There was one certainty in TJ's life: his father was dead. At first he didn't believe his mother when she broke the news. He didn't believe it when he saw his grandparents in tears. He didn't believe his aunts and uncles when they came over to the house to console him and his mother. But now he knew it was true. It was before him in black and white in the Kennebec Journal, The Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News. It had to be true because it was in black and white.
The headlines read "Local Hero Gives Life in Iraq." The story went on to say that Brian Johnson, known to his friends as BJ, gave his life to save three Iraqi children at a Baghdad hospital. Johnson, a resident of Hallowell and a pediatrician, had been a volunteer doctor in Iraq for the past two years. When a suicide bomber entered the emergency room, BJ grabbed the would-be killer and dragged him out of the hospital before the terrorist could detonate explosives that were strapped to his chest. This heroic act saved the lives of three children who were at the hospital being treated by BJ for minor injuries sustained during a recent firefight between insurgents and local Iraqi forces. BJ was killed when the bomb detonated.
TJ hated that people called him by his initials like they had his father. While it may have been cute when he was young and not fully equipped with cognitive abilities, at the ripe old age of thirteen he found the acronyms embarrassing. Not that he and his father were together enough to encounter those moments frequently. He still disliked the nickname and preferred to be called Thomas. The problem was that no one would listen to him, and the cute childhood name stuck. Even his baby sister Tara would not succumb to his threats of a thrashing if she didn't call him Thomas. While only five years old, she had a defiant streak that TJ could not penetrate. Actually, TJ adored Tara. She had long straight, blonde hair and deep blue eyes that, in years to come, were destined to make her a heart-breaker. Any time TJ ragged on her to call him Thomas she would wrinkle her nose like Shirley Temple, point her finger at him and say, "I like the name TJ and I love you so don't be fussing with your name." She would then smile and hold her arms out for a big hug, and all of TJ's annoyance would melt in his sister's beautiful smile.
His brother Billy, nine years old, was another story. TJ was Billy's idol. He was his mentor, his guru and in some small way godlike. Whatever TJ wanted, Billy obliged. Whether it was sharing his toys when he was younger, doing TJ's chores or rushing out of the bathroom because his brother wanted to use the mirror to comb his hair, Billy did as his brother asked. Billy was also afraid of TJ, who had no problem using threats and physical contact to get his way. He had a habit of punching Billy in the upper arm. It was not the common gesture between friends but rather a show of force to remind Billy who was stronger and that TJ had no problem using force to get his way. The problem for Billy was that he would do anything for his brother, regardless of who was strongest. Billy loved TJ and in their father's frequent absences he looked to TJ for advice and guidance. While Billy occasionally slipped and called his brother TJ, out of love and fear, he tried to remember to call him Thomas. And now, three years after their father's death, TJ's desires took a life-changing turn.
Over the last three years, TJ had sprouted. For a boy of sixteen he was tall, five feet eleven. He was not heavy for his height but his one hundred sixty-five pounds were all muscle. He had a chiseled look, as if he had been carved from granite. His gray eyes kept his classmates at bay and inspired terror in those younger than himself. He rarely wore a heavy coat in the winter. It was as if he had an intimate relationship with the heartless cold of the December freeze. His friend was the blizzard, the cold rain his ally. The worse the weather, the better his spirits, for he seemed to thrive upon the bleak and the dismal. No one ever stopped him in the halls of school for a casual conversation, and ample space was given him where he sat at the back of every class. Teachers never called on him, other than calling his name for attendance.
It was a bitterly cold Christmas Eve. A nor'easter was blowing in from the Atlantic and the snowfall was heavy. It had been a dark day. Fog and snow shrouded the sun. Even street lights offered little illumination.
By the time Hall Dale High School released its students at 12:25, it was nearly dark. The stream of cars and buses that left the parking lot moved at a snail's pace in the fog and snow.
Normally school would have been canceled all day in such a storm, but the track of this unusual front had baffled the best of forecasters and what was supposed to head out into the Atlantic took a quick turn, catching the most experienced off guard. Vacation had originally been scheduled to begin several days earlier, but the unusual number of storms and school closings earlier in the season had forced the administration to stay open right up to Christmas Eve. Parents were not happy with this turn of events, but the fact that the school year would already be extended four days suppressed any overt complaints.
