Time lapse – a life in six moments: List

1

Denny closes the door behind him, thanking God the baby didn’t cry. Probably still asleep, he reckons. If the kid had woken up and made a scene happen, well… Denny might have stayed. Denny’s not a smart man – hell, he doesn’t know shit compared to some people in this world – but he knows this for sure: he can’t stay. Deadbeats like him often get deadbeat sons if they stick around; maybe without him, the boy’s got half a chance.

And Lizzie? She’ll find someone better – she deserves better.

He heads down the street without looking back. Upstairs, in the crib, Alister’s eyes don’t even open.

+

 2

List gets asked a lot about his dad. Some of the kids at school didn’t even see theirs; those men died in the war before their children were even born, or when they were too young to remember. Those kids, when he says he doesn’t have a father, ask him if that’s why. He just shrugs, says the guy wasn’t around and changes the subject. It’s easier than admitting he didn’t want me. (He’s not stupid. He’s heard the stuff Mom’s friends whisper in the next room. What kind of man walks out on his family? Who could do that to Elizabeth? If a man like that – weak, made of “the wrong stuff” – is his father, what does that make List?)

So if they push it, he threatens to sock them on the jaw – the way he saw on the reels once, when Mom saved up and they went together. (He’s not even sure he could throw a punch; he’s only ever done it in dumb playground games, never for real.)

Sometimes he wishes his dad had died in the war. Sure, it’d be sad, but it’d be easier to explain.

+

3

“List?” someone repeats – like it’s stupid, like he’s stupid.

He shrugs, hopes it says enough. Why the hell should he have to explain it? Couldn’t pronounce his own name, back when he was only knee-high, and it stuck. That’s it. Alister is the boy trying to impress Mom and pretend everything’s alright, that there’s enough money around the house; Alister is the kid the teachers have no time for. List is what he calls himself, and List is Alister but also someone else altogether.

He looks at the someone: the new kid, the one who doesn’t know what to call him yet. He says, “List, yeah. Or ‘hey you’ is fine. Either way.” He’s twelve; he’s been List for nearly nine of those years. He’s stopped expecting people to ask him about it, so it’s weird when they do.

She’s ginger, short and eleven. Maisie, he thinks she said? Or Daisy, maybe; he’s not sure. She smiles, nods. “Sure. List.”

+

4

They never actually sock them in the movies. They pull the punches. List doesn’t so that – doesn’t fight for show. Doesn’t fight, period; he’s only ever been threatened with fights most of the time, only actually gotten into two. The last was because some guys were hassling a girl, three of them to one of her, and he couldn’t let it stand. It’s not even like he’s good in a fight – does enough to distract them, even if it gets the shit kicked out of him, and then makes them chase him. He’s not the type to start fights, but now and then he might just finish them.

List’s fifteen.

Jimmy from down the road is stuffing some money into trouser pockets that are already bulging a little, quick, hasty, like he doesn’t want anyone seeing. He’s standing on the doorstep because he called for List, and List turns round and heads away for two minutes to get his jacket and there Jimmy is, shoving money into his pockets with that scared little twist to his mouth like someone’s gonna hurt him.

List? Well, List is standing there in his one good going-out jacket, staring like an idiot, thinking What the hell – ? He knows, though, somehow. He knows that while he was upstairs, grinning like a sucker and trying to get his hair into some kinda shape the girls’d want, Jimmy Farley was heading to the table by the door. He knows that Jimmy Farley from down the road was digging into the soil of the flowerpot on that table, and taking the twenty bucks Mom keeps for rainy days. He knows that Jimmy Farley with the buck teeth, the guy List’s known since he was ten, is standing, stuffing at least a good amount of those twenty bucks into his pockets. Another couple minutes and List would never have known. He’d probably have headed out trying to chase the dames, hanging round bars and fairs but never buying anything so he could save up, with Jimmy’s nervous smile and Mom’s money burning a hole in Jimmy’s pockets.

Jimmy looks up and sees him in the hallway. List knows the guy’s gonna run, it’s in his eyes, but List’s always been fast, and so he’s grabbed Jimmy by the collar almost before either of them can blink.

See, he knows Jimmy’s desperate, but so’s he. It’s what comes of being dirt-poor in a shitty neighbourhood. But Jimmy at least has a father who works in the factory, and a mom who’s a nurse. Jimmy used to have a job in a store, too, but rumour is he’s lost it. List only has himself and Mom.

List’s always been good at keeping a cool head, but he’s seeing red, swinging a fist before he even knows what he’s doing. It catches Jimmy in the mouth. “You don’t take from people with nothing!” He knows he’s not meant to admit it, that he should at least try and pretend they’re getting by, but they can’t afford to lose that money. They really can’t.  So when Jimmy slumps against the wall, List keeps hold of him and yells into his face, “You put. That. Back!

