Sorry for the silence on this blog! I’ve been busy with work and trying to finish my manuscript, so I haven’t written many short pieces!
This is a short fantasy story I originally wrote for Shift Zine. It wasn’t selected to be part of the zine but I had a lot of fun writing it so I thought I’d share it! It’s set in the same world as my manuscript, but takes place in Dublin, Ireland (my second home!), ten years before the events of the novel (which takes place in Hampshire, England). These characters are all new and don’t appear in the novel – though I might let them cameo at some point! Hope you enjoy 🙂
Mam wouldn’t let me tell anyone.
“It changes nothing,” she told me when I argued, and that was that. It was still just another secret for me to hide away with the others; like how I chewed gum in Mrs Byrne’s History class, or how I spent all my birthday money on red shoes with high heels that I hid at the back of my wardrobe, or how Eva Sheehan’s bright blue eyes made me feel a bit fluttery inside.
So I shut myself in my bedroom all weekend and read articles online, trawling websites for the tiniest updates. I spent hours staring at that picture: the skull-like face and the curved horns, the beast looming over London as it scooped up helpless commuters and tipped them into that gigantic slash of a mouth. I don’t know what I felt when I saw the photos for the first time – some twisted, crazy bundle of emotions. It felt like terror.
It felt like freedom.
“You’re not tellin’ anybody, you hear?” Mam said roughly as I hitched my satchel onto my shoulders that following Monday. “And that means Eva, too! Do you hear me, Claire?”
“Yes, Mam! God!” I slammed the front door behind me.
Eva was waiting for me at the bottom of the road, sitting on the wall with her skirt hiked up to her thighs and a cigarette dangling from her lips. Just like always, like my world hadn’t turned upside down these past two days. She was the one wild constant, like the tide crashing into the Sandymount walls.
“Did you hear that shit on the news?” she said, jumping down as I approached. “About London Victoria? And why didn’t you reply to my texts?”
She gave me a gentle shove, her red hair already tumbling out of its braid. Eva didn’t believe in tidiness – her locker was a jumble of gum wrappers and notebooks, broken hairbrushes and stained photocopies. Her cluttered house was worlds away from mine, where Mam went loopy over a single unwashed mug left in the sink.
“I was…it was crazy,” I said, plucking at the sleeve of my school jumper. “You know how my Mam is. She thinks the world’s gone and ended.”
I wished I could tell Eva. She always told me everything. On the first day of secondary school, she sat down next to me in Maths and told me how she’d walked into her father’s study to find him touching a woman who wasn’t her mother. I’d come close so many times, so many instances where I could feel the truth hanging from my tongue and just waiting to drip, but no matter how many secrets she told me and I told her, I always kept two locked away. I still couldn’t tell her what I was, or how I felt when I thought about touching her soft freckled skin.
“Maybe it has!” Eva slipped her hand through the crook of my arm, kicking at a pebble on the pavement. “Dad said that Father Aidan was saying that Hell is open, and all the devils are here.”
“He reads Shakespeare at mass now?” I asked. She squinted at me.
“Well, maybe Dad misremembered. He got hammered Saturday night, surprised he made it to the church. Look!” She shoved her phone under my nose, and I read only a few words off the screen before pushing it away in disgust.
“Thought we were talking about the news, not Michael Lynch,” I said irritably. “And if he wants to touch your lady parts so bad he should learn how to spell them-”
“Not that bit! You didn’t read.” She gave me another shove, her face bright with amusement. “Party at his house on Friday night. You gonna come or nah?”
“I dunno,” I replied, scratching my neck. I wasn’t keen on the idea of watching Eva spend an entire evening sucking face with Michael while I sipped mystery punch out of a plastic cup. “I’ll see.”
“You better,” Eva said, poking me in the cheek with a red-painted nail.
When I went to the toilet before registration, I looked in the mirror and saw that she had left a little pink moon-shaped mark in the skin. It had faded by the time Maths was over, but I could still feel it there, lingering like a stain on my face.
“How was school?” Mam asked at dinnertime.
