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Molly sank back into the slightly saggy seat of the Nissan and drank in the comforting familiarity of it all as they trundled along. Dad was never going to be a speed-freak, and, as usual, after a trip into Whitemark, the boot was so full that Bunce had to share the backseat with her case and the bags. Bunce didn’t mind as long as he could put his hairy head over the back of her seat and drool onto her shoulder, in between sticking his big nose out of the window.

“So, how was Melbourne?” her father asked as they drove past the old, burned-out gum trunk where some joker had hung a “the black stump” sign.

“Busy. Full of traffic. Full of people. Full of shops and shopping,” answered Molly, looking at the empty landscape.

“Just like this!” he said, cheerfully waving at a handful of hairy highland cows in a paddock. “And look, there is another car on our road.” He greeted the driver with a wave, as everyone did here.

“Well, it is kind of nice to have shops, but Auntie Helen dragged me through a lot of them.”

“She would. So how was the flight, Molly?” He knew how much she hated being in the air. He was fishing.

Molly found herself blushing. Dad was a pain. He read her far too well, and noticed little things. He’d noticed the boy when she’d said ’bye to him. And he was as nosy as a bloodhound. It would be easier just to tell him. “Not as bad as sometimes. I talked to someone quite a lot of the way. A boy in the seat in front of me.”

“We’ll just have to see that there’s always a boy on the flight for you to pick up then.”

“Oh, pul-leeze, Daddy. He’s far too young. He was just a nice kid.”

“Practice makes perfect. Is he coming over on holiday or something?”

“He didn’t say. And I didn’t ask him what his parents did or where he was from, or what he wanted to do with his life, either,” she said tartly. “So you can stop asking.”

Her father grinned. “Name? Mobile number?”

“He said his name was Tim Ryan, and if I ever got anyone’s mobile’s number I’d never tell you, Dad. Anyway, I’m not likely to ever see him again. Now stop it. You’re worse than Mom.”

“Couldn’t be!” he said as they drove over the ridge and looked out over Marshall Bay. He always took that downhill slowly to enjoy the view for longer. They talked of other things. Of bookings for the B&B and of the problems he was having with white cabbage moths. Being entirely organic in their gardening meant they got caterpillars in their salad.

Soon after they’d turned into the West End road, he jerked his thumb at a tired, saggy farm gate. “I think the name of the old duck who lives down there is Ryan.”

* * *

Tim looked at his watch again. It was three minutes since he’d last looked at it. And that was four minutes from the time before. He was starving, a little afraid, and not at all sure what to do next.

He took out his mobile. It was a hand-me-down of his mother’s. Not the latest and poshest ear-ornament. He’d been too embarrassed to use it at school. He wasn’t too keen on phoning his mother now either. He really didn’t want to talk to her at the moment. He’d just had the bright idea of sending her a text, when he looked at the screen and found out that wouldn’t be happening either. No signal. But he was right next to the airport! This place sucked!

He got up. Paced around. He didn’t even know where his grandmother lived; otherwise, he’d have walked. It was an island. It couldn’t be that far. He could go inside again and ask someone for help, just like some lost kid. But he wasn’t going to…not just yet, anyway. That determination lasted all of ten minutes. He was feeling mixed up and angry and scared again. He walked to the door and opened it, still out of sight of the desk.

“Dammit!” yelled someone. “My computer just crashed. Have we had a power failure?”

Tim froze in the doorway.

“The lights are still on,” answered a female voice.

A few seconds’ pause.

“Who the hell unplugged the computers?”

Tim oozed his way back out of the doorway. He knew that somehow it would be his fault. Besides, there was a car driving in. They parked, took out suitcases…well, they weren’t fetching him. But that explained it all. His grandmother must think he was on a later flight. No need for him to go and ask for help. It was only twenty past four. Not near sundown yet. No need to panic. He’d get a book out.

More cars arrived, with people getting out without luggage…none of whom looked remotely grandmother-ish. Several of them waved as if they knew him, and a couple even said “hi” and “g’day,” but no one stopped to talk to him. A plane came in from the south. Not from Melbourne. More people with bags and cases arrived in a hurry. The passengers came out and collected their bags…and left.

Tim steeled himself. He was starving. And the sun was definitely getting lower. He had to go and ask for help. He’d just stood up when a shiny new green Jeep Cherokee came in, a little too fast on the corners, and screeched to a halt next to him. The window slid down and a cloud of air-conditioned smoke and loud music came out, along with the words “You Tim Ryan? The ol’ woman asked me to pick you up.”

Tim nodded, relief making him feel weak, and not ready to care if this was the devil in person fetching him.

“Put your bag on the backseat, and let’s go,” said the man. He was old. Like, about forty, and half-bald with a gold earring, and a bigger moustache than Molly’s dog.

