I watch a kestrel slice the sky,
weightless and free,
diminishing to the horizon,
leaving me rooted on this spot,
under the weight of decisions past,
bound to this one small life,
drinking regret like briny water,
scratching for joy like a sparrow
after seeds locked in ice.
If the first draft of Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist was a baby at it’s conception, it would be in first grade now. About six years old. That’s how long it’s taken me to complete it. And like most six-year-olds, it looks nothing like it did at birth.
I’ve a first draft now that is around 95K words. But over the years, I’ve written 160K words on it. I’ve dropped the POV of one main character, let go of some interesting-but-unnecessary subplots, threw out a lot of good scenes I really loved–but which did little if nothing to move the story forward. I think I spent the last couple years lost, just wandering through my chapters trying to figure out how to tie it all up and bring it to the end I had in mind. Even that ending changed a little, but in a way that came organically, a natural progression of events leading to a somewhat inevitable outcome.
Finishing the last line of the Epilogue was strange. It happened early in the day, and for the rest of the day my characters–these guys who’ve occupied my head for so many years now, whom I know better than my own kids–went silent. Doing chores, running errands, working out…I was used to their chatter in the background, their voices talking to me or to each other. And that’s pretty much stopped. Honestly, if I didn’t have another story waiting on the sidelines, I’d probably be numbing the pain of abandonment with bourbon, like a jilted lover. It’s quiet now, although I sometimes hear the voice of my next protagonist talking. He’s from rural Kentucky, so it’s a lot different from hearing Paulie and Kevin, with their Brooklyn accents. I expect that once I finish the character development and backstory for each of my new MCs, the chatter will start again.
This novel, these past six years, have been a learning experience. One thing I’ve learned is this: no matter how introverted you are, no matter how insular and/or insecure you are, you can’t get any perspective on your work if you write in a void. Other eyes are absolutely necessary.
It took a talented writer-friend (undying thanks to you, Micah) to read what I had–which I figured was around half of the novel–and tell me, “You have this just about done. Step up the tension in the second half of Act II and barrel towards the end.” Boom. He was there to bounce my thoughts off, and really much of what he did is just help me to see the big picture. We tend to get lost in our work, overwhelmed by the possibilities, all the different paths we can take. A good friend who is also a writer can see the big picture without getting lost in the details. He helped me to see the forest when I’d spent the last couple years just circling trees like a dog with an ever-full bladder. So, lesson learned.
Because I spent sometimes whole months unable to write, my first draft is pretty clean, as far as first drafts go. I’d spend my writer’s block nit-picking over the chapters I’d written again and again. But I’m putting it out there for betas now, and I’ve already made a few changes based on good, solid feedback. Regarding feedback: go with your gut. If the suggestions sound good and will bring the writing or the story up a notch, accept it gratefully. If you weigh it carefully and don’t feel it’s in line with your own instincts, ignore it. But be humble; don’t let pride make the decision for you.
As I hand off my manuscript to betas–and eventually to agents once I begin the querying process–they will see 95K words broken into forty-two chapters, with a prologue and epilogue. Hopefully they will see something fresh, something engaging, something they want to read to the end. What they won’t see is six years of trying to shape it, of learning who my characters are, of struggling some days just to get a few damn sentences out, and other days when whole chapters were trashed. They won’t see the nights I drank to excess because if I was too drunk to write, at least I had an excuse. They won’t see the times I snapped at my poor kids through the closed door, “Can you just leave me alone? I’m trying to write in here!” And they won’t see all the times I thought I’d never get to this point, thought I’d end up abandoning it, as I had two previous projects. The difference between those projects and this one boils down to two things: First, I knew from the beginning how this story would end. Not in the details, but in the ultimate fate of the characters (and even now I’m toying with an alternate ending!) And secondly, in passion. I loved these characters way too much to leave them locked in an unfinished story.
So…if you have passion and have some idea of where your story leads (even if you don’t know the ultimate end of it), plod onward. Not everyone can sit down and write a novel in a month or a year or even a few years. But if you perservere (and maybe are lucky enough to find a friend to hand you a flashlight and a map), you’ll make it through the dark woods and come out on the other side. It’s great feeling.
