“Let pain be my tether.
Let hate be my fuel.”
“We can take control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation.” – Memorandum from CIA mind control project, January 1952
The furious rattling of tin bells pulled him from his slumber; the little hammer struck against them in quick succession; so quick that each piercing crescendo of sound seemed to blend into one shrill, droning wail.
His hand flicked out reflexively before he had opened his eyes, shutting out the sound.
He had nothing to wake up for, and yet every night he wound the clock, and every morning it rang at eleven. But he never rose at that time. He was a creature of habit and routine; that was –he reasoned- the only tether of logic that bound him to the realms of sensibility.
Each morning, as that shrill wail rang out -echoing off the chip paper walls of his shoebox bedroom- he felt for a split second that he might be late for work. Relief would wash over him in waves when he remembered that he had not worked in years. His brief stint as a clerk at a post office had ended many years ago due to his illness, just as he had lost his place at Stanford University years before that.
As he lay back in his nest, his eyes crept open to stare at the elliptical crack in the ceiling above his bed, his relief at having no reason to get up slowly faded into a melancholy gnawing at his stomach. Perhaps that was why he continued to set the alarm; if nothing else, it would force him to wake, and if he woke, he might do something to upset the monotony of his life.
He removed the mask from his face, hanging it up on the bracket attached to the canister. The headphones –which did nothing to nullify the sound of the alarm- sat comfortably on his ears. He lifted them off and hung them over the cassette player. Briefly, he glanced across at the coin perched against the cassette player; an Irish Halfcrown, minted in 1937. On the reverse side stood a Celtic harp, and on the obverse side, a horse, which faced him every morning.
He’d sometimes look at the horse. He had memorised every detail of the coin. He noticed that the tip of the horse’s tail and the tip of the ears both touched the edge, with a gap of exactly one third of the perimeter. He’d even counted the ridges on the circumference of to confirm this. He looked at it for a moment, wondering why he preferred the horse to the Celtic harp. He mused on this for a moment, before the old familiar ache in his back forced him to squirm in his bed.
He had become accustomed to sleeping on his back; it was the only sleeping position that the apparatus for his sleep apnoea would allow. His head was muddled –more so than usual- and his heavy limbs implored him to remain in bed, but there was never a good time to get out of bed, and rising would be as difficult now as it would be if he waited for another hour or two.
He heaved himself into a sitting position and looked across at the brown glass of the bottle of pills sat on his bedside table; his mouth was dry, and he would need a glass of water to wash down his morning dose. Throwing his weary legs to the side, he clumsily reached for the bottle, gripping it in his palm.
As he stood and turned, he looked down at the bed. His fingers flexed outwards; the bottle clattered to the wooden floor below, rolling under the bed. A woman lay in the bed, her auburn hair obscuring her face.
He steadied himself against the wooden bedpost, his trembling legs threatening to betray his balance as his mind raced, desperate to pick up any scraps of memory from the night before. He took deep breaths, finding his feet. He did not drink alcohol very often –and when he did- it was only in small amounts, never to get drunk. What had he done last night?
He pressed his palm to his forehead, crushing his eyes closed, rolling dizzily through the incoherent streams of memory that meandered across his consciousness, but no tangible thought seemed to take shape, nothing to grasp at, no solid brick of truth from which he could piece together the reality with which he was now faced; just shapeless clay.
He should rouse her; but what kind of person would he appear to be if he had no idea who she was, or how she came to be sleeping next to him?
For the moment, he stood still, observing the woman. He remembered some advice his elderly neighbour Mrs Orange had given him during his childhood; if you don’t know what to do, at first, do nothing.
He looked at what he could see of the nape of her neck; a thin scarlet line seemed to shoot out against the ivory backdrop of her skin. Rallying his nerves, he crept around to the side of the bed in a strange ballet, cautious to avoid the squeaky floorboards to which he had become so acquainted.
He reached the bedside without making a sound, and carefully drew back her hair from her scalp. He recoiled when he looked down at her face; she was not ugly –objectively speaking- but something about her face struck him as grotesque. She was at least fifty, possibly older. Crow’s feet left their mark around her eyes, and her pursed lips carried entrenched wrinkles; her skin seemed dry, sagging slightly, and her hair had begun to grey at the scalp. A small mole sat above her top lip and light freckles peppered her cheeks, but these had begun to fade with age.
He had been intimate with a woman once before; but he could not recall how long ago that was. He vaguely remembered the experience, but had no recollection as to how it had come about. He had been in a bar downtown, a fair-haired woman had approached him out of the blue, and the next thing he remembered, he was mechanically grinding his hips against her in the bed.
He had not enjoyed the experience, nor –it seemed- had she. He could not remember her name, nor any of the details of her face or body, save for the fact that she had dirty blonde hair, and wore something blue. The next day, she had asked for money for a cab, which she promised she would pay back. He had never seen her again; he had not expected to. He envisioned that she had some ulterior motive for the encounter, one which he could not divine, and he had just been a supporting character in the story of her life.
He squeezed his eyes tight; what had been her name? Alice? Elizabeth? Alicia? Something beginning with a vowel.
He pressed his memory hard, trying to squeeze any drops of information from his brain. His mind snapped back to him on the bed, his face pressed over her shoulder, blonde hair tickling his face as he panted into the pillow, hoping the squeaking springs would not wake Mrs Orange next door. Now he was at a bar, sitting in a booth in the corner, watching the patrons lined up, ordering drinks. A smash of glass. A round of applause. The ice in his drink had nearly melted. He lifted the glass to his face and sniffed; bourbon. He didn’t drink bourbon, he didn’t even recognise the smell of it. Was this a dream or a memory, or some hybrid of the two? As he pushed harder for a solid memory, his head seemed to whir with a dull hum –a buzztone that induced anxiety- and at once he stopped. The whirring sound seemed to shake up his head and bleach his thoughts, as if to prevent him from thinking.
What had he been doing? Hunting for a name. Who’s name? Alice’s name? Alicia? Something beginning with A? Wait, was this the girl in blue or the…
His eyes snapped open and he looked down at the woman in his bed.
Who was she?
He tentatively reached out an index finger, and ran it down her cheek.
It was ice-cold.
He scrubbed at his skin with the rough side of the sponge. The water spluttered out, cold and powerful. He had to clean himself from head to toe, in every crease and crevice. He had to douse himself in the bitter, purifying chill of the water. He rubbed the sponge against himself compulsively, as if he might tear the skin away. The cold water ran over his head, spilling over his face and cascading down his shoulders. He had become too numb to notice his shivering. He hoped the cold would dispel the haziness, and allow him to grasp a thought, a memory, some sensory cue that would give him an idea as to what had occurred the night before, but nothing came to him.
A stinging pain shot up his arm as he ran the rough sponge over a scratch on his wrist. He opened his eyes, shutting off the tap and wiping the cold water from his face. Stepping out of the shower, he looked down at his right arm. Fresh blood mixed into the droplets of water at his wrist; the cuts were small but deep –there were four in total- each with the unmistakeable curve of a fingernail.
He stood in front of the mirror and inhaled deeply, before drying himself furiously with a rough towel. He embedded his thoughts in the cold mechanical repetition of his morning routine. First, he would awaken to his alarm clock, then he would allow his hazy thoughts to settle before rising from his bed. He’d grab his bottle of pills, remove two, and take them to the bathroom, where he would wash them down with cold water. Then he’d take a shower, and then dry himself with a towel, meticulously removing all moisture from his body and hair. He would then brush his teeth, and –noticing the box of cotton swabs on the sink- he’d remove the wax from his ears. This would cause him to turn his head, first to the right, and then to the left, where he’d see a box of laundry detergent; this would remind him to do his laundry, if it needed to be done.
He buried himself in the meditative mundanity of his routine, surrendering all thoughts temporarily to the hum drum activities he needed to complete.
After completing his morning routine, he put on fresh clothes and returned to the bedroom, creeping once more with great trepidation. He slowly pulled down the blanket, revealing fresh scratch marks and reddened bruising around the neck.
He backed away softly, conscious to avoid the creaking floorboards as he did so. As he exited his room, his mind seemed to find a temporary tranquillity. He put on his coat and hat, and stepped outside of the apartment. He would go down to the shop and buy today’s newspaper.
As he took his first step across the hallway to the stairwell, he heard the turning of a brass door handle and the clicking of a lock, followed by the creaking of hinges. He turned to see his neighbour –Mrs Orange- slowly opening her door.
He met her gaze, “Morning, Mrs Orange!” He said, with a vigour that surprised even himself.
Mrs Orange lived at the end of the corridor, right next to him. Her door was elevated slightly above his, and three small steps raised the corridor at the end. When he was a child, he used to call her the ‘upstairs neighbour’.
She smiled at him, “Vinnie! How are you today?”
He smiled warmly at his elderly neighbour; musing for a moment why he addressed her as ‘Mrs Orange’ and she addressed him as ‘Vinnie’; he saw her almost every day, and yet still referred to her by her formal title, and he had been known as ‘Vince’ or ‘’Vincent’ since he was about ten years old.
“I was just going to go and get –go and buy- the morning newspaper.” He said, the sentence sounding alien in his mouth, “Do you want one?” he offered, “Oh no, actually you can just borrow mine after I’ve read it, if you want…” He trailed off, glancing down at the faded red mat which sat outside Mrs Orange’s door; some image adorned the mat, but it had washed-out over time into an indiscernible blob, he mused for a moment over what it might be. A cat perhaps? Mrs Orange had never owned a cat as long as he’d known her.
He looked up, feeling the warmth of a cup of tea in his hands. Mrs Orange sat in the armchair opposite him. He fidgeted on the couch, inhaling deeply. Mrs Orange’s apartment always smelled slightly musty, with a subtle hint of boiled vegetables and roasted meat.
He took a sip of his tea; the taste was sweet and rich, with a hint of something he simply could not put his finger on; vanilla or almond maybe? He wondered for a moment if it was the bags she bought, or the way she brewed it; he could never replicate the same taste at home.
“…and the pipes are still rattling, but only when I put the boiler on.” Mrs Orange continued.
He nodded, hoping that she had not noticed he had not heard the beginning of her tirade.
“Any idea why that might be?” She asked, taking a sip of her tea.
“Erm…” he muttered, “Not sure, the inlet pipe or something…” he trailed off, “It’s working fine at my place.”
Mrs Orange was spry for her age; most of the elderly people in the building hobbled about the place with sticks and frames, but Mrs Orange seemed to take small hasty steps wherever she went, darting to-and-from the kitchen with tea, cookies and small cakes. Her hair was a dark grey, which she covered with a green woollen hat when she went out. She would often wear layers of wool even inside, frugally refusing to turn the heating on unless absolutely necessary.
“I had the man from downstairs take a look at it, the big guy -you know- what was his name? With the moustache? Alan or Aaron or something?”
He shrugged, he was sure he’d never met the man she was talking about before.
“Well he took a look at it, and he said…”
His mind drifted once more as he took another small sip of his tea. His life seemed to be a series of events with no logical connection, loose pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which he could not put together into any discernible order.
He set his tea down, careful to place it upon the coaster. He remembered that much; Mrs Orange was very particular about coasters. She did not care for marks on her table. He remembered a time when he was a child; she’d snapped at him for spilling a cup of juice on it.
“…I don’t even think he’s a qualified plumber really, a jack-of-all-trades and a master of…”
He blinked hard; what was he here for? He’d been going to get the morning paper, he saw Mrs Orange in the hallway, and then…
He stood up, “Sorry Mrs Orange,” he said, making to excuse himself, “I have to go and get the paper, I’ll be back soon. Do you want anything from the shop?”
He didn’t recall walking up the steps, or brushing his feet against the red mat outside, as she always insisted he did. Perhaps he’d become so accustomed to the routine that he had learned to tune it out.
Mrs Orange looked up at him for a moment. After cutting her off mid-sentence, she had a look on her face which was –not offended- but slightly perturbed.
“Stay,” she said, “Finish your tea at least.”
“Oh…” He said, looking down at the steaming, half-empty cup, “Actually, I’m alright for now. Did you say you wanted anything from the shop?”
Mrs Orange smiled, “No, I’m quite alright, thank you.”
As he left the apartment, he exhaled deeply. All at once, the image of the auburn lady in his bed scorched into his mind, and panic gripped him.
He stood over the body. His head throbbed, as once more his thoughts became jumbled. He looked down at the woman, her eyes seemed to have begun to sink into the skull, and the skin had become sallow and jaundiced; it looked soft, as though it could be peeled away. The wrinkles were deeply entrenched, as if she had aged in the time he had spent with Mrs Orange. The bruising around her neck seemed to have spread, becoming darker and heavier. The longer he looked at her, the more frightful her appearance became.
The thin duvet covered her like a shroud, one which he dared not disturb. Though he could see the fabric of a red dress rising up to her neck and shoulder, suggesting she was fully clothed.
At once, he ran his hand up his coat sleeve to scratch at his wrist; the cuts had scabbed over, and beneath them he felt an almost pestilent irritation. He rubbed the scabs, feeling them peel away; miniscule trickles of blood came out from under them.
He made his way to the phone, gripping it tightly in his hand and rotating the dial with his finger and watching it slowly wind back to its position. After he’d entered in the correct sequence of numbers, he listened to the soft pulsing tone in the background; a series of pips and pauses, some tones long and others short.
After three rings, a voice answered.
“Eddie, it’s Vince.” He cleared his throat, “Are you busy?”
“Not really, why? What’s up?”
“Can you come over? It’s important. Sorry. Keep it quiet.” He stammered, “I mean, don’t bring anyone with you.”
Eddie paused for a moment, “Vince, what’s going on?”
“Just… please come over when you can. But soon.”
Time seemed to drift slowly as he waited for Eddie to arrive; he’d locked the door to his bedroom just in case. He paced about anxiously, performing a strange dance as he avoided the loose floorboards; focusing on the activity seemed to provide an unusual form of meditation. As he focused on the monotonous task his anxiety began to slowly fade. He continued this strange ritual, until a sudden perishing thirst possessed him. He wanted a cup of tea, he was craving the caffeine, but he could never get it right. It was not like the tea that Mrs Orange made, his tea seemed –by comparison- watery and flavourless. It occurred to him at once that he had not taken his anaemia medication.
He walked towards his bedroom door, twisting the handle but finding it locked. He fumbled for his key before pausing. Why had he locked the door?
It was a precaution. He couldn’t let Eddie just wander in and see the body on his bed. But his medication was on his bedside table. No, it had rolled under the bed after he’d dropped it this morning. What time was it? The only clock he owned was the alarm clock on his bedside table.
Three raps at the door jolted him from his thoughts. He moved to the door and opened it hastily, stepping back to allow Eddie to enter.
Eddie entered the apartment and removed his brown coat and hat. He was a large man with a warm and welcoming face. He seemed to carry with him an air of confidence that Vince admired and envied in equal measure. Eddie was –for the most part- his only real tie to the world outside; through Eddie, he lived vicariously, listening to his stories and imagining them as if he was there in his shoes.
Eddie’s hair had begun to grey in small parts, and his laughter lines and wrinkles were more pronounced; but he was by no means an unattractive man. Vince actually considered his own comparably youthful features to be a sign of his own failures. Eddie’s face was wrought with character and experience; he had lived, laughed and loved, and this could be seen in his eyes and face. Vince by comparison had little to show for himself; his face was neutral; his only discernible feature was his eyes -which were deep and vacuous- and the heavy bags which surrounded them.
Some part of him knew that Eddie only associated with him through moral obligation; they had been friends since childhood, they’d gone to University together and briefly worked together at the post office, but whilst Vince’s illness had forced him into an early retirement, Eddie had graduated, and had become relatively successful at a local law firm, Rose & Miller.
“Here,” Eddie said, handing him a newspaper, “it’s today’s paper.”
Vince looked down at a story on the front cover:
“July 24, 1975.
