fairytalenoir: (now I'm too old to die young)
the boy detective ([personal profile] fairytalenoir) wrote2012-06-06 09:45 pm
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short story: the fall without ravens (3645 words)

Here's something my mother may have told me before she disappeared: remember that this isn't your story.

She said it, but maybe it was a dream, or maybe it's something I imagined later because I was five at most. Maybe – but this isn't my story. So I don't want to tell you about me and I don't care who you are. Still, you need to understand some things about me, because it affects the information I've been given and the way I understood what happened. And you need to know before you make a decision.

So here's the thing: I'm fifteen and I've been fifteen for five years. How does that work? It's not important. I made a deal, I made certain sacrifices, and this is the result, for my own reasons which have almost nothing to do with anything that happened. Nobody wants to listen to me, so, sorry about the handcuffs but it won't be forever.

November 29, 19--
I am fifteen for the first time and looking at the trees in our trailer park. They are unusually old and healthy, although this time of the year, they are bare. It's dusty here but maybe there's water underground. Mrs. Stark takes care of them. Every fall, ravens come and sit in the empty branches and talk to each other until March.

They have not come this year. I am thinking about that as I look at the trees. Where have they gone? I should ask Mrs. Stark. She always has good answers, though sometimes, they only bring more questions. But first I have to find something to bring Mrs. Stark, in exchange for her time and knowledge. She taught me that is the way. You give and you take.

Rose, her daughter, comes outside and punches me hello in the arm. Rose is also fifteen, but she's taller.

“J----, you sad fuck,” she says, “mom wants us to go see if there're any new seeds at the store.”

Our town only has one street that matters. People who pass through often stare, though I didn't know why until the second time I was fifteen. You can walk down it in ten minutes. It's cold but Rose will wear coral-colored flip-flops until it snows, her toenails covered in glitter. Recently, my dad's peacoat fits much better than it used to, so I'm wearing it now. We go to the store, which does not have any new seeds because it's November, and Rose buys a magazine and a slushie. She also steals a pair of scissors, because like most people in our town, she doesn't like the owner. She has at least six pairs at home, the kind with the cheap plastic handles.

I buy cigarettes for me and cigarettes for Mrs. Stark. The cashier and I have an understanding which relates to an incident that happened two years prior, something which does not need to be related at this time.

When the door opens, somehow I know immediately that it is a stranger. How many ways can you open a door? But everyone who lives here opens it a certain way, and the sound is different. This is because I'm not a detective yet, but the potential is still there. My instincts are sound, just not fully formed. I don't turn around. I look in the reflection of the register. It's a man, a tall man, in a dark coat. Rose slurps her drink loudly. The man looks at her. He looks at her in the way a lot of men have started looking at Rose, or maybe not, it's hard to tell in the reflection. She looks back, bored and indifferent, but she shouldn't be. She should be wary. I know this because though I'm not a detective yet, I just do.

You can't make Rose do anything she doesn't want to do, so I do not turn around and take her by the elbow and hurry her out of the store. I turn to Rose and say, “Let's run away to the city for Christmas.”

She grabs me by the arm and drags me out of the store so we can talk about this without the cashier eavesdropping. As we go I look in the reflection of the door. The man is watching me, but he turns his back without hurry. It is wide and blank and dark.

Later that night, when Rose is preoccupied with cutting up her magazine with her stolen scissors and gluing them into her notebook and on her walls, I sit on the couch with Mrs. Stark and give her the cigarettes. She gives me tea she makes herself out of something. The question about the ravens is on the tip of my tongue, but it's not the time, it's not as important – to this day, I still don't know where they went, or if they've ever come back.

Probably the most important part of asking Mrs. Stark questions is figuring out which question to ask. She never hurries me. She drinks from her heavy earthenware mug, eyes unreadable, the TV muted.

Finally, I ask, “What kind of preparations should we make before we go?”

She doesn't smile, and she doesn't look sad, but that slow nod tells me I asked the right one.

