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The last customer leaving the bar, Harry staggered into the cold night air and made feeble attempts to walk in a straight line. The icy wind, signalling the approach of harsher weather, chilled him to the bone. Despite the protective shield of his padded coat and the woollen hat pulled over his ears, he felt naked. The combination of intoxication and freezing temperatures blurred his sight. All he could see ahead were dark buildings on either side of the road and a few flickering streetlights. He followed the pavement, counting his steps on his long walk home down Amber Street.
Harry kept counting to keep his mind active, but the road seemed to continue forever. 2500 steps later, he still had not arrived at the turn to the street where his flat was located. He halted and glanced back, and looked ahead again. There were no side roads, but one long avenue where all buildings looked the same. “I’m lost,” he muttered.
Though midnight had come and gone, Harry began to knock on doors, in panic. No one responded, not a single soul who might rightfully object to the disturbance of their peace. He decided to go back the way he came, hoping he’d missed his street. An eerie silence persisted in spreading its wings, despite the commotion he made at intervals. As snowflakes fell, misting visibility further, despair set in. He stopped in front of a weathered door, and seizing a worn knocker, banged on it several times.
A jeering voice answered. “The door is open. Shut it tightly behind you.”
Harry stepped inside. He blinked, surprised by an archaic hall, lit by candles poised on brass candelabras. The wheezing voice barked, “Straight down, the room on the right.”
Entering the chamber, he saw her- or him, he wasn’t sure, sitting at a table in the middle of which a large crystal bowl glowed. Wood crackled in the fireplace, casting shafts of light upon the creature’s face. Harry shuddered. Whatever this thing was, it looked older than the 250 year-old-man in China. Its features were deeply buried under the folds of time-chiselled wrinkles. A pair of sparkling amber, feline beams perused him through the slits below the forehead. Random spikes of white, straw-like hair escaped the grip of a colourful scarf wrapped around its head.
The thin, lipless slit at the bottom of its head opened, displaying the odd jagged tooth. “Sit,” it said. “I’ve been waiting for you. I’m Amacunda.”
Harry hesitated, but he obeyed his exhausted body and sat. “I’m Harry,” he said. “I don’t know why I’m here. I’m lost.”
“I’m also lost. My reasons are unclear, but I know yours.”
“Why are you lost?”
“I’m in purgatory. Neither here, nor there.”
Deciding the creature must be female, Harry watched her raise a lizard-skinned hand and point a crooked finger with a curled nail at him.
“Too long. I’ve been here forever. It defies your notion of time. Let’s come to your story. Why are you lost?”
“I can’t find my way home.”
“My writing. Stories. My dreams. Illusions, disillusionments, disappointments.”
“You must leave her.” She giggled, her rasping voice whistling between jagged teeth.
“Who? I’m not in a relationship.”
“Whiskey. You’re an alcoholic.”
“I’m not. I’m what’s called a functioning alcoholic.”
“You can lie to yourself, but you can’t lie to me. Why do you think Hemingway committed suicide?”
“He couldn’t write anymore.”
“Why? Because alcohol ate his brain. No more grey cells to dream stories.”
“Dostoevsky wrote all his life. He also drank.”
“He wasn’t an alcoholic. Some can hold their drink, some can’t. You’re drinking earlier and earlier in the day. There’s always an excuse. Pain, pleasure, anger. Find another relationship, a woman, a soul-mate.”
“The ones I want reject me.”
“Probably because you’re drunk all the time. Sober up and look around with eyes that see. You’ll find the one.”
Harry lowered his eyes and sighed.
“Regarding other rejections. There’s a name … I can’t remember, like thorn, splinter, something sharp from a tree or plant. My memory escapes me these days. Look them up and send your stuff.”
“Healthy eating, healthy drinking , healthy living and like me, you can live forever.” She chuckled again. “Time to go, young man. Remember what I said.”
Amacunda snapped her claw-like fingers, and Harry found himself at his front door. Once inside the flat, he crawled onto his bed and crashed.
The following day, he woke at noon and ambled to kitchen. Whiskey beckoned. The moment he grabbed the bottle, Amacunda’s voice rang like a siren in his ears. “Healthy eating, healthy drinking .”
Harry dumped the bottle on the counter and put the kettle on. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs, buttered toast and tea, he took a shower and shaved. In fresh clothes, he sat at his desk and began to write.
During a tea-break in the late afternoon, he remembered something else she’d said and began to search on his computer. Wood, Woody, splinter, Spillane, Tor, thorn – Thornton Publishers are looking for Anthology submissions. Submission deadline March 31st. A week from today, enough time to edit his stories. No alcohol for a week?
That evening Harry dined at a steak house and only drank mineral water. On his way home, he stopped at the supermarket and stocked up on healthy food. Just before the checkout, his hand went for a pack of bacon he’d missed in the morning. He wavered, unsure, then grabbed it. The sirens didn’t shriek. Maybe once in a while it would be okay.
Amacunda’s voice reverberated in his head each time he accidentally approached the liquor section in the supermarkets. After a sober period of many months, he became a social drinker, enjoying the occasional glass of wine at dinner parties.
Thornton’s published his Anthology and The Witch of Amber Street became a hit. Harry didn’t live forever, but his stories did.