“Another box from the attic,” Callum said, dropping a cardboard box onto the glass coffee table.
His thirteen year old son kept his gaze fixed on his iPad. “I don’t want it.”
Callum sighed. “At least look at it.”
The boy stretched his legs across the black sofa cushions. “If it’s more photo albums or old toys of mine, I don’t want them.”
“Actually, it’s an old toy of mine.”
The winter of 1981 painted the town white. Eight year old Callum gripped his father’s large hand tighter. Snow crunched beneath his feet they trudged past glass displays crowded with miniature pine trees, cheerful Santa-gnomes, and holly leaves. The wind howled and pushed against them, not letting a single pellet of snow escape its grasp, yet the sidewalk was frosted with white powder.
The older man glanced back, smiling at his son. “The toy store is just up ahead,” he promised. “They’ll have all kinds of toy trains.”
Callum nodded, his chapped lips breaking into a smile at the thought of the train that would soon be his. He did not mind the snow that blew into the hood of his coat or the chill that soaked every bone in his body. After all, the winter came with Christmas.
For as long as the boy could remember, he and his parents set up a tree in their cramped living room. The space beneath the tree would only have six presents, but it had been enough for Callum.
Until this year, winter had never been cold.
After a minute of hurrying down the deserted street, they pushed open the door to the toy store. Round ceiling lamps cast a dim light over the room. The top of a tall Christmas tree peeked over the tall wooden shelves in one corner, scenting the room with warm pine. The man behind the wooden desk glanced up as the chime of the bell broke the silence, then went back to reading his magazine.
“Wait here. I need to buy your aunt’s present,” Callum’s father said, dusting snow off his cap. “She was right. We should have finished shopping before the snowstorm.”
“She said to go shopping last week,” Callum said, rubbing his frozen nose. He squinted at the rows of wooden shelves, searching for toy trains.
The older man ruffled the boy’s hair. “Tell you what, you can pick out your present this year. We’ll have it wrapped, and when you open it tomorrow pretend to be surprised.”
“Your mom says trains run on magic, and we both know that isn’t true.”
Callum didn’t miss the bitterness in his father’s voice. He said nothing, remembering how the two of them had moved into his aunt’s house after another vicious round of yelling between his parents the day they were supposed to go Christmas shopping.
“Find a train set you like. I’ll be back soon. Be good.” The bell chimed, and Callum’s father was gone.
Callum glanced at the man behind the desk. The man looked up from his magazine.
Callum scurried off and wandered into the maze of shelves. He paid no mind to the huge bin of stuffed toys and shelves of plastic cars and board games. He passed the skateboards and action figures without a second thought. None of them were trains.
It took Callum less than a minute to find the train set he'd been pining over for nearly a year. He carefully lifted the box off the shelf and made his way to the corner of the shop, where the large Christmas tree was set up.
The toy store’s tree was always spectacularly decorated, and this year was no different. Strings of popcorn and red and green orbs adorned the lush green tree, topped with a ceramic angel. Callum tried to ignore the dusty air and the plasticky scent of the tree.
He was here for the train on the track that circled the base of the tree. It was here, a year ago, that he had seen this exact train set and fallen in love with it.
Callum didn’t expect to find a girl sitting crossed-legged beside the tree. The top of her head brushed the plastic leaves of the Christmas tree. She was dressed in a long black gown, a shimmering black ribbon tied in a bow around her waist. Nothing she wore suited the howling weather.
He stared as the girl stopped the train and placed a stuffed animal on it. The toy had fuzzy grey ears and a long flat nose. White fur covered the abdomen of the otherwise grey animal. Callum thought it resembled a mangled bear.
As soon as the girl released the train, the stuffed toy tumbled onto the wooden floorboards. The girl sighed as if she had expected another outcome. Then she looked up, a smile on her face as if she had known he was there all along.
“Hello,” she said.
“H-Hello,” Callum mumbled. Then, feeling a little braver, he said,” What are you doing?”
The girl patted the floor next to her. The silver bracelets clinked over her long black sleeve. “I’m trying to make him ride the train.” She held the mangled bear up.
Callum crouched next to her, wincing as she stopped the train again. The girl placed the animal on the roof of the train’s engine, only for it to tumble off when she let go.
“What is he?” Callum said. He watched the train do another circle around the tree.
The girl leaned back and held up the mangled animal. “Him?”
“What do you think he is?”
“Some kind of-” Callum stopped. He didn’t want to offend someone he had just met. If there was anything he had learned from his parents, it was that one wrong word could cause an avalanche. “I don’t know.”
The girl frowned. “You were about to say something.”
“It’s nothing.” Callum watched the train go past the girl’s dress. She made no move to stop it this time.
“Say it. I won’t be insulted. Neither will he.” She held the animal up.
“I was going to say he looks like some kind of bear.” Callum focused on the train traveling along the plastic track.
“You’re right,” she said.
Callum raised his chin, eyes wide. The girl was trying to balance the bear on the roof of a passenger car.
“Kind of. He’s a koala.” She smiled at him as the koala tumbled onto the floor. She placed it on her lap. “And he will ride the train.”
“That’s not possible.” Callum winced as the words left his mouth.
