TWELVE

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Chapter 5

I left Tappy’s feeling miserable.

I kept my head down, kicking stones along the road as I walked. I’d left my coat zipper open slightly to cool off after the heated discussion with my brother. I was so disappointed. But it was his loss. If he was going to be stubborn, and wasn’t going to give Ma another chance, so be it, I decided.

“You’re nothing but a piece of white trash, Georgie Christmas!”

I jerked my head up, and my heart started pounding as I saw the Piranhas standing straight ahead of me.

“Oh, no,” I said out loud.

Before I could think of what to do they had closed in, and Lamburt was standing right on top of me.

“We have some business to finish with you, Christmas,” he said.

With one hard shove he threw me to the ground, my bones rattling as I slammed into the pavement. The only thing breaking my fall was a fresh dusting of early snow from the night before.

“Look at this piece of work,” Lamburt said. Then he horked up a huge loogie, spitting it in my face. I could taste ground up, slobbered on chewing tobacco as the loogie slid from where it had landed near my eye down into my mouth. I nearly threw up, but the panging ache from my tailbone smashed into the street was dominating my focus.

“I don’t see any teachers around here now, do you asshole?” asked Downing, the ugliest of all three of them. By then he was standing as close to me as Lamburt.

Downing kicked at my ribs, and I was sure one of them cracked behind his foot.

I screeched in pain, and prayed to God somebody would come to my rescue.

But nobody did.

Lamburt horked up another loogie and it splashed grotesquely against my forehead. I couldn’t move, let alone get up, so I just lay there moaning, and then I started to cry.

“Leave me alone,” I begged them, though I knew they’d only leave once they’d had their fill.

“Yeah, we should leave him alone,” said Danier, who was standing just behind the rest of his posse. “Don’t you know he’s had a hard time lately? His own mama tried to off herself so she wouldn’t have to look at his ugly face anymore.”

The fact that Danier had even mentioned my mother made my blood boil, and I wanted to kill him. I pictured my hands wrapped around his scrawny neck, squeezing until he had no more life left. But I was just too damned chicken to do or say anything.

“Yeah,” Lamburt said. “Christmas, you should try to be more like your momma, only make sure to take a few more pills so you don’t wake up. Then we won’t have to breathe in your stink anymore.” They all laughed at me as tears kept dripping from my eyes. I didn’t have to wonder anymore whether the whole town knew about our family’s shame.

“Yeah, just follow in your daddy’s footsteps instead of your mama’s and finish the job,” Danier said.

It was as though those final cutting words froze like icicles in the air above me then fell to the ground, piercing me all over my body.

That’s when I finally understood the expression “seeing red.” My head seemed to squish together, crushing my eyes. The blood pounded behind them so hard the world became washed in a deep, dark crimson.

It was bad enough Lamburt had the gall to talk about my mother’s overdose, but to talk about my dead father like that was more than I could take.

“I’ll kill you,” I said, in a cold, almost inhuman voice.

I was surprised at the venom spurting from my own tongue. It was like some other force had taken over my body, and I sprung up on my feet.

As soon as I rose and jumped after Danier, Lamburt grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me back down again.

This time I didn’t just lay there like a run-over skunk. I stood again, just in time to feel Lamburt’s knuckles against my cheek, slicing layer upon layer of skin as my head snapped to the left like a game of crack the whip. I could hear the tendons in my neck splitting as I fell to the ground for the third time.

I wanted to get up again and make all three of those bastards pay, but I couldn’t move.

Then the world turned from crimson to black, and I couldn’t see a damned thing. The air had been knocked clean out of my lungs, and the lack of oxygen in my brain caused me to pass out momentarily.

After what seemed like an eternity, I regained my focus. The world was still fuzzy, but I could see the Piranhas standing over me.

“You’re a sissy, Christmas,” Lamburt said. “You’re nothing but a piece of sissy trash.”

They started to walk away slowly, having made their point – they had a stronghold over Prairieville, and over me.

I didn’t try to get up for a while. I felt so much like a loser that I didn’t think I deserved the feet I had to stand on.

How could I let those punks talk about my family like that?

If Jon were around, he would’ve tuned them up. But he’d made it clear -- he wasn’t going to be backing me up anymore.

So I was on my own.

As my senses fully returned, I could feel a trail of blood trickling from the gouge Lamburt had left on my cheek. He must’ve learned to throw a punch like that from playing hockey, I thought.

