TWELVE

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Chapter 12

By Friday, I was starting to have panic attacks.

“What if he knocks me out in the first round?” I asked Willie in between classes at school that day.

“He won’t,” Willie said.

“What if he pulls a knife on me or something?”

“He won’t,” Willie said. “And if he does, I’ll jump on his back.”

“You promise?”

“Yeah, man, I promise. I told you, I got your back.”

“The whole school is going to be watching this,” I said, and felt my palms start sweating.

“Yeah, maybe the whole town,” Willie said.

“Oh, Jesus,” I said.

“Yeah,” Willie said, “you’d better ask Him to come, too.”

Friday night came, and it was my last chance to train before the fight. Jim asked Ralphy and the twins to come and spar with me.

Ralphy came in the ring with me first, and we danced for three two-minute rounds. I was already feeling tired by the end of that, but then Jim put Michael in with me for three more, then Morris in for three more after that. Jim took the last three.

By then I could feel that my legs were going to give out, and I thought if Jim really wanted to, he could just push me over by turning his hind end towards me and passing wind.

“You think you’re tired?” Jim said. “Wait until every one of those punches thrown at you is a bare knuckle. Then you’ll know tired. Then you’ll know pain.”

“I won’t let him hit me,” I said, panting through every word.

Jim threw a left jab and it connected with my right temple.

I started wobbling back and forth, jolted by the blow, and I was sure I was going to land on my rear. But although my legs were exhausted, they held me, and I regained my position.

When we first started training together, I couldn’t even hit Jim. I’d throw a punch, and he’d dodge it, like someone told him yesterday where it would be coming from. But in the last week of intense training, I’d become a little sharper, and a little faster, until I could almost hold my own against him.

Almost.

I threw a jab, and Jim blocked it, retaliating with a hook straight to my jaw, which sent my head back in a sharp snap. Ralphy, Michael and Morris could probably hear the tendons in my neck cracking as they stood outside the ring watching.

But I wouldn’t let myself be defeated. I came back with a mean left-right combination, connecting with Jim’s nose. I could see from the dazed look in his eyes that I’d hurt him, even if just a little.

We went two more rounds, and I could tell that the aging Jim was growing tired, even though he tried his best to hide it from me. He got some good shots in, but so did I, especially one to his left eye, which left a small, red cut.

“I’m sorry, Jim,” I told him, and dropped my guard, running over to see if he was okay.

But Jim suddenly stood up and smoked me right in the chin.

“Hey, what’d you do that for?” I said, rubbing at the sore spot.

“Do you not see me standing here in this ring with these gloves on?” Jim asked.

“Well, yeah,” I said, “but-...”

“Well then that means I’m in here to fight, and if I get cut, that’s my problem, and not yours. Do you think Lamburt is going to feel sorry for you if he cuts you up?”

“Well, no, I’m guessing he probably won’t,” I said.

“Well then, for cripe’s sakes, keep your guard up.”

Jim tried to swing at me again, but this time I bounced out of his way, and kept bouncing and dodging and throwing hard jabs at him until Ralphy rang the final bell.

“The winner, by unanimous decision, is G-eeeorgie, the Kiiilllller, Christ-m-aaaa-s!” Ralphy said in a ringside announcer style.

“Georgie the Killer Christmas,” I said, sitting on a stool in my corner, panting for air. “I like that.”

“So now you got to stand up to that name, Tiny,” Jim said, barely able to breathe himself. “You gotta be a killer.”

“Okay, Jim,” I said. “I’m gonna be a killer.”

“I’m being serious,” Jim said. “You gotta get this guy.”

I nodded my head. The truth was, I didn’t know if I could beat Lamburt, but I was going to try my damnedest.

“You can do it, you know,” Jim said, as if reading my mind.

“I know,” I lied. I wanted to believe him, because I knew he believed in me.

Word spread like honey on a hot stove until damned near everyone in Prairieville knew Lamburt and I were going to have a fight on Saturday. Word also had it that I was going to lose, and lose badly, but I tried to ignore the rumour mill and focused on my battle plan instead.

As the hours and minutes before the fight ticked by, my nerves started up, and I felt like I was going to vomit the entire time.

By Saturday morning, I had – twice – and Willie suggested I take some Gravol to settle my stomach.

“You gotta take something, Georgie. You can’t be all pale and pukey like this when you show up for the fight.”

“No,” I said stubbornly, swigging back some water to make sure I stayed hydrated. “I need my mind to be solid for this. No pills.”

Fear rumbling through my guts.

It was getting close to four o’clock as I sat on my bed, sweat clamming up my palms, my heart racing out of control.

“We’d better get going,” Willie said, poking his head into our room.

“Okay,” I said, taking a big gulp and breathing out slowly.

I made Willie walk slowly with me on the way to the school yard so I’d have a chance to get my heart rate steady. From a distance, I could see a large crowd had already gathered.

“You see that?” Willie said. “They’re all here to watch you kick Lamburt’s ass!”

I shuddered, because I knew the opposite was true.

I tried to remember Jim’s mantra, our mantra, as I took each step towards the battleground. It was my first ever street fight, and probably Lamburt’s 1,000th, so like Jim said, my only chance was to beat him with speed and smarts. I tried to keep that in mind, but another thought taking hold of me was an overwhelming desire to turn my tail and run. But I reminded myself that this was my time. I had to do it. I had to fight Lamburt.

