It was cold.
Really, really cold.
Colder than it had ever been. Well, colder than it had ever been for as long as she could remember. Which, to be honest, wasn't that terribly long.
It was cold.
She pulled the worn wool military-surplus blanket she'd managed to dig out of a dumpster a few weeks earlier more tightly about her narrow shoulders. The thin material of the night dress she wore underneath added little warmth against the biting cold.
She coughed. The force of it wracked her small frame and she stumbled forward, regaining her footing just in time to keep herself from falling onto the ice-covered sidewalk. And she knew that, if she fell, as weak as she was, she wasn't going to be getting back up. Not ever. At least...
Some instinct, buried beneath layers of confused memories she hadn't the time or energy to even begin to sort out, told her there could be more, even then. But deeper instincts prevailed, keeping her up and on her feet. Driving her stumbling forward.
And then it loomed ahead of her, rising up into the dark night sky. A beacon of light and sound. A stream of people climbed its steps to pour in through its doors: men and women arm-in-arm, their forms concealed beneath layers of wool and furs, mothers and fathers leading small children by the hand, the children bundled from head-to-toe in coats and hats and mittens. Her own icy ears and fingers burned painfully as she imagined what it might feel like to stand amongst them. To actually be warm.
But, even from where she stood, peering out from the shadowed doorways across the road, she could feel – or imagine she could feel – the warmth of the building seeping out into the night along with the lights and the music and the murmur of hundreds of excited and happy voices, and she was moving forward before she'd even considered doing so, the siren's call of the building overcoming her instinctive need to remain hidden and concealed. Still, she knew enough not to approach from the front – to remain hidden in the shadows. To slip, silent and unseen, through the alley alongside the building. There was a door there, as she'd known there must be. It was locked, though, and she had no way of opening it.
A quick glance around and she found what she'd truly been seeking: a small pane of glass, tucked into the corner where wall met pavement. Allowing light to penetrate into the deepest bowels of the building. And one small, determined little girl.
She'd slowly and carefully made her way out of the basement, climbing ever higher through the heart of the theater until she'd found her way into the ropes and girders soaring above the stage itself. Crouched on a shadowed walkway, she could observe the preparations below her – the dancers and technicians bustling about backstage, the murmured conversations amidst a rustling of suits and dresses as the audience settled into their seats.
Then the house lights dimmed and the stage lights went up. The curtain rising beneath her revealed the most brilliantly lit evergreen tree standing tall amidst a swirl of exotically dressed dancers and, for the next two hours, she sat there, lost to herself, as the music of Tchaikovsky filled the theater. The story enfolded below her: the small girl and her mysterious gift-giving godfather, the absurd nutcracker transformed into a magical prince, rescuing the girl – now grown into a woman herself – from the giant rats before whisking her off on a marvelous journey to a land filled with beauty and wonder.
A child's fantasy come to life before her eyes.
All too soon, though, it was over. The stage grew dark and the house lights came on and she, like the child on the stage below, was thrust back into the harsh reality of the here and now. The shadows and the loneliness of the cold streets awaiting her once more.
But not quite yet. She waited, unobserved, as the theater slowly emptied. As the performers changed out of their costumes and said their goodbyes and eventually departed as well. Until all the lights were dimmed and the theater grew dark and empty and cold around her.
Only, not as dark and empty and cold as the night outside.
She climbed down then, out of the rafters, into the shadows behind the stage. The giant tree loomed large before her, the darkest shadow of them all. She approached it, reaching out to feel the prickly plastic of it's artificial needles. Rows and rows of costumes hung on racks nearby, the dry and broken skin of her fingers harsh against their smooth fabric as she sorted through them, smiling as she let herself imagine how it might feel to be dressed so finely.
Still smiling, she wandered further back amongst the discarded remains of the evening's performance. Giant rat heads lay upon a table, the fake fur of their bodies draped in a pile nearby. Chairs and tables, a fireplace and a bed all stood jumbled together. She approached the bed, cautiously. She'd seen beds before, in shops and through the windows of homes, and on television screens. She could also remember – Almost remember? Maybe remember? – what it felt like to sleep in one herself. Soft and warm and safe.
She pressed her palm into the mattress. Feeling the softness. Chasing the memory. Trying to remember...
Not even in bed.
Especially not in bed.
Only the memory itself continued to elude her; vague impressions only filled her mind.
But it was warm here. And, at least for the moment, safe.
She crouched down to crawl into the darkness beneath the bed. Pillowing her head on her elbow, the child tucked her legs up to her chest and, safely concealed by the shadows, within minutes fell fast asleep.