Gunshots sounded loud in John’s head as he unpeeled his cheek from the lawn. He tried to swallow, but he could barely pull his tongue from the top of his mouth. Another wave of pain cracked through his head as soon as he moved it again.
John sniffed, wherever he was his basher had to be miles away. He couldn’t even smell wood smoke from his fire.
‘Baccy, where’s m’baccy?’
He dug through his pockets looking for a dog end. Anything to take his mind off the thumping in his head. John examined the scar under his ribs and wondered how bad he’d made it now. If he’d limped this far, he’d probably torn more than a stitch or two.
‘It was 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 then. These days he’d probably be floored by a half a pint the amount of meds he was on. A memory surfaced, slow, and rotten. There’d been an argument… hadn’t there? He looked round and spotted the culprit. He sent the empty bottle spinning over the lawn with a kick. ‘Least I had the balls to fight for my country. I deserve a bit more than fuck all for that. She’s going to keep the lot.’
John gazed blearily at his surroundings waiting for them to swim into focus. He should probably start trying to work out how to get back.
If the cops found him here again, they were going to want more than a word. He dragged himself to his feet, swearing as he did so and tried to massage the needles away.
‘Those weren’t here last time.’
The gleamed like it was made of steel and teeth. Someone had covered its windows with that Psytex stuff 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 broken in. John finished brushing frost from his clothes and turned away. Where he’d lain looked like one of those silhouettes from a crime scene; nearly had been too. His shiver took a long time to stop.
‘Bitch could have murdered me, kicking me out like that. All I did was come see the kids.’
He made himself quieten down, at least the cops had been understanding. The last time he’d visited his ex he’d woken up in the station. That didn’t seem like a bad idea right now. He watched his breath steam in the moonlight and tried to remember whether it had said it would snow on the radio. There was no way he was risking the lanes again at this time of night.
Besides…he glanced at the bottle. He’d booze left, and the veranda wasn’t boarded off. He could sleep in the curtains someone had left on the lawn. He’d been through worse.
‘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 be an institution this time.’
The bottle travelled to his lips. That’s were 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 their guts in their laps. He’d had enough of that on his last tour.
‘We got one of them, though.’
The look on the Taliban’s face had almost made up for what the squad had done. It was just the buzz of flies taking off had a way of following you; even two continents away.
John’s eyes unfocused as he looked at somewhere far beyond the frozen lawn he’d slept on. He didn’t even notice the stranger’s arrival at first. There weren’t many people this far out of town, and he was too busy trying to knocking himself out.
‘Who’s that? What you doing spying on me?’
John put the bottle down and glanced along the treeline like he’d been taught. When the bushes parted he wished, he’d kept his mouth shut. Youth’s were the ones you worried about when you were on the streets.
‘Haven’t you got a home to go too?’
He kept his voice reasonable. He’d no desire to antagonise the little fucker.
‘Not right now. It won’t be for long though now I’ve found you, John.’
The kid looked at him with its head on one side. John shrugged, it had nothing to do with him what nefarious little schemes the lad was up too. So long as he stayed away from him, they’d be fine.
‘What d’you want then directions? Towns that way…’
He waved vaguely in the direction of some lights and wondered how the lad had got here. There wasn’t even a path behind him; only old earthworks that loomed through shabby winter branches.
‘Not quite, you’ve got something I want.’
‘Son, I haven’t got a pot to piss in.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong.’
It was getting colder as the kid approached and John’s teeth were chattering so badly he couldn’t get them to stop. Every step the child took brought more to sink into his bones, and he didn’t move right either. John was an expert on that; you got like it when you’d spent as much time as he had watching the world pass you by. Right now what he was looking at moved like it was damaged deep down inside where you couldn’t see.
‘You need a hospital.’
‘Don’t worry about that. You’re going to help me feel much better.’
When the kid smiled up at him from the bottom of the steps John scrabbled over the boards fast enough to wake the birds in the nearby trees. He screamed as his feet went from under him and his stitches took the brunt of the impact. But, at least he’d put some distance between him and whatever was pretending to that kid.
‘What are you?’
‘A lost soul John, just like yourself. Now be careful, you’ll hurt yourself.’
‘I already have you daft bugger.’ The words came through gritted teeth. ‘Just my luck; I only got out a few days ago.’
John was making some decisions in his head. This had to be because he was ill, there was no mutilated kid talking to him in the middle of nowhere with holes for eyes. If he rolled with it, it would go away. They always did in the end.
‘Calm down John. I want to have a little chat.’
John forced himself to look at the wounds, it was just a kid, that was all.
‘D’you want to find out?’
‘Good, not broken all the way then, not yet.’
