“The Blackhills”

Eamon McGuinness

April 24, 2023 
The following is a story from The Best Short Stories 2023: The O. Henry Prize Winners, chosen by guest editor Lauren Groff and series editor Jenny Minton Quigley. McGuinness is from Dublin, Ireland. His fiction has appeared in The Stinging Fly and The Lonely Crowd. He has won the Michael McLaverty, Wild Atlantic Words, and Maria Edgeworth short story competitions. His debut poetry collection, The Wrong Heroes, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2021.

Pat Rathigan left Skerries at 23:50. A group of men tried to hail him at the edge of town but he ignored them, double-checked the light on his roof sign was off and picked up speed as he drove the coast road towards Balbriggan. The Irish Sea was quiet, the moon high and bright.

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He pulled into the small lay-by at the Lady’s Stairs, the sea hidden by large trees. Reversing and parking next to the bottle bank, he kept the road in his sights, then took out a yellow microfiber cloth from the glove compartment and wiped down the dash, meter and ID. He left the key in the ignition and his door ajar, and shivered when the cold air hit him before taking a deep breath through his nose. From the boot he took a cardboard box of empties, all rinsed: vodka, beer and wine bottles, two jars of sauce and a small bottle of Calpol. He looked around after each drop, winced at the sound of the glass echoing in the quiet night, then put the box back in the boot.

The odd car went by. Pat kept an eye on the road, checked the time on his phone and opened the back passenger door. It was five minutes after midnight. He walked to the base of the stairs. The gate was locked, but easily hoppable, the streetlight beside it a harsh orange. He blinked hard and looked down the overgrown path leading to Barnageera Beach and whistled twice. He heard rustling, then a return whistle. He rushed back to the car and started the engine. A few seconds later, Mick Rathigan scuttled across the tarmac, head low. He dove into the backseat and pulled the door closed as Pat spun left out of the lay-by, taking the first right under the railway bridge.

—You’re a lifesaver, Pat, a fucking lifesaver.

Mick reached through the front seats and grabbed Pat’s left arm.

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—All right, Mick, all right. Lie down.

—I won’t forget this.

—You’re shivering.

—It was fucking freezing down there.

—There’s a blanket and some food beside you.

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—Thanks, Pat. I haven’t eaten all day.

Pat beeped at the bends as the road wound up towards the Blackhills, while Mick scoffed the roll and bag of King crisps.

—Which way are we going?

—Through the hills. Stay down.

—Let me know where we are.

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—Climbing now. Ardgillan coming up.

—Nice one.

—Did you manage to sleep?

—I drifted off but was too nervous. I got a bit of shelter in the old changing spot.

—Was there anyone about?

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—A couple of people walking dogs and one swimmer, but I was well hid.

—I can hear your teeth chattering.

—I’ll be grand once I warm up.

—I’m taking the left here at Ardgillan.

Pat turned up the heat and put the foot down on the straight stretch of road as they passed the new cricket club on the right.

—No Elvis, Pat?

—Not tonight, I can’t enjoy him in this mood.

—Fair enough.

Passing Saint Mobhi’s graveyard, Pat blessed himself, reduced his speed, dropped to third gear and glanced at Mick over his left shoulder, who was lying flat on his back, his legs twisted down behind Pat’s seat. They made quick eye contact before Pat refocused on the road.

—Passing Milverton now.

—We’re flying.

At the T junction Pat turned right onto the Skerries Road.

—How’s everything at home? Mick asked.

Pat looked in the rearview mirror but couldn’t see any trace of Mick.

—Grand, given the circumstances.

—Has Lilian been sleeping through the night?

—Don’t talk about Lilian, Mick.

—Fair enough. I was just asking.

Pat ran his left hand through his thick white beard and opened his window to let in some air.

—Does Lorcan know about this? Mick asked.

—No one knows and I plan to keep it that way.

—What did Butsy say?

—He has it sorted.

—I knew he was the man to ring.

