While reading up on PTSD for some of the recurring characters in the Connacht Disaster Zone series, I noticed that one of the common symptoms is hypervigilance (a state of heightened awareness to scan for threats). It occurred to me a week ago that this might be a useful adaptation to living long-term in an area where reality has gone out to lunch, but not outside the zone. And so, here’s the 17th story in the series.
Maebh stared at the mirror, her eyes following her fingers up along the stripes on her new blouse’s v-shaped front collar. She smiled, revealing more teeth that had once been much more yellow. Finally, she had something to wear that wasn’t bleached or grey nettle-stem fibres issued from the laundry – something that was hers. Lowering her hands, she turned towards the younger girl in the room to ask what she thought.
“Why does the collar hang down your back like that?” Aoife asked, swinging her legs idly as she sat on the table next to the sink. Her left hand briefly lifted to point at Maebh’s left shoulder, before returning to rest on her lap. Maebh shrugged, not having cared enough to ask why a sailor’s outfit had such a striped square collar, and nobody had thought it necessary to explain it.
“I want one too,” the other girl admitted enviously. She glanced down at her own grey jumper and off-white dress. Both were clean and the original tears had been well repaired, but they were so…so plain and impersonal. At least they didn’t clash with her ginger hair.
“Maybe you could sew one on yourself?” Maebh lowered her hands to her side. For the second time in nearly seven months, the other girl’s face lit up with something other than apathy for more than a minute as she tilted her head to one side to consider this.
“Your parents will be back in a week,” Maebh added, and immediately regretted it as Aoife’s face fell again. Both she and her twin brother were prone to melancholy without their parents around, though when she’d raised the issue with Dr Magnusson, the alienist had assured her that the training exercises they participated in only used dummy rounds. That didn’t stop her worrying about them; what if a serviceman got a bit “carried away” fighting a Fomorian?
“See you at dinner, all right?”
“All right,” Aoife replied listlessly. Maebh hesitated in the doorway, looking over her shoulder. Even knowing that she’d pick up again in an hour, she still felt the improper urge to hug the girl that she had started to consider a younger sister or cousin. Doing so would have required her to move just a little too close and a little too quickly.
Her aimless footsteps took her towards the common room that doubled as a canteen. Surprisingly enough, only the albino O’Shea was inside, slouching against the far wall and staring at nothing in particular. His stare grew more intense as he turned to face her – something that he had once explained was just him trying to figure out who or what he was looking at, though she wondered if there wasn’t a hint of hunger to it. It still didn’t stop his eyes shaking back and forth.
“Game of Brandubh?” he called. She wasn’t really a fan of the game, but she needed to do something other than draw. Verbally agreeing, she turned to the shelf next to the door and reached with her left hand up to the worn wooden box that held the board and-
And unconsciously swung her body around to the right and brought her right arm up in the manner her parents had taught her all those years ago, before halting dead in her tracks as her eyes locked onto those of the boy who had just crept into the room. Maebh didn’t consider herself easily startled, or no more any other Fomorian. But those blood-red eyes were the creepiest thing she’d seen.
The owner of the eyes was one of the two new children who had been brought here late in the afternoon two days ago – Diarmuid and either Siobhán or Sinéad, she couldn’t remember the girl’s name now. Diarmuid was far thinner than her, with a mess of black hair that looked like he had forgotten or refused to brush it, a recently-stitched cut on his left cheek, and no signs of fangs or skin fungus. If she hadn’t been so taken aback by his eye colour, she’d have heard old Aoife’s father’s voice in the back of her head commenting on the boy’s crude but effective ducking of her hand.
“No harm done!” she called, keeping her hands clearly visible as she backed away slightly.
“I’d heard ye were a jumpy bunch,” the boy snarked as he straightened up. His accent wasn’t one she was familiar with – in fact, she realised that she knew almost nothing about him. “Maybe I’ll knock next time.”
“Jumpy?” she echoed, tilting her head in confusion. Was she?
He rolled his eyes. “Maybe that’s the wrong word. Unless it means something other than constantly scanning the room and nearly going for my throat when I walk into ya?”
Maebh blinked. Had she been doing that? Scanning the room?
“What the heck are you talking about?” O’Shea called, beginning to slouch back against the wall. Diarmuid palmed his face, muttering something under his breath about ‘orcs’. That confirmed that he definitely wasn’t from Connemara or anywhere else in the Homeland region.
“Orcs? Where are you from?”
