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Fiction

The Ballad of Boomtown

It’s estimated that in 2011 there were 2,881 semi or unoccupied housing developments in Ireland.

There was a time when we put our faith in euros, shares and the sanctity of brick. A time when we bought our books from stores as big as barns and ate strawberries from Andalusia, when only a generation before, they’d been grown on farms up the road.

The wide avenues of Boomtown were named for trees when there was grand optimism for growth. Now nothing booms in Boomtown. It’s bust and broken.

I miss you. You were a lick of cream. I can still taste you.

I walk to the village on Mondays. I pull my shopping trolley the three miles there and back along the lanes. I used to drive to the supermarket, just for a pint of milk, without a thought to the cost of fuel. It doesn’t matter now. I like to walk.

Sheela-na-gigs look down on me from the church walls as I pass by. These stone carvings are of women with bulging eyes and gaping mouths, displaying their private parts. These wantons are a warning against lust. Or a medieval stonemason’s dirty joke.

The shop’s beside the church. Deceased, desiccated flies lie between the sun-faded signs. There’s a queue inside. I’ve heard all their grumbling about prices and supplies. They decry the current government, the one before, the banks and then apportion blame abroad. Despite the orderly line and polite chatter, I can imagine these women battling it out with their meaty fists if the last bag of flour in Ireland was at stake.

We’re not so poor as yet that we can’t afford a veneer of civilised behaviour.

I put my face to the glass as the shop owner takes the last slab of beef from the chilled counter and wraps it. I wish I’d got up earlier. I would’ve spent half my week’s grocery allowance to smell the marbled flesh sizzling in a pan.

The bell jangles as I push the door open. A few heads turn. A woman leans towards her companion and whispers in his ear. I catch the words blow in. I’m a Boomtown interloper, buffeted by changing fortune. There’s a pause before the man looks at me. His salacious glance suggests he’s heard scandalous stories.

I’ve no doubt a few of them recall me from before, when I first came here to talk to them about my book. There was a certain glamour in talking to me.

I take my time considering the shelves’ contents while the others pay and leave. There are budget brands with unappetising photos on the cans. Boxes of cheap-smelling soap powder and white bread in plastic bags. I tip what I need into my basket.

“I want freshly ground coffee.”

I can’t help myself. I’m the Boomtown Bitch. It’s cruel. The shop owner’s never done me any harm. She always offers me a slow, sweet smile. It’s fading now.

“We only have instant.”

“Olives then.” I want my city living, here in the country. I want delicatessens and coffee bars. Fresh pastries and artisan loaves.

She shakes her head.

“Anchovies, balsamic vinegar. Risotto rice.” The world was once a cauldron of plenty.

“I only have what’s on the shelves.”

She’s struggling to contain herself in the face of my ridiculous demands. I sling the basket on the counter where it lands with a metallic thud and slide. There’s a dogged precision in how she enters the price of each item into the till. She doesn’t speak but turns the display to show me the total, waiting as I load my shopping into the trolley. Her refusal to look at me isn’t anger. There’s glimmer of unshed tears. It’s not her fault. It’s yours. It’s mine.

I feel sick. Yet another thing that can’t be undone. I try and catch her eye as I hand her a note but she’s having none of it. I want to tell her that I’m sorry. It’s shameful that I don’t even know her name, and now she’ll believe the worst she’s heard and won’t ever smile at me again. She slides my change over the counter rather than putting it into my hand.

The bell above the door jangles as I leave.

• • • •

The chieftain stood before the three sisters, flanked by men bearing swords and spears, and said, “This is my land now.”

“We lived here long before you came,” they replied.

“By what right do you claim it? Where’s your army?”

“You can’t own the land, it owns you.” That was the eldest sister. “Rid yourself of such foolish desires.”

“No. Everything you see belongs to me.”

“Do you own that patch of sky?” the middle born said.

The chieftain was silent.

“Is that water yours?” That was the youngest. “See how it runs away from you.”

