:: Article

All Gone

New fiction by Toby McCasker.

 

 

Out on the porch, the short girl’s leg milled up and down from her tall clothes.

 

She whistled at the stars over the symphony of cicadas in the garden. Not to or for. A little thing like her, a melody someone had made up and held high until she reached for it. Sweet and simple, it slipped through her fingers. It was not then she realised all the stars were dead and she cooed to their bright young ghosts, but now. She practiced looking at things like they’d always been there, laying across the boards under the worn black of a tree that had been little when she’d been little. Kicking her leg up and down, her lips would not be any other shape but around and around. Through the tunnel of their chapped pout, the sweet, the simple. A fly schemed by the wordless voice in the well. The song was short, like she was, and it wavered with the sycamore’s moonlit echo.

 

A tear slid away from her and her mouth shook behind her hand.

 

 

Cicada, and Isn’t that a funny name?

 

I suppose it is. Friend used to call me that. This for you.

 

Thanks Cicada.

 

It’s fine. Drop you here? That OK?

 

Yes, thanks and then the other one: We’ll give you five stars. Sic-kay-dah.

 

Hey yeah, you too.

 

You too.

 

 

She remembered the boy who couldn’t stop biting his nails

 

 

Cicada would sit in the basement that was her room all night with her hood shading her face and sometimes her older sister would come down and see her when the house was too quiet, they lived together. Ever since. Cicada would heave smoke into and out of herself so she wouldn’t hear the cicadas in the walls but they just got louder. She covered her ears and sank into her knees and her sister would say her name over and over again until it was just Cade, Cade, Cade but only her nose would poke out from her hood and a raindrop would form on the end of it. Her sister would hold her and tell her: It’s not your fault.

 

Cicada was barely over five feet tall though she told people she’d been taller before the world shrank her.

 

 

You? You’re the girl?

 

Yes it’s me. You wanted, li—

 

You are tiny.

 

The world shrank me.

 

That’s funny, that’s funny. Cicada, right?

 

Right.

 

That you whistling before?

 

 

She didn’t want to go to sleep, she said, No I won’t.

 

Why Cicada?  Her sister bent her fingertips against the hair sponging under Cicada’s hood. Are you afraid of the dark?

 

No, she said, No-no. In the voice that was quick and hurried, like she was and did. Looking over its shoulder, scooting. Puffs of dust cloudchasing band-aided heels.

 

I’m afraid if I go to sleep,

 

Yeah?

 

I will kill my imaginary friend.

 

 

and she had put her hand on his shoulder and said Hey stop,

 

 

So it’s $250 for a bag and I got some nice Molly, $50 for two. Trips as well if you like but who takes trips anymore?

 

Nice little racket you got going here.

 

Is, hey.

 

Someone could rat you out real easy.

 

Obviously.

 

Yeah?

 

Buy the ticket, take the ride.

 

Thompson.

 

Whatever.

 

 

When Cicada went to work in the early evening every other early evening, her sister would watch the bumper sticker with the smoking alien saying High there! beam away and turn the corner. She’d go inside. She’d lay her legs over each other and swing them up and down, feeling the numb carpet on her heels and the ache of the old couch and counting the bruises on the pearskin of her shins. In the lounge room where no one went, the air pricked her lungs and she would throw her lavender shawl around her and toe rusted echoes from the iron steps down to Cicada’s room.

 

A genie’s wish lingered. She’d sit on the edge of the bed that was too big and repeat her quiet mantra of counting wounds she could not account for but they were there, blooming, fading, another one. All colours and rumours of colours the rainbow rejected. Cicada’s small pots of makeup and smaller makeup pencils strewn and tipped over by the feet of the full-length mirror that sagged against the wall. Her sister would stare at it for hours. Cicada wore her socks whenever she went near it, and would stoop, always leaving the house with her face a darker shade than the rest of her and eyes sucked under by pits of kohl.

 

Her sister would hug an old stuffed toy she’d given to Cicada a long time go, dirty and bursting in the shape of a morning cartoon she used to wake up early to watch. Her legs would unstitch themselves and stretch out together. In the yellowed purple mosaic of their shins, Cicada’s hands would grip the mirror’s edge and smash it into her face again and again until it was not a mirror but a memoir and there were urgent reds and blues on the horizon.

 

and he’d looked at her with wavering ponds.

 

 

Got some gnarly scars.

 

Damien!

 

What? She does.

 

I do.

 

They’re cool.

 

That’s still rude. Sorry about him, Cicada.

 

It’s fine.

 

Beautiful girl you don’t got to hide under your hood and in your hair like that.

