Anodos Amongst the Elves
Juke's left fist squeezed the flyers into a sweaty little ball that festered in his coat pocket.
They'd dropped him, ditched the name Workhorse, and become "Nova Celtic", a shit-eating-grin pub band, wanking out pander pop to every pretty face in rez. The flyers crinkled and sounded like a campfire with too many leaves.
His pants were stained. He'd missed laundry day. But it didn't matter because in four hours he'd be back cleaning toilets while down the hall Nathaniel and his brood would read Lord of the Rings in its original Elvish—
"Earth to Hank, come in Hank!" Jess said, waving. The rich red smile was still as big and bright as in class, freckles dancing at her dimples. Her second-hand army coat made her tiny frame seem puffy and her kind face stick out even more. "You still here?"
"Sorry." He tightened his grip and sweat began mushing the paper and muffling the crinkle. "No one calls me Hank. Just Juke. For Jukowski."
"Oh, all right, Juke. What's the story?"
He lifted the essay in his right hand, red slashes visible beneath the white cover page. "You said I should see you."
"Well," she said, still smiling, "I talk to everyone flunking my course."
Her office was sparse. Essentials only. A desk, two chairs, a bookshelf with some stray papers and dust. "Am I the only member of that club?"
"Not important. What I need to know, though, is why you are here?"
"How the fuck should I know, you flunked me." His face pinched. The paper fell on his lap and he jabbed the soft flesh of his index finger with a half-chewed thumbnail. "Damn. That was rude. Sorry."
She laughed, then began rolling a cigarette inside a plastic bag on her desk, just like in class. "No worries. My supervisor swears worse than a Marine on shore leave. Besides, I think that's the most you've said so far all year. But I only graded you, Juke. You flunked yourself." A mock seriousness covered her face. "Tell you why I'm worried." He re-crushed the mush. "You're not dumb, Juke. I mean, that paper was funny. Aslan as Christ with a lion fetish." She sniff-laughed, hands rolling. "But, besides hating Narnia, there wasn't much going on. And you say nothing in class." She shrugged and a string of red hair fell over her left eye. "This is an elective, Juke. You chose to be here, but I can't for the life of me understand why. If I do, maybe I can help."
His fingers ran through a minor scale in the mush. "Kinda private." Students passed by the open door.
"Well," Jess said. "I can't close that thing without getting sued, so let's take a walk." She placed the hand-rolled cigarette behind her ear. "I'm dying for some fresh air."
On a wet, grey park bench next to the old library parking lot, Jess blew thin streams of blue smoke and Juke sucked his third DC Cola since lunch. "So," she said, elbows digging into the puff of her green jacket. "What's up?"
They were alone with stray concrete slabs and bare trees. "I hate fantasy. Fucking hate it. It actually makes me angry. There's no guts. No grit. And listening to these wackjobs wax about what elves and fairies and wizards do—" He spat. Cola stained the spit and ground. "Sorry. I probably just flunked myself, didn't I?"
Jess laughed while exhaling. "No, but why the hell take a course called ‘Forms of Fantasy’?"
His left hand played chords in the mush. "I'm on a scholarship. Through my Dad. All the union guys get it for their kids, but I have to take a full course load. I took all the music courses I wanted, some history, but that meant there was only one spot left."
"That or 'Famous Women of the Caribbean.' And if I flunk this, I lose the scholarship. And I am not going to be cleaning toilets for guys like Nathaniel the rest of my life."
"Ah. Not a fan of him, either?"
The blue smoke danced across his face as she exhaled slowly, and the nerves in his face loosened. He felt like ranting about the fat, elf lover, but shook it away. "Look, I can't let my Dad down. He busted his ass for me, even when my dream died." He winced and chewed his lip.
"Dream?" Jess said, tilting her head.
His lip trembled open. "I was in a band. It went bust. I had—" The wad in his fist was as hard and tight as the big bang. "Someone spiked my drink the night we actually had an AOR guy from the States in the audience. Was halfway through hammering out 'Last Stand of Six Gun Pierce', our best song, and we were so tight when my solo's broke," his hands ran through the notes and he could almost feel the SG's slim neck warming his skin.