Jimmy’s staring at List; he knows he must look like a man possessed, but he doesn’t damn well care. The worst thing is that Mom probably would’ve given a little to Jimmy, if he’d only asked. Most round here are too proud to accept charity, but then the good folks round here are also too proud to steal, so that’s no excuse.

“Put it back!” he snarls.

Jimmy’s hands are shaking, but the kid reaches into his pockets anyhow, keeps pulling out dollars. List waits, not letting go of his collar, then grabs what’s there. He needs both hands, so he lets go of Jimmy, but he keeps an eye on him. “Stay here,” he orders. Jimmy turns to run, but List grabs him. “You stay here, d’you hear?”

Jimmy nods. His lip’s split, and it’s bleeding.

List starts counting the cash. Yep, twenty. He sighs, knowing he’s got three form the jobs Mort gave him last week, and peels three of the wad. He’ll replace it with his own cash, and hopefully Mom’ll never know. He presses the bills into Jimmy’s hand. “That enough?”

Jimmy nods, fingers curling round the money.

“You need help, you ask.”

Another nod from Jimmy – what, he can’t speak now he’s a thief? – and then List pointedly moves to close the door. Jimmy, probably knowing what’s good for him, moves and starts to walk home. List’s glad to see the back of him.

List sighs, shuts the door and reaches into his pocket. He takes his three bucks, putting them with the twenty and then burying it all in the flowerpot. Mom’ll never know. He heads into the kitchen, taking a seat and the tiny table and opening the paper to job listings, but he ends up with his head in his hands, staring at nothing.

Mom comes home half an hour later. He gives her a smile – perfect, practised – and wishes his pockets were a little heavier.

+

5

When Melinda, Mary and Mort have gone and the cake’s all cleaned up – List’s done the dishes, even if it is his birthday – Mom sits next to him and lays a hand on his shoulder. “So,” she starts.

He watches her, waiting. “Yeah?”

“Eighteen. I remember when I could tuck you under my arm.” She smiles at him; he just wishes her eyes wouldn’t look so sad. Maybe someone else would ruffle his hair or start crying, but this is Mom. She’s sweet, but she’s got a steel spine. Sometimes List wishes he was half the man she is. “How’s the job?” she asks, worryingly cheery all of a sudden. Cheery and curious. He wonders what she’s heard from Melinda.

He winders what to tell her. The whole “demon-hunting” thing is a little hard to explain. “It’s good,” he says after a minute. “Yeah, I’m staying.”

He’d considered leaving the agency. He knew he looked like an idiot – who’d throw away a good, paying job in a district like this? – but he’d taken a while to think about it. He didn’t want things crawling round in his head, which to him seemed pretty reasonable, but he can’t exactly say that. He’s only made the decision tonight.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Mom says. “At least, I think I am. She hasn’t got you killed yet, anyway.” She’s joking – by this point, she seems to think it’s cheating spouses, the occasional missing persons case and a shitton of paperwork. He’s glad to keep it that way.

List grins. “She’s giving me a raise.”

“Really?” Mom laughs. “Wonderful. Maybe  you’ll finally be able to get a good suit.”

He glares at her. “Hey. I’ve got a good suit. I’m wearing it.”

“Sure.” Her smile says she’s mocking him. She looks at the clock. “I think I’m going to bed.”

“Night, Mom,” he says as she stands up, but then she comes to stand next to him. Movement and a breath in his hair; she’s kissed the top of his head. For a moment, right then, he’s six again. He looks up at her with eyes that are younger than they’ve been in a long time.

“I’m proud of you.” Maybe that should be a tear-soaked whisper, shaking and small; instead it’s a blunt, certain statement. Like no-one’s ever gonna change that. “I love you, kid. Don’t forget, okay?”

“Okay.” He says it like Mom does, like it’s a sure fact no-one’ll ever chip away at. “Love you, Mom.”

She heads to her room, leaving him in the kitchen. He sees something on the counter when she walks past it, but she’s gone before he can ask what it is. He approaches the counter, frowning, and his eyes widen when he recognises the bottle.

Scotch. The good shit that Melinda keeps in her office, the stuff he’s never allowed near. (Despite his frequent efforts to get to it and his straight-up begging.) She has to have left it on purpose. He pauses, looks round the kitchen – old habits die hard, he guesses – and then opens a cupboard, gets a glass. They don’t have proper whiskey glasses, but he pours an inch, just to try, and pretends.

It burns when it goes down – he coughs and splutters embarrassingly – but he swallows a mouthful. He’s seen Melinda toss this stuff down like it’s nothing, and he wonders how the hell she manages it. He takes it slow, managing to choke it down somehow, and stays up late into the night with his first legal glass of whiskey. He thinks about his future, mostly.

+

6

He always figured Alister was an old man’s name – something for a distinguished gent, a guy who’d had a big, important life. Too big and too stately for him to ever grow into. He hasn’t been List for a few years, though; he wonders what that says about him. After all, there’s grey creeping into his hair these days. He’s still trying to decide whether to dye it or go the salt-and-pepper route.

