Next update: September
We were in the drystone outhouse – the one at the campsite.
I had some flashes of running – falling more like – with Ewan’s hand clamped around mine. His grip was so tight that it hurt more than the whipping branches and the brambles tearing at my clothes and skin. It hurt like cowardice.
I hated that he had wanted me to survive. I think that might be something I projected back when my sense of reality drizzled back in: my friends had died, and I’d left them to it. Ewan had dragged me away and there was nothing I could’ve done differently.
Except, that’s not true, is it?
If I’d hated it that much, I would’ve released my hand and gone back up to the stone circle. I would’ve taken up a stick or a rock or something and joined in the fight. Ewan had been possessed by a crazy sort of strength, but he was still a soft, short guy who would’ve been easy to overpower.
The fact is that I hadn’t. The absolute terror I had felt compelled me to run. It had washed away all thoughts of chivalry. It had left me a gibbering, incontinent shell who was only good for trying to preserve its own stupid little life. If Ewan hadn’t at least dragged me in the same direction as him and Paul, I would’ve gone off on my own. Probably gotten myself killed for good measure.
Paul had been our pace-setter. As we stumble-ran, his and Gerry’s backs could be seen galloping ahead of us through the trees. Despite the extra weight, Paul burned a new trail through forest that likely hadn’t seen a human trespass for centuries. Even if he hadn’t, I think the wave of fear would’ve let gravity take its course anyway. Downhill was fastest. Downhill was a known quantity.
It was only when the trees broke and we were sprinting across the site field that our situation truly sank in. After all that, we were back where we’d started. We’d traded in three people for a dying guy with one leg.
We’d accomplished nothing.
My brain had shut down then.
By the time I started coming around, it must’ve been mid-afternoon. The only point of reference I had was daylight coming in through a couple of arrow-slit thin windows laced up with grimy cobwebs. The sun was low and golden, and getting lower. A few more hours and it would be night again.
I was slouched on the bare concrete floor of what constituted the washroom. It was a grim affair, rough and grey from floor to ceiling. A couple of ancient looking shower heads lurched up from exposed pipes with archaic looking knobs on them to control the water pressure. A plywood door was all that protected bathers from prying eyes. This was open now.
Angled as I was, I couldn’t see much of the rest of the shack. There were three equally outdated, utilitarian sinks that ran the length of one wall but I could only see one of them. Obscured completely from view were the two toilet cubicles between the showers and the way out.
The place smelled like you’d expect, like any public bathroom smells. Drains that haven’t been cleaned out since they were installed, stale piss, and just a pinch of vomit for good measure. There was the lingering scent of farm animals. It added to the belief that this wasn’t much more than a poorly jazzed up animal shelter. Someone had swept the shit out, but it was still good for little more than keeping sheep dry. Especially with the water not working.
Overlaying those rich aromas was blood. Gerry’s blood, to be precise. He was slumped against the opposite wall of the showers. Not moving, not breathing. He was dead.
Best make that ‘We’d traded in three people for a dead guy with one leg’.
What a tomb this would be.
I was far beyond trying to find humour in the situation, gallows or not. This wasn’t funny any more. Nothing about it was remotely entertaining.
“You’re awake,” said a voice.
I looked up. Paul was poking his head around the plywood doorframe.
I made some sort of noise in response. I wanted it to sound like a yes. I don’t know what it sounded like to him.
He didn’t ask me if I was alright. I respected that. None of us were. No point in talking about it, really. What could any of us do to change the situation?
Instead he said. “Gerry’s dead.”
“I’d noticed,” I said. “Thanks for letting him keep me company.”
“Sorry.” He glanced over his shoulder. “We didn’t know what else to do with him. Ewan wanted to put him in one of the toilet stalls but that seemed…” He trailed off.
You don’t risk your life to shift a corpse just to pose it on a loo, boss or not.
“Did he say anything? Before he died?”
