The ice around the window frame made it trickier to get the locking mechanism, but Emily had long ago resigned herself to working under sub-optimal conditions. Last year was nicer – one of those weird Chicago winters where it was 45 degrees on the solstice, but this year it was already in the single digits and falling, and there’d been two days of ice and snow already this week. She crouched closer to the building, shielding her hands from the wind, and began chipping away the ice. The alleyway was empty – for now, as her father always told her, don’t assume it will stay that way – and no one heard the muffled thumps and cracks as small pieces of ice landed on the peeling paint and grey wood of the fire escape.
Once the ice was out of the way, Emily pulled her picks out from the inside of her wool jacket and took care of the lock. Buildings like this always had tricky locks, not because anything inside had real value in any objective sense, but when it was all you had, even a beaten-up couch and TV with a crack in one corner were treasures. Still, she’d been doing this for her whole life, and no mechanical window lock was going to stymie her for too long.
Stepping inside, Emily took a look around and began to sketch out a plan. The worst part of these jobs wasn’t that she had such a narrow window of time in which to do a lot of work, but that she couldn’t plan ahead as much as the job really needed. She knew when they’d be home, who lived here, how old they were, but not the layout of the place or what aesthetic she should strive for. Usually, she started with some basic traditional motif and tried to bring enough variations with her in order to achieve the greatest effect. This job was particularly challenging. Single dad, two daughters – nine and twelve. Old enough to know miracles didn’t exist, young enough to still hope they were wrong. The younger one loved science – Emily had seen her carrying her science fair project to school last week, eyes shining and mouth moving a mile a minute. The older one was into sports of all kinds – the basketball and soccer ball in front of the door were hers – but it was the more-tape-than-wood hockey stick and torn-at-the-corners poster of Amanda Kessel that showed her real dreams. Poor kids, especially poor girls, didn’t play hockey though. Skates, helmet, stick… it all added up.
Okay, time to get to work. If she let herself think too hard about these kids, their dad, how hard it was to get up when you were this far down…ah, that way lay madness.
Emily went back out on the fire escape, using the door this time, and began bringing everything in. The tree was still in its box. She would have loved to have put up a real tree, but this one would last this family years and years, not just a few weeks, and already being lit helped. The tree-decorating drills she did in her living room paid off here, and the tree was up, tinseled, and ornamented – two packs of shiny glass balls, five gift cards to the grocery store, a set of NASA spacecraft, and various memorabilia of great moments in women’s sports – in twelve and a half minutes. Then came the wax tart – at least it would smell like a real tree – stockings laid before the tree, hockey gear, a microscope with USB connector to download digital images, a tablet computer, and gift cards to the mall that they could get to on the El. She didn’t forget dad, of course. Caught in the switches – too much experience on the jobsite to hire just as a laborer, not enough credits at the local college to get the degree that would get him the interviews he needed to put a piece of paper next to his knowledge, and lost trying to be mom and dad to two girls busily turning in to women, determined not to let them raise themselves – his head was under water, and he spent every day just hoping that he’d be able to keep his girls afloat until they could leave home. He got three things –the phone number of a woman Emily knew who owned a construction firm that employed a few too many guys who could lift boulders but didn’t know where to put them or had all the credentials but hands that had never picked up a hammer; an appointment for a fitting for a new suit, already paid for, of course, that he could wear to his interview; and an acceptance letter for an online degree completion program that he would have no trouble affording with the new job he was about to get.
Eighteen years of experience doing this with her dad hadn’t prepared Emily for the emotions she’d feel when she stepped back and took in the entirety of what she’d set up for the first time. But that was a decade ago, and now she was all business. Pulling out her phone, she checked the time – ten minutes left before they’d be home, perfect – and snapped a picture. Dad would have loved this one, she knew, but the accident that had taken his foot ended his breaking-and-entering career for good. She’d share this one with him, and then with her daughter – Abby would be old enough to join her next year. She smiled, turned on the lights on the tree, set her father’s calling card on a branch in front, and headed out.
Four minutes later, Robert slid the key in the lock and opened the door. The girls were dragging a bit from a long outing in the cold, but enough activities at this time of year were free – anyone could look at lights – that they’d made a whole night of it. As soon as the door opened a crack, a chill went down his spine. He knew the lights had been off when they left, he wasn’t about to pay for electricity they weren’t around to use. And his nerves sent a jolt into his brain when his youngest screeched behind him. He whirled to see what had happened to her when Lily and her big sister pushed past him and darted into the apartment, their voices reaching a painful pitch almost instantly. “Ohmygoddaddaddoyouseethetree?”
Spinning back around, Robert finally saw what Lily and Rose were yelling about. A seven-foot tree, surrounded with lights and color and presents, dominated the living room. It was the only bright thing in the home – well, other than the girls – and he felt his eyes well up, thinking of the Christmases of his childhood and the pain that came every year when he couldn’t provide the same things to his own kids. The shining star on the highest bough seemed to twinkle through his tears, and he reached out to hug the two squealing shapes heading back towards him. “Dad! Dad! It’s from him!”
Lily was holding something out to him, and he wiped his eyes to take a better look at it. It was a simple business card, the kind he’d seen in news stories on TV this time of year for seemingly decades. Printed in the middle, in a festive font, were the words “Have Yourself a Murray Little Christmas,” and below, in a smaller block script, “EMILY LITTLE, Proprietor.”