Author: Geoffrey Marshall
Geoffrey Marshall is a writer in Aurora, Canada. His work can be found on Idle Ink, the Kaidankai podcast, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, as well as the MoonPark Review and a few other places. His novella Flyover Country (published by Alien Buddha Press) is available on Amazon and upcoming work will also appear in Schlock!, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Dark Horses/Black Sheep and the Kaidankai podcast. Find him on twitter @g_k_marshall.
The baby didn’t cry. At first. A chill crept in, nestling itself around the basket on the doorstep. A short, sharp shock and the overhead light flickered and died. Folds of darkness slithered close on stealthy steps and caressed his florid cheeky face. A sparse, choking cry was at last drawn from his lips. No soothing mother appeared and more cries followed on the heels of the first.
The doorstep remained dark, the nearby alley, empty. Cars could be heard a block or two away, their beating metal hearts thrumming.
Their breath, exhaust, visible under the streetlights. So high above, they orbited on the beltway, as high and cold and distant as satellites. Their passengers were deaf to the cries of the baby, so far below, yet so close they could almost reach out and caress his cheek, to swat away the terror. They could, that is, if they only knew, for that brief unremembered moment, the sphere of their lives had intersected with the baby’s far below.
There was another who heard, and footsteps stomped, progressing with an uneven cadence, closer and closer. Three loud bangs as a fist thumped the door. There loomed a man, revealed, still shrouded by the gloom. Goddammit, he grumbled, goddammit. He banged a switch and stepped outside. The reluctant light returned, shining down on his mat of grey, wiry hair, his stained beard, his torn, tattered clothes. The baby, at his feet, was no longer crying, looking up instead.
The man picked up the basket and returned inside. The door slammed shut behind him like the shearing of the scissors of Fate, measuring the length and shape of the baby’s life. Unseen, the light dimmed, wavered and finally was extinguished yet again. The man stumped down a hall, turning into a small room, the former front office of the abandoned warehouse that was his home. He lived alone, the place being, as yet, undiscovered by junkies, homeless kids, cops or anyone else for that matter.
He set the basket down and propped himself against the wall. Soon he sank to the floor, hanging his head between his knees, while he quietly blubbered to himself. The baby soon resumed crying, but at least he was warm, for now. The man waited through the night. Next morning he shoved the basket, baby inside, behind a cobwebbed filing cabinet and slunk out into the early morning dew.
An hour later, loud pounding and yanking on the door awoke the baby, who greeted the returning man with yowls of infant outrage. He darted inside and slammed the door, wedging a long steel bar across the frame. Once the door was secure he turned and scuffled his way to the baby.
He dragged the basked into the open and stared down at the red faced, toothless creature screaming at him. The man trickled a few drops of milk into the small mouth. The screaming eased, replaced by smacking of lips. He somehow found a way to feed the baby. Slowly, so slowly, the baby consumed the milk. At last, he was mollified, and the man picked him up, holding him in his arms until sleep came at last.
He placed the baby back in the basket and stowed him behind the cabinet. This time, when he returned, he carried a full armload of supplies: a blanket, a box of diapers, some baby wipes, a box of formula and a couple plastic bottles. He gritted his teeth and prepared for his first diaper change.
Four or so years later, the boy opened his eyes to face what was about to be the first day he would remember for the rest of his life. The windows, nearly opaque from soot as they were, allowed a watery, meager orange light into the room. Morning’s first rays.
He had spent most of the past four years inside the warehouse. In all those years, they had never been disturbed and the man had somehow always found a way to provide. The boy called him Dada, but the boy himself had no name, had never even learned to talk. Dada never spoke, so neither did he.
But, at this moment, Dada was away, and the boy heard footsteps.
He lay, frozen by terror, his eyes rolling this way and that, searching for whoever was there. Scared as he was, he never cried out. He knew that would only make it easier to find him. Yet, despite his silence, the footsteps drew nearer, nearer. Whoever it was would soon be in the room.
When the intruder, a nose-ringed, lanky-haired teenager, peered around the doorframe, the boy was staring his way. The two made eye contact.
“Whoa, who are you?” the kid asked.
Not understanding the question, not having the words to answer, the boy remained silent. His heart was pounding so hard he felt it fluttering like a small bird in his chest, ready to emerge from his throat and fly away.