“I want this land.” The chieftain stamped his feet. “Look at my torque. Even metal submits to my will.”

“You’ll be choked by that gold around your throat.” The eldest stepped forward. “You’re master of ores and oxen, wheat and men alike, but not us. We’re like the grass. We only bow our heads to the wind.”

The chieftain looked at them, pale witches in rags with swathes of dark hair, and there were the stirrings of a different sort of desire.

The chieftain and his men raped the sisters, one by one.

“See,” he said, “I possess everything.”

“We are ancient. We are one and we are three.” The youngest covered herself with the tatters of her clothes. “We were there at the world’s birth. We are wedded to the earth. We don’t submit. We endure.”

A cold wind came in carrying rain even though it was a summer’s day.

“We curse you and your greed.” The middle sibling swallowed her sobs and raised her chin. “It’ll grow so large that it’ll devour you and your kind.”

Thunderbolts cracked the sky.

“We’ll dog your children’s steps from womb to tomb.” The eldest had the final word. “When their fortune’s in decline we’ll rise again. No one will be spared our wrath. Then we’ll to heal what you’ve rent.”

The eldest gathered up the other two and retreated to a place where the hills were at their backs and enfolded themselves in stone.

• • • •

The Three Sisters are a group of three stones that occupy a small plateau on the eastern side of the _____ hills in County Meath. Their history has been retold for generations in the local village of _____. There are several variations of the tale. The one I’ve included here is the most detailed.

• • • •

—Songs of Stones: Collected Oral Traditions of Ireland’s Standing Stones by Grainne Kennedy

• • • •

I drove us from Dublin. You directed. You kept glancing at my legs as they worked the pedals, which excited me. It felt like you were touching me. Sliding your hand between my knees.

“Turn right.”

The indicator winked. We were on Oak Avenue.

“Does this all belong to Boom Developments?”

“Yes.”

I whistled, wanting you to know I was impressed.

“Left here.” Then, “This is Acacia Drive.”

There were diggers, trucks, the cries and calls of men. We bumped along the unfinished road. Stones crunched under the tyres and ochre dust rose around us.

“Pull over here.” You buzzed, happy amongst the evidence of your success. “I asked the lads to complete some of the houses up here first.”

You ran up the road towards a group of men in jeans and T-shirts. The men looked at me when you’d turned away and I could tell they’d said something smutty from the way they sniggered.

You returned, carrying hard hats and keys. “Put this on.”

I refused to be embarrassed by our audience. I piled up my hair and put my hat on, back arched in mock burlesque. You took my elbow with a light touch, as if unsure of yourself. I liked that you weren’t adept with women when you seemed so proficient at the rest of life. You guided me towards a house.

“Here.” You unlocked the door.

Our feet rang out on the bare boards. Fresh plaster dried in shades of pink and brown.

“This model’s the best of the lot. It’ll be done to the highest spec.”

I followed you upstairs.

“Huge master bedroom. Nice en-suite too.”

It was the view that I admired most. The hills, the open sky was spread out for us. I couldn’t tell you that I’d been here before your burgeoning success scarred the land. That I’d trekked for miles under rotten skies that threatened rain, across open fields carrying my notebook, cameras and a tripod. I didn’t want to spoil the moment by making it anything but yours.

You should’ve known though. If you’d looked at the copy of the book I’d given you, my own modest enterprise, you’d have seen. You weren’t interested in history, not the ones of Ireland’s standing stones, not even mine. I was a woman of the past. You were a man of the future.

“We could lie in bed together and look at this view.” Your tone had changed from business to tenderness and I was beguiled by the use of we. “Don’t feel pressured. Just think on it. You said you wanted to move somewhere quiet to write.”

“I can’t afford this.”

“You’re looking to buy outright. This would be yours at cost price.”

“Can you do that?”

“I’m the MD,” you laughed, “of course I can.”

“I couldn’t accept it.”

