This story is by rachna priyanka and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The night was frozen. Literally. The roads lay bare, barring the few pieces of discarded litter, indistinguishable from the white on and around them. Even the winds took shelter in warmer elsewheres. All the shops on both sides of Street 32 were closed yet lit. Drenched in the lights of luxurious chandeliers, the fancy insides of expensive boutiques and exclusive showrooms shone through the impeccably polished glass windows. Grander organs of the modern world – exquisitely attired mannequins and overpriced designer purses, impossibly impractical shoes and anorexic-model-worthy-lingerie, Italian coats and watches that come to those with good times by their side – all stood on proud display. The less grand ones, like the one which held Swiss and Belgian chocolates or the one, where stuffed bears and rabbits peeked out through the window panes, glowed with more monotonous, monochromatic lights. On this moonless night, Street 32 gleamed. A cold, mirthless, aching gleam. Still, there were on this street, a few patches, a few nooks and corners, of respite from the relentless dazzle.
In one of these tiny shadows, between two of these lesser shops, if one looked carefully he/she could see a cardboard box with a single hole for ventilation. Stationed on a bed of newspapers, this box was so perfectly still that no one could guess that it wasn’t completely empty. But empty it was not. For it hid in its hollow quarters, wrapped in a tattered, pockmarked blanket, the tiny figure of Rose.
Rose was nearly six years old. This she knew because that was the word on the street. A tiny, brand new baby she had been back then. Among the people who had found her, was a stout, sixty-year-old woman named Betty. A drug addict and a former prostitute. It was rumored that she had once been an upright, conscientious wife to a car mechanic and a doting mother to three roguish tots. That was before she lost them all in a ghastly accident and took more than a few wrong turns in life. Like it is usually with rumors, there was another version to it which claimed that she had killed her family in cold blood for men or money, escaped prison but eventually lost herself to drugs and such.
Whichever version be true, Betty claimed little Rose. Far from a model mother, Betty did keep Rose fed and clothed almost every day, keeping her alive through the seasons. She imparted wisdom about the more street uses of newspapers and magazines, and about the devil amongst us. Honest to god, Betty had even tried her best to quit drugs but the habit is never easy to kill, especially at sixty. When high, she deserted the girl and prowled the streets. When sober, she came back to Rose, guilt-ridden and lachrymose. Hugging and kissing and slobbering all over her. Rose survived and what’s more, she loved Betty. She was her mother. An unbelievably irresponsible mother. Yet, the only one who wanted Rose. In short, through all those years, they got along quite nicely.
However, it all did not last forever for Rose and Betty. Last month, old Betty got caught for petty drug dealing which explained the occasional candies and cheap toys she’d been bringing to Rose lately. In most ways, inside was marginally better than outside. She was fed, clothed and sheltered and Betty would not have cared much for the street life if not for Rose who now stared out of her cardboard box, awfully alone and scared.
When Betty didn’t come, Rose cried for several days and several nights but then she was too hungry to do so. At first, she ate scraps from the nearest bins and then when there was none of that, she ventured further. She begged and stole, not even aware that that was what she was doing. Or that there was any difference between the two. Rose trekked unknown streets all day now but came back to her old cardboard box at night. She was taught to be suspicious of everyone, especially of those who did not sleep in the streets. So all she trusted were street 32 and her little box where she hoped Betty would find her again.
Tonight she sat in the same box, nibbling on a rejected half-slice of pizza. Her teeth chattered over every hardened bite and her hand holding the slice shivered uncontrollably. With the other hand, she threw out the cockroach that had invaded her territory. No one but cockroaches in the visible world. Unbeknownst to her, heavy drops fell from Rose’s eyes, traveling all the way through her cheeks and nose and lips and chin. Each drop followed, roughly, the same course. Leaving warm, white lines on a face covered with grime and soot. Rose ate and sobbed and ate again and she did not realize when sleep rescued her from her fears.
A crackling sound and a warm zephyr, too good to be true, jolted Rose out of her slumber. She looked out of her box to see a fire smack dab in the middle of the street. A tall dark figure loomed over the flames, warming its limbs. So far from Rose, yet the fire was so intense that she could feel all her bones stretch and relax in its balminess. The night was still its same ghostly self. The snow fell in moist weightless chunks but the fire still roared. For six years, Rose was taught to be uncurious and invisible. But the sudden heat of the moment made Rose forget all of Betty’s lessons.
Out of her box, Rose crept into the streets, one step at a time. The figure stood still, still soaking in the warmth of its fire. Rose stepped on something that rustled and the figure turned around. Bathed in the bright lights, a man’s face smiled at the little girl. A big, broad, familiar smile. Like he had known Rose all his life. Rose stopped where she was. The man was insanely tall. He wore a long, very thick blue coat and a matching turban. There were layers and layers of crimson scarves around his neck and shoulders. He wore so many of them that it looked like he was made of clothes. So many clothes on him yet, strangely, he was without any shoes!
The man in the coat didn’t say a word. Just smiled. For a really long time. And then, he tapped his feet twice. All the snow cleared from the street and the skies! Balloons of every color fell from the heavens! Sparkles flew out from the fire and spattered everywhere! Drum beats sounded and harmonicas played! Music like you would have never heard before filled Rose’s ears. Dozens of people poured into the street from nowhere. Dancing and laughing in their gay fineries. They waltzed, hopped and pranced while the stores and shops sank into dark oblivion and Street 32 sparkled with a thousand colorful tea lights and lamps, hanging down from invisible chords tied up to the empty sky. Everyone in the street seemed to know and love Rose. A candy man, made of candy and an ice cream man-made out of a frozen ice-lolly zoomed in with their carts. The candy man tap-danced and the ice cream man did a moonwalk as they both handed Rose treats, rich and sweet. She still stood at the same spot, gaping with delight at the fire, the figure and the fantastic scene surrounding her. Despite all her training against the strange and new, she could not be afraid. She was beaming back at the man who made the fire and started it all and at everyone in the street. A few minutes later, Rose was eating corn dogs and talking to people who were perfect strangers but looked a little like Betty, they all did. A woman put a rose in Rose’s hair and kissed her temples. A man tried playing hopscotch with her but Rose didn’t know what it was and both just laughed themselves silly. They grabbed their tummies and fell flat on the ground. The ground lined with a rug so soft that you would certainly want to fall all over it. She danced for hours even though she had hardly ever known what dancing was. Who says you need to know what dancing is to dance? And who needs to know what dreams are to dream? Exhausted and truly happy for the first time in all her little life, Rose walked up to the man who started the fire and sat beside him. The man scooped her in his arms and it was as comfortable as the sun on the dreariest winter day.
When Rose woke up the next morning, she was back in her box and the street was bustling with regular, boring life as usual. There were neither balloons nor lamps. No sign of last night’s gala. No sign at all. Except, Rose had on her, a very thick blue coat.