Wild Houses

Colin Barrett

March 19, 2024 
The following is from Colin Barrett's debut novel Wild Houses. Barrett grew up in County Mayo. In 2009 he was awarded the Penguin Ireland Prize. His short story collection Homesickness was named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times and his first collection, Young Skins won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His work has been published in The New Yorker, A Public Space, Granta, and The Stinging Fly.

Dev Hendrick was lying in the dark on the sofa, laptop propped on his belly, asleep or almost asleep, earbuds bleeding white noise into his ears when his phone buzzed three times on the coffee table and stopped.

He felt the vibrations more than he heard them. He sat up, snapped shut his laptop and put it on the coffee table. The white noise in his earbuds died. He reached for his phone and knew the number before he even checked the screen. Three buzzes meant: we are here. He pulled the buds from his ears, cocked his head to listen into the empty night and then he heard it, the familiar noise of the car crawling up the drive, the low burr of the engine, the bubble-wrap crackle of wheels turning slow on gravel.

There was a near-empty bottle of Corona on the table. He drank off the dregs. The Corona was flat and citrus-sour, a wilted wedge of lime curled like a drowned bug in the bottom of the bottle.

The dog, Georgie, snoozing away on the battered red wingback chair, stirred and came awake with a startled yelp.

‘Shush now,’ Dev said.

Georgie was a tiny, highly strung dog with a candyfloss coat covering a ribcage as fragilely fine-boned as a chicken’s. He had demonic yellow teeth, a wizened, rat-like face and a moist, bloodshot, perpetually beseeching stare that half the time made Dev want to punt the thing over the garden wall. Not that Georgie ventured outdoors much any more; ageing, ill-tempered and increasingly unintrepid, the dog preferred the cosily cluttered terrain of the sitting room, where he spent his days mooching from cushioned niche to niche and staring at the TV like an old woman.

Georgie yelped again.

‘Stop now, will you?’ Dev said, raising his voice enough to draw a chastened gurgle from Georgie.

Dev and Georgie had never much got on, but ever since the mother died and the dog had come to the realisation that Dev was now the sole source of sustenance and what would thereafter pass for companionship available in the house, Georgie had developed, if not an affection, at least a grudging receptivity to Dev’s commands, so long as those commands were delivered with sufficient emphasis and contempt. Georgie respected only emphasis and contempt, at least from Dev.

Dev slipped on his Crocs and lumbered into the hallway. An icy diagonal of light had pierced the front door’s glass panel, illuminating the hall’s green-and-gold wallpaper and the musty foliage of the mother’s old overcoats piled up on the coat rack.

Dev drew back the latch and opened the door. The sensor light had come on, flooding the drive with brightness. Rain flurried like sparks in the light. Drops touched Dev’s face and stuck. The car’s engine cut off and the headlights went dark. Dev watched his cousin Gabe Ferdia step out of the driver door and a moment later Gabe’s younger brother Sketch stepped out of the back and helped, or rather dragged, a third person out onto the drive. The third person was a kid, a pale-faced young fella.

‘Some night for it,’ Gabe declared.

‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ Dev said.

‘I’m afraid not,’ Gabe said, squinting beleagueredly against the flurrying rain and smiling slyly out of his long, thin face. ‘You going to let us in or what?’

The three stood there in the rain, waiting on Dev.

‘Come in,’ Dev said.

Sketch shoved the kid in the back to get him moving. He was wearing only one sneaker and carrying the second in his hand, obliging him to hop a little on his socked foot across the drive’s stony gravel. When the kid was close enough, Dev could see that his face was marked, a dark nick, too fresh to have scabbed, lining the rim of one eye. The boy gazed expressionlessly up at the house, then Dev.

‘Nah,’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ Gabe said.

‘No fucking way,’ the kid said.

He stood in place until Sketch shoved him again. The kid stumbled in over the threshold. Sketch and Gabe came in after him. Dev latched the door as the brothers marched the kid down the hall.

