From WTP Vol. VI #7
Nicky Nicky Nine Doors
By Robin van Eck
An itch skittered across the nape of his neck. He peeked through the peephole. No shadows. No unwelcomed movement. Like the first time, he grasped the knob and pulled open the door slowly, listening for the hushed giggles.
Scratch stepped onto the porch and squinted out over the lawn. Not that one could really call it a lawn, its six-inch brown blades choked with dandelion carcasses. Best he figured, the street lay empty. Scratch’s line of vision stretched twenty feet at best, even behind the Coke bottle lenses he’d worn since childhood, supposed to help him see better but only made him look like an arachnid.
He couldn’t drive, but that didn’t bother him. Not as long as his feet worked and there was no law against riding a bike. Always with a helmet, of course. If he had a crash, the helmet might prevent his brains from spilling onto the road, but it wouldn’t protect his retinas. One more conk to the head—hell, if he sneezed too hard—he could find himself blinder than a headless chicken.
He scratched his chin and ran his hand down the length of his beard—a foot and a half at last measure—then curled the end around his fingers and tugged. The hair on his head nearly as long as that on his face, both gray as the ash dangling from the cigarette pinched between his thumb and forefinger. The hair made him feel safe. Hidden. Padded. He knew it was foolish and most times made him even itchier. But he couldn’t bring himself to shave.
A final pull on the cigarette and he flicked the butt into the yard. Choke on that, he thought, adjusting his ball cap so the bill paralleled his eyebrows. Back in the house he locked the door and pulled the chain, giving the door a slight pat.
Scratch moved with ease around his tiny living room, to the couch. Sometimes he practiced being blind. Walking around the house, glasses folded on the coffee table, hat pulled down over his eyes. All his stuff mapped to memory. If the power went out there was no need for candles or a flashlight. He could slink through the darkness never stubbing a toe or running into a wall.
Another cigarette dangled from his lips. Scratch leaned his head on the back of the couch and closed his eyes. Listening. Training his ears. The kitchen tap dripped. A floorboard creaked. A truck rumbled along the street outside. Is this what darkness would sound like?
How would infinite dark smell, taste or feel? Like the smoke and tar dripping down his walls that he’d long ago gone nose blind to? Nicotine on his tongue? Would dark be warm like his favourite fleece sweater or irritating as his itches? Sighted people became distracted with the many colours, so much movement. They missed the snap of lips drawing together, the click of fingernails on a desk. Would forever darkness become distorted?
Scratch opened his eyes. The sounds faded.
Scratch hardly remembered a time when he wasn’t Scratch—something to do with lice and childhood taunts. Half a century and some; he turned 54 a few weeks ago. All he had to show for it: hindsight the best vision he could hope for and smoking fingers stained yellow, almost orange.
Branches crackled outside his window. The scuff of a shoe, muffled voices. The doorbell rang. Again.
“Sweet Jesus,” he muttered. Scratch lunged for the door, stubbing his toe on the leg of the coffee table. “Blasted Christ.” The cigarette fell from his lips. “Shit.” He dropped to his knees sweeping his hand back and forth, searching for the sting of the cherry against his finger. Finally he felt it and plucked up the butt.
Scratch ripped open the door but forgot the strand of chain securing it in place. He closed it again and unfastened the link. Cool air rushed over him. He stood stone still. Listening. Waiting. The barking dog seemed closer. “Get out of here you rotten twerps,” he yelled.
An itch swarmed his scalp. He pulled off his hat and scratched. Harder. Chasing the itch. Goddamn rat bastard kids with nothing better to do than nicky nicky nine dooring his house.
Scratch slammed the door. The windows rattled in their frames. He felt, more than saw, the gray-yellow haze hanging in every room of his house, leaching into the walls, couch, carpet, filling every little cranny with its sticky adhesive. With every ring of the doorbell, every time he opened the door, a little of that haze leaked out.