I just dug this out of my files. It was one of the first things I wrote when I came back to writing after a 20+ year hiatus. It was meant to be expanded upon, but never got there.
Forgive the odd formatting. I’ve nothing but grief with WordPress and formatting!
Mediterranean sunlight slashed through the hotel window’s blinds, cast wavering stripes across the sleeping woman, across bare limbs and starched, white sheets. Her dark hair spread over the pillow. A slim young man with reddish curls and blue eyes, freckled from head to toe, sat on the edge of the bed. He turned to look at the sleeping woman and glanced at the watch on his wrist, his only attire. He bent to pick up a towel beside the bed, rose and wrapped it about his waist.
“Where are you going, Conor?” she asked, waking, her voice gravely with sleep and too much champagne the night before. He turned to look at her, smiled.
“Jes’ to have a piss, luv. Stay where you are and keep the bed warm for me, yes?” His voice was soft and musical, with the lilt of the southwest of Ireland.
She stretched and looked him over. “You are a beautiful, beautiful boy.”
“And you,” he returned, “are amazing. I’ll be just a minute.” He winked at her and turned to go into the bathroom, closed the door behind him. Dropping the towel, he lifted the toilet lid and emptied his bladder. He washed his hands, scrutinizing himself in the mirror. Yes, he certainly did look younger than his twenty-five years.
“How old are you, exactly, Conor?” she’d asked at the cafe the previous day, where she had a glass of wine and he ordered a ginger ale.
“Nineteen,” he’d lied. She liked boys, and he didn’t want to disappoint.
“You are not!” She sipped her wine, left lipstick on the rim of the glass.
“I am, God’s truth. D’ya want to see me passport?”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary. Tell me, do you always chat up older women?”
“No,” he’d replied, “Just extraordinarily beautiful ones.”
He’d tagged along with her the rest of the day, shopping the marketplace, carrying her purchases. She rewarded him with a beautiful silk shirt that matched his eyes perfectly.
In the evening they ate dinner al fresco, at a restaurant near the beach, and then walked in the twilight along the shore. He held her sandals in one hand, clasped her hand in his other.
“So, how long are you here for?” she asked.
“Another week, then I have to get ready for the next term at the Uni in Limerick.”
“Oh, I thought maybe you were attending school in the U.S. You were with the American students on the beach this morning.”
“Ah, I merely asked if I could join them for volleyball. I’m here on me own.” He stopped and gave her hand a small squeeze. “Well, I was, in any case. Today’s been really lovely, Muriel.”
She cocked her head and smiled. “It isn’t over yet, you know.”
“D’ya mind,” he asked, dropping the sandals, “if I kiss you?”
His clothes sat piled on the white tiles of the bathroom floor. He slipped into his briefs, then picked up the rest of the pile—trousers, the blue silk shirt, white cotton jacket—and left the bathroom. Muriel lay with both hands tucked between her cheek and the pillow, eyes closed.
He’d enjoyed the weekend, and it seemed a shame that it would have to end. And he felt badly for her, too. The ticking clock had made her careless about her choices. She liked very young men, and she was growing old. It had been all too easy for him to get close. He felt pity tug his heart a moment. He noted the sentiment, then pushed it aside.
Barefoot on the cream carpeting, he took a few silent steps toward the bed and gazed at her. With her back to the window, her face shaded, the little lines and signs of aging were hardly apparent. Her body was quite nice, her skin still smooth and firm. He had explored every inch of it with his hands, his lips; tasted the salt of the sea on it, smelled it in her hair last night.
She opened her eyes and smiled. But her eyes widened, her expression changed to one of alarm as she made a move to sit up. Two quiet popping noises, and she dropped back onto the pillow, one neat little hole in her forehead, another in her throat.
Conor approached the bed and placed the pistol with the suppresser on the nightstand. He sat on the bed beside her, rummaged through the bundle for his trouser pocket, and pulled out a Swiss Army knife.
He turned to look at her, shook his head and smiled. Shock was frozen on her features. Why so surprised, lass? How could she have possibly played this game for as long as she had and not be at all suspicious? Was she perhaps tiring of the guardedness, the paranoia, the precautions? Trying to recapture youth with the sort of reckless abandon that the young enjoy? Not in this business, darlin’.