—The ferry’s at four from Belfast. You’ll get to Cairnryan at seven and should be in Inverness by lunchtime.

—Amazing, he has a bed and all in the truck.

—I know.

Pat coughed hard a few times and closed the window. They were on the road to Lusk and passed the new estates on the left.

—He’s a dodgy fucker, but he’s always been a mate. Remember what he was like in his twenties?

—Don’t, Mick.


—I’m not in the mood for remember when. We’re coming into Lusk, stay down.

—Anyone about?

—A few stragglers.

—I always thought Lusk was a kip.

The lights at Murray’s Lounge took an age. Pat kept looking from left to right, scratching his beard while they waited.

—Here we go, at fucking last.

—Many Gardaí around tonight, Pat?

—A few more than usual.

—Did you pass the house?

—A couple of times, yeah.


—There’s tape still around the gate.

—Was there anyone outside?

—No, the place looked dead.

They were out of Lusk and on the old Dublin Road, passing farms and glasshouses.

—Where are we, Pat?

—Nearing the turn for the estuary.

—I shat myself every time I heard a siren.

—What did you do with your phone?

—I fucked it in the sea after I rang you. If they trace the calls, they’ll think I drowned myself.

—Did you call Mam?

—No, she wouldn’t understand. If they question you, just tell them I was saying goodbye.

—Grand. We’re getting a good run at it now, coming up to Blake’s Cross.

—I’ll miss it round here.

—I don’t wanna hear it, Mick.

—I appreciate what you’re doing for me, Pat, I really do.

—I just wanna get you out of this car.

Pat took a left at Blake’s Cross. There was a little traffic on the R132, the road dotted with factories, warehouses and garages. He opened his window and changed to fifth gear for the first time.

—Have you heard anything about Sara? Mick asked after a long silence.

—Yeah, I was in with her earlier.

—Where is she?



—She’s in a bad way, Mick. A bad fucking way.

—Has she talked yet?

—The Guards are waiting for her to come around.

—I fucked up.

—You fucked up?

—Yeah, I fucked up.

—Fucked up? Fucked up? Pat screamed.

—All right, Pat, calm down.

He slowed the car, dropped to fourth gear and looked back at Mick.

—Fuck off, Mick, it’s barbaric what you did to that girl.

—Okay, it’s just—

—Don’t try to explain yourself.

—Watch the road, Pat.

A car beeped and overtook them. Pat regained his composure and looked forward again.

—You did that to your own daughter. What sort of fucking animal are you? Pat hocked and spat out the window.

After a long silence, Mick spoke.

—Where are we, Pat?

—Turvey, swinging left. Two minutes.

—My heart’s beating out of my chest.

—This is it for us, Mick, I’m telling you. Don’t contact me again.

—What about Mam?

—Leave Mam to me.

Just off the main road, Pat indicated left into a house. A man with an Alsatian on a leash was at the gate and nodded at Pat as he turned in. He brought the car to a stop and the Alsatian barked and jumped at the door.

—Hush, now, good boy, hush.

—All good? Pat asked.

—Grand. You know where you’re going?


—Go on so, Butsy’s waiting for ye.

—Good man.

Pat restarted the car and moved down the long, potholed driveway.

—We’re here.

Mick sprang up. There were cars on breeze-blocks and the garden was full of scrap metal and pallets. Butsy’s truck was parked beside the bungalow, its cab blue, with “Butler Transport” printed on the side in black lettering. Butsy and another man appeared at the back door of the bungalow and stood under a bare bulb as Pat parked next to a Jeep and trailer. Butsy had a plastic bag in one hand and with the other was holding his Dogo Argentino on a lead. Mick was looking around frantically, his head in between the two front seats. Taking off his belt, Pat switched on the interior light and faced Mick properly for the first time. He could smell Mick’s breath and noticed how filthy and unkempt he was.

—Do you have everything?

—I have fuck all but I have it.

—Good, all right, let’s go.

