Fiction: Brotherly Love

(Originally submitted for the RTE short story competition)

Richard would never forget the look on Coster’s face as he fell. The shock of despair, of hope turned to devastation. 

They had been inseparable in their youth, so much so that people often asked who was the older brother. Richard’s more robust build and freckled face complemented Coster’s sleeker, paler features. 

Coster’s family lived a few streets away but he seemed to spend very little time there. Or at least, in Richard’s memory Coster had spent nearly every day at his own home, and nobody ever commented on how he flinched away from human touch, or winced if he banged his back against something. He was always gone by dusk, but, when they were about eleven, Richard came downstairs to find Coster at the breakfast table with his mother, eating Richard’s cereal and huddled under Richard’s blanket. After that he never left and nobody ever mentioned the other house again.

Coster was given the bedroom Richard’s father had slept in before he went away. It was larger than Richard’s, and impeccably clean. His mother had always insisted on everything being neat and tidy. Coster seemed to look vaguely like Richard’s father, though Richard had no memory of him. Some of his toys and books found their way into Coster’s room, and other, new ones besides. You stole my mother.

Coster, just a few inches short of a man’s height, was always the first one down in the morning to greet Richard’s mother. Dutifully, without being asked, he would clear the table after breakfast and find some other small chore to do before school. “Such a good boy,” Richard’s mother would tell him. “Such a fine and handsome young man, so good to have around the house.” And slowly, inevitably as the weeks and months went by, she would add: “Why can’t you be more like Jimmy?” 

You stole my mother.

The weeks, and months went by, as they do. And the two boys grew up and out, as boys are wont to do. The lads, the boys, the guys his mother would say, never sons. Coster couldn’t say what his birthday was, so they became twins of a sort, ageing officially on the same day each year. 

The autumn they turned fourteen was fiercely hot, without a drop of rain for months and dead air like the inside of an oven. That day had begun muggy and cloudy, but Richard knew from the forecast that it would burn off within an hour. It was not much past dawn. He had taken to spending dawn outside in most weathers. Inside was too cramped, too tired, it made his skin crawl as if spiders were racing up and down his spine. He would wake to find his sheets a tangled mess. Coster’s were seldom touched, it seemed. “The nightmares,” his mother said when he had commented. “They terrify him something fierce. He needs a mother’s touch.” But Richard had never heard his friend – and they were still inseparable, Coster a paragon of loyalty and devotion to his hero – never heard his friend cry out in the night.

Richard was standing beneath the trees as the sunlight broke through the boughs, listening to the cacophony of birdsong from his garden and the nearby woodlands. Cuckoo, cuckoo, came one. Cuckoo, cuckoo. Richard closed his eyes and leaned back against a tree trunk, wondering what it would be like to fly away. You stole my mother.

When he padded inside and back up the stairs Coster was coming out of his – their – mother’s room and greeted him with a smile and a brotherly puck on the upper arm, as always, before going off to sort breakfast for everybody. Richard returned the greeting like a good brother would – and he truly did look after Coster like a little brother, standing his ground when bullied, helping with homework when he struggled to read letters the right way around – and went to lie down on his bed for a few minutes to think about his great great grandfather’s samurai sword, brought home from some scarcely remembered merchant voyage.

From the age of sixteen the first insurmountable distance set in between them. Coster, though he still often struggled with reading, had found and built up a prodigious skill for languages, one carefully nurtured by a charismatic teacher at school and supported at home by both mother and Richard, himself no lightweight at learning. The year passed in a hazy mix of English, French, German, and later a smattering of Arabic though all but Coster struggled with it. He recited stories and poems to a computer, then published them far and wide. He had suddenly become known in the town, and further afield, though nobody called him Coster but Richard any more. There were never any girls or guys on his arm at readings or the exhibitions he liked to visit. Only mother.

The shadow of a famous brother excused Richard from some of the harder classes at school, let him work on his inventions quietly in peace even when he wanted advice and kinship. Winning a series of competitions went under the radar at home but caught early attention from universities, though Coster’s stories brought in money and anything Richard did seemed to cost money. “Why can’t you be more like Jimmy?” his mother would ask, greyer at the temples than she had been but not much older beyond that. You stole my mother. And yet Jimmy, Coster, increasingly now James, was the constant supporter, both in money and in showing up when it counted. 

At twenty-three the world caved in. The call came at 5.09am as the winter rain washed against the windows of Richard’s studio apartment in the city. The bleat of the phone shocked him out of a grey, collapsing dream and it took a few seconds to register Coster’s name on the screen. “You need to come home Richie,” he said through a veil of tears. “Mum’s gone. I…” and then came the sound of the phone hitting the floor and the distant sob of heartbreak. 