“A bit. He didn’t last long. He said that people had done that to him. Presumably the villagers.” Paul came in. He cast a glance towards the body – lingering on the leg stump – before sliding down next to me and drawing his knees up.
“People? What sort of people?”
Paul shrugged. “He didn’t give that much detail. Lucy’d gone to the village. He was starting to feel better so he’d gone to the pump to wash up. Some people came out of the trees and beat him around the head. When he woke up, they were cutting off his leg.”
I looked at Gerry. Now I had time to do so, I could make out all the little shitty details that had been impossible to see before. There was an immense, clotted wound across the side of his head. Crusted blood was smeared across his temple. That would explain the blood near the pump. Headwounds were a bitch for blood loss if they weren’t dealt with.
As for the stump: the line wasn’t neat, but it did what it was meant to. Assuming those fucking lunatics desperately wanted a lower leg.
Although I fought to keep the memory back, now I’d seen that creature eat, it wouldn’t waste its time with bite-size chunks. It had ripped Steve apart, taking in whole limbs like spaghetti strands. The loss of Gerry’s leg from the knee down seemed almost demure by comparison.
Of course, that only raised the bigger question.
“Why?” I asked.
“He couldn’t say. Said they chucked his leg out in the middle of the stone circle and used his blood to paint marks on the stones. Then they buggered off and and left him to die.”
“What the fuck.” It wasn’t really a question. I didn’t expect an answer.
“It’s the Horghart,” answered another voice. Ewan lingered at the wetroom doorway, keeping his eyes fixed on us. “That’s what the postcard said. It said the locals used to leave offerings out for it in return for safety.”
“Offerings?” I could’ve laughed. “I thought it meant, like, fruit or milk or something.”
“They couldn’t really put the truth on a postcard,” said Ewan. He swallowed, refusing to look at the cooling corpse. “Not if they’re still doing it.”
“This is completely -”
“Insane?” Paul took the obvious from my mouth. “We know. We’ve been trying to talk through it for the last couple of hours.”
I looked between them, hoping to find some crack of light. They shut me down with straight-mouth grimness. Their conversations had, apparently, gone about as well as anyone could expect under the circumstances.
“This is impossible. How can some pissant little village in the middle of a first world country go about murdering people? Why isn’t this on the news? Why aren’t the police all over this? It’s not like we’re in the middle of a fucking war zone. People notice when people go missing!”
Paul shrugged again. “No idea, mate. None at all. Maybe this whole thing doesn’t happen that often. Maybe we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“It’s not like the site was easy to find. Remember?”
“No. It wasn’t. I had to keep calling to try and get ahold of the farmer. The one who owns it. Out of season, it was hard to find somewhere we could all get to. This seemed like the best shot.”
“The farmer who just so happens to be away this weekend,” Ewan finished.
There didn’t seem to be anything else we could say. They’d covered the bases between them. There wasn’t much need for me to try and find an angle. We didn’t know how the village got away with all this, and we didn’t know why they did it. When I thought about it then, and when I had time to mull on it later, I realised that cattle don’t tend to know why they’re so well fed before being rounded up and sent to slaughter either. There was no possible way for us to know all the answers to what was happening short of catching one of the villagers and beating the truth out of them. All we knew was that we were right in the middle of it.
Paul was resigned. I take back what I said about that being better than stressed. At least stressed Paul was thinking. Stressed Paul was coming up with lists. He had contingencies coming out of his arse; a list of plans from A to Z for any circumstance no matter how far fetched. Resigned Paul was staring blankly either at the wall opposite, or at Gerry. His attention was so unfocussed I couldn’t tell. Resigned Paul was resting his elbows on his knees and letting his hands dangle from limp wrists.
In the short time I’d known him, Ewan had been such a caring, enthusiastic person. Despite everything, he’d managed to keep that sweet, naive ‘we can do this, gang!’ attitude I would’ve found grating under other circumstances. Now he was still, leaning up against the door frame with one ankle hooked behind the other. Here was not a man ready to spring into action.
