Isaac McCaul felt something cold and wet nudging his face and opened his eyes to find Murphy, his Springer Spaniel, looming over him, tongue hanging. Isaac pushed the dog away and sat up, staring out through the ice-crusted front window of the van to the ominous sky churning a maelstrom above the city. It had been clear the last he remembered but now the field was snow-covered, the trees by the canal stooped, their branches powdered. His heart leapt at the sight and he glanced first at the half-empty bottle of whiskey then at the dashboard clock to find that he’d been asleep for the guts of two hours.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit...”
A sharp, salty taste assailed him as his breath frosted and he looked in the foggy rear-view mirror to find that the gash on his brow had opened again, a trail of dark black marking a path between his eyes, along the bridge of his broken nose, crusted amongst the stubble on his top lip.
Murphy jumped out in front of him and set to running wildly through the snow as Isaac opened the door and stepped outside, his heart pounding like a jackhammer. He glanced to the caravan, still and quiet beneath the shadows of the oak tree, the one he loved asleep inside. A drop of blood fell from his nose and cratered the snow beneath him, a deep black well. There were no footprints in the snow, no tyre tracks, no sign that anyone had been this way since the snow started, but still the warning sirens sounded. Murphy rolled onto his back and started barking, unhappy with the way his master was ignoring him.
“Shush, boyo,” Isaac whispered as he beckoned the dog to his side. “Not now.”
Murphy was well trained and moved immediately to Isaac’s feet, letting out a tiny whine in the back of his throat as he sat, eyes locked onto his master.
“I know,” Isaac said as he rubbed the dog’s head. “I’m no fun, no fun at all.”
He told Murphy to stay put then walked over to the caravan, wincing at the crunching sound his feet made on the crust of snow. His hand faltered at the handle for a moment before he shook off his fear and opened the door a crack to find Cleona wrapped up in bed, the cluttered inside of the caravan dark and warm. A deep breath pushed out of him as he closed the door then turned and headed off across the field towards the wooded copse and the canal beyond, cursing himself for not being more vigilant. He had messed up; anything could’ve happened.
The world was a blank canvas, a work in progress. No lights shone in the factory buildings surrounding the field and no smoke rose from the chimneys of the few surrounding houses whose winter fires would be cold ash at this hour. Still, Isaac couldn’t help but picture faces watching from the dark maws of the windows as he trudged across the white expanse. He picked up his pace, glad that the soft glow of the lights from the factories was fading. As he came upon the trees he caught a glimpse of the Mersey - a dull grey sheet between the old tobacco warehouses and vacant lots on the far side of the road, moving fast, swollen with snow - and wondered if the ferries would be running later. If not, they’d have to drive northwards, catch a boat at Cairnryan or Stranraer. One way or another they would leave this place today, make it so the brothers could never find them.
As they reached the towpath Murphy bounded off into the darkness, chasing shadows. Isaac sat down on the grass verge and took a deep breath, trying to still the shaking in his hands as he reached for his whiskey. His mind flooded as the burn hit, all the things he didn’t want to think about surging up and vying for his attention. He stared vacantly to the middle-distance after taking another swig, gazing at the grey-on-grey outlines of the buildings, the heavy clouds which promised more snow, wishing he could switch off for a while. The tears he had denied these few days past spilled free, glistening like hoarfrost on his cheeks.
It was the first time he had cried since his mother died over a year ago and he knew the sadness might never have left him if not for Cleona. They had met in a quiet backstreet pub in Belfast one Sunday afternoon a few weeks before Isaac’s mother’s death, sheltering from a sudden rainstorm, thrown together as if by fate, and though they came from different worlds – she a traveller, he a city boy, born and bred – some link was formed between them and they had been together ever since. She had owed Isaac nothing but had taken him under her wing and nursed him through his grief in the months since his mother’s passing. She had come into his life like an angel and had saved him. There was nothing he could do but agree when she asked him – quite out of the blue – to leave Ireland with her a few weeks later, the urgency in her voice and the pleading way she looked at him reason enough.
