Diane D. Gillette "St. Nicholas"
Hanna told us how St. Nicholas used to fill her shoe with lollipops, chocolate coins, and tiny little toys when she was just a girl.
"Don't you mean your parents filled your shoe?" yawned Ursula.
The walls were snug around us, five hard-luck girls sharing a two-bedroom apartment alone-together in a candy-bright city that made promises it couldn't keep. We’d all crept there, one by one from corners darkened by bruises and boyfriends turned pimp and families who confused identity with lifestyle. We’d bandaged each other and fed each other chicken noodle soup. We built a sisterhood on the betrayal of those who should have loved us. We sustained each other like regular meals couldn’t have.
"It was St. Nicholas," Hanna insisted.
"It sounds like a darling tradition," Fiona sighed from where she starfished on the rug, taking up as much space as she could. We didn't begrudge her. She’d been made to feel too small too many times.
I shrugged and met LeeLee's eyes. She’d been the first of us to claim sanctuary here and as was her right, often mother-henned the rest of us. Like the rest of us, she’d yet to celebrate her 21st birthday. "We could do it. Why not?"
"All you're going to get is a shoe full of rat droppings," Ursula assured us. But she followed us, jostling through to stare analytically at the shoe rack by the front door. She was the one who thought to grab her over the knee black boots. The ones with stupidly high heels. The ones that sometimes helped pay the bills. The boots reeked of shame and gratitude. Maybe St. Nicholas could save them.
"I mean, if we're going to do this," Ursula giggled.
We each grabbed our tallest boots and decided the fire escape would be best. At the last minute, Hanna grabbed an old bag of baby carrots from our fridge. "For St. Nick's donkey. It would be better if we had hay though." We paused in a moment of reflection on how this whole mission might be derailed from the lack of hay. But we were city girls now. Hay existed only in a dimly lit world we’d each abandoned one by one.
We dropped three dried-out carrots in each boot and lined them up under our window.
"Does it look like snow to you?" Fiona asked.
We found ourselves reluctant to head to bed after that. We joked about the prospect of finding our boots filled the next morning. Mushrooming with treats galore. We longed for cherry tarts and cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. The laughter lit up our tiny space in a way that a Christmas tree couldn't have.
We fell asleep on the rug like a pile of kittens. I dreamt of lollipop forests and a donkey with a velvety nose.
When the pink morning light tickled our eyelashes, we blinked and stretched and tried to remember why we were all asleep on the floor. It was LeeLee who gasped, "The boots!" We scrambled up and opened the window, pulled in our boots before our hard-earned heat escaped.
We pulled out clementines and candy. Bags of caramel popcorn. Our fingers got sticky when we found the tarts and cupcakes. I was licking cream cheese frosting from my thumb, feeling the sugary joy melt into me, when Fiona found a diamond necklace. Then Ursula found a bar of gold. Our piles of treasure grew bigger and bigger until we could barely spot one another. We felt the walls of our apartment stretching and growing to accommodate the third bedroom that LeeLee found in the toe of her boot. By the time I found affordable health care and autonomy over my own body tucked deep in mine, my sisters’ voices had grown distant and muffled.
When I thought that my boot was at long last empty, I turned it upside down and shook it, just to make sure. The others must have done the same. Cash floated around like a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Enough cash for tuition and fresh vegetables for dinner. Enough cash that our mothers and fathers might welcome us back home if we could just find the forgiveness in our hearts. That, at least, St. Nicholas forgot to include.
Joy surged through me and the urge to dance with my sisters had me reaching for the warmth of their hands, the pulse of their hearts to match my own, but I met only a cold wall of everything a hard-luck girl needed to turn her life around, everything except that which once sustained me. Fear gripped and strangled, and I anguished over the certainty that we’d all be crushed under the enormous weight of unspoken wishes come true.
Diane D. Gillette’s work has appeared in many literary venues including the Saturday Evening Post, Blackbird, and Hobart. She’s a founding member of the Chicago Literary Writers and a Best Small Fictions nominee. She lives in Chicago. You can find more of her work at www.digillette.com.