A Free Short Story
by C.L. Anderson
T.Nut called it dead time. The time between the planning and the job when they just sat and waited.
This time they waited under a rickety tin awning. A blood-warm wave of rain slammed against the loose metal, wringing all the stink of heat, smog and garbage out of the sky and into the gutters.
Rosey didn’t mind rain. Rain hid you, like the dark did. What she hated was waiting. Especially when it was one of those time T.Nut wouldn’t say what they were waiting for.
She’d known it was going to be one of those jobs since he’d led her and Wunderbred down through the streets to the place with the busted street signs where the ghetto met the barrio. He carried a greasy paper sack in his fist and the smell coming out of it had made her stomach rumble.
“Wait here,” T.Nut said, like he always did, and he vanished into a burned out hole that used to be a doorway.
Wunderbred obediently folded himself up on the sun-bleached, dirt-smeared concrete. Rosey leaned back against the stained brick wall, trying to ignore the heat blasting down from the sky and bouncing up off the cement. Here, the buildings were broken brick and plywood piles that slumped in ragged lines until they reached the feet of the shiny glass skyscrapers that made up the walls of Rosey’s world. A rust-bucket car squealed and growled past at top speed, tossing paper and beer cans into a burning wind. The noise from the overpass wafted down over the sound of the girls across the street playing double-dutch and chanting nonsense rhymes to their own rhythm.
“Juba this,” they sang.
“And Juba that,
Juba stole a yellow cat!”
Rosey half-wished she could run over and jump with them, like she did when she was a kid. She’d been a champ. Now she played another game, and she was a champ at that too.
“T.Nut ever tell you?” Rosey jerked her head towards the building.
Wunderbred squinted up at her. “What, about in there? Nah.” He stretched out his long, skinny legs. “I always figured maybe he’s got a connection or somethin’, or maybe just likes playin’ mystery man. Don’ matter.”
Rosey nodded. It didn’t. T.Nut, he always knew when the alarms were busted, or the dogs were asleep, or the blackout was coming. If there was somebody in there told him all that, all it meant was the three of them kept eating regular. Pretty regular anyway.
Sometimes they crashed someplace there was a TV or even a computer, and they’d watch some show or movie about a girl who had a mystery job keeping the world safe. It was always some white chica with skinny legs and perfect hair all done up in a couple thousand dollars worth of black leather, strutting around like she was a total bad ass. Sometimes Rosey tried to strut like that. Most of the time she just tried not to be afraid.
The rain was slowing down. Single drops rattled against their shelter, tricking down the graffiti covered wall to join the puddle oozing around their feet.
Rosey slipped up to T.Nut and wrapped her arms around his waist. His big rough hand covered both of hers, but he didn’t take his eyes off the fence that sheltered their target; an aging, metal sided warehouse squatting next to the river.
“Hey, Pappe,” whispered Rosey. “What’re we after, eh?”
“Nuthin’, Rosey-Posey.” He squeezed her hand tight and held on. “Nuthin’ we’re gonna keep.”
Again. Rosey bit back a sigh. They were going in somewhere they had next to no chance of getting out of, to get some old papers, or something just as weird that T.Nut’d burn, or vanish away with.
“What’s it all about, Pappe?” She leaned her chin against his shoulder blade.
“It’s about staying alive down here, Rosey,” his voice turned hard. “It ain’t like it’s bad enough we got no money, an’ no jobs an’ welfare and shit. No. The world we got to live in is sick. An’ them,” he spit in the direction of the warehouse. “The ones like ’em invite the sick in with mumbo-jumbo they found, an’ they try an’ use it to get what they want. But it’s got brains of its own, an’ all it does is use ’em to make the world worse.
“The Sick thinks we can’t fight it. Thinks nobody knows what’s really goin’ down anymore. We’re out showin’ it it’s wrong.”
Rosey pulled back and stared at him. “T.Nut, you outta your mind?”
T.Nut’s back just stiffened up and she knew she’d hurt him.
“Wunderbred, check it out,” he ordered, and Rosey didn’t have time to say sorry.
The stale wind blew and took the last of the rain to piss on somebody else. Wunderbred slid out from the shelter. With his back plastered against the wall, he slipped around the corner.
“Clear!” he hissed.
