BY ROB E. BOLEY
The coffee maker’s still gargling hot water over busted beans when Alan steps outside and rubs his raw eyes. Across the street, sunlight giggles between the trees. The neighbourhood playground already buzzes with activity. He knows he doesn’t belong there but he can’t help himself. She’ll be there soon. The Wailer.
Mug of coffee in hand, he crosses the street on wobbly legs. Like the rest of the neighbourhood, the playground is expensive and pretentious. Instead of wood chips, the ground is made of sturdy foam tiles in various colours. The equipment consists of gleaming metal and unworn ropes. Here, children of lawyers, developers, and executives learn how to climb above their peers. How to spin themselves, like little white lies, into dizzy oblivion. How to carry their own weight across the vast distance between monkey bars.
He drops to one knee in front of the swings as if tying his shoe. Unresolved dew snuggles against his knee. With a shaky flick of his wrist, he places the Wailer’s gift on her swing. He spent the entire sleepless night working on it.
Once seated on a nearby bench, he sips his coffee. He poured the mug when the pot had been only a quarter full, and the strength of the brew already jangles his veins. His heart trembles, but same as he always does, he levels his gaze vaguely on the playground, as if keeping an eye on his own child. In truth, it’s been months since he had a child to watch, since he last saw his Sallyann.
The first hints of the Ohio summer day’s thick, wet heat swells in the air. Nearby, an electric lawnmower hums.
Above, a plane flies mutely overhead. He always grumbled when his wife Lauren referred to this as a flyover state, and so she never failed to point out a plane flying overhead. She wouldn’t say anything. She’d just point.
Just sitting here, he feels better. Here, he can imagine that his cell phone buzzes in his pocket. He can hold it dead to his ear and pretend to talk to Lauren about groceries and dinner and the wobbly chair in the living room and the uncle who just won’t die and the colour of the hallway walls. He can pretend to watch Sallyann.
Pretending to be normal isn’t easy, but Alan’s had a lifetime of practice.
He hears the girl coming before he sees her. The other parents wince at the sound of her booming voice. Moms rub their temples and grit their teeth. Dads sigh and shake their heads, curse under their breath. The children grin to themselves. Finally, the chubby Asian girl rides into sight on her rusty bicycle.
The Wailer has arrived.
Kelly pedals her stallion, Captain Honey Smack, down the uneven sidewalk – the fossilised spine of a monster slain long ago and bleached white by unrelenting sunshine. Above, a broad-winged dragon soars through the blue sky, trailing a blossoming plume of white from its fiery belly.
The sun casts a long, lean shadow of her on the sidewalk – a taller, thinner version of Kelly. Dark and flat, like a glass of Pepsi left out overnight.
Her earbuds snuggle in her ears, cords dangling from her neck like twin lines of drool. She doesn’t know the name of the band or the song, but she keeps on singing: “...Murderful freedom. A scab in the back. Women and children and Howard’s attack...”
Tucked into her fanny pack, a Walkman compact cassette grinds the music out of a raspy bootleg simply titled Greatest Hits. She likes to think the tape belonged to her brother. She doesn’t know his name, but Kelly imagines he listened to this very tape while jogging in this same neighbourhood.
She arrives at the battlefield and reins in her agitated steed, who paws at the ground. Something is different today. Kelly senses it, and so does Captain Honey Smack.
The soldiers, both children and adults, already clutter the battlefield. Smirking girls scamper up the gleaming skeletons of oversized tarantulas. Boys climb the bars of cages meant for giants. Snot-nosed pre-schoolers slide down a metal river – twisted and frozen by ancient magic. The children do everything but swing on her swing set.
They know better.
She strides to her swing, careful not to step on the cracks between the tiles. She can’t bear the thought of fighting that demon again. The tiles squish under her feet, almost fooling her into thinking the world is soft, forgiving.
She knows better.
Her swing hangs in the middle of the swing set. Her vague mitten-shaped handprints are worn into the chain’s blue plastic coasting – the evidence of endless afternoons going up and down.
And what’s this? A metallic box the width and length of a large postage stamp sits on her yellow swing. Is it a curse or a blessing?
Alan smiles as the Wailer considers her gift.
Quickly, the other adults notice something is amiss. Like deer suspecting a predator lurking at the edge of a clearing, the parents and babysitters perk up. They watch the Wailer out of the corners of their eyes.
He smiles wider, imagining them all stampeding out of the playground. The Wailer shakes the MP3 player a few times. It holds songs from Sallyann’s and Lauren’s music collections. He stayed up all night finding the perfect playlist of songs in the exact order, like the mix tapes he once made for Lauren back in college.
