Julian shuffled his feet as he stood in the long, winding line at the Mills. Shoving his hands into the pockets of a pair of jeans a few inches too short, he huffed out a harsh breath. Out of the corner of his eye. he caught Mrs. Newall’s disapproving glare, but he didn’t care. This whole thing was stupid. Shrugging his shoulders and letting his head droop, he settled into a hunch, determined to let the whole world know exactly how he was feeling.
Around him, the rest of the kids from Bell Street Orphanage bounced on their toes, strained their necks, and brimmed with excitement. They were too far away to see anything yet, but that didn’t keep them from trying. The annual trip to see Santa was one of two major field trips the unwanted kids of St. Louis and its surrounding areas could count on; a guaranteed chance to get out from behind the oppressive walls of their lot in life. For one day, they could pretend to forget who they were. They could pretend to be someone—anyone—else. They could pretend to be normal.
Julian knew that’s what they were doing; he’d spent countless years doing the same. He remembered vividly the excitement that welled up at the first sight of the man in red. It was so great you squeezed your arms tight around yourself, trying to contain the joy, desperate to hold yourself together—if you let go, you might burst apart from the strength of it.
And of course there were the lights and sounds and smells of the season. Everything was so bright; windows glistened, Christmas lights twinkled, colors sparkled so much it made your eyes hurt. The scent of cinnamon left a slight singe on your nostrils before being overwhelmed by the sugary sweet smell of vanilla Christmas cookies. Voices mingled into a cacophony of anticipation, impatience, and good cheer. In the midst of it all, you could barely contain your joy at simply being a part of it.
And then there was the hope, both best and worst of all. That feeling that maybe, just maybe, this might be the year. The year that instead of a bicycle or a new set of drawing pencils or even that Wii for the group room, you might get what you really wanted. Yes, Julian knew exactly what was going through the minds of the others. He could see it in the glow of their eyes, the width of their grins, the barely noticeable strain in their linked fingers.
He wasn’t sure he believed in God, and if the Man upstairs did exist, Julian didn’t know whether he should pray that God let the others hold onto their dreams forever, or wake them up to the cold, harsh truth of reality; he couldn’t decide which was worse.
The line crawled forward. As they came around the far end of a caramel corn booth, set up specifically for the holidays, one of the girls let out a yelp. Jumping up and down, little Katie’s finger shook as it pointed across the room. Julian glanced around. Ah, yes. There he was. On an oversized throne-like chair, his trusty elf at one side and a live reindeer on the other, sat good ‘ole St. Nick. Glancing over again at Katie, Julian’s chest ached, and he sent up a quick plea. Couldn’t hurt, right? God, please let her never figure out he’s not real. Don’t take that away from her.
As they continued to inch toward the Christmastime set-up, the anticipation grew as the others got their first good looks at Santa. Mrs. Newall’s shushes became louder and more frequent the closer they came to the front of the line, but she couldn’t hide the look of satisfaction in her eyes as David and Katie and Michael and Kane took turns pulling on her hands and pointing at every holiday detail that caught their eye.
She wasn’t a bad sort, Mrs. Newall. Unlike other directors Julian had heard tales about, Mrs. Newall actually seemed to care about them all. So had Mr. Newall, when he’d been around. But he’d died five years ago in a car accident. They weren’t parents; they had too many kids to look after to get that personally involved with any one of the orphans. But on some level, Julian believed Mrs. Newall loved them all, in her own way. She did the best she could, anyway.
“Julian!” His head snapped up at the sound of his name. Mrs. Newall gestured him forward hurriedly. “Please pay attention!” Lost in his thoughts, he’d failed to move ahead with the rest of the group. Immediately, he crossed the three foot gap separating him from the others.
“Sorry, Mrs. Newall.”
She pursed her lips, but didn’t say anything more. Meeting her gaze, he quickly looked away. He’d seen the impatience in her eyes—it seemed to always be there when she looked at him these days—but he’d also recognized the compassion tinged with sadness, and he didn’t want to see it. Couldn’t see it. It hurt too much.
