Friday, December 23, 2016

Dave's Christmas Story

I was taking my chemistry book out of my locker at Glades Jr. High and a Polaroid of me and my MeMa popped off my locker door and into my hands.  I looked at her smiling face – a face that I would not see again in this lifetime. I had just found that that morning from my mother that she had died in a car accident.  I begged to stay home from school but my mother insisted that all four of her kids go to school – me and my three older sisters.  My parents just needed some time to process the sudden loss without having to deal with us.  I mean I just saw her yesterday afternoon and now she was gone.  I tried to keep it together but the reality of her death really hit me for the first time that day and I just couldn’t keep it inside. 

I started to cry – I mean not just a few tears rolling down the cheeks that you could easily wipe away but sobbing and feeling a profound loss like I had never felt before.  Just then Bruce Dane, the school bully walked up, noticed I was crying and really started to harass me. “C’mon – you gonna cry – why you crying you little faggot?” he taunted with his dirty blond hair, a dark shirt and shorts.  He was a good six inches taller the rest of the kids and there was a rumor that he had been held back at least twice. Just then, Jack Bronson walked up and stuck up for me – which surprised me because we mostly passed in the hallway but never really talked.  Jack was muscular for his age and had light brown hair and was like the rest of us - much shorter than the hallway bully.  His blue eyes were fixed on Bruce and not flinching.  

“Hey – why don’t you just leave him alone Bruce,” challenged Jack.  Bruce turned around and towered over Jack.
“Well speaking of faggots – why don’t you get the hell out of here Jack or do you want to ask him out on a date?” 
“Knock it off Bruce- his MeMa died – he’s upset.” 
“MeMa – what is he – a baby?  I’ll decide when he’s had enough,” Bruce said.  At this point, a circle of kids had gathered around. 
“Bruce – I’m not going to ask you again – leave him alone,” Jack said with a steely determination in his eye. 
“Or what – what can you possibly do about it faggot?”  Bruce raised his fist ready to strike.  Jack just looked down and started to turn away.  Bruce chuckled and said “Figures – some people just don’t –“ He was stopped mid-sentence when Jack whirled back around and cold cocked him in the face. 

Bruce went back but kept his footing and tried to punch back – he missed
and Jack landed another punch in the stomach.  Bruce was bleeding from his nose and doubled over.  At this point, Mr. Albury, the Assistant Principal stepped in to stop the fight assuming that once again, Bruce had won. “C’mon Bruce you need to –“ he stopped mid-sentence and saw that Bruce was the one bleeding for a change.  Both Jack and I got into trouble for fighting even though Jack told them that Bruce had started it.  

"Look, I know that you are both good boys and you rarely get into trouble.  We have all that new fangled video and editing equipment that no one can make heads or tails of.  I'll give you three days detention to work on it and then write a report detailing how to use it." 
"Sounds good sir, thank you - I'd love to work with Dave on the project, but what about Bruce?  He started it!" 
"Don't worry about Bruce, I have him covered," Mr. Albury replied with a wink. 

That was the day that Jack became my best friend – a guy that would put himself on the line for a friend or hell just to make sure someone was not going to get bullied by taking on the biggest guy in school.  He had also lost his grandmother just a few months before so he understood what I was going through. 

He lived one block over from me in a run-down ranch style home and from that day forward he was a member of my family.  My parents loved that he helped me through the loss of Me-Ma and that he was the brother that I never had.  Being the youngest of four kids – I needed a kid my own age that I could identify with.  We’d go off on our own adventures in the park near my subdivision and Jack would usually have dinner at our house since his dad was rarely in any shape to cook.  Jack’s dad was a decorated Vietnam but the war and the cumulative losses of the women in his life took its toll.  He was often too drunk by 6:00 pm to have a decent dinner waiting.  My parents had no problem cooking a little extra and my sisters eventually got used to him being around.  

“Dave, Debbie is totally hot!” Jack would say in a fit of adolescent lust.  My response was an involuntary shudder.  I guess some guys would find her long platinum blond hair and slim figure appealing but then all my sisters liked that except since she was the oldest, she was the most um- shall we say developed.

“Oh c’mon – Jack she’s my sister.  Besides Debbie is five years older than you which makes it like 30 in teen girl years – you really have no chance.”  Jack would shrug and mutter – “Well maybe one day when I’m older,” Jack would reply.  My sisters would overhear our conversation and whisper  “As if!!” 

Jack and his dad had a complicated relationship which got worse after his Mom died in a car accident and his Nana died of a heart attack a year afterward.  I guess that’s why Jack strutted around like he was a tough guy – it was easier than letting most people see his real feelings but he’d share things with me because well - we both missed our grandmothers and he needed someone to confide in.