“Okay, Rosey.” T.Nut held out the wire cutters. Rosey nodded sharp, once and stuffed the cutters into her skirt. She kicked off her shoes and slung them around her neck on knotted laces.
Rosey ducked out into the empty street. Her eyes automatically picked out the darkest spot between the streetlights and she scuttled across to the fence.
People thought fences made them safe. People thought barbed wire’d take care of them. Wasn’t no fence could keep Barefoot Rosey out. No way. She dug her toes into the holes between the wire, grabbed hold of the fence higher up, knotted her muscles, pulled, scrabbled, heaved, dug in and pulled again. The fence pressed against her belly and breasts as she dragged herself hard over it, fast and faster.
What the hell’s T.Nut mean about ‘them with their mumbo-jumbo? She fumbled for another toe hold. The slanted stretch of barbed wire closed over the night grey sky, almost within reach. He believed it, whatever it meant.
She hung from the fence, gasping, six feet off the ground, with the wires digging into her fingers and feet.
Don’t matter, she told herself. If T.Nut’s crazy, then you got a crazy takin’ good care of you.
Rosey tilted her head back so she could look up at the barbed wire. Past the wire, her eyes caught the floodlit parking lot. Slick blacktop reflected the light like a pool of water waiting for her.
The thick, damp heat that filled the air trapped the idea in her head. Water waited, six feet down, all quiet and still for her.
“Rosey!” The heat waves parted just a second to let T.Nut’s whisper-shout get to her.
She tore her burning eyes away from the blacktop and got busy. She reached out with the cutters as far as she could and let them bite through the wire. Heat sent sweat trickling down her cheeks and arms. The silver line snapped in two and
swung away. Business-like, she snipped off the other end and let the wire fall dead to the ground.
Rosey stuffed the cutters back into her skirt and, biting her lip, pulled herself through the hole. Half-in, half-out of the opening, she looked down at the still, wet blacktop. She kept her mind closed tight around the fact that T.Nut counted on her, wriggled herself through and jumped.
Pain shot up her ankles and knees as she hit the solid ground. She ignored it and scrambled backwards. First T.Nut, then Wunderbred ran across the street. They jumped up to the fence and scaled it to land panting beside her. T.Nut grinned at her, and even Wunderbred screwed up a smile.
Nuthin’ can keep us out. She pulled herself to her feet. Nuthin’ at all.
The boys were already halfway to the tin-sided box of a warehouse. She had to run to catch up. Her bare feet hit the warm blacktop, making a noise like splashing shallow puddles.
Wunderbred skirted the warehouse wall to the corner. “Clear!” he signaled.
T.Nut sidled up behind him, past his shoulder. Rosey slid after him and got to his side in time to see him bend over the lock and start to work. It was one of those high-tech finger-pad things. But it was still wires and electricity and timing. Still a door with a latch and hinges.
While he worked, Rosey had time to get itchy.
Where’s the guards? She shifted her weight from foot to foot. The floodlights made a white haze that covered up the silent dark. She couldn’t even hear the noise from the freeway here, never mind the noise from people. Where’s the fucking cameras? Ain’t no way nobody’d leave a place like this wide open at night!
“Got it,” breathed T.Nut. The double doors sang as he leaned on them. The hazy light showed up metal in his hand.
T.Nut clutched a gun.
For the first time, she felt how slow and heavy her heart was beating. She glanced back at Wunderbred. He only had shadow where his eyes should be, but she saw him gawking. He’d seen the gun too.
They followed T.Nut inside anyway. What else were they gonna do?
Wunderbred flicked on the flashlight. The beam landed on wooden crates, stacked right up to the ceiling. They were long, thin things, like piles of coffins waiting on the dusty, grey painted cement.
The beam flashed on frosted glass way, way on the other side of the room.
“There,” said T.Nut, and he started across the floor.
It was even hotter in here than outside. Heat piled up between the coffin-crates until it squeezed out into the narrow aisles. The three of them had to wade through the choking weight of it, and it pushed back at them.
“Rosey.” Wunderbred dug his fingers suddenly into her arm. “Rosey, this is bullshit.”
She wanted to agree more than anything in the world right then. But T.Nut heard him too. He froze in his tracks without turning around.
