by Nod Ghosh

Ma chest is screaming, and ma legs are burning.

‘I − can’t − keep − up − wi’ − ye.’

Craig’s a lazy bastard, but he climbs up the hill like a spider monkey on speed.

‘Slow the feck down,’ I shout, but he’s so far off, I dunnae if he’ll hear me. He stops, turns and laughs at me gasping like a dying fish.

‘Come on Slug,’ Craig shouts, and pulls a pack of fags from the pocket of his jeans.

When I catch up, he’s smoked his cigarette halfway to the filter. ‘Here you go, mollusc.’ He hands me a cig. I light it off his, and feel the burn of blue smoke on ma insides. I’m hot as hell from the climb. I pull ma hoodie off and tie it round meself, though it’s not easy to knot the ends over ma belly.

Then I see the rabbit.

‘There. Look,’ I whisper, and grab Craig’s sleeve.  

It’s big, the size of ma boot. It freezes in the firing line of our sight for a second − and then it’s gone.

‘Reckon it was a hare. Ye can tell by the ears,’ Craig says. The shit thinks he kens everything.

‘Nah, rabbit,’ I say, for the sake of it, though I’m not really sure.

‘C’mon,’ he says, stubbing his fag out in the grass with his Nike heel. Was his idea to take the eastern face up. Best way to reach the top of Arthur’s Seat, he says. He moves like a robot now, well-paced mechanical steps showing no sign of gettin’ fatigued. I follow him. Ma lungs begin to dissolve, and drip into ma liver.

It’s a warm enough day, but there’s no one here really, just a figure in the distance, blue and hooded. Looks like it’s escaped from a film-set or something. It’s stooped over a hiking stick, moving ever-so-slowly. It’s early, but I wish we’d brought the tinnies of lager Gazza got for us. Na, best save them for the party. Craig’s brother won’t be able to get us no more, I reckon.

Was a hare, Tony,’ Craig says, and I know he’s trying to rile me. He only ever uses ma real name when he’s trying to piss me off. Otherwise it’s slug, or prokaryote, or something else he’s picked up from biology class. He sits on a craggy bit of rock. He’s not even out of breath, the wee cunt. A dagger’s slicing through ma innards, and ma breath sounds like an old donkey’s, rasping and hollow.

‘It feckin’ well was nae,’ I say, coz I’m expected to carry on the argument, but I don’t really give a shit about the long-gone rabbit-hare thing. Ma hoodie unties itself, so I roll it into a pillow and lie back on it. Sucking on the last few drags of the cig, I look upwards. The sky’s turned into macaroni cheese, clouds rolling and rippling everywhere, with Loch Arthur cheddar glowing through them. The sun could come out again in a minute. Or it might not. I squeeze the life out of ma fag, and then stub it out on the yellow-green grass. I close ma eyes and take long slow breaths. I like the kiss of the breeze on ma skin.

It’s the first week of holidays, and I’m gonnae have a good time, a good, good time, like it says in that stupid song Gazza’s always playing when we go round to theirs. Chelsea Waverley’s goin’ to Shane’s party tonight, and someone said she’d said she could score us some −

‘Have ye seen ma boys?’

I open ma eyes.

Craig’s not anywhere.

Was a hare.

His words ring in ma ears, his voice, like a poorly oiled bike, somewhere between a boy’s and a man’s. But this voice is nae his. It’s old. It’s female.

‘If you can help me,’ it says. I twist round and look behind. A woman. Her words are like water going down a drain, like something broken and washed with tears. ‘I’m lookin’ fur ma boys.’

It’s the old hag with the stick I saw earlier. She wrings her hands together like she’s got an itch. Round an’ back. Round an’ back again. She’s got a sack thing tied around her like a sling. There’s a whiff of mould off of her. Mould and the sea. The sea?

‘No,’ I say, sitting up and looking about for Craig, but he’s gone. ‘No, I ain’t seen no one, just ma mate Craig.’ Where the hell is he? ‘Just the two of us. I ain’t seen no kids.’ But the old hag’s so decrepit she cannae be a mother of bairns. She looks seventy-five? Eighty-five? No, older than that. She looks like she’s a hundred-and-five. Perhaps she’s had her grandkids with her, and they ran off. Great-grandkids even.

‘We’ve been walkin’ for so long. Four leagues,’ she says, ‘with not a bite to eat.’ What’s she on about? I look around to see if Craig’s filming me on his smartphone, and it’s all a big joke. ‘And ma boy Duncan’s got dropsy and Doughall’s lame. He can’t stay apace wi’ the rest of us.’

‘Craig?’ I shout, trying to keep the smile out of ma voice. If she’s an actress or a trickster, then she’s feckin’ good. ‘Sorry, I’m trying to see what happened to ma friend.’ I cup ma hands around ma mouth and shout, ‘Craig, ye dick. Come back here!’ But he does nae reply. He must have walked off when I was daydreaming. Why would he do that? Why would he go?