They were so in sync, they’d managed to talk themselves into a pit. They were more or less waiting to die. The same dour slope to the shoulders and hang dog expression was reflected between them. The same sort of dumb animal instinct that had seen the three of us leg it here into this dead end was the only thing stopping them from going out there into the field and inviting whatever was out there to come and take chunks from us to put an end to it all.
“So what happens now?” I asked.
Paul exhaled, his cheeks puffing. “No idea. We wait here and die from dehydration, freeze, or until some local comes along and pulls us out. Or we go out there and get eaten.”
“I can’t believe that’s it. What happens when you two don’t go back home on Monday? Won’t someone ask questions?”
“We live together. My next of kin is right there.” Ewan nodded to Paul.
“And my family’s dead, so, that’s that.”
Ouch. There was an edge to those words.
And I hadn’t spoken to my mum since last Christmas. Not because I’d been ostracised or the like. Just because I’m a piece of shit. I lived with no one. The fellow wage slaves at the call centre revolved faster than a fan blade, and every one of them was used to me announcing at the end of any given week that I was ready to tell my boss to shove the job and walk out of there. No one would bat an eyelid if I didn’t show up to work on Tuesday.
“What about the others you’ve got going to Edinburgh? You’ve got friends who’d notice.”
“We’d booked these two weeks off. They’d only get worried if we didn’t show up in Edinburgh. That’s just under a week away.”
“And what about the others? What about Lucy and Gerry? Jo and Mike? Even Steve, for Christs’s sake. Someone must give a shit about him.”
They looked at one another.
“Maybe. But we can’t rely on that.”
I stood up in anger, the effect stymied by one of my knees almost giving way under the sudden movement. The twang of pain up my thigh just made me more irritated.
“We can’t just sit here with our thumbs up our arses and waste away. Come on – this is fucking ridiculous.”
They said nothing. I was furious. How could they give up like that? I didn’t want to wither away to a husk in some shit-stinking little lean to. I didn’t want to get eviscerated like the others. I didn’t want some mad cunt with a machete to take my arms or legs off.
“It isn’t fair.”
There it was. My lowest point.
I wanted mundanity. I wanted to sink back into my little pit and ride along without having to make a single tough decision beyond what takeaway I ordered.
I wanted to go home. I wanted to wake up tomorrow morning and go to work. I wanted to stop off at a corner shop on my way there, pick up a fresh packet of fags and maybe some chocolate for my lunch. I wanted to sit on my arse for 8 hours – barring excessive smoke and toilet breaks – then go home again and put on whatever Netflix deigns to recommend for me. I wanted to do that more than I’d wanted anything else in my life. I wanted to do it again and again, and I’d never complain once.
With my cheeks hot with shame I stared the stags down. I would’ve stamped my foot if my legs would’ve let me. Instead I stood there, fists clenched like a toddler’s, bubbling with completely incontinent, pathetic anger at everything and nothing in particular. Casting aside any existential horrors and visceral terrors, the bottom line was that I didn’t want to die. I could wax lyrical about missed opportunities and wasted potential, but at my core, I wanted to live. I’d do anything to live.
“Fuck off about ‘fair’,” Paul said, rising to meet me. “You don’t get to complain about what’s ‘fair’. Fuck you.”
I couldn’t muster an eloquent reply, so instead I managed: “What?”
“I said ‘fuck you’.” He interposed himself between me and Ewan. I had enough time to make out the smaller man’s eyes widening before my vision was taken up with Paul’s very broad chest. He glared down at me.
“Don’t you think we’ve been trying to figure something out? Don’t you think we’ve spent the last few hours trying to find a way out of this?” He gave an ugly bark of a laugh. “There’s nothing fair about anything. There’s nothing fair about my parents dying. About Ewan’s family disowning him because they don’t support his ‘lifestyle’. About what happened to Lucy, Jo, Mike, Gerry, or Steve.”