With his fingertips he closed her eyes and opened the knife. He slid his hand beneath her dark hair and felt the nape of her neck. Only a few hours ago his lips had caressed the spot, and it had sent a shiver through her. It had sent one through him as well, but for a different reason. There…there it was. He flipped her hair up, away from her neck, and cut into her skin with the tip of the knife. Squeezing with his fingers, a little plastic-coated chip emerged. He dabbed the blood from it with the bed sheet. In his palm, it looked so tiny and insignificant. But like anything else, its value lay in what someone was willing to pay for it. He lay Muriel back onto the pillows and smoothed her hair. “Thanks, luv.” He’d lifted information from mules before, but none so lovely as this. And amazing in the sack. He wondered how many times that fact turned up in her dossier. She had almost made him forget himself. Almost.
Two hours later, Conor sat in the airport lounge in Athens awaiting his flight, wearing his new silk shirt with a light gray summer suit he’d purchased in Rome. He had to show his passport in order to get a gin and tonic.
Estelle rested on a soft, mossy patch of green by the brook, listening to its nonsense babblings. The sun warmed her shoulders, glinted on the crystalline water as it broke over the rocks into prisms, splashing into a pool at the bottom of a little waterfall. Peace washed over her, tension drained away. She felt rooted to the earth, yet at the same time weightless.
“Estelle… this thing’s getting full. Would you mind?”
She opened her eyes, took a moment to slip back into reality. She sat in her blue swivel rocker a couple feet from Harry in his recliner. He brought his hand out from beneath the fleece blanket across his legs and lap, clutching the urinal he’d been given upon discharge from the hospital. He didn’t look at it, not at her.
“Sure.” She rose from her chair and took the urinal from him, headed to the bathroom to empty it.
“I’m a bit chilled. Think you could put up water for some tea?”
“I’ll do that. You want a hot water bottle, too?”
“No, just the tea, thanks.”
Estelle emptied the urinal in the toilet, swished it out with a little water and hung it on the towel rack before washing her hands. Then she went and put the kettle on for tea. She made a stop in the laundry room, wrung out the ace bandages soaking in the sink and hung them up to drip dry. Harry’s voice came to her from the other side of the house. She couldn’t make out what he was saying. She dried her hands and stepped back into the kitchen. “What was that, Harry? I couldn’t hear you. I was in the laundry room.”
“We got any of those tea biscuits left?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Would you mind making me some toast?”
Estelle drew in a calming breath. “Sure. What do you want on it?”
“Just butter. Maybe a slice of cheese.”
“Okay.” She put bread in the toaster and decided to make a whole pot of tea. As she took the tea from the shelf, she pushed back the black feelings that threatened to override the peace she was trying so hard to hold on to. So hard… everything was so hard. Yes, she’d known thirty years ago when she married Harry that it was “for richer and poorer; in sickness and in health,” but these last few years had made the vow a heavy load, crushing hope and joy. First it was Harry’s heart attack and bypass surgery, with its long recovery and worry over bills. Neither of them had ever been very good with money, and they didn’t have much of a nest egg. And then this, the accident.
It was hard for her to rouse compassion. The accident had been Harry’s fault. What fool would burn leaves and yard waste on a breezy day? Wearing coveralls splashed with lawnmower gas? Every time someone from the neighborhood asked her about Harry, asked how it happened, how he burned his legs and hands, she cringed inside, her face warmed with shame. The kindest comments, were, “Oh, something like that could happen to anyone.” But it didn’t happen to anyone, it happened to Harry. The worst comments were accompanied by a smile and head-shake. “Well, I’ll bet he doesn’t do that again.” I married a fool, she’d think, and all the other resentments of three decades would come crowding forward: the fact that there was no savings to fall back on, and here he was out of work again, at an age when he might have trouble finding work. The fact that now that the kids were grown and out from under their roof, they had little to talk about. She took little interest in fishing and politics, and he showed no real interest in her painting. The fact that she’d raised three kids to adulthood with very little input from him, helped raise two grandkids when Sophie returned home during her divorce and went back to school for two years, and now, now that she felt as though there might be a little time for her to pursue some of her own passions, she found herself taking care of Harry–not once, but twice in as many years.