“Not bad.” I pressed my fork into my mash, leaving the imprint of the tines in the soft white potato. “I know what you’re going to ask. I didn’t tell anyone, don’t you worry.”
“Good.” I looked up at her. She stared back, her stare intensified by heavy black eyeliner. It was all smudged into her wrinkles like tobacco stains around her eyes, and I would have believed that it was actually from cigarettes had she not given up the habit three years ago.
“It’s all coming out now, anyway. Won’t be hiding much longer.”
“You had better keep hidin’.” She spooned diced carrots into her mouth, her eyes not leaving me as she chewed. “People are never going to stop fearin’ us. And you’re better off without throwin’ yourself into danger with those monsters.”
“How do you know? Anything could happen.”
“They’ll never accept you. And what are we supposed to do? Fight the beasts, only to be met with horror by those you’re protectin’? Nonsense. Don’t get involved, I say.”
“People died in London!” I snapped. “They need us!”
“Yes, and our kind died fightin’ ‘em,” Mam said coldly. “And you know what I hear? O’Leary at the market, sayin’ garbage like ‘they can’t be trusted’. Trusted! They died protectin’ shitstains just like him and that’s the thanks they get?”
“Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight! Are you stupid? That’s what we’re meant-”
“Don’t speak me to like that! Apologise!” Mam’s fork clattered to the table.
“Nah, I won’t.” I shoved one last spoonful of mash into my mouth and kicked my chair back with a screech. “I’ve got homework.”
I left my half-eaten dinner on the table and ran to my room, to the comfort of my homework and my headphones. After a half hour, there came a knock on my door.
“Go away, Mam!” I called, but she opened the door anyway. I scowled and turned back to my books, staring at the words until they blurred.
“You know I just want you to be safe,” Mam said, sitting down on my bed even though I hadn’t invited her to. “That’s all.”
“Pretending not to exist doesn’t mean safe.”
“It does, for us. Keep ‘em all in the dark, as much as we can. And it’s stayin’ that way, Claire-”
“It won’t stay that way!” I span round in my desk chair, my neck hot under the collar of my blouse. “Look on the internet! People know now, they know we exist, they know what we can do, all we’ve learned-”
“The internet?” She blinked. “It’s on the computers now? All our knowledge?”
“Yes!” Excitement bubbled in me. “It’s all out in the open now, you know, since London. Everyone’s talking. There’s forums, and articles, and whole websites about it. Some people love it! They think it’s amazing, like we’re superheroes – we don’t have to hide what we can do any more! We can-”
“We can’t,” Mam said, pressing her lips together for a second. Her dusky pink lipstick bled into the deep lines around her mouth. “It’s not safe. Even if they accept you, you’ll just be throwing yourself in harm’s way for their sake. And if you start on your Dad’s path you’ll be puttin’ yourself in the line of danger, and not just from people. You really want that? You want to – to go out and fight those things-”
“I just want to use what’s mine! I want to learn again-”
“No,” she said, standing up. Her dark hair, usually stringy and limp, seemed charged with static. “You know why you can’t.”
“Dad would’ve let me,” I muttered, swivelling back to my work.
“And that’s why he’s not here.” She left the room, shutting the door with a slam. I felt tears prick in my eyes but I dragged my sleeve across them, trying to shut out the memory of the man who taught me what little I knew. The man who made me pancakes on a Saturday morning, the man who taught me what the black marks on my skin meant, the man who didn’t see the beast coming until it tore off his head in the Wicklow Mountains.
I stirred, nudged awake by Eva’s poking. Her blue eyes were peering at me, her plucked eyebrows cocked.
“Have a good sleep?” Her breath smelled like cigarette smoke and bubblemint gum. “Never knew the library chairs were so comfortable.”
“Shut up,” I muttered, and she snorted and turned back to the computer. Instead of the World War II project we were supposed to be working on, her screen was loaded with a news article.
“You seen this?” she said, pressing her nail-bitten finger to the screen. “They’re forming mobs in London now, it’s nuts.”
I blinked to clear my bleary eyes and looked closer at what she was pointing at. A photo of a group of people in a busy street. People…carrying someone?
