King Crimson, Lee from Asda, Optimus Prime, and The Abyss – Daniel Fraser

I went down to Mike’s because Ben told me they were going to let them kill each other and take bets. It was Thursday, sunset. Birds were skipping on the fields.
I got there and found Chew. Chew had a lip ring, lightning bolt tattoos and looked like a bear someone had shaved. He was the coolest person anybody knew.
‘What’s happening?’ I said.
‘It’s on,’ said Chew, stretching his arms out like a gladiator or a believer expecting to be carried up to heaven. I opened a beer. About twenty people were in Mike’s living room; everything apart from the sofa, TV, and giant fish tank had been taken out. Distorted hip hop was pulsing from upstairs. The whole place smelled of cider, feet, and cigarettes.
‘Mike’s moving,’ said Ben, ‘it’s death time.’ He crossed his fists to make sure I knew that it was death time. Mike had these Siamese fish that looked like evil ribbons or underwater stars.
‘Any close contact and they just kill each other, like my parents.’ Mike said once, on a different day I can’t remember.
‘We’re picking names,’ said Ben. He was rolling a joint, flicking his fringe sideways and staring thoughtfully at nothing. He was the kind of boy used to being watched.
Keri walked over. She said, ‘I think they should all be called…Fred.’ She was laughing so hard that “Fred” came out with seven f’s and dribble.
I said, ‘Get here early?’ Keri punched me in the throat then offered me a wrap of speed. I sucked the knot of paper down, swilling it back like medicine.
‘Democracy,’ said Chew, gesturing around the room. Next to the tank was a cardboard box with ‘Votes’ written on the side in black marker. Simon was counting, pale as ever, awkward limbs jutting like a freckled skeleton. At school he used to eat pencil sharpener blades for money. Democracy was in safe hands. Two girls in white jeans were drinking fizzy wine and watching the count.
We smoked a joint on the porch steps. Things were humming after that, people were on edge, shivery with waiting, flicking ash around and tapping on the tank. Mike came in from out back and gave me a hug that made my spine click. He was wearing a brown apron and carrying something that looked like a spatula somebody had tortured.
‘The forge,’ said Mike. Mike had started collecting Lego and taking blacksmithing classes. He dressed in sack cloths and told people he felt more comfortable in the past.
‘Jesus,’ said Ben. We drank gin and cough medicine. Mike used the torture-spatula to point at the fish tank. He said, ‘They have to get names before they can die.’
I examined the warriors. One was orange like an angry goldfish. The next was pink and white with dark spots smudged across its mouth. Third was red/blue like evil toothpaste or an election infographic. On the end was this purple-and-black demon-looking thing everyone was already calling The Abyss.
There was a signal. Simon was nodding. The observers were applying lip gloss, pouting, pouring wine. Mike went over and read out the results. There were indications of fraud. Two prog-rock fans with matching beards had been buying votes with weed.
‘Lobbying,’ said one of them, his eyes were crusted and shiny.
‘Gnarly,’ said Ben.
‘King Crimson, fuck it,’ said Chew, getting his wallet out. Mike gave up the odds. The Abyss was favourite. In outside last was Lee at 50 to 1.
Lee came in from the garden and found out about the fish. He had the Mandarin for Beef Chow Mein tattooed on his neck and worked behind the tobacco counter in the supermarket. Not long after the fight he got promoted to Assistant Manager, bought an expensive puppy, and died in a motorbike accident.
‘It’s got weird tumours all over its face like you,’ said Ben. Lee looked sad for a moment then started saying he was famous. He put everything on himself to win.
‘Maybe I’ll get lucky,’ he said.
Mike lifted the dividers out of the tank. The water seethed and swished. I turned away, feeling confused, sick, ugly. The whole thing seemed cruel and shameful now that it was real, instead of an idea, a game of words. I looked at the people watching and cheering, thinking the emptiest thoughts I could. In a few minutes it was over. It wasn’t even close; nothing could stop The Abyss.
Some guy named Paul had won big. He had a scar down the side of his face and no one seemed to know him. Mike couldn’t pay so Paul took The Abyss. He walked out with it in a plastic bag like a prize he’d won at a funfair. People clapped. Paul lit a cigarette and punched the sky. Just for a second it felt beautiful.
Mike never went away. Something fell through or didn’t happen like it was supposed to. Our town was like that. Most people never really left, even our dreams never took us far from home. The tank stayed where it was, littered with blood and bright ribbons that disintegrated over time.
Three years later I woke up in a different town. It was early. Tina was outside shouting about fish in the driveway. I went down. The air was cool, morning still threaded with dark. Tina was in this flimsy nightdress you could see right through. Thick hips, skin scaled with needle and stretch marks. She looked good. We met in NA and kept our fake names, even after we got together. We didn’t care, all that mattered was staying clean and remembering how deep the bottom looked once you were out.
‘They’ve just left them,’ Tina said, sniffing. The fish were in a bucket, just regular ones, nothing expensive or violent, but little parts of them were shining. It was then I remembered about Mike and The Abyss. Mostly I’d tried to forget; back then people were dying like saints. Simon got stabbed in a care home when the government took him from his parents. They cried on TV. Keri found heroin then hanged herself. Chew went missing. You still see his face on posters sometimes, hoping he might be found.
‘I’ve got this,’ I told Tina. She pressed to me, scraped her nails up my spine. I kissed the wavy frill of her hair, then went in, put on a jacket and came back to haul the fish inside. I watched the water shake as I lifted, the fish drifting low, staring out at the dark ring that contained them, too stupid to know what had brought them here, or just how lucky they were.