He closed his fists. "And I just freak." He bit his lip, then started laughing in sharp, staccato gulps. "Kicked me out. And I can't even play anymore. Every time I touch the guitar I just shake, thinking of the angel dust or acid or whatever it was." He ground the cola stained spit with the heel of his sneaker. "Sorry, that's got nothing to do with anything." He stood. "I'll try not flunk the Tolkien section."
"Wait." She held the burning roach between her thumb and index finger. "I don't want you to fail, Juke. It doesn't look good for either of us. How about a make-up assignment?"
"Do I have to write about elves?"
She laughed through the smoke. "Now not all elves are tree-loving waifs! But you'd be helping me."
She flicked the roach into a black puddle. "My thesis is on modern views of fantasy. I won't bore you with the details, but I've never had someone who hated this stuff in my class, and I'd love your perspective. Do you have some paper?"
He took out the wad. "Kinda."
She tore off a strip and wrote fast. "I want you to read this. Don't bother with the Rings this week, but don't say anything to anybody. We'll talk next office hours. Until then, just act like yourself." She handed him the paper, said bye, then left him there among the void windows and stray trash. Fuzzy purple letters spelt a single word.
"Phantastes? What the fuck?"
Chills snapped around him as he thought of all he'd said, but emptiness surrounded him. Fingers numb, he ran to Dover House Rez, late for work.
Elves. Nathaniel would not shut up about elves. Juke thanked god there were no elves in Phantastes, that mind-fuck of a book, and wondered what Jess smoked when she wasn't around students.
Nathaniel pulled his trenchcoat's lapels as his double chins jiggled beneath his blond goatee. "If you don't know the Silmarillion like the back of your hand, you'll only have a pedestrian understanding of Tolkien's novum, and it is a novum. The elvish bloodlines in particular are essential in establishing . . ."
Juke wished the room would melt and he could get fuck out of Nathaniel's walking tour of Middle Earth like Anodos into the acid trip woods.
"Interesting," Jess said, cutting him off, all smiles. "But don't you think the elves are Tolkien's way of justifying an aristocracy?"
No one spoke. Nathaniel looked like he'd sucked a beer full of dead smokes.
"I mean," Jess said, "they are naturally, by blood, better at just about everything, even if their power and age are fading as fast as the British Empire at the time of Tolkien's writing."
A cough. "Sounds like Nazis."
"What?" Nathaniel said as the class focused on Juke.
Jess crossed her arms through her oversized sweater, smile crooked. "Sorry, Hank, what was that?"
"I'm Polish," Juke said. "Grandad fought with the British at Al Alamien. All he ever spoke about was Nazis, the destruction of Poland and the Holocaust, all because the Krauts believed themselves better than anyone because of their blood."
Nathaniel pounded the desk, long bangs over his chubby red cheeks. "Tolkien was not a Nazi, you idiot!"
"Hey," Jess said, "that's enough! Take ten minutes, cool off, and come back."
Nathaniel glared at him. "Imbecile."
"Hey, Nate," Juke said, "what's lardthroat in Elvish?"
"Both of you," Jess said, seething, "Get out."
Her office was cluttered with paper; assignments, drafts, and odd books. She rolled a cigarette very slowly, eyes down. "I said be yourself."
"Sorry," he said. "I figured I needed some participation marks."
She smiled, but it wasn't too warm. "Do you believe all that stuff you said?"
His face puckered. "What does it matter? I'm screwed now, aren't I?"
She raised a single eyebrow. "Hmm. Not yet. I kinda opened the door for the hell that came through it. You finish reading Phantastes?"
His mouth dried, and the smile faded. "George MacDonald dropped some pretty serious chemical."
"But you read it?"
"Cover to fucking cover. Now what?"
"I want you to write a paper on it. Just write as fast as you can, let the words flow, and don't bother impressing me or telling me what I want to hear, just write it out about ten pages and bring it back. Start with a short bio, and mention why you're taking this course. We'll consider it a make up for the last assignment."
