609

"Order's ready! Get it outta here already, would ya?! I don't pay you to slack off!"

Joe Perkins clambered out of the bathroom, hands still damp, and grabbed the steaming pizza box. Well worn calluses kept his grubby fingers protected from the brunt of the sudden heat.

"No problem, Mr. Puglielli. I'm on it." Joe knew better than to ever get on Bernard "Pizza-face" Puglielli's nerves let alone on Christmas Eve.

The holidays were a time for cheery customers to brighten their doorstep and their wallets. On Christmas Eve, wreaths hung over every cloudy window and tinsel left the moldy corners, the chipped tables and the browning fir tree at the entrance with a frosty shimmer—the most wonderful time of the year!

Bah humbug, Joe thought, racing through the door under Mr. Puglielli's pudgy, scrutinizing glare. He didn't see what was so great about the holidays. He didn't see what was so great about a lot of things. Each day was a little more miserable than the last.

After losing three jobs in December alone and living paycheck to paycheck to make the rent for his rundown apartment, he couldn't afford to lose his job at Puglielli's Pizzeria. But it was tough when Pizza-face hated his very existence. He always found something wrong with whatever Joe did ever since his first day on the job. He knocked over the vat of pasta sauce that caused a chaotic chain reaction as if someone had set off a Rube Goldberg machine. After a minute of the havoc riddled symphony of crashing and smashing pots, pans, dishes and utensils, the kitchen was unrecognizable.

It must have been Puglielli's birthday for him not to fire Joe on the spot, but now there had to be a problem with whatever he did. Joe felt both blessed and cursed that the pizzeria was lacking in workers and Puglielli needed all the hire he could get, but he was on thin ice even so.

With a good deal of effort from his shivering hands, Joe unclasped the lock around the rusty wheel of his bicycle and sat on the worn rubber rest. The decrepit bike meant for a teenager cried out under the weight of the twenty-seven year old. He stored the pizza in the front basket and was unfazed as another large chip of the faded red paint cracked along the bike's frame. Joe peeled it off, leaving another bare metallic space and then began peddling to the customer's residence. He curled his thin body forward trying to stay warm in his windbreaker. It was freezing and yet there wasn't any typical, storybook indication that Christmas was coming. No snow fell in Esperanza City. There was too much smog and polluted heat from the dingy office buildings and the guns going off in the streets.

The sun was long gone and the streets were long deserted. Puglielli's was probably the only restaurant—and he used the term lightly for that grease bucket—still open that late on Christmas Eve. He could be at his parents' house with his sister, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They lived in a cozy suburb a safe distance from the outskirts of Esperanza City. But if he left, he would lose his job for sure. Things like that made Joe cautious to believe in the holiday spirit.

There was no Christmas in Esperanza City.

Steering was difficult as his cut-off gloved hands quaked on the handle bar and his fingers stuck with the last remaining dregs of moisture. Red splotches consumed his clammy cheeks and the wool cap from his sister for "Christmas" four years ago that hid his thinning brown hair didn't protect his ears from the biting chill. He hoped the pizza stayed warm. One more complaint and anyone could guess the end of Joe's story. The streets seemed to get darker with each pedal towards downtown Esperanza. Few from the upper end ventured that far south. Anywhere beyond 12th Avenue was too far. Joe saw a moving shadow behind a building and wondered if it was one of the gang members that could jump out waving knives and chains as part of an initiation or a crooked cop up for a late night jaunt to rough someone up for "disorderly conduct."

Joe turned onto 20th Street and 1st Avenue, better known as Odyssey Avenue for the voyage it took to get there and the adventure one was bound to have just surviving, and saw his destination. A tall, unstable looking apartment building stood alone to Joe's right. There were boarded up windows, some smashed in completely, and broken bricks too close to the foundation for comfort. The lawn was well overgrown in some spots and brown and lifeless in others. It deserved a condemned sign. Who would want to live in a place like that? Then Joe remembered that he already did and the prospect of leaving was more of a dream than a goal.

He braced himself as he rode over the curb and onto the sidewalk, braking at the stoop leading to the front doors. He got off his bike, leaning it against the stone steps because the kickstand had long since snapped off, and picked up the white cardboard box holding the still warm pizza. It felt so good to hold the pizza in his frozen hands. Joe went up the stairs and peeked through the large, dust-laden window. It was practically pitch black, but it seemed safe to say the lobby was deserted. He pressed his face against the door for a better look just to be sure. To Joe's surprise, the door moved forward with a creak that reverberated through the streets like a gunshot. He froze and wondered if all of Esperanza City could hear it. Downtown wasn't the place to draw attention when one was alone.