Estelle put the plate of cheese toast and a mug of tea on a tray and brought it out. Harry groaned loudly, winced as he put the recliner in an upright position. Estelle rested the tray over his lap. “It’s probably about time for your pain meds. You take them now, we can do the bandages just before lunch.”
He nodded, his face white and pinched with pain, his upper torso rigid. “Yeah. Thanks.”
Was it selfish of her, when he was in this much pain, to resent the fact that it was always someone else who needed caring for, never her? She knew she should be glad that she was 58 and so fit. She worked at it–ate healthy, took her supplements, drank enough water, exercised. But she did resent it. Everyone always inquiring “How are the kids doing? How’s Harry?” Michelle, who taught painting down at the library, when Estelle called to ask if her course fee could be refunded or applied to a future class, had asked, “And how are you doing, Estelle?” and she had to fight herself to not to burst into tears.
Harry sat on the plastic chair in the tub, the bathroom tropically hot. Estelle ignored the strain in her back as she leaned over to snip the bandages on his far leg. First through the gauze, then through the yellow, non-stick Xeroform. She used the hand shower to soak the bandages off, squeezed them out as well as she could with one hand, and dumped them into a plastic bucket lined with a trash bag. The raw, red burns, some covered by a lattice of skin grafts, had to be gently washed with liquid soap. She ran the hand shower on gentle pressure over his legs, and clots of blood dropped from the backs of his thighs into the tub like bits of raw liver, leaving pink trails as they slid toward the drain. She tugged at the front of her shirt to unstick it from her chest.
It had been nine days since his release from the hospital, and he’d had a followup appointment the day before yesterday. His doctor said that everything was looking fine, said Estelle was doing a good job of wound care. But to her, Harry’s legs still looked like so much mangled flesh, and sometimes she wished they’d have prescribed her pain meds as well.
Harry sucked in air through gritted teeth as she gently patted his legs dry with old towels. She draped a large one over his shoulders, and put the walker beside the tub. Harry climbed out, naked and groaning, hobbled into the bedroom, eased himself back onto the bed she’d covered with one of the bed-sized disposable pads the hospital had given her. She covered him with a blanket from neck to thigh, and turned on the portable heater.
He was only two years her senior, but aging much faster. He’d never been able to make himself walk when he could drive, work when he could nap. Like a child, he ate what he liked because he liked it, and to hell with the sodium, saturated fat and high fructose corn syrup. Since his bypass surgery, she’d prepared heart-healthy meals for him and herself, only to discover gutted Doritos bags and Snickers wrappers in his truck. She wavered between anger at his lack of appreciation for her efforts, and apathy, wondering whether her life might not actually improve were he to put himself in an early grave. What she dreaded was the thought of him becoming a permanent invalid, the rest of her years spent caring for him until she was too old to do it herself and too old to do anything for herself.
It wasn’t enough that she’d cleaned up the urine, feces, blood and vomit of three children; she’d done it for Harry, too, over the years. She recalled the time, early in their marriage, when he’d gotten bombed at a neighborhood backyard cookout. He never could hold his liquor. She’d left before him, walked home with their firstborn, a toddler at the time. He’d staggered in a few hours later, incoherent, promptly vomited the evening’s beer, sour mash whiskey, barbequed pork and coleslaw all over their bedroom, and passed out.
Estelle smeared antibiotic ointment on the Xeroform and applied the yellow strips to his legs, feeling heat rise to her face as she remembered standing on their deck, hosing chunks of sour-smelling, regurgitated food from the bedsheets, fighting back angry tears, cursing him, hating him. She’d taken the Super-8 video camera and filmed Harry, unconscious, covered in his own vomit, planning to make him view it when he was sober. But then she had second thoughts, decided it was too cruel a thing to do. She’d erased the tape. There were times she’d regretted doing that, felt he might have benefitted from a little humiliation, or at least she’d have felt better with him sharing her own.
“Ow.” Harry winced. “Careful there.”
