The house was clearly abandoned, the door rotting and slightly ajar, but still I hesitated before entering. Was there someone hiding in the bushes, watching me, waiting for me to enter before phoning 999?
All I could hear was the wind rustling through the trees, stirring the autumn leaves; that and the soft looing of a cow on the far hill.
The moon looked down on me, watching me as I slowly approached the door. The sky was crystal clear, heavily peppered with glowing stars. The temperature was dropping fast, and frost was not far away.
Autumn can be like that, a scorcher of a day, followed by a bitterly cold night and a misty morning. Today was one of those.
The door was fastened in place by a piece of ancient baler twine, the old type that was made from hemp, not plastic. Fumbling in the shadows of the doorway, I teased at the knot with cold hands, and pushed the door wider.
My heart skipped a beat.
I heard the noise again and looked up. The sky lit up with a sparkle of colours.
It must be Halloween.
I’d been so busy these last couple of days that I’d lost track of time.
Pushing the door all the way open, I slipped inside and dropped my rucksack on the concrete floor of the main room of the derelict cottage.
I leaned against the door to close it, while fumbling in my pocket for matches.
The house smelled of mice, or worse still, rats. I hate rats, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. Kipping in here was better than roughing it in a hedge. I couldn’t risk lighting a fire. It might attract attention, and that’s the last thing I needed.
I’d rather sleep in a sewer full of rats than wake up in a prison cell. All I needed to do was keep my head down for the next couple of days until the heat had died down a bit, and then slip across the border. Once there, I’d catch a bus to Belfast and be on the next ferry out of Ireland. I’d head for Birmingham and disappear into the shadows; just another Paddy looking for work.
Focusing on the here and now, I shook away the thought and struck a match. Holding it high, I inspected the room.
It wasn’t pretty.
The floor was a mess of rotting clothes, broken furniture, and empty beer bottles. An open fireplace dominated the room, filled with wet ash and more rotting clothes. There was nowhere here to kip down.
Two rooms led off from the main room. Lighting another match, I searched the first one of these.
The stench of rot was stronger here, and the concrete floor was dominated by a large puddle of stagnant water. The ceiling above the puddle was sagging and looked ready to collapse under its own weight at any moment. Dropping the match into the water, I backed warily out of the bedroom and turned to the final room in the cottage.
This room showed more promise.
The floor was wood, a raised platform about six inches above the concrete. The chipboard flooring creaked alarmingly, but held my weight. More junk littered the room; old magazines, children’s toys, another dark pile of ragged clothing dumped in a corner. To my relief, a double mattress dominated the floor, and it didn’t look too far gone.
I found the stub of a fat candle on the window sill and decided to risk lighting it. Hopefully, the guards would be too busy with Halloween celebrators to worry about a bit of candle light in an abandoned house. They’d probably assume it was just some kids playing anyway, telling each other ghost stories.
Setting the candle down on a shelf, I inspected the mattress more closely. It had seen better days. There was a questionable stain on one side of the bed that made me a little queasy to look at, but generally, it would do. It would have to.
I kicked it a few times, hard, hoping to disturb any vermin that might live within. To my relief, nothing came scampering out.
Grabbing my rucksack, I unrolled my sleeping bag, laying it across the clean side of the old mattress.
Leaning over, I inspected the stain on the far side more closely. It was a reddish brown colour and flaky to the touch. It looked a lot like old blood.
I scolded myself.
I was definitely getting paranoid. All this running around and hiding out was doing nothing for my mental stability.
Blood indeed! It was probably just some spilled paint or something. My nerves were getting the better of me after the last few days of mayhem. Blurred recollections of a drunken brawl filled my brain, a young man lying in the street, head bleeding heavily as he lay against the kerb, the sound of sirens in the distance, coming closer … I shuddered, and tried to supress the vision. It had haunted me for days now.
I didn’t even know whether he was dead or not. I’d just fled into the night. I couldn’t take the risk of sticking around to find out, either way.
You see, I knew the lad in my drunken vision. I’d bumped into him once or twice before. It was a small town. You got to know everyone.
Mainly though, I knew him by reputation, or rather, I knew about his family.
Two of his brothers were currently serving time in Mountjoy. They had been caught ram-raiding an off licence one night. They were too drunk already, and when the Garda arrived, the two boyos ended up in a pitch battle.
Their old man had a bad rep, too. My Da once told me that their Da was a bare knuckle fighter, a good one too before the drink got the better of him.
