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by Shaun O Ceallaigh



Sat in the leather recliner against the end of my bed, I let out a long sigh. I’d finished polishing and formatting the submission package. I had cover letters for five agents, the synopsis cut down to a single page and, after nearly three years’ work, the manuscript was as ready as it would ever be. And still, I didn’t send it.


I copied the files to a memory stick, turned off the laptop, and lit a cigarette. The only sound in the house was the refrigerator buzzing in the kitchen. I started writing the novel after my mother’s death and finished it after my father’s. You were supposed to feel something when you finished a book. All I felt was numb. I closed the laptop.


When I climbed out of the chair, I stumbled over a few plastic bottles. I really needed to do some cleaning – I’d let things go over the previous months. But all I wanted was to get out of the house. I needed air. Being stuck in for so long can’t be good for you. I went downstairs to the kitchen, took my night-time medication, then grabbed my combat jacket off the hall stand and slouched to the front door.


The dark street lay as still as it had for the last twelve months; the third lockdown had dragged on since Christmas. Daily death and infection numbers were high, but the vaccine offered some hope. I put on my jacket and ambled down the hill towards Market Street and the town centre.


We only come out at night, that’s what normals say. And, sure enough, it wasn’t long before I saw the first. As I turned onto Market Street, Circles came towards me from the opposite direction, mumbling into his fists. I crossed the thoroughfare to avoid contact. Circles continued oblivious. He would walk his two metres and do a little spin, then walk a few steps more, do a little spin, walk another few steps, do another spin. That was Circles.


Circles had autism, or something like it. He must have snuck out on his carers, again. Like all the night-time regulars, he was harmless if you kept your distance. With the pubs shut down, and the two-kilometre rule in place, the nights had been left to us. Circles disappeared around the corner as I reached the old bank.


I slipped into the doorway and lit a cigarette. Storm Force made an appearance next, coming from the direction of the river – what he did down there I don’t know. He pounded the pavement like a man on a mission. Storm Force was always on a mission. Head down, shoulders hunched, and dressed in a brown three-piece suit, he walked past me with his wide gait. He either didn’t notice me or pretended not to.


Once I would sneer at these figures, at the absurdities of their habits and mannerisms, until I realised I was one of them, and the normals looked at me the same way I would look at Circles or Storm Force. A hard realisation, but I’d more or less accepted it. I stubbed my cigarette and lit another.


As I drew in smoke, an old woman waddled down Market Street, two massive carrier bags in each hand. I remained unnoticed as she jiggled the door handle of each car she passed. She went up to the windows of homes and shops, peering inside. When she got close, I pulled back into shadow. She rattled the handle of a car and passed on.


I poked my head out and watched her shuffling away. I’d never seen her before, peeking through the windows, face pressed to the glass.


“It’s not nice to stare,” a woman whispered in my ear.


I snapped back, her cold breath causing me to recoil. A young woman with long red hair stood grinning. She leaned against the bank and cocked her head to the side. Up this close, I caught the scent of firewood on her clothes, and a memory of long-ago Halloweens dislodged in my mind.


“Why are you out spying on people?”


Embarrassed, I straightened and composed myself. “I’m not spying. What business is it of yours, anyway?”


She looked like one of the students from the craft school – a bohemian parody. A handful of crystals around her neck glistened – the effect startling, giving her pale skin the blue tinge of moonlight. She came closer, her almond-shaped eyes looking up at my own. “I’m a concerned citizen. You look like a lad who’s up to no good.”


“There a law against that?” I asked, trying to act nonchalant while my legs quivered.


She laughed. “Maybe. There are all sorts of funny laws in place at the moment. My name is Bríd.”


“Good for you,” I said. “Is there something you want?”


“You’re not strong on social skills, are you?”


I tried to straighten even more, unnerved by her closeness. “What do you mean by that?”


“My name is Bríd,” she said again, her words slow and mocking, rippling in her throat. “What’s your name?”


I didn’t answer.


She stepped away from the wall. “I’m on my way to a session. You wanna come?”


“A session? Aren’t those against lockdown rules?”


She stopped at the edge of the footpath. “And I suppose you always obey the rules?”


#


We walked down Low Street, past the closed pubs, and onto the quay. The swollen waters behind the river wall gurgled. Neither of us spoke until we reached the turn to the County Home.


“So, where’s this session?” I asked, lighting a cigarette.


“It’s near. Are you sure you’ll be able for it?”

I exhaled smoke as I stared at her. “What do you mean by that?”


“Fuck’s sake, Shaun.” She laughed. “Don’t be so paranoid. You’ll live longer.”

She turned onto the New Ross Road and I followed a few paces behind. I didn’t remember telling her my name.

Not far along the road, she stopped and waited. “Well, here we are.”