 

Now who’s being rude? What the fuck, Steph.

 

I said it’s,

 

It’s fine.

 

 

We had this conversation about dreams one night, Cicada creaked under the floorboards of smoke cellaring her.

 

Her sister listened, crossing, uncrossing. Big book on her lap, she’d taken it from the pile by the bed to feel its weight on her thighs. Sniffing the air and dreaming where she sat.

 

He didn’t dream, Cicada went on, Because he never slept.

 

They looked away from the air between them, old dye and brittle hair over clouded eyes. Time held them. Cicada sparked the genie’s bottle to life again and bubbled another wish from its belly. Up for air. So I got no dreams to learn from, she said he said, the words wooling from her mouth, So I read a lot.

 

Her sister nodded and there was writing in the front of the book in her lap, words that curled life through the pages but came after they were born: To Cicada. Your fingers are not too small. I want to hear that wood sing. Got you this. Peace xx, and then his name, but she closed the book then.

 

 

In a year she’d found him asleep on her couch one morning.

 

 

Hey you’re sitting on books.

 

Yeah. Can’t see over the dash without them.

 

Are you serious?

 

I’m short.

 

Shit. What books?

 

Music books. I study when I’m not driving.

 

You play?

 

Yeah. Guitar, like my friend. Was teaching me sometimes.

 

Seriously.

 

My band’s on tomorrow night at Valve.

 

Time?

 

8.55pm.

 

Weird time.

 

It is.

 

 

The boy came to the show later that evening and stood up against the bar next to Cicada’s sister, though he didn’t know it. What’s your name? he’d asked and It’s not about me, she’d said. She watched him watch her and she sighed through her nose, hair bleached to cheap porcelain laying its hands over her shoulders. She felt for them and their ends broke away in her fingertips, trapped in the arches and loops. A boy at the store called her a budget angel. She closed her eyes and listened to Cicada tune her guitar, guru’d in a skirt and hunched at the moth-eaten crowd, the hungry dinosaur on her underwear making them shuffle, crane.

 

She started to play what she always whistled and her sister lifted her head and could only say her name. Once, only once. After a while Cicada’s chin crumpled and her hair draped over the strings of her guitar that she had stopped trying to play. Her chest filled the hollow of its body and that was all. One of the boys in the band leant down to whisper something but another one shook his head and mouthed No, don’t.

 

Hands waved over necks and the lights went down. People left. The boy who’d come to see her left first.

 

 

Hey, can you watch the road?

 

What?

 

Getting worried back here.

 

Oh. Sorry. It’s fine, though.

 

Spend a lot of time checking yourself out.

 

Something always chasing me.

 

What if,

 

Yes?

 

It’s looking for you instead?

 

Hey?

 

Small girl?

 

 

He’d come in through the window in the night.

 

 

Why’d he name me after those, she’d want to know, and her forehead would collapse her eyes.

 

Her sister would sit and tell her, Said they talk a lot all the time, like you used to. You two listened to them every evening, walking in the backyard, and there’d be moon on the dandelions and they’d light your way.

 

Cicadas in the night are cute and majestic.

 

In the morning they’re loud enough to make your ears bleed, and Cicada covered her smile with her hand inside her sleeve, too long like all her clothes.

 

I used to watch you two, you know. She knew. From the porch, shoulder to shoulder with the doorway, kinda. The cicadas in the reeds, on the trees, she said, Seemed to call your name. Her sister would hold her breath. I held my breath sometimes, I don’t know why. Just you two out there most nights.

Cicada, fidgeting. Looking around. Her white walls black wherever she touched them.

 

When he used to hold my hand?

 

You wouldn’t let go because you were scared, her sister would say. You would say, I’m so small what if I float away, like a balloon?

 

Together, then, crescent moons: Sicki just hold onto me.

 

Together, again, crescent moons: Silence for half an hour.

 

 

Hey everything OK back there?

 

I can stop?

 

We’ve just been to a funeral.

 

Oh. Hey, sorry.

 

They said beautiful things about her. Just beautiful.

 

When Samson spoke, I don’t know. Did you know her like that?

 

I didn’t. I had no idea she was like that, did those kinds of things for people.

 

And to think, she was so sad, she

 

Never talked about that.

 

Never talked much.

 

We never asked. Hi, driver?

 

Driver?

 

Light’s green.

 

 

She shook him until her hand went numb from how cold his skin was.

 

 

Remember when he wrote BORN FREE on the wall in big letters and some of them were backwards but then they seemed to make even more sense? Do you remember this happening?

 

Yes I remember.

