“Spare a coin, sir?”
The man glanced down sharply at the urchin at his elbow. He’d been assailed by this one before, a grimy little thing with a gap-toothed grin and red braids.
She held up ungloved hands and repeated her inquiry. With only a week left until Christmas, one was expected to be in a charitable mood, and he noticed passersby glancing toward his conversation on their way down the street. He made a hurried show of patting down his coat and shrugged.
“Nothing on me. Sorry.”
“’s alright sir. Those for your little ones?” She pointed to the wrapped parcels he carried under one arm.
“That’s right.” He began to move on down the sidewalk, muttering, “Must be going now. Dropping these off and heading back to the office.”
“Oh that’s alright!” she chirped. “I can go this way too.”
He rolled his eyes but didn’t see a way to prevent this companionship.
She continued chattering amicably. “Time spent with their Da. Your kids are lucky.”
He eyed her. “Presents, child. Not time. No one’s got time these days.”
“Oh.” She slowed momentarily, but his stride didn’t change. Then, skipping to catch up to him, she added, “Well, they’re still lucky. What did you pick out for them?”
Now he slowed, just slightly, and frowned at his packages. “No idea. The wife called the store and had ‘em wrapped up. She knows what they like better’n I do.”
They walked a few moments in silence before he stopped and indicated the next lane with his head.
“This is me. Run along now, little one. And have a Merry Christmas.”
She looked up at him with bright eyes. “I’ll try!” She flashed a toothy grin, whirled around, and sprinted back the way they had come. Rolling his eyes again at the impishness of children, he shook his head and turned down his street.
“Spare a coin, sir?”
It was the same little girl from earlier in the week, wearing her unsightly grin and holding out hopeful hands.
He checked his pockets mechanically.
“That’s okay sir! Maybe next time.”
“Mm-hmm,” he muttered as he began walking. She began to accompany him silently, and he stopped.
“Must you do that?”
“Do what, sir?”
“Follow me. Haven’t you got any place better to be?”
“Nope!” she answered cheerily.
He turned to face her. “What do you mean? Don’t you have parents? Or friends to run along with?”
“Don’t got any parents here, but they’re watching over me with the good Lord.” She paused, turned her face to the sky, and breathed deeply. “Sometimes I know they’re specially watchin’, like when the baker on 7th gave me a muffin cause I swept up for him, or when some kind soul donates their old blankets to the home.”
“It’s a charity place over on Charleston. I like it there. It’s good folks that run it and I have ever so many pretend brothers and sisters.”
“That’s…nice.” he ventured.
“But I have lots of friends, too. Like you!”
“Me?” he frowned. “We’re not friends, child. You don’t even know me.”
Her smile vanished. “Don’t you want to be my friend, sir?”
“Uh…” his mind raced for a way out of this. Children were so invasive. The silence grew long and he looked uncomfortably at her anguished face.
“Oh, hang it all,” he sighed loudly. “I suppose you can call me your friend if you like.”
Instantly her smile came back, more radiant than ever. She was about to speak, but he cut her off.
“But I really must be going now. Run along, if you please.”
“Yes sir! See you later, friend!” She took off and left him staring after her until the cold wind reminded him to hurry home.
“Spare a coin, sir?”
She was grinning as usual, her cheeks and nose rosy with cold. “After all, it’s Christmas Eve!”
He rolled his eyes with a half smile and patted down his pockets in earnest this time, finding nothing but two shiny black buttons and a red jingle bell. He made a mental note to give the maid a sharp reminder that the children were not to touch his coat.
He held out the objects in his gloved hand. “Nothin’ but these. Sorry. You’re welcome to ‘em, though.”
Her eyes shone as she reached for the trinkets. She gingerly picked them out of his hand as though they were glass.
“Thank you sir,” she breathed without taking her eyes from her treasures. “These is much better’n coins!”
“Whatever do you mean?” he asked. “Those won’t feed you or keep you warm.”
“They will,” she answered, raising her gaze to him. “They feed my heart! Don’t you know that’s the most important part of you?”
He shook his head, stunned at the odd profundity of this little beggar.
Seeing his confusion, she continued. “I bet your kids feed your heart. And your missus. Good thing, cause I think hearts get a bit hungry this time of year!”
He was shocked to feel tears prick his eyes as he recalled the little one expected three Christmases ago, who had never gotten to breathe this world’s air. An annoying corner of his mind reminded him that he’d been avoiding his wife at this time of year ever since, not wanting to share in her grief. It seemed ridiculous and selfish now.
He felt warmth in his hand and looked down to find it grasped by his little friend.
“Are you alright, sir?” she asked with her head cocked to one side.
He cleared his throat and released her hand with a little squeeze, as his mind came back to earth and the sounds of the city assailed him again. “I’m fine. I’m fine,” he repeated with a nod. “I’ll see you soon. I’ll have a coin next time. Promise.” He winked at her.
She giggled before taking off into the crowd.
He started on his route home and stopped short. He had errands to do first. To the bank for change, and then back into the office to inform his manager that he wasn’t available to work on Christmas, after all.