It was midnight. Coloured light danced across a damp street strewn with litter and a fine mist of rain drifted down almost imperceptibly to drench the unwary. A group of girls wearing deceptively little staggered and clambered between night clubs, shrieking and cackling as they did so. One of them paused briefly before a dark archway, uttered a slurred stream of consonants supposed to convey something along the lines of What are you looking at? and then continued tottering along the street after her friends. The mist of rain thinned, then stopped.
A young man emerged from beneath the archway, holding his hands out, palms up, before shrugging and making his way up the street. His boots sounded heavy on the damp cobbles and there was the sound of a chain clinking off his belt as he walked. The laughing, shouting, singing, screaming voices of drunken students echoed off the walls of the winding, rising street and each group of guys or girls gave him suspicious looks as they passed. Their laughter was always louder after they rounded the next bend.
He slowed as he reached the top of the hill. Here the lights were brightest, the colours the most exotic and the music the most appealing. The dark façade of DUSK stood out among its grey neighbours and the lights and sounds drifted out from within like the scent of a flower, promising nectar. He stared at it silently, absorbing its atmosphere, and wished he were there under better circumstances.
She was standing in the doorway. She caught his gaze with her own. Her eyes were like dark, sullen hooks. They caught the light and shimmered so that even from across the street they seemed to stand out from all other things. He attempted a weak smile, gave up and walked over to her.
“I was wondering when you’d show up,” she said. There was no attempt to conceal the anger in her tone. “I’ve been getting soaked here waiting for you.” Water dripped from the ends of matter strands of hair just to emphasise the point.
“I’m sorry,” he lied, “I was taking shelter from it myself.” That was a half-truth. On another night he would have braved the rain like everyone else hoping to have a good time, but on this occasion he found himself seeking refuge for other reasons.
“Well that’s great, isn’t it?” She continued, “Just like you, always thinking about yourself over others!”
“I said I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll just file that away with all the other worthless things you’ve told me then, shall I?”
“Whatever, can we go inside?”
She shrugged and gestured to the doorway, “By all means.”
Inside the music was loud and it was live, a comforting barrier between his mind and the cold silence of reality. She led him through to a relatively quiet corner near the back, squeezed in behind a table and waited for him to sit. They stared at each other without speaking for a couple of minutes as the music washed over them The lyrics seemed bitterly ironic and he couldn’t quite meet her gaze as a smile twitched at the corners of her mouth.
“You wanted to talk,” he said at last.
She let out a sigh that was inaudible due to the music, but her expression said all it needed to. “Yes. Of course I want to talk. I’ve wanted to talk properly for over a year, but that’s never what happens. You just stare at me like you are right now and I don’t know a single thing that’s going on in that gloomy little head of yours.”
“I’m sorry… I-” He wanted to say that he wasn’t very good at expressing himself, that he had been trying to explain how he felt for as long as she had been trying to ‘talk it out’, but, of course, the words wouldn’t come and so he just sat there, trailing off into the opening riff of the next song and her eyes started to shimmer all the more.
“You… You what? Tell me Ellis, just tell me something! How do you feel? What do you want out of this relationship? Do you care about me at all? Just who the hell are you?”
There was an answer to every question somewhere. He caught a hint of them in the opening line of the chorus, in the rhythm of the drums, the whine of the guitar, but he couldn’t find his own way of saying them.
“Sarah… I…” The vowel stretched out and died. The tears which had been building in her eyes finally spilled over, but he could do nothing but watch her, powerless to stop the inevitable flow of events.
She stood up.
“You’re pathetic, you know that? You’ve got everyone scared, or caught up in the great everlasting mystery that is Ellis Graves, but it’s all just a smoke screen to hide the fact that there is no mystery. You’re just a soulless doll, aren’t you? For a year and a half I’ve been trying to find the substance I thought I was in love with, but there’s nothing there at all!” She slid out from her chair and started to walk away. The last thing he heard her say before her voice and her footsteps were swept away by the music was, “Don’t bother calling.”
He stayed until the night wore thin. One song bled into another and then another and amber coloured drinks somehow never turned into a warning red. Everything blurred and blended, losing all character and his table at the back became more and more isolated. He didn’t wait to be thrown out, but left before the last song, drifting out into a night that longed only to become morning.