—I’m sorry to ask, Pat, but did you bring that money we talked about?

—Of course.

Pat fiddled in the glove compartment and took out a wad of notes and handed it to Mick.

—I’ll pay you back, I promise.

—C’mon, Butsy’s waiting.

Mick took the notes with his left hand and with his right grabbed Pat’s wrist and planted a kiss on his knuckles. Mick’s nails ran along the back of Pat’s hand; Pat could feel their length and looked down to see the dirt on his brother’s fingers. He pulled his hand away, wiped his knuckles with the sleeve of his jacket and scratched his beard with both sets of nails. Mick stuffed the notes into his right-hand pocket and got out.

Dogs were barking nonstop from behind the bungalow. Butsy called the men over and took a step towards the car.

—I’d say you lads could do with a strong drink, am I right?

—Am I glad to see you, Butsy! Mick called.

Pat closed his door. Mick spat on the ground and began walking towards Butsy. Suddenly, a man appeared from the darkness on Pat’s left and swung a bat cleanly and swiftly at Mick’s head. He fell instantly and the man gave one more solid strike to the back of Mick’s skull. Butsy and the other man were running and before Pat had moved, they had Mick bound and gagged and were lifting his body away. The Dogo Argentino growled at Mick before Butsy quietened it with a few strokes to the head. Pat opened the car, took out Mick’s blanket and dropped it on the ground. One of the men had a grip under Mick’s armpits and the other was holding his ankles, the body floppy and loose. Pat fished into Mick’s pocket and retrieved his money.

—Go on, Butsy said to the lads.

Butsy put his hand out and Pat shook it. Together they watched the two men carry Mick towards the sheds at the back of the property. Butsy got on his hunkers and scratched his dog behind the ears, then stood up, interlaced his fingers and cracked his knuckles.

—Scumbag. He won’t be missed, Butsy said.

Pat was staring at the ground, shaking his head.

—Fucking savage.

—How’s Sara?

—Bad, Butsy, bad. He perforated her bowel. She’s having colostomy surgery in the morning.

—He’s a fucking animal. Don’t worry, he’ll be disappeared within the hour.

—I don’t wanna know, Butsy.

—It’s over, Pat, you’ve done your bit. Will you come in for a drink?

—Not tonight. I should get going, I’ve to swing by the ma’s.

—Fair enough, we’ll sort him out, then I’ll hit the road myself.

—Is it an overnight?

—No, I’m back here later. It’ll be a long day.

—For sure.

—How are the roads?

—Dead, not a crisp bag blowing out there.

Butsy smiled.

—January, what?

Pat nodded and kicked the blanket.

—Would your dogs sleep on this? He was lying under it in the backseat.

—I’ll burn the fucker.

—Thanks, Butsy.

—It’s nothing, Pat. Give the car a decent scrub in the morning.

—I’ll bring it in for a valet.

—Good idea.

Butsy raised his hand for a high shake and Pat took it, and Butsy then placed his left hand on Pat’s shoulder for a couple of seconds.

When he was settled back into the car, Butsy knocked on the window and Pat rolled it down.

—Are Lorcan and his family still living with you, Pat?

—Yeah, the lot of them are in the spare room.

—How old is the granddaughter now?

—She’ll be six months in March.

—If you ever want a pup for her just let me know. No charge, chipped and all.

—Nice one, Butsy.

—I’ve always got a couple of pregnant bitches about to drop.

—Thanks, I’ll say it to Lorcan and Elaine.

Butsy nodded.

—A bit late to be going to your ma’s, no?

—Blocked sink. I told her I’d sort it. She hardly sleeps, that woman.

—Sinks are a pain in the hole. Tell her I was asking for her.

—Will do.

—Go on, Pat, I’ll be in touch.

—Thanks, Butsy.

