The next day, the hunt for the Snallygaster began.
It was raining when they assembled as a broad row on Skyline at first light, a pitiless, deadening rain. Citizen and civilian milled and mingled together for a while before Nic and Gyre whipped the community into rank and file, spread as far across the treeline as they could manage. Haplan was dressed up in high-vis waterproofs that were even more evident by the incessant wish-wish-wish noise he made when he walked. As they walked, Nic kept the noise to her left, Old Sunshine to her right wearing nothing but a pair of galoshes and dungarees, and walked only onwards, but for the slight deviation to skirt trees and dark and sparkling ponds. The only other noise was the tapping of rain on her cover, the distressed snap of foliage, and the cries of the townspeople. One name, again and again, elongated into a call that was stifled by the rain. She was drenched after five minutes, from wading through foliage, from treading through the soupy mush under that, and the rainwater seeping and persuading itself through every crack in her uniform through some patient, malevolent osmosis.
Join the force. Make a difference. Bring peace to the community.
Some of those from town had brought or picked up long sticks and broom handles to probe the undergrowth about them as they walked. Some of the people of Harville had brought their guns with them. It was hard to imagine a scenario in which they wouldn’t be used, and dangerously. But they wouldn’t be argued with. By general agreement, they were looking for Terry’s boy. The alternative would not be spoken.
An owl was watching Nic imperturbably from the branch of a tall conifer where she stopped after perhaps an hour. Haplan had whisked off somewhere beyond a bank of sedge, and a low brook cut across her path, providing a convenient obstacle at which to call a halt for the moment.
Nic turned, Old Sunshine had veered a fair distance away, some four or five trunks distant, staring across the shallow stream to the gloom on the far bank. The forest to their right, leading off away from the rest of the search party, ascended into almost total darkness in forty feet or less.
The owl blinked, then lifted silently from its branch and heaved off into the air, dropping loose a cascade of shaken raindrops from the fir.
Nic called to him – ‘What?–’
‘It’s here, man–’ called Sunshine back. ‘It’s real.’
Without warning, Sunshine took off, shedding both galoshes in an instant and legging it across the stream with astonishing speed for someone of his age and disposition. Oh Christ.
‘It’s fucking shrooms, Sunshine. Not – Don’t–’
But he was gone, into the gloom. By the time Nic got to where he’d been, there were just his galoshes still standing upright, steadily collecting rain.
Fuck. Fuck’s sake, fucking–
She looked back to where Haplan had been, but of course he must have moved on. Or maybe not – it was hard to tell under such conditions. She could no longer see or hear him through the sedge. She spoke his name into her radio several times, but it made only a dim hissing noise, and after a brief moment to consider what had already been decided, Nic waded across the stream and into the shade.
No Sunshine, in the dark. Only the immediate sounds of water and wind. Only the groping, the forest floor underfoot. Bearings lost, directionless the moment direction is queried. No sound to that call, only the notion of form suggesting itself to the search. Figments of the humour. A figure all in white, fainting away into its afterimage. A red spark etched a livid arc in mid-air, transfixed itself, and disappeared. And all that remained was the fear, curdled through the bowels, solidifying itself into dread. The vague loping towards the part of the dark that was not dark, and the hope that it contained someone or something that had a name.
At the top of the crest was some higher bald, a place numinous and ancient. A dome of sky cleared by ancient lightning fires with views to each horizon, overgrown with hawthorn and wild blackberry. In the midst of the clearing was a low structure, almost entirely overgrown with foliage. But for the angle of its eaves and rainwater running off one corner of its roof with a palpable splatter, it could have been another row of sedge. Nic thought at first it might be an AT shelter, or some ranger cabin or dilapidated piece of Park infrastructure. But this was unmistakeably the relic and wreckage of a bygone populace, the scattered shrapnel of exploded industry. The visible wood was nearly black with age. Its broad side had a huge marking sprayed up in white paint that was unmistakably fresh, runny in the rain. A seven-pointed star.
Its narrow side had a door. It was open, though no light came through its opening.
The moment Nic set foot through, she almost collapsed under an unbearable stabbing pain. Her eyes were aflame, lit up right along the optic nerve and bursting out in the absolute pain centre of her brain. The dark popped and blossomed with faint, phantasmic patterns. She cried out with the agony and confusion of it, her heart hammering in her chest – trying to see ahead of her, and stumbling over a loose footing that felt like industrial shingle, trying to tell what was solid that was looming out ahead at her through the aerial fire.
She stepped on something, and there was a snapping report, loud in that space. She flinched and raised her boot, blindly scrabbling for what it was she had stepped on and bringing it to her face in the torchlight.
