Balloon Animals by Laura-Blaise McDowell: on Writing.ie Short Story of the Year shortlist

This story was first published in Still Worlds Turning, published by No Alibis Press

Laura-Blaise McDowell

Laura-Blaise McDowell

 

Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger, ended up inside. – JFK

‘You know those clowns who come in here?’ I ask Rhonda.

‘Sure,’ she says.

‘Are they from Kennedy’s Circus?’

‘Sure are,’ she sighs, her Bostonian accent echoing. Sure ahh.

‘Their tent is after catching fire,’ I tell her, holding out my phone for her to see.

Rhonda jerks her head up from straightening the lapels of a freshly cleaned coat, and peers over its shoulder at a photograph of a huge tent, its red and white stripes blackening and disappearing in great gulfs of blue and yellow flame.

‘Jesus Christ,’ she breathes.

‘It doesn’t mention anyone being injured,’ I say, scanning the article. ‘But I guess they’ll have to kick the habit now.’

‘Whaddaya mean “habit”?’ she snaps.

I had been working in White Sheets dry-cleaners near South Circular Road only a couple of days before I found out what was really going on.

‘What?’ I say. ‘Did you think I’d assume you were leaving little bags of washing powder free of charge in people’s coat pockets, so they could do it themselves next time?’

Rhonda eyes me from underneath her black beret, taps a heeled boot on the tiles.

‘Look,’ she says, dropping her hands from the coat and reaching out her right arm to lean on the counter. ‘Honestly, I hired you because you looked boring. Not like, boring in the sense that you’d grass me up, but boring in the sense that you wouldn’t want to be involved, per se. I hope I was right about that?’

‘Jesus, Rhonda,’ I say. ‘I’m hardly looking for a cut of the action. I’m just surprised you thought I wouldn’t notice.’

She shrugs.

‘Is that why you call it White Sheets?’ I ask.

‘Pardon?’ Paahdan.

‘White Sheets. It’s a joke, isn’t it? Like a hint? Cocaine? White…?’

‘Aren’t you sharp?’ she says, narrowing her eyes.

‘Well anyway,’ I say. ‘We probably won’t see them for a while, I’d say they’ll need to pinch their pennies after this.’

Rhonda doesn’t say anything.

‘To be honest,’ I go on, ‘it was that lot who gave you away. The last fella was rifling through the suit, had his finger in his mouth before he’d even paid.’

He had stood there in front of me, looking me in the eye as he rubbed his finger so hard over his gums it looked like he might press his teeth out.

‘F*cking Malachy. It was Malachy, wasn’t it?’ says Rhonda, shaking her head so that strands of her black fringe move side to side. ‘The one with the scar.’

It had indeed been Malachy. The clowns usually left their suits in to be dry-cleaned every couple of days. They invariably had paint encrusting the lines of their faces, seeping into their crow’s feet, red circling the curls of their nostrils. There was always some around the scar that dragged the left corner of Malachy’s mouth down towards his chin. They never said much, only handed over their dockets and stood twitching, wide-eyed in the bright lights. One time, when I returned with his suit, Malachy thrust a balloon animal at me. It was in the shape of a tiger, with the stripes crudely scribbled on in permanent marker. It hadn’t felt like a friendly gesture.

As Rhonda taps her heel, I notice the tiger, deflated on the floor in the corner, all bent out of shape.

‘I hope you’re right, kid,’ she says. ‘If I ever see that sorry bunch again, it’ll be too soon.’

‘Why?’ I ask. ‘I thought they were your best customers?’

She shifts her weight from one foot to the other, rests her hand on her hip.

‘Okay. We had a thing going. I was their sponsor. I’d wash their costumes, uh, etcetera. In return, they advertised my business. Used to have a big White Sheets banner up inside the tent and at the entrance. Set me up with customers for dry-cleaning, and ya know, the bit extra. But just last week I pulled my sponsorship. Ended our relationship completely.’

‘Why?’ I ask.

‘Those clowns,’ she leans forward, ‘are bastards.’

‘Bahstads?’

‘Bastards. Sure are. Can’t say I feel sorry for them. See, I’d never actually gone to see one of their shows, y’know? All our business was conducted outside of the tent. So I go along last week, they bring me backstage, I think we’re gonna have a party, a good time.’

She breathes out, shaking her head.

‘No pahdy?’ I ask.

‘I’m tellin’ ya. That was no party. I couldn’t believe the way they treated that tiger, the size of the cage. All those clowns out of their minds, tormenting him.’ She shudders. ‘I pulled my sponsorship right away.’

‘The article says the tiger was lost in the fire,’ I say.

‘Poor tiger,’ she says.

‘Poor tsigah,’ I agree.