We also shared an interest in or should I say a passion for ghosts.  Our favorite movie was Ghostbusters.  We both saw it like ten times when it was first came to theaters and then we heard they were re-releasing it around the time that school started and went to see it another five times.  That was our escape – our favorite movie on the big screen, Bill Murray’s smirk, Dan Ackroyd’s child-like awe of ghosts, Harold Ramis’ proton packs and Ernie Hudson’s kick-ass attitude – for teenage boys like us it could not get any better.  

That year – Jack and I both decided that to make our passion our vocation – we wanted to be paranormal investigators.  Living in Georgia, there were tons of ghost stories and places to hunt them like Underground Atlanta and any number of old buildings that were decades or even a century old.  Sometimes they were as close as an old abandoned theatre where Jack had captured some images on VHS which actually made the news.  We studied the science of Ghostbusters and wanted to have Proton Packs of our very own.   Since Christmas was coming I made it our mission to either get the components to make them or to find a way to purchase them already made. 
Whenever any of our classmates asked what we wanted for Christmas – we’d tell them the Proton Packs from Ghostbusters and they would laugh and just call us weird.  Most of them were asking for GI Joes, Transformers or Atari TV video games like Asteroids or Pong.   In a weird way it made us feel better that not more people asked for what we wanted – so our chances of getting the packs from the jolly old elf shot up a bit. 

Now I know what you’re thinking – why does a someone like me in middle school still believe in Santa?  Well hell- a guy has to believe in something after the crappy year that Jack and I had.  I figured it’s best to ask Santa as a person who might or might not exist versus a supposed God that takes your grandmother without warning.  I mean I always told her I loved her but I thought she would be around at least until I had kids.  I was still having a hard time grabbling with why a good and kind God would hurt someone I loved – it was not f*cking fair! Sometimes you can find forgiveness – even for God - but I was not in a forgiving mood.  Of course I never told my mother who made sure we went to Mass religiously every Saturday night or Sunday.  Even Jack went, but mostly to check out the Catholic girls who he hoped were easy. 

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and Jack was spending the night when we got a great idea.  There has been rumors that there was a ghost in the school – some coal miner that that had died near-by where a mine used to be back in the 1950’s.   Jack thought it might be the same ghost he caught on camera in the theatre and that it moved to the school when the theatre was torn down.  We waited for everyone in the house to go to sleep and walked over to the school.  Jack had the video camera – his dad let him have it after Nana died. 

“Dave – I get the feeling we’re going to see some activity tonight,” Jack said excitedly but with a hint of nervousness. 
“I hope so – but we can only be gone about an hour – my parents would kill me if they knew we were out on our own,” I replied.   We walked down the path to the field house by the P.E. offices.  Sometimes the door was kept open in that part of the building in case the coaches needed to grab equipment on the weekend and didn’t want to bother the facility staff.  People could do that in my town – leave doors open and no worry about having stuff stolen.  

“Okay, we look around the locker room and see if anything happens.  A few of the guys have seen stuff get moved without any real explanation,” Jack stated feeling pretty confident.  We moved down the side office and into the main locker room.  It was dark but we kept the lights off so we would not attract attention - ghosts like to move around in the dark but we had flashlights.  

“Geez – it always smells like mold and sweat around here –“  There was a small metal squeak and just then we saw a locker door open. 
“Jesus Jack, did you get that on camera?!”  I asked trying to keep my cool but realizing that I might have just peed a little. 
“I got it Dave but it’s really dark so maybe it won’t come out – hopefully we’ll see a little more.”  Jack replied – he was a little more seasoned than I was and not nearly as nervous. 
“It’s good to have someone on a stake-out with me – “ said Jack when two more lockers opened up.  Just then we heard some sounds – it was quiet at first and then got louder. 
“Oh God, Oh God, please –“Jack and I looked at each other – and we knew what each other was thinking – should we stay or get the hell out of there?  “Jack – I’m getting a little freaked –“ I started when there was a loud knock coming from the room next to us and more moaning. 
“Dude, we’ve got to check that out –“ Jack insisted and he ran around the corner.  Just then there was a loud scream and some yelling. 

“Get the f*ck out of here you little perv!” said a male voice that sounded like it was in high school.  I rounded the corner to see my big sister Debbie and her sometimes boyfriend Gus sitting on the couch in the coaches office and they had been making-out. 