The man and the Alsatian were still at the gate when Pat swung right out of Butsy’s and drove towards Blake’s Cross. Mick’s smell was in the car so he kept the windows open. The roads were almost empty. He gripped the steering wheel with both hands and kept his eyes forward. Before he hit the Five Roads, he turned for the Man O’War. He passed the GAA club, Oberstown detention center and the pub, took a right at Kennedy’s Corner, the left turn at Killary Grove, right again onto Darcystown Road, then onto Baltrasna and the second left into his mother’s cottage in the Blackhills.

Using the torch light on his phone, he checked the inside of the car. On the backseat was the cling film from Mick’s roll and the bag of crisps. He shook the crumbs and few remaining crisps onto the grass and stuffed the rubbish into his back pocket. He found a bit of bread on the floor. There was no ham or cheese left, just a crust with a thick spread of butter. He walked to the ditch at the side of the cottage and threw in the bread. He looked around, unzipped, and pissed into the brambles and bushes, then wiped his hands on his pants. From the boot he took out a mini hoover. It made a low whining sound as he went over the seats and floor thoroughly. He sucked up gravel, sand and crumbs from Mick’s food. Filthy prick, he muttered to himself. He emptied the hoover into the ditch and returned it to the car. He sprayed some air freshener, left the windows open and locked the doors.

The sensor light came on outside the back door. He knocked twice before unlocking and entering the cottage. His mother was lying the full length of the couch in the kitchen–cum–living area, the radio blasting near her head, the fire fading. She looked to be sleeping but her head shot up when Pat entered. Without saying anything, he filled and turned on the kettle. He grabbed two eggs from the fridge and put them in a saucepan. She was taking her time to sit up, yawning and stretching, as Pat leaned over her to turn off the radio.

—Any news, Pat?

—No, nothing.

—What about on the phone?

—I haven’t heard anything, Mam.

—What time is it?

—Nearly one.

—Many out there?

—Very quiet. An airport run delayed me.


—Are you hungry?

—No, I had a sandwich a while ago.

He put some kindling and a briquette on the fire, took her plate and cup from the coffee table and left them on the counter.

—I’d say he’s long gone at this stage.

—Who knows, Mam?

—I just have a feeling.

—We’ll see.

—Did you dump the bottles?

—I did.

Pat checked the sink. It had been spat in; gray, green and speckled with blood. He put on a pair of rubber gloves, lifted the bucket of bleach, stepped into the garden and poured it down the drain at the side of the cottage. There was a frost in the air. He picked out the S trap and ran cold water through it from the outside tap. Under the sensor light, he poked around the pipe with his fingers, removing grease, eggshell, potato peel and rasher fat. When he came back in, he put the empty bucket underneath the glug hole and ran the tap. The water ran through the spit and he had to rub with his baby finger until it dislodged. He looked over to his mother. She was watching him work. Outside again, he emptied the bucket on the grass, then went and filled the saucepan with the boiled water and set a ten-minute alarm. He fiddled around with the pipes under the sink and got the S trap back on, tightening and securing it.

—Is it fixed, Pat?

—We’ll know tomorrow. I got a fair bit of gunk out of it.

He poured water from the kettle slowly down the sink. There was a gurgling sound and some spurted back up before disappearing.

—I’ll be back tomorrow to check it.

—Okay. Will you bring Lilian with you?

—Of course.

—Your sister rang.

—What did she say?

—Sara is in a bad way.

—I know, she has surgery in the morning.

—Nine o’clock, Deirdre says.

—That’s right.

She started to weep and blew her nose into a hankie. The eggs were tapping off the side of the saucepan. He checked the time on his phone. From the press he took out vinegar and baking soda and added them to the glug hole before pouring in a bit more water.

—Mam, don’t put anything down here and please spit in the toilet or on the grass.

—It’s the dentures, Pat.

—I know, but I’m the one has to fix it. Just throw the food into the garden.

—I don’t like encouraging those birds.

—Well, in the bin then, but not down the sink, please.

He checked the time again and reduced the heat.

—Has Mick been in touch?

—He rang and tried to talk but I hung up.

