RAGAMUFFIN GIRL

By Grant McKenzie


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 strength.

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.

Only me.

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 for Melody.

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 owners.

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 gloves.

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 linoleum floor.

Turn around.

I couldn’t.

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 my legs.

I can’t.

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?

I obeyed.

To my surprise, she was beautiful. Dressed in a flowing white robe, bleached to a blinding clarity, she glowed with unworldly iridescence.

“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 cheek.

Her skin was icy cool, but of such softness I had never known.

“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 doorway.

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 curtains.

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 girl.


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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