TWELVE

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Chapter 8

I stood there for a good, long while, struggling to think straight.

For a moment I thought the best thing for me to do would be to pack my bags and leave too. I could find out where Jon was staying and live there with him, and then maybe Emma could come too. We’d live together as a family without Ma.

But eventually I realized that wouldn’t work either, because when it came down to it, I couldn’t count on anyone but myself. I was starting to see things with the blinders off, and reality was starting to take shape.

I grabbed my coat again from where I’d left it hanging in the porch and quickly strapped on my boots.

“Where are you going, Georgie?” Ma asked. “You’re not leaving me too, are you?”

“I’m going to find Emma,” I told her, and didn’t wait for her to say another word before I was out the door.

It was frightfully cold outside, but my blood was so thick with anger I barely noticed the temperature as I walked briskly down the dark streets.

Emma had to be at one of her friends’ houses. Even if I couldn’t convince her to come back home, I had to know that she was safe, wherever she was.

I was mad at my sister for leaving without telling me first. But at the same time, I envied her, because she had the guts to try and get away. I just stayed and stayed, no matter what happened.

I walked straight over to Jennifer’s house. I knew it was late – really too late for me to be knocking on anyone’s door – but the whole town knew the Christmas family was a troubled bunch of trash, so I decided not to care that I was arriving at Jennifer’s door unannounced and at an odd hour.

A few minutes later I was knocking on the door.

A rather tall man wearing bronze-rimmed glasses answered the door.

“Hello, may I help you?” he asked politely.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, and felt suddenly nervous. “I was just wondering if my sister Emma was here.”

A little blond head appeared from behind the partially opened door, but it wasn’t Emma’s.

“Oh, hey, Jennifer,” I said. “Is Emma here by any chance?”

“Yeah, she’s here, and she told me you’d probably be dropping by, Georgie. But she’s staying here tonight, and doesn’t want to see anyone.” Jennifer looked at me apologetically.

“Can’t I see her, just for a minute?” I asked.

Jennifer shook her little head back and forth.

“No, I don’t think so. Sorry, Georgie. She’s really upset, and told me she just wants to be left alone.”

“All right,” I said sadly. “But at least tell me whether she’s okay.”

“She’s fine, Georgie,” Jennifer said.

“Yeah, all right,” I said. “Just let her know I came by.”

“Sure,” Jennifer said.

I was hurt that Emma didn’t want to see me, but I felt relieved to know she was at least safe.

I stood outside on the street again for what seemed like ages, staring off into the distance as snowflakes began to fall lightly, appearing like a shower under the street lamps.

I walked home under the light of those lamps and the pale moonlight, and I didn’t care whether the Piranhas caught me or not. I didn’t even care if they beat me to death because I didn’t feel like there was any reason to live any more.

I’d promised myself years before, during my struggles coping with Dad’s suicide, that I’d never wish for my own death, and hated myself for thinking about it. But I was beginning to see why people went that route. On the outset, it can easily seem like the only way out of a terrible pain tearing a person to pieces. It’s easy to start thinking it would be better to finish it all at once, like ripping off a Band-aid, and then it’s done, rather than slowly pulling the tape off, ripping each little hair along the way.

I got home and after I’d taken off my coat and boots, I went straight to my room, not saying a word to Ma who was still sitting in the dining room. A bottle of JD sat in front of her, nearly half-empty.

“Did you find her?” she mumbled.

I didn’t answer. I felt hideous for striking my mother. I never thought I had it in me. But I was still so furious, I didn’t even want to look at her.

“Fine!” she hollered at me from the dining room after a few minutes of silence passed. “You’re just as ungrateful as the rest of ’em, Georgie.”

In a way, I pitied my mother, because it was clear she wasn’t in control of herself anymore. Nothing had been under control since Jon found Dad with his brains splashed against the wall in the recreation room. Ma must’ve been reliving that day in her mind every day since, I realized.

But I had little room for sympathy left in my heart, because something hard and ugly was starting to fill it.

I barely slept a wink all night, tossing and turning instead. I had intermittent dreams about whisky glasses, punching bags, Jon and Emma, and Dad, whose face I could only truly remember in my dreams.