“What’s bullshit is you just standing there,” he snarled. “Come on, are you in this or what?” Under his anger, Rosey heard the plea. Despite the fact she was sweating bullets and rivers, her stomach turned cold.
Bet his hand’s shakin’, an’ that’s why he won’t turn around. What are we doin’ that can scare T.Nut?
“Get out, Wunderbred.” She pushed his hand away. “Wait by the fence.”
The shadow of his adam’s apple wobbled up and down. “If you’re goin’ in, Rosey, I’m goin’ with you.”
Rosey didn’t have time to think about what all that meant. T.Nut was moving forward again.
She padded after him. The heat and silence and T.Nut’s crazy talk twisted around her sense and the world warped into bad dreams. The coffin boxes waited all around them, filling up the corners, reaching up to the unseen ceiling. The heat pushed the coffins, crowding them close to the intruders. Wunderbred’s flashlight cut them a way through, kept the coffins back, just a little.
The heat didn’t like that, so it started kicking up the dust. Clouds of it, like smoke out an old car’s back end. It filled up Rosey’s throat and clogged her eyes. It stuck in her sweat and itched.
Crazy. Crazy. Just me bein’ crazier than T.Nut even, she tried to tell herself, but behind her, Wunderbred’s shaky breathing turned into wheezing and hacking.
Ahead of her, T.Nut slowed down. “You can’t touch us,” he said, soft and dangerous to the dark. The air stood still. No rats, no footsteps, no noise at all. Just them, the coffin crates, the dust and the swaddling heat. “You ain’t even real.” But now his voice turned all shaky and thin coming out.
Wunderbred coughed once more, then he sniveled, but the dust was settling down. It made a soft crackle like a chuckle as it landed on the floor and on the crates.
“T.Nut, what ‘chu got us into?” Rosey murmured around the fear building inside her.
“Ain’t nuthin’ I can’t handle, Rosey-Posey,” he croaked. “We just gotta get what’s in the safe, an’ then we’re outta here. Out the back window, just like we planned.”
The dust stayed put, so did the crates. Even the heat held still. Letting us in, Rosey thought, although she didn’t want to. It’s letting us in, gun and plan and all.
After walking a million years through the dark, they did reach the office door. Rosey had to take the flashlight away from Wunderbred, his hands were twitching so bad.
T.Nut worked the lock hard, with clumsy fingers, his lips moving all the time.
The lock clicked open. Rosey’s pulse doubled up. T.Nut pushed the door open slow and they all crowded back, but not fast enough to get away from the icy wind of the air conditioner clanking and thunking in the back somewhere.
“Watch the door, Wunderbred,” growled T.Nut. “Shine that light around, Rosey. Where the hell’s the safe!”
Rosey played the light all around the walls, making bits of room jump out at them. Table. Desk. Window. Grey wall. File cabinet. Safety poster. Closet door.
T.Nut practically flew across the room to rip the poster down. The light showed up a black dial in a dull metal square. Wunderbred let out a loud breath. Rosey shuddered.
T.Nut fumbled in his pocket and dug out a scrap of paper. Rosey barely remembered to get the light up. The lock rattled as he spun the dial. Rosey was ready to swear she heard it echo round the room, even over the air conditioner’s banging.
The safe door swung back and the light landed on a thick book all alone inside. Its cover and edges were all crumbly, like something out of an old movie.
“But what the hell’s it for!” Rosey barely realized she had spoken aloud.
“Names.” The sound of T.Nut’s voice made her jump. She hadn’t expected any kind of answer. “Names that’ll give the Sick a shape. Let it get up out of the dark and go walkin’.” He tried to snort at what he was saying, but he couldn’t quite make it. “But we ain’t givin’ ’em the time to use it right.” T.Nut reached out one hand for it.
Fear, bitter fear roared out of the safe. It grabbed hold of Rosey and turned her inside out. She wanted to scream, but she couldn’t even breathe. She tried to snatch at T.Nut’s arm, but he was out of reach. Back to the safe and gun up, his eyes were wide and wild.
“Fuck this!” shouted T.Nut. “Get away from me! Get away!”
“T.Nut…” groaned Wunderbred.