TJ lived about three miles from school. Billy always took the bus home. TJ always walked. TJ waited for the bus to ensure that Billy was on it. With the middle school attached to the high school it was a short jog for TJ to hook up with his brother. Much to the relief of his fellow students, TJ never rode, regardless of the weather. Today was a little different. While waiting for the arrival of the buses, which began to emerge from the swirling tendrils of fog and snow TJ heard a voice yell, "Billy, TJ, over here." Uncle Donny was yelling from the corner of the small parking lot as his black Envoy melted into the looming darkness. Billy grabbed TJ's arm and dragged him over to their uncle's SUV. "Come on, Thomas," urged Billy. "You can't walk home in this." TJ let Billy drag him slipping and sliding to Uncle Donny's vehicle. He had no intention of getting a ride home, but he figured he'd get his brother loaded into the car and then make the cold trek home on his own and in his own time.
As the two boys opened the Envoy's door, Uncle Donny yelled in a jovial tone that grated on TJ's bones, "Merry Christmas nephews! God bless you!"
"Christmas sucks!" TJ said.
"Surely you don't mean that, nephew?" asked Uncle Donny.
"I certainly do." TJ said. "And why are you so up on Christmas? You don't have lots of money. You barely make over minimum wage. Did you win the lottery or something?"
"Christmas is not about money, TJ. Your Aunt Amy and I do just fine and we count our blessings for all that we do have. Why are you so down on Christmas? You've lacked for nothing. I know the loss of your father was a blow, but you were left well taken care of."
TJ repeated, "Christmas sucks."
Billy had jumped into the back seat, but his head hung low.
"Merry Christmas, Billy!" Uncle Donny said as he turned to the back seat with a grin as wide as his dashboard.
In response to the smile, Billy's spirits lifted and he responded cheerfully, "And a Merry Christmas to you, Uncle Donny!" A dirty look from his brother dampened his enthusiasm and once again Billy hung his head.
"What's Christmas to you but a time to rack up your credit cards and go deeper in debt?" TJ said. "It just brings you another step toward bankruptcy. A year older and you have nothing more for your efforts. If I had my way, anyone saying Merry Christmas should be shot or sent to Iraq."
"TJ," pleaded Donny in a sorrowful voice.
"Look, you do what you want at Christmas and I'll do what I want," TJ said.
"But you don't do anything at Christmas except get depressed," Uncle Donny replied.
"Just leave me alone," TJ said.
"Aside from the joy of giving and being with the ones you love, there is something joyful about Christmas. It is heart-warming to help others in need. It's fun to share a meal with a friend, sing a few songs, and enjoy the lights and the tree. And although Christmas has never put an extra dollar in my sock, it does me good to share whatever I do have with others and be thankful for family and friends. God bless Christmas," he said, "and you, too."
"I want you and your mother, Billy, and Tara to come have supper with us tomorrow. Your mother already agreed. It won't be much, but we'll fun being together as family," Uncle Donny said.
"I want no part of family and I'll find something of my own to eat. I'm sure Burger King will be open, since they make those poor asses work on every holiday. The almighty dollar, you know. As for my mother and the rest, they can do what they want. All I want is to be left alone." With that TJ slammed the door of the Envoy and faded into the blackness and the cold.
Don shook his head and in the back seat Billy's eyes were swollen with tears. In the turmoil of snow and wind they heard the words, "Christmas sucks."
TJ veered from the school driveway and headed for his daily shortcut through the tall pines that ringed the school. He was glad it was Friday, for this was the day he met Rudy. Rudy awaited TJ's arrival every Friday by his favorite pine, one obscured from the school and the main road, Maple Street. On this day they could have met in the parking lot. The darkness, fog and snow would have provided cover. But Rudy liked this particular pine. TJ didn't know Rudy's last name and didn't care what it was. All he cared is that every week Rudy delivered his nickel bag and his joint-to-go. Because TJ was such a good customer, Rudy always had a ready-made joint to send his favorite buyer on his way home. When TJ reached the tree, he and Rudy did a fist-to-fist tap.
"Hey, dude," Rudy said. "Merry fuckin' Christmas!"
"Christmas sucks, "TJ replied.
"Not after you take a hit of this," Rudy said.
TJ pulled the joint out of the bag and used his favorite Zippo lighter to start mellowing out. After a long inhale he said, "This is good shit, but Christmas still sucks."
"Maybe for you, but this has been a banner year for me. I'm thinking of buying my bitch a diamond. Cash, dude. I've got money up the ass," Rudy said as he pulled the collar of his coat up around his ears to stave off some of the cold.
"Marriage?" TJ asked.
"Shit, no," Rudy replied. "But my bitch will do just about anything if I give her a diamond," Rudy said, "if you get my drift."
