And she awoke. Jolted. Eyes open wide to the pale expanse of the ceiling and heart beating hard thumps inside her chest. A few moments to calm her ragged breath and then she gulped, breath of night still in her lungs. It hardly made a difference, in her throat remained the dusty roughness of sleep, and a stale burning still crouched under her tongue. But she had no time to mull over that, as her heart was not slowing down, demanding that she turn her head to the side and see what it knew was there. Her eyes flew towards it like they had detected a living presence in the corner of the room, watching the movement of it as dark light stared in from behind the gauzy white of the curtain. It gasped, drawing the cover into its gaping maw with a roar, then blowing it, gusting, back into the room. She lay there for a while, eyes straining to the side, watching its rhythmic sighs and the streaming fabric that kissed it like a veil. She didn’t remember opening the window. And the wind must be blowing unusually hard to have the curtain streaming like that. Strange.
As soon as she could convince herself that there was nothing outside but darkness, she rested her head back onto the soft pillow and tried to settle her breathing. She shivered, bare night on her legs, and felt the hairs prickle up on her arms. It sure was early. She was usually late to wake; she didn’t think that she’d ever experienced such a silent darkness in all of her life. So early, it was like the whole world was asleep.
She shook the thought from her head, there was no comfort in that. Instead she glanced towards the lumpy figure beside her: a body wrapped tight in the crumpled grey of the sheets. All the sheets. She pulled on the corner with a yank, half-unravelling the grunting form with a bit of effort. His head lolled back onto his pillow, slack and unveiled: mouth open to the air like he was screaming and moustache hairs fluttering with each spluttering gurgle. He must have woken her with his snoring, she clicked her tongue, even though he always swore he didn’t make a peep. He should have known, she had started to go to sleep early after he’d gotten older and really started to snore like a pig. It was best to just avoid the situation, after all she’d have plenty of time to get bitter if she had to stay up every night to that soundtrack, and she didn’t really want to start an argument if she didn’t have to. She would much rather steam over it in silence until he noticed.
She pulled the stolen blankets over so every inch of herself was covered, cuddling into their heat and kicking away the warm fatness of his legs that came, reaching out, with it. She turned her back to him, towards the opposite wall and the doorway where the moonlight lay in little squares cut by the metal structure of the window frame. They flickered with each gust of wind and every time they did, her tired eyes reopened and the process of fighting them closed began again.
Sleep was just not co-operating. Nothing came to relieve her, nothing for her to give in to and to carry her off into the darkness of repose, while it rose up and took her place, a night time creature. Instead it curled around the bedstead and whispered softly, words that meant nothing but made her skin tingle cold under the blanket’s warmth. The heart thumping within her cocoon of sheets couldn’t be disguised either. It beat against the thin cover like the wind against the flimsy curtain: as if it was not there at all, the strength of nature against nothing but material things. Every sense was completely awake.
That’s why she jumped when a rough hand brushed her back, though she knew who it was from the hair on the knuckles and the callous touch of his fingertips. She elbowed it and tried to wiggle away, cursing his following grunts as distractions from any sounds that could be occuring, at that very moment, within the house. Something was telling her that, though she felt alone as can be, somebody, or more likely, something else was watching the same night unfold. There was nothing, of course, but its mutterings disturbed the rest of the house. Had it groaning, creaking differently to the way it usually did. Somehow the whole place didn’t feel so familiar any more: any noise was a stranger and every shadow, alien.
A bite of adrenaline coiled up among the dark blood in her veins, painting dread throughout her body with incessant thoughts, and beneath each one lay increasingly disturbing possibilities: something had woken her, someone had woken her, someone was still here. Her body fretted independent of her: blinking her eyes open and darting them about every time she tried to close them shut. It slickened her skin with sweat even as she lay there, still, and begged her to get up and check. She knew it had probably been a nightmare, her brain could tell her that logically, but the fear that haunted her body did not care for reason, it was something deeper, darker, primeval. Mutinous thing, it threatened no peace unless she obeyed it.