Estelle finished wrapping his legs with the ace bandage, the third, last layer. Then she gathered the legs of his pajama bottoms, eased them over one foot and then the other, as she’d done for her three babies. She pulled the waistband up to his rear and let him lift his hips and pull them up to his waist.
She noticed the age spots already developing on the backs of his hands. He’s getting old, she thought, and then corrected herself: We are getting old. And it suddenly dawned on her why she felt so angry at him, so resentful, even though she had known from the start that marrying anyone would be a lifetime commitment. She was angry because she married a man she considered a rock, a champion she could lean on, someone to take care of her. And in the last few years, it was she who took care of him. She was the rock, the strong one, the one supporting everyone’s weight on her shoulders.
She thought about this, how his weakness had made her strong, had enabled her in ways she’d have never thought possible thirty years ago. She realized that this was actually preferable to it being the other way around, better to be the crutch rather than to need one.
“Do you want me to fix you some lunch?” she asked him.
“No, I’m not really hungry right now.”
“Is there anything I can get you?”
“No. I’m actually a little sleepy. Must be the painkillers. I think I might just close my eyes a bit before lunchtime.” He pulled the blanket up to his chin.
Estelle grabbed the trash bag of wet bandages, tied a knot in it. “I’ll fix you something to eat when you’re ready.” She turned on the baby monitor by the bed, the one Sophie had left behind. “Just holler if you need anything.”
“Thank you, sweetheart.” Harry closed his eyes and sighed.
She closed the door quietly and dropped the bag in the kitchen trash. She carried the receiver for the monitor into the living room and settled into her chair. Closing her eyes, she drew in a deep breath, held it, exhaled. She pictured in her mind a mossy bank and a small, sparkling waterfall. The sun was warm on her shoulders, the ground soft beneath her. This time Harry sat nearby, dangling his legs into the stream. She smiled as he splashed his feet in the water.
Some girls flit like fireflies,
Smiles that shimmer & shine,
Laugh like wind chimes,
Kisses like candy,
Lift your heart like helium;
But this girl,
She slinks like a panther,
Smile like smoky whiskey,
Her laughter like jazz,
Her kiss is dark chocolate dope,
And she holds your heart in velvet chains.
You are always with me,
Stuck in my head,
Embedded in my peripheral vision
Keeping me sidetracked, hanging back,
A ball and chain;
How can I move forward when there’s this
Pain from the past holding me fast?
I want to move on
Dance to a new song,
Leave the old behind and find that
Pot of gold at the rainbow’s end,
Make amends, make new friends,
Stop pretending I’m happy now
And somehow, some day
Find a way to actually be
Truly happy, truly me,
In my side view.
A content warning: Although it is not graphic, this short story deals with child sexual abuse. Child abuse and child sexual abuse are topics that are close to my heart. I’ve close friends who endured it, and it leaves terrible, if unseen, scars.
I’ll also note that there’s some non-politically-correct language in here. It is in no way the language I use, being parent to a queer transgender son. But using my own voice wouldn’t be right for the protagonist of this story. I apologize if it offends–my intention is authenticity, not offence.
Tommy picked up a tray and joined the chow line, head tipped down, shoulders rounded. He tongued his cut lip, could feel the swelling by his eye every time he blinked. He didn’t have much of an appetite, but hadn’t eaten since yesterday and didn’t want to give those fucking bastards the satisfaction of thinking they had him beat.
Choice of canned ham or turkey loaf, soggy bread stuffing, slightly grayish corn, limp green beans and reconstituted mashed potatoes with runny gravy. A square of dry-looking gingerbread. Christmas dinner. Tommy mused that last years’ hadn’t been much better, but at least the dumpster-gleaned meal had been devoured in freedom. He closed his eyes, let the pain of that lost freedom pass through his rib cage.
A nudge between his shoulder blades startled him and he gasped.
“Yo, better wake up an’ move yo’ skinny cracker punk-ass.”
“Sorry.” Tommy let the older con step ahead of him in line.
“Yeah you are, pussy.”
