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Once upon a time, when the world was warmer, and kinder, and sweeter, there was a Boy. The Boy was polite, and cheerful, and curious, and beloved by all who found themselves in his presence. His parents were well-respected, but this meant little, because respect was not a rare commodity in this old world. The people were polite, and kind, and altogether wonderful- it was all they knew.
One Christmas Eve, when the Boy was seven, he dressed the tree with his father. They hung baubles and tied streamers and strung lights, and then his father showed him how to switch the lights on and off at the socket. The Boy's mother came in then, beaming broadly and carrying in her arms a cardboard box of brightly wrapped presents. She and the Boy's father gathered the presents under the tree and told the Boy that he must wait until Christmas Day to open the presents with the rest of the family. The Boy nodded yes.
The Boy's father took his son upstairs and tucked him into bed, and told him he loved him, and kissed him on the forehead, and switched out the lights, leaving the door just slightly ajar to let a little light in from downstairs (the Boy was scared of the dark). The Boy fell asleep almost immediately, and dreamed of the sweet, lovely things that were waiting for him under the beautiful Christmas tree that he had dressed with his father.
Then, unexpectedly, the dream turned sour. The Boy sat up in his bed, and the room seemed to pulsate slightly, the edges blackened and fuzzy. The lights were still on outside his room, but the door was closed and the lamp in the hall outside seemed to be flickering, glowing... burning.
The Boy inhaled curiously, but smelled only the sweetness of Christmas. It was intoxicating. He threw back the covers and tiptoed towards the door. His feet padded curiously on the hardwood flooring, like the swirled, deep brown panels were made of something not quite solid, yet not quite gas or liquid. Reaching the door, the Boy pressed down the handle and pulled it open.
The hallway seemed to pulsate too- an unnatural haze, like visible heat, surrounded him. He wished to go downstairs to look once more at the beauty of the tree. He tiptoed towards the stairs, but a single stripe of burning orange flames blocked his path. Staring curiously through them, he marveled at the way the flames licked the wallpaper, the banister, the steps, without leaving so much as a black mark.
They seemed to sparkle, sending shadows across the walls and ceiling. The Boy took a decided step forward. As he moved through the fire, he felt pleasantly comforted by the beautiful flames that licked his body, enveloping him, embracing him... He passed through them and continued down the stairs, leaving the fire blazing behind him in its single stripe across the top step.
Feeling a delicious pull towards the drawing room, the Boy glided down the corridor and drifted into the high-ceilinged room. Kneeling by the tree, the Boy gazed up at it. It seemed taller than he remembered. It was also bare. The coloured baubles, the sparkly tinsel, the lights, were gone, as if they had never been. Yet the Boy knew they had. He knew they had been there. He had put them there himself.
Angry now, the Boy hoisted himself to his feet. No, he whispered. He reached under the tree- no presents . He shrieked, a high-pitched, wailing shriek, and fell to his knees at the foot of the tree, chest heaving. He lifted his face to stare furiously at the endlessly green leaves, and saw that they had begun to melt. No! he screeched, pressing his forehead to the floor and clasping his hands frustratedly behind his head. He felt moisture on his fingertips. His nails had dug into his scalp until he had bled. Suddenly morbidly excited, he ripped at his scalp, pulling bloody clumps of hair from his head and casting them to the floor. Cackling hysterically at his own pain, he pulled and ripped at his locks until his head was a bald, bleeding dome.
Seething, eyes wide with hysterical fury, he glared up at the melting tree. It looked now like no more than a forest-green mountain slope. And then the boy fell, exhausted, like a dead weight, and sighed in a last ecstasy.
The following morning, Christmas Day, the Boy dressed, brushed his teeth, combed his hair, and descended the stairs to meet his parents for breakfast. It was nine o'clock by the time he reached the kitchen, but they had not yet made their appearance. Confused, he returned to his room and descended again at ten. Still, they were not at the table.
The Boy called out to them, checked their room, searched the house, but there was no sign. At seven, the Boy was unfamiliar with this sort of emergency procedure, and could not reach the phone anyway. He took his coat from the front closet, zipped it up as his mother would have, put on his shoes and tied the laces, pocketed the front door key, and left the house. A police constable had paused on his bicycle to cross the road outside the house. The Boy called out to him, but he made no effort to respond.
The Boy walked for a short time along the road until he reached the corner shop where he sometimes bought sweets, or went with his mother to buy milk and eggs. He barely reached the first row of chocolates, but he stood on tiptoe and called over the counter. Has my mother come by? But the man behind the counter was busy serving a swarthy-skinned woman with a swollen belly that mildly struck the Boy's curiosity. But he did not indulge it.
Leaving the corner shop, he stopped at the butcher's, forgetting that his father was a vegetarian. Have my parents come by? But the butcher did not respond.
Feeling sad and neglected, the Boy left the shop and sat despondently on the street curb. He sighed, running a hand through his blonde locks. A young Girl, no more than five or six, skipped across the street, her yellow plaits bouncing childishly on her shoulders, her fingers clamped around an ice cream cone. She stopped for a moment, smiled at the Boy, and sat beside him on the curb. Are you alright?
"You know," said the Boy to the Girl. "I should feel lucky. To have been born on a world with such kindness in its roots. Everyone is lovely. Everyone is lovely, and nice, and sweet, and no one is mean, and no one hates anybody else. I should feel lucky. But now I'm scared, and I don't have anyone. It can get lonely here. It can get really very lonely."
The Girl said nothing, but smiled enigmatically and licked her ice cream.
"I don't quite know how it happened, but I think that while I was sleeping last night, I may have grown up some. i don't feel like seven. And I don't like not being seven. I don't like no Christmas presents, either, and now there aren't any. What's changed? It's only been... I don't like it."
The Girl said nothing.
"I don't think anyone is going to help me."
The Girl's smile faltered, and her bright, glossy yellow hair seemed to fade, ever so slightly.
"I don't think I should stay."
The Girl looked up quickly, and smiled. The Boy smiled too. They both stood, and the Girl held out her hand. The Boy took it. Together, they walked into the road, and faded into the distance.
They never once looked back.