“Oh my God – you little freaks - what are you doing here?!!”  screamed Debbie. 
“What are you doing here Debbie?  You’re supposed to be in bed,” I replied taknig the higher moral ground.  I was trying to move from being scared to totally creeped out seeing my sister with her blouse unbuttoned and her bra in Gus’ hands.  Luckily her sweater was layered over anything that could be a – ah – a something a brother should not see. 
“Why are you here Dave?” she shrieked grabbing her bra from Gus and buttoning her shirt. 
“We were looking for ghosts and got some footage but now we might have to debunk some of it,” Jack said matter-of-factly trying not to catch a glimpse but staring right at Debbie’s bust line. 
“Video – great that’s all we need,” said Gus who was the captain of the high school baseball team, muscular and way bigger than Jack and I.  
“Give me that tape and no-one gets hurt,” he said moving closer to Jack who was not backing down. 
“Look, I turned off the camera the minute I saw it was you and Debbie – we don’t have anything on tape with you and her but we do have lockers opening and closing by themselves.”  
“Give me that goddamned tape,” bellowed Gus.  He started to push Jack back – I jumped on top of him trying to get him off my friend but more to hit him for doing stuff to my sister. 
“Get off of him, both of you,” Debbie shouted. 

Just then we heard lockers opening and closing quickly.  Gus let go of Jack
and turned the corner – “Okay you little jerks – knock it-“ he stopped mid-sentence and started to back away.  Jack and I ran over to see and there were four or five lockers just opening and closing randomly. 
“You little a**holes – make it stop!” said Gus whose voice sounded scared. 
“We’re not doing that –“ I replied in a whisper. 
“Jack – get the camera,” Jack was taking video when Debbie walked up and saw the lockers opening up on their own and started to scream. 
“Oh my God –oh my God!!!”  Gus freaked out.  He ran past all three of us muttering – “This is crazy- you are on your own!”  The lockers stopped a few seconds later.  Jack went over the Debbie to comfort her while I looked to see if there was some way they managed to move without some ethereal help.  “Jack we might have some actual ghost footage!”  I said excitedly.  

“Oh no you don’t – you can’t show that with me and Gus – I mean – Mom and Dad would – you just can’t –“ Debbie begged.  
“I’m pretty sure we didn’t get you and if we did – we’ll edit it out.  Please Debbie – this is some good stuff!” I pleaded. 
“Look,” said Jack, “I can tell people we shot it earlier in the night and we cut out you and Gus then you don’t get in trouble but you can’t tell on us either, deal?”  Debbie gave in which was not like my sister.  Personally, I just wanted to forget the whole Gus thing even happened.   

As we started to walk out of the field house – I thought I saw MeMa smiling in the locker room.  I looked again and she was gone. 
“Nice work with the locker doors,” said Nana to MeMa. 
“Thanks – I’m getting the hang of it – besides –I was not going let my granddaughter make me a great-grandmother posthumously nine months from now!”  The grandmothers smiled and faded out. 

We walked quietly through the streets and I thought I heard Debbie crying on the way home but didn’t know what to say.  As we got the key from under the mat and unlocked the back door – Jack turned to her and said, “Hey, you can do better than Gus – there are a ton of guys who would have treated you better than he did tonight – he’s an a**hole.”   Debbie smiled, kissed Jack on the forehead and said “Thank you.”  I had to hand it to my friend – he scored some major points with her that night.

The next morning we looked at the footage while everyone was still asleep.  The images were grainy but you could see the lockers opening and closing as well as some audio. 
“If we can get into the media center and edit out the Debbie stuff – we have a pretty solid tape!”  We went downstairs got some Captain Crunch and watched Saturday Supercade.  In between cartoons of video arcade characters there were Christmas commercials with stuff that looked cool but not as cool as Proton packs.  My parents came downstairs and saw that we had already helped ourselves to cereal.  “Hey boys, do you want me to make you eggs?”  my mom asked. 

"Yes, ma’am!” we said in unison.   Debbie came down a few minutes later trying not to look at us.  My parents took it as awkward teenage girl angst and nothing more.  Jack and I settled back on the couch in front of the TV and vegged on more crappy Saturday morning cartoons – for two teenage boys who for once didn’t have any chores on a Saturday – this was the life.  After about an hour – we heard a leaf blower going.  
Jack looked at me – “Dude, that sounds like the one my dad has.”  We looked out the living room window and sure enough – there was Jack’s dad clearing off the leaves in the front lawn.  My dad walked out, shook his hand and offered him some coffee.  Jack and I looked at each other – in the time that we had been friends and Jack had been hanging out over here – his dad had not once come over to check on him. 

“I wonder what’s up,” Jack said quietly.   He was afraid that his father might have had a few beers and was spoiling for a fight.   Instead, he came inside, introduced himself to my mother and thanked them for allowing Jack to stay over.   What happened next was truly interesting.  Our two dads went outside – did lawn work and talked about their days in Vietnam.   Jack watched apprehensively – afraid that his dad might do or say something that would cause a problem but everything appeared to be fine.
 “Boys,” my mother called, “could you help set the table - Mr. Bronson is staying for lunch.  We can heat up some of the leftovers from Thanksgiving.”  I grabbed the plates from the cupboard and Jack got the silverware – but he seemed quiet. 

