The greatest gift of all: the present

By Li Yan-wa
By Li Yan-wa |

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Jessica stared in disbelief at the gargantuan mound of presents at the foot of the enormous evergreen.

"Mum, there are fewer presents than last year," she whined.

"No, Jessica, I've added one more this year," her mum replied.

"Couldn't you donate some of these to the poor?" asked her dad, picking up a wrapped gift.

"No! They're all mine!" yelled Jessica, as she grabbed it back.

Jessica's mum patted her daughter's head comfortingly. "Honey, maybe just one. You've got more than enough."

"Absolutely not!"

Jessica glared at them before racing up the stairs to the attic.

Jessica slammed the door behind her. "Stupid parents. And they say they love me?"

She flumped down angrily on one of the countless dusty cardboard boxes, sending a cloud of minute particles into the air.

"A-a-achoo!" she sneezed.

Suddenly, as if triggered by the dust, she had an idea.

"Hey, if I give some of this old junk away, I won't need to sacrifice any of my Christmas presents." Jessica started to rummage through the bug-infested boxes, each brimming with discarded items. "What a genius I am!"

Tossing ageing pictures and postcards aside, she saw something that made her stop. It was an old notebook with a hard, smooth cover embroidered with lace.

"Let's see what's inside." Jessica murmured to herself. Brushing away the dust, she opened the book.

"Okaaay ... Somebody's written in it ..." Jessica flipped forward a few more pages to see if the writing continued. After three flips, the entries ended.

But as Jessica gripped the book and prepared to tear out the used pages, the very structure of the attic began to change.

Jessica gasped as the floor became grassy, and the ceiling was transformed into a bush. Then her clothes began to change. Her khaki shorts morphed into baggy, cotton trousers and her T-shirt became a long-sleeved, rough cotton shirt.

"What's happening?" Jessica yelped as she was pricked by thorns.

"Mei! You're here!" A teenage girl had appeared from nowhere and was dragging her out from under the bush. "Didn't you hear the air-raid sirens?" the girl scolded.

"Who are you?" Jessica asked.

The girl looked worried. She felt Jessica's forehead. "Are you okay?"

Jessica stared at her blankly, desperately trying to make sense of what was happening. The book was still in her lap, but it looked newer, and the colours on its cover, brighter. The pages, instead of a yellowish-brown, were a soft white.

"Ah, so you were writing," said the girl, snatching up the notebook. Jessica tried to grab it back but the girl kept it out of reach.

"Come on, we've been worried sick about you." The older girl opened the door of a shabby wooden hut and shoved Jessica inside.

"Good, Lan," said a middle-aged man. "You found your sister."

Sister! Jessica couldn't believe her ears.

A woman stood up and hugged her tightly. "Mei! Where have you been? We thought you were dead!"

"She was hiding in the bushes, as usual," Lan rolled her eyes.

"You should get out of that writing habit, you know." The woman - was that her mum? - pinched Jessica's cheek lightly. "Someday we're going to find you dead behind those bushes. And we don't want that."

"We should burn the book," the girl said, sitting down on one of the squat wooden chairs.

"No!" Jessica screamed.

"Don't burn it," the woman told Lan, gently stroking Jessica's hair. "She needs it as much as we need our food-rationing coupons."

"Fine," the girl grumbled.

"I'll try to get some firewood," said the man, and headed out.

"Mei, get the bowls. Lan, take the bean curd out of the wok," ordered the woman, walking into the kitchen. Lan followed.

Everything was unfamiliar, and Jessica didn't know where the bowls were. She had to search high and low, in every nook and cranny until she found them.

"Mei, are you sure you're all right?" Lan asked again.

"I'm fine" was all Jessica could say.

When the man returned, he read out a newspaper article: "The Allied Garrison is attacking furiously against the Japanese troops. The chances of victory are very high."

"Good!" Lan exclaimed. "We'll be rid of those horrible Japanese in no time!"

"But things might still take a bad turn ..." the woman sighed.

"Let's turn on the radio," said the man, laying down the paper.

Jessica stared in disbelief. "Why is the story dated November 1941? Have I travelled back through time?" she wondered.

"Where's the TV?" she demanded.

