Heyo, humans, welcome back to week #4 of Preptober Prompts, hosted by yours truly! Today’s prompt is…
And le song I chose–
For the record, this isn’t my favorite song. But I do find it interesting, and it fits Liriel fairly well, so huzzah for that! (Also, the Orchardists are an amazing group who really need more love and recognition so please go devour their album and appreciate true artistry. Thank you.)
Also, this is definitely too long to be flash-fiction. Whoops.
The city street moves in fast motion as civilians scamper for shelter. Umbrellas unfurl like gaudy plastic flowers. Liriel curls her lip. Every day is the same scene in different colors. Sometimes sun, sometimes snow, sometimes biting winds and ruddy darkness and the staticky buzz of a street lamp nearing the end of life. But always, the people. The never-ending flux and flow of people clogging the streets in their pilgrimages from one pointless destination to the next.
She curls her arms tight around herself and breathes in deeply. It’s not that she can blame them for having umbrellas when she doesn’t and a destination while she can only stand here, being rained on. Sometimes the world and all its inhabitants seem against her — and no, she doesn’t feel that way simply because the sky chose this moment to spatter her hair and shoulders with a drizzle of dirty water. Her grievances go beyond nature’s petty habits.
People, she thinks. People are the problem.
People are always the problem.
A child scampers past in raincoat and galoshes, spraying mud with each bouncing step. Her hood is pushed back and face upturned, eyes roving the heavens like she can see the silver trajectory of each and every raindrop. She jumps — fingers outstretched to touch the sky. Her feet come down. Mud splatters.
“Watch it!” Liriel snaps, flinching away.
The child pauses. A string of colorless hair drips into her eyes as she turns to Liriel, squinting cautiously. “Who’m be you?”
“Someone who doesn’t care to be drenched, that’s who.”
“Shucks, lady, don’t you got a coat?”
Liriel’s fingernails dig into her sleeves, deeper and deeper until she can feel the bite. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
The child regards her with candid innocence. There is something intensely dislikable in the frankness of her stare, so openly sympathetic it makes Liriel’s skin crawl. She reaches a tiny hand into the pocket of her raincoat and pulls out a dime. The coin glistens in the flat of her palm.
“Here,” she says gravely, offering it to Liriel. “D’you think you could buy a coat with this?”
The kindness isn’t what bothers her, not really, but directed at her, of all people, it is insufferable — both because of who she is and who she isn’t. Kindness is for orphans. For beggars. For widows, for waifs. People who don’t fit inside the system, who by the very laws of nature should be eliminated. Their existence is built upon mercy and kindness, not hers. She fits inside the system too well.
“Brat,” she mutters, shoving past the little girl.
“Hey, where are you going?” The child runs after her. “Does you got a name? Mine’s Lotch.”
“Fascinating.” She quickens her pace.
“Where are you going?”
Liriel skids to a halt and Lotch runs into her. Her shoes squelch as she whirls to face the child. “Don’t follow me.”
The drizzle intensifies as she hurries away, leaching through her clothes and into her skin. Frigid air turns soggy in her lungs. Maybe she shouldn’t be so unkind to the child, but she doesn’t have patience for people. She never has. Maybe that’s wrong of her — maybe she should change.
But she won’t. She never has.
The neon sign above the little music shop sputters like a forgotten beacon in the rain, crammed in among all the other buildings and stores. Ivy creeps up the faded paint and twines around the ‘u’ in music. From her vantage point across the street, the shop looks deserted. Liriel knows better.
Cowbells clank above the door as she enters. A muffled, “Heyo!” sounds from across the room. Two figures lean over the back counter, almost hidden among the precarious piles of musical instruments, empty pizza boxes, and dust. Their heads swivel toward her.
“Oh, it’s you,” says Aven, making no effort to hide his disappointment.
“Is that a problem?”
“Well yeah, kinda. I mean, unless you want to buy a thousand dollar piano or something — which I’m always okay with!” Her cousin leans forward, grinning like an idiot.
Oh glory, does he actually expect her to dignify that with a response?
She turns away, stamping the wetness from her shoes. Aven sighs. A plate clatters on the countertop. “We’re eating chicken nuggets,” he informs her. “Want some?”
She doesn’t, but she approaches the counter anyway. “They smell like fermented gastric juices.”
The other figure lifts his head at her presence. He has a thin, tired face, but his eyes remind her of a lion’s — all quiet and golden and grand. “You’re wet,” he says, as though she hasn’t noticed.
She narrows her eyes, and says to Aven, “Personal visitors aren’t allowed in the shop unless they intend to make a purchase.”