After what seemed like forever, the kids from Bell Street reached the front of the line. Julian watched as Katie climbed up into that inviting lap and without any hesitation listed every desire of her five-year-old heart. Santa watched her raptly, listening with great intent as she asked for a new dolly, an Elsa costume, a Disney princess playhouse, and the ever impractical pony. When Mrs. Newall gently urged her along, Katie threw her arms around the man’s neck and squeezed tightly. Julian’s heart swelled as Santa hugged her back; he couldn’t stop it.
This wasn’t real, he knew that. Katie wouldn’t get everything she’d asked for. Mrs. Newall couldn’t afford that much for each child and state funding had been severely limited. He wasn’t supposed to know that, of course. But was it his fault Mrs. Newall’s bedroom and office was just above his, and her voice carried through the air duct in his ceiling? Anyway, the point was, Katie didn’t know this wasn’t real. She believed every bit of it—Santa Claus, flying reindeer, elves, magic. He couldn’t help but appreciate the beauty in that.
It wasn’t too long before all the other kids had taken their turn and only Julian was left. The guy posing as Father Christmas, whoever he was, motioned with his arms, inviting Julian to take a seat on his knee.
“Thanks, but I’ll stand if that’s alright.” He heard Mrs. Newall’s soft reprimand behind him, but kept his eyes on the bearded face staring up at him.
“That’s perfectly fine. Merry Christmas, son. What’s your name?”
Julian tried to hide the wince at being called “son,” but the pinprick to his heart, given recent circumstances, stung.
“Well, Julian, it’s an honor to meet you. I’m guessing you know who I am?”
“Yup.” Well, who you’re pretending to be, anyway. But there was no point in ruining the fun for the others.
“Good, good. And how old are you, Julian?”
“Twelve, sir. Nearly thirteen.”
“That’s a fine age. A fine age. Tell me something, Julian. Being that age, do you believe in magic?”
Julian’s gaze shot up at that and met a steady stare. Those eyes … There’s something familiar … But no. It was impossible. Julian fidgeted, uncomfortable with the question. Meeting that stare again, he heard himself answer honestly.
“I want to, sir.”
Santa’s mustache shifted, as if he were pursing his lips, and the way he rubbed his beard thoughtfully made Julian wonder just what the man in red was considering. After a moment, he nodded, as though he’d come to a decision.
“What would you like for Christmas, Julian?”
A family. The words nearly tripped off his tongue before he gave them a sharp tug and swallowed them back. Unbidden, thoughts swarmed his mind, pictures emerging and fading, one after another. A tall, muscular man with buzzed black hair and stubble along his jaw. A woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, her willowy frame a misrepresentation of her strength. An old bike pulled out of a garage, covered in cobwebs and dust. The same bike, scrubbed until it shone, with new tires and an Avengers seat cover. Jack-o-lanterns carved and placed along front porch stairs, their candlelit grins alight with mischief.
Julian blinked furiously, his eyes stinging with the prickle of tears. Glancing away, he berated himself. Stop it, you crybaby. You always knew it might not work out, and it didn’t. Crying won’t change that. And besides, nearly-thirteen-year-olds don’t cry. You’re practically a man. Act like it, for chrissakes.
Sucking in a deep breath, Julian turned back to the mall Santa.
“You don’t have to worry about me. Just take care of the others. They need it more than I do.”
Before the fake Santa could respond, Julian turned and walked away, making room for the next kid awaiting his turn. Hearing the click of Mrs. Newall’s sturdy pumps behind him, he glanced back, expecting an admonishment. Instead, she watched him with something akin to pity. Which was so, so much worse. Shoving his hands into his pockets, Julian hunched his shoulders, gluing his gaze to the floor. It was bad enough he couldn’t get away from his own disappointment. He didn’t need to see hers, too.