I looked at Willie and saw he had become just about as nervous as I was. His vow to protect me if Lamburt’s cronies jumped me or pulled any kind of weapon probably scared him to the core.

“You sure you want to do this with me?” I asked him, one last time just to be sure. “Are you sure you want to be in my corner?”

Willie just nodded and I left it at that, because there was no more time to pussy-foot around.

“He’s here!” I heard one kid yell as we approached the growing crowd. “Christmas is here!”

As we entered through the open gate to the school yard, every face from about Grade 6 to Grade 12 was staring at us. I couldn’t believe how many people had turned out.

“Holy crap,” Willie whispered under his breath.

I didn’t see him at first because his back was turned to me, but as he heard the kids announcing my arrival, Lamburt whipped around and our eyes met.

“I didn’t think you’d even show,” Lamburt said as I stepped within metres of him. “But I’m glad you did, because I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

His eyes were menacing, filled with deadly intent. All the other Piranhas were standing around him – Downing, Danier, and the rest of the entire midget hockey team. I felt chills riding up and down my spine, and I was more afraid in that moment than in all the other days of my life combined.

“You’re doing this for yourself, and your brother and mom, and your dad too,” Willie reminded me. I needed the encouragement, because I was about ready to bolt.

I nodded, unable to speak or even catch a breath of air.

“Okay, let’s have the rules,” Lamburt said.

I was immediately relieved that he intended to keep rules.

“We go twelve rounds, unless I kill you before then,” Lamburt said.

“Or I kill you,” I said, trying to sound equally tough, but I was sure everyone could hear my voice shaking.

“Rounds are two minutes,” I said. “No kicking, no weapons, and no interference from anyone else,” I said, looking directly at Lamburt’s cronies.

“Done,” Lamburt said.

“Winner takes best of the rounds, or by knockout, like you said, or by a ten-count.”

“Fine,” Lamburt said. “But I think I said I was going to kill you, not just knock you out.”

I chose to ignore him. Reaching into my coat pocket, I pulled out a stopwatch that I’d borrowed from the gym.

“We can use this to time the rounds,” I said.

“Don’s gonna ref it,” Lamburt said quickly.

I looked at Danier, who hastily snatched the stopwatch out of my hand. It was horribly unfair that one of the Piranhas was going to referee the fight, but I wasn’t in much of a position to argue. Besides, the only friend I had with me, really the only friend I had at all, was Willie, and I needed him in my corner.

“Fine,” I said.

A radius of about six metres was carved out of the crowd for us to fight inside, and everyone stood back, watching and waiting for blood. Both Lamburt and I had shed our coats by then, and though the December air was cold, I was numb to it.

We took a few minutes to prepare for the fight. I jumped up and down, trying to raise my heart rate and psyche myself up.

“You can do this, Georgie,” Willie said sincerely. “Really, you can.”

“Yeah,” I said, but I knew I’d have to see it to really believe it. This was the biggest thing I’d ever put myself up to and the pressure was enormous. I could almost feel my back breaking under the weight of it.

“Get to your corners!” Danier ordered suddenly. Of course there were no corners, so instead Lamburt and I stood at opposite sides of each other.

“Are you ready for your funeral?” Lamburt asked me. “I bet you could be buried right beside your daddy if you wanted.”

I didn’t want to wait for Danier to start the fight before I went after the son-of-a-bitch, but with everyone watching, I knew I’d have to play by the rules we’d just made unless I wanted them all to turn against me.

“Okay, man, this is it,” Willie said, rubbing my shoulders which were stiff as a corpse’s. “It’s time to get him, once and for all.”

“Ready?” Danier asked me. I turned to face Lamburt and knew there was no going back now.

“Yeah,” I said, “ready.”

“Josh?”

“Yeah, I’m ready, man,” he said.

“Okay, then, fight!”

Lamburt didn’t waste any time coming right at me, swinging straight for my nose with all his strength. But amazingly, and almost automatically, I dodged to the left, then swung back with a right hook, lodging my fist into Lamburt’s guts.

“Yeah!” I heard Willie yell from my corner.

Lamburt hunched over, the wind momentarily knocked out of him.

I quickly went in for an uppercut, connecting solidly with Lamburt’s chin. He fell backwards, landing flat on his rear end, and I thought for one glorious moment that it was all over.

The crowd fell totally silent. No one cheered. No one said a damned word.

Danier looked stunned, and he stood staring at me for what seemed like forever, unsure of what to do next. I’d surprised them all.

“Start counting!” someone yelled from the crowd.

Danier snapped to his senses and started the count.

“One, two-,” he said, but Lamburt jumped back to his feet before Danier could get any further. There was blood dripping from Lamburt’s nose, but I could tell from the look in his eyes that, if anything, the blood only incensed him to try harder to destroy me.

“That was a big mistake, asshole,” he said, his voice so icy cold it sent shivers through my whole body. He was furious as he came after me again, this time connecting squarely with my temple.

Jim was right – it felt a lot different getting punched in the head with raw knuckles rather than padded gloves. I immediately saw stars dancing all around me.

For a moment, the world went dark, and I could feel my knees wobbling, about to give way.