I wondered for the first time what I’d done to deserve getting picked on by the Piranhas and when they would stop. But after thinking about it for a while, I knew the answers to those questions were nothing and never.

The only way for me to get those jerks off me was to fight them off, but with toothpick arms and sparrow legs, what hope did I have?

I got up finally, dusting the snow off my hind. The ball cap I’d been wearing had blown off my head, or maybe had been punched off, and I stooped to retrieve it from where it lay on the street.

I darted my eyes about, hoping with everything in me that the Piranhas were gone. After I was sure beyond any doubt that they were, I continued home, trying to figure out how I was going to hide the gash on my cheek from Ma.

When I got home, kicking my shoes off in the back porch as usual, I could instantly smell roast pork wafting through the house. My mind flashed back to the early days of my youth, before Dad died. We used to have such feasts.

“Ma?” I called, and she appeared from inside the kitchen.

“Hey, Georgie,” she said, smiling brightly. “I made your favourite supper – roast pork with sweet potatoes and corn.”

It was my favourite supper. Instantly, I forgot all about the fight and let the smell of home cooking fill my nose. But it wasn’t long before I was brought back out of that bliss.

“Good God!” my mother said. “What happened to you?” Her forehead wrinkled up as she stared at the gash across my cheek. I tried to think of something to say that would fool her, but it didn’t work.

“You got into a fight, didn’t you Georgie?” she asked.

I shook my head no, but I knew I couldn’t lie to Ma. She always saw straight through it.

“Georgie, who did you fight with?” she asked. I knew she’d fish it out of me eventually, so I just told her.

“Some hockey kids,” I answered.

Ma winced as though somebody had hit her.

“This is all my fault,” she said. “If I’d been stronger for you, Georgie, I could’ve taught you to stay the hell away from those terrible kids. Or if your dad were alive, he’d teach you how to stick up for yourself.”

“It’s not your fault, Ma,” I told her. “It’s not.” I touched her shoulder, looking at her meaningfully.

“Let me get you something for that cheek,” she said and dashed over to the freezer, retrieving a package of frozen peas. “Here,” she said, and set the peas on my bruised face.

The cold felt good against my wound, but more important to me was the food I was about to eat. I was starved, and all I could think about was how that roast was going to taste in my mouth. I actually started salivating thinking about it.

Shortly after, Emma came home from her volleyball practice and we all sat down as a family to eat, the way we hadn’t done since forever before.

“What the hell happened to your eye?” Emma asked between bites of her corn.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Those punk-assed hockey players beat on you, didn’t they?” Emma said. How the heck she knew that was beyond me, but she was a smart girl.

“No,” I lied. “I tripped and fell on a rock.”

“I don’t believe it,” Emma said. “You should find Jon and tell him what happened. He’ll set those shit heads straight.”

“Emma!” Ma scolded. “Don’t say that word!” It was nice to see Ma acting like a mother again.

I didn’t tell anyone I’d gone to see Jon. It made no sense to me to make Ma and Emma feel as badly as I did after the revelation that he was never coming back, and didn’t care one bit about what we’d all gone through.

“Guess what, guys!” Ma said brightly. “I have a surprise for you.” She hustled into the kitchen again and reappeared with a fresh-baked banana cream pie, another family favourite.

“Wow, Ma,” Emma said.

I thought I was getting full, but after I saw that creamy, delicious-looking pie, I decided I might have some room left after all. In fact, I found enough room to eat two-and-a-half pieces.

“I hope you liked it,” Ma said to me sweetly after I’d gobbled it all up.

I nodded my head in whole-hearted agreement.

After eating like that, I felt I was well on my way to reaching the weight gain goal Dr. Baker suggested for me.

After Emma and I had licked every last crumb, we all got up from the table and took off to do our regular after supper things.

I should have been completely satisfied after that miraculous meal.

But something was eating at me, and I couldn’t make it go away.

Ma was making this huge fuss over us with all the food and pleasantness, but I felt like I didn’t deserve it at all after what I’d done to her. I’d pushed her over the edge. She had the stress of Jon leaving on her back and I threw an anvil on it by taking all the whisky she’d stored for herself so carefully. I had no right to do it.

Ma had cleared the table and was rinsing the dishes off in the kitchen where I met her. Emma had gone to her room to work on homework so we were alone.