Rescue effort fails
Boston firefighter Robert O’Neill was seconds away from rescuing a woman and child from an apartment building fire, Tuesday, when the fire escape collapsed, plunging the pair five stories to the ground. Diana Bryant, 19, was killed and Tiare Jones, her goddaughter, was rushed to a hospital where she is in a fair condition.”
When he set down the newspaper, he found himself sat at the kitchen table. With heightened nerves, his fingers began to tremble, and he rubbed the scabs on his wrist incessantly. Eddie was remarkably perceptive, and had discerned how he was feeling; consequently, he’d taken on the role of host, and was in the kitchen preparing two cups of tea.
When he returned, he set a cup of tea on the coaster before him. Vince gripped the cup and drank hastily; as the warm liquid passed through his gullet, he felt his anxiety melting slowly.
Eddie sipped from his cup before setting it down on the green coaster in front of him, “Alright Vince.” He said, sitting upright in the chair, “What’s got you all worked up then?”
Vince looked across at Eddie’s welcoming face; there was something in that gentle face that implored him to impart his trust. He had never had cause to question Eddie’s loyalty or compassion for him. When Eddie smiled, winked, nodded or laughed, Vince seemed to find himself mimicking him reflexively, as though his moods and mannerisms were contagious.
“What happened last night?” Vince asked.
“Last night?” Eddie grinned, “I could ask the same to you, Mr Chambers.”
Vince suppressed a nervous grin he felt forming on his face, looking down at the floor, fearing that it may be misinterpreted.
“No I mean…” He said, “You know how my anaemia… and I don’t sleep well… it makes my memory fuzzy, did you –did we– drink? Because I can’t have alcohol and-”
“-Vince, Vince!” Eddie interrupted his muddled sentence, “One step at a time.”
Vince exhaled deeply, still clutching his cup, “I can’t remember anything about last night.”
“Really?” Eddie nodded, “Why am I not surprised?”
Vince took a sip of his tea, feeling his anxiety melt further, before setting the cup on the coaster.
“You were drinking,” Eddie explained, “bourbon if I recall correctly.”
“Never had it before, have you Vince?”
Vince shook his head, eyeing his teacup once more.
“Well, let me tell you, it’s the devil’s nectar!” Eddie sniggered, “and it brings out the devil in you my friend.”
“What happened?” Vince asked.
Eddie leaned back in his chair, “We went for a drink in Palo Alto, some hotshot from the Valley of Heart’s Delight walked in and bought everyone in the bar a shot of bourbon and wouldn’t leave until they were all gone… and I guess that’s where your memory ends.”
He nodded, decidedly trying to disguise the fact that he had no recollection of the hotshot, or even leaving the apartment.
“The last time I saw you,” Eddie said, “you were heading off somewhere with a redhead. An older girl, but nothing to-”
“-she’s still here!” He blurted out.
“Really? Vincent Chambers, you dog!” Eddie said, his eyes widening in surprise as he leaned forward in his chair, “In your bedroom? Still? Bit of a late sleeper isn’t she? It’s almost-”
“-She’s dead!” Vince squeaked, almost forcing the confession from his mouth.
Eddie recoiled backwards, his hands trembling slightly, “Dead? What do you mean? How?” He stammered.
“I woke up this morning, and she was dead.” Vince’s lips trembled, “I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember a thing. I don’t.”
24th December 1939
Ashtown, Dublin, Ireland
She placed the thick red candle on the windowsill. Blades of bitter wind coursed through the gaps in the frames, rattling the window in a manner that imitated a sharp knocking sound.
She struck a match and placed it to the wick, watching the flame grow steadily, illuminating the corners of the dusty attic. It had been three months since The Emergency had been declared.
As the window rattled, the flame danced, enduring the bluster just barely, before rising up once again as the rattling subsided.
She looked out of the window as the sun began to set. The candle would guide the spirit of the Virgin Mary out of the cold winter night, and into the house.
She looked around the attic. As the last light from the setting sun began to die away, the only light came from the flickering red candle. She plucked a coin from her pocket –a silver Halfcrown she’d been given by her father two years ago, for her sixteenth birthday- and allowed the light to bounce off it. In the reflection of the coin, she could see the light of the meagre flame battling against the wind, and hoped that it would last until midnight.
On the obverse side, a Celtic harp stood out, flanked by the words Saorstát Éireann; the Irish Free State. Her father would tell her stories of the war of independence, and the rebellion of the republic against the crown forces. The war –he said- did not end with the Anglo-Irish treaty. It would not end until the country was united, independent and free; and that would only come with great sacrifice and blood.
The house lay four kilometres from Dublin City Centre, north of the River Liffey. Her father was prone to long periods of absence; sometimes he’d be gone for weeks at a time. When he returned, he would often be wearing the same clothes, darkened with sweat, and sometimes bearing noticeable specks of blood. He always looked so unkempt when he returned from his work; though his outgrown beard often made him look softer, his mannerisms were anything but. Each time he returned, his hands would tremble, and his eyes would dart about rapidly, frequently towards the door. And when he sat, it was always with his back to the wall.
Her mother died when she was very young, so young that she had no tangible memory of her. She had heard stories about her from her father; she was an indomitable woman, born with a fire that the defiant adore and the subjected lament. He told her of a time when she’d slashed the cheek of a British Fascist, leaving him with a deep scar running from his earlobe to his neck. Sometime during the war, that scarred fascist had defected to Germany. Now his shrill voice could be heard on shortwave radio, spouting propaganda to anyone who listened.
She placed the coin back in her pocket, and watched the suffering candle. He’d been away for twenty days now; perhaps tonight, the candle would guide him safely home.
With tentative footsteps, she descended the attic stairs, making her way to her bedroom. The magazine fort at Phoenix Park –not so far from where she lived- had been attacked just the night before. Huge caches of ammunition had been taken; and even in their quiet street, the Garda Síochána presence was noticeably higher.
Her room was small, dimly lit and cold. In the winter, it became damp and musty, and often she would make the unenviable choice of opening the window to disperse the mustiness -and suffering the perishing cold that came with it- or keeping the window firmly shut and burying herself within her blanket. More often than not, she chose the latter.
She extinguished the small candle she carried to guide her way, pulling the blanket from her bed and wrapping it around her. Crouching down, she peeked out of the window at the street. She watched the Garda passing by, with their dark, buttoned uniforms and stiff hats turned down. Her father’s voice became noticeably rougher when he spoke of the ‘Guards’, as if the very mention of them was abrasive to the tongue.
The rattling of keys. Someone was coming in through the back door. She froze, her eyes widening. It was happening.
She dropped to the floor, rolling under the bed as she listened to the back door creak open. She lay perfectly still, holding the blanket to her mouth to stifle her heightened breathing.
Heavy booted footsteps approached. The bedroom door opened quickly.
“Norah,” her father’s voice came through, “are you in here?”
She breathed a sigh of relief, “Under here.” She said, shuffling from her hiding place.
She looked up at him; worry lines across his forehead, as if carved into bedrock.
“Pack your things and get your sister,” he said, “we have to go. Now.”
Eddie and Vince stood at the end of the bed, looking down upon the auburn lady. In the time it had taken Eddie to steady himself to the reality of the situation, Vince had retrieved his anaemia medication from the bedside table and dry swallowed two pills. The waxy coating stuck to the inside of his mouth, and he had to force them down with what little saliva he could muster. He picked up the Halfcrown, looking at the horse, then flipping it over and looking at the Celtic harp, before slipping it into his pocket and turning his attention to Eddie.
“I have to turn myself in,” Vince spoke, “I have to.”
Eddie placed a hand on Vince’s shoulder, “Vince, listen…” He spoke softly, “You can’t be sure you did this. There’s no evidence. Turning yourself in… what good would that do?”
“I’m a killer.” Vince’s voice croaked.
“You’re not a killer Vince,” Eddie said, rubbing his shoulder, “you’re not dangerous, you’re a kind and gentle soul. Prison is no place for you –not with your illness- and giving a false confession won’t bring her back.”
“I don’t know…” Vince’s throat began to ache, “I don’t know why I would do this.”
“Who says you did?” Eddie said, opening his palms, “You don’t know the full story, there could be any explanation.”
Vince looked up at Eddie, his eye brimming with tears, “Even if I didn’t do it. She was a person, she had a family-”
“-You don’t know that.” Eddie interrupted.
“Everyone came from somewhere, right?” Vince blinked, wiping his eyes, “From someone?”
He paused, wondering if the inflection at the end of the sentence meant he was asking a question.
Eddie tipped his face forwards, “Vince.” He said, demanding his attention, “I’m trying to help you. For your own sake, you need to keep it together. They’ll take you away Vince. They’ll take you to the home.”
A burning ache spread all the way from his forearms to his shoulders, complemented by an acute pain in his back. Eddie stood beside him, the pair of them sticky with sweat and soil. He rested against the spade for a moment, looking up at the night sky. Vertiginous clouds swirled above, rising in hues of dark purple and grey; behind them a waning gibbous moon rose in the East, obscured slightly by a large Redwood tree beside the grave.
“I’ll be back,” Eddie panted, “wait right here.”
They’d wrapped her body in sackcloth and tied it with string. The sackcloth was made of coarse goat’s hair, and scratched at his hands as they wrapped it around her body. Eddie told him that the sackcloth and string would disintegrate quickly, and would not impede the mortification of the flesh.
Vince’s abhorrence at the grotesqueness of the body stood in stark contradiction to his inability to look away from it. As Eddie carefully removed the dress and disposed of it, Vince’s wide-eyes took in every imperfection, every blemish and every scar, of which there were many.
The auburn lady had a mole on her upper lip, and below the bruising around her neck, her shoulder bore thick scarring, as though caused by a burn, even a bullet. Her skin was freckled, and her lower abdomen bore the scars of the scalpel and stitches, and the thickened, darkened skin of seared flesh.
Vince had surmised that –upon committing to the action of disposing of the body- Eddie had become nervous. He had taken to some heavy exhales whilst they prepared her, as if he had been trying to limit his breath. When he spoke, his words were unusual, stammered and somewhat archaic; as though he spoke just to fill the silence. What alarmed Vince, was his own detachment to the situation, as though the pair of them were simply completing a household chore; unblocking a drain or bleeding a radiator.
Vince looked down at the dirt, dimly lit by the headlights from Eddie’s Ford Pinto.
One metre below his feet, the auburn lady rested. The proteins of her body would slowly break apart, leaving nothing but soft, putrefied flesh and stained bone; and in that chamber of cold earth and rocks, she would stay for eternity.
My lady’s chamber.
Eddie appeared, carrying with him uprooted huckleberry plants.
“We’ll plant these saplings here,” he said, setting them down. “They’ll take root quickly and disguise the loose earth.”
The two men set to work planting the huckleberries, covering the patch that had been dug out, and the area surrounding it. By the time they were done, there was no trace of any fresh digging.
Eddie moved to the boot of the Pinto, rummaging around for a bottle of water and a cloth.
Beside the cluster of huckleberries, the large Redwood towered over them. Vince moved towards the tree, running his hand along the coarse bark, listening to Eddie as he continued to search for the cloth.
Vince turned away from the tree, “Yes?”
Eddie threw him a bottle of water, “Wash your face and hands, get the soil off.” He handed him a cloth, “On the drive back, we want to look clean and composed, got it?”
Vince nodded, splashing water on to the cloth and wiping his face. When the pair were clean, they returned to the car, started the ignition and drove away.
The drive back was silent. There was nothing that needed to be said.
Vince was just thankful that Eddie had not seen the Halfcrown he’d embedded in the bark of the tree.
The glass in his hand was cold. What was left of the icecubes floated on the top of the dark liquid. He raised the glass to his nose and inhaled, the smoky scent of the bourbon made him heave.
“…that’s an example of aggressive generosity.”
Eddie sat across the booth from him, swirling the glass in his hand, which was almost empty.
“It’s like he’s trying to prove something. Almost like a toast -but in reverse- if that makes sense. He’s not buying you a drink, he’s buying a toast to himself. A celebration of his own success; thinks himself something of a hotshot I suppose. Well, I’m not complaining, as long as I get a free drink out of it. Speaking of which, are you going to finish that?”
Vince looked down at the dark liquid, the taste on his tongue told him that he’d had a sip or two, but the idea of finishing the glass had become an exercise in endurance.
“Take it.” Vince said, pushing the drink across the table towards Eddie, “I’m not so keen on scotch.”
“Yeah. I’m not supposed to drink alcohol. I think.”
“You think too much.” Eddie laughed, “And drinking is a brief respite from thinking. You know, it occurred to me…” He said, taking a sip of the Bourbon, “…you ever walked around a residential area in early November, and seen all the rotting pumpkins left over from…”
Vince’s eye wandered over to the bar, the lights appeared to dim as he did so. The people at the bar looked almost stationary, like mannequins that had been placed there just to make the place look busy. Dressed in drab grey and black, the figures seemed to be facing odd angles, such that nobody’s face was directly visible.
As his eyes moved across to the end of the bar, the lights seemed to briefly flash over a woman at the end of the bar. Her red dress seemed to glow like an ember; her hair hung over her shoulders in thick curls, contrasting her pale skin. His eyes traced their way all the way up to hers, which were transfixed on him.
He met her gaze for less than a second, before looking away meekly. He turned back to face Eddie.
“…Nikolai, or Anna, even Ivan, or Mikhail! Or Ivan, Nikolai and Anna,” his voice sounded deeper than usual, “for seven days and four months –one to four– or even three to five hours, stuck on the seven four…”
Vince shook his head, “Sorry, what?”
Eddie lowered his glass, “What about what?”
“You were talking about…”
“Ah it’s nothing,” Eddie smiled, his voice chirpy and jovial, “just rambling about work.”
Vince turned once more to face the bar. The auburn lady was gone.
Music played from the jukebox. A folk song?
Oh, ’tis my delight on a shining night, in the season of the year.
He clapped his hands over his ears, as a piercing screech ripped through the bar. It was coming from the jukebox.
Vince clamped his eyes tightly, the sound seemed to tear through his auditory canal like a bullet. Rattling his brain, galvanising it like a corpse. He felt his head tip forward, and the solid knock of his forehead against the table, as the sound died away.
Cold water ran over his hands, numbing them to the bone. How long had he been washing his hands for? He looked down at the basin; his pale, wrinkled hands were wringing one another almost autonomously.
The water seemed not to rush out of the tap, but to ooze out like a gel. He withdrew his hands, twisting the tap off.
He looked in the mirror. Dark heavy bags hung around wide eyes. Dark pupils cut through him, as though they were not his own. His teeth bared against the backdrop of a gaunt face, like an emaciated, starving beast.
The red-striped tiles on the wall; he recognised them. He was still in the bar. He must have gone to the toilet. He turned his head to the left, yet his reflection remained stationary.
He turned back to face the unfamiliar creature in the mirror, locking eyes with his reflection. The face was his own, and yet it was unfamiliar. In the eyes, a palpable malevolence existed.
Hands grabbed him by the collar; the reflection pulled him towards the mirror.
“Goosey goosey gander, whither shall I wander? Upstairs and downstairs and in my lady’s chamber. There you’ll find a bag of sack, and a sprig of ginger…”
The reflection pulled him with such ferocity that when his head struck the mirror, shards burst outwards across the restroom; dropping like bright snowflakes, jingling softly as they bounced along the ground.
He reeled backwards, watching as the shards of glass twirled through the air, before slowly falling to the floor.
As the sound of shattering glass slowly died away, another sound began to rise in the distance; a shrill intermittent buzzing which seemed to be slouching towards him, pace by pace, getting louder with each sounding. He cast his eyes back to the shattered mirror, to his reflection, which had shattered with it. One thousand dark pupils stared back at him, tormenting him.