Joe took a few tentative steps through the door. Everything had an eerie look as the moon cast jagged shadows over every broken chair and half collapsed desk and lit the swirling dust like so many hazy stars. They upset his chest and he coughed. He held his mouth tightly to ease the fit. As he did, his eyes jumped to what he thought was another moving shadow, closer this time. Panic welled up within him. The apartment lobby felt like a level from one of his zombie video games—one of his few escapes from reality that might just be worse than his own, but at least he had a purpose there; he was a hero there. He wouldn't be surprised if something jumped out in a place like that. He just hoped he wasn't around when it did.

First thing's first. He had to deliver his pizza. Maybe zombies would take that as a substitute for his brain, but he doubted zombies carried money around and he really needed the cash.

"Hel—?" He coughed again. "Hello?" There was no response. "Someone ordered a pizza. It's still hot and I made it here in under thirty minutes so I gotta get paid." Still only silence greeted him. "Zombies can eat it too. C'mon! I know this is the place. It says so on my slip." Joe took the folded piece of paper from his jeans. "Anita Life called for a large pepperoni and anchovy pizza at 609 1st Ave and if Pizza-Face don't get the money, I'll—" He stopped and read over the sliver of paper. "Anita Life? I sure do. Damn kids and their damn pranks," Joe muttered and sighed. He couldn't believe he fell for such an overused prank that he had used so many times in his youth. Karma was merciless. That was it. He was through. Joe stormed to the front door, too furious to care about any eerie shadows or zombies. He caught sight of the stoop before he could open the door again and nearly dropped the pizza box.

His bike was gone! Some heavyset goon was riding off with it. He couldn't let that happen. Wrecked as it was, it was all he had left.

Joe threw the door open and ran through with shouts of "Stop!" and "Get back here, you fat piece of crap!" The hoodlum might have heard the calls if Joe's luck had not continued on its poor path. The shift was so sudden that he didn't notice anything until he had taken quite a few running steps and not down a stoop. Instead of pocked stone and a frightful chill, Joe's racing feet carried him down the worn carpet of a dingy hallway lined with apartment doors. It took a few seconds, but the understanding clicked in his mind and he froze in mid-step, nearly toppling over from the abrupt stop.

"W—what?"

Joe's mind struggled to make sense of his new surroundings, but he couldn't deny that he was still indoors and not where he was meant to be. He looked at the metal room numbers and reached out to feel one of the rusted, gilded plaques they were engraved in—just to firmly ensure that they were real and he was nuts. The number read 412. He didn't truly go from the lobby on the first floor, through the front doors and end up walking into the fourth floor hallway. It was impossible. But he felt the carpet beneath his thin soles and the cold metal on his fingertips. Where did reality draw the line?

He looked around desperately for an answer to what he was still fiercely denying. Situations like this didn't happen to Joe Perkins. He was a boring pizza delivery guy. Now he was trapped in a space warp? Joe saw another door at the end of the hall with a crooked sign only half lit indicating a stairwell. It would lead him back downstairs. He ran down the hall and pulled the door open. First he looked through. It was indeed a stairwell. He could have fallen to his knees and thanked the God he stopped believing in that he had hallucinated a few minutes earlier. Joe strode into the stairwell and went down two flights of rickety stairs to the third floor. The rest of the stairs leading to the lobby had caved in. He would have to find another stairwell. Buildings usually had more than one.

Joe opened the door to the third floor and once again checked to make sure it was in fact the third floor he was looking at. Paranoia wouldn't let him walk through before he did because hallucinating was never a good sign, but once he saw what he hoped to see he no longer felt the nagging sensation. He just tried not to think about how he wound up on the fourth floor in the first place. Maybe he walked up there in search of the prankster and forgot. Yeah. That made sense.

No. Not really.

Joe jogged through the door, eager to leave the building. Soon, however, it became clear that he hadn't stepped into the third floor hallway like he hoped.

"Oh Christ. Not again!"

