Life

Life

In the dream, Anica was at the airport. At first glance, it seemed like the aerotram station, but through the window, jetliners could be seen taking off. All the seats of the boarding area were filled with kids from the Memorial Center. How she knew this, she wasn’t sure, since she could only see the back of their heads, but she knew.

There were two children she didn’t recognize.

“Hey, who are you?” she called to them, from her seat at the back of the boarding area. They stood on tiptoe to talk to the lady at the front desk. Anica realized that this must be a very old airport, if there were still humans working here.

The kids smiled at the women and entered the terminal. Anica ran up to the desk. Turning around, she was still somehow looking at the back of all the children’s heads.

“Who were those kids?” Anica asked the receptionist.

“I’m not sure,” the woman answered, and walked to the door leading to the long, dark tunnel. “Give me a moment. Kids! Kids, come back here for a second!” She peered inside. No one came back out. Nervously, Anica turned to check on the Memorial kids, but the room was empty. There was only one chair, at the very back of the room. The one she had been sitting in.

“Kids! Come here!” The woman called again, and when Anica looked, she realized it was Haille, a cross expression on her face as she stood in front of the doorway. Theatrically, she sighed and faced Anica. “I guess we’ll never know,” she said.

***

It was a week before anyone thought to spare the food. Anica hadn’t been too hard on the children. They were scared and needed to continue with as much normalcy as possible, which included sneaking junk food at every opportunity. But after several days, the fighting in the streets got worse, and no one came to tell them that it was safe to go outside again. First, the sweets disappeared. Then the crackers and bread. And when there was nothing but fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious items left, Anica knew it was time to put her foot down.

“Okay guys, listen up!” she announced, facing off against the assembly she had dragged out of bed. Bleary-eyed and foggy-brained, they didn’t interrupt her as she spoke. Rayne was there with her for decoration, and she pretended not to notice that he made faces every time she had her back to him. “This is getting ridiculous. Your parents would be pretty cut up about how much crap I let you guys eat. From now on, healthy snacks only! We’ve only got so much to go around.”

There were only a few quiet groans, since some of the youngest kids had drifted back to sleep. There was an explosion that seemed like it was just outside their door, but nobody so much as blinked.

“Alright guys, let’s get dressed and get the beds made, then we will have breakfast.” She smiled brightly and shooed them until they all shuffled out of the room. Then she collapsed to the floor, leaning her head against the wall. She folded her hands over her stomach.

“Rayne, what are we going to do?” she whimpered. Carefully, he sat beside her, and she rested her head against his chest. “I don’t know if I can handle this many kids for much longer. We didn’t plan for this!”

He worked his hand under hers to rest on her stomach. She was too tired to resist. And her grape-sized baby probably needed all the strength it could get. “We don’t need a plan. We just need love. And that sometimes means laying down some new rules.”

She nodded against his shirt. He drove her up the wall sometime, but she would never trade him for anything, ever. “And some of them are still bothering me about Christmas. I don’t know why they care so much. We need to try to get their attention on something else until this mess is over with.” She had to keep telling herself that the fighting would be over soon, and the kids would get to see their parents. If she stopped believing for even a minute, they would know.

***

“Okay, guys, put that chair right in the center of the room,” Adrien directed Kira and Remi, who struggled to hold the stuffed recliner between them. They dropped it where Adrien indicated.

“Alright, Remi – er, King Herod – take a seat. Here’s your sceptre” – Adrien handed him a turkey baster – “and here’s your crown.” The crown was a long string of silver and white costume beads wrapped and tied into a six-tiered band. Remi glared sternly and waved his sceptre. “Baron, Ace, and Ramsey – are you ready with the cinnamon, vanilla and corn?”

“Yes,” Ramsey, the usually bossy eight-year-old replied. “But I was just wondering, which of us is the wisest?”

Adrien flipped through his worn, ratty-looking Bible. “Umm, probably Balthazar,” he said absentmindedly. Ace, who was sixteen, shot Ramsey and Baron a superior look. “Okay, everybody ready? Let’s take it from the top. Jesus has just been born, and you’ve come to worship him. But Herod, you’re crazy jealous and – ”

The door banged against the wall. It had been open just a little bit, and suddenly, Madame stood on the threshold. “Adrien? Children? What is going on here?” She had one hand on her hip and one against the doorframe. Adrien stared in confusion at her annoyed, narrow-eyed face. She pushed off the wall and marched over to him, snatching the sacred book from his stiffened fingers.