“Hey you okay?” I asked.  
“Sure – it’s just my dad – sometimes he’s not that predictable and I don’t want him to –“  He didn’t have to finish – I knew what he was getting at.  “Hey – don’t worry – my parents love having you over – they call you the brother I never had.  They get your situation – it’ll be fine,” I said trying to reassure my friend and hoping that adult politics would not ruin a great friendship.

My sisters came down for lunch but were quiet when they saw Jack’s dad.  They just didn’t know what to make of the situation and it felt awkward.   Tom Bronson sized up the situation and made a bold statement. 
Wow Dave, you didn’t tell me you had super models for sisters – ladies – it’s good to meet you!”   Jack and I held our collective breaths – you never knew how teenage girls would react – it was like a land mine.  The wrong type of pressure could result in an explosion.   Aimee and Tiffany looked at Jack’s dad and tilted their heads like puppies – then started to smile.  
“You really think we look like supermodels?” they gushed.  
“Yes ladies, if I was not here in Georgia – I would swear you two could be on the runways in New York,”  Tom Bronson cheerfully replied.

They laughed and thanked him.   I saw were Jack got his charm with the ladies – although Jack’s take was not nearly as polished.  Debbie came down and still was having a hard time making eye contact but when she saw Jack’s dad and it gave her someone to look at rather than adverting her gaze from us.  

We all sat down and it felt like a second Thanksgiving – but with less people and my best friend and his dad at the table which made it better.   I was learning that was what was going to be the hardest about the holidays this year and for years to come - missing the people you loved who were no longer at the table.  Everyone sitting and having lunch had experienced that kind of loss this year but maybe creating some new traditions like this after Thanksgiving lunch could help ease the pain.

The lunch conversations veered in many directions and Tom Bronson was pretty talkative – the most I had ever seen him say in the six months that Jack and I had been friends.  Mr. Bronson talked about traveling in Europe in the early 1960’s with stories that Jack had never heard – about being a traveling poet before he started college.  My mom tried to look amused but was afraid he was giving the girls ideas about being a hippie until they asked if he stayed in nice hotels.  When he explained that a hostile was a place where you slept in a room with strangers and used the same bathroom  – it immediately killed their sense of wanderlust. 

When the subject of what we wanted for Christmas came up – Jack and I immediately piped up with our number one choice – a Ghostbusters Proton Pack with Neutrona Arm.  The conversation came to a screeching halt and everyone looked at us like we had lost our damn minds. 
“A Proton Nutra what?” my mother asked still trying to process what we said. 
“It’s a radiation pack for neutralizing ghosts –  you know so Dave and I can be ghost hunters!” Jack said excitedly.   

The room paused for a second and then my mother said the one thing that would pretty much destroy our hopes.
“Oh, no – that sounds really dangerous – you’ll shoot your eye out!”  My dad and Jack’s dad just looked at us and my sisters’ eyes rolled so far back I was afraid I’d never see their pupils again. 
“What nerds – I mean you can’t be seriously serious,” said Tiffany in an exasperated tone that only a teenage sister could invoke.  Jack and I just sat there – trying not to feel like fools but it seemed like our request was meeting with ridicule.  

My dad smiled and said – “I get it – when I was your age – I wanted a Giant Pan American Clipper – it was an airplane.”  
“Hey I remember those, mine was a Disney Space ship set!” added Mr. Bronson.  Suddenly our hopes brightened – the men of the table got where we were coming from.   My mother just sighed – “We’ll just have to see – I’m not even sure where you would buy something like that.”   

The “we’ll see” was not a definite no – so Jack and I still held out some hope.   The lunch finished and Jack and his dad started out the door to go home.   “Thank you for lunch and I’d really like to return the favor sometime – you all have been so great to Jack –“ 
“No, Jack is wonderful – we love having him – anytime you or he wants to come over –“ my mother added and I knew she genuinely meant it. 

Over the next few weeks – Jack and I campaigned for the Proton packs –finding articles in sci-fi magazines and placing them on strategic places for our parents to find.  We even had the same English teacher and one of our assignments was to explain what the perfect holiday gift would be.   Our papers gave different reasons for the same thing – a proton pack to take down any ghosts that might want to menace the living.  We would take it upon ourselves to be the guardians of the city – keeping evil out and putting the ghosts on notice that we meant business.  We both thought we gave some very well-reasoned arguments and a fantastic conclusion to our papers.  Our teacher felt differently. Mrs. Sampson gave us both Cs on our papers with her main comment that they sounded dangerous and that we might shoot our eyes out.  It stung – feeling like our dream was being crushed by adults who only wanted to know the here and now. 

