The icy streets of Chicago were silent save for the sound of a single pair of tennis shoes pounding against the pavement in a steady run. Noel’s breath turned white in the frigid nighttime air and though it was Christmas Eve, there was no sign of it on the dirty, run down streets she was traveling. Her greasy hair flew behind her in a bright banner of gold as she desperately clutched the brown paper bag full of tiny trinkets for her brothers and sisters. Technically there was no blood relation, but the living at St. Clarence Orphanage was the closest thing she had to family. Weaving her way through parked cars and alley ways, she hurried through the darkened streets, praying she wouldn’t meet with any trouble. She had to get home as soon as possible, the precious gifts she carried were the only presents the younger children of the orphanage would receive from ‘Santa’. While at an early age her own illusions of Christmas had been shattered, Noel didn’t want the same for the tiny tots of St Clarence. They deserved to hold onto what little magic they were able to grasp.
Using a parked car as leverage, she leapt over a large patch of ice, a small grin touching her lips as she made it safely to the other side. A quick glance around told her she was not too far away from the place she called home, and if she hurried the front door would still be unlocked by the time she arrived. It would save her from having to climb the rusty chain link fence and climb through the back window. She had almost made it to the corner of S. Harmony when a patch of black ice sent her sprawling. Pain exploded behind her eyes as her head met with the sidewalk. Dazed, it took a moment for her to recover, but when she did, she pushed herself to her knees gingerly. Noel looked down to see her frozen red hands cut and torn, one knuckle bleeding slightly.
“Perfect.” She muttered to herself as she rose to her feet, her sharp eyes instantly searching the ground for her gifts. The brown bag lay a few feet away from her and she picked it up counting the gifts quickly, she was missing three. Not seeing the gifts on the sidewalk she began to dig through the snow, her already frozen hands becoming useless.
“Crap.” Her search became more and more panicked as she found two gifts, but not the remaining third. She was so engrossed that she didn’t hear the car door slam behind her or the person approaching her.
“Is everything alright here, Miss?”
Noel jerked around, startled and slightly miffed at being taken by surprise. There standing above her in the street was a cop, his gold badge peeking through the blue jacket he wore to ward off the cold. Though he was a member of the city police, Noel had learned that this didn’t always equal morality. She’d met her fair share of crooked cops, and in her eyes there was no difference between them and the one standing in front of her.
He raised his eyebrows as the young girl began searching the snow once more. If his calculations were correct she couldn’t be more than twelve years of age, though the shadows he saw in her eyes suggested otherwise.
“You want to tell me what you’re doing out so late on Christmas Eve, honey? Your parents are probably worr-“
“I don’t have parents.” She snapped.
Well alright-y then, he thought to himself. Not only was she a street rat, but she was also street rat with plenty of fire and gumption. As he looked at her, he saw the tell tale signs: jeans with holes in the knees and fraying along the hem, a shirt too small covered by a jacket that wasn’t fit for a cat to have kittens in.
“Listen, I can’t just leave you here alone so can I give you a ride somewhere? Buy you a cup of coco? Help you find whatever it is you’re looking for?”
Noel stood then, looking the cop up and down and scrutinizing him carefully. He looked like what she always pictured a decent cop would look like, clean cut with something of a friendly smile playing around his mouth. His skin was a warm brown that reminded her of chocolate with eyes to match that watched her with interest. But could she trust him?
“Show me your badge and your I.D. so I know you’re a real cop.”
Slowly, as if he knew sudden movements would scare her off, he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a black leather wallet. He showed it to her before he tossed it to her over the short distance that separated them. Noel opened it and glanced at the badge before reading the name on the I.D.
“Officer Kristopher Nelson.” She eyed the cop in front of her and decided that if he were going to try and pull something funny, he would have done so already. She tossed back the wallet cradled the bag against her.
“I dropped a small toy and I can’t find it in the snow.” She said her voice strained with distress.
He smiled wide and pulled a ball from his pocket.
“Hey that’s mine!” She cried snatching it from his hands and place it protectively back in the bag before backing away hastily.
“What’s your name, honey?”
“And how old are you, Noel?”
“Somewhere around thirteen, I think.”
“You think?” Officer Nelson asked with raised eyebrows.
“I was dumped on the doorstep of St. Clarence as a baby. Sister Allen and Sister Martinez think I’m about thirteen but they aren’t sure. I didn’t come with any papers or birth certificate.”
Ah, the cop thought, not a street rat but an orphan. He cocked his head to the side before gesturing to the car behind him.