“Ma, there’s something I gotta talk to you about,” I said. She turned to look at me, shutting off the tap as she’d finished filling the sink with sudsy water. I didn’t waste any time beating around the bush. I had to let it out.

“I’m the one who took all your bottles away,” I confessed, my head drooping in shame. “It’s my fault you tried to kill yourself.”

Ma’s face was empathetic, not angry like I’d expected.

“First of all, Georgie, I knew that it was you all along, but I’m not upset about it, at least not anymore. Second of all, it wasn’t your fault that I took all those pills. And the third thing is, I didn’t try to kill myself. My overdose was an accident.”

“An accident?” I asked her. I had to be sure, because I didn’t want to be the only fool in town who didn’t know the truth.

“The pills I took were for my anxiety,” she said. “At the time I really needed some. I just took too many.”

I was relieved at first, but then realized her story didn’t quite add up.

“Wait, why did you take the whole bottle, then?” I asked.

Ma pressed her lips together tightly, furrowing her eyebrows.

“Son, I didn’t take a whole bottle full. There were only about four pills left in the jar. The reason I passed out was because those pills didn’t mix well with the alcohol that was already in my system. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

I wished we would’ve talked about it a lot sooner, because a huge weight had suddenly been lifted from me.

“Georgie, I’m so sorry I scared you,” Ma said, and she hugged me again. When she pulled away, I saw tears rolling down her face. I knew she was being sincere.

I stayed in the kitchen for quite some time, just talking with Ma about nothing. After a while, I decided to go over and visit Willie to see if we could watch the Friday night fight.

Willie probably knew I’d be coming, because he had pay-per-view and I didn’t, and he knew I wanted to see this one.

Sergei Liakhovick was defending his title against Shannon “The Cannon” Briggs from Brooklyn, New York. Briggs had once before beaten George Foreman in his comeback years, and later lost a heavyweight fight against Lennox Lewis.

The “White Wolf” as Liakhovick was called, came out of Belarus and had been holding the WBO heavyweight title since the previous spring.

Sports analysts expected Liakhovick would win the fight, though neither athlete was highly acclaimed in the boxing circuit.

We got our snacks –chips, dip and some pop – and sat on the sofa in Willie’s den. His foster parents were good about letting us have privacy on fight night.

“I talked to Ma about, you know, what happened,” I told him.

“Oh?” Willie said.

“Yeah, she told me she didn’t mean to do it. That it was all an accident.”

Willie didn’t say anything.

“You don’t believe it?” I asked. Willie’s opinion always meant a great deal to me.

“Oh, no, man, I believe her,” Willie said. “If she says it was an accident, it was an accident, for sure.”

I didn’t know if Willie was saying what he truly thought, but I decided it didn’t really matter as long as I knew the truth.

As the fight wore on, it seemed there was little damage being done by either fighter. For a title fight, Briggs seemed to be horribly out of shape. To his credit, he was an asthma sufferer, and I admired how despite having a physical challenge like that, he was able to become a professional athlete and a heavyweight contender none-the-less.

“I saw Jon today,” I said.

“Oh, how’s he?” Willie asked.

“He’s okay, I guess.” I paused for a few minutes, taking a sip of the pop Willie had offered me earlier. “He doesn’t think Ma’s going to be able to do it. Quit drinking, I mean.”

“Oh, well, you don’t have to listen to him,” Willie said. “I know he’s your brother and all, but that doesn’t mean he’s always right, you know.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said.

Despite the fact that I was watching two grown men brutalize each other on TV, I felt at peace. Ma was back home and doing good, and I was happy to just kick back and be entertained.

Willie scraped the last of the chip crumbs up with his fingers, licking all the salt off them.

“I want more,” he said, then stood up, heading towards the kitchen. I was still pretty full from the huge supper I’d eaten but Willie was always hungry. Playing all that hockey sure must work up an appetite, I thought.

Willie returned shortly after with a fresh bowl of dill pickle chips.

“Have you seen the remote? I want to turn it up a bit,” he said.

I shrugged my shoulders.

We’d had the lights turned out so we could see the TV screen better. Willie flicked them on to see if he could spot the remote.

“Holy cow!” he said.

I whipped around to look at him, and saw him staring at me like I had turned into a green goblin or something.

“What the hell happened to your face?” he said, pointing at the gash along my left cheek. I’d totally forgotten about my run-in with the Piranhas.