Rosey whipped herself around. Wunderbred backed up slow from the doorway. There was nothing there. Nothing, but her heart was pounding fit to burst through her ribs anyway. The low wailing noise that rose through the fear was coming out of her.
Too late, too slow, whispered the fear to her heart and lungs. Now there’s no way out for you.
Roesy tried to look to T.Nut but that just doubled up the shakes and the pounding inside her, because T.Nut was weaving and wobbling. He heard it too, she knew that for sure. T.Nut tumbled against the slick, grey wall.
No way out for you, whispered the voice of the dust and the heat.
The world collapsed around Rosey, squeezing her head and her lungs. Her heart stopped, and pounded, and stopped again. She heard Wunderbred whimpering, saw T.Nut sweating and trying to hang onto his gun, even though there was nothing to shoot at but shadows and the fear.
All at once, T.Nut swung the gun around and the crash of the shot faded into the shivering noise of busting glass.
T.Nut slumped down onto the floor. The gun slipped out of his fingers. Spit and gagging noises bubbled out of him.
Rosey didn’t think. Couldn’t think. Her legs carried her across the room, jumped her out the window, through the broken glass and the gurgling noises T.Nut made. She landed hard on the blacktop. Glass sliced into her palms and knees. She dove across the parking lot, running blind. Couldn’t hear Wunderbred, but she could still hear the sound of T.Nut dying. The voice spoke to him and he believed it, because he’d never had nobody to get him out of trouble like she had. It’d always been just him in charge.
The fence blocked the way in front of her. Rosey threw herself at it, clawing for a hold. The heat grabbed her. Below her feet, the asphalt hunched itself up. It reflected the haze off its slippery skin and reached up for her; a live shadow, a nightmare blanket.
Rosey sobbed. Through tears, she thought maybe she saw Wunderbred, heard his feet drumming on the blacktop. Something was drumming. Wunderbred’s feet, her heart, the whole world, maybe.
The shadow slumped back to the ground.
Rosey gagged on nothing but air. She scrambled over the fence, hit the ground, and ran.
The streets made a grey and white blur around her. Part of her mind heard the noises of cars and people in a lurching jumble. She saw the people watching her run. Mobs of them, sitting on their cars on the sides of the streets, surrounded by the heat, pale eyes in shadows staring at her as she ran, crying, past them. They never moved, they just stared at her like they were already dead, killed already by what was behind the dust and the fear. Dead like T.Nut.
Pain screamed up and down her legs, but she kept running. She smelled gunpowder, heard T.Nut die, saw the pale eyes watching her, saw shadows reach for her ankles until tears shut off the world outside the fear and the pain. Her lungs burned. Her guts burned. Her throat tore itself with choking.
Finally, a wall smacked up against her. Brick tore her skin as her knees gave way and she slipped down to the pavement. She buried her face in her bloody hands and cried; screaming and sobbing and shaking like she was going to fall to pieces.
After a long, long time, her head couldn’t take it and blacked everything away from her.
The voice cut through the darkness in her brain. It hurt. Her eyes tore themselves open but couldn’t focus. There was too much light. She screwed her eyelids shut. A damp hand shook her shoulders.
“Please, come on, Rosey!” begged the voice. Her eyes opened slow and now she could see Wunderbred. Sweat and tears smeared the dirt on his face.
He tugged at her now. Despite the heat of the daylight scalding the filthy pavement all around them, his hand was freezing cold. “Let’s get outta here.”
In his trembling voice, Rosey heard a gun shot echo and T.Nut choke. She remembered the shadows, and how the whole world spun itself up with fear.
She remembered T.Nut dying.
“Yeah. Okay. We’ll go.” She pushed herself off the concrete.
She didn’t look back at Wunderbred. She aimed her eyes down the alley and started walking. She felt so hard, she could have walked through the dirty walls letting the graffiti fall in ribbons around her shoulders.
She heard Wunderbred paddling beside her. Her eyes didn’t see him. All she could see was the way she was going. All she saw was the burned out doorway. She thought about the white girls on TV, the ones in black leather, how they had their secret advisors and their bad guy boyfriends who always knew the story. That was who was in there. The one who knew the story and was dishing it out to T.Nut. Well, they could dish it out to her now.
“Oh no…” Wunderbred’s hand was still cold as he laid it on her arm.
