“Do you?!” the man yelled again and squeezed and squeezed his neck. The boy couldn’t breathe at all. He thought this terrible man with the purple, bulbous nose and the mean eyes, was going to kill him.
In some ways, he wanted him to.
“Hey,” his mother said from the bed, slowly stirring. “What’s going on?” Her voice was ragged, and slurred as she sat up. “Leave my son alone.”
The man released his grip, and then looked behind him to glare at the woman. The boy pawed at his own raw throat, wheezing, trying to say he was sorry, but nothing was coming out.
It didn’t matter. The man suddenly whirled around and backhanded the boy across the face. It made his head explode with shards of glass, and he went flying backwards.
He banged into the doorframe and landed on the ground with a thump, and prayed to the same God who had made it snow that he would never feel this pain again.
But this wouldn’t be the last of it. He had a whole life of pain to get through first.
“You shut up,” the man yelled back at his mother.
She looked frightened to death but still managed to tell her son to get up and go in the bathroom and lock the door.
The boy could barely move, but somehow he did it. He got to his feet, his head pounding, coughing hard, and went into the bathroom. The floor was wet with urine. Clumsily, he slid the lock in place and sat on the toilet and waited.
There was shouting and more shouting and then finally a door slammed.
A few gentle knocks at the door and he knew his mum was okay.
“You better get ready,” she said to him when he opened the door a crack. She smiled at him quickly with crooked, yellow teeth, and gathered a robe over her frail body, her chest bones protruding like prison bars. “It’s your birthday and I haven’t forgotten what I promised you.”
Her voice cracked over the last words and she quickly hurried away, shoulders slumped, head down.
Soon the two of them were fully dressed and trudging through the snow, heading to the bus stop. The boy couldn’t help but smile at everyone and everything they passed: the scary people who slept on the street and talked to themselves, the dogs that shivered and ran away, the rats that feasted on dead things on the side of the road. None of that mattered to the boy because the world seemed bright and pure and all for him. He kicked at the snow and watched it fall to the ground and told his mum that this must be what heaven was like, walking in the clouds all day long.
She wiped away a mascara-stained tear and agreed.
The bus ride took a long time, but eventually they found themselves at one of the large concrete shopping centers. This was the boy’s big moment, what he’d been looking forward to for a year.
He didn’t even notice the odd looks that he and his mother sometimes got; he was so focused on that toy that the whole world seemed to slip away. Despite the bump at the back of his head, his cheek that was swollen and slowly growing purple, this was the happiest day of his life.
“Now we don’t have much time,” his mother said. “So hurry and pick out your present and I’ll pay for it.”
The boy heard the urgency in her voice and suddenly he was so overwhelmed. There were action figures, superheroes, cars and trucks, horses, dolls, stuffed animals, building sets, art supplies and Lego, and a million other things he wanted. He stood there, completely dumbfounded, and looked around and around, his heart thumping in his chest.
“Please,” his mother said again. She was at the cashier, ready to pay. He was suddenly so afraid that if he didn’t pick something right that second he wouldn’t get anything at all. At the same time, he was old enough to know that they didn’t have much money, so anything fancy and expensive was too much.