Richard was dressed and out the door by 5.29am, was unlocking the old front door (when was it painted green?) by 5.50am, and crying on the floor with Coster by 5.52am. At some point they slept in each other’s arms. The sun was up before he could even look at the bed. Both sides of the sheets were tousled. His mother lay there, staring at the ceiling with one arm dangling over the side. There was white foam around her mouth. A tall half-full glass of water sat slightly off-centre on a coaster on the nightstand. Lip marks were on the rim, pale white. 

The boys sat together in the front row at the funeral, Richard’s grandmother to his left and aunts he had seldom seen on their right. Richard would remember little of the day. But he would always remember the numbness, the feeling of being controlled like a marionette as rows of people came to share condolences and memories, faces blending into one general whisper of platitudes. When the time came for the eulogy Coster, the writer, now definitively James, found himself frozen in place. Pleading, desperate eyes sought out Richard, who with a hug took the speech kindly from stiff fingers and recited it with unthinking elegance. 

Then came the days of unfeeling silence, of sitting together finding fellowship in the space between words. Coster, now well off, had his own apartment within walking distance but seemed to have taken few, if any, of his possessions. But what did he really need, wondered Richard, when he had mother to himself? Or was it the other way around? Did it matter any more?

Where the days were nothing but silence the nights were cacophonies of pain and horror as Coster wailed and growled in his sleep at images and entities he could not recall come daylight. On the fourth night after the funeral Richard woke to the sound of a door closing in earnest, an engine humming to life in the pale dead of night.  There was a note. There’s always a note, Richard thought, as he picked up the half-crumpled sheet. It said, simply: “Mum won’t let me go. I don’t know how to be free. I did my best.” So did I, he said to himself as he pulled on his battered trainers and headed for his own car still in the shorts and T-shirt that passed for his pyjamas. 

There was a bridge about ten minutes away that had once been a viaduct for trains. It was high enough to give the feeling of vertigo as you looked down into the river, swollen at this time of year with runoff from the mountains. The boys had often spent a bit of time hanging over the railings, daring one another to swing just a little bit further over or throwing stones into the water below. 

Coster was standing on the other side of the guardrail now, barely more than a phantom shadow beneath a streetlight. Richard walked toward him but off to the side, not wanting to spook him. 

“You’re being a bit melodramatic, Jimmy,” he said. “You wouldn’t even put this in one of your stories when you were a teenager.”

Coster barked a laugh that was half sob. “I thought that after she was gone I’d feel myself again. Every day, every night pawing and crying at me. I just couldn’t take it any more.” He sobbed again. “But I see her face every time I close my eyes. Every bump or crack in the house, I’m sure it’s her wandering around, watching me. I miss it being just us. Though it was never just us. But I always remember that it was.” He was quiet for a moment. “I always thought you’d come and get me.”

And he stepped off into the dark. Richard leapt forward, his muscles straining as he caught the falling man. Richard held Coster’s hand, his grip fierce from adrenaline and raw power. As his friend kicked and swung in panic Richard nearly went over himself before jamming his thigh against the guardrail to brace himself. He let out a guttural roar from the pain and strain. The sweat was already building, making it hard to hold on.

Coster looked up, seemingly in shock that Richard was still there, his hope of salvation. He smiled and relief washed over his face. But as he did his face changed. It was Coster’s own clean-shaven face as a young teenager. “All okay Richie?”  You stole my mother.

The features morphed until his mother’s face was staring up at him. “Why can’t you be more like Jimmy?” she asked. “Such a good boy, such a fine and handsome young man, so good to have help around the house.” She pursed her lips and wrinkled her nose at him. You stole my brother.

“Richie pull me up! Quick quick,” she said, though her voice was Coster’s. “I can’t hold on. I’m slipping,” she said desperately. 

“Slip away,” he whispered, letting go.

And it was Coster’s face again, eyes and mouth wide with terror. The shock of despair, of hope turned to devastation. Down, down he went toward the winter waters. Richard watched him falling, his breathing coming back to normal. “Goodbye Jimmy,” he whispered. “Goodbye mother. Cuckoo, cuckoo.”

He tucked his shirt back in and smoothed out the creases. He turned on his heel as he heard a faint cry and splash. The wind had picked up and a downpour was nigh.

As he walked back to the car he realised he was hungry and wondered what he would have for breakfast. He sat at the wheel, closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, started the engine, and aimed the car toward a road he had never travelled, where there was nobody left to be stolen.


Fiction: What Gets Left Behind

(Originally published here)

It was a hard thing, being dead.

Watching the rise and fall of the seasons without the heat of the sun on your face or the chill of a winter storm. Seeing the world change in flashes and cutscenes but with time standing still. Growing attached to the people living in your house (he always thought of them as lodgers) only to find them suddenly grown or gone.

Most of all, Art just felt so very, very tired. Whenever he manifested, it was with a feeling of immense sadness, and with the basement door at his back. He could go anywhere in the house but not beyond the garden. He never went into the basement.