The shrill buzztone approached, filling him with anxiety. He turned around, desperate to leave the room, but as he made his way to the door, he felt his arms and legs becoming heavy, as if the air around him were liquid. He pushed forwards, stretching his legs outward, desperate to propel himself away, as the pitch and volume of the buzztone rose.
At once, the door to the restroom opened, and the auburn lady entered.
He stood, frozen to the spot. She moved towards him, gliding across the ground in an ethereal manner.
“I’ve been searching for you Vinnie.” She spoke, extending her hand, “I’ve come to take you home.”
Vince backed away from the woman, “You won’t take me,” he stammered, his words slurred and incoherent, the buzztone rising in his ears.
“You won’t take me!”
The shrill tone blasted his ears, causing him to crumble to the floor.
14th, July, 1940
Cloonagh, County Sligo, Ireland
Norah turned the Halfcrown over in her hand, looking down at the Celtic harp. When she was young, her father had told her tales of their ancestor; the one from whom they got the surname HIfearnáin. He was a blind poet, with entirely white skin and hair, and red pupils. He wrote poetry in amhrán metre, and played the harp. He sang songs of love and war; songs of the Jacobite rebellion, and of hearts torn asunder.
He was –according to her father- the first to speak of Caitlín ní Uallacháin, the personification of the Emerald isle.
Caitlín –or Kathleen- as Anglicisation had rendered the name, was an elderly woman, the living avatar of Ireland. Kathleen was eternal; rejuvenated and made immortal through the continual sacrifice of young Irish men, who went willingly to fight and die for her.
She placed her eye to the hole in the wall, the one which led to the next room. From her position, she could see her father –the veins on his temples bulging- and his sunken-eyed, bespectacled companion, Jim O’Sullivan.
Mr O’Sullivan made her stomach turn; his visits to the house had become more frequent. He would walk into the house without wiping his muddied boots, casting his eyes at her in a manner that mixed lechery and contempt, before nodding his head for her to leave the room. He had looked at her sister in the same manner when they lived in Ashtown.
Though his mannerisms revolted her, the churning in her stomach precipitated by his presence came largely from the effect he had on her father. After each meeting, he seemed to pace about restlessly. It seemed that Mr O’Sullivan always brought with him troubling news.
She took the Halfcrown, and delicately wedged it into the hole so that it fit snugly. Carefully, she picked up a glass tumbler and placed it against the wall. Putting her ear to the base of the glass, she could hear the hushed conversation they were having; a trick she’d learned two years previously.
“The guards took almost everything.” Her father said, “I said we wouldn’t be able to store it. Where were we to keep that much ammunition? The raid was a failure.”
“It is not for us to know how far the ripples of our actions go.” Jim responded in a raspy voice, “and the Christmas raid created waves,” he continued, “waves that crashed on the shores of Berlin.”
She adjusted the glass, pressing her ear hard against the base.
“Berlin doesn’t have a shoreline, you realise?”
“It’s a metaphor.” Jim responded, “Some good might come out of the Emergency yet. An emissary from the Abwehr by the name of Görtz was airdropped in. The landing went awry, he landed in the south and ended up losing his radio transmitter. Still, he marched for five days to Dublin. He’s waiting in one of our safehouses.”
She listened to her father sigh, “And what does Görtz want from us?”
“The same thing we do –an end to the partition- the enemy of the enemy is surely a friend, wouldn’t you agree?”
“You’re talking about allying ourselves with the Reich.” Her father spat, “I have no love for the crown, and no love for Mr Hitler.” Her father said, “No good can come of this.”
“Surely though you have love for our people,” Jim continued, “we go on to the bitter end, and if the Germans can help us get there quicker then we’d be foolish not to strike a deal with them. Why should the Irish be the only ones to sacrifice themselves for Kathleen?”
“Because we are the Irish!” Her father spat, “And this is our Ireland. I will not risk my life –nor denigrate the fallen- to become a puppet state of the Reich.”
A moment passed, “They’re offering us arms, weapons, soldiers.” Jim continued, “With the Wehrmacht’s backing, we could have the war won within a year.”
“And what do they want from us?”
“They want us to stop targeting civilians.” Jim explained, “And focus on military installations in the north.”
Her father clicked his tongue, and she could hear him pacing about softly, “A gesture of goodwill then. Let us direct the S-Plan as they wish. But we must have assurances. I will not trade one oppressor for another.”
The light in the office was soft and warm, which matched the temperature perfectly. His shoeless feet brushed gently against the carpet as he nestled himself into the couch.
The ambience of the room was serene and relaxing, almost lulling him into a light sleep -and he might have slept- had he not been transfixed by the one object which adorned the wall of the minimalist office; a framed degree in Behavioral Science from Stanford school of medicine.
The door clicked open, and Dr Leanne Veritas entered. Her pace slowed rapidly, as she removed her shoes, and almost tiptoed into the room. Vince had seen her outside of the office once or twice, marching quite purposefully from one errand to another. When she entered the office, her manner was entirely different. She moved slowly, spoke softly, and smiled warmly.
“Sorry for the delay,” she said, taking her seat in a rotating leather armchair, “are you comfortable? Would you like some water?”
Vince shook his head softly, turning his attention away from the framed degree on the wall and meeting Leanne’s soft gaze. She wore small, square black-rimmed glasses, which were rounded at the corners. The lenses made her seem almost doe-eyed and docile -and yet conversely- her eyes seemed to capture his attention magnetically.
She had been keeping him waiting, but he was not sure for how long. Time seemed to slow down in the office, and he enjoyed spending his time there. He lamented the end of each session, when he’d be led to the door, and out into the stark, cold-white lighting of the reception. Reality seemed to rush up on him, like he’d had cold water thrown in his face.
“So,” Leanne leaned forwards in her chair, opening her palms, “last week we were talking about your anaemia medication.”
“Oh, yes.” Vince stumbled, “It’s… it’s alright.”
“You’re not experiencing stomach troubles anymore, since we changed the medication?”
“No no.” Vince said, unable to recall his complaints, “No, it’s fine.”
“Because you said last time that you were having unusual bowel movements.”
Vince blinked, breaking his gaze for a moment, he cast his mind back to a few weeks previously. A feeling conjured itself up on the forefront of his consciousness; his stomach rumbling violently within an hour of taking his medication.
“Yes, that’s right.” Vince said, “But no, this new batch seems to have sorted the problem out.”
“Oh good,” Leanne spoke, “I’m glad to hear it.”
Vince nodded, “Thanks Dr Veritas.”
“Please,” she smiled, “You can call me Leanne, there’s no need for formalities in here.”
“Yes –of course- thanks Leanne.”
“-and you’re eating enough Iron? Plenty of dark leafy vegetables, beans, and nuts? You told me you weren’t so keen on raisins, prunes, and that sort of thing?”
“Erm, yeah.” Vince said, his eyes drifting up to the certificate once more, as he wondered what she meant by that sort of thing.
A moment passed, as Vince admired the old-fashioned font of the degree certificate, deducing that it was done to give an air of majesty to the certificates.
“You seem a little listless.” Leanne said, interrupting Vince’s arbitrary thoughts, “Is something on your mind?”
“No, nothing.” Vince said hastily, immediately cursing himself for being so quick to deny any unusual thought.
“What are you thinking about Vince?”
“Nothing important.” He said, shuffling slightly on the couch.
She would gently coerce him to speak until she was satisfied he was not obscuring anything he was struggling with. He knew this, and after a few seconds, decided to simply explain his undeveloped thoughts.
“I was just looking at your degree from Stanford up there.” He said, nodding towards the wall, “I was admiring the font; looks quite –I don’t know- regal.”
Leanne grinned, “Regal?”
“Is that the right word?”
“It’s a very nice way to describe a font.”
Vince sighed, “Was it hard?”
Leanne cocked her head slightly, “Was what hard?”
“Studying at Stanford.”
“Well,” she leaned back, “it certainly wasn’t easy. It’s a lot of hard work, but any endeavour that’s worthwhile comes with challenges. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know.” Vince blinked, “I studied at Stanford for a semester.”
“Yes, you told me. You studied Engineering, didn’t you?”
“I’d hardly say I studied.” Vince said, dipping his head, “I didn’t even turn in one paper.”
Leanne adjusted her glasses before leaning forwards, “You were very sick Vince,” She said warmly, “just getting accepted into Stanford is something you should be immensely proud of.”
“People keep telling me that,” He said, looking down at his hands, “but the reality is this; I’ve done nothing with my life. I wake up every morning, take my medication, and wallow in my own self-pity. I have no friends-”
“-you have Edward don’t you?”
“Yeah. No.” Vince said, “I don’t know. Yeah, sure.”
“You don’t sound entirely convincing.”
“No he’s great but…”
Vince traced his way down the creases in his palms, following them all the way to his wrist, which bore the faded scars made by the fingernails of the auburn lady.
He snapped his head upwards, facing Leanne once more.
“He’s great, but I feel like he’s… almost babysitting me; like he’s only really there to check up on me. He makes sure I’m alright, then goes off and lives his life. I’m an emotional charity-case, and when he visits me, he’s making a small donation.”
Leanne’s eyes widened slightly, “That’s an incredibly self-deprecating way to look at your friendship. Is that how you really feel?”
Vince nodded, dipping his head once more.
“And what about your neighbour, Mrs Orange?”
“She actually is my babysitter.” Vince said, “Or she was anyway, when I was a child.”
“Let’s talk about that.” Leanna said, putting her fingers into a pyramid.
“My childhood?” He asked, “We’ve already talked about it.”
“We can talk about it again.” She said, “Sometimes –when we feel low- it helps to remember events from the past. We can process them together. Is that okay?”
Vince inhaled deeply, leaning back on the couch, “Okay.” He said, clearing his throat.
Leanne nudged a glass of water forwards, and Vince gripped it and took a few mouthfuls. He let the room-temperature water settle warmly in his gullet, and began.
“Well –as you know- I never knew my dad.” He set the glass on the table, “My mother never told me about him. I wonder if he even knew he had a child. I suppose it doesn’t matter. I was always a sickly boy; my mother used to blame it on things she did whilst she was pregnant. Maybe she drank –or worse- who knows. She’d often leave me with Mrs Orange next door. I liked staying with Mrs Orange; she’d always give me cakes and chocolates –the luxuries my mother couldn’t afford. My mother died in 1959 when I was just twelve years old. It was the same time that the U.S government recognised Fidel Castro as the head of the government of Cuba. Intercontinental Titan missiles were successfully fired for the first time. The Vanguard II weather satellite was launched by the US, and at the end of the year, the Antarctic treaty was-”
“-These are world events.” Leanne spoke, “I want to hear more about you.”
Vince looked at Leanne for a moment in stunned silence, “Sorry. It’s just… I need… It’s how I keep track of the days, the months, the years.”
Leanne nodded, “It’s okay. I just want to know more about you.” She spoke, “How did you feel in 1959?”
“Well after my mother died, I spent much more time in the care of Mrs Orange. She looked after me -but if the truth be told- there’s only so much a woman in her eighties can do.”
“Mrs Orange was your primary caregiver?”
“Yes. No. Well yes and no.” He said, taking another sip of water, “I was… I spent some time in a –well a place- it was…”
“A children’s home?”
Vince looked down at the water in the glass. The home, the place he had no memory of, but just the mention of the word made his head throb.
“What do you remember about it?” Leanne asked softly.
“Nothing. Almost nothing. No thoughts exactly, just-”
He met her intrigued gaze with listless eyes.
“Memory,” she spoke, “is a curious thing. It’s a common misconception that we develop our first memories in early childhood. In fact, studies have shown that our emotional memory begins to develop in utero.”
Vince cocked his head, “Which studies?”
“Do you remember how the home made you feel, Vince?”
Vince squeezed his eyes together tightly. Cautiously, he skirted the perimeters of what he could remember of the home. Something, anything to grasp at; a thread of the visual, a nugget of the kinaesthetic, but nothing came to him. There was the blank-faced man in the suit, then there was Eddie’s uncomfortable embrace, and then… the tomcat. But what came afterwards?
In his mind, he envisioned an old castle on a hill in the distance. A building surrounded by barbed wire. Light poured over his face, and before him stood a woman; his mother, though her face was obscured by a black mask. He moved his arm to reach out for her, but his wrist was bound with a leather strap.
“Mammy…” he croaked, “mammy it’s dark in here…”
The hum of the engine. The van departed, moving towards the castle. As he approached, he could hear a shrill buzztone getting louder and louder, forcing him to retreat from the memory and return to the comfort of Leanne’s office.
He snapped his eyes open, “I don’t remem-”
For a moment, he felt as though he might vomit. He took a sharp breath, and finished his sentence.
“I don’t remember anything. But I remember it was a bad place. I never wanted to go back.”
Leanne nodded warmly, “How did you feel after your mother died?”
Vince screwed up his face in frustration; his mother’s death was something else he struggled to confront, even after so many years. He remembered hearing the news; a tall blank-faced man in a suit and a black leather hat was present, a priest. But the priest had said nothing, and Vince had felt nothing. He remembered a long, dark Cadillac. He remembered Eddie coming over, making him a cup of tea and comforting him for hours.
“Let it out.” He’d said, squeezing him tightly, “Just let it out.”
He’d rested his head on Eddie’s shoulder, feeling a little uncomfortable, wondering what exactly he was supposed to ‘let out’, and how long Eddie would squeeze his torso in such a way. Eventually, he’d forced out a few hollow tears, and Eddie had released him. But he hadn’t cried for his mother –in fact- his tears carried with them no emotion, and for a moment, he wondered if his tears were so empty they might escape gravity, and float away like aqueous balloons. Instead, he stimulated his tears when he thought of the tomcat he’d kicked to death the night before.
Vince sighed, he had been sitting for nearly a minute, whilst Leanne waited patiently for a response.
“It’s okay,” she said, “take your time.”
Leanne’s patience spurred him to answer the question, in the same way Eddie’s embrace had spurred him to cry.
“I felt sad.” He answered robotically, “She was my mother.”
Leanne nodded vacantly, seemingly unimpressed with his paltry expression of emotion.
“What do you remember about you mother?”
He thought of the cat, lazily strolling over the red brick wall behind his apartment block, high above the broken glass and refuse that lay below, with nothing but the balmy summer sun for company. The tomcat stopped momentarily to stretch a leg up in the air, cleaning himself, before curling up in a ball atop the wall and drifting into an easy nap.
Vince looked down at the soft carpet, “She was…” he murmured, “a kind woman. She carried herself in a warm and regal manner, as if she had insulated herself from the world’s strife and troubles.”
Guilt burned within the pit of stomach; a heartburn that rose up within him. But it was not from the insincerity of his words. His shame stemmed from the fact that –after everything- he couldn’t even recall what his mother looked like.
Leanne nodded again, in that same unsatisfied manner.
“She’d be in her fifties now.” He said, “I wonder what she’d think of me; still right where she left me. Never leaving the house, never going… anywhere.”
Leanne leaned forwards in her chair, “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean I’ve never done anything. I’ve never been abroad; I’ve never even left the state of California. I can’t work. I can’t have a relationship. I’ve only even known two women.”
Leanne tilted her head slightly, “When you say ‘known’, what is it you mean?”
Vince froze. Leanne had a curious habit of causing him to empty his mind. He must resist, he knew that. He blinked rapidly, his thoughts clouded by an advancing buzztone at the back of his mind, which seemed to be growing louder.
“I just…” he said, fighting the knot of anxiety in his stomach, “I don’t know anyone.”
He grabbed the cup of water and took a big sip.
“Are you talking about the woman in blue?” She asked, “The one you were…”
“Alicia?” Vince said.
“I thought her name was Alice.” Leanne squinted.
“I think it began with an A… No. Listen, it doesn’t matter. I don’t really…”
The cup slipped through his palm, falling to the carpet and tipping over.
“Oh shit!” Vince said spreading his feet outwards, away from the advancing water.
He looked down at the puddle as it spread out, and moved his feet away quickly, fearful that the water would touch him.
