Blue light strobed across the tenement walls, bouncing off glass, blinding drivers and sending them into a panic. Tuk-tuks and cars swerved to the side, eager to avoid the wrath of the militia, aware of what they did to anyone that dared get in their way. The barely audible siren was next, its pitiful wail unable to compete with the vitality of the street, dwindling away before it reached the high wall of the pleasure garden that took up one side of the block.
The east side of the road was all wall, not the soaring concrete that surrounded the sector, but a brick structure plastered with advertisements for the attractions within. Peeling posters of cabaret acts and magicians, special offers on weekend passes. Most were daubed with graffiti denouncing the government, calling for fresh elections or outright revolution, but some still promised a taste of the old world, before it had all started to break down.
A row of heads surmounted the wall, bodiless watchers that followed the progress of the armoured militia car as it weaved through traffic. There would be a prisoner in the back, likely more than one, on the way to the barracks for interrogation. The adults looked away, glad it wasn’t them, but the children couldn’t help but stare.
Speakers, set up all along the twisting roller coaster track, blasted pop music intended to drown out the sounds of the street and maintain the illusion that the gardens were somehow outside the sector, but they crackled and popped, distorting the vocals into a nightmarish wail.
The lead carriage slowed as it approached the apex, revealing the drop to the first few cars. Knuckles turned white as hands tightened on handrails, smoothed by generations of frightened passengers clinging on as the front car inched over the edge, drawing out the moment, creating time for the parents to doubt the safety of the ageing ride. Wide-eyed children screamed, and their crooked teeth gleamed in the floodlights.
People observed them from the path, winding its way around a kidney-shaped lake, waiting for the drop and judging them as they had done so a moment before. Dismissing their fear as playful exuberance. The parents wanted to shout and tell them that the world looked scarier when you were up there and that they regretted their choices but the clacking under their seats consumed their minds. A gear creaked under the strain as it pulled them to the edge, threatening to let go and abandon them to gravity.
Tay watched them, envious of the emotions etched on their faces. They were about to feel something, fear, elation, it didn’t matter what, as long as it was something other than the void that threatened to eat them all. For them, time was about to extend and become about something other than the world bearing down on them, they would be free, if only for a few minutes. The buildings and the rides, the stalls selling candy floss and trinkets, all of it was about escaping from reality, hiding behind the wall, and pretending that the world wasn’t falling apart on the other side.
The guardian of the pleasure park, a dour attendant wearing a striped uniform and a plastic smile, stood at the gate, her hand on the turnstile release, no ticket, no entrance. Tay had paid and once inside realised she would have given anything. Any amount of blood or sweat or pain. She would have thrown her soul into the bucket if it had any worth because what she saw was a world unlike the one she had awoken to.
The car plummeted and Tay held her breath as it relinquished its weight, the hands sprouting from its back and its metal lungs screaming in joyful exuberance as it dropped and then caught the curve. To Tay it was a bird, trapped and enslaved with its legs cut off, wings pummelled, stapled back, head squashed in, forced to carry humans, whipped into performing and sharing its divine right to the heavens in mockery of its former freedom. Tay shouted, screamed at them to leave it alone, for it to disgorge its contents and break free. She wanted to see the bird leap from its tracks, spread its wings and soar into the air like a phoenix. Into the black, sullen sky with its clouds that dampened Tay’s spirit, but she lowered her hands as the rollercoaster sped on and a sense of deep melancholy gripped her, pushing at her spine with a knuckled fist. There was no joy in her world, only the burden of loss. Her ticket was just paper, the castle a facade and the workers paid to smile. They were all liars and cheats, every one of them.
A wheel disturbed the puddle at Tay’s feet, a child’s hand clutching a lollypop stick, fingers-stained red. Sunlight rippled on the surface of the miniature lake and tiny waves washed against Tay’s trainers, seeping through a hole in the canvas and wetting her sock. Tay stared at the reflected sun, a forgotten lover returned and begging forgiveness. At first, Tay wanted to dismiss it, to turn away, but the warmth of its touch reminded her of why she had opened herself to it before. It worked its way in, and she lifted her closed eyes and let the first ray in days touch her face. Her eyelids glowed red, veins drawn in detail, hinting at a blood-soaked web that covered her naked skin. She walked with her eyes closed, letting the sun lead her, turning as a cloud dimmed its brightness or the warmth faded upon a cheek. People spoke to her, but their words were meaningless, the only language Tay spoke was that of the sun.