‘ − and I sent Hamish to look fur the others,’ the old girl heaves a massive sigh, ‘and when they didnae come back, I sent Campbell to search fur them. I kept the youngest with me, though.’

‘So how long have they been gone for?’ I act concerned in case there’s any truth to what the old bat’s saying. We probably need to find them kids. There’re some big drops not far from here, and if the little ones reach the cliffs, it could mean trouble. ‘How old are they? And how many did ye say?’

But she just carries on like I never said nothing.

‘And Rory, when I came back, wee Rory was gone,’ she stifles a sob. ‘Will ye help me find ma boys?’

‘That’s why I’m asking ye, when did − ‘

But she talks through me like she’s looking at me, but she ain’t really seein’ me.

‘Have ye seen ma boys?’

‘But − ‘

‘I’m lookin’ fur ma boys.’

I stand up, and face her. I’m not the tallest boy in our class, but even so, I tower over her. I might have thought she was for real a minute ago, but she’s blown it now. She’s talking in loops.

‘Duncan’s got dropsy and Doughall’s lame − ‘

‘Oy!’ I want to shake her, so she snaps out of it. She’s looking straight at me, but at the same time it’s like she’s looking right through me.

‘ − wee Rory was gone, so I sent Craig to look fur them.’

Craig? What-the-mother-of-feck?

‘You − you − got a kid called Craig?’

‘But they’re not coming back,’ she sobs. ‘They’re never coming back.’

‘Look, get a grip.’ I put ma hand on her shoulder, and that’s when I totally freak out. It’s hard, like it’s made out of sticks. Sticks covered in wool. Cold. I pull back, coz it makes me wannae gip. She doesnae see me recoil.

‘We’ve been walkin’ so long− ’

‘I think we might need to call the police.’ I don’t know what the reception’s like here, but I grab ma Samsung. I’d better do it, coz the old girl’s not in any fit state to do anything, that’s even if she’s got a cellphone, and then I’m thinking, should I call emergency, or do I need the number for the cop shop at Gayfield Square, and I try to Google it, but I ain’t got no signal, and where-the-feck-is-Craig, and I came up here to have some fun, not to help a mad old dear who’s lost her kids, and I’m supposed to be goin’ to Shane’s party tonight, but hope for Christ’s sake Craig turns up soon, and if I could just get −

I look up after punching the keys on ma phone, and the old bitch isn’t there anymore.

‘Hey!’

Nothing. And where’s tit-face gone?

‘Craig?’ Where the hell is he? I’m gonnae get him for this. It’s gone on too long. ‘Craig? Where are you, you piece of crap?’ So I set off to look for him.

*

‘That’s pretty much all I can tell ye.’

The cop hands me a card. ‘If you think of anything, anything at all that might help, give me a call.’ She must be from England. She’s like a female Michael Caine, her accent’s cockney or something. ‘Even if you can’t get through to me, Tony, there’ll be someone on that number you can talk to.’ Ma throat’s dry, and ma belly’s making a strange sound, coz I haven’t had nothing to eat since breakfast. That was hours ago. I couldn’t touch the dry sandwiches Mrs. Michael Caine brought me. I was all twisted up inside.

The sky’s starting to streak indigo.

‘We take it very seriously,’ she goes on, ‘when youngsters go missing like this. Ever since the Rory McDaniels case. And there have been other reports − ’ but I’m not really listening to her anymore. I can’t believe Craig just walked off and left me like that.

‘Yeah,’ I say, but ma voice is hoarse. ‘I will.’

‘Your Dad’s out there with the McNaughtons. He’ll take you home.’

In the lobby, Dad cuffs me on the cheek. Craig’s mum hides her face in Mr. McNaughton’s armpit, even though they divorced years ago, and she hates him. Her cries remind me of the old woman on Arthur’s seat, the old woman that no one saw except me.

‘Come on, son, it’s getting late,’ Dad says. He nods goodbye to the McNaughtons, but they’re too caught up in their troubles to say anything.

I climb into the back of Dad’s car. I grunt replies to all his questions. I wonder who’s turned up at Shane’s party, and whether it’s still going. Was Chelsea Waverley bullshitting all along? Don’t think Dad’ll let me go to the party now, with all that’s gone on. Can’t say I really want to go anyway. Not with Craig being − gone.

‘It was a rabbit,’ I say.

‘What was?’ Dad asks as the old Skoda hiccups into life.

‘Nothing,’ I say, and look out into the gloom.

Nod Ghosh’s work features in anthologies: Love on the Road 2015 (Liberties Press), Landmarks (U.K. 2015 NFFD), Horizons 2 (Top of the South NZSA), Leaving the Red Zone (Clerestory Press, N.Z.), and various other publications. Further details: http://www.nodghosh.com/about/