Like everyone around him, Eddie stood looking up at the TV. The mood inside Stornoway Airport was a palpable mix of despair and fear that seeped into the very bones and grew like mold. Even though it was only 4:30pm local time, it had grown dark outside the small terminal, and rain lashed against the windows. Eddie looked around at the passengers who had traveled with him from Glasgow on the short, turbulent flight. A tall man comforted his wife and two small children, three teens with earbuds stared vacantly at up the news reader. The elderly couple who had sat across from him on the plane were locked into a silent debate, pinched mouths making the shapes of words that Eddie couldn’t hear.
“Jesus, is this really happening?” a man’s voice said beside him. Eddie turned and had to raise his chin to meet the man’s eyes, which seemed to have been forced down by his brows into the center of his long, thin face. Eddie looked away. “How can this be happening?” the man asked again. The question sounded begging, more like a plea. Eddie looked back up at the television to try to understand it himself. The seed of Armaggedon had been planted in late summer, from what he recalled. It was innocuous enough for the times, an Eastern cyberattack on Japan had shut down its national power grid for three days. While they struggled to restore power, the West went on the offensive of a sort; millions of embarrassing emails between the politicians of Russian and China were released simultaneously, and for a while the world had settled into a tense détente. All that had ended last week, the uneasy ceasefire shattered by the tit for tat attack on the US Government that named every operative working in the deathlands of the Middle East, and their in-country contacts.
Eddie wanted – needed – to drag his eyes from the screen, but they were glued as the latest news filtered out, like a poison in the air. China had declared war upon Japan for the arrest of all of the diplomats in the embassy. The Japanese military had simply stormed the building. The images recorded earlier that day from Tokyo showed the Chinese being led to vehicles at gunpoint with their hands behind their heads. The ticker running along the bottom of the screen told of how US and British officials were scrambling to arrange a diplomatic solution to the problem, but gigantic crowds had assembled in both countries calling for blood. The newsreader’s delivery was varnished over with solemnity, and it had the intended affect in this little place so near the top of the world. A pall of terror and grief had settled over everyone from the passengers to the handful of people working the little retail stores of the terminal. He couldn’t take it any more, it was smothering him. He needed to leave.
Shrugging himself into his rucksack, a hand was placed on his shoulder; he turned and looked again into the face of the tall man. There was anger there now. “I heard you earlier; you’re American, right?”
“Uh, sure,” Eddie said.
“Why don’t you guys do something? This is getting out of hand.”
Eddie instinctively looked back at the TV then back to the man again, who had appeared to have gone over the edge of madness. Why else would he have asked such a ridiculous question? It didn’t matter now. He shook his head and strode away in the direction of the ground transportation signs, leaving them all behind, knowing that he would never see any of them again.
He was in luck; the bus that he needed to get to Eoropaidh on the island’s northwest corner was sitting outside, engine rumbling, exhaust coiling up and into the cold rain. He hooded his eyes and pressed his face to the glass of the door and saw the driver’s face illuminated by the light from his cellphone. Eddie knocked on the glass and the man twitched in fright. He looked out through the darkness at Eddie for a couple of long seconds, then fumbled around. The door opened with a pneumatic hiss and Eddie stepped aboard quickly, rainwater running down into his collar. Before the man could ask him if he’d been watching the news, Eddie went quickly to the back of the silent and empty bus, unslung his rucksack and put it between his feet. Someone followed him out of the terminal and boarded the bus before the doors could close. It was a man whom Eddie remembered had sat near the back of the plane from Glasgow. They had boarded together while Eddie wondered if he’d seen the man from the flight from Minneapolis earlier. It was hard to say with so many faces, all etched with anxiety. Cocooned in the darkness, Eddie felt he saw the man strain to peer into the back where Eddie sat; he was sure he could see the man’s eyes roam, searching. Almost too casually, the man dropped into a seat near the front, behind the driver. Eddie realized that he may have to walk past him in order to leave, but what was the likelihood they were both traveling to the same destination? It was the last stop on the hour-plus ride. Eddie put up his hood and tried to relax, pushing himself into the stiff backed seat. His hand unconsciously went inside his jacket to feel for the envelope. Of course it was there, but it comforted him to feel the proof of it nevertheless. The sum total of his life was in that envelope; each of the hundred dollar bills there were encoded with the story of him, and what he was worth. Ninety five hundred dollars wouldn’t buy a car, but it might buy him something even more valuable. He must have drifted to sleep quickly; he found himself snapping awake when the bus went into gear and pulled away from the terminal, headed for Stornoway and all points north. Panicked, Eddie’s eyes darted around the dark interior. Nobody else had joined he and the other man, but the bus already felt as if it was full of ghosts. Inside his pocket, his phone buzzed. Cynthia’s name appeared in the Messenger alert. He tapped the application open and read, You sold all your stuff?!!!!!!! Where are you Eddie? Please call. C. It was too painful to answer. He put the phone back in his pocket and settled back again, leaning his head against the cold glass of the window, and waited for sleep to take him again.
He awoke a little while later and watched the other passenger get off the bus at a small bus shelter. On both sides of the street were two sparse rows of stucco-covered, modest homes. As Eddie peered out through the window he could see nothing beyond them, only the darkness that surrounded remote places like this. The bus pulled back out onto the road, and when Eddie felt assured that he was alone, he made his way to the front of the bus and sat directly behind the driver. “How far until the last stop,” he asked. He looked to his right, and saw a church with all lights blazing and people filing into it. Were they going in to pray for the Earth, he wondered, or just themselves?