Joe was in another dark room, but the current demolished room was much smaller and more crowded than the similarly demolished lobby. The ceiling boards lay on the floor and dust from busted bricks choked up the stale air. There were utility supplies scattered about like dented paint cans, rusted hammers, ladders with missing steps, rotted wooden planks and wires stripped by rat teeth. Joe hugged the slowly cooling pizza to his chest. It was the only thing he could count on to be real. Then again—

He opened the lid to ensure a pizza was really inside and not a wormhole to some alternate universe ruled by zombies. There was still a congealing pizza with pepperoni slices and slimy fish nestled in the box. The puff of warm, sweet scented steam in Joe's face made him smile before it made his stomach rumble. He remembered he hadn't eaten in hours. He swore off of lunch breaks in an attempt to stay on Pizza-face's good side, but it didn't seem to work in his favor. Of course, now that his boss expected him to work non-stop, taking a break—deserved or not—would ruin him. He sighed and wondered what sort of pot luck dinner his family was having without him. Did his parents roast their famous, succulent duck with garlic and extra butter? Did Susan bring pies fresh from her oven as sweet as she was and get her praise as the "child who still cares?" They never meant it maliciously; they knew Joe's situation. But he felt the intent beneath the words. There was worry, but there was resentment as well. They believed Joe could find a way to see them during the holidays. He didn't.

Joe rarely said it because everyone knew, but he envied his sister, now more than ever, but she was too kind of a soul to hate. She was the one who made it through four years of university, found a husband there, got hitched right afterwards and started a beautiful family and career. She had the storybook tale. Joe was the college drop out that made a living off of odd-jobs that he could set a watch to for when he would be fired and replaced with a new, young, vibrant employee. He could ask for money from his family and they would give it to him, but he didn't dare. He wouldn't be his family's baggage. He had to support himself, but life made it a little more difficult every day.

But this situation took the cake.

Joe nodded to himself at the reassurance that at least something was normal and turned around to leave. He opened the door and saw a narrow, concrete walkway with a door to another staircase at the other end. As much as he wanted to, Joe couldn't fully believe the hallway was really there. Part of him couldn't believe it would not be there if he stepped into it. His mind and sanity were torn between the two possibilities. There was no choice but to go through the door again. It was the only way to eventually get out of the haunted apartment building. Ghosts were trying to keep him there to haunt his soul forever. They were in cahoots with the zombies. He didn't even know what he did to deserve it, but he swore that if he got out he would start going to the crumbling church on Madison Avenue a few blocks from his house. That, or he would start bringing a gas mask to his deliveries in case pranksters let something out in the air again.

Hugging his gooey lifeline close once again, Joe shut his eyes and stepped through the door while imagining the broken stone stoop with all of his might. Maybe that was the way past the ghosts' evil powers—he resisted the urge to bite his tongue or slap himself for actually having such a thought. He dragged his feet and felt them bump the rubber edge of the threshold. His eyes clenched tighter as Joe feared his next step would find his sneakers sinking into yet another carpet. But his spirits rose. He felt a rough floor beneath him, cracked stone perhaps, and a chilly breeze hit his face again. Never had he been so thankful for the frigid air. Had his concentrating actually worked? He carefully relaxed his eyes, not really believing getting out could be that simple. Of course, he had no idea what he truly believed anymore. But once his eyes opened he moaned in anguish.

Well, he made it outside, that was clear, but he was in the wrong spot. He wasn't in front of a stoop rather he was standing in the middle of a wide, gray roof with a foot high ledge. Joe's shoulders dropped in defeat. He slung his head as he crossed to the ledge and sat. Below, he saw the stoop he wished he was on. He would never survive a jump from six stories up. He looked back at the door that took him to the roof, but heaven only knew where he would end up if he went back through it. At least outside someone could hear him in the morning and could help him down. He also was no longer suffocating on the stagnant, dusty air in the abandoned building. That was the spirit; he had to see the positives and hold them close because there were only so many of them.

Joe opened the pizza box again, deciding to satiate himself if he was going to be trapped all night and fired in the morning. He peeled a slice off and picked off the anchovies, but as he held it to his mouth he heard a chuckle. Joe leaped to his feet, tossing the pizza slice back in the box. Someone was with him?

