I rubbed wet fingers together, feeling the salty slickness
thicken upon exposure to air. The whorls of my fingertips
glowed crimson, the angry pressure of my grip forcing the
sticky liquid to flow against gravity and bubble like lava
from the tips.
As the bubbles burst and blood dripped from my flesh to
join the expanding pool on the floor, it took with it my
I sank to my knees.
Tears soon followed, but they were selfish, and as such,
more mockery than remorse.
Melody Michaels was a fair-skinned, ragamuffin girl — the
kind you see on cereal boxes with a quick smile and shining
turquoise eyes. If she had been born to another family,
one with just enough for a comfort or two, her beauty would
have been recognized, perhaps even celebrated. But on this
street, my street, beauty is a luxury few can afford.
Every morning, Melody played on the sidewalk across the
road. And every morning when I opened the front door to
fetch the newspaper, she waved.
At first, I wouldn’t wave back. Men like me don’t.
But that never dissuaded her. No matter my state, or my
temperament, she waved.
Inside my house, behind thick, mustard-yellow drapes, I
would stand back from the window, away from the light, and
watch. Melody didn’t wave to others, and there were
always others: skinny Latinos with shifty eyes and droopy
pants, pock-marked Blacks with sharp teeth and scar tissue,
and the tattooed Whites who needed lead or steel to back
up their mouths. Melody didn’t wave to slow-passing
cars or the strutting whores who eyed her with competitive
distrust. And she certainly never waved to him.
Sometimes, I could see him standing behind his curtains.
Like me, he avoided the light, but he didn’t have
the patience nor the discipline to stand perfectly still
and become the shadows. His mind would drift, to what I
wouldn’t want to hazard, and the light would spill
across skeletal cheeks and sunken, rimy eyes.
He never saw me, of that I am sure, for he only had eyes
Melody wore the stains of the world like a flag. So proudly,
it made me chuckle. Others may have felt saddened that her
tops were always spotted in the Rorschach remains of spilled
ketchup, mustard and peanut butter. But I asked her once,
about the stains, on an afternoon when the Autumn sun made
her hair shine like corn silk.
She had crossed the street to play hopscotch on the sidewalk
in front of my house. Her sidewalk had become too crowded
with chalk marks and dog shit to clearly see the game, and
no cleansing rain was forecast.
I made sure no others saw me — especially that shifty
son of a bitch. Not that I could stray far anyhow, the metallic
bracelet around my ankle insuring I stayed within inches
of the door.
Oh, the judge loved that. Smashing his hammer down on my
freedom and turning my home into a cell. Walk to the corner
store for a pack of smokes? Fuck, no. Groceries get delivered
once a week, paid by the state, but it’s the same
damn box of crap every time. One-ply toilet paper, canned
beans, chili, corn and some watery mush that’s supposed
to be spinach, a two-pound bag of ground beef that’s
usually so gray it verges on green, jug of milk, instant
coffee, dry noodles and two cans of peaches in a syrup so
sweet it hurts my teeth. I’m supposed to be able to
request additional items (shaving cream, ketchup, toilet
cleaner, etc.) for delivery with a week’s notice,
but I screwed that up when I jokingly asked for a cigar,
beer and a blow job. Christ, you would’ve thought
I asked the judge’s wife to do the honors.
When I called to Melody, she didn’t seem to hear me,
my damn voice so worn it crackled like dead leaves on a
brown lawn. But then she pointed at the ground and wrote
her reply in chalk. There were no actual words, just stick
figures and blotches of white, but I understood perfectly
that although she liked both ketchup and mustard, it just
wasn’t with the same relish as her clothes’ previous
Clever kid. I liked that.
I came to know that Melody couldn’t speak, never had.
People ignored her for that as though silence somehow diminished
the intelligence that shone like a beacon from those sparkling
eyes. She always played alone, without siblings, friends
or parents, yet her smile rarely dimmed.
I had given up on happiness a long time ago, as you do when
each day’s search begins with trembling hands and
an unquenchable thirst. But Melody had awakened something
within me. It was difficult to admit, but I looked forward — with
an almost painful eagerness pounding inside my chest — to
peeling back the heavy, dust-mottled curtains each morning
and seeing her playing across the street.
Had I fallen in love?
Was such a thing even possible for a played-out old man
who had never taken time for such fancy when he was young
and fit, broad shouldered and erect?
Was I that obvious?
If I hadn’t known before, I knew for certain now,
kneeling in the kitchen, hands covered in sticky crimson
The footsteps surprised me, soft as an angel’s, climbing
the creaky cellar steps. Their gentle patter froze me in
place as if iron spikes had been driven through my slippered
feet, pinning brittle bone and eel-thin flesh to the scarred
The footsteps stopped at the top of the stairs and the fake
brass handle of the cellar door began to turn.