“You American?” asked the driver. “What are you doing all the way over here?”
“I’m visiting a friend,” Eddie replied. “How much longer to go?”
“About 40 minutes … “ the driver trailed off, and fearful of being drawn into another discussion about how the future was fast approaching, Eddie returned to the back seat and this time did not sleep.
It was around 6pm when the bus reached Eoropaidh. Eddie stood within the bus shelter watching it pull away and recede into the darkness. When it had gone, he found his bearings on the small map he unfolded from his pocket and peered at under the dim bulb. The rain continued to fall, now little more than a light drizzle. He was glad of the shelter, though. Around him the lights of the sparse houses were comforting, but the darkness that cloaked everything made it feel like the rest of the world had been erased, a sign of things to come. He took out his phone and saw that Cynthia had sent several more pleading texts, but he skipped past them to his contacts and tapped the one that said “Jenny” and held the phone to his ear. It rang long enough to make his heart palpitate, then a voice on the other end said, “Hello? Is this Eddie?” and he exhaled mist through trembling lungs.
“Yeah, it’s Eddie. You said to call you when I was in town.”
There was a pause he hadn’t anticipated, then she said, “Are you at the busstop?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“I’ll be there in five minutes.” She hung up halfway through his goodbye. Eddie pulled his collar up and tried to curl into his clothing, looking for hidden pockets of warmth, but settled for hunching his shoulders up around his neck and jamming his hands deep into his pockets, bunched into fists. He stayed perfectly still like that for the best part of five minutes, until the lights of a car appeared from the north. Eddie stood and went to the edge of the bus shelter, and by now the cold had settled into him like frost. He shivered as he watched the lights come closer until he could see that they belonged to a small car. It stopped by him and the woman inside rolled down the window. “I’m Jenny,” she said. “Get in.”
Eddie rounded the front of the car and got into the front passenger seat. It wasn’t much warmer inside than it was out, but the car seat was the most comfort he’d had since leaving Minneapolis the previous morning. He watched as Jenny turned the car around 180 degrees and pointed the car back in the direction she’d come from. She was exactly like her AirBnB picture; fortyish with long red hair streaked with gray, thin lipped and strong nosed, above which were two hawkish eyes. Not so much attractive as stoic, Eddie thought. They made light small talk on the five minute drive through the absolute, swallowing blackness that lay beyond the small village. She briefly asked him if he knew what was happening in Asia, and he mumbled that he hadn’t had much opportunity to listen to the news. She nodded but said nothing, but he could feel that she was hiding her true feelings from him.
Past her face, Eddie could see the beam that shone out from the nearby lighthouse, and that too was swallowed by the night. She took a single lane dirt road that veered away from the lighthouse, and soon he could see a small red house approach, with lights burning in each window. Gray smoke exhaled from it through the chimney. They parked outside it and got out. It was little more than a shack, but seemed recently built, or renovated. He carried his rucksack to the front door and waited for her to unlock the place, but she merely opened it and went inside. He followed and she closed the door behind him. “Take off your jacket and put it in the cupboard there,” she said, making his eyes go to the coat closet beside him. He did as he was told, draping it on a hanger next to her coats. A brief movement caught the corner of his eye; Eddie turned to see a small dog run from the next room and come to sniff his legs. “This is Rhubarb,” she said. “He won’t bite.” Eddie reached down and ran his fingers through the long fine hair that fell down over the dog’s eyes. When he stood up again, Jenny was looking him up and down, and he felt suddenly scrutinized. Self conscious, he looked away to her small TV that was playing the news, and she looked too. “It’s been on all day,” she said. “It’s getting worse over there.” He looked at the screen; it was the same recorded image of the Chinese diplomats being marched out of their Tokyo consulate. The voiceover said that the Russians had ordered all of their worldwide diplomats home, an unprecedented move that analysts were struggling to interpret. “Coffee?” she asked. Eddie nodded absently, and she walked into the little space in the corner of the room that had a fridge and microwave tucked among some cupboards.
“Can I take my boots off?” he asked, and watched her take a cup from over the shelf that held the microwave. She was slim and able-bodied and her clothes fit her well, but that wasn’t why he was here. He’d have to tell her the truth sooner or later, though. Why not now?
“Make yourself at home,” she said. He pulled his boots off and set them by the front door, and by the time he went to the couch, Rhubarb had jumped upon it, quivering in anticipation. Eddie sat back, and the couch seemed to absorb his mass and draw away much of his tension, drinking it into itself; at once, his limbs no longer felt leaden and his muscles sagged in thanks. He patted his inside pocket for the envelope and felt it there. The little dog came to lay across his lap and while he watched the events on the news and waited for Jenny to return, he stroked its small back and head. It didn’t matter that she’d think he was crazy when he told her. Mostly because that was the truth, but also because of the envelope. He looked around the living room. It was sparsely furnished but cozy, the kind of place that he himself had dreamed of moving to. A place where he could be far enough from the world and its people, a place where any interactions he’d be involved in would be orchestrated by him on a schedule he would control. He looked at his phone and opened the messenger app to read Cynthia’s panicked texts. In brief bursts she told him how they were leaving the city to go north to the cabin until things calmed down. She begged him to get in touch with her so she knew he was okay. He looked at the time – it would be mid afternoon in Minnesota. Although he thought better of it, he messaged her back: I’m okay. In Scotland. He regretted sending it – his new location would raise too many new questions he didn’t want to answer, so he followed it up with I’ll be in touch soon. Stay safe, E.