Another giggle sounded from another place on the roof. Joe held the pizza box offensively. His eyes scoured the rooftop for any signs of another person. The laughs sounded childlike. Soon the roof was filled with scattered, childish mirth. For a moment, the company almost comforted Joe. It reminded him of his youth, playing Hide and Seek with his sister and friends. Susan was the one they always made It and she would never be able to find them because they would hide inside after saying they would be outside. She never stepped down in the face of a challenge. Joe stopped teasing her when she finally broke down in an unbecoming flood of tears from her sparkling gray eyes because she thought she really lost them. He remembered patting her brown bob of hair. He never wanted her to cry over it. Now he was the one looking for his sister and his family and any other life so he wouldn't stay lost forever, but who would pat his head if he cried?

But his captors were laughing at him. It was the final straw. Too much had gone wrong for him and he wasn't going to take one more thing like this lying down.

"Come out right now! If you're the one who pulled the prank call, you're gonna get. Believe me, you're gonna get it bad!"

"Oh relax, mac," said a brawny voice as a small creature leaped from the shadow of a dilapidated smoke stack. The disproportionate, burly man at infant height had a smirk on his squared face riddled with five o'clock shadow. After adjusting his pointed hat and making sure the white powderpuff on the end was perfectly set, he crossed his arms over his well defined chest and abs beneath the one piece green silk uniform. "You get worked up over the tiniest things."

Joe's mouth floundered for a proper way to get the answers he wanted for the millions of questions bombarding him. "What are you?" was all he could ask, raising the pizza a little more.

"And rude to boot. Listen, mac, just keep quiet and let us do our speech." He placed two fingers in his mouth and whistled. A herd of tiny men in green suits and pointed hats jumped into sight from impossible hideouts and filed around the first one. They chattered like children, some with high pitched squeals, others with booming basses and still others in the midst of pubescent cracking. Most had smooth faces to match their piping excitement and were more petite than the tough one in front. "The big guy likes a little recognition so when he does these stunts that aren't typical to the usual pop-in-pop-out, he likes an introduction. Ready, boys?" He cleared his throat, as did the others.

"Introducing, the kindest man to ever soar over the Earth, the jolliest person with the huge heart and a belly to match, the grandest holiday mascot, father Christmas himself, the one, the only, the artist formerly known as Saint Nick—Santa Claus!" There was a roar of applause and cheering as the sounds of jingling bells grew close overhead.

Fearful to see what his imagination was telling him, but too curious to ignore it, Joe lifted his eyes to the murky gray heavens above. His head slowly dipped to the side. It could not be a large red sleigh pulling a heavyset man in a red suit that matched that of the little men. And the reindeer that could not be pulling the sleigh that could not be there could not be landing behind the crowd of little men who could not be there making a racket. And the little men could not be dancing aside to create an aisle for the heavyset man that could not be getting off the back of the sleigh that could not be there. It just couldn't be real.

"Ho ho ho! Such a fuss. Such a fuss." The hefty man laughed from behind a forest of thick white hair on his chin and held his jiggling belly. He looked familiar, and not in the sense that he was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. "It's about time I got to meet you, Joseph Kyle Perkins. Every other visit you had been asleep and far be it from me to wake you."

"Look, guy," Joe said, refusing to lower his pizza box, "this is going a long way for a prank call. I just want my bike back so I can go home. I don't know or care how you made the rooms all disconnected like that. Or maybe you didn't. Maybe they only looked like they led to different places because the building is collapsed."

The large man smiled. "Does that really explain how you got here, Joe? No, I think you know the truth. You're here because you needed help. There are a lot of people who don't truly believe in me and if I can help just one person see that there is real goodness in the world, that that goodness may simply be hard to find underneath a few spots of heavy poor luck, then I feel I've done my job as a spreader of hope and peace."

"Thanks, hippie boy."

"Perhaps this will help you believe a little more and remember that past the darkness, there is light."

Santa Claus reached into his red sack decorated with holly designs, wreathes and every other Christmas logo and dug around with a contemplative look. His blue eyes crinkled as he smiled and he began pulling his arm out. With just the one arm he lifted an entire bicycle and laid it on the rooftop. The kick stand popped out and steadied the bike. Joe could almost believe it was his bike. He saw the brand name along the frame over a fresh coat of sparkling, fire red paint. Polished spokes and handlebars caught the filtered moonlight as if the clouds weren't there. It glistened like the day he first got a bike so similar to that—the day he began his first job and needed a way there. His mother kissed him on the cheek despite his protest and he drove off thinking it was the start of the rest of his life. Everything would be different. Boy, was he right, but he never imagined it would lead him where it did. And now?