I gawked about, seeing nothing but the featureless stretch of road, bounded on each side by thick foliage. Bríd copped my confusion and shook her head. Off to the side, atop a stile in the wall I’d not noticed, she opened a small gate in the overgrowth. She glanced back with a grin, then leapt over the wall.


Gone.

I walked closer and peered through. The far side was pitch black. An unease inside my chest showed no abatement. My sensible self said to turn and go home, but its primal brother yearned to follow.

“Are you coming, or what?” she stage-whispered from the darkness.

I took a last look at the road into town, then climbed over the stile and entered the gloom beyond.

As I pushed through the bushes, branches poked and prodded, and the heavy scent of rotten leaves filled my senses. The darkness wasn’t total, with murky outlines ahead. Beginning to regret my decision, I burst into a small clearing.


Bríd leaned against the doorway of a derelict building. Even in shadow, her face glowed a lunar hue. Nature had reclaimed the structure, with ivy wrapping the stonework and trees poking through the roof. I almost jolted at a flash of memory of the ‘Hot and Cold houses’ from my childhood.

“Almost there,” she said. “Are you frightened?”

“Should I be?” I shuddered as I plucked twigs from my clothes.

“You don’t remember being here before?”

I stopped and looked at her. “No. I’ve never been here.”

She pushed away from the wall. “If you say so.” She entered the building.

I followed, dragging my reluctance with me.


#


I stood in an empty room, the floor long since returned to earth. As I entered a second room, I found Bríd standing beside stone steps descending into the floor. Light, possibly flame, flickered below, backed by the low tremor of voices.

“What’s this?” I asked.

She turned to me. “What’s it look like? Come on.”

As she descended, it seemed too late to turn and run, but I glanced behind all the same, unable to shake a sense of déjà vu. All of it, the girl and building, felt like an old dream.


“Come on,” she called, “don’t be such a chickenshit.”


As I picked my way down the steps, into whatever awaited, I realised my brows were furrowed and I was frowning to myself.

Bríd stood at the bottom of the stairs in some kind of basement. A campfire glowed in the centre of the space, with three figures around it. Men. The sight of them sent a shiver through me.


“I’m back,” she said, sitting on the floor across from an old man propped in a plastic chair and dressed in biker leathers. He had a scraggle of grey beard, and despite the darkness, he wore cheap sunglasses. His gut protruded under his Harley-Davison T-shirt.

“Father,” Bríd addressed the man, “this is Shaun. You remember Shaun?”

The old biker turned his head in a slow arc before looking back at the flames. He said nothing, clutching a thick staff on his lap.

Another guy, dressed in black, stood up and faced me. He seemed to be the youngest of the group. “Sit yourself down beside the fire. You never know what might get you in the shadows.”

“Lugh, be nice,” Bríd said, waving me closer.

I sat beside her on a coarse blanket, with no idea what was happening. She smiled. It wasn’t like any session I’d been to before, and yet it felt strangely familiar. Like returning home after a long journey. But I’d never laid eyes on these people.

The third man lay asleep on the other side of Bríd. He wore brown leather clothing, like an old-time hunter, reminding me of Davie Crocket. He grunted, unmoving, like the old biker, who just stared at the flames. Lugh bent beside the fire and turned the handle of a metal poker. A low cackle, female, emerged from somewhere in the peripheral darkness. The sound, like ice down my spine, sat me up straight.

“Oh, calm down, Morrigan,” Lugh said. “He’s a friend. Isn’t that right, Shaun?”

The mystery woman spoke, the words sounding like Irish, coarse and angled, but I understood nothing. Then a dark mass, a shadow given form, came out of the gloom.

A little old woman, with a black shawl held tight, staggered closer. “Sir, sir, let me wash your coat for you. I’m an expert in the washing of coats.” She plucked at the sleeve of my combat jacket. A whiff of decay on her breath – a dank, archaic odour – nearly had me gagging.

“No thanks,” I said, repulsed. “It’s fine.”

Her withered face soured and she spat at my feet.

“Wife!” the old biker roared. “Stop now.”

The old crone backed away, withdrawing to the shadowed corner from where she’d come. I couldn’t see even her outline in the darkness. My breath calmed and I turned to Bríd.

She smirked. “I think she likes you.”

Lugh turned the poker again. The old biker stared into the flames, gripping the staff on his knees. And beside Bríd, the Davie Crocket figure rumbled in his sleep.


A cloying stillness hung over the group until the biker pulled a large flask from somewhere. He filled Styrofoam cups, which Lugh passed around. When he got to the sleeping man, he kicked him.

“Nu, wake up.” He kicked him again. “Uncle! Wake up, it’s nearly time.”


Uncle Nu rolled over and sat up, with much reluctance, shaking his undercooked head. He rubbed his creased face with his hand, which caught my attention, the firelight glimmering off its silver surface. My first thought was a glove but the joints and workings were too intricate. Some kind of metal prosthesis?