“I'll make you a list,” she says, after a moment's thought.

December 1, 19--
I am still tired from yesterday, but Rose says I can sleep on the bus and she will watch our things. I sleep the entire way there, waking up confused like Rip van Winkle, everything different. Rose says I didn't miss anything. When I check my bag later, though, my dad's gun is tucked right beneath a t-shirt instead of shoved down in the side.

The address Mrs. Stark wrote down is hard to find, which is one of its advantages. The tiny apartment is full of boxes and things that belong to other people, lying out askew as if the former occupant left in a hurry. The door has four locks and tiny symbols carved into the frame and around the windows. I write them all down in a notebook. Rose claims the couch because she sleeps on those better than beds. I strip the bed and lie down in my coat. I sleep even more. I sleep for almost a full day. I don't know for sure what Rose did during this time, but I think she went out, and when she came back, she put the gun on the coffee table.

December 2, 19--
Mrs. Stark's list is precise and ordered. There are objects we can find that may help us, people we could meet who might prove useful. But we have to choose which ones we go after. We can do one or two a day, so Rose and I each pick three to pursue.

Rose picks the gun, the mirror, and the librarian. I pick the soldier, the doctor, and the knife.

I can't tell you about all of them. It would take longer than we have and it doesn't matter. Suffice to say the librarian and the soldier did not work out, we eventually broke the mirror and lost the gun, and the doctor is dead.

December 10, 19--
I have not failed to notice the man is in the city, looking for us. Rose is pretending she has. Fortunately, the list provides us much to do and talk about. Also, though we don't know it, he isn't looking very hard. We aren't a priority. To be honest, it's Rose who isn't a priority. I'm not really a part of this. But on December 10th, I don't know that.

December 12, 19--
Rose has finally realized the list was provided by her mother and not me. She is annoyed, but agrees to continue, after an absence of four hours.

December 13, 19--
He nearly caught us today. But by his failure, he revealed much about himself. I will read you the case file I opened that day.
Hair: Black
Eye: Unknown
Ethnicity: Caucasian
Height: 6'0”
Weight: 180-190?
Age: late 30s?
Distinguishing features: scarred left eyebrow, douchebag aviator shades
Abilities: seemingly nothing
Associates: an assortment of physically deformed men (One Eye; Large Mouth; Huge Arm; etc.)
Notes: police contacts indicate “untouchable” status
The fact is, at this point, I know exactly who he is. Mrs. Stark has told me. But these are the files I share with Rose, and Mrs. Stark has told me not to tell Rose. By this time, Rose has begun to realize there were a lot of things her mother has told me I am not to tell her. It makes her angry, and rightfully so. Yet it is not within my power to disobey Mrs. Stark. I have done almost everything she told me to do, for my own reasons that are not under discussion. I have not told and will not tell you her real name, nor Rose's, for instance. I can't tell you my name either, but not exactly because of Mrs. Stark. I can try all day, it won't do any good. It's J----. J---- M------- A------.

Who cares? It's not my story.

December 14, 19--
Rose and I move to another place. There are cobwebs in the cups. This time I can put the symbols around the doors and windows myself. The gun goes on the kitchen counter because there isn't a coffee table. Rose likes it more than I do, because she hasn't handled it as much as I have. Dad could still shoot it, but you can't load a gun with only one arm, so he taught me.

December 15, 19--
Rose is angry.

December 16, 19--
I follow Rose today. She willingly meets the man who has been trying to find her. She does it in such a way that he can't force her to come with him. His deformed lieutenants cannot go near her so they chase me instead. So I can't tell you what they talked about. I am too busy running. I go into the underworld six times that day. I can do it because I'm careful, because I know all the rules. Most people who go there mess up. Here are a few of the rules:
Do not eat anything.
If you give, you must take.
If you take, you must give.
Do not look over your shoulder. You can turn around with your entire body, but you can't look behind you.
Only look to either side if you want to be afraid.
No singing.
Be polite.
Be careful what names you say.
Mrs. Stark did not tell me all the rules because you have to learn them for yourself. The deformed men are afraid of the underworld; it wasn't really made for them. They stay out. Perhaps you think I should have stayed in the underworld until they went away? Unfortunately, time doesn't always pass at the same rate down there as it does up here. If you're in a hurry, like I am that day, then probably you won't lose too much time.

