Originally Published: Eclipse Online, 2013
Our tiny hotel room is boiling, even now, but heat doesn’t bother Patrick and he sleeps, shirtless, with the thin sheet coiled round him like a loving serpent. It’s a trick for him, nodding off. He cultivates a talent for sleep, adores the act of dozing off like it’s a second lover. He says it keeps him young, and perhaps it does, for people are always surprised to learn Patrick’s real age.
I’ve started smoking again, since it no longer matters. Patrick copes with things through slumber, while I survey the world, my exhalations accompanied by the splash of river meeting dock. The river is the life-blood of V—, they tell you that in all the flyers.
My free hand teases the fraying hem of the Mickey Mouse t-shirt we picked up in Anaheim back in the days when Patrick wasn’t quite so fussy about which magic kingdom he got to visit. My fight-induced insomnia means I’m awake to hear the small boats punting their way across the river, their owners making soft cries, like whippoorwills, too-whit-too-woo, to warn their fellows on the opposite shore. No one wants to get knifed in the dark, after all, or pushed in and left to drown.
The cries of the boatmen are subtle and faint. Patrick hears nothing, curled up on the lumpy mattress, eyes closed and smile beatific, short brown hair stuck to his head like a halo. Slumbering. Dreaming. Patrick in boxers, his chest waxed-smooth.
He’s the pretty one in our relationship. Always has been.
The Mickey Mouse shirt is vaguely absurd on me, barely covering the middle-aged spread of my stomach, but it amuses Patrick to see me wear it and there are days, even now, when that’s all that matters. It is four in the morning and I feel another fart forming, another in a long night of uncomfortable flatulence. My bowels hate it here; they hate the heat and the food and the unfamiliar spices. The humidity and the stink that make it feel like you’re breathing your own piss.
Patrick whispers and turns over, reaching out for the space I no longer occupy. Part of me hopes, in vain, that my absence will wake him.
We’ve come to V— because Patrick wants to be kidnapped by faeries, and this is one of the few remaining places where such things are possible. The fey come to the docks every three years and select pretty, foolish boys to leave the world behind. Seven boys disappear, going to the land of the fey. We do not know what happens then, but Patrick is sure that it’s better than staying here. He’s sure the boys are treated like kings, that they can laugh and folderol and remain pretty forever. He’s sure it’s a place where there are no doctors, no x-rays with black spots that are little more than grainy patterns on the film. A place where I don’t tell stories to our friends that begin with the phrase, “It’s like looking at very deadly, unmovable specks of dust…”
Patrick doesn’t like it when I call young men boys, not even in the early days when the difference in our ages was pronounced weighed heavily on my mind. Yet he accepts the title with pleasure, preening at its use, the moment we have a discussion about the fey and their desires.
Patrick is very pretty, and he is definitely foolish, and the face he presents to the world is fresh and soft as cream that’s yet to go sour. Yet I am sitting in this hotel room, farting, par-broiled in the fetid heat. I am not the pretty one or the young one and never have been, but there is no doubt I’m a bigger fool than Patrick will ever be.
The man who runs the hotel says his name is Yuri. He’s vast of chest and hook-nosed and pretends to be a Russian immigrant, one of the many who came to V— three decades ago, searching for the treasures of the Steamer-folk in the aftermath of the war. Yuri sits behind the hotel desk and watches the news on a portable television, the travesties of the world replayed via the magic of CNN. Yuri doesn’t look at us when we pass through the lobby, doesn’t acknowledge Patrick’s friendly greeting or comments about the shoddy reception. When we showed up he looked us over and said, “You two are…Australian?” and the way he said it left little doubt about what he was really asking when we walked in, hand in hand.
And still Patrick said, “Sure, of course we are,” because Patrick doesn’t pick up on subtext.
The hotelier doesn’t like us, that much is obvious, but Patrick refuses to be deterred and starts asking questions about the Steamer. It’s the first thing since we checked in three days ago that draws Yuri’s attention away from the television. He looks at Patrick, and at me, and he spits on the ochre tiled floor.