Everyone turned to stare at her.

The man's brow furrowed. "What's a TV?"

"Told you she came back different," chipped in Lan smugly. "The bomb did something to her."

"Curse those Japanese!" exploded the man.

"Shhh," hissed Lan. "If they hear you, you'll be arrested. And I've heard that nobody comes out alive from their jails."

"Lan! You're scaring Mei!" the woman reprimanded.

"Fine," said Lan. "But she'll have to learn the truth soon. Come on, the food's starting to get cold. Let's eat." She picked up her chopsticks.

The meal consisted of a tiny piece of dried bean curd and a bowl of tough, unshelled rice.

"Eww! What's this?" exclaimed Jessica.

Again everybody stared at her.

The woman was the first to recover. "Mei, we're in a time of war," she said in an icy tone. "Food is rationed. We're lucky to have this."

She was interrupted by the ear-splitting sound of a siren. "Wheee-whoooo! Wheee-whooo!"

Jessica covered her ears and shut her eyes. She felt a strong, rough hand on her shoulder.

"Mei. Come on, let's go," yelled the man as he hauled her away.

"My notebook!" screamed Jessica.

"Not now. Your life is more important."

Outside, Jessica ran as fast as her short legs could carry her, urged on by the drone of the siren. All around, a sea of people had flooded the street and were racing in the same direction.

Jessica's lungs burned for air. They were drawing closer to the air-raid shelter, but the sea of people had grown bigger and waves of them had already reached it.

"Faster!" Lan shouted over the din. "There won't be space if we don't hurry!"

Already exhausted, Jessica bawled back at Lan, "I can't, I can't." She fell to the ground.

Jessica felt the same rough hands pick her up again. The girl buried her face in the man's shoulder, and felt his warm breath as he carried her.

"Mei, we're here," he finally said, as he put her down on a hard, uneven floor.

Jessica opened her eyes. Around her was a seemingly unending throng of people.

"It's so cramped in here," complained Jessica. "Isn't there a bigger place we can hide?"

"Mei!" exclaimed her family in unison.

"Sorry," Jessica could feel her cheeks burning with shame. "I don't know why I keep on saying these things!"

"It's ok, Mei," said Lan, as she stroked Jessica's hair. "The war is driving us all crazy."

Suddenly Jessica remembered something.

"My notebook!" Her scream was so piercing it silenced everyone around them.

"Shhh!" Lan clamped her hand over Jessica's mouth. "Stop shouting about that notebook all the time!"

"It will be fine. Nobody will steal it." the man said soothingly.

"I hope so," Jessica mumbled.

Jessica began to study individuals in the crush of bodies around her.

She saw an old woman crying bitterly. She saw a family praying incessantly. She also saw a boy with one leg missing.

Jessica shuddered and turned away.

"I'm tired," Lan yawned and closed her eyes.

"Let's try to sleep," said the man, squatting down.

"I'm exhausted," agreed the woman. "Mei, you need to get some rest. After all that running, you must be exhausted." The woman patted the ground next to her. Jessica curled up beside her and was about to doze off when the doors of the shelter burst open.

A Japanese soldier's voice boomed out. "Who here has stolen Colonel Haza Shasima's notebook?"

The question was met by total silence.

"Nobody?" the soldier roared, before barking orders to his comrades in Japanese.

The soldiers pointed their guns at the nearest person and shot them dead.

But Jessica had only one thought: My notebook. I have to save the notebook.

Dodging nimbly between a soldier's legs, she was out of the exit in a flash.

As she drew nearer to the wooden hut, Jessica could hear the soldier's shouts behind her. Just one more stride ...

Jessica barged through the door, grabbed the notebook and ...

"Jessica! There you are!" her real dad rushed into the attic.

Jessica was back in her own time.

"Oh, sweetie!" her mum gushed. "I thought you were gone! You can keep every one of your presents."

"No," Jessica said firmly. "I'm going to give them all away. Living here and living now is the biggest present of all."

Yan-wa, 10, is a student at Canadian International School of Hong Kong

This is the second finalist in our Winter Writing competition. We will run a fascinating story each week of this and next holiday. The winners will receive gift vouchers from Dymocks.