“I, uh, had a little problem earlier today,” I explained sheepishly. I was embarrassed to admit I’d taken a beating.

“The Piranhas?” Willie guessed.

“Yeah,” I admitted. “Lamburt and his buddies. I tried to fend them off. I really wanted to hammer ’em, but I got laid out.”

“I’m sorry, man,” Willie said. “I wish those assholes would leave you alone. You know I got your back anytime, right?” he said, and touched me on the shoulder.

“Thanks, man,” I said. But I knew Willie couldn’t get mixed in with it. He couldn’t risk getting on the Piranhas’ bad side. Not unless he wanted to get his neck broke out on the ice.

The fight lasted all the way up to the 12th round, and both Willie and I were amazed it had gotten that far. We sat in silence, both transfixed on the TV as Briggs and Liakhovick finally started to really fight.

Suddenly, after a solid jab from Briggs, Liakhovick was down, but managed to clamber back up to his feet.

The last round was closing in and both fighters were still holding their gloves up; I was sure it would go to the scorecards.

But in a remarkable move, Briggs sent Liakhovick a killer blow, and Liakhovick flew clean through the ropes. Liakhovick bounced off a ringside table and the ref waved the fight off in the last second of the last round.

Briggs became the new WBO heavyweight champion. It was a surprise upset in the boxing world, but thrilling for Willie and me to watch.

We sat around for a while afterwards, playing a couple rounds of Willie’s Gameboy until I felt sleep creep into my eyes. I decided it was probably time to leave.

“See ya later, man,” Willie said.

“Yeah, catch ya later,” I said.

It was late, and the lights were all off when I finally got home. I walked into the kitchen to get a drink, half-expecting to see Ma in the dining room with a bottle and a glass. But she wasn’t there, and later as I stood in the hallway in front of her door, I could hear her snoring lightly, safe and sound, and as far as I could tell, sober in her room.

Jon was wrong. Ma was going to be able to make it through this. I believed in her, even if he didn’t, and even if the rest of Prairieville didn’t.

I slept soundly that night too for the first time in a long time.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt fresh and full of energy, in a way I hadn’t felt in many months. I twisted open the blinds to find the sun was shining beautifully.

It was a school day, so I whizzed around the house getting dressed and ready.

I went into the kitchen to pour myself some cereal, and almost fell over from surprise when I saw Ma already there, standing in her house coat by the stove spooning porridge into a bowl for me.

“You made breakfast for me?” I asked. It must’ve been at least a few years since that had happened. Even when Ma was sober, I wasn’t sure she made us breakfast.

“I’m going to start doing lots of things for you guys that I should’ve been doing all along,” Ma said.

I looked at her, standing there smiling under a ray of morning sunshine, and I saw the woman that had been missing for years. The sight of it made me feel warm all over.

“Okay, Ma,” I said, and grabbed the piping hot bowl, taking it to the dining room to eat.

The porridge was delicious – the homemade kind, not store-bought, with raisins and cinnamon and brown sugar all mixed in gooey and good. I ate every last scrap of it, filling my stomach to the brim.

I finished getting ready and was able to head to school early to get some of my homework done. I was still quite behind in my classes after missing a week of school.

Plus, leaving early meant less of a chance I’d run into any of the Piranhas.

At school, I found it was easier to concentrate on my work with a belly full of oatmeal and some peace of mind knowing things were okay at home. Normally, my mind wandered all over the place, and it had meant some bad grades on assignments.

I hoped lots of things would start improving.

I finished several assignments before the 9 a.m. bell rang and I headed off to class.

The day went by smoothly, and my last class was math with Mr. Dryden. I was still thankful that he’d bailed me out with the Piranhas the last time.

Willie was in the same class and I sat in a desk beside him.

“Hey, man,” he said. “Where were you this morning?”

“I came to school early,” I said, and Willie looked surprised.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Yep, everything’s fine,” I said.

It was unusual for me to be early for school. In fact, I’d dragged my butt in late more than once before. It never went over well with the teachers, but they sort of just dismissed it. After all, I was a Christmas – they probably thought that was punishment enough.

We were working on algebra again, which I hated. I had to copy some of Willie’s work to get through it. After a while, though, I stopped, because I noticed Mr. Dryden was glaring at me every time I looked up at him. I thought for sure he’d seen me cheating and my heart started racing a little.