Tommy went for the ham and passed on the watery potatoes and gravy. He shuffled to his usual spot at the end of a table of cons who didn’t harass him too much, and eased onto the hard bench, jaw clenched, refusing to let on to anyone how much it hurt to sit. With his head low, he ate his meal in silence, filtering out the loud, boisterous shit bouncing between the tables. It wasn’t as noisy as usual. A number of cons were missing from the mess, having received extra commissary from family for the holiday. They were cooking up chow in their cells. Others were subdued by thoughts of home, of Christmases past with people they loved.
Tommy had no family, none he was in touch with, anyway. Hadn’t seen his dad since age five, nor his mom since she’d handed over her parental rights to the state when he was fifteen. She chose that fucking lowlife sponging boyfriend over him. The last time he’d seen her was that night Stan punched him in the face, knocked a dent into the living room drywall with Tommy’s head. She’d screamed. Told Tommy to get the hell out, to leave. And he had.
Tommy took a few bites, then let Cowboy have the rest of his ham. The stuffing was so bad, nobody wanted it, not even Jenkins, who was upwards of three hundred pounds and would generally take anyone’s leftover anything. “You gonna eat that gingerbread?” he asked.
“Nah.” Tommy pushed his tray across the table, watched Jenkins open the top of his carton of low-fat milk and crumble the brown cube into it. He picked up a spoon, wagged his eyebrows at Tommy and tucked into it with a grin. Tommy smiled, shook his head and stood, sucking his sore lip as he did.
“Dude, merry Christmas,” Jenkins said.
Tommy shrugged. “Yeah, whatever. Merry Christmas.”
He left the mess. Passed McKenzie, a guard known to be a real bastard unless you had means for paying him off. Tommy didn’t have the means, would never have the means. He kept his head low in passing, was buzzed into his pod.
There was a recreation area where a handful of prisoners were watching Scrooged on the wall-mounted TV, and playing cards or checkers. A black prisoner wearing a do-rag and makeup made from whatever was handy sat crocheting something with garish yellow yarn. He looked up at Tommy as he passed. “Hey there, Baby-Cakes. You doin’ awright?”
Tommy threw him a quick glance. He’d been told by another punk that it wasn’t a good idea to mix with sissies and trannies. It would taint your rep by association. And as a newbie, a fish, your rep was shit to start with. “Fuck you,” Tommy muttered as he passed.
Miss DeeDee–that was the trannie’s handle–blew out a puff of air and smiled. “Okay, little hot-stuff. Be that way. But I remember my first Christmas bein’ in the pen, an’ Santy Claus din’t leave me nothin’ good.”
This Christmas sucked for sure. But it wasn’t the worst he’d known, not by far. The worst was one he’d pushed from his mind for a decade. He only allowed it entry now in order to avoid a one-man Christmas Eve pity-party.
He was ten years old, and it involved another of his “uncles,” men who blew through his and his mother’s life and their house like so much windblown trash.
“Uncle” Wade had gone out Christmas Eve to replenish what was needed for the celebration. It had started to snow while he was out, and Tommy sat by the window in PJs, eating a Pop Tart and watching the fat flakes fall in the street-light’s beam.
Wade’s battered car pulled up in front of the house. He climbed out and treaded up the cracked walkway cradling a brown bag in one arm, a gift-wrapped box tucked under the other. Hope gave Tommy’s heart a squeeze, though he realized how unlikely it was that the gift would be for him.
“Wade’s back,” he shouted to his mom.
She didn’t look away from the TV, but leaned forward to lift an empty beer can from the coffee table and give it a side-to-side shake. “About time. Damn, where the hell’s he been?”
Tommy shoved the rest of the Pop-Tart in his mouth and ran to open the door.
Wade shook snowflakes from his hair and stepped inside. “Hey, dude. I picked something up for you. Look in the bag.”
Tommy’s hope sagged as he took the bag handed to him and put it down on the kitchen table. He took out a box of snack cakes shaped like Christmas trees, green icing and red and white sprinkles. The other items in the bag were Doritos and a bottle of Jack Daniels. “Thanks, Wade.” He tried not to sound disappointed. It was better than nothing.
“Geezus, Wade,” his mother called from the other room. “Didja bring something to drink or not?”
“Comin’ up.” Wade put the wrapped box down on the table. Drops of water that had been snowflakes a moment before glinted like glass beads on his mustache. “This is for you, too, buddy.”
