Anna stared through the chain-link fence; her slender white fingers threaded through the small openings. The barricade separated the youth detention center from the women’s holding cells.
“Mom…mom. You can see me. Can’t you see me?”
Her mother, Karen, on the other side of the barrier, turned and walked away. Without so much as a word of acknowledgement. Anna slumped to the ground, crying, her hands covering her face.
Kate carried the small sobbing girl into the day room and settled into a soft chair while still holding the child in her arms.
Anna’s heart thumped fitfully in her frail chest as tears streamed down her cheeks.
“I need a teddy-bear,” Anna said, gurgling between tears. She smeared her runny nose against her sleeve. Someone handed her a tissue.
“She can have my Buddy,” said a voice from the crowd.
All the girls gathered, watching the spectacle unfold. Each day in the juvenile detention spun much like the one before, so action drew a crowd. Anything to do with Anna the girls found interesting. All the more so because she was different, the first special needs child housed at the center. Anna, small for her age of twelve, had the naivete of a six-year-old.
Buddy, the bear, was handed through the crowd to Anna, who whispered, “Thank you.”
Kate said, “That’s so nice of you, Jessica. Beth, can you get the rest of the girls ready for bed?”
The unit wasn’t full, so only Kate and Beth were on shift that evening. Kate was replacing someone on sick leave, and as a supervisor, it wasn’t unusual for her to work on the unit.
Her heart reached out to Anna, whose mother used her to sell drugs on the street.
“I want to see the Christmas tree before bed.” Anna sniffed.
As they stood enjoying the twinkling lights, Kate could feel Anna relax in her arms. Anna grasped her favourite ornament from the tree, a Father Christmas, all dressed in fur. Kate said she could keep it, carried the now subdued child to bed, tucked her in, and settled Buddy beside her. After a Curious George story, Anna’s eyes fluttered off to sleep. The small wooden Father Christmas still gripped in her hand. Kate smoothed back Anna’s hair, bent to kiss her forehead before going to check on the rest of the girls. The usual laughter and talk accompanied their preparations for bed.
“Be as quiet as you can. Anna has just fallen asleep,” Kate said.
They all promised they would, and she believed them. Jessica, known as a tough nut, surprised Kate, giving her bear away. Anna’s incarceration brought out the best in all the detainees. They spoke nicer and acted better around her, transported to a kinder place.
Once the girls settled, Kate left Beth on watch and went to get some office work done. Beth knew where to get her. Besides that, Beth’s emergency whistle could probably rouse people blocks away.
Growing despair gnawed at Kate as she worked with a fever, trying to find Anna a placement for release. It looked as if it would be Children’s Aide, as discharge day December twenty-second was fast approaching. How much better a caring family member would be. Where was her father?
Kate had gone to see Anna’s mother, Karen, at the holding facility, hoping she knew how to locate him.
Karen said, “Why should I say anything. Anna brought the police right to my door. Imagine using a disabled girl to aid an investigation.”
Imagine using a disabled daughter to peddle drugs instead of sending her to school where she belonged. Imagine ignoring her when she called out to you.
Kate was getting attached. Everything they tell you not to do in school. The rule was to maintain detachment. Don’t take your work home with you— easier said than done. Time was running short, but Kate would try her hardest to find the very best place for Anna.
Kate lifted her glasses and rubbed her eyes. She’d put in a long day but only planed on about an hour of work and then joining Beth. She flicked the light on in the office. At her desk, the afternoon mail called from the inbox. Something drew her attention — an open letter with the woman’s prison letterhead, facing up, her name on it. What greeted her was a hello from Warden Kirby.
Hi Kate. This letter came across my desk, and I think it’s more for you. Good luck, Kirb.
The attached letter read.
Dear Warden: I believe you have a Karen Bonhomme as an inmate. She is the mother of my daughter Anna Bonhomme. I would like to know the girl’s whereabouts as her mother moved three years ago and never left me an address. A friend who watches the internet alerted me to Karen’s arrest notice in your local newspaper. I’ve been trying to locate Anna and have almost despaired. I hope you can assist. Yours Truly, Mark Bonhomme. 745-786-9872
Kate scanned the letter, and her mouth dropped. There at the bottom was Mark’s phone number. She dialled, her hands trembling, only to get his answering machine. Her elation at receiving this great gift dampened only slightly. She would try him later.