He lowered his palm and regarded them for a moment, as though weighing up what to say, before eventually admitting he was from Galway. “Well, roughly,” he amended sourly.
“Funny, you don’t sound like a nob to me,” O’Shea smirked. Maebh found herself inwardly half-cursing, half-lamenting his poor eyesight, knowing that the other boy was about to-
“Because I’m not. I’m a fucking fisherman’s son,” the other boy snapped, folding his arms across his chest. He glowered at O’Shea for a moment, before sagging and sighing. “Sorry, I’m just…” he trailed off, apparently unable to describe exactly what he felt.
“Jumpy?” O’Shea filled in with a sardonic grin. To her surprise and unease, the other boy matched it with a grim chuckle.
“And we are?” she asked, still trying to figure out what exactly had caused him to think that.
The red eyes rolled again. “That what the doctor told me. Said you and the rest are hyper-vig-ilous or somethin’ like that.Eyes darting all over the place, backs to a wall.” He paused. “Reminded me of an old dragoon around Forthill – somebody who spent a lot of time out past the Corrib.”
That was an avenue of conversation Maebh really didn’t want to go down. The British military were one thing, but the Connacht Dragoons were the ones everyone west of the Corrib feared and hated as much as the Inquisition. At least the bulldogs that were rotated in and out of the forts didn’t have a personal stake in the area. She decided to move on to other topics – among them, board games.
“We’re about to play Brandubh. Would you like to take part?” She stepped away and slowly picked up the box. As she did so, she mentally replayed his words about them being jumpy; was she trying to avoid spooking him?
“Never played it, and I don’t know how. but I’ve nothing else to do,” he replied with an indifferent shrug. She was relieved to note that he didn’t follow her too close towards the table, or sit too close to either her or O’Shea.
“Oh, you’re albino as well?” O’Shea asked hopefully as he finally got a good look at the other boy, and was awarded with a facepalm. When Diarmuid finally spoke, he bore the long-suffering tone of somebody who had never heard that one before, noting that he could just about tolerate that from an actual albino and was honestly sick of his bloody eyes.
Five minutes into the game, and Maebh couldn’t hold her curiosity any more. She turned to look at Diarmuid and hesitantly began to ask him how he’d ended up here, only to be greeted with a flinch and a hiss that made him sound like a serpentoid issuing a death threat. He did admit, however, that he had been kidnapped and been around the north-west edge of Connemara – so probably around Letterfrack or Cleggan. She suppressed a shudder; that was O’Rourke territory.
“Not many glitches up there, or so I hear,” Maebh commented. That finally caused him to show some surprise – anything other than guarded resignation – as he repeated the word ‘glitches’.
“Things like colours randomly changing, gravity suddenly getting weaker or stronger, or walking through a doorway and suddenly slamming into the wall on the opposite side of the room,” O’Shea replied. “That hasn’t happened here yet, for some reason or another.”
“I once had gravity reverse on me while I was asleep,” Maebh added, reaching for one of her pieces. In hindsight, it wasn’t that bad – she’d rolled out of bed even before she had fully woken up and managed to avoid being crushed underneath the bed.
“What.” This time, Diarmuid’s voice was completely flat, and his eyes looked like blood-coloured saucers.
“Not the worst thing that can happen,” O’Shea continued blandly. “One of my uncles killed a terror bird by luring it into an inside-out patch. He swore that the snakes chasing the bird immediately stopped to palm their faces,” he finished with a grim chuckle.
“An inside-out patch? Does that…” Diarmuid began, starting to look and sound a little queasy.
“It’s a patch of ground or air that turns you inside-out,” Maebh replied, barely suppressing a shudder. She was about to tell him how they had a distinctly unpleasant burning metallic scent from well over ten feet away, but just as she opened her mouth, the red-eyed boy slowly stood up, staring emptily past them and mumbling disjointedly about needing to lie down.
“Maybe you should go to the infirmary,” she called just as he shuffled out the door, and to her horror, he flinched and hissed again. Before she could stand up to go and help him, he disappeared from sight.
“He only arrived a couple of days ago, right?” O’Shea began, absently picking up one of his pieces. At her helpless nod he continued, “Probably just getting used to being here.”
She shook her head. “No…I don’t think he’s seen anything like that. The glitches apparently aren’t normal in Galway town.”
The quiet snort that the albino gave her told her exactly what he thought of that. Watching out for that sort of thing was just part of life. Anyone who didn’t learn quickly simply didn’t live very long.