She opened her eyes and smiled, not at the couple pushing the pram or at the ducks on the pond but at the leaves as they brushed over her face. She could feel every crinkle, every rough edge that caressed her cheeks and tickled her nose, each touch as it brought her a little closer to the truth of the tree. That it wasn’t a silent sentinel, observant but mute, but instead a constant part of the conversation. That the willow, as it swayed, was creating music, broadcasting its song to all that would listen. The ducks could hear it, Tay was certain of that. She could see it in the sly, knowing looks they were giving her, at those dark eyes blinking as she stopped to stare at them.
“Excuse me,” a smartly dressed woman said and Tay blinked in the powerful beams of the dying sun, the bright noise drowning out the woman’s signal. “Are you crossing the bridge?”
“What?” Tay muttered through dry teeth.
The piercing blueness of the coat’s high collar captured Tay’s attention and the face framed within came into focus. Haughty with hair piled high and secured with pins. The woman scowled at Tay’s invasive gaze.
“The bridge, we would like to cross it,” the woman said, the impatient edge lost on Tay.
“I like your coat.” Tay grew giddy from the effort of forcing words to form in her throat. She raised a hand, touching the fading scar across the bridge of her nose. A parting gift from a friend, she thought, smiling at the memory.
“You’re drunk and a disgrace.”
The woman gave up on crossing the bridge and continued along the path, muttering to herself as she did so. Tay smiled after her, the coat all that mattered. She wanted to touch it, to wrap herself in its folds and know what embracing the summer sky felt like.
The day was wonderful, it was all the words she could think of that made people smile and none of the bad. It was so glorious that she had forgotten a large part of her vocabulary. To her, the ducks were the duckiest things she had ever seen and the lights from the fairground rides the brightest and most vibrant that had ever caressed her eyeballs. It was her day, and in her waking dream, all the people were supporting actors, waiting in the wings for their time to step onto the stage and add to the gospel of Tay.
She laughed and spun as the last of the sun’s radiance dipped behind the buildings that served as a fortress wall to the pleasure garden. A brass band played somewhere, and the children screamed as the wooden rollercoaster rattled around a steep corner, their cries of joy so pure that tears leapt to Tay’s eyes. The world felt raw to her, the sounds, and colours so intense that as she consumed them, they set off vibrations along her nerves that had her entire body tingling. It was an exhilarating and heady experience that she was sure would be a defining point in her life.
It was so much more than a phreno high was meant to be, this was godhood and Tay wished it would never end, and in that moment, she knew that if she opened her soul fully to the possibilities of existence that it never would. She could live this way, be this happy and linger in this moment until the sun exploded in a fiery death and she became one with the universe, her atoms mingling with the shattered heart of the sun, collapsing upon itself and being reborn to once again stand in the park, her fingers trailing across the face of a child of God. She laughed deeply and loudly and faces, kissed by the sun's last rays, turned to revel in her joy and marvel at her freedom. But all she saw was the blue shadow creeping across them, a net cast by the neon light of a fairground stall, trapping their souls so that they could be fed to the great machine and Tay understood the danger because she could see the hand of the snake in all things.
A discordant note threatened to disrupt the communion as the question of whether snakes had real or metaphorical hands popped into Tay’s mind. She reacted violently to the notion and vomited. The idea dumped onto the sharp blades of grass along with the meagre contents of her stomach. She would be free of doubt, and everything that stood as a barrier to her ascension. Cornflakes and hate, coffee and fear, all would be expunged to make room for the truth.
She coughed and cleared the last from her teeth with her tongue, spitting it onto the path. Her throat raw and mouth the texture of sandpaper, she focused on the heavy globules of vomit splattered across the deep grass and it struck her as a microcosm of life. Bacteria from her stomach now returning to the earth, from where she had been born, the cycle repeating and her, Tay Garson, a part of the miracle.
