Emily and Electra
by Chris Castle
The hour’s sleep made her feel something like new. Emily walked the long day and well into the night, thinking nothing of the five things that prodded gently through the bag and onto her shoulders. She thought nothing of the horrors of the town and the unspeakable acts men could drive themselves to do for money and the idea of being free from shame.
No, Emily only thought of her friend, the games they had played and the secrets they shared. Once there were tears, but even those had been a good, joyous thing, needed as much as laughter. When the woods creaked too loudly, she shaded the noise with the memory of her friend’s laugh; and when the darkness spread, like octopus ink all over, she summoned up Electra’s soft and easy smile and found something close to light inside all the darkness. It was a love of sorts that kept the blood in her body moving, swift and steady as a pump.
When she finally settled under the stars for the night, she lay and looked to the moon and spoke to her mother’s face, clear and sparkling on the surface of the white planet. Emily did not tell her of what was to come, for her Ma surely knew, but instead spoke of Old Man Bryant and the combinations of the man that made him fearful and kind in the same breath.
She asked if Ma had ever loved the man, maybe before Pa, maybe during, and was grateful for the silence of the answer. Emily talked quietly, mindful not to disturb what stalked the woods around her, and when she was done, her voice dry and the moon hidden by clouds, she chose to sleep. And her dreams were grey and without adventure, a blankness that came when a mind was so fraught that even dreams were a luxury.
At dawn she reached a brook and stopped for water. Free of the town and all the pollution it birthed, the water was safe and tasted fine. She cupped enough to run a little over her face and smiled a little when a few drops managed to spill, somehow, down onto her body.
But the smile did not linger, for the town was only half a day away now and the business was at hand. She built her sack back up and navigated the waters. It was as she reached the far side that the old woman appeared at its mouth, her water buckets balanced along her back like scales.
“You best not be thinking about heading into town. Town’s no place for young people.” The woman did not look up. Instead she went about her business, almost as if she were talking to herself.
“I have a friend. I have to go to her.” Emily watched the way the woman tilted, one bucket filling, then the other. She wondered if she had ever seen anything so beautiful.
“People in that town walk around with their eyes down to the dirt. They walk that way ’cause if they see anything that goes on, that makes them witnesses. Or worse, accomplices. It’s a bad place. You mark my words. This is a warning. A woman don’t get no second warning.” Each sentence was broken by the sound of the water splashing. It sounded almost like a song.
“I thank you, but I have to go.” Emily nodded, even though the woman’s eyes never moved toward her. Emily had the idea she saw her clearly enough all the same. She walked away, the words stabbing at her chest, but drowning too, against the beautiful sound of the water.
“That just about sums up a lot of things,” she said out loud and walked on down to the path to town.
It was dusk by the time she reached the end of the path where the town limits began. She sat and ate, biding her time, hearing Old Man Bryant’s words come back like a gale. After a while she walked to the edges of the town, the dust swirling up and the roads empty.
A few of the shacks came into view, the candles in the windows burning bright, the people nowhere to be seen. It was a time when children should be running home and parents should be waiting uneasy by the gate, but there was no-one; nothing but the dust kicking up and the small blazing fires behind each pane of glass.
Emily drew her cloak up high to her throat and walked to the corners, to the shadows and the stretches where not even the flies ate. The shop had long closed and the bar was filled with big, lost men. She snuck past it, mindful of hearing no conversations in the roomful of voices. The night began to spread and the town hall came into full view as she turned the last corner.
It had been a thing of wonder some time before, she had been told. Her Pa had shown her sketches of when it had begun life as a church, looking like something out of a story book. Even the drawings of the children and the women looked alive. Almost.
Then it had been a town meeting place, where the town showed its heart and made its plans for the future. And then... and then her Pa’s eyes had grown sad and heavy and he said no more than it had found money, and money had swallowed its heart.
She had almost cried then, seeing her Pa’s eyes sink so desperately low then, almost like a dog that knew it was dying. In those times she would hug him tight and he would let her. Ma was gone by then, and some nights, listening to her Pa cry in the long room, she wondered if the hall had touched him the same way as losing Ma. It was simply a bad place.
She rested in an alleyway, waiting for the time to creep up to midnight. Old Man Bryant’s words were drumming inside her mind now, a prayer and a scream all at once. It got so bad at one point that she crammed her fingers around her ears, but then she forced her hands to her side, knowing the man’s words were vital, almost like breathing.
The clock crept on, and the weather stilled; the snow had slipped away, not wanting to bear witness to this whole sorry adventure, she imagined. She rose up from her haunches. She drew breath and reached into the sack, taking the five of them out, one by one. She stuffed some into her pockets and slipped others into the gaps of her cape, keeping her hands open and free. Emily felt the unnervingly soft phantom prickle of the old man’s hand in hers and stepped out into the night.
