Last Train for Christmas Eve
"Mom? Can I go look around the train?"
The woman sitting in the green leather seat lowered her newspaper and looked down over her spectacles at the little girl in front of her. The girl had her hands on the woman's knees as she rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet, waiting for an answer. She had never been on a train before and wanted to explore it to her heart's content.
The older woman smiled at her daughter's enthusiasm and nodded. "Alright." Her daughter quickly thanked her and dashed over to the sliding door of their room, yanking it open with as much force the child could muster. "Carmelita!"
"Yes, mom?" Carmelita turned away from the door toward her mother's call.
"Be careful. Don't leave the cart. It's dangerous out there and the conductor told us the carts in either side are off-limits, remember?"
"I remember. I won't go in them," she promised before leaving the booth and shutting the door behind her. She smacked her head and ran back in, snatching up a red bag that she attached to her leg via its velcro straps. Her mother chuckled, mockingly asking how she could have forgotten her "favorite, trusty pack?" that they had purchased for her a few years ago and had become her most valued item. Then she waved to her mother once more and departed.
Now Carmelita felt even more giddy. Even though she had seen the interior of the train's wooden hallway when she first boarded it, it somehow all seemed larger now that she was free to roam where she pleased. It all had a touch of winter magic to it as well, with dimly lit lamps, hanging along the dark mahogany wall, offsetting the harsh chill of the rushing snow and dark night with their warm glow. Although, Carmelita could not see too much outside, for a good chunk of each window was frozen over and more frost was building onto the foundation slowly, but surely. She saw her own reflection in it, her inquisitive yellow eyes staring straight back at her as she flipped her long, blue hair to the side and away from her face.
She stepped forward, bundling her tan jacket around her tighter when she realized it was chillier out there than back with her mother. But to think that would deter a child's determination once they have their mind set on something would be more foolish than trying to stop the snow outside. She marched forward, the lighter planks creaking as she walked across the green, yellow speckled carpet covering them.
In each booth, she peered into it. Give that it was Christmas Eve, one could be forgiven for perhaps mistaking her for a diligent elf that was re-checking everyone's behavior to see if they really did deserve the presents they were supposed to receive. She wide eyes scanned each room merely to confirm that it was similar to hers before she moved on. She found that most were filled with sleeping passengers while a select few had people still up at that late hour, reading or listening to some music.
As she neared one end of the cart, she found that she was a little bored of just peeking into booths, not to mention lonely in the excursion. Like most people, she figured that a friend, especially one of hers from her old home, could double her initial excitement before being limited to one area. That way, they could have joked and use their wild imaginations to turn it into an adventure. She desperately wanted to explore the entire length of the train, but stayed away from the door at the end of the hall that would lead to another cart, remembering her promise.
Sighing, she dragged her feet back down the hall. She had expected that since it was Christmas Eve, something grand would have happened. Although it seemed that the only exceptional thing that had occurred was how little activity there was.
As she passed by one booth, she noticed that it was empty, holding a bunk bed rather than two separate beds like hers had. And it appeared relatively bare, leading Carmelita to believe it was unoccupied. With nothing better to do, she opened up the door and stepped in, shutting it behind her as she called out in case anyone was in there.
"Hello?" she greeted the silent room. When it did not answer, she walked further in. The bottom bed was tidy and well made and the dresser to her other side was barren of anything that would announce someone was staying here. Or at least that was what she saw on the outside. When her curiosity piqued enough for her to open one of the drawers, she found a few sets of sky blue clothes, accompanied by a single beret. And next to these was a picture of a middle-aged, kindly couple, posing for a family portrait as a young raccoon, whom Carmelita presumed to be their son, sat beaming on the man's knee. He wore the same attire that she had discovered in the dresser and held onto a crooked cane, whose color she could not discern since it was a black and white photograph.
Before she could replace the picture back in the drawer and leave the booth, she heard a creaking sound behind her. She dropped the picture, letting it fall to the floor, and stared at the only other thing in the room: the bed. "Hello?" she tried once more now that she knew someone was staying here. "Is anyone there?" Again, no answer, but that did not ease her mind.