Tim did as he was told, got in, and, before he even had a seat belt on, found himself pushed back in the seat by acceleration.

“Sorry I’m late,” said the driver in an offhand manner. “Island time,” he said, beerily.

“Um,” said Tim, “That’s okay,” which was just as true as the “sorry” had been. Nearly three hours of worrying did seem like kind of a lot, but what could he do about it? The air in the SUV was making Tim’s chest tight. He wondered if he dared open the window a little. He decided he had to. The driver didn’t even notice, and then it was better. They were out in the country—even the airport seemed to have no town around it, and Tim looked at trees and emptiness and the occasional house, most of them looking just as empty as the countryside.

“So the old woman tells me you comin’ to the school here?”

“Um. Yes.”

“It’s useless. She should have kept you at St. Dominic’s in Melbourne. My kid Hailey’s there.”

If Tim had been able to find a black hole to dive into right then, he would have. So this was Hailey’s father. It didn’t look like escaping his past was going to work out that well. He didn’t know what to say. He certainly wasn’t going to say “I was caught shoplifting while I was with her, which is why I’ve been sent here.” While he was trying to think of what to say, they looped up the hill, crested it, and began heading down towards a vast perfect curve of bay fringed with distant islands, the glassy sea sparkling and shading from azure to deep blue under the westering sun. It looked like the cover of a fantasy novel, too perfect to be real. “It’s supposed to be a good school,” said Tim, warily.

“Yeah. I made a lot of valuable connections while I was there. Old school ties count for a lot.” The driver didn’t seem to notice the view and just kept driving, past a few houses and onto the gravel road. Tim’s alarm grew. This was just…bush. They lost sight of the sea. There was nobody. No houses. It wasn’t even farmed. At least most of it wasn’t. They passed a windmill, some planted rows of cropland, a few sheep, and raced onward…more bush. The only signs of life were crows on the roadkill. There were plenty of crows. Plenty of food for them too.

They swung off the main gravel road and onto a smaller one…and skidded to a halt at a rusty gate tied with a piece of old rope. The dust caught up and swirled around them. “It’s just down there,” said the driver. “I’m late, so I won’t take you in.”

So Tim found himself with his bag and laptop, standing in the dust as the SUV turned and roared off. He took a deep breath, opened the gate, and set off down the rutted track winding between the she-oaks, walking into the setting sun.

* * *

They’d come to a place of old sadness and ghosts. A haunted place. A strong place too, in its own right. Áed could feel that Aos Sí blood had been spilled here long ago. And others of his own kind had left their marks, rather like dogs marking the edges of their territory. But the signs were old.

He was glad to be out of the cold-iron chariot. He hadn’t liked it, and he hadn’t liked the other human in it either. Ghosts or not, this place was open to the sky and the wind. It had a freedom about it.

Besides, the ghosts here were not inimical. Just present, and watching.

* * *

The rattling wheels on his Spiderman II bag were no use at all on the sandy track. And fifteen kilos had seemed like very little to fit your life into, but it got heavy, trudging towards…well, towards what? He had no idea.

The silence was frightening in itself. Partly because it wasn’t silence. Just quiet, with none of the ever-present background noise of the city. It made small noises seem louder and…well, more worrying. There were snakes out here. And he felt as if he were being watched. But there couldn’t be anyone out here…

The bushes rustled. Something was moving. Tim stood dead still, ready to run, his tiredness forgotten.

The terror stepped out onto the track and spread its tail. Tim was so startled he fell over his case. He lay there, hands in the dirt, feeling stronger, laughing with relief and just the sheer craziness of it all. A peacock? Here? In the middle of the bush?

The peacock didn’t like its tail being laughed at and stalked off. Tim got up and started walking again. It must be a pet, surely. He must be close to the house now? Three small wallaby came out of a patch of paper-bark trees. They didn’t give him quite the fright that the peacock had, and they were plainly wary of him too. He stood watching. He could see their nostrils whiffle as they tasted the air, turning their heads. They seemed to take it in turns to graze, with him being watched, as he watched them, with the sun slowly sinking into the trees.

He had to get on. He didn’t want to be here in the dark. You can’t be afraid of a wallaby, he snarked at himself. But he was. Would they kick him? He took a step towards them and they bounded off, and he trudged on. He was a lot less close to his grandmother’s house than he’d imagined when he saw the peacock. Maybe he should have taken that first faint track? This one didn’t look like it had been driven down lately either. What…what if he was lost? What if he had to spend the night out here? It was long, long walk back to the last house he’d seen from the speeding car.

The sight of a light was a very welcome one. He walked a little faster, down the curve and toward the house. There was only one light on, the house itself a dark bulk against the garden. As if it were some kind of beast waiting to leap.

Someone stood up from next to a garden bed as he approached. A small, slight woman who somehow managed to look about two meters taller than he was. The first thing Tim noticed about his grandmother’s face was her eyes. They were fierce, staring. And then she turned her head sideways, like she didn’t want to see him. But he could see that she was still staring, just not directly at him.