No. Dragging. My stomach lurched as I studied the picture. A woman was being pulled forward by two men, her clothes in tatters, her face streaked with dirt. Underneath her tangled hair and the smudges of muck, I could see the black cracks. And her eyes were midnight: devoid of pupils, of irises, of whites. Just solid black.
“What’s up with her face?” Eva squinted at the photo. “Reckon she’s got those weird coloured contacts?”
I shook my head.
“Read the caption,” I told her, then pretended to be rummaging in my bag for my phone to hide the tears pricking in my eyes. Mam was right.
According to the caption, that woman was the fifth one to be dragged to her death. London wasn’t freedom. It was execution. And it was only a matter of time before it spread like a ripple in a pond across the British Isles and stirred up violence in Dublin.
“What even is this, the Middle Ages?” Eva was still staring at the article. “Think they’ll start burning them? Or chucking them in ponds to see if they float and shit?”
My gut cramped with anxiety and I stood up from my chair as she looked round at me for a response.
“You OK?” she said, her expression softening.
“Fine.” I shoved my hands into my blazer pockets. “Why do you keep looking at that crap, anyway?”
“You what?” Her eyelids fluttered. “Everyone’s looking at it, not just me! Michael sent it to me-”
“I don’t get why you’re not looking at it, though,” she continued, her cheeks pinkening in that way they did when she got huffy. “I mean, demons! People with weird black eyes and whatever! How are you not giving a shit?”
She kept looking at me with her cornflower-blue gaze, and my heart was sinking like a rock. I was so obvious about how I felt for her that I could never be sure if the boys who jeered and called me ‘lezzer’ were just calling me names or could actually see the truth. But this? This was crazy. I wish she could just…see.
“It…it scares me, OK?” I said roughly, pulling the strap of my schoolbag onto my shoulder. “I don’t like looking at stuff like that.”
The woman’s face, contorted in fear while those men dragged her to her death, was infinitely more terrifying than the beast that had slaughtered so many.
“Oh, yeah, forgot you’re a wuss.” Eva chucked her scarlet hair back as she laughed, showing her chipped white front tooth and her pink tongue. “You threw up halfway through Saw.”
“Ha. Yeah.” I looked away, my stomach still tight. “You coming to class or what? Bell’s going in two.”
“Ah, shit.” Eva turned back to her computer, and tried to exit the window. “Oh my God, it froze. Why can’t they get some machines that aren’t from the Stone Age?”
She tapped the PC tower under the desk with her foot as she clicked, but it was fruitless.
“I give up. I need to go to my locker, I left my Bio books – see you in class?” she said as she jumped up from the chair, slinging her bag over her shoulder. She gave me an affectionate ‘whap’ with the flat of her hand on my cheek as she moved past, oblivious to the jerking movement I made as electricity shot down my spine. “Bye!”
Rooted to the spot as I tried to keep my composure, I watched her leave. When the last red wave of hair disappeared through the library doors, I glanced at the computer. The photo of the woman was still there, and she was looking at me, her pale face pleading, as if she knew it was too late for her but she wanted to warn me all the same.
Hide, I could hear her saying. Hide, or die.
That night, Mam found my copy of the prospectus for University College London and threw it in the bin. She said that I’d go to university here, in Dublin, not in England like most of my classmates wanted to go. Well, Eva didn’t want to go to university at all, she just wanted me to be the one to go so she could come and crash at my student place in London while she kept going with busking rude covers of chart songs on high streets. She was just doing her Leaving Cert to keep her dad happy, she said, and then she’d piss off out of that house as soon as she could.
But still, I felt like the only teenager in the country who wasn’t allowed to leave, until I heard Mary Donovan and Sara Gleeson in the toilets after History, talking about how Mary’s parents wouldn’t let her go to see some musical on the West End because of what had happened at London Victoria. And Mary wasn’t like me. She was just normal.
“It’s spreading,” Mam told me, shoving that day’s copy of The Irish Times under my nose. I skimmed a headline about demon attacks in Bristol before I looked back up at her face and glared. “Don’t you look at me like that. Hope they deal with this plague before it crosses the sea.”
