Teasel slouches against the guardrail and fingers open a half crushed pack of cigarettes. Some ancient pack she found wedged down the back of her bed where the headboard meets the wall. Another thing our Dad left behind. Another thing he forgot. Probably they taste as stale and disappointing as childhood dreams.
I want one anyway.
Pressed against my hip, in the tight pocket of my jeans, is a pink lighter, I slide it out and offer it to Teasel. Her hand momentarily warm against my palm, she takes it. The river below us is frantic, rushing, the water trying its damnedest to escape this shithole town. Beside me Teasel sighs, her breath coming in smoke signals. She says, “I’d forgotten how peaceful Pooh-sticks Bridge was.”
And yeah, it’s funny how some nicknames just stick and stick and stick. Because what this place is really called, I don’t know. I don’t care. Since forever, Pooh-sticks Bridge is what we call it, this wide-ass bridge stretching over the dirty great river that runs through our little town. And our bridge, really it’s nothing like the one in the book. You could totally bet all your shit that Christopher Robin didn’t mind for dog mess when he ran across to the other side. You’d bet your life there wasn’t a kaleidoscope of glass amongst the gravel, shattered and twinkling in the sun.
Our bridge, it’s not even made of wood.
The old metal guardrails are a scroll of graffiti. Small acts of rebellion, permanent marker in black and crimson and blue decorate the places where years of thick green paint have worn thin enough to expose the galvanized steel beneath.
For a good time call Tiffany.
The top rail of the bridge is stomach high, and has the most patches of bare metal. With my red sharpie pen, in big fat capital letters, I write.
For a good time call A.A Milne.
Teasel passes the remaining half of the cigarette, the filter greasy with cherry Vaseline. Second hand lip-balm smears on my lips. I close my eyes and inhale. Smoke hits my throat, clouds my lungs with rebellion and when I breathe out I imagine it’s my soul that’s swept away on the breeze.
Teasel leans out over the rail, feet on the bottom bar, hands gripping the top. Her head dangles so her soft, dark hair hangs in her face. Her silver necklace swings to meet her nose. From upside down, Teasel says, “You remember that summer we came here every day to play pooh-sticks?”
Back when we were little kids.
Of course I do.
That summer Dad plucked handfuls of daisies and buttercup from the riverside and gave them to Mum. They sat on the grassy bank holding hands and watching us atop of the bridge. Us, counting one-two-three, our small fists dropping sticks into the swirling current, twig-thin bird legs running to the other side to see whose pooh-stick would emerge first.
Way down in my stomach, below my belly button, feels hollowed out. Numb with nostalgia. I close my eyes, all I hear is the rush of muddy water, the birds in the trees, and the wind through the leaves. This is the soundtrack to upper-class relaxation therapy, nature on an overpriced CD.
Let your emotions slip away with the current.
One by one, working down your body, your muscles loosen.
Feel the wind in your hair.
Let go of your anchors.
On the soft white underside of my forearm, I burn a perfect circle.
Holding the cigarette straight as I can, I push down. This is borderline euphoria. Right this second how I feel is alive. The welt of a blood-red moon rises on my arm.
I flick the butt in to the river.
The current claims it, fiercely spinning and dragging it into the darkness beneath the bridge. Teasel pulls herself back, right-side up, her hair falling back over her shoulders, and says, “Didn’t you promise not to do that anymore?”
Like I promised to stop ditching school, like I promised I was okay, like I promised to try harder, like I promised to try therapy, like I promised never again would I wake up fuck-faced-hung-over with an empty space instead of a recollection.
I say, “Yeah, sure, like you promised not to cut yourself.”
Me and Teasel, we’re that much alike, we could be twins. And this goes way beyond just how we look. Her eyes, my eyes, look close enough and you’ll stumble, that’s how deep it goes. My pain echoed in her eyes, echoed in my scars, echoed in hers, a mirror of a mirror of a mirror.
Teasels shrugs, “’Least I do mine in private.”
Her blue, blue eyes look at the smooth scar tissue moons drifting up my arm and a small smile pulls at the corners of her mouth. She says, “Is this some kind of cry for attention?”
I stretch my arm out in front of us, “Bitch, this is modern art.”
This is a statement. This only looks like join-the-dots.
Shoving me softly, she says, “You always were Mummy’s little degenerate.”
Pushing her back, I say, “Daddy’s scapegoat.”
Teasel laughs and crouches down, pulling open the zipper on her backpack. Wind rustles the hem of her dress against her bare legs. Her military boots look dull and scuffed. She doesn’t wear socks. She says, “Speaking of mother.”
From the bag she plucks a stubby bottle of vodka, three-quarters full.
Mom is less a parent and more an escape clause. Trapped in her vodka-fuelled, puffy-faced, medicated sorrow coma, it’s a wonder she notices a thing we do any more. I push my hand deep into the pocket of my skinny jeans and pull it out with exaggerated flourish, “Tah-dah!”
In the flat of my hand, two little pills. Diazepam.