Joe could only stare with his jaw half way to the roof top and a half hearted, "Uh."

"Come. You can take it. It's yours."

"Go on!" shouted one little man.

"Yeah! He worked hard on it just for you!"

"Just for you!"

"Just for me?" Joe mumbled. He didn't dare reach for it. What sort of pains were these people taking just to have some final, heart-wrecking punch line?

"It's okay, Joe," Santa said. "Have a little faith. It's Christmas."

Joe scratched his head, not sure what else to do as a strange, jovial sensation welled up within him, and he finally lowered the box. He took tentative steps through the split crowd to the jolly round man and laid one hand on the seat. It wasn't disappearing. It was solid and real and sturdy and perfect. Or was it? Too many things made it too hard to believe without lingering doubt.

"How do I know all of this ain't just some hallucination? Maybe I fell on the way here. Maybe a broke beam hit me in the lobby. How do I know you're who you say you are? This crap just don't happen in real life."

"Ah, but it does. Miracles happen in the most subtle of ways. Waking up every morning and being alive and having the chance to change your life for the better—whether you grab hold of that chance or not—is a miracle. Some just need a little more direction. You must believe. I can't force you to do anything. I can only nudge you in the right direction. The rest you must do on your own. I hope you'll believe in me, Joe, and I hope you'll go back to your boss, tell him you're going to see your family and spend Christmas where you deserve to be—with the ones you love and who love you in return. You've done hard work. No one can deny that. Perhaps a little gift for your boss will be just the tiny miracle he needs."

"You—you think so?"

"Of course. Sometimes a little appreciation is all one really wants. Just to know they're cared about and their effort is recognized. I get that every day from my elves and from everyone who believes in me. You don't get that nearly enough and perhaps neither does Mr. Bernard Anton Puglielli. Perhaps you both have something the other would like. Now I must hurry off. The bike is yours, Joe. Merry Christmas!"

"Uh, yeah. Sure. Merry Christmas, Santa." Santa Claus laughed heartily again and sat back on his sleigh. Joe expected to hear a creak or a snap, but it bore the weight as if the seat were made of steel. The elves danced into his sack one by one, miraculously fitting within. The burly elf sat beside Santa, prepping the reindeer.

"Joe," Santa said, "perhaps you would like a ride back to your place of employment?"

"Wha—? A ride? On your sleigh?"

"Of course."

"S-sure." If this hallucination was going to last, he was going to milk it. It was the only holiday cheer he had for years. And maybe if all of this talk of miracles was true, the hallucination would last for the rest of his life. Maybe things would finally—well, one step at a time.

Joe walked his bike to the sleigh, reveling in its smooth glide on the wheels that were so new they still shined on the treads. Santa lifted it and placed it back in his sack, which he moved to his lap to make room for Joe. As he settled in beside the jolly, warm man, Joe couldn't avoid the smile that covered his face as Santa called out to his reindeer in order and the sleigh took off. It slid along the rooftop without any commotion and Joe flinched as he expected it to collide with the ledge, but the majestic beasts guiding the sleigh bounded forward and upward, missing the roof's edge my inches and taking off into the air. They flew over the dirty streets of downtown Esperanza City. Everything seemed a little brighter from so high up. It even felt a little warmer despite the chilled air smacking Joe's reddened cheeks. Anyone still roaming looked like ants scurrying about and he could believe they all had happy plans for Christmas Eve.

Then they were through the clouds, breezing past the wet air by the light of the single red bulb that was the first reindeer's nose. Despite feeling the cool water on him as they passed through, they broke out unscathed and the view was even more beautiful than seeing the city lights. A thin, gray blanket was all Joe could see when he looked down. He wanted to reach out and wrap it around him and after everything that had happened, part of him believed he could. Then he looked up. Joe nearly stopped breathing. A shining white orb hung high overhead, pure and bright like he had never seen and surrounded by countless twinkling stars like gems on the finest ebony mink. The moon bathed them in its glow, lighting up the sleigh, and every jingle bell sparkled and Rudolph's nose paled in comparison. Santa's booming "Ho ho ho!" seemed to reach so far it could touch the hearts of everyone on the farthest reaches of the globe.

