Jasmine stood by the window in her room and watched the children playing on the road, staring up at the sky with their arms outstretched trying to catch any snowflakes that fell into their palm without melting. She could see their parents sitting on the porch, coffee mugs in hand and a big brilliant smile on their face, looking very much in love with their lives and themselves. She turned away from her window and walked into the room. She hated her room; it was too big, too white. Of course she was the one who had insisted on the color as it had been in style in that moment, but right now, she was tired of the sameness of her walls, she wanted just a splash of something different when she opened her eyes every morning to another day. She could ask her parents and they would probably have it repainted by the end of the week, but she didn't want to anymore. She suddenly felt tired and it was only the beginning of the day. There was a knock at her door.
"Miss? Your parents are downstairs. They want you to join them."
She sighed and walked to the door. The maid was already gone, as they always were. Sometimes she felt like they walked in shadows, always there when needed, but never there for the eyes. She never really understood it because she knew that her parents were never very strict with them. They did not have the time to be strict with anyone or anything other than their routines. She understood it. Her father owned a company, and her mother ran it. She understood it perfectly, that didn't mean she liked it.
She walked into the living room, where her mother was sitting on her chair reading the paper, and sipping from her her cup of coffee, and her father was sitting on the opposite end of the table reading the same paper and sipping from his cup of coffee. For a moment she thought about the couple sitting on the porch and the children trying to catch the snowflakes.
"It's snowing outside," she announced. Her parents turned around with the same big smile plastered on their faces.
"Oh sweetheart, I didn't see you there!" Her mother got up from the chair to come up to her. "Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas mother," she said hugging her back.
She then walked up to her father and put a kiss on his cheek. "Merry Christmas father."
"Do you like the tree?" he asked. She looked near the fireplace where a huge Christmas tree stood alone decorated with all the lights and pretty things in the world. It felt warm and like it didn't belong there. Maybe that's why she hadn't noticed it when she first walked into the room.
"It's beautiful," she said and sat down on her chair between them.
They had their breakfast, and covered their usual topics of conversation like the weather, the economy and of course the grade sheet of their company. When they had exhausted all the topics they had read in that morning's newspaper, they finished their breakfast in silence.
"So Jasmine, don't you want to open your presents?" She hated when her parents called her by name. It was too proper, too sophisticated. Her friends always called her Jaz.
"Come on, at least feign a little excitement. This is used to be my favorite part of Christmas when I was a kid." It was her favorite part too, not because of the gifts but because her parents picked them for her. There was something very personal about it. Something she didn't get to experience often.
She walked to the tree and picked up the big box sitting underneath it.
"Your father and I got you something very special this time, you will love it!"
She peeled open the wrappers and took out another box, and sat for a very long minute.
"This is what you wanted right? It's the same model, we specially got it for you. Do you like it?" her mother asked in that same cheerful voice.
Jasmine suddenly wished she was back in her too white and too big room. She let out a tired breath.
"Well, mom, this gift, this camera, that you and dad got so specially for me, I already have it. I bought it last week with my savings, and I remember harping on about it for many days. But of course you were too busy discussing the weather and listening to your own bloody voice all the time, so really, I understand."
She could see her father's face turn to stone and the big fake smile slip from her mother's but before anyone could say another word, she left and ran to her room. She sat by the window, and tried to calm herself down. She could not believe herself. She could not believe she had said all that to her mother. She forced her mind shut and looked out at the street. It was empty.
"There was another knock at the door.
"I want to be alone right now," she announced.
"Sweetheart, please don't be upset. We can forget what happened in there." That made Jasmine smile. Of course. Forgetting and pretending were what their family was best at. "Come on we can go to the store and you can have anything you want."
Jasmine did not want to listen to it anymore. So she got up, opened the door and said, "Fine. I am sorry. Let's go."
She was tired of it, she was tired of the big room, the disappearing maids, the silent dinners, the same discussions, and the same two people living in oblivion. That was the only thing she thought of on the entire car ride to the store. She was tired.
"Jules wake up!"
Julia shifted on the bed and tried to throw her annoying brother off in the process. Apparently it did not work.
"Julia wake up. It's snowing!"
Okay, now she was up. She grabbed her sweater from the table, hopped down the stairs with Mike and ran straight out onto the street. It really was snowing. She extended her arms out in the air and waited for the feather light snow flakes to fall into her palm. Mike was running around and clapping in the air like he was trying to catch a mosquito or something. Their mother came out on the porch with her arms crossed across her chest.
"What happened to common etiquettes like you know, brushing your teeth after getting out of bed or even wearing sensible clothes before dancing outside in the snow?"
