Saturday, 22 September 2012

Down the rabbit hole

There was no breeze, no wind, no moon. Nothing on the top of this hill moved. The Americans hadn't staked a flag in it, the English hadn't planted a non-native tree on it. It was bare grass and stones — nothing should flap even in a hurricane. And yet that shadow moved across the stones on the east side of the hill.

I rolled behind the sitting stone, like a punk Bruce Willis dodging bullets. I got a mouthful of sod, but I didn't break anything. I stared that motherfucking stone down. I glared at it, going full Clint Eastwood, until my vision blurred and the bluestone actually flashed blue. Blue light, like a TV screen glimpsed through a window from across the street.

“Fuck this,” I said, backing out of the circle. I called it a fairy circle like everybody else, but I never believed the spot was anything more than a bunch of stones some ancient guys had piled up and danced around, same as the village church was nothing more than a building full of people talking to imaginary bearded old men. Those stories were in my gray matter all the same, though, and everything from naked witch raves to human sacrifices grooved through my imagination. Thanks, but no thanks.

Just as I was about to step outside the circle and dash down the hill to the safety of my monastic cell, my mobile vibrated.

I stopped dead, blue lights and shadows forgotten. Tal.

Tal: Got a surprise for you, flyer.
Me: Thought you were offline or something.
Tal: Never. Wired in, 24/7. You want your surprise? 'Cause it's going going gone.
Me: You know it.
I waited for whatever it was — an image, a file, a link. After a few moments, the link popped up on my screen and I followed it.

I frowned, squinting at the tiny screen. What came up was a Google Earth image, zoomed in tight.
Tal: Know what this is?
Me: Looks like a Google Earth map or something.
Tal: It's you, rockstar. See those white dots?
Me: Yeah.
Tal: Look like stones to you?
They were only a few pixels, floating out of the dark screen like fireflies. But they were in a rough circle, the oblong bench stone dotting the center.
Tal: Sit down. On the bench.
Slowly, I moved back to the center of the circle. You play around on these things, looking up your address, your house, your ex-boyfriend's house, that house where the kid drew a big penis on his roof. You play, and you think you should be seeing things as they are right now, your neighbor's car parked crooked, your wheelie bin overturned. But you look closer, and you see differences. That shed you painted last summer is still dingy and old-looking. There's a car there, but it's the one that got wrecked in the “tree incident” two months ago.

But this time, I do see something. The blob in the middle of the pixel stone circle flickers as a shadow crawls across it, and I realize that shadow is me. I'm not going to stand out in the nighttime scene, what with all the black clothing – I'm more like a black hole, visible because of the light I hide.

“Holy shit!” I say to the screen, and then I type it.
Tal: Mad crazy, ain't it?
Me: This isn't Google Earth. It's real time. What'd you do, hack some MI6 sat?
Tal: MI6 doesn't have the funding for something this rad. Are you ready for the true mind-fuck?
Me: There's more?
Tal: This is just a map, kid. Maps just tell you where you're going – they're nothing without a destination.
Underneath the message, a red dot appeared over one of the standing stones. I oriented myself until I was facing the massive chunk. On my mobile screen, it was outlined in red. In real life, the light was fading up on the stone, that blue light that I'd seen flashing over the stones a few moments earlier. Now it was steady, like a TV that had settled on a channel, finally warming up.

The mobile dinged, and I glanced at it.
Tal: Doors are meant to be opened.
I didn't type anything. I didn't trust my fingers to find the tiny letters. The blue was coalescing on the stone, neon embedded in the ancient surface, glowing brighter in the spots where prehistoric delinquents — and more than a few modern ones — had etched drawings and shapes onto the surface. I'd stepped right in the middle of a Doctor Who episode.

I stood there, staring at the stone, the stone staring back at me. This hadn't happened through spells or incantations. This was tech — freaky, scream-your-silly-head-off tech, but tech all the same. Tal couldn't be in Antartica or Rio or Sydney. He had to be a local, maybe even somebody I'd met once or twice, passed in the Lidl. Otherwise he couldn't have known exactly where my hill was, couldn't have set this up. I'd be able to meet him, in all the gruesome flesh, maybe even tonight. I pictured what he'd look like — tall and dark, his hair too long, his T-shirt too big, his skin pale. My heart hammered with both the anticipation, and the fear. Bodies are real, and once you come into contact with them, your perception of the being within changes forever. I wasn't sure I wanted Tal's body.