“Relax.” He shoves a piece of chicken into his mouth and licks the grease from his fingers. “Emolas doesn’t count because he paid for the food.”
‘The food’ being a plate of knobby meat chunks swimming in yellow liquid.
“How good of him.”
Emolas furrows his brow at her, so intensely serious she looks away. “People who don’t wear their coats in the winter die.”
His voice is soft, almost too soft to hear, and somehow manages to annoy her. (Everything annoys her.) She scowls. “Aven, who is this and why is he here?”
Aven and Emolas share a glance. Emolas hugs his arms around himself, his knees banging the underside of the counter as he turns awkwardly away. Aven coughs.
“Well, uh, I kinda met him last night at, y’know, the concert thing, and, uh…” He scratches his nose. “There was this guy who may or may not have been mad at me for some reason? And kinda… um… had knives and… stuff.”
Liriel hangs her head and sighs.
“Emolas here, he was fantastic, you shoulda seen him — he helped me get away from the dude, and really saved my skin!” Aven’s voice, having risen to a crescendo, abruptly drops in volume as he glances at Emolas again. “But then he got a concussion and fainted.”
“So you brought him here and let him spend the night,” she finishes for him. “I didn’t see him. Where was he hidden?”
Aven peters off in embarrassed silence.
“Don’t ask me,” Emolas murmurs unhelpfully. “I wasn’t conscious at the time.”
Her stool crashes to its side as she stands. Emolas flinches.
“No chicken nuggets, then?” Aven asks, but she’s already halfway up the little back set of stairs by the time his voice reaches her. The staircase sags like a swaybacked horse, and creaks just as loudly.
There’s something cozy about the little upstairs apartment she shares with her cousin (if “cozy” is defined by being a dark, cramped, crooked space six decades old), or so Aven tells her — but then, Aven is content with almost anything as long as he has a place to sleep and people to annoy. She isn’t so easily placated, not that he would care. He hasn’t noticed her unhappiness yet, and really, she doubts he ever will. But she can’t bring herself to hold it against him because he’s Aven and that’s just the way Aven is. Not that Aven doesn’t care whether she’s unhappy, but he’s so preoccupied — so busy, so bouncy, so helter-skelter and irresponsible and fascinated by all the things he doesn’t know.
Liriel will never understand such curiosity. Her world is defined by the four dilapidated corners of the music shop; keeping them standing, which is to say, taking care of her cousin and keeping herself grounded and ensuring neither of them starve. Not the most glamorous job, but her role isn’t to question the life God gave her.
(Aven calls this attitude “resignation,” and perhaps it is — and in the moments when she’s open enough to admit there’s a hollow space between her ribs and spine, she can almost pretend she knows why.)
(If only people weren’t so selfish. If only people weren’t silly and corrupt and stupid — maybe then, she could be happy.)
The kitchen table, wobbling precariously on three-and-a-half legs, is covered with an odd assortment of notebook paper sporting Aven’s artistic talent (which is nonexistent) and partially-eaten sandwiches soaked in ketchup. Liriel sweeps all of it into the wastebasket. She toes at the pile of mail by the door before crumpling it together and dropping the entire wad into the wastebasket as well. Her hair drips a puddle on the floor.
Laughter filters up through the floorboards and saturates the air, as warm and vibrant as she is cold. Aven’s laugh is easily identifiable, more a snicker than anything. Emolas’ is more complex. It matches his eyes, she thinks; deep and golden and somehow sad, like so many layers in a dying sunset.
Perhaps it’s the sadness that makes her instantly hate him. He has no right to be sad — no right to sit in her store and eat chicken nuggets and talk with a new friend, yet still be sad. No right to fill her isolated space with laughter while she drips frigid rainwater on the floor.
Her coat still dangles from the peg on the wall (yes, she does own a coat, despite what the the little brat from before might think), ands it’s very existence seems to mock her. People who don’t wear their coats die, Emolas had said, as if she didn’t already know that, as if she hadn’t left it there on purpose, as if she wasn’t just trying to feel something, anything; wetness on skin, winter frost seeping through cloth and bone, the tickle of raindrops slipping down her face and into the crevice where her lips meet.
Heat erupts in her stomach. Liriel snatches her coat off the hook and crams it into the wastebasket, as deep as it will go. There. Who needs a coat? Who needs a dingy little music shop that never made much profit anyway? Who needs money or security or warmth or fullness in the space between one’s ribs and spine—
(If people weren’t so harsh, if the landlord weren’t so unmerciful, then she might be happy.)
Anger flees as quickly as it attacked, leaving nothing but a dull headache in its wake. Liriel stares at the overflowing wastebasket. That was silly of her. Slowly, carefully, she pulls her coat out and hangs it back on the peg. How childish. She stumbles into the living room, trips over the rug, staggers, falls—
People are the problem. People are always the problem.