In the dream, he was sitting there on the couch, smiling at me the way he had when I was a child. And then in a horrific sequence, the dream flashed to an image of Jon standing at the stop of the stairwell, his face white as ice, urine dribbling down his pant leg.

“He’s dead, Georgie. Dad’s dead.”

Then I was down in the darkness of the basement, and there was my father, his eyes staring straight at me, the .22 still in his hand.

“Don’t end up like me, Georgie,” he said, blood and brains dripping from the hole in his head.

And then the dream shifted to me standing inside a boxing ring, facing a hooded opponent. I couldn’t see his face, but watched helplessly as his glove headed right for my face, connecting sharply with my jaw.

I woke up. Sweat was dripping at the back of my neck and under my arms. I felt disgusting in every way possible.

Looking at my clock, I saw it was just after six in the morning. It was Friday, the last day of school for the week. I didn’t feel at all like going, but I also didn’t want to be at home with Ma, who would likely be continuing her drinking binge through the day and on through the weekend.

Besides that, I had to talk to Emma and try to convince her to come back home, no matter how bad things were.

I lay on my bed for a while longer, dozing in and out of sleep, and then suddenly it was 8 a.m. and I had to go.

I quickly showered, still sticky from sweating through my nightmare. I got dressed, and didn’t even bother combing my hair or eating breakfast before I was out the door.

There was about an inch of fresh snow covering the earth, and the sun was bright and cheerful. It was horrible to feel so dark inside when the world outside was so light.

The only saving grace that morning was the healthy dose of endorphins coursing through my veins, still with me after the gruelling efforts the night before at Jim’s Gym.

“Hey, Georgie,” I heard a voice from behind me. I was relieved to see Willie’s face. At least one friend in the world, I thought.

“Hey, Willie,” I said, but I couldn’t feign happiness in front of him.

“You all right, Georgie?” he asked, giving me a quizzical look.

I felt tears welling up in my eyes and had to swallow hard a couple of times to keep from crying in front of him.

“You’re not okay,” Willie said, answering his own question. “What’s up?”

“Ma started drinking again,” I told him. I didn’t have anyone else to talk to about it, and I couldn’t hold it inside anymore. “And Emma left last night.”

Willie was quiet for a few minutes before saying anything.

“What do you mean Emma left?” he asked.

“She’s gone. Just like Jon. She packed up her stuff and moved out.” And then I couldn’t hold it back anymore, and tears started streaming down my face.

“But, she can’t. She’s just a girl,” Willie protested.

“I know,” I said, wiping at my tears with my glove. “But she did. And Ma didn’t do anything to stop her.”

“I’m sorry, man,” Willie said, and hugged me, right there on the street. If anyone saw that – not just one of the Piranhas, but anyone – we were at risk of a beating, but Willie’s ego came after our friendship.

I was probably the only one who hadn’t known how inevitable it was that Ma would go back to the booze.

“Georgie, Emma’s going to come home, so don’t worry,” Willie said. “She has to.”

I appreciated that Willie was trying to make me feel better, but what he didn’t know was the authorities had made it clear if Ma fell off the wagon, they were going to take us away from her. I knew it was only a matter of time before both Emma and I were taken out of our home and put somewhere with perfect strangers.

The thought terrified me, and I hated Social Services for doing things like that, for ripping people away from their homes. Even if Ma was a damned drunk, I didn’t want her to leave, and I didn’t want to go live in a foster home.

I felt sick all over again, the same way I had when Ma overdosed.

“Holy cow, man. You look white,” Willie said. Maybe you shouldn’t go to school today. I mean, I think maybe you’re too upset.”

I turned sharply and looked Willie dead in the eyes, grabbing him on either shoulder.

“Please don’t tell anybody about Ma,” I begged him. “If anybody asks, or talks about Emma leaving home, just say it’s a damned lie. And don’t let anybody know Ma’s been drinking.” I hated asking Willie to do anything I knew an honest guy like him wouldn’t want to do. But I couldn’t let Social Services find out that things had fallen apart again. “Promise me,” I said, shaking Willie’s shoulders a little.

