I was ten years old when Grandma asked me to hand over my life. I had been crouched under my bed for cover, curling my pudgy knees up to my chest and squeezing my eyes shut as if that would allow me to turn invisible. My breathing stilled as I heard the floorboards creak and yelp under her weight, as if calling a warning for her arrival. I crammed three stuffed animals underneath my pineapple-themed pajama shirt and five more between my legs.
I planned this hideaway weeks before that, knowing Grandma would barge into our house demanding for sacrifice. It had been a yearly Christmas tradition that my family established long before I was born, back when my older sister was a child. I watched year after year as my grandma demanded expenses to be made from her grandchildren. It was a fearful thing to witness and I dreaded the year it would be my turn as the victim. My mother had made it a rule that her children did not have to participate until they were ten years of age.
I always thought it was a stupid rule.
I held my breath when I saw white-toed tennis shoes approaching the bed. A hand lifted up the ivory bed skirt and I found myself staring into her wrinkly honey eyes, glistening with mischief. Waves of mousy brown hair dangled in front of her rectangle frames and a toothy grin stretched across her face, causing deep creases to form in her cheeks. I squealed and gripped my hidden stuffed animals.
“Found her!” Grandma called over her shoulder. She laughed, the sound high-pitched and teasing. “You know, your sister used to hide under this same bed when she was your age. I always thought it was a rather strange place to hide when I can see your feet sticking out from the other side.”
I looked down and saw that she was right. Well, it’s the thought that counts. Grandma reached under the bed and poked my stomach, where I was most ticklish. I kicked my legs, my five stuffed animals slipping out and revealing themselves.
“Come on out darling, we baked cookies!” She waved a plate of freshly baked goods atop a plate, steam wafting off them and into my nose, filling my nostrils with the sweet, wholesome smell.
I took a deep inhale, a scowl still planted on my chubby face though it was slowly dissolving with the sugary aroma. I crossed my arms, still lying on my side. “Fine, but only if Mama lets me have two before dinner.”
Grandma cackled again. “I’m sure I can persuade her to compromise.”
Not ten minutes later, I had crawled my way out from underneath the bed, stowing away chocolate chip cookies into my mouth. Grandma had left the room to ask permission that I could, in fact, spoil my dinner. Crumbs littered the perimeter of my mouth and I wiped them off with the back of my hand, my belly rumbling in satisfaction.
Grandma returned with two tan, cardboard boxes tucked beneath her arms. The word DONATIONS was scrawled along the side of both of them in thick black letters. I gasped and scooted away, reaching back under the bed to snatch my toys.
Grandma let out a deep sigh, bending down slowly, and finally sat down atop the tanned carpet, crossing her legs over one another. She patted the space beside her, inviting me over. I stayed put. She smiled, though it was weary. “Marlie,” she sang.
“I’m not giving up my toys. Not one of them. You’ll just have to deal with it,” I huffed and folded my arms. My resilient façade had given me extra time to protect my belongings. But alas, only for a minute. With one unfair, signature Grandma smile, my resolve began to crumble. I growled at my own betrayal.
Within seconds, I was begrudgingly packing old toys into a sad little box. I frowned the whole time.
Grandma invited me to accompany her on her trip to donate the boxes. I continued to resist, but only half-heartedly. At that point, what did it matter? My toys had already been stolen.
When we arrived at our destination, I scrutinized the house on the other side of the window. A modest one-story house sat on a poorly cared for lawn. Weeds sprouted up, climbing up the base of the house. The roof was patched up in several places and was surrounded by overflowing gutters. A scuffed wooden door stood at the entrance, guarded by an extra frayed screen door. I scrunched up my nose, unconsciously, but quickly covered it up with a sniffle when Grandma shot me a condescending glare.
We unloaded the car, dragging out three full donation boxes, and hauled them to the door. Grandma knocked and I hid behind her sturdy legs. A woman unbolted the door and swung it open. She grinned broadly and held her arms wide, embracing Grandma in a massive hug.
“Nora, it is so good to see you! I’ve already heated up the hot cocoa and started up dinner.” The woman began shuffling Grandma inside before noticing me, still gripping the fabric of my grandma’s pants. She paused and bent down to my level. Her eyes were bright, but there were deep circles below them, causing her to appear much older. Her dirty blonde hair was pulled up high into a scraggly bun. “You must be the granddaughter. Kacie, is it?”
I shook my head slightly. Grandma chuckled. “No, no. This is my youngest granddaughter, Marlie. She begged to accompany me today.” I gaped at her and Grandma winked.
The woman beamed. “Oh, good! Leslie will be overjoyed to see another girl her age.”
Grandma placed a hand on my shoulder, and we followed the woman into the house. It was not nearly as rundown as the outside, give or take a few scattered envelopes and forgotten shoes on the floor. The air was warm and smelled faintly of roasted potatoes. My mouth began to water. My donation box was beginning to slip from my grip, and I set it down on the carpeted floor.
A young girl waddled towards us, using one hand to rub the sleep out of her eye. My eyes widened as I took in the strange child's frame. She was exceptionally frail, her arms and legs no thicker than a stick, and her baby blue eyes were sunken in. Pale blonde hair fell in oily strands past her shoulders, some matted to her face. Even with her sickly appearance, the girl resembled her mother greatly.
“Leslie, dear, this is Marlie, Nora’s granddaughter. You remember Nora?” The woman gestured to my grandma. Leslie nodded, then coughed sporadically into her elbow. “They’ve brought new toys to you.” The girl’s gaze landed on the donation boxes held by Grandma and in between my feet. Her eyes brightened, glittering like stars.
“New?” she croaked. Her mother nodded, eyes glistening as well.
I knitted my brows together. My toys were for her? I glanced up at Grandma for answers and she responded quickly, as if expecting my question. She bent down to my height while Leslie and her mother wandered off to the sofa. “Leslie is suffering, darling. Has been since the moment she arrived on this earth.” My mouth dropped open, but only a tad. I whipped my gaze to Leslie, then back to my grandma.
“These toys—your loved belongings—bring Leslie an abundance of joy. Every year, she receives something new. And, I think, this gives her a reason to keep pushing. It gives her something to look forward to.” Her eyes began to fill with tears, even through her weary grin. She glanced towards the mother. “Darla, Leslie’s mother, is an old friend of mine. I want to continue providing for her family in any way God allows me to. Hence, the toys I so kindly ask you and Kacie to reconsider. Do you understand the importance of this yearly tradition now?”
I bit my lip. My toys and stuffed animals were important to me. More than important. They were my life. They stood by me when the dark was too much to handle in my lonely room. They were there when the first days of school were petrifying. They were there when I was sick time and time again, comforting me on my worst nights. Perhaps it was time to pass them along. I met my grandma’s eyes. “I think so,” I whispered.
Reaching into the donation box filled with my own belongings, I look out one particular stuffed rabbit. The rabbit was the brightest purple, fur still silky to the touch. It seemed to light up the entire room. I carried it over to Leslie and her eyes immediately latched onto the stuffed toy. She held her hands out, hesitantly. I gulped and handed her the first toy ever gifted to me. Leslie handled it with great care, cradling it in her lean arms.
“Hush, hush,” Leslie whispered, stroking the rabbit gently.
I stared at her with curiosity as she cradled my once loved toy and wondered if she knew how ill she was. Or if, like Grandma said, she was just waiting for the next year to present her new toys. I was not sure. But I supposed it wasn’t important. I took a careful seat next to Leslie and petted the rabbit along with her.
She glanced up at me and said, words barely above a whisper, “Thank you.”