Carmelita opened her ruby pouch, digging deep into it before her fingers wrapped around the item she was searching for. Pulling out a small flashlight, she dropped to her knees and turned it on, shining it underneath the bunk beds. Yet there was nothing under there. No person waiting to jump out and frighten her, no rodent on the hunt for a morsel to nibble on, no loose board squeaking out a signal that it was loose. In fact, she though to herself that the underside of the bunk bed was better kept than her old room.
Sitting up and turning toward the window, covered up with copious amounts of frost like its brothers, she stood up. However, she immediately fell back, yelping in surprise when she spotted someone squatting on the bottom bed, now wrinkled from the new presence, staring at her and tilting his head while grinning mischievously, as if he knew of a secret of hers that she had unknowingly given.
"Who are you?" Carmelita inquired, settling down a little now that she realized the boy was no older than she was.
"Shouldn't I be asking that?" he chuckled, moving his feet a little, but still perched in the same position, his arms draped over his knees. It was then that she noticed the cane he held. It had a crooked yellow end- a most unusual design to her to be sure- and was attached to a long, finely finished handle that she quite admired when he stopped spinning it long enough for her to see. She also recognized the blue shirt and beret he wore as the same of the boy in the photograph. Once her mind processed all the tell-tale signs, it dawned on her that it was the exact same child. Only now she was staring into the deep brown, amused eyes of the grey raccoon rather than a still frame version of them from the past.
"But I suppose I will go first if you want," he continued, leaping off the bed to stand and bow politely. She was not sure if he was mocking her or completely serious, but allowed him to answer her question. "I'm Sly. Sly Cooper," he introduced himself as he leaned on the top of his too-long cane. His voice was was unlike most other children. It was a placid, warm tone that soothed her earlier scare from his sudden showing.
"I'm Carmelita Fox," she said. It was then that she also noticed a navy blue collar wrapped around his throat. A gold pentagon with a star in the middle dangled from it loosely.
"That's a nice name," he said, breaking her staring to focus again on him. That smile never left his face, leading her to wonder if he had just received good news or was just happy from someone being there.
He walked over to the fallen picture, picking it up and studying it for a few moments. Carmelita took the opportunity to offer her apologies for intruding and looking through his things. "I'm sorry. I didn't think anyone was in here."
"It's ok," he said. He lifted up the picture for her to see it again and nodded his head at it. "My parents and me."
She had thought as much. "Are they in another booth?" she asked. She could not imagine that three people were sharing the room. When he shook his head, she questioned if they were on the train. When he gave her the same answer, she tried once more, supposing that the third time was the charm. "Are they waiting for you in Paris?"
But for the line of questioning, her third chance was another strike. "No," Sly said. "They're gone. I'm being sent to the Happy Camper Orphanage."
"So you're all alone here?" she asked, the shock clearly evident in her voice.
"Well, someone did see me on the train," he replied. "And I'm supposed to meet someone when I get off. But yeah, I am."
Carmelita now regretted ever prying in the subject. She could not imagine how difficult it must be for him and how she had opened up what had to be a painful subject to discuss. Since he was being sent to an orphanage, she assumed he must have no living relatives as well. She did not know how to change the subject or respond to any of it. She had never dealt with death hitting this close to home for anyone before; only with distant family members.
Much to her surprise, Sly was the one to take over the line of questioning and change the subject, moving from dead parents to living ones. "What about you? Are you here alone or with your parents?"
"I'm with my mom," Carmelita confessed, seeing no harm in being open with him since he had been so open with her. Or at least she saw no reason for him to lie to her about it or benefit for him. "We're moving to Paris. My dad is already there and has us a house in the city. We spent all day packing so we just barely caught this last train."
She felt bad about discussing her own parents when he no longer had his. But Sly urged her to continue, asking more questions about them. "What do they do?"