I bite one pill and pass Teasel the other, keeping mine clamped between my incisors while I wait for her to swallow. My mouth waters, and in the heat of my breath it crumbles a little, tiny acrid pieces fall along my gums. The bitterness drifts to my tongue. And oh. Oh. I wiggle my fingers, motioning for Teasel to pass the vodka, just to get rid of the damn taste. I swallow two large mouthfuls, swirl a third around my mouth washing machine-style and spit it over the side of Pooh-stick Bridge. My tongue lolls out for fresh air, my nose puckers up, and my eyebrows crash down over screwed-up eyes. Total gag face. But hey, what’s a little discomfort when everything’s going fade-to-soft-focus, when everything is photo-shopped perfect.
Digging in her backpack again, Teasels says, “I thought we could play Pooh-sticks, you know, for old times.”
Draining the last of the bottle, leaning it against the rail, I say, “Really?”
Because what I really need right now are more childhood flashbacks.
Teasel smiles peaches and cream. “Trust me, you’ll like this.”
From the pack she pulls two Barbie dolls. I tilt my head to the side and look at her, a crooked half smile creeping across my face. I say, “Oh look, that one’s come dressed for the game.”
This is Malibu Barbie, or Hawaiian Barbie, or some kind of island Barbie wearing just a tiny bikini.
“This one,” says Teasel waving the other Barbie from side to side, “Is obviously just suicidal.
Suicide Barbie’s head flops about as Teasel swishes her. Her superstar dress of shimmering pink, her faux-fur shrug. Oh, I’ve got to have that one. With my sharpie pen I give her bright red slut lips.
Standing, arms outstretched over the river, fists clenched tight around our Barbie’s tiny waists, we’re counting.
The Barbies don’t even hit the water before Teasel is turning, crossing to the other side of the bridge. In bubble-gum falsetto she says, “Farewell, Ken and Skipper. So long, hot-pink convertible car.”
Running the five steps across to catch up with her, I say, “Goodbye California Dream House.”
We both lean over the edge, watching. Waiting.
Teasel lift her hand to her forehead all woe-is-me movie star, “I just couldn’t take it anymore. You don’t understand what it’s like wearing eye shadow from the eighties, day after day after day.”
Her mock sobs echo in the glade, merging into triumphant laughter as Island Barbie is swept out into the sunlight. Another beat and Suicide Barbie is behind her, face down, and arms splayed out to the sides the way all good dead bodies look on T.V. Childhood memories drifting further and further away until they’re nothing but a faint blur. Until they’re gone.
“Awesome,” I say. “Got any more?”
Teasel smiles wide enough for both of us and unzips her backpack once more.
Beautifully scripted broken promises.
I sit cross-legged on the gritty concrete beside Teasel, and start to fold.
This is pretty basic stuff. Origami for beginners.
I run a crease over the words always love you.
Make a triangle over nothing will change.
Fold away see you every weekend.
Until I have a perfect paper boat in my hand.
Call it therapy.
Upside down, on the side of the boat, you can see the words love, Dad.
It’s been maybe four years since his last letter. Don’t know for sure, after long enough you stop counting. Time flies when you’re falling down. Teasel counts one-two-three, and our little boats are spiralling down to the river below.
I race the five steps across the bridge, my hands grip the rail, I’m leaning forward, watching. Bobbing on the current our little boats emerge, neck-and-neck in a draw. Teasel is still over at the other side of the bridge. I suck my bottom lip in, bite it gently, “I think I just beat you there.” I twist to look over my shoulder. Teasel is on the outside of the railings, her hands holding on to the top rail, feet wedged on the bottom one, leaning back over the river. The wind blows her hair, blows her dress, and Teasel shakes her head. “You’ve totally got to try this.”
Everything is different on the other side of the railing. The wind whips at my t-shirt, exposing my stomach. It snatches my hair out behind me, steals my breath away. I try to laugh but the sound gets lost in my throat. I look at the river below and the fuzzy chemical spectrum evaporates. Everything gets pulled back into focus. Everything is sharp, hyper-aware, high-definition panic.
My palms are sweaty against the metal. I’m squeezing so tight my knuckles are turning to porcelain.
My legs are disconnected, I can’t move. My light canvas trainers feel inadequate compared to Teasel’s boots with their solid grips.
I’m going to fall.
Between my white fists, red letters, for a good time call A.A Milne.
Small acts of rebellion.
My head spirals, thoughts whisper, let go. Getting louder, whipping up a storm, let go. Short little whoop-whoop-whoops of frantic breath, my throat is a plastic straw in a knot. Tears blur my vision away, everything looks underwater.
With my small, broken voice, I say, “Teaz, I’m going to fall.”
Close my eyes.
Slip away with the current.
The wind pulls my hair.
My muscles are anchors.
Teasel, her warm hands at my wrists, pulls me in, saying, “Hold on, I’ve got you.”
My fear echoed in hers, a mirror of a mirror.
Her arms come around me, squeezing my breath away.
She says, “I won’t ever let you go, I swear.”
And finally, a promise I can believe in..
Emily Slaney is dark humour told with a crooked smile. She describes her writing as nihilistic emotional satire because she likes to make you laugh before she pulls it all away from you. She lives in England with her husband and kids in a semi-detached madhouse where sarcasm is what passes for everyday speech. Emily has previously been published in Parable Press and Thunderdome Magazine, and was featured in Solarcide’s Flash Me! The Sinthology. Should you wish to, you can find more about Emily here.