“I’m sorry,” He said, rising to his feet, “I’ll clean it up, it just slipped out of my-”
Leanne raised her open palm, silencing him for a moment, before leaning forwards.
“Do you have something to tell me?”
He sat on the edge of his bed, looking at the round spot next to the radio where no dust had settled; the former place where he’d kept his Halfcrown coin. In his hand he held his bottle of anaemia tablets. He idly rolled the bottle around in his palms, briefly glancing at his wrists; the scabs had faded entirely, and nothing but very mild scars remained. He flicked his head up, to look at his alarm clock: 7pm.
It was time for him to take his evening pills, and yet the second hand marched onwards past the hour mark. With each gentle ticking of the clock, his anxiety rose. He was –in whole and in part- a complex mechanical machine; a system of neurochemical wires connecting body and mind, which maintained itself through strict adherence to routine. To defy that routine was to invite chaos into that system, short circuiting the wires that held it all together.
And yet, he had missed his morning does of pills just… two days ago? Three? …when he’d discovered the auburn lady in his chamber, and his surprise had caused his to drop the bottle under the bed.
How many hours had it been before he’d come back and collected them from under the bed?
Was the bottle dusty? The entire flat was plagued by lint. If the bottle had been dusty, it had been under the bed for a few hours. But did he wipe the dust off the bottle?
He lifted the bottle up. There seemed to be no dust clinging to it. Perhaps as he’d rolled it in his palms, he’d wiped it off.
He looked down at the back of the bottle.
“Side effects may include: stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, constipation or diarrhoea.”
Constipation or diarrhoea? Maybe if he was lucky, he’d get both at the same time, and it would balance itself out.
“Overdose symptoms may include: severe stomach pain, vomiting, bloody diarrhoea, coughing up blood, constipation, loss of appetite, hair loss, peeling skin, warmth or tingly feeling, changes in menstrual periods, weight loss, severe headache, muscle or joint pain, severe back pain, blood in your urine or stools, black and tarry stools, pale skin, easy bruising or bleeding, weakness, shallow breathing, weak and rapid pulse, pale skin, blue lips, and seizure (convulsions)”
Was that it?
“Not suitable for those sensitive to Iron.”
He wondered for a moment if anyone could be insensitive to iron, and considered how they’d react if they were bashed over the head with an iron bar.
“Each capsule contains 200mg Dried Ferrous Sulfate PhEur equivalent to 65mg elemental iron. This product also contains glucose, sucrose and lactose. The coating contains: Beeswax (E901), Acacia (E414), Gelatine, Sucrose, and Titanium dioxide (E171).”
He placed the bottle of pills back in its place, rolled onto the bed, and looked up at the elliptical crack in the ceiling. Not today.
The tea washed down his throat in heavy gulps, quenching a thirst that water simply couldn’t satiate. After finishing half of his cup, he set it down on the coaster and lay back slightly against the couch, slouching in a way that Mrs Orange would call slovenly. But she was in the kitchen boiling potatoes, and for the time being, could evade her judgemental eye.
Almost immediately, he craved another mouthful.
No. Save it.
He set down the newspaper on the table; it had to be several days old by now, and he’d read almost all of it. Only one story stuck in his head; the story of Diana Bryant and her goddaughter, Tiare Jones. The three grainy photographs accompanying the text filled him with dread, and a gnawing shame. In the first photo, Diana clutches the child in her arms, whilst smoke billows behind them in a thick plume. In the second photograph, the metal balcony has given way; Diana’s arms are raised in an almost messianic pose, pushing the child upwards, as if to safety. In third and final photograph, she is falling headfirst towards the sidewalk below, as potted plants and steel platforms fall in disarray around her; her hands flailing desperately, as if that might save her from the impact of the concrete below. The child is in freefall above her, with her arms raised in the air, like a falling star. The woman had died, but the child survived….
He looked away from the image of the star-child, and let his eye wander over to the cup. From underneath the cup, a set of four hooves protruded. He leaned forwards, lifting up the cup to see the image of a horse set on the coaster.
“Shouldn’t be too long now!” Mrs Orange said, darting back from the kitchen with small, hasty steps.
She set a tray of chocolate cookies down on the table and gestured for Vince to take some. He gingerly grabbed one as she sat opposite him. He set down his cup on top of the horse coaster and put the entire cookie in his mouth, finding this was the best way to avoid getting crumbs on the floor.
He swallowed the cookie and washed it down with a hearty glug of tea. Instead of placing the teacup back on the coaster, he held it in his hand. He couldn’t break his transfixion on the horse; a crudely painted thing with stubby legs and a round lower abdomen.
“Do you remember my mother?”
He was halfway through the question before he realised he was asking it, his gaze still fixed on the horse.
“Your mother?” Mrs Orange said, halfway towards reaching for a cookie, “Well of course I do!”
“What was she like?” He said, turning his attention away from the horse coaster.
“Oh…” Mrs Orange grinned, “She was a special lady your mother. Always good value, everybody thought so. A real beauty too, you could see she was Irish, especially in the summer. Still, she’d get a nosebleed whenever she touched that awful porter stuff –what was it called?- Guinness! I tried it once, tastes like a cup of warm muck. I always preferred a sherry-”
“-I mean,” Vince interrupted, “I mean what was like as a person.”
Mrs Orange shot him that same perturbed look once more, “As a person?”
“Yeah,” Vince nodded, “I only ask because… Well honestly, I hardly remember her now.”
“Oh Vince…” Mrs Orange smiled warmly, “I’ll tell you what, your mother and I used to spend all afternoon nattering about this and that, whilst you toddled around on the floor. You were such a cute toddler, but you were a grabber! Yes, you had a real inquisitive mind, always grabbing at things and pulling things apart. I remember you pulling a tablecloth right off the table –plates and everything- and it made such a terrible racket. When I came rushing through to the room, you were sat there amongst the broken crockery laughing your little head off! Oh I was so worried! What a little terror you were! But gosh you were so cute.”
Vince took a sip of his tea, fondly thinking back to his early childhood; toddling about Mrs Orange’s apartment whilst she hobbled after him with her walking stick.
“It’s strange that I’ve never asked this before,” Vince began, “but do you have any children, Mrs Orange?”
Mrs Orange sighed, smiled lightly, before letting the smile fall from her face, “I did, yes.”
Vince swallowed. In the fond memories of his childhood, he’d forgotten to maintain social tact.
“A son.” Mrs Orange said, dipping her head slightly, “Harvey. But he died twelve years ago.”
“Oh…” Vince said weakly, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Oh don’t be silly,” she said sombrely, “he got involved with people he shouldn’t have. By the time he died, we hadn’t spoken in three years.”
“What was he like?” Vince asked with trepidation.
“Well, he was always a wild child.” She said, “He grew up to become a marine, would you believe? Well, it wasn’t the path I’d have chosen, but I was proud to have a true patriot for a son. But soon enough, he went gallivanting off to Minsk. Married a young Russian girl and brought her back to the states. Well, I hear she’s living quite well now.”
There was a hint of malice in her voice when she mentioned the young Russian girl.
Vince looked at her listlessly, unable to find the words to continue –or better yet- terminate the conversation.
“Well,” Mrs Orange said, standing up sharply, “It doesn’t matter much now does it?”
She walked around the table, standing next to Vince and ruffling his hair.
“You lost a mother, and I lost a son.” She said, “But now you’ve gained a mother, and I’ve gained a son. It was fate that brought us together, and we can take care of each other, can’t we Vinnie?”
Vince looked up, smiling warmly, “Of course we can, Mrs Orange.”
“Right! I think those potatoes are about ready, don’t you?” she said as she pottered off into the kitchen.
Vince watched her leave the room, before leaning forwards and gripping his teacup. Noticing the horse coaster once more, he set down the cup on the table and surveyed it. He looked at the horse, the tail and the ears were not touching the perimeter like they were on the Halfcrown. He turned the coaster around, half expecting to see a Celtic harp. Instead there was nothing but cork.
Mrs Orange entered the room, holding a pot of potatoes.
“Use a coaster, will you?”
20th, August, 1940
Cloonagh, County Sligo, Ireland
From the window of her bedroom, she looked eastward to the steep grassy slopes which concealed the Caves of Kesh. Amongst the hardy weeds, stinging nettles and rocks of crumbling stone, the entrances to the caves punctuated the hillside; dark gaping mouths which hung open like vacuous holes in the white limestone.
She was to be married before Christmas, to Jim O’Sullivan. She shuddered at the thought of marrying him –with his sunken eyes and raspy voice- everything about him unnerved her; the way he spoke, the way he crept about, his late-night calls to the house, and the way those visits always preceded another one of her father’s lengthy absences. But everybody had to make sacrifices –that’s what her father had told her- and she was no different. She would want for nothing, and all she had to do was love, honour and obey.
She crushed her hands into fists, pursed her lips, and breathed through them in a wispy whistle, as though she could squeeze her frustrations out of her lungs and watch them dissipate into the air. But whilst her lungs emptied, her mind spun with the agonies and uncertainties of having to marry a man to whom she felt reviled.
She looked out to the grassy slopes of the mountain, and thought of her sister in Belfast. She’d been sent away when they’d left Ashtown, to live with an Aunt, and had found work in a hospital. She missed Dublin; the bracing walks down the River Liffey and the hustle and bustle of the city. A far departure from the remote countryside of Cloonagh, and the imposing Caves of Kesh.
Some nights, when her father was away, she would sit by the bedroom window, looking up at the lonely caves. She would think of her sister in Belfast, fondly reminisce about Dublin, and lament her future with Mr O’Sullivan. Sometimes, she would light a candle, place it on the window ledge, and kneel in prayer. She would pray for the safety of her father and sister, for an end to the war, and to her overwhelming loneliness. When she opened her eyes, she would look to the candle for answers. Sometimes, the candle would grow in brightness, reaching upwards, licking at the oxygen above. Other times, it would fall low, burning deep orange. And just once, the candle had flickered out entirely.
Locals spoke of how the caves were supernaturally linked to the county of Roscommon, otherwise known as the Hellmouth door of Ireland. It was said that –at the right time of year- one could communicate with the underworld through the caves. Others talked of a woman whose unruly calf dragged her into the caves, and into the mouth of hell itself. Perhaps, she wondered, the pagans that carved the caves had performed heathen rituals, inviting dark forces to inhabit the tombs.
Crowning the summit of the mountain, a Neolithic cairn made up of stones could be seen for miles around, marking out an ancient megalithic burial ground. From the summit you could see the tombs of Carrowkeel, and –on clear days- the Nephin in county Mayo, and the mountains of Donegal.
As the sun began to set, the western face of Keshcorran caves stood out as dark portals against beige limestone, illuminated in the fading sunlight. She watched –waiting patiently for the sunlight to fade entirely- shrouding the mountains in darkness.
Wrapped in her blanket, she crouched down at the window ledge, focussing her binoculars on the mysterious figure that came at ten o’clock, on irregular nights of either the waning or waxing gibbous moon. Wrapped entirely in shadow, and with laboured footsteps, the shadowy creature traversed the steep sides of the mountains. She watched as the creature dropped to the floor, slithering like a serpent into the entrance of a cave –a limestone fissure, too small for a man to walk through- known as the Cave of the Cats.
She recorded seeing the creature in her diary –as she did each night he appeared- in a cipher only she and her sister could understand. Little knowing, that it was to be the last night that she would see the creature.
He’d stayed on Mrs Orange’s couch until such point as he’d slipped into a gentle sleep. When he awoke, he was lying in his bed looking up at the elliptical crack in his ceiling. Mrs Orange must have roused him and sent him stumbling back to his apartment. He often wondered whether –in such states of tiredness- he might mumble something, as sleep talkers are prone to do. He surmised that he must, owing to the fact that his consciousness was almost constantly ebbing and flowing into dreamlike disengagement, and yet he managed to function, just about.
What he said during his frequent blackouts had always been of little consequence, but now –for the second time in his life- he had something he needed to hide.
He looked across at the alarm clock; it was 9pm, and he had dozed for hours. He would struggle to sleep tonight. He ruminated on the idea of taking a walk, but abandoned the idea when he remembered the cold snap that had been predicted for the next coming days.
Where had he heard that?
Mrs Orange must have said it, when she was complaining about the boiler rattling.
Tea was the answer. Something to soothe him once more, then he’d wind the clock and listen to his guided sleep tape.
He made his way to the kitchen, and within a few minutes, he sat at the table nursing a cup of tea. The taste seemed empty and flavourless compared to the tea he’d had with Mrs Orange. As he sipped his tea, he looked at the coaster; an empty green circle.
What use was a coaster?
For a moment, he wondered if they had coasters in the USSR, or if they’d consider it a superfluous waste of resources.
He lifted the disc of cork up in his hand and hurled it across the room, grinning as the disc glided across the room before hitting the cupboard door and falling unceremoniously to the ground.
This small act felt almost rebellious, as he put his teacup on the table, watching a small drop of tea inch its way down from the rim of the cup. As the drop reached the base and spread out onto the table in a circle, he could not control his giddiness.
To him, the drop of tea colliding with the wooden table was destructive as the Tsar Bomba. He was Eisenhower’s farewell address. He was Yuri Gagarin on his seventeenth orbit, alone with the stars, far beyond the stratosphere. He was Venera 1, out of contact and control; soaring through the plasma and the nothingness, on a collision course with Venus.
He steadied himself against the table, as his giddiness caused him to become faint.
He took a sip of his hot, flavourless tea, before rising to his feet and turning the cup into the kitchen sink.
He picked up his neatly packed stack of green coasters and opened the window.
One by one, he cast each of them out of the window like deadly shurikens, watching them soar out across the twilight sky, chaotically spinning and cutting through the air.
A tall man in a long black woollen coat and a leather hat stopped in the street and looked up at him with a blank stare. The man’s arms seemed to hang down far below his waist, as though they were great tentacles which betrayed the laws of biology. He stood beside a long black vehicle, resembling a hearse. Vince’s face deeply contrasted that of the passer-by, his face contorted with wild excitement.
After he’d watched every last coaster spin off in a different direction, he slumped back into his chair, panting slightly.
How would he sleep after all of that excitement?
After a few minutes, his panting abated, and slowly he began to feel a sense of displacement. It was past his bedtime, he was not taking his anaemia medication, and now he was throwing coasters out of the window? What was next?
He moved to his room, lying down on his bed. He placed the mask on his face, strapping it on around the back of his head and flicked the switch. He felt the compressed air pushing itself through his nose and into his lungs. The taste was sickly sweet and pungent, almost metallic.
Dr Veritas –Leanne- had acquired the machine from an associate she had in Australia, Doctor Sullivan. It was a prototype that he believed could combat Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, but for now, it was being tested on his sleep apnoea.
He grabbed the headphones and placed them on his ears, before pressing the play button on the cassette player.
“This guided sleep relaxation tape will help you to fall into a deep, restful sleep. Begin by lying on your back with your hands on your thighs or at your sides. You can change positions any time you need to in order to be more comfortable, but start by lying on your back for now.”
Vince responded, finding a comfortable and relaxing position in the bed, allowing the words to flow in to his ears, through his auditory canal, and settle in his brain.
“Mentally scan your body for areas of tension. Make note of how your body feels. During this sleep relaxation session, you will focus on releasing any tension in your body, and on quieting the mind. Once the mind is calm and peaceful, you will easily drift into pleasant, restful sleep. Breathe in, drawing in life-giving air and relaxation. Exhale slowly, expelling any tension. You might have thoughts about things you did today, or things you need to do tomorrow. Perhaps you are worried about something or someone. Now is the time to clear your mind for sleep, so tomorrow you will be refreshed and strong and can handle your duties and roles. Now take a few moments to do the thinking you need to do before you sleep. Focus now on anything you need or want to think about before you go to sleep. For the next two minutes, do any worrying or thinking you decide to do. Now it is time to clear your mind for sleep. There is nothing else you need to be doing at this moment. Nothing you need to be thinking, except calm, relaxed thoughts. Notice how your body feels right now. Where in your body is today’s tension stored? Focus your attention on the part of your body that feels most tense. Focus in on one small area of tension. Breathe in deeply, and then let that tension go as your breathe out with a sigh.”