The air in Tommy’s lungs seemed to turn to helium, lifting his heart. His smile betrayed his eagerness. “Thanks, Wade.” He reached out for the box and Wade put his large, cold hand on top of his, pinned it to the gift.
“Whoa. For Christmas. Go stick it under the tree.”
Tommy nodded. He could wait. He wasn’t a five year-old, after all. He picked up the box and took it into the living room, discreetly weighing it in his hands. Not too heavy.
“What’s that?” his mother asked, glancing up from the TV. Wade tossed the bag of Doritos into her lap, put the JD on the coffee table.
“Wade got me a Christmas present.” Tommy put it under the tree with a few other hastily-wrapped packages. He already knew what was in them without having shake them or peel back the wrinkled wrappings. He’d been with his mother at the dollar store when she got them. An out-of-season t-shirt on clearance. A Nerf Gun knock-off. A fleece blanket with SpiderMan on it. A Pirates of the Caribbean insulated cup. Cheap tennis shoes.
She smiled as he arranged the items under the tree. “Isn’t that nice of him? Whatja get me, Wade?”
“You’re lookin’ at it, baby.” He struck a pose. She laughed and opened the whiskey.
Towards the end of both the bottle of Jack and It’s a Wonderful Life, Tommy’s mom passed out. Wade plucked the burning cigarette from between her fingers, mashed it out, then bumped his leg against hers. “Hey, Sleeping Beauty, time to go to bed.” He hauled her to her feet. She groaned and struggled to get her eyes open.
“‘Night, mom,” Tommy said.
She mumbled something, and Wade half guided, half carried her to the bedroom.
Tommy shook the Doritos crumbs from the bag into his cupped hand and licked them off his palm, then took the bag and some other trash from the coffee table to the kitchen garbage. He stood looking out the window a few minutes. The snow was now a soft, bluish blanket covering the yard. It made the dirty, rundown street and houses look clean and beautiful.
He yawned, thought he might try to stay up to the end of the movie, then go to bed. Wade and his mom would probably sleep in, and he’d have to wait til they were up to open the gifts anyway. He thought about whether he should try to carefully peel back the tape on Wade’s gift. Taking a knife from a drawer–the better to lift the Scotch tape with–Tommy went to the living room.
He stopped short in the doorway. Wade was on the sofa, taking a hit from a glass pipe. He exhaled, and Tommy caught a whiff of the smoke, smelling something like a foggy morning, and a little like the public pool he’d gone to last summer. He hid the knife against his pajama bottoms.
Wade’s head tipped back, eyes closed. He sighed, and opened them again, saw Tommy standing there in the doorway. He lowered the pipe to his lap and smiled. “Hey, little man. Wassup?”
“I just… ” Tommy’s face warmed, sure that Wade could read the guilt on it, see that he was about to take a look at what was under the wrapping paper on that present.
“C’mere. Sit down with me.” He put the pipe and lighter on the coffee table and patted the sofa beside him. “Christmas Eve, huh? You excited?”
Tommy nodded, took small, slow steps to the sofa, his palm sweating around the plastic handle of the knife. He sat down and quietly slipped it between the cushions.
Wade smiled at him. He had crooked teeth, a gap on the top left of his mouth where one was missing. He stretched an arm out and put it around Tommy’s shoulders, gave him a light squeeze. “Hey,” he said, “Loosen up a bit, kid. You’re tense as shit. You need a drink?” He laughed.
Yeah, Tommy was tense. His shoulders and neck were so tight they ached. His throat felt like someone’s hands were around it. The tension went up another notch when Wade put his other hand over the fly of his jeans and began rubbing himself.
Tommy made a move to rise, but Wade’s grip around his shoulders tightened. He cocked his head, raised his eyebrows. “Just chill, Tommy. Calm down.”
Calm down? Tommy’s heart slammed against his ribcage like it was going to bust through. He couldn’t control his breathing, and panted quietly, tears welling up in his eyes.
Wade lifted his hips to get to the button on his jeans. Tommy slid his trembling hand over the sofa, slipped it between the cushions, retrieving the knife. His fingers curled around the handle and gripped it tight. Wade picked up Tommy’s other hand and rested it on his cock, now free of his jeans.