“The Steamer’s gold,” he says. “Gold and silver and ancient oak, but you will not notice this beneath the lights, yes? It is beautiful, very beautiful, and when you look at it—” He stops speaking and thumps his chest. The noise makes me jump. “—it will hit you right there,” he says, “like a spear of ice to the heart, yes?” He nods, satisfied, and crosses his arms. “That is what the Steamer is like. Just like that, and nothing like it.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Patrick says, but Yuri has lost interest in the conversation. He shrugs and turns his back to us. Black hair pokes past the collar-line of his wife-beater, curled and thick as wire.
Patrick looks to me, as if I have an answer. I do not, so I shrug, and Patrick just nods like he’s learnt something important. Like everyone thinks the arrival of the Steamer and the people who come to see it are a blessing to the city of V—.
Talking to Yuri has made Patrick petulant, so I let him choose the café where we eat breakfast. We walk up a narrow flight of stairs and sit on the terrace, looking down the long street filled with cyclists and porters and beggars clustered around the alleyways. The café has glass tabletops that are damp with morning condensation, the droplets of water still touched with the brown of the river. There are streaks of dirt on the red tile floor. The café was recommended by a friend of Patrick’s back in Brisbane. I wonder if we too will recommend it once the distance of hindsight banishes the horror of eating there, or if I will recommend it alone, as part of the tragic story of Patrick’s disappearance while holidaying overseas.
I order toast and nibble it. Patrick eats with an appetite, consuming experience as much as flavor. He cracks the shell of a boiled egg and dusts it with paprika, biting the fleshy mass in half with a satisfied grin. He speaks with his mouth full. Usually that doesn’t bother me. Usually. He says: “Do you think they’ll come tonight?”
And I, irritated, snap back: “How the fuck should I know?”
Patrick nods and says I have a fair point. He refuses to be drawn into an argument this morning, after the vehemence of the previous night.
Later, when we’re walking through one of the street bazaars, I drift close to him and say, “I’m sick of curry. Let’s go find ourselves a McDonalds,” and Patrick just nods and starts jabbering to one of the locals, getting directions so I can have a cheeseburger and a thick shake that doesn’t threaten the state of my bowels. It’s always this way when we travel. Patrick speaks the language and I do not. Patrick wants to go native and I want to find a nice hotel. I was hoping for an argument when I brought up the golden arches, but all I got was a ten-dollar burger and disgruntled memories of home.
I don’t acknowledge the existence of faeries and never felt the need too. I refuse to clap, even, during pantomime plays, content to let Tinkerbell waste away. Patrick is more than willing to make up for my deficiencies, believing in everything twice as hard just to counter-balance my cynicism. I prefer to think of it as dealing with reality, but he insists that it’s cynicism and will not accept any substitute phrases to make it sound better than it is.
There are days he seems so much younger than I, days when I feel so much older.
I sleep no better on the third night. The flatulence is worse and there’s no sign of the Steamer on the river. Before V— we spent a month in the back rooms of London pubs, looking for the cracks in the city where you could steal away to somewhere magical. Before London we prowled the canals of Venice, hoping there were secrets in the water. Before Venice, well, I no longer remember correctly. Anaheim, maybe? Looking for the secret door in the dark hollows of Space Mountain? Patrick hears stories and we go looking, the search keeping us together so long as there’s momentum that can be maintained. He denies he’s too old for such things, despite celebrating his thirty-first birthday just months before our departure. There’s a part of me that doesn’t have the heart to deny him, and so we’ve hit the magic kingdom time and time again.
There will be no more trips. This is the last of them. There are no more cities left, if the fey do not appear in V—. We have visited them all, all the places they come, and there is never a shortage of pretty fools willing to go along with the fey. When we walk the docks in the mornings, searching for signs the faeries have come, all we see are the hopeful, the pretty, vacant faces that seem more familiar with every city.
The routine of the search is simple. There are usually five days before Patrick gives in to despair. The sixth day will be the least pleasant of all our unpleasant days in V—.
There are parts of V— that retain their beauty, but the docks aren’t one of them. We peruse them in the afternoons, indulging Patrick’s anxiety, but I tire of dilapidated buildings and the creak of ancient boats long before he does. I’m forced to coax Patrick away with the promise of a museum, a local building dedicated to the faeries and their thrice-yearly visits. It’s small and well-kept and filled with photographs and portraits. Patrick spends an hour studying the images, comparing himself with those identifying the Taken. “I think my nose is quite similar to that one,” he says, and “he had terrible teeth. I didn’t know you could have bad teeth and still be picked.”
