It had started to snow the night before. The boy woke up on the floor by the fire, like he sometimes did when the winds blew in too cold and mum didn’t pay the electric bill. But by the time morning came around, the fire was out, just smoldering ash, and he couldn’t feel his fingers or his nose, the only things sticking out of the itchy flannel blanket.
Despite the cold and the damp that coated the small, dark living room, the boy woke up happy. Today was his special day. He was turning five, and his mother had promised, promised him last year, on his last birthday, when he had no presents at all, that when he turned five and became a big boy, he could go to the toy store and get whatever toy he wanted.
He had spent most of the year flipping through discarded catalogues he found in the housing complex’s rubbish (sometimes he’d have to wait on the sidelines while some rough, unpredictable characters looted around for food or something they could pawn), looking for toys that caught his fancy. He would find them, rip the pages out, and take them to the bedroom he shared with his mother, hiding them in the inner pocket of the single coat he had.
When he wasn’t so lucky with the catalogues, he would flip through the magazines he found at the library. That’s where he spent most of his time. He wasn’t in school, though he should have been at this point¸ so his mum had to put him somewhere while she did her business. The library was the best place for him. In the chaotic slums of Muirhouse, no one in the library noticed the little boy in his ill-fitting, threadbare clothes, sitting on the library floor for hours, looking through magazines and dreaming about a different life.
The truth was, as his birthday came around, he didn’t care at all about what toy he ended up getting. He just wanted something he could call his own. And even though he knew that boys like him should want army figurines and cars, he just wanted something comforting. A stuffed animal, maybe a bear or a dog. He loved dogs, even the ones who belonged to his neighbor that barked all night and tried to bite if you got too close. He loved those dogs, too.
The boy got up, shivering even with the blanket draped around his shoulders, and went to go look out the window. His large grey-green eyes widened in awe. The grime and dirt of the godforsaken streets below were completely wiped away by a layer of clean, white snow. It was the first snowfall in Edinburgh this year, and he couldn’t help but think that it was all for him, for his special day. With cold, fumbling fingers, he pulled his cross necklace out of his shirt and kissed it as thanks to God.
He wanted to tell his mother about the snow, so he ran across the thin rug, ever covered in tears and cigarette burns, and to the bedroom.
He really should have knocked first. In his excitement he forgot one of the few rules his mother gave him: “If I have a friend over, you must sleep in the living room,” and, “If my door is closed, never open it.”
But he opened it.
The window had a crack in it, and the frozen wind was seeping in, blowing the faded curtains around. Below the window was the bed, where his mother, clad in a dirty negligee, was currently sleeping facedown.
A naked man was standing over her, smoking from a pipe.
The boy froze, but it was too late. The man saw him, slammed down the pipe in anger, and in a second was across the room, holding him by the throat.
“You think you can judge me?” the man hissed in his face with rank breath that smelled of onions and blood. The boy closed his eyes and shook his head fearfully.
He had seen the man a few times before—his mother had so many male friends. They would all disappear into the bedroom. Sometimes for hours, sometimes for minutes. He would hear coughing, laughing, and cries of excitement on good days. On bad days, he would hear shouting, his mother crying, things being thrown around the room. On those bad days, his mother would be covered in cuts and bruises. She wouldn’t talk to him, and she wouldn’t go outside. He just stayed by her side, bringing her weak tea from teabags that had already been used a few times, because that’s all there was left.
“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.