John unpeeled himself from the frozen lawn to the sound of tearing velcro. Even his tongue had been welded to the roof of his mouth.
He glanced around. What the hell was he doing here? The basha he was using to sleep in was on the town’s edge for obvious reasons, but the journey this far was a blank and he certainly didn’t remember lying down.
‘Must have fallen over, hit my head,’ muttered John under his breath as he tucked one of his crutches under an armpit.
There had to be at least a dog end in his pockets; anything to take his mind off the thumping in his head. John examined the scar on his stomach and wondered how bad he’d made it now. If he’d limped this far, he’d probably torn a stitch or two. He should have taken the bus.
‘Only supposed to be a little drink. Might as well be dead if I can’t do that.’
No surprise he’d ended up waking up with his face welded to a lawn though. These days he’d probably be floored by half a pint the amount of meds he had to take. A memory surfaced, slow and rotten. There’d been an argument hadn’t there? He looked round and spotted the culprit. A kick sent the empty whisky bottle spinning into the trees.
‘Least I had the balls to fight for my country. Unlike some of these jokers.’
The thought made him sit down and his breath plumed around him him, phosphor white in the night air. That war hadn’t been the only one he’d had to fight. The break up had been a bad one.
‘She’s going to keep the lot.’
John waited for the sick feeling in his stomach to calm and his surroundings to swim back into focus. He should start getting on his way. With any luck there’d still be a few embers left in the fire.
‘The cold’ll be the death of you son you don’t get a move on… wait, what about the derelict?’
But if the cops found him at the old place again they were going to want more than a word. He dragged himself to his feet, swearing as he did so and it finally clicked where his feet had taken him.
‘Those weren’t here last time.’
John tried to massage the pain away but it had dug down deep, deeper than his fingers could find. He tried to concentrate on the site in front of him.
The building’s empty windows gleamed like mirrors in the moonlight. Someone had covered its windows with the metal plates they used when they really didn’t want anyone to get in. It must have been too much for him last night or he’d have found a way regardless. After all he’d had plenty of practice since the wife sent him packing. John clambered to his feet, brushing frost from his clothes. Where he’d lain looked like one of those outlines from a crime scene, nearly had been too.
His shiver took a long time to stop.
‘Bitch could have murdered me, not letting me in. All I wanted was to see the kids.’
He made himself quieten down. The last time he’d visited his ex he’d spent the night in a cell. That didn’t seem like a bad idea right now. At least it would be warm. John tried to remember whether it had said it would snow on the radio. There was no way he was risking the lanes this time of night.
Besides…he glanced at what was left in the bottle. He had booze and the veranda wasn’t boarded off. He could wrap himself in the furnishings someone had left outside. He’d been through worse. John headed for the steps.
‘Just keep a lid on it, anyone notices you’re here again and they’ll haul you in for sure, all smiles, and I’m your new best friend. You know how it works; before long they’ll have your record. It’ll mean a spell in an institution again for sure.’
The bottle travelled to his lips. That’s where they got to you, voices from the walls, hidden commands to break you. He knew all about those sort of games.
‘I’m better off staying here.’
At least in Kent, there were no friends with wounds for faces and guts in their laps. He’d had enough of that on his last tour.
‘Got one of them though, didn’t we?’
The look on the Taliban’s face when he’d seen what the squad had done to his friends almost made up for the wounded. John could still hear the flies even from the other side of Europe.
His eyes unfocused as he looked at somewhere far beyond the forest whose edge he’d slept on.
He didn’t even notice the stranger at first. There weren’t many people out and about at this time of night, and the kid standing amongst the bushes wasn’t moving.
‘What are you doing? Spying on me?’ said John putting the bottle down. But as the kid stepped from the trees, he wished he’d kept his mouth shut. Youth’s were the ones you worried about. He’d yet to meet one that knew anything about respect. When he told them about what he’d done for them in the forces they just laughed and called him a liar.
‘Haven’t you got a home to go too?’ John kept his voice reasonable. He’d no desire to antagonise the little bastard.
‘Not at the minute, shouldn’t be long though now I’ve found you, John,’ said the kid.
John shrugged, he wanted nothing to do with whatever schemes the lad thought he was hatching.
‘What d’you want then, directions? Towns that way…’
John waved vaguely in the direction of a few lights on the horizon and wondered how the stranger had got here. There wasn’t even a path behind him; only old earthworks and leafless winter trees.