The next day, we’re working late. I’m in the back, sorting orders when the door flings open, the bell bashing wildly. I turn to see through the plastic-wrapped coats and dresses that it’s Malachy. He’s wearing a moulting neon-green wig, a black suit jacket over a blue and green checked clown suit. Face paint outlines his features but the flat expanses of his cheeks and forehead are clear and pale. His eyes are black, and before Rhonda can say anything, he pulls a handgun from his inside pocket, points it at her and shoots her twice, once in the chest once in the head.

She lands almost at my feet, hitting the bottom rung of the clothes rail. It shifts on its wheels as she lands; the garments sway on their hangers. The bullet has blown two strands of her fringe in opposite directions, like curtains opening on a show. I look up and Malachy is staring right at me, though he can only see my eyes above the rail. I duck and feel a bullet howl over me. The door flings open, the bell bashes again, then silence. On my knees, I look at Rhonda, her head all dead and upside down. Her eyes are open, her beret blown clean away. There is blood on her chest where she’s been hit but her face is intact, apart from the hole. She has a tiny piece of lettuce stuck between her two front teeth. I wish I’d told her when I had the chance.

The bell clangs again and I jump up. This time it’s not a clown, though these two men also have guns.

‘You!’ says the smaller one, pointing the gun straight at me.

‘Don’t bother,’ I say. ‘It’ll be more trouble than it’s worth.’

‘Get out from behind there,’ says the small one, who’s from Dublin. ‘Let us see ya.’

I step out, and towards the counter. ‘Do you have a docket?’ I ask him.

‘Did the clown see ya?’ he asks.

‘Yes,’ I say.

‘You have to come with us.’

‘No,’ I say. ‘I work here. There’ll be no one left if I leave.’

The two men look at each other, then separate and walk around either end of the counter. The taller heaves Rhonda over his shoulder while the smaller one grabs me, his gun to my back, and drags me out of the shop.

‘No messin’,’ he says.

When I said it would be more trouble than it was worth, what I’d meant was my parents would kick up an almighty fuss. It probably sounded self-deprecating, but it wasn’t really. Those men, weedy enough behind their barrels, didn’t stand a chance against my mother and father, fierce and feral when it came to their offspring. One time at home, when some local gurriers hopped on my younger brother Cian, Mam and Dad drove around town for hours with him in the back, a tissue up each nostril and an icepack affixed to his head with one of Mam’s aerobics headbands, till he spotted the perpetrators loitering outside a newsagent flicking matches at each other. Dad got out with a bat and the intention of beating the living daylights out of them, only the guards happened to cruise by at the right time, so Dad handed the culprits over to them. Either way those little shits got their comeuppance, so you can only imagine what might befall two hapless eejits, dim-witted enough to murder their daughter in her first year away from home. University life ahead of me. And I their oldest. Not a chance they’d let it lie.

There is a Micra parked outside.

‘A Micra?’ I say.

‘Shut up,’ says the taller, as he bungs Rhonda’s body in the boot and climbs into the driver seat, knees practically up around his ears. He’s a northern accent and he’s wearing a black beanie.

‘Are you in the Ra?’ I ask. ‘Is that what this is?’

‘Shut up,’ he says again.

The other sits with his arm around me. His grasp would almost be romantic were it not the embrace of a kidnapper. I glance down at the hand holding my arm. Nails bitten to small islands floating in the middle of fleshy seas, coasts of dirt lining their circumference, tips white with the pressure.

‘Relax, would you?’ I say.

‘Shut up,’ he says and I smell his breath.

‘Tayto for dinner?’

‘Shut up,’ he says.

Neck is up against the left-hand door, and I’m in the middle. I notice the gun on the seat next to him, but when I look down at it, I realise it’s plastic. Then we take off, and he lifts his other hand to cover my eyes, though I can still sort of see through the cracks. His fingers are skinny and don’t touch even when they’re pressed together at the joints.

‘What kind of criminals are ye,’ I ask, ‘that ye forget a blindfold?’

‘Shut up,’ he says. ‘Or I’ll make you a gag as well.’

I go quiet and we shudder along. It’s dark, so I can’t make out anything recognisable through the gaps between his fingers.

‘Why did he kill Rhonda?’ I ask after a few minutes.

‘Shut up,’ says the one holding me.

‘Well you’re going to have to tell me at some stage,’ I say. ‘Since you clearly know.’

‘Shut. Up,’ he says.

I sigh. We’re stopped at traffic lights, and I decide to make a break for it. I wrench myself to the left. They didn’t lock the door and I’m halfway out before the one beside me tackles me around the waist and drags me, kicking, back into the car as the one in the front takes off at full speed.

‘Jesus f*cking Christ,’ he says.

‘Jesus Christ yourself!’ I say. ‘I could have been fucking killed!’

Your man raises an eyebrow at me.