"The last assignment? You said not to read Tolkien. So what the hell is my next assignment?"
She licked the pinny cigarette, then gave him a smirk. "Depends on the first. Do you want to talk about this some more? Outside? Before Nathaniel arrives?" Her smile was a little too red and wide.
"No, that's cool. I have an early shift. Thanks."
"Anytime," she said as he left, rubbing his face.
Dad's snores pulsed through Juke's bedroom door like a muffled chainsaw. Bare grey walls greeted him as he turned on the computer and waited for it to warm up. Phantastes sat on his desk, like the fairy chick in the book. Telling him, as she did Anodos, he was about to go somewhere messed.
In the black screen's reflection, the silver clasps on his SG’s thrashed case shone beneath his bed. He rubbed the frayed edge of his index finger. Took years to build the callus and weeks to perish. No way he could type hard enough to bring them back.
He tried. First, about the girl in mirror, then about the intelligent trees, and the talk of fairy-blood.
"The bio," he said, punching his head. "You forgot the bio, imbecile."
He typed. About Granddad. Dad. The band. Snores became murmurs in gentle seconds and soon Juke tasted ashes. The smoke of the crowd. He needed a beer. Feedback swirled. Strings of mercury, every slick note bleeding into each other as he shot them into the crowd's midnight maw.
Eyes like a cigarette's cherry blown crimson in the wind. Her wretched, concrete white face tore a hole in the darkness, a rotting hand like a chicken's feet hexing the air as she whispered against his sonic assault.
Bangs from the door. “Hank? Dinner.” The smell of sizzling meat flushed him from the moment. He rubbed the sweat back into his hair, staring at the white screen.
Half way down was a single word.
"What do you mean you couldn't do it?"
Juke sat back in his seat. Jess angry was something else. Her eyebrows got sharp and her round face tightened like she was racing toward some finish line. Mary Poppins turned hellcat.
"I tried," he said. "All week. And last night I didn't fucking sleep." He cracked open another DC cola, despite his blood now nine-tenths sugar and caffeine. "I couldn't get past the bio. Nothing came out."
He pounded the cola. "Almost." He put the paper on his desk.
"Hejnal." The word passed softly from her lips before she touched them with her nicotine stained fingers. "Oh God."
"What the hell does that mean? Why did I write it?"
She took a thin cigarette that had hid over her ear beneath her red locks. "I think you should close the door."
"No way!" He stood. "I don't know what's in that shit, but I know what it did to me."
She stood, closed the door, and lit the cigarette in a blur. "Juke, this is important. Here." The blue smoke was loosening him. "It won't hurt you. It helps clear things up. See?" She took a long drag, then offered it to him, doe eyes pleading.
"No, I don't want to remember." Her tongue was in his mouth before his cola hit the ground, blue smoke filling him like Afghan hash straight from a bong.
Whiteness screamed through his head and he yanked himself back and smacked against the chair. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. The cola spilled out across the orange carpet.
Eyes shut, smoke trailed her words. "Sorry. But I didn't have a choice."
The door opened and Nathaniel's face filled the door. "Jess? About my essay?"
Juke shouldered his way between them, sweating on him like a fever. "Hey!" Nathaniel said. "No plain blood pushes me around!" He yanked Juke's shoulder, and got his tight left-fist that dropped him on his gut in the office.
Jess's hair danced free and wild as if under water, her face a concrete white, eyes like ripe cherries.
Juke dropped the flyer from his fist. It bounced into the cola. He turned and saw darkness as she whispered.
"Sleep, player of the Hejnal."
Through the blue haze came a voice.
"Juke? Take a deep breath." He did and coughed, tears clearing his eyes.
Jess' office, door shut, came into focus. Then her. Red eyes wet. "Don't bother struggling. You can't move. And I'm not going to hurt you." Beside him, sleeping in a puddle of cola, was Nathaniel. His bloody nose made an awful whistle. "And he won't be up for an hour, memory of the last two hazy at best." She sat on her desk, and crossed her combat boots across thin ankles. "This is what you saw, isn't?" She ran her hand across her face. "That night. The last show. Something similar?"