“What are you doing here?” the teen asked.
He held his hands and stepped partway into the room.
The boy screamed now, an incoherent wail, more like a dog than a person. There came a loud crash from behind the teen. His head whipped backwards, looking for the source of the noise. But the boy already knew. It was the door.
Dada was back.
“Goddammit,” he snarled, the only word he ever uttered, the only word the boy knew.
The teen backed away, hands still up. He saw the look in Dada’s eyes.
“Hey, I wasn’t gonna hurt the kid,” he pleaded.
Dada swung the steel door brace. The teen fell, clutching his face, screaming as blood poured from between his fingers. Dada struck, again and again. The boy had never seen anger before. He saw it now, a crazed, mindless fury. He covered his eyes and wet his bed, whimpering empty gasping noises into his hands.
Eventually the wet thumps of impact relented. The boy peeked between his fingers, watching Dada, who stood over the body, wiping sweat from his forehead, leaving a streak of red. The light was dim, too dim for the boy to see the teen clearly, but he saw enough. He watched Dada grab a leg and drag the body through the door, a dark trail spreading in their wake.
They moved that same day.
Four more years later and they were creeping through an alleyway. Night had fallen and the moon was out, a thin sliver, the honed edge of a silver sickle. Damp permeated the bone chilling wind but the boy didn’t care. He was out. Out of the goddamn apartment. Dada had found them a new place a few months ago. Condemned, scheduled for demolition and temporary, in a long line of temporary homes.
He had already counted all the dried out husks of dead flies on the window sills. He had counted and counted until he reached the highest number he knew, the highest number possible, as far as he knew. A hundred. After that, all you could do was start again. In the murky nicotine light that filtered through the stained and dust covered windows, he had spent his afternoon with the flies.
At last Dada returned. The boy had no idea where he got the money, and there wasn’t very much, but there was enough for tonight. So they were out. The asphalt was crumbled and the water the filled the potholes had an oily, rainbow sheen, an industrial echo of tidal pools the boy had never seen. Dirty as it was, he could still see a wavering reflection of the moon.
If he had the words, he would have asked Dada about the moon, but Dada never spoke and the boy had few words. All they had was a sparse, shared collection of gestures and grunts. Although their sign language was not up to the task of discussing the moon or its reflection, the boy tugged on Dada’s sleeve, pulling him into a faster pace. He got his message across and the man smiled, understanding fully. Even so, he cuffed the boy and held a finger to his mouth. Slow down. Be careful. The boy tried to slow down, but a moment later he had forgotten the admonishment and was pulling again.
In any case, they left the alley and were now walking down a larger street. Shop signs, lit up with all the colors the boy had ever seen, reflected in the puddles now, overpowering the moon. The sidewalks teemed with people, reminding the boy of an anthill he had found near their apartment. He watched them all summer, day after day, an endless teeming stream, setting out into the world, returning with their little burdens, only to set out again.
Before long Dada stopped them in front of a store. The sign over the window glowed a bright yellow and red, blocky characters the boy could not read scrawled across the golden plastic expanse. Above the door, a corroded air condition dripped silently. Other signs hung in the grubby windows, some glowing, flickering, humming, advertising in words the boy could not understand for objects he could not name.
They entered with a clatter, the only sound the tarnished brass bells remained capable of producing. The man at the counter spared them a glance and looked down again at his phone.
The back half of the store was mostly dedicated to liquor and the bottles fascinated him. Some were short, squat and round, filled with an amber colored liquid a few shades darker than his fly-counting window. Others, tall and thin, contained greens and reds. His heart longed to hold the bottles, to rub his hands on them, to turn them over and over and watch the liquid slosh inside.
Another cuff from Dada brought him around and he scurried to a small refrigerator, partly filled with aged fruit. The boy swept his eyes over the reds, the oranges, the yellows.
He pointed at a bunch, “Banna,” he said, looking at Dada.
He pointed again, “Oridge,” and again, “Apull.”
He grabbed a couple of each, while the man picked up a half gallon of milk and a loaf of the cheapest white bread. When they carried their treasures to the counter, the clerk set aside his phone to ring the items in.