I stood there at my locker – holding my paper and feeling decidedly trapped in my life, this town and by adults who didn’t understand me.  Then the sting of hot tears started to drown my eyeballs and I realized that I was crying again.  But this time they were quiet tears that I could wipe away before anyone saw – except one person did see- Bruce Dane.  
“Hey faggot- why are you crying did your boyfriend Jack break up with you?”  I didn’t answer – I knew he was an asshole and was not worth fighting. 
“Did you hear me – you little pansy?”  I needed to put an end to this for me and all the other kids he’d terrorized over the years. 
“Bruce –let’s settle this after-school at Mather’s Park.”  Bruce looked surprised that I was going to stand-up to him – and that I wanted to fight in a place that was neutral. 

“Okay, ass-wipe – let’s meet and don’t let Jack so your fighting for you!”  He walked away with his little minions in tow to his next class and I stood there at my locker wondering what my MeMa would tell me to do.  My eyes got misty as I headed to my math class. 

“Dave, Dude – you need to call this off – Bruce is out for blood and you’ve never really fought anyone like that before,” Jack cautioned,
“Let me take him on – I’ve got your back. Seriously – let me help you.”   

Even though I was not a fighter –Bruce needed to be taken down a few pegs.  “No, Jack – I have to do this my self – my dad, mom, sisters – even you all try to protect me but I’ve got to fight my own fights – and I’m not going down without putting in a few good punches.”  Jack understood and we walked quietly to the park. 

Word had gotten around school that we’d be fighting and there was a pretty big crowd –  I showed up with Jack and Bruce had his usual posse with him. 
“So you showed up faggot – I see you brought  your boyfriend with you – “ Jack started to lunge towards Bruce but I kept him back.
“This is my fight –“ I said sternly and he backed away into the crowd.  
“So – sh**head you gonna start crying again over your little MeMa – she’s dead and can’t help you – “ Bruce said mockingly.

Jesus - this guy was such an a**hole.  He was trying to make me cry but it just made me mad.  I looked down for a moment and without warning – he punched me in the face.  For a nano-second I was dizzy, started to fall back.  I realized that I was in over my head and I wanted to stop this.  I wondered what MeMa would tell me to do.  Then I heard her voice say – “Punch the sh** out of that little bastard!!”   

I literally felt like someone stopped me from falling and pushed me towards
him.  The rage that I’d kept inside over my grandmother’s death started to surge forward.  My vision literally dimmed with a red hue and I was out for blood.  I heard myself utter a primal yell and lunged for Bruce.  I punched him in the face and knocked him down.  He got back up and tried to punch me but my arm stopped it and my other fist got an upper cut to his chin.  He fell back against the fence and I moved in – punching him in the stomach, the face, the arms with a reckless abandon I had never known before – spewing profanity like a drunken sailor and fighting like one too.  It was like all the times I had to quell my anger at everyone because I was the good kid –the responsible kid – the nice kid - now it was rushing forward in a red hot river of rage.  I could hear my mother telling me that God wouldn’t want me to fight –  to turn the other cheek is what they taught in catechism.   Well screw that – God took my grandmother and I couldn’t hurt him but I could punch the sh*t out of the guy who was mocking me.  Bruce’s face was getting bloody.  I had made my point but I didn’t care.  Jack tried to pull me off but I was not going to leave until he felt the full force of my anger. 
“Dave - stop – he’s had enough – just stop!” Jack pleaded.   

I kept hitting until I felt a pair of familiar hands on my shoulders. 
“Son, for God’s sake – stop – that’s enough,” I heard my father say which jolted me out of this surreal place of intense emotion and physical power. 
“But he made fun of MeMa – how she died –“ and then I started to sob and fell into my father’s arms.  

Bruce pulled away from the fence doubled over in pain – his hands covering his bloody nose.  The rest of the crowd was silent.  Jack walked over to me – “Hey Dave – I get it.   I miss my Nana too – death f*cking sucks.”   

My dad looked at Jack – “Yes it does,” he said quietly.    One of the other boys in the crowd said – “I miss my grandma too.  Sometimes it makes me cry and I’m not ashamed to say it.”  The rest of the kids nodded in agreement.   Bruce wanted to say something to put us down but realized he was weak and outnumbered.  He limped away with just one of his minions trailing after him – the rest stayed with us in quiet solidarity.    