A smile spread across her face until the weight of it grew too much to bear and she pitched forward, tripping over the low fence, and rolling in the grass. The shoulder dropped and she came into contact with the world, turning against it, bearing all of existence on her slender back, before it was the turn of her right shoulder and finally a knee. Her foot brushed the surface of the pond before coming back up and creating an arc of droplets that caught the dying light and brought into being a mini rainbow of such intricacy that time slowed upon its reveal. On her feet once more Tay hopped the fence and carried on her way, oblivious to the disapproving glares of the cafe’s outdoor patrons.
A lemonade stall popped up in front of Tay with such suddenness that she almost tripped again. A child in the queue chortled before hiding behind a parent’s hand. The line of people moved to incorporate Tay, and she shuffled along, enjoying the feeling of being part of an ordered being.
Eventually, the counter hoved into view and a beautiful young woman, with black hair secured under a white hat, mouthed words that Tay didn’t hear, because her attention was occupied by a lurid yellow circle dominating the back wall of the lemonade shack. The colour was at odds with everything, it was a pretender for the sun, an imposter that sent a violent ripple down Tay’s spine and made her jerk backwards.
“Would you like some lemonade?” the woman repeated, her voice soft and her eyes like purple dye dropped into a glass of milk, swirling, and mixing as Tay fell into them. Her question a lifeline tossed to Tay as the waves threatened to smash her into the rocks.
“More than anything in the world,” Tay said with a truth that struck them both as a revelation.
The server turned to fill a paper cup from a sloshing container and Tay was forced to stare at the yellow orb and endure the tap, tap of a tiny hammer as it knocked on her brain. Juice squirted out as the cold iron struck the glass shell protecting her grey matter, the surface fracturing into a cloud of pink bubbles as Tay’s soul attempted to flee to the heavens. She clamped her left hand on her head, pushing down on the mountain of hair and compressing her scalp. Her stomach ached and her left eye developed a nervous twitch that brought a sheen of sweat to her brow. She wanted to be home, in the flat, a blanket wrapped around her, a cup of steaming tea within reach, not here with people, having to listen to them as they breathed down her neck, as they muttered and stank. She could hear their bones as they fidgeted in the line, grating their hips, and clicking their jaws in a ghastly melody that made Tay want to scream.
The server turned back, putting the cup on the counter and Tay dropped her hand to fumble in a pocket for loose coins. She dumped what she had on the counter, unintentionally displaying the snake tattoo. The server reached out quickly, blue fingers caressing the head of the snake. The sterile touch, flesh wrapped in plastic.
“Do you have anything you would like to give to me?” the purple-eyed demon asked in a voice that promised torment and pleasure.
The words triggered a weight hanging from Tay’s neck, the strap straining and digging in. Her right hand was coming out of the satchel before Tay realised what her own body was doing and she watched passively as she passed a plastic bottle across the counter, the label picked off and a murky liquid that moved with a viscosity that Tay knew wasn’t water. She could taste it, smell it, and the tiny part of her brain that was solely concerned with feeding a habit formed in childhood gnashed its teeth and screamed with insatiable desire.
“Enjoy your lemonade,” the girl said snatching the bottle from Tay’s grasp and hiding it under the counter. She winked, the purple of her iris flowing to form a ring around the dark centre, and Tay’s heart jolted back to life. “Don’t forget your drink.”
“Okay,” Tay murmured and took her unwanted cup of lemonade before walking away. What she wanted was hidden under the counter, not in this cup of bitter emptiness, but Tay took a sip and immediately forgot about the plastic bottle. This lemonade was now the source of her life, the only thing that would ever quench her thirst. It was the elixir of the gods and hers alone.
She walked by the pond, not paying attention to the waterfowl as they mirrored her passage, nor the sun as it finally descended from view. She took careful sips, aware of the line lowering each time she took her lips away from the rim. It was limited, life only held so much time and with each taste, there was slightly less, but she couldn’t stop taking. Always taking until eventually, the cup ran dry, and Tay was left bereft and cold.
The pond was still, and the ducks long gone. The lights fading and the trees ominous in the gloom.
A siren blared out on the road and the sounds of traffic roared in its wake. Tay wanted to cry, to weep for what was lost. For a while she had felt like a child, abandoned of all fear, all hate repelled by her father’s love. Her hand in his as they walked in the park, but now she was alone, holding an empty paper cup.