Had the rotten scabs huddled like football players, sketching the perfect plan? Choosing a target, that was the easy part. It could have been a case of eeny meeny miny moe and the tiger (they used a different word back in his day) got caught by the wrong bloody toe, but Scratch was almost certain he had been chosen exactly the same way they chose Mr. Cooker all those years ago—Scratch may rarely talk and wear googly glasses, but Mr. Cooker had a lisp with limp to match, and at the same time every day, he had walked around the block exactly twice, dragging his bum leg. No one knew how it happened—the bum leg—but there were rumours: he’d stepped on a landmine in the war, he’d tripped over his dead wife on the kitchen floor, he’d kicked a man for vomiting on his lawn, his dog had tried to eat his leg off. The latter, Scratch’s favourite. Not nearly as predictable, Scratch jumped on his bike whenever he felt like a trip to the market, or to go to therapy group. He never talked to anyone, never made eye contact. Mr. Cooker had mowed his lawn in a checkerboard pattern, trimmed his bushes and pruned the trees. Scratch didn’t have the time or energy. Scraggly man. Scraggly yard. Might as well have a target painted on his door.
The blinds chattered when he leaned up against the window. If he couldn’t catch the mongrels in the act, he would watch and wait. And do what? Swing open the door when they weren’t expecting it and snap in the most spidery way he could muster? Who was he kidding? That would require a face-to-face interaction.
His father’s words trickled into memory: It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Didn’t he know it?
Teenage boys possess a unique gift of persuasion. Scratch clawed at his chest and legs. The phantom itches on fire.
Breathe. In. Out.
Only his imagination.
Breathe. In. Out.
He reached for his pack of cigarettes on the table, popped one out, lit it and returned to his post by the window. He wondered about the boys, assuming they were of the male persuasion, nickying on his door. Who was the low man? Who would get left behind when their antics went sideways? A finger of ash drooped and fell to the floor. He rubbed it into the carpet with the toe of his shoe.
Sometimes he wished he had a pet. Not a gerbil or a bird to squawk and squeak all night, but maybe a cat. They could fend for themselves most of the time. But litter made him itchy. Down at the CNIB they suggested he get a seeing eye dog. “I ain’t blind yet,” he’d told them.
“There’s an application process and a waitlist,” the lady who smelled like cinnamon told him.
So Scratch let them fill in the paperwork. That was almost a year ago. He wondered where he was on the list.
He heard movement under the window, whispers and the swish of denim on crisp grass. Scratch pulled the blinds a finger-width apart: three boys, crawling under his window, partially hidden under the skeletal remains of the lilac bush. They edged towards the door. One seemed considerably smaller than the others, he led the way. He would be the bell pusher. Scratch had been the bell pusher—not by choice. The two bigger boys urged the smaller boy to stand while they remained crouched at the bottom of the step, ready to bolt. The smaller one grinned, reached out his arm, finger ready.
These boys, ten years at most. Scratch had been fourteen—Scratch, Brent, Pete and Derek. They’d stood at the end of Mr. Cooker’s uneven cobblestoned walk staring at the house.
“Who’s going to push the button?” Derek had asked.
“I’ll do it,” Pete said.
“Scratch’ll do it,” Brent said, shoving Scratch forward.
He climbed the steps, the other three stood ready. Scratch hesitated—probably too long—took a deep breath and pushed. The bell chimed inside the house. Scratch barely caught a glimpse of Brent’s shirt disappearing around the side of the house as he leapt from the step to follow. When he landed, he stumbled. Scrambled to get up. His foot caught on the raised edge of one of the stones. Forehead connected with one of the checkerboard squares on the lawn. Waves of light splashed against his periphery and blurred. Scratch rolled over. Mr. Cooker stood over him, a single form turning to shadow before the darkness swallowed it.
The small boy’s finger hovered in front of the doorbell. They must realize by this time Scratch would be watching. Once or twice. Max. Then move on to another house. Not six times. An itch crawled up and down Scratch’s back.
The doorbell rang.
The boys blurred as they raced by the window.
Scratch lit another cigarette.
He should call about the dog.
Robin van Eck’s work has appeared in FreeFall Magazine, Freshwater Pearls Anthology (Recliner Books, 2011), Prairie Journal, Crack the Spine, Maudlin House, Alberta Views, and various other online and print publications, both in Canada and internationally.