"I hear ya," TJ said.
"Ok, man. I've got to make a few more scores, so I'll catch you next week. Where do you want to meet with school closed and all?" Rudy asked.
"At the boat landing," TJ said.
"Cool, dude," Rudy said as he started toward the road. "Merry, oh yeah, I forgot, Christmas sucks," Rudy said and laughed as he disappeared through the woods on his way to his car.
"Later Rudy. Hope you get what you want from your girl," TJ said. He took another hit and heard a voice in the darkness say, "You can count on that, man."
TJ stuffed the bag into his hoodie and took yet another hit. As he turned to follow the path out to the road he was startled by what he thought was a person by the adjacent stand of trees. The image faded with the next gust of wind. He thought to himself, this is good shit.
TJ never wore a coat. His black hoodie was his choice regardless of the weather. Pulling the hood up over his head, he put his hands into his pockets and began his trek downtown. The joint hung from his mouth and every few minutes he would take a drag without using his hands. Not too many kids were walking home today because a lot of the parents were off from work early and many came to pick up there kids. Occasionally he would hear "Merry Christmas" as a few of the walkers parted company and headed their separate ways, and every now and then a car window would roll down and the refrain was repeated. In his head he mimicked the well-wishers. Finally, he yelled at the top of his lungs, "Christmas sucks!"
TJ went down Maple Street, made his turn on Greeneville Street and then took his final left on the main drag to downtown Hallowell. Traffic was light as most people had scurried home to loved ones to begin their holiday celebrations and to get out of the storm that showed no sign of letting up. He was flying pretty high as the drug took effect and numbed his senses. As he approached downtown the level of human activity increased, to his dismay. Last-minute shoppers braved the storm to pick up their last gifts and then slowly drove home.
Hallowell was an historic district that could easily be mistaken for a town out of time. The mostly brick-faced colonial buildings decorated in white electric candles looked like an eighteenth-century village. The Antique Capital of Maine was lined with stores that sported early American gifts and sundries. The antique offerings could have been the latest in fashion in an earlier age with no high-tech gadgets and digital items that would end up in overburdened landfills. The old-fashioned street lamps adding to this colonial ambiance were lost on TJ.
TJ had the munchies. That was one of the things he liked most about pot, food tasted so good. He smelled the aroma of Chinese food from the Lucky Garden. His mouth watered for some chicken fingers. Too crowded, he thought. The parking lot was full and he had no desire to be in the presence of Christmas fanatics. Suddenly he stopped in front of a store called LUX. In the window was a brass horse carousel. His mother had commented several times that she wanted that carousel. When asked why she didn't just buy it, Lisa simply said, "Some items are meant to be gifts, TJ." Not knowing what she meant, TJ would simply respond, "Whatever." But for some reason the carousel drew his attention. Maybe he should get it for his mother for Christmas. TJ shook his head in disbelief that such a thought would even cross his mind and he mumbled, "Yeah, right."
He continued down the unshoveled sidewalk. Finally his heightened sense of smell caught the scent of baked goods. He started to head for Slate's Bakery but movement out of the corner of his right eye caught his attention. There was a large opening between buildings on the east side of the street. Ignoring oncoming traffic TJ headed for the rift, which was perhaps once the home of a now demolished and erased building. Barely able to see the frozen and darkened Kennebec River, TJ was suddenly hit by a chill that went to his core. Dancing upon the frozen waters were at least a dozen snow devils, whirlwinds that looked like mini-tornados dressed in gossamer garments of white. He was enthralled by their seemingly random yet orchestrated ballet as they rose and fell to the beat of the driving winds. It was not the dancing snow that gave him the chills. Snow devils were a common sight. What shook him was the whispering refrain from these fleeting apparitions, "THOMAAASSS," repeated three times before a gust blew them into the storm.
TJ shook his head to clear his mind. His right hand felt for his stash and he thought, this is really good shit.
The aroma of baked goods restored his composure. To the horror of a woman driving her children to their grandparents' for a Christmas Eve dinner, TJ stepped into the road without even a glance to see if anyone was coming. The woman braked too hard and her car began to slide down Water Street sideways. The winds and closed windows muffled the screams of the children. TJ just smiled at the terrified woman as the car finally came to a stop. The woman rolled down her window and began to shout. Without looking in her direction, TJ shouted, "Merry fuckin' Christmas," and then whipped her the finger. He could still hear her yelling as she skidded away.