She coughed, loud enough to be brave though slightly undermined by the shake in her voice. She waited to see if there would be an answering sound from somewhere in the house and when nothing but a sleep-shorn grumble beside her echoed back she found in herself enough courage to throw back the covers. Or, more than courage, it was an almost determined disregard for her suspicions, as if ignoring danger might make it run away. As if it, hearing her resolutely oblivious waking sounds, might shrink away mouse-like as the owl at the rise of the morning sun.
She slid her feet of the side, just touching the rough oak of the floorboards before finding the woolly slippers that stood positioned, as always, right by her bed in case of events such as these where she should need to investigate in a hurry, for shame of being seen bare footed even by a thief. It wasn’t like he would do anything. He hadn’t even woken up with all the barking the other day. You would have thought the thing was being killed for all the noise it was making. A sharp noise like a child crying, it had woken her at early daylight. Maybe it was something about mothers that even the slightest noise might wake them if it sounded like a baby, not that she’d ever had to use those skills in the end.
The floorboards creaked under her, substantial, weight and she immediately reached for the old hunting knife that she kept on her bedside, beside her favourite hairbrush and a letter from her sister which she kept there because she wasn’t sure what else to do with it. None of the three objects were well used, in fact they hadn’t been touched in years apart from to dust around them: the hairbrush was too precious, the knife never needed and the letter reminded her of something she’d rather not think on. Something she’d sent just after she’d ran away, thinking that she would have been happy for her even if ma and pa weren’t. She didn’t want to see it but somehow couldn’t make herself hide it away. Before going to sleep she’d find herself watching it sometimes and just thinking: jealousy, sadness. The young girl had written like she was in love and here she was, the good child, old now and trying to sleep before he came up and started his snoring. Did she have children now? Was she still as happy and young and carefree? That letter made her think she was carefree at least.
She gripped the woven handle of the knife resolutely. Its solidness in her hands seeped into her skin. Yes, she was older than back then. She was brave and she wasn’t going to let anyone ruin what she had. She shuffled out to the bedroom door purposefully, the herald of groaning floorboards dragged behind her. If there really was someone in here they had best hear her moving and get out before she found them. She hoped they would.
She checked the other two rooms upstairs, she could tell there was nothing before she’d even opened the doors. Instinct maybe. So it was the stairs, she held the knife straight out before her like a spear and began on her way: staring through the close darkness as it glinted past the rusty web on its surface. Could she really stab someone? No, she wouldn’t have to, there was no one there, she was just checking. Could have been some animal for all she knew. But she was prepared nonetheless.
She stomped her way down the stairs. Fixing stray hair into her hair-net as she went. As soon as her slippered feet reached the carpet, they carried her along the scuffed line that run diagonally across it as if by themselves. It was a line that she had followed almost every day and which, as a result, had become a stubborn fixture no matter how many times she had attempted to scrub it away. At the end of it she reached her chief haunting spot: a little uncluttered space next to the front window where the position was just so that with a slight stoop she could peek around the corner of the curtain almost discreetly to watch the goings-on of the street in front. She squinted into the darkness but could make out nothing. Was her eyesight going bad? No, of course not, she prided herself on it. She could, if inclined, see all the way into the upstairs window of her neighbour across the street, she had looked there only yesterday and seen quite the scandal. Who would have thought it? Mr Beaufoy and the young school-mistress. The immorality!
Anyway, she must focus. After all, she may tonight uncover something even more shocking, if only she could see outside: she rubbed a smear of condensation from the window with her nightie sleeve and peered around again, this time more resolutely scanning every inch of the newly uncovered space. Even her sharp eyes could detect nothing at first, but she was not one to give up so easily. Ah! She spotted something out of the usual, and what should it be but a leg sticking out of the bush by her front door. The very sorrel bush that was the envy of all her neighbours. The cheek! A drunkard sleeping on her doorway, crushing her prize plant! Well she wouldn’t stand for it. Must quickly see who it is so she could report this disgraceful event to whatever family it may concern, for she knew almost everyone in this town and would know this man’s as well to be sure. The ladies must hear of this tonight, they would be anxious to hear of such depravity as this. Whoever it was made a bad decision when they chose to come to her door.
She unbolted the door with controlled ferocity, straightening her skirt and readying herself for confrontation, a scowl already wrinkling her drooping jowls.