The microwave dinged, and Eddie shot a glance into the kitchen area to watch Jenny spoon instant coffee into two mugs. He said no to cream when she asked over her shoulder, and soon she was in front of him putting the cups on the driftwood coffee table that sat between the couch and the TV. Rhubarb leapt to the floor and trotted off, back into the room. Jenny sat to his right on a rocking chair blanketed with what looked like a homemade quilt. What else was there to do here, he wondered. His heart began beating too quickly. Would she really throw him out when he’d revealed the true reason he was here? He had to constantly remind himself that’s not how people – reasonable people – actually behaved. Before she could engage him in polite small talk, he took the envelope from his pocket and said, too loudly, “I lied to you about why I’m here.”
She glared at him over her pursed lips, suspending the act of blowing across her mug. As always, his stomach squirmed and the familiar rush of emotions washed over him; embarrassment for his lies, shame for the revulsion they produced in the other party, the feeling of worthlessness that the meds and his daily cognitive, self-affirming mantras kept at bay. “Oh?” she asked sharply.
He put the envelope on the table with shaking hands. “I need to get to the island tomorrow,” he said. “This is my life savings … it’s all yours. I just need you to take me there.” Her eyes glanced downward at the packet, then back to him, and her face was set like stone. She didn’t reach for it, and he crumpled inside, a failure. He spoke up quickly, to placate her. “Don’t throw me out,” he said. “Will you just listen?”
She cooled her coffee with her breath and, surprisingly asked, “Why do you want to go there so badly?” Eddie’s mind swirled around and he realized he hadn’t anticipated the question, thinking that bribery would eliminate any of them. He couldn’t tell her the real reason … but honesty was part of the therapy too, and ultimately wasn’t that why he was here? She stood up before he could commit to saying anything and swept her hand at the TV. “Look at what’s happening? The fucking world could be ending today or tomorrow. Nobody wants to go anywhere or do anything.” Her face twisted, bitter with the taste of the world. “Why bother?”
The harshness of her voice startled him and his confidence – what little there was – ebbed away. How could he tell her the truth? How could she understand? He was just another crackpot loner with a veiled view of reality – “I had a dream,” he said quickly. It stopped her from ranting further, and she looked at him with slitting, suspicious eyes. Eddie reached down to his rucksack and unzipped a pocket. He carried the truth around with him in the small CVS Pharmacy bottle, and swallowed it piece-by-piece daily. “These are my meds,” he said. The words vibrated as they came from him. “I have Paranoid Schizophrenia with Delusions.” Every time he spoke these words, it was simultaneously a release and an invitation for scorn. Naming the demon, he thought, it gave the listener power over him, but the truth was part of the routine, and so was the trust he needed to have. “I take Clozapine for the symptoms.” She said nothing, just looked, and the pain he felt was like a skewer. Easier just to pack them away, apologize, and walk back to Stornoway, even though that might take over half a day. It was, of course, ridiculous. He unzipped the front flap of the rucksack and took out his notebook while she remained standing and silent.
When he offered it to her, she took it, asking, “What’s this for?”
“It’s a thing I do … my therapist told me it would help to write down thoughts and stuff that I knew weren’t real, so I could rationalize them out while I was writing.” Eddie watched her flip through the pages, but no emotion showed on her face that he could tell, and he scrutinized her like a microscope. He stretched out his hand and took the book back from her, flipped to the pages of the dream, tracing with his index fingertip the words he had written and the crude pictures he had drawn. The movement of her sitting back down into the rocking chair made him look at her. He closed the book, but kept the place with his thumb. “It started when I was in college,” he said. “At first it was just weird thoughts, but after a bit, I started to believe I was the reincarnation of this Viking warrior, and that other people were too and they were looking to hurt me.” He held up his hand quickly to prevent her from interrupting. “I know, it’s dumb. But I felt it. I was really into that comic, Thor, when I was a kid, and liked all that mythology stuff, and my therapist told me that when I got really bad with the schizophrenia, it all manifested itself like that. I can’t explain it all that well.” He looked at her, but Jenny’s face was placid, unfathomable. “One night – and this was before I saw any doctors – I was coming home from a bar, and there was a guy behind me. I actually thought he was going to attack me, so I hid around a corner and punched him, broke his jaw. I got arrested by campus security the next day and they threw me out of school. My folks said they thought something was wrong with me for a while, so they had me go to therapy and eventually I got put on meds.”
He paused, hoping she would finally say something, but she remained silent, and the first wave of shame swept over him, warm and suffocating. Despite the flailing turmoil inside him, he swallowed dryly and went on. “So anyway, I’m mostly a loser these days. Can’t keep a job down, don’t have any friends. The last job I had – “ his lips trembled uncontrollably with these heightened feelings – “It was stocking shelves for nine bucks an hour.” He offered her a weak smile, but it wasn’t returned. Jesus, his mind said, just leave, you idiot. He ignored it. “A few months ago, I had this dream.” He spread the notebook open from where he’d kept the place and held it out again. “I don’t usually write dreams down, but this one felt different.” Jenny took it and began to read. His face was inflamed in embarrassment and he couldn’t watch. Instead, he looked at the TV and watched recorded video of a flying drone. The picture switched to people talking at a table around a moderator. He tried to listen, but all he could think of was the dream; the remote island with the ruined shells of long-abandoned homes, and the circle of standing stones, of the weeks it had taken him on Google searching for proof that it was not real, then finding that it was.
“You dreamed this?” Jenny asked. Eddie looked back at her, nodding. “All of this?” Her tone sounded like it contained nothing but doubts.