“Has it only struck you now how fucked up everything is – now your arse is on the line? Well life just plain sucks most of the time. Bad things happen to good people. And some people get by just fine by letting everyone else do the work for them.”
“Paul, mate, come on-”
“Stop. Just fucking stop.” He batted away the hand I was reaching towards him. “We’re not 20 any more. We don’t have our whole lives ahead of us. We don’t have time to waste. Sad reality is, we never did. And some of us have never had the fucking privilege to sit back and waste what little we had. So now we fucking die. Just like that. Life ends the way it continued to be. We vanish, no one gives a shit, and that’s it. You can’t coast your way out of this one, so get comfortable with it. And don’t you dare bitch at me about what is and isn’t fair.”
With that, he spun and stormed away. The effect was lost only slightly by the limited space we had to move in. Ewan offered an awkward look, his eyes not quite able to meet mine, before turning away.
So. Steve had been telling the truth after all. Even in death, the cunt got a prize. Paul really did think I was a coasting, selfish arsehole. Didn’t matter how he might’ve tried to dress it up when giving people an introductory low down, it was all on the table now.
I could’ve bit back. I could’ve said that everyone has the right to feel crap on in this situation and that winning the shit luck lottery didn’t give him the right to ignore how everyone else felt. I could’ve snapped about how he was obsessed with his mistakes. About how he got so hung up on inconsequential details that the bigger picture – life – tended to happen around him. About how he was going to have a heart attack in his mid 40s if he didn’t slow down.
But I didn’t. Because that didn’t matter. He was right. And none of the things I could’ve levelled at him were even problems any more. To an 18 to 21 year old, sure, Paul’s problems had struck me as signs of someone wishing their life away. Those were the best years of our lives – why would anyone want to spend them wangsting over current economic trends and how they were going to affect the job market or mortgages? Those were dirty terms – forbidden terms. They were terms belonging to people who’d given up on wild adventures in shitty, leaky tents practically sponsored by Bargain Booze.
But we weren’t students any more. In the here and now, they were all things that had got him to where he was.
A good job. A loving fiance. A healthy body. A stack of friends. Didn’t much matter if he was on track to have a heart attack in his 40s if he was about to die aged 27. He’d spent his life working his arse off to get every little victory, and now it was going to be taken away. In a very real sense, it already had. What sort of joy could someone get from their future when they’d experienced everything we had this weekend?
The fact I could’ve even consider them grudge-worthy wasn’t a comment on him, it was a comment on me.
For all I’d put the worry aside, it turned out I really had been token piece of garbage reminding everyone else of how well they’ve done.
And you know what? I wasn’t angry. I was mildly pissed that Paul had been talking shit about me before I’d even met some of the people I’d seen die this weekend, but what the fuck did it matter? Why did I give a toss about them? In that moment I realised that none of them were as important to me as the guy who’d called me up out of the blue after nine years of me holding him back, and tried to include me in his life again. Except Jo, of course, but that was another matter completely, one that would never get resolved now she was gone.
Of all the people who’d stuck with me, who’d continued to throw me rope after rope to help make me a better person, Paul was the one who’d stuck with it. He was the only one who’d never given up.
The sun had sunk lower still by the time I dragged myself out of the shower room. The cold was coming back, my breath starting to mist in the air. We were in for a chilly night without any light or heat.
Ewan and Paul were sat together between the two closest sinks, the open, doorless doorway to the outside world yawning too close for comfort. Paul had an arm slung over Ewan’s shoulders as Ewan clasped his free hand.
They looked up.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
They said nothing.
“I didn’t mean to be such an insensitive arsehole.” I bit back the catchphrase-worthy ‘you know what I’m like’ and took a big, bitter bite of humble pie. “You’re the closest thing I’ve ever had to a friend, and I’ve been a colossal dick for the entire time I’ve known you. You’re right.”
Paul’s expression softened a touch.
“But I’m right too,” I continued. “This isn’t fair. This isn’t right. I’m not putting that on you and I’m not taking anything away from you either. I’m not expecting you to come up with a way out of this. I just think… I just think this whole weekend could’ve done with less death, you know?”