He didn’t think he’d be tired. Weren’t you supposed to sleep when you’re dead? Instead he found himself roaming at all hours, and after all these years he could still never get used to the sensation of knowing his feet were walking without being able to feel wood or carpet underneath him.

He’d love to just stub his toe. Or bang his head on a doorway. That would be amazing. Because he was dead, but didn’t feel dead.

If he concentrated hard enough, really put a lot of effort in, he could move things. More than once his frustrations had boiled into a blind rage and he had lost awareness for a few moments only to find he was standing in a room full of thrown furniture, or next to a chandelier that had been pulled from the ceiling. But he could never remember doing this, despite knowing that he had.

Those days tended to scare the lodgers. Some had walked around burning sage, or brought in priests to sprinkle holy water. That tended to sting for a long time, but he came back eventually, usually with the sense that something was incomplete. It was a very old house, though whether it was old when he was alive he couldn’t say. He could remember nothing from the Time Before.

He didn’t mean to scare people, most of the time. He felt he had been a good person when he was alive, and generally let people be themselves, but he could not abide the slightest injustice toward women.

Once, a very elegant couple and their two children had lived in his house. Avena was tall, with a carefree laugh that reminded him of somebody. She had some business that she ran from home.

Alexei was shorter, well-built, and worked outside the house. He sounded educated, but often reduced his wife to tears with demeaning vulgarity and cruel insults.

Then one evening in summer, he crashed a fist into her stomach. Once. Twice. A third time. As she collapsed, gasping for air as he draped himself on the leather couch, Art was overcome with a bitter flash of memory. It laid itself over the scene as if then and now existed at once. The oak and white furniture of now phased into heavier, darker cabinets and hard chairs. A man in a waistcoat, face crimson with rage (father?) standing over a woman (mother?) who was pleading for her life. “Please,” she said over and over again. “He’s yours, I swear it.”

“You’d say anything, though, wouldn’t ya? I married you when ya had nothing, nothing, took ya outta the gutter where I shoulda left you. And all the while ya’d betrayed me with him, a damned foreigner, like I’m not good enough for ya.”

He punctuated each sentence with a slap of his leather belt and the woman threw her hands up to protect her face. He leaned in close. “I’ll teach ya a lesson, and that little bastard of yours upstairs then.” Faster than Art thought possible, the man wrapped the belt around her throat. She kicked and slashed his face to ribbons but he was fierce and implacable.

With her last breath she reached out, toward Art, her eyes wider with panic. As she slumped to the floor the man stood up and looked where she had been reaching. “There ya are, ya little bastard. I’ll show you and all.”

The man, his face twisted with blind rage, thump thump thumped across the floorboards and swept the boy off the floor and held him before the brass mirror in the hallway. “Look at ya, ya little pup,” the man said in a frenzy, as he throttled a boy no more than twelve years old until his eyes bled. The room spun and Art found himself back where he had been, standing in a doorway watching the two newest lodgers.

He raised his hands in front of where his face should be. He had always fancied that his hands were large, callused and rough, the hands of a man. Now they were slight and bony, the hands of a child with a lot of growing ahead of him. The two visions of himself sat one on top of the other, with the deep sense that had to act, for the sake of the woman who must have been his mother, murdered just a few feet away.

Alexei got up and walked through Art. As Art turned around he saw the man briefly take on the hulking rage of his father before reverting to his normal, well-built shape. That morphing, and seeing his own hands transition from child to man to child again, put the kernel of an idea in Art’s mind, though he wasn’t sure he had the strength to accomplish it.

He crept toward where the woman had pulled herself up by using a side table for support. She could not have been much older than his mother, and though they looked nothing alike Art realised he knew this all along. Drawn by long dormant instinct, he tried to hold his hand out to her, but all that happened was the lamp on the table started to flicker and pulse. The woman saw it, and looked around her. “If somebody is there,” she whispered, “please help me.” She limped off toward the small room he knew she used as an office.

From upstairs came the sound of the shower, and Art’s half-idea blossomed into something fully formed. As he made his way up the stairs, each lightbulb he passed flickering for a moment or two, he wondered how he could feel so much older than a lad of twelve. Had it been the years of watching people come and go? Had he been an old soul even in youth? He knew there was an answer, could feel it rolling around the edges of his consciousness, but it was just out of reach.

No matter. He had a job to do now, and he intended to do it well.

Alexei came out of the shower and wrapped himself in a towel before going to the sink to brush his teeth. He slicked his hair back with his hand, then realised he couldn’t see himself in the steamed mirror, and Art knew his opportunity had arrived. He moved quickly behind Alexei, and as the man wiped the mirror clean Art came  forward.