The sleigh finally began its descent. It dropped back through the wet clouds and headed for the street in front of Puglielli's Pizzeria. Joe saw it smack the pavement, but he barely felt a jolt as the reindeer slowed from a canter to a trot to a walk and then a stop. Joe stepped off and crouched down to hold the pavement. He didn't trust his trembling legs to support him. Santa set the bicycle on the road, beaming, and patted the seat twice. The kickstand snapped to attention.

"Be well, Joe."

"Wait a sec, guy—I mean, Santa," said Joe as he eased himself to his feet. "I got a question. Why me? Why do I get this—this miracle? There are so many other people who could use something like this. A lot worse off than me. So why me?"

"Everyone who's in need gets a miracle," he said, grinning. "It may not be Santa Claus riding on his sleigh, oh no. It could be the simple miracle of a parent's unconditional love or being around those you care about and who care about you or, like I said, waking up in the morning. It could be so many things if you just open your eyes and see it for what it is. But you have to believe it's there or you won't see it. Some people lose their faith. Some people find it again. Some people need a helping hand. Remember, Joe. Just believe."

"Right. Believe."

Santa nodded and the sleigh took off again, careening into the air and out of sight behind the steadily growing clouds. Only the faint ringing of jingle bells and a warm echo of "Ho ho ho!" that could have been a childhood memory gave any indication that anything had really happened. And there was one other thing. A small, gift-wrapped box sat shimmering on the street where the sleigh once may have been. Joe picked it up by its red and green ribbon and then continued to watch the sky. He hoped after the miracle he had received, someone else wouldn't be without a gift, but he had no idea how to return it. Go to the North Pole?

As Joe stood watching and scratching his head through his thin hat, Mr. Puglielli saw him through the smudged windows and threw down his pie dough with a nasty glower. He tossed the front door aside—CLANG!—and it bounced against the brick wall.

"What the hell is going on here, Perkins? I don't pay you to stare at the sky! You better had delivered that pizza!" Joe turned around to face Mr. Puglielli. The red face nearly made him revert back to his previous cowering self. The self that had no goals. The self that was trapped in a pizzeria on Christmas Eve. The self that wouldn't see his family. The self that had no hope—no belief.

"Yeah. I got the pizza delivered, Mr. Puglielli, and—" He took a deep breath. "I think it's about time I got home. My family is expecting me for Christmas."

Mr. Puglielli's pudgy face contorted in a grotesque way to contain his fury. "What?! Who do you think you are, Perkins? You think I'm just gonna let you leave? You don't deserve to leave! You get your sorry ass back inside! We got customers!" He saw Joe's hesitation. "You get back inside, Perkins, or you're fired! I got a list of people ready to take your spot who'd work half price!"

"Mr. Puglielli, please listen. I gotta go. My family is waiting for me. I never get to see them and this is the only chance I got. I miss them a lot. You should go home to your family too." He remembered the gift in his hand and had a thought. Forcing the neat package into his boss's hand he said, "Here. Merry Christmas. If I'm fired, then have a good rest of your life, sir. Be happy." To his surprise, Mr. Puglielli took the box with a surprised look of his own. The vicious, 'I'm going to carve your body into tiny pieces that no one will ever find' feeling in his beady eyes smoldered. Joe gave a small salute and got on his bike.

"New bike, Perkins?" Mr. Puglielli asked, looking between the bike and the gift.

"Yeah. Got it as an early Christmas gift."

"Nice. You, uh, better get on to wherever you're going and don't let nobody take that bike. I've got to, uh, close up shop here. It's Christmas Eve, you know."

"Yeah. Merry Christmas Mr. Puglielli."

"Yeah. And I'd better see you bright and early on the twenty-sixth or you're done working in my place!"

"I'll be there, Mr. P," Joe said with a hampered smile and waved as he rode off into the dark streets again. He felt his jean pocket where his thin wallet sat. There was always enough money to catch a bus out of the city because a small part of him that he ignored for so long believed that one day he would have his miracle. He just never imagined it would happen quite like this.

Bernard Puglielli watched his employee ride away and then looked back at the gift. He shook his head with a small grin, somewhat unnatural on his wrinkled face, and went inside to call off the orders and lock up. He took one more glance through the window and blinked. Perkins better clean those when he gets back, he thought after a moment of disbelieving hesitation, but his hand tugged on the flour coated rag in his pocket.

A miraculous thing happened. In Esperanza City it started to snow.