Then I felt Lamburt’s fist slicing against my cheek and I fell over, landing with a hard thud on my hip. I was sure I heard my bones cracking, and I dared not move.

Danier immediately started the count for me, but I wasn’t going to give up. Not even if I’d broken bones. I stood on one knee, but still couldn’t see straight enough to stand.

“Get up, Georgie!” I heard Willie holler. “Get the hell up right now!”

Through my blurred vision, I saw one clear object in front of me. It was my little blond sister staring straight at me.

“Emma,” I said.

“Get up, Georgie,” I heard her say. “You get up and get that guy!”

Ignoring the pain, I stood up, and without being able to figure out where I was, I looked for what I thought was Lamburt’s head and jabbed straight for it.

I felt my fist connect with something, and prayed it was his face. Lamburt growled in pain, and I knew my punch had landed.

Finally, the wind returned to my lungs and I could see again. This time, I saw Lamburt’s fist before it could connect with my face, and I dodged it again.

We were both bleeding then – Lamburt from his nose and me from a cut on my cheek. Already by the first round, the crowd had witnessed what they’d come for.

Danier called us back to our corners.

“You’re doing good,” Willie told me.

Our crude set up meant there were no stools to sit on and no cotton swabs to clear the blood from our wounds. I just had to stand there beside Willie, gasping for air, blood dripping off my face.

“Take your shirt off,” Willie told me, and without even wondering why, I did as he said. This time I noticed the cold, but it actually felt good on my burning hot skin.

Willie tore my shirt in half, using one piece to wipe the sweat off my forehead and the other to dab at the blood on my cheek.

“You’re doing good,” he repeated. “I think you really surprised him with that first one. Shoot, you even surprised me.”

I was too out of breath to laugh, and I heard Danier call for Lamburt and I to come back to the centre of the makeshift ring. We got into position. Lamburt looked as mean and ugly as I’d ever seen him.

“Fight!” Danier ordered, and I went in swinging.

I sent Lamburt a hard left-right combination. I might have been a de-clawed cat swatting at him for all the harm it seemed to do. I tried to block his next blows, only half-successfully, and wound up taking a rough one to the chin.

It hurt, but I didn’t want Lamburt to know.

It was entirely different fighting on the street than it was training in the gym. So much of what I’d learned flew out the window the first time Lamburt hit me.

But I could hear Jim’s voice in my head telling me to keep my hands up. I didn’t spent all those weeks and months training for nothing, I told myself, so I focused in.

I didn’t let Lamburt hit me so easily the next time he swung at me. I dodged out of his way, and came back with an uppercut. I missed, but held fiercely to my guard, and he couldn’t touch me.

By the middle of the second round, I could tell Lamburt was getting frustrated that he hadn’t already finished me.

“Kill that ugly Christmas!” I heard someone call from the crowd.

I tuned them out. By then, my jitters had settled down and I felt sturdy in my stance. Hands raised, feet firm, I double-jabbed at his head, missing both times, but my return hook landed, and Lamburt’s head cracked back.

When he recovered, I could see his blood was boiling so hard it was almost coming out of his eyes.

Danier called the end to the second round. It came just in time for Lamburt, who was still suffering from the last blow.

By then, sheer adrenalin was coursing through my veins. The quiet, invisible Georgie was gone, replaced by the animalistic Georgie who ran purely on instinct.

“Now you’re getting it,” Willie told me, wiping at the sweat above my eyes with my torn shirt. I didn’t have any water with me, so I grabbed a scoop of snow from the ground and stuffed it in my mouth, sucking it gone within seconds.

“Just keep it up,” Georgie. “You’re wearing him down, I can see it in his eyes. You’ve got him now.”

Suddenly, my ego swelled as I realized this was probably the toughest match Lamburt had ever faced. Every other puny hockey player he’d picked on, every nerd, loser and geek he’d beaten up, had never put up a decent fight. Until now.

Even if I lost, it was enough that Lamburt knew not everybody was going to get pushed around, and for damned sure, not a Christmas.

I dug into an uppercut, and though I missed Lamburt’s chin, I caught him in the nose, which immediately started gushing blood.

I was sure nothing I’d even seen in my life was as beautiful as watching Lamburt wince in pain.

The crowd, which had only been cheering for Lamburt, began to roar at the sight of so much blood. I heard someone shout, “Good one, Christmas!” and it wasn’t Willie.

The tide was shifting. Lamburt was losing fans, and losing ground.

But being the tough bastard that he was, he wasn’t going to let up. Without skipping a beat, even though blood was covering his chin and dripping down his neck, he came at me hard with all five knuckles, right into my face.

That was one hell of a tweety bird moment for me. Despite the adrenalin coursing through me, that one hurt – it hurt a lot.

Then it was my turn to be saved by the stopwatch and Danier called time.

“Holy, crap, Georgie!” Willie said. He had a crazy, terrified look in his eye.

“What?” I asked. “What is it?”

Willie grabbed for the torn up shirt and stuffed it on my nose.

“Holy, crap!” was all he could say.

“What, dammit?” I asked, getting angry. Willie pulled away the ripped up T-shirt, and I saw what he was talking about. The shirt was completely soaked with blood, and the sight of it made me panic.

