River of the Elves

A short story from the Splintered Door collection.

 

The River of the Elves
 © Vapid Press
 

When I was fifteen, my mother drank herself to death. This came after years of alcohol and substance abuse. She was shooting up by the time I was twelve.  Different man paying for it every night.


They took my younger brother, Tony, into care after that. Separated us.


They put me with a couple of newlyweds. It was what she wanted. Joanna. She loved the idea of me, but she couldn’t handle the reality. I wasn’t the cute kid she needed to look up to her. I was rough and awkward, and I’d had a shit time of it. I was angry. More angry than you could imagine.


Three kitchen windows and an expensive vase later, she tried to hand me back to Services, but I was almost sixteen by that point. I was having none of it.


It was a totally different story for Tony. He was younger – only nine. He’d landed on his feet. A lawyer and a doctor. They really loved him, and he hadn’t quite hit that difficult age, so he bonded.


I wasn’t about to screw that up. I knew he had real prospects there.


That’s how I came to be sitting outside The Vivid Orchid that Tuesday evening, eight years later.


The Street does stuff to you, over time. First off – it ages you. Twenty-three, going on forty. I’d sniffed a few bags of glue over the years. Quite a few. My cheeks never really filled out again after that. It always looked like I was sucking them in, the hollows made darker by a layer of growth. You could have scoured pans with my chin.


The second thing the Street does to you, is it hardens you. Not a lot gets through. You sit, you stare, you listen – but you don’t say much. From the doorway of any town you can watch the whole of human life walk past. You see everything, but nobody ever sees you.


There was this woman once. She looked like one of those high-flying business ladies. Pinstriped suit, pencil skirt, with those high bang bang shoes. Fancy, like.


Anyway, the street was really quiet. It had rained a while before and the temperature had dropped. The only people out were the ones hurrying to get home. I remember I could see my breath.


Next thing I know, she dips down this alley opposite, hitches up her skirt, squats, and pisses right there one the ground.


I thought I’d imagined it for a moment. Then I wondered if maybe she was pregnant or something. You know, the police are allowed to make exceptions on the Public Order Offence if it’s a pregnant woman. They’re allowed to piss in the street if they need to.


When she’d finished, she straightened up and smoothed her skirt back into place. As she walked out of the alley, she looked up and saw me.


She smiled.


And that’s when I knew she’d done it for kicks. That’s the thing, see – business suits. The higher they go, the less exciting it becomes. Soon they know everything they need to know, they’ve proven themselves enough times, they’ve bought everything they wanted to own – where’s the fun?


A friend once told me that accountants have the most number of body piercings of any profession. But they’re all hidden under their clothes. You go to pay your cheque in at the local bank, and Stanley there’s sitting with a thumping lump of metal through his big fat cock. Elizabeth has a belly stud. Hugo probably got his buttocks stapled together. They jangle like loose change when he walks.


I can understand that. Being on the street is much the same, only the other end of it all. They’ve gone so high they can’t feel anything. I’ve sunk so low.


It’s funny that the only time you’re truly living is in the middle.


So, there I was, sitting outside The Vivid Orchid. Shit name for a bar. It was already dark, and the blue neon strips around the window made me think of those fly zappers. You know, the ones they plug in behind the counter at the Chinese take-away? They hum all the time, then a fly hits them and zap.


It made me smile, because the bar was a lot like a fly trap in other ways, too. That sweet nectar, alcohol, drawing the insects.


I watched them crawling in and out of the front door like ants from a nest. Between my legs sat a plastic bag, shielding a bottle of White Lightning. The warmth from my thighs caused the aroma to rise: sour, like the vomit it would probably produce in an hour’s time.


Some days I thought about my mother. Some days I wanted to join her. Sure, I was angry, but I could understand it. I mean, when you stop to think about it – I mean really stop – this life is a bit shit. Even if you’re born into a great family, with all the money and love you want, you still lose people. It doesn’t last. You get a taste of being young and powerful – full of potential – then you spend the next sixty years watching everything slowly slip away from you. Growing old, going lame, getting grey – and dying. It’s like one big, cruel joke. Only who’s laughing?


I think my mother felt that deeply. Nothing in her life had quite turned out the way it was meant to. She’d been a stunner when she was a kid, I’d seen the photos. But it attracted the wrong sort of attention. Brought her a lot of sorrow and hardship. Then she started aging, and the one thing she had going for her – her looks – began to vanish. She became just another frumpy mother on benefits, screaming kids to feed, no fella.


Nothing to look forward to.


When you take the future away from people, they can either live in the past, or give up living entirely.


Mum gave up. Pure and simple. I can’t blame her for that. Not any more. We’re all going to the same place eventually, just takes some of us a little longer to get there.


Me, I hadn’t quite decided whether I was walking or running yet. Mostly, I was just sitting. In doorways. Arse getting colder, cider getting warmer, nights feeling longer.


A girl tripped on the step to the bar and a young bloke caught her. She giggled and he pressed her against the doorway, kissing her hard.


I felt something stir. For a moment I wanted to take his place – show him how it’s done. Drunken kids like that – no respect for women. Women – no respect for me. When they do chance to glance down, the look on their face tells me all I need to know. I’m the shit on their stilettos. If I’m lucky, they throw me a coin.


“Yo, mate. You look like you need cheering up.”


It’s some meow meow baked junky kid. You can tell by the way they twitch. All Burberried out and blinged up.


I don’t say anything, but I keep my eye on him. Sometimes these ones can turn violent. Like the Skinheads and Snow Whites. Sometimes they just lash out. I don’t interfere with anybody’s business, so I’m always suspicious when someone interferes with mine. Just keep on walking, dick.