Mostly he looks for patterns, some commonality that suggests why they were chosen. Mostly he looks for hope. I sit on a bench in the centre of the room, beneath the overhead fan turning a lazy circle, and I’m grateful for the distraction and the reprieve it affords me from Patrick’s inevitable tantrum. There are thousands of pieces in the collection, walls filled with several centuries of the faeries’ chosen passengers, and it keeps Patrick busy for some time.
I feel like I should have a plan for when the fey say Patrick’s name. I do not. I do not. It nags at me like a plantar wart, a niggling spike of pain in the thick callus of the heel.
The man who runs the museum sports a perfectly groomed mustache, the two short lengths of carefully styled hair, each waxed to a fine point. His hair is thinning a little, but he’s one of the few natives of V— who sports a perfect mouth full of teeth when he smiles.
“Your friend is very enthusiastic,” he says.
“It’s one of his virtues.” I shuffle sideways on the bench, making enough room for him to sit. “He wants—”
“To leave with the faerie.” His wrinkles are very pronounced when he smiles. “You learn to recognise them, after a while. There’s something about the way they approach things, a particular kind of look in the eye.”
“Any way of telling who’s going to get chosen?”
The caretaker shakes his head. “Only why they’re doing it. Some do it for the adventure, some because they need magic. People like your friend, they do it to run away.”
“Yeah? From what?”
“Take your pick: depressions, family, cancer. The fey never take the truly ill.”
“Lucky for Patrick, then.”
“He’s not sick?”
The caretaker studies me for a long time. “But you?”
“No.” I fold my arms. “Not yet, but probably one day. I’ve got plaque on the brain. Early warning signs.”
He nods. “And yet you’re not the one trying to get out.”
There is no easy answer to this.
“I’m not Patrick,” I tell the curator. “We deal in different ways, I guess.”
I try to whisper, to keep my voice low. There is a scuffle of feet behind us, and Patrick slouches across my shoulder. “This place is awesome,” he says. “You should give them some pictures of me when I’m gone.”
“Assuming that happens,” I say.
“It’s going to happen,” Patrick says, leaning over to kiss me.
On night seven Patrick sleeps with an arm thrown across his face, shielding his eyes from the naked bulb after I refused to turn it out. The light throws a square on the night-dark water, my silhouette wavering with the rise and fall of the waves. The air is still and the night is cool. A single snowflake falls from the empty sky and rests against my cheek. I press my fingers against it and it melts, leaving a damp spot like a tear. The heat eases, the snowfall begins in earnest, and the soft chug of the Steamer drowns out the calls of the boatmen and their punts.
When I see it I feel ashamed of sitting beside the window, wearing my sweat-stained t-shirt with the fraying hem and faded picture of Wolverine. I feel ashamed of the gas that builds up in my intestines, ready to seep through my tightly clenched buttocks. I feel ashamed of my teeth, my hair, and my unclipped nails.
And it occurs to me that Yuri is right, when he talks about the light and the silver. The Paddle-Steamer of faerie is beautiful. It’s a ship designed to cleave the heart in two. There is no need for the faerie to kidnap children anymore. Tourists will throw themselves at the Steamer-folk of their own accord.
It’s this that Patrick has come for, this ship and the chance to disappear on its decks, dissolving into the frigid air in a place where snow should not exist. He is hungry for secrets and a place that is not home.
I am here for Patrick, and it shames me that I hope the faeries will not take him. So I sit at the balcony and watch the snow fall. I watch the Steamer chug past, its bells chiming through the night as the temperature drops.
There are goosebumps on Patrick’s bare arm and chest. He mews softly, confused by the sudden cold, and a part of him wakes and blinks in my direction. “Is it?” he asks, voice still thick with sleep, and I nod towards the river.
“Yes,” I tell him, “the faeries are here.” And the look on his face is blissful. It is bliss I’ve never known how to give him.