The man skulled the contents of the cup and seemed to notice me for the first time. He looked at Bríd. “You found our Milesian, then, did you? And how have you been, boy?”

“Shaun has forgotten us,” Lugh said from the shadows, where he’d brought the old woman her drink.

“Is that so?” He passed his cup back to the biker. “Probably for the best. Our last encounter didn’t end well.”

The biker refilled Nu’s cup and passed it back. I looked at the steaming, amber liquid in my cup.


“What’s this stuff?” I whispered to Bríd.

“Try it,” she said. “I guarantee you’ll like it.”

“I don’t know. I’m not much of a drinker.”

“Trust me, everyone loves what comes from my father’s flask.”

I took a sip. It was sweet like honey but not viscous, with the metallic smell of spirits. I took a bigger sip and nodded in gratitude to the old biker. A small grin appeared in response.


One cup of the amber liquid and I was rat-arsed, the figures around the fire now blurred. I tried to speak but my mouth seemed filled with cotton. Time was out of kilter. One moment Lugh sat beside me, and next he was at the fireside turning the poker. Bríd rested her cheek on my shoulder, then she was standing, talking with Uncle Nu. In the firelight, her face glowed brighter than ever. In fact, all of them had the same phosphorescent glow. It was hard to believe and I feared they’d spiked my drink.

Somehow, I got to my feet and staggered towards the flight of stairs but, as I neared, something caught my leg and I tripped, collapsing against the first steps. The old woman’s cackle filled my ears as she joined the others.

I looked at the flames. The four figures stood on either side of the biker, still sitting in his chair. They glowed, their skin like starlight. It wasn’t a trick of the light. Lugh bent beside the fire and the other three came closer. The room swirled. My breath hitched, uneven, aching in my chest.

“Don’t be frightened, Shaun,” Bríd said, her voice throaty as she pinned my left arm down – her red hair lit like a halo. The old woman pressed on my right arm and Nu held my legs. Their skin blazed, so bright I couldn’t make out their faces.


Then Lugh stood over me. He held the poker, its shaped top a vibrant orange. “Lift his shirt,” he shouted, his gaze fastened on me.


I tried to struggle but…I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything. The white figures swirled. Bríd lifted my shirt and Lugh came at me with the poker.


When its head pressed into my chest, my skin sizzled and I screamed. Behind all this, propped in his chair, the old biker started laughing – a bellowing laughter that filled the space.


With the pain searing into every corner of my body, the light began to close in, the world around me slipping out of focus. My surroundings shrank to a pinpoint, then vanished.


#


I woke to a light shining from above – grey sunlight at the top of the steps. The low monotone of morning. Squinting, I sat up and looked around the deserted basement. My body ached, every joint stiff. The fire, in the centre of the room, had long burnt out, with only a few embers smouldering. As I took a breath, the acrid air caught in my throat – the smell of smoke and ash almost overwhelming. I turned and climbed the stairs, on my hands and knees, through the spectres of dust whirling in the shaft of light.


The only sounds around as I emerged from the cool shade of the bushes and clambered over the stile were the crows cawing in the pewter wash of light, wheeling low overhead. Hardly capable of remaining upright, I staggered back into town.

By the time I reached home, exhaustion gripped every part of me. I fell into the living room and collapsed on the sofa. Flashes of memory remained from the previous evening: Bríd; the basement; the strange group around the fire. I touched my chest and flinched, blinking against visual snatches: the glowing figures holding me down; the burning; the old man’s laughter.

I struggled to my feet and stumbled towards the bathroom, discarding my jacket on the way. In front of the large mirror, I pulled my T-shirt over my head.

Seared into my flesh, pink, scabby, and charred – a branding. At the centre of my chest, about two inches long, some sort of cross. I traced the mark with my fingertips. It was a regular crucifix, but the top limb had two crescent-shaped horns curling back on themselves. I’d never seen it before, and had no idea what it was.

I made it to my bedroom and slouched onto the recliner. What in God’s name happened? Unable to think any further, I closed my eyes and fell asleep.


When I woke, the sounds of day were present: the drone of passing traffic; my uncle’s radio in the yard next door. I lit a cigarette and brushed my fingers off my chest, evoking a sparkle of pain – a dark pleasure.

I picked up my laptop and turned it on, savouring the smoke as the login screen loaded. My submissions could wait. There were other stories, new stories, demanding to be written. The Horned Cross brand pulsing on my skin, I took a long drag of my cigarette and waited for Microsoft Word to open. Once the blank page was before me, I typed the title of the first story: The Hermit.



 


Shaun O Ceallaigh is a freelance writer from Ireland. His recent stories have appeared in the journals Crannóg, Howl, Impspired, and the Wexford Bohemian.


You can find Shaun on Instagram and X (formerly Twitter).


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