“I promise,” Willie said, so quietly I almost couldn’t hear him.

We kept walking, neither of us saying another word the rest of the way.

Finally we reached the school and went our separate ways for class.

“I’ll see you after school, man,” Willie said, and I nodded.

I grabbed my math books out of my locker and headed to class. To say the least, I wasn’t looking forward to learning more about algebra. I thought maybe I should take Willie’s advice and just skip class, or maybe skip school altogether that day. I could hitch a ride to the Number One and head straight to the west coast. I could live by the ocean in a tent, eating fresh salmon and seaweed to survive instead of being trapped in Prairieville, having no choice but to be a Christmas. Out there on the coast, no one would know who I was or who my family was or what any of us had done. I could just disappear.

The bell rang, and all the gangly teenagers who had been hanging out in the hallway began shuffling around.

Normally, because I was so invisible, hardly anyone would even notice me as they passed by. But that day everything seemed oddly different.

I thought at first I was simply imagining it. People who normally walked straight by me were staring at me. I tried to ignore the strange phenomenon at first, but then I was sure of it – almost everyone who walked by me was staring at me, as if they wanted to say something but dared not.

Two teenage girls, probably a year or two older than me, were standing together, glaring at me. One of the girls turned to the other and whispered, and it was painfully obvious they were talking about me.

What the hell? I thought. I wanted to go right up to those girls and demand they tell me what was going on. But of course, I was way too chicken to do that.

It only seemed to get worse as I continued down the hall past all the stares as I arrived at math class.

About half the students were already seated when I got there, and to my horror, the minute I walked in everyone who had been talking to one another froze in silence, and they all stared.

If I could imagine one of my worst nightmares, this was it, I thought.

I sat down in my chair and could feel my face grow hot and begin to burn with embarrassment. I couldn’t focus as class began and Mr. Dryden began to drone on about the order of operations. My mind started racing as I tried to piece together what was happening.

Then I became furious as I finally realized it. Willie must’ve told someone about Ma’s relapse and that Emma ran away.

But how could’ve the whole school found out about it so fast? And if it was such a big scandal, why didn’t Ma’s overdose cause a similar stir? No one said a word when that happened, and I was sure the whole town had found out about it.

I just about went crazy as I tried to sit still through math. Mr. Dryden was looking at me strangely again, and I wondered if he knew what was going on.

“Did you go?” he asked me after class. For a minute I’d forgotten about boxing.

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“And?” he asked.

“I liked it,” I answered. I knew Mr. Dryden was oblivious to whatever rumours were floating around.

My next class was gym, which I dreaded even more than I had math class.

We were in between curriculum sections, so Mr. Ringwall had us play a few rounds of dodge ball. Normally, I was a louse in the gym, but that day I couldn’t even throw the ball. It somehow just rolled out my hands every time anyone bothered to throw it to me. My mind was just too troubled to concentrate on the game.

Finally the bell rang and I scrambled down the hallway, still the object of everyone’s stares, and I tried to find Willie. At the same time, I half-hoped I wouldn’t find him, because I was scared about what I might end up saying to him, and even more scared that if I was right, and he had betrayed me, our friendship would be over.

When I found Willie, he was putting his books away in his locker.

“Georgie,” he said when he realized I was standing there. At first, all he did was stare at me, in almost the same way as the rest of the kids had been.

“What’s going on, Willie?” I asked, looking down my nose at him. I’d asked him that same question a million times before, but this time was very different.

“What’s going on with you, man?” he said in a surprisingly angry tone. “Why didn’t you tell me, Georgie? I mean, my God, I know you’ve been worried about your Mom and sister and stuff, but cripes, I think Jon getting arrested is a pretty damned big deal. Why didn’t you just tell me? Or were you trying to keep it a secret?”

“What?” I said, so taken aback that I nearly fell over onto the waxed floor.

“Oh, come on, Georgie,” Willie said, “the whole school knows about it.”

“You’re a damned liar!” I said, suddenly flashing anger. “My brother wasn’t arrested. Anybody who’s saying that is a dead man.” I really wanted to sock Willie in the nose at that moment, and really had to work to hold it back.