The next two weeks dragged, Christmas Eve looming ever closer, yet inevitably so far away, until finally it arrived. The atmosphere at Bell Street was electric, charged with anticipation. The younger kids couldn’t contain their excitement as Mrs. Newall dragged out the ancient Christmas tree and arranged its fake branches. The giddiness only grew as boxes were opened and colorful garlands, strings of popcorn, and various ornaments were revealed. Shouts of “Can I hang that one?” and “Put it right there, Mrs. Newall!” rang through the rooms, bouncing off walls and ceilings.
Julian couldn’t bring himself to join in the celebratory activities. God knew, he wanted to. He just … couldn’t. Not this year. Not after what had happened.
He’d been so close, so positively sure, this was it. Finally, after years of having no real family, no real home, he was going to be adopted. He just knew it. Except … He wasn’t. Why? Why didn’t it work out? What did I do wrong? He’d been wracking his brain for weeks now. Had the fight really been it? Is a single broken nose going to cost me my future? One misstep?
Dan and Rita McFarland were a fairly young couple. Dan was a pediatrician, Rita a real estate agent. They had a nice, two-story home in St. Peters, with a fenced-in backyard, and a Great Dane. Rocco. God, he loved that dog. Especially at night, when the dumb thing would climb into bed with him and take up all but about two inches of the full-sized mattress.
Julian had been skeptical when he’d first met his new foster family. They just didn’t seem the type. Especially not to take an adolescent. A baby, sure. Or maybe even a bubbly youngster, like Katie. But a kid like him, nearly in his teens, and bound to have a full set of built-in issues? Not a chance.
Still, they were welcoming enough, and their place was so much better than the orphanage. He had a room all to himself, with a TV and an Xbox One. Rita cooked dinner every night, unless she had a late showing with a client. Then Dan would cook. Which meant Dan would grill. Julian would chase around the backyard, throwing a tennis ball for Rocco, or sometimes he’d just sit and chat with Dan. It was nice, talking to Dan, with the scent of charcoal singeing the air. The guy didn’t treat him like a kid; he talked to Julian like Julian was a man, instead of talking down to him. They argued about football; Julian had grown up in St. Louis, so what choice did he have but to cheer for the Rams? Dan, on the other hand, was a Bears fan for some unknown reason. Didn’t really matter, since neither team had had a decent season in years.
And Rita? Rita was prime mom material. Like her husband, she was careful to treat Julian more like someone closer to being grown than a kid. Still, she was free with her affection, never hesitating to wrap her arms around him in a hug and place a kiss on his head. Every day when he got home from school, she’d greet him that way, with a hug and a kiss and a “Hey, how was school today?”
Of course, they didn’t hesitate to discipline, either. He hadn’t meant to get in that fight, he really hadn’t. But that jackass Joey Rand just couldn’t keep from running his mouth about how Julian was just the McFarlands’ charity case, and nobody really wanted a “stupid orphan boy” like him. Joey had been on the pavement, blood gushing from his nose, before Julian realized he’d hit him. After a talk with the principal, Dan and Rita gave him a grounding to go along with his week of detention. No TV. No Xbox. No phone. It was hell. But the next time Joey started spouting crap, Julian just walked away. The guy wasn’t worth it.
Apparently, though, learning to walk away came too little, too late. Because it wasn’t long after that initial fight Julian found himself headed back to Bell Street, his dreams smashed against its walls.
Yanked from his thoughts, he glanced up from the copy of Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, sitting forgotten in his lap.
“Yes, Mrs. Newall?”
“It’s time to start heading up.”
Rising, he glanced over at the clock on the wall. Nine o’clock. Yeah, the other kids would all be climbing into bed right about now, desperate to get to sleep. They all knew Santa wouldn’t come if they didn’t. Slipping his book under his arm, Julian cracked his knuckles and headed for the stairs.
“Night, Mrs. Newall.”
“I’ve packed up your things.”
He swung back to her, his eyebrows knitting.
“You’re being placed tomorrow.”
His heart dropped into his stomach. No. Not again. He couldn’t take another foster home. Not this soon.
