A Christmas Gift

         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 fags 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, and only allowed entry to now in order to avoid a one-man 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 put the boy into a headlock, held Tommy’s head tight against his chest. 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 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 woke up 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 up 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 knocked on his door.                     

          “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.”

          His door opened. His mother stood there, a hand on her hip. “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?”

          “Yeah, 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 a wad of 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.

          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.

          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, 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.

          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.”

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