the constant - prologue

Ahn liked to appear more drunk than he really was. It was a learned habit of his; people were kinder when he smiled broadly and laughed deep, right down into his belly. Either that, or he would shoot his mouth off until the air was blue. Only drunks took other drunks seriously.

It was easy to laugh a bit too loud; to crinkle the eyes and force tears. Usually the jokes were more obscene than funny. Ahn liked to try out a new one from time to time. Sometimes they flew, sometimes they sank.

The barman wanted him to lose track of how many he'd had. That would do just fine. Ahn didn't think he'd ever lost count. He had been close, once or twice. Tonight he was feeling the beer. Warmed in his stomach, he imagined it sloshing around like molten gold, trickling slowly down fine, hairlike capillaries into small arteries; the low pressure brooks and creeks. They were inlets in the woods, pulled inextricably tighter as they knotted into rivers, torrential arteries. Find one big enough and anything was possible.

Tendrils of warm gold were flowing and swirling in his big vessels, filling his fingers, his head. Ahn felt a little less rough.

Later that night he lay, restless and sober, beside a just-so girl.

He had picked her up, just-so. For some strange reason, women seemed to find Ahn, in his current state, attractive. Ahn found this hard to fathom, but he was not one to complain, even though he was a little repulsed by himself. He had let his hair grow long. It was still, for the most part, jet-black, with a few flecks of salt. Matted, lackluster, knotted ropes. Ahn needed this; the unkempt hair, unshaven face, clothes a size too large and faded, shoes scuffed. This was his frame of mind.

Just-so rolled over and emitted a faint sigh, as if aware of Ahn's bemused look.

How did you come to be here?

He stared up at the mottled ceiling. It had been a look; a half-sloshed stare. Sometimes he felt as if he could will things to him, but of course that was ridiculous. She had been drunk enough to smile back. Then she was sitting next to him. Then they were in this room, a floor above the noisy, smoke-filled bar. Glasses clinked, a bottle smashed. A jeering chorus in response. Sounds of the outside world faded; all Ahn could hear was the sound of their breath, in tune and in time. The worn iron bed creaked. Ahn raked his dirty, matted dreadlocks back into a high knot, dark face glistening with a pearly sheen, rough hands nimble, dancing on smooth bare back.

Just-so.

He rolled out of the bed, soft like a petal, feet dropping to the floor. Soundless. Such was Ahn's determination not to wake the girl. She sighed as he padded across the bare floorboards, rolling gently on the balls of his feet.

She would probably prefer it that way anyway, Ahn consoled himself, as he pulled his rotten locks out of their topknot and mussed his hair, letting it fall whichever way.

He crept out. A crisp note to the owner downstairs; his last. His belongings, a small pack and a cheap guitar, were offered in return.

Outside, the sun was high; it was the shadowless time of day. The air quivered as Ahn stepped into another dimension. He was diving in reverse; out of a cool pool and into the gleaming, hot-iron surface world of daylight. Surface world. That was a good one. It did not treat Ahn well; never had. He perferred the lost alleys and back shadows and grey areas. The instinct was always to hide.

In other towns, maybe. Here, it didn't really matter. Ahn was nobody, and he preferred it that way. A real dope. He could draw attention to himself in ways he had never thought possible. Freedom of expression, of sorts.

He spied a thin strip of shade, enough to shield his bare bones at least. He lay a hand on the hollow body of his cheap guitar, tapping it as if to wake it.