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A stifled cough punctuated the silence. The world was shedding its cancerous skin and you took it with you everywhere. Black dust covered everything. A person could no longer ever be clean.
Finn gazed at the bundle of blankets hiding his dead sister—no one made coffins anymore, so covering her in an old duvet was the best they could do—and winced when he spotted a damp patch where her face should be. He’d always thought of a corpse as being a dry thing. The truth was different. Dead things were moist.
His sister was moist.
Finn’s sister had been placed in the living room—where the television used to be—so they could all be together when the end came. The presence of a corpse was no longer morbid, it was mundane. A simple part of life—what little remained of it.
Finn turned from his sister’s resting place and glanced at his ma. The old girl gazed numbly, her face grey and expressionless. She held a frail hand against her mouth as she fought off another cough and seemed satisfied when it went away. In the old world she would have been wailing in a church after the loss of her child, but death was too commonplace now for melodrama. A billion mothers had lost their children. She was not special. Death was coming to claim them all—a withered old man with palm outstretched, ready to give the final handshake. Finn considered his sister might have been lucky to escape humanity’s last choking breaths.
If you can call being brutalised 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 tiny nod telling him she was still present. A weaker woman would be lost to madness, but his ma was cursed with an unbreakable spirit. No respite of insanity for her.
Or for Finn.
Clive put a hand on Finn’s stiff 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 no more.”
Finn smiled at the joke. The nearby corner shop went up in flames days ago but had dropped its shutters long before. The only way to get anything anymore was to take it, find it, or bargain for it.
Take it, thought Finn grimly. Like someone took my sister.
I should have been here. I should have been looking after her. My little sis.
Finn and Marie had not been close since they were kids—she had moved with the family to London in the early nineties, while Finn stayed behind in Belfast, an eighteen-year-old with a chip on his shoulder (a perfect recruit for the IRA)—but he felt her loss like a blade in his chest. He had always felt like he would have time—time to reconnect with his family later and to settle down when he was ready. He realised now how much of his life he had sacrificed to fighting. Northern Ireland didn’t even exist anymore, so it had all been for nothing anyway. His homeland was a blackened, lifeless husk just like the rest of the globe.
All that remained of Finn’s world now were the people inside the cramped living room. It was a home he’d never been part of, yet, looking around at the old heirlooms and ancient photographs, it felt like he belonged. Atop the mantelpiece stood the horse figurine he’d had made at school. It still bore the hairline fracture where a toddling Marie got hold of it and dropped it on the old kitchen tiles back in Belfast.
Back when they had all been together.
This might not have been Finn’s home for the past twenty years, but it was his home now. His mother, his brother, and him—a killer and the loving family he turned away from—awaiting the end of the world.
Finn had chosen a life of hate.
And it had cost him so much.
He downed the whiskey despite his brother’s warning it would be his last, unwilling to draw out the agony with tentative sips. Whiskey deserved a chance to work, and even now he sensed its warmness spreading through his legs.
Spreading like tar.
“You never were a patient one, were you?” said Clive, his native accent gone after two decades in England—just four years old when he moved here.
Finn patted his younger brother on the shoulder. “I’m an Irishman with a drink in front of him. You having one yourself?”
Clive shook his head. “Knew you would enjoy it more.”
Finn felt a lump in his throat where the whiskey burned. To get back to emotions he could handle, he glanced again at his dead sister. A brief memory of Marie threading daisy-chains while sitting on his lap in the forest 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 and sighed. “No point thinking about it now. She’s gone. I’m going to bury her in the front garden. It’s probably a silly thing to do, but I want her to be at rest when the end comes. She was such a kind soul.”
“I know,” said Finn, heart thudding inside his chest. “What bastard did this to her?”
“I don’t know, Finn, and it doesn’t matter. We’ll all be gone ourselves before the week is through. Danny Stanton said he drove down to Ramsgate last week, and the English Channel was gone. Just… gone. The tar was crawling right up the beach.” He stopped rubbing his wrist for a moment and wiped the dusty sweat from his brow. “It’s stupid, but even after all the news reports, part of me hoped it was all fantasy. I prayed to the Almighty it wasn’t really happening, but 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. They say Newcastle will be last to go. Makes you proud in a way. The last surviving patch of life will be right here in England.”
Finn sneered. “Why would it make you proud? You’re Irish. Ireland is gone.”
“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 so fondly? It was a battleground. Why did you stay so long?”
Finn stared at his sister’s damp corpse. “This place is no different, Clive. Monsters dwell everywhere. A monster did this to Marie, and I want to know who.”
“Like I said, I don’t know.”
Clive went to turn away, but Finn grabbed him by the wrist—harder than he’d intended—and it made Clive cry out.
“You’re lying to me, Clive. I want to know who did this. Who killed our sister? Who killed Marie?”
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 baby when we moved here, but she remembered. She missed you her whole life.”
Finn recoiled. “I was here. I saw her.”
“The odd Christmas or Easter when you weren’t too busy fighting pointless wars?”
“I was a soldier, Clive. I had a duty.”
“You followed in dad’s footsteps and became a mindless terrorist. 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. “Careful, little brother.”