—The Guards will be onto you.


—Ye are brothers.

—They’ll be onto all of us so.

—Did you not notice anything?

—I knew it was an unhappy house. We all knew that.

—He’s lost his way since Margaret died.

—He never had a way, Mam. There are no excuses.

—I’m not excusing him, Pat. I’m just trying to understand.

—I’m finished with him.

—It’s different for me. They’ll destroy him inside.

—They’d put him with his own, they always keep the pervs together.

—Don’t call him that, she wailed.

—Okay, Mam, okay, calm down.

His phone beeped. He turned off the eggs and poured the boiling water slowly into the sink. It flowed smoothly down the glug hole. He refilled the saucepan with cold water, then placed his two hands on the counter, dropped his head and stared at his shoes.

—Go home, son, you’re dead on your feet.

—We should have protected that girl more.

—You can’t save people, son.

—She’s your granddaughter, my niece.

—We’re on our own out there, you should know that by now.

—Maybe. Maybe not.

—He’ll be out in a few years. If they catch him.

—I don’t know, Mam. I’ll peel these and head off.

—Thanks, son.

—You go to bed. Do you want anything on?


She had her own route around the cottage and he didn’t offer any help. She gripped the arm of the couch and from there grabbed her walking stick and clung to the radiator and then the door handle. He stayed behind her in the hall and guided her to the edge of the bed until she flopped inside. He put on the CD.

—My purse, Pat.

He found her purse under the cushion on the couch and handed it to her in bed.

—There, Mam, all sorted.

—When are you going to shave?

—Soon. I haven’t had time to bless myself this week.

—It makes you look old.

—I am old.

—You know what I mean.

—Good night, Mam.

He did a quick cleanup of the living room, peeled the eggs and put them on a plate in the fridge. He set the coffee table for the morning and refilled the kettle, dropping a tea bag into her cup. He emptied his back pockets and held Mick’s cling film and crisp packet in his hand. He opened the hall door and listened. He couldn’t hear his mother but Mendelssohn was clear. Throwing Mick’s rubbish on the fire, he watched as it crinkled and burned. He put on the fire guard, tapped his jacket for his keys and looked around. He called goodbye but she didn’t answer, then turned off the lights and locked the door behind him.

Instead of taking the direct route to Rush, Pat went right towards Balrothery and into Balbriggan. He didn’t switch on the radio or any music. The streets were empty as he turned right at the hotel, crossed over the train tracks and picked up speed once the town was behind him and the coast road opened up. The Lady’s Stairs and lay-by were empty. There was little wind and the Irish Sea was dark and still, the lights of Skerries Harbour visible in the distance. A blue flashing light hit him as he took the last bend into the town. He bit his bottom lip, slowed down and scratched his beard. A fluorescent yellow and blue Garda Jeep was parked in the middle of the road and two guards in full uniform were chatting outside their vehicle. He didn’t recognize either man. The guard on Pat’s side put his palm out and the car was brought to a stop. Pat’s knees shook as he wound down the window. The guard nodded at Pat, took out his torch and scanned the car’s tax, insurance and NCT. The guard’s breath was visible in the air as he leaned down to speak.

—How’s it going?

—Grand, guard, just heading home.

—Where’s home?


—Are you local?

—All my life.

—What’s the name?

—Patrick Rathigan.

—Many out?

—No. A few airport pickups but very quiet.

A car pulled up behind Pat and the guard gestured for it to stop.

—Okay, can I see your taxi license?

—No bother.

Pat removed his driver ID from the dash and handed it over. The guard checked the details and registration plate. He took another look at the license before handing it back. There were two cars backed up behind Pat now.

—Okay, safe home.

—Thanks, guard, have a good night.

Pat left the window down and drove off. Stopped at traffic lights in Skerries, he exhaled deeply and took a second to compose himself. He put the foot down when the lights changed and met only one car on the road to Rush. A group of lads tried to hail him outside the Yacht Bar but he increased his speed and arrived home in ten minutes. He checked the time—01:42—then put his phone on airplane mode.