She shook him off but didn’t move away. “They killed T.Nut,” she grated. “Whoever’s in there.” Her eyes focused on the black hole that used to hold a door. “They sent him out to die.” Saying it gave her enough anger to start her feet moving again.
Wunderbred didn’t even try to follow her.
The cement under Rosey’s feet turned to splintery wood. The dark swallowed her whole. She blinked and put her hand up like she thought she could brush it out of the way. The place stank from garbage, rotting wood and piss. Rosey gagged.
A shred of sunshine landed on the edge of a step going up. Rosey put her foot on it and it moaned. Her one hand found the jagged end of a busted railing. Her other found the damp plaster wall. She climbed slow. The stairs creaked and whined under her weight.
Better’n any alarm, she thought, her eyes straining to see where she was going. Whoever’s up there sure as hell knows I’m coming.
Finally, her foot searched for another step and found only more flat wood. Her eyes darted every which way. The dust in her nose reminded her of the warehouse and she shuddered.
A hint of daylight slipped out from under a door. Rosey moved towards it, trying not to shuffle or shake.
Remember what they did, she told herself, trying to harden up her heart again. Remember what happened to T.Nut. T.Nut who never hurt you, never hit you, cared about what happened to you.
Her shoulders straightened up and she pushed open the door.
On the other side waited a room that could have been an apartment once. Wallpaper tongues dangled off the walls. Sunlight streamed in around the grimy glass teeth that were left from the window. It drifted over nameless bundles of junk, glinted on dust and annoyed the roaches scuttling across the warped floorboards.
“So, you’re Rosey-Posey.”
Rosey jumped. Something rustled in the far corner and her eyes fastened on it. Now she saw it wasn’t another dusty junk pile. It was a black man, as withered as rotted as the floorboards he sat on. He’d been propped up against the wall. Light glittered in his sharp eyes.
It hit Rosey then what was wrong with him, why he had to be set there like that. His colorless shirt and pants were wrapped around a bony body that didn’t have any arms, or any legs.
He opened his shriveled mouth and laughed at her. “Not what ‘chu thought you’d find, eh, Rosey?”
“Who’re you?” she demanded with a trembling voice.
“Me?” He chuckled. “I’m the one who killed your T.Nut. That’s what ‘chu been thinking all this while, ain’t it, Rosey?”
Never mind how he knows! Just never mind it! She forced herself to take two steps towards him. The floor dipped and swayed, and she couldn’t go further.
“You sent him in there!” The words caught hard in her throat.
The old man’s head waggled back and forth. “He sent himself. It tried to tell him what waited in there weren’t nothin’ no gun was gonna stop. Tried to tell him it was too late for that, even if they hadn’t finished with the book yet. He wouldn’t listened to me, ’bout that. Poor kid figured if you could steal from it, you could shoot it.”
“What was it?” Rosey swallowed against the memory of the fear that rushed out of nowhere.
The little eyes gleamed at her. “It was the city,” he said. “The sick part, let out by the names in that book. The part that chews you up and don’t leave nothin’ behind. The part that rips your soul outta you while you stand there watchin’ it.”
Rosey listened to the creaky voice, to the stupid, impossible things coming out of the broken man propped against the wall smeared with dirt and charcoal streaks.
And she believed. With no room for questions, she believed. It all made sense. It was what T.Nut tried to tell her about them, and their mumbo-jumbo.
Of course he wouldn’t think there was nothin’ he couldn’t tackle. He was too proud to believe that. And that was how it got him, ’cause he was too proud to believe anybody else could get him out once he’d given in.
A tear prickled her eye and slipped down her cheek.
“Ain’t nothin’ I can’t handle, Rosey-Posey,” she heard T.Nut tell her from the back of her mind.
“Wanna get it?” rasped the old man.
Rosey’s whole body jerked back. “What?”
“Wanna get it?” he said again, grinning, all sneaky. “For what it did to T.Nut, for what it’s gonna try an’ do to you an’ that little white boy outside when it catches up wit’chu. The dark that reached up for you, you want to get back at it?”
Rosey stared. Her arms fell flapping to her sides. The old man just kept on grinning.
“Who you think got you outta there, Rosey-Posey?” The grin dropped away. “Woulda got T.Nut out too. If I coulda. Swear I woulda.
