None of the stuffed animals reclining against the overstuffed sofa in the front window of the Swap and Shop on West First Avenue actually saw the blue china doll arrive, since she was obviously inside a set of pasteboard boxes,although they all could clearly see the boxes being hauled into the front door of the old pawn shop on Monday morning.
The week before Christmas, it had been a few days since anything interesting had happened in the old store. They had long since grown tired of gazing out onto the sidewalk, where hobos, winos and the homeless gathered together to talk, gamble or share bottles of cheap wine, so they welcomed just about changes that might come about.
Peter Panda, because of his great height, could clearly see that the boxes were overflowing with used clothing, tattered school books with their covers all bent and mangled and the various other bits and pieces that were hanging down the side. Old Burt, towing the dolly like a locomotive behind him, set down the dolly on the creaky wooden floor by the cash register. Until his arrival, his stepson Billy had been reading a weathered comic book from apile of Superman comics he kept stashed by the cash register for just such occasions.
"what you got?" Billy asked his stepfather brightly, as if he really cared a great deal about it. "Looks like you've got yourself some kids' stuff."
Old Burt chewed on his lip pensively a moment, as if debating whether to chew him out for sitting around reading comic books when he should be sweeping the sidewalk out in front or perhaps, god bless him, dusting off the shelves.
He sighed, and leaning on the dolly, said, "No, I just got some stuff from a landlord over on Grace. He said the tenants were busted by the cops for meth last week, and since they were six months behind in their rent, he finally evicted them this morning. Three weeks before Christmas, and the whole lot of 'em are in jail, excepting for their daughter, who's been placed in a foster home somewhere. A sad story, I tell ya."
Wide-eyed, but being very careful not to make any noise, the twin stuffed otters peered at one another, their black eyes blinking, at hearing this bit of news. They were both very shy and unworldly, having recently arrived in the store's front window after the freight truck in which they were riding had crashed outside of town some months back.
"We Little Beasts don't use meth," Agatha the chimpanzee hissed, giving a repoving look in their direction. "Only very sad humans do that."
"What's Christmas?" Oliver, the stuffed cat asked hesitantly, sitting behind them on one of the semi-vacant bookshelves. Oliver, like most of his species, was exceedingly curious about everything and always prided himself on knowing the latest events. "Is that a thing or just a place?"
"SSSHHHHHH!" Peter Panda admonished them all, waving one paw in the air frantically. "If you persist in making so much noise, I cannot hear what is being said. Even worse, the humans might get suspicious."
Once more, all the animals gathered in the front window fell back into that peculiar posture of relaxation they all maintain when there isn't anything really important to watch, and within minutes, half of them had fallen back to sleep. It was a short time later that the otters, Hissie and Missie, in adjusting themselves into a more comfortable position, suddenly noticed the Blue China Doll sitting back in one corner of the storefront window. They were both very sure she had not been sitting there before, her expression blank, her eyes gazing through the dusty window to the street outside.
"Hello?" Hissie asked in a barely audible whisper. "I say, how long have you been sitting there?"
"Not long," the doll barely answered.
Her pretty blue satin dress was soiled in places, her hair badly mussed up, as if she had just arose from bed, with her face smudged with sleep. "I just arrived a short time ago." Her voice drifted off, as if it took a great deal of energy even to speak. "Where am I?"
Peter Panda, who awoke the instant he heard them whispering, leaned toward the twin otters and looking directly at the doll, stated, "Why, you are in the front window of a place called The Swap and Shop, on a street called West First Street, though we know not where." The two otters to your right are Hissie and Missie, the yellow tomcat behind you on the bookshelf is Oliver and the Chipanzee to your left is Agatha. I am called Peter Panda. If I might ask, what is your name?"
"I... I'm called Cass," the doll whispered, brushing fitfully at the dirt on her dress. "If you will pardon my manners," Peter whispered knowingly, "you look like you could use a bit of rest. Generally speaking, we try to keep our conversations down during the daytime when the owner and his stepson are around, to avoid suspicion. We will have lots of time later on to talk more about things, so close your eyes and try to sleep."