I felt rather than heard the door open on oiled hinges.
The air around me grew cold and I saw my own breath as it
hissed over dry, cracked lips.
“Hello, Mr. Cranston,” said a soft, almost-inaudible
voice. It was the singsong chime of a child, no more than
six years old.
I closed my eyes and wrapped my arms tight across my chest
to stop the shakes.
“Y-you can speak,” I said, my voice breaking
like a pubescent youth.
“I always could,” she said, “only no one
could hear. Turn around, Mr. Cranston.”
I opened my eyes and tried to rise from my knees, but my
hands slipped on the smeared and slick linoleum. The pool
of blood had encircled me, growing dark as it lapped against
I heard her moving and I shut my eyes so tight I risked
crushing them inside my own skull. I couldn’t bear
to see what she looked like now. Not after . . . .
“It’s okay, Mr. Cranston. Please open your eyes.”
I shook my head, feeling rough, salted tears run from the
corners of my eyes.
She stood in front of me. I could feel the coldness of death
radiating from her like an open fridge.
“Open your eyes, Mr. Cranston. Please.”
How could I deny her?
To my surprise, she was beautiful. Dressed in a flowing
white robe, bleached to a blinding clarity, she glowed with
“No more stains,” I said, the softest of chuckles
escaping my parched throat.
Melody smiled and the room came alive with her beauty.
“I need to go now,” she said.
A crack opened in the wall of my heart.
Melody walked closer to me and I shrank back, my bones shriveling
inside my useless body like worms under the hot July sun.
Melody’s hand reached out for me, just inches from
my grasp. And although I knew I didn’t deserve to
touch such angelic skin, I found myself grabbing onto it
like a life raft and crushing it against my stubbled, tear-stained
Her skin was icy cool, but of such softness I had never
“Thank you,” she said, and was gone.
Alone, drifting within the stench of urine and blood, I
finally pulled myself to my feet. My knees ached from the
hard floor and I had to hold onto the stove and the fridge
to stop from falling.
My mother had actually died that way. When I was nine, I
found her on the floor, unmoving, a pot of lumpy oatmeal
burning on the stove. She had simply slipped in the kitchen
and died. It was difficult to comprehend, especially for
a clumsy child who fell six times a day and did no more
damage than a bruise or two. But, as I held onto the large
appliances now and shuffled my unstable feet towards the
carpeted entrance, I could see my own death mimicking hers.
If I just let go.
When I reached the doorway, I stepped over the body onto
the nylon carpet, and walked to the phone. It sat on a flimsy
metal TV tray beside a brown tweed recliner, the only chair
in the room. Tiny burn marks criss-crossed the fabric like
pox and one of the arms was worn down to wood where finger
nails must have scratched, perhaps searching for an itch
that was never sated. The only other object of note was
a boxy TV in an oak-stained chipboard cabinet. An overwhelming
dust of cigarette ash and loneliness coated every surface.
Sadly, the room was no worse than my own.
I turned and looked back at the limp body blocking the kitchen
The back of Douglas Mondale’s egg-shaped skull was
a bloody, oozing cavity. A tire wrench lay beside him, its
rust-speckled coat matted with hair, bone and blood.
When Melody hadn’t stood across the street that morning,
I panicked. Me! Like a fuckin’ schoolboy ready to
wet his pants because the neighbor’s dog won’t
let him pass.
I dashed outside dressed in slippers and pajamas like a
foolish old man. The street was deserted, but I thought
I heard someone, a girl, calling my name.
I followed the cry across the street to his home, and I
just knew Melody was inside. Jealousy rather than fear gripped
my soul, the emotion as disturbing to me as it was painful.
At any other time in my pathetic life, I would have turned
my back and walked away, but today I couldn’t.
Mondale’s front door leapt from its hinges at the
first taste of force. The cellar door wasn’t locked.
And for all that, I was too late.
I turned back to the phone just as a flicker of red and
blue light began dancing between the heavy, velvet-thick
The bracelet had beaten me to it.
I stared at the spot where he had stood, this lonely old
man, envious as he watched Melody waving to me.
Every morning he must have watched, pining to be noticed,
but what would a little girl with corn silk hair ever see
in a wretch like him?
The jealousy must have twisted him into a bitter monster
of a man. And the saddest part of all was how easily that
could have been a reflection of me.
Fortunately, I had been saved. Saved by a smile from a ragamuffin
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Grant McKenzie has worked as a reporter, editor, columnist, designer,
artist and illustrator for several of Canada's major daily newspapers
and magazines. His first young-adult book, Avalanche on the Prairie,
was published in 2000. Currently living in the third smallest house
on B.C.'s beautiful Sunshine Coast, Grant has two dark thrillers currently
under representation and seeking a home. To pay the bills, he also
works in the newsroom of the Vancouver Sun.
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