‘You’ve got something I want,’ said the kid.
John laughed, ‘I haven’t got a pot to piss in.’
‘I wouldn’t be so sure of that.’
John’s teeth were chattering so badly it was getting difficult to get them to stop and every step the youth took brought the cold crawling deeper into John’s bones. He didn’t move right either.
‘You Ok kid? You look ill.’
‘Don’t worry about that. You’re going to help me feel much better. Please don’t call me ‘kid’ either. My name’s the Amadan Na Bruidhne. You can call me Adam.’
The kid smiled up at him and John screamed as his feet went from under him and his stitches took the brunt of his impact with the floor. Where the stranger’s eyes should have been was nothing but two empty sockets that went so deep in his head for a moment John was worried he was going to see something else in there. At least he’d put some distance between him and whatever was pretending to be a child. He scrambled over the veranda’s boards fast enough to wake the birds in the nearby trees ‘some’ wasn’t nearly enough.
‘What are you?’
‘A lost soul John, like yourself. Now be careful, you’ll hurt yourself.’
‘I already have you daft bugger.’ The words came through gritted teeth as he continued, ‘I only got myself out of hospital a few days ago. They didn’t want to let me leave.’
John was finding it hard to think. What he could see on the lawn had to be because he was ill. There was no mutilated kid talking to him in the middle of the English countryside with holes for eyes. They’d told him all about it the last time they’d locked him up. But he knew what to do. If he rolled with it, it would go away. It wasn’t like it was the first time this had happened, although his mind normally chose foreigners for the trick.
‘Calm down John. I just want to have a little chat,’ said the thing calling itself the Amadan Na Bruidhne.
John forced himself to look at it, and breathed a little easer. If you ignored the mutilation it was just a kid; that was all.
‘D’you want to find out what about?’ said the kid.
John gritted his teeth and nodded.
‘Whatever you like.’
‘Good, not broken all the way then, not yet.’
Blood splintered across the child’s teeth as he smiled in return. Whatever was wrong with him it was serious enough to bring gore bubbling between his teeth.
‘Watch who you’re calling broken.’
‘Here, take this, it’ll help you relax. You should check your wound too.’
A familiar shape waved in John’s direction, and he thought of the pain in his side and what the Doctors had said. The bottle was in his hands a moment later.
‘You steal this from your Mum?’ But the kid just smiled. John continued, ‘You want something in the house? Go ahead, break in, none of it’s mine, not anymore.’
‘I’m not here for that, John.’
‘How do you know my name, anyway?’
You’re treading on my turf; every week you get closer in. But I’d have thought you’d know that. Can’t you feel it? How about now?’
Something twisted deep in John’s guts where the Doctors had done their work.
‘That’s right,’ said the kid as John screamed. ‘It would be a bad fool that doesn’t know who’s knocking at the underworlds door.’
‘I’ve made you up in my head, haven’t I?’
‘I’m afraid not John.’
The kid looked toward the trees.
‘What the hell are those?’ said John as he saw what had caught it’s attention.
The shapes crawling across the grass didn’t so much move as stutter and they looked like they were the one’s that should be doing the screaming with every step they took.
‘Interesting choice of words but my children are just here to watch John, I promise.’
A sigh rippled through their ranks, but John was trying not to listen. It wasn’t going to help if he encouraged himself.
‘Listen, mate, it’s a cold night, go sleep somewhere else.’ John clung to what he knew to be real. ‘There’s a hostel in town. Maybe they’ll help you because I can’t.’
‘What will you accept for allowing me to stay here instead?’
John thought for a moment; he was tempted to ask for more whisky, but the pain in his side hadn’t gotten much better with the drink. He needed something a bit more long term.
He gestured at the empty house.
‘Open it up, I can’t do it myself, not anymore. They said I should look after myself, no jumping about.’
He grinned apologetically.
‘What’d you think?’
John took another swig from the bottle. At least his teeth had stopped chattering.
‘Jesus that burns,’ he doubled up with his hands clamped to his side.
As far as John was concerned what he had to do was carry on drinking. The kid hadn’t even asked for a swig. Maybe he’d leave soon.
‘I’ve a condition attached to that bottle I gave you, John.’
John winced and put the booze against his forehead. He’d been waiting for this. He just wanted the little brat to go away.
‘You should’ve said so before,’ said John.
‘Don’t worry; I don’t want it back. I want to play a game with you, that’s all. It’ll pass the time.’