The day wove fitfully through its paces like a drunken sailor marches down the street, and shortly after Old Burt turned off the blinking neon sign over the front door, and he and Billy left the store for the night, only then did the stuffed animals in the window begin to stir themselves, and only after each of them had stretched thoroughly, did anyone speak.
"How did you come to be here?" Oliver the cat purred, stretching himself to full length behind the blue china doll atop his perch in the bookcase. "Since none of us saw you being carried in, one must presume that you came in among those boxes of things Old Burt carried in this morning."
"Yes, tell us your story!" Missie the otter exclaimed in a loud voice. "All of us came from someplace, once upon a time. Tell us about where you come from."
The blue china doll hesitantly stood on her feet, and attempting to again smooth out the wrinkles in her dress, said in a soft undertone, "I came from a horrid place, actually, although my mistress was as gentle and loving a creature as any of the Little People I've ever known. There were terrible things taking place, at all hours of the day and night. My mistress cried a lot, because no one fed her. Once or twice strange men and women came for her, took her away and made her cry some more. I wanted so to make her smile again, but try as I might, I could not. Yesterday more strangers came for her, and took her away for good, but not before the men in blue uniforms had taken away all the rest of her humans."
"Well, since you had a mistress," Hissie the Otter said, her oval brown eyes gazing at the doll, "Why is it she didn't come back for you? Peter Panda had a mistress once, for most of his life as a Little Person. Peter's mistress did something he calls passing away, and she was no more. If your mistress is still in our world, why hasn't she come to claim you?"
Peter Panda abruptly stood up at this point, and smiled gently upon hearing this. "From what I have learned about human-kind, when they pass away, they cease to exist. They die. They cross over. In Cass's case, I believe someone took her mistress away before she had a chance to take Cass with her. Such horrible things should not be spoken of so near to Christmas, however. This is supposed to be a time of joy and great happiness."
"As I recall, you were about to tell us about Christmas," Oliver the Cat sighed, laying back down, his large green eyes blinking in the dim light shining through the store window. "I am very confused. Is Christmas a place in the heart or a thing?"
"It depends," Peter said evenly. "To those who have had a mistress or master, it is always a place in the heart. To everyone else it is a thing, a time of the seasons when humans get and give gifts to one another and perform acts of kindness like Little People do for one another every day."
"Do they only do these things at Christmas? That's ABSURD!" wailed Oliver.
"We're confused!" both Hissie and Missie exclaimed in unison.
Cass, smiling a bit for the first time since she had joined the group of stuffed animals in the window, held up one hand, quieting everyone down. "To my mistress and others of her own human kind, Christmas is a time of love, of tenderness and great mysteries. There are all those pretty gifts to buy for other humans, and sweetbreads and rich fudge to make for everyone. There is crinkly wrapping paper around gifts beneath the Christmas Tree, and sleigh bells ringing in the snow. It is one of the most joyous times, and they do this every year."
"That sounds delightfully familiar," Peter Panda said, nodding his leonine head. "I remember something quite like that back when I was with my mistress a long, long time ago."
He paused, scratching his large pink nose for a moment, then in a puzzled tone of voice asked, "Just a few minutes ago, however, you whispered how horrid it had all been. What went wrong? Isn't Christmas supposed to be a joyous time of year?"
"Oh yes," Cass said, nodding her head vigorously. "When my mistress and I were hiding beneath her bed one night, she told me all about how, once things got better, we would have a Christmas celebration, just like we once did."
"Hiding beneath the bed? Hiding from WHOM?" Peter Panda asked gently, his eyebrows arched high up on his head. "That sounds simply dreadful."
