By Jodi Hiser
Anna Hoffman shifted her weight on the edge of the top stair in her family duplex. From her high perch, her eyes could see below into the living room on the left and a small pocket of the kitchen on the right. In their living room down below, light emanated from their miniature Christmas tree, bouncing off the walls in colorful freckles of tiny brilliance. The tree was not the loveliest of evergreens—it rather reminded Anna of Charlie Brown’s forlorn Christmas tree—but it was all that her mama could afford at the discount store. Anna tried to think about good things—about Christmas carols and presents for the family, and about roasted turkey for next week’s Christmas dinner. But it was all just a holiday fairytale. The magic of Christmas happened to other people. Not to her family.
Anna had been sitting in the stairwell for ten minutes now, trying to meld into the shadows of the dark hall, yet be close enough to eavesdrop on her mother who was in the kitchen.
It was a little past 11 pm, and Anna had never made it to sleep that night. Her older sister Leah had been studying algebra late into the night, rudely shining the desk lamp in their room. Ever since Leah had turned fourteen and entered into the ninth grade, she had become a snootier version of herself. Leah imperiously acted like their girls’ room was her room, barely tolerating Anna’s presence.
Anna had heard her mother come in from work and slam the front door. When Anna got out of bed with the intent to greet Mama with a hug, she hadn’t made it past the stairwell. Mama was already on the phone with their landlord. Again.
“What do you mean the water will be shut off?” barked Mama into the phone. “I paid that bill yesterday!”
Anna heard audible toe-tapping on the tile floor.
“Mr. Maxwell, you know we are good tenants! I work two jobs to support my family, and my bills are always paid!”
More toe-tapping on the floor.
“I know we forgot to pay the garbage collection service, but I quickly paid it once I realized the error. Honestly, Mr. Maxwell, please!”
Anna held her breath. Mr. Maxwell didn’t seem to like their family. Maybe it was because he knew the kids were always home alone, or that Leah blared her music in the afternoons. Maybe it was that her little brother Simeon had squashed Mr. Maxwell’s rose bush while running to catch a football in a neighborhood pick-up game. No matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t be “good” tenants for Mr. Maxwell.
Just then, Simeon came and sat down on the top step with Anna. He was holding a blue flannel blanket and carrying his stuffed elephant.
“What’s going on?” he yawned as he bundled his blanket and elephant on the top of his lap.
“Shh, Simeon,” whispered Anna. “Mama’s on the phone. With Mr. Maxwell again.”
“Why is she on the phone so late? What time is it anyway?” asked Simeon.
“It’s 11:15. How about you go back to bed? Your loud whispers are gonna get us both in trouble!” hissed Anna.
“What about you, Miss Smarty Pants? What makes you get to be out here and not me?”asked Simeon in his not-so-discreet whispering voice.
“Because Leah is keeping me awake while she’s doing her homework,” said Anna with a roll of her eyes and a mocking voice.
Simeon huffed. “You think that just because you’re ten and I’m seven that you can boss me around, but you can’t! I’m telling you—“
“Shh!!” hissed Anna. “Go back to your room!”
Simeon’s room was actually the hall closet, remodeled by Mama to make a boy’s sleeping quarters. The coats had been cleared away and Mama had lined the tiny space with bookshelves and a small LED light. On the floor was a child-sized mattress with several blankets and two pillows. It was cozy, but tight. Despite its cramped nature, Anna often envied Simeon’s private space. Why did she always have to be stuck in the middle with everything?
“I’m staying here and you can’t make me go back, so there,” Simeon huffed again and put his elbows on his knees.
“Fine, then just be quiet,” whispered Anna. “Mama shouldn’t know we’re here.”
Anna could hear Mama slump into a kitchen chair. “Thank you Mr. Maxwell. I will make sure the kids know to be extra quiet after nine pm. And yes, I will make sure I get you our rent the day it is due, and not the day after. Yes, yes. Thank you Mr. Maxwell. Good-bye.”
Anna heard Mama clunk the phone down on the kitchen table.
“She sounds like she needs a hug. Should we go give her a hug?” asked Simeon.
Anna got up and put an arm down to help her little brother. “No,” she whispered. “Let’s just go back to your room and I’ll read you a story.”