“So it’s OK for them to deal with it, but not for me to learn,” I retorted.
“Claire, I’m warnin’ you.”
“You warn me every bloody day.” I pushed the newspaper away, headed into my room and shut the door.
I found more about the attacks on the internet, away from Mam’s patronising stare. More of them happening, every day. It was like what happened at London Victoria was a catalyst, setting off a chain reaction across Britain. That monster who destroyed the train station was the leader, and now all the smaller, lowlier demons had been given the confidence to crawl out of the woodwork and follow its example. But while they were smaller and lowlier, they were still vicious. I zoomed in on a photo of a bite that a man had gotten from a rat-like demon lurking in his basement, and almost blanched at the sickly green mush which had once been his forearm.
Mam used to be able to treat wounds like that, until Dad died and she stopped practicing. But before all that, she and Dad were going to teach me everything that they’d learned from the Sandymount coven.
I pulled out Dad’s picture from its hiding place in the false bottom of my desk drawer. Mam purged the house of the photos after he died, like she was trying to stamp out the hurt by erasing every trace of his existence. But I saved this one, taken on grainy old film at the Sandymount coven meeting-house, and he had a drink in one hand with his other arm up towards the camera, sleeve rolled up past his elbow, exposing the black lines on his skin. He got them tattooed over where the real ones tend to appear.
“Don’t be ashamed, Claire-bear,” he told me once. “One day we won’t live in the shadows anymore. When the regular folk see what we do for them, how we protect them from the dark – they’ll see your marks like an angel’s wings.”
Like an angel’s wings.
I wished he was right. I wished they weren’t dragging people like us to their deaths just across the Irish Sea. I wished he hadn’t been so sure of his duty – God-given, he said it was – that he went off and got himself killed and drove Mam to give it all up, to hide everything away and pretend it never existed.
The doorbell went, ridding my mind of wishes.
“Claire! It’s Eva!” Mam shouted down the hall, as I took one last glance at Dad and shoved the picture into the pocket of my jeans. The door opened and Mam stuck her head in. “Don’t be out too late tonight, if I catch you sneakin’ in at three in the mornin’ I’ll have your head on a pike.”
“I’ll keep her in check, Mrs McCarthy,” Eva joked, swanning into my room in tight black pleather trousers and a cream sequined top that made a swishing noise when she moved. The gaps in the swaying fabric let her stomach peek through, letting me see the gleaming stretch marks on her belly. She’d lost a lot of weight in third year and still rubbed cream into the marks to get rid of them, but they hadn’t faded. I thought about pressing my fingertips to the silvery lines, and bit my lip. “Claire! You’re not even ready yet!”
“Sorry,” I said, mouth dry. “Got distracted.”
Eva’s gaze fell on my laptop, at the article about the Bristol attack. I shut the lid.
“Erm, clothes.” I opened my wardrobe and chucked a few items onto my duvet. “Help me out.”
She clapped her hands together as I continued to throw tops and dresses down next to her.
“The black!” she barked as I chucked a red t-shirt back into my wardrobe, and she snatched up the sheer top. Her nails glittered with dark, shimmering polish. I wondered if they’d be raking through Michael Lynch’s hair later. “You look good in black. All vampy with your hair. You got a skirt?”
“I’ll stick with my jeans,” I said as I pulled off my t-shirt and took the sheer top from her. “Do my makeup?”
An hour later we finally shuffled up the drive to Michael’s house, Eva wobbly on her chunky black heels from the secret gulps of vodka that she’d had on the bus. Being seventeen and a lightweight didn’t stop her from guzzling in public until she was plastered. I let her lean on me and breathed in the smell of her Charlie spray before reaching up to push open the door which had been left ajar, letting the sound of dance music leak out into the street.
“I want another drink,” Eva slurred into my ear, her sticky gloss brushing my cheek as we stumbled down the dim hallway and into the living room. I swallowed, momentarily paralysed by the scent of her as I scanned the crowded, tiny room for a seat.