“Now what is all this about?” She began, pouncing on the figure with a fleshy hand, grabbing greedily at the jacket that covered his face to unveil the criminal. No really, what was this? She could have recognised it anywhere, she knew to frown all the harder when she saw it on the streets. The glass-bottle blue, the black stitched motif on the left-hand pocket, the thin golden stripes which thread their way in two perfect lines down either side of the buttons. The cardboard-lined collar that she had thought, against all of her will, looked very smart when all done up and standing straight. The Guard jacket. Now what would this vagrant be doing with this?
His face, she recognised that too. A lot more weary than she remembered but it was him alright. Finnegan Crowe. And he was dead.
“Norah, they’ve taken the body.” It was night still but the men next door who did the gravedigging for the Church had already taken it off to the graveyard, it had to be out of the way before the morning Guards started their patrol. Usually they would have left it for the Empire to clean up but Norah had insisted he make sure it wasn’t discovered. It had been found with that jacket after all. He had done as she said, of course, he’d got used to doing it and then thinking later. Gotten tired of trying to argue also. Luckily there was never many Guards about at night, they were mostly Gokheya folk after all, so they were just as wary of being about in the night as the rest of the townspeople. There were things out there that made good God-fearing folk want to lock their doors to their own neighbours and pray. There wouldn’t be many volunteers for the nightly duties among our own.
Though Mr O’Connor was beginning to think he might not know these people as well as he thought, five in the morning and there wasn’t a single seat free in the living room. He shuffled towards his wife’s side, on that yellow armchair she hated, just in front of the window. The one she preferred, the green velvet one opposite her that provided quite the view of the street, was occupied by a tall nosed old woman with a teacup and saucer in her large hands. Maureen Hughes, he couldn’t say he liked the woman though he hardly even knew her, in fact he avoided her company when possible, which it regularly was as he got the distinct feeling that he wasn’t very welcome when she was around. His wife was in the habit of shooing him away as soon as she noticed the woman marching up the street, she would talk talk to him later though, complaining about every word Maureen had said and looking for his fervent agreement with her complaints. If there was ever a woman to look more like a witch he hadn’t see her: hooked nose, thin face and square jaw with a short yet prominent chin. Her skin was pale, though she covered it with dark makeup, and thin, arched brows that reached just too far up her wrinkled forehead. Despite her obvious age she was not too many years over forty if the age of his wife and her sister were anything to go by, now he was looking he could tell she was younger than she had first appeared: her black eyes still bright and her hair thick and dark.
“Now calm down, Norah.” Maureen watched the shaking cup of tea and saucer in Norah’s hands with an anxious puckering of her extensive eyebrows. “You know it couldn’t really be that again.” She said tersely. He wondered, briefly, when she had found time to draw them on. Did she go to sleep like that, or had she begun to get ready as soon as she’d heard the subdued commotion on the street? It would be like her, the woman was almost as nosy as his own wife, and much less subtle about it. Intimidating, he looked away before she could see him watching, towards the younger sister, Einin Hughes.
Einin was leaning her pointed face towards Norah, solemn pity wrinkling her white brow. “I believe you, Mary.” A hushed little girl voice, so different from the cackle of her sister. She stared up through her round, azure eyes, and reached a gentle hand into the air as if to reach out. “I mean, how else could he have been killed like that?”
“Anyone could have gotten hold of that jacket.” Maureen cut in strictly. Einin was right though, she wasn’t talking about the jacket at all. “And don’t you start Einin, you’re making it worse. You always let your imagination run away with you. Norah needs calm and reason to snap her out of this, not you agreeing with every little suspicion she has.” Einin looked down with her sorrowful eyes, too used to being told what to do by her older sister, so much so that even trying to contradict her at all had been a surprise to them both. Her short, reddish curls tipped forwards to almost touch her wide nose as she did, she pulled through them with her fingers and it moved between them like glossy waves. He could imagine those silken coils, tousled by salty sea air as she sat upon a rock, a selkie maid, watching the tide pull in and out upon the pebble shore.
