The snow had been falling lightly all day, and the Hancock Building shimmered in the distance through the milky gauze. It was a postcard scene, but in my neighborhood, good tidings were hard to find. Grimy cabs bounced through rutted streets, splashing mud and filthy snow on the skeleton crew of hookers looking to spread their unique brand of Christmas cheer to drive-by suburban johns. For a price, of course.
I struggled up Union Street, trying unsuccessfully to stay dry on the way to my sister’s apartment. It was only 5:30, kind of early to knock off work, I know. But what the hell, Christmas only comes once a year, right? Besides, even the slimeballs I deal with as a debt collector for Boston’s second-biggest underground sports book snuggle up with family on this night.
Some of them, anyway.
The stairs creaked and groaned in my sister’s century-old building as I climbed. I imagined myself falling right through and moved faster, as if that might make a difference. The moment Mary pulled the door open, I knew something was wrong.
Her eyes were red-rimmed and watery and she clutched a crumpled-up tissue in one hand. Her six year old boy—my nephew Joey—slumped on the couch, eyes glued to an old Christmas movie on TV. I glanced over her shoulder at the fake tree in the corner. A couple of wrapped boxes sat beneath it, appearing lonely and forlorn.
The gift I was looking for was gone.
So was her worthless boyfriend Bobby.
My little sister’s never had a lick of sense when it comes to guys. She’s ambitious. Pretty. Dumb as a stump about picking men. “Where’s the train set?” I asked, keeping my voice low.
Her lower lip quivered. “Bobby’s selling it.”
“He’s gonna replace it with a toy car or something. He says Joey won’t know the difference, and he can use the money for quality glass.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s meeting the buyer at Flanagan’s.”
Flanagan’s had been in the neighborhood for decades, and was located just a block from my sister’s apartment. I navigated the slushy sidewalk, thinking about Christmas, and about family, and about what kind of meth-addicted loser could be so desperate for a high he would sell a six year-old’s present on Craigslist on Christmas Eve.
The present I had bought for that six year old.
I told myself not to overreact. Told myself the bruises on Mary’s face could have been caused by running into a door like she claimed. Told myself she might have grown clumsy, that all the other times she had been injured might be unrelated to Bobby’s instability. Told myself Bobby was an addict and couldn’t be held responsible for his actions.
Decided I didn’t care.
Despite the dim lighting, I spotted Bobby the moment I walked through the door. He sat at a small table with another fat-assed loser, the wrapped present between them. By the time I dropped into the seat next to Bobby the box had disappeared. For a tweaker, the asshole could be surprisingly smooth.
“Merry Christmas,” I said coldly, enjoying Bobby’s startled reaction. To the other guy, I said, “Beat it.”
“Wait a second,” he sputtered. “What about—”
“The train’s off the market,” I said, sliding my combat knife out of its sheath and displaying it under the table. The guy was out the door in seconds. I guessed he hadn’t moved that fast in years.
To Bobby I said, “It wasn’t easy picking a Christmas present for Mary. Thanks for making up my mind.”
His eyes bounced from my knife to my face. “Wh-what do you mean? What did you decide to give her?” he asked.
“A future. Let’s go for a walk, Bobby, whaddaya say?”
I rarely take an entire day off. Maybe half a dozen times a year. But this Christmas Day I just couldn’t get motivated to work; I was having too much fun watching Joey play with his train set. Mary was upbeat and happy. She reminded me of the little girl I remember from when we were kids.
The best part? She never once asked about Bobby.