Her body makes a wet squishing sound when it hits the floor. She lies there — she lets herself lie there — because what else can she do? There is nothing she can do but press her nose into the woolly lines of the rug and count the pulses of her headache.
…six, seven, eight, nine…
“Starfish,” says a voice.
Liriel bolts upright.
Emolas stands in the doorway, arms crossed and shoulders hunched, peering awkwardly at the puddle by his shoes. “Starfish,” he says again, nodding at her. “That’s what you looked like. All—” he flaps his arms— “spread out like that.”
Embarrassment tingles in her cheeks. She scrubs the wet hair out of her eyes and straightens her shirt, which sticks to her skin like an old band-aid. “If you didn’t notice, the sign on the door says ‘staff only’.”
“Yes, well. You didn’t close the door.”
“What were you doing lying there?”
“Thinking.” A hint of ire stains her voice. “You should try it too; it’s all the rage these days.”
“I think sometimes,” he says, “though perhaps not in the way you do.”
The way he says it chafes her wrong — as though the subjects of his contemplation are far superior to her piddly music shop problems. “Well,” she snaps, “I suppose a freeloader who sleeps in other people’s shops would do things differently than a hardworking, respectable business-owner.”
He tilts his head sideways. “I believe I’ve offended you.” No apology. No remorse. Just the simple fact, stated with an alarming measure of fascination.
Liriel stands, shoves past him into the kitchen, and begins making herself a cup of tea. “Please leave.”
Emolas sits down.
His presence seems to grow the longer she doesn’t look at him — like a bur stuck to her mind, poking her with every thought and motion. She opens a draw and takes out a spoon, hiding a glance at him beneath the veneer of icy calmness. He fiddles with the cuff of his sleeve.
“I don’t know you very well,” he says, so softly she barely hears him — and even then, there’s an edge in his voice she can’t place. “Or Aven, for that matter. I’m sorry if this sounds presumptuous, but I think you should stop him from going to those sorts of concerts.”
Her spoon slips against the cup, spilling sugar. “Excuse me?”
“I know, it’s none of my business, but—”
“It’s definitely none of your business,” she says, turning away.
“Have you ever been to one? Do you know—”
Emolas grabs fistfuls of his hair and sighs, accidentally banging his knees on the underside of the table and setting it to wobbling again. He lifts his face. “I think I would like to be your friend.”
Rain patters against the glass, filling up the silence. It’s an odd thing to say, and perhaps she should find it more startling than she does. But Emolas is so serious, so earnestly intent as he stares at her, and in the moment is seems like the most natural thing in the world.
Friend. She doesn’t have many of those. Never mind the dozen times she’s said she is lonely; friendship costs something beyond what she’s willing to give — an openness, a sharing of broken pieces and bitter truths and all the ugliness of one’s soul.
“You don’t know me,” she says, returning to her tea. “And you can’t know me, so don’t even try.”
“That seems a harsh way to live.”
She shrugs. “Perhaps. But it is practical. I’m not mean for hoping you’ll leave soon, and you’re not cruel for doing so. It’s just plain common sense.”
“So is genocide, from a certain point of view. Or fascism. Or pineapples on pizza.”
Liriel glances at him sharply, but his gaze is focused on his hands and his hands grip the edge of the table like he’s about to fall off a cliff.
The tea kettle rattles. She breaks away from the strange, quiet presence of the stranger in her kitchen and turns off the stove. Steam rises in little puffs and wisps as she pours her cup full.
“What were you thinking about,” Emolas asks, “while you were lying face-down on the floor?”
She clutches her mug tighter. “I really don’t think it’s any of your business.”
“Perhaps not.” He looks at her again, and despite the quietness and sincerity, despite the lamb-like exterior — in that moment, all the ferocity and untamed edges of his soul burn through his eyes and boil in the air. Emolas is not a lamb, she realizes. Emolas never was. There is a beast inside him, a lion suppressed by small acts of softness, by chicken nuggets and clumsy motions and awkward comments about starfish.
“I think there’s something wrong with you,” he says.
There is a lion who sees past the poorly-constructed barb-wire fences of her soul.
Blistering warmth slips through her fingers and explodes on the tile floor. Emolas yelps, knocking over his chair as he leaps up. Porcelain shards float on a puddle of tea. Her socks are wet again.
There’s nothing wrong with her.
She doesn’t speak as she kneels to collect the fragments of her broken mug. Emolas steps past her. She can hear him rummaging through the cabinets, searching for paper towels. But there are no paper towels; she doesn’t buy them, they’re too expensive.