“I’ll get you one in a sec, just trying to find a place to-”
“Eva!” Michael swooped towards us like a lanky, overgrown vulture, draping himself over Eva’s other shoulder. I nearly gagged on the smell of his aftershave. “Nearly thought you weren’t coming!”
“I like to keep you waiting,” Eva drawled, then giggled in a way that made my stomach feel funny. The music pounded, and I looked around for somewhere, someone, to escape to. But there was just a load of faceless strangers, grinding to Rihanna in a dimly lit room.
“Here you go,” Michael said, holding out a can of Carlsberg for Eva – none for me, of course. She took it and cracked it open, letting go of my arm. Michael glanced at me as I looked at the can in distaste. “God, Claire, do you always have to look like a slapped arse? You could at least try smiling, you know.”
“Leave her alone,” Eva said, pushing the can back into his hands. “And I don’t like beer. I told you.”
Before either Michael or I could respond, Eva was dragging me away, into the middle of the tightly packed room, between sweaty, shadowed bodies.
“Dance!” she called out as someone turned up the music. “Come on!”
I don’t know how long we danced for. Michael tried to shove himself between us, trying to get to Eva, but she wasn’t having any of it, turning away from him whenever he tried to push up against her. His hand rested on her hip and she shifted away, taking my shoulders and wrapping herself around me instead. She kept ignoring him until he left in a huff, his grey t-shirt and gelled hair disappearing out of the room, leaving us to dance alone.
“God, now I really need a drink,” Eva said loudly in my ear, pulling me into the hall and towards the kitchen. “Men are exhausting.”
“What even was that?” I asked, as we headed through the kitchen, past a couple making out on the counter, and towards the back door. “Michael-”
“Hos before bros,” Eva interrupted.
“I – I think you got the expression wrong,” I said, my heart thumping. “It’s bros before-”
“Whatever.” She shook her head of red curls and stepped outside into the evening air, pulling the half-empty bottle of vodka out of her bag. “You know what I meant.”
“Yeah, but…” I sat down with her on the step, and she unscrewed the cap and took a sip. “If you’re interested, you don’t have to blow him off ‘cos of me.”
I cringed as I said the words. I knew she could do miles better than Michael Lynch, but if she found his vulgar texts and greasy hairline attractive then who was I to get in the way?
Eva just snorted, then handed me the bottle.
“I can’t drink this straight. Burns my throat.”
“Wuss.” She stood up in her chunky heels. “I’ll get Coke.”
She left me on the doorstep and went back inside, the music blaring out before the door swung shut behind her.
I sat there on the step, looking round at the tumbles of weeds and shaggy grass. I was about to get up and follow her back into the grubby little house when I heard it.
I froze in a half-crouch, hoping that it was just a pissed-off cat or a fox lurking in the bushes, but I knew I was wrong, even before I saw the two blank white eyes staring out at me from the dark jungle of Michael’s garden.
It moved. A claw creeping out of the shadow, nestling in the wild grass. Scaly and dark, with bone-white talons that made me realise instantly what it was.
“Babe!” Eva burst through the door, swinging a bottle of Coke. “I got some…” Her voice tailed off as she took in the sight of the monster on the lawn. “What-”
“Get in the house!” I shrieked as the demon lurched from the bushes, and I shoved Eva back through the door and slammed it behind her, only to see her horrified face staring at me through the glass before the beast’s claws sliced across my back and sent me hurtling across the lawn.
“Claire!” I heard Eva’s muffled voice through the glass as I lay there in the weeds, gasping in pain. From the corner of my eye, I saw the beast advancing, and I rolled over, yelping as the plants that had stuck to my bleeding back were ripped away.
I staggered to my feet as the demon drew closer, and in the dim light I knew that I’d identified it. A long, snake-like thing with glistening scales of dark green, it resembled a massive serpent, except for the two enormous claws – one of which was now tipped with my blood. The white eyes were fixed on me, gleaming as brightly as the needle-like teeth that were bared in a terrible grin. Dad used to tell me about them, the dragon-types, draconian demons. Péist, he called these ones, the kind with dark emerald scales, the kind that used to roam Irish shores and terrify our Celtic ancestors. But this one was smaller than the ones he showed me in the books – barely two metres high.
