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“Maybe later I can get in here and clean this place up. That’ll help you feel better.”

“I’ll do it.”

“I’m happy to do it.”

“No!” I barked in a knee-jerk reaction, my voice so loud I startled her. I quickly collected myself and said in a softer voice, “I’ll do it.”

“Well,” she said, at a loss for words, wringing her hands. “Okay then. I’ll check on you later.”

“I don’t need you to check up on me.”

“Don’t you?” Her eyes flared as she pinned me with her sharp gaze. I’d pushed her as far as she’d go. Now she was my mother again, not taking any more insolence from her child.

“You’re holed up in this room, not showering, not eating, having horrible nightmares. Smoking cigarettes when you know I don’t allow smoking in the house.” She reached out to indicate the near-empty bottle of bourbon on the bedside stand. “And all that drinking isn’t good for you. It’ll rot your liver.”

I brought my shaking hands to the mattress and clutched it tight. “Right.”

“Don’t be smart with me. I’m still your mother.” She paused as emotion welled up in her. “I don’t like to see you so unhappy. You just need to pull yourself together, that’s all. Clean yourself up. Go out some. Get a job. Snap out of it! You’re such a great man. Your whole future is waiting for you.”

“Stop it!” I barked out. Then, closing my eyes, I said softly, “Please.”

Her lips opened, as though she were about to say something else, but thinking better of it, she turned to leave without another sound.

“Mama,” I called after her.

She stopped and turned, her face appearing wounded.

I thought of how she cleaned houses for others to make ends meet, how she kept a tidy home, cooked for her family, woke in the middle of night when her son cried out. No matter how tired, she was always there, giving more of herself and never complaining.

“I’ll shower tomorrow. And shave.”

The lines on her face eased as she brightened. “Good. And then I’ll come in here and clean your room.”

I watched my mother leave, then grabbed the bottle of bourbon and drank it dry. Shower and shave, I thought bitterly. If only that would make me feel like my old self. The man I once was. I knew that man was the son Mama was still waiting for. Not this mean, angry, crazy man I’d become. I couldn’t be touched. I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t get rid of the memories. Hell, I couldn’t sleep. Get a job? How could I get a job, much less hold one down? I tossed the bottle into the trash bin.

Rubbing my palms together I felt desperation stir in my gut. I had to do something for money. I’d saved enough while in the Corps to keep me going for a little while. I’d lived modestly. But it was running out. After it was gone, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d applied for disability four months ago and was still waiting. Who knew if I’d ever get a cent?

And I was a fraud. I didn’t come home because of Christmas. I came home because I had nowhere else to go. I didn’t know how tight money was for Mama and Dad. I wanted to help them, the way a good son should. Instead I was a burden. Worthless. I couldn’t stay with my parents forever. But what could I do? Where could I go? I only knew I couldn’t go on living like this forever. Not in this hell. Not making the lives of my family hell.

My heart cried out with the anguish of Marley’s regret. I thought again of the damned ghost’s ponderous chain. The chain forged of his misused, miserable, miserly life. I fell back against the mattress, feeling the unbearable weight of the links of my own.

Darkness is cheap and Scrooge liked it.

—A Christmas Carol

Chapter 12


This was turning out to be the worst Christmas ever.

Everyone was on pins and needles and all because of my so-called Christmas present—Taylor. It had been over a week and still he stayed in his room most of the time, sulking, smoking, playing loud music, and using the Internet. No way my mother would’ve ever let me get away with that. I heard Mama arguing with Dad at night. Dad said Taylor just needed to shape up. Mama said he needed to see a doctor. That he was getting worse, not better. Me, I’m just getting mad at him for making everyone worry.

I caught Mama standing outside his closed bedroom door, her hand pressed against the wood, her ear close, listening, looking like she might cry. I knew she wanted to go in there to open the curtains and clean up the room, but every time she tried, Taylor barked at her that he just wanted to be left alone. I went up and knocked on his door a couple of times. I wasn’t sure what to say, but his being my brother, I felt I should visit. But he never let me in.

The worst was when Daddy went in Taylor’s room last night. He’d just come back from a carpentry job. He walked into the kitchen to find Mama crying. Daddy puts up with a lot, but he can’t bear to see Mama cry any more than I can. Then he saw the angry yellow bruises on her arms and got real angry. I mean, his face was as red as a beet.

“That’s enough,” he’d ground out in that voice that always sent me running for cover. Daddy turned on his heel and headed to Taylor’s room, mumbling words I could only catch on the fly, like no kid of mine and not gonna put up with it.

“Alistair, stop!” Mama called after him, but he wasn’t listening. “He was having a nightmare!”

She hurried after Daddy down the hall. No one was aware of me close behind. My heart was pounding as hard as their footfalls on the wood floors.

By the time I got there Daddy had already pushed open the door and stormed into Taylor’s room. Mama stood at the open door peering in. She held out her arm to keep me out. I peered in around her to see Daddy standing at the foot of Taylor’s bed. Taylor sprang to his feet, alert, eyes glaring and arms out, poised to jump. Then he pulled himself back to stand erect, legs wide. He was still in his boxers and T-shirt. His beard was thicker now and the room stank like the cabin we used for hunting trips.

“Who do you think you are?” Daddy shouted at Taylor. He was busting loose with all the tension he’d felt for days. “You dare hurt your mother?” He reached out and roughly pushed Taylor’s chest.

Taylor stumbled back a few steps, then instantly reared up and put his fists up, eyes glaring. Next to me, I heard Mama suck in her breath.