By nightfall, he was begging to die.
In his old life, he could never have imagined that a simple beating could bring him so far, beyond hope, beyond shame. The last flurry of kicks had broken ribs, and a jagged edge of bone sawed upward with every breath, threatening to break through his skin from the inside. Instinct and reflexes had him curling in on himself, trying to protect vital organs, but even that caused searing pain to tear through the deep bruises in bone and muscle.
His eyes were long since swollen shut, but he could hear their voices, track their movements, vibrations of footsteps stalking around him.
“What do you say we take his tongue, lads,” the Scottish one suggested, and then he felt all their hands under his arms, all together now, boys, lifting him to some slumped imitation of a sitting position propped up against the wall.
Earlier that day—minutes, hours, impossible to judge anymore—they’d dragged a body past the shed where he lay shackled. A hole gaped in the middle of a face where a snub nose should have been, but he recognized the dead boy from the bottle-blue patches on his shirt. They’d all been rounded up together by the ragtag soldiers. He didn’t know why. The boy—he couldn’t have been more than fourteen—was chained next to him for a while, sobbing something like a prayer in an unknown language. Then they’d taken him away.
He’d discovered there was nothing he could say to make the soldiers stop. He wasn’t a spy, wasn’t a rebel, he wasn’t even a “native,” as they called him, spitting the word like venom. And then he said he was a spy, was a rebel, anything to make them stop, and they still kept beating him.
Through the slits of his bruise-swollen eyes, he could see one of the soldiers coming toward him, a knife in one hand. He tried to crawl away, but a burst of pain in both knees sent him back to the cold ground. He turned and tried to read the expression on the closest soldier’s face, but that part of his brain must have shut down. He saw eyes, a mouth set in a firm line, isolated features only, couldn’t puzzle out the meaning of the whole.
“No,” he whisper-croaked, trying to ignore the sensation of blood gargling in the back of his throat, but the soldier just took hold of him by the hair. The knife bit into his ear without warning, sawing through the cartilage in a series of rough strokes, each one a new burst of agony, fresh sharp pain overlapping the relentless throbs from before. It was sensory overload: he didn’t know if he was screaming or moaning or if no sound was coming out at all. Hot blood soaked the side of his neck.
“It’s too dull,” the soldier complained, seconds before the last stroke.
“No such thing as too dull,” another replied, “not for this lot.”
That earned a grim laugh. He saw his ear on the ground, a pale, waxy-looking thing under the slick of blood. A boot kicked it away, out of his narrow field of vision.
“We need a real saw or we’ll be at him all bloody night.”
A new wave of fear came over him, not of dying, but of the sudden vision that death wasn’t the end of his pain, that he’d gone through this before—and they would hold him down and saw his heart from his chest with a proper surgeon’s saw to see exactly how long it would take him to die—and he would go through this again, and again, and again. And yes, there it was, the pocketknife working the buttons off his shirt one by one, from the hollow of his throat down to his belly.
The pop of the buttons. The teeth of the saw. Over and over again, the inevitable pain, looping forever.
Sean woke up with half his body stretched on the floor and a small, dull, real pain shooting along his right arm where he must have thrashed out against the wall. He sucked in a ragged breath and crawled to a sitting position. No other bruises, at least. Two months ago, he’d given away his bed frame and put the mattress on the floor. At the time it had felt like the worst kind of surrender, but he was grateful for the measure on mornings like these.
He rocked himself back and forth on the mattress until the lines of the room came clear in the early morning light from the high window.
He got up, stretched and pulled his pride around him. You’re going to beat this thing, he told himself.
In the bathroom, he splashed and toweled his face, relishing the feel of the cold droplets of water streaking down the clammy skin of his throat. He gave his reflection a clinical once-over. A light bruise on the back of his forearm from a week ago; eyes not too bloodshot. He’d lost weight, mostly in muscle mass, but he wasn’t skinny yet. He’d go upstairs to Lisa and Jamie’s kitchen, force himself to drink a protein shake.