I reached out to touch the screen. It had to be a screen, embedded in some kind of stage stone made from styrofoam, a pretender that would be obvious in the light of day. I waited for the slick warmth of plastic to slide through my fingertips, for icons to appear, for a virtual desktop to tell me what to do.

But the screen was rough, the grit scraping into my nails. Breathing short little gasps through my mouth, I shoved my mobile in my pocket and pressed both palms to the surface. It was cold, damp, and when I leaned into it I could smell the moss and dirt that had lived on it for longer than my grandparents' village had existed. Nothing save the blue light spilling over my hands belied the presentation of a giant stone.

It shifted, and I yelped. I jammed a fist to my mouth, embarrassed at my own girlish noise. A rectangle had opened in the stone, the azure outline of a door.
Doors are meant to be opened.
“Fuck me with a magic wand,” I whispered. I thought of the missionaries who came into the pub every summer, who told me it was okay that I didn't believe in God (lying, clearly), because he believed in me. Apparently the same went for magic, too.

I backed away from the doorway. Behind the stone, down the hill and under the mist, slept my grandparents, the pub, the village where my mom grew up. The village where she grew up and then ran away from as soon as she could legally buy the tickets to get the hell out. The village she'd told me about, that hangdog look in her eyes, all throughout my own childhood, until the accident. Until I'd been forced to move there myself, with the parents she'd missed but hadn't been willing to stay with.

If I stepped through that blue doorway, would I return? Would I disappear, like my mother had thirty years earlier, only to feel the sadness creep into me every time I thought of home? Or was I even now walking through a dream that would leave me broken and depressed on awakening and discovering I was right about magic after all?

I squeezed the mobile phone in my pocket. Tal had offered nothing more. He would not cajole me, would not beg me, would not turn into some educational TV movie about peer pressure. But he'd offered the door.

Doors aren't only meant to be opened. They're meant to provide passage. So I passed.

I passed through the doorway, into the blue stairwell spiraling down, so deep and so far it seemed to stretch beneath the world. And then it moved.

The steps spun downward, just slow enough not to send me flying down to break my neck. No way would this escalator ever pass any safety inspections in the UK. I thought I was going to hurl, crouching and gripping the riser beneath my feet like a surfer riding a drill to the core of the planet (talk about a shitty film — Michael Bay would probably take it on). The step was cold and rough on my fingers, though it made no sound as it scraped around the inside of the tunnel, which just seemed to be an extension of the standing stone above.

And then, as the escalator to hell slowed, I did hear something. I half-expected to hear the chink-chink of pickaxes on rock, and seven tiny voices whistling as they worked. Instead, I stumbled out of the stairwell to a rocking rush of steel on steel, forced air in a narrow space, and a posh electronic female reminding me to “mind the gap.”

A metro station. An underground rail, all the way here on Anglesey, where only the train to Holyhead passed overland, where public transportation consisted of the three buses that went back and forth from Holyhead, Beaumaris, and the RAF base to the mainland. A subway under a sheep pasture next to a village whose name had never been translated from Welsh to English.

Fuck me, indeed.

The doors on the train slid shut as I approached, and it slipped out of the station without me or anyone else. Emptiness filled the chamber, and I wandered through it, like a lone dancer in the middle of a strobing dance floor.

I'd never seen a station like this — if it really existed, it wouldn't last long. It did not resemble the stations I'd used in big cities around the world, which were often just ballooned openings along the arteries of the metro lines. Rather, it was a maze of screens, flickering and loading, flashing their advertisements, scrolling through texts, reeling through vids and clips. Walking through it, I found occasional cul-de-sacs that led to the tracks, openings just wide enough to permit the train doors to open and allow people on and off.