The broken glass joins crumpled paper and spam-mail in the wastebasket. Emolas abandons the paper towel hunt and uses a dishcloth instead. Now he’s looking for a broom. Liriel drops the last piece of mug in with the trash — and pauses. The corner of an envelope peeks out from beneath ketchupy sandwich wrappers, revealing a return address smeared in red. She knows that address. Plucking the envelope from among shards of glass, she rips it open, yanks out the contents, unfolds—
Bold letters typed in red. Official text and government jargon. Numbers. Dates. Her name, Aven’s name, and the name of their shop.
“Liriel?” Emolas says her name like it’s vinegar and salt. He isn’t far from the truth.
She stands, pushes past him, trudges down the sagging stairs (stupid old building, who needs it anyway?), and drops the sheaf of paper next to Aven’s plate of grease and chicken remains.
People are the problem. People are always the problem.
Aven swivels to face her, blue hair sticking out at odd angles and smiling as enthusiastically as ever. She can’t look at him. Aven, with his band t-shirts and reckless habits and inability to pay attention to detail. Aven, who frequents the kind of places she only sees in nightmares and listens to music unfit for human ears. Aven, her cousin, who she’s supposed to look out for.
“I made a new friend,” he says, and there on the stool beside him is a little girl in raincoat and galoshes, swinging her legs in the air and gnawing on the last chicken nugget.
“S’up!” Lotch says around a mouthful of meat, and then, peering closer, “Hey, it’s you!”
Liriel doesn’t look at them, won’t look at them — she can’t even find the energy to be annoyed — and says, “Read it,” to Aven with a nod at the letter. She moves on, toward the door. The cowbell’s clanking is (quite literally) drowned out by the torrent of rain falling in silvery, unbroken sheets to the pavement. She reaches out. Droplets touch her fingers.
Her clothes have hardly begun to dry before they’re wet again, instantly soaked as she steps into the grey twilight. She wants to feel the cold on her skin. She wants to listen to the downpour and drown out the racket in her head. She wants, and she wants, and she wants— but she can’t have, she can’t have any of it because the world is selfish, cruel, and utterly, abjectly against her.
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she whispers to the rain, picturing again the lion in Emolas’ eyes and feeling, not for the first time, a shiver of — what? Discomfort? Annoyance? Fear? — slide down her spine. She takes a step forward, and then another, and another, walking blindly into the silvery greyness until hair is plastered to her face and clothes stick to her body and everything is cold, everything is shaking, her hands and arms and—
There’s nothing wrong with her.
Headlights in the corner of her eye. Too fast, too bright. She can’t move. She doesn’t have time.
People are the problem. People are always the problem.
What’s wrong with her?
Someone grabs her and yanks — roughly, violently. The world jerks out of focus. Screeching tires and glaring lights and a spray of dirty water in her face, stinging knees as she skids on the asphalt, someone behind her, hands clamped on her wrists and breathless gasps in her ears and then stillness, utter stillness.
Emolas lets go.
She is dimly aware of blood on her knees, and somewhat more aware (though not by much) that’s he’s now as wet as herself. She also realizes, somewhere in the abstract recesses of her consciousness, that she should be grateful to him for snatching her (quite literally) from the path of oncoming death, at great peril to himself, no less. She realizes this, in a distant, detached sort of way. But when she looks at him — at the great, soggy clumps of hair dripping over somber eyes, at the paleness and tight lines — she feels nothing. Only grey. Only cold.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “if I hurt you.”
He didn’t. He couldn’t. She hurt herself, by being too stupid to notice headlights and the crunch of tires. She is sinking into a place she shouldn’t go — sinking into a person she doesn’t know or understand, a person she despises in the rare moments when she’s willing to be honest with herself.
People are not the problem, she thinks. People were never the problem.
She looks at Emolas, at the lion replaced with a lamb. “I think,” she whispers as rain drips into her mouth, “I think there’s something wrong with me.”
A small hand extends toward her, holding a slick, shiny dime.
“Here,” says Lotch. “Is this enough to pay your rent?”
By far the weirdest thing I’ve ever written. They’re my characters… but somehow not. They’re in an alternate universe with an alternate storyline and alternate arcs and alternate goals and man, it’s so strange to not have Liriel screeching about the hierarchy of immortals every five seconds.
So yeah, anyway. WHO HERE ENJOYS FINDING MUSIC THAT FITS THEIR CHARACTERS? (‘Cause it sure ain’t me.) What song best describes your protagonist?
…who’s ready for some good ol’ fashioned Christmas caroling tomorrow, instead of all this heavy stuff?