When he entered the bakery he pushed his way to the front of the line. Not a one protested his intrusion. The smell of dope hung heavy on his snow-dampened clothes. Perhaps most thought the sooner he got what he wanted the sooner he would be gone. He bought several bags of cookies, brownies and pastries. He had no idea what they were called, but the colors appealed to his heightened senses. Customers were silent as he parted the crowd and returned to the comfort of the storm.
As he left the bakery he nearly knocked down an elderly woman who was ringing a bell to solicit last-minute donations into her red bucket. TJ looked at her defiantly. Regaining her balance, she said, "Young man, would you care to make a donation to help the needy this Christmas?"
TJ laughed and said, "No, I don't care. Did they close the soup kitchens or something?"
The old woman replied, "Of course not."
"Did they stop giving companies tax breaks for donating to charities?" he asked.
"No, they didn't," the woman said.
"Are there no more welfare programs? Did they eliminate the Department of Social Services or something?"
"Young man, I am not sure what you mean by these questions, but the need far outweighs the money available," she said.
"Haven't you heard that there are far too many people in the world? Maybe if we didn't try to feed everyone we wouldn't have so many friggin' problems." TJ was right in the woman's face, and she backed away. Much to her relief the boy spun on his heels and walked away laughing.
TJ slipped into an alley and rolled another joint. After a few hits he began to attack his bags of goodies with the fervor of one who has been deprived too long. Just as he was about to take a bite of a brownie, a snowball slammed the side of his head, forcing him to drop it. Furious, he turned in the direction of the attack and saw several little kids, his brother included, in the midst of a snowball fight. All the kids recognized TJ, froze for a moment, and then scattered as fast as their legs would move. Only his brother stood still snowball in hand. TJ beckoned with one finger. Slowly Billy obeyed. Covered in snow, Billy started to apologize, but TJ halted him with a punch on the shoulder, grabbed another treat and continued up the street, leaving his brother in pain but relieved that the punishment wasn't worse. Billy, rubbing his shoulder, called out, "Hey, guys, it's ok," and rejoined them.
TJ took the long way home, down Water Street, up Winthrop Street and then back onto Middle Street--more time to smoke and to munch. He also enjoyed watching cars skid up Winthrop hill, which soon lost its fascination--too many motorists were cheerfully helping each other.
He made his final right on Union Street to his house. The large white federal-style home was surrounded by a six-foot iron fence. Built at the end of the 1700s, it was well kept, boasting the charm and grandeur of its earliest days. TJ knew the house would be vacant. Tara was at the sitter's, and his mother was still probably at work at the D.S.S. She didn't need to work and certainly didn't need the income. His father did leave them well off. Lisa was a social worker, mostly to fill her days during her husband's long absences. Lisa was not the best of mothers. She loved her children but was afraid of the responsibility of guiding them to adulthood. She bought the kids anything they wanted but could not buy what they needed--her presence. She did not know how to express her love for them. In the early days BJ took charge of the kids and played the major parental role. But his fixation on saving the world kept him away for longer and longer periods, and Lisa was not emotionally capable of filling the void. She gave the kids lavish allowances, and they always had the latest fads and fashions. She could lose herself in the problems of other underprivileged children, but the fact that they were not hers and that she could leave their problems at work made her an effective case worker. She could help everyone else, but not her own.
As TJ grew older he often confronted his mother about this hypocrisy. He would accuse her of helping the scum of the earth but ignoring her own. To end the arguments Lisa would usually just lay some cash on TJ, which was how he was able to support his habits. TJ didn't like to think about his mother--it depressed and angered him.
White electric candles burned in each of the many windows of the house as TJ unlatched the iron gate and sloshed his way up the stone walkway to the front door. It was large and red and trimmed on both sides by black shutters, as were all of the windows. On the door was an old-fashioned knocker with the face of a lion. As TJ reached for the door handle he saw the knocker undergo a change. It was no longer the face of a lion but the face of his father. The face had a dim aura around it, and his father's hair seemed to be blowing in the howling wind. The face was neither angry nor sad but had an expression of fatherly concern that he remembered from his early childhood, a time he longed to regain. The hair stood up on the nape of his neck and he froze. As quickly as the image appeared it disappeared. He grabbed the door handle and went inside. When he was halfway through the door he paused and took one more look at the knocker. It was still the face of a lion. He closed the door and surveyed the hallway and adjacent rooms. No more specters appeared, and his fear dissipated. Really weird shit, the weed must be laced with something, he thought as he closed the door.