A willow cross, bound about by bark twine. Broken along its transept.
She called out again, desperate.
A call answered hers.
She scrambled for her flashlight through so many sodden layers of clothing, and for its button, and pressed it. The flames spread, and resolved themselves to void.
There was another call. It was a child’s.
Niall was sitting in the corner. He was dry, but his wrist was bleeding, and he was calling her name. Nic realised when she came to him and brought his face alongside his that they both were crying.
No one had much more to say, after Niall had been found. The following days and weeks spoke solely in actions, and images. Funny seeing them all on TV, at last. Almost made them seem real.
When they’d finally beaten Gimlin out of his hidey-hole in the brush, he hadn’t budged an inch. He was still raving about interstitial vortexes and Geiger ratios. Funny what people do to convince others. To convince themselves. But not that funny.
It hadn’t taken much explanation. No one knew him, but no one had to. Once Nic told him how Gimlin came to town, his so-called profession, his eccentricity – everyone knew to put two and two together. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
Truth was, Terry’s gun had gone off by accident while they were walking him back through the forest. He didn’t get a chance to answer in court. Never spoke a word to it, if anyone was honest. But he didn’t have to. It was clear enough. I didn’t charge Terry, nor did anyone else. No reason to. Guns go off by accident all the time.
Beaumann had won his seat by a modest landslide the previous week. Nic hadn’t voted. Nic never did. She had been commended, even courted by the city PDs for a promotion after the rescue, but she had told anyone who asked that it was Sunshine showed her the way. It made more sense, that way. Poetic enough, too. And it was time for a change, for her. It had been time for a long time.
All this relayed itself in mute across the Jonson’s TV in various iterations, soundlessly as always. On the porch, Sunshine was humming something tuneless. He had brought the largest of his bong set – General Maraschino, as it was apparently called, for each had designated name and rank – and the thick sativa smell wafted occasionally in to where Nic and Rainbows were sitting indoors, at the same spot they had first spoken. Now that Nic had left the Harville force, all qualms in that direction seemed out the window. Rainbows had not uttered a polysyllable since she had entered. Nic ventured an abstract comment now and then, essentially to make sure she was still mentally upright.
‘Both. All. Still can’t believe it.’
Nic supposed she saw now why the Jonsons lived where and in the way that they did, the Jonsons. Why they watched TV with the sound off. Footage of Terry and Niall and Gimlin’s superimposed mugshot blended seamlessly with the sound of the surrounding forest, eking through the door. Birdsong and bombshells. A forest for the trees.
‘My mom told me she got raped. My dad. Not him. She named me. Not ‘cause of him. She said – that’s what comes after the rain. Made sense in the moment. And then when – she died, and I met him. He – you know. Filled in the blanks. Make it feel sort of – okay. The pain. It was playing in the next room. And I was singing. The whole time. When she came. My favorite things.’
She was about done. ‘–Sorry about Lolly.’
Rainbows shrugged. ‘Shit happens.’
Truer words were never spoken. Nic looked into Rainbows, and saw something she only half-expected. Disappointment. She saw what she felt herself, what she already knew. That even the deepest cynic, in their heart of hearts, is waiting for a miracle to prove them wrong.
Mysteries were no good solved. As for the rest of it – she wasn’t sure she cared much.
‘What’ve you got?–’
The night was warm. The silence sepulchral. Womb-like. Amniotic. The senses mixed themselves through the lungs, the space dilating to the efforts of her breath. The road was far behind her, its rush stilled. Alone at last, if only with the trees.
Inhale, exhale. The trees bowed at their trunks, contracting together and apart again. It was about to happen. To appear.
Red. Yellow. Green.
Rainbows. Sunshine. Lollypops.
The stream was swollen with the rain. Broad and slow, like a sated python. It swallowed her up to her hips. The opposite bank was a gaping slice of perfect unknown.
Constellations aligned in a perfect heptagon. Visions from afar opened up the sky and she basked in the new light, every star a sun.
Blinding unveiled. The air rattled and sang. Silent lightning lit the surface of every pool, shattering outwards from the part of dark that was not dark. The trees were hushed and paralysed. Nothing spoke as reality unravelled.
Waiting for whatever it was there for, wavering, flickering, to obscure. And now the hideous slithering and the parting of air. The unmistakeable stench. The spread of fangs and wings. Its magnificent red lion’s mane, its elephant trunk and tusk and spider’s-leg and shark’s-fin, hoof and horn.
And it was there, amongst the ripples. Sliding through the firelight. It was there. Living, pulsing. It was waiting. For her, to leave the pitch. To stop seeing.