Everything had been going well in the year or so since. Isaac had grieved for his mother and pieced himself together again as he got used to life on the road. He had come through the rough patch and had fallen in love with Cleona as he had known he would when he first laid eyes on her. Both felt content in their new home in an all-but-empty travellers’ site on a wooded hill outside Warrington where they had spent the past three months. Life seemed worth living for a time but Isaac had always known it couldn’t last.
He had returned to the site two nights ago to find Murphy barking and strained at the end of his rope, heard angry voices coming from the caravan. He had dropped the bag of Christmas presents in the mud and ran, shoving the door open with no idea of what he might find, thinking only of his angel. He froze as the door hit the wall, a ceramic effigy of the Virgin Mary smashing on the floor as he looked from Cleona lying on the floor in the corner like a terrified child to the faces of the two strangers – one large and muscled, the other small and wiry – then realised with a flash of inspiration that struck like a hammer blow just who the men were. Both had the same dark eyes as their sister, the same wide brow, a dozen smaller similarities besides, yet the harsh pinched faces they were set in bore little comparison to the one Isaac loved.
Cleona rarely talked of her life before Isaac. Both parents had died when she was very young and she had mentioned her elder brothers only once in passing. The hate in her voice as she talked of them was clear and potent – a painful wavering, a deepening. That they had hurt her in some way was clear enough but Isaac had not asked any questions. It was not his place to do so; he knew she would tell him when the time was right.
The larger of the brothers had turned from the cupboard he was ransacking as the door opened and made a move towards Isaac but was held in check by the smaller, whose face was criss-crossed with lines of old scar tissue, black eyes burning like coals. Scarface had smiled and raised a finger, called Isaac by name as though greeting an old friend, and motioned for him to come inside, that lone digit a promise of trouble if he disobeyed.
Isaac had taken a deep breath and stepped through the threshold.
He didn’t even hear the door close.
When he opened his eyes again he was lying flat with his face stuck to the floor and his head pulsing, the tang of blood in his mouth. He wasn’t sure for a moment what had happened; the last thing he could remember was Murphy barking, staring at a drop of blood on the snow. A tooth had fallen from his mouth as he levered himself to his knees, a stab of pain lancing through his jaw in a blaze of white. He had almost gone back to the blackness but had made it to his feet, sending everything into a sickening spin. As the world settled everything came back and he had turned full-circle, arms out in front, expecting Scarface to strike out from the shadows, the other to grab him with those meaty hands, but the brothers were gone, the caravan empty save for Cleona and himself. The whole thing might’ve been a dream if not for the pain.
He had stumbled towards Cleona and fallen at her feet, kicking the empty jewellery box which had once held their savings. She was hugging the bed sheets to her body like a child in the grip of a nightmare. The first thing he had noticed was the smeared red on the crisp white sheets, then the darker patch on the crotch of her trousers. He had felt his stomach drop, turn to liquid.
“The baby,” Cleona had said softly, eyes red with tears. “The baby.”
Isaac had felt broken; he hadn’t even known. “Did they… did he…” He couldn’t say it, could barely bring himself to think it – no man would do that to his own sister.
Cleona had shaken her head, sobbing. “They hit me, Isaac. I told them I was pregnant and they still hit me.”
Isaac had taken her in his arms, holding her tight while she cried into his shoulder, running a hand through her hair, jaw clenched as he thought of punishment, only punishment. He had cleaned her up as best he could once the tears subsided, packed Murphy and their belongings into the van, and fled from the site under cover of darkness, knowing the only thing that mattered was to get away.
They had spent no more than an hour in the hospital in Liverpool, most of that time waiting. The set face of the young doctor as he stared at the flickering ultrasound told them what they feared most before he confirmed it with soft words and a gentle hand on Cleona’s arm. Murphy was silent as they returned to the van, nestling close to Cleona as though he knew and understood everything, feeling culpable in the same way Isaac did. Isaac had counted himself lucky to stumble upon an overgrown pathway between the old tobacco warehouses and vacant lots on the Docklands less than a mile from the hospital, a bridge across a canal just wide enough to take the caravan. All in all, the muddy field between half-built factories, obscured from the road by the railway bridge and the trees, was the safest place they could’ve hoped for.