“You mean, you didn’t know?” Willie asked. It was his turn for disbelief.

Tears started welling up in my eyes.

How could it be? I thought. How could the whole town know my brother had been arrested except me?

Willie must’ve seen the tears coming. “I think you’d better come with me,” he said, and I followed him into an empty classroom where we sat facing each other in the aging wooden desks.

“They’re saying Jon was arrested down at Tappy’s for trafficking cocaine, Georgie. There were about 10 people in there who saw it go down. I guess it happened sometime last night. I think your brother’s in big trouble.”

I just couldn’t believe my ears. I’d seen with my own eyes that Jon had been up to no good, but it never dawned on me that he’d get caught. Not my brother - he was too smart - or so I had thought.

I was still trying to cope with Ma blowing her sobriety and Emma taking off. Now this? It was more than I could take.

“I think I gotta book,” I said, and bolted out of the desk. Willie grabbed my arm, holding me steady.

“Before you go, you’d better find Emma and tell her what’s going on, and make sure she’s okay.”

I felt dizzy again, and after Willie let go of my hand, I stumbled backwards a little. I remembered I hadn’t eaten breakfast that day, but my nerves were shot and I had no appetite left.

I had to find Emma.

Her locker was on the other end of the school, where the middle school kids had their homeroom classes.

I found her almost immediately, sitting with Jennifer in one of the recess rooms. My heart almost shattered when I saw she was already crying.

“Emma?” I said. She looked so small and helpless as she sat there in her desk, her baby blue irises bright against the redness of her eyes, blood shot from crying.

“Georgie,” she said through her sobs when she saw me standing there.

She got up from her desk and ran over to me, throwing herself into my arms. The teacher supervising recess was in the room, as well as half a dozen students, and they all watched our family drama unfold.

I didn’t have to ask Emma why she was crying. She had found out about Jon and her little heart was visibly broken. Everyone who was supposed to love her kept hurting her.

I held her quietly in my arms, letting her cry for as long as she needed to. Finally, after a crowd started to draw into the room, I led my sister into the school yard so we could talk in private.

Hoards of middle and elementary school students were playing outside, looking content and happy, while Emma and I sat there feeling sad and alone.

“Jon is such an idiot,” Emma said, her tears turning into fury. “It’s bad enough that we have no dad, and that our mom is a drunk, but now our brother is a jailbird.”

She looked up at me, her swollen eyes still watering.

“Georgie, promise me you’re not going to leave me, too. Promise you’re going to stay my brother.” I looked down at my little sister and wished I could change the whole world for her, but instead I was powerless.

“Emma,” I said softly. “You’re the one who’s leaving me.” I smiled at her, trying to be brave for both of us. I wondered if she could see straight through my charade and knew how truly frightened I was.

“I’m going to stick with you,” I promised her. “Don’t worry about Jon. We’ll get him out of this. And don’t worry about Ma, either. Somehow everything will work out.”

I felt bad lying through my teeth like that, but all I wanted was to protect Emma. If Jon had really been arrested, there wasn’t a damned thing I’d be able to do to help him. And if Ma wanted to choose booze over us, there wasn’t anything I could do about that, either. But I could keep one promise, and that was to be there for my sister, no matter what kind of craziness was surrounding us.

Without even talking to a teacher first, Emma and I left for home.

I told her not to mention anything about Jon to Ma. I knew it would trigger her to drink even more. Instead, she’d tell Ma that school let out early for the day.

“I have to go somewhere, Emma,” I said as we stood together on the street outside our house. “Promise me you’re not going to leave again?”

She tried to resist me, but after I’d begged her enough, she agreed.

“Okay, Georgie,” she said.

I kissed her on top of her small, perfect head before heading on my way.

It was a small town, so the jail in Prairieville was basically two seldom-used cells inside the police station – mostly for the town’s drunkards and wife beaters.

When I got there, memories of the day Ma overdosed overwhelmed me. I felt ashamed even being there again, only a few weeks after Emma and I had been first introduced to our Social Services caseworker.

Inside, I rang the doorbell, which led through a heavy, locked door into the main office. A little woman appeared at the bullet-proof glass window.