I touched my hand to my nose and looked down at my red stained fingers.

“Oh, no,” I said.

Willie put the shirt back up to my nose and within seconds he had to get the other half because the first one was saturated.

“Is it bad?” I asked.

“It’s pretty bad,” Willie said.

“Broken?”

“I think so,” Willie said.

“Dammit.”

“What do you want to do?” Willie asked.

Despite the stinging pain, I didn’t want to give up.

“I’m going to keep fighting,” I said without hesitation.

“What? Man, you’re crazy,” Willie said. “Now that he’s seen your nose is bust, he’s going to hit it again.”

“Let him try,” I said, and I stood to my feet.

The crowd was jumping, thrilled with the violent display before them.

Amongst them, standing far at the back, was a group of on-lookers I wouldn’t see during the fight. As I later found out, Ralphy, Morris and Michael had come out to watch and cheer me on. In the middle of them, a hooded Jim was also watching. I was sure he was trying his damndest not run over to my corner and talk some sense into me. Instead, he stood there and watched, hoping I’d remember all the things he’d taught me. Beside him was another “kid” wearing a hoody, who was really no kid at all. If I’d been able to see Mr. Dryden, I probably would’ve noticed the enormous look of satisfaction on his face.

Danier called the start of the fourth round.

I pushed the thought of my bleeding nose out of my mind, and focused instead on Lamburt and the deal we’d made. I’d leave Prairieville if I had to, but the fire in my gut wanted to beat Lamburt instead.

Exactly as Willie had predicted, my enemy punched straight for my bleeding nose, but I was able to dodge it easily, and I slammed a return blow into his ribs. Remembering Jim’s tip, I twisted in my knuckles and Lamburt yelped like a dog.

The crowd roared, and the more they did, the more wild I became, pummelling Lamburt mercilessly with my fists.

It looked like Lamburt’s eyes were about to pop out of his head. From anyone’s perspective, he was in trouble. It would’ve been the best time to finish him off, but I suddenly felt out of breath. It was the price paid for a sprint like that.

Lamburt quickly rebounded as he sensed I was easing off. He must’ve been hurt, but a hockey head like him probably knew how to shrug off the pain from a check to the ribs and skate in for the goal.

He pushed me back, and I almost fell. I guess I hadn’t mentioned that a ban on pushing should be in the set of rules. But instead of worrying too much about it, I decided to give a good push back. He hated that.

“I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch!” he hollered, his voice gravely from the intense strain on his body.

Before he could do anything, Danier called time for the end of the fourth round and I went to my corner.

“I think you might’ve pissed him off there,” Willie said.

“Yeah, good,” I said, panting heavily between my words. On one hand, I would’ve been grateful for a chair to sit on, just for a minute, but on the other hand, if I sat down, I’d likely never be able to get up again.

“Looks like your nose has slowed down some,” Willie said, pinching at it with one of the bloodied shirts.

“Ow, dammit!” I hollered.

“Sorry,” Willie said.

“How am I doing?” I asked.

“You want to know honestly?”

I nodded my head.

“The truth is, you’re doing one hell of a lot better than I thought you would. You’re really giving Josh a run for his money. Just keep it up. Don’t let your guard down for even one minute.”

Danier called us back to fight. Fatigue had really set in by then. I felt like my arms were made of iron and my feet were tied down with bricks. But it was only round five -- less than half the way to the finish. I couldn’t let myself think about being tired, because if I did, I’d already lost. Jim had taught me that. I tried to remember other things he’d taught me and the mantra he had me memorize popped into my head.

Blocks of doubt nor bricks of fear, neither one will help me here. What I need is what I have, I’ve got it all, of that I’m glad. Deep inside, got what it takes, it doesn’t matter what the stakes...

“Fighters to the centre,” Danier said, and we prepared for the fifth round.

The next two rounds seemed to go quickly, and I could tell Lamburt was getting tired too because he didn’t try much in those rounds. We both poked at each other a little, but no one drew blood or did much damage.

By the end of the seventh round, I felt a little refreshed.

“You’re doing good, man,” Willie told me as I stood dripping sweat in my corner. “You just need to get in there and really sock him now. Look at that – he’s about to fall over, the bastard.”

I looked over at Lamburt. Yes, he looked tired, but not so much that he was finished. There was a ways to go before that was going to happen. Still, I appreciated Willie’s encouragement, and I was so glad I had him in my corner.

“I gotta knock him down or I ain’t going to win,” I said.

“Then knock him down, Georgie,” Willie said. I knew from the tone in his voice that my friend fully believed I could do it.

Danier called the start of round eight and I shot up to my feet, cranked my neck back once, then danced off the pain I felt gnawing at my joints and wounds.

I was sure no one had expected the fight to go to the eighth round. Even I’d had my doubts. But there I was, little Georgie Christmas, making Josh Lamburt put up the fight of his life.

I’d caught my second wind, but unfortunately, so had Lamburt.

I remembered what Jim said about me beating Lamburt with smarts and speed.

“Come on, man!” I heard Willie say, “Get in there and kill him!”

Lamburt swiped at me, but I saw it coming and danced quickly out of the way and kept right on dancing. Squeezing out as much juice as I could, I let go of a double jab-hook combination, each blow connecting right where I’d aimed.