My dad held onto me as the crowd started to thin – each with their own thoughts to process.   We walked to car without saying a word.  I saw how I looked in the rear view mirror.  Bruce had gotten one good punch off and had bloodied my mouth.  I had a very fat lip.  “What are we going to tell Mom?” I asked.  “I’m not sure – maybe she won’t notice.”  Yeah, right – she’d notice.  I’m her baby boy after all and she is always combing my hair in place and straightening my clothes – she might just pick-up on a bloody, swollen mouth. 

As the group dispersed, Nana and MeMa stood in the field watching the trio go to the car. 
“Nice upper cut,” said Nana.  
“Thanks, but I just got him back on his feet – the rest was all Dave.   Now maybe that little asshole will leave our grandsons alone,” said MeMa defiantly.  
“Yes, but doesn’t it bother you that Dave is so mad at God?” Nana asked.   MeMa paused for a second – “Yes, I’ve got to find a way to give him his faith back,”  she said as they both faded out. 

We pulled into the driveway and my mother came up to the car as we got out.  When she saw my face – she gasped.  “What happened?”  I started to say something but my father cut me off.  
“He got into a little scrape with a kid in the park – but it’s fine – I happened to be going by and picked him up – it’s no big deal.”  My mother seemed reassured until Aimee ran up. 
"Oh my God – Dave beat up Bruce Dane!   I mean it’s not like that jerk didn’t have it coming to him.  I just didn’t think that Dave would be the one to hand his ass to him – my money was on Jack!”  

My mother looked at the men in the driveway sternly but then realized that I could take care of myself.   She started to smile and hugged me. “As long as you’re okay, that’s all that matters.  Here let me get you some ice for your mouth,” she said as she straightened my shirt and smoothed down my hair.  That night, Jack’s dad came over for dinner and we regaled everyone on the fight.  Later, our dads disappeared in the backyard workshop for guy talk which would undoubtedly include a discourse on how tough their sons were.  I’d never felt like one before but that night I was a genuine badass.  

The week of Christmas at school was a strange combination of finals and parties.  Jack and I tried to cruise through but there were last minute papers to write, cramming for geometry, English and Spanish.  In between there were holiday celebrations and cupcakes to be had between finals.  A few girls even baked me cookies and brownies because I was so “brave.”    Bruce kept his distance so my locker time was pretty stress free.  On the last day of school before winter break, my family decided to have dinner at the mall and invited Jack.   My parents told us to walk around while they did some shopping.  We saw the line for the Mall Santa which was full of kids under the age of six holding their stuffed animals and Barbies.  Two guys like us would look weird there even if we thought it would help our chances of getting Proton packs.  

We happened to pass by a storage room in the back of Macy’s and saw Santa (who actually looked like someone in their 30’s with a beard – go figure) taking a cigarette break.   Jack and I saw our chance and went up to him.  
“Hey there – Santa – can we have a word?”  Jack asked.  The Almost Santa looked a little apprehensive – we were two teenage boys wanting to talk to him after all. 
“Yeah, sure –“ he said looking around for a sharp stick just in case he needed it.  “Look, we know how this goes – you work for Santa but you’re not the real Santa – your Almost Santa and that’s fine.  We just need one thing for Christmas,” I started. 
“Okay, look boys - I can’t bring you Playboy bunnies – they just don’t fit down the chimney,” Almost Santa started to chuckle at his joke and then stopped when he saw our faces. 
“Girls would be cool but we need something that will actually help us later in life – “ Jack said.   He looked confused – what could we want if it wasn’t girls.  “We need you to ask Santa to bring us two Ghostbusters Proton Packs with Neutrona Arms so we can hunt ghosts.”  Almost Santa looked at us waiting for the punch line. 
“Okay, you’re serious – like the packs in the movie?”  he asked and we nodded. 
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea guys – you’ll shoot your eyes out.  Oh and don’t cross the beams.”  He chuckled again, put out his cigarette and walked away.  

Jack and I looked at each other.  “Okay, Almost Santa is a real dickhead,” I said. 
“Yeah, but if we could get Playboy bunnies – that would be awesome!” Jack replied – his teenage mind now filled with lusty thoughts of busty vixens. 
“Let’s find my parents and just go home,” I added – feeling dejected and like our whole plan was going down the tubes.  Right now I didn’t have faith in God, or Santa.   Except for beating up Bruce – this year had really sucked. 