Patrick wakes completely, buoyed by a jolt of adrenaline. He joins me by the window and slips an arm around my neck, holds me as the Steamer disappears around the bend.
Afterwards, despite the cold, I shed my shirt and allow him to drag me to bed.
When I wake up, hours later, there’s a faerie on the balcony, small and neat and green of skin, watching us through segmented eyes that seem terrible and dark in the morning sunlight. We were hoping for one of the greater fey, the tall and elegant children of the night, lithe and sinuous and glorious as the morning sun. The creature who sits on the cast-iron balcony rail is the colour of mud and locusts, its fragile wings beating softly as it maintains its precarious balance.
I get up and attempt to shoo it away, motioning with my hands. The faerie simply grins, showing off two sharp teeth that jut from the top of its mouth. It holds out a slip of paper the colour of ivory, offering it to me like a gift.
I’m too old for such things. I’m far to old for faeries.
And so I close the curtains and return to bed. Patrick snuffles happily as I wrap my arms around him. The faerie watches us through a crack in the curtains, content to wait and deliver its invitation when the opportunity presents itself, but Patrick sleeps soundly through the night and it cannot be waiting there when the dawn comes.
In the morning we go down to the dock and stand at the fence, watching the ice form around the prow of the moored ships. The Paddle-Steamer towers over the crude boats of the V— river, mirror-bright and beautiful even in the daylight. Dark clouds loom over the city, disgorging snow, and yet the docks are packed with tourists, men and women who have come to V— exclusively for this moment.
That night the faerie returns to our window, invitation in hand. I close the blinds and go downstairs, pretending to search for ice.
Yuri sits behind his counter and watches the news on CNN. He drinks coffee from a mug the size of my head, preferring it black. He wears a grubby white singlet and faded jeans and a perpetual scowl. He seems to prefer it when I emerge without Patrick at my arm, although there is no overt sign of this, simply a feeling I get when he meets my gaze. Yuri sports a short moustache that’s dark and short and neatly clipped. As if his pride, what remains of it, is bound up in his facial hair.
“The ship, she has arrived?” he says, eyes not leaving the screen.
“Yes,” I say. The question seems to demand no more than that. Yuri nods once and lights a cigarette, rolling the paper tube between his fingers.
“You’ve been chosen?”
“You’ve been chosen.” He exhales like a contented dragon, eyes flicking towards my face. “They always pick one from this hotel, nine time out of ten, yes? It is their way, it is why you chose to stay here. You have done your research, you and your friend. I know when people have researched.”
“Yes, I suppose we did.”
Yuri taps the side of his nose, then points a finger in my direction. “Their presence breaks things apart,” he says. “It is their purpose.”
The lobby of the hotel is very, very still. I can hear the quick puff of Yuri’s breathing, the steady lap of the water in the river outside the window. There are chunks of ice in the river now, we saw them just before sunset. Dust motes dance in the daylight, as does Yuri’s smoke. They swirl and eddy and dissipate, leaving behind nothing but a sour smell that scrapes against the back of the nose.
“There’s something on the balcony,” I say. “I’d like to know how to make it go away.”
“Accept the invitation.” Yuri grins around his cigarette. “Give it to your friend and allow them both to leave.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” I say.
“Da,” Yuri says, “but it’s worth a try.”
I shake my head. “Too old,” I tell him. “Twenty years ago, maybe, but it’s not for me. Not now.”
He finishes his cigarette and stubs it into the ashtray. The butt sits there, bent in half, smoking, still smoking in the aftermath. There are tanks on the television, tanks and rows of young men, walking side by side in the desert. It’s unnaturally cold in the lobby. Winter has come to V—, as it does for three days every seven years.
“You should go,” Yuri says. “Leave your friend. Go. Is bound to be better there, on the other side. Maybe they don’t have wars there? Maybe you’ll be, how you say, safe?”
“I really don’t think that’s how it works,” I say, and Yuri laughs along with me. We are comrades for but a moment, and then his face grows sour. If there are any good memories of the fey within him, I suspect they are hidden deep and rarely unearthed for public consumption.
