He lingered on the borderlands between the bar and the raucous scrum that resembled the pub proper. His was the liminal space that lay in that strange realm, watching and feigning participation. As always, he was SOBER – that dirty word. He had abstained for five years now and planned to remain that way for many years to come. He was happy with his status. The decision had been made, all that time ago, to live without a drink. His life before, one he often thought of as a strange, fever dream, was like a completely different world to him. There, he had spent the time striving toward drunkenness. His weekend had been awash with booze, often commencing on Thursday evening, forsaking the hope of Friday, and then devouring the weekend like a famished animal. Treating it like an odd hobby, rather than the destructive force that it really represented for him.
But that was years ago.
It was behind him, and he felt better for it, both physically and mentally. Now, he had another daunting task. Living in a world where everyone else drank.
It sounded so simple. For him, he thought the hardest part was the quitting – and it was so very, very hard – but he hadn’t the foresight to see that that was the only the beginning. His was the life of the outcast now. Forever shunned by new acquaintances and quietly dismissed as “boring.” SOBER – that filthy word – he would say, and he would glimpse a fleeting distrust in some people’s eyes.
If only they knew the truth. Knew that he had wasted decades living the party life to its fullest, with everything it entailed, and that drinking was the last bastion of that regime, one that needed to fall.
His friends understood, and beyond a little playful banter, they didn’t seem to mind, although they privately thought he had gone insane, unsure how to deal with someone outside of the societal norms. Still, he was invited to events, birthdays, anniversaries, and more, although he often didn’t stay until the very end, but he came, nonetheless.
But it was a lonely life, that of the outcast.
He was on the fringe, a lone figure occupying the no-man’s-land of the party. Watching, always watching, as the others grew drunker and more excitable. With each drink, the volume flourished like a new sapling, and his friends and the strangers that littered the room blossomed with each passing moment. While he, SOBER – that rancid word – began to wither. Without the artificial vigour that booze provided, his attention wandered, his mind loitering on the thought of a train home and a warm bed. He was not the denizen of the nocturn any longer. He wouldn’t see the witching hours beyond midnight.
Not now. Not anymore.
He stayed for one last non-alcoholic beer and observed his friends, his cohorts, his comrades, push beyond the tipsy horizon into the great drunken kingdom beyond, where inhibitions were non-existent and brayed laughter was the outcome of every joke. He wanted to stay, wanted to be social, his whole being cried out for it. He couldn’t keep his eyes away from the crowd, the one that his friends were drifting toward like flotsam after the storm. It wasn’t that long ago that he was one of them, pissed to the world, boisterous and ready for combat. But he had lost the battle. It pained him to watch the seething masses, so loud, so drunk, throb all around him, and he so very, very SOBER – that fetid word.
And so, he retreated.
He made his excuses and was gone into the black of night. Away from the growing paranoia and ringing ears. Away from his maudlin and self-examination. All the while, he wondered if it was him, second-guessing what he knew was the best decision of his life, allowing the bewilderment of being the pariah of the pack to take root in his tired brain. He asked himself the same old tired questions. Was he antisocial? Was he too old? Was he boring?
But when he emerged outside into the fresh, crisp air of an autumn evening, under the stark moon and a canopy of sparkling stars, away from the stink of stale ale and sweating bodies, his mind cleared.
It was then, absent from the carnage, that he remembered that he was happy now. Not like the misery and slog of his old life and the tedious working weeks that followed a heavy weekend. He was clear of mind and spirit now, content and unclouded. Yes, he might miss a night or two, but hadn’t he had many before anyway? No, he was a better man for it. He was SOBER – that wonderful, magnificent, beautiful word.
He smiled then, a genuine grin of delight, his eyes twinkling with what might be, and trudged through the city to the train station, his feet light and his mood buoyed, with his mind on the prize: Life, without the need to forget.
Elliot J Harper is a speculative fiction writer who lives in Leeds, England with his wife, Naomi. His debut novel, New Gillion Street, will be released in December 2023 by Fly on the Wall Press.
His short story, “In the Garden”, won the Flash Vision 2021 contest in 2021 by The Molotov Cocktail magazine.
His short story, “Meme”, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2021 by Coffin Bell Journal.
He has short stories in print in “The Curious Case of the Speaking Telegraph” in the Spirit Machine: Tales of Seance Fiction anthology by Air and Nothingness Press, “Into the Forest” in The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase anthology by Air and Nothingness Press, “There’s a Dead Bear in the Pool” in Black Telephone Issue 1 by Clash Books, “Blackout” in The Protest Issue of Popshot Quarterly Magazine.
He has various short stories online in Maudlin House, Storgy, Akashic Books Sci-fi Friday, Neon Books, Ghost City Press, Coffin Bell, Five:2:One, Dream Noir, Litro Magazine, Horrified Magazine and Idle Ink. Visit www.elliotjharper.com for more information.