“We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, / For auld lang syne” (Robert Burns)
It was terribly cold and dark on this, the last evening of the year.
A little girl crouched in the corner of the St. Francis Shelter for Abandoned Youth, warming her feet against the baseboard heater. She had been brought here only a few hours before by a tired social worker. The little girl had been caught stealing a loaf of bread from a gas station market. The market manager had called the police, who had called child services, who had sent the weary social worker to decide what must be done.
The little girl had watched through the window of the police cruiser as the social worker shared a cigarette with the arresting officer. The social worker sucked on the cigarette until the tip glowed red in the twilight. Then she sighed deeply and offered it to the policeman, a ring of mauve paint staining the spot where her lips had been.
The little girl had refused to give the social worker her name. She had been in and out of foster homes long enough to recognize the tired eyes and resigned smile of people who could do nothing to help her.
The social worker, whose breath smelled like ashes, had decided to bring the child to the St. Francis Shelter for Abandoned Youth to spend the holiday. She would return to file paperwork in the morning.
The little girl had been served a warm meal and given a black garbage bag to hold her thin coat and torn mittens. Then she had been shuffled into a dormitory with long rows of wooden bunk beds. Now she crouched in the corner and listed to the rhythmic breath of the other sleeping children. She stared out the window at the deserted street below. Fat snowflakes fell to the pavement. A bitter wind moaned, but the little girl was the only one awake to hear its mournful sound.
She reached into the hole in the seam of her dress, her frozen fingers touching the smooth metal of the cigarette lighter she had stolen from the seat of the social worker’s car. “Cold Hands, Warm Heart”, her grandmother used to say whenever she cupped the little girl’s hands in her own and rubbed her chilly fingers warm with kisses. The girl placed her thumb on the grooves of the flint wheel and expertly flicked the lighter. An orange spark of heat erupted from the base, greeting her like an old friend.
Now there was a warm, bright flame, like a magic lamp, and when the girl held her hand over it, she was suddenly sitting in front of a bonfire, like the ones her father had built in empty trash cans years ago when they spent winter nights beneath the highway bridge. The little girl heard the distant screech of sirens and remembered how the bridge would tremble as heavy trucks thundered over it. Gnawing pains of hunger rumbled through her until the flame went out, taking her vision with it.
She flicked her thumb against the flint wheel again, and a new flame doubled itself in the reflection of the dormitory window. This time she saw the soup kitchen where she had once eaten Thanksgiving Dinner. The scent of roast turkey and fresh baked bread hung in the air, and the little girl’s stomach lurched as she remembered the heaping scoops of stuffing and cranberry sauce on her tray. She laughed in delight as her father made the turkey wings tap-dance through mountains of mashed potatoes, but then came the stale smell of whiskey on his breath and the scratch of his beard against her chin. Her thumb slipped from the lever. The room fell dark.
When she flicked the lighter a third time, she found herself beneath a beautiful Christmas tree in a department store window. At the base of the tree were stacks of brightly wrapped boxes, each holding presents that her own family, even in their richest days, could never have afforded. She threw a crumbled piece of cement through the imagined window, sending shards of glass through the air. The pieces landed on the floor of the display and reflected the lights of the tree. They looked like shattered stars that had fallen from the sky.
“Tonight, someone will die,” whispered the little girl, for she had seen a falling star the night her grandmother, the only person who ever loved her, had died.
The little girl felt her heart quicken, and she desperately flicked the lighter again and again until a new flame appeared. Suddenly, she saw her grandmother. She knew that her grandmother had perished in a fire, her body burned into an unrecognizable heap of charred ashes, but now her grandmother floated before her in the dancing flame, her silver hair framed by feathery wings.
“Gramma,” cried the little girl, “I’m sorry! Take me with you!” She feared her grandmother would disappear, like always, as soon as the flame went out.
Her hand shook as she moved the lighter toward the tattered curtains on either side of the dormitory window. The cheap fabric caught quickly, and her grandmother’s wings ignited into glorious orange and yellow flames.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you! Please don’t leave me,” the little girl wailed, setting her mattress on fire.
With the methodical precision of one who knows how objects burn, she moved her lighter down the row of bunkbed mattresses until each one blazed. The sleeping children, stacked like kindling, awoke to an inferno of heat and terror, screaming for God to help them, but even God was reveling in the celebrations of the year’s final night, and could not hear their cries above the din of their poverty and despair.
In the cold dawn of New Year’s Day, the little girl stood hidden in a crowd of onlookers, unseen. Grey smoke curled upward from the smoldering pile of wet ash that was once the St. Francis Shelter for Abandoned Youth.
“The smoke detectors must have malfunctioned,” someone said. “There were no survivors.”
“Poor homeless children,” a woman muttered, making the sign of the cross. “May the Good Lord bless them and take them to a better place.”
The little girl calmly stroked the lighter in her pocket as firemen and police officers sifted through the debris counting the blessed, blackened corpses.
She watched the smoke lift in the blinking lights of the emergency vehicles, and then she disappeared toward the east where the fiery red sun was rising like a phoenix.
Kelly Jarvis works as the Special Projects Writer for Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine. Her work has been featured in Blue Heron Review, Mermaids Monthly, Eternal Haunted Summer, Forget Me Not Press, and Mothers of Enchantment: New Tales of Fairy Godmothers. She teaches at Central Connecticut State University.
If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “The Little Wild” by Julian Grant.