“Grainne, you’d be helping me. Selling the first few will help to sell more. Things snowball. This property will treble in value over the next ten years, I promise.”

I didn’t enjoy this talk of values and assets. I did like the prospect of us sharing a bed that was ours.

“I’ll think about a smaller one, at full price.”

I’d always been careful not to take anything from you. Need’s not erotic.

“It’s cost price or nothing. Please, Grainne, it’s the least that I can do for you.”

• • • •

The estate looks normal from this approach. There are cars on drives and curtains at windows. I can see a woman inside one of the houses. She bends down and comes back into a view with an infant on her hip. The portrait makes me wince. Madonna with child. She turns her back when she sees me.

I stop at Nancy’s on Oak Avenue, the main artery of the estate.

“Have a drink with me.” She ushers me in and shuffles along behind me.

Water rushes into the metallic belly of the kettle. I unload her groceries. UHT milk. Teabags. Canned sardines.

“Pay me next time.”

Nancy snorts and forces money into my palm. “I’ll come with you next week, if you don’t mind taking it slow.”

“It’s a long walk.”

“Don’t cheek me.” Her spark belies her age. She must’ve been a corker in her time. “I need to take the car out for a run. I’ll drive us somewhere as a treat.”

I wonder how long it’ll take the village shopkeeper to forget my tantrum. Longer than a week.

Steaming water arcs into one mug, then the other.

“Grainne . . .” Her tone changes. “Lads are loitering about up here. Be careful.”

When Nancy bends to add milk to the tea, I can see her pink scalp through the fine white curls.

“I’m just going to come out and say this.” She touches my hand. Her finger joints are large, hard knots. “You’re neglecting yourself. You’re losing weight. And your lovely hair . . .”

I can’t recall when I last brushed it.

“You’re not sleeping either. I’ve seen you, walking past at night.”

“You’re not sleeping either.”

“That’s my age.”

Nancy sips her tea. I gulp mine down. It’s my first drink of the day.

“You’re all alone up at that end of the estate.”

I can’t answer. I’ve been too lonely to realise that I’m alone.

“Life’s too sweet to throw away.”

Then why does it taste so bitter?

She tries again, exasperated by my silence.

“What happened up there isn’t my business, but I can’t bear to watch you punishing yourself.”

I should be pilloried for my past. I should be stricken with shame, but I can’t tell Nancy that it’s not remorse that’s destroying me. It’s pining for you.

“You’re full of opinions.” It comes out as a growl but there’s no bite.

“You can stay here anytime. God knows I’ve room enough to spare.”

She opens a pack of biscuits and makes me eat one.

“Be careful out there on the hills, Grainne. You could turn your ankle and die up there and no one would know.”

• • • •

I kept a well-made bed, dressed with cotton sheets. Worthy of the time we spent upon it. Sunlight moved across our bare bodies, which moved across one another. Hands and mouths roamed over necks, chest, breasts, stomachs, genitals and thighs, stoking a deep ache that only you could sate.

Afterward, we lay like pashas on piles of pillows.

“I loved you from the first moment I saw you.”

“That’s a cliché.” I meant to tease you, but it sounded bitter.

“You don’t believe me. You don’t believe anything I say.”

“I do.”

I did believe you because I felt it too. From that first moment I wanted to open my arms to you. I wanted to open my legs to you. I promise it wasn’t just lust because I wanted to open my heart to you, too.

“I’m just someone you sleep with.”

“Dan, don’t play games to make yourself feel better.”

“You don’t need me, not that way I need you.”

“Of course I do.”

You thought yourself the more in love of the two of us. Not true. I hated sharing you. I hated not knowing when I’d see you or when you’d call.

“You’ve never asked me to leave her.”

“Do you want me to?”

“Yes.” You paused. “No.” Then: “I don’t know. I don’t love her. I did once. I can’t leave her now. Ben’s still so young. But wait for me, Grainne. Our time will come. I promise.”