But still big enough to kill me.
The péist slipped across the lawn, the scales hissing against the grass as it approached. Flame licked around its lips and before I could react it opened its maw and expelled them.
I dived. Back into the bushes as the flame hit the leaves and dead twigs around me. I wasn’t burned, but I was trapped by the fire which grew from a few licks of flame to a blaze within seconds. I stumbled further into the bush, the heat rising as the shadow of the demon approached me. I was coughing, smoke filling my lungs as the crackling flames rose higher and higher-
“CLAIRE!” Through the branches I saw the kitchen door open, and Eva tumbled down onto the steps. “Get away from her, you – you-”
The reflection of the burning bush danced in the péist’s blank white eyes, and then that empty gaze turned from me in the overgrowth to Eva, shivering on the step with a kitchen knife in her hand.
It charged for her.
“NO!” I hurled myself through the burning branches and threw out my hand, summoning all the memories of Mam and Dad’s teaching from all those years ago. I collapsed onto the grass as a solid wall of ice blasted up from the ground, between Eva and the demon. The péist slammed into it, screeching as shattered ice rained down onto its serpentine form. It reared around again to face me, the cavern of a mouth stretched open wide, and then those claws were hitting the ground, the snake-like body following and the forked tail whipping through the air behind it. I threw my hands up into the air, bracing myself to throw up another shield, but the péist shot past me and with a gigantic crash, burst through the wooden fence and out into the road.
“C-Claire?” Eva gasped from the step, as the péist’s tail disappeared around what was left of Michael’s fence. The flames were still crackling in the bushes, and I couldn’t believe no-one had heard the racket, but a Lady Gaga song was still pounding away indoors. “You – you’re-”
This was the part where I was meant to deny everything, the way Mam would have wanted me to. But I couldn’t. I’d fought the demon, scared it off. Who cared what Mam wanted me to do?
“Yeah.” I looked down at my top, at the black crack-like lines visible through the sheer fabric. Markers of what I was, what I could do. There was no hiding them now. “Um. Now you know.”
“What the shit.” The yellow-orange light of the flames made her red hair gleam like gold, and she dropped the kitchen knife to the ground as she took a step towards me, her eyes fixed on what remained of the shield of ice. “You’re…you’re a Witch?”
“I guess.” I flexed my fingers, watching the black cracks begin to fade. A surge of confidence burst through me, just like the magick that I’d summoned only moments before. “I didn’t tell you because Mam wouldn’t let me, because she didn’t think it was safe. I’m sorry. I hid.”
Eva stopped in front of me, and her eyes slid from the shattered ice to my face. I couldn’t read her expression. In the distance I could hear shouting, a car alarm, a crashing sound. I had to be quick.
“I get it if you’re scared,” I said. My throat constricted but I kept talking. “If you don’t want to be around me anymore. But I…I couldn’t let that thing hurt you. And I should go after it. Finish it off.” I turned away, towards the broken fence and burning shrubbery.
She pulled me back, then. Pressed her lips – lips that tasted like Coke and vodka and cherry lipgloss – to mine.
“For luck,” she said as she released me, the corner of her mouth quirking at my stunned expression. “And scared? Of you? Come off it.”
“But you…you know I like girls?” I said, voice quivering. “That I like you?”
“Wouldn’t have kissed you if I didn’t, would I?”
I could only blink at her, and then the back door opened.
“What the actual shit did you do to the garden?” Michael yelped.
“Don’t tell anyone,” I whispered to Eva. “Not yet. I’m not ready.”
“Shut up, Michael,” Eva said as Michael cursed behind us. She was still looking at me. Another car alarm, quieter this time, and more distant yelling. “What now, Claire?”
I could still taste her on my lips, even as I smiled and moved towards the fence. Michael squawked on the doorstep as I stepped over the broken wood. Eva followed, and we looked down the road, at the dented cars and the debris that littered the street. She took my hand, looked at me for an answer, and I remembered Dad’s photo in my pocket. I smiled at her.
“I’m going to fight a demon.”