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Stephen   Wade


Steve Wade is a prize nominee for the PEN/O’Henry Award, 2011, and a prize nominee for the Pushcart Prize, 2013, his fiction has been published widely in print and online. His work has won awards and been placed in prestigious writing competitions, including being shortlisted for the Francis McManus Award, 2013 (the story was recorded by a professional actor and broadcast on RTE); His novel ‘On Hikers’ Hill’ was awarded First Prize in the UK abook2read Literary Competition, December 2010 – among the final judging panel was the British lyricist sir Tim Rice. His fiction has been published in over twenty-five print publications.

Kathy boots up her PC.

     In her arms a burning sensation. Her legs are numb. The inside of her head congested with heavy gunk crowded with sneering, hateful faces and ugly words. Words that never and will never leave her alone.

     You have no friends. You’re such a loser. You’re just a waste of air. You’re a nerd. Penis repellent. No one likes you, you fucking loser. Why don’t you just die?

     She logs in to Facebook. She has seventeen messages. Into her mouth pumps the taste of hot and bitter bile. She opens the first message. You fucking blonde slut, it reads. You think you’re it. You’re nobody. She clicks on the others. Fat ugly cunt. Slag hag. Prostitot. ‘Prostitot’ is a word they’ve only recently added to their barrage of insults. Everyone her age knows what it means.

     Next to all the venom-filled messages are profile pictures of youthful girls, many of them pretty and smiling coquettishly at the camera.

     Kathy’s torso is now ablaze from inside. And she feels tightness across her chest. A scream explodes from her larynx. It sounds to her as though it comes from someone else.

     A high-pitched bark behind her diverts her attention from the screen. She swivels round in her chair. Her Golden Cocker, Pebbles, barks again, this time a whiny bark, and he tilts his head sideways.

     “Pebbles,” she says, as she rises from her seat and goes to him. “Did I frighten you? I’m sorry. Poor Pebbles. Poor baby Pebbles.”

     She hunkers down on the floor, takes the spaniel’s upturned face in her hands. The two nuzzle. Her tear-dampened cheeks she dries in his soft, furry hair.

     Her mother, who’s been calling her, she hears coming upstairs. She straightens up, steps back to the computer and minimizes the screen.

     “Kathy,” her mother calls from outside her bedroom door. “Can I come in?” She raps her knuckles a couple of times on the door, opens it and steps into the room. She looks from Kathy to the computer, from which Kathy has stepped aside.

     Pebbles barks.

     “Why do you do it, love?” her mother says. “Why read what those little bitches put up?”

     Kathy, who now has Pebbles in her arms, makes a turned-down mouth expression. She looks into her dog’s eyes, and rocks him like a cradled child.

     “The Guards,” her mother says. “I’m going to call the Guards again. Those bitches.”

     “No, Mom. You can’t. You’ll just make it worse. Like the last time. It’ll be okay. I promise.”

     Kathy’s mother now has her hand locked over her mouth. Her face is crumpled and she’s sobbing uncontrollably. She shakes her head and leaves the room.

     “Right,” Kathy says to Pebbles. “This is it.” She places the dog on her bed and sits back down in front of the computer screen. She reopens Facebook.

     This time she avoids the pull of hateful messages.

     “Please,” she says aloud, before checking. “Be online.”

     She is. Johanna, her best and last remaining friend spends most of her days off school sitting before her computer screen.

     “Hey,” Kathy types. “What’s up?”

     “What’s up, you?” Johanna responds.

     Kathy tells her friend that she’s feeling strange, and that she just wishes that she was special.

     “They’ve posted more crap, haven’t they?”

     “I mean,” Kathy types, “why couldn’t I have been born with Rihanna’s voice? Or maybe look like Paris Hilton?”

     “Look,” Johanna types. “Meet me at Eddie Rocket’s, okay? In twenty minutes.”

     Engulfed with an attack of self-pity, Kathy lets seconds elapse without responding. Her mobile rings. She doesn’t have to look at the tiny screen to know that it’s Johanna. She answers it.