Alexei wasn’t looking as he wiped the glass but then screamed in transfixed horror as he saw not his own face, but a dripping decayed mass of a thing, green in places with decay and mottled with neglect. It was a ruined mockery of a human being, mostly bleached white as if it hadn’t seen the sun in a generation. Its eyes were gouged out and its lower lip missing. The creature laughed at him, a rattling hollow laugh that Alexei could feel right down his breastbone.

“Look upon your sins,” the cadaver said. “Or next time you’ll be joining me in hell.”

Alexei screamed and screamed and screamed and when Avena came up eventually, having enjoyed hearing his terror for over an hour, his hair had gone bone white and he had slashed his eyeballs with his nails. She held him by the jaw, this once supremely confident brute now blinded and hoarse, and laughed. Not a malevolent laugh, but the relieved laugh of one who has had long prayed-for justice. “My guardian angel must have been looking out for me,” she said, mostly to herself as she tapped on her breastbone three times. “Thank you.”

Art, exhausted by concentrating so much on his apparition, faded out to the sound of her whispering “thank you, thank you, thank you”.

Do you dream when you’re dead, he found himself wondering in the void. Or are you remembering? He was not asleep, he could never truly sleep, but he was being overrun by emotions that felt almost ancient. It was like old muscles awakening after being long out of use. Flashes of faces, of darkness, of hands scratching in the dark and crawling through perpetual night. He felt the march of time, felt it flowing through him, and then past him. He saw new faces, families, felt their growth and traces of their memories. He saw lights turning on and off, heard soft steps on the landing, curtains rustling without wind.

When he became fully aware of himself, he was again standing with his back to the basement door. Yet things were different this time. It wasn’t just sadness that he felt. It was tempered now with resolve, determination. He was, he realised, ready to go down there – but he didn’t want to go alone.

Avena, he realised, was not in the house. He could sense her absence, but felt also that the place had not been lived in for some time. How much time has passed, he asked himself. And yet, as he drifted through silent rooms and past covered furniture, it had not changed much. He knew without remembering that he had been here many times since that night, but only as a shadow of himself. He also knew that he had been welcomed.

There was a jangle of keys and the front door opened stiffly. Two women came in confidently, as if it was a long familiar place. The bright winter sunlight obscured their faces until they shut the door behind them, and he found, happily, that one of the women was Avena. She was older, the passage of time marked in crows’ feet and silver streaks in her hair, but she was no less herself. She carried herself with the contentment of a life well lived. The other woman was shorter, with sandy rather than auburn hair, but the resemblance was remarkable. Her daughter, no doubt, and eventually he remembered her name had been Rebecca. No, Becky. She hated Rebecca.

The two took a few steps in and Avena held her hand up to stop Becky. “There,” she whispered, with the hint of a smile. “He’s here.”

“Are you sure you want to do this mom? I mean, it’s his house. It wouldn’t be fair to hurt him.”

“He did something incredible for me, once. He gave me my life back. I want to return the favour Becky. I’ve been waiting years, it’s why I’ve kept this place for so long and why I keep coming back. You know, you thought I was mad when I told you, but   then you felt him yourself, that time when your brother had a seizure in the bathtub.”

The daughter nodded. “I remember,” she said gently. “He said he went under and then something pulled him out of the water and just held him up.”

“So now we owe our guardian angel two favours. You know something has trapped him here. That’s what all the books say, isn’t it? Unfinished business? He deserves as much peace as anybody.”

“But we can’t force him out.”

“We won’t. We’ll just give him a way, if he wants it.”

Without thinking, Art made the crystals on a dusty Tiffany lamp jingle. “There!” said Avena. “He’s listening.”

“Can you tap something,” said Becky. “Once for no, twice for yes?”

With amusement, Art tapped twice on the sideboard.

“Do you want us to do something?” Two taps. He knew what he wanted, but how to tell them? They were looking at each other, trying to answer the same question. He moved down the hallway toward the kitchene, then tapped twice on the solid wood doorframe.

“Let’s follow him,” Avena whispered.

“I’m nervous,” said Becky. “What if…?”

“Don’t worry. If we were supposed to be scared of him we would have known that years ago.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” said Becky as they walked toward the back of the house. “I’m worried about scaring him.”

Art was confused, as if he should know what they were talking about but couldn’t call it to mind. Having brought them this far, he drifted to the basement door. But it was hard. Part of him absolutely did not want to go down there. The rest of him knew it was time. He tapped twice on the door. Avena and Becky exchanged another look, and Avena unlocked it.

The door swung out into pitch darkness, and Art was overcome with fear. There was pain in the darkness.

“Do you want to go on?” asked Becky. One tap… then a hesitant second. “Do you want us to come?” Two taps.

Avena flicked a switch but the ancient yellow bulb barely threw back the blackness. “I think I only came down here two or three times,” she told Becky. “I never liked it.”