“What do you say, Rosey?” His voice went soft.
Rosey swallowed hard. “I can’t go back in there and get that book,” she said although she was full of shame about it. “I can’t do it.”
“Nobody’s askin’ you to,” he said. “It’s too late for that anyhow. There’s other ways Rosey, now that it’s loose. Ways the injuns ‘at used ta live here thought up when the sickness was comin’ out of the night at ’em.
“They knew it was a sneaky sonofabitch. Liked dirty jobs, stabs from behind. Nuthin’ hurts somethin’ like that more’n courage, more’n showin’ it you ain’t afraid.
“They used ta dance to keep it back. Pound on them tom-tom drums, and yip away all night, burnin’ these big bonfires. The sickness knew they weren’t afraid then, an’ that fact hurt it, hurt it bad.
“Not enough of that goin’ on anymore, Rosey. Everybody jus’ lays down an’ lets the sickness take ’em over.”
Rosey swallowed. Part of her wanted to run away, back down to the street, let Wunderbred follow her to anywhere that wasn’t here. But her feet wouldn’t move, because a bigger part of her wanted to believe there was something, even something totally crazy she could do to get back at whatever-it-was that had stolen T.Nut from her.
“So you’re sayin’ what I gotta do is make a fire an’ dance around it?” she said, half trying to sound like she knew he was disin’ her. “I’ll get arrested so fast I won’t have time to turn ’round.”
“Nope.” The head waggled on the ropy neck again. “Don’ need no fire, Rosey. Jus’ get yerself down there. To the warehouse. By the river’s fine. Go in the daytime. That’s when it’ll be worst. Stuff that’s gotta hide comes out at dark. What you gotta worry about is the stuff that ain’t hidin’ itself no more.”
“But I gotta dance.”
“Yeah, that you gotta do.”
“Shit, ol’ man, I can’t dance.” She looked away out the window. There weren’t no cars rattling by down in the street, just the distant rumble on the overpass.
“Then jump up an’ down, girl!” he exploded, his old head coming forward like he wanted to bite her. “Don’ matter you ain’t doin’ the rumba, or whatever it is you spics is s’posed to do! What matters is that you’re there!”
His head thudded back against the wall and a little spit dribbled out of the corner of his mouth. His withered tongue licked it away.
“They’ll lock me up for crazy,” said Rosey weakly.
“Then you’ll have three meals a day an’ a roof over yer head,” said the old man, knowing he’d won already. “Can’t be that bad.”
“Ain’t got no drum,” she tried one last ditch.
“Find one,” he told her flat out. “Maybe you can get that little white boy to play it for you.”
“Wunderbred?” Rosey straightened up fast. “Man, that’s the craziest thing you said yet!”
“Ain’t that crazy, Rosey.”
Wunderbred came through the doorway. Even where she was standing, Rosey could see him shake, could see his eyes slide right past the old man in his corner like he couldn’t stand looking at him.
“How long you been there, Wunderbred?” asked Rosey, confused.
“Long as he’s,” Wunderbred waved one shivery hand at the old man. “Been talkin’. I followed you up.” He swallowed so hard Rosey heard the gulp. “If you’re gonna…Do what he said, I’ll, I will too.”
Rosey looked back at the little old man. “Do we go now?”
“Go whenever you feel like it.” He tilted his head back and studied the ceiling. “But I’m tellin’ you, it’s loose, and the longer you wait, the longer’ it’s gonna have to get ready for you.”
“Okay.” Rosey turned away and headed for the door. “Come on, Wunderbred.”
Behind her, she thought she heard the old man whisper, “Thank you, Rosey-Posey.”
The warehouse didn’t look much different in the daylight. It still hunched pale and low at the water’s edge surrounded by its stretch of fresh blacktop. She and Wunderbred stood on the cement peer. On one shoulder, the city towered over them, on the other, the river that split the city in half crept slowly past, reflecting the smoggy blue sky back up at itself. All around them, the whole world rushed and rumbled about its own business.
The whole world moved, except for the two of them staring at the tin-sided warehouse through the metal net of its fence and mended barbed wire.
Wunderbred had dragged up a big old can that looked like it might have once held a couple gallons of paint. He hugged it to his chest, his huge eyes on Rosey.