Clive’s lower lip trembled, but he stood his ground. His younger brother thought himself a man. At twenty four he should be, but Finn could still teach him a few things.
“Finley!” Both brothers turned to face their ma who chose that moment as one of the few times she spoke as of late. “I will not see you at each other’s throats. We should all be making peace with God, not just Finn. Let’s count ourselves lucky we have any time at all. To be amongst family for our final days is a blessing. Don’t squander what most are nay lucky enough to have. You two are brothers.”
Clive nodded, looked at Finn. “I’m sorry.”
Finn shrugged, but said nothing. His anger had risen. The only thing that could bring him back now was taking a few breaths and remaining silent. His little brother was right, and it was infuriating. It meant that Finn was wrong—and 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 ordered rather than asked. She moved past the mahogany china cabinet older than she was and disappeared.
Finn followed her. Entering the small kitchen streaked with filth. Earth’s atmosphere was in tatters. The solidification of the oceans had put an end to climatic winds. England was hot, dusty, and still. Not so much as a mild breeze gave relief from the mugginess, and grime coated all. In the last few weeks, trees began to die, choked off from the sun by whatever foulness clung to the air. Some said it was decayed animal and human corpses. Others claimed flecks of the creeping grey tar 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, blocking the curled family photo of them at their former home—the one picture that had Dad in it. His callous eyes stared back at Finn. “You’re still angry, Finley?” his ma said. “Even after all these years?”
Finn went to argue but ended up nodding. Anger wasn’t something of which he was ashamed. It was a part of him—the only thing his father had left him with any value. “Yes, I am angry.”
“Good,” his ma said, surprising him.
He raised an eyebrow. “Good?”
His ma took a step towards him and placed her hands on his shoulders while she looked at him. Her eyes had once been green, but now they were grey, set above sunken cheeks. When she spoke, she kept her voice low, as if she didn’t want Clive to hear in the next room. “Marie had a boyfriend, Finn. A real piece of work.”
Finn swallowed, the lump in his throat returning. His eyes kept falling upon that family photo. Next to his dad stood Marie, a tiny three-year-old hanging off her thirteen year old brother. Clearing his throat, Finn urged his ma to continue.
“It was a year ago when she came home with her first black eye,” she went on. “She’d been down a local pub called the Hobby Horse drinking with some new fella. She swore he had nothing to do with her face, but it was as regular as the wind after that. Your brother went down one evening and tried to put a stop to it.”
Finn raised an eyebrow. “Clive confronted the guy?”
His ma almost smiled, but the sadness was too quick and snuffed it out. “Aye, he did, bless him. He came back with more than a black eye. Took three months for his wrist to heal. Even now, I see it pains him. We didn’t see Marie for weeks after that. The brute kept her from us.”
“Who is he?” Finn growled. “I’ll wring his bloody neck.”
“I know you will, Finley. That’s why I’m telling you. We may have been parted by your father’s hate, but you’ve been brought back by your mother’s love. Never have I made you unwelcome here. You have always been free to call this your home. Now ye have, just in time. You’re my boy and I love you. Being here now, at the end, is what counts. Taking care of your family now is what counts. You look just like him, you know? But your eyes are much softer.”
Finn knew he looked like his father—chestnut hair atop an ordinary face—but his blue eyes were his ma’s. He took a moment to think things through. His ma had always been so against violence. When his father had been murdered by a British paratrooper during a standoff at a burned-out factory, she had begged Finn not to take up his mantle, but at thirteen years old a boy needed his daddy. Having him taken away by a foreign invader filled Finn with a rage that had only grown with age. Yet, here Ma was now, seeking vengeance?
“Are you saying that Marie’s boyfriend did this? 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 ye have a dead mouse, it don’t make much sense to blame the dog. You know I don’t like killing, Finley, but it doesn’t cost so much these days. I don’t want to meet my end knowing that monster is still out there.”
Finn leaned in and gave his mother a hug. He didn’t let go for a long time. Perhaps his ma’s embrace might have saved him from the hatred, if only he’d allowed it more often as a younger man. “I’ll take care of it, Ma. If I’m not back when…”
“I know,” she said, cutting him off. “I love you, Finley. I’ll see you in the next life.”
Finley ground his teeth, nodded, then left the kitchen in silence.
“Everything okay?” asked Clive when Finn re-entered the living room. He still rubbed at his wrist and was wincing.
“Sorry I hurt you, little brother. I never meant to.”
Clive nodded. He didn’t hold grudges—never had. They fought every Christmas about something or other, and sometimes a year would go by before they saw each other again. Nonetheless, Clive always welcomed Finn back with open arms.
“I wish I had been here more. I always thought there would be time. You were right, I should have made better decisions, but I can’t change what I am.” Finn pulled his brother into an awkward hug and patted him on the back. Then he turned and knelt down beside Marie. Beneath the blanket, he knew her face was a beaten mess. Her skull looked as though a horse had trampled on it, and one eye socket was so badly crushed that her left eye popped out a full inch. Even with all he’d seen, Finn had been so horrified that he’d not looked beneath the blanket since the day they had covered her.
“I’m sorry I hurt you too, little sis. I wasn’t here, but I am now. Your big brother is here to look after you.”
Finn stood up and left the house without saying another word.