Despite Anna’s annoyances with her little brother, the two shared a deep love for books, and even when their arguments were of the most bitter flavor, a good book always turned things right again, joining them back together as the pals they always liked to be.
The two stow-aways tiptoed their way back to Simeon’s closet and plopped down on his mattress. Before Anna could spread out the blanket over them, Simeon handed her his favorite book.
She cozied herself onto his pillow and began to read, “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy…”
When Anna awoke the next day, Mama was standing at Simeon’s closet door with her hands on her hips.
“Up and out of bed, you two,” she said. “It’s Friday! We don’t want to be late for school this morning, and I don’t want to be late for my first shift of the day.”
Anna and Simeon hopped out of bed and ran to get dressed before the school bus could leave them behind. They didn’t want to walk to school in the freezing cold!
In the school cafeteria later that day, Anna sat alone with her lunch tray, trying to stomach the beef chunks and brown gravy glop that jiggled on her plate. As she sat deep in thought, her best friend Lottie sat down beside her. Anna wasn’t sure why Lottie liked her. Lottie came from a rich family, and she always wore nice clothes. Lottie’s mother always packed her lunch with fun things like pasta salad, specialty crackers and cheese, homemade cookies, and fruit. Anna would have given all her free cafeteria tickets for the month just to have a lunch like that.
“Christmas is one week away,” said Lottie with her pony tail swinging side to side. “I am so excited for the winter break. What do you want for Christmas?”
It was a harmless question. But the words plopped into Anna’s stomach like a heavy stone. She couldn’t bring herself to say that all she ever wanted was a Super Starlight Sharon Doll. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her best friend that she had wanted one of those dolls for three years. She knew the reality. Those dolls were over one hundred dollars. Her mother could never afford such an extravagant gift. But that didn’t make it any easier to wish the desire away.
“Uhm, I’m not really asking for anything this year,” said Anna as nonchalantly as possible.
Lottie jerked her head backwards in surprise. “‘What do you mean? Don’t you want something? Anything for Christmas?”
Anna tried to appear disinterested. How could she tell her friend that she probably wasn’t getting anything special for Christmas? “Well, I don’t really care. I have all the things I really want.”
Anna cringed inside. She had just told a big, fat lie.
After the bus dropped off the three Hoffman children that afternoon, Leah looked at the younger siblings. “I’m going inside to call my friends. Don’t. Bother. Me. Got it?”
Anna rolled her eyes and looked up at her sister. “Sure, Leah. Whatever.”
Simeon put down his backpack and grabbed a ball from a bin on the side of their duplex. “Hey, Anna, you wanna play soccer with me?” he asked. “I promise I won’t hog the ball.”
Anna looked from Leah to Simeon and then nodded. “Sure. Sounds much more fun than listening to Leah talk, talk, talk.” She rolled her eyes again.”But be careful around Mr. Maxwell’s bushes, okay?”
While the two kids tossed the ball to each other in the narrow street, their game was interrupted by the garbage collectors who came every Friday afternoon. The extra wide, extra loud truck had made its stops all along their neighborhood before finally arriving at their row of duplexes. As the truck gurgled its way to their driveway and squeaked to a stop, the two siblings stepped out of the street and into the yard to watch the garbage man do his job. Ever since he was a toddler, Simeon had always loved garbage day. When Simeon was three, he had named the garbage man Mr. Gilly, regardless of who he was. It didn’t matter that the garbage man changed faces every now and then; he was always Mr. Gilly to Simeon.
Simeon waved to the garbage man. The garbage man waved at the kids. Then the garbage man did something that he had never done before. He got out of his truck and walked toward them!
Anna felt a sudden panic. Even though they called him Mr. Gilly, he was still a stranger. What could he possibly want with the kids? Oh, what was she supposed to do if he talked to her? Be polite? Run away?
The garbage man stepped in front of them holding a small Walmart sack. “Hey kids,” he said. “I hoped you’d be outside today. I wanted to give this to you especially, young lady.”
Anna took a step backward. Her breath caught up in her throat. She knew she wasn’t supposed to accept anything from anyone she didn’t know. Alarm bells were ringing in all parts of her body.