Vince sighed deeply, taking one last look at the elliptical crack in the ceiling, before closing his eyes.
“Count slowly with me… One…. Focusing on the number one…..”
He thought of coasters, flying out across the street like flying saucers from old sci-fi movies.
“Two… you are more deeply relaxed…. deeper and deeper… Calm. Peaceful.”
He imagined the coasters whizzing through the air, sailing in through open windows and whipping down into chimney flues.
“Three… Feel the tension leaving your body… Relaxation filling your body and mind; concentrating just on the numbers.”
Vince followed the commands of each number, feeling his consciousness slipping away. When the tape reached the number nine, he felt his mind resetting, as if the tape had gone all the way back to zero, and then one.
17 April 1941
Cloonagh, County Sligo, Ireland
“The Irish Times
Humanity knows no borders, no politics, no differences of religious belief. Yesterday for once the people of Ireland were united under the shadow of a national blow. Has it taken bursting bombs to remind the people of this little country that they have common tradition, a common genius and a common home? Yesterday the hand of good-fellowship was reached across the Border. Men from the South worked with men from the North in the universal cause of the relief of suffering.”
It had been two days since Easter Tuesday, and two days since the Blitz Came to Belfast. She wept when she heard the news –and ever since then- she had carried with her a deep ache in her stomach, a pain which threatened to bring forth hysterical crying at any moment.
She could only imagine the horror that had been unleashed upon the city. She longed for word from her sister; something, anything, to let her know she was alive and well.
The migrations from the east and the north had reached County Sligo; ragged and unprepared travellers, some who had left in haste, and travelled with little more than a change of clothing. Others who had lost everything to the Blitz, and carried only the clothes on their backs.
When she heard the news of the bombing, she’d rushed to tell Jim.
“Well,” he grunted, packing his pipe with tobacco, “that’s what happens when you collaborate with the British. Poor saps.” He struck a match, lit his pipe, and went right back to sharpening his lock knife.
Her grief overwhelmed her, rising up like a column within her, before collapsing in on itself. She swallowed her pain, and silently left the room.
Standing at the back door, she looked up to the Caves of Kesh. Her father had been away for eight months now. Anytime she brought up the subject to Jim, he simply waved his hand dismissively.
“He’ll return when he returns,” he’d say, “and that’s all I’ll hear of it.”
The entrance to the caves stood mesmeric; the dark portals almost calling her, whispering to her in a language below the ear. Staring into those empty pools seemed almost meditative, inducing a transcendence in which she existed above the world of pain, and grief and fear.
Within those caves, something called out to her, and in her mind, she called back.
The furious rattling of tin bells pulled him from his slumber; the little hammer struck against them in quick succession; so quick that each piercing crescendo of sound seemed to blend into one shrill, droning wail.
His hand flicked out reflexively before he had opened his eyes, shutting out the sound.
His eyes snapped open, and he looked up at the elliptical crack in his ceiling. He wondered for a moment how many hours he’d spent staring at the strange crack. He’d imagined it in every single possible way; as the trajectory of a lonely satellite drifting in orbit around a dead planet, unable to escape, a dry blackened seed that would never germinate, or a cat’s eye, glaring at down at him malevolently.
He blinked, pulling the mask off his face hastily, and hanging up his earphones on the cassette player.
Rising from the bed, he tiptoed around the squeaky floorboards, making his way towards the shower. He set the shower to only half-strength, letting a loose trickle of warm water out.
After completing his morning routine –sans the consumption of his anaemia medication- he crept towards the door, gently opening it and peeking outside of his door. No sign of Mrs Orange. Remembering which floorboards creaked and which did not, he carefully made his way down the corridor, down the stairs, and out of the door.
He remembered the old library buildings of Stanford University, and a book he’d checked out during his brief time there, but had never finished reading; The Odyssey. Inexplicably, the lines had begun to rattle in his head, and he recalled that he never realised how it had ended.
He searched through the shelves for what felt like an hour, but could not locate the book. Eventually, he gave up the search, and in his resignation, made his way to the reception desk. Behind the desk sat a bored looking young woman.
“Erm excuse me, I’m looking for a book.” He muttered sheepishly.
“Well you’re in the right place,” she said, barely looking up, “this is a library after all.”
“Yes.” Vince swallowed, “Yes I see that. But I can’t find it.”
“Right.” She grunted, “Who’s it by?”
“I don’t know if he had one.”
“Are you looking for the Odyssey or the Iliad?”
“Well,” She said, turning her attention to him, “You’re looking in the wrong library.”
“I’m sure I used to read books here all the time… Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, things about space exploration-”
“-This library stocks books of a historical nature.”
“But I thought the Odyssey was history.”
The librarian sighed, “There’s a big difference between fictional history and documented history. Though arguably they’re the same thing.”
Vince squinted, “What do you mean?”
“History is in the hands of the victorious; so if you’re looking to read up on the glorious history of our great nation, you’re in the right place. But if you’re looking for epic Greek poetry, you’re going to have to look… right here.”
She reached under the table and pulled out a pristine copy of The Odyssey.
“It’s my own personal copy. Well, I stole it.” She poked her tongue out.
“What do you mean you stole it?” Vince asked in alarm.
“I took it without asking, and I have no intention to return it.” She said, “Does that fit the parameters of your definition of theft?”
“Where did you steal it from?” Vince asked, taken aback by the indifference this woman took towards her crime.
“A guest lecturer –Professor Lidlicker- or something. He gave a lecture about human-computer symbiosis and psychoacoustics last year.” She said, “It was pretty abstract, and I don’t remember much of it. But what I do remember was when he mentioned that he kept a stack of contraband vinyl records in his office, counterfeited by music bootleggers in the USSR, with grooves grafted onto discarded x-ray slides. But he said he daren’t play them for fear that they might break.”
Vince tapped his fingers against his legs nervously, wondering why this woman was telling him such a detailed story.
“I couldn’t bear the thought of those records sitting there in silence. So I broke into his office and liberated as many as I could carry. I went back a few days later to get more and this book was on the desk. I stole that too. In for a dime, in for a dollar, I guess.”
“Right. Yeah, that makes sense.” The words fumbled in his mouth, as he wondered whether her story was anything more than a loose justification for petty theft, wrapped up in poetic sentiment.
“You can borrow it, if you like.” She said dismissively.
Vince smiled, “Really?”
She handed him the book, “Really. Are you staying on campus?”
“Actually no,” He said, taking the book, “but I’m close by –I’ll give you my phone number- I’ll return it soon, I promise.”
“Don’t steal it. It’s the only copy I have.”
Vince began to wonder whether theft of a stolen object was still theft, surely an item that did not belong to a person couldn’t be stolen from them, unless the concept of ownership, which was in itself an abstract concept, was defined-
“-Have you read it before?” she said, cutting his thoughts in two.
“No. Well, not entirely.”
“They say there’s a sequel –The Telegony– which is long lost. It was stolen in antiquity from the Musaeus of Athens by Eugammon of Cyrene.” She said lazily, “So you won’t find that here either.”
“Really?” Vince raised his eyebrows, “Where can I find it?”
The librarian looked at him with an apathetic stare, “I don’t know. Try the asking Eugammon of Cyrene.”
“Right.” Vince nodded, “I think I’ll just read this first. Can I sit down?”
“Sure, if you can find a seat.”
Vince looked around at the empty library and its many seats and tables, “What about over here?” he pointed to an empty table nearby.
“No, not there.” She joked, “That table is occupied.”
Vince nodded, moving to a different table nearby and sitting down.
He flipped through the book, reading passages at random, hoping to determine where he’d stopped reading.
“First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear…”
The passage resonated with him, as he recalled an image in his head of Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship, imploring his men to direct the ship towards the Sirens; however, their ears were blocked with Beeswax, and hence they were immune to the thrall of the sirens.
Vince took the corner of the page and bent it, to mark the point he was sure he’d passed.
“Hey!” the librarian called out, “Don’t dog-ear the pages!”
Vince froze, his heart pumping, “I’m sorry.” He said, trying to flatten the corner out once more as the librarian approached, “I was just… I struggle to remember where I’ve read up to.”
“Ever heard of a bookmark? Why would you deface a book like that?”
“I’m sorry, really I am.” He said, “I just… I didn’t realise… I can straighten it out again.”
Vince hung his head in guilt.
The librarian sat down, and when Vince lifted his head once more, she had a wry smile on her face. “Hey…” She said, “It’s alright.”
“It is?” Vince asked.
“It doesn’t matter that much, it’s just a book.”
“I’ll straighten it out. I’m anaemic, and I don’t sleep well. It affects my memory. I think I’ve read the book. I may have even read The Telegony, but I forget things. Nothing sticks, and I can’t clear the fog. I’m sorry, it’s just-”
“-Hey!” She interrupted, “It’s okay, it’s okay!”
Vince’s fingers trembled, “It is?”
“Yes, it is!” she laughed, “I overreacted. Hey listen, if you want to dog-ear the book, just do it. Hey, at least it shows the damn thing has been read by someone.” She leaned forwards, “You know what they’re doing here?” she whispered.
“What?” Vince whispered back, setting down the book.
“Book by book, they’re censoring things. All sorts of things.”
“Who?” Vince whispered, scanning his eyes around the library.
“The government.” She nodded, “If they can control what people read, they can control how people think. Slowly but surely, they can change popular opinion on anything.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out a second book; The Anarchist Cookbook.
Vince looked at the white stencilled title, standing hostilely against a black backdrop.
“What is that?” He recoiled.
The librarian winked, “A soon-to-be banned piece of subversive propaganda.” She said, flipping the book open to a page littered with crude diagrams, “A veritable DIY manual for the creation of explosives, which can be done using household items. This section demonstrates how to make an electrical blasting cap – a detonator which can be activated by a minor electrical current.”
Vince’s eyes ran down to a section on the page.
“Bombs -like spies- have no allegiance, even to their creators. They incorporate more than just technical knowledge; they are based on human nature. To create an effective bomb, one must have a primitive insight into your enemy’s actions, thoughts and methods.”
“Why would you buy this?” Vince asked.
She shrugged, “To preserve it.” She said, “This book –along with many others- will become uncomfortable relics of a history based upon selective memory.”
His eyes descended upon another passage within the book.
“The basic principle of the electrical blasting cap is that an electrical charge moves through an insulated wire until it reaches a small section of that same wire, which is not insulated, and which is surrounded by a primary flash charge. The heat from the electrical charge will explode the flash charge, which in turn set off a series of minor explosions, finishing up with the high explosive.”
“This book is… destructive.” Vince said, looking up “It could kill people.”
“Only if you hit them with it really hard.” She said, closing the book and putting it away.
“But why would the government take normal books away?” Vince asked.
She tipped her head forwards, fixing Vince with a deep stare, “Because there is no bond of slavery that is stronger, than that which we choose for ourselves.”
Vince raised an eyebrow, “I don’t… understand.”
She leaned back, “I tell you, one day the government will monitor the library books people take out. They’ll keep tabs on everything we read, and take away what they don’t want us to read.”
“Is that why The Telegony isn’t here?” Vince asked.
The librarian rolled her eyes, “You really are dumb, aren’t you?”
4th May, 1941
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Ciara looked at the darkly violet sky. The moon was bright and full; imposing and foreboding as it shone over the rooftops of Belfast, casting forth jagged silhouettes over the cobbled streets. The shrill, nasally voice of Lord Haw Haw -crackling through the speakers of her shortwave radio- rattled around in her head, like an audible pestilence she could not remove.
“Germany calling! Germany Calling! …Easter eggs for Belfast.”
Her father told her about a spring day in 1924, before Lord Haw Haw fled to Germany. He was orating at a meeting of British fascists, when a group of anti-fascists broke in. That was –he’d said- when he’d met their mother, who’d given Lord Haw Haw a nasty scar, from the corner of his lip to the lobe of his ear. He said it was love at first sight.
But she was gone now, and so –for all she knew- was he.
She looked up at the moon, remembering how it had looked on Easter Tuesday. The buzzing aircraft advancing in formation, the percussive shockwaves that rocked and fractured the ground, and the smell of metallic smoke from hundreds of incendiary bombs, to the backdrop of the anguished wails of the crushed and burned. Nurse Duffin had relieved her shift. Finally, the steady flow of injured patients, burned and maimed –some never to fully recover from their trauma- had been reduced to a trickle.
She never prayed. She’d seen the obscenity of religious division, and the fractiousness it had caused, and had resolved that no benevolent God would allow his word to fall upon the capricious ears of man; much less, appoint a pope, priest or vicar to speak through, when the minds of men have such a strong propensity for corruption. And yet, she was by no means atheist.
Tragedy ran deep within her family. It seemed at times that the roots of her family tree were nourished with blood; each successive generation, born into sacrifice in a contemptable struggle.
The blackout was in effect; the moon, in all of its daunting lustre, provided her with the minimal light she needed to complete her journey to St Anne’s Cathedral. The wreckage of the Easter Tuesday blitz hung upon the city, a silent hymn to the war within and without.
She’d never spent a single Christmas apart from her sister until the raid on the Phoenix Park magazine fort two years previously; now she wondered when she would see her again. Her father had separated them, telling her that if the family ever hoped to be together again, they would have to be apart for a time.
She was not ignorant to her father’s activities. He would frequently leave them in the hands of a nanny during his lengthy absences. It seemed that –as time passed- his absences became longer and more frequent; she’d become so accustomed to them that she wondered if she would even notice if he never returned.
He’d used his connections to find her work at Stranmillis Military Hospital; within days, she’d been torn from her sister and thrown into a world of bandages and bedpans, and soon enough, her sister had been married off to Mr O’Sullivan.
Despite her gnawing loneliness, and the grisly particulars of her profession, she did not envy Norah; traded like a commodity to strengthen the familial bonds between her family and the cause. She wrote to her regularly, enciphering each letter in a way that only the two of them could understand. She never received a reply. She wondered if her letters were making it through to her, or if perhaps Mr O’Sullivan was seizing them.
Once the emergency was over, she would leave Belfast and visit Norah in Cloonagh.
She ascended the steps to St Anne’s Cathedral, each step echoing through the empty streets. It had been three weeks since the Easter Tuesday blitz.
She entered the cathedral; the candles flickering as a gust of air entered with her. The time was approaching 11.30pm. A small group of attendees sat in the pews, awaiting a midnight sermon. She sat beside a man who cradled an infant in his arms. The child let out deep, extended cries of tiredness, as the man bobbed him lightly in his arms, whispering soothing words in his ear.
Ciara glanced to the man quickly, wondering if the presence of the child might draw more attention to their elicit meeting.
She sat for ten minutes –long enough to ensure she had not been followed- before reaching into her bag and removing the folded envelope, which fit snugly into her closed palm.
“What a beautiful little boy,” she said quietly, reaching over to stroke the baby’s face, subtly slipping the envelope into the cotton blanket in which he was swaddled, “you and your wife must be so happy.” She said
“Thank you.” The man smiled, looking down upon the infant, whom had fallen into a light sleep, “but there is no wife.”
“Oh,” she said, “I’m so sorry.” looking away sheepishly.
The social faux-pas was awkward, but entirely engineered. Should anybody happen to suspect their meeting, or find it peculiar that a man would have a child at a church, in absence of a wife, their suspicions would most likely be allayed at once.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” A voice came from behind the lectern.
“Amen.” The congregation spoke in unison.
A siren wailed from outside in the street; rising and falling in pitch.