He ran his fingers through the hair on the side of his head and traced the hidden scar. A reminder of his life before Boston, that parking lot in Ocala where a deal had gone bad and he’d gone down under three cheated skinheads, taken a tire iron to the head and woken up in the hospital. That was the worst hurt he could remember from those old, bad teenage years, and it was still a million times better than what he’d been dreaming every night, because he’d gone down in Ocala but he’d never given up.
He looked down at the collection of bottles on the counter. Melatonin, Sominex—that’d been a joke—Ambien, Valium, Xanax. He should get his notebook, write down the intensity level of the nightmare next to the night’s dosage combination, add a little bar to the graph. But it was starting to seem, well, completely fucking pointless. The lines went up, and down, and up again. More and more bottles, more and more pills.
There had to be another way.
* * *
The bar was maybe a bit loud to be trying to carry on a business conversation, especially on his worthless old flip phone, but like hell Cormac was going to up and leave his half-finished beer just to stand out on the footpath in the rain with a bunch of miserable smokers. Especially not when he could see a freckly young thing making eyes at him down the length of the bar, not too conspicuous but just conspicuous enough. He stuck a finger to one ear and forged on, making sure to cast a “what’ll you do, though” expression down the bar at Freckles, who smiled around the neck of his bottle.
“It’s likely they’re no more than rats,” Cormac said, raising his voice enough to be heard over the chirpy thump of Euro disco, “but I’ll be by in the morning, so.”
The man on the other end gave him an earful in a rambling Cork accent, only half of which Cormac caught. Freckles had shifted two stools with his beer, was now only a couple seats down. A pair of straight birds, here for a hen night by the looks of them, filled up the spaces between them with high-pitched laughter and a litter of empty shot glasses.
“Tuesday next, then,” Cormac suggested, exasperated. He was losing a very brief window of opportunity, here. “Well I can come of a Saturday, but it’ll cost extra. And dinner.”
He peered down the neck of his beer, found it empty, and raised a hand for the bartender. “So it’s settled,” he said. “See you then.”
By the time he managed to hang up, Freckles had gone: in his place, more of the hen night girls, one of them the bride to be with the requisite pound-store veil stuck lopsided on her head. Cormac sighed, disappointed, annoyed he’d had to take that call at all. He’d like a word or two with whatever spanner had handed out the number for his mobile.
That was all right, though; he had all night. He traded a fresh beer for five euro and change. Someone else would catch his eye, or else he’d pull up the contact list on his mobile, under the subheading Reliable. It wasn’t that he was lonely; he just hated sleeping in hotel beds alone.
Which was right when he felt the pointed little tap on his shoulder.
“And what are you then?” the man behind him asked, and Cormac spun around to find it was Freckles, blue eyes reflecting the line of pink neon shining overhead. “A horse with blinders on? You can stare at my old seat as long as you like, but you’re not like to see anything there worth your while.” And then he smiled.
* * *
Once through the door of Cormac’s hotel room (“Hope you don’t mind going back to yours, I’ve got three roommates”), Kevin from Ballyshannon had turned a little shy, leaning back against the dresser as Cormac took a seat at the head of the bed and flicked the bedside lamp on and then off again, and then on, flashing Kevin a questioning grin.
“Up to you, really,” Kevin said, smiling again. He had a great smile, crooked always as if half his face were happier than the other.
Cormac left the light on and came to retrieve him, winding an arm around his lower back and pulling him forward into an undemanding embrace. In the warm light of the lamp he could see those freckles he’d noticed at the bar in full detail, a whole shock of them spattered across his cheeks and nose and up, more sparsely, to his forehead. The carefully styled fauxhawk was an attempt at city boy, but the freckles and red ears, those were pure Culchie.
“So you went to Trinity,” Kevin tried, tilting his head accommodatingly as Cormac nuzzled into his throat for the first time. The cologne was cheap, young, but Cormac probably hadn’t worn much better when he was in his twenties.