The court blotter, making it to the newspaper, usually gave her an ambivalent feeling. When there was a danger to the public, she agreed, most other incidents were only prurient interest, but the rat eyed little reporter for the paper sopped up the cases. Never mind, here it had resulted in the location of Anna’s father. Kate made a mental note to bring Rattie a coffee next time she ended up in court. Go figure, that ill wind blew a great deal of good this way.
Paperwork finished, and Beth, given a break, Kate was ready to leave when the night shift turned up. More than ready after doing a double, but she looked in on the girls and covered Anna up, tucking Buddy back in beside her.
Kate soaked in the tub that night, but the cares of the day wouldn’t leave. A glass of wine didn’t even help. She knew that getting all wrapped up in feelings for little Anna was the exact thing she shouldn’t do but was unable to help herself. The child had a hold on her.
The next day Kate connected with Mark Bonhomme, and as she explained the situation, he listened without interrupting. He then said, “I want very much to make a home for Anna, but it may take me a bit of arranging to get a ride for her as I have no car.”
Kate replied, “That won’t be a problem. I’ll bring her.”
Chauffeur wasn’t in her regular job description, but no regulations against it. Christmas was the time of good cheer and doing for others, after all.
Mark said, “That’s the best Christmas present ever. I’ll have everything ready. It seems unreal. You know you wish for something, and when time goes by, and it doesn’t happen as you want, it’s hard not to give up hope. How long do you figure your drive?”
“Probably about four and a half hours. If we leave here at eight in the morning, we should be there around one or so. Will that work for you?” Kate replied.
“Fine. I’ll take the afternoon off, and my work closes at Christmas. I’ll talk with my landlady about watching her when I’m at work,” Mark said. “I look forward to meeting you. Thank you so much.”
Kate got off the phone, thinking that taking Anna to her father would set her mind at ease, and if things didn’t look right, she could have Children’s Aide as a back-up. Her gut feeling was that Mark was genuine. He had, after all, asked the girl’s clothes and shoe size, which was promising. All just in the nick of time. Now all she had to do was tell Anna.
She found Anna sitting on the sofa beside Jessica, whose arm was around her all comfort and ease.
“You two look like a snug pair of bears, all cuddled up,” Kate said.
Anna spoke first, “Jess is giving me Buddy for my own to keep!” She held up the bear as proof.
“I’m getting big for him, and Anna will take good care of him.”
The formerly self-centred Jessica looking outside herself to someone more vulnerable, was a miraculous transformation, that Kate knew was only too rare in this institution. Some new supplies for the artist, Jessica, were in order.
“Jessica, that is a very kind thing for you to do. May I hug you?”
“Sure, why not soppy socks.”
Kate reached over, and Jess put her arms out as the two embraced. Something Jessica would not have allowed only weeks prior.
“What is your Dad like, Anna? Do you remember?” Kate asked.
“He’s quiet, not like mom. He never yells. Mom took me, you know, and she said he didn’t want us anymore.”
“Well, Anna, he does want you. When you get released tomorrow, I will take you to him so you can live with him. Will that be good?” Kate said, holding her breath.
“That’s good. Daddy makes smiles on my food with ketchup, and before we ran away, he was going to teach me to skate.”
“Make sure he is good before you leave her.” Jess cautioned.
“I will Jess, thanks for looking out for her. Would you help her get started packing, and I’ll be in in a minute?”
Kate thought they needed a party for Anna’s last day, so she ordered a cake delivered, and they had balloons and streamers. When Anna was all packed, she and Jess started to decorate the day room. Help came from girls coming and going, all looking forward to a party and being able to stay up late.
