ratThe Wharf Rat

by David Nilsen

The ladder slipped, and the drunken first mate tumbled onto the barge.

The other end of the ladder swung up from the dock and hit the old man standing below squarely beneath the jaw. His pipe flew into the air and he fell to the wooden planks, dead. His granddaughter, in the summer of her seventh year, stared at his body on the dock, her ice cream dripping in the afternoon heat.

She traded dresses for deceit at the boarding school. Ten years old and they found the money in a crack in the wall by her bed. After a tanning they sat her down at a table. The headmistress sat across from her and asked if there was anything she wanted to say and received a pair of scissors through her right hand in response. After that there was nowhere to go. She learned how to live in the alleys.

At fifteen the girl could throw a knife better than the dock hands, and they gave her a wide berth when the clouds crossed her eyes. She studied sailing, sword play, the Old Testament, and Russian. She could beat most at cards but it interested her little. Liquor was a cliche she couldn’t hold. She once flicked a blade and killed a cat stalking a filthy wharf rat. Cats had enough chances.

At nineteen she spent three months on the coal crew of a river freighter. She needed the knives twice, in the first week, and not again. What money she made went into the hollowed out pages of a clasped diary she hid under her pillow to finish the sum she had been saving for a decade. When she had enough she failed to report back to ship the next time they docked.

It took her longer than she expected to find him.

She sat in the corner of a bar in the home port of his last known vessel. A month of whiskey and leers and sharpening a knife on the whetstone she kept around her neck. He walked in and the clouds crossed her eyes. She watched him drink. He left, and she followed.

It was almost too predictable when he stumbled off the ladder onto the barge again. Two decades of falling drunk onto the deck was probably why he had never made skipper. She steadied the ladder and climbed silently.

She found his cabin and slipped inside. He was asleep in his bunk across the small room. The knife sang in the air and buried deep into the wood just above his face. He startled and then lied still, eyes wide, unable to sit up. The silver blade lay heavy at the tip of his uncut nose.

He stammered. I know who you are. I’ve been waiting. I never meant the harm I did him. Please don’t do it.

She crossed the room and reached into her pocket. He pulled back even deeper into the folds of the bed, crying.

It was the book, not a blade. She dropped it on his chest and wrenched her knife from the wall. Open it.

Confused, he sat up. I don’t understand.

I said open it. Are you deaf, you fucking drunk?

His hands fumbled with the clasp. He opened it on a sum of money he had not held in a dozen years. He looked back at her.

It’s what they made you pay to bury him. Killing him was the only service ever done me. I’d have done it myself if I could’ve reached his throat. The bastard slept with his door locked if he slept at all.

With that she turned and disappeared. He looked down at what they’d taken from him for accidentally killing a mean old son of a bitch in a top hat, and passed out drunk.


David Nilsen is a librarian from western Ohio. The small town he lives in closes down for the county fair and lost its only movie theater last year, so he spends most of his time writing, drinking, and writing while drinking.
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