Matthew Rickart ~ D.Z. Wagner
One More Long Lankin
They call me Babe because it’s silly to call an infant Raleigh. Raleigh comes from an ancestor, an itinerant dust bowl Evangelist, so I’ll have to grow into that name.
They call Errol Mason Old Lanky Pants, because he’s very long in the limbs and his pants barely hit his ankles. Mom and Dad use that formula for nicknames. Old This-y That. Neither hurtful or respectful. They’re not hurtful people, or if so only indirectly. Errol Mason is a hurtful person, though. He once pinched my cheek hard enough to make me cry and I don’t cry easily.
So yes, I am worried when Dad doesn’t pay Mason. Mason built the outdoor brick barbecue just like dad had specified, clearing the grass around it, laying down slate, piling stones and mortar until the whole thing was finished, turreted and strong as a little castle. “Oh God Mom, it looks like a mini golf course,” Betsy says. “Watch your language, Betsy,” says Mom.
Dad is ecstatic, until the he finds Mason copulating with my nanny Lass in the master bedroom, windows flung wide for all the world to hear. Dad crows at Mason, pushes him out the front door but lets him get his pants and shirt in order first. Dad’s a decent man, but mostly he doesn’t wanted the neighbors to see the brick barbecue builder stumbling into the yard half-dressed. Lass gets a long talk that night, first about the sanctity of virginity and then about the Devil and temptation. Lass listens, head down, crying a little, mumbling at one point that she might even love Old Lanky Pants. Dad won’t have any of that. Lass is like a daughter to him, though he touches her knee when he talks in a way he won’t with Betsy.
Of course, Dad doesn’t believe Errol Mason is literally the Devil. “Babe,” he says holding me one night around 3am, not because I’m crying but because he can’t sleep and I keep odd hours, “Babe, that man’s touched in a wicked way and maybe it’s best we lead him back to the flock. But I’ll be damned before he gets a cent out of me, defiling the bedspread and our poor Lass like that.”
The next night after he drives Lass home, Dad waits outside her apartment a little while in his idling car. I’m in the back seat. Mom makes him take me on car rides at night, since it helps me sleep, and I get to say goodbye to Lass. She comes back out the door of the building and walks to Mosse & Haye, a neighborhood bar. Dad idles in the parking lot, lights off, singing me “Be Still and Know” in his soft, poor voice. Lass and Mason exit the bar. They kiss under the parking lot flood light, a halo of bugs above them.
Letters start arriving early in the morning, slipping through the mail slot like unwelcome paper tongues. I’m awake, so I hear the metal creak, footsteps, then the truck receding. I don’t know what the letters say, unable to read as I am, but after someone spray paints more words on the backyard barbecue I hear Mom say “Oh how awful, and the neighbors…”
One summer night Peter the cat disappears, Peter the indoor cat.
Dad shows up on Errol Mason’s front door with a few neighborhood men. Sets things straight, he says. Opens a beer that night, self-satisfied. “What’d you do?” says Mom. “Law is law is law,” Says dad. He rubs a bit of froth with a bruised knuckle.
Dad has an overnight trip in Birmingham hearing several cases before the appeals court. He leaves with a suitcase, judges robes and a pistol inside it. He cleans the pistol before he leaves, and I watch him from my carry seat. He calls the police commissioner, an old friend. They promise to have a car drive by every hour. Then he’s gone.
Lass is a quiet girl, and I don’t hear her come in until she’s right over my crib. It’s early morning and while I hear the police car passing outside, it’s not every hour. Lass picks me up and holds me to her breast, against the cotton T-shirt. She’s barefoot. Got in with her key, of course, though Dad said her services wouldn’t be needed anymore. I’m not sad to see her, just wary as an infant can be. I grab at her hair.
Downstairs there’s a shadow in the kitchen. Old Lanky Pants himself, eating cold cuts straight from the fridge. “He here?” Mason asks Lass. His nose is crooked, a still-fresh red split in the bridge. Lass shakes her head. “This the little heir to the house then, heir to the brick barbecue?” Mason reaches out for me, and Lass hesitates, but then she hands me over. This isn’t the Lass I know. “The old lady?” asks Mason. Sleeping, says Lass. “Let’s wake her up and bring her down,” says Mason. And Lass moves to the stairs but he stays her. “Pricking the Babe should do,” he says.
Errol Mason puts me on the kitchen counter and opens drawers until he finds a knife, a long one. I hiccup, look to Lass, who doesn’t stop Mason when he starts. False Lass, not my Lass. I cry and cry, because it hurts of course, being pricked with a knife, but worse because False Lass just stands by, hand to her mouth, saying He’s bleeding all over the counter. She reaches for the paper towels.
“Babe?” says Mom from the top of the stairs. Then “Babe!” and she’s rushing down, because I shouldn’t be down here, I should be asleep. She wails and wails when she sees Old Lanky Pants with the knife and me bleeding on the counter, False Lass trying to wipe the mess with paper towel squares.
She runs at him, claws at him, tries to pick me up but he cuts the back of her hand. She struggles with him, her nightgown catching black spatter, the charm necklace around her neck flashing with moon. Then she runs to the stairs again, yelling to Betsy to run, to lock her door, to… Mason picks her up by the hair at her neck, like a dog’s scruff, and brings her to the pantry, stacked with peanut butter, gallon tubs of ketchup, a forest of cereal. He cuts her throat with a blade so sharp the metal chain of her necklace divides and falls to the floor with a splash.
