Lisa Fargazer looked around at those who had gathered for the Urchins’ Ball. It was still cold, very cold, but the urchins there looked quite warmed and cheered by the music and dancing. A few adults had gathered, too, perhaps keeping an eye on things, but also giving themselves up to the enjoyment of the season. And everyone was waiting for the arrival of Steam Santa.
There had been an odd interlude, when a strange, mean man showed up. Lisa heard the other urchins call him Jenkins, or Angry Jenkins. And angry he certainly was, infuriated at the happiness on the dance floor. He even tried to freeze a couple of the urchins–though, thankfully, the effects were only temporary. Jimmy, leading some of the others, had managed to drive the strange man away with a volley of well-thrown snowballs.
And then Steam Santa came–he and his helper, the Boiler Elf. Lisa hung back, politely letting the younger children go forward. Indeed, she was the next-to-last in line, with only the late-comer Nathan behind her. She finally stepped forward, still shy, but not as painfully so as last year, and carefully sat down on Santa’s lap, hearing encouraging words behind her from those gathered.
Steam Santa looked at her through his goggles. “Miss Lisa. Still here?”
Lisa wasn’t surprised that he remembered. It was obvious to her that he had great powers. “Yes, sir,” she replied. “I decided to stay.”
“And how are you finding it?”
“It isn’t easy,” she admitted. “But it’s good to be able to help all my friends.” She knew he’d know she meant not only her cat family and friends, but also Arnold, and the other urchins.
“That’s good to hear.” Santa smiled at her.
“Certainly are an altruistic lot this year,” the Boiler Elf muttered. Lisa looked around at him. “Al… al-tru-istic?” she asked, confused.
“Obviously, our example of giving to others is rubbing off,” Steam Santa said, somewhat reprovingly. Lisa turned her attention back to him as he asked, “And was there anything you wanted for Christmas this year?”
“Yes, please. I’m trying to learn to read, and I’d like a few books to help me.”
The Boiler Elf nodded. “Books.”
From the crowd, Lisa heard Mrs. Breezy, the hostess, say, “Awww. What a good girl, asking for books.”
“I think we can manage that,” Steam Santa said.
“And some treats for all the cats.”
“I’m sure something can be done for the cats, too.”
“Thank you, sir.” Lisa smiled at him, hopped down from her perch, and backed away, leaving room for Nathan to step up. Still smiling, she joined the other urchins for the rest of the ball.
Lisa woke up on Christmas morning in her corner in the Sneaky Vole building. Ever since she’d heard rumors that Loki’s Absinthe cafe and the Imperial Theater had been sold, she preferred staying away from there… just in case. The Sneaky Vole was also much closer to the Asylum, which was also a good thing.
Rubbing her eyes, she looked at the foot of her rough mattress, comprised of a threadbare blanket wrapped around the cleanest straw she could scavenge. And there, placed so silently she’d never stirred in her sleep, was a small stack of books.
She reached out eagerly, drawing the books to her. There were four in total, of a size that would still fit in the pack where she kept her few belongings. Two books were just what she asked for–simple books to help her improve her reading. She couldn’t help but grimace at the third book, as it was a basic math book. Lisa had had a hard enough time simply learning the concepts of numbers and counting–such things weren’t necessary for cats. Still, if Steam Santa thought she needed to learn it…
The last book in the pile made her pause. There was a picture of a rabbit on it–a rabbit standing up, and wearing very fancy clothing. She carefully sounded out the words on the front. “Uncle… Ting–Tingley’s… Christmas… Tales…” She said the rest in a rush. “For New Babbage Young ‘Uns.” Her brow furrowed as she remembered what she’d heard Mr. Obadiah Biggins telling some other folks several days ago. About the legend of Uncle Tingley’s, the thefts of the three copies of that book, and how he, Mr. Victor Mornington, and Miss Bookworm Hienrichs had found the books in the Athenaeum and, at the evident direction of Steam Santa, had read the books aloud, including the different last words, which lead to the miracle of the coal. But why would Steam Santa give her one of those books? And, indeed, which copy did she now have?
Lisa opened the book and flipped to the last page. Placing her finger on the page, she began sounding out the last sentence. “And may you… re… re-kive?” She struggled over the word for a moment, before finally hitting on “receive.” “And may you receive the Christmas gift of–”
She broke off, staring. Finally, incredulously, she said, “Fishy treats?!”
A sound burst from her lips. She tried to muffle it, to swallow it down, but it wouldn’t be contained. She was frightened at first, until she finally realized what it was.
It had taken Lisa a long time to learn to smile, and even now, she didn’t smile often. But never before had she laughed. She laughed now, though–laughed until tears streamed down her cheeks. And as she laughed, she realized that this, *this* was her true gift from Steam Santa.
Other urchins, roused by the noise, gathered around her, grinning, as she continued to laugh and laugh.
((The typist behind Lisa, Bookworm, and Mariah wishes all of you a joyous Christmas!))