Patrick dresses in the cool of the morning. He wears jeans for the first time since we arrived and the heat became untenable, and I’m grateful, at least, for the change in his ensemble. I have always favoured Patrick in jeans. His knees are horrible to look at, scarred and knobby, better off hidden. He pulls a t-shirt over his chest and looks at me. He says, “You’re sure they didn’t come,” with enough force to convince me that perhaps he knows who visited us, and I shake my head and tell him, “No, no one came,” with as much truth as I can muster.
We go to the restaurant for breakfast and eat warm slices of toast with melted butter.
“We should talk about the plaque,” I say, spreading butter over my toast, like the plaque is an ordinary thing to mention over breakfast. Patrick flinches, looking away, eyes turning towards the river, and I tell myself it doesn’t hurt to see him react like that. “If this doesn’t work,” I say, “if they elect not to take you, we should talk about what’s going to happen. We should plan, don’t you think?”
“I planned,” Patrick says.
“We talked about it. That’s not the same as planning.”
Patrick puts down his knife and bunches his fist. He does it every time I mention the plaque, every time the topic of the future comes up. “You said you were okay with this.”
“And I am.”
Patrick’s eyes accuse me of being a liar.
“We’re out of cities, Pat,” I tell him. “If you don’t get chosen here, where do we go?”
He bites his bottom lip a moment. “Then I’ll get chosen here. There’s seven spots.”
“Seven spots, sure, but there’s hundreds here. That’s a long way from definite.”
“I’m not them.” Patrick shakes his head, clearing his thoughts, and the fist pressed against the tabletop goes loose when he’s done. “If it doesn’t happen,” he says, “and that’s just if, then we’d have to talk, I guess. I set up accounts. I made sure you’d be taken care of. I’m just not sure, you know, that I can…”
Patrick closes his eyes.
“It’s okay to be afraid,” I say.
“I’m not afraid.” He rolls his head back and breathes deeply. The air smells of burning bread and morning snow and a heady mixture of spices, paprika and cardamom and a sharp peppery spice I can’t quite place. Patrick exhales and forces himself to look me in the eye.
“I know about the invitation,” he says.
“I took it for you, when you went downstairs.” His face contorts, screwing up like he’s trying to swallow something bitter. “I want you to go, I think. It’d be better if you went.”
He looks at me. I look at him. Neither of us prepared for this conversation, not in all the times we imagined what would happen. It was always Patrick going, always me staying behind.
“I’m to old to live forever,” I say.
“We don’t know that you will.”
“I want to stay,” I say. “I want to take whatever comes. I want to be with you.”
“That’s not what I want,” Patrick says. Slowly, cautiously, he begins to cry.
“I don’t want to say goodbye,” I tell him.
“I do,” he says. “Now, while it’s still easy.” Tears glisten on his cheek. “While it still means something to both of us.”
We return to the hotel, neither of us willing to speak. Patrick bolts for our room, slamming the door behind him. I wait in the lobby, meeting Yuri’s questioning gaze.
“So, he knows,” Yuri says, and it isn’t really a question.
“Yes, I suppose he does.”
“You could use a drink,” Yuri says, and once more the question is lacking. I slump against his counter and nod, offering no resistance as he unearths the vodka and two small glasses from the bottom drawer. He turns down the sound on CNN and pours a generous measure, his coal-bright eyes watching me until I’ve drained the entire glass.
“Another,” he says, “for luck.”
And then, “Another, for Anastasia.”
I drink. He drinks. There’s no explanation offered as to who Anastasia is, nor why we’d need to drink to her. I do not ask for one. It seems unseemly.
“What do you think happens,” I say. “To the ones who get taken, I mean. The ones who go on the Steamer ship.”
Yuri considers that for a moment, his moustache twirling in careful thought. “I think they are eaten,” he says. “Cut apart for meat.”
I snort vodka through my nose and it burns, making it difficult to breathe. I splutter and gasp for air, trying to compose myself. “Eaten?”
“It’s a theory,” Yuri says. “One of many that have been expressed by those who have passed through my hotel.”
“What do you know?” I try to give him a knowing stare, but I don’t have the assurance to interrogate with my eyes. The best I can manage is an awkward squint. “Seven years the fey have recruited from your place, surely it’s not a coincidence.”