     She tells Johanna that she’s okay, but that she’d prefer if they met at the Hollow. “In about an hour,” she adds.

     An hour means she has plenty of time. Time to do what she must. Into her Mother’s room she pads in her bare feet and takes any container that contains pills. She drops them into her small pink rucksack.

      Her mother has trouble sleeping. Kathy knows she’s on prescription drugs. She doesn’t bother, though, to read the labels on the containers. What matters if, along with the sleeping pills, there are other types?

     Back in her own room, she pulls on her socks and runners, and takes from a drawer a thin pink lead. The first time she put the lead on her dog Pebbles, she felt guilty. As if he might be insulted by the girlie colour. Now she knows he accepts it. It’s his colour.

     “C’mon, Pebbles. Let’s go.”

     Her mother opens the living room door while she’s coming down the stairs. She steps into the hallway.

     “Where are you going, love?”

     “Out,” Kathy says. “I’m going out, Mom. Just as far as the shops.”

     Her mother says nothing. With a confused and terrified expression, she watches Kathy. Kathy smiles at her at the bottom of the stairs, opens the front door and steps into the day – the last but the first day: The day when she will become a true heroine, a legendary figure among her peers.

     An angry wind attacks her, tousles her hair and burrows under her collar. She does up the top button on her jacket.

    Inside the front gate, she clips the pink lead onto her dog’s collar.

     Behind her, she hears the front door being opened.

     “Kathy,” her mom calls from the doorway. “Why are you taking your bag?”

     Kathy turns around but continues to walk off, her spaniel, Pebbles, straining on the lead.

     “Bye, Mom,” she says. And only beneath the whoosh of the wind and the whispering leaves of the poplar tree in their neighbour’s garden, does she say, ‘I love you.”

     Down the street, Kathy sees an elderly neighbour coming towards her from the opposite direction. She crosses the road.

     The old woman stops in the pavement to look after her. Two blue Tesco Long-life bags she clutches in her hands. She says something to Kathy in a voice too low to make out. Something about her mom and, Kathy guesses, asking for her.

     Kathy shudders. The old woman’s face reminds her of her granny’s face. The face her granny wore when she lay lifeless in that wooden box the day of the funeral in the funeral home.

     With her free arm, Kathy waves at the old woman, forces a smile, and then slips through the gap in the old wall, the way she has since the days when she carried with her everywhere Barney, the purple dinosaur. Carefully, she works her way sideways down the mucky incline that leads to the river. By the river at the bottom of the incline, she unclips the lead from Pebbles’s collar. The spaniel dashes ahead, his long ears flapping, and she can see the whites of his eyes as he kind of looks back at her, a big doggy smile on his open muzzle.

     “You’re a scallywag,” she says, and she runs after him. The pink lead wrapped around her hand is familiar and gives her a sense of inexplicable satisfaction.

     Inside her Kathy experiences another sensation. One she hasn’t felt for so long. A feeling as though she has been adrift forever in a sea of night, and is awakening to a blazing sunrise spreading across the horizon. She imagines the Facebook messages they’ll send: So Young, so beautiful and so brave. You had the courage to do what you knew was right. You who look down upon us from the twinkling stars, we send you a thousand –million kisses. We will always remember you. Love ya!

     So suffused is she with a long since experienced sense of joyfulness, Kathy feels her feet leave the worn track. She’s flying. A foretaste of what it will soon be like when she sprouts gossamer wings and becomes part of a band of angels, and sings from the skies, in a voice heaven-sent, as she, backed by an angelic chorus, in a mezzo-soprano voice serenades the congregation at her own funeral.

     She arrives at the Hollow. The Hollow is where the river dips, its sloping, beach-tree-lined banks creating a kind of mini ravine. She clambers down the bank to where stands a tall conifer, a tree whose dense foliage has always given shelter from the freezing rain in winter, and provided shade from the sun in summertime. The Hollow is a place Kathy and her friends have frequented since they were small. First brought there by older girls and boys, its attraction had as much to do with being a place that was designated out of bounds by their parents, as somewhere that belonged only to them. An adult-free area where they watched the older kids climb trees, before their own limbs grew strong enough to pull themselves into the branches, where they dared each other to climb higher and higher.

