It was the Monday before Christmas, and George Wickham was troubled.
It was dusk in the park where he and Lizzy Bennet met almost every day. Lizzy had long since gone home, and the other kids in the park had disappeared, too. Through the bare trees he could see Christmas lights here and there in the distance. He had never stayed this late before, but it wasn’t like it mattered. His mom never noticed whether he was home or not, nor did her boyfriend, Mark. He could probably fall into a manhole and she wouldn’t notice for a few months. No, they wouldn’t care, and it was easier to think here on their favorite park bench.
Lizzy was going to buy him a Christmas present. She had last year—a bag of chocolates and a warm knit hat—and he knew she was going to again this year. That was who she was.
She had bought him a Christmas present, and of course he hadn’t had anything to give her. Not a single thing. It was just one more reminder of being poor and he hated it. Lizzy was his best friend, it was Christmas, and he didn’t even have the money to buy her a good present.
She hadn’t spent that much on the chocolates or hat, he knew. She didn’t get a lot of money for her allowance and she had four sisters, parents, and probably friends and other relatives to buy for. Still, even something like that cost money, and George really didn’t have any.
He wished it had snowed, as he might have been able to shovel some yards to earn money. He didn’t have a shovel, but unlike lawnmowers for cutting grass, people didn’t seem to mind loaning shovels. He had thought to try to earn some money mowing lawns last summer, but nobody seemed willing to let an eleven-year-old with no experience use their lawnmower. And the bit of money he’d earned last winter from shoveling had long since gone to supplement the grocery budget.
George sighed. What could he get Lizzy without money? The thought was the thing, and all that, but no nine-year-old really wanted a drawing on notebook paper or a cootie catcher or paper football for a Christmas present. He was way too old to make her some stupid popsicle stick craft in Sunday school.
The best thing would be a book, but he definitely did not have the money for that.
It was growing darker, and George got up from the bench and started his walk home, scuffing his feet as he thought.
Maybe he could make her something that was actually useful. She loved to play out stories from books. A bow, like Attean’s from The Sign of the Beaver? Maybe. A bow was just a tree branch with a string tied to it, right? He could probably find string somewhere. Arrows would be harder to make.
The Sign of the Beaver was the book that had started their fight last spring, though. He had wanted to play that book, and Elizabeth had wanted to play another; he didn’t remember which anymore. When they had fought over it and she had stalked off, he had thought their friendship was over. One fight hadn’t killed their friendship, but still, he didn’t think he wanted to remind her of that book. He’d have to come up with a better story to make something from.
There weren’t any Christmas lights in his apartment complex. It wasn’t that type of neighborhood. But as he passed the dumpster, there was enough illumination from the street light for him to see the ripped garbage bags that hadn’t quite made it into the dumpster and had been the targets of raccoons or dogs.
Suddenly, he stopped. Something was almost sparkling in the trash. He bent to see.
It was a tiny broken Christmas ornament—a little porcelain ballerina fairy with one leg and an arm broken off. The iridescent wings were so pretty that it seemed a shame to throw her away.
Could he fix her, for Lizzy’s present? He wasn’t sure that she had any particular interest in ballet, despite having read Ballet Shoes last year, but it was pretty anyway.
He dug through the bag he thought the fairy had come from, but there was no sign of the leg or arm. He didn’t have any superglue, anyway, and they might have been shattered instead of just broken off.
George sighed and was about to toss the fairy back into the garbage when he noticed her wings again. He tugged on them just a bit. Sure enough, they were just glued on. With a good yank—there!—now they were in his hand.
Sudden inspiration had him longing to dig through the garbage now, but he knew he would have better luck in the daytime. How was he supposed to sleep tonight with his plan in his mind? He could not wait to get back in daylight to see what else he might find.
One thing he had not considered was how short the days were. He had planned to leave early for school in the morning so that he could go through the trash first, but it was still dark when he awoke, and he remembered that it was usually still dark when he left for school. He groaned. There was nothing for it, then, but to go after school. He usually got to the park before Lizzy, but he might be a few minutes later today. He only hoped that she would not give up and go home when he wasn’t there at the usual time.