“But the gun. Maureen. He was quite clearly shot with a gun.” His eyes snapped back as Norah raised a shaking finger to her forehead. “Right here.” The image of that terrible face floated loomed before her eyes, she shook her head and tried to focus back on the proud face of the woman in front of her. She forced her eyes to pull up from where they had fallen back to that scuffed patch on the floor: dragging them up from the shoes that peeped out the immaculate navy hem of Maureen’ dress, to the legs pressed primly together and leaned on one side, up past the crushed velvet arms of the chair and all the time taking in the almost impossibly upright way she sat atop the seat, right uncomfortably close to the edge as if the chair was something dirty that she wanted to minimise her contact with. Her great fur hat hung over her square face with stalwart resoluteness, its plumage crowning her curls as if she was some giant blackbird. A stole wrapped around her neck like the hat’s estranged tail. Norah found it strange but wasn’t altogether surprised that she seemed to have carefully co-ordinated her outfit despite it being only five-o-clock. These two had come knocking before the cart had even disappeared, she always wondered if the woman slept in her clothes, just in case something happened and she wanted to make sure that she could arrive there before anyone else. Her hair was always immaculately curled and pinned behind her head and clothes clean as new and ironed. Though they were all high-quality and almost ridiculously ornate, she wore them all in circulation and had been doing so for as many years as Norah could remember. Pride was a scary thing. Even in times like these she wouldn’t let anyone see her stooping, it also meant she would never ask for help.
Norah met her dark eyes with her own unblinking blue. She liked to think that Maureen was her friend but she knew better than most the levels that she would go to so that she could be better than any other. It was like a constant competition when she was around her. It would be easy if she could just stop caring but there was something in her that longed for the stony-faced woman’s approval, something she detested but was unable to resist.
The woman’s eyes opened slightly in fear at her unusually blank look, they looked scared but quickly resolved themselves to their usual look of mild irritation.
Maureen continued to frown in silence, she knew she could not argue with that, she had seen the body herself after all and she knew the only ones in this country who had things like guns were the Guard. “It may have been the Guard but it cannot be that thing. It’s gone, has been gone for years.”
“It’s come back.” Einin sighed worriedly in the background. Maureen ignored her as was typical.
“And even if it was still around, why would it leave a message on your doorstep? And shoot it with a gun of all things?”
“What do you think it is then?” Norah retorted, started to feel defensive under Maureen’ tirade. She was always like this, shutting down whatever she said as if she knew any better. Why couldn’t she just listen like Einin, especially today. You would have thought she’d give it a break.
This was what she had been waiting for. She straightened her back even more and rested her tea cup in its saucer. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s the Guards, this man was a rebel once, you said? Well then they must have killed him to quash the rebels once and for all.” Strange light glinted in her small, dark eyes. “And they left him on your doorstep because they knew that you were also…” She hushed her voice though there was only them in the room, said it like Norah should be ashamed. “…Involved.”
“So they did it to tell her to not try anything.” Einin said softly in a conspiring tone. “Or they’ll kill her too.”
“Exactly, Einin.” Maureen crossed her arms and nodded to herself.
“But that’s the point Maureen!” The dark rings around Norah’s eyes made them look deep-set and haunted.
“What are you going on about now?” She huffed.
“That thing, did you ever see it dead? They took it away didn’t they, the Empire?”
Einin gasped. “It’s still alive!”
“No Einin, it’s not alive.” Maureen scolded and turned, glaring, to Norah. “That’s all just conspiracy.” She didn’t mention that it was a conspiracy which she herself endorsed until moments ago, when she made her argument; now that she had picked her side she had changed her allegiances.
“But it’s true! This proves it. You know very well that I was one of the people who went there on the day of the fire. I didn’t do it myself but I was there.” She shivered. “If it is alive it has come back for revenge. Somewhere within the Guard.”
A scoff. “There’s not a bit of evidence for that. Don’t be ridiculous now Norah, you’re just shook up from it all.” The thin, drawn-on eyebrows that curved across her low forehead pulled further down, deepening the dark crevice around her deep-set eyeball.
“I know it. I knew it when I heard that girl was killed up the street. The Black’s little girl. It’s just like back then. It’s come back.”