“Don’t make promises.”

“I wish I’d met you first.”

I wish it all the time, for so many reasons.

• • • •

The shortcut to Acacia Drive goes through Boomtown’s underbelly. There’s a square that would’ve been a green but now it’s the brown of churned mud. It should’ve been flanked by shops. Some are only foundations, others have been abandoned at hip height. A few have made it to the state of squatting skeletons. Piles of rotted timbers and broken breeze blocks litter the verges. An upturned hard hat is full of dirty rainwater. A portable toilet lies on its side, and I get a whiff of its spilled contents.

I flip over a tin sign lying in the road and it lands with a clatter. I clean it with the hem of my shirt. Boom Developments, it exclaims. The symbol’s a crouched tiger, its stripes orange, green and white.

I go straight to bed when I get home, leaving my shopping in the hall. The once pristine sheets are creased and grey. I push my nose against the pillowcase but can’t smell you there, only my own unwashed hair. Frustrated, I strip the bed and lie down again. I touch myself in a ferocity of wanting, but it’s a hollow sham that ends in a dry spasm. I’ll not be moved. Not without you.

I put my walking boots and coat back on. I feel the reassuring weight of my torch in my pocket. My premium property backs onto open country. I open the gate at the bottom of my garden and walk out to where the land undulates and settles into long summer grasses that lean towards the hills.

Out here, away from the estate, nothing’s inert. Buzzing insects stir the grass. The wind lifts my hair and drops it. A chill settles in and I wish I’d worn another layer. I cross the stream, sliding on wet stones and splashing water up my jeans. The stream’s unconcerned. It has places to go.

The sun’s sinking fast. The sky is broken by a string of emerging stars as night arrives.

The ground rises and I have to work harder until I’m climbing on all fours onto the plateau. The hills crowd around to protect the Three Sisters. This trio of stones are eternal, bathed in sun and rain, steeped in the ashes of our ancestors. They’re more substantial than our bricks and mortar. They’ll sing long after our sagas are exhausted. They outshine our light.

The Sisters cluster together. They’re not angular, phallic slabs. Their Neolithic design looks daringly modernist, each shaped to suggest woman-hood. The smallest, which I think of as the youngest, has a slender neck and sloping shoulders. The middle one has a jutting chin and a swell that marks breasts. The eldest has a narrow waist and flaring hips. I touch each in turn. They’re rugged and covered in lichen. I put my ear against them, wanting to hear the sibilant whispers of their myths. I kiss their unyielding faces but they don’t want my apologies for ancestral wrongs. There’s only silence. They wait, of course, for us to abate.

I walk back home, not looking down, playing dare with the uneven ground. My torch stays in my pocket. You could turn your ankle and die up there and no one would know.

Death comes for me. It’s a white, soundless shape on the wing. A moon-faced barn owl, dome headed and flat faced. I’m transfixed. It swoops, a sudden, sharp trajectory led by outstretched claws. How small have I become that it thinks it can carry me away?

I’ve read that owls regurgitate their prey’s remains as bone and gristle. I laugh, imagining myself a mouse sized casket devoid of life.

The owl swoops low over the grass and heads for Boomtown. I press my sleeve to my cheek. Dizziness makes me lie down. The long grass surrounds me, reducing the sky to a circle. I don’t know how long I’m there, but cold inflames my bones. Eventually I get up and walk home, coming up Acacia Drive from the far end where the houses are unfinished. The street lamps can’t help, having never seen the light. I’m convinced it’s whispering, not the wind that’s walking through the bare bones of the houses. Now that I’ve survived the menace of the hills and fields, I allow myself my torch. What should be windows are soulless holes in my swinging yellow beam. The door frames are gaping mouths that will devour me.

I don’t look at the house but I feel it trying to catch my eye.

There’s something akin to relief when the road curves and I see the porch light of my home. It looks like the last house at the end of the world.