The baby’s eyes snapped open, his mouth opening to let out a shrill cry of panic – a far departure from the tired cry he’d let out earlier- which quickly disappeared beneath the wailing of the siren.
The man rose to his feet, “We have to get out of here!”
Ciara could only make out the words based on the shape of her lips.
She shook her head, gripping him by the arm, “The basement.” She said, “It’s the safest place.”
Her voice –though likely inaudible- seemed to instil a sense of fragile confidence within the man. He nodded, gripped the baby tightly, and followed Ciara.
The air raid siren was loud, the hum of aircraft overhead, even louder, but the immediate sound of panicked gasps and shouting rang out the loudest.
Ciara rose to the lectern, taking advantage of a dip in the siren, “To the basement!” she called out loudly, “Quickly. Safely.”
Her experience dealing with the influx of patients during the Easter Tuesday Blitz had taught her to keep her words simple and to-the-point in situations of catastrophe and emergency.
The entrance to the basement was accessed by a hatch in the floor which could be lifted by a piece of string. This led to a wooden ladder, which would have to be descended carefully.
“In a line, careful.” She ordered, watching the congregation line up close to the hatch. The man with the baby stood at the back, clutching the baby tightly, his eyes darting around in panic. One by one, Ciara took the hand of each member of the congregation and supported them as they descended the stairs carefully.
Great explosions tore through the air, as the endless wailing of bombs continued unabated, drowning out the sound of the siren. The blasts were getting closer, and soon the light of roaring flames began to pour through the stained glass windows, like an approaching demon.
The congregation in the line began to writhe and squirm, wrestling against every fibre of their being, which implored them to take flight. Ciara held each of their hands, helping them to descend the stairs carefully.
A thunderous crack tore through the Cathedral; a direct strike rocked the building, as dust and rubble rained down from above. The line fell into disarray as those who remained above ground scampered in different directions, seeking shelter.
The man crouched beside a pew, his face white and trembling as he cradled the swaddled infant. Ciara beckoned to him, “Come quick!” She mouthed, “You have to get to safety.”
The man looked across at her, his arms fixed in fright. He shook his head, as another bomb struck the Cathedral.
Ciara moved towards the man, ducking her head to protect herself from the chunks of rubble. Smoke began to fill the Cathedral, as the flames which burned brightly outside infiltrated the Cathedral.
A deafening crunch came from above, crashing down upon Ciara. As the dust slowly cleared, Ciara looked down at the chunk of rubble which pinned her down by the midriff. Heavy plumes of smoke began to invade her lungs as she clawed at the floor. Everything below her chest was numb. She looked through the smoke at the man with the child.
“Save the child,” she called out, expending the last of the air from her lungs, “You have to save the child!”
Smoke filled the Cathedral, filling her lungs, and shrouding her in darkness, as the light of life began to ebb away into nothingness.
5th, December, 1942
Cloonagh, County Sligo
I hope this letter finds you well. It is becoming increasingly difficult to write to you in this era of paranoia and fractiousness.
Doubtless you have heard of the bombings on Easter Tuesday in Belfast. I want to let you know that I am alive and well. I am unharmed, but I am shaken and sorrowful.
In my time working at Stranmillis, I have become accustomed to sickness and death, and yet until Easter Tuesday, I had always seen death as a solemn, tragic, but dignified experience; reverent and respectful. When people die, we wash their skin, brush their hair, cross their hands over their chest and close their eyes, then cover them in a shroud before rest.
It is with a heavy heart that I tell you of what I saw on the night of Easter Tuesday; dozens of bodies, with tangled hair, wide, staring eyes, hands frozen in clutching panic, twisted limbs, and faces, grey with dust, or charred by flame. Half-shrouded in rags, torn and twisted garments, or hastily wrapped up in trampled rugs. There is no respect, no reverence, no dignity in death anymore. Sometimes it feels like there is no possible recompense for this gross violation of the human condition, no possible way in which we can redeem humanity for our surrender to the ever-gluttonous machine of industrial war.
The war has made death a grotesque commonplace; the noxious waste product of a machine which is overheating; with grinding cogs and popping, sparking wires. I feel no grief anymore, only revulsion for this bloody conflict and its architects.
I have not heard from father. His friends tell me nothing of where he is. I hope for a swift end to the wars within and without, so that finally we might meet again and make sense of this madness. Await my letters, and we will be together soon.
I hope that Jim is treating you well,
All my love,
She held the letter in her hands. It was written in a cypher that only the two of them understood; one which they had practised since they were children. She could read the code as well as she could the alphabet, and write it almost as quickly.
The letter was dated one year and eight months ago; she’d received it shortly after the Easter Tuesday bombings; and whilst the letter was sombre, she had been elated to know her sister was alive and well.
When bombs fell on the city again one month later, her letters ended altogether.
She carefully folded Ciara’s last letter, gently sliding it into an old book, ‘The good-luck horse’, and hiding it behind a loose brick in the attic.
She’d sent many a letter to Belfast, many to Ciara, and others to Stranmillis Military hospital -addressed to nobody- simply asking for information about the condition of her sister. A response finally came; an impersonal letter, which informed her that her sister had not been seen since 4th May1941, and was signed off without a name, just the words ‘Stranmillis Military Hospital’.
The letter was cruel, in that it gave her hope. Hope that she knew was false and toxic.
Looking out of the attic window, a chill ran through her as she observed the flying behemoth which hung in the winter sky; the Flying Fortress. She’d heard of an aircraft sighted over Belfast, not long before the Easter Tuesday bombings; it had been testing the city’s defences, preparing for a fleet of hundreds of winged terrors, preparing to unleash incendiary hell upon the city.
As the Flying Fortress circled overhead, emanating a deep buzzing sound which made her nauseous with anxiety, she wondered what sinister motive the craft had for being there. There were no factories in County Sligo that she knew of. No military complexes or airfields. What reason could the Luftwaffe have for bombing civilian targets, other than sheer terror?
She looked at the brick, behind which she’d hidden The good-luck horse, and saw that it seemed level with the other bricks. Content that the letter was suitably hidden, she descended the stairs and made her way to the back garden to join Jim.
Jim became irate when she was away for too long, and his irritation quickly turned to paranoia or worse. He would sometimes lock the doors from the outside when he left the house, insisting it was for her own safety.
She stood next to him in silence amongst the hedgerows.
“Would you look at that.” Jim spoke, lowering his pipe, “it just might be the devil himself.”
The humming of the aircraft as it circled in the sky reverberated throughout the land, drawing people from their houses to gaze in wonderment and terror.
From the corner of her eye, she could see his pipe trembling in his hand.
She heard a knocking come from the front door.
“Who’s that?” He snapped.
“I don’t know.” She responded.
“Well what are you waiting for? Answer it will you?”
She nodded meekly, making her way down the garden and through the back door.
As she opened the door, a portly man in a scuffed bowler hat stood there, huffing and wheezing; surely another one of Jim’s shady associates.
“Are you Mrs O’Sullivan?” he said, his cheeks glowing red.
She did not answer. Her name was Norah Hifearnáin; now and always.
“Jim is in the back garden.”
He nodded, squeezing past her and marching through the house.
A short time later, Jim and the man in the bowler hat returned, and soon enough the pair of them had left for an undisclosed reason.
She returned to the back garden, watching the Flying Fortress. It seemed to be losing altitude. As the plane began to descend, the whirring of the propellers seemed louder, and the plane itself became more imposing against the backdrop of the winter clouds.
Before she could fully comprehend what she was doing, she found herself putting on a coat and walking towards the Caves of Kesh, following the footsteps of the figure that had appeared for the final time, on the night her father had disappeared.
After traversing thick brush and crumbling rock, she stood before the entrance to the Cave of the cats. She took one last look at the descending plane, before lowering herself to a crawl and creeping across the ground on the tips of her toes and her fingers, attempting in vain to avoid muddying her clothes. She entered the cave, shuffling against the loose stones and roots which threatened to trap her in place.
When the cave opened up, she found herself in a cavern large enough to crouch within. She brushed the loose dirt and dust from her clothes as best she could, and looked around the dimly lit cavern. Roots and encrusted dirt obscured the rocks which supported the walls of the caves; all except for one.
She reached for a finger-sized gap on either side of the rock, and slowly began to lever the rock from one side to another, carefully sliding it towards her. As she freed up more space, she found herself able to lift the rock entirely and place it upon the ground.
Behind the rock there was a machine of polished wood and metal, covered in dials, buttons and speakers covered with cloth; a shortwave radio. She could see an antenna, which seemed to rise up into the rock above, and a plaited wire connected to some unseen power source below the earth.
The dust on the dials indicated that they had not been used for a long time Reaching out a tentative hand, she turned a dial to switch the radio on. Slowly, she began to rotate the dial, listening to the tinny, modulating noises, emanating from the radio’s speakers. Static cracks and pops, to the backdrop of electronic wind-like rushing poured from the speaker, like a waterfall of noise. Sounds swished and swirled, unintelligible and unremarkable. But then –as she slowly rotated the dial- emerging through the clamor and crackle, a solid stream of sound came through; a periodic buzzing every few seconds.
The buzzing sound rattled her nerves; shrill and abrasive to the ears. At once, she shut it off. In the minimal light, she saw a small rectangular object beside the radio; a miniature book bound in thin leather. She reached for it, finding it only an inch and a half long, an inch wide, and no more than half an inch thick.
Beneath it, a crumpled piece of piece of yellowing paper had been folded into a square.
She picked up the miniature book and held it up to her face. It was fastened shut by small clasp, like a buckled belt. She carefully unfastened it, and looked down at the pages, which were thinner than those of an old bible. Each page seemed to be filled with nothing more than thin, parallel lines, and a small dot in the bottom right hand corner. Some of the pages seemed to have been carefully torn out.
What purpose did this book have?
Fastening the clasp back up, she placed the book in her pocket. She plucked up the yellowing scrap of paper and unfurled it to reveal a set of slightly smudged characters, hastily scribbled down in pen:
She folded the paper once more and tucked it into her pocket beside the book. With great exertion, she replaced the rock, covering the shortwave radio once more, and departed the cave, carefully brushing the dirt behind her to ensure that no trace had been left behind.
When she emerged from the cave, she looked up at the Flying Fortress, slowly circling as it began to descend eastwards towards Mullaghmore beach. She brushed the dust and dirt from her clothes, tided up her hair and quickly descended the grassy slope.
When she returned to her house, Jim had not yet returned. Rushing to the attic, she lit a candle and unfurled the paper before her. The letters seemed to be entirely randomised, and yet it occurred to her that the sequence contained only two numbers, right at the very beginning: 15.
She plucked out the miniature book, and opened it to the fifteenth page. The page contained nothing but lines, and a dot in the bottom right hand corner, almost identical to each of the other pages.
She squinted, holding the book close to the light of the candle and observing the lines. She noticed that each line seemed to have almost imperceptibly small fluctuations.
An image popped into her head; the front cover of a book she used to read with her sister; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
She stood up, plucking up the candle and opening an old drawer, rummaging around within it until she found what she was looking for: an old magnifying glass.
She ran the magnifying glass over the letters on the fifteenth page of the tiny book. She had to raise and lower the magnifying glass until such a point as she could clearly focus on the lines; they were made up of letters.
The letters formed words without spaces; slowly shifting the lens across to make out the first line:
She recognised the song –a Fenian song- it was an old one her father had told her about. She noticed that the letters on the first two lines numbered sixty in total; the same number as the letters scribbled onto the piece of yellowing paper.
She took the first letter: T, the twentieth letter in the alphabet.
The first letter on the yellowing paper: B, could in turn be designated as the number 2.
2 minus 20 equalled -18, which could not be assigned a letter.
She mused for a moment. Suppose she was to deduct 18 from 26, she would end up with 8, or the letter H.
Holding the magnifying glass steady in her hand, she began to interpret the second letter: M; which was the 13th letter of the alphabet. The second letter in the verse of the miniature book was H, the 8th letter of the alphabet. Deducting 8 from 13 equalled 5, which could be interpreted as E.
“H, E” she muttered, noticing that words were beginning to form.
The next letter in the random sequence was Q, which was equal to 17. If she deducted the next letter –E, or 5– from the sequence, she ended up with 12, or L.
The sound of heavy boots ascended the steps. She grabbed the materials, stuffing them behind the loose brick and rising to her feet. Jim was home.
She straightened her hair once more, and patted down her clothes one final time. With hasty, silent steps, she left the attic. She met Jim on the landing, his face twitching and red.
“Where have you been?”
She shook her head before answering, “Nowhere. Cleaning the bedroom.”
“Why are you lying to me?” his eyes glanced down to her cheek.
With tentative hands, she reached to her cheek, feeling a crust of dirt.
She dipped her head slightly, looking down at Jim’s rough hands, as they began to twitch and clench into stony fists.
“Count slowly with me… One…. Focusing on the number one…Two… you are more deeply relaxed…. deeper and deeper… Calm. Peaceful…Three… Feel the tension leaving your body… Relaxation filling your body and mind; concentrating just on the numbers.”
He sat on the carpeted floor, his legs splayed in each direction. Between them, he pushed a toy truck backwards and forwards before lifting it to his mouth and biting it.
“Vinnie, don’t do that.” He heard his mother’s soft voice from above.
Her Irish accent was becoming more American by the day. Even as a toddler he noticed her standing in front of the mirror, reciting phrases over and over, trying to disguise her accent.
Cause and effect.
Cause AND effect.
Cause and effect.
He was too young to know it, but she was trying to assimilate him. There were not many children living in the apartment building, and so the only language he’d learned was from his mother and Mrs Orange.
A craving for another sugary snack hit him, and he set down the truck. He pushed himself up onto a set of uneasy legs and stumbled over to Mrs Orange.
He looked up at her with her wispy white hair and thick glasses, and raised his hands upwards. She smiled down at him, thick wrinkles stretching across her whole face. He began to bounce up and down with excitement.
“Vinnie…” she smiled, “What are you doing?”
“Tock-yut!” he said excitedly.
“No, I think you’ve had enough chocolate for one day!” Mrs Orange laughed.
At once, his world crumbled around him, and he sank to the floor in despair. Why would she say no? Had he done something wrong? Was it because he put the toy truck in his mouth?
As he lay on the floor, he considered the injustice of the situation. Frustration rose up in him, spreading up to his arms and legs, which he began to bang on the ground in frustration. He cried and wailed, venting his anger.
“Vinnie, settle down now, come on…” His mother said, “Vinnie, don’t be like that.”
Her soothing voice did nothing to abate his anger, and he continued to bash at the carpet with his fists and feet.
“Vinnie!” His mother’s voice snapped.
His banging ceased immediately, and he rose to his feet. Folding his arms, he walked off into the corner and sat down next to the kitchen cabinet, gently sobbing.
“Come on,” Mrs Orange said, gripping her walking stick and rising uneasily to her feet, “I’ll take him for a walk around the block.”
“Oh don’t be silly!” His mother said, “I’ll take him to the park later.”
“No really,” Mrs Orange said, leaning heavily on her stick and brushing the crumbs off her blouse, “I could use the fresh air.”
Vinnie crossed his arms and tucked his legs in defensively, he would not be letting this go lightly.
He watched through teary eyes as Mrs Orange hobbled towards him, her white hair hanging wildly from her head.
“Come on Vinnie,” She cooed, “Who wants to go for a walk?”
She stepped forwards, he looked at her thick rimmed glasses.
Her face began to wither, and her hair seemed to fall away. Her frame became skeletal, as the walking stick fell from her hand.
He pushed himself back, whimpering at the phantomic creature approaching him.
“Vinnie…” she cooed, her eyes melting in her sockets, leaving behind empty black holes, “Time to go Vinnie…”
As skeletal fingers reached out towards him, her body seemed to break apart, crumbling into dust.
He inhaled sharply.
His eyes adjusted to the ambient light in Dr Leanne Veritas’ office.