When Dev joined them in the kitchen they had put the kid in a chair by the table. The runner was up on the table, next to the butter dish. Sketch was standing behind the kid with his hands on his shoulders. Gabe had removed and was holding up his jacket, a black bomber with the legend TEQUILA PATROL embossed in gold lettering on the back. With a practised flourish he snapped the jacket, once, in the air, sending the loosest droplets of rain flying from the fabric, then draped it neatly across a chair back. He popped the fridge and began fishing out bottles of Corona, placing four of them in a row on the counter.

The kid looked fifteen, sixteen. His face was pale, bluetinged as raw milk in a bucket. He was clean-shaven and if it wasn’t for the missing runner and the nasty notch over the corner of his eye, he would have looked like any young fella you’d see shaping around the town on a Friday night, punctiliously spruced for the disco; short black hair brushed emphatically forward, and so sodden with rain and product it gleamed like melted tar, the top button of his baby-blue shirt closed clerically at the throat, dark jeans and the scouring bang of aftershave crawling off him like a fog.

‘Your foot must be wringing,’ Dev said.

‘What?’ the kid said.

‘I said your foot must be wringing.’

The kid looked at his foot. He looked at Dev.

‘Such a size of a cunt,’ he said.

A hot current ran through Dev. He heard the Ferdias chuckle.

‘Dev’s a godly-sized unit all right,’ Gabe said as he worked the tops off the Coronas. The depressurising hiss and pop of each bottle cap –  pop, pop, pop, pop  –  overlapped with the tinny clinking of the caps as they bounced on the counter and two rolled off the counter’s edge and clinked a second time on the floor.

‘The lamhs on him,’ Sketch said, ‘like excavator buckets.’

Dev looked down at his dangling hands. It was true. They were massive, as was Dev. When he was on his own, which he mostly was now, he forgot about his size. When other people appeared, they were quick to remind him. A lad who grew beyond a certain limit, beyond certain proportions: people just never got used to it.

‘You know this fella?’ Gabe asked the kid.

The kid shrugged.

‘Never seen him about in Ballina?’

‘I’d nearly recall a cunt that huge if I had. Is he seven foot tall?’

‘Oh, he’s not far off it,’ Gabe said, ‘but Dev is deceptive. Big as he is, he leaves an awful dainty mark on the world. You’d barely know he was there half the time.’

The kid looked at Dev and seemed to be weighing in his mind the possible veracity of Gabe’s remark.

‘I want my phone,’ he said.

‘Never mind about your phone, kid,’ Gabe said.

‘Here, you, big man,’ the kid said to Dev, ‘have you the lend of a phone?’

‘Phone’s out of the equation,’ Sketch said, jabbing the kid on the shoulder.

‘Dev, let me introduce you to Doll English,’ Gabe said. ‘Doll, this is Dev.’

‘I shouldn’t be here,’ Doll said.

‘That’s not a problem,’ Gabe said patiently. ‘Dev doesn’t mind, do you, Dev?’

Dev shook his head.

‘We were thinking you might crash here tonight,’ Gabe continued.

‘No fucking way,’ the kid said.

‘A bit of manners, now,’ Gabe said and looked at Dev. ‘That’d be all right, wouldn’t it?’

‘If you’re vouching for him,’ Dev said.

‘One hundred per cent we’re vouching for him,’ Gabe said. He grabbed a Corona from the counter. ‘You can have this,’ he said, extending the bottle to the kid, ‘if you’re going to sit here and drink it and be civil.’

‘Dev here knows Cillian,’ Sketch said. ‘Everyone here knows your brother.’

Mention of his brother seemed to placate the kid. He accepted the bottle. Gabe passed a bottle to Sketch, offered the remaining one to Dev.

‘I’m OK,’ Dev said.

‘Go on,’ Gabe said, pressing the bottle into Dev’s hand.

Gabe took a drink. Doll English took a drink. Sketch took a drink.

Dev took a drink, worked the sizzle of bubbles around his mouth and swallowed.


Excerpted from Wild Houses by Colin Barrett. Copyright © 2024. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved. 

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