When I come out the sixth time and see that the deformed men are gone, I go to the safe house and Rose is asleep on the couch. She has drunk two cups of tea with whiskey and lies under a blanket made out of my old t-shirts. I look at her because I'm tired, because she is angry with me. I don't sleep anymore, but I'm still aware that no matter how close you are to someone, you're not allowed to sit and watch them sleep for hours. That's not like, an above grounds rule of life or anything, that's just common sense.

December 17, 20--
Rose finds the rest of the lists and we argue for seven minutes before she leaves. I don't know what to do. I go to the underworld to ask dead people for advice even though I know they're usually pretty shit at giving advice. I don't have many people to ask, though. Mrs. Stark has given me all the help she can. Before I open the basement door, I think about it and I call my dad. The call takes one hour and thirteen minutes – that's important. That's real time, above ground, time that passes that I can't get back, even though at that moment I don't know how important that time is. Because I don't know, I go into the underworld, and from that point on, it would be difficult to change anything.

While I'm in the underworld, I lose two months.

I do learn some things, at least.

February 17 through 28, 20--
False leads. I don't want to talk about it. Rose isn't mad anymore. Technically, this is when we break the mirror, but we don't break it, we only start to change it into a more useful form. It's part of the plan.

March 1, 20--
I'm down to my last two prepaid cellphones, but I toss the one I just used into the dumpster behind a bakery, and start looking for a door that leads downwards. It could be a door and then a staircase, or a staircase and then a door. Then I have to pick the lock, of course, but it's worth it, because the way I open doors going down, they always lead to the same place, the underworld. From there, you can find any door you want, if you know how, and it's imperative I get out of the area.

When I emerge across the city, I see I've lost a little time. The sun is setting. I call Rose to check in. Her voice is tense, but not unusually so. She gives me the name of the dead boy. I head underground again. You can't make calls from the underworld. Not with a phone, anyway.

I come into the morgue from the janitor's closet. It takes me a few minutes to locate the correct drawer but only a few seconds to cut off his face. Dead people don't need faces, or rather, they don't need a particular face; it's polite, however, to leave them with one. Who would want to trade a face for, say, a plastic bucket? That's no good. I watch my reflection in the metal of the morgue drawer as I cut off my face. No one can argue that a face for a face is a bad deal.

The process itself is not terribly interesting. You can learn for yourself if you really want.

I thank the dead boy and put him back. The new face will buy me time and fool some people.

I can't see Rose because she's having herself held hostage by her father's deformed men, but we talk on the phone because the time table for fucking up her dad's bid for power is pretty tight.

March 4, 20--
I am fifteen for the second time, by the way, and today, or rather, tonight, Rose turns sixteen. It doesn't seem like a big deal to me. That's because I'm fifteen and an idiot about things like that. My only concern today is the efficacy of my disguise, which I will use to infiltrate Rose's birthday ball, per prearrangement. Tonight I have decided to be a soldier. It's the wrong choice, but how can I know that? Mrs. Stark can't prepare me for everything. Perhaps this wrong choice is necessary.

Tonight, every guest will (against their better judgment and secret natures) descend to the underworld to the exclusive club where Rose demands her birthday ball be held. They will be uncomfortable yet entranced. They will feel like they are under a spell. They will dance all night. This is what Rose wants. I don't think she picked it because of me, I think she genuinely wants it. That's the trouble with fairy tales, dryad's daughter. They don't have anything to do with you or me, yet here we are, among them. That's the point.