It sped up even more when I saw him hobbling towards me on his cane.

“Georgie,” he said. “I’d like to see you after class, please.”

Crap, I thought. I knew it. He’d seen me. He was just waiting until I finished the rest of the torturous algebra before scolding me.

I was worried he was going to kick me out of his class or give me an F. I hated myself for cheating. Everything was going so good up until I made that stupid mistake.

“All right,” I said in a small, scared voice.

Class ended and everyone filed out of the room except me. I sat in my chair, frozen and terrified. I could probably get expelled for cheating, I thought, and felt my heart pounding in my chest again.

Mr. Dryden waited until every last student had gone, including Willie, who deliberately passed by me on his way out.

“I’ll talk to you later, man,” he whispered and I nodded.

I didn’t want to be nervous, but I was, and my palms were sweating because of it.

“What did I do, Mr. Dryden?” I pleaded, my voice squeaking through every word.

Of course I knew exactly what I’d done, but I thought maybe it would help to play dumb.

“Georgie,” he said finally, “my guess is you haven’t done a whole lot wrong in your life. Especially nothing to deserve that.” With one hand pressed against his cane, Mr. Dryden pointed his long finger at the fading gash along my cheek. No one else had even noticed it at school, or at least no one else had cared.

“Oh, yeah, that,” I said. “I slipped on the ice and smacked my head,” I said, too embarrassed to admit what really happened, even though Mr. Dryden already knew the Piranhas had been after me.

“No, you didn’t, Georgie,” Mr. Dryden said. “I know it was those hockey players harassing you. When I caught them bullying you at school the other day, I knew it wasn’t going to be the last time. I’m sorry this is happening to you.”

I was still sitting stiffly in my desk feeling very uncomfortable.

“I don’t think you should let it happen again, Georgie,” Mr. Dryden said. He was staring at me intently. It was then that I first noticed his eyes had a strange wildness about them.

“I know about your mother, too, Georgie,” he said.

I tensed up even more. If he had a damned word to say about her, I was going to pop him in the nose, and not the Piranhas.

“I feel bad you had to go through that, too. Is she all right?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said, gritting my teeth.

Mr. Dryden nodded. “Okay, son,” he said. “Okay.”

“Georgie,” he said, leaning in on his cane until he was only a few inches away from me. “I know I’m your teacher, and I could just stick to the books and keep my nose out of everything, but I want all my students to thrive, and I can see that you’re special.”

The whole thing was really creeping me out, and I felt like maybe I should get out of my desk and run the hell out of there. What did he mean, “special?”

I’d heard about weird teachers coming through Prairieville before -- the ones who mysteriously disappeared mid-semester after a few serious complaints from students.

“I’ve seen you looking at those magazines,” Mr. Dryden said.

My face immediately turned a deep shade of red. How did he know about that? I wondered. I never actually bought one of those nudey rags.

“I like them, too,” he said.

“You do?” I said, my voice squeaking even more. This was too much. I was ready to bolt.

“My favourite is Boxing This Week but I also like Gloves.”

A flood of relief washed over me as I finally realized what he was talking about.

“Georgie,” he said. “I think you need to learn how to fight those assholes off, once and for all. Here,” he said, handing me a piece of lightly crumpled paper with some large words handwritten on it.

“Boxing lessons available at Jim’s Gym,” it read, and there was a phone number below.

“I think you should give this guy a call,” Mr. Dryden said, and stood up on his cane. “I believe it will do you a world of good.”

I knew our conversation had gone outside the usual bounds of teacher-student talk and Mr. Dryden was taking a huge risk encouraging me to fight anyone. I wondered why he gave a crap about me at all, and though I still found the whole thing strange, I appreciated it that he cared and that he’d even noticed me. I’d thought I was invisible to everyone, including teachers.

“You can go now, Georgie,” he said, and went back his desk where he began sorting through his books.

I was relieved that I wasn’t in trouble and that my teacher wasn’t a pedophile, but I also was a bit put-off because now there was pressure on me to act.

I loved reading about boxing and watching it on TV, but I had never really thought about becoming a boxer. I didn’t want to disappoint Mr. Dryden, but I just didn’t think I had it in me.

I picked up my backpack, held the crumpled piece of paper still in my hand, and headed for the door.

“Give him a call, Georgie,” Mr. Dryden said again as I left the room.

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