Both the siblings groaned. "Mom, it's Christmas! And it's snowing!" Mike said.
"I can see that."
"And yet I can see the frown on your face and the lift in your eyebrows," their father said coming up from behind her with two coffee mugs. "Come on it's Christmas. Live a little!"
Their mother rolled her eyes, but still sat down on the porch beside him. Julia smiled. She loved Christmas. She loved everything it represented. Ever since she was a kid, she waited for this single day all around the year, and it was not just about the gifts like it was for Mike, it was about the feeling. The special feeling of Christmas, the feeling of joy, and the feeling that everything was going to be okay. She looked up at the sky and the thousand white points of snow descending from it. It threw her off balance, it shifted her world from it's axis.
"Come on, now get inside before we all freeze to death," their mother said, getting up with her cup. "We need to go to the store to buy you guys something so you don't mope around for the rest of Christmas. And then we need to go the shelter."
"Are we still doing that?" Mike asked.
"Of course," their mother said.
Julia didn't mind it. In fact she was looking forward to being a part of so many people's Christmas. They volunteered every year; they had started when she was 10 years old just to fulfil her dying grandmother's wish, but they never stopped. It became something of a tradition for them.
The drive to the store was loud, mostly, because Mike wouldn't stop talking. She sat in the back, and looked out the window.
"So have you thought about college?" her mother asked and Julia sighed.
"No mom, I still have time."
"I know that, but you know Julia, you have to get your grades right otherwise-"
"Otherwise I won't get a scholarship, and won't be able to get into a good college because we can't afford it? Yes, I know. You remind me everyday."
Her mother was quiet for a while and it was long enough for her to start feeling guilty.
"You know, your father and I do our best for you guys. Maybe we can't give you everything you want, but we do our best" her mother said quietly.
Julia sighed. "I know mom. I know. I am sorry. I didn't mean to sound dissatisfied. I just...can I just have Christmas for myself? There is still the rest of the year. I just want today for myself."
Her mother didn't say anything, so she looked out the window again and tried to listen to Mike who was still going on in the front about the latest football match. When they arrived she was the first one out of the car and into the store, which made Mike look at her strangely. They eventually lost each other in the many long rows of shiny brilliant things she knew they couldn't afford. But it was okay, she didn't want those things. She had just wanted a little air to breathe.
She was failing in Maths and she couldn't tell anyone at home, because then the daily lecture about college over dinner would grow into something more and she was tired of listening. She was really tired. So yes, she just wanted a little air to breathe.
Eventually she came across this snow globe that made her stop. It was Christmas inside it, tiny white dots making wrinkles on the soft white ground and a single snowman standing under a leafless tree. It was beautiful and she felt mesmerized by this world inside a globe that didn't even exist. But then she turned the price tag around and just like that she was awake. She was about to keep it back on the shelf when a voice came.
"You should take it." A really pretty girl, probably her own age was standing opposite her. She pointed at the globe and said, "It's pretty, you should take it."
Julia smiled at her and shook her head, "Too expensive."
The girl shrugged, "Well, it's Christmas. Everyone deserves a present on Christmas."
Before she could respond a voice called from behind. "Miss Jasmine, it's your mother," a woman said, handing the girl a phone. She looked annoyed, but still answered the phone.
"Yes mom, I got what I wanted....no, no, you both go. It's okay. Work, I get it... have fun."
The girl smiled strangely and hung up the phone. Then she nodded at her and walked away.
Julia looked at her snow globe and made a decision.
Their parents were in the car when they returned.
"You got what you wanted?" their father asked.
At the shelter, the siblings were in charge of distributing food. People came to them in a line and they served food on their plates, sharing a kind word or two and exchanging genuine smiles. It felt freeing to be a part of some strangers' momentary happiness on such a fine day. It was easy to forget about everything else in those moments when an old man thanked her for her kindness or a little boy on his father's arms wished her merry Christmas. These people who had no where else to go on Christmas had at least each other to share the day with. And she was glad to b a part of it.
When the crowd thinned and almost everyone was sitting at a table and eating, Mike came up to her and handed her a few notes.
"What's this?" Julia asked.
"My Christmas money. I heard the conversation in the car. And you don't have to worry, we can save together so you can go to college."
Julia stared at him. And then pulled him into a hug, " You know sisters are supposed to hate their little brothers. And right now you are making that a very difficult task for me."
"Okay," he said, "But can you please stop hugging me right now, you are embarrassing me."
Julia laughed and pulled back. "Listen, you don't have to worry about me, I will figure something out." He nodded.
