By Alex Cascio
Mama died under Uncle John’s fist. He was ten years older, and that fist was heavy. He might be my daddy. Didn’t know; didn’t care. Later they told me Uncle John made her brain bleed, though I ain’t seen no blood from where I hid under the sink. I saw her head hit the floor. I saw Uncle John’s boots as he rummaged around lookin’ for money. From the inch of cracked cabinet door, I saw him trip on his own damn feet.
“Sugar!” he barked.
I crushed my hand against my mouth, tryin’ not to breathe too hard. The force dug my cheeks into my teeth, makin’em bleed all awful and sour. I paid no mind, fixed on Uncle John’s gravely howls of “SHU-GAR!” Loud enough to shake walls, felt like. Felt like the whole world was shakin’ down, sinkin’ into hell.
Uncle John’s boots—cracked leather caked with dirt and grime—stepped towards the fridge. I heard the bottle of vodka knock the shelf.
“That fuckin’ brat,” he mumbled, trippin’ and stumblin’ out of the kitchen. “Where the hell that kid at? Fuckin’ lil—”
I took a shudderin’ breath. He was gone.
Not gone, like Mama was. I wondered if she was cold on the tile floor. I wondered if her arm hurt, way it was like that, all crooked and funny. I wondered how long it’d take for Uncle John to find me and bend me crooked—I could hear’im throwin’ things ‘round the trailer, furniture crashin’ and doors slammin’. It wasn’t a big place; it wouldn’t be long.
My back ached. Dust and dirt from the cabinet floor burrowed itself into my knees, like that time Gramma made me kneel on rice after I got caught stealin’ a 7-Up from the Quick-Stop. I’d thought sharin’ a mattress on the ground with Mama was uncomfortable. Now, all I wanted was to curl up next to her, even if she wasn’t warm no more.
I chanced a small sob. My mouth tasted like copper from my cut-up cheeks, but I kept pressin’ harder. Mama was gettin’ blurry, all the tears and all.
I gasped, my head slapped the sink pipe as I shrank further into the cabinet. My heart thundered, roared, had to be heard cross town, cross the world. My eyes strained to see him, Uncle John, before he threw open the cabinet door and did me like Mama, before he—
“No, child. Down here, look.”
I tore my gaze from the slit view of the kitchen, of Mama. Couldn’t see much of anythin’, all crumpled and bent under the sink. I pulled my knees to my bony chest, tucked my elbows tight to my sides. Careful not to knock the pipe again, I turned my head.
And I saw’im, for the first time.
He was hardly more than a silhouette, Black Rat. Standin’ on his back paws, leanin’ against the corner. His tiny front paws twitched in the air without rhythm, just uncontained spasms.
And his eyes glowed red. Glowed like brake lights, like two miniature signal flares in the dark.
I moved my hand from my mouth—
“Don’t!” Black Rat snapped, and my hand slapped back in place. “There is no need for words. Only actions.”
Actions? What kinda actions I got? Uncle John was three times my size and ten times as mean. The hell was I gunna “action?”
“You can do miracles.” Black Rat cooed. His bright, hypnotic eyes sent a chill down my spine to my toes. “A miracle of equal exchange, of getting from the universe what you take, of harmony.”
I stared blankly, not comprehendin’. Only miracle I knew was that Jesus guy, makin’ water into wine and crap.
He shoulda let it stay water.
The Black Rat said, “Life and death. Death for life.”
I looked back out the cabinet, back out at Mama. I perked my ears, could hear Uncle John screamin’ again, closer now, the livin’ room. “SUGAR! WHERE YOU AT, GIRL?”
“You can save her,” Black Rat whispered.
His wormy tail wagged dreamily in the air, light and flowin’. Ain’t like any rat I ever seen. Magic talkin’ rat or not, he was out his damn mind. Ain’t no way I was killin’ Uncle John. I was good as dead as Mama. I was—
The kitchen table crashed and splintered against the wall. I seen Uncle John’s leg pull back then swing—kick that boot hard into Mama’s limp body with an awful CRACK that could be nothin but bone—like a rag doll he tossed her into what used to be our dinin’ table.
I’m gunna be dead soon.
I’m gunna be dead soon.
I’m gunna be—somethin’ scratched at my ankle. I looked down into those glowin’ red eyes, followed their gaze as they shifted up, up, up to the pipin’ above me and—
Well, shit. Mama’s 9mm was tucked up in between those pipes.
“SUGAR, YOU LITTLE DEVIL, I SWEAR TO GOD I—”
I used Uncle John’s yellin’ as cover to work the gun out of the maze of pipin’.
“LITTLE BITCH LIKE YO MAMA.”
I turned off the safety, checked if there was a round chambered, just like Mama had taught me.
The cabinet under the sink filled with light as Uncle John threw open the door, his breath stinkin’ of vodka, his knuckles bruised, his—
Face full of lead, I shot’d him point blank, right in his snarlin’, yellow teeth.
He fell over, dead.
I heard Mama gasp.
Black Rat shot off across the kitchen, out of sight, off and gone. I dropped the gun to the floor. I sobbed, I howled, I let the whole past hour of terror come out my mouth. I shaked and shivered and hollered. Mama groaned. Mama was alive. Mama is alive.
I can do miracles.