Anne Wilkins has won the Cambridge Autumn Festival’s short story competition with Cracks – and today we publish it in fill.
I hum as I walk to school while little cracks in the pavement try to lick my soul out of me. Tiny tongues of grass reach from the cracks to taste me. I watch them carefully, tricky little cracks. You don’t ever wanna be lookin’ up, cos’ that’s when the cracks are gonna get you.
Step on a crack, marry a rat. Step on a crack, fall head splat. Step on a crack, heart attack.
I’m gonna make sure no one’s gonna die today. It’s hard work cos’ there’s a lot of cracks. Every day I see a new one, and the old ones are getting wider, deeper, like they’re stretching themselves out, trying to make room for me. Sometimes I jump over them to make sure they don’t touch me. You gotta be so careful, not even an itty bitty toe, or the back of a heel can land on a crack.
I’m humming a bit louder now, I’ve got to, so I can be heard over the noise from the cars, the people, and the ants. The ants are noisy today, running over the pavement, busy making homes in the cracks. They don’t seem to mind the cracks so much, they even like living in them, but ants are strong. Ants can carry fifty times their body weight, that’s how strong they are — I read that in a book.
“Almost there Andy,” says Mama. I hear her voice, but I don’t look up in case I fall into one of those tricky, trickster cracks. Once I stepped on a crack and Dad died. Mama says it wasn’t the crack, but she doesn’t know about the cracks like I do. She can’t hear the ants either, not like me. She says you have to be special to hear them.
Do you know only some people can smell dead ants? I can smell them,
they’re kinda lemony. Mama can’t. We used to have a lot of ants in our old house, they were living in the little cracks, under the floorboards, in our walls. I told Mama about the noise and smell of the ants, but all she did was cry. We don’t have any ants in our new place, and I kinda miss them. It’s quieter without the ants, and without Dad.
The gate opens and we head up the path to school. We haven’t stood on a crack today. That’s good, it means no-one’s gonna die. I see my teacher. She smells too, but not like the ants, she smells of whiteboard markers. Mama takes my bag and hangs it up for me. We get out my
things. I like my things. They all have my name on it, A-N-D-Y in big letters, so everyone knows they’re mine. No one’s gonna take my things otherwise bad things happen.
Cracks happen in me, and something leaks out. Like that time Billy took my ruler, the one with my name on it, and the cracks came and punches came, just out of nowhere and Billy was on the ground, with blood coming out of his nose like a little tap. There’s been no problem with anyone taking my stuff since then.
Mama wants to go. She gives me a kiss and then I’ve got that teacher aide lady with me, helping me with my things. She smells too, but not like the teacher, not like Mama, and not like the ants. She smells sorta like tired. Like when leaves are just about to drop from a tree.
“You have a good day Andy,” Mama says, and she tries to smile, but her smiles always end up looking sad. I don’t say nothin’. I’m just humming. The bell goes some time later. It’s so loud it hurts my head. We’ve got to sit on the mat, nice and straight, don’t talk, answer when our name gets read out. I gotta stop humming now, it’s called showing respect, but I’ve got a little thing I can hold if I need to. It’s a squishy caterpillar thing, and I can stretch it out, and it won’t break. The other kids don’t get one, just me, because I’m special, not special as in a good thing, special as in a bad thing.
The teacher aide lady sits close by. Just like me she’s watching for cracks, cracks in me. Dad had cracks in him too at the end, little ones we couldn’t see, in his heart. Ones that couldn’t be fixed. And Mama’s got cracks. Ones in her eyes that leak all the time, and I think one in her heart too. There’s cracks everywhere now. It’s like they’re spreading themselves out. They’re not just in the ground, they’re in people.
Or maybe it’s just I can see them now, cos’ of that special thing.
We’re doing maths. Fractions. I’m playing with my shapes on my table, pieces of a square, pieces of a circle. Other kids have gotta share, but I’ve got my own set. Fractions make sense to me. How there can be a whole, then a half, then a quarter, smaller and smaller pieces. Somehow if you could just put all the pieces back together there’d be a whole again, but sometimes the pieces get lost.
If I hadn’t stood on that crack that day, then a piece wouldn’t be lost, we’d still be a whole. I knew it was bad to stand on cracks, but that day I was pulling on Mama’s arm cos’ we were late, and I didn’t see, and I stood on a big fat crack and next thing Mama’s phone’s ringing with the bad news.
See, that’s what happens when you stand on a crack, it rips through the
whole, and then all you’ve got is fractions. I’m playing with my pieces, little shapes, splitting them apart, and putting them back together again when out of nowhere I see an ant crawling up my arm, its little
antennae waving a little hello, like it wants to be friends or somethin’. I didn’t hear this one coming. It tickles me, as it crawls right along. Then it gets down onto my table, curious like, heading over to where my fractions are, when that teacher aide lady just squashes it with her big fat thumb.
Now it’s just a black full stop, but with no capital letter after it. Just a full stop, an end, and that lemony smell.
A crack opens up inside of me, and I push the table over and scream. I didn’t think anyone was gonna die today, but I was wrong. The fractions fall on the floor. A half, a quarter. They’ll never be whole. The little full stop is gone too. Ended.
Later on Mama comes to collect me from school. I’m back to humming again, and I’m holding and pulling and squishing that little caterpillar thing, almost wishing it would break. No one knows what’s wrong. Mama bends down and holds me, so close I can smell her. She smells like the teacher aide now. Like a leaf just barely hanging on.
“It’s okay Andy,” she says, and she’s holding me.
More cracks open up. Little ones, and then Mama’s crying, and I’m crying. I wonder if I’ll run out of water today. I’ve been crying so much.
“We’ll be okay,” she says.
Sometime later we’re walking out of school. Mama’s got my school bag on her shoulder, and I’m humming, watching my step.
“Can you hear the ants, Andy?” she asks.
I nod, and I stop humming.
“What are they saying?”
I listen carefully. The ants normally don’t say anything, they’re busy living in the cracks, living in the pieces, the fractions of what is left, but this time I think I can hear them.
“They say they miss Dad.” And this time I look up from the cracks. Mama’s crying again, and hugging me again, pulling me into her fraction. We’re not ever going to be like we were, but maybe we’re a new shape, just a bit smaller, with the chunk of Dad taken out. Mama puts her hand in mine. For the first time I see how our hands fit into each other, like two halves.
The day isn’t over yet. I’ve still got a hard job to do. Holding Mama’s hand I look down on the pavement, and resume my humming. We walk home together, two halves, stepping over the cracks, the best we can.
- Published courtesy of the Cambridge Autumn Festival