"Did you really not buy anything for yourself?" she asked and he shook his head.
"Wow, I am impressed. Wait, I have got something for you." She reached into her bag for the globe but it wasn't there. She searched it again.
"What's wrong?" Mike asked.
"I bought this globe at the store today, but it's not here now."
"No, it's not. It was really expensive."
"Julia it's okay. Stop hyperventilating."
She threw her bag down.
"But it's Christmas, everyone deserves a gift on Christmas."
"Yes," Mike said, looking at the several people sitting at the tables, laughing and joking with food on their plates and actual smiles on their faces, "Everyone does."
April looked sideways carefully before crossing the road. The bag on her shoulder felt heavier than it had ever before in her life Or maybe it was just her conscience weighing her down. At this point on the road, she really did not care. Dusk was near. She could see it now, she could see the light fading and the shadows shifting; it would be dark soon. And hopefully by then, her mother would be passed out. Just like every other day.
It had been six months since her father passed away, six months since they had seen a proper meal, a proper night's rest, or safety and security and everything else a parent is supposed to provide. They still had electricity in their one bedroom flat in the other side of the city, they still had water running in the pipes and a roof over their head. It was only because of the advance her father had paid for which they had a bed to sleep in at night. It would all probably last till the end of the year, by when they probably would be evicted for not paying rent. She felt helpless. She did not know what to do, her father would probably, but he wasn't there. She was and her little sister was and she had to take care of them both. It was especially difficult when their mother wouldn't get up from the bed, not unless it was to get a new bottle of alcohol. How she got those, she could never guess.
She heard a carol playing in the distance, and saw the yard of a house light up with all the Christmas lights. It looked beautiful. She wondered about the people behind those doors, she wondered about their lives and their struggles and if they had ever seen days like the ones she had. She shook her head, it was pointless. She had to get home. She had to get to her little sister.
It was a cold night, at least it was not snowing. She used to love the snow when there was still a heater in the house. Now the snow only represented quilts and sweaters they could not buy. She sighed. She needed to stop thinking about things she couldn't change right now. It would lead her nowhere.
Today was a good day. It was Christmas and it would be different.
She walked into her neighborhood that was so different from the house with all the Christmas lights. Some of these houses often did not have any light. But they were okay, they were managing. Rent was cheap in this side of the city and people made do with what they had. April climbed up the stairs to their flat and opened the door. It was dark inside. She switched on the lights and carefully placed her bag on the table. She walked into her mother's room first. She was dead asleep, an empty bottle of vodka by the bed. She did not bother waking her up, because awake or asleep, her presence no longer made a difference in the house. She walked out of the room and went into the balcony.
She was always in the balcony, her sister. She said that it was the only part of the house where there was air to breathe. April did not disagree.
"I got you something," she called from behind.
"What? A Santa Claus?"
April smiled, "Not really."
She brought her bag and sat down beside her. She took out a box of cookies and the last carton of juice in the house.
"Who did you rob?" Jenny asked seriously.
April shrugged, "A homeless shelter. I have also got apples, an orange, three sandwiches and a few candies. Take your pick."
"How did you even get all this?"
April shrugged again, "The kids in charge were too busy having a moment to notice me. Besides I am experienced."
Jenny shook her head sadly. "We shouldn't have to do this."
April sighed, her heart pulled at the sadness in her voice. "Hey, don't you worry about that. It's Christmas, be happy."
Jenny smiled. "I do love Christmas."
Jenny continued looking outside, "I liked it better when he was here you know, and mom was still happy and you still smiled like you meant it. Remember those strange things he would bring home and try to pass as presents? I think he tried to sell me an empty jar once making up some story about some jar of dreams or something. He was very good at that, making up stories, I mean." She look at her sister and touched her cheek. "Hey I didn't mean to make you sad."
April smiled. "You didn't." Then she said, "I have got something else for you." She reached into her bag and pulled out a snow globe. From the look on her sister's face she knew that she loved it. She handed it to her.
Jenny smiled. "It's beautiful. You stole this too?"
April nodded. "I know this won't help us pay rent or bring food to the table. It's of no use to us. but it is beautiful and you deserve something beautiful".
Jenny shook her head, "This could be someone's Christmas present."
"Everyone deserves a present on Christmas. Even we do."
"Not like this," Jenny said.
April sighed. "It's the only way I know, Jen."
She didn't say anything for a while, just sat there with the globe in her lap.
"I always wanted to build a snow man," Jenny said after sometime.
"We will. One day."
They sat outside staring into the night for a long time. They sat there even after it started snowing and neither of them had anything warm to wear.