A piece I wrote for a creative writing course last semester.
Tonight, the nameless man is huddled outside the door, and Rie wants to let him in. Again. When I found her, she was standing out on the front steps and offering him bits of bread she’d saved from dinner. Now, she’s grasping the hem of my shirt, twisting it between her fingers, staring at my side as though that’s where my face is.
“Please, Duncan. He’s all wet.”
I won’t. I hate saying no to Rie, but Mumma will flay and fillet me if I let a tramp in, especially the nameless man. And it has to be him—with Mumma’s reputation, nobody else would dare sleep so close to our door. Just to be sure, I hold the lantern a little higher and squint past its brightness to try and get a better look at the figure huddled against the side of the building. He lifts his head as I do so, and the wash of yellow, rain-streaked light spills across his features.
Yeah. It’s definitely the nameless man, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so bedraggled before. His reddish hair, straight and wiry like a dog’s wet fur, stands up in dark tufts on top of his head. He wears a faded vest the color of dirty dishwater and trousers that were once stylish but are now so tattered they barely cover his knees. The brand—a livid disc of puckered skin—sits an inch above his right eyebrow, and at the sight of it, I feel a shiver buzz down my spine and settle uncomfortably into my gut. He’s looking at me, but I can’t move my eyes from the brand to meet his. Instead, I address a point somewhere just above his head.
“You can’t sleep here tonight,” I say.
The man continues to look at me, but doesn’t speak. Worse, he doesn’t move. Rie is shaking her head and tugging at my shirt again, her straight brown hair falling forward into her face.
“Duncan, he’s nice. He’s my friend. Please.” There’s an ominous wobble in the word “please”, and I wish Mumma would come back and deal with the man so that I don’t have to deal with Rie.
“No,” I say. In my mind, I read out a list of reasons for my answer, but I know they’d just confuse and upset her, so instead I say, “Go talk to Mumma if you want him to stay with us.” We both know she won’t go to Mumma.
“Please, Duncan. He’s wet.” She pulls the hem of my shirt to her chest until the collar begins to press against my throat. “Please. Please. Please. Please...” The word fades into a murmured chant, practically prayer. I set my teeth together and exhale through them, and for a moment I let her choke me with my own shirt. Then, without looking down, I gently prise her hand open, tug my shirt free, and step down onto the wet cobblestones. My bare feet curl in protest against the cold. To my left, in the busy blackness of the street beyond the awning, the collecting rainwater continues to gush along the edges of the pavement.
“Hey!” I say to the man. He stares at me, but doesn’t move. “We’re an inn, not an almshouse. If you have money, you can buy food and a room. If not, go.”
“Duncan?” Mumma’s voice slices cleanly through the white noise of the rain. “Who’s outside?”
“Go on!” I say again, gesturing out towards the street, more urgently now that I can hear Mumma’s approaching footsteps. “Get out of here!”
The man hunches down, rocking forward until he is crouched with his large, thin-fingered hands splayed on the muddy stones. In the moment that he pauses there, as though gathering the strength to stand up, Mumma’s wiry figure appears in the doorway next to Rie’s silhouette.
“What’s going on?” Mumma says, wiping her greasy hands on her apron. Her briskness seems to break the man’s resolve to stand, because he stays there, crouching, branded face pointed at the pavement. “Duncan? What’s the matter?”
I look back at Rie. Lit from behind by the light beyond the door, her face is difficult to see, but she’s crouching now too, hugging herself and peering around the doorframe at the man. Mumma spots the man a second later and makes a noise somewhere between a groan and a growl. She whirls about and back into the house. I know she’s gone to get her broom, or maybe even her gun, so I dash back up the steps, gather Rie up in my arms, and push at the edge of the door with my rain-numbed foot. The clockwork gears begin to whir, and with a ticking sound and a slight thud, it swings shut.
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