“You know how the system works, Julian. I—”
“No, I mean, why tomorrow? Why on Christmas? Why can’t it be in a few days? Why can’t it wait? Please, Mrs. Newall, don’t send me away on Christmas. What about Katie? And David? And the others? I need to be here for them, I need to be! Please! Please don’t send me away on Christmas, please! Please, Mrs. Newall, don’t! Don’t!”
Tears streamed down Julian’s cheeks as he panicked, his words pouring out in an uncontrollable babble. This can’t be happening. It isn’t fair! If he couldn’t have his own family, the least he could have was the others. They were like his brothers and sisters, and yeah, he wanted to be adopted—they all did—but that didn’t mean he didn’t care about them all. What would they do without him? What would he do without them? Not on Christmas. This couldn’t be happening on Christmas.
Mrs. Newall’s arms came around him, pulling him into a tight embrace. He latched on, desperate for an anchor, any demonstration that somebody cared, at least a little.
“Julian. Julian, calm down! It’ll be okay, I promise. Shh. It’ll be okay.”
His words died away, leaving only his tears to stain the front of her shirt as she held him. Her hand stroked down the back of his head, pulling his hair away from his wet cheeks. He burrowed in close, and for the first time since he’d known her, he never wanted to let go. In this moment, not only wasn’t she a bad sort, she was all he had. This—Bell Street—was all he had. And it was going to be taken from him. On Christmas.
Finally, he pulled away, resignation settling in his chest. Apparently, the cards were never going to fall in his favor. Might as well get used to it and start facing it like a man. Tears are a waste; they always will be.
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Newall.” Turning away, he trudged up the stairs and climbed into bed. A while later he heard the rustling of what surely was Mrs. Newall placing wrapped packages under the tree. Santa was making “his” appearance; too bad he wouldn’t be granting Julian’s wish. Julian rolled over and settled in, but it was well into the night before sleep claimed him.
“Julian? Julian, wake up.”
Julian groaned as the sound of Mrs. Newall’s voice pulled him from sleep. Opening his eyes into the barest of slits, he realized it was still dark. Very dark. Geez, what time is it? Rolling over, he sat up and rubbed his eyes.
“What is it?”
“There’s a cab waiting for you downstairs. It’s time to go.”
“Huh?” He gave his head a good shake, trying to knock the sleep loose. “What time is it?”
Good grief. He was pretty sure he hadn’t fallen asleep until at least two. “Why so early?”
“It’s just the way it is, Julian. Now hurry up and get dressed, the cab’s waiting. I’ll take your bag and meet you downstairs.”
Julian watched her go, too tired to fully embrace indignation. Early in the morning or late tonight, what did it matter? He was being ripped away from the only family he could claim on Christmas Day. Better to get it over with, he supposed. Kind of like ripping off a Band-aid.
He tossed on the pair of jeans, white t-shirt, and black hoodie Mrs. Newall had left out for him, then shuffled down the stairs. Reaching the bottom, he glanced towards the living room with the lit-up tree. It was empty. Weird. The younger kids never slept this late on Christmas mornings; you were lucky if you made it to six before being pounced on. It was the one morning the Newalls had never complained about being woken up early, the one morning where the kids’ impatience was indulged rather than reprimanded.
“For goodness’ sake, Julian, quit dawdling.”
At Mrs. Newall’s nagging, Julian shrugged. He headed for the front door and stepped out onto the porch.
“Where are the other kids?”
“They’re still asleep.”
“Oh.” He rubbed at his chest, hating that he wasn’t getting the chance to tell the others goodbye. Especially little Katie. He would miss her the most.
“Thanks for everything, Mrs. Newall. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Julian.” The look on her face was odd, almost as if she worried she’d never see him again; he doubted that was likely. His last foster experience hadn’t worked out so well. What were the chances this one would be any better? Her eyes were bright, but he couldn’t tell if it was due to a sheen of tears or the reflection of the porch light. When he held out his hand, she ignored it and pulled him into a quick hug. Just as quickly she released him and gave him a nudge in the direction of the waiting car.