“I did.” Cormac didn’t elaborate. He had not brought Kevin here to reminisce about his school days. He risked a kiss on Kevin’s pulse point—light, playful. It earned him a little hissing gasp. That was nice.
“Isn’t that…” Kevin forged on, not to be deterred, “you know, a little…posh?”
Cormac drew back, gripping him by the shoulders and staring him hard in the eye. Is that what this is about? “Do I seem ‘posh’ to you?” he asked, more honest than confrontational.
Kevin, who apparently hadn’t told a lie in his life by the looks of things, gave him a visible once-over, following the buttons of Cormac’s untucked shirt down to the dark denim of his jeans. “No,” he said decisively, and there it was, the coy glint back in his eyes, the little quirk in the corner of his mouth, the one that said available.
“Good,” Cormac replied, and laid a kiss on his mouth, and then, smiling, another one, and another.
* * *
He woke in sunlight. Shielding his eyes with his forearm, he stretched out, patting blindly across the mattress only to find he was alone. That was a cold bucket of water to the head if he’d ever felt one. He sat up.
He saw his own clothes strewn across the floor leading to the bed, Kevin’s shed jeans and boxer-briefs nowhere to be found. No noise from the loo, no sign of his runners, either. Gone, then.
Cormac told himself this was what he wanted, and it was, but waking up to it was another matter, as if it took at least a half hour past waking for his priorities to kick in. He stretched the soreness out of well-used muscles and smiled to himself at the sight of the fresh-brewed pot of coffee left steaming away on the dresser.
He drank the coffee while he packed, collecting a lone sock from under the bed and gathering up the tangle of toiletries around the sink. Dressed in his last clean outfit, he extended the handle on his small suitcase and wheeled himself down to the lobby to check out. Last night, after he and Kevin had cleaned themselves up and collapsed panting into the bed in a tangle of limbs, he’d counted the freckles on Kevin’s left shoulder aloud, watching Kevin’s twitching smile in profile. By the time he was back on the road to Tuam, he couldn’t remember what number he’d come up with.
To either side of the N17, hedgerows carved green fields into puzzle pieces, rough triangles and lopsided squares sprawling across the hillsides, each its own varying shade. Along one familiar stretch, Cormac blinked as the sunlight flashed off his mirror, and the puzzle pieces seemed to shimmer, to rearrange themselves. There would be a stone path laid between those older fields, and it would lead to an even older land…
Another blink, and the hedgerow lines were back in place. He gripped the wheel a little harder. Twenty-five minutes down, five more to go. He’d stop at his cousin Siobhan’s to pick up the dogs, she’d insist he come in for breakfast, and then after a plate of rashers his head would be clear again and he’d go about the rest of his morning business as usual. For now, he tried to ignore the landscape and just focus on the road.
He’d given up searching a long time ago, but sometimes his eyes forgot, and that was a danger he knew all too well. What you learn to see, you have to learn to unsee, or it’ll crawl inside your mind and eat you from the inside out, his father had warned him. One of his first lessons, sure.
* * *
Full of black pudding and gossip, he handed Siobhan the car keys, leashed the dogs, and emerged into a rare Irish sunlight, rejuvenated and looking forward to the walk home.
Everybody and their mother seemed to be out on the footpath that morning, and his greyhound Jack, eager and friendly and happy to have Cormac home, tugged on his leash and darted back and forth in an attempt to greet everyone they passed. Bree, his wolfhound, stuck close, padding with her lopsided but still graceful gait on a slack leash, and occasionally tossing her shaggy head—conveying, according to Cormac’s educated guess, her grave disapproval of Jack’s lack of discrimination.
Mr. Flaherty, who owned his favorite pub, stopped him up short a few blocks from home, crouching to greet an absolutely overjoyed Jack with a scratch behind the ears.
“Down in Galway for the weekend then?” he asked, laughing and dodging expertly when Jack stretched his tongue out for a kiss.
“I was,” Cormac replied, standing with his hand resting on Bree’s shoulder blade and trying not to look like he had places to be.