“I mean, sure, I could have made it all up after seeing the pictures on Google Earth, but –“
She interrupted: “I believe you,” she said, and it stopped him in his tracks. Eddie’s eyes brimmed with tears – it was an effect of the meds, he knew, these spikes of emotion. But there was no better drug than that of acceptance. He took the envelope and gave it to her.
She opened it and looked inside at the money. “It’s not a lot,” he said ruefully. “There’s almost ten thousand in there … I really need to get to the island.”
“What do you think you’re going to find there?” she asked, her head subtly moving from side to side. Subliminally saying no, Eddie thought.
“I keep thinking about it,” he said. “Ever since I dreamed it, it’s all I think about. I just need to know that the place is real, because I can tell myself that I saw pictures of it when I was a kid, or saw a documentary or something, and I didn’t dream it because of my condition.”
She dropped the envelope back on the table and turned away from him quickly and walked to the bedroom door saying, “You can use the couch tonight.” His heart sank and he felt pitiful, worthless – but worse than that he had lain his soul bare and it was that of a clown. Jenny wouldn’t be the first to laugh, or the last. Muttering Okay, he picked up the envelope and was stuffing it back into his pocket when she stopped at the doorway, and said, without turning back, “We’ll leave at eight.”
She was as good as her word, rousing him at 6am while it was still black as night outside. She prepared a breakfast of bacon and eggs using a small propane stove, and served it with coffee. Rhubarb danced around, grabbing the small pieces of bacon Jenny offered from her fingers and, like a thief, darting away, only to return moments later to repeat the crime. Overnight, world events had worsened, but here in this remote place it was easy for Eddie to think of this as an abstraction in comparison to the trip to the island. China had issued a vague statement that appeared to stop short of a declaration of war on Japan, and Westminster and Washington had convened an emergency meeting that had continued through the night. Jenny washed the dishes with few words, then told him to wait in the living room for a few minutes. While she was gone, he put on his boots and checked the contents of his rucksack one more time. Clothes, meds, a map, his notebook, some snacks – all there. Jenny returned with an armful of items and dumped them on the couch. While she rummaged through the coat closet, Eddie went through them – a sleeping bag, some light blankets, and a pillow. Before he could say anything, her disembodied voice called, “You’ll need those. It’ll get below freezing overnight.” She emerged with a large duffel bag. “That’s a really good sleeping bag,” she said. Eddie watched her as she folded everything up and placed them in the bag. She was a good looking woman, maybe ten years older than him. He was reminded again that he hadn’t been in a relationship for almost five years, but the thought made him feel small and powerless, and he dropped his eyes. She left the room again and returned with a yellow radio. “This is a hand crank radio,” she said, and pulled out the handle to show how it worked. “I don’t know how much charge is left in it,” she said, “but the crank will power it back up again. Are you ready to go?” She seemed eager to leave, but not, Eddie thought, to be rid of him.
Jenny didn’t bother locking up when they left. By then it was brighter outside, although the sun was stifled behind grey clouds that blended with the ocean, making the horizon impossible to detect. She carried the duffle bag and walked past the house, where Eddie could see a small boat, moored to a wooden dock, bobbing with the motion of the sea. It had been hidden from view, behind the house, when they had arrived in the dark of the previous night. There was a small hand lettered sign on a post next to the boat: Times 10am and 4pm, £20 Adults, £10 Children. He thought of asking how much she made here, ferrying tourists to and from the island, but thought that would be too intrusive, too personal. Instead, as they climbed aboard, he said nothing.
It wasn’t until after they had left the shore behind, Jenny’s house receding to the size of a red dot before being swallowed by the light mist, that she spoke. Eddie sat on the small bench in the back of the boat gazing across the Atlantic, the drizzle on his face refreshing. “I used to live on the island,” she said loudly over the putter of the engine. He turned to look at her back as she made small adjustments with the wheel. “I grew up in Aberdeen,” she continued. “Got married, had a kid.” Silence followed, but Eddie didn’t press further. The small boat bobbed and swayed as it cut through the waves. “Six years ago, they were coming back from dance lessons. A car crossed the centre line and hit them head on. They were both killed. Instantly.” Eddie wanted to say something, but he caught himself. He understood on some level this was a seldom told tale, and the telling of it had a rhythm and metre of its own that could not be changed. Minutes went by before she spoke again. “I had to leave, you know? I just traveled around, feeling …” A long pause, before, “Eventually I came here. I slept rough on the island for a year – had an arrangement with the old tour operator where he would bring me supplies, and I would guide the tourists. When he died he left it to me.” Eddie had been watching her, but the story made him turn to look at the black ocean around him, the foam riding atop the choppy waves. He felt a comfort had settled deep within him, as much as the chill had the night before, and that, free of the city, his body had become one with the Earth, susceptible to its changing moods. From the mists ahead of the boat a shadow loomed, growing bigger until he could see weathered rocks crested with sparse greenery. He stood and went to her side and looked through the rain that streaked the windows of the open cabin. A small, man-made, low-walled harbor materialized from the mist, and he retreated to give her the space to guide the boat into it.
Eddie waited until she had tied the boat slackly to a rotting wooden post before stepping onto the mossy stones of the harbor. The coast sloped gently up to the top of the island, and he could see gulls wheeling around above him. Black and white birds with orange feet stood on the bare rocks on either side. “Is that penguins?” he asked.