Lamburt lost his balance, and my heart soared as he toppled to the ground. He looked dazed and in pain, his left eye swelling shut from a gash I must’ve cut a few rounds before.

By then, my hands were stinging and my face was throbbing from all the blows I’d taken. I wanted the fight to be over, but there were still three more rounds to go, unless I could finish Lamburt off with a knock out.

By the ninth round, I felt like I had absolutely nothing left, but Jim taught me to dig down, way down to muster the last bit of gas I needed to finish my opponent.

Lamburt threw a few more punches, including one that landed straight into my guts with fierce precision. It felt like my intestines had bounced against my backbone, and though my body had had enough, I couldn’t give up.

The ninth round finally ended, and I was praying to God that a miracle would happen and Lamburt would fall so I could rest.

Lamburt was probably praying for the same thing.

As I stood in my corner, blood flowing freely from my wounds, I heard the crowd chanting “Christmas! Christmas!”

I realized even if I didn’t defeat Lamburt, the fight had turned me from an invisible nobody into somebody, from a Christmas into Georgie Christmas Jr., the kid who took on Josh Lamburt.

Even if I lost the battle, I had won my own war just by showing up and holding my own.

I started off slow in the 10th round, but by the end of it I felt I’d gotten another spurt of energy and I tried moving with as much speed as possible.

I’d discovered that my style was completely different than Lamburt’s - he seemed to almost stand still and take the hits like a solid punching bag. If I didn’t hate him, I would’ve been impressed by his staying power.

I danced, moving as much as I could, trying to out-manoeuvre him like a game of cat-and-mouse.

We were both getting hit hard, and by then we were bruised and bashed all over. Our blood was everywhere, and if it were a regulated fight, the ref would’ve called it. But this was no HBO special. This was my fight for dignity, my fight for respect.

By the 11th round, I felt like giving up. My arms had suddenly turned into spaghetti noodles, limp and almost powerless. All I could do in that round was dodge Lamburt’s fists. I didn’t even throw back a single punch.

I’m sure the crowd, including my secret admirers at the back, probably thought the fight was over and that Willie would wind up throwing in my bloody T-shirt.

“Georgie,” Willie said to me in our corner. “What the hell are you doing in there? It looks like you’re giving up. You’re not giving up, are you?”

My arms and legs were tired beyond anything I’d ever felt and my face and body felt mashed to bits.

“I think I am, Willie,” I told him, and felt myself sinking into a pit of hopelessness.

“Bull!” Willie said, and I was surprised by his forcefulness.

“I’m a Christmas,” I said, looking up at him with my bruised eyes, squinting as blood trickled from a cut on my forehead. “That’s what a Christmas does.”

“If you weren’t already slapped to shit I’d hit you myself,” Willie said. “You’re not giving up!”

My only response was to moan in pain.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” Willie said. “You’re a mess. You look like hell. But look over there, look at Lamburt. He’s in just as bad shape.”

I couldn’t see all that well because my brains had been knocked out through my ears, and my own blood was covering my eyes, but from what I could tell, Willie was right. Lamburt looked like an assault victim. I almost laughed, because he didn’t look so threatening with blood all over his face and his left eye swollen almost completely shut.

“Kill him, Georgie!” Willie said. “Kill him, because that’s what he deserves.”

I remembered how Jim had told me nearly the same thing before the fight, and I stood to my feet.

They ain’t gonna break me, no more, no more.

Danier called us in for the 12th round and I noticed Lamburt wobbled a little as he stood. He probably expected to kill me in the first round, maybe in the first second. He hadn’t been prepared for this. They’d all underestimated me.

Lamburt swung at me and I blocked as best I could, and then returned with another uppercut to his chin. I could tell from the way he winced and even yowled a bit that I’d hurt him bad. I thought if anything was going to send him packing it would be that blow, but he shook it off, and came back with guns blazing.

Lamburt was suddenly coming at me so hard and fast that I turtled, and had nowhere to go. I remembered my training and slipped out of Lamburt’s grip as best as I could, but as I lifted my arms, Lamburt smoked me right in the cheek and I landed on the ground for a second time.

The tweety birds above my head were bigger this time, and I knew I’d be finished if I got hit like that again. I summoned the strength to return to my feet, though my legs felt so loose I thought I’d fall apart.

I couldn’t give up. It was fight or die. Fight, or die.

Lamburt looked sick as I raised my fists in combat position again. The entire right side of my face felt swollen and I could barely see out of my right eye, but I wasn’t going to quit. Never.

I glanced at Emma, whose face was transforming from a grimace into a look of hope. She wanted me to win as badly as I did.

I jabbed at Lamburt’s jaw -- it felt so good to connect with his ugly face. I came at him with a right, but missed, and he returned with a swipe at my nose.

The blow knocked my nose loose and blood squirted everywhere. I knew if it wasn’t broken before, it would be then.

I ignored the pain and pushed on. I’d come too far to let it all slip away.

We shuffled around, both wavering between exhaustion and the will to win. I sent him a few shots to the head and battered him in the eye, but as hard as I hit him, I couldn’t knock Lamburt down.

“Okay, everybody,” Danier said. “This is the last round.” The crowd, which had been incessantly cheering, had now grown silent, watching as Lamburt and I seemed near our death. Danier shot Lamburt a meaningful look which said loudly that it was time for him to end it.