“Don’t worry. It’s not going to hurt ya,” he said. “It was on top of the trash heap in the neighborhood across the way. I just thought you’d like it, is all.”
He placed the sack in front of her feet and walked away. “Merry Christmas!” he yelled over his shoulder, waving his hand at them before he got back into his truck and drove away.
Anna watched the monstrous garbage truck lurch with a sputter and a groan as it scuttled right out of their neighborhood. The two kids stood stunned at the encounter that had just occurred.
“Well, open the bag, Anna!” yelled Simeon, jumping up and down.
The familiar figure inside the bag gave Anna’s heart such a twinge that it almost skipped a beat. Anna reached gingerly inside the plastic Walmart sack and gasped. Inside the bag was a dirty, scraggly-looking doll.
But it was not just any doll. It was a Super Starlight Sharon Doll.
Her dress was dirty and missing two buttons. Her hair was sticking out in a tangled mess with frays of ribbon tucked around matted braids. Her fingernails had been painted, and she had flower drawings on both of her feet. But it was THE doll that had clouded her dreams and wishes for the past three years.
“Hey, Anna!” yelled Simeon. “That’s one of those Sharon dolls, isn’t it?” he asked, trying to smooth the doll’s hair.
Anna couldn’t believe her eyes. It didn’t matter that a piece of lettuce was stuck to the doll’s cheek, and that the dress smelled like cheese. She had her very own Super Starlight Sharon Doll.
Anna cradled the doll in her arms and felt a swell inside her chest that only a new mother can feel. She beamed at her brother. “I’m gonna go clean her up! Do you want to help me?”
Anna and Simeon raced inside to the family bathroom where she delicately placed the doll onto the bathroom counter. Anna removed the doll’s dress and the tangled hair ribbons. Filling the sink with warm water, Anna scrubbed the doll’s dress with their family shampoo and hung it on the towel rack to dry. Next, she washed the doll’s body, cleaning off the bits of salad that were smeared upon the doll’s face, working her way all the way down to the toes. When all of that was accomplished, she took a comb, wet it in the water, and began to untangle the doll’s hair with as much gentleness and precision as a doctor in surgery.
When Anna was finished, the doll looked as good as new. Well, almost as good as new. No matter how hard she scrubbed, she couldn’t remove the flower designs that had been painted onto the doll’s feet, or the nailpolish on the fingernails. But that didn’t matter. Anna liked the painted fingers, and she would save up to buy shoes to cover the unsightly tattoos.
That Christmas was the happiest Anna had ever experienced. She had her dream of dreams. What could she ever want after this? Her mom noticed the doll and asked her where it came from.
“From Mr. Gilly,” said Simeon, before Anna could even respond.
“From where? Are you serious? Anna, the germs!” Mama looked at her daughter with wide eyes.
“It’s okay, Mama, I washed her throughly from head to toe. No germs, I promise.” Anna looked lovingly at her doll.
Anna didn’t tell her mother that she had been poking around the trash cans again, just the day before, and found an Amazon box just the right size for Sharon’s cradle. She had fixed it up and colored it to look like a real cradle. Well, almost like a real cradle. It still had the Amazon smiley face on it, and smelled a bit like cigarette smoke, but Anna didn’t care. She lined it with a flannel blanket and made a pillow out of old batting and fabric that she found in Mama’s sewing bin. Sharon had a lovely place in which to rest her head every night.
The school holiday passed with a blink as every day was filled with special moments between Anna and her new best friend.
When the kids went back to school, Anna’s first class project of the new year was to write about something special that happened during the holidays. The students were to write a full page of words and bring one item for show-and-tell on Friday, when the project was due.
Anna had no trouble finding something to write about. Words about the Super Starlight Sharon Doll flew onto her page, along with stories of their Christmas adventures together and all she planned to do with her in the upcoming year.
Friday arrived, the day for class presentations, and Anna couldn’t wait to show everyone what she got for Christmas. It was the most special gift she had ever received in all of her ten years of life. She listened to everyone’s presentations with a big smile. No one had enjoyed a better gift than she!