“Go on, now. Don’t keep the driver waiting.”
He studied her for a moment more, then headed down the stairs. A cold burst of wind caught him as he stepped out from under the porch’s roof. He pulled his hood up, shivering inside the hoodie. Just as he reached the door of the car, Mrs. Newall’s voice stopped him.
He turned back.
“I’m proud of you, Julian.”
Her words sucked the breath from him; she’d never said that to him before. No one had. A ball of heat welled in his chest, warming him until he no longer felt the cold. Tears welled in his eyes. His voice cracked when he replied.
“I love you, Mrs. Newall.”
“I love you, too. I always will.”
With a nod, Julian opened the door, the cab’s heat blasting his body. He slid in, shut the door. He didn’t stop himself from looking back and watching Mrs. Newall until the car turned a corner, and she disappeared from sight.
Settling into the seat, Julian stared at his hands, paying no attention to where they were going. It didn’t really matter, after all. His thoughts drifted, from one nothing to another, vague images playing endlessly in his mind.
“Kid. Hey, kid!”
Julian jerked his head up.
“Where I was told to take ya. You wanna get out?”
Julian sat up, glanced out the window. Immediately, his stomach churned. He looked back over at the cabbie.
“What is this?”
“Is this some kind of sick joke? Because it isn’t funny!”
“What are you talking about, kid?”
“It’s not funny! Get me out of here!”
“Kid, look, I don’t know what your problem is, but this is where I’m supposed to drop you off.”
“It can’t be. There’s gotta be some kind of mistake.”
“No mistake. 645 Plum Tree Drive. See?” He held up a piece of paper with the address hastily scribbled.
Julian looked out the window again. His heart pounded, bruising his ribs. His breath came fast, the gusts razing sharply against his ears. Disjointedly, he popped the door handle, kicked his feet out, and stood. With a thunk, he heard the trunk release. Walking around, he fished around blindly until he found the strap of his oversized gym bag. He slung it over his shoulder, banged the trunk shut.
Then he just stood there and stared. Damn, it looks just the same. Except for the Christmas lights, of course. And the Nativity scene. And the reindeer made out of twigs sitting on the front lawn. But other than that? Just the same.
Belatedly, he recognized the sound of an engine and glanced over. The cab was heading down the block, stopping at the corner, turning. Then it was gone.
Julian looked back at the house. Sweat broke out on his forehead despite the cold. What am I supposed to do now? Go in, he imagined. Except … Is this really happening?
He forced himself to take a step, then another. A tiny burst of cold stung his nose; it took a moment before he realized it had started to snow. As the snowflakes fell, slowly at first, and then more rapidly, he continued to take hesitant steps toward the front porch. Reaching the stairs, he stepped up. Then again. And once more.
He heard the baritone bark, but kept his eyes glued to the front door. He couldn’t bring himself to look in the window. He was too scared this wasn’t real, and if it was a dream, he wasn’t ready to wake up yet. Reaching the door, he raised his hand, then dropped it. He needed to knock. That was what you did when you came to a closed door. You knocked. Knock on the door. C’mon, Julian. Just do it. Raise your hand, make a fist, and knock.
His knuckles barely brushed the wood, but it was the best he could do. The barking got louder, more insistent. There was the sound of what he guessed were claws scratching against the door.
“Down. Down, Rocco!”
Julian heard the voice through the door. He recognized it, but still, he didn’t believe it.
The door opened.
And there they were. Dan and Rita, their faces bright with smiles. Julian barely got a look at them before he was tackled by the Great Dane. Slobber covered his face and hands as Rocco licked at him, dowsing him in doggie kisses.
Julian brought his hands up instinctively, petting the dog, hugging him, before he tried to set the animal away from him. A strong hand reached out and took Rocco by the collar, pulling him back into the house.
Julian forced himself to focus. He looked up at the man and woman he’d been so desperate to call dad and mom, their faces so familiar, and yet in that moment, totally foreign.