“Just one case is not sufficient to start accusing the Guard of harbouring a murderer. If they heard word of this, you wouldn’t have to imagine up some monster to be scared.”
“I know it in my heart.”
That surprised Maureen a bit. Norah wasn’t one for the heart, her primary emotions seemed to be suspicion, annoyance and that strange happiness she got from divulging secrets and watching the reaction they caused among her peers. She’d never seen her look like this, kind of terrified in a very sure way. She squirmed in the unusual silence and clinked her cup at another sip of tea.
“It would be strange.” She ventured. “If that was true.” There was no reaction, even from the watery Einin, so she carried on. “Because that boy is in the Guard after all.”
Norah awoke from her unusually insular reverie and looked down at her empty cup.
“Eh hem.” She coughed.
Her husband, standing awkwardly in the corner next to Norah, was still inspecting the arm of Einin’s chair as if the thing had materialised in his house within the last few minutes, despite the fact that it had hardly moved from its place in their living room since he’d been born in this house. Suddenly realising the noise had come from his wife, he pricked his ears like a faithful hound and stumbled towards the cup she held in her outstretched hand. He clasped it in his thick paws as if it was his salvation.
And off he grunted with his catch carefully balanced and new hope in his eyes. He could tell where he wasn’t welcome, trained even, as his wife had a series of signals she gave for him to interpret and follow with silent proficiency. He preferred being free from their company anyway, he could take as long as possible to fill the tea cup and use the time to potter around without those sharp eyes watching him. He could still listen to their dramatic tale but, somehow, he was more interested in the trail of pulped wood which skirted along the kitchen floor.
“Rats.” He muttered, following the trail with his eyes. As soon as he stepped in they froze, sitting like sentries on their hindlegs around the room, each one facing the door with an almost studious expression on their pointed faces and ears turned towards the muted sounds of the other room. He also stopped, halfway around the door and one step into the kitchen. Tens of glossy eyes stared back at him in an indescribably human way, he could feel his mouth opening to yell to the women but, then again, he wasn’t much of a talker, or sure that his wife wouldn’t yell at him for this, so instead he resolved himself to stare them out, as if keeping his eyes locked on them would incline them all to abruptly run away.
Away from the unintentional staring match, the three women continued their conversation oblivious.
“Oh yes, him. Of course, very strange.” Norah ventured haphazardly, wishing she her cup of tea here again so she could have an excuse not to talk.
“Mhh hmm…” Einin muttered. Maureen looked at both women with raised eyebrows, she could tell that they didn’t understand and was enjoying being the imparter of such vital information. In fact, Einin was just staring out the window with her eyes half-closed, narrowed maybe.
“The pretty one.” She sighed.
“Ah, that child!” Norah did remember him: didn’t see him so much as hear about him anymore though.
“Oh yes,” Einin nodded sleepily, “Yes, most unfortunate. A horrible thing.” Her voice was getting sleepier.
There was a clatter from the kitchen, the rats had scattered as he brought the hard-bristled brush around with a swing. He huffed with the exertion and propped himself up on the handle, they were back to normal, he had broken whatever spell they were under and now they disappeared back into the cracks and crevices under skirting boards, through the crack in the back door and underneath each and every cupboard and behind the oven. Strange things were happening, it must be something in the air. The same with the dogs too, maybe it was like the cows when they huddled together in the fields when the storms came. It didn’t make them any safer but their instincts tell them to do it regardless.
Now he had to get on with the tea, he picked up the pan of water that was always boiling on the stove and poured it into the teapot. As it rested, he inspected the thin porcelain of the pretty painted-flower cup that he always saved for Norah, the one he thought was her favourite. He sighed and leant back against the warm oven side, glancing out the small-paned window into the low light outside before the dawn sun really freed itself from the blanket of clouds. The brick patio was full of weeds that he knew he would soon have to lift, the shanty shed was leaning precariously after the winter wind that had battered it the last few nights. It was all going to need a lot of work and he would be the one expected to do it. Just as he was considering when he was going to do it, something shifted, and not at the level that could be explained by the chickens or ducks that rambled the space from early morning. A cat maybe, something on the far side of the shed. But it looked too big, its big yellow eyes met his own from within the shadow. A cat wouldn’t make his heart beat like this, make his limbs freeze even behind the hard brick walls and thick windows of the house. A primeval feeling, one that screamed at him to run and at the same time kept him stuck like a statue staring at the unblinking thing through the glass. But as quickly as he had spotted it, it was gone. The eyes closed. The creature disappearing like it had crept around the corner of the house. It was a cat, of course, it could be nothing but one. Perhaps come to catch some of the rats that had flooded from the house, it would only be natural.
