Christmas Tree in shopping mall

Week 4 Prompt: Festive

The tree stood tall, almost touching the roof. Decoration spread over each bough, almost weighting it down but instead lifting it up. It was strange in a way, the way a decorated tree could light up a whole room. Not with the lights but with the hope. The lights shined out as a beacon for people to see. As Erin stood there in awe of the tree, she pulls her arms around her, hugging herself. She tried to smile but it escaped her as she was entranced. She longed to reach out and touch it.

She was awakened from her revere when a person bustled past her and knocked her with their load of shopping bags. Her focus turned to the people around her, walking purposely, standing around chatting, wandering past. All seemed to bypass the very thing she had been entranced by. No one seemed to notice the tree standing right in the middle of the shopping centres main walkway.

For years, Erin had come the day the tree was put up, watching and imagining it standing in her own living room surrounded with presents and smiles and joy. It was the only way she could make it through the holiday season. All those years she didn’t have a tree at home and no, no home. Yet, her heart still hoped for the impossible.

In the corner of her eye she saw the centre security turn towards her. She was well known to them. They didn’t like her type in their place of business. She was just another piece of rubbish to be removed. Like somehow her presence marred the very space she stood and permeated into the surrounding venue. She hadn’t ever done anything wrong, but that seemed to be irrelevant. Apparently, people liked to spend money on useless objects without being reminded of how ridiculous they were. Having a real need right in your face was uncomfortable.

We couldn’t have that.

Erin turned towards the guard with her hands up ready to protest. She saw it was Peter. Pete. She lowered her hands and the corner of her mouth lifted. It was the best smile she could achieve.

Pete stood about the same height as her but he was build like a tree trunk. Most people thought they could get away from him due to his size but he was all muscle and fast. That wasn’t why he was successful at his job. He had this uncanny ability to be able to read people. It didn’t matter what they looked like, Pete was able to see when someone was up to no good.

When Erin first started coming to the shopping centre, Waverly Place as it was known, she watched Pete. Initially, it was to size him up and figure him out. Yet, this particular day, she watched him as he was keeping an eye on a group of rowdy boys. He had told them to make sure they carried their skateboards through the shop, otherwise he would have to ask them to leave. As he was observing at a distance his attention changed instantly.

Confused, Erin couldn’t figure out what had caught his attention. Then all of a sudden he started talking to some well dressed shoppers. Two ladies in their 40’s carrying a handful of bags. It wasn’t that unusual for a shopping centre. They smiled politely at Pete and chatted for a few minutes when he asked to look at their receipts for their shopping. The smiles dropped instantly and they fished around in their bags, digging around. They looked completely flustered when Pete wouldn’t listen to any of the excuses they espoused.

As it unfolded, Pete had called another guard on the radio and had the owner of the shop check his stock near the front of the shop. They were all standing in a mass as onlookers started to mill around. Finally, the ladies were escorted away. Pete reappeared not long after and continued his seamlessly aimless wanderings.

Unlike the other guards he didn’t insist on demanding Erin leave. Maybe it was due to his ability to read people, he saw past the messy exterior. She didn’t really know. What she did know was that he was always kind to her. Today he stood in front of her with two cups of coffee. He offered one to her and gestured with his head for her to join him.

He was heading out for a smoko break and when she was around she would join him. It happened probably once a week and became an unspoken thing. Thursday 3pm. She didn’t really know when it started and how it came to be. It kind of just happened one day. She still had to be careful to avoid Phil, the other guard. He didn’t like Pete and how he was nice to her, or any of those that wouldn’t be spending any money. You were only valuable to him and worthy of respect if you had the money to earn it.

He was an idiot and Pete knew it, but he was still respectful of Phil regardless.

She followed Pete out the side exit and sat on the ground against the building while Pete walked a few paces away. The coffee was hot and sweet and was welcomed by her empty stomach. Pete lit up a cigarette and blew out a puff of smoke away from Erin. He knew she hated the smell.

He gestured to a paper bag sitting by the door. Erin reached across to grab it, opening it with expectation. Today it was a ham and cheese croissant with a large blueberry muffin. She pulled out the warm food and bit into the croissant hungrily, crumbs falling into her lap. Pete always knew what she liked, but more importantly, what she needed. It was that skill he had of reading people at work.

Every time they met, there was always coffee, warm food, and a smile. Yet, how the rest of the 30 minutes proceeded was always different. Some days she barely say a word, other days Pete would ramble about nothing. There were also days when they would just sit in almost silence as they both stared into another world. No matter how the time was spent, Erin always found she felt better afterwards.

She always told herself it was because of the food and coffee, yet she thought it was far more than that. It was being seen by someone. Whether she needed to speak or not, she was being heard. It had a better way of satisfying her than food. It reached into her soul.

There were barely any words spoken today. The sky was blue and the air warm and it somehow caught her attention. Lost in thought she had finished her food and coffee and hadn’t noticed when Pete had walked closer and leaned against the wall next to her. She stood, brushing off the crumbs covering her lap. She turned, brushing the hair out of her eyes before looking up at Pete.

“Are you going to the centre for Christmas lunch?”, Pete knew about the drop-in centre and the stipulations Erin had with regular check-ins. He turned at the sounds of birds chirping off in the distance as if he could see where it was coming from despite the walls surrounding them.

“How do you know about that?”, Erin stepped back looking at Pete fully.

“You told me.”

“Oh.”, again pushing her hair behind her ear she looked down at her feet as she kicked at the ground. “I don’t know.”

“You should.”, Pete checked his watch and started to collect his things. He stepped towards his bag and slung it over his shoulder. “At least you’ll get a feed.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

Pete opened his bag to put his things away then pulled out a gift. “Merry Christmas.”, he reached out the gift to Erin and waited for her to take it. “It isn’t much but I wanted you to give you something.” He continued to stand there as Erin stood transfixed on the gift in front of her.

The box was a little bigger than Pete’s hand, red and shiny. It was held closed with a red and white Christmas ribbon. It was tied in a knot and not a bow as you would expect. Within the ribbon was a gift tag but this one was unique than anything she had ever received. This one said ‘Erin’.

You see all the gifts she had every received had come through charities. Her dad having always used money for booze and gambling, and when mum was still around, she needed everything she get her hands on just to pay for food. There were no gifts otherwise. She didn’t get one every year, too many people in need, but did was fortunate enough, the tag always said ‘girl’.

Pete could somehow see everything going through her mind in the minute they had been standing there. He could see her eyes starting to glisten and grasped the full situation. Quickly bending down and placing the gift on the ground where Erin had been sitting, he turned hastily and apologised for the rush but he had to return to work. And with that, he was gone.

Erin sat down next to the gift picking it up in her hands and continuing to stare at her name etched out in quick letters. She placed it on her lap, took a deep breath as she lifted her fingers to the ribbon and pulled at the knot, loosening it. The ribbon came undone and the gift tag fell to the ground. Erin quickly retrieved it and placed in the palm of her hand and held it tight.

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