Jenny looked at him and laughed. “Penguins?” she said, but her laugh was harmless, unbarbed. “Puffins!” He looked again, but they still seemed like penguins to him, so far away. She threw the duffel bag at him. He caught it and looked back at her as she stood on the deck, watching him. “The house I lived in is on the northwest of the island,” she called. “It’s the only one that still has a roof and the fireplace is good. You can see the standing stones to the west as soon as you get up the hill. I hope you find what you’re looking for.” They looked at each other for long seconds, but Jenny broke first and moved to uncoil the rope from the post. As soon as she did so, the movement of the water flowing in and out of the harbor began to push the boat away, foot by foot.
Eddie leaned forward and called out, “Why did you believe me?” It was the question that had been on his mind as he drifted quickly to sleep last night. Now asked, he felt foolish. What did it matter, after all?
She stood with her hand braced against the cabin wall and called back to him over the growing distance, “Because I understand.” Another pause, and then, “I’ll be back here same time tomorrow,” and then she turned and grabbed the wheel, and throttled the engine. Eddie watched the boat turn in a languid arc and exit through the harbor mouth, and soon both it, and Jenny, melted into the mist and was gone.
Cresting the slope, he found himself on the island proper. A paved, but cracked, road extended off into the mist ahead where nothing else could be seen, but already he was able to see the fallen ruins of homes to the east and west. He hooded his eyes from the diffusing light of the haze and saw the standing stones to the west, like Jenny had said, about a quarter mile away. He knew from Wikipedia that the island was narrow, but long, roughly half a mile wide and one mile long. It seemed to curve upwards like a gigantic ramp.
His phone buzzed inside his jacket. He knew it was Cynthia before looking. You need to come home NOW Eddie. I wish you had told me you were going to do this. Text me as soon as you get this!! He looked at the phone, then back at the blanket of mist that erased the way he had just come. That sight felt like an ending of sorts. The past, it was disappearing before his eyes. He heaved back and launched the phone into the air, and watched it spin end over end until that too disappeared from sight.
He set off in the direction of the stones, hiking across a rough terrain covered with hardy, low-growing grass. Everywhere, the ancient rock of the place poked up through the grass, and on these rocks sat gulls that stared after him as though indignant. Other than the birds and himself, the place was empty and barren. As easy as it was to understand why the villagers had left, at the height of the war, it was almost impossible for Eddie to guess why the place had been settled in the first place. Like Jenny, maybe they had valued their isolation here.
As the stones came into view, an altogether new sensation came upon him, and thoughts that were nothing more than simple-minded, inarticulate awe. I drew these, he thought. There were eleven of them, he counted twice to be sure. Unlike their famous relatives further south in England, these rocks were tall and thin, slender like the fingers of a hand, outstretched and grasping for the heavens. He sat in the center of them and pulled out his notepad and flipped to the pages of the childish scribbles he’d been compelled to make the night after his dream. The resemblance was crude, but obvious, and it made him shake his head in delight. He covered his mouth with his hands even though there was no soul that could hear him, and began to weep.
Not long after, he set off to find the home where Jenny had lived. He planned to drop off both the duffel bag and the rucksack and spend the remainder of the day roaming the island. The stones had already given him what he had come here to seek, and a great weight was lifted from him. Freed, he began to understand the appeal of the place. A person could spend a lifetime here and never worry about being judged or mocked, or suffer the sight of shaded whispers when walking into an unfamiliar room.
The house was at the northwest of the island. It had a good fireplace, she’d said. Hopefully there was wood to start a fire with too – he’d need it for the night. Mentally, he called up the image of the map he’d spent so many hours looking at online, and guessed that the place was perhaps twenty minutes away.
He approached the place quickly after that, and while entropy had already begun to claim it, the cottage was far and away the most intact of the buildings he’d seen around. He remembered Jenny telling him of her symbiotic relationship with the former tour owner – likely it extended to helping her fix the place up if it provided revenue for him. The lock was a simple iron latch; he thumbed it open and went inside to find a spacious room, dry but for a slow drip in the middle of the room where a puddle was growing. He dropped his bags on the floor away from it and looked around. The fireplace was small but deep, and beside, it some wood piled high in a metal bin. There was a couch, but it smelled of creeping mold. He walked through into the adjoining bedroom to see where she had slept; a small twin sized bed on a rusted ancient frame, but the mattress still seemed firm and odourless. He returned to the living room to build a small fire in the hearth, to take the chill from his bones before he explored the island.
As he piled wood into the fireplace there was a sharp movement from the window at his left. He stood, wary, and approached it, but all he could see was a large black bird sitting on the low retaining wall of the yard behind the house. It was joined by another, seconds later – too big to be crows. Ravens, maybe? They hopped along the wall and cocked their heads at him. Disinterested, Eddie looked past them, out to where the sun was finally breaking across the North Atlantic.
It quickly became sunny and inviting. He threw his rucksack over his back and went outside. The island had come to life; the tough grass resplendently green, the gulls wheeling flecks of white in a cobalt sky. Recharged, he set off across the narrow tip of the island to where he could see more ruins, this time of a church, but he hadn’t gotten a quarter mile before he glimpsed something; a black smudge in the far corner of his eye. He turned quickly and yes, a figure stood there, on a small hillock maybe a hundred feet away, tall, thin, clothed in black. It startled him, and fear prickled his nerves.