"He's a cop and she used to be a store manager in our old town," she told him. She opened up her pouch, fishing around in it once more before pulling out a photograph like Sly's. In it, Carmelita was riding atop her father's shoulders as her mother lay her head against his arm. She handed it over to Sly, who looked it over and returned it to her after he was satisfied.
"That's interesting," he said, his former grin returning to his face. "My dad helped people out like a cop too."
"Was he one?" She saw that he was much more comfortable with the subject that she had initially believed, at least in talking about what they did. So she let him lead the conversation for the time.
"No, but he said he did help stop criminals and take what they stole. He always said it was a secret and that I would understand when I was older," he shrugged.
She nodded, not that she understood the cryptic words of his father either. Carmelita was very relieved to know that she had not ruined any chance to possibly make a new friend with her faux pas. She was happy to have stumbled upon someone her own age, not to mention- in her own mind- a rather cute boy. She found herself staring more and more into those chocolate orbs that were just as fixated on her as the contagious grin her wore infected her too.
"What brings you here?" Sly inquired, hopping back up onto the bed in his crouched position, laying his cane on it. She watched his legs, wondering how that could possibly be comfortable and if he had learned such a thing from his parents or elsewhere.
"I was just looking for something to do," she replied, walking a little closer to the window. "But there isn't anything."
"I know of something. I found it out while I was checking out the train earlier," Sly said. He smiled wide, that same impish curl on his lips from before that turned her stomach over several times, yet intrigued her enough to question as to what it was. "Follow me," he answered, picking up his cane and leading Carmelita out of the booth, down the hall, and to the door there. The same door her mother had forbade her to exit through.
"We can't go through there!" Carmelita exclaimed, pulling Sly back by his hand.
"Because the conductor said it's off-limits," she reminded him. As Sly waved her off, she saw a uniformed man patrolling just beyond the door. She pointed this out to him, adding another reason to her argument. "If he catches us, we'll be in trouble too."
"If," Sly echoed, adding more emphasis to the word. "If he catches us. I think we can sneak past him."
Carmelita could see that none of her arguments would deter him. And, if she was honest with herself, she too was more than interested to investigate the other cart, as well as see what Sly had up his sleeve. But her mother's words had a tight hold of her feet. She peered up through the door's large pane of glass, barely able perceive what lied in the dark room on the other side, yet went no further than that.
"It's also dangerous," she ventured with one last effort.
"Not if you follow me," he said, shaking his head. He offered a hand to her and yanked open the door with his cane in the other. The wind immediately rushed outside, happy to rejoin its frigid brethren after being trapped inside for so long. Carmelita bundled her coat around herself as tight as possible and turned to Sly. Despite seeing it with her own eyes, she found it hard to fathom how he was not shivering from the cold. Unlike her chattering teeth, his jaw was set tight into that grin and the only part of him that acknowledged the snowflakes running in to escape the outdoors were his rapidly blinking eyes.
He kept his hand held out until she took it in his. Over the elements of both nature and machine outside, he yelled to her, "Just don't look down. I'll keep you safe."
She could not pinpoint why, since he had done nothing to prove his honesty so far, yet Carmelita found herself trusting him completely when he said that. Something about him told her that he was not lying in the slightest. It was probably the eyes, she told herself, which she stared at as they inched outside onto the edge of their own cart. She squeezed his hand, and he hers, for reassurance as she felt her feet leave the solid floor of wood and step upon the rough, lumpy coupling connecting where they were to their destination.
Carmelita slipped only once and only because she chanced looking down for a moment. When she did, she realized how fast the train was traveling as the ground beneath was a blur of dark metal and wood, barely illuminated by a pair of lights, one above each entrance to the sections of the train. When she saw it and her body processed it along with the whipping wind that beat her long hair, she nearly lost her balance.
But providing evidence that her instincts were correct in trusting him, Sly pulled her closer, steadying her on the attachment. Since the clacking of the wheels against the tracks was far too loud for either to hear the other, he motioned for her to keep her eyes on him. Carmelita was only too willing to comply, finding herself at ease as she maintained eye contact with him until they arrived at the other side.