“Catch some good people in that net of yours?” he asked, and his eyes sparkled. Cormac thought, briefly, of Kevin, but that wasn’t what Mr. Flaherty was asking about.
“Just another case of leaky pipes, I’m afraid.” Cormac couldn’t help the disappointment in his voice. He wasn’t stupid enough to wish for a real case, for excitement—he’d been burned too badly in the past for that—but all the leaky pipes and creaky old houses settling and escaped neighbors’ dogs were beginning to get to him. His customers, such as they were, paid him just the same, out of embarrassment or as an apology for wasting his time, but he was at a point in his life where it really wasn’t about the money, not anymore.
“Maybe next time, then,” Mr. Flaherty comforted him halfheartedly, and straightened. “Anyway, I’ve been sent for a sliced pan and if I’m not home soon I’ll be hearing about it from herself.”
“Right. Have a good afternoon then.” And they both went on their way.
Cormac’s street was narrow, lined on both sides by postwar terrace houses. They had probably been built uniform and identical, thrown up in a flurry, but the years had seen them growing personalities, odd gardens and a whole palette of color choices and sunroom additions sprouting up like mushrooms. He picked his way through the cars parked up on the footpath, smiled with relief at the familiar red storefront of the news-agents below his flat. The sign on the door read Closed; Siobhan wouldn’t be in to mind the counter until noon of a Sunday, but out of habit he jiggled the door handle to check the lock and peered through the window to spy the overstuffed shelves and open, empty register. Satisfied, he passed the shop front to stop at the innocuous little door tucked to one side of it, the one he’d painted Granny-Smith-apple-green in some fit of mania, ignoring Siobhan’s comments that with the red storefront it made everything look unseasonably like Christmas.
Once inside, Cormac stooped to collect Friday’s mail from the hall floor and watched as Jack hopped up the stairs as if there were springs in his gawky legs, and Bree began her slower, calculated ascent, compensating carefully for her missing forefoot and filling up the entire narrow stairwell as she climbed. Cormac followed, hoping she’d never fall as the strain told on her legs with the years. The giant dogs didn’t live long; he knew the odds.
When he opened the door to the living room, the dogs piled into their beds—Bree’s as long as his couch—and settled in for their mid-morning naps. Content with the homey, familiar sight of them circling and bunking down, filling the cramped, dim space with their warmth and the sound of their breathing, Cormac collapsed back onto the couch to check the mail.
Several bills, one of those sweepstakes letters, an envelope that should have gone to Siobhan’s shop next door…and a letter with an American stamp, thick and beaten looking. He scrutinized it, turning the floor lamp on so he could better read the tight, scratchy handwriting of the return address.
Sean O’Hara. Christ. One of those confused-to-the-point-of-delusional Plastic Paddy “Irish Americans,” afflicted with the typical Yank-patented ethnic identity crisis but thinking it was really all about the magical blood of the homeland on fire in their special, special veins. Which wouldn’t be so bad, really, if they were in love with the real Ireland, the beautiful strange country he lived and worked in, but they weren’t. They were in love with a fantasy of thatched-roof cottages and green beer and winking leprechauns, and somewhere in the middle of that Disney diorama, Cormac and druidry. His family’s proud heritage, bought and sold in America like Travellers sold Indian dream catchers at the Tuesday market.
His eejit brother Eoin had only put up that ridiculous Druid-for-hire website for one week before Cormac had made him take it down, but that week was apparently just long enough for a slew of Americans—among them Sean O’Hara—to track down Cormac’s e-mail and inundate him with nonsense requests and tales of their own druidic pedigree. He longed for the days when people like him were known only by hearsay, names and talents passed on by those in the know. But the genie was out of the bottle now, and none of his new clients were more persistent than O’Hara who, when an e-mail hadn’t got him a response, had tracked down Cormac’s phone number and now, apparently, home address.
He tore the letter in half without reading it, wondering if maybe he could feed it to Jack.
END OF EXCERPT