“Who are you? Where did you go?” He panted, his chest pounding, as the necrotising image of Mrs Orange slowly faded from his mind.
“It’s okay Vince.” Leanne’s soothing voice came from the chair on the other side of the table.
He was lying down on the couch, on the table beside him there was an empty cup.
“I’m Leanne Veritas, and I’m right here.”
He moderated his heavy breathing, allowing himself to come to terms with where he was. His eyes were drawn to Doctor Veritas’ own. She wore small, square black-rimmed glasses, which were rounded at the corners. The lenses made her seem almost doe-eyed and docile -and yet conversely- her eyes seemed to capture his attention magnetically.
“What’s going on?” He muttered.
“You were under deep hypnosis.” She explained, “We were reliving a memory from your childhood. Do you remember?”
“Mrs Orange.” He spluttered, “She was there.”
“Yes, and your mother too.”
“I could hear her voice.”
“Your mother’s voice?”
“Mrs Orange… She was dying in front of me.”
A moment passed, “I brought you out of the hypnosis when you became distressed.” Leanne explained, “You began to panic. Can you tell me what you saw, Vince?”
Vince pressed a hand over his right eye, dragging it down over his face, “Mrs Orange. She was… she looked different. She looked old.”
“She started to fall apart in front of my eyes.” Vince’s voice cracked, “The skin fell from her fingers, like she was withering away.”
Leanne nodded, “Would you like some water?”
Vince waved his hand, “No, thank you.”
Leanne leaned forwards, “Do you think that –perhaps- you’re afraid of losing the support network in your life?”
Vince shook his head softly, “No. Yes. I don’t know.”
“At any point, during the therapy, do you remember seeing your mother?”
“She took a toy out of my mouth.”
“Did you see her face?”
Vince shook his head, “I don’t remember it.”
“And Mrs Orange, you saw her?”
“I did and I didn’t. She looked strange.”
“Yes,” She said, “It sounds like you subconsciously fear change. You’re at a pivotal moment in your life right now, a crossroads, if you will.”
“I am? What do you mean? What crossroads?”
“You’ve told me –each time I’ve put you under hypnosis- that you want to make a change. But the change you make is in your hands, Vince. Your subconscious is pitting you with a choice, do you keep going as you are, or do you make a change.”
“I said that in my sleep?”
“It’s not sleep, exactly.” Leanne explained, “It’s a state of deep relaxation, allowing your subconscious mind to manifest itself.”
“Isn’t that the same as sleep?”
“Listen Vince,” She said, “It’s important that you think about this. I see a lot of turmoil in you, and it needs to be dealt with properly. You need to let me in; you need to let me help you. With the right combination of medication and therapy, we can help you.”
As the memory, dream or ‘manifestation of the subconscious’ faded away, Vince began to think about how Leanne used the ‘royal we’ whenever she wanted to convey power in her words. He wondered if this was a therapizing tactic, or just a habit she’d picked up in day-to-day life. Did she talk to her friends that way? If she did, he wondered if that would come across as a little conceited, or perhaps they hadn’t-
“-Vince.” She said firmly, “Are you listening to me?”
He nodded, “Yes Doctor Veritas. I understand.”
Vince watched as the brown liquid trickled down the edge of the cup, reaching the table and spreading out in a circle across the base.
“Have you spoken to Mrs Orange lately?” Eddie asked, lifting his cup from the ring it had left on the table.
“What?” Vince said, looking away from the ring, “Yes, she’s doing alright.”
He watched Eddie drink, and felt a strong compulsion to mimic the action. He grabbed his own cup and drank.
“She got her boiler fixed then?”
“Erm, yeah, I think so.” He said, setting his cup back down within the ring it had left on the table
“She told me you went out the other day.”
He tilted his head upwards, looking at a cobweb in the corner of the kitchen. What did it mean when he said, ‘the other day’? He could be referring to yesterday, the day before, or any other day.
“You tell me.” Eddie said, scratching at his eyebrow.
“I just went out for a walk.” Vince smiled, remembering his trip to the library.
Eddie squinted, “Are you alright Vince?” He asked, “You seem a little distracted.”
There was a forced compassion to his voice, a subtle probing that told him that he would not be able to brush off his question with a simple deflection.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” He said, “I’ve decided to come off my medication.”
Eddie leaned forwards in his chair, “What do you mean come off your medication?”
The forced compassion fell from his voice entirely.
“I mean –you know- cut down.”
“Vince.” He said, commanding his attention, “You realise that the meds are keeping you alive? You can’t just ‘come off’ them.”
“What if I don’t need them?”
“There’s no ‘what if’, Vince, you’re anaemic. You need those pills.”
Vince swallowed, regretting his confession, “My memory feels… a little better.”
“How long have you been off them?” Eddie asked angrily.
“About…” Vince paused, “I don’t know. A few days?”
“You don’t remember?”
“No Vince, don’t give me that. You have to take your medication, do you know how dangerous this is? You can’t just stop taking them.”
“Well, what if I don’t want to take them anymore?”
“You can want it all you like Vince,” Eddie said, “But simply wanting to stop taking your medication won’t stop you from being anaemic.”
Vince rose to his feet, “It’s my choice!”
“It’s not Vince!” Eddie said, a wave of anger running through his voice, “You’re taking a huge risk, I’m only concerned for your health and safety.”
Vince grimaced, “Cut the act Eddie,” he said, “I know you only visit me out of pity. I’m not your friend; I’m a charity to you, that’s it.”
“Vince listen, please.” Eddie said, rising slowly to his feet, “I’m telling you this for your own good. You need to listen to me, please.”
Vince picked up his cup, tipping it down the sink and marching towards the door.
“Where are you going?” he shouted after him.
As the door closed behind him, he heard Eddie’s muffled voice through the door.
He had slammed the door a little too hard, and quickly Mrs Orange’s door opened.
“Vinnie?” She said, poking her head out through the door, “What’s going on?”
“Oh,” he said, “nothing Mrs Orange. I’m just going for a walk around the block.”
“I heard shouting.” She said.
He counted each of the steps leading up to her door, then fixed his eyes on the faded red mat outside her door. He squinted at the blurred image on the mat.
“Is that…” he said, pointing to the mat, “A cat? Or a horse?”
“What?” Mrs Orange said, looking down at the mat.
“On your mat,” he said, “Is it a cat or a horse?”
“Oh.” She said, “I don’t remember.”
He turned to leave, “I’ll be back later.”
“Where are you going?” She asked, “Are you okay Vinnie?”
“No.” He said, walking down the corridor, away from Mrs Orange, “I need to make a change in my life.”
“A change?” She said, straining her voice, “What kind of a change?”
“Reading.” He shouted, heading down the stairs, “I need to read more.”
The weather was getting colder, nipping at his ears and nose. He should have grabbed a coat on his way out. It was too late to head back now. He walked the streets in a daze, and within a few minutes, he was lost.
He looked at the street names, but none of them registered in his head. Was he going the right way?
The wind whistled through the alleyways. A black cat dashed across the road, he watched as it ducked under a parked car and emerged from the other side.
He watched the cat dash away behind a newspaper display stand. His eyes were drawn to the headline of the newspaper.
“Murder of legal secretary in Stanford Memorial Church may have possible links to Satanic Cult.”
His stomach clenched. Maybe he should retrace his steps. The afternoon quickly advanced into early evening, and with it, the daylight began to retreat. Soon the sombre colours of autumn would fade into a bitter winter.
He steadied himself against a lamppost; a spell of dizziness hit him. He inhaled deeply, focusing on a crack in the road before him. The crack turned into two cracks, as his vision doubled, before returning to normal.
Doctor Veritas’ words ran through his head.
“Symptoms include confusion, fatigue, weakness, heart palpitations, shortness of breath or lightheadness. If anaemia is not treated, the heart continues to pump harder to get oxygen through the body. As the anaemia goes on, the symptoms will continue to get worse.”
He felt the thud of his racing heartbeat in his chest. He gripped the lamppost tightly, as a drowning man clutches…
“…severe stomach pain, vomiting, bloody diarrhoea, coughing up blood, constipation, loss of appetite, hair loss, peeling skin…”
Was that the sickness or the cure?
He crumbled to the floor, still holding the lamppost. His chest heaved up and down, desperate to catch a breath.
He closed his eyes, focusing on holding onto the lamppost.
Stay with it. Don’t black out.
He focused on the cold metal of the lamppost, his only tether of reality that bound him to the realms of sensibility.
“If you don’t know what to do, at first, do nothing.”
His breathing slowed, and he opened his eyes once more. He rose to his feet, and on unsteady feet, he began to move forwards.
As he continued down an uncertain street, the light from a shop window seemed to beckon him. As he approached, he saw that the building was a pharmacy.
The bell rang as he opened the door, and he stumbled towards the counter.
“Can I help you-“
“Ferrous Sulfate, please.” He coughed.
The chemist looked at him in confusion, “Iron supplements?”
He stood outside of the pharmacy, holding two pills in his hands. They were red, and did not contain the beeswax coating that his medication at home had. He examined them for a moment before the grinding pain that had taken hold of his stomach forced him to dry swallow them. He squeezed his eyes tightly as he did so, craning his neck like a newborn bird. When he opened his eyes, a tall man in a leather hat stood across the road, his face blank and empty. The man adjusted his hat, and began to amble away.
Reassured that his symptoms would soon subside, he began walking with a renewed vigour. The pain in his stomach seemed to have dulled the moment he swallowed the pills. He deduced that this was a placebo effect more than anything else, but he accepted it nonetheless. The pain had become manageable, and his breathlessness and confusion seemed to have abated.
He weighed up the possibility of speaking with Leanne about reducing his dosage, rather than cutting them out entirely. Eddie was right, he needed the medication to live, and it was not wise for him to be self-medicating.
After a few minutes of walking, he began to recognise the street names, and soon enough he was on his way to the library.
“Hey!” He said, approaching the librarian with a confidence that struck him as unnatural.
She looked up at him, a small smile breaking on her face, “Hey hey.” She said in response.
“I was just thinking,” he said, resting his forearm against the desk, “I never got your name-”
At once, his nose felt hot, and a strange feeling hit his sinuses.
He clapped his hand over his nose, it was running fiercely. Perhaps it was a reaction to the shift in temperature from the cold outside air to the warmth of the library.
Embarrassment flooded through him, as he pinched his nose, desperately wiping away the liquid which oozed out.
“Oh shit!” the librarian rose to her feet, “You’re bleeding!”
He tipped his head backwards, tasting the coppery blood as it flowed down his throat.
He held the bloody tissue to his nose.
“You have to let it clot.” She said.
He tipped his head backwards.
“No no!” She said, “Lean forwards, tipping your head backwards causes blood to run down your throat, which can cause nausea.”
He dutifully followed her instructions, breathing through his mouth.
“That’s what,” he said, feeling the syrupy blood in his mouth, “that’s what my mother used to do when she got them.”
“Just keep your head tipped forwards, and keep your nose pinched for at least ten minutes, okay.”
He nodded, “’kay.”
He sat there for a few moments, willing the blood to clot quickly and the bleeding to stop. A strange mixture of acute embarrassment took hold of him; almost as if his body had punished him for the confidence he had tried to exude. At the same time, he felt a strong affection for the librarian –whose name he still did not know- for her kindness.
“So what brought this on?” She said, sitting down before him, “Been out causing trouble in Palo Alto, have you?”
He shook his head, “I don’t know.” He said, his voice muffled, “I think it’s the weather.”
“What’s this?” She said, gripping the bottle of Ferrous Sulfate pills he’d taken left on the table.
“It’s my medication.”
“Is it new?” she asked, “Have you taken it before?”
“Yes.” He said, “Well, no. Not this exact one. I’m anaemic.”
“These are iron supplements.” She said.
“How did you know?”
“I study Chemistry.” She said, “I wanted to study English literature or History, but –my parents insisted- I must fuck up just like they did.” She rolled her eyes, before settling them back on the bottle, “You have an iron allergy –you realise that, right?- that’s what caused the nosebleed.”
Vince screwed up his face, “How do you know that?”
“You say your mom gets them too?”
“She used to.”
“What did she do? When did they stop?”
“When she died.”
“Oh…” the librarian said in shock, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” He said, lightening the pinch on his nose, “It was a long time ago, I’ve moved passed it.”
She deflected the conversation, “So, you don’t study here? I thought you were a mature student or something.”
“I used to –engineering- with Professor Zimbardo. A brilliant man, but I didn’t last longer than a semester. I returned in August of 1971, but only for a week.”
“Professor Zimbardo? I thought he was a psychology professor.”
He looked across at a newspaper on the desk, his eyes drawn to the headline.
“U.S and Soviet astronauts unite ships and then join in historic handshakes.”
He looked up at the librarian, “Can I read your paper?”
“Sure,” she said, “I’m done with it.”
With his free hand, he reached for the newspaper, setting it down on his lap. On the front page, an article caught his attention.
“Destruction of LSD Data Laid to C.I.A. Aide in ’73”
WASHINGTON, July 17 —The staff of the Rockefeller commission concluded that the chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s testing of LSD destroyed the drug program’s records in 1973 to hide the details of possibly illegal actions, commission sources said today.
These sources said that the chief of the program, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a 57‐year‐old biochemist, was personally involved in a fatal experiment in November, 1953, in which the commission has said a researcher was surreptitiously given LSD, a potent mind‐altering drug. The researcher, Frank R. Olson, jumped to his death from a New York City hotel room less than two weeks later after reportedly showing symptoms of anxiety.
The Rockefeller commission staff, on the basis of its investigation, concluded that 20 years after Mr. Olson’s death, and 10 years after the LSD experiments were purportedly halted, Dr. Gottlieb ordered the destruction of all the records of the program, including a total of 152 separate files, commission sources said.
The Rockefeller commission previously reported the destruction of records on the LSD experiments, but did not mention Dr. Gottlieb by name. It also reported a program through the Federal Bureau of Drug Abuse Control in which the C.I.A. had arranged to test LSD on “unsuspecting volunteers” in two programs, one in the West and the other along the East Coast.
The C.I.A.’s experiments with such hallucinogens as LSD stemmed from World War II concerns over how agents could resist torture in interrogation and could defend themselves against drugs being used by enemy intelligence services. The experimenting was a closely held secret even within Dr. Gottlieb’s unit. The Department of the Army declined to comment on the LSD programs or to issue any information on the number of soldiers or others involved in the tests.
The bleeding seemed to have stopped, though his nose remained clogged. He cast the bloody tissue into the bin.
“Have you read this?” he asked.
The librarian spun idly on her chair, “Space men shaking hands? The end of the space race? Sure. Shame really, we’re gonna need a new planet when the clock strikes midnight and the nukes start flying.”
“No, not that.” Eddie said.
“Oh,” she spun her chair around to face him “Then what?”
“This.” He said, holding the paper up to her and pointing to the article he had just read.
“It’s old news.” She said dismissively.
“What, when is this paper from?”
“Four months ago.” She said, “But the story shouldn’t come as a shock.”
Vince screwed up his face, “What?”
The librarian stopped spinning, leaning forwards “Ever heard of Operation Wandering Soul?”
Vince scrunched his face up, “Wandering what?”
“Vietnam.” She said, “In the deep, dense jungle, when the night was darkest, the Viet Cong would hide in silence, sitting in wait. Suddenly, the sound of Buddhist funerary music would begin to play; a discorded sound of ominous drums and echoing voices… Hellish screams and sobbing would follow, phantomic voices fading in and out, the voices of the damned and the desecrated. ‘I came back to let you know that I am dead…’, the voices would cry, ‘I am in hell.’”
Vince squirmed at the thought of the ghostly voices echoing through the darkness of the jungle, shaking his head lightly.
“The dead came to warn their brothers of their impending deaths, to warn them to return to their homes, and cease fighting, or be improperly buried in a land far from home; their souls doomed to wander in torment for eternity…”
Vince swallowed hard, “Is this real?” He asked.