The rain began to fall as soon as she reached the steps. By the time she rapped on the door, it was almost a tempest. The door opened and one of the men looked straight ahead and then down to her. She was not short, not by any means, but he was impossibly tall. His thin, crisp lips did not smile, did not move even when he spoke to her. In fact he was almost a statue until the moment he stood to one side to let her in.
It was only after the door closed behind her that she saw a small tremble of a grin build on his mouth. His eyes swelled and he placed a long, fleshy finger on her shoulder, his mind, she knew, racing with the idea of keeping another captive for a whole month. She looked right ahead, playing the captive role, keeping her secrets close to her skin as she stepped inside the building.
The main hall was as impressive as the scene itself was strangely mundane. The rafters were set high, the walls framed and beautiful. In amongst all this, four other men sat, a screen buzzing white and illuminating their faces, a camera on a tripod close by. Some were clothed, others near naked.
A small table, a coffee table, shone with silver instruments set out across its surface. And there, amongst the bad men, sat her only friend in the world, ropes raising great plumes of red along her arms and legs. Her hair was tied back severely, revealing long, dried creases where her tears had fallen.
“Can I wait a month?” one of them said, his voice curiously reedy. Outside the rain fell heavily and almost drowned out his voice.
“Restraint,” another said, tipping the ash of his cigarette onto the floor. His voice was almost bored and he did not smile. Only one of them, the man who had stood and moved over to the tripod, seemed alert, red-fleshed and animated.
He would have to be the first, she decided.
“We don’t want to hear whatever it is you’ve come to say,” the cigarette man said. There was a quick slopping sound and Emily saw the red-faced man was drooling. He made no effort to wipe his mouth; his hands did not even flicker into life. The drool pooled on the floor, inches from her feet.
“Meat,” the drooling man managed to say, the word frothy and almost joyous. He sounded like a boy with a new pup.
The rain fell as the men began to move towards Emily. For a moment they had forgotten Electra, and she was glad. Instead of looking at the men as they drew closer, she held her friend’s gaze. Emily saw the fear in Electra’s eyes and knew she was not reflecting it. While Electra trembled and rocked, Emily stood still and waited with perfect poise.
The men moved closer still and the blanket of the bodies blacked out Electra. Emily looked up to the bad men’s faces, dimly aware the rain was falling so hard that the panes above her seemed almost to vibrate.
“Just a girl,” one said,
“Another girl,” said another.
“Meat,” said the monster.
“Girl!” said another and was repeated by the last. Their bodies were a hairsbreadth from her now, and clawing.
“Old Man Bryant,” Emily Elizabeth Elstree said flatly and then drew deep into her pockets to retrieve the five gifts the old man had passed down to her.
Emily held Electra’s hand as they made their way up the town path. The rain was beating down, but the woods protected them. Emily had forced Electra to wear one of the men’s thick coats and pull on one of their ridiculous hats.
By the time they sheltered for the night they were almost halfway back to the cabin. Emily did not sleep but sat watch, clutching her friend’s hand as she shivered while she was awake and hushing her screams as she slept.
After dawn, the sun had almost broken through, and that had brought a quick smile to Emily’s face. When she could manage words, Electra could only ask questions and Emily answered as best she could, though something as simple as words could not explain what she had been forced to do.
She could not have described the thing the bad men had built in the back of the hall either, thankfully hidden and away from her friend’s eyes. She had decided there and then that one witness was one too many to such a sight.
By the time they reached the cabin, the sun was high in the sky. Emily loosened the sack from her shoulders and sat, exhausted, on the front steps. Her friend sank next to her, letting her head sink onto Emily’s shoulder. It felt good, Emily thought suddenly, almost in a burst of thought, to protect someone.
She allowed herself a brief smile, then let it slip away as she began to question her friend about her time in the hall; fearing the answers but needing to know, her mouth salty and razored the whole time. Then it was over.
That night, as Electra slept, Emily climbed to the roof of the cabin. Above, the stars; below, the town. The fire had died out now, leaving only a black pile of ashes where the town hall had once sat. No-one had come after them, and the five gifts, cleaned and ready, were on her person, if they did.
Old Man Bryant, she knew, was also close, around the fire and the trees, protecting them both as much as her Ma had guided her on her travels. They were safe, for a time at least. And that was a good feeling. The adventure she had embarked on was closed.
The ashes rose as the town’s black heart smouldered. Emily Elizabeth Elstree craned her neck, letting the town fall away and be replaced by the full set of stars above. She sat there for a long while and when she was done, she trod carefully back to the trapdoor, the warm dark, and the hand of her only friend, Electra.
Copyright © 2011 by Chris Castle