“Would you like a ride home?”
Noel shrugged her shoulders and let her gaze fall to the snow covered ground, but when he turned to walk back to the car she followed. She climbed into the passenger side while Officer Nelson climbed in behind the wheel and turned the car on. Noel sat back in her seat and looked around the inside of car with a touch of wonder in her eyes.
“I’ve never been inside a car before.” She murmured quietly. He stopped what he was doing and looked at her incredulously.
Noel shook her head.
“St. Clarence doesn’t have a lot of money, in fact, it’s amazing when everyone is able to eat until they’re full.” She looked at the dashboard with curiosity as the sleek buttons lit up suddenly. “Though there are only twenty five of us including Sister Allen and Sister Martinez it’s still hard to get by. The older kids like Jacob, Sissy, and Celeste all manage to bring in what money they can but it’s not much.”
“And those toys? How did you manage that?”
Noel was quiet for a moment before she answered softly.
“I work under the table for certain businesses, doing grunt work and the jobs that no one really wants to do. I’ve been saving what little I’ve made since August, knowing that this month would be the hardest for us. The little kids don’t-“ She stopped, and when Officer Nelson glanced over at her he saw a glimmer of tears. “The little kids don’t understand that Santa isn’t real, and that no matter how good they’ve been there will be nothing under that tree for them. For the past few years, I’ve done my best to save and buy them what little I can so they won’t know the truth. They’re so young and so full of hope and faith, and they believe so much in the magic of Christmas. I just. . .”
“You just, what?”
“I just can’t bear to take that away from them.”
Officer Nelson listened with something akin to shock and amazement as the young girl began to open up to him, and share the somewhat painful details of her upbringing. He thought of his own daughter, Kelsey, who had just turned thirteen in November. She was a bright lively girl, smart and full of wit. He and his wife had always made sure that Kelsey and her brother wanted for nothing, and he had never thought anything of it until now, sitting in his car listening to Noel’s soft voice.
“What about you Noel? Will there be anything waiting for you under the tree?”
She snorted and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
“No, there never is. Though I wish sometimes there would be. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive, just something that will bring the magic back.”
The wistfulness in her voice tugged at Nelson’s heartstrings, and he wished there was something more he could do. Unfortunately, he had just pulled up to St. Clarence; Noel was already unbuckling and thanking him. Before he could utter a word, the passenger door slammed shut, and she waved to him before disappearing over the chain link fence. As he pulled away a thought suddenly slammed into him. Reaching for the radio he called into the station.
“This is White, go.”
“White, this is Nelson. You know that project we were discussing earlier? Project S.S.?”
“I found the perfect place to execute it.”
A smile on his face, Nelson quickly related all the details to his partner and laughed when White immediately jumped on board with the idea. Come morning one way or another, magic would be brought to St Clarence.
Screams of delight was what woke a tired Noel from a deep sleep. The air was surprisingly warm as she pushed back her covers and sat up in her bed. Two small figures raced to her beside, laughing and talking at once.
“Noel come look, Santa came! He really did! There’s decorations, and food, and-“
Noel was confused as they grabbed her hands and dragged her from the crowded bedroom to the downstairs common room where she was properly dazzled by everything. Ribbons and glittering ornaments decorated a large tree right next to the fire that was currently burning in the fireplace. The smell of something delicious wafted into the room from the direction of the kitchen, if she wasn’t mistaken it smelled like sausage and eggs. Boxes of every size, shape, and color, sat beneath the brightly lit tree and eager young eyes darted from one thing to another, never fully stopping to rest on one particular thing.
“Noel, huwwy up. We can’t open pwesents until you come sit down!”
Noel quickly made her way over to Sister Allen who was grinning from ear to ear as she came into the common room from the kitchen.
“Sister Allen, I don’t understand, how did we afford this?”
“We didn’t dear. When Sister Martinez and I woke it was all here. There was a note on the tree that said “Merry Christmas from your Secret Santa.”
Noel stood dazed amidst the laughter. She was startled from her thoughts by a package thrown toward her head.
“That’s for you.” Sissy called with a grin.
With trembling fingers, Noel unwrapped a box no bigger than her palm, hardly daring to believe it was hers. Carefully she opened the box and caught her breath when she saw a delicate silver bracelet with small silver stars dangling from it, a piece of paper nestled in the center. She read the words scrawled across it.
‘Merry Christmas, Noel.’
Tears burned her eyes, and Noel smiled her first real smile in a long, long, time. The magic was back.