“I know it is hard, being the one left behind.” Yuri holds up his glass in salute. “They do not take the lonely, only those who are loved. They only take when it would hurt, one way or another. It is better if they eat the ones they take. There is less chance of hoping they would return, less pain, da, when you think of them?”
“Da,” I say, trying the word out for size. It feels better than saying yes. More strident. More defined. “Da, I suppose so.”
Yuri knocks back his drink in a single motion. I force myself to do the same.
“You are older, da? Older than your friend?”
I hold my up glass, wait for him to pour. “Twelve years,” I tell him, “more or less.”
Yuri sucks air through his teeth. “That makes it harder,” he says. “Being the older one. It makes people think they need to be sensible.” He pours another healthy shot, nods in satisfaction when I reach for it. “Do not be sensible, this time around. This decision, it should be selfish, da?”
He pours himself a drink and closes his eyes. For a moment I find myself wondering if Yuri is close to tears.
On the ninth night I sneak out of the hotel, stealing away while Patrick sleeps, the invitation tucked into my jacket pocket. The streets are quiet and oddly slippery, the ancient cobbles covered in a thin layer of slushy snow, but the steady chime of the Steamer’s bells and music keep me moving forward. There are people on the docks. Spectators, hopefuls, locals who still come down here to fish, regardless of the spectacle or the ice-filled waters. I shuffle past them all, heading for the pier, where I show my invitation to the guards who unlock the gate and let me approach the dormant ship.
There are faeries on the deck. Green-skinned and black-skinned and those with skin the colour of a burnished apple. Some bear wings, like moths or butterflies, but only the smallest of them flies. They dance and revel to the discordant music, and in the heart of the throng I see six other men, mortal and fair-skinned and pretty as a new day’s sunrise, men eager to be carried away to whatever winterland the fey inhabit when they’re not sailing their Steamer down the frost-ridden river.
I climb up the gangplank and find my path blocked, an enormous goat-headed faerie giving me a sharp-toothed smile. He holds out his palm and bleats, demanding my invitation, and it’s only once I present the ivory-coloured card that he stands aside to let me board, indicating the party with a sweep of his broad hand.
The music of the fey is the stuff of nightmares, every note filled with terrible beauty.
“I’m not coming aboard,” I say, although I have to shout to be heard amid the cacophony. The hircine creature cocks his ear, signaling for me to repeat myself. “I’m not coming,” I shout. “This isn’t what I want. I’ve come to make a deal instead.” I look towards the bacchanal and say, cautiously, “Is anyone here in charge?”
Goat’s Head almost kills itself laughing. Several of its fellows join in, filling the air with riotous titters, and the laughter spreads like a ripple in a stream. One of the fey steps forward, thin-faced but mostly human, its lips and tongue built to do more than bleat. The music dies away, replaced by a cold and eerie silence, a winter-morning silence designed to freeze all tongues.
“What one knows,” the faerie says, “we all know. You may…negotiate…if you wish.”
They are looking at me, all the fey, and my glance flits from face to face, meeting eyes that resemble insects and sharks and cats and birds, every creature imaginable except those of a human, and when I swallow there’s a lump in my throat.
“I got your invitation,” I say, “and truly, I’m very flattered, but I don’t want to come with you. I don’t want to be part of your entourage.”
The goat-fey and the fair-faced fey exchange a smile. “You are dying,” one says, as if it’s the only argument that’s needed.
“You will,” it says, “and it will not be easy. We’re here to spare you that.”
“Thank you,” I say, “but I don’t care. I don’t need this to be easy. That’s not the point. It’s not my pain that I’m worried about.”
There’s a picture of Patrick in my jacket pocket. I don’t know if the faeries can even see it, if their vision is limited like cats and dogs, but I produce it and hand it over, showing them Patrick’s face. “He’s not sick,” I tell them, “but he wants to go. He’s the one who needs to escape all this. He’s the one who needs to be somewhere that isn’t around me.”
“Too old,” the fey says.
“In years,” the fey says. “We have other measures. He will grieve far longer than you.”
“He wants to go,” I repeat. “I do not. I’ll give him my place.”
