The silence was punctuated by stifled coughing. Dust was no longer escapable by moving indoors. The world was shedding its cancerous skin and you took it with you everywhere.
Finn looked down at the bundle of blankets that held his dead sister. No one made coffins anymore so covering her in her old duvet was the best her family could do. He winced when he saw a damp patch where her face was hiding. He’d always thought of a corpse as being a dry thing, but the truth was different. Dead things were moist.
He turned away from his sister’s resting place at the front of the living room where the television had once been and glanced at his ma. The old girl was numb, her face grey and expressionless, and the back of one frail hand against her mouth as she fought off another cough. Maybe in the old world she would have been wailing at a church, but death was too commonplace now to be melodramatic. The end would soon come for them all, a withered old man standing before them, palm outstretched and ready to give them that final handshake. In some way’s Finn’s sister had been lucky to escape humanity’s last, choking breaths.
If you could call being raped and murdered lucky.
Finn clenched his fists, ignoring the pain of knuckles once broken as a younger man. His mother seemed to sense his anger and moved her gaze towards him. She did not smile, but gave a very small nod—the extent of what her numbness would allow her.
Clive put a hand on Finn’s broad back and handed him a tumbler full of whiskey. “Enjoy it, brother, because there’s no more left. I’d pop the shop but it’s not there anymore.”
Finn huffed at the joke. The corner shop nearby had gone up in flames a few days ago when some kids set fire to it for the craic, but it had dropped its shutters long before that. The only way to get anything anymore was to take it, find it, or bargain for it.
Take it, thought Finn. Like someone took my sister.
I should have been here.
He and Marie had not been close since they were kids. She had moved with the family to London in the early nineties, while he had remained behind in Belfast, an eighteen year old with a chip on his shoulder. A perfect recruit for the IRA. Following in his father’s footsteps.
Now Finn realised, more than ever, how much of his life he had given up to fighting. He wondered if Northern Ireland even existed anymore, or had it finally welcomed the joyless oblivion it had been toying with for the last century. Finn’s homeland was probably now blackened and lifeless like the rest of the globe. The killing had finally stopped there. It was over. It was all over.
All that remained in Finn’s world now were the people in this room. His mother, his brother, and him. A killer and the loving family he had turned from. Finn had chosen hate.
He downed the whiskey despite the warning that it would be his last. He would not draw out the agony with tentative sips. His final whiskey would be given a chance to work. Even now he felt the warmness in his legs.
“You never were a patient one, were you?” said Clive, his native accent now all but gone after two decades living in the English capital. He was just nine when he had moved here.
Finn patted his younger brother on the shoulder and smiled. It seemed he was one of the few who could still do so. Maybe it was only the insane who still smiled. “I’m an Irishman with a drink in front of him,” he said. “You having one yourself?”
Clive shook his head. “Knew you would enjoy it more.”
Finn felt a lump in his throat where the whiskey had burned. To get back to emotions he was used to he glanced back at his dead sister. A brief memory of her threading daisy-chains while sitting on his lap flashed through his mind. It hurt like a rusty blade across his ribs. “What happened to her, Clive?”
Clive looked away, hiding his eyes. He rubbed at his left wrist, almost nervously. “No point thinking about it. She’s gone, brother.”
“I know that. Why is she gone though? Which low-life gobshite did this to her?”
“I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. We’ll all be gone ourselves before the week is through. Danny Stanton said he drove down to Ramsgate and the English Channel was gone. Just gone. That grey sludge had taken over it and was crawling up the beach.” He stopped rubbing his wrist for a moment and rubbed the dust and sweat from his brow. “It’s stupid, but even after all the news reports part of me hoped it was all just a load of nonsense. I prayed to the almighty father that it wasn’t really happening. Seeing the fear on poor Danny Stanton’s face was all the proof I needed. He reckons it will be up this way before the week ends. We should move north with ma soon. They say Newcastle will be the last to go. Makes you proud in a way. The last surviving patch of land will be right here in England.”
Finn sneered. “Why would it make you proud? You’re Irish.”
“I’ve lived here for twenty-years, Finn. I might be Irish but England is my home. Do you really look back at that place fondly? It was a battleground. Why did you stay so long?”
Finn stared firmly at his sister’s body beneath the damp blankets. “This place is no different. Monsters dwell everywhere, little brother. One of those monsters did this to Marie. I want to know who.”
Clive sighed. “Like I said, I dunno who.”
Finn’s brother went to turn away but he grabbed him by the wrist, harder than he’d intended, and it made him cry out. “You’re lying to me, Clive. I want to know who did this. Which fucker raped my sister?”