“Hey!” he called, but the figure didn’t respond. He cupped his hands at his mouth and bellowed this time. But when he looked again, the figure had blinked out of sight. Eddie tore off in pursuit. “Jenny!” he yelled, because who else could it have been? At the top of the hillock he stood and looked down in all directions. The sun had melted the earlier mist, and even though he could see much more of the island than he could earlier, nobody could be seen. He threw back his head and yelled again: “Jenny!” but there was nothing but the sound of the wind scraping across his ears. He shaded his eyes with his hands and scanned the island and further ahead, by one of the shattered empty homes that dotted the flat landscape, he saw the figure again. He had some doubts about what he’d seen before, but now he was convinced that he was not alone on the island. Not Jenny, but someone else. If she had come here to live alone, why not another?
The house the figure stood by was a couple of football fields away, cracked open like an egg. The figure, no more than a shadow smeared by the bright sun, stood a couple of feet from the ruins, unmoving. Eddie broke into a run. There was no hill for the other to disappear behind this time, but as he drew closer, the figure disappeared into the wreckage of the building.
Seconds later, Eddie crossed the threshold of the cottage, a simple wooden frame with crumbled walls on either side. With no roof, the elements were reclaiming the raw materials that had made it; rot and decay reducing the handiwork of men to nothing in a hundred or more years. Eddie made a quick tour, but there was nobody in any of the tiny rooms, just the crumbling detritus of those who had last lived there. No, he wasn’t alone here – Jenny would not be playing games like this, she didn’t seem the type, and why bother anyway? He grew impatient and anxious, and turned to look absently in any direction when he saw the figure a third time, further away now, towards the edge of the island. It angered him to be fucked with like this. He stormed out of the ruins and ran, hard across the grass,
faster and faster, his breath rapid and flecked with spittle. Either he or the figure disappeared below another elevation, but he tore up the distance to it quickly, just in time to pull himself back from the cliff’s edge. Cresting the small hilltop, the sudden drop off to the ocean below loomed in front of him, and he recoiled, skidding to a sudden stop a couple of feet from the edge.
Heart thudding, he peered over the sheer cliff face to where the waves crashed, hissing, against the rocks thirty or forty feet below. “Jesus Christ,” he said, trembling. Once he had caught himself he looked for the figure, but again it was nowhere to be seen. A sudden question came to mind: how long had it been since he’d taken his meds? Not since leaving Minneapolis very early the previous day, and since then the world events, the excitement of coming here, it had all conspired to make him forget, and now he was seeing shadows where none truly existed. He tore off the rucksack, about to throw it to his feet and pull out his pill bottle, when there was a sudden flurry of activity nearby and black wings battered against his face. He swatted at the crow, or raven, but then its companion joined from the other side, flapping and clawing, and in the surrounding confusion, Eddie tried to step away, but his feet dangled in empty space. “Jesus!” he cried, and recoiled, but in doing so, his rucksack fell over the cliff edge and vanished.
Just as soon as the attack happened, it ended. The birds turned away, cawing loudly, and he was powerless to stop them from leaving. Cursing loudly, he looked around his feet for stones he could throw at them, but there was nothing. He leapt to his feet and screamed at them as they receded into black specks.
With a sinking heart, Eddie lay on his stomach and peered over the edge, but he couldn’t see the rucksack. it was gone forever, with his medication. He rolled over onto his back and covered his eyes with his arms to shield them from the high midday sun. The whole ninety day supply was gone, just like that. Despair crashed over him, as he feared the changes that would be upon him soon. The rational mind he possessed now would become submerged under a slow flood from chemicals his body was now about to place into production. The shadowy figure that could never be caught was one of the first symptoms of that, he knew. Would Jenny arrive tomorrow to see him ranting and raving at a thousand such invisible demons? He turned around to stare at the rocks below. The fall might not kill him, but the sea soon would. The thought of himself disappearing suddenly from the world was seductive. It had never cared about him up until now, Eddie reasoned. Why should it start now?
Dark clouds had begun to move in to the cover the sun; it was no more than a flat white disc. He sat up and surveyed the island behind him. Nothing, not even the black birds were to be seen, only the shadow of the clouds moving across the land like a blanket being drawn over to the first rumbles of thunder. He got to his feet and trudged down the hill, and seconds later, it began to rain. Heavy, wet raindrops burst on his face. He pulled the hood up over his head and plowed on, but soon the rain became heavier, battering him to the point where he could only advance hunched over to keep the water from blinding him. He glanced up only to make sure that he was moving in the direction of Jenny’s cottage, but visibility was reduced to a few yards.
His clothing felt like cold slabs of lead on his arms and legs, his eyes stinging from the rain. He looked up and continued onward as the sun began to slat down from between the breaking clouds, and thought he could see his destination. Closer still, he was relieved to see a full roof and chimney. The sight give his limbs new vigour. By the time he reached the front door, the rain had become torrential, whipped against him by a powerful gale. He yanked the door open and slammed it shut behind. The small fire he’d built had already dwindled, but he added a few more cords to it and stripped off his clothing, wet and thick with water.
Soon, flames were roaring up the chimney flue, and he allowed the heat to dry him before pulling his spare set of clothing from the rucksack and dressing. They were cold, but at least dry. He draped his wet clothes over a wooden chair and pulled it over to the fire; soon, steam began to curl up from them, into the air.
In a little while, the inside of the cottage was warm and humid. Peering outside the windows that pointed west, he could see the sun was already much lower in the sky than it had been just a little while earlier. He was hungry now, and defeated by his fool’s errand. Everything Cynthia said to him that sounded berating all seemed now like good advice. Without his meds, the future to him now seemed unbearable and bleak. With the money he had, he would return to the US tomorrow, back home where he’d get his prescription refilled and settle back into his menial, microscopic life, arranging cans on shelves, and listening to Cynthia try to push his life in the direction she felt it needed to go. He took the sleeping bag and blankets to the bedroom where he wrapped himself up in them, and went to sleep.