The next day Kate headed out with Anna on their journey. A certain amount of trepidation caught Kate, constricting her throat, and gnawing at the bottom of her conscience. Taking Anna to her father seemed like the right thing to do, but still, she worried. She had made a call to Mark Bonhomme, letting Anna speak to him, and it had gone well. He had no criminal record, and legally, he had the right to have his daughter live with him. She just prayed that Anna had no more drama in her life. Her mother was so vile. The child deserved more, and Kate hoped her father would give it to her.
They stopped for a break midmorning at a truckstop restaurant along the highway. Walking back to the car, Anna laughed and stuck out her tongue to catch the big fluffy snowflakes that were falling. Kate smiled, enjoying the girl’s antics.
When on the road again, Anna fell asleep, so Kate did without the child’s pleasant chatter. How close she had gotten to this little charge. She turned the radio on, and the constant Christmas music along with Anna’s gentle breathing soothed her.
Kate marvelled at how Anna looked on the surface like any twelve years old. She had a fragile beauty, and pale skin covered delicate features causing her to look ethereal. Her flaxen hair curling around her head like a halo complimented the angelic look.
Check closer—this angel had no indentation on her upper lip. A sure sign of fetal alcohol syndrome, along with a tiny narrow head and small stature, the only give away that anything was amiss.
Sins of the father’s so they say, equity rules, sins of the mother this time—the drink. But the father had been there. He said that he had not been able to stop Karen’s drinking and hadn’t realized the devastating effect it would have on the child.
Kate hoped he wasn’t as big a dud as that made him sound. She had set it up that Children’s Aide would keep a lookout for Anna and visit for as long as they deemed necessary.
Sometimes the best you can do seems so inadequate.
The car ate up the miles, and Kate pulled into the parking lot beside Mark’s building. She roused Anna and let her wake up gradually before starting for the apartment. She didn’t want to overwhelm the man, so she said they would come back to the car for Anna’s things. It would also be easier to leave if the situation seemed unsuitable.
“Do you think he will have a Christmas tree?” Anna asked.
“Well, let’s go and see,” Kate said, taking Anna’s hand in hers, hoping he had done that much.
They stood outside his apartment, Kate ready to knock, but she took too long. Anna beat her to it. A tall man in clean jeans and sweater answered the door and swept Anna up in his arms. He sat her back down and motioned for them to come inside. Kate was taken aback by what she saw in the apartment.
A full-size tree took up one corner of the living room, and packages in colourful wrap spilled out all over the carpet. A pair of girls skates, and a huge stuffed unicorn were the only unwrapped items.
“It looks lovely, Mark,” Kate said, motioning to the tree and presents.
“Thank God for the Salvation Army. I’ve got some sandwiches, drinks and a few treats,” Mark said. “ I thought you might be hungry after your long trip. Come in and get comfortable.”
‘That would be very nice.” Kate replied.
Anna stood still, staring at the tree. “Who are the presents for?” she asked.
“They’re for you, Anna Banana,” her father replied while tussling Anna’s hair. He whispered in Anna’s ear and pointed to a small present among the boughs of the tree. Anna smiled, bringing it to Kate, hugging her and kissing her cheek.
“For you, Miss Kate.” The excitement in her voice caused it to raise an octave. “Can she open it now, Dad? She won’t be here for Christmas.”
Mark nodded, and Kate smiled at him while carefully opening the small parcel and putting a Frosty the Snowman pin on her sweater.
“Thank you so much. I will wear it every Christmas and think of you both.” Kate gave an audible sigh of relief as her eyes misted up–Mark would care for Anna— she felt it in her heart.
Anna retrieved the Father Christmas ornament from the pocket she had it stashed in. She turned to Kate as she put it on the tree. “It’s alright if I keep it?” Kate smiled and nodded.
Mark went to the car with them to retrieve his daughter’s belongings. With Anna settled well, Kate made her move to leave, Mark Bonhomme reached out to shake her hand, and Kate knew she was in the presence of a real live Father Christmas. Miracles do come true!
Mary Daurio is a grandmother who likes to fiddle with words when she isn't playing her flute, walking the dog. She enjoys spending time with friends and family. Presently she is working on a short story compilation about her experiences as a Standardbred racehorse driver and attending Brock University taking Creative writing. Her work has appeared in print and online journals.