I reached out to a screen, and at my touch it blanked out. Text appeared under my fingers.
Come find me, flyer.
“Tal?” I whispered.

Another line merged into the first.
Come find you.
“Where are you? Are you here?”

A train slammed through the station, never slowing down, washing me with hot gusts of stale tunnel air. The confines of the screens only allowed me to see a moving picture of the train through the nearest access space, and I stared through the empty vehicle to the other side of the station, its seats empty, its cars containing nothing more than potential.

I stepped away, my eyes dropping to the screen, where Tal's words were fading. One last line had scrolled up as I watched the train, and I frowned.
Come find us.
And there he was, in the last car. Not empty, the car's potential fulfilled to the number of one. He flashed past, and I ran to the edge of the cramped platform. He receded into the tunnel, drawn away to a far off capillary I might never know the location of. But he saw me, caught my eye before the distance grew too great.

My mobile vibrated, and I jumped. I'd forgotten it there in my hand, and as it came to life it felt as though something were trying to eat through my flesh, straight to the bone. I glanced at the screen.

A new icon had appeared on my home screen, resembling the old road markers that still sat at crossroads around Wales. The tombstone shapes were generally carved with nothing but names and numbers, telling you what the next village was and how many miles away. The icon was tiny, the font even smaller, but I could just make out the place name: Færwhile. Distance: 0. I tapped it.

A map opened. Not the satellite map Tal had shown me, but a spartan map instantly recognizable to anyone who had ever ridden metropolitan rails. The only difference was the scarcity of stations: in this system, it seemed, the trains blasted round and round through tunnel after tunnel, with no stations to let anyone on or off, save this one and a terminus, where all lines converged.

Another train pulled into the station, this one drawing to a sighing stop.

When the next train stopped, I gave no thought to my grandparents as they slept in their bed above the ground and in the world. I crossed the gap and let the unseen conductor carry me further into the dark, following Tal. Following him to where I sit now, posting to a blog whose server is, for all I know, in another universe by now.
Come find us.


He’s not replying. He always replies. But tonight, with a wet fog slithering through the stones that in no way resemble fairies, I can’t raise him anywhere. I used to worry I wouldn't find him online when I signed in. I didn't know where he lived — most CL posters are American, Californian. But he never seemed to sleep, never seemed to log off.

No reply has come yet, though. I tried shaking the phone. I checked the bars — still low, but steady. I clicked through another message. His log-in name is grayed out, which means he’s offline, or that he's made himself invisible. He could be sitting there in front of his machine, reading my messages, rolling his eyes at me, clicking them closed as soon as they popped up.

Tears burn my eyes. I blink.

Really? I’m this pathetic? Crying over a friend who exists only in 1s and 0s?

Apparently I am. I’m sitting on the fallen stone in the middle of the fairy circle, writing this post, making it way too long in the hope he’s only in the bathroom, or attending to some other physical need I never imagined he had. Waiting.

I didn't bother changing shoes when I left the pub — my internet-sale Doc Martens, 90s cliché that they are, can still handle anything from Bryn Davies's sheep pasture all the way up the wet slate trail to the top of the mound. It takes 35 steps, give or take, for me to reach the edge of the speck we called a village. Most of the windows are dark at this hour, and the village has never been big enough for streetlights.

I stopped at the gate that would let me onto the public walking path up the hill, and checked the mobile again – no bloody service, as usual. The hill schmoozed toward me out of the mist. It’s not much of a lump, not like the snowy peaks of Snowdonia to the north, but the mist still strangled its summit, shielding it from view. The walk to the stones is a bitch in the dark, and took a lot longer than I'd thought. I stumbled once, gashing my tights at the knee. Fuck. That’ll be another £5 on eBay. With my crap luck, the mist will block my reception, too. I touched the phone on — service, but not steady. IMing would be touch and go from here. I'd have to climb all the way to the top.

I paused at the base of the hill, staring up at its soft head, crowned with bristling chunks of granite. It would only take me another five or ten minutes to get up there, to get those few measly bars that represent a connection, a lifeline out of this toilet bowl. The climb always makes me feel like an ant, struggling against the swirling tide flushing us all down into ancient history. I started up, my boots squishing over the damp sod.