‘Time till what?’
‘Nothing really, just until I can find my way back.’
The kid coughed and spat something onto the veranda’s boards that John fought to keep his eyes off. There were too many worms crawling through the mess.
‘I’ll open the house if you beat me.’
‘Alright, what is it then?’
The child’s smile stretched tight, as he uncurled talons so filthy they could have been made of dirt. But the grid he scratched into the veranda’s boards was familiar.
‘What are you doing?’
‘For what? Chess?’
‘This game’s older than that. You’ll like it; it’s for warriors.’
‘A game for warriors? You’ve got your man then. I was in the British Army; the best bloody soldiers in the world.’
John stopped, his eyes looking at something only he could see.
‘At least…they say…I haven’t got long.’
‘That’s why you’re perfect.’
The kid’s hands moved faster than John could follow as pebbles clicked into place, ‘You’ve the night to beat me. Do you accept?’
It was a formal challenge like a gauntlet had been laid down.
John shrugged, ‘Why not?’
They were three games in before he realised what was wrong. The lawn and its visitors had been swallowed by the darkness in the corners of his eyes, and so had the house. Even the verandas boards were starting to vanish.
If John could have seen himself, he’d have been even more worried. The fat had been drawn from him with every click of the pebbles they were using as counters. When his hands crept out to make a move his fingers shook under skin as thin as paper.
‘The best part of our wager John.’
‘I didn’t bet anything.’
John’s voice quavered mid flow.
‘Oh, you did John, you really did,’ the kid wagged his head, mocking John’s infirmity. ‘Although, of course, if you beat me you walk away with your heart’s desire.’
The Amadan Na Bruidhne gestured at the house and light burnt the shadows from his opponents back. John felt warmth seep into him as laughter reached his ears, ‘Gabby? Jane?’ What are my kids doing here? He tried to get up, to go gather them into his arms.
‘Not yet John. You haven’t won,’ said the Amadan Na Bruidhne.
The sounds faded, and John returned his attention to the board. They couldn’t be here, not after everything that had happened.
‘You didn’t say anything about this. What happens if I lose?’
‘John…you already know the answer.’
With the last of his strength John tried to smash his fist into the grinning kid’s face, but all that happened was he fell back wheezing.
‘You’ve had your drink, now play, John. Or would you prefer my own children start early?’
John coughed, his breath struggling through shrunken lungs. When he looked at what he’d spat into his hand could see spots of blood.
The last of the air inside him sobbed between his teeth as he tried to find the power to do something, anything.
‘Don’t be like that, John.’
John’s last hope that he was making this all up as he shivered somewhere waiting for dawn vanished. The breath of the things that had crawled from the trees was all round him now so close he could feel it on his cheek.
‘What are you really?’
‘Homeless,’ said the Amadan Na Bruidhne, ‘for now at least until you give me what I need to return, now play.’
The thing hiding in the kid’s body watched the sack of meat opposite. It was bored already; the stupid formality, performed once a year until it could replace what its Mother had stolen from it grew more dull with every passing century. But, then she hadn’t gotten tired of the punishment yet, every year it was a different organ.
John’s eyes glazed; his lips drawing back as the lights in the house flickered and went out. Finally, his hands fell still.
‘Too bad, John. It was a good game.’
Pebbles rattled as the Amadan took the boards remaining pieces.
‘You did well if its any consolation; you lasted longer than the others.’
Gunner John Mayfield’s gaze never left the board.
‘Stay back, I get first pick remember?’ said the Amadan to its eager children as it stepped between them. It plunged its hand into John’s side, digging for what it found there before slipping it into its mouth. Soon the wound its Mother had made was knitting together; a miracle with the poison the man swilled on a daily basis.
‘You should take more care of yourself John, very stupid. You barely even had time to live.’ The Amadan Na Bruidhne turned to go saying to its children, ‘Don’t take all of him. He needs to be able to walk.’
When it reached the woodland’s edge, the thing wearing a child’s skin stopped and whistled. The last time it had made the mistake of leaving one of its victims above it had returned to find the grave mound destroyed and the dead out numbering the living. Finding its way back to its Mothers court had been difficult to say the least.
Its children drew close as the gates appeared.
Adam stretched a hand out on either side and patted the heads of the nearest as they scurried by with their own gifts stolen from John’s body clutched in their mouths.
‘He’ll be along later.’
After all, they’d keep the way open for him.
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