Despite how tired he was, Elwin headed back to do another work shift after having lunch with Kylie. After finishing late in the evening he made his way back to the condominium alone as he had started that day. He peeked through the window of his apartment and for once Holda wasn’t there. Moving as quickly as he could in his tired state he fetched a blanket and a pillow from underneath the bed and quickly left the apartment. He dragged it down the back staircase with the door leading outside and worked his way to the bottom. There he crawled underneath the stairs and made a bed for himself using the rotting cardboard boxes for a mattress. He hadn’t washed and was still covered in dirt and grime. However, he was so tired he didn’t care and drifted off the sleep.
He didn’t know for how long he had been asleep when he was woken up by a finger poking his cheek. Startled he looked up to see a dark silhouette standing over him. He was terrified yet so apathetic from tiredness he couldn’t find the energy to run or plead. He just stared in weary terror at the figure.
“I knew I would find you down here,” came the sound of Erian’s voice.
Elwin gasped a sigh of relief, but his relief was short lived.
“So is this where you and Kylie made tender love?” snarled Erian venomously.
Elwin slowly shook his head, “No. I am just trying to get some sleep. I have to do it away from Holda.”
Erian didn’t appear to have heard him, “You are such a loser Elwin, I have no idea why Kylie would want to sleep with such a dirty disgrace such as yourself.”
On hearing his friend condemning him so harshly Elwin felt a pain in his throat and chest. The thorn in his heart ached but he could not speak up in his defence, not even in fury. He was powerless in the vice of despair.
“So what was it like fucking her?”
Elwin swallowed hard and managed to push out the word, “no.”
“No, I didn’t fuck her.”
“She wanted to fuck you. She was waiting for you with lunch today.”
Elwin shoot his head, “She offered, but I said no.”
Erian paused for a few moments.
“You said no to sex with Kylie?”
Elwin nodded meekly.
“She’s the cutest little slut in this whole damned place and you didn’t fuck her when she offered herself to you?”
Elwin’s mind leaped onto the phrase, ‘she offered herself to you’ and felt a shiver run through his body. There was something powerful about those words and although Erian had intended to sound profane, he had by accident said something profound. Elwin pulled himself out from underneath the staircase and sat down cross legged in the strained light.
“Yes, she offered herself to me, but I declined her offer.”
Erian shook his head, “what has gotten into you? What fool turns down an offer for sex?”
Elwin looked up at him pathetically, “Erian, I think I am in Hell.”
Erian froze as though an electrical current had somehow jumped from Elwin into him with those words.
Elwin continued, “I think this place, these walls, these thorns, these people, these conditions. I think they are Hell. I believe that we are living in Hell.”
For a long time Erian said nothing he just stared down at the pathetic dirty figure of his friend at his feet unmoving and unspeaking. Slowly Erian sank down on this knees in front of Elwin. When he spoke his voice was wavering but sombre.
“Hell isn’t a place deep underground, it is a place here on Earth. Hell is the heart empty of compassion, the mind full of falsehoods, and the folk ignorant of virtue.”
“You remembered,” said Elwin with a weak smile. Erian nodded slowly.
“When we found that card at school, and read it out. Neither of us knew what it meant. But do you remember what the teachers did to us after we told them?”
“They beat us, over and over, just because we read a stupid card we found in a container down a hole inside a tree,” Erian sounded detached, his words hollowed out of emotion by the memory of the beatings.
Elwin nodded, “We were ten years old when that happened, and we haven’t spoken about it since. But when Kylie died briefly after I took that thorn out, and she came back to life again, she has been a different person since. She isn’t the same Kylie we used to know. I haven’t been able to stop thinking what we read on that card. Did we have any serious concern for Kylie? For what she was going to go through when we removed that thorn? Are we empty of compassion? Do we know anything of our history? Of why the world is the way it is? Are our minds not full of falsehoods? Finally, we completed school and not once did we come across this word ‘virtue’, and we still to this day do not know what virtue is and nor have we heard anyone else say this word.
“Erian, I think that note we found in the tree at school was very old. Very, very old. I think it was put there from the time before the Kelites took over, by our Delphorian ancestors. I think it was left there for someone to find. If I am right, I believe there will be more of them hidden about the place. I think we should go looking for them. If only to confirm that they were left by our ancestors, but also they might give us a clue about this thing called ‘virtue’ that we’re all supposed to have.
“Firstly, I need to do something, I need to remove this thorn in my chest. The one just over my heart.”
Erian looked up at him, “But we don’t know if it is safe, Kylie might still get the plague and die.”
“I think…” Elwin shook his head slowly, “I think the plague is a myth, another falsehood. Because when I was a boy I managed to breathe the air outside the nursery and I didn’t get sick.”
Erian argued with Elwin, but Elwin quietly insisted that it was what he wanted to do.
“When did you want to do it? Tomorrow?”
Elwin shook his head, “tonight, I went to work early today and did extra shifts so I could spend tomorrow down here recovering without the risk of falling behind on my social debt. I brought the forceps with me I was going to remove it myself.”
Erian shook his head, “No, that’s too dangerous, you will drown. Let me take you.”
Erian looked at Elwin, his face lined with pain, all this thorns had started to ache since Elwin had reminded him about the card and the message about Hell. He looked at Elwin questioningly.
“Now,” confirmed Elwin.
The pair got up and silently slipped out through the door into the outside world. They crossed through the fence, over the railway line, and into the canal. They did all of this under the cover of darkness. It had been raining that afternoon and the canal was still flooded with more water than usual. Elwin stripped off naked and climbed down into the water until it was at his waist. The mood was full and appeared much larger as it was near the horizon. Elwin shivered bitterly in the cold while Erian examined the dark tentacles radiating from the thorn embedded in his chest by the moonlight. When he felt confident that he knew precisely where the thorn was he locked the forceps onto it.
Erian and Elwin looked into each other’s eyes, once more Erian looked at his friend questioningly. Elwin was still covered in soot and dirt from the mine, his fair was filthy and knotted. His eyes were bloodshot and blue, yet he looked more resolute and determined than Erian had seen him since he had known him in school as a young boy. Elwin nodded subtly to Erian who understood the signal. Erian gripped hard on the forceps and ripped the thorn out of Elwin’s chest.
Elwin gasped in pain and horror as a jet of blood and black ink spirted out from his centre. The pain rippled out across this entire body and every muscle went into spasm at once. His legs unable to work properly anymore fell out from underneath him and he plunged straight down underneath the water.
Engulfed by darkness.