“You took yer own sweet time, boy,” she said, gruffly. He recognized the voice from the telephone. She never said much. Just “Happy Birthday” or “Merry Christmas.” Never sent him anything either.

“No one picked me up until just before five!”

“That bloody Dicky Burke. He’s no good,” said his grandmother dismissively. “Well. I see you’ve got one of them trailing you around. You tell him he’s not to make any trouble around here, or I’ll give him what for. Put your bag on the verandah and come give me a hand.”

Tim didn’t know quite what to make of that statement. Hailey’s surname was Burke, so that, he assumed, was “Dicky Burke,” but was she talking about the bag trailing him around? Was she mad or something? Was he stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with a crazy old woman who wouldn’t even look at him? He soon found out that, whatever else she did, she meant to make him work. Principally at pushing a heavy wheelbarrow. First it was weeds to the compost heap. Then it was hauling wood for the kitchen from the woodpile. She fed the chickens, and then told him to bring over two more loads of wood, as she went inside.

* * *

Áed knew she could see him. That was enough to worry him, without adding this place to it. Sadness and the murder hung about the building. Not the whole building, just the old part, built with salted timbers drawn from the sea.

* * *

Mary Ryan did not need to see anything much in her kitchen. It hadn’t changed a great deal in the last fifty years, and she could put her hand to anything she needed in the pitch dark. With the way her sight was, these days, it was just as well. And right now her eyes were also full of tears. She couldn’t see him well enough. But he sounded…and moved so like her Tom had, when he was young, before…before he’d gotten angry inside, before he’d left the island. Before he’d pushed away all that his people came from, pretending he was something he wasn’t. Before he’d gotten involved with that Irish woman. It hurt. Heaven knew it hurt still. Having the boy here…was like a sore tooth that had been a mere niggle until one had a cup of coffee.

And yet…she’d desperately wanted him to hug her.

This youngster wasn’t her Tom. That boy had grown up and rejected everything she’d fought for, worked for. This boy was like him…but not like him. And this boy had one of the shivery little people with him. Funny, she couldn’t see the boy’s face except out of the side of her vision, but she could see the little people just fine. They looked like the air over a hot road, but you could sometimes make out their faces.

She sighed and turned back to the wood-burning range. She pushed the pot onto the heat. It was bad enough that she couldn’t really drive anymore, which made life difficult on the farm, but the boy would be expensive too. It was an expense that would have to be met.

After all, all of this was for him, eventually.

She’d promised her John, faithfully, when he’d gone off to war, that she’d look after the land. That there would always be a Ryan on it. Sometimes…sometimes she’d had the second sight. The inner eye that saw the future, and places far away. That always saw fragments…of truth. She’d seen her John die, her big, solid, beloved man, the only man who’d had the courage to come and dance with the black girls, and damn what anyone said. She’d seen him bleeding in the mud, three thousand miles away. She had known he was dead, long, long before they came to tell her. They’d said she was a hard woman. But she’d done her weeping by the time they brought the news. She was cried out by then.

She stirred the pot fiercely. She’d been strong then, and strong when Tom had wanted her to sell the farm. She’d be strong now.

When Tom had called to ask if she’d have the boy, she’d had a moment of the second sight again. Her eyesight was failing, but that inner eye still saw clearly. That inner eye showed her a vision, briefly, of a taller, broader boy than the one who had just crept into her yard. A boy with a straight back, in a red jacket, out on a boat with a stormy sky, and Roydon Island disappearing into the rain behind him, riding the wild waves, as if they were children’s tame ponies, and him with a broad smile on his face.

It was a smile that took her back fifty years to a man she’d loved, and still did.

After the seeing, after that vision, she couldn’t have said no, although she wasn’t sure how she was going to manage.

The boy came into the kitchen from the yard. Didn’t even take his shoes off by the sounds of it. He had a lot to learn. But he was her grandson. “Welcome home, boy,” she said evenly, trying to hide the emotions he’d boiled up in her. “Now go wash yer hands. The bathroom’s up there, to yer left. Yer tea will be ready in a few minutes. And next time leave your boots outside, see. We don’t wear boots in the house.”

* * *

Tim walked up the dark passage to the bathroom. The worn wooden floorboards creaked underfoot. The smell of food had reminded him just how long ago, and in what a different world, his last bowl of cornflakes had been. He was still tired, wary, and deeply unhappy inside. But it was kind of odd what someone saying “Welcome home” did to him inside.

It was almost as if, strange as the place was, it was home. Weird, he thought as he washed his hands. Home was Melbourne. It didn’t have a wood fire in the kitchen and had hot water in the hand-basin. It wasn’t a million miles out into the bush with a crazy old woman.

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