 

And then he crossed out FREE so it was like BORN FREE and he told us,

 

A duet, a chorus: Girls of mine, it is up to you.

 

I remember.

 

Me too.

 

I don’t want to.

 

Me too.

 

Cicada disappeared under her hood again with her wishless genie in a bottle but it shook in her hand so her sister took it in hers and placed it on the carpet between White Ox burns and boxed wine stains. She held Cicada for a while until Cicada’s little leg shot out and kicked over the genie and they sat there for even longer, smelling a new stain form between the old ones that had lost their scent but still followed them.

 

 

How long you been doing the Uber thing for?

 

Not long.

 

How long’s that?

 

How long’s forever?

 

You were in that guy’s lane before.

 

He was in mine.

 

Think you’re smart.

 

I don’t. It’s just, you don’t know. The passage of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. Is it cosmic maths? They supposed to add up to something, like, is there an answer? Maths only has answers. It is answers. You deal in numbers, you’re asking something. Funny, though. You ever think how when an equation is solved, it doesn’t mean anything to anyone? Its own questions make its answer music instead of noise, but no one asked. Rules and solutions. I’m gonna whistle, you hear that? Got all these answers and no questions. I aren’t asking anything anymore. I don’t want nothing. I see a shooting star now, you know what? I wave at it and wish it well, wherever it’s going, but it’s dead already.

 

I’ll get out here.

 

Hey you want your stu—

 

No, changed my mind.

 

What do you think the return policy on the gift of life is?

 

 

She remembered his bleeding fingers in the grey dawn.

 

 

Outside the house of a dying sun, its stone eyes looked inside a cloud forest. His hand on her hand. Knees itchy with the long grass and scalps itchier still with the city’s dry eyes in the distance, closer at dusk when they could open, unafraid of the day. Everything closer when the light had died. Her sister’s shade in the doorway of the home their parents had left them, he held her hand like he always did around this time and they got lost outside under a backlit canopy. He’d poke more holes in it with his finger. See that one, he said, and that one? She nodded but could never be sure the ones she saw were the ones he wanted her to see. They all shone, some bigger like him, some smaller like her, but they all shone, and she liked that, and stood on her toes for as long as she could. Closer to them, closer to him. If only for a little while and All the while, he told her, These stars are dead. She’d flattened browning grass under her heels and wanted to know what he meant. Yeah, he said, Their light takes so many years to reach us. By the time it does, he said, and ran his thumb under his lip, They been gone a long time. She fretted and wanted to know if there was anything they could do. She thought he smiled but it was dark. Just enjoy them while they’re here.

 

One fell to earth, then, on cruel cue, and her fingers doughed through his and he told her Quick, make some kinda wish. She did, inside her head, rushed and jumbled but she thought it made sense and she’d wanted it for as long as the star it rode on had been dust but she was scared of herself and the scent she left behind in empty rooms. A sigh and he wanted to know why. Every time she sighed. Oh, she said. I don’t think the star would’ve heard me. What? I said What? I said Sorry what?

 

The cicadas were so loud.

 

 

Your clothes are real big.

 

Too much?

 

Naw, just, big. Like, you got no hands.

 

I look OK, though?

 

Yeah, for sure.

 

Really?

 

You look fine.

 

 

She’d have salted white trails from the sides of her eyes to the sides of her mouth, broken in the night and dissolving in the dawn. Her sister watched her from the iron stairwell while she slept, peered down over her forearm with a dusty chill on her feet and their bent legs. A painted echo of Cicada sitting in his lap, his arms wound around hers, her arms wound around the guitar, and his fingers pressing her fingers to the wood and his hand showing her hand how to pick at the nylon. To play a song. Sweet, simple. She could play it perfectly when he was there. Without him, it came to stay but would lose its way and then, disappear. The night outside had woken blue and it peered in through the windows at the small girl too. She stirred and her sister noticed, for the first time, Cicada slept in all her clothes and kicked the blankets and sheets to the floor.

 

No hands. The rosebuds of her nails reminded her of trying to say goodbye and she pulled her long sleeves over them after she got dressed, throughout the day, before she went to bed.

 

His nails, they were all gone.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Toby McCasker is a writer and journalist living in Sydney, Australia. His work has been translated to the French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Italian. He is the 2016 winner of the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Prize. More information is available at his site, and via his Twitter @jane_tobes.

ABOUT THE ARTWORK
Titled ‘Fragment of a Queen’s Face’ by curators at The Met Museum, this yellow jasper piece is part of a larger statue dated from the reign of Akhenaten (1353–1336 BCE).

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017.