Halfway up. Flickering service. The IM app was nearly loaded.

One precious half a bar of service popped up as I topped the rise, breathing a little hard. When I was fifteen, I used to run up this hill. Now, at the ripe old untrustworthy age of 25, I practically need an airlift. Christ.

The IM app finally finished loading, and I pinged him, waiting.

And that’s when the cabrón insisted on not replying. And still hasn’t, even though I’ve written a fucking novel here already.

The stones peer sadly at me, stretching their shadows to blanket me. They’re nothing compared to Stonehenge in the south, but neither are they the tiny little rocks used to form most of the fairy circles in the region. This standing circle took some serious theological freaks to build. The mist is too heavy to inch its way up the hill, and above the stones hangs a rare clear night. The moon is absent, letting the stars preen in the black. I stare up at them, waiting for them all to fall at once, lighting the sky on fire, exploding through the atmosphere and wiping us all out like the soft sacks of water we are.

I’m sending one last message. Come on, Tal. Please don’t leave me dangling here.

Another Night of Drudgery

I’m considering chucking my bloody mobile at the wall. It would crunch against that fucking cold Welsh bluestone, and even in a thousand electronic turds it would be as useful as it is in perfect working order.

The Carlsberg clock seems to be stuck at ten to two, over the heads of the last bums left in the pub. I’ll have to hike up to the stone circle if I want even half a bar of service that’ll give me a couple of minutes of connectivity, barely enough to publish this post, much less talk to anyone.

“You goin' to hang about all night, lookin' sour?” My grandfather just tapped me gently between the eyes, smiling. “That mug o' yours flattens the lager.”

“Nothing happening here, Taid,” I reply, swiping at his nicotine-stained fingers (and keep typing — I can at least pretend I’m connected to the outside world).

“Nothing's happened here since your mama flew off to South America, Amelia.” He pours an umpteenth round for the craggy bastards at the end of the bar. “Ever since then, the mams and dads keep their children locked away at night—”

“—and their secrets they whisper only to the stove in the empty first light of morning,” I finish, rolling my eyes. I dump a sack of peanuts into the empty bowl. “I'm not my mom.”

Gwyn Jones downs half his pint in one gurgling swallow. “Too right. Your mom were the sweetest thing ever walked the shores of Anglesey.”

I grab his glass and tug it out of his reach. “Gwyn Jones, you tell me one more time how you snogged my mother in high school, and you'll not get another pull from this bar so long as I'm behind it.”

He has the presence to look abashed for a moment, his graying hair falling over his soft pale face. Then he lurches for the pint in my hand, yanking it away like a triumphant child. He eyes my grandfather. “Nope, not a drop of yer mam, but you sure got a bucketload of your granddam in you, chit.”

Taid Gwion laughs behind me, joining the rest of the middle-aged peckerheads in the place. I mutter in my native Spanish, knowing none of them understand a curse word unless it’s filled with the ratcheting sounds of Welsh, and my grandmother isn't here to thwack me on the back of my head. She's sharp in any language.

I slump back on a stool, tapping my smart phone next to a soggy beer mat on the bar. “Taid Gwion, I believe these old buggers have had one too many, and are in danger of committing acts of public drunkenness, drunk driving, or being just plain unmanageable unless we cut them off and send them home to their wives and children.”

Taid raises a white eyebrow as the drunken idjits spew beer-frothed protestations in my direction. “You sure you want to inflict them on their innocent wives and kids?”

“Better them than me.”

Taid Gwion sighs, pulls me back through the bar to the tiny kitchen, where he fries fish and chips and not a damn thing else, no matter what the fancy pubs closer to the mainland serve. “Take the rest of the night, hey?”

I drop my head and start to stick my phone in my pocket, a strand of purple hair covering my eyes. “Sorry, Taid. It's okay. I'll close up.”

“I'm 63 years old, not 90. I don't need you here every night.” He pats my cheek and kisses me on the forehead. “Go on, go wherever you go when you're ready to scream your little Latin head off, and come back fresh tomorrow. Maybe plan a weekend in the city soon, huh?”