• • • •

You were in the shower sluicing away all evidence of our afternoon. Your clothes were laid out on the back of a chair. You were careful to avoid a scramble that might crumple your shirt or crease your trousers.

The gush of water stopped and you came in, bare, damp, the hair of your chest and stomach darkened swirls. You’d left a trail of wet footprints on the carpet. You weren’t shy. I enjoyed this view of you. The asymmetry of your collarbones and the soft, sparse hair on the small of your back. My fascination for you endured, as if I’d never seen a man before.

“When will they start work again?”

By they I’d meant the builders. The estate had fallen silent. No more stuttering engines, no more drills or shouting.

You’d been drying your chest. The towel paused, as if I’d struck you in the heart. I cursed my clumsiness.

“Soon. There’s been a bit of a hiatus in our cash flow. People are just a bit nervous, that’s all. Everything moves in cycles. Money will start flowing again.”

“Of course it will.” My optimism had a brittle ring.

You wrapped the towel around your waist in a sudden need to protect yourself, even from me.

• • • •

I wake in the afternoon, having lost the natural demarcations of my day. My cheek smarts when I yawn. I pick at the parallel scabs.

My mobile’s by my bed. I’ve stopped carrying it around. You never call. It’s flashing a warning that its battery is low. I ignore its pleas for power and turn it off.

I did get through to your number once. There was the sound of breathing at the other end. It wasn’t you.

“Kate,” I said.

The breathing stopped and she hung up before I could say I’m sorry.

You haunt me. I see your footprints on the carpet where you once stood, shower-fresh and dripping. I catch glimpses of you in the mirror and through the narrow angles of partially closed doors. These echoes are the essentials of my happiness. For that fraction of a second, I can pretend you’re here.

It’s rained while I slept. Everything drips. The ground’s too saturated to take all the water in. It’s not cleansed Boomtown, just added another layer of grime.

From the spare bedroom I can see the street. I put my forehead against the window, savouring the coolness of the glass. I tilt my forehead so I can see Helen’s house, further along the opposite side of Acacia Drive. The other house, the one where it happened, is out of sight, at the incomplete end of the road. It’s defeated me so far.

I slip on my boots and snatch up my coat. I shut my front door and freeze, the key still in the lock. Something’s behind me, eyes boring into my back. It waits, daring me to turn. I can feel it coming closer. I make a fist, my door key wedged between my ring and forefinger so that its point and ragged teeth are protruding. It’s a poor weapon, especially as I’ve never thrown a punch in my life. I turn quickly to shock my assailant, only to find it’s a cat shuddering in an ecstatic arch against the sharp corner of the garage wall. It’s not like other strays. The uncollared, unneutered, incestuous brood that roam around Boomtown are shy. This ginger monster’s not scared of anything. It fixes me with yellow eyes and hisses. It bares it fangs and postures. I hiss back but it stands its ground, leaving me to back away down the drive.

I find myself at Helen’s, which is stupid because Helen doesn’t live there anymore. The For Sale sign’s been ripped down and trampled on.

I walk around the house, looking through windows. It’s just a shell without Helen and her family, but evidence that it was once a home remains. The lounge’s wallpaper, a daring mix of black and gold. Tangled wind chimes hang from a hook by the kitchen door. There’s a cloth by the sink, as though Helen’s last act was to wipe down the worktops.

We used to stand and chat as her brood played in the road. When they got too boisterous she’d turn and shout, “Quit your squalling and yomping, you bunch of hooligans! Just wait until your dad gets back.” Then she’d wink at me and say something like, “He’s in Dubai this time. Not that they’re scared of him, soft sod that he is.”

I used to get the girls, Rosie and Anna, mixed up. Tom squealed as he chased his sisters. Patrick rode around us on his bike in circles that got tighter and tighter.

Patrick.

I’m sick of thinking about that day.

I’m sick of not thinking about it.

Today, I decide, today I’ll go inside the house where it happened.