"Our last night together, her family held something they called a meth party", Cass said. "Lots of new people came over, and started acting in very strange ways. My mistress and I hid beneath the bed after one of the adult humans slapped my Mistress across the face and made her cry. All I was ever able to figure out was she had made them all very angry through no fault of her own. When people started hitting her, she came running into our room, grabbed me and hid beneath the bed. People were kicking at her, trying to drag her from beneath the bed and yelling loudly. It was very frightening."
"They do such strange things whenever there is meth around," Agatha murmured. "I heard about these things from Richard the Lion, who chanced to be here, in this place once. He had a huge tear in his side, the direct result of a meth party. Eventually Old Burt gave him to some strange woman who chanced by the store one day. Richard was SUCH a delightful old scamp! Despite his injury, he told us such marvelous stories late at night and made us all laugh. I was so sorry to see him go."
"Now I'm REALLY confused," Hissie the Otter said softly, speaking to Missie. "First they are planning a delightful-sounding celebration, and next they are chasing Cass's mistress into her room, where she and Cass both hide beneath the bed. Were they celebrating Christmas?"
"No, silly,"Cass said gently, scratching both of the otters behind the ears which sent the pair into throes of delight. "It was the adults and whatever meth is that started the problem. Once the meth started coming by, they stopped celebrating Christmas entirely. Had I not been there, to see the pretty lights and hear the joy in their voices, I would have never believed that such a thing was possible, after seeing what meth did to their lives. Meth destroyed Christmas for everyone. Everyone. I so wish I could have seen another Christmas with my mistress. It is such a special time," and with a glance in the direction of Oliver the Cat, added softly, "It is such a special place in my heart."
"Meth does terrible things. As I said, you never find Little People that use meth. We are smarter than that," Agatha said with another reproving sniff. "They say humans are the smarter species. HA!"
The rest of that night, they sat up telling tales about The Humans, laughing at some of the funny things they did. Even Cass, who had once been so forlorn, joined in their laughter, and sang a few songs for them. Still, it was long before the sun would soon brighten the eastern sky when nearly everyone had fallen back to sleep, except for Oliver the Cat, that is.
Like usual, he was sitting with his tail curled up around his nose, cautiously watching the window, when the old elf dressed in red and white came by. The wizened up old man dressed in red somehow stepped inside the store, although it was hours and hours before Old Burt was due to arrive. Peering uncertainly at a list he held in his right hand, he walked over to where the Little People were all laying in the store window. He stood looking over the top of his glasses, until he spied Cass, sitting back in the shadowy corner where she had returned for her day's rest.
"Ah," he said, and reaching past Peter Panda, he gently picked up the blue china doll, first smoothing her hair and then smiling to himself. To everyone's surprise, he spoke the language of The Little People flawlessly, not the language of the humans. It was the first time any of them had everheard a human speak in their own tongue.
"You are the one they call Cass?" he gently asked the Blue China Doll.
"Y-y-yes," Cass said uncertainly. "Are you taking me back to my mistress?"
"Not to worry, pretty doll. I am taking you home with me, right now, and in a few weeks, I will take you to a new home, where they still have Christmas lights, sleigh bells and shiny presents wrapped up beneath a Christmas tree."
The old elf wrapped her up carefully in a warm fluffy blanket, and pausing long enough to pet and admire the other animals who, by now, were wide awake. Having petted all of them, once more, he strode out the door to where an old wooden sleigh and eight tiny reindeer stood waiting in the cold gray of the early snowy morning. Putting Cass beside him on the worn leather seat, he called to his reindeer by name, and with a hearty wave at the assembled Little People remaining in the window, they mounted up and up into the sky, and as they rode out of sight, and everyone, all the Little People with their noses pressed against the glass of the old storefront heard him cry, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
Somewhere there is a storefront, a bit tattered and weatherbeaten from its years of surviving on West First Street in Spokane. It is a halfway house of sorts, for Little People who have either lost their way or have been separated from their past lives. Occasionally an elderly gentleman named St. Nick comes by to check on the Little People, and occasionally takes one or more of them with him on his flight to the North Pole, and the return to Christmas as they once knew it. The city breathes.