He sat in the car for a few minutes until his heart rate settled. The houses in the estate, lit by the orange streetlights, looked small and shabby. The green in the center of the estate was patchy and wouldn’t be cut now till February at the earliest.

He went in through the side door, his hand shaking as he fiddled with the keys. As he walked, the sensor light came on and he stood on the patio, watching the end of the garden. The light went off then on again then off and he unbuckled his belt and loosened the top buttons of his shirt. He looked at the spot the fox had been digging every night and pissed on it.

In the extension, Pat kicked off his shoes and left them by the door, slid out of his belt, then took off his socks and threw them in the direction of the washing machine. His phone torch navigated him through the debris of toys and baby paraphernalia. He switched on a lamp and the cabinet lights, then lit a single candle and placed it in the center of the island. He turned on the heat for an hour and put on the kettle. At the bottom of the stairs, he stopped to listen to the house. In the front room, he turned on the lamp in the corner, then looked at the street and his car. Nobody passed. He removed his jeans and shirt and put on his house pants, T-shirt and jumper, which he’d left on the couch. He turned on the TV and muted the sound straightaway. He pressed play on the DVD and while it was loading went back to the kitchen and made a pot of tea, leaving two bags in the water. He collected all his clothes and put them in the washing machine, added a few more from the basket and left it ready for the morning. The time on the cooker was 01:56.

Pat cleaned his hands and face in the jacks, filled his nostrils with water, then blew hard into the sink. He hocked out some phlegm and spat a few times into the toilet. Back in the kitchen, he added milk to a cup, grabbed the pot and brought them to the windowsill in the front room. He stacked two cushions at the end of the couch and laid out a blanket. The curtains were open and through the mirror above the fireplace the reflection of the streetlight could be seen. He skipped some scenes till he was where he’d left off the previous night. He unmuted the sound and set the volume to three. In black, with a high collar and open-necked shirt and surrounded by four musicians wearing red, Elvis sang “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in the round. Scotty Moore was to his immediate left. The faces of the people in the crowd could be seen clearly. Pat smiled and nodded along. He poured his tea and stretched out on the couch, but halfway through the song he heard his granddaughter crying upstairs and the eventual shuffling of feet. The cries got steadily louder and the movements more frantic.

Pat climbed the stairs, knocked on the bedroom door and waited on the landing. Lorcan came out.

—Howaya, Da?

—Here, I’ll take her, son.

—I think it’s the teeth.

—C’mon, I’m off tomorrow, get a few more hours.

—Are you sure?


Pat followed Lorcan into the bedroom. A lamp was on in the corner and Elaine was propped up on pillows trying to calm Lilian.

—Elaine, love, I’ll take her.

—It’s not fair on you, Pat.

—It’s fine, I won’t sleep for a while yet. G’wan, get a couple of hours.

Elaine held out Lilian and he took her in his arms.

—Are you just in, Da? Lorcan asked.


—How was it?

—Dead, a few stragglers but nothing going.

—Any news about Mick?

Pat glanced at both of them but fixed his eyes on Lilian.

—No, nothing. Yous go back to sleep, I’ll sort this one out.

—Thanks, Da.

—Yeah, thanks, Pat, you’re a lifesaver.

—I’ll chat to yis in the morning.

Lilian whimpered and jiggled in his arms until he got his grip right and she settled, but he felt something off with her. In the kitchen he switched on the warmer and popped in a bottle from the fridge. He tried not to talk or make eye contact with her, but she was fully awake and pawing at his face. While the bottle was warming up, he changed her on the floor. The nappy was dry, but she had a bad rash. He wiped her carefully, removing some lint from her belly button, and applied cream. With another wipe he cleaned in between her fingers and toes, behind her ears, her mouth and nose. Her nails were long and jaggedy and she had a few light scratches on her face. She didn’t like her nose being touched but he held her head as she squirmed and got rid of the dry snots. She cried a little, a sort of heavy wail, but he gave her a plastic toy and she brought it to her teeth. Leaving her on the mat then, he filled a syringe with Calpol and took the bottle off the heat. He checked the time again: 02:17. She hadn’t moved from the changing mat but was attempting to flip over. He took the dodo out of her mouth and with two shots gave her the full 5 mg.