It’s about twenty doors down from Helen’s. The chain link fence that was set up around it has long since fallen down and been mounted by ivy intent on having its way. The Three Sisters are reclaiming what’s theirs by attrition. There are lines of grass in the guttering of Boomtown, wasps’ and birds’ nests are uncontested in the eaves. Lilies flourish in ditches and foxes trot about like lonely monarchs. The Sisters will reclaim us too, our flesh, blood and bones.

I stand on the threshold of the past. A breeze moves through the house carrying a top note of mould and piss, then the threatening musk lingering beneath.

The house is gutless. One wall is bare plasterboard, the rest partition frames so I can see all the way through, even up into the gloom above. There used to be ladders but they’ve been removed.

From the doorway I can see the stain on the concrete floor. It’s a darkness that won’t be moved. The blackest part gnashes its teeth at me.

I put a foot inside and then the other. I realise my mistake too late. I’ve already inhaled the shadows. They fill up my nose and clog my throat. I can’t move. I can’t breathe. My lungs seize up. Something’s there. The darkness is moving.

The shadow rushes at me and takes my legs from under me. The ginger cat. It watches with yellow eyes as I land on my back. Everything goes black.

• • • •

I roll onto my side and retch. Acidic vomit burns my nose and throat. When I put a hand to the back of my head I find a boggy swelling. My hair’s matted and stuck to my scalp.

I stand, test my legs and find them sound. I get away from the house, to the middle of the road, but looking around I see I’m not alone. Company’s coming up the street. A trio of creatures that are neither men nor boys. One throws his empty beer can away and fingers his crotch when he sees me.

“You,” he says.

He’s skinny, grown into his height but yet to fill out. It occurs to me that he expects me to run. His face is hard. He’s gone past being abused into abusing.

“You’re the Boomtown Bitch.”

I turn my back and walk away at a deliberate pace.

“I’m talking to you.” I know without looking that he’s lengthening his stride to catch me. “Pull down your knickers and show us what all the fuss is about.”

My heart’s a flailing hammer. He’s done this before and is looking to initiate his friends, who seem less certain of themselves. I can see him reach out to grasp my shoulder in the far corner of my vision.

I strike before he can touch me. I jab at his eyes and rake at his face with dirty claws. I’m a moon-faced owl. I’ll regurgitate his carcass. I’m the feral feline who’ll jab his corpse with my paws. The boy’s screaming now, but I don’t stop. Even a chink of fear will let the others in, and I can’t fend off all three. My would-be rapist retreats. I must put him down before he gathers his wits and tries to save face. I advance, hissing and spitting like the ginger cat.

I am crazy, scarred and unkempt, a bloodied scalp and big eyes in the dark hollows of my face. I pick up a brick and run at him and to my relief, he sprints away.

They shout from a safe distance, taunts that I’m happy to ignore. I don’t look back as I walk away in case they realise I’m weak.

• • • •

I saw your outline through the glass of my front door. You were wearing your suit, even though it was a Saturday.

You weren’t alone. A boy stood before you. Even though you had your hands on his shoulders it took me a moment to realise it was your son. Ben. You were there in the shape of his mouth and chin. The other parts must’ve been your wife. I resented this child, this scrap of you and her made flesh.

“Miss Kennedy—” you mouthed sorry at me over Ben’s head “—I’ve come to see you about your complaint over the house.”

I wanted to laugh. You were a terrible actor.

“That’s good of you.”

“Apologies, I had to bring my son. Say hello, Ben.”

“Hello.” He squirmed in your grasp.

“I had to let you know I’d not forgotten you. Shall we make an appointment for next week?”

“Would you both like a drink?” I knelt before Ben, hating him because he was getting in our way. “Would you like to play outside? It’s a lovely day.”

I stood up and raised a hand, a plan already formed. “Patrick, over here.”

Helen’s brood were on their drive. Patrick cycled over. The bike was too small for him and his knees stuck out at angles.

“Meet Ben. Can he play with you?”