Sandy spit covered his mouth. "Sorta, but . . ."
"Whiter? I thought so." She ran a hand through her wild red hair, a comic book Amazon against the shitty backdrop of a TA's office. "And no doubt not as pretty." She laughed like a child. "She bound you."
Jess sighed. "You won't like this, my dear, but you have some elf in you. It let you sense the coming of our enemies."
He fumed. "I'm Polish."
"So are a lot of elves."
"Stopping saying that fuckwad word."
She shrugged. "Fine. You're a fairy. Better?" She laughed at his grunt. "Some of us live here. Some in the homelands. Some have children with no traits. Some are like you. A thin blood guardsman. We heard your song. Four months ago. And so many of us came to find them. But you stopped playing."
"I can't play."
"No. You couldn't. They clasped that part of your art in a magic lock."
He groaned. "Please shut up."
"Fine." She leaned down, red eyes as bright as her lips. "Do you want to play again?"
Nathaniel's snores shattered his nose tune. "If it will get the sound of this idiot out of my head, yes. But how?"
She straightened her back and crossed her legs at the knee. "Become our watchman. Play every night of the week. Our enemies stay in low places. But that seems to be your home." Her tone shifted as she smiled.
"What kind of enemies?"
She sighed. "Does it really matter? You'd get that rush again, the feeling of silver beneath your fingers, the bliss of sound—"
"Don't talk like that. Holy fuck." He shook his head and the blue smoke cleared . . . he saw her face. The face of that night.
Cold, grabbing herself. Her face . . .
"Ugly." He shut his eyes. "She was really ugly. Scars. Her hands like they'd been chewed. Terrified." He opened them. "She wasn't like you. Beautiful." He clenched his teeth. "Why was she running? Why was she so goddamn scared?"
Jess licked her lips. "I've given you a dozen chances, Juke, and I'm really getting tired of it. Here goes. They're runaways. Sick. We just want to take them home. Make them better. But we need you to find them for us.
"Play for us, Juke, or the lock stays on. And feel free to tell everyone how badly you've been treated by your beautiful elf teacher and their magic spells. Coming from a failed, third-gen, fairy-blood guitar player, I'm sure it will be headline news." Her smile made him sick.
He lay the case on the counter of Mike's Guitar Emporium.
"Jesus, Juke," Mike said, bopping to the Django Rhenihardt gypsy jazz solos thrumming through the store. "I thought you'd died."
He smirked. "Not all of me."
"So," Mike said, giving the case a drum roll. "Here to get the SG tuned and cleaned?"
He released his flexed and shaking hands, and nodded. "Nope. How much for it? Don't have much until I go full time at the university."
"Oh, you a student now."
"Nope." He pointed at the name stitched on his uniform. "Union man."
Juke left, blowing warmth into his hands, as he passed the figure sprawled in the walkway of Ted's Wrecking Yard.
She was pale, thin, and looked like five different kinds of hungry, left hand wrapped in a dozen pieces of stray fabric. But her stained yet pasty right held a small harmonica. She pulled her head up to his approach and shook at his sight. “You-“
“Easy,” Juke said, palms up, a step back, as her eyes scurried for a place to run. “Easy. I’m not . . . I’m not with them.” Her eyes went to slits. “But they know you’re here. Don’t know why you’re running, but since I’ve met who’s chasing you, well,” he put the wad of cash in the hat at her feet. “I always bet on the underdog.” He blew warm air into his soft hands. "I suggest you get lost.”
Bloodshot eyes focused on his hands, then an awful smile cracked through her lips. "Thank you, guardsmen."
He walked to the subway entrance, wind passing through his outstretched fingers as the harmonica began Rheinhardt's "You Rascal You.” As her sound dissipated, he whistled the melody, strong and loud and clear. Broken glass and crushed pop cans shimmered against stray sunlight before he came to the dark edge of the steps, and the final notes of the tune. He descended, hands open and smile wide, into the underground.