Once there was solid, smooth wood beneath her feet once more, Sly broke the stare, reaching up with his multi-purpose cane to pull open the door. Carmelita found herself lingering a little longer in her gaze, content to stare at the back of his head. But she too was snapped out of it when he finally pulled aside the door and ushered her inside.
The new carriage was dark, both aiding and hampering them. She figured they could easily stay out of the uniformed man's sight if they stuck to the most nebulous of the shadows, where putting her hand further away than a few inches allowed it to take on a fuzzy appearance before melding into the darkness. Yet, as she gathered from Sly's motions to stay silent and move slow as they crouched, they had to be careful to not disturb any of the cargo, lest they alert the guard through their sounds in place of sight.
Said cargo was merely all the belongings of the passengers, loaded up and stored in the cart so that they were out of the way. The guard was inspecting a few, bent over underneath the only scrap of light from a lonely lamp hanging ram-rod stiff above him. Sly lead Carmelita behind a stack of suitcases and other luggage they acted as a wall between them and the man. Once past, Carmelita breathed a little easier. At least until her new playmate stopped at one particularly large, unstable pile of belongings that reached up to the ceiling, like a much more pitiful, and much earlier halted, Tower of Babel to her eyes.
At the tip top, there was a opening, latched shut, but still letting in the bright light of the crescent moon that evening. It lit them up enough for Carmelita to see Sly point up at the mountain of bags before sticking his cane in his mouth- which barely wrapped around it and made him look like a puppy gnawing on a very large bone- and hopped onto the stack. He was much more agile and acrobatic than she had given him credit for, since he nearly flew up the pile and to the top before turning back around to beckon her to follow.
Walking closer and checking the unevenness of the makeshift footholds here and there around it, Carmelita tentatively braved swinging up one boot up into a particularly hard bag, hooking her foot deep into it. Using the momentum, she pushed herself upward, latching into bag after bag with an iron grip. All the while, Sly waited patiently at the top, encouraging her with a reassuring smile each time she ascended a little more. She remembered the advice he had given her when crossing over the coupling and took it to heart while climbing, never once chancing a quick peek to the ground.
Much to her surprise, she found herself at the top soon enough without the guard ever even noticing the two rascals playing about. In fact, the uniformed guard in question was leaving the carriage, off to attend to other duties for the time being. Once he was gone, Sly unlatched the opening above them and poked his head out, lifting his body up a little more onto a large duffel bag that kept his neck against the hinges of the windowed hatch while his head stayed above the roof's level- obviously a silly sight if anyone were to view it from the outside.
"Come look!" he urged Carmelita. His eyes were once again stung by the harsh snow as he held out his hand to her. Yet this time, the snow had lessened greatly in its intensity. So much so that one could declare the storm officially over and would hear no argument from anyone around.
Seeking any source of warmth now that the winter wind whirled throughout the carriage, Carmelita gladly accepted his offer and used him to pull herself up. When she saw was he had meant to show her, she was certainly awestruck by it.
The luminescent moon- trying in its misguided, backward way to best represent the third letter of the alphabet- lit up a white, shimmering wonderland of snow that was visible for miles. The untouched powder was only disturbed to by the small remnants late to the picturesque painting on the ground. It twinkled and waved to the stars above, which were starting to reappear themselves. The entire scene was slow to pass by them as if the train had actually eased off to allow them to take in the view.
"Wow," Carmelita whispered, a puff of chilled air curling upwards from her lips.
"I know," Sly nodded.
"Thanks for showing me this," she said gratefully. She had never seen any sort of weather aftermath as perfect as this in her short time. She soaked it up, her mental camera pointing to a new area faster than it could snap a photo to remember it all.
Off in the distance, over the chug of the train engine and the clackety-clack of the wheels, Carmelita heard a bell toll. She listened carefully and retrieved a pair of binoculars from her pouch, pinpointing its location coming from a small village off to their left as she looked through them. As it rang, she kept count, reaching twelve by the time it was finished. "Midnight," she said. "So it's Christmas Day."