Art had already begun down the stairs, almost cringingly slow as he fought a rising panic and despair. It was pressing on him from the air itself.

“You’re not alone,” said Avena, and he knew she was talking to him. “But it’s the only way we can find out how to help you be at peace.”

The light grew gently brighter, then changed colour, and Art felt himself abruptly shift between then and now. There was a thumping, raging charge down the stairs, right through him and the others. Though they couldn’t see anything, both shivered. The cruelly contorted man was dragging a barely conscious child down the stairs, not caring if his legs clattered and stumbled.

“You’re scum and you’ll stay here,” he roared at the child, before returning back up the stairs and turning the light out, locking the door behind him.

Art felt the sensations of scrabbling around on a dirt floor, inching one direction and then the other in the hope of finding something, anything. His legs weren’t working. It felt like it was going on for hours, before the door was flung open briefly and a heavy thing wrapped in carpet crashed down the steps, knocking the child over. The light lasted just long enough for him to see his mother’s dead face.

Snapshots and sensations washed over him. Lights flicking on and off to taunt him with his mother’s putrifying face while he ate scraps; the sound, not the sight but the sound of rats eating at her eyes and lips in the abyss despite his efforts to fight them off; the hands of a child growing steadily to be the hands of a man, worn and callused from attempts to climb the stairs and pry the door open until his strength grew almost to nothing. And every day, the corpse of his mother kept watch over him.

Sometimes his father, spoke to him; other times, out of guilt or boredom perhaps, he left the light on and threw Art books. But mostly there was just the dark, and silence, and starvation.

The flight through memories slowed, then stopped. His father was sitting by the end of the staircase. He had set a bright flashlight on the step next to him, the intense white casting shadows over every crag of his own decaying face. His great strength had turned to flab, and his breathing was loud and ragged. He had something wrapped in a thick tarpaulin at his feet. Art, having spent half a lifetime in the dark, could barely look in the man’s direction.

“There comes a time,” his father wheezed, “when all accounts … are settled.”

He was staring at the floor as Art lay a few feet away, weak and feverish. His legs had never truly recovered.

“I don’t have much time … left. Maybe your mother … cursed me. Maybe … I am your father … isn’t life a blast? But no more of that.”

“What do you mean?” Art was struggling to think, and was increasingly ill on the floor in the cold.

“I mean … no more of that.” And with a rush of speed belying his decrepit state, from the tarpaulin he dragged a hefty pickaxe, and crashed it down on Art’s stunned face.

Floating outside of themselves, now-Art sharing the space and feelings of then-Art, newly freed from his mortal shell. His father was digging a pit, pausing frequently to rest, and when it was deep enough he used the pickaxe to shove Art’s broken body into it, along with the carpet and what remained of Art’s mother. Art watched the man begin to fill it in and drifted up and out of himself, losing contact with the world and disappearing into the void … before appearing for the first time outside the basement door, ignorant of everything that had come before.

Now-Art walked down the steps, tapping as he went so Avena and Becky would follow. In the centre of the room was a rough, discoloured patch, wide and irregular. He slammed his foot down on it three times, they looked at one another, and then dug at the packed earth with their hands in a flurry.

It was nearly an hour before they found the first shreds of carpet, and another fifteen minutes before they uncovered the skull of a young man. Both of them heard a gasp of pure relief and a whispered “thank you”. And then, for the first time in the longest time, Art slept.

Fiction: Life for a Life

(Originally published here)

Conway stood with the other parishioners, a thick crowd pressing in on each other and reeking of ostentatious piety and desperation.

The decrepit church wasn’t the biggest, but droves forced their way in from Carey’s Lane every Sunday. A man six feet away was coughing as if his life depended on it, and maybe it did. Cholera had ripped through Cork a little more than ten years ago, carrying away thousands, including three of Conway’s children. Now famine stalked the countryside, and scores of skeletal people draped in rags crammed the quaysides and back streets either looking for work or somewhere to die.

The damned crammed into any church they could find, searching for something. Maybe salvation,  maybe just a moment’s respite from the fear of imminent death. He knew they wouldn’t find anything here. He hadn’t. And surely, if ever God was going to reach out his hand it was going to be when his little Isobel lay dying of fever, a whisper of the vibrant two-year-old she used to be. First Martha, then Danny, then Isobel, all gone in just weeks.  What a glorious reign Queen Victoria had brought them.

His wife, Matilde, barely left their rooms. She spent hours kneeling in front of two red candles and a portrait of Saint Monica, who was supposed to bring solace to grieving parents. But if she did, she was ignoring the Conways. Their last surviving child, Hanora, now sixteen, had gone to England with her husband and her mother had barely noticed. Hanora had worked small jobs here and there, helping on clothing stalls at St Peter’s Market on Cornmarket Street, and made sure her mother was fed while her father was at sea. Now they relied on friends, relatives to look in on her. He helped haul grain, butter, and timber to England and bring coal back on one of the steam packets. He had been missing when Isobel passed. They couldn’t afford to lose the work, he kept telling himself, even though he knew it was a lie. Now his wife was a ghost and guilt and grief were eating him from the core out.