With a shiver he looked down and realised that the tea was long ready, he hurriedly poured it, with his heart beating harder than it ever had before.
Maureen brought up her point again as she spotted them getting of track, sitting with their tea, or in Norah’s case: lack of tea, and staring at the floor without a word, it was a good point after all and she didn’t want to lose the opportunity of them realising it. “I couldn’t imagine him joining if they’d really protected that monster. It was him that did it after all.”
“I would never have suspected that he would join the Guard anyway. After all they did…if I was in his place it would take nothing short of a gun at my head to make me join.” Norah retorted.
“Maybe he doesn’t know.” Einin looked into the distance. “Maybe he thinks it was us.”
“It was us. Or it was as good as us. We were going to do it after all. Who knows if someone actually did. I don’t and I was there.” Norah was shaking again, a shiver licked down her spine and she suppressed the desire to turn and look out the window behind her. It felt like something was watching. Staring like she’d so often stared at others.
“Not like that. We never would have…”
“How would we have known?”
“If it were one of us the Guard would have arrested them by now. I mean, that’s four murders! They wouldn’t even let us get away with the arson without a penalty. The only reason they have to cover it up like they’ve done, even hide the body, is that it was one of their own who did it.” Maureen was rushing over the words like she was trying to convince herself. Now they’d got her worried too. What if they’d covered it up because both murderers were one of their own? As Norah had said, they wouldn’t even let them see the body or the grave, they’d never let them make sure it couldn’t come back.
“So the murderer’s either on our side or theirs? One of our own or one of them.” Einin sang to herself.
“No Einin. The monster is dead, but if it was alive it may be being hidden by the Empire, there is no real proof of that. The arsonist who tried to kill it, the real hero if you ask me, is either one of us who has somehow avoided capture or one of them. Either way they saved our lives.”
Einin frowned. “Anyway…” This was getting a bit too serious, a bit too real. “Do you know whose jacket it is?”
They both looked at her, shocked. She seemed far more assertive today than she’d ever been, and it was a good point unlike her usual sleepy comments and nods that basically involved only agreeing with everything both sides of the argument said without feeling the need to add anything of her own.
Norah coughed. “I didn’t think of that.” She looked at Maureen, wondering how both of them could have failed to see this vital piece of evidence. “I guess we’ll find out when we see one without a jacket.” But they would probably disguise it, if this was the Guard’s doing after all. Give some excuse.
“Still,” Einin continued, “That Guard boy really was lucky wasn’t he. If that Sergeant hadn’t picked him up, who knows what would have happened to him.”
“Huh?” Maureen barked. “I would rather have starved than join them, even as a child I would never have even considered it. I would have thought his mother had taught him better. Not that its surprising coming from that woman.”
“Well he really would have starved if he hadn’t. I mean, who else would have taken him in? At least in the Guard they get food, shelter and a proper job.”
“Yes, and whose food do they eat? It’s our work that feeds every one of them, and what do we get for it? Nothing worth the effort, they just walk about. I bet none of them have worked a real day on the fields in their lives.”
“Yes that’s true, Maureen, but if your son had passed the Empire’s test you would have had him be a Guard in a heartbeat, I’m sure.” Norah smiled a little, finding satisfaction in watching Maureen feel so backed against a corner. It was usually her who did the cornering. An argumentative woman through and through.
“I wouldn’t.” Maureen reared back, insulted. “If I saw my son in that uniform I would disown him, pure evil, they are. Sneaky too, you should have seen what I saw that red-headed one doing last night. Out in the streets, he was, skulking about in the night! If he didn’t look such a wimp I would have suspected him of killing Serry Poole.”