“We do not trade,” the faerie says. “We do not accept one in place of the other.”
They step forward, the fair one and the goat-headed one and a handful of winged pixies beside, and I step back down the gangplank. I loop one leg over the guide rope, letting myself lean towards the freezing water. “You can’t make me go,” I say. “I’ll drown myself first.”
The fair one smiles. “That’s been tried before.”
“I’ll fight back.”
“Not for long.”
“I’ll weep,” I say. “For as long as you need me to, to make taking Patrick worthwhile. I’ll do all the weeping you need.”
“You cannot,” the fair one says. “You’re destined to forget. To do otherwise would be cruel.”
I look the faerie in the eye. There is something there, a light, maybe. Staring at it terrifies me.
“What does it take?” I say. “Just tell me what you need to give Patrick my place in your damn boat?”
The rumble of the faerie crowd is like the tinkling of tiny bells. Beside them I’m a creature of mud and flesh, a pudgy man with a rotting brain and intestines full of gas.
The goat-headed faerie produces a silver needle. He waves the point of a needle before my eyes, threatening as a knife blade. “If you want to stay,” he says, “then we need to ensure you survive. We need to ensure you remember, long after your Patrick has gone away.”
“Fine,” I say.
“You’ll linger,” the faerie says. “We cannot heal you, but we can extend your life. We can sew your Patrick’s presence into your mind’s eye, hold it there as other things fall away. The memory of him will not fade, it will simply sour and rot. It will be worse, much worse, than coming with us on the morning tide.”
The needle jabs closer and I blink, but do not shy away. “Fine,” I say, “if that’s what it takes.”
“If you’re sure,” the faerie says, and I nod.
And the faerie plunges the needle into my eye.
The first time Patrick and I met, I knew he’d end up breaking my heart. That’s the nature of pledging yourself to the young and pretty, knowing that in the end you’ll be the one left alone. I resisted the idea of dating him, of moving in, of binding myself. He was only twenty-three and I knew better, so much better, than getting involved.
“I don’t want that,” I said, explaining the decision to friends. “The way these things end, it’s never good for the older guy.”
For a long time Patrick proved me wrong. He pursued me. Charmed me. Enticed me into his bed. He was glorious in every way and even I doubted my convictions as years tumbled by.
I give Patrick his invitation and he doesn’t ask how it arrived. He simply looks at me, with my bloodshot eyes and frost-bitten fingers, and nods. He picks a single bag, a rucksack I gave him on our first anniversary, and begins to pack. I sit on the bed and watch him, each movement and article of clothing sinking into my memory with perfect clarity.
After a few minutes he pauses and says, “I wish you’d reconsider,” with enough force to convince me that perhaps he does, but there is no chance of that happening so he loses very little in saying so. It pisses me off to hear him, and it pisses me off that I’m pissed. I will not forget this moment, I will always remember the little irritations.
Patrick says, “I’m going to miss you.”
And I say, “Fuck off. You really aren’t.”
Patrick chooses not to piss me off any further by pretending this isn’t true. It is the nature of all such stories. One person wants to run away to the new world, one person stays behind and remembers what’s been lost. In the end, both of us are cowards, too locked into the parts we’ve played to step out and be something else.
He selects a jacket and a scarf and a battered old fedora we bought in the local thrift store six or seven cities ago. He arranges himself, checks the image in the cracked mirror in the bathroom. Finally he declares himself ready to leave, and I walk him down to the docks where the Steamer is waiting.
It’s still dark out, despite the morning hour. There’s no hesitation once we arrive. Patrick walks up the gangplank, a backpack slung over one shoulder, his face shining in the cold morning air. There are faces in the portals along the Steamer, smooth and pale as ice, yellow and green eyes watching the procession of young men. It’s hard to stare at anything through the glare of the boat. Everything is illuminated. Everything shines with the luster of diamonds and silver and aluminum foil.
He doesn’t say goodbye this time. I do not wish him ill because of it.
I’m still on the docks when the Steamer departs. The sun sets and the engines start and the Steamer’s lights spill over the water, picking up speed as it hits the open water. The city is dark by the time it finally disappears, slipping behind a bend in the river. I blow on my hands, rubbing them together. It’s cold there, on the docks, so close to the Steamer’s mooring. That won’t last, now the faeries are gone. Soon it will be too warm for my jacket.