“‘Kay, we’re here.” He shifted from foot to foot. “Now what?”
“Sit down and start poundin’ on that thing,” Rosey’s voice shook around the words. “Go on.”
Wunderbred crossed his legs and sat down like the concrete was going to burn him. He wound one skinny arm around the can so his elbow pointed at Rosey. Looking right at her, he slapped his palm down on the can’s bottom.
The noise bounced thinly against the concrete and up to Rosey’s ears. Wunderbred brought his hand down again, and again. The rhythm was uneven, unsteady and uncertain, but he kept at it, watching her, waiting for her to do something.
Then jump up an’ down! she heard the old man holler at her.
Rosey swayed. In the back of her head, she remembered the girls she’d heard the day before playing double-dutch on the sidewalk, swinging their two ropes, slap-slap against the pavement.
Slap, slap, like Wunderbred’s hand against the tin can drum. Like she used to do when she was still a kid. Slap, slap, slap, slap.
Rosey picked up one foot and jumped. She came down, picking up her other foot as she did, hopping over a pair of imaginary ropes that curved over her head and swung back down to hit the pavement. Her feet made little slaps of their own, countering Wunderbred’s. Together they made a double noise. Slap SLAP slap SLAP! Just like the double-dutch
noise. Slap SLAP slap SLAP.
Rhymes came back to her, the ones she’d said to keep the rhythm going.
Rosey opened her mouth and sang.
“Aunt Dinah died.
How she die?
Oh she die,
Oh she die,
Oh she die like this!”
She brought her left foot up, right foot down, up left, down right, up, down, over and over. The heat from the pavement tingled against the bottom of her calloused feet and the double rhythm steadied itself out. Slap SLAP slap SLAP!
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!
I can shake my body.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!
I can do kar-a-te!
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!
I can hurt somebody!”
Wunderbred’s hand came down against the drum and Rosey’s feet drummed against the pavement.
I can hurt somebody! The words sang inside her head to the drumming of her feet and Wunderbred’s hand. I can hurt! I can! I can!
The heat began to move. It circled around her until sweat plastered shirt and skirt to her skin. At the same time, the drum got louder and faster. Rosey brought her feet up and slapped them down, harder and harder still.
“My name is Rosey, uh-huh!” she sang out.
“And I’m a star, uh-huh!
You mess with me, uh-huh,
I’ll take you far!”
Rosey’s arms swung themselves over her head. The rhythm filled her now. It swam inside her ears and down into her veins. Her heart echoed it, her feet followed it, pounding the pavement. The heat began to dribble away from her. Rosey stretched her hands to the sky, stretched her head back to look at her fingertips, black against the sunlight. The rays shone down to try to cut her open with their heat, but there were clouds piling up, right over the wall of the city skyline, big, dark billows. The wind whipped at Rosey’s tattered hem and she laughed.
Under her feet, under the rhythm of the drum and the dance, the pavement cracked. A jagged black line ran through the white pavement, wide as two of her fingers, then wide as three. Her foot came down on the edge and lightning pain jumped up her leg. Another crack split open like a silent mouth. She landed on top of it. Her skin broke wide against the edge and Rosey gasped.
Wunderbred’s hand skipped a beat. The heat swooped down on her.
“Don’t stop!” screamed Rosey. “Don’t stop for anything!”
She jumped, and jumped again, left foot, right foot, up, down, onto the white patches between the cracks that skittered under her. She missed the solid ground, she missed again, and the ragged edges bit into her soles. Clouds blocked out the naked sun now, so the heat uncoiled from the darkness in the cracks and wrapped itself around her, dragging against her, trying to drag her down under the cement.
Tears mixed with her sweat on her face as her blood ran down into the cracks in the pavement. Rosey threw her head back and shouted wordless pain into the sky.
In answer, the clouds tore open and let the rain pour down. In one second Rosey was drenched. She heard Wunderbred sputter, but he didn’t stop his drumming. Rain rattled and wriggled into the cracks, carrying Rosey’s blood down with it, into the earth, into the dark, drowning the heat, filling the emptiness.
Rosey heard herself laugh. She grabbed up her skirt and swung it around her, kicking her heels up high.