Hours later, the crashing of thunder awakened him instantly. It was black outside, full night, and another storm had gripped the island. He rubbed the stubble on his cheeks and emerged from the warm cocoon of the sleeping blankets into the chilly air. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he felt that he still possessed all of his faculties. The fireplace in the living room had burnt down to embers, but some of them were still red hot. He put the remaining logs on the fireplace and sat on the wooden chair, waiting for them to ignite, and as he did so, he felt some hope that his mind wouldn’t become too far gone before he could return home the following day, although he had no idea what time it really was. It was impossible to tell up here at this time of the year without a clock. Black as it was outside the cottage, it might have been six o’ clock or midnight. Eddie instantly regretted throwing the phone away. It was a stupid, petty thing to do.
He watched new flames lick around the sides of the logs, and watched this for a while, listening to the drumming of the rain on the roof and windows, his eyes on the glass, watching the flares of lightning as the storm raged. At least he was dry and warm for now. His thoughts drifted back to Jenny again, and he looked around the place, finding it hard to think she’d lived here, alone, like this, day after day, night after lonely night. But, he mused, like his notepad tethered him to reality, this solitude had been her own form of self-therapy. Still, he wondered how she had stuck it out for so long. This wasn’t for him. The grocery store wasn’t so bad; it gave him money to pay his bills and a place over his head, and even though people stressed him out, this silence was too much for him. He remembered the crank radio and retrieved it from the duffel bag. After a few minutes, the radio had enough charge in it to crackle while he tried to tune it, but it took another couple of minutes to find anything, a news channel that kept fading in and out. He listened for a while, in mounting horror, to a male newreader repeating unconfirmed reports that China had dropped the bomb on Japan. Seismic reports from the area indicated a large-scale event that could have been nuclear or conventional. After decades, the war that had always been feared was here. Both his country and the UK government had broken off discussions with their Russian and Chinese counterparts and were looking now at the decisions that needed to be made. Depressed, Eddie turned off the radio and took it back to the bedroom. It might be impossible to go home now, he considered, and yet, it still didn’t feel entirely real to him. He leaned on the bedroom windowsill and watched the rain hammer against the glass. When his eyes first saw the light, he thought it was another bolt of lightning, or perhaps the lighthouse nearby Jenny’s cottage, but when his eyes returned to it, it hadn’t moved, and as he focused on it, was that fire he saw? Here, on the island? Pushing the windows open, he thrust his face outside into the rain and stared deep into the darkness. Yes, a fire, due east.
Within seconds he was running head on into the storm. Other than the pounding rain, the blackness of the night was shattered by continuous threads of lightning and the tremendous booms of thunder overhead that made his very insides quake. He had wrapped himself in the blankets and sleeping bag, but they were now thoroughly soaked through. He cast them aside while he ran towards the fire. At least this, unlike the black figure from earlier, did not tease him. It remained a growing beacon, urging him forward faster and faster, his boots thumping through the grass, stomping on the exposed rocks, only slowing as he reached it.
The heat from it was searing, even when he stopped ten feet from it to stare. It was some kind of bonfire, taller than him by a few feet, with flames that swooshed upwards through the darkness, not licking like those in his fireplace, but devouring the wood with a ferocious greed. It made his eyeballs ache in their sockets to watch, but so transfixed was he, the storm barely registered. He was oblivious to everything but the fire before him, until there was a loud cawing to his side, and he became aware of a presence nearby. Turning only his head inch by inch, a figure came into view.
Even illuminated by the dancing, skipping firelight, it remained hard to see, though Eddie could make out the basic details. The stranger was seven feet tall, or more, cloaked in black hooded rags. On either side of its head a large rack of antlers sprouted into the sky like white fingers. The face was hidden, but one eye shone out from under the hood that it hid behind. On either shoulder sat one of the black birds that had attacked him earlier on the cliff edge, and in its left hand it held a tall wooden staff, the wood inscribed deeply with ancient symbols. Both ends of the staff were capped with thick iron heels. “Odin.” Eddie said. The figure remained silent, but both birds thrust their heads back to call loudly, a sound that was like screaming. “Did you call me here?” Eddie asked. His soul seemed to surge at the sight of this, washing away all the false thoughts and feelings that the drugs had filled him with for so long, and the twisted reality they had forced him to live. “I’m here,” he said, eagerly. “What do you want me to do?”
The only reply he got was the figure’s free arm reaching out to point at the burning pyre. No, not at it, Eddie understood: past it. unrooted, he skirted the hungry flames and on the other side found the cliff edge. Looking beyond it, to sea, the clouds sparked violently. Lightning shot all ways through them, displaying their textures, like clots of spiderwebs in the air. Eddie looked down and saw a staircase cut into the cliff face, shimmering with reflected firelight. He looked to see Odin, but was blinded by the fire between them. Slowly, grabbing the crags of rock for support, he descended.
It was slow, and numerous times the soles of his boots slipped from under him, but the rockface was generous with handholds, and after a while Eddie stepped down on to the wave lashed rocks that lay like slimy, giant eggs at the mouth of a cave. He could see nothing inside, but ventured in, using the wall for support. He knew that with the tide, this place would be hidden daily, so time was not on his side. Many times he fell painfully on the rocks below, blinded by the blackness of the cave, but the ground became more solid as he progressed, and soon, his eyes detected a faint light. Spurred further, he came at last to a tall door of iron and wood several inches thick, and ajar. It was impossible to push open any further, but with some effort, he squeezed himself through.