Clive yanked his arm away and rubbed his wrist as though it were on fire. “What the fuck does it matter? We’re all dead anyway.”
“It matters because she suffered alone and afraid.”
“Ha! Don’t act like you give a shit about Marie being alone. She had to get by without you for the last twenty years. I was just a kid when we moved here, but she was almost a teenager. She missed you her whole life.”
Finn recoiled. “I was here. I saw her.”
Clive spat on the carpet—it didn’t matter. “What, you mean on the odd Christmas or Easter when you weren’t too busy fighting pointless wars?”
“I was a soldier, Clive. I had a duty.”
“You had a family, but you decided to follow in dad’s footsteps. The IRA has a lot to answer for…” he trailed off, “but there’s no reason to debate it now. There’s no reason to do anything anymore. Don’t you get it, Finn? Marie is dead. She doesn’t care what happened to her and neither should you. Instead of worrying about it you should be making peace with God. You more than most.”
Finn clenched his fists.
Clive’s lower lip trembled, but he stood his ground. His younger brother thought himself a man. At twenty-years old he should be, but Finn could teach him a few things.
“Finley!” Both brothers turned to face their ma, who had chosen this moment as one of the few times she spoke as of late. “I won’t see you at each other’s throats,” she snapped. “We should all be making peace with God, not just Finn. Let’s count ourselves lucky that we have any time left at all. To be amongst family for our final days is a blessing. Don’t squander what most are not lucky enough to have.”
Clive nodded. He looked at his brother. “I’m sorry.”
Finn shrugged, but said nothing. His anger had risen and the only thing that would bring him back down was taking a few breaths and remaining silent. His brother was right, and that was what was so infuriating. It meant that Finn was wrong—had been wrong most of his life.
Fighting pointless wars against neighbours and children.
“Finn, can I speak with you in the kitchen, please?” his ma said, moving past the mahogany china cabinet that was older than she was. It would outlive her too.
Finn nodded and followed her into the kitchen. The small room was streaked with filth. Earth’s atmosphere was in tatters, and the solidification of the oceans had put an end to climatic winds. England was hot, dusty, and still. Never so much as a breeze gave relief from the muggy heat and dust and grime covered everything. In the last few weeks, the trees had begun to die, choked off from the sun by whatever foulness clung to the air. Some said it was the decayed corpses of animals. Others said it was flecks from the creeping grey tar that was casually devouring the earth. Finn didn’t care what the dust was, he was just tired of choking on it.
His ma stood in front of the empty fridge and stared at him. “You’re still angry, Finley? Even after all these years?”
He went to argue but ended up nodding. Anger wasn’t something he was ashamed of. It was just a part of him—the only thing his father had left him.
“Good,” his ma said, surprising him.
He frowned. “Good?”
She took a step towards him and placed her hands on his shoulders. Her eyes had once been green, but now they were grey and tired, set above sunken cheeks. When she spoke again, she kept her voice low as if she didn’t want Clive to hear in the next room. “Marie had a boyfriend. Real piece of work.”
Finn swallowed, the lump in his throat returning. “Go on, ma.”
“It was a year ago when she first came home with a black eye. She’d been down the Hobby Horse with a new guy. She swore he had nothing to do with it, but it was more regular than her period after that. Your brother, Clive, went down the pub one evening to try and put a stop to it-”
Finn raised an eyebrow. “Clive went and confronted the guy?”
“Aye, he did, bless him. He came back with more than a black eye that night though, I can tell you. Took three months for his wrist to heal. Even now I see that it hurts him. We didn’t see Marie for weeks later. The brute kept her from us.”
“Who is this guy? I’ll wring his bloody neck.”
“I know you will, Finley. That’s why I’m telling you.”
Finley took a moment and tried to think. “Are you saying that he did this to Marie? It was him who killed her?”
His ma shrugged her shoulders and folded her arms. For a moment she was once again the strong, no-nonsense Catholic woman he remembered from his youth. “Don’t have no proof, but if one day you see a cat eyeing up a mouse and then the next day you have a dead mouse, it don’t make much sense to blame the dog.”
Finn nodded. “His name?”
Finn leaned in and gave his mother a hug. Then he left her in the kitchen.
“Everything okay?” Clive asked. He was still rubbing his wrist.
“Sorry I hurt you, little brother. I never meant to.”
Clive nodded. He didn’t hold grudges—never have.
Finn pulled his brother in for an awkward hug. Then he turned and knelt down beside his sister. He knew that beneath the blanket her face was a mess, but he placed his hand where he imagined her cheek to be. “I’m sorry I hurt you too, baby sis.”
He stood up and left the house without saying another word.