When the teacher called Anna’s name to go to the front of the room, Anna reached into her backpack and pulled out her Sharon doll. She took her paper proudly to the front of the class and began to read. She knew the last bell of the day would ring in just ten minutes, but she didn’t mind. She took her time reading her work with inflection and with gusto. While she was reading her paper, Anna could see that one of the girls had her hand raised and wiggling in the air.
The teacher finally interrupted Anna. “Anna, just a moment please,” she said, looking into the sea of desks. “What is it, Mandy? What on earth is so important that you are waving your hand and dancing in your chair?”
The girl named Mandy stood up with an arrogance that seethed like bad perfume.
“Sorry Mrs. Hollingsworth, but the doll that Anna claims to be hers is actually stolen!”
A static of whispers erupted from the voices of the students, who always loved a tantalizing scandal.
Mrs. Hollingsworth cleared her throat. “What do you mean, Mandy? That is an awful accusation to say to someone!”
Mandy pointed to the doll in Anna’s arms. “Because that doll is mine! I would know her anywhere! I was the one who painted her fingernails and made tattoos on her feet. I used a permanent marker so they won’t ever come off! Go ahead! Check it out! Her fingernails should be purple and her feet should have matching figures of roses that I drew on them.”
Mrs. Hollingsworth had trouble quieting the class down. The students all crowded around to see the markings that were exactly as Mandy had reported.
Anna hung her head. “I didn’t steal it,” she whispered.
“Where did you get it then?” yelled Mandy from across the room.
“Anna?” asked Mrs. Hollingsworth. “Where did you get the doll, Sweetheart?”
Anna froze. She wasn’t about to tell the truth, that Mr. Gilly had pulled her out of the trash to give to her, filthy and smeared with slime. She couldn’t bear the humiliation of saying out loud that she had combed Sharon’s hair for thirty minutes just to get out the snarls and clobs of lettuce. If Sharon really had belonged to Mandy, it was obvious she wasn’t wanted anymore. Why else would the doll be tossed into the rubbish and looking so bedraggled? Her thoughts spun out of control. Bombarded by humiliation and indignation, Anna dropped her doll and ran out of the room.
Just then, the bell rang. The students filed out the front doors of the school. And Anna was left, crying on the bathroom floor of the fourth grade hall.
When Anna had finished crying all the tears that could possibly flow, she wiped her face and plodded back to the empty school room. The room was locked with a note taped on the outside. It said:
At a teacher inservice meeting. I’ll be back early Monday morning.
Anna looked down at the floor beside the note and saw her backpack with her project paper resting on top. In red, Mrs. Hollingsworth had written: Good paper. But what a fiasco! I’ll be calling your mother this weekend.
Oh that was just great. Now she was about to be in trouble with her mom too. Could this day get any worse? She was no thief. How could anyone think that of her?
Anna kicked the wall and hurt her toe. Just once she would love to have a dream and hold on to it. Why did life always have to be a series of horrible disappointments? She opened her bag to make sure her doll was packed carefully, but realized a heart-wrenching truth.
The doll was gone.
Oh no! It can’t be! Did Mandy take her back? Anna scrambled to remember what she had done with it. In the chaos, she had forgotten herself…forgotten her beloved doll.
She peeked through the window of the locked door. There was no doll on the floor. No doll on her desk.
Sharon had disappeared.
That evening as Leah, Anna, and Simeon heated up their microwave dinners in the kitchen, Anna couldn’t keep from crying.
“Oh, Anna, I’m so mad about that nasty girl Mandy,” said Leah. “She had no right to humiliate you like that! I know her older sister, and she isn’t any better.”
Simeon puffed up his tiny chest. “Do you want me to go and toilet-paper their house?” he asked, sounding more tough than he really was.
“No, no,” said Anna. “I just want to forget that this whole thing ever happened. But how can I? I’ll never have a nice enough present like Sharon ever, ever again.” She sniffed and poked at her TV tray.
The children went about their Saturday as normal. As usual, Mama worked two shifts from sunrise into the later hours of the night. Anna knew her teacher would be calling—and disturbing her mother at work. She knew her mama wouldn’t be happy about that.
That night, Anna went to bed without her usual bedtime reading with Simeon, or her usual argument with Leah. She just burrowed under her covers and cried herself to sleep.