     It was in the Hollow, beneath the tall conifer, that Kathy tasted for the first time the coarse pleasure of freeing her tongue: Cunt. Fuck. Mickey. Fuck me. Fuck me hard, she and her pre-teenage pals shouted at imaginary boys through raucous, precocious laughter at the wind. Then there were the stolen cigarettes, the bouts of coughing over weeks, until, finally their systems overcame their natural defences, and they developed their parents’ smoking habits. Alcohol, too, first passed their lips in this place. And, fuelled by alcohol, Kathy had her first rudimentary encounters with boys, who fumbled hungrily over her exposed flesh.

     While Pebbles noses about in the surrounding undergrowth, Kathy sits down, her back pressed against the hard bark of the conifer. From the pink rucksack, which she’s placed between her legs, she takes a container of pills. She reads the label: Doxylamine. With her thumb, she pulls open the lid. Into her palm she shakes a handful, regards their inoffensive-looking cylinder shapes, before tipping them into her mouth and swallowing, one or two at a time, while she isolates the others in her cheeks.

     About her some birds are in full-throated trilling and warbling. Katy closes her eyes. She sees birds she has never before seen - bluebirds, others multi-coloured, with plumage iridescent as fishes’ scales caught in brilliant and bending light in shallow pools. The birds alight on her shoulders and, with a concerted effort, lift her from the riverbank and carry her aloft and away to a better place.

     “Hey Miss,” a voice calls and punctures the moment. A man’s voice, too eager, too full of integrity to be truthful.

     Kathy’s eyes slide open. The man is old, forty at least. His face is stretched in a smile that isn’t a smile. And he’s making this kind of drawn-out laugh. He’s coming at her at a pace, though some sort of deformity to his leg makes him move awkwardly. In his hand he has a stick, which he holds in a manner that suggests he’s about to raise it above his head.

      Kathy screams.

     Pebbles rushes back to her side. From his throat he growls a low growl, too deep it seems for his size. His lips curl back, exposing bone-white canines. Spittle gathers on his black lips.

     “Go on, ye blackguard,” the man shouts at the dog in a gravelish voice. The voice an animal might use, one with large white teeth, were it able to speak.

     As though trapped in a nightmare, Kathy watches the man raise the stick and bring it down with force on Pebbles’ back. The dog lets out a whiney sound, collapses in the earth, its legs scrabbling in the dust and pine needles.

     The man’s eyes are now the maddened eyes of a cartoon fiend. Kathy sees him raise the stick again before he raises it. Somehow she’s on her feet. The pink lead she unfurls in her hand, and she catches him across the face with the metal spring hook. He bellows and swings out with his stick. A white light explodes behind Kathy’s eyes.

     Into her head is poured something heavy, a substance through which she hears play snarls, whistles, growls and a high-pitched voice she recognises but cannot place. Slowly, like awakening from the induced sleep into which she was placed the time she was rushed to hospital last year, she comes to.

     “Kathy. Kathy.” It’s Johanna. “Wake up, Kathy Quick. Jesus Christ. Kathy. Kathy.”

     Johanna helps her to her feet and steadies her.

     On the ground Pebbles has the man by the hand and, through guttural growls, worries it the way he shakes and tears newspapers back in their home. The man is awake and screaming that they call the dog off.

     Kathy’s head is clearer now. She sees everything as it should be seen. Something inside her chest beats as though trapped and raging for freedom.

     “Come on,” she shouts at Pebbles. “Let’s go. Home, boy, come on.”

     Pebbles releases the man’s hand and twists about after Kathy and Johanna.

     As the trio flee for home, the thing inside Kathy’s chest, although beating even faster, feels now as if it has sprouted wings. 

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