S. C. Mae
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Mandarin Alley (Short Story)

Mandarin Alley (Short Story)

Feb 22, 2021

This story was originally published in Dark Stars: The Year’s Best Science Fiction Short Stories, 2012. The story has no real claim to be a best story; that was only the title of the anthology I sold it to. But it was fun to write and will be (hopefully) fun to read. This version is slightly different to the one that appeared there because, well, I are a compulsive editor.

I hope you enjoy...

Mandarin Alley

by S.C. Mae

Nobody knows who’s been leaving those messes at the back of Mandarin Alley over the last six months. Not every night, but often enough.

Mandy, well she thinks it’s Butthole and his git friends bonging up and howling at the moon, but me, I’m not so sure.

For one thing, Butthole’s scared of the dark. I know, ‘cause he told me one night when he was full of Bacardi Breezers and decided I was his best mate. Told me some other stuff too, that he made me swear on my grave I wouldn’t tell no-one. I’ve kept that promise. I’m good like that.

But it sure is weird, the stuff the shop owners find the next day.

Crushed cans, but way shinier than any I’ve ever seen. Little heaps of what look like wheat husks. And strange pictures scrawled in chalk on the fence that are always gone by lunchtime.

Dommo reckons it’s soldiers from the Medvale Military Research Center trying out new organic explosives. I reckon Dommo’s been hit in the head too many times playing rugby. Seriously? Testing organic explosives in an alley at the back of a greengrocers and takeaway and florist?

Most people agree with Mandy’s theory and laugh about it. If nobody’s getting hurt, what does it matter?

Me, I’ve got no idea who it could be. But tonight I’m gonna find out. No reason, really, except to satisfy my curiosity. And because last month Griggsy the greengrocer tried hiding out in the alley like I am, but when I asked him about it the next day he just got a weird look on his face and said, “Didn’t see nuffin’, lad. Nuffin’ at all.”

That smells like burning pants to me.

I’ve picked tonight because there haven’t been any messes for three days, and they’re never more than that long apart.

Mandy and Dommo are too chicken to come. They’re probably both rugged up, in front of their fires, laughing at me. Even though I’m covered in three layers of windcheaters and wearing four pairs of rugby socks beneath my jeans, I’m still shivering.

It’s one a.m. and I’ve been waiting thirty minutes, squeezed between and behind bags of rubbish that smell like rotten fruit and old chip grease. Nobody’s made an appearance yet.

Moon’s out, though there’s no stars. I’ve got my gloved hands over my mouth to hide my breath. And because someone told me once that blowing on your hands helps keep you warm. Dunno what they were smoking.

Problem with the hiding place I’ve chosen is that if I move there’s rustles and clunks galore. But at least it’s a good thing no rats will be about in this cold. Well, I hope it’s too cold for them.

Just when I’m almost sure something’s nibbling at my ankles the alley lights up. To be honest, it’s not really light. Dunno what to call it. It’s like just before the sun comes over the hills and everything’s visible but gray. Kinda. It’s isolated to the alley. I can’t even make out the roofs of the buildings behind the fence.

Then the five aliens appear.

I don’t pick them as aliens at first. My sleep-deprived brain thinks maybe they’re some punk-metal band come out to practice. Tall, lanky, wearing blue, with big mohawks and thick beards. Except, when one of them turns fully in my direction, I see it has a beak. And the mohawk is a cockscomb and the beard’s a wattle. It’s no mask, either. Feathers poke out of its sleeves and it’s got claws for feet.

I gasp and make the tiniest of movements backwards. Of course, that sets off a symphony of garbage bag noises which, in turn, makes me swear. Quite loud.

All the aliens swivel to stare at my end of the alley. Then one of them strides over. I try to stand and run, but I can’t get my balance and only succeed in scattering rubbish bags.

The alien places a hand on my shoulder. I freeze, praying I haven’t wet myself. Will they kill me? Take me away for testing? For probing?

The alien squawks. So do the others. After thirty seconds I realize they’re laughing. By then I’m thinking a bit straighter. If the alien’s grip loosens I might be able to do a runner.

It's face looks like a happy version of a rooster, to me. Rest of the body is skinny. Same with the other four. They talk amongst themselves. Melodic. Then one of them flips over an empty crate and pulls a pack of cards out of a pocket. Another dumps what looks like a few dozen beer and packets of crisps on the ground. The geezer holding me lets go and motions in their direction.

“I’m right,” I say, but I’m curious all the same. It shrugs and walks away.

The five of them squat around the crate, and they deal. Pretty soon they’re laughing and running in circles and scrawling pictures on the fence and downing lager. It’s mesmerizing. Before I know it I’m watching over their shoulders.

They shuffle aside and give me space. I sit. They deal me in. One of them--I think it was the one who found me--passes across a can. It’d be rude not to accept, so I crack it open and take a cautious sip. Beautiful. Like malt, but smooth as a milkshake.

Within ten minutes I’ve picked up the game. It’s basically a cross between poker, pictionary and charades. And if you lose you’ve got to chug down some liquor. I do a lot of losing, but I think the geezers quickly grow respect for my drinking ability, if nothing else.

The crisps turn out to be little grainy things without much flavor, but they’re all right. The aliens take a handful at a time and peck away at them until they’re gone. I try to do the same, but discover I don’t really have the beak for it.

And then, just like that, the sun is peeking over the hills. I’m not totally smashed but not far off, either. It’s been the best night I’ve had in years.

As one, they all stand, clap me on the back and disappear.

I consider standing too, but it’s nice and warm where I am, so I slump over the crate and fall asleep.

I wake to Mrs. Pinkbottom, the florist, yelling at me. “It’s been you all along, has it? You naughty boy. Leaving all this mess. Getting up to God knows what. I’ve a mind to drag you down to the station by the ear. Filthy child. What do you have to say for yourself?”

I say the first thing that comes to my mind. “Just partying.”

“Just partying? Just partying? Do you realize the stress you’ve put me through? Wondering if someone’s going to trash my store--”

At that moment Griggsy pokes his head out the back door of his shop. “Let the lad alone, Mary. He’s not hurting nobody.”

“Not you too?” Her hands fly to her hips. I flinch.

“It’s okay, Mary. Nuffin’ to worry ‘bout. Boys’ll be boys. Let ‘im alone.”

Mrs. Pinkbottom considers this, then stalks back inside her shop, muttering bloody murder.

“Thanks,” I say, hauling myself to my feet.

“’S okay,” says Griggsy. He pauses like he’s about to say something else, then nods knowingly and ducks back into his shop.

I look at my watch. Eight o’clock. I’m going to be late for lectures. Head pounding, hands in pockets, I hurry along icy streets towards home.

On the corner of my road I bump into Mandy and Dommo. They’re loitering. Waiting for me.

“So,” Mandy says, “what’d you see?”

Dommo grins. “Bet it was army scientists, wasn’t it?”

I think for a few moments, then say, “Didn’t see nuffin’. Nuffin’ at all.”


Did you enjoy Mandarin Alley? Want to read more of my stuff? If you buy me a coffee I'll gift you the first two books in my sci-fi series, Jazz Healy, Reunion. All you'll need to do once you donate is let me know from the email address you used to donate which format (.epud, .mobi (Kindle), .pdf), you'd prefer and I'll wing those books across the ethers to you. Be assured I'll never send you unsolicited emails or share your address with anyone.

Not sure if you're ready to donate yet? Why not read another free story, Orion's Belt, an action-packed short story all about aliens and galactic exploration?

Thanks for stopping by!

S.C. Mae

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