A full day had passed since then – a day Isaac had spent trawling pawn shops to sell their meagre possessions, dwelling on what had happened with every spare thought, eyes darting to every face as though they might be the brothers – and now they were ready to move on, to put distance between themselves and all that had happened. Cleona had done nothing but cry and sleep since they left the hospital. Isaac knew the few secret tears he had shed this night would be all he would permit himself. He would need to be strong for the both of them and would grieve properly once they were out of harm’s way. He thought of the baby as he raised the bottle to his lips, throwing his head back and downing the remainder, offering a silent toast to his unborn and never-born son or daughter.
He had fallen backwards to rest upon the bank as the alcohol coursed through him, had closed his eyes for just a moment. When they opened again the world was a blaze of white, a soundless fall blocking out the sky. Murphy appeared from the towpath as Isaac clambered drunkenly to his feet and made his way back through the trees, struggling to keep his balance as he cursed his weakness aloud, hands across his face to keep the snow from blinding him. His heart almost leapt from his chest as he neared the brow of the rise and lifted a hand to shield his eyes – there was a light near the caravan, a corona of white brighter than the driving snow. It was moving. In that instant Isaac was certain the brothers had found them. He had left Cleona alone for all of twenty minutes, the only means of entrance to the field within spitting distance, and the brothers had come back. He thought of the blood on her crotch, her fitful sobs, and knew that – no matter what – he could not allow further harm to come to her.
His hands found a sturdy broken branch on the ground. He raised it, relishing its solidity, the heft of it. His heart was beating a tattoo as he crested the rise and emerged from the trees into the snow-laden wind, then everything around him dwindled away as he stopped, unable to compute what he saw in front of him. That the light was there was clear enough yet it was clear too that it was no torch, clearer still that no human hand held it. Try as he might, Isaac could make so sense of it, yet there it was, a broad patch of silver-white floating in the air a few dozen yards to his front, a liquid disc the size of a dinner plate like some cruel joke his brain had thrown up to trick him. He had never seen anything like it.
All at once the wind changed and pushed the falling snow away, clearing the air in front of him for a moment. In that brief instant Isaac saw the face within the light, the slender hands reaching out and pushing through. He collapsed into the mud as he tried to move forward, legs failing. He went down hard, landing on his chest and sliding down the rise like a dead weight.
As his drunkenness welled he wiped the mud and snow from his face, felt the sting of the freshly-opened cut on his brow, and glanced forward through eyes tinged with red, finding but not registering a dozen impossible sensations at once. He saw slivers of smoke falling from the still-forming figure, smelt ozone as the snow spat and crackled and hissed all around, saw light refracting in immutable shades, a brightness almost too bold to look upon.
An Angel, the voice inside said. An Angel.
As he struggled to rise the figure broke through, assumed solidity before him like a dream become real. The light was so bright, so powerful, filling the sky, pushing the snow away, limning everything in gold and silver. He saw an arm lift, a hand point towards him, the mouth open as if to speak. Just as Isaac began to think that he could take it no more, that to look upon this any longer would break him, there was a dull flash, a flare of black rushing from the rear of the figure, drowning out the white, enveloping it, blossoming upwards and outwards like a nuclear cloud. Isaac turned away instinctively as the darkness pushed out towards him, images glistening in negative shades as he fell to the mud.
When he turned back there was nothing but the night sky, the falling snow, nothing to suggest that any of what he had seen was real.
Isaac screamed then, a primal noise of fear, despair, joy, feeling cleansed and enlightened, confused and overwhelmed all at once. He sensed movement by his side as he lifted himself from the sodden ground and turned to find Cleona barefoot in the mud and snow, nightdress plastered to her shaking body, eyes agog at the tiny boy held in her arms, a toddler with clothes torn and shredded, his skin coated in smoky-grime, arms wrapped around her as if for protection.
Cleona turned to look at Isaac, long auburn hair pasted over her face in dark shards, a smile so wide and childlike that it bordered on manic.
“He’s for us, Isaac,” she whispered as the snows fell away, as the first light of day bled into the sky. “He’s ours.”