Tommy gasped, swung the knife in an arc, hoping to stick it in Wade’s chest. Working against him were a dull blade, an awkward angle, and his own lack of strength.
Wade let out a yell, and pulled Tommy’s head tight against his chest into a headlock. His other hand squeezed Tommy’s wrist til he dropped the knife. “You little bastard,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “You tried to cut me. You little motherfucker.”
Tommy’s breath was cut off. His head felt like a balloon about to burst. Wade rose from the sofa still gripping Tommy in a chokehold and shoved him face-down on it, then threw himself on top of him. Tommy tried to suck in a breath, but Wade’s weight on him wouldn’t permit it. The man slapped a hand over Tommy’s mouth, his thumb and forefinger pinched the boy’s nose. Tommy felt his pajama bottoms yanked down. He squeezed his eyes shut. I’m gonna die. I can’t breathe, and I’m gonna die.
On the hazy edge of unconsciousness, he was jerked back by searing pain. His lungs attempted a gasp, but came up short; his eyes threatened to pop out of his skull, and he blacked out.
Christmas morning, Tommy awoke in his bed. His body hurt. His ass hurt.
He had to pee. He bit his lip to keep from crying as he got out of bed to go to the bathroom. The house was quiet and chilly. He shivered and shuffled slowly, painfully, to the bathroom.
As he stood peeing into the toilet, he felt something wet and warm trickle down the inside of his thigh. He was bleeding.
Tommy cleaned himself as best he could and stuffed a wad of toilet paper in his underpants. He went back to his room and curled up on his bed. After a while, his mother opened the door and leaned in.
“Tommy, it’s Christmas! What the hell’s wrong with you? Don’t you wanna open your presents?”
He swallowed back tears, pushed words from a tight throat. “I’m sick. I’ll do it later.”
“Hey, Wade got you something. Don’t you think you oughta go out and open it?”
“I’m sick,” Tommy said. He pulled the blanket over his head.
“You were fine last night. You just stayed up too late, you ungrateful little shit.” She closed the door.
Tommy stayed in bed all morning. A couple times his mother opened the door to check on him. He pretended to be sleeping. One time she felt his forehead. “You okay?” she asked. She looked concerned.
“I don’t feel good. I’ll be okay. I just wanna sleep,” he told her.
“Alright. Me and Wade are going out for a bit. Call me on the cell if you need me, okay?”
“Merry Christmas, baby.” She kissed his forehead. And she left.
When Tommy was sure they’d gone, he got up. He shuffled to the tree in the living room and eased down onto his knees. He picked up Wade’s gift and slowly tore off the paper. It was a shoe box. He peeled tape from the lid and opened it, pulled off the crumpled newspaper. In the box was a Nintendo DS. It was used, a couple years old, but he’d been wanting one since it had come out. He lifted it from the box and turned it over in his hands a couple times. Tears streamed down his cheeks, not from pain or self-pity. These were hot tears of anger. Rage seethed inside him. Anger like he’d never felt before.
Tommy clutched the Nintendo and bashed it against the floor, screaming from the deepest part of him as he did. He kept screaming and slamming it down again and again, until he’d screamed himself hoarse and exhausted himself.
He went back to bed, pajamas sticking to his sweat-drenched body.
He was filled with hatred. He hated Wade. He hated his mother. He hated Christmas. He wished he could die.
Tommy found himself in front of his cell, so lost in the past, it took him a moment to figure out why his feet had stopped moving. He raised his eyes and saw something that hadn’t been there when he’d left for dinner. On the metal door was a sheet of paper that read “Merry Christmas” in fancy writing. A hole had been put through the paper, and dangling from it was a star crocheted from garish yellow yarn.
Tommy snatched it off his cell door. He went in, lay down, held it to his chest.
There were worse Christmases than this. This year, he even got a gift. The hatred had dissipated, disappeared. There was still hurt, still anger. But couldn’t find the hate.
Someone banged on his cell door as they passed. “Merry Christmas, Baby-Cakes.”
Tommy sniffed, swiped the back of his hand across his runny nose. “Merry Christmas, DeeDee. Thanks.”