“It could have been, it could have been. You don’t know about these people.” Einin nodded furiously.
“And their chief, too! You hardly even see him but when you do he always looks so gormless. I don’t think he’d know what was going on if it hit him right in the face! And they expect us to just sit here and trust him enough to put our fates in his hands, it’s ridiculous.”
“It is, it is!” Einin nodded away.
“There’s so many problems.” Norah shook her head, “If only we could go back to how things were before they all invaded. They were simpler times.”
“Oh yes, if only. The thing is, it’s not only them that have changed things. I can’t even talk to my own neighbours anymore, too worried they’re going to report anything I say to the Guard. There’s no trust anymore, no community either. That reminds me, Jock’s causing trouble with the neighbours again.”
“What’s he done now?” Norah, reached for the teacup that was no longer there, frowned, and then settled her hands on her lap and leaned forward eagerly.
“Well he was barking and trying to get out all night for the past few days, and they’re already annoyed at him because their cat hasn’t come back since last week and they think it was him that had it. Really! Telling everyone about it even though they have no evidence whatsoever. The thing probably just ran away, my Jock would never…”
Mr O’Connor shuffled back into the room and then stopped as his eyes met glares from all three of the ladies, sitting in a circle like vultures around their prey. He sidled through the room and extended the rather full teacup towards his wife, she reached out with a sharp look but as soon as her hands touched and he released the handle the thing fell to the ground. It smashed about his feet with a splatter of hot tea and soaked into the bottom of his trousers as if searching for skin. He grimaced as she recovered from her shock and glared up at him, annoyed and giving a clear sign that he should clean up and go grab another cup. He bent down stiffly and picked up the pieces, putting them on the little chest beside Einin’s chair with a nervous look at her. He didn’t know what it was about her tonight but she felt different somehow, more radiant, glowing even. He shrank away and hurried of to get the second cup with a little twinge as he thought of the other precious one that he had thought she liked, the one he had gotten her. He got it out to her as quickly as possible, not even taking the time to stir as he rushed to get out of the way. Once he had he nodded his head glumly and, followed by their ferocious gaze, dragged his feet towards the stairs: closing the door behind him to the noise of the three women resuming their spirited chatter. Back to gossiping like they always did, as if there had never been a body on the doorstep this morning, as if she hadn’t woken him with her shrill screams like a siren in the night. He sighed, people sure were stuck in their ways.
Later he heard the door close and the sounds of the women saying their goodbyes. He could go downstairs now and, though he was worried her passive aggressiveness from before may have blossomed into full blown anger now that they were alone, he found her quiet and still. He walked to her side, looking out of the window and watching the women retreat. It was full light now but the clouds he had seen earlier had settled into stormy rainclouds, still they could see the women talk and then split ways: Maureen stomp away even more crossly than usual, her feathered hat bobbing, and Einin waiting, looking towards her sister as she left towards the house they shared. Her green velvet cap closeted her curls so that only the ends dripped with the rain, making her look even more like a sea maiden as they twisted inwards like vines around her little head and sharpened to a crown of curving spikes like rose thorns against her creamy skin.
He looked at his wife and the cup that lay discarded and broken. It was reality verses the ethereal: the woman whose warm breath condensed in a shroud on the window before them, against the frosty fog the figure outside breathed like fire into the air. And then she turned, her neck twisting around until they could both see her profile as it stared, empty, as something under a sodden cloak approached from around the shadowy darkness that surrounded the house. They just stood there, he supposed, looking at each other, as neither seemed to be talking with one invisible under the hood of the cloak and Einin unmoving. She just stared, unblinking and open mouthed until the figure disappeared. He considered running out to see what had happened but the rain was falling and she was already leaving back towards her house again. Well, they may have been excuses because, truth be told, he didn’t know what to say to her, he had hardly ever talked to her beside asking what she would have in her tea and both times that happened her sister answered for her anyway. It was none of his business who she talked to and Norah hardly seemed concerned about it; in fact, instead of watching Einin’s back like he was, her eyes were following the track of the cloaked figure and her hands were squeezing into tight fists around her teacup.