When school was out, he hurried to the dumpster as quick as he could. Fortunately, there were not many people around behind the complex at that time of day, so nobody was there to see him dig through the trash.
The ballerina was not the only Christmas ornament he found. There were no other fairies, nor was there conveniently any other little doll of the right size to which he could attach the wings. He saved a few cracked Christmas bulbs, though, although he had to be careful not to cut himself. He found a clean cardboard box to carry things in. It had been folded up, and he could not make the bottom stay closed without tape, but if he wedged it into his backpack just right, the bottom stayed closed.
One of the garbage bags even had a little string of lights. They were almost certainly broken, but that didn’t matter. They still looked like lights even though they were off, and it was not as if he planned to have anywhere to plug them in.
He collected aluminum foil, scraps of wrapping paper that weren’t completely dirty, and anything else that he could find that was bright and shiny or made of wood or metal. He waffled over a tin can, but could not determine a good way to use it and so tossed it into the recycling bin.
His best find was an entire length of twine from a Christmas tree. Excellent! It was just the thing.
He hurried upstairs to grab a pair of scissors from Mark’s apartment, then went to the park and hoped that Lizzy would not notice his distraction.
George spent every spare minute on Lizzy’s present that week. As soon as she left the park, he used any remaining daylight to sneak into the wooded area behind the playground for his project. The weekend before Christmas was especially useful, as Lizzy rarely appeared before lunch on those days, so he had the morning to work. He hit every dumpster between his apartment, school, and the park and collected any useful and reasonably clean piece of trash he could find.
The trickiest part was to decide the best day to present Lizzy with her gift. Surely she would not come to the park on Christmas Day, not with four sisters at home and presents to open. He had not thought to ask before the weekend whether she would be there on Monday, as it was Christmas Eve, but that afternoon she was there as usual.
“I have a present for you!” she said gleefully. “Open it!”
He grinned at the wrapping paper. It was silvery with little snowflakes on it . . . perfect for him to use for his present for her! He unwrapped it carefully to preserve the paper, despite her cries of, “Oh, come on, just tear it!”
Inside was a pack of little army men and a box of Nerds.
“Army men!” he exclaimed.
Lizzy shrugged shyly. “You love to play stuff like that, and I thought . . . with the woods and all . . .”
She couldn’t know how perfect it was. “I love them. Thank you, Lizzy. And Nerds!” He didn’t get candy very often, occasionally at school parties, so it was always a special treat. They lasted a long time, too, since you could eat just a nibble at a time.
“I can’t stay long today. Gotta get home to make cookies with Jane.”
He nodded. “I have a present for you, but . . . maybe we should wait until after Christmas, when there’s more time.”
“Okay.” She bit her lip, then stepped forward quickly and hugged him. “Merry Christmas, George!”
He awkwardly hugged her back. “Merry Christmas, Lizzy!”
Even though he knew she wouldn’t be at the park on Christmas, and it was rather cold on the bench alone, George went to the park anyway. Mark and his mother were at a “party,” or so they said. The apartment wasn’t all that warm, as Mark said they didn’t have enough money for any more heat until he got paid, but it was still warmer than outside because of their neighbors’ heat. Still, the park felt like Lizzy, so it was less lonely than being home.
He sat on the bench for a while reading The Lives of Christopher Chant until a shadow fell on his library book. He looked up and was surprised to see a tear-stained Lizzy.
“Lizzy!” He jumped to his feet. “What’s wrong?”
She shrugged and dropped to the bench next to where he’d been sitting. “Don’t wanna talk about it.” He winced, knowing that wasn’t good. Maybe her mom had just gotten her clothes again. She hated clothes, especially the fancy frilly dresses and pinchy shoes that her mother loved to buy her.
Lizzy leaned against him to look down at his book. “What are you reading?”
