A/N: Number 95 of the 100 Theme Challenge, Advertisement! This one was inspired, partly, by Lady Writer, by Dire Straits. Great song.My eyes flickered down to the magazine, pausing as I scanned over the full page advert for a debut novel by author Michelle Rae. The book looked overly feminine, with a pink tinged cover and flowers around the border of the advert. Still, it wasn't the image that caught my eye. It was something about the title, something that struck a chord inside me.
I racked my brains, trying to find some connection between the author and her. Was there one? Maybe it was just a coincidence, nothing to do with me or her. My fingers trailed over the image, wishing the author's image had been put up alongside the picture of the book. They did that sometimes, didn't they? I was sure they did.
I closed the magazine, breathing heavily as I leant back on my seat, my heart beating wildly in my chest.
It had to be a coincidence.
Then again, authors used pseudonyms, didn't they? Authors changed their names, put on something different on the front of their book rather than their real name.
But why would she have done that?
I pushed the magazine away, cursing myself and my irrational brain. I always did this, I always jumped to conclusions.
Of course, I could have solved it all with the magic of Google, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to do that.
What if it was her?
What peace would that bring me?
* * *
I shuffled home from work the next day, keeping my hood up and my hands scrunched in my pockets. This part of town was not pretty; no wonder she'd legged it as far away as she could, soon as she could. To get home, I had to walk along the river. Whatever people say about nature and shit, how beautiful it is, here you couldn't be further from the truth. The river stank. The banks were full of litter; beer cans, empty cigarette packets, smashed glass bottles.
It would be almost laughable, a game if the reality were not so depressing. How long can you hold your breath for? Seriously. The smell was that bad, and part of me knew it was made worse by the fact that it unidentifiable.
Oh yeah, add to that the fact that the pathway was dark, shadowed by the trees along the side, and you have a pleasant evening's walk. Rumours of deaths by the river were always snaking their way around town, sometimes coupled with 'sightings' of the ghosts that were said to haunt this place.
Not that I believed in ghosts, but sometimes you'd see dark shapes moving through the trees, the figures of people conducting business you would rather not get involved in.
Walking this way, it took me twenty minutes to get from work to home. If I walked around, if I went the other way, it would take me an hour and a half.
There was only one woman who I knew, who was never scared of this path.
Debbie never shied away from the path by the river. She used to love coming here during the daytime, especially when the weather was warm. She could sit here for hours, until it went dark. Then, she'd casually walk back, not caring who might be around or what had happened here the last time it was dark.
I cringed at the sound of the nickname, and half-turned to see someone leaning against a nearby tree, a white and bright grin visible in the shadows. I glanced around, before turning back to him and taking a step forward.
"Jesse, what you doing here?"
Jesse pushed off the tree and moved towards me, eyes twinkling as he winked. "Got some stuff to shift; you want some?"
"You dealing drugs now?"
"Sure am, hombre. Pays the bills, and they need to be paid. So, Bruce, you heard?"
"Heard what?" I growled, annoyed once more at the name and the sound of his voice. Hombre? I didn't realise any English speaking person actually used that, especially outside of the U.S. What was up with him?
"Apparently, your ex is making quite a name for herself."
Great. "What do you mean?"
"Even I don't know," he chuckled. "I just heard it on the grapevine, man. That Debbie is doing pretty well for herself, but no one wanted to tell me how. Apparently, for now, it's a secret, hombre."
"She always wanted to be a writer," I mumbled, starting to feel awkward. I glanced over my shoulder, looking towards the river. It was quiet; the only sound I could hear was the gargle of the water and the slight rustling of the trees.
No animals; no birds chirping or squirrels rummaging around for food. Even they avoided this place at nightfall.
"Yeah, well," he scoffed, "nothing been published under her name. Not yet, anyway. Ah well. So, you want anything, hombre?"
"Aw, c'mon, man, I got everything you could want here."
In the darkness, his grin grew brighter. I shuddered. "I said no. I need to get home."
"All right, hombre, all right. Well, I'll see you around."
"Yeah, see you around."
* * *
Balancing the plate of hastily made food on my lap, I reached over and grabbed the remote, flicking the TV on and scanning through the channels between mouthfuls of beef stew, courtesy of my mother. Typically, hardly anything was on. So many channels, so much variety, and everyone decided to show the same shit at the same time.
Finally, I landed on BBC Four, with the BBC coming next advert on. Settling back, I decided to leave it on. A bit of art, culture and education couldn't hurt, after all.
A culture program started, and I let my eyes flicker up and down from my food, watching the trailer for the latest independent film to come out. A critics hit, of course, though I doubted many cinema goers would actually enjoy it. To me, it just looked like a pile of pretentious wank.