“Hey!” he protested, grabbing for it. She dangled it between her fingers, at arm’s length, as though it might bite her.

“Adrien, what is this? What are you guys doing? And what are you doing with all that food?”

He touched his temple, trying to decide which question to answer first. Start with the first one, duh, his mind jeered. “Okay, I will.” Anica stared at him. “I mean, that’s a Bible you’ve got there. We’re making a play about Christmas. And the food is part of it, the cinnamon is supposed to be frankincense, the vanilla is myrrh, and – ”

“Frankin-what?” Anica cried, tossing the Bible on the floor. Adrien cringed and reached for it, but she dropped a hand on his shoulder, bending to his eye-level. “Adrien, I thought I told you guys already. No Christmas. It’s not an appropriate activity.”

He struggled to retrieve his book, but Anica’s hand tightened on his shoulder. Almost painfully. “I know, Madame, but that was just because of what stupid Patricia told everyone, from that bogus website. I just wanted everyone to know what the real meaning of Christmas is.”

She groaned and sat back on her heals, so that she looked up at him now. She seemed to search his face. For what? Faces lied. Why did people think they could read his mind that way? “Alright, little man. What’s the meaning of Christmas?”

He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. Her eyes twisted into his, expectant. She’s waiting, dummy. Say something! “Ummm…” You can do better than that. “Uh, o-okay. Christmas…”

Baron, who was only a year older than Adrien, crept forward. “Adrien told us that Christmas is the day Jesus was born.”

“An imaginary day,” Anica explained. “Jesus is just part of a story.”

Baron glanced at Adrien, who had warned them that the adults would say such things. “Yes. A fairy tale. Anyway, the thing is that we’re all horrible people, doomed to go to hell.”

“Baron!” Anica croaked. “Why would you say such a thing? Don’t say things like that in front of the children!”

Baron stepped a little closer. “Madame, that’s the thing. It’s horrible to think about, and people back then, before Christmas, knew just how horrible it was. But it doesn’t end there! Christmas was the first day that people started to have some hope. Jesus was born on Christmas to be a…what’s the word, Adrien?”

Staring at his Bible lying open on the ground, Adrien took a breath. “A substitute. A savior.”

“Yea. So we don’t have to go to hell. So Christmas was a really, really happy day.”

Anica rubbed her temple. “Oh, this is worse than the Santa Clause thing.”

“What? Why?” Baron asked. Adrien wondered the same thing.

She ignored Baron and stood. “Listen to me, guys. There’s no such thing as hell, okay? The last thing I need is to deal with your nightmares. Adrien, I need you to stop filling these guys’ heads with your horrible ideas. Okay, sweetheart?”

He remembered Anica from when his mother had dropped him off here, at this stupid orphanage. She had been a little nicer then, even if she was a little disorganized. He hadn’t thought he would ever want to leave his mom, but Anica had told him it would all be okay. Adults had made such promises before, of course, but for some reason, he had believed her. Adrien missed his mom a little, but it wasn’t so bad when Anica was around. Except for right now. He swallowed, fighting to stay calm. For a moment, he couldn’t look at his Bible, cast to the floor like an old shirt.

He focused on his breathing.

“Adrien? Do you understand me?”

Trying to appear sincere, he nodded. Lifting his head, he fixed his eyes on her, observing how her face softened. “Yes, Madame. I’m sorry.”

Her lips pressed into a line. She passed a hand over his hair. “It’s okay, sweetheart. Just no more, okay? Lunch in an hour, you guys! And it’s the older kids’ turn to help get everything ready.” Scooping up the Bible, she walked out amidst Kira, Baron and Ace’s groans.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Remi whined, rising from his throne.

Adrien wiped his hands on his shirt, and went to the door, closing it firmly.

“She’s got your Bible thing, Adrien,” Kira pouted. “Now how are we going to play?”

“Don’t worry,” Adrien assured them, with a little laugh. He touched his head, and his heart. “I’ve got it all. Right here. So, King Herod.” Adrien bowed, and motioned Remi back to the throne. “You’re one of the people who isn’t happy about this newborn King. Here’s what you’re going to do…”

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