I nod. “Thanks, Taid.”

So now I’m off, up the hill, to those three precious bars of mobile service, to broadcast publishing capabilities, IMing, and Tal.

Hasta pronto, sheeplovers.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Dot Matrix of Nowhere

This is my grandparents’ village. My village too, now, I guess.

It’s there. See the specks? All 5 of them? I swear, that’s a village. People live there. Really small, backwoods people. (I can say that, as none of them — or likely, the next 3 generations of their descendants — will ever master a computer to the point of reading some nobody’s blog.)

The bigger speck in the middle is the pub, where I am trapped, day and night, until either A) a meteorite hits us, B) the nuclear power plant on Anglesey melts us into gooey mounds of eyeballs and testicles, or C) some lotto-winning knight comes and rescues me. Or none of the above: I finally get up the gumption to leave the old-timers and have a life.

This is the village where my mom grew up. The village where she grew up and then ran away from as soon as she could legally buy the tickets to get the hell out. The village she'd told me about, that hangdog look in her eyes, all throughout my own childhood, until the accident. Until I'd been forced to move there myself, with the parents she'd missed but hadn't been willing to stay with.

By 15, the only big city my mom had ever seen was Chester. What, you’ve never heard of it? Neither has anyone else who doesn’t live in North Wales or the North of England. By 15, I'd seen Mexico City, Rio. I'd climbed Machu Piccu with my parents, tagged along on my dad's photography trips down the Amazon. I'd walked down the streets of Caribbean islands ripped apart by hurricanes. My dad let me smoke a cigar once in Cuba (that shit stays in your stomach for days), and we camped for two months in Patagonia while he read to me and mom every night from some famous travel book.

And then they died, and I came here, and everything paused and went to gray.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Let's open old wounds, shall we?

Tal asked me something today, something about my parents, and I got all smarmy and 2.0 and told him to just read about it on my blog. Everything’s on here, right? I mean, I’m not so painfully honest that I put my menstrual calendar on here (F that), but I’m not really a secret-keeper.

Except it wasn’t here. I looked and searched and though surely it must be here. I even sent a kinda nasty email to Blogger about lost posts (sorry, Blogger, not your fault after all). Turns out I never wrote it down. Never sent it into the cloud. Which, by the way, is more likely to resemble a cloud of mosquitos shaped like 1s and 0s and buzzing like gangbusters around your head, than it is to look like a fluffy white wonderland. Twitter’s marketing guys are full of shit.

Ah. Avoidance tangent. Right on.

Anyway, Tal asked how my parents died. I didn’t want to tell the story again. I never want to tell the story again. Who would want to tell that story, over and over? Why do people always want to know? I always wonder why people ask that question. Does it matter to our relationship that they know how I became a fucking orphan? Does it make a difference if it was a murder-suicide, an earthquake, or some freakish cancer that takes people out two at a time? Will they like me more or less if they find out my parents were eaten by mutant iguanas?

So here’s the story. It was a car wreck. I wasn’t there. I don’t know the gory details. I wasn’t old enough to identify the bodies, and my parents weren’t into gawk-at-the-corpse funerals. I never saw them dead.

The news media told me what happened, what the news media thought happened. Taid tried to keep me from reading them, but Taid doesn’t know much about the www. The news, the tawdry little 3-paragraph articles, one the day after, and one when the police report came out, said they lost control on a wet road, hit a guard rail in a weak spot, tumbled about 30 feet, and hit a tree. No explosions. No race to a river to outrun goons with guns. No 007 on their tail. Was Dad drunk? they wondered. Were they fighting? Was he on meds or had he just found out about my mom’s torrid affairs with other tall dark and Latin men besides himself?

I used to get angry reading this stuff. Used to scream bloody murder at the boys in the village when they assumed there had to be some big fucking story behind it, that my parents were like TV couples, just sacks of shit and bile who once, a long time ago, had a crazy, bitch-ass day and said some offhanded vows. Because they weren’t. They fought and nagged and snapped at each other, but they loved each other. At least as far as I knew.

