GALLOWS • by John Lander

The gallows man hums a lullaby for Addie, even though she’s already pretending to be asleep on her bed. His face is cloaked in shadows and he licks his lips in the darkness; his breath is shallow and quick. This isn’t his first time, but his viscera stirs as though it were. Anticipation swells, anxious, but his hands are steady, taut as daddy-long-leg strides and ready to tamper. The ends of his fingernails thread her hair away from the flesh of her neck, unfastening a noose. She breathes in, and he slides onto her bed.

Addie (A cloud), rolls softly onto her (puffy) side. Her eyelids tighten (in a field of mushy clouds). Heavy hands reach around and press against her chest (and if you look closely); one slips under her flannel (you can see). It rubs the tips of her nipples rough (they’re all dirty), and the other claws between her legs. Her down there hurts (because they’re filled with dirt and sand) and part of her wishes her underwear was off (like at the playground after rainy days) because it’s bunching up. Her arms are positioned behind her (where there’s toys to play with). She bites on her lips (so long as you don’t look down because you know there’s dark puddles there), and makes sure not to breathe too hard (and you don’t want to get soggy or cold) or else she knows her arm’ll get squeezed, maybe even pinched (so you just keep playing). The gallows man’s finish is soft (and only your hands get a little wet) and anti-climatic (but that’s why the clouds are dirty). He buttons up her flannel (because you keep using them to wipe yourself dry and clean.) and shovels the blanket back over her body.

The gallows man closes the door behind him; flat faces follow his sock-soft footsteps on the cold hardwood floor. In his bedroom, his wife is stuffed with earplugs, covered in a blue satin sleep-mask, and deep in a prescription coma. He crawls into bed beside her, closes his eyes, and tries to ward off the thoughts vying to tear into his old cocoon, but he is trapped, has been since boyhood, in a web woven by his own father, and so he tosses in his sleep, fighting for comfort, and the silk ties bind tighter.

The gallows man snaps awake. An earthquake rumbles, threatening his home. He checks on his wife; she snorts and snores.

He stumbles to Addie’s room. Her eyes are wide at first, white with fear in the dark, but they shut as the gallows man steps inside. He lifts her and carries her out into the hall-closet doorway. She wraps her arms around his neck, breathes in the light perspiration in the hollow of smooth skin at the bottom of his throat. They huddle, wait for all the trembles to pass, and afterwards he returns Addie to her bed, her eyes still closed, no peeking.

In the morning, Addie’s mother enters the room. “Wake up,” she says, and leaves the door wide open.

Addie yawns with heavy lids. She puts on a shirt, shorts, socks and shoes, and never once looks in the mirror. For breakfast, in the jaundiced morning light of the linoleum kitchen, she eats her cereal alone. Her mother is feeding the cat; the gallows man has already left for the factory.

At school, the teacher is writing about denominators on the chalkboard. Addie already knows this stuff pretty good — that the numbers on the bottom should all belong to the same family. The recess bell rings and outside the door some of the other kids start talking about the earthquake. One of them, Amir, a boy with a scruffy neck and gaps in his teeth, asks Addie if she felt it. She tells him she didn’t. She tells him she’s a very heavy sleeper. She assures him that she’s always been able to sleep through just about anything.

John Lander reads and writes out of sunny Southern California, where he has become something of a balcony aficionado.

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