The program cut to a new display at the Tate Modern, and inwardly I groaned. I hated modern art. Actually, I wasn't a huge fan of classic art, either. Give me photography over that shit any day.
Still, there was nothing else on, and I found myself learning just a little bit about the artists of the day from a bunch of people who looked like they'd come out of their mother's womb with a golden spoon in their mouths.
The end of the piece was played with a classical music track in the background, before it cut back to the studio where the presenter eagerly announced the next piece.
"And now, we have an interview with debut author Michelle Rae, talking about her new book The River's Children..."
My head snapped up, a fluttering in my stomach as my heart started to beat wildly against my chest. I inched forward, now ignoring the food on my lap. The camera cut to another room, the walls painted a pleasant blue colour. It zoomed in on the face of the interviewer, a young man with short hair and a smile that old people would love.
"I'm here with Michelle Rae, the author that critics are now claiming as the voice of a generation. Michelle, can I ask, where did the idea for The River's Children come from?"
The camera cut again, and my breath caught in my throat.
I couldn't tell if it was her.
It could be, but it had been so long since I had seen her and in my memory, her face was just slightly blurred.
If it was her, she'd cut and dyed her hair – Debbie had had beautiful brown curls, which she sometimes straightened. Sleek and glossy, I had loved her hair. Michelle Rae had beautiful blonde hair, curly like Debbie's. I stared at the screen, as her hair fell down around her face.
Was it her?
I wanted to know. I needed to know.
She was speaking, and the voice was slightly distorted from the TV.
She lifted a hand, looping a strand of hair behind her ear in the same way Debbie used to.
Did it sound like her?
I couldn't tell.
Then again, people sounded different on TV than they did in real life so...
The bowl fell off my knee, clattering to the ground and spilling beef stew over the floor. The smell wafted up, and I knew it would stain. Still, I didn't care, not right then. I inched slowly off the sofa, dropping to my knees and crawling to the television, wondering if my new perspective would help matters.
From my new position, her face was more blurred than ever. All I saw were those eyes, those bright green eyes that maybe, possibly I remembered.
Or maybe they just had similar eyes?
"...and these children, they grow up near the river. It's about their lives, the way it's affected by the river and what it brings to them..."
Oh Debbie. Debbie, Debbie, Debbie.
My beautiful brunette bitch.
She destroyed me.
I fell when she ended it.
My life had crumpled around me and nothing I had done had fixed that.
"...life is destroyed when the river carries his father's dead body to where they live..."
I still loved her.
Or did I love Michelle Rae?
Her sweet, soft voice and beautiful blonde hair, those eyes...
My God, those eyes.
They were mesmerising.
But who was she?
I stared, transfixed, at the television, at the image of her. My eyes snapped away when it cut back to the interviewer, only to return when she came back on.
This shouldn't be so hard.
As I stared, the pain came back, flooding my body. My heart ached, my stomach felt like someone had punched me. Even my head was starting to hurt as I tried to work out if it was her or not.
* * *
"I can't do this anymore."
Her brown hair fell in ringlets around her face as she turned to look at me. I was stretched out on the bed, my back supported by the headrest, and she sat beside my feet. As I stared at her, she turned away. I inhaled on the cigarette, wondering what she meant.
"Can't do what?" I had asked, the words innocent as I stared at her back.
She'd got dressed almost as soon as we had woken up, scrambled to the edge of the bed where she sat now and waited for me to get halfway through my cigarette before speaking.
"Debbie?" I lifted myself up, until I was half kneeling on the bed. "Debs? What's wrong?"
Her shoulders shook and I heard, rather than saw, her take a deep breath. "It's just...it's too difficult, Max."
"What is?" I replied, wondering if she was talking about the rent or the bills or work or something else entirely. "Speak to me, Debbie."
She scoffed. "Everything, Max! Everything about you! Jesus Christ, just look at you," she hissed, standing up and moving towards the window. "You have so many vices, it's unbelievable."
"Wait, what?" I cried, leaping off the bed. "Debbie what are you on about?"
"You smoke, you drink, you roll a joint and shoot up and...and..." she groaned. "You freaking jump on me at every opportunity; we don't' just talk anymore unless you're high and rambling!"
"What?" I snapped, shaking my head. "That's bullshit, Debbie, and you know it!"
There was something under her words, something hidden and unsaid. Something lurking just beneath the surface of what I thought had been the perfect relationship.
This isn't about you.
"What's this really about?" I pushed, inching forward until I was at the very edge of the bed, swaying as I stared at her.
I loved her. I needed her. I couldn't let her go.
"I told you," she replied, and I couldn't help but notice the coldness that crept into her voice, lacing each word with venom. "I can't do this anymore."
She turned and moved towards the door.
"No!" I yelled, reaching a hand forward. The movement jerked my body forward and I fell, tumbling forward until I crashed on the floor. "Debbie!"