"Merry Christmas," Sly chuckled, waving his hand around at the frozen landscape. She joined in with his small bout of laughing, dwelling fondly on how the train would pull into Paris that day and she would be able to at least spend half of Christmas with both her parents.
But then a horrible realization reared its ugly face in her mind. Turning to the boy next to her, she remembered his own situation. Although he did not look saddened by the thought as he gazed out at the snow, Carmelita was downtrodden for him. Most likely, Sly would not receive any sort of presents, or much of anything, in an orphanage. He would be lucky if the place was even kind, as she had heard whispers of some orphans winding up in the most unfriendly and nastiest environments a child could experience.
What ate at her heart most of all was how she would sit around a tree and decorations with her parents while Sly would have no one except other children like him to spend the holiday with: no family whatsoever. She could hope that the caretakers would be kind-hearted, accommodating people like one would expect, but that did not feel like enough to her.
As she pondered on what she could possibly do for him, her eyes drifted to her pouch. Her special pouch that she had carried around since starting school and one that she had never left home without. Her thoughtful eyes returned to Sly for a moment, who was surveying the landscape, then back to the pouch. Without a moment's hesitation, she undid the velcro straps that held it to her leg and handed it to him after taking out her family photograph.
When she nudged Sly and placed it in his hands, Carmelita felt a small rush of heated blood run from her inner body up to her cheeks. She watched him stare it at, his eyes questioning the reasoning for it before she explained its purpose. "Merry Christmas," she told him, as if that would be a satisfactory answer. When she saw that a "Why?" was still forming on his lips, she continued. "I didn't know if you would get anything because of your-" She trailed off, letting him put together the rest of the sentence. "Everyone should have a nice Christmas. This is all I have to give. Just please take care of it."
Carmelita stared at it a bit longingly as one does a friend they must separate from for a long time. Sly thanked her and attached it to his own leg, saying that he quite enjoyed the fit and he would do his best to keep it in the same condition she did. When he reached back inside to return the flashlight and binoculars to her, she declined. "Part of the package," she said. "Besides, you might need them."
He again offered his thanks, yet did not turn away. She watched him, an idea manifesting behind his chocolate eyes, yet its details were well hidden. At least they were until he reached up to the necklace he wore, fiddled with the gold pendant on it, smiled, and unfastened it from around his neck. "Here," he said, indicating for her to lean forward and accept it around her own throat.
Carmelita shook her head. "Oh, no. I couldn't-"
"Please," he cut her off. "You deserve a gift too. My father actually gave this to my mother, saying it 'belonged on a lovely lady'." He smiled fondly at the memory for a moment before he went on. "He was right. It does belong on a lovely lady."
She knew that the excess heat rushing toward her face was likely to show. So she quickly bowed her head to hide it as she let him wrap the necklace around her. When he finished, Carmelita leaned back up, but did not show her still-red face. Instead, she fingered the pendant and asked him, "Are you sure you want to give this away?" as if he might suddenly change his mind and snatched it away. It was a beautiful necklace to her and she would not blame him if he did, since it was a keepsake of his parents.
"Yes," he nodded. "I have other ways to remember them besides that."
"Thank you," she said, leaning over once more to plant a chaste kiss on his cheek. Some of the heat must have transferred to him in the action because she saw his grey fur darken to a shade of ruby, becoming much more visible than she supposed hers was.
"You're welcome," he replied, his voice losing its normal composure for a brief second to give way to a squeak at the start before returning to normal. She leaned against his shoulder, still running the pendant through her fingers. When he wrapped an arm around her- perhaps sensing she was still a little cold-, she smiled. They sat there like that for the better part of an hour, just enjoying the scenery even though frostbite threatened their fingers and toes. But Carmelita did not mind. She was happy like that and knew that even though it had just started, that Christmas had already turned out to be a fantastic one.
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