The priest droned on in the gloom ahead. Conway understood almost none of the Latin, but they all understood the rhythm of the ritual. He could just about see the priest’s head bobbing up on a step as they all faced the altar, which was clothed in shadow and candlelight, the sun outside blotted out by clouds and the high windows filthy inside and out. Who is this man to turn his back on us, Conway growled to himself, even though he knew it was just the way things were. But when the priest turned to deliver his sermon, some tirade about God leaving bellies empty as punishment for the emptiness of souls, Conway realised he had had enough. Enough of going along with the pantomime, of worshipping a God that had abandoned him and ruined his beloved.

And standing there, desperate to leave and ready to explode with rage, he had an epiphany. If God won’t answer me, maybe the other fella will. What have I got to lose? And so he prayed with a fervour he hadn’t felt in a decade of half-life. Over and over he chanted, in his head first and then under his breath, “The devil is in me, the devil is in me”. And if the men on either side of him started to back away, what of it? Fools, he said. Idiots with heads full of muck and hearts as dull as old knives. Something welled up inside of him, an emotion he couldn’t name which made him puff out his chest, and for the first time in a long time he felt calm within himself.

The Mass finished, and the congregation spilled onto the street. Legions of the dead walked around him, braying to each other with news of the day or pleading with passersby to throw a few coins their way for charity or whatever goods they’d dredged up.

Behind him he heard a tap, tap, tap of metal on cobblestones. Conway looked left and right. The crowds had vanished, along with the hawkers trying to flog their wares. The street had gone utterly silent, but the tapping echoed off the buildings, until it seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.

Conway turned around and less than a foot away from him was a leering, decimated face. It was bloated and bleached white, and half the skin on its jaw was missing. Something had been gnawing on it, but the wounds hadn’t bled. They had just torn. The man’s clothes were drenched and his hair seemed to drift in the air as if he was underwater. Conway screamed as the drowned remains of his father chuckled at him, rapping a blackthorn walking stick on the ground.

“This? This is how you see me? I won’t lie, I was rather hoping for a well-cut suit, one of those uptight educated voices that drives you crazy, but this… well, this will do. That scream, oh that scream was pure fear. It was intoxicating. Do it again.” His speech was clear but damp, as if it was full of phlegm.

Conway’s mouth opened and closed but nothing came out.

“No? Cat got your tongue? A pity, that. But such is life. And, indeed, death.” And the revenant laughed again, a mawing sound that made Conway sick to his stomach.

“What… what do you want?” he finally stammered out.

“‘What… what do you want’,” the creature mocked. “You summoned me. ‘The devil is inside me’, you said. Not the most eloquent prayer but I saw in your heart that you meant every word. ‘What do you want’. Do not insult me.”

“I wasn’t sure … I didn’t think what I’d say exactly.”

“No time like the present, lad. But tempus fugit, hora volant. Time flees, hours fly. I already know what you want to ask me. I just need you to say it.”

“I want them back.”

“Who? Come on, be specific.”

“My little ones. Isobel, Martha, Danny.”

“Ah, of course, Danny like his father. And his father’s father. Such a warped mind you have, lad, naming your son after the person you feared the most.” And he threw his head back with another vile, hacking laugh, threw it back so far it looked as if his neck was broken. “And what makes you think I have that sort of power?”

“I thought you’d do anything for a man’s soul, you wretch.”

“Oh look at that, he’s found a bit of fight in him. You’re an interesting one, Danny Conway. I get these prayers all the time, so so many, but they’re always the same. Boring. Thing. ‘Gimme money, gimme fancy clothes, gimme gimme gimme stuff‘.”

“I wanta go back to the way things were.”

“Truly? Look around you,” and the revenant gestured to the church steps, where a family in rags sat huddled. “You would bring your children into this filth, this degradation? A world of poverty and starvation? Sorrow and pain?”

“They’re mine.”

“So that’s your final answer?”

“I can’t go on,” said Conway,  his voice catching. “I put three babies in the dirt, just saw them thrown in pits with strangers like they were nothing. Nothing! I can’t fill that hole in my heart without them. Bring them back. What more do you want from me?”

“Oh, Danny my boy,” said the revenant, leaning in close to whisper in Conway’s ear. “I want everything.”

“What do I have to do so?”

“Why, earn it of course.”


“‘What’?” the creature said, mockingly. “God makes you earn his grace and favour, doesn’t he? Why should I be any different? When your soul is polished up all nice then,” he clicked two bloated, fleshy fingers, “our deal will be complete.”