The streets were almost empty. Only a few hardcore drunks and vagrants wandered them now, ducking into alleys to vomit, or pass out, or just lie low until daylight. Ellis knew his way home instinctively and he wasn’t so drunk to have forgotten, but he was in no mood to return to his bed. He knew that when he did he would sleep like a dead man and drown himself in gloom and music when he awoke, but for now he just wanted to wander, to find somewhere new.
He followed the hill down towards the river, choosing the road less travelled through older streets and alleys, descending tunnels of steps and cutting beneath overhanging restaurant kitchens, past the back doors of night clubs. The air was filled with the scent of garbage and cooling vomit, but the smell of the river drifted up on the breeze and so he followed his nose as much as anything else.
One street became another and each corner revealed a new route to take. Above him, between the dark slate rooftops and rusty guttering the sky began to change colour, from purple orange to pale grey, but the hill continued downwards and the river still seemed a long way off.
Then Ellis passed an alleyway and caught something out of the corner of his eye. Something had been glittering in the shadows. He stopped, walked back a few paces and turned to face the dead-end street. It was gloomier than most, overshadowed as it was by three rooftops fighting for space and filled, mostly, with cardboard boxes which were in turn filled with foul-smelling rubbish. It was not the kind of alley which invited one to enter into it. Ellis blinked, trying to find whatever it had been that had caught his attention, but all he could see was the gloomy rubbish tip and the paint peeling away from a series of padlocked doors. He sighed, began to move on again and then almost instantly jerked his head around.
It had been there, whatever the glittering thing had been, he had seen it again, just as he looked away. And it wasn’t just interesting because it was shiny, or because he couldn’t seem to see it when he looked down the alley straight on; there was something unusual about the object itself. In the two brief glimpses he had caught of it there had been more than a mere glimmer; there had been unusual colours and a sense of something beyond them. He felt an overwhelming desire to find out what.
Carefully turning his head this way and that he tried to see if he could find the point where the glittering object could be seen. It was difficult, but with a little effort he found he could just make it out in the corner of his eye if he didn’t actually try to look for it. He had never been good at physics, but he was pretty certain there was no theory of light that involved it being able to tell when you were looking at it. He tried to think of a few of his own, even wondering if it might be a rat trapped in a piece of an old drinks can, but none of them really made sense. The only way to know for sure what it was was to get closer to it.
Slowly, still looking away and trying not too look too hard, he edged into the alleyway, scanning back and forth for the source of the shine. Every now and then he would catch sight of it and be able to move a little closer before it vanished again. He might have worried that he would look stupid, walking into an alley in such a fashion, like a paranoid crab, but he was too intrigued by the reflection to care, or even to think about how he must appear to anyone not in on his bizarre little secret. Closer and closer he got to the object and still it managed to be just out of his reach and then suddenly-
[the world was tearing and he was tearing with it. Whirlpools of nausea seemed to explode open inside his skull and it seemed almost like he was tumbling off into infinity and]
-he tripped and landed in a pile of garbage.
He picked himself up, cursing as he did so and looked around him for the source of the reflection. To his surprise he found that there was a small silver ring at his feet. He bent down to pick it up and then examined it in the thin sliver of light that came down between the rooftops. It was quite dull, having not been looked after very well by its previous owner. In the centre was a single purple stone, less than half the thickness of the ring itself and set into the metal, its top flush with the finish of the silver. It wasn’t unattractive, but hardly worth wasting his time over. He slipped it onto his finger in an effort to make the embarrassment seem a little more worthwhile, then made his way back out of the alley, dusting rubbish off his clothes as he did so.
It wasn’t until he rounded the next corner that he realised something was wrong. The sky, he realised with a jolt of shock, was a faint shade of green swirled with purple and it wasn’t a river he could see at the bottom of the hill, but a slick black ocean. Even so, these details seemed trifles when compared with what faced him just a few metres further down the cobbled slope, grinning at him with a mouth filled with teeth like rusty axe blades and eyes which were literally aflame. Ellis had never seen a monster before, not a real one, but he was pretty sure that the traditional course of action under such circumstances was to run, so he ran.