipped his arm around her. She snuggled up to him, laid her head gently on his shoulder, and promptly fell asleep, still smiling. He looked down at her, and loved her. He looked some at the moon and stars out the barn door.
Cue: The First Noel
A Holiday Journey, The London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Don Jackson. Ó℗CD Guy Music Inc., 2001