“Okay, fight!” Danier called, and I held my guard as Lamburt tried with all he had to destroy me. He got in a few blows, especially one to my guts, which sent me reeling.

I could only see out of my left eye, and what I saw coming was another hard, fast fist headed straight for my head, a punch I knew would finish me if I let it hit me.

My training kicked in and I guarded my face, then in a flash I sent Lamburt a wicked right hook.

It connected fiercely, and to my surprise and delight, Lamburt flew straight up in the air, landing a few feet from me.

Stay down, I thought. Stay, down, you son-of-a-bitch.

But again Lamburt stood to his feet.

“No,” I cried out loud, and I felt the instinctive animal Georgie take over again.

There was no mercy in my fists as I throttled Lamburt in the head, again and again, his blood splattering all over me.

Lamburt tried to move, tried to dodge my punishing fists, but I wouldn’t let him. I followed him, punching him down like a ball of dough.

“Stop it, Georgie!” I heard one of his cronies saying from the crowd.

But I didn’t stop. I heard bones cracking under my fists, but I still didn’t stop, because it was the animal, not me, who had come in for the kill.

Finally, Lamburt’s body, his face, and his will had enough, and he crashed to his knees, toppling over like the Twin Towers in terrorist defeat. I knew for certain by the dead dog look on Lamburt’s face that it was over, and I had won.

The crowd gaped in awe of what had just transpired. My victory was a complete upset to them all. I was so shocked by my own triumph, all I could do was stand there, my fists still engaged, staring at Lamburt’s wounded body as he struggled to roll over.

Danier waved me off and tended to his gang leader, who by the looks of it would be lucky to walk again.

Even Willie looked dumbfounded, as if he, too, had expected a different result.

Emma came running straight for me, wrapping her little arms around me tighter than she’d ever done before, and she kissed me sweetly on the cheek.

“I knew you’d do it,” she said.

Willie came out from our corner, and simply shook my hand.

“You did it, man. Way to go.”

The Piranhas circled around Lamburt, who was finally clambering to his feet. A look of shame and defeat was on his face. I was delighted.

After Lamburt’s cronies wiped his face down and he had a few minutes to gather himself together, I was surprised to see him walking over to where Emma, Willie and I were standing.

He looked me straight in the eye, and I feared for a moment he’d pull a knife on me. But I stood my ground. I’d defeated him, and didn’t have to be afraid any more.

Lamburt slowly raised his arm, and to my complete shock, he offered me his hand.

“I guess you won,” he said. “So this is the end.” I knew I wouldn’t be bothered by the Piranhas any more.

I stood there for what seemed like a long time, still in disbelief. Finally, I raised my hand to his.

“I guess you’re not exactly the wuss I thought you were,” Lamburt said, blood still dripping from his wounds. And then he walked away.

My chest swelled up like a barrel full of rain. I’d never felt more proud in all my days.

“I can’t believe it,” Willie said after Lamburt lumbered on his way home with the rest of the Piranhas in tow.

“I’m glad you did it,” Emma said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”

After the fight, I didn’t really know what to do with myself.

Time just sort of passed by, and I spent the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday feeling relief and happiness over my win.

After I’d thought it through, I realized the best part wasn’t beating Lamburt down. Instead, I found the real sweetness of it was erasing the fear that held me captive for so long. Only after that fear had been washed away did I realize how much it had been consuming me. I didn’t have to be afraid anymore.

On Sunday night, mostly out of habit, and also because I didn’t know what else to do with myself, I got my shoes and my old, scrubby sweat suit and took off for Jim’s Gym.

I wanted to tell Jim I’d won the fight, and I wanted to thank him for training me for it even if it was a street brawl and not a legitimate bout.

I opened the door, took my coat and boots off, and headed down the stairs, only to see the whole crew standing there – Ralphy, Morris, Michael, and Jim. They had been waiting for me.

“Congradulation,” Ralphy said.

“Yeah, man, good job,” Morris said, and then the whole group burst out into a round of clapping.

“So you guys already know?” I asked.

“We were there,” Michael said. “We were all there, and saw the whole thing. It was an awesome fight. I would’ve paid money to see it, if I had to.”

“Even you, Jim, you saw it?” I asked.

“Yep, me and Dryden put on a couple of our old rags and pretended we were teenagers again. It was kind of fun, actually. It made me feel young for a minute.”

Jim’s smile widened and I could tell from the way he was beaming, he was proud of me.

“Good work, Tiny,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it much better myself. Well, 20 years ago, I probably could’ve, but not today. You’ll be a number one contender someday. I’m sure of it.”

I wondered why Jim hadn’t told me he was coming to watch me, but afterwards I realized it would’ve been a horrible distraction, especially because I wouldn’t have been able to talk to him. Besides, Willie had been the best corner coach any guy could ask for.

I was glad I had the chance to work out because there was still excess adrenalin in my veins I had to squeeze out.

But afterwards, fatigue started to set in, and I realized just how very tired I had become from everything I’d endured in the past months.

I slept like a fattened cat all night long, without any regrets on my mind.

In the days and weeks after my battle with Lamburt I had to go through an adjustment period, because instead of being invisible, I had suddenly become famous. The name Christmas had traded meaning from trash to triumph. It was exactly what I was hoping for.