“May I help you?” she said in a nasally voice, speaking through the circular hole in the glass.

“Uh, I’d like to see if my brother is here. I’d like to talk to him,” I said.

“Who’s your brother?” she asked.

“Jonathan Christmas,” I told her. The little woman glared at me, and I could tell from the look in her eyes that she was judging me.

“Just a minute,” she said, and disappeared to the back offices.

Moments later Corporal Griffins appeared, his face red as usual, his keys jangling as he took heavy steps towards me.

“Hi, Georgie,” he said, and actually smiled at me, which I didn’t appreciate, because there wasn’t much to smile about in my world.

“Look,” he said, “your brother Jonathan is just fine. We took him in last night, and we’re keeping him here for about a day or so until we can transfer him to a young offenders’ facility in Prince Albert for holding until his court date.”

“Can’t I see him, just for a minute?” I asked. It was probably against the rules, I thought, but people in small towns broke the rules all the time.

Corporal Griffins looked at me, and breathed out a long sigh. It was becoming easy for me to recognize when people felt pity for me.

“All right,” he said finally. “But you’ve got about eight minutes, and that’s it.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Corporal Griffins pushed a few buttons on a panel beside the door and it automatically swung open.

The little woman who’d answered my ring glared at me again as I passed through the office, obviously perturbed that the corporal had let me through.

Corporal Griffins led me around the corner and we stopped at another large, heavy door. He wrestled with his huge, jangling key chain until he found the key that fit the lock, clicking the door open.

“He’s in there,” Corporal Griffins said.

I’d never felt as sad in my whole life as I did the moment I saw my brother sitting there in the cell, his head hanging in his hands as he sat on a cot. The Jon I knew was a strong, caring brother, not some criminal like the one I saw behind those bars. But there he was, in the flesh.

“Hi, Jon,” I said in a small voice.

“Hey, Georgie,” he said, lifting his soft brown eyes to mine.

“Eight minutes,” Corporal Griffins repeated, and I nodded my head. With a few more heavy steps, he disappeared behind the door.

“I’m so sorry, Georgie,” Jon said.

He looked awful. His hair was a mess, and his face was pale and gaunt, like he hadn’t slept or eaten for days.

“Don’t be sorry,” I told him. “You’ll get out of here. They’ll realize they made a mistake and they’ll let you go.”

“There was no mistake, Georgie,” Jon said. “They caught me red-handed with two ounces of coke. I’m going to end up doing a year unless there’s some kind of miracle.”

“We’ll get you out of here,” I said, and I could feel a flood of tears gathering in my eyes as my bottom lip started quivering. “Jon, you can’t go away,” I said, my voice was shaking.

“Georgie, I ain’t getting away with this,” he said.

I shook my head, refusing to believe that my big brother deserved jail time, no matter what crime he’d committed. Maybe if the judge took into account all the hard times we’d gone through as a family, he’d feel sorry for my brother and let him walk. If I told them how much I needed Jon, maybe they’d let him come home.

A few of my tears dropped to the cement below me, and then I closed my eyes, hoping when I opened them again, I’d realize this had all been another one of my nightmares.

But when I opened them, Jon was still standing there in his cell, looking pathetic and worn. His hands were wrapped tightly around the bars, and he was leaning in as close to me as possible.

“Listen to me, Georgie,” he said. “You’ve got to be the man of the house now. You’ve got to take care of Emma, okay? I also want you to know I’m sorry I left you guys,” Jon said. “I’m sorry I left you and Emma alone. I wanted to stay, but I couldn’t. I was going to come back, Georgie, I really was. I was planning to get enough money so I could come and get you and Emma and take care of you, but I didn’t make it.”

“I believe you, Jon,” I said, my voice still shaking.

“Now you gotta do what I say, Georgie. You gotta take care of Emma. The two of you gotta stick together.”

I nodded my head, and more tears dropped to the floor.

The door swung open and Corporal Griffins reappeared.

“Time’s up,” he told me.

I looked at Jon for as long as I could before the corporal practically dragged me away. I knew it would be the last I’d see of my brother for a very long time.

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