But why can’t I have more cake?” Veronica pleaded, squeezing Anica’s hand in a death grip.
“Because, sweetheart, you’ve already had three pieces. You’re going to be very sick if you eat any more.”
“Madame!” shrieked Niki. “Michelle broke my tablet!”
Anica felt like she was in some sort of bubble. The arguments and the whining were nothing new, but now she saw it all through the knowledge that at any moment, her orphanage might be bombed sky-high or turned into a torch. She forced herself to concentrate.
“Honey, you’ve had enough screen time for tonight. I think it’s time for everyone to play a game.”
“When’s Haille coming?” Kira asked. She was reading in the sitting room. An actual book. Anica felt a swell of pride.
“I don’t know if she will come. Things are pretty bad out there.”
“Madame!” Sophia yelled. “Caroline stole my shoe!”
She was simply not up to this at the moment. Rayne was in the lobby with Patricia and Henri, consulting a tablet. Although he was worlds more patient with the young ones than Anica was, Rayne still spent most of his time with the older charges.
“Wow, people used to tell their children that this magical old man would break into people’s houses to steal food in exchange for toys!” Henri told them, scrolling on the tablet. “The old man apparently watched the children while they slept, and decide which of them were ‘naughty or nice’. This determined who got presents. If they didn’t make the list of good children, the old man left something called ‘coal’ for them.”
Patricia snatched the tablet. “That sounds horrible! People actually looked forward to this stuff?”
“Hey, look at this!” Rayne pointed to the screen. “He apparently drove a magical levitating aero-sled, pulled by those things.”
“What, horses with tree branches stuck in their heads?” Henri squinted.
“No, they’re something called ‘reindeer’. This is flipped. I’ve never heard of anything so outrageous.” Rayne clicked off the tablet. “Hey, Anica, how’s it going out there?”
She sighed and took a seat next to Patricia. Sometimes she wondered how he could be so clueless. “I need your help, guys. We need to find some way to keep everyone busy, especially the daycare kids. Obviously, their parents aren’t coming for them for a while. Not until this lockdown is lifted.”
Patricia sighed too, much more dramatically. She hated being asked to babysit. “Well, what are we going to do? The food’s mostly gone.”
“Why don’t you play one of the games we planned?” Anica suggested. “At least for a couple hours. Then we can start getting them ready for bed.”
They only had enough room for everyone if five of the kids doubled up in one bed. Two would have to sleep on the floor. After doing this mental math, Anica left to look for extra sheets and pillows. She had to pass through the snack room, and found Adrien at the table.
“What are you doing?” she asked him quietly, taking a seat beside him. Every time she looked into his eyes, she saw the fearful boy from a year previous. She saw his mother, leaving him with Anica and urging her to keep the boy safe. Adrien was the only consolation she had against the doubts of starting this orphanage. She had done it for him, after all. For his mother, her best friend. Who would think to look for the boy here?
“Just colouring,” he replied. Was she mistaken, or was his voice getting a little deeper? He had grown like a skyscraper these past months, and was almost as tall as she was now. Smiling, she passed her hand over his hair.
“Where are the colours, then?” As far as she had seen, he only ever sketched black-and-white drawings.
“My mother used to take me here,” he explained, ignoring her.
She finally looked at the image. A wide river, familiar background. “Ah, La Riviere Seine?”
He nodded. “I remember when I was five. And she took me again, before she…well, before I came here. When I was younger, it took me at least two or three steps to get across. The water came up to my chin! But last year, I just hopped right over.” His sadness made her smile.
“That’s too bad, honey. I remember when I went there as a girl. It was once as big as La Grande Route, you know.”
He stared at his picture, then at her for a moment. She could see him trying to reconcile the image of the fourteen-lane highway with the little creek that had once been the mighty Seine. He smiled and then laughed. It was a rare sound.
“Well, it’s true!” she protested.
He grinned at her and continued drawing. They sat there for about fifteen minutes. Rubbing her stomach, Anica simply watched him. She knew that she would never be forced to make the same decisions as Adrien’ s mother, but still she worried. What would she have to decide for her baby? Accumulated over years and years, what would the choices morph her child into?
Adrien folded up the picture. Leaving the pencils on the table, he left. She followed, making sure he stayed away from the fire.
In the hall, something like music drifted into her ears. She followed Adrien and the harmonic trail into the music room, where miraculously, all thirty-five children were gathered. Henri played the piano, Remi was on the violin, and little Caroline rattled a tambourine. Only Henri and Remi were on key, playing a melody that Anica could only describe as old. On the stage, Patricia held a tablet, singing lyrics off a screen.
“A star, a star, dancing in the night, with a tail as big as a… a kite? What on earth is a kite?” the music ground to a halt as Patricia made a frantic internet search.
“What are you guys doing?” asked Anica.
Rayne bounded up to her, catching her around the waist. “Singing Christmas carols! Another Christmas tradition. One of the less creepy ones, anyway.”
“It sounds…interesting. I’ve never heard music like that before. Where did you learn it, Henri? Remi?”
They shrugged. “Patricia just played this one, and we picked up on it. Come on, Patricia, stop messing around!” Henri commanded. “Let’s try the one about grandma getting run over by those reindeer things!”
“No! That’s too violent. We’re going to do the hippopotamus song,” Patricia ordered.
There was a moment of argument, which was interrupted by the boom and rattle of a bomb going off somewhere. The kids were silent for a moment, clutching each other. Adrien, picking at a xylophone, was the only one who didn’t react. He was used to it.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” Kira said, cautiously letting go of Michelle. “Why don’t we have a Christmas? You know, we can get presents and put up decorations and bake and sing songs!”
The kids agreed excitedly, immediately jumping into making plans. Anica held up her hand. “Whoa, whoa! Guys, we can’t.”
Rayne smiled at her. “Why not? Sounds like a fun historical revival project. I know how fond you are of those”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “One thing I know for sure about Christmas. It was a religious holiday, and you know stuff like that isn’t allowed anymore.”
“Oh, Anica, come on!” He pouted like a kid.
“Rayne, this is a publicly funded establishment. We signed a contract of religious neutrality. I don’t think the parents of any of these kids would appreciate us dabbling in theological antiquity.”
“Seriously? Patricia and I have been reading up on this. Christmas back then had nothing to do with God or anything remotely religious. It was a sales gimmick, nothing more. But there’s some really cool stuff that I think could entertain these kids while we’re…hanging out.” She could tell he had been about to say “trapped.”
“Yea,” Kira cut in. There was the sound of another bomb, farther away and not as startling. “Our parents are probably dead now, anyway.”
Shocked, Anica’s hand flew to her stomach. “No.” She was resolute. “It’s in the name. Christ. We can’t affiliate with such things. And you, young lady. You will not say such things. Your parents will be back for you. This is just a bad night. That’s all.”
Michelle started whimpering, and Kira pulled her close once again, almost glaring at Anica.
“As long as there’s life, there’s hope,” she reminded them firmly, turning to leave and go find those blankets.
“Ecclesiastes 9:4,” Adrien said, quietly enough that she could pretend not to hear him.