Tonight I am a WWI era soldier of the French Foreign Legion, not because I idealize war or romanticize their exploits, and not because I love irony, but because I encountered the soldier in the underworld earlier and traded clothes with him. I follow the directions on the invitation I stole. The mansion at the listed address fails to waken any dread. The high ceilings of the nursery with twelve beds do not make me hesitate. The closet door I follow other guests into, and the worn stone steps I go down, I accept on face value. But when I come to the forest with gold and silver branches, I begin to realize where I am. Masks grow on the trees like leaves, and I take one because everyone else is taking one. Mine is black and white. I put it on and proceed to the lake, where boats await to take us to the club on the island. I can see Rose; she's dancing. Everyone is dancing. I even dance with her, not because I'm under the spell of her birthday – because she wants me to, because she is sixteen and I'm still only me.

And actually this is the way we've always been, though it was given to us to not have to acknowledge that before. Mrs. Stark chose to live in a trailer park, and my dad did not look for my mom, and we had fifteen years and I love Rose just like Rose's dad must have loved the dryad who became Mrs. Stark. Maybe this is the way every boy is with a girl.

No, it's not.

At midnight (though it is always night in the underworld) the mirrored sphere lowers from the ceiling, illuminating the room with a slow swirl of lights, like the passage of insincere stars. Rose and her father dance beneath it, masked and oblivious. I raise my pistol. It's a Colt .45, not at all what a soldier of the French Foreign Legion would have had, but I'm not a fucking soldier, I'm a detective, and I shoot the mirror we altered. It explodes and shards go everywhere – one in her father's heart, one in Rose's eye, as planned.

Everybody keeps dancing, though.

Happy Birthday, Rose.

Then I leave. I sludge through the lake, which is only waist high, I fling my uniform over a mask-tree, I kick my soldier's boots over the eleven pairs of worn dancing slippers. I walk through the underworld without looking back, and when I come up again, I have lost a year.

May 12, 20--
I am fifteen for the third time and no one understands what's wrong with Rose's dad, which is to say: they understand quite well that Rose did something to him, but they don't get why it's working. A year can be a long time to be gone for their kind, and in any case, I exchanged my face again, so no one connects me with the birthday shooter. Now I can come and go as I please because Rose is in charge of the household.

“J----, you sad fuck,” she says in greeting, wiping applesauce off her father's chin. He looks at me, and his eyes are an ordinary brown, like mine, and my dad's. He knows what's happening. He just doesn't care.

“Did you ever hear the one about the king who was so sad when his wife died, that he wouldn't marry any woman who wasn't as beautiful as she was? And their daughter, who looked just like his wife—”

Rose laughs because the sliver of mirror changed nothing. Her eyes have always been cold.

“You want some work?” She puts the bowl back on the tray and stands, smoothing her dress.

I nod and come around to her side of the bed where the files wait for me. Eye, Ear, Mouth, Arm, they all work for her now, but they're not detectives. She hugs me from behind while I read and her chin rests comfortably on my head. However, it is an undeniable fact that she is also wearing heels.

July 5, 20--
I am fifteen for the fourth time and it is a hot and miserable funeral. Everyone is glad to leave. Before I can disappear into the basement of the church, however, the priest taps me on the shoulder and hands me an envelope with today's date on it. Inside is a note which is dated November 30, 19--.


* * * * *

So you see my dilemma. In three minutes I will let you out of those handcuffs, and you will meet Rose. You can't make Rose do anything she doesn't want to do, and in turn, she tries not to make anyone else do things they don't want to do. You don't have to work for her. But she needs a detective, and you were almost good enough to figure me out, so I figure you'll pick up the basics pretty quickly. You can have my knife. It won't protect you from her. It's useful, though, even if you don't want to learn how to take new faces. I wouldn't recommend my deal to anyone. It works well for me, that's all. Just remember it's not your story. You're going to be a part of it, but you can only know a little bit, because we aren't like them, no matter how deep we get, no matter how many trinkets or unusual skills and stories we pick up. They're the fairy tale, we're the noir.

And goddamn, I am sick of being fifteen.