“But what do I have to do?”

“It’s so dull to have to spell it out. A life for a life. And when you die you come to me. Though I know you knew that part.”

“A life for a life? That’s… in the name of Christ–”

“A little late to invoke him now. So. Do we have a bargain?”

“You’ll bring my children back?”

The revenant nodded, its head bobbing back and forth on a broken neck.

“And everything will be the way it was?”

“That’s up to you. So, agreed?”

“… a life for a life. Why not?”

“I’ll only give you two rules. Make ’em count, and do it fast, before sunset. Before I change my mind. Make ’em count.”

The revenant screamed then, a scream that shook Conway to the roots of his soul, and the sounds of the street roared back and he was on his knees in the gutter with the rats. For a few minutes he wasn’t sure if he had been dreaming, or if this was the dream. Did it matter? Life was a waking nightmare. But for the first time in a long time he felt some semblance of hope. Being a good man had got him nowhere. Maybe breaking all the rules would.

A balding man in a cassock was coming down the steps of the church, stepping over the huddled family which had now fallen silent and deathly still. He held his head high with the arrogance of one who would never have to bury a child of his own but would judge you for not having more of them. He was being followed by a younger fellow, the curate, who carried himself more eagerly but with no less pride. A sudden rush of inspiration hit Conway.

“Fathers,” he said, slouching over and limping with his hand out like a beggar, exaggerating his accent. “Fathers, would ye have a second for a good Catholic?” The curate looked at Conway with genuine pity and began to rifle in his pockets until the priest stopped him with an imperious hand. He was trying to look away from Conway with such disdain that he didn’t see the punch coming. A hard one to the face and he was down. The younger man tried to run but Conway caught him by the collar and kicked the legs out from under him. One solid kick to the stomach and he was winded.

He didn’t kill them right away. Make ’em count. With a strength he scarcely recognised, as if he was being carried along by the spirit of vengeance, he dragged both men back into the church. He stripped them and lashed them to a pillar. “You’re going straight to hell for this, you little shit,” said the priest, spitting blood at Conway’s feet.

“You can keep me company,” said Conway, kicking the man squarely in the testicles. “Look around you. Who’s stopping me?” He crouched down and spat at the sobbing priest. A decade of rage poured out of him as he squeezed the man’s throat. The priest thrashed as best he could, but Conway was younger, stronger, angrier. The curate cried out but Conway cut him short with a stamp to the head, then another and another until he heard bone crack and the man slumped, lifeless.

It was exhilarating, this rebellion. His skin tingled and he felt alive, truly alive. He found himself walking the streets laughing at the idea that he was punishing God. Surely those were two noteworthy deaths. He felt good about it, that he was doing something worthwhile because the return of his children was nearer. He didn’t care where he went when died, as long as he had them with him while he lived.

It was raining, he realised eventually. He was sweating and panting on the wharves near the custom house. When did he get here? The place was thronged with dock workers hauling, beggars and starving families keening, well to do men milling about, the masters of all they surveyed. He leaned against a wall, letting the drizzle run over his face. A woman no older than himself was trying to keep a gaggle of youngsters in line. Three seemed to be her own, judging by the way she harangued them and they hung on her every word. Two girls and a boy, the eldest no older than about six. Conway’s breath caught and his heart skipped a beat as she turned around and he saw the vibrant, electrified face of his wife as she stewarded their three children and friends through the crowds. But he blinked and she was gone, replaced by a younger woman.

“Everything will be as it was,” he muttered under his breath, and she looked at him queerly from the side of her eye as she heard him, then hurried the children up until they were swallowed by the crowd. “Everything will be as it was,” he said more emphatically.

The three children would be back, but they couldn’t exist without their mother. She was practically a ghost herself, but he clung to the sudden idea that there was a way to bring her back too. The sun began to set behind the clouds. Time was running out, but he had an idea. One swift, brutal act, and he could have his whole family back together. It could work. It had to.

Matilde was kneeling at her makeshift shrine, as usual. Her hair was matted and unkempt, and the plate of food Conway had left next to her when he left had been mostly eaten, but left to go stale. Her pewter tankard of water was empty. It felt like an age since he had seen her, and in truth it had been an age since he had seen the real her. It’s not really her, he told himself. It’s just a shell.

“Matilde,” he whispered. “Did you get some rest?”

Her eyes flicked toward him and then back to the candles, which stood in hills of melted wax. “Oh. I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

“I’ve found a way to bring them back.”

“What? I don’t understand, Danny.” Her voice was small and weak, and so, so tired.

“Danny, Martha, Isobel. I can get them back. But I need you to do something for me.”

Something like life sparked in her eyes. “Anything,” she said vehemently.