On Christmas Eve, my parents invited Jack and his dad to Mass and dinner afterwards.  Christmas Eve was usually fun, but this year –it felt hollow and empty without MeMa.  She would make cookies with us on Christmas Eve during the day, sing carols badly and tell us about the holidays when she was little.  We tried to use her recipes and the cookies looked the same but they were not the same – nothing was the same.   
I went to Mass with my best friend and listened to the choir sing “Oh Holy
Night,” which was my grandmother’s favorite Christmas carol.  Usually I felt a sense of peace when I heard it – now I just felt empty.  The whole ritual of church seemed to be a farce.  Where was God when you needed him?  Where was he when my grandmother needed saving?  I was beginning to feel like I had been played this whole time by a religion that sold me a God that didn’t exist.  It made me mad – I bowed my head not in reverence but as a way to block out all the so-called holiness that was around me.  My mother sensed something was wrong but continued with the “Our Father” which everyone else around me was reciting by route.   I could not say anything right now but my New Year’s Resolution was to stop coming to church – it just felt like a waste of time. 

After Mass, we went back to our house.  My mother had been cooking chicken and pork in her crock pots and the smell in the house was amazing.  Tom Bronson helped make the salad and crescent rolls.  My mother appreciated the help – my dad was not much for the kitchen.  Finally, dinner was ready and we sat down.   We bowed our heads and my mother said grace.  Mr. Bronson asked to add to it.  

“Lord, we thank you for bringing us together – all of us on our separate journeys and for those whose journeys with us have ended – we remember and honor their memories.  Sometimes the road is hard and our hearts can be broken but it’s the renewal of life and friendships that give us hope.  We lost two very great ladies this year and we raise our glasses in a toast to their memories.   We love you and will never forget you.”   I raised my head to see how everyone else was reacting.  There were tears and a sense of relief that our sadness was being acknowledged even on a night when all was supposed to be right with the world.  My mother smiled and squeezed my father’s hand – it seemed natural for the Bronsons to be part of our family – their loss and ours had brought us together.

After dinner, our dads went out to the backyard workshop to shoot the breeze and have a few beers.  It was getting late and my mother invited Jack and his dad to stay the night.  Jack would stay in my room and his dad would stay in the guest room – which just made Christmas exponentially better.   We got out some books on ghosts and talked until about midnight when my mom made us turn out the lights. 

The next morning – the living room was filled with presents and Christmas did not start until 10:00 am – a time that worked well for my parents.  There were times when having a house full of teens who liked to sleep late worked in their favor.  My sisters ended up putting on a little make-up since we had guests and came down stairs in jeans and t-shirts rather than pajamas.  Mr. Bronson was already up and making breakfast when my parents came down.  

“Good morning Carolyn, I hope you don’t mind – I started breakfast and made some coffee.  The kids have hot chocolate.”  My mom was thrilled to have a hot cup of java waiting and cinnamon rolls out of the oven – that was the best present of all.   Jack loved that when his dad was over at our house he barely drank which kept his temper in check – under these conditions he could be a genuinely charming guy. 

We sat around the living room and exchanged presents – everyone had something to open.  For Jack this was the first Christmas he had with other kids and I could tell he was enjoying the dynamic.   My mother handed Jack and I our presents and I could tell she thought she had hit it out of the park.   

“Here boys, I hope this is what you wanted.”  We tore into the wrapping paper and saw the Ghostbuster’s logo so we had hopes that our dream had come true.  But as we looked closer – we had proton packs but they were just toys for little kids to play with.  I looked over at my mom who seemed so proud of the packs. 
“Hey thanks Mom, this is great,”  I said trying to mask my disappointment.   “Yes, Mrs. Jackson, thank you so much for this – I really appreciate it,”  Jack said also trying to mask his dejection.  The room just felt awkward.  

Finally, Debbie said, “Hey why don’t we get some more hot coco and cinnamon rolls.”   We headed to the kitchen – still smiling but feeling like we’d been kicked in the stomach.

Finally, all the presents had been opened – I got a few clothes for school, my mom bought Jack a couple of shirts and his Dad some books on history that he had mentioned he wanted to read.   Tom Bronson unveiled for my dad a custom iron drum BBQ and smoker which had made – apparently he used to make those in the army for his unit when they served in Vietnam which gave him another good reason to come over.  

The lack of real proton packs not withstanding – Christmas was actually pretty good.  I got to spend it with my friends and family.  Jack’s disappointment turned to joy when Debbie started to model some of the clothes she had gotten.  “Seriously Dude, your sister is smoking!”  he whispered and this time I did not try to put down his enthusiasm – it was Christmas after all and anything was possible. 

After the ladies started to clean up the wrapping paper and the kitchen – my
father asked Jack and I to come out into his workshop in the backyard.  We put on our jackets and walked outside.  It was about 45 and sunny as we made the short trek to the place my dad tinkered with things like lawn mowers, leaf blowers,  bicycle repair – you name it and my dad would try to fix it.  We walked into the shop and saw two objects that were covered up on the wall.  Jack’s dad was waiting for us. 
“Boys, we know that you had your hearts set on Proton packs and that the ones you got are more like toys than the real thing – but Santa had to work overtime and his elves just delivered these,” Tom Bronson announced proudly.  