“T.Nut!” she shouted up to Heaven, making the water splash around her ankles. “Lookit me, T.Nut! Lookit me! I can make it rain!” She jumped lightly over the cracks like the ballet dancers she saw on TV. Like the white girls in their thousand dollar jackets with their million dollar smiles.
“Ro-SEY! Ro-SEY!” A new voice surprised her, and she swung around towards Wunderbred, pounding on the drum and shouting out her name with a big, stupid grin across his face. “Ro-SEY! Ro-SEY!”
Ro-SEY! Ro-SEY! echoed the rain that drummed against the concrete as she spun
around on her tip-toes.
Rosey…Roooosseeeeeyyy… Whispered the wind struggling through the rain to brush against her ankles. She knew the voice. This was the voice from the warehouse. The voice of the fear that killed T.Nut.
Rosey. We’re coming to watch the show!
Her head yanked itself around to stare at the fence. Water fell on the wire, making it shimmer. Behind the chain and the barbed wire, she could see darkness gathering. It clung to the wire and smothered the glint where light hit water.
Wunderbred saw it too. She knew he did because the drumming picked up its pace under his hand. Her feet answered it, stamping on her toes, fast and crazy to Wunderbred’s panicky rhythm. Her heart wobbled in the base of her throat.
The floodlight’s mercury haze oozed up to the fence now. It touched the dark where it clung to the wire, but didn’t blot it out. It hung onto it and made it shiny, pulled it up and spread it thin. A curtain of nighttime and dead-light stretched out against the back of the fence, stretched into a blanket, a shroud for her and Wunderbred.
“No!” she hollered towards the oozing dark and the wire. Her foot came down on a crack and her ankle doubled up sideways. She screamed as she toppled onto a jagged tear in the cement. Her blood mixed with her rain ran pink down into blackness. The concrete was hotter than daytime under her. The rain beat down hard and pitiless, out of control against her back.
“Rosey!” shrieked Wunderbred. The drumming stopped. She heard his feet splashing through the water on the pavement. His clammy hands gripped her and tried to pull her up.
The heat shoved them both down, carried by the rain she called up and lost. Her eyes dragged themselves up to the fence. The blanket made for them pressed forward against the wire. The heat dragged it down too, down to smother them.
Oh she die,
Oh she die,
Oh she die like this…
Darkness blotted out the sky and stopped the rain. Wunderbred whimpered.
Oh, she die like this…
Rosey grit her teeth against the heat and pain pinning her to the ground. She drew the memory of T.Nut up from the pit inside where her heart used to be. She felt the darkness fall onto her skin, gathering her up into itself.
She jumped with both fists in the air, screaming at the top of her lungs, straight for the sky and the rain that she knew were out there. She burst through the blackness and saw the city, shining in the rain, washed clean for one instant by her own doing. Rosey felt herself fly free into the wind with time enough to fling her arms wide, lashing defiance into the rain and wind and all the powers that drove her life. In the same breathless second she saw the rent she made in the darkness shrivel open wide until the blanket was all gone and Wunderbred lay on bare concrete.
And up above in the wide sky she saw T.Nut. He was smiling and opening his arms to her and all around him were the skinny white girls with their long hair and their leather, and they were holding out a black leather jacket for her, all glam and chains and it’d fit like a glove. You’re one of us now.
She reached and and she saw the old man, the half-man wrinkled and dusty and alone turn his face to the wall.
Because the skinny white girls in leather would never come down here where the world really needed saving. They didn’t even know where here was. They’d stay in their suburbs and behind their cameras. If there was no T.Nut, no Spider Rose who was going to stop the sick and the dark bubbling up?
Not one of you. Never one of you.
She fell like this, onto the concrete, into the heavy, wet heat, turning her ankle hard, banging both knees. Into the world, with no one but Wunderbread. Heaven closed, and she lay there dazed and hurting. But alive. But real.
Wunderbred blinked up at her. She reached out her hand and together they pulled themselves up. The glass walls looked down and the cars rushed by on the shoulders of the world and it was all just the same. And nobody cared that T.Nut was dead and they were alive and they’d just saved the whole fucking world.
But they were, and they had, and for right now that was going to have to be enough.
“Come on,” said Rosey, pulling herself up straight. “Let’s get goin’.”