The snow melts while I walk back to the motel, turning into slush before evaporating in the warming air. The streets of V— remain silent, although behind the curtains and slat-covered windows there are still lights burning. I think about Patrick and the bag full of gear sitting on his side of the bed, debating whether to take it home when I depart.
Yuri mans the desk when I arrive at the hotel. He uncaps a bottle of vodka and places two glasses, each barely larger than a thimble, on the greasy ledger where he records arrivals. His eyes have a red, washed-out kind of look as he pours the first glass. “Drink,” he says, “it will help.”
“I’m not looking for help,” I tell him. “Help disagrees with me.”
Yuri blinks his wet eyes and rubs his hooked nose, giving me a wan smile. “More than this?” he says, waving a hand at my face. “It disagrees more than this?”
I open my mouth to say something, but I know he’s right. The faerie curse feels like someone’s tied strings to every internal organ and pulled them tight together, bunching them around my swollen intestines and the uncomfortable bubble of memory that resides there. “No,” I say, “I guess you’re right,” and I accept the first drink. The vodka burns my throat as it goes down, and it sits in my stomach like an anchor, like a stone, like a bad memory you can’t let go of. I put the glass on the ledger and say, “Can I have another?”
Yuri nods and pours again. We drink the next glass in silence.
I say, “We were selfish people, Patrick and I. It’s what made us work in the beginning.” I rub my nose with my fingers and smell vodka on my skin. The strings in my stomach loosen a little, and I know I’m going to vomit in the very near future. I say, “Someone had to stay behind. Someone had to cope, and Patrick was never good at that. He never learned to hide things, you know?”
Yuri waits, staring at me. Yuri and his terrifying eyebrows, his thick caterpillar of a moustache. I lose my train of thought and shrug, hold out the thimble for another shot. “You always need someone to stay behind,” I say, “and he wanted to go more than I did.”
“But you are not happy,” Yuri said, pouring.
I remember Patrick’s smile, every smile he ever smiled in my presence. They seem too few, looking back, and all I can do is shake my head. “No,” I say, “not happy.”
Yuri nods. “And there will come a time, yes, when you regret that he is gone.”
I close my eyes to block the images that come. The vodka on my skin smells like antiseptic. My stomach boils and the strings seize their moment, pulling tight as I taste bile in the back of my throat.
“Yeah,” I say, “almost certainly.”
And Yuri hefts his bottle high and gives me a sad little grin. “Then we drink,” he says, “and it will help.”
And despite the feeling in my stomach, I agree.
I wake the next morning with a hangover, vomit coating the tile floor. I get up, wash my teeth, and shovel my belongings into a suitcase. Occasionally I stare at Patrick’s things, the shorts and t-shirts strewn across the dusty floor. I don’t want to take them, but I suspect I’ll regret leaving them behind, living with the memory of Yuri walking away with things that had once belonged to Patrick. I know I will forget none of them, these articles of clothing. I remember every time Patrick ever wore them.
I shovel them into a dufflebag and pull it closed. I don’t need to check the wardrobe to see if there’s things I’ve forgotten.
Yuri doesn’t work the morning shift. There’s no way to say goodbye, no way to thank him or curse him for the pain in my stomach.
The airline sends a car to pick me up, a precaution to make sure I’ll catch my flight. I’d cashed in Patrick’s ticket, used it to upgrade my single ticket home, and there were people in the office who understood what’d happened. The citizens of V— have experience with these things. They’ve learnt to read the signs.
I wait outside until the car arrives. It’s hot and dry and I can hear the boat-calls from the river. When my car finally arrives it’s small and black and out of style, driven by a short man best described by the same three words.
“Lot of luggage for a guy flying solo,” he says.
“I like to be prepared,” I tell him.
He nods, then sees the expression on my face. He sees the look in my right eye.
I sit in the back seat of the car. I say nothing as he starts the engine and begins the long drive home.
This story is posted here as part of my digital short story archive. It’s provided for free, online, because I’d rather have stories read and shared than sitting on my hard drive.