And despite False Lass’s best efforts to clean the counter and staunch my pricks, I’m but an infant and the damage is done and I feel myself moving upward toward the kitchen’s overhead lamp. Taller now, I see as adults see. There’s blood in the kitchen, there’s blood in the hall, and in the pantry where Mason took Mom.
But I’m still moving upward, to Betsy’s room where she’s crying into a cell phone, and her eyes seem to catch mine as I ascend, leaving myself foot by foot by foot.
Matthew Rickart lives in Chicago. His work has recently been published in Short Fiction Break.
It’s an invisible monsoon. There’s no wind or rain, but the airwaves are everywhere and they lash against me. My head bows like pliant electricity wires, hunching me over my cramping stomach.
I’ve been hungry for weeks, updating my followers with the sensations and feelings, part of the monsoon. The shares and new followers fuelled me until now. Tonight is different. The pain is acute, urgent. I’m down to the last percent.
I told them it was over. I had to eat. There was no food in the house except a bowl of fruit, rotted black into a single organic mound, the fruit reaching and holding onto one another as the airwaves slowly took them.
I asked my followers if they could bring me food. They shared it and liked my update, but no one came.
I’ve made it out to the street. I can barely make out the black sky between the galaxy of street lights. I squint and feel the prickle of the airwaves everywhere. I send out a message: ‘Food@downtown?”
Followers direct me to a row of restaurants on 9th. When I arrive, the neon writing above each restaurant sparkles ferociously, and on the sidewalk menus are illuminated in golden cases. Shiny, silent beggars.
Fighting to look past the glow of lights, I see that the windows are darkened though, and when I step closer, they reflect my hunched, ragged outline back to me. My clothes hang loosely from the pointed angles of my shoulders and I take a selfie against the windows. The screen flickers and returns my gaunt face, sagged and yellow, my cheekbones protruding like clifftops over the brittle chalk flesh of my cheeks. I’m wasting away. I despatch the picture into the monsoon with a caption; ‘No food here. Midtown?”
A siren chases up the street. The shriek coils in my head, and I wait for it to pass, watching the siren coat the tarmac in rolling identical waves of blue and blinding white. An Ambulance blows past, so much sound and haste. I clutch my phone tighter and search it for guidance. Replies are raining down -
A deli on 41st, closes in one hour.
A bodega on 29th, thirty minutes.
I don’t read the rest, drowning each other out in the maelstrom. The comfort is instant and I select the bodega, moving on, hunched, hurried and distracted, shuffling footsteps, scrolling notifications. I side-step a blue jacket and then a black one with an umbrella that catches me on the head. I turn and snarl silently. Bright wires run up the jacket to a woman’s pale ears and her eyes look down at the bright screen in her hand. She doesn’t notice me and is gone.
Ahead of me a tree sways, resisting the invisible onslaught. It’s proud and sturdy like the Grandfather Clock I once saw in a meme. Pink flowers cling on against the monsoon, analog in their determination.
I lift my phone and search ‘trees of midtown’. Hits hit my eyes and I scroll, glimpsing words and reading nothing, discarding each entry before the screen bounces up at the end of the page. The images tab returns trees of all shapes and sizes but none that match. I have more responses and I feel the weight of the monsoon pushing me on, but I stay and point the phone at the tree, capturing it in pixels. I smother it in filters, seeking perfection in the flower’s pink, and send it off. ‘Tree with no name’.
I toggle the camera to face me and sweep back my greasy dark hair, flicking and swiping at the clumped strands to move them into position. I turn so the tree is behind me, widen my eyes and pose by leaning backwards. I send the photo with, ‘Nature not food’.
The likes come in, hundreds already. My phone buzzes with each one, an incessant slow clap. ‘Battery Low’ pops up on the screen and I tap it away.
My weak legs ache for rest, but the likes keep coming, and the comments and shares. They want more. I look around for content, switching off the avenue and onto the side streets. Behind a brightly lit condo block there’s a dumpster and I jump in. I sift through the trash but it’s all boxes, empty delivery boxes. I take a selfie in the dumpster, and turn my pale lips down as the light flashes. ‘Trash not food’.
The likes and shares are popping candy that surges me on again. I abandon the trash and set my maps app for the deli on 51st. My phone wants to go to low power, and I quickly agree, whatever it needs I need.
Steps are getting harder, and the shares are slowing with me. I swipe the phone to video. I record and pant and struggle words between steps, “Help me. Food anywhere. Desperate now. Don’t know if…I can make it.” I lower my head and end the recording.
Uploading it takes precious seconds and battery. I move forward, using the last ebbs of energy to force my feet one step in front of the other, and again. I’m hurrying now, dragging my heels on the concrete.
I search the maps app to check the route to the deli but as my eyes trace it, the phone darkens and dies.
I look up to the lights, the veins bulging in my neck. I try to keep going but the airwaves want me. I can feel them degrading me, turning me to darkness like the fruit, but I struggle on, another block. I can’t keep going and fall to my hands and knees and crawl. I can feel the monsoon lashing down now but my phone remains dead and dark. I crawl into the light of a streetlamp, and curl up into it, clutching the phone in my right hand.
The hunger, the airwaves are tearing at me. My eyes widen with it, and through the streaming light, I glimpse the airwaves. A perfect infinity of ripples flows all around me. But then they shudder, and bulge, and explode in a static flash. White, black. On, off.
D.Z. Wagner is a London-based writer and author. His first novel, 'Pawel' was published in 2010 with Edinburgh digital publisher, ThistleInTheKiss. He has also had short stories published in several online literary magazines.