The Dark Places, the numbered streets, a story for the Giraffe Call (@Shutsumon)

To @Shutsumon’s prompt.

There were places in the heart of the city even the cops didn’t go, at least not without seven of their buddies and semi-automatic weapons, full body armour and a chopper overhead.

There were places, darker places, where they didn’t go even with that sort of back-up, places where the roads had so fallen into disrepair or intentional sabotage that the large police cruisers could not make it in, where the buildings leaned so close together that flying a chopper in there would be suicide one way or the other. Dark places, everyone said. Scary places. Places where those people lived.

Ance had grown up in a safe locked community, but the safe locked community had overlooked, on one side, the cheap side, Ance’s family’s side, one of those dark places, the place called “the numbered streets.” Since childhood, looking out the bulletproof glass down on the buildings that seemed so much older, so much more dignified, so beautifully scarred, Ance had wondered about the dark places.

He’d contented himself, in his late teens and early twenties, with dating scarred men and dark women, people with Pasts, people with Issues, with urban spelunking in places where the ambulances might still go, with Extreme Sports with a net and a safe helmet. He’d contented himself with courting danger instead of consummating the deal, with buying her flowers and leaving after a kiss.

And he’d contented his journalism career similarly, with “edgy” pieces that were simply rehashed pap, with “investigation journalism” that investigated nothing, with pieces that had a safety net, that the public could accept. He contented himself with pretending to be brave, at least for a while.

At home in his mother’s locked community for a holiday visit, however, looking out from his old room into the Dark Place, Ance could no longer be content with cheap wine and plastic roses, with safety nets and faux edginess. Taking his recorder and telling no-one, he headed into the numbered streets.

At first, he felt like someone would stop him when he reached a certain point, a guard, an ogre (he’d always been a bit fanciful), something. Or that there would be a line telling him where the point of no return was, like on the carefully-groomed mountains he climbed.

There was no line except the rotting remains of an old train track, no guard except a tired-eyed girl in too little clothing who didn’t even proposition him, no ogres except a cartoon drawing in fading spray paint. There was no romance except the cracked and facing facias on buildings that had been expensive a century ago, the old man standing in the store doorway, the tall, tall woman with the red lips staring at him.

No-one stopped him. No-one questioned him. They seemed to know him, which was crazy, or to welcome him, which was crazier. He kept walking, wondering if he had gone mad. Wondering if he would feel the pull of the bungee cord pulling him out of there, if there would be a chance to back out before it really got scary. Wondering why the girl hadn’t bothered to proposition him, although even in the other parts of the city hookers never did. Maybe he wore his poverty on his sleeve. Maybe they knew that the paper barely paid him.

“Hey, stranger.” The voice came faster than he expected, and slower; he was blocks into the numbered streets and still trying to figure out what was so different from the rest of the city, but he hadn’t seen anyone come up behind him. He turned slowly, hands up, no weapon here. Only to see the thug, a kid really, staring at him, jaw dropped.

“Dude.” That was not the thug, but his friend. “Did you bring that with you? Fuck gentrification, man, we’ll take the castle.”

“The what?” Ance turned slowly, his back prickling with the armed kids’ presence behind him, wondering if this was some kind of trick, turned to see a tall silver tower, taller than the skyscrapers in the business district, impossibly narrow, twisting out of a vacant lot, rising towards the clouds, into the clouds. A tall, brutish man – an ogre, really – stood guarding the door.

“No,” he answered slowly, “but I’ll explore it.”

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