The next morning was Sunday, Mama’s only day off. Anna’s family had a tradition of “Pancake Sunday”, where the kids and Mama would indulge in a pancake breakfast at IHOP together. Because IHOP was one of the placed where Mama worked, they always got their breakfast for free. Anna always loved eating breakfast with Mama. It was their one day together all week.
As the kids piled into the car, Mama cleared her throat. “We have one stop to make before IHOP this morning, kids,” she said.
Groans erupted from Leah and Simeon. Anna looked down at her feet dangling over the backseat. Where are we going? Did Mama talk with Mrs. Hollingsworth last night? Does she know about Mandy? Oh, I would just die if she would make me apologize to her.
“Aww, Mama, I’m starving! Can’t it wait?” whined Simeon from the backseat.
“Not today, my son,” she said, with her lips pursed and her eyes staring right at Anna from the rear-view mirror.
Ten short minutes later, Mama pulled into the driveway of a pleasant one-story brick home. Holly bushes lined the front walkway, and a colorful pot of pansies hung in the front doorway.
Anna’s heart began to thump wildly. Am I really going to have to do this? Am I really going to have to apologize to that nasty girl Mandy? She closed her eyes and willed herself to breathe normally.
Mama turned to face Anna in the backseat. “There’s someone I want you to talk to before we go to breakfast, Anna. Come with me, please.”
Anna opened the car door slowly. Her feet felt like they weighed a thousand pounds. She trudged up the walkway as if it were her own execution. Nothing like being humiliated all over again, she thought.
Mama rang the doorbell and waited with Anna at her side.
Anna closed her eyes and didn’t want to open them. Could I run away at this very moment? She thought. Would that be a feasible plan?
The door opened and in front of them stood Mrs. Hollingsworth, her teacher. And she was…smiling.
“Anna!” she said excitedly, “I’m so glad you’re here!”
“Thank you for letting us come this morning,” said Mama. “I know it is important to Anna.” The two women shook hands and exchanged pleasantries.
What is important to me? She thought. What are we doing here?
Mrs. Hollingsworth bent down and looked straight at Anna. “Anna, I wanted you to know that I talked with your mom yesterday—“
Anna tried not to let out a groan that arose within her.
Mrs. Hollingsworth continued. “And then I talked with Mandy’s mother. It turns out that the Sharon doll was actually hers.” Mrs. Hollingsworth paused and pursed her lips for a quick moment, and then continued. “But Mandy had already agreed to throw her out in the trash. Mandy’s mom said that she truly didn’t want the doll anymore, and you can give her a new home.”
Anna took a step back. “What did you say?”
Mrs. Hollingsworth reached into the closet of her foyer, pulling out Sharon from inside. “She’s yours, Anna. You can take her home today.”
Anna looked with wonder at the doll in her arms.
“I took the liberty of giving her a fine new dress,” said Mrs. Hollingsworth. “Oh, and I gave her a pair of shoes, too,” she said with a wink.
Anna couldn’t believe her eyes. Sharon was back, and she was more beautiful than ever, dressed in the most beautiful dress with her hair braided and tied with ribbons, and shoes that covered up the markings that Mandy had made!
“Oh, there’s one more thing,” said Mrs. Hollingsworth. “Dan,” she called out to the kitchen. “Would you bring the extra item, Hon? Anna is here.”
A young man came out of the kitchen holding a wooden-like box of sorts and smiled at Anna.
“I believe this is for you, young lady!” he said, and presented it to her with playful pomp and circumstance.
He handed her a wooden doll cradle, the most beautiful cradle that Anna had ever seen.
“My husband Dan is a carpenter,” said Mrs. Hollingsworth. “We thought Sharon needed a cradle. I hope you enjoy it!”
Anna squeaked out a “thank you” and held Sharon tightly to her heart. While Mama and Anna walked back to the car, Anna couldn’t believe the new joy she felt. Her dream had come true again, and it was far better than she could have ever imagined! She couldn’t wait to get home and set up the cradle with her blanket and pillow that she had made. It was the best “Pancake Sunday” that she ever had. All of life seemed brighter and lighter to her now. Sharon was finally hers, and she was sure of it: Sharon would stay with her forever!