The source of the light was inside, dim but enough for him to see the large cavern that slept below the island. Awed, he stood inside the doorway, his eyes streaming with the joy behind them. His mind struggled to take in the grandeur of it. Carved from the very rock were giant figures, some solitary like statues, some engaged in stories of war and glory, vast warriors marching with axe and sword to battle with creatures five times their size. Eddie looked at the floor of the cavern, where long tables of heavy, ancient wood still showed the evidence of vast hungers; iron plates and goblets lay where they had last fallen.
He took the stone stairs to the floor of the cavern and surveyed the bodies, hundreds of them. Time had eaten the soft parts, but their bones remained in the leather and iron they had perished in. He picked his way through them, respectful. Some had great helmets split by axes no man he knew could lift, others still bore chestpieces crushed by sword blows and pierced by arrow shafts as thick as his wrist, but he didn’t stop. Throughout all of this, his goal was the source of the light at the far end of the cavern, a large brazier, burning with a bright orange-yellow light. When Eddie finally mounted the steps to it, he saw a dais of carved rock that stood to his eye level, and upon it, nestled into a space designed to hold it, a ring. Eddie took it and examined it under the light of the brazier. It was a simple gold band, big enough to fit snugly around his middle and index fingers, and inscribed with the symbols he recognized from Odin’s staff above. Yes, this was what he was sent to retrieve. Placing it in his pocket, he returned the way he came.
The fire burned as it had before, hot and angry, and rounding it, Odin waited silent and still as a statue. Both of his birds were like statues, sitting on each shoulder, only their glittering eyes watching Eddie as he approached. If not for the expectation that seemed to fill those black eyes, they might have been stuffed. Eddie reached into his pocket and pulled out the ring. It seemed to glow, drinking the firelight, the inscribed runes dancing around the surface. With his free hand, the figure took hold of the hood and drew it from its hidden face. The antlers were part of the helmet that still covered it, but the lower part was uncovered, showing a long, tangled beard that reached to mid chest, covering a plate of ancient armour. Further down, a bone white horn hung from a thick belt of leather. Looking back up, Eddie could see only one eye, shining out from the holes in the helmet. He only vaguely heard the voice behind him, but it was enough to make him turn.
“Eddie!” It called out. “Eddie!” He turned and saw Jenny approaching from the shadows. “We have to go!” He turned to grab her as she came to him. Her eyes were wide Os of fear. “I had to come and get you! China just attacked Japan with a nuclear bomb. They’re saying -” Eddie looked at her, but while she was filled with terror, Eddie was emptied of everything but a growing sense of joy that was at once both childish in its rawness, and mature enough to thrum with power. The southern sky was suddenly lit by a tremendous burst of light that, for seconds, brought a terrible kind of daylight to the island. They both looked in its direction, and Jenny fell to her knees, wailing, “Oh my God, they did it, they did it!” Her body crumpled. Great hitching sobs burst from her as though she was an animal. “They did it,” she moaned, over and over. Eddie looked back at great Odin, who stood with his arm outstretched, palm up. Eddie nodded, but he took Jenny’s forearm and guided her to her feet. “Can you see him?” He asked her, nodding at the figure. She looked up wiping, at her eyes with her fingers, and shook her head. “Look harder,” Eddie said, and pointed.
She squinted in that direction. “I can’t see – ”
“Look harder,” Eddie roared at her over the thunder. The night went bright again to the south and her eyes suddenly opened wide again and her hand went to her mouth.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Eddie … who …?”
He led Jenny over to where the ancient hand remained open and waiting, the flesh withered with age, the long nails chipped and black, and into it Eddie placed the great ring. They watched together as the figure pushed the ring over its long left index finger and then strode past them, the ravens taking flight. It walked to the cliff edge as the sky raged over the Atlantic, and yet another bright flash seared the clouds over the mainland. Jenny took his face in her hands and pulled it around to look at him, “Eddie,” she shouted, “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know!” He telled back at her. Rain was beating down hard upon them, feeling like iron nails being pounded into his scalp. He took her arm and pulled her to follow the figure that now stood upon the cliff edge, one hand on its staff, the other lifting the white horn to its mouth.
It sounded out across the ocean, louder and deeper than any note Eddie had heard in his life. So deafening he had to clamp his hands over his ears to try muffling it, but it made his bones ache and his teeth rattle as if they were about to fall from their sockets. He looked to Jenny, who was doing the same. It seemed as if the note would last forever, but it finally came to a slow cease. Eddie took his hands away to be sure, but the sight of the horn returning to the figure’s side confirmed it. More lights lit up the atmosphere, very far off. Not lightning this time, but fireworks that marked the end of this era. Jenny stood beside him and they both looked out to the far ocean as the storm continued to rage.
Without warning, there came a sudden tremor underfoot that sent them sprawling on their backs, and the rock of the island’s bones seemed to moan in agony. There came another, yet more powerful, as they got to their knees, and the eerie, grinding squeal of rock being torn apart roared around them. Eddie and Jenny picked their way to Odin’s side and they looked out to sea, where the water began to churn far in any direction they looked. “What’s happening?” she asked him, but he had no answer. In the darkness he felt her fingers lace with his. The ravens soared into the sky, circling and cawing, hysteric, and from the figure before them, one word uttered in an unknown language and accent: “Miðgarðsormr.”
They watched as the surface of the Atlantic broke, miles out to sea, and the lightning picked out the first gleaming scales of the Great Serpent.
© 2016 Andrew Hope, All Rights Reserved
Registered WGAW November 26 2016