He almost managed a smile. It died in the fight against emotional and physical exhaustion.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next. But I don’t want to be alone. I’m done with that. Can we all just sit together? Please?”
Ewan was the first to get up. I suspect he would’ve sprung to his feet if his legs weren’t as messed up as mine. He walked his hands up the stone behind him and tottered over to throw his arms around me. Then there was Paul.
The three of us stood as one and I enjoyed the warmth as much as I did the sincere contact. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d ever felt that.
I realised then that I loved them both. For all they’d been through, for all Paul had fought his whole fucking life. For how perfect they were together. For how I’d constantly overlooked my only real friend and basically pissed away what could’ve been an amazing half decade with him in my life.
I couldn’t cry – I was too drained for that – so I drank in the unfamiliar sort of peace in the proximity of who they were together. I wondered if I ever would’ve felt anything this good if I’d continued the way I was going. If I’d never come out here this weekend.
It wasn’t worth everything we’d lost, but for a brief moment, I could’ve convinced myself it was all okay.
I eventually disentangled myself with a stiff fidget before the need to say something defensively shitty overcame me.
“Right,” I said with a self-conscious sniff. “I don’t know how we’re going to die, but I’m not doing it sober. There’s a heap of crap lager in the yurts and I intend to get hammered.”
Paul took it with patient amusement. Ewan tilted his head to one side like a confused puppy.
“You’re not going out there are you? For canned piss?”
I snorted. “I’ll have you know that Kestrel is a fine, upstanding brand, the backbone of many poor decisions and good nights. As is its cheaper, younger sibling Starling, of which I have twelve unopened cans.”
Ewan peered around me. Me and Paul turned. The open doorway of the outhouse perfectly framed the yurts some 20 or 30 metres away. It was a straight run – or ineffectual, aching trot in my case. I knew exactly where the cans were. I could be there and back in a couple of minutes.
“We’d hear that thing before it came,” I said. “Even I can manage a dash that short.”
“What else is out there? In the yurts, I mean.”
I thought back to mine and Jo’s work scant hours before as we loaded up the backpacks. I had a fairly solid idea of where everything was and how much of it we had to play with. If it weren’t for the prospect of exposing ourselves to whatever was out there, we could get a chain gang going that would see us wither in relative comfort in the shack. With our loaded-up backpacks mouldering somewhere in the forest and far, far out of reach, the remains of our good times here were the best bet we had for lasting the night much less beyond.
“Sleeping bags. Spare clothes. Some snacks. Uncooked food – not that that’s much good. We burned all the fuel last night.”
Ewan nodded along thoughtfully. “Shame. We’ve got enough accelerant.”
Tucked to one side in the shadow of the door I made out the shape of the jerry can Steve had left behind. I’d completely forgotten about it with everything else that had happened.
Something resembling an idea started to poke its way up through my brain. It wasn’t formed enough to do anything with.
“We could do with getting some layers. Sitting on bare stone isn’t great. A source of light, too.”
“I can’t manage that on my own. Not in one trip.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“I should go,” said Paul.
Both Ewan and I declined. “You’ve done enough running about. I’d trust my legs more than yours at this point. Besides, I know where everything is.”
“You should keep watch,” said Ewan. “I can’t see a sodding thing.”
I realised that he wasn’t wearing his milk bottle glasses any more.
Paul didn’t look thrilled – it had become a familiar expression – but didn’t have it in him to object. Now the prospect of warmth, food, and terrible drink had been mooted, none of us were prepared to let it go.
“Alright. Best do it now while the coast is clear and we’ve got daylight.” He looked like he’d had an idea of his own. “Don’t suppose there was a multitool or anything like that left behind?”
“No. That sounds too useful. We would’ve taken it with us. Best I can do you is a standard bottle opener.”
Paul shook his head.
“Right then. No point in putting it off,” I said. “Let’s go shopping.”
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