The dads pulled the covers off and there right in front of us were two proton packs which looked like the ones used in Ghostbusters! 
“Holy sh*t, these are amazing!”  exclaimed Jack and then realizing he cursed said “Oh, f*ck I didn’t mean to say that!”  

We started to laugh as we got closer to something that we never thought we’d own.  

“Here take them off the wall and try them out.”   We put them on our backs and they felt pretty sturdy.  The Neutrona Arm actually had a blue beam of light which was created by a flash light and blue gel but it looked cool on the wall.  Real or not – these did not look like toys.  

“Hey, just one thing – your mother was so proud that she found those other ones – don’t let on that you have these.  You can keep them out here or at Jack’s – just out of her sight okay?” my father gently pleaded. 
“Sure dad, no problem.”   Our dads showed us more of the features – the cyclorama with the flashing lights and all the details like the ones from the movie.  

We walked out of the workshop – all smiles and high fiving each other – Christmas was finally living up to its reputation.   Mr. Bronson started to pack up their presents and headed home.   They would be back for dinner which was now going to include some smoked turkey.   Jack and I contemplated how to use our new piece of equipment.   

“Hey – there was that entity in the PE offices – why don’t we see if the building is open and see what we can find – just for an hour or so before dinner – c’mon I want to test drive the packs.”   I was not sure at first but then what was the point of having them if we did not use them.   I made sure my family was occupied and I told my parents we were headed over to Jack’s house. My dad saw us with the proton packs and thought we were moving them over there. 

 We walked the streets which were pretty quiet – kids were inside playing with their Christmas loot.  We traveled down the path of the PE office near the lockers and started to hear things clacking and moaning.  We turned the corner and once again there was Gus, but with a new girl on the couch.  Before we could leave, he spotted us. 

“Hey you little pervs – get the hell out of here before I –“ just then– the lockers started to open and close loudly.  Gus was trying to keep his cool but he was scared. 
“Stop doing that you little scum bags –“ he yelled as the teenage girl named Trudy on the couch started to scream.   Just then Mr. Bronson, my dad and Debbie rushed in.  
“I told you they would be here – wait – what?  Gus – who is this?” she said and pointed Trudy. 
“You have someone new already- you little ass—“  Debbie was cut off as the lockers started to shake.   Jack and I instinctively pointed the Neutrona Arm of our Proton packs in the direction of the noise and it immediately stopped.  

Gus screamed “This is f*cked up!” and ran out of the building – leaving his “date” behind.   Trudy started to run after him but Debbie stopped her. 
“Hey I don’t know you but I do know this – we deserve better. Gus is an a**hole!”  Trudy just looked at her and ran out – partially out of fear and partially out of embarrassment. 

The lockers started to open and close again.  
Our dads tried to make it stop by standing next to the lockers to keep them from moving.  Jack and I pointed the proton packs on the most active lockers and turned on the blue streams – just then the building lights went out and we could make out two forms.   They were full apparitions – it was hard to make out so we crossed our beams.  Then the entities truly came into focus and I nearly dropped the Neutrona Arm.  The ghosts were my MeMa and Jack’s Nana! 

Then MeMa started to speak, “Please don’t be sad – I’m looking out for you.  Jack and Tom - so is Nana.  We are in a better place – we love you.  We are with God and he loves you all. That’s what you have on this side – nothing but love.  Merry Christmas my sweets – just think of us and we’ll be there.”   

Nana and MeMa looked at the faces of those who loved and missed them and wished they could touch them once more.  The four most important men in their past lives stood there speechless with tears rolling down their cheeks.  Debbie reached out for her father and hugged him in a way she had not in months.  MeMa and Nana could feel that the group was finally at peace with what had happened.  They faded out with big smiles on their faces.

We all walked out of the field house wondering if we had seen what we thought we saw.  Some like Debbie had a hard time believing it but I didn’t – I knew it was her. I got to see my MeMa once last time and she was magnificent.   My dad told me that Jack and I should definitely pursue being paranormal investigators.  Even Jack’s dad was won over by this encounter - he got to see his mother again and it helped him cope with the death of his wife.  For Jack, seeing his Nana again was the culmination of all he had worked for and having us all see the same thing at the same time strengthened his resolve.  
For me, that Christmas restored a lot of things – my belief in myself, the ability to kickass and take names but most of all – I realized that there was a God.  He had a plan even if I didn’t always understand or like it.  I even changed my New Year’s Resolution.  This time when I went to church I would actually talk to God and now I would also be smart enough to be still and finally listen.