“Sure.” Patrick sat back on the saddle. He’d no need for deference, being older than Ben and on home turf. The other children stood on the far pavement, waiting to take their cue from their brother.

“As long it’s okay with your father, of course.” I couldn’t look at you. Please say yes. My longing was indecent. Even the children would see it.

You hesitated.

Please say yes.

“Ben—” you put a hand on his head “—stay with the other children on this road. Don’t stray.”

I could tell that you were proud of Ben and wanted me to see him, but a dull, creeping jealousy stole over me because of the trinity of Dan, Kate and Ben.

“This way,” Patrick beckoned and Ben followed, glancing back at you.

“I can’t stay long,” you said as I closed the door.

We raced upstairs.

“Won’t your neighbours wonder when they see Ben? Won’t they guess?”

“Who cares?”

I didn’t. I was too busy with your belt. There was a sudden shriek of laughter and I stopped you from going to the window by snatching at your tie and pulling you into the bedroom.

“Leave them. They’re enjoying themselves. So are we.”

You hesitated again and then undressed, your ardour cooled by the tug of parental love. I shoved you, ineffectual considering your size. Your carefully folded clothes enraged me. You’d brought your son to my door. You’d been honest about your life when you could’ve lied, but you’d been a coward and made the decision mine.

I shoved you again.

You picked me up and threw me on the bed. We grappled and when you understood I meant to hurt you, you held my wrists so I couldn’t mark you with my nails. You didn’t kiss me for fear I’d bite. I wish I’d known it was the final time. I wish we’d taken it slow. I’d have savoured the slip and slide, then the sudden sensation of you inside.

You dozed. I watched. Your breathing changed to slower, deeper tones. I treasured the minutiae of you, the banal details that made you real, like how you took your coffee, brushed your teeth, the slackness of your face in sleep.

The doorbell rang, a sudden sequence of chimes that struggled to keep up with the finger on the bell. A fist hammered at the door, followed by shouts. It went through my mind that it was your wife, that she’d followed you here spoiling for a fight. Then I recognised Helen’s voice. Its urgency boomed through the hall and up the stairs.

Silence. There’d been silence during our post-coital nap. No squeals or calls.

I snatched up my blouse, fingers stumbling over the buttons.

“Dan.” I reached for my skirt. “Dan, wake up.”

You sat up, dazed. “What is it?”

Helen, even in panic, saw the flagrant signs. The buttons of my blouse were done up wrong and I was bra-less beneath the sheer fabric. You’d followed me down the stairs with your tousled hair and bare feet.

“You’d better come. I’ve called an ambulance.”

You pulled on the shoes that you’d discarded by the door. You and Helen were faster than I as she led us to the empty houses. Three of the children were outside one of them. Rosie and Anna were red-faced from crying. Tom sat on the step beside them, staring at the ground.

“Stay here,” Helen ordered them, even though it was clear they weren’t about to move.

I followed you from light into the shade of the house. It took a few moments for my eyes to readjust. The coolness inside felt pleasant for a second, as did the smell of cut timber.

You and Helen squatted by the shattered body on the floor. Ben’s silhouette didn’t make sense, and I had to rearrange the pieces in my mind. His arms had been flung out on impact, but it was his leg that confused me. It was folded under him at an impossible angle that revealed bone, so white that it looked unnatural against the torn red flesh. Ben was a small vessel, his integrity easily breached.

“He must’ve fallen from up there.”

We looked up towards the eyrie that was the unfinished loft where Patrick perched astride a joist. A ladder spanned the full height of both floors, which is how they must’ve climbed so high. Helen’s husband was at the top, reaching for the whimpering boy.

A dark stain crept out from beneath Ben’s head. His eyes stared at nothing. There was an appalling sound. A dog’s howl, the scream of an abandoned child. The keening of something bereft and inconsolable. It grew until it filled the room. I realised it was you. I put a hand on your shoulder and said your name.