“What’s up, man? Someone die?”


“No.”


“Well then, what? You look fuckin’ miserable.”


I shrug.


“Hey, I’m talking to you.”


I avert my eyes, hoping he’ll get bored.


“Aw, look mate – I never meant to upset you. Here. Take this. It’ll make you feel better.”


He drops a small, plastic pouch to the floor.


“Hope you’re better soon,” he says, and walks off.


I reach for the packet.


There’s a square of patterned paper in it. A tab.


I don’t do drugs. Not anymore. The problem with drugs is that they make you feel things. I hate Ecstasy the most. That sense of absolute love that wells up inside of you. The point where you cry and grind your teeth with joy.


That’s a cruel drug.


Because the world’s not like that. People don’t feel that way about each other. When you come back to reality it’s like a little piece of you was killed off. You look around and all you see are unhappy people, unhappy faces.


I stare at it for a moment. Some nob smashes a bottle outside the club, and I think why the fuck not?


I slide it out, place it on my tongue, and wash it down with a swig of cider. Battery Acid. The homeless man’s cocktail.


It wasn’t long before I felt the sides of my nose start to prickle. I sipped more cider until my arms became heavy and I found myself staring ahead at the bright blue lights. Like a river. A bright, blue, electrical river. Shimmering and twisting in erratic patterns through the stellar universe to the sun portal of an orchid…


I took a deep breath and felt my chest rise like a helium balloon.


But wait – there! Emerging from the shadows – small, dark people. Elves!


Dancing and laughing and singing in bewitching lines as they fell into the sun.


I became aware of the rough, cold surface beneath my fingertips. I moved my hand from side to side, taking comfort in the strong, stony earth upon which I sat. This mound; this doorstep Rock of Ages. The central support of my world, upon which I sat, wise and sentient.


Through the jungle leaves I watched these mischievous beings, tripping along the river, back into the heart of the Everlasting Flower. I was jealous. These impish beings were having so much fun. Born of shadow, melting back into shadow. One minute there, the next – gone. So at ease with the transience of their own existence.


I wanted to be one of them.


I wanted to be an Elf.


Climbing down from my rock, I floated towards them, swept along in the current. At first I thought the elves had vanished but, as I drew closer to the sun, their eyes peered out of the darkness at me. Sharp little faces, with ruby red lips and rows of white, pointed teeth.


Then WHAM. Sucked into the sun. Through the gaping mirror into a world of elves. Deep beneath the earth, the roots of trees snaking their way across a dance floor where tall fay creatures in sparkling dresses swayed like trees in an ephemeral breeze.


I took another deep breath. The warm, balmy air of this subterranean paradise melting into my lungs.


A crackle of laughter, and a hand on my shoulder.


“A drink?”


“Sure.”


In my hand, a pint of white liquid. Milk of the sun? I sipped.


Rum.


“…ever been before…”


“…forever…”


“…in time…”


“…nowhere…over there…”


Their words swam and danced behind my ears.


The world tumbled and reeled, and I threw myself into it with all the enthusiasm of a young child. Drowning in the noise, spinning in sound. I reached out to catch fairies as they sped past, just beyond my reach. Following their little lights around the cave.


Had I done something wrong?


I sensed the Ogre before I saw him. A big, meaty man with a contorted face like strained rubber. He began to come towards me. Each stomp of his foot shook the foundations of the cavern. I worried that the roots would not hold back the weight of earth. Would we be buried alive?


In panic, I turned, searching for a way back through the sun.


“Follow me.” A soft hand in mine.


Together we fly – our feet never touching the ground – out into the safety of the Midnight Jungle, where glass glitters like broken ice on the once-electric lake.


“You looked like you needed help,” she smiles.


“I did. I needed you.” I smile back.


She is beautiful.


Not at all like an elf. Straight, black hair curtains her moonlit face. Blood-red lips where she has sucked pomegranate juice from the breasts of beasts.


“Are you alright?”


“Elves.” I tell her.


She smiles again.


“Oh, elves. I get those all the time.”


“You do?”


She nods.


I feel as though I know her. As though I’ve always known her.


“Wait here,” she says.


“No, please. Don’t go!”


“Are you going to be sick?”


“No.” I frown and my eyebrows crawl into my mouth like hairy caterpillars.


“Well, you can’t come with me.”


“Why not? Where are you going?”


“It’s not important. Just wait here.”


But I can’t. I don’t think that she’s an elf, but I can’t be sure. She could just as easily vanish into the darkness like the others, and I’d never be able to find her again. So I follow her.


I try to stay at a distance, but I think she knows. She keeps looking over her shoulder. I try to stay invisible by holding my breath, but I can’t be sure that she doesn’t have magical senses.


She walks into a cone of shades, at the end of which stands a tall man with black holes for eyes. I watch them talk. She gives him money and he slips her something, which she puts in her pocket.


I feel cold. I long for the warmth of the sun, and the dancing fairies.


“Come on, let’s go.”


I don’t want to.


“Shit. I said ‘let’s go.’”


She is melting. Her hair seems stuck to her face and her body starts dripping onto the concrete beneath our feet.


“We need to go!”


I panic. Why is she melting?


“Come on, I’m soaking.”


“You are?”


She stares at me, eyes aglow.


“It’s raining.”


I don’t feel wet.


She takes my hand and we run. My feet pound the puddles, each one sending up a shatter of diamonds...


Read the Rest in Splintered Door

(Sorry to do that, but the ending ties in with the other sotires!)