“It’ll hurt, but then everything will be back the way it was. Just think of that. Everything will be back the way it was. And that means me, you, and the three little ones. It just really has to matter.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Do you trust me though?”

“I do, but I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to understand,” he said softly. “You just need to die.”

She fought, feebly, as he covered her face. He couldn’t look at her. She twitched and pitched. He couldn’t look at her. She went still and silent. He couldn’t look at her.

As he lay her body on the bed, looking everywhere but at her face, the room filled with the stink of fetid seawater and a phlegmy, caustic laugh filled the room, followed by slopping, mocking applause.

The revenant was standing by the door. “Spectacular,” it said.

“It’s done. A life for a life. I gave you three, now you give me everything back in return.”

“I’m afraid not, Danny boy.”

Conway thundered toward the rotting creature, but was floored by a blow he didn’t see coming from a force powerful beyond belief.

“Lie down, and know your place,” said the revenant, in a voice crueller than ever.

“I can get dirty souls, and I mean proper, greasy things that drip and sizzle anywhere, anytime I want. The kinda scuffed ones,” the revenant shrugged. “I’ll take ’em, but they’re not so juicy. But a good, righteous man, well that’s something different entirely. That’d keep the flames burning bright for a thousand years. All you are, Danny, is a disappointment. And you had so much potential.”

“Potential? What’re you on about?”

“All you had to do was be good to your wife. Oh her suffering was delicious, but she didn’t deserve it. And if you had been just a bit more here for her, you could have given her a nudge back toward her old self. One day and it would have counted. And so many suffering in the city. A few acts of charity hide a multitude of sins. Instead you went and did what you thought I’d like, instead of what I needed.”

“So, what’re you saying? Killing isn’t good enough for the likes of you?”

“Killing? Oh yes, it is. But you didn’t truly give yourself into it. You never mentioned her as part of the bargain. Grief made you mad, and proud. You thought she’d just be coming back too, because a child needs their mother. Thought you were smarter than me. ‘But because you are neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm, I shall vomit you from my mouth.’ And if Jesus can have standards, so can I. But I’ll find a place for you in my kingdom.”

“Don’t toy with me. Do what you promised. The children if nothing else.” His mind was reeling and his stomach fit to explode with pain.

“Oh dear. Oh Danny. You haven’t been paying attention. You failed to deliver your end of the bargain. I told you to get your soul all polished up and nice. That’s what I meant.”

“This isn’t what you promised. You said a life for a life, to make them count.”

“I never said to take any. Changing a life is pure divine magic. And winning a pure soul is one in the eye for the Almighty. You’ve robbed me of that prize.”

“I want my children.”

“You’ll see them. I can promise that, for sure. You’ll see them every day… just out of reach. Now,” and the creature stretched out a rotting hand and placed it over Conway’s face, “good night, sleep tight, and I’ll see you in hell when you wake up.”

Fiction: A scene

[Every now and again scenes from stories pop into my head, though I have not written them up as I should have, convincing myself that I will eventually have time to flesh them out into something more solid. I’m getting over that, scribbling out scenes which may come to nothing but which need to get out of my head one way or the other. This was handwritten at about 4am one day, it is presented here unedited]

Isaac felt the thud of arrows in his back, felt them stagger him. But there was no pain, only a sense of creeping wonder at how the arrowheads drove deep and hung there. There was a sound then. It came from somewhere far, far away and yet very close. As his hands dropped and he fell to one knee, flashes of colourless light shot across the decrepit stone arch. Not enough. So close but not enough power.

His head dropped to his chest and the sound came again, again, and again. Hollow and ragged. Eventually he realised, dimly, that the sound was coming from his chest, and that he was laughing. That only made him laugh harder.

With one last effort he rose to his feet and turned back toward the forest trail. If I am going to die today, I will die standing and with my face to the enemy. Small men from the town. Even with their hoods up against the cold he could see their faces in the flickering light of the braziers. How triumphant they looked in the darkness, how proud of themselves for shooting a man in the back. How their triumph turned to confusion as the shot man laughed in their faces. How confusion turned to fear as Isaac caught the next arrow and turned it to ash.

The other two hit their target, one in the shoulder an done in the chest, missing his heart. With a flick of dying will Isaac burned off the arrows stuck in his chest, and set fire to those in the quivers too. But his legs were like water now, and his vision blurring. And yet the work was not done.

He stumbled more than walked toward the small, rounded altar. He could feel the heat of flashing raw power behind him as the ruined portal stirred. He fancied he could hear someone, or something, calling his name. Calling him home.

Still laughing, he slumped over the altar. As his blood touched the stone and ran down the carvings of labyrinthine entities he felt a surge of energy behind him and heard the triumphant, joyous song of a thousand angels or devils. “It is done,” he whispered, as his heart gave out.

As Isaac died the ancient doorway opened in a blaze of glory. And hell followed.