It was just an accident. Maybe Dad reached too far to change the radio, took his eyes off the road, his hand slipped on the wheel. Maybe Mom poked him in the ribs like she always did when he was being cheeky, and he flinched. A flinch could do it. A flinch, conducted in a __-ton vehicle, at 50 m.p.h., at the wrong spot in the road, can kill you. Death has played crazier tricks.

So that’s why I’m here, Tal. That’s why I’m stuck on an island in North Wales, with the sheep and the burial mounds.

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Magical Mobile Reception Circle

I thought I’d share my locale de inspiration, since I have to spend so much time here. If the library’s closed (which, depending on Bron Jones’s bowel schedule, it generally is), I have to climb this baby mountain and sit in a witches’ circle, to get that half a bar on my mobile that represents a connection, a lifeline out of this toilet bowl. The climb always makes me feel like an ant, struggling against the swirling tide flushing us all down into ancient history.

I’m not much into stone circles, never cared about fairy stories or tales of witchcraft or druidism. People believe some batshit crazy stuff, especially when they’re in the ass-end of nowhere with nothing to do. They probably even did some of that batshit crazy stuff around here, dancing naked and brewing potions and praying to full moons at harvest time or whatever. At least till TV came along and they found a less strenuous way to worship crap. I've never messed around with paganism or incense, never sat in this circle and wondered if the stones hid magic and spirits. They’re rocks in a circle. Woo-hoo.

A few months ago, I only bothered to make this climb once or twice a week, when the boredom crested into a continuous, barely repressed scream in my throat. I'd found some American chat rooms, the time difference meaning they still had people in them once I'd kicked the old codgers out of the pub. It had been hard to find sites that were anything more than horny nerds trying to hook up, or horny pedos trying to fish personal details out of kids who had too much computer time and too little parental supervision.

Sometimes, when I found a site that wasn't all about the hormonal urge to mate, even through cables and wireless signals, I just sat there and lurked. And that’s how I met Tal.

Huh. This post turned out to be about something way different from where I started. There you go.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Romance and Other B.S.

Here’s a line I didn’t think I’d be writing. Not now, not for years. Maybe not ever.

I met someone.

Urk. Talk about a fucking cliché. Especially when it’s so pathetic. I mean, “meeting” implies a handshake. Being able to read one another’s facial expressions, body language. Being able to hear their voice, get some clues about how much they’re lying. Whether they have an excruciating laugh. You don’t get that when your only knowledge of the person is what they type, what they publish online. Publish — that’s the word for it. Composing, drafting, reviewing, editing, crafting who you are before you hit enter.

I was lurking, again, when I first saw him. We were in a public craigslist forum on women's issues. I was just watching the bitches catfight — for a women's issues forum, it was mostly full of teenage girls trying to figure out if they were pregnant/diseased/overdosed, and over-the-hill divorcees whose standard piece of advice was “dump him.” On that night, the tabloid personality of the forum was in full blow, as the regulars ripped apart the latest celebrity infidelity.

Tal was trolling — not your standard sexist taunts, either. He knew each and every handle, knew their history, knew when to call them on their bullshit, to trot out their hypocrisies. In the space of an hour he'd enraged no less than five posters to scream at him in all caps and storm out of the forum in a text-based tantrum. I'd nearly wet myself laughing.

Then I got an email. From him, asking me over to a “secret forum.” Which was weird, because I don’t actually post all that often — I lurk, and I laugh, but I’m not about to dip my toe into that pool of piranhas. And because the secret fos are generally full of whiners and pouters who can’t hack it in the public fos, or asshats who got banned. They’re not even that secret anyway.

But it’s like being the quiet girl in the corner at a raging party. Nobody ever notices you, and you keep sitting there, hoping that by some sort of magic some Romeo’s going to see how beautiful you are, even though you’re buried and antisocial and intimidating. And you go home most nights alone, having only used your voice to order drinks or to say “no, that seat’s not taken. Go ahead.”

So I went. To the secret fo.

And no, I won’t give you the address.