Blood splintered across the child’s teeth, bubbling between the cracks; whatever was wrong with him it was serious.
‘Watch who you’re calling broken.
‘Here, take this, it’ll help you relax.’
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?’
The kid smiled again, and John wished he hadn’t.
‘You want something in the house? Go ahead, break in, none of it’s mine, not anymore it isn’t.’
‘I’m not here for somewhere to sleep, John.’
‘How do you know my name, anyway?’
You’re treading on my turf; every week you get closer in. It would be a bad host that doesn’t know who’s knocking at his Mother’s door.’
‘You’re something I’ve made up in my head aren’t you?’
‘I’m a visitor these days John, that’s all, but when I lived here, my name was The Amadan Na Bruidhne.’
The kid looked toward the trees. John had been wrong; he had arrived with company.
‘What the hell are those?’
John tore his eyes off the figures crawling across the grass.
‘Interesting choice of words, but my children are just here to watch John, I promise.’
A sigh rippled through their ranks, but John wasn’t paying attention. It wasn’t going to help if he encouraged himself.
‘Listen, mate, it’s a cold night, go sleep somewhere else if you want.’
‘What will you accept for allowing me to stay?’
John thought for a moment; he was tempted to ask for whisky, but the pain in his side hadn’t got 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.’
‘What do you think?’
John took another swig from his bottle and forced his teeth to stop chattering.
‘Jesus that burns.’ John doubled up his hands clamped to his side, ‘Do what you want, I don’t care anymore.’
As far as John was concerned what he had to do was carry on drinking. The kid hadn’t even asked for a swig. He might leave if he finished quickly. ‘I’ve a condition attached to that bottle, John.’
John winced and put it to his forehead. He just wanted the little brat to go away now, ‘you should’ve said so before.’
‘Don’t worry; I don’t want it back. I want to play a game with you. It’ll pass the time.’
‘Time till what?’
‘Oh, nothing really, just until I can find my way back.’
The kid coughed and spat something onto the veranda’s boards; John kept his eyes off it. 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 it uncurled talons so filthy they could have been made of dirt. But the grid it scratched into the veranda’s boards was familiar.
‘What are you doing?’
‘For what? Chess?’
‘Oh no, this game’s older than that. You’ll like it; it’s for warriors like you.’
‘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 again. At least I was…they say I haven’t got long.’
‘That’s why you’re so perfect John.’ The kid’s hands moved faster than he 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 John realised what was wrong. Only the two of them remained. The lawn and its visitors had been swallowed by the mist growing in the corners of his eyes.
‘Don’t worry about them John. They’re surplus to requirements. I’ve plenty saved away.’
If John could have seen himself, he’d have been more than worried. The fat had been drawn from him with every click from the board. When his hands crept out, the 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, you really did.’ The kid wagged its head, mocking John’s infirmity, ‘Although, if you beat me, you walk away with your heart’s desire.’ The kid gestured behind him and light burnt the shadows from his opponents back. John felt warmth seep into him as laughter reached his ears, ‘Graham? Jane?’
‘Not yet John. You haven’t won.’
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.’
He tried to rise, to smash his fist into the fuckers face, but all that happened was he fell back wheezing.
‘You’ve had your drink, now play, John. Or would you prefer my children start early?’
John coughed, his breath struggling through decrepit lungs.
It was all he had left as the last of the air inside him sobbed out in gasps, and he tried to find the strength to do something, anything.
‘Don’t be like that.’
John’s last hope that he was making this all up as he shivered somewhere waiting for dawn vanished. He could feel the breath of the things that had crawled from the trees all round him even if he couldn’t see them; full of little deaths that smelt fouler than road kill.
‘What are you really?’
‘Homeless for now at least until you make me what I need again, now play.’
The Amdan na Bruidhne watched the sack of meat opposite for a minute. It was bored already; the stupid formality, performed once a year until it could replace what its Mother had stolen grew more dull with every passing century. But, then she hadn’t gotten tired of the punishment yet, every year she took a different part.
John’s eyes glazed; his lips drawing back as the lights in the house flickered and went out. Finally, his hands fell in his lap.
‘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 last three.’
Gunner John Mayfield’s gaze never left the board.
‘Stay back; he’s mine first.’
The Amadans children cringed as it stepped between them; plunging its hand into John’s side, slipping what it found there into its mouth before it stepped back.
‘Don’t take all of him. He needs to be able to walk.’
The Amadan turned to go, but before it did, the thing wearing a child’s skin stopped at the Woodlands edge 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 people who’d lived around it gone. Its children drew close as the gates appeared.
‘Good,’ it stretched a hand out on either side and patted the heads of the nearest as they scurried by, ‘he’ll be along later.’
They’d keep the way open for him.
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