“Come in, son, before you freeze.”
Dan’s arm came around his shoulders, ushered him into the foyer. The bag slid from his arm and disappeared; he assumed Rita took it. And then they were walking into the living room. A huge tree stood in the corner, surrounded by wrapped packages. And sitting on the floor was Katie. Michael. David and Kane. Every kid from the orphanage was there.
“Julian!!” Katie screamed his name, dropped the baby doll she was holding, and raced across the room. Julian stumbled as she tackled his legs, hugging him tightly. Just as quickly, she let go and ran back to her Christmas present.
“I … I don’t understand …”
Dan came to stand in front of him and slipped an envelope into his hands.
“Maybe this will help.”
Woodenly, Julian slid his finger under the envelope’s flap, lifted it, and pulled out what was within. It was an official-looking document, a letter of some sort.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Daniel McFarland,
After much time and consideration, the state of Missouri has determined to grant your request for permanent guardianship of Julian John Murray. It is hereby decided that on this date, the 20th of December, 2014, you gain and retain guardianship of the minor in question and thereby take on the responsibility of him and his well-being.
The Honorable Judge Mary E. Clarkson
Julian read the document, then reread it a second and then third time. Finally, he looked up. His breath shook, as did his hands.
“Is this real?”
Rita smiled and nodded. “It is.”
“But … How come … Why …?”
“Why did we have to send you back?”
Julian managed to nod.
Rita leaned it and hugged him while Dan explained. “We knew after the first few months we wanted to not only foster you, but adopt you. But the state has certain requirements that have to be met, and in order to meet those requirements, we had to send you back to Bell Street until the process could be finalized. We wanted to tell you, but if for some reason we’d been denied, we didn’t want you to have the extra disappointment of knowing we wanted you, but couldn’t keep you. At the time, it seemed like a better idea to not say anything until we were sure.”
Julian just stared, frozen.
“I’m sorry, Julian. I know it must have hurt like hell when we sent you back, but please believe us, we were trying to cause you as little pain as possible.”
“But … I’m yours now?”
“As in, I live here now?”
Dan and Rita laughed. “For as long as you want to be here, you can call this home.”
“And … Can I …”
“Can you what?”
“Can … Can I call you …?”
“Yes, Julian, absolutely. We hoped you’d want to.”
Julian threw his arms around Dan. No. Not Dan. Dad. Julian threw his arms around his father, holding on for dear life. After what seemed like forever, he let go, only to turn and hug … His mother.
Finally, tears rolling down his cheeks and laughter pouring from his mouth, he pulled away.
“So … What is everybody else doing here?”
“We wanted you to spend Christmas with us, but we thought you might also want to spend it with the rest of the kids from Bell Street, and in order for us to surprise you the way we wanted, Mrs. Newall couldn’t give you a chance to say goodbye to everyone beforehand. So we invited them all for the day.”
Julian couldn’t quite take it all in. How awesome were these people—his parents—that they would assume and understand his need to bid farewell to his old life and the people who were part of it? That they would know how important it was to see Katie open her gifts and squeal in delight? To watch Mrs. Newall smile secretly with satisfaction as her kids found joy on this day … Except, wait. Where is Mrs. Newall? Surely she wasn’t spending the day at Bell Street?
A knock sounded behind him, and Rocco let out a series of barks. Looking up at his mom and dad, he waited for their nod, then walked to the front door. His front door. Opening it wide, there stood Mrs. Newall, a smile stretching from ear to ear across her face.
“Welcome home, Julian.”
It wasn’t until Mrs. Newall and the other Bell Street kids had left, their smiles wide and hearts full, and his dad was tucking him into bed that the realization struck.
“You were Santa Claus!”
Dan looked over, then sat on the edge of the bed and smiled.
“I knew I recognized your eyes! But I … It was just too hard … I couldn’t…” He trailed off, unsure of how to finish.
“I know. So tell me something now, son.”
“What’s that, Dad?”
“Do you believe in magic?”