Not only that, I was starting to be invited to parties and people who had never noticed me before started saying hello. And as for Lamburt and his cronies, well, I think those jerks had become afraid of me because I rarely saw any of them again. Maybe they’d taken to hiding in bushes when they saw me coming.

Mr. Dryden and I never talked about my bout. But I think he knew I appreciated it endlessly that he’d introduced me to Jim’s gym.

But in spite of all the good things that were going on, I still felt a gnawing emptiness inside. I missed my mother, and I missed my brother, and I wanted to go home.

It seemed like forever before Ma was finally sent home from the rehab centre and Emma and I got to see her again.

I vaguely knew the timeframe she was expected to arrive home, and I sat waiting all day at the Meierses’ west-facing window. I saw the car that had taken Ma away pull up again in our driveway.

My heart skipped a couple of beats and I suddenly felt sick because I wasn’t sure how I should react.

Should I run over and hug her? Should I slowly approach her? I didn’t know what to expect from her either.

Emma had asked me earlier to let her know when Ma came. I found her in the Meierses’ sitting room, reading a book, though I doubted she was able to focus much.

“She’s here,” I said.

Emma stood up from the sofa and stared at me, and I knew she was afraid too. It had been three months to the day since we’d seen our mother.

Before we even reached the car, Bruno came bounding over to us. Ma had picked him up from the kennel before coming home. He was exactly the same, wagging his tail and licking at our faces, and we couldn’t stop hugging him.

And then Ma appeared, rising slowly from the four-door Sedan, and the sight of her face made everything in the world stop.

She looking directly at me and then at Emma, and the gentle smile on her face morphed into a delicate sob.

It didn’t take long before both Emma and I were crying too.

“Hi, Ma,” I said, but I said it so quietly I wasn’t even sure she’d heard me.

“Hello,” she said, and swooped down to hug us both, squeezing us with a new born strength in her arms. “I missed you both so much,” she said, and brushed back the tears from her face.

I said nothing and just let her hug me.

We followed her into our house and that made me cry too because it had been a long time since I’d been inside and I’d forgotten all the smells of home. I’d missed it terribly, and so had Emma.

“I just need to get my things,” Ma said, and she went to the car, thanking the driver before coming back inside.

I went into my room and saw my trinkets and books and posters right where I’d left everything. The Meierses had been good to us, but this was where I belonged.

After awhile, after a good, long while, I came out of my room and found Ma sitting quietly with a cup of tea at the kitchen table.

She looked the same, but different too. Instead of the panic and fear I was used to seeing in her eyes, there was a sense of calmness about her.

“Kids,” she said, “please sit down. I think we should talk.”

We did as Ma said, and each took our usual place at the table.

“First, I want to tell you both that I’m sorry, truly sorry for everything I’ve done to you.” As she spoke, Ma cried, and I could tell her words were genuine.

“I know now that I’ve hurt you both tremendously. I couldn’t see it at the time, but now I know what I’ve done. I want to ask you both to forgive me.”

We learned that making amends with those she’d wounded was one of the hard hurdles Ma had to climb over in her 12-step recovery program.

I forgave her immediately. It was such an intense emotional let-go that I found myself shaking all over. And then I started to bawl, because the words she was saying were the words I’d been waiting to hear for years.

“Okay, Ma,” Emma said, “I forgive you too.” The two of them hugged, and Ma kissed Emma sweetly on the top of the head.

“Guys, I know I’ve lied to you before, but I swear, this time will be different. I’m clean now, and I have been for three full months. In that time, I saw the light, and realized that we can all have a rich life together if I just stick to my program, and stick to God, and if you guys agree to stick by me. Do you guys think we can do that?”

I didn’t say anything for a few minutes, and in my mind I saw flashes of her laying on the bathroom floor unconscious, then sitting on the couch, falling asleep from drunkenness. But then I saw flashes of my mother before alcoholism, back when Emma, Jon and I were kids. Ma would play around with us in the back yard, or take us on a ladybug hunting expedition. If there was any chance that that mother had returned, I decided I would take it.

“Okay,” I said, and wrapped my arms around her.

She hugged me back, then opened her eyes and looked at me with surprise.

“Georgie!” she said. “My God, what happened to you?”

The welts and bruises from my fight had faded but were still somewhat visible. Not only that, I’d gained a good 12 pounds since she went away.

“Georgie kicked a bully’s butt!” Emma said.

“Georgie!” Ma said sternly. I knew she’d disapprove of me fighting. But then she surprised me by smiling.

“So you really kicked his butt?” she said.

I nodded.

“Well, I think your father would be proud.”

We sat in silence for a while, but I could tell Ma was filled with questions for us, dying to catch up on the time she’d missed.

“You were so thin before I left, Georgie,” she said. “The Meierses must’ve been feeding you well.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Mrs. Meiers makes a pretty good stew.”

“Well,” Ma said. “There’s going to be lots of stew around here from now on, let me tell you. In fact, if it’s stew you’d like, then it’s stew you’re going to get. I’ll make it tonight.”

I could see a light and a fire in Ma that hadn’t existed for a long time, and I knew something had truly changed inside of her.

I didn’t know what the future would be, but I decided I would trust Ma one more time.