Still shaking the MP3 player, she bellows out a typically screwed up version of one of her normal Iron Maiden songs – “...You watch the world next loading every single night. Dancing in this one a newborn inner light...” – same as she always does. As usual, she goofs a few choice words and grunts along with the music between verses. Her grunts sound like an asthmatic old cow giving birth.
The parents loathe the Wailer’s singing and grunting, her swinging, and her thrift store clothes. Her mismatched socks and unkempt hair.
But Alan adores her, because he’s stared at her every night for the past year. Not here at the playground or in the neighbourhood or even tucked into her bed. No, he hasn’t watched the real her, but the crayon version of her drawn on the one lone picture on his fridge. Bright and flat and full of colour, like an oil-tinted puddle on a sunny day.
Sallyann drew the picture, and Alan knows it by heart. A sun with a lion’s mane and a Cheshire cat’s manic grin. Clouds like whipped topping. A playground populated by stick figures with enormous heads and very detailed fingers the size of broomsticks. Some of the figures have no feet, but they damn sure have all their fingers. The figures run and slide and hop and climb and smile. One swings through the air, musical notes floating in the air in a wobbly stream from her face.
In the bottom right-hand corner, his daughter scrawled, “SALLYANN.”
The Wailer bellows: “…Your dime will come. Your dime will come. Your dime will come...”
He has spent hours analysing that damn drawing. He knows the colour of each stick figure, the jagged expressions on their faces, and the style of their hair. He remembers asking her what song the musical notes represented.
Sallyann said, “Those are the bird’s songs.”
And Alan said, “But I don’t see any birds.”
“They were there earlier, eating pieces of hot dog buns.”
“Then what happened?”
“They ran out of hot dog buns.”
“Then what happened?” This was one of their games. Sallyann would start a story, real or imagined, and Alan would keep her talking by asking her the same question over and over.
“They were very sad.”
“Then what happened?”
She shrugged. “They remembered they could fly. They flew right off the page.”
“Then what happened?”
Sallyann smiled, looking far wiser than her years.
“You’ll never know,” she said.
Kelly likes the colour of her newfound treasure – hot pink, the colour of mall rat lipstick. Like her Walkman, it has a tiny circular hole for headphones. If she wants to listen to the box, it’ll mean unplugging her headphones from the Walkman. It’ll mean shutting off the music’s magical spell for one grim moment.
The fossilised dragon bones will become a harsh sidewalk. The frozen river will melt into an unyielding slide. Her trusty steed’s legs will become worn, rubber tires. Captain Honey Smack’s spotted coat will become a rusty frame.
Then all the noises will wiggle inside her brain. Children giggling. Birds singing. Traffic rumbling. Parents chatting. Flowers growing. Phones ringing. Cars honking. Dogs barking. Trees stretching. Clouds flying. All these noises will slide inside her ears like hooked worms and snag the crisp pulp inside her skull.
And then pull.
This way and that.
With the music on, Kelly lives in a world of magic. She can rise above the noise. The music is a surfboard, and so long as she sings, she can ride above the debilitating cacophony.
Gritting her teeth, she yanks the cord out of the Walkman. Mutely, its two lazy wheels continue to spin. The magic stays bottled up inside its scratched plastic. She takes comfort in that.
Children laugh. Mothers talk about cookies, suffering, yoga, and visitors. Dogs bark. A door slams. A ball bounces. The bushes waltz.
With a trembling hand, Kelly pushes the headphone jack into the pink box. She jabs the tiny button with the triangle pointing to the left.
First static grumbles, then it begins.
The Wailer stops singing. She nods her head as if someone’s whispering a recipe into her ear, but she doesn’t sing along.
Alan watches, doom swirling with the coffee in his otherwise empty stomach. The other adults exchange glances and smiles, first puzzled then bemused. Then joyous. At last this intrusive girl has stopped her endless bellowing. Peace flourishes in the playground. The sun seems a bit brighter. The shadows more crisp.
Alan shakes his head. He feels as though he has pulled the wings off a fly. Or yanked the fangs out of a wolf. Or doused the fire in a lightning bug’s belly.
The Wailer just swings back and forth, back and forth. All the while nodding.
“She does this all morning?” asked Alan.
It was a little over a year ago, when he took a week of vacation to work on things around the house: painting the hallway, fixing the living room chair, and ignoring everything at home that really needed repairing. He took Sallyann to the playground and saw the Wailer for the first time.
