The side of the steam sleigh folded out with a hiss of machinery, and other partitions shifted around, until two seats had been created – a large one for Steam Santa, and a smaller perch for the Boiler Elf. The two august personages took their seats, and Steam Santa called out in a booming voice, “Kendra Brown!”
Kendra was nudged forward by the other children surrounding her. She looked back at them, unsure, and ended up catching Mariah’s eye. Mariah nodded emphatically at her, and so she finally stepped forward, and drew near to Steam Santa.
As Kendra mounted the steps to bring her to a level where she could sit easily on Santa’s lap, he said loudly, “Congratulations on calling me. You have a good eye.”
“But–” That was all Kendra could get out, before Santa laid a hand atop hers and leaned closer, murmuring something. Kendra whispered something back, and Santa nodded as he said a few more words. Whatever it was, the anxious look on Kendra’s face smoothed out into happiness. Their whispered conversation continued for another moment, before Santa finally leaned back. “The Boiler Elf has your gift bag, my child,” he said aloud. “Happy Christmas.”
“Happy Christmas to you, sir,” she replied, taking her bag. She scurried off of Santa’s lap and down the line of waiting children, toward some of the other orphans. As she got to Mariah, though, she paused. “Thank you,” she said softly, but very fervently. Before Mariah could make any reply, Kendra had slipped away to see her friends in line.
There were about a dozen children ahead of Mariah in line, so it was a while before her turn came. Just before the boy in front of her had finished his time with Santa, Mariah heard her name called. Turning to the right, she spotted her mother waving with one hand, while holding her little brother John, who looked like a shapeless bundle of fabric in all of his winter clothing, in her other arm. She waved back, and then stepped forward for her own turn.
Mariah’s mother had taken her to see Steam Santa for the previous three years. Each of those times, Santa had asked her the usual questions – had she been a good girl, and what did she want for Christmas. This time, though, once she’d settled herself down on his lap, he looked at her intently and said softly, “A sacrifice, freely given, is often its own reward. Wouldn’t you agree?”
She stared up at him, puzzled, and feeling disappointment growing inside her. She realized now that she’d been hoping, since Steam Santa seemed to know everything, that he’d know about what she’d done, and she would be rewarded. But Santa’s words… did that mean she wouldn’t be?
Mariah looked back toward the crowd of children, and easily spotted Kendra at the center of an admiring circle of kids. As if sensing Mariah’s gaze, Kendra looked her way, and the unalloyed joy on her face made Mariah smile in reply. She realized that what she’d done for the girl had truly made not only Kendra, but herself, happy, and she knew the memory of it would bring back that happiness for a long time to come.
So she turned back to Steam Santa, her own joyful smile still on her lips, and replied, “Yes, sir. It is.”
Santa nodded at the Boiler Elf, who nodded back as he brought forth another gift bag. “Happy Christmas, Mariah,” Steam Santa said as she took the bag from the elf.
“Thank you, sir.” Mariah took her bag and ran to her mother, giving her a fierce, waist-high hug. Her mother, grinning, stooped down and handed her half of a sticky bun, still warm from the bakery’s stall. Mariah devoured it gratefully, and the three of them lingered in the yard, watching the various entertainments, until it was time to return home for supper.