He showed her, and she gave him a ghost of a smile. “I love those. My favorite of hers is Howl’s Moving Castle, though.”
George nodded. “I like that one, too.” He had been so busy hiding his present for Lizzy this past week that he hadn’t had the chance to show her what books he’d gotten from the library. That gave him an idea.
“Wanna see your present?”
Her eyes lit up. “You have one for me? Really? Yes!”
She watched his backpack as he put it on, but gave him a puzzled glance when he made no effort to take a present out of it. Instead, he took her hand and led her into ‘their’ spot in the woods, near the little trickle of creek, the place where they liked to play Terabithia.
When they neared the right spot but before she could see anything, he spoke in a whisper.
“Shh,” he said. “Look.”
“Where?” He grinned when her line perfectly matched May Belle’s from the book Bridge to Terabithia, one of Lizzy’s favorites.
“Can’t you see them?” he whispered. “All the Terabithians standing on tiptoe to see you.”
Lizzy was grinning now. She knew what book he was playing and went along with it. “Me?”
“Shh, yes. There’s a rumor going around that the beautiful girl arriving today might be the queen they’ve been waiting for.”
George pulled her another step and crouched down, pulling her down with him.
Lizzy gasped and put her hands to her cheeks.
George had spent the last week making her a tiny fairy village among the old leaves and undergrowth of the forest. One small little pine sapling had become a Christmas tree, decorated with little colorful bits and pieces of packaging and even a few broken ornaments that he was able to attach to it.
He’d built little fairy houses out of sticks, bark, and anything wood that he’d been able to find in the trash. The fairies had all decorated their houses for Christmas just like the tree. He had even happened upon a tangle of tinsel and painstakingly untangled it to drape over the roofs.
The fairies had been the trickiest part. He had looked up books about how to make dolls out of corn husks and yarn. He didn’t have either of those things, but there were some places that still had very long grass along the fence line, and he had managed to fashion lots of little grass fairies with twine holding them together. His favorite had the wings from the fairy ballerina he had found, the others had wings of aluminum foil or even plastic wrap. Their clothes were made of wrapping paper, so they were colorful and Christmassy.
“It’s beautiful, George,” Lizzy breathed.
“It won’t survive out here all that long,” he felt he had to point out. “One good rain . . . I mean, we can try to protect it for a while, maybe, but it won’t last all that long.”
“The best things never do.” She had not taken her eyes off it since she had crouched down.
“There’s one more thing. You might hate this part.” George motioned for her to follow him a few feet over. There, just across the creek, were the army men she had given him yesterday. He had set them up as if they were planning an attack on the fairies. Some were standing in formation, ready to invade, others were getting into sniper position or setting up a bridge to ford the creek.
“Oh!” She laughed aloud. “I have to get the fairies ready for battle! Thank you for the warning, fairy scout!” With that, she leapt back over to the fairies and sounded the alarm. George stayed with his army men and worked on building a bridge across the creek to begin the invasion.
They played fairies vs. army men for an hour before cold drove them out of the woods and into the sunshine.
“Thanks for the best Christmas ever, George.” Lizzy squeezed his arm.
“It was my best Christmas ever, too.”
She waved as she jumped over the wood border between the playground and the grass and headed towards the path that would take her home.
George zipped his coat back up, pulled his hat from the pocket, and put it back on his head as he retook his seat on the bench. He had been warm enough in the woods, but it was chilly once you were sitting still. There was still a bit of light left before dusk, and he had no intention of going home before he had to. There was nothing there for him after all, nothing except reading alone and waiting for the next time he could see Lizzy.
I’d love to hear what you think in the comments! Criticism is fine as well!
If you want to read more about George and Lizzy, you can find their complete story in A Good Name on Amazon: https://smile.amazon.com//dp/B0815YLDVT/
George Wickham is a significant and sympathetic character, but don’t worry, it has a happy Darcy and Elizabeth happily ever after in the end!