You shook me off.

I wake up on the sofa. It’s early and the grey light of dawn creeps through the parted curtains. Sleep’s not healed me. I smell of spoiling meat. There’s a dull throb in my head, but I can’t locate whether it’s in my eye, my teeth, or somewhere in between. I’m cold and clammy, as if in the aftermath of a drenching sweat.

I go to the mantel mirror. There’s enough light now to see that the marks on my cheek are raised, the scabs lifted by lines of pus. I touch one and it gives under gentle pressure, bringing relief and yellow ooze. The back of my head feels like it belongs to someone else.

I eat a dry cracker, drink a pint of water and then vomit in the kitchen sink. There’s a pounding now, at a different rate and rhythm to my headache. A drumming that escalates.

It’s outside the house.

Hooves thunder on the earth. Something’s racing through the grass, running towards the rising sun as if about to engage it in battle.

I go out to the road. Someone, perhaps my failed assailants from yesterday, have spray painted filthy graffiti across the front of my house. It doesn’t matter. The wind’s changed and is bringing something much fouler with it. Things left too long without light or laughter. Things nursing grudges and dwelling on outrages for too long. My heart pauses and restarts. The horse’s gallop makes me gasp. Its cadence changes as it hits the tarmac.

This nightmare is gleaming black. Its rolling black eyes are wild. It tosses its head about and snorts. I can’t look away. The mare slows to a canter as it approaches, circling me in rings that get tighter and tighter. It’s big, a seventeen hander, heavily muscled. It hits my shoulder on its next pass. When it turns and comes again I have to dodge it to avoid being knocked down.

Adh Seidh. A bad spirit. I’d be safe from its malice if I’d led an upright life.

It flattens its ears and flares its nostrils, then rears up before me and paws at the air as if losing patience. I try to edge to the safety of my open door but it kicks out again, forcing me to retreat. It follows at a trot. Each step jolts my head but I turn and run. When I shout for help my voice is faint from lack of use. There’s no one to hear it anyway.

I try and dart up Helen’s driveway but the horse isn’t confused by my sudden change in direction. It comes around me, right, then left. Lunging at me, kicking out if I stray. Herding me.

I’m panting. My chest’s tight and the stitch in my side’s a sharp knife. I want to lie down and die. To let it dance on me until I’m dust beneath its hooves.

I’m at the house now. The horse waits beyond the fallen chain link fence in case I try to bolt. I’ve been brought here to atone for my crimes. The only place I can go is that cold, dark hole.

Broken beer bottles and rubble crunches underfoot. Kids have been in here since my last visit. I feel hot again. Sweat stings my forehead. The past is too heavy. I can’t carry it anymore. The stain accuses me. It rises from the floor and spreads itself across the wall. It’s absolute, sucking all the light from the room. It smells my guilt and swells, emboldened. Its waiting is over. It’s Ben. It’s Kate. It’s you. It’s all the people I can’t face. It’s the Sisters, taken to the wing. They have hooves and paws studded with claws. They’re done with waiting. They’ve risen up to smother us.

They’re not out there on the hills. They’re not walking through the dying summer grass. They’re not lingering by the streams, fingers stirring the water.

They’re not out there. They’re in here.

Priya Sharma

Priya Sharma’s fiction has appeared in venues such as Interzone, Black Static, Nightmare, The Dark and Tor. She’s been anthologized in several of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series, Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror series, Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014, Steve Haynes’ Best British Fantasy 2014 and Johnny Main’s Best British Horror 2015. She’s also been on many Locus’ Recommended Reading Lists. “Fabulous Beasts” was a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and won a British Fantasy Award for Short Fiction. She is a Grand Judge for the Aeon Award, an annual writing competition run by Albedo One, Ireland’s longest-running and foremost magazine of the fantastic. A collection of some of Priya’s work, All the Fabulous Beasts, was released in 2018 from Undertow Publications. Her website is priyasharmafiction.wordpress.com.