Or: The Five Times Briar Cudgeon Didn’t Get What He Wanted
“Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,” the Mock Turtle replied: “and then the different branches of Arithmetic – Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision.”
– from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Reeling and Writhing
‘You didn’t ask!’
Briar dodged the punch that his friend swung at him, stumbling over his own feet in the process and falling on his rump.
‘You said we’re sharing!’ he yelled back, dodging the second blow.
‘Not this one!’ The elf grabbed at the Mud Man doll tightly clutched in Briar’s hand. ‘That’s my birthday present!’
Wham went the next punch, hitting home. Briar fell flat on his back this time, his nose stinging with the blow. The doll slipped from his hand and landed at the other elf’s feet.
‘You said we’re sharing, Julius!’ he screamed, throwing his toy engine at his friend’s head. ‘You promised!’
Briar lunged at Julius’s legs, meaning to trip him up and pound him with his fists. But Julius was too quick – he side-stepped Briar’s arms and skipped away from his friend with the doll held above his head triumphantly.
‘You should have asked,’ he said smugly. ‘I don’t want your stupid engine.’
And Briar watched as his oldest friend sprinted away with the doll, the toy engine left forlornly on the road for him to play alone.
He fell flat on his back again and kicked his heels, shouting as loud as he dared. It would be many years before he understood the phrase writhing in embarrassment, but for now, the feeling that his insides were twisting themselves into huge knots from the humiliation he suffered described the phrase quite accurately.
The letter arrived early that morning, just before he tumbled out of bed and shuffled into the kitchen for breakfast. But today, of all days, he was wide awake.
‘Congratulations!’ His mother hugged him tightly, proudly, and pushed the letter into his hand. ‘I knew you would get in!’
He tore open the envelope slowly, deliberately delaying the moment that he would find out whether he had been accepted into the Lower Elements Police Academy or not. This was the moment he had been waiting for months – nay, years – especially after his uncle told him about the LEP and Retrieval. One more tear, and then the pages would be in his hands, and he would read them out to his parents, amid their hearty congratulations and more tears from his mother…
Julius burst through the door without so much as a Good Morning to his parents – they were used to him barging into the Cudgeon household at any time of the day, and hardly batted an eyelid when he interrupted anything to do with the family. He, too, had a letter in his hand.
‘Did you get in? Did you?’ Julius sounded excited, overjoyed – he had evidently been accepted.
Briar felt the lump in his throat and nodded in answer. The last rip of the envelope was louder than he intended.
‘You got in!’ Julius grabbed his arm and swung him round joyfully, the pages spilling out of the ripped envelope every which way. ‘We both got in!’
‘Wait – wait.’ Briar shook his arm out of Julius’s grasp and dropped to his knees, picking up a few random pages to confirm the fact. Yes, yes, he was in – oh there they were, the magic words: We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted…
Briar watched as his mother swept Julius into a hug, very like the one she had given him minutes earlier. Julius backed away hurriedly, his face flushed in embarrassment and happiness.
‘It’ll be great eh?’ said Julius, shaking Briar’s shoulders. ‘Both of us in the LEP!’
‘And you’ll still be able to keep up your old rivalry,’ Mrs. Cudgeon said, shaking her head in amusement at the two young elves. ‘I wonder how they’ll manage you both.’
‘Don’t worry, Mother,’ said Briar, rising to his feet with the pages of the letter in his hands, ‘I’ll make sure that I’ll beat Julius every time.’
‘We’ll see about that!’ Julius threw back his head and laughed uproariously.
It was supposed to be a party tonight, but Briar didn’t think he was having any fun.
For one thing, Julius was nowhere to be seen. He had grabbed Briar just before they entered the hall and made his friend promise not to leave him at any time during the party – Julius, for reasons only Briar knew from past experience, didn’t like parties. At all.
But here he was, Briar Cudgeon, walking round and round the hall like some lost idiot with Julius’s and his own drink in his hands.
For another thing, the pretty elf he had noticed earlier was nowhere to be seen. The long mane of red hair had been hard to miss, and Briar’s eyes had followed the elf all the way across the hall until she had lost herself among the crowd at the refreshment table.
He could ask around for the elf’s name, he knew. There were not many females in the LEP, and it would be easy to ask about that particular elf – she seemed to turn heads wherever she went. Briar made a turn about the hall again – the fifth one that night – his eyes scanning faces for Julius or the elf.
He whirled around, the drink in one of his hands spilling out of its glass and down his front. Julius beamed at him and clapped a hand on his shoulder, not noticing the red juice staining the front of his friend’s clothes.
‘I’d like you to meet…Vinyáya,’ said Julius. He gestured to the pretty elf standing before them and gave Briar a wink that clearly meant: Best thing I’ve seen all night.
‘Hello, Briar.’ Vinyáya held out a hand for him to shake, but both his hands were full. He could only nod apologetically and hold up the glasses to indicate that he couldn’t shake her hand.
‘Oh…it’s all right.’ She smiled at him – a dazzling, warm smile that he hadn’t had a chance to witness in all his adolescent years. ‘It’s nice meeting you.’
‘Same here,’ he replied, somewhat nervously. He could hardly take his eyes off her face.
‘She’ll have the next dance with me,’ Julius whispered into his friend’s ear. ‘Amazing, isn’t she?’
Briar nodded and said nothing. He could only watch as Julius led Vinyáya onto the dance floor, her red hair shimmering brightly among the dancers.
The plan had backfired, and here he was, demoted to a lieutenant.
Briar watched himself in the mirror, hardly daring to meet the eyes of the twisted face he saw in the glass, but yet unable to tear himself away from the reflection he had grown to hate.
Everything had been going as planned – everything, from the troll, to the Council’s decisions, and the officers who had stood by him –
And then Julius had stepped in and destroyed everything. Everything – including his face.
The Artemis Fowl affair had seemed like the golden opportunity to advance his career, and he had jumped at the chance right away. Julius had beaten him to the commandership years earlier, and the fact had rankled in his mind ever since. With half the Council listening to his persuasions, and the other half torn between the ransom and their concern for Captain Short’s safety, it had been so easy to sway the decision in his favour. He had succeeded, only to be thwarted by the Fowl boy’s bodyguard, Butler, who had actually fought with a troll and survived.
And then Julius had shot that thing at him…
Briar pressed his forehead against the smooth glass, feeling the bumps and lumps all the more acutely when they were forced against a hard surface.
The deformities could never be done away with magic or any ointment in the world, above or under it, but Briar hardly cared for his physical appearance now.
This time, he had a plan. And Opal Koboi was going to help him.
Briar Cudgeon’s recycling ceremony began and ended with no one in attendance. His parents had passed on years ago, and his siblings had sent word that they were unable to make it to the ceremony. And so Briar Cudgeon left without any family or friend present to witness the solemn rite of passage, the last ceremony he would go through in his life.
And later, when the sunstrips had been dimmed and Haven City’s inhabitants were thinking of going to bed, an elf sat leafing through sepia photographs in his silent room. In almost every brown square was Briar’s face, laughing up at the world – carefree, innocent, loved by the people closest and dearest to him.
Julius Root touched a finger to the last photograph he had ever taken with his oldest friend, back when he had just been promoted to the post of commander. They looked so different then – younger. Less suspicious of each other. Still good friends.
‘You were a good friend, Briar,’ he said aloud to the empty room.
A/N: I own nothing here – Colfer does!