Mellie grabbed the sandwich she had made, scampered out the back door, down the wooden steps, across the back yard and through the gap in the old chain link fence. Then down into the creek that ran through a gully behind all the houses on her block, up the other side and into the woods behind her neighborhood. She could hear Sue yelling at her not to get dirty. Sue hardly cared. It’s not like Sue would give her a bath or wash her clothes if she came home dirty. Sue probably wouldn’t even be awake.
Mellie liked roaming the woods, even though sometimes the bums in there tried to scare her. It’s not even like it was a big woods. There were other neighborhoods nearby, and on one side of the woods was a shopping center. Sometimes, she found the packages of things people had stolen from from the stores. Sometimes, she found places where bums had slept -- old blankets, cigarette butts, empty bottles.
This time, she found a sick man. She almost didn’t see him as she skipped along a trail the bums had carved among the pines and the trumpet vines. His skinny, crooked fingers with their curved nails lunged out of the brush and almost grabbed her ankle, and she squealed when she jumped out of reach, dropping the half of a sandwich she had yet to eat. The man didn’t pursue her, or even make a noise. His twitching fingers folded back against him and his mouth opened and closed without a sound.
He was wrapped in old rags and shivering under a palmetto. His skin was gray and slick. His few strands of hair were plastered against a gray scalp. He smelled sweet and sour at the same time, and reminded her of how her dog had smelled just before he died last year. She started to say something, but he reached again, this time grabbing the half of a sandwich she had dropped. He sniffed it, peeled off the bread, licked the thin slice of ham, and swallowed it in a gulp. He moaned and shook.
“More …” he whispered.
Mellie went to the place where the homeless men sleep sometimes and took the blanket they had left there. It smelled bad too, in a different way, like sweat and alcohol and sour garbage, and poo. She held it at arm’s length and went back to the place where the sick man was. He wasn’t still there, though. He had gone. She whistled and tromped around. She heard a noise up the trail and saw him crawling under a stunted magnolia tree. She came close to where he hid and tossed the blanket at him, and he snatched it close before it could flutter all the way to the ground. He rolled in it and tangled himself, sniffing and snorting. Then he froze very still and stared at Mellie.
His eyes were milky and slick and gray, and they didn’t blink. It made Mellie scared. She decided to run home. But she didn’t want to run past the sick man to get there, she was afraid his fast skeleton fingers might reach out and grab her. So she backed away from him and headed in the direction of the shopping center.
She heard him snorting and moaning behind her, and she ran.
She ran right into a man standing at the edge of the woods behind the shopping center. He smelled of sweat and alcohol and sour garbage and poo. He grabbed her by the hair and held her on her tip toes and yelled in her face, and she screamed. He let go, and she ran again, past the back doors of the stores in the shopping center, along the edge of the parking lot, and down the street to her neighborhood. She didn’t stop running until she was in her house again and Sue was yelling at her for getting dirty.
She told Sue about the sick man who ate her sandwich, and the bum who yelled at her, and Sue put Mellie over her knee and spanked her and spanked her, and sent her to her room. Mellie sat in her room and cried for a while, and listened to Sue bump around downstairs, and she thought about things. She heard glasses clanking together, heard the TV come on. After a while, the only noise was the TV. And a little while later, she knew Sue was asleep. It always worked this way.
Mellie went downstairs quiet and empty as a promise. She looked at Sue asleep on the couch, and the bottles and pills on the table by Sue gave Mellie an idea. She dropped a couple of pills in one of the bottles that still had liquid in it. She made another sandwich, and she scampered out the back door, across the yard, through the fence, down the gully and up again, into the woods.
It wasn’t dark yet, but the sun was low and the shadows were long and deep. She listened as she walked. She looked hard at the bushes on the sides of the trail, and she still almost didn‘t see the sick man before she came upon him. He had come further along the trail, closer to where it leads to the gully. She didn’t like the idea of him coming to her house, even if it wasn’t much of a house. Not yet, anyway.
She broke the sandwich into halves and then half again. She tossed a piece at the sick man, and he let it fall in the dirt. He watched it for a while, then his hands snaked out and brought it to his face. He sniffed and snorted. He peeled away the bread and licked the meat. His tongue was a cracked, gray thing and poked and prodded. Then he swallowed the piece whole and quivered.
“More …” he moaned.
She ran past him, dropping a second piece as she passed, hoping that the offering would distract him from reaching for her. She was correct. Again, he grabbed the hunk of sandwich and took it apart and finally swallowed the meat. This time, she could see the sharp yellow teeth encircle the meat before he gulped. He moaned and trembled and crawled out of the underbrush, crouching on the tips of his bony fingers and toes like a crab wrapped in a colorless old blanket.
“More …” he said.
She skipped along the trail then, headed to the place where the bums sometimes sleep. She dropped a third piece on the trail and heard him scuffling in the dirt to attack the meat. She didn’t pause or look back to see him wracked with tremors and moans. She kept moving, right up to the place where the bum was sitting under an oak tree, having given up looking for his old blanket.
He wore layers of shirts, wrapped with twine and scarves. His face was carved and wrinkled, coated with dirt and scabs and wiry gray hair. He scowled at her, exposing black teeth.
“Mister, I’m sorry, but I took your blanket for the sick man,” Mellie said.
“You better give me back my --” he started to say, but then his eyes landed on the bottle in her hand.
“I brought you this,” she said, and held the bottle toward him.
He eyed her. He moved onto his knees and reached toward her. She could tell that he was expecting a trick.
“What is it? Did you pee in this bottle?” he said, and she laughed.
“No, silly! Smell it.”
He took it from her and sniffed. It smelled legit. He tipped it back, letting just a bit touch his tongue. It tasted right. He looked at her again, wondered for a second why she was holding a piece of sandwich in her other hand, and shrugged. He turned the bottle up and drained it. It was a good, cold beer.
He laughed. He sat back against the oak tree. He asked her why she’d brought him a beer.
“I told you,” she said. “I gave your blanket to the sick man. I thought it was fair to bring you the beer.”
The bum laughed again. He was feeling warm, now. Happy. It didn’t even disturb him to see his old blanket come shuffling up the trail behind the little girl on spindly legs. He had a vague realization that something wasn’t right, but most of him didn’t care. He heard the blanket -- or was there a man under there? -- when it demanded “more.”
Mellie tossed the last part of her sandwich at the bum. The thing in the blanket sprang forward. She stood very still as it passed her and fell upon the homeless man and began to eat, peeling aside the clothing to uncover the meat. She saw the sick man’s tongue darting, heard his yellow teeth clicking, watched him tremble and moan.
Mellie didn’t like having her hair pulled.
She liked spankings even less.
She ran back through the woods to the gully, across the yard, and through the back door. She collected a few clothes and things in a plastic bag. She was taking money from Sue’s purse when she heard the back door swing open and slam shut, and she was running out the front door when she heard a voice calling, “MORE!”
(c) 2009 by Tony Simmons
For the '366 Days' project
(Written between 9:15 p.m. and 10:45 p.m. tonight. First draft.)
Anthology of stories including work by Gaiman, King, Barker, Brite and many more. Borrowed this week from the Bay County Public Library.