Way back, when Mom had pretty much just stopped tucking him under her arm, she’d tell him stories. Not fairy tales; Westerns, stories about PIs heading down dark alleys. (He almost wants to laugh at that; maybe she’s responsible for his current line of work. Except in her stories, the hero always got the girl, people would die clean when they were shot, and no innocent people got killed. There weren’t any demons, either. The reality of tagging along with Melinda was a little different.) He used to say she should write Dick Tracy. She said she didn’t think women were allowed to, and he said that was just plain stupid. He still thinks the same. He wonders if things have gotten any better with the whole Women’s Lib thing. Probably not, actually.

Anyway, so Mom used to tell him stories. Double-edged stories: there was always a happy ending, but the monsters were always people. Maybe that’s strange, but he prefers it that way, tells the same kind of stories himself.

Lyn’s a girl and she’s only seven, but she wants to be Batman and star in Bonanza all at once. He doesn’t want that taken away just yet. For now, she thinks the worst things hiding in the dark are muggers. As long as she’s safe, he wants to keep it that way for as long as possible.

Her eyes are fluttering shut; she’s acting like her eyelids are lead weights, bravely keeping them open to hear the ending. She’s got his eyes; they were Mom’s too. Big, dark, with lashes like pipe cleaners. It’s weird seeing them in such a tiny face. Kind of sweet, though.

“You look tired,” he tells her. “I’ll finish it tomorrow, if you want.”

She shakes her head. “No, Dad. I want the ending.” (She says she’s too grown up for “Daddy”. At seven. It’s either hilarious or the saddest thing he’s ever heard.)

The cowboy shoots the bandits and gets made sheriff. The rough people in the saloon say he’s not bad, for a newcomer. Happy now?

She’s asleep, thank God. Finally. She snores – loudly. The first time he heard it, he nearly tripped over himself laughing. Not dainty, snuffly things like kids do in books; proper where the hell did that tractor in the next room come from? snores. Jesus.  He stifles a laugh now. Little kid, big snores.

He kisses the top of her head. Dark, slightly wavy hair – that’s his side of the family, too. Carol’s a blonde, so it’s not from her.

Lyn doesn’t know who she’s half-named after, and she’s never seen a world war. He hopes with all his heart she’ll never have to.

When he sneaks out of her room and into his own, he finds Carol still awake, as she often is. She’s watching him from her side of the bed. She’s sleepy – it’s been a long day for both of them – but her eyes are sharp. “Heading out?”

“Yeah.” He grabs the briefcase, checks through it – yes, bell, book and candle are all there – and puts a couple of holy water vials in his belt. Straps on a bulletproof vest, just in case, though it’s usually your mind and soul they go for, not your chest.  Three guns, check.

Carol knows about his, uh, “extracurricular activities”. She even helped out for a couple years, but the stress of it got to her. “Careful,” she says.

He smiles at her. “I’m always careful.”

She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I’m sure you are. Is Lyn asleep?”

“She is. Snoring loud enough to wake the dead, and all.”

Carol smiles, small and fond, then her eyes are back on him. It’s second nature by now, an easy ritual they’ve never officially discussed. Both of them know what it means.

“Love you,” he says. He has to say it first, or she glares at him; it’s important that he remembers.

“Love you, idiot,” she replies. She walks over to give him a toothpaste-flavoured kiss. It’s slow and careful, lingers a little.

It might be his last chance to say it, that’s the thing. They never bring it up, but both of them get it. If he doesn’t come back… well, it happens.  God knows he’d rather come back alive. He’s got so much to come back for. He’s not his father – the only way he’ll ever leave his family is if he’s in a box.

“Is that the ‘peppermint fresh’ stuff?” he asks. “I know it smelled good, but it tastes awful secondhand – ”

“Go,” she orders him, grinning. It’s fragile; they’re on a knife-edge, between laughter and tears.

“Sure, sure.” He starts to, but pauses in the doorway. “Goodnight, Carol.”

“‘Night, Alister.”

He left his badge on the bedside table. He’s been on the force for years, and he’s damn proud of it, but these aren’t cases the NYPD can solve. He puts on a coat, shoves a hat onto his head and steps out into the night.

He catches his reflection in a shop window, and he’s surprised. He actually looks well turned out: well-cut suit, good waistcoat, a tie that won’t blind his coworkers… Shit. He actually found himself a good suit. He smiles even though the street’s abandoned and no-one can see it, almost wanting to call Mom and tell her.

He walks on. Demons to hunt, no time to think about being fancy. Still, he thinks List would be proud.

Historical notes:

  • $20 in 1943 would be worth about $275 in today’s money. List gave Jimmy the equivalent of about$40 – probably his week’s earnings. Not a small investment.
  • This has come up before, but drinking age in NY was 18 at that time; it only got raised in the 1980s.
  • I unironically loved Bonanza as a kid. Blame my dad. Unlike Lyn, I was born way after it originally aired.
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