One thing was for sure, the whole family was bad news. I’d been warned to steer well clear of them.
But, somehow, I’d got into a drunken brawl with the youngest of the brothers, and now I was up shit creek without a paddle.
Getting caught by the strong arm of the law was the least of my problems. It would be what happened after I got nicked that really worried me. That family was bound to have connections inside, and could call in favours. I was sure of it.
Whether Johnny McGrath was alive or dead was immaterial. I had a price on my head, which was why I was hiding out in this god-forsaken backwater, sleeping on a manky mattress in a rat-infested hovel.
I took a few moments to nibble on some crackers and cheese before blowing out the candle and settling down to sleep.
It was a long time coming.
My mind kept playing tricks on me.
Did I hear the sound of tiny feet scampering around in the other room? I strained my ears, but couldn’t be sure. I certainly wasn’t going to get up and look. I needed some sleep. I was exhausted and had a long day’s hike ahead of me tomorrow. With any luck I’d make it over the mountain and across the border.
I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the thoughts that had been tormenting my brain.
Eventually, I must have slept.
It was the cold that finally woke me.
I shivered, and snuggled further down into the sleeping bag, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get warm. My feet felt like they were in a freezer and chills ran up and down my spine.
I was going to have to get up and risk lighting a fire after all. I could burn some of the old clothes and furniture that littered the front room to take the chill off the cottage.
It had turned colder than I’d initially anticipated. I’d have to hope that the fire went unnoticed.
I opened my eyes and sat up, shivering violently.
It was then that I sensed that I was not alone.
My breath frosted in a cloud before me in the pale light of the moon that was coming in through the grimy window. The air inside the cottage was bitterly cold; unnaturally cold. I couldn’t see who else was in the room, but I sensed a presence.
“Hello?” I asked. “Is there anyone there?”
No one replied.
A cold hand brushed lightly across my face, and startled, I nearly jumped out of my skin with fright. My cheek felt like it had been branded, so cold was the touch on my flesh.
I fumbled for the box of matches, but in my panic I spilled them all out of the box.
Frantically, I searched around on the mattress, and with a wave of relief found a match. With shaking fingers I struck the match against the side of the box, and then wished that I hadn’t.
As the match flared into life, the hag’s face came into focus. It was a face reserved for the darkest pits of Hades, all wrinkles and razor sharp teeth, but it was the eyes that froze my soul. They were dark pools of obsidian, lifeless, and with the hunger of an ocean. What I had taken as a pile of rags in the corner of the room was in fact something much darker, more sinister. I was looking into the eyes of some demented Ban Sidhe creature, a nightmare come to life on All Hallows Eve.
The match slipped from my nerveless hand as her bony hand grasped me by my hair. With surprising strength she lifted me up and dragged me off the mattress. I could feel the cold of her touch seeping into my bones as she gripped my throat and pinned me against the wall. I sensed my life slipping away.
Terror gave me energy and I fought back, but her hands were like a vice, closing over my windpipe. Pressing me roughly against the wall, she leaned closer. I could smell the rot on her breath, the stench of a thousand wet rats, as she leered at me.
I was dying, and we both knew it, but clearly she liked to toy with her food.
I beat helplessly at her, as the last of the oxygen in my lungs was consumed by my panic stricken heart. Light swam around. Choking and coughing, I slipped into unconsciousness.
I felt my soul float above my body and a drifting sensation enveloped me.
It was then that I noticed a light in the distance. It was bright blue and pulsating like a heartbeat … no, like a lighthouse. It was beckoning me onward.
My spirit felt drawn toward the light.
Thankfully, I no longer felt cold. In fact, I sensed a great heat nearby.
Orange light now competed with the blue for my attention.
Strange, I thought. I’d always expected more from the afterlife than a pretty lightshow.
Angels perhaps or deceased family members approaching through a mist to welcome me home … something.
“So this is death then?” I mumbled.
My lungs filled with air; air so sweet that I felt light-headed. Being dead was pretty trippy. I hadn’t felt this strange since I stopped taking magic mushrooms.
“Just lay there for a minute, lad. You’ll be fine.”
I looked up through bleary eyes at the yellow-headed man who had spoken. Blinking, I struggled to focus.
“You’re lucky someone called that fire in, ya daft bugger. Whatever were you doing in that old house? You could’ve caught your death in there.”
Blinking again, I realised that the man standing over me was wearing a fireman’s helmet. Looking around for the source of heat I saw that the cottage was ablaze.
Somehow, I had survived.