(A short story)
Sam smoothed out the blanket spread over his lap, staring down at the plaid pattern, red on green on blue, dyed wool tightly woven to leave no holes. He didn’t think about what lay under the blanket, his legs: thin, shriveled, pale, useless, and not even able to support his weight without his bones snapping. He’d gotten good at not thinking about his legs in the past year. Even when he was staring right at them sometimes, he could forget they were even there, or rather that there was anything to think about concerning them. It was his favorite pastime, seeing how long he could go without thinking about them, how close he could come and still not think about it. Sometimes when he’d watch the other children through the window as they played outside on the grounds, he could make himself believe that he could join them, should he want to, and he just chose not to. The hardest time he had at his game was in the morning when he had to fight his legs to clothe them. The stockings were the worst. His knees just wouldn’t stay where he put them, always sliding his floppy feet out of reach. And the fabric was too tight so he could never get all his toes in the first time. But lately he’d gotten better at not thinking about his legs then too.
A girl’s laughter from outside reached Sam’s ears and he lifted his head, looking toward the window. He paused, then slid his hands over the wooden armrests and then onto the narrow wheels of his chair. Then he slowly pushed the wheels forward, driving his wheelchair over to the partly open window. Down below the other children played in the snow, chasing each other with snowballs. A girl with her bright red hair in two braids hurled a snowball at one of the older boys, pegging him in the face. Then she stopped and looked up at Sam’s window. She waved. Sam stared at her for a long moment, wondering who she was waving to. Maybe someone downstairs was inside sick. Then he realised. She was waving at him. Of course, she was. He quickly raised his arm and gave a short, hesitant wave back. She smiled and returned to the game.
Sam watched them play, trying to remember the girl’s name. He’d met her a few times, but she’d only said her name once, had only stuck in his head once. Christmas he thought, last month. A church had come to the orphanage with presents and the girl had gotten a doll, one that closed its eyes and said “mama.” It was an expensive toy, brand new, unlike most donations the orphanage was given. Times were hard and money little since the war and the orphanage had suffered most. A gift like the doll was an extravagant present to give to an orphan. She’d given it away to one of the younger girls who hadn’t received anything then come over and sat next to him and his wheelchair. He had his old, shabby toy rabbit clutched on his lap in his pale fingers, a remnant from the time he didn’t remember, the time he had parents. He ran his fingers over the rugged fur and didn’t watch the other children. He hadn’t gotten a gift.
“I’m Merida,” she’d said brightly, red hair gleaming like fire in the light of the gas lamp. “But everyone calls me Merry. You can too if you like.”
“Hullo,” Sam answered tentatively after a moment.
“Wotcha got there?”
“Nothing,” Sam said, pushing his rabbit under his blanket.
“I ain’t gonna steal it.”
“I never said it weren’t!” she said meeting his eyes with a grin. She had dark blue eyes, like Sam’s. Then the grin faded. “Is that wot you got for Christmas?”
“I didn’t get anything for Christmas,” he answered.
“I just didn’t.”
“Didncha want sumthin’?”
She studied Sam for a while, Sam’s face reddening, until he looked away crossly, rubbing at his cheeks.
“Just a mo’,” she said, then jumped to her feet and ran over by the scrawny tree by the fireplace. She did something mysterious just out of his sight then came back, dragging a table and chair behind her, something nestled in the crook of her elbow. She set the table down in front of Sam and the chair across from him. Then with bright eyes she produced the mystery object: a glass jar of pistachios. She set it down and sat.
“D’you like ‘em?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
Sam did, tugging off the lid and then fumbling with a pistachio shell until finally he reached the nut and ate it. It was good, interesting.
“It’s good,” Sam said, a touch of surprise in his voice.
“Wanta have a contest?”
“A contest. We see who can eat the most, quickest. How ‘bout it, huh?”
Sam shrugged his thin shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“I usta eat ‘em all the time back home. I’d eat more’n me da could and faster too. Every Christmas we’d sit in front o’ the fire and see who could eat more quicker. I won five years in a row, d’you believe that?”
“Sure. You usta have one too, ya know.”
“I didn’t know him,” Sam said, looking away.
“I know. I’m lucky,” she said like she was repeating something she’d been told a thousand times, but her voice was clouded with something new. “I had a chance to know him and me mum and at least I had that. ‘Course, I dun feel real lucky sometimes. Like today. ‘Cause…well, ‘cause I’d rather be home with ‘em, ‘steada here without ‘em.” She looked up at him, eyes shining fiercely. “And maybe that makes me selfish, but so what? Why can’t I be? I had ‘em and I lost ‘em and I want ‘em back! I want ‘em back!”
She briskly wiped away the tears on her cheeks, then grabbed a pistachio and busied herself with trying to open it. Sam looked at her in alarm, unsure of what to make of the girl and her admission. He looked down at his lap and the lump under the blanket. Biting his lip slightly, he moved his blanket to peek at the tattered grey rabbit with one button eye. The other had been lost long ago, before he’d come here he thought.
Then he pulled his rabbit out of hiding and held it across the table.
“Need to hug something?” he asked.
She looked up from her struggles with the pistachio, face wetter than before, then nodded dumbly and accepted the rabbit, hunching over it in her chair and crying into it. Sam watched and waited, then when it seemed she’d nearly cried herself out, picked out a pistachio.
“I bet you I can eat more,” he said quietly.
She uncurled from around the rabbit, staring at him, then slowly straightened and plucked her own pistachio from the jar.
“Happy Christmas,” she said.
Sam wheeled away from the window, her name finally remembered. He paused in his wheeling to wipe his face where it had gotten wet, then glanced at his bed where his scruffy rabbit sat on his pillow, then at the calendar on the wall above his bed. Tomorrow was February. It’d be her turn to have the rabbit then. Sam blinked down at the floor, trying to figure out how he’d forgotten her name. It was because he didn’t remember her by her name, but by her hair, her eyes, her smile, her energy, her pistachios, her crying.He twisted his head over his shoulder toward the window when he heard her laughter trickle through it again. A strange realisation came over him then. He’d never once told her his name.