The girl wasn’t bothered. She watched as the miniature train approached them again. “My sister used to tell me anything is possible.”
Callum said nothing, grimacing at the way she roughly handled the train. It took all his will not to tell her that trains were more delicate than koalas.
“I haven’t seen her in a month. Mama says she’s not coming back.” The girl’s brown hair fell over her eyes as she bent, but Callum could see the sad smile on her lips. “But anything is possible, right? So I can still hope.”
She looked up at him, her smile suddenly happier. “What about you? What do you hope for?”
Callum paused. He let his fingers brush the side of the train as it passed, relishing the feel of the cool plastic that would be his when his father returned.
“There has to be something,” the girl probed.
“I hope…” Callum said to please her. “I hope the weather warms up.”
The girl frowned. “You should hope for something better. Christmas is supposed to be a time of hope.”
“Who told you that?”
Callum glanced at her, eyes slightly narrowed.
“I can feel it,” she explained. “The snow is cold, so something has to make up for the warmth.”
“I guess,” Callum said.
The girl sighed, balancing the koala on the roof of the train. “Did you know that baby koalas are called joeys?”
“I didn’t know what a koala was.”
She watched the toy fall onto the floor again. “That’s why my koala is called Joey.”
“Your koala? I thought you found it in the animal bin,” he said.
“I did,” she admitted. “I hope my mom lets me keep Joey when she finds me.”
The girl ignored the question. “I don’t think she will let me,” she said quietly.
Callum paused, unsure of what to say. Before he understood, the girl let out a small oh.
One of her bracelets was stuck in the window of a hollow passenger car. The train dragged it around the tree, scraping it against the floor. Callum caught the girl’s hand as she reached out for it.
“It’ll come back this way, silly,” he said.
The girl stared after it until the train came around. She clutched the toy koala in her lap, squeezing its tiny body. When the train was close enough to reach, she picked up the engine.
“Can you get the bracelet, please?”
Callum obliged, carefully removing the clasp of the bracelet from the window and making sure not to scratch the painted surface. When he was done, she set the engine back on the rails, much to Callum’s relief. He handed the bracelet to her.
“Thanks.” The girl set the bracelet on the ground beside her, picking up the koala again. The doorbell rang at the other end of the store.
“What do you hope for?” The girl said again, her voice distant. “There has to be something.”
Callum bit his lip. “Well… I hope my parents stop fighting.” It was the first time he had admitted it to another person. He expected to feel lighter or happier, but he felt exactly the same.
The girl chewed her lower lip. She caught the engine of the train as it finished another circle around the tree.
Callum looked up at the ceiling, observing the tiny cracks and narrowing his eyes at the dim ceiling lights. “But I don’t think they will. Your koala will probably ride that train before they become friends again.”
That koala would never ride the train.
“Look,” the girl’s soft voice said. “Joey’s riding the train.”
Callum glanced at the girl. The koala was no longer in her grasp, and she looked incomplete without it. She pointed behind the bark of the Christmas tree.
The train appeared from behind the tree, the koala atop the second passenger car. The legs of the bear were shoved into a window on each side of the carriage to hold it in place. Callum’s jaw dropped.
Joey was riding the train.
The girl smiled broadly. “See, anything’s poss-”
“There you are!”
The shill voice came from behind him.
Callum twisted his body to look. A woman stood between two shelves, her black hoodie and loose black pants covered in white powder. Her furious expression clashed with the cheery teddy bear on the rack beside her.
Callum flinched. the girl beside him didn’t turn around.
“I look away for one second and you’ve run off to the toy store through a blizzard! I told you we were only going to the ceramics store. No toys!” The woman roughly grabbed the girl’s shoulder and forced her to stand. “We’re leaving.”
“Wait, Mama!” the girl said, her bottom lip quivering as the woman dragged her away. “What about Joey?”
The woman ignored the girl. Callum’s gaze swiveled to the koala on the train when he heard the door slam shut. Something heavy settled in his chest as he watched it circle the pine tree. Joey had been left behind, just as Callum had left his mother behind when he chose to leave with his father.
Callum didn’t know how long he watched the koala circle the tree, or how much time passed until the bell of the door rang to alert the entrance of another person. He simply stared as the koala went round and round the tree.
“Did you pick something, son?”
Callum swiveled around to find his father standing in the same place he had last seen the girl in the black dress.
The older man spotted the train set on the other side of the tracks. “Is that what you want? Good choice.”
He bent to pick the box up. At the same moment, the train passed by Callum. He plucked the koala off the roof. The mangled bear suddenly looked much more appealing than the train set.
“Wait,” Callum said, taking a deep breath. “Can I have Joey?”
“It’s a koala!”
Callum smiled at his son’s enthusiastic response, remembering that Christmas forty years ago. “It is. I didn’t know what it was when I first saw it.”
The boy looked up at him, eyes narrowed. “That’s because everyone lived in caves in the olden days. Do you think I’ll see a real koala by the end of the year?”
“Anything is possible, son.”
“Does she have a name?”
“Jo-” Callum stopped himself and smiled. “You can name hi- her.”
The thirteen-year-old scrutinized the koala in his grasp for half a minute before looking up at his father with an expression of pure seriousness.
He said, “Did you know that baby koalas are called joeys?”