She sighed before opening the door and stepping out, leaving me with an aching body, crumpled on the floor.
The first thing I did after she left was spark up a joint.
It was my last one.
* * *
Cliché and stupid as it sounds, being with Debbie made me want to be a better person. When she left, she took that desire with her. And what do you do if you don't want to better yourself? You stop reading, lest you learn something. You do the same things at the same time every day; you have a routine and you stick to it, you walk along the same routes and end the day in front of the television, watching an endless cycle of repeats and reruns.
I swear to God TV would have died out years ago if it wasn't for the repeat program.
I don't know why I stopped with the drugs. For some reason, they just lost their appeal for me about an hour after the door slammed shut. It was odd; I no longer wanted to better myself, but I didn't want to lose myself in the hazy realms of not-quite-reality that drugs afforded me. I didn't turn to drink, either. I just sat, wallowing in my pain, holding onto it rather than letting it go or finding some way for it to escape.
Maybe I'd just seen too much of what it did to people on the river-bank.
Either way, TV became my new drug. And now it was shoving Debbie-but-maybe-not-Debbie into my face, forcing me to stare at her and wonder – Michelle, Debbie, Michelle, Debbie...
Did Michelle Rae have an identity crisis?
Did Debbie hate me that much that she'd rather be a new person than the woman I knew?
After she left, she seemed to disappear from my world completely. Mutual friends either didn't know what had happened to her or didn't want to tell me. Those closest to her would stare at me with pity when I asked, and just say "we can't tell you, Max." Those closest to me, mainly the guys, would shrug and repeat "just let it go, man, let her go."
I couldn't take it anymore.
I scrambled towards my phone and dialled, holding it close to my ear. It cut straight to a voicemail.
Hey, this is Debbie, leave a message!
I hung up, and dialled a new number instead. It rang for fourteen seconds before someone picked up.
"Max," the voice groaned. "What do you want?"
"Please, Anna, please I...I need to know..."
"Know what?" she snapped.
I got it; they hated me.
Who didn't nowadays?
It was no surprise; after the first few weeks, when I had bombarded them with questions regarding Debbie, I'd shut them out and pushed them away. I'd screamed and yelled at the friends I still had, I ignored their calls and messages and Anna, especially, had tried hard to get through to me. She'd left it a couple of months before calling me and asking if I wanted to meet her friend. I'd shot her down, insulted her, and though she had the patience of a saint, I had the persistence of the devil.
"What happened to Debbie?" I growled, my grip on the phone growing tighter.
She sighed, relenting. "Max, you have to stop this."
"I need to know!" I cried.
"I've told you a million times, Max..."
"Please, Anna," I begged, close to tears. "I...there's an advert, in the paper, it's a book...The River's Children..."
"Max..." she sighed once more, the anger and hatred gone, replaced by pure pity.
"By this author, Michelle Rae, and she's...she's on TV, Anna, she looks so much like her..."
"It's been two years, Max."
The way she said my name, it was a plea in itself; every single time she said Max I could hear the words pull yourself together underneath it.
"I need to know if it's her..."
"Of course it's not her," she muttered, and behind the words I heard the slightest hint of a sob. "This has been hard on all of us, you're not helping matters."
"She wanted to be a writer, didn't she?" I snapped. "I need to know. What happened to her when she left me, Anna?"
"You know what happened."
"No I don't!"
"She fell into the river, Max. You know she did. Her and Jesse...you remember?"
And suddenly I did.
It all clicked into place.
I can't do this anymore.
My eyes darted around the apartment, seeing the objects I'd forgotten were there. All the equipment I needed to forget, like I did every single day. Get high, convince myself she was still alive and still out there and forget the fact that I hadn't given up drugs.
Michelle Rae kept talking on the show.
"Max?" she whispered.
I can't do this anymore.
She didn't mean the relationship, though I'd found out after she'd been shagging Jesse way before we split.
"Come over, Max, talk to me. You never talk about it."
Jesse, who called me Bruce because he'd had an obsession with Springsteen and liked it when I played guitar.
I can't do this anymore.
Jesse, who I'd seen dealing the day she left me.
When they pulled them out of the river, their bodies were so full of drugs you could barely list them all.
"Max?" Anna pleaded once more, before I'd already dropped the phone.
There was one thing keeping my sanity intact.
I crawled across the floor, ignoring Michelle Rae who suddenly looked a lot less like her, and reached for the thing that would help me forget.
Ignorance is bliss, after all.
A/N: I had no idea until I got there that the ending was going to turn out like that, and suddenly it just kind of...clicked. I swear, sometimes, my subconscious knows what I'm going to write before I write it. Anyway, because of that, I may have missed something, so if things don't make sense or whatever, please point them out to me! As always, reviews will be returned.