“Yes.” She nodded, “And no.” She shrugged, “The voices were created by the US Military, and blasted from loudspeakers deep into the jungle.”
Vince squinted, “Why would they do that?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” She said, “To fill them with a sense of mortal dread that would cause them to flee.”
The librarian rose to her feet, “Wars aren’t fought with just guns and bombs, not anymore.” She said, taking the paper from him, “the real wars are fought in your mind.”
7th April, 1945
Cloonagh, County Sligo
Strings of thick saliva hung from her lips as the last churn of vomit erupted from her mouth. She’d been getting sick every morning. She looked down at the thick pale purple vomit –like curdled milk, interspersed with raisins and digested prunes- and cradled her stomach.
She was pregnant. She knew it the moment she began to crave raisins. In nine months’ time, she would bear a child. She had not heard from her sister in three years; she hadn’t heard from her father in five. Her mother died when she was just three years old. Perhaps she would suffer the same fate, and the child would be left in the custody of Jim, to become whatever his sharp words and vicious fists carved him into.
Her mouth was thick with the acrid taste of bile, the sour taste of her fate. Every second of every minute of every hour, cells were multiplying within her womb, slowly but steadily a human life was forming. Soon, a heart would grow within her, and begin to beat a hopeful beat; a mind would form -and with it- memories, thoughts and feelings.
But to what world would that baby open its eyes to? One of war, deceit and terror?
She clutched her stomach, kneeling as though in prayer. Jim could not know about the baby; she would not allow him to poison her child with his bitterness and spite.
She was alone in the world –isolated entirely- save for the life growing within her. She could not conceal her pregnancy for much longer; soon, Jim would find out.
Her mind raced with thoughts of her unborn child. Her only solace from her troubled thoughts was in the meditative internal repetition of the numbers she had finally deciphered. It perturbed her that the code was not dissimilar to the one she had used to communicate with her sister.
She had written down the letters of the coded message, and the first two lines from a Fenian song, as the numbers they represented.
She’d then set about deducting the second string of numbers from the first. Any negative numbers could be deducted from 26, leaving her with a new number. This method had produced a new series of numbers, however, when deciphered, the code only produced the letters ‘Hel’, followed by a mass of jumbled letters. A misdirection, perhaps?
After much deliberation, she’d finally realised that she had to add 1 to each number in the final string. This left her with a new set of numbers:
When each letter was ascribed a number based on its place in the alphabet, a message appeared:
Some of the words were misspelled; this -she deduced- was another misdirection, to throw off any potential codebreakers.
Her heart raced when the words began to form on the page. She had stumbled upon a message not intended for her eyes. A small thrill passed through her, the same voyeuristic thrill she used to feel when she eavesdropped on her father’s conversation.
“If midnight strikes, seek help, with triple three, at twenty-two hundred.”
Twenty-two hundred, surely referred to ten o’clock at night. How then could this coincide with midnight?
Evidently, midnight referred to an event –an emergency situation- in which help must be sought.
Triple three was simply the code; a signal of any kind –flashing lights, beeps, or flares- or so she assumed.
Midnight had struck before; that much could be seen. Whomsoever had been sending and receiving these coded messages had called for help -and in their haste- had left behind the shortwave radio, miniature songbook, and yellowing paper.
She rose to her feet. She had lived her entire life on the precipice of a shadowy world; a cloak and dagger world which she could not truly comprehend, an empty vacuous void.
Her father had –by accident or design- been swallowed up into that void; without a doubt, her husband too would disappear into that void, along with all of his shadowy friends.
She recognised her father’s handwriting on the yellowing paper. He was left-handed, like her, and smudged the ink slightly when he wrote with speed.
What catastrophe had hit him with such precipitousness that it had forced him to leave his daughter in the hands of Jim, without word?
She rose to uneasy feet, and began the process of meticulously brushing every scrap of dirt and dust from her clothes, faces and limbs. As the Emergency had begun to near its end, Jim’s paranoia seemed to increase, and his temper became ever-more unpredictable.
The portly man with the bowler hat had begun to make more frequent visits to the house –his face becoming more flushed with red each time- as though he was constantly running, despite his ample size.
The Garda Síochána seemed to pass by the house with growing frequency. When they’d first moved to Cloonagh, she’d scarcely see them from her window in a day. Now, they passed by at least three times every day without fail; making deliberately unsubtle glances towards the house.
Each night, she went to bed with anxiety in her gut, and each morning she woke with it. She dreaded the sound of splintering wood and heavy boots, the flailing arms and the crack of batons, as the guards dragged her from the house. At night, the thoughts invaded her sleep and woke her with a start.
She’d returned to the Cave of the Cats several times in the last three years, examining the shortwave radio. There was a button on the radio which –when pressed- seemed to transmit a buzztone, as though it might be used to transmit Morse code. But each time she switched the machine on, nothing came through but that same shrill intermittent buzztone.
Surely, somebody was transmitting it deliberately. Surely there was some purpose for it. This meant that somebody, somewhere must be listening.
She returned to the house, taking deep breaths so as to steady her nerves. Jim had become particularly adept at detecting her deception, though his paranoia could not prevent him from jumping to illogical conclusions. A speck of dust, a strand of stray hair, an abrasion of the shoe, or a pressure bruise on the arm could give her away, and led to all manner of accusations of infidelity. Her defensiveness only fanned his hostility, and soon after her skin would carry a fresh set of deeper bruises and abrasions.
But he never hit her in the face; what would the neighbours think?
She clutched her stomach one last time before entering the house. One punch would be enough to extinguish the light growing within her forever.
Her mind was made up. That evening –whilst her husband slept- she would slip silently from the house, ascend the hills to the Cave of the cats. There –at 10 o’clock- she would send out the distress signal of triple three.
The lampposts guided him home, as he followed one glowing beacon to another. The night had set in, and it brought with it a brutal chill. The cold, he reminded himself, was only temporary, and soon he would be at home again. He would need to bring out his second blanket from his mother’s old room, if he could find it amongst the piles of empty boxes, tins of “Dutch Boy” paint, and sackcloth bags.
He crept up the stairs, careful to avoid the squeaking floorboards, and made his way down the hallway. He pushed the key into the lock, carefully turning the key and listening for the click. He slowly opened the door, careful not to wake Mrs Orange.
He made his way through to the kitchen, when he switched on the light, he found Eddie sitting at the table. His face was solemn and grey.
Vince recoiled, “Eddie… you’re still here.”
Eddie looked at him, “Sit down Vince.”
Robotically, Vince drew back a chair and sat down.
“What are you still-”
“-Why did you stop taking your medication, Vince?” Eddie asked, cutting him off.
Vince fumbled his hands, “I…” he paused, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the bottle of pills he’d bought earlier, “I’ve got them here.”
Eddie snatched the bottle from his hand, “Those aren’t your pills Vince.”
“No, but they’re the same. They’re similar. I bought them when I was out, but they gave me a nosebleed.”
“They’re not the same, Vince.” Eddie said through gritted teeth.
Vince inhaled deeply, feeling anxiety building in his head and manifesting itself as a dull throb.
“Let me ask you a question.” Eddie said firmly, “How did your mother die?”
The throbbing in his head began to rise into an ache.
“I don’t… she died from…” Vince’s mouth became dry, “I was too young to remember.”
“Let me tell you about your mother Vince.” Eddie began, “She was born in Dublin. She married very young, she was forced into it really. Your father was a man with a propensity for violence and abuse. It was pathological, some said. A sickness of violent compulsion.”
Vince cradled his head, looking down at the rings on the table, “How do you know this?”
“She fell pregnant at the end of the war.” He explained, “She didn’t want to raise a child in an abusive household, so she escaped, fleeing to America. When you were born, she was an illegal alien, and so were you.”
Vince breathed heavily, trying to control his breathing and isolate the pain in his head.
“You were a boisterous child, hyperactive.” He said, “As you grew, your anger, your violence began to grow. You became… uncontrollable.”
Vince shook his head, “You don’t know this.”
“I know it.” Eddie spat, “and you know it. You’re burying the truth, and you’ve been burying it your whole life.”
Vince suppressed the rising pain in his head, pushing it deep down. He crushed his eyes closed; his pain manifesting itself as a vertiginous glowing ember in his mind. The ember spun and warped, taking the form of a ginger tomcat.
He was at once stood above the Tomcat, looking down as he raised his foot and stamped down on the animal, over and over again, listening to the creature screech, watching as the creature desperately tried to crawl away. He stooped down, grabbing the mangled creature by the neck and wringing it tightly, as the cat clawed at his wrists.
“You’re thinking about the Tomcat, aren’t you Vince.”
He opened his eyes, and the pain flooded back into his cranium.
“There was no cat,” Eddie said, “you killed your mother.”
Vince’s whole body began to convulse violently, his elbows bashing against the table.
“It’s not true!” He yelped, “It’s not true!”
Eddie reached across the table, gripping him by the wrists and pulling him forwards.
“It is true.” He said, “You know it’s true.”
Vince opened his eyes, “I didn’t…”
“Your entire life has been a fabrication Vince, you have existed within a bubble of psychosis. Did it ever occur to you that we were childhood friends and yet I’m ten years your senior?”
Vince looked at Eddie, noticing the entrenched wrinkles around his head.
“My name is not Eddie. I don’t work at Rose & Miller. I’m not your childhood friend. I’m your case worker.”
Vince blinked, his eyes swelling with tears, “We studied at Stanford together.”
“You spent years in a juvenile correctional facility, but you’ve erased this from your memory. You don’t remember the home at all, do you?”
Vince closed his eyes, squeezing tears onto the table below.
“We worked together… at the post office.”
“We tried to reintegrate you into society, find you a job, but your violent tendencies were too much. You’ve been living in a fantasy your whole life Vince, refusing to acknowledge the murder of your mother.”
“But… what about the woman…” Vince whimpered, “The one in my bed, the auburn lady.”
“She never existed.” He said, “Those conversations we had, the woman in your bed. Everything you said –everything you thought- was a fabrication. You were in a state of deep hypnosis, I was there beside you, guiding you through the hypnosis. Doctor Veritas and I created a scenario in your head; a scenario in which you accept the murder of your mother and buried her. We hoped that you would bury your guilt with it, and accept reality. It was your last chance for redemption Vince, your last chance to reintegrate into the real world. But instead it seems to have woken something with you that is far more dangerous. Your medication is the only thing keeping you docile. If you reject it, you will slowly lose your grip on everything that tethers you to reality, and when that happens, you’ll be taken away. They’ll take you back to the home, do you understand?”
Vince breathed heavily, his body trembling. He closed his eyes once more. His mother lay before him as he kicked and stamped on her. The fires of hatred burned, fanned by the betrayed eyes of his mother. He lowered himself to the ground, gripping her neck and crushing her windpipe tightly. Her hands clawed at his wrists, as her eyes bulged under her auburn hair, matted with blood.
“I did it…” He sobbed, “I killed her… I killed my mother.”
“You were just a boy, Vince.” the man said, the compassion returning to his voice, “You were just a boy. It was not your fault that you were born with this sickness. We’re going to make you better, I promise. You will be better, that’s what we all want for you. But you need to follow your medication, no matter what. None of us want to lose you.”
The man, whom Vince had formerly known as ‘Eddie’, led him to his bedroom.
“Look,” he said, pointing to his clock.
Vince looked at the clock, noticing it had not been wound.
“Take your medicine,” He said, “Get some rest. I know this is a hard fact to confront, but you need to embrace the past so that you can have a future, do you understand?”
Vince nodded, sitting on the bed and winding the clock.
“You’ve been allowed to live freely –as long as you’re closely monitored by me- but the laws are changing, and if we don’t begin to see signs of improvement, they’ll take you away again. So please, for all the people who care about you, for your mother’s sake, take your medication, attend your therapy sessions, and don’t wander the streets at night. Do you hear me?”
Vince nodded, setting the clock on the side and lying in the bed.
“Listen to your tapes and get some sleep.” The man instructed, “I will be here to check on you in the morning okay? We’ll get you through this, I promise.”
The man left the room, and Vince strapped the mask on his face. He was mentally exhausted, and yet, some part of him felt like he had been freed. He had finally confronted his guilt, and would –with the help of his case worker- be able to make progress. Perhaps someday he’d be free to live a normal life, with normal people, and maybe then he’d be happy.
He pressed play on the tape.
“Count slowly with me… One…. Focusing on the number one…..”
He looked up at the elliptical crack in his ceiling, urging his mind to shut down and drift into sleep.
“Two… you are more deeply relaxed…. deeper and deeper… Calm. Peaceful.”
His eyes wandered over to the tape player, watching the tapes rotate, feeling his eyes becoming heavy. He looked at the dustless circle on the tape player, where once a coin had rested.
“Three… Feel the tension leaving your body… Relaxation filling your body and mind; concentrating just on the numbers.”
It was all a dream, and tomorrow when he woke up, he would –for the first time- wake up to the real world. He let his eyes fall closed, and nestled into the pillow.
His eyes snapped open.
Where was the Halfcrown?
The night was bitter, but something willed him to find the tree. Just as sure as each cup of tea left a definite ring on his kitchen table, the ring of absent dust on his cassette player was real. He had not dreamt it up, and though his grip on reality waned, there were some things he could not deny.
Even so, as he trudged through the darkness, he longed for insanity. A recipe of pills for his ills, the comfort of the couch in Dr Veritas’ office, the soothing voices of his audio cassette, a cup of tea with a hint of vanilla –or almond- and the smell of boiled vegetables.
But his mind was preoccupied with the cold image of a lonely horse and harp, destined never to meet. He wondered if the horse knew what was on the other side of the coin; or if he could hear the soft gentle strum of the harp; a lullaby for the lonely and the lost. Perhaps it was a staccato plucking of discorded strings; a bitter melody in honour of those who suffer.
The Halfcrown spun slowly in his mind, the Celtic harp played a melancholy song, as the horse’s head sunk low, scavenging for a patch of green grass. The coin rose into the sky, behind a great Redwood tree, shining down from the east.
He stopped, turning to look up at the moon rising in the east. He’d been keeping the moon to his right. How long had it been?
The moon was inverse to how it had been before; a waxing gibbous. The lunar cycle from waning gibbous to waxing gibbous was about twenty one days.
He looked at his right wrist in the minimal light from the moon. He saw no scratches or scars, and at once began to doubt his sensibilities. His memory was a loose foundation upon which he could structure a plan. He looked up at the moon once more, running his eyes along the mighty barks of the Redwood trees, until a glint of light caught his eye.
The glimmer of light came from the bark of a Redwood tree.
He tentatively approached the tree, guided by the reflection of the moon. The wind picked up furiously, blasting a spike of cold air down the back of his neck, as he reached out to touch it.
The Halfcrown remained embedded in the tree, exactly where he’d left it three weeks earlier.
He prized it from the tree bark, the metal had become almost too cold to touch.
Looking down, he saw the huckleberry saplings to his left; they had grown.
At once, he dropped to his knees, and tore at the saplings, casting them aside and clawing at the cold earth below with his fingernails.
Within moments, he felt the coarseness of sackcloth.
He tugged at the sackcloth, pulling it from the earth. The sackcloth contained something hard, wooden and heavy.
He peeled back the layers of sackcloth to reveal an old wooden box, no bigger than a cigar case.
He brushed the dirt off the box, revealing an engraving: “SP54.”
The front of the box was fixed with an old brass clasp with rusted hinges.
He set the box down amongst the huckleberries and dirt, and peeled back the clasp.
He opened the lid to reveal a metal device, covered in cogs, wires and small speakers. At once, the cogs began to rotate.
He dropped the box, pressing his hands over his ears. Mortal dread gripped him, as a shrill buzztone rang out from the device, invading his ears like an icy needle.
His eyes fell shut.
He was unconscious before he felt his head hit the ground.
(c) JC Axe 2018.