Sallyann nodded solemnly. “She just wails and wails. I call her the Wailer.”
“What’s her real name?”
Sallyann shrugged. “No one knows. She doesn’t go to our school. Some boys tried following her home once, but they couldn’t keep up. She rode through alleys and ditches and she was too fast.”
Alan patted his daughter’s head. “What do you think of her?”
“I think she’s beautiful.”
At lunchtime, a mother shows up with a picnic basket. She pours what Alan assumes to be wine into Dixie cups for all the other parents. They drink a loud toast to the blissful silence. Wine spills down throats. Alan’s shadow crouches low at his feet, a stubby dwarf version of himself.
Dark and flat.
Kelly nods along with the music.
Magical new words swirl inside her brain, slide down her throat, and bubble and brew in her belly. These are new songs sung by women, so many strange new voices. Young women. Wise women. Soft women. Rebellious women. Old women. Intelligent women. Strong women. Fun women. Hard women. And their words are woven on a magical mosaic of melodies.
These are women with something to say. They have lived and bled and walked and talked and climbed. Their magic is dark and shiny, brilliant and beautiful. Her magical world – giant metal spiders, flying dragons, rotting skeletons, and cursed rivers – seems so childish now.
Over the din of the music, Captain Honey Smack whines.
Alan can’t take it anymore. The parents’ wide smiles and triumphant words leave a chalky taste in his throat. He wipes sweat from his brow and slumps off his bench, ready to return to his broken home. A bottle of Captain Morgan squats under the sink. Some pills wait patiently behind the bathroom mirror.
And then he hears it.
Oh, how she wails. Like a thundercloud. Like a siren. Her voice booms like an off-key cannon.
The Wailer is a material girl living in a material world. One pill makes her larger and one pill makes her small. Listen to her now, she’s lasting twenty rounds. She’s gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough. The Wailer wants your ugly, she wants your disease. Oh help her, Jesus, come through this storm; she had to lose her to do her harm. She is the speed of sound; she left the motherless, fatherless. She’s not here for your entertainment; you don’t really want to mess with her tonight.
Below the swing set, Kelly’s shadow somersaults and stretches, contracts and tumbles. As her swing reaches the bottom of each arc, her shadow is just the right size.
The perfect size.
The sky sparkles with pure sunshine as she soars into the sky. The steed is a bike is Captain Honey Smack. The slide is a river is the slide. The dragon’s spine is a sidewalk is the dragon’s spine, and its rot feeds the insects and plants that scurry like static beneath the ground. The world spins and throbs and glistens. It is both magical and real.
The battle is over. The war has begun.
In Kelly’s belly, something grows. In her lungs, something expands. In her mind, something tickles. Someday, she realises, she will sing a song of her own. Her own words. Her own magic that she’ll share with the world.
The parents stare, open-mouthed, at the one-girl show. Song after song after song. No one says a thing. Neglected wine warms in the sunlight. Light and flat.
Some of the children start dancing along with Kelly’s signing and grunting. They stomp their feet and clap their hands, kick sand into the air. Their parents and babysitters frown.
Alan smiles to himself, and does something he hasn’t done in well over a year. He laughs. The noise bursts inside his belly and spills out of his mouth. Almost as loud as the Wailer wails, Alan laughs.
Then what happens? He remembers he can fly. He finishes his cold coffee, stands up, and walks right off the page.
ROB E. BOLEY GREW UP IN ENON, OHIO, A LITTLE TOWN WITH A BIG INDIAN MOUND. HE LATER EARNED A B.A. AND M.A. IN ENGLISH FROM WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY IN DAYTON, OHIO.
ROB IS THE AUTHOR OF THAT RISEN SNOW AND THAT WICKED APPLE, THE FIRST IN A SERIES OF DARK FANTASY NOVELS PUBLISHED BY STONEGATE INK FEATURING MASH-UPS OF CLASSIC FAIRY TALE CHARACTERS AND HORROR MONSTERS. HIS FICTION HAS APPEARED IN SEVERAL MARKETS, INCLUDING A CAPPELLA ZOO, PSEUDOPOD, CLACKAMAS LITERARY REVIEW, AND BEST NEW WEREWOLF TALES. ROB'S STORIES HAVE WON BEST IN SHOW IN THE SINCLAIR COMMUNITY COLLEGE CREATIVE WRITING CONTEST AND THE DAYTON DAILY NEWS/ANTIOCH WRITERS' WORKSHOP SHORT STORY CONTEST. HIS WEBSITE CAN BE FOUND AT robboley.com.
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