“Shitty weather these days, huh?” he said, offering the change when Dada paid.
“Goddammit,” Dada said, tipping his hand to his head and waving.
“Got that right alright,” the clerk said as he watched them leave, “Goddammit.”
The boy was already attacking the apple, not noticing, not caring about the bruises. The apple was almost immediately reduced to a gnawed core which the boy tossed on the sidewalk. Rain now stippled the puddles and a car screamed past, a little too close to the curb. The tires thumped into a nearby pothole, sending a sheet of ice cold water over Dada.
In the alley again, the sounds of cars receded. Dada coughed, a raw, rasping hack that rumbled deep inside. The boy was startled by the harshness but Dada waved off his concern. This was not the first time the boy had heard that cough.
Back in the dingy apartment, darkness screened the filth from his eyes. A single candle offered just enough light for their feast. The boy moved on to an aged orange, long past fresh. Still cool in his hand from the refrigeration, to him the dimpled rind was electric, orange as the sun. The zest tickled his nose and worked under his fingernails. The blossomy smell made him crazy and, in a frenzy, he ripped the fruit into chunks, cramming them into his cheeks until he looked like a squirrel. He squeezed and drained the juice, every drop a firecracker, until he was left with chewy pulp and the fragments between his teeth. He swallowed and proceeded to carve the pith from the rind with his front teeth, like a beaver at a tree, until all that remained was a thin, almost translucent pile of rinds.
He grabbed the plastic bread bag and stuffed three slices into his mouth. With jaw muscles straining, he worked his saliva into the gooey mix. The mixture slowly sweetened in his mouth as his saliva broke down the bleached white flour into simple sugars. Dada was wracked by another spasm of tortured coughing. The boy stopped chewing but the man waved him back to his food.
He continued to gorge until his belly was swollen. He gulped down half the jug of milk from the jug and lay down. His head was swimming, but he was happy. As sleep overtook him, the last sound he heard was the awful hack from Dada’s chest.
The next morning Dada was gone.
Though he didn’t know it yet, this was one of those days — a day when you find out that something you thought was permanent wasn’t, that permanence is a tissue paper lie that falls into tatters the very moment you come to believe in it.
Not yet knowing any of this, being so young and sheltered, he merely went about his day.
He used the toilet and flushed by pouring half a bucket of water into the bowl. He used water from the same bucket, cold as the air that turned his breath into ghostly vapor, to wash his face, brush his teeth. Then he ate one more slice of bread and had a swig of milk. The feast was over and they needed to be careful. Who knew when Dada would get more money?
He went out back, to a small lot behind the apartment building, the only place where he was allowed to go. A playground, or at least it was before the building was condemned. Now the whole area was fenced by tall, plywood barriers. The rusted out skeletons of swings, monkey-bars and a merry-go-round lurked like primeval relics, unsafe by current standards, even when new. Now they were just plain dangerous, with jagged sawtooth edges, frayed cables and lopsided frames.
Puffs of wind nudged the surviving swing, drawing out a screech that set his teeth on edge. He steadied the seat and sat down, grabbing the chains that immediately stained his palms rust red. He kicked off from the mud and pursed his lips as he began to swing. He didn’t really know any songs, he wouldn’t be able to sing them even if he did, but he picked up melodies easily. He whistled them flawlessly as he launched himself into the air, ever higher, fighting against gravity with all his might. He wondered if he would ever be strong enough to win the battle and launch himself into the air, flying high into the sky. Maybe Dada was strong enough for that. He thought he might be and he wondered why Dada never flew away, carrying him in his arms.
At the apex of his flight, that fateful second before the hand of gravity dragged him down, he heard the horrible hack. There was Dada. How long had he been home? The boy waited for the rise and fall one last time, then once again, at the apex, he let go of the chain, and, for a moment, sweet as the juice from the orange, he was weightless, flying.
Dada ran, even in this moment the boy noticed a grimace of pain, but he did not slow. He was there as the boy fell back to earth and caught him in his arms, both laughing like they always did. There were tears though, the boy did not know why. After a fierce hug that drove the wind from his scrawny chest, Dada set him on the ground. He took the boy’s hand and led him back through the apartment building.
Together then went out onto the sidewalk for the last time.