In the front room, he propped her up on the cushion with her head raised and fed her the bottle. She drank half in frantic gulps and he put the dodo back in. He sat her forward and rubbed her back until she let out a strong burp. He skipped back on the DVD, pressed play and kept the volume low. Her eyes fixed on the screen. Pat gently sang “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” to her. She squirmed a little so he returned the bottle to her mouth. She took another 20 ml, then drifted off to sleep without being burped. He placed his baby finger in her palm and she instinctively made a fist around it. He stayed like this for a few minutes watching Elvis. His tea was lukewarm, and he drank two cups in a row. He leaned close to her and kissed her on the forehead. Her head was tilted slightly to the left. He picked up his phone and was about to check his messages but instead turned it off completely.

Lilian began snoring, a gentle purr. Pat wrapped her in the blanket and laid her on the floor, surrounded by cushions. He went quickly into the kitchen and grabbed the packet of baby wipes. In the drawer he found the nail clippers, scissors and mirror and returned to the front room. He cut his own nails first. He took his time, stopping to watch Elvis and look at Lilian. When he finished, he cleaned his hands with a wipe, then knelt on a cushion, took Lilian’s right hand in his and cut each nail with one strong clip, ensuring not to nick the skin. When the hands were finished, he fished her feet out the bottom of her babygrow and did the toenails, then rubbed both hands and feet with a wipe. She squirmed a few times but didn’t wake up. He refastened the babygrow and secured her tightly between the cushions. He collected all the nails in his empty cup.

Standing at the door, he watched Elvis. He skipped forward to “If I Can Dream” and turned it up a little. Elvis was now dressed in a white suit and red tie and sang in front of a giant screen, his name in lights. He was holding the mic in his left hand while his right arm gestured and swayed wildly. Pat noticed the rings on Elvis’s fingers. He moved along to the music and when the song finished he shook his head a few times. He repeated the song and while it was playing put the mirror on the couch, knelt down and began trimming his beard. When the song ended again, he restarted the DVD and kept cutting until the black leather of the couch was full of his white hair. He added the trimmings to the cup and poured in the dregs of the teapot. He went into the kitchen, put on the kettle and washed out the pot. He took the cup and rushed out to the garden.

He poured the clippings and trimmings onto the foxhole, running his finger around the inside of the cup to make sure he removed everything. He listened to the house. He could see a lit attic skylight next door. He breathed in through his nose, arched his neck back and looked at the sky, then yawned deeply. The kettle was coming to the boil and blocked out every sound. Suddenly, he dropped the cup on the grass and hurried back to Lilian, leaving the back door open. He found her as secure as he had left her, but she had moved her arms, and they were splayed above her, outstretched. He was panting and took a second to compose himself. Kneeling down, he ran his knuckles along her cheek and listened to her soft breathing. After a few seconds, he went back outside to pick up his cup and lock the back door. He made fresh tea, blew out the candle and switched off all the lights. He left the cup in the front room and crept upstairs. All was still on the landing. He took the duvet and pillow from his bed, brought them downstairs and placed them on the couch. He tucked Lilian in, switched off the lamp, closed the door and drew the curtains fully. The TV screen now illuminated her face, and with a heavy sigh Pat stretched the full length of the couch and let his head drop onto the cool soft pillow.


“The Blackhills” first appeared in The Stinging Fly. Copyright © 2021 by Eamon McGuinness. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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“Ira & the Whale” It is dark in the whale and hot. The air is difficult to breathe. Ira is coated in gunk, sweating in his black Speedo. The whale’s...

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