As time passed by, her promise proved to hold true.

Ma stayed sober, and religiously took in her Alcoholics Anonymous meetings twice a week at the local church.

A few months down the road, after we’d resettled into our family routine - only an improved one - I asked Ma what had caused her to change.

“I had to let go, Georgie,” she said, looking down at her clenched fists. “I had to take all the things that were eating me alive, and let them all go, and then give them over to God.” As she said that, she opened her fists, and I could see how the pain she’d carried all those years in a tightly wound cocoon had finally floated away like a butterfly.

Before she started AA, I never heard my mother talk about God, but I could see that finding Him had brought peace into her heart, and the monsters in her mind were finally disappearing.

I didn’t know how much I believed in God, but I found myself thanking Him anyway for saving my mother.

We worked on it as a family, and Emma and I supported Ma through her recovery. We even baked her a cake for the six-month anniversary of her sobriety.

There was a newfound happiness in the Christmas home, and although Dad’s death and the dramatic ups and downs of our lives had left wounds that would never completely heal, we were okay. For once, like I never believed it would be, we were okay.

The only thing missing was Jon.

We all went to visit him in Prince Albert that summer. He had another three months to go before he got out on probation, but none of us could wait that long to see him.

I was terrified, because I didn’t want to look at my brother in a jailbird suit. But as we arrived at the visitor’s room, things felt strangely peaceful.

A guard brought Jon in, and he sat down at the table where we’d been waiting for him. He looked almost exactly the way I remembered him, except slightly thinner with longer hair.

“Hey, Squirt,” he said to me, and he ruffled my hair the way he’d always done. “You’ve sure grown since I last seen you. Heck, you look like a young man, I think. Is that a hair on your chin?”

I had missed my brother enormously, and almost melted at the sight of him.

“How are you doing?” Ma asked. She looked sad, as any mother would after seeing her son in prison.

“Well, I’m not planning to retire here behind these fine walls, but I get three square meals a day and I’ve met some pretty all right people.”

He smiled, and though I think he’d probably forced it, it was good to see him acting like his old self, even if it was just a charade for us.

“I miss you, Jon,” Ma said.

He didn’t say anything.

“When you do come home, are you going to live with us again?” Emma asked.

Bless little Emma for asking the question I didn’t have the guts to ask, but needed to hear the answer to so badly.

“I don’t know,” Jon said.

We talked, updating Jon on all the things we could think of, including my fight.

“I knew you could whip those guys easy,” Jon said. My brother was proud of me, I could tell, and it felt good.

And then time was almost up.

“Would you guys mind if I talked to Squirt here, you know, man-to-man, for just a minute?” Jon asked.

Ma agreed, and she and Emma gave Jon their last good-bye hugs, and both told him he was loved.

Jon watched them leave, and as the large oak door swung behind them, he leaned in as close to me as he could get.

“Did she really quit drinking? I mean, for real?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Well, I don’t believe it,” Jon said.

“She hasn’t had a drink in six months. She really hasn’t, Jon.”

I don’t think he was entirely convinced, but he nodded anyway.

“Okay,” he said.

I just looked at him, hoping he’d finally let down the wall that he’d fortified around himself so long ago.

“I mean, okay, I’ll come home, you know, when I get out of here.”

My face suddenly brightened, but I had to be sure I was hearing what he said correctly.

“You mean you’ll come home, to our house?”

He nodded. “Yeah, you know, I kind of miss that garage.” He smiled, and I could see now that maybe by a miracle, my brother was ready to forgive too.

The guard came back and told Jon it was time to go.

“See ya ’round, Squirt,” my brother said.

I watched Jon leave, but the anxiety I’d felt over his arrest and incarceration were gone, because I knew my brother would survive that place, and the best thing of all, he was coming home.

When we got back to Prairieville, I decided to go visit Dad.

I’d only been there once, maybe twice, in all the years since his death, but I remembered where the gravesite was as if I’d been there a thousand times.

I knelt in front of his name engraved in brass on the headstone. It was my name too and I knew in my heart I was him.

“Hey, Dad,” I said. “How’s it going? I just wanted to talk to you for a minute. I want to tell you something.”

I lifted my head to the prairie wind and swallowed hard a couple of times.

“I know you had your problems,” I said, “I do too. We all do, I guess.”

I hadn’t planned on what I was going to say when I got there, and I also hadn’t anticipated getting so emotional.

“I hated you,” I said. “I hated you for a long time.”

I was glad there wasn’t another soul in that graveyard to see me crying by that stone. My lips were trembling and I could hardly see through the tears in my eyes.

“Well, I came here for a reason,” I said. “I came here, Dad...” I had to say it. I had to finish that fight too.

“I came here to tell you...,” and I couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down my face.

“...I forgive you.”

A sudden peace washed over me, and I knew the last of the demons that had me by the throat had no choice but to let go. I hoped somehow, if there was a God, He had taken mercy on my dad. I hoped he’d been able to watch me win my fight with Lamburt, and that he’d been watching me fight all along, rooting for me.

“I won, Dad,” I said. “I made it all twelve rounds.”

I pushed my fingers to my quivering lips and kissed them, then pressed them against the tombstone of my namesake.

“Good-bye,” I said, and walked away.

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