‘But I suppose that wouldn’t have bothered ye too much, would it?’ I try to laugh, but the adrenaline is pumping in my ears. I hadn’t even managed to see where I was when I’d leaped out, but it had been pretty quiet and I don’t think anyone saw. At least, I didn’t hear anyone, no one shouted. Your man is sitting fully on top of me now. I’m stomach down and he’s straddling the small of my back holding my arms down with his hands. There’s nothing over my eyes but I’m flat to the seat and can’t see out the windows. Your man driving doesn’t even look around.

‘You’re some pair,’ I say, my voice muffled slightly against the old car seat. ‘What are your names?’

‘Neck,’ says the one on top.

‘What about your pal?’ I say.

‘That’s Tongs.’

‘Those are fairly gas names,’ I say. ‘What do your mothers call ye?’

‘Would you ever shut the f*ck up, would ya?’ Neck growls. He’s pressing hard on top of me and my neck is starting to hurt.

‘Neck. My own neck is beginning to get at me a bit, would you ever leave off and let me sit up, I won’t try anything again.’

He doesn’t respond.

‘You clearly feel an affinity with necks,’ I try again, ‘so I was hoping I could appeal to that-’

‘I’ll bleedin’ break your neck if you’re not careful,’ he says.

‘That’s what I’m afraid might already be happening though,’ I say. ‘Your enormous weight and masculine strength are a bit much for my tiny woman spine and-‘

‘Jesus, fine, if I let you up will you shut your poxy mouth? F*ckin’ hell.’ He leans over and manually locks my door as I clamber up to a sitting position.

‘Here lads, are we in Phoenix Park?’ I ask, looking around.

‘For f*ck’s sake, Necker!’ says Tongs without looking back at us. ‘Don’t let her see where we are, ya f*ckin eejit.’

‘Ah it’s too late now, lads,’ I say. ‘I know Phoenix Park like the back of my hand, sure don’t I come for runs here on the weekend.’

‘F*ckin’ hell,’ says Neck, rubbing his forehead. We keep driving. Neck looks crestfallen.

‘Ah I was only joking, lads,’ I say. ‘I don’t actually run here. Sure I live over on the other side of the city. I only recognised it from going to the zoo last year.’

Neck doesn’t say anything but he looks a little cheered. We’re silent for a few minutes as Tongs keeps driving deeper into the park.

‘Ye’ll forgive me for my endless curiosity,’ I say, ‘but what the hell is going on?’

‘Just f*cking tell her,’ says Tongs. ‘Tell her anything to shut her up.’

‘Is this to do with the Ra?’ I ask again, imagining Tongs all plastered in Republican tattoos beneath his jacket.

‘No, it’s not to do with the Ra,’ says Tongs.

‘That sounds like something a militant would say.’

‘Aye, well I’m not a f*ckin’ militant, alright? That’s very offensive.’ Tongs turns around for the first time and as he does so, doesn’t he hit a f*cking deer. The poor thing ricochets off the front window, shattering it. Tongs swerves off the road and into the undergrowth, but thankfully misses the trees, stopping neatly between two pines. I end up in Neck’s lap, his body flung over me.

‘Jesus, everybody alright?’ says Tongs, whose airbag has inflated and is pressing weakly into his chest.

‘Yeah,’ Neck says.

‘Peachy,’ I say.

Neck gives me a look. Tongs gives the airbag a few whacks to quicken its deflation and opens his door. He’s gone a minute and then arrives at my window with the deer over his shoulder.

‘You’re not putting that in here with me!’ I say.

‘Yes I f*ckin’ am,’ he says. ‘Unlock the door.’

I look at Neck, appalled, but he reaches over me and unlocks it.

‘What the f*ck are you-’ I start to say, but I’m cut off when Tongs dumps the lifeless, bleeding carcass next to me.

‘No room in the boot,’ he smirks, and slams the door. The smell is overwhelming and I gag a little bit. The deer is a young female. She’s contorted, her neck up against the back of the seat, body sliding down in a backwards S shape, broken legs everywhere. Blood glistens around her nose and drips from a large wound on her side. She’s facing me, looking me right in the eye. It reminds me a bit of when someone falls asleep next to you on an aeroplane, mouth gaping, dribbling on your shoulder and you’re powerless.

‘Wanna swap places?’ I ask Neck. He doesn’t respond.

Tongs has found himself a rock and is busy smashing out the rest of the windscreen. Once that’s done, he climbs back in the front and attempts to reverse out of the undergrowth, arm flung over the passenger seat, craning his neck.

‘Here, I can’t see anything through the back window, will you push the deer down?’ he says.

‘Are you joking?’ I say. ‘I’m not touching that.’ I’m already pressed up against Neck, who is in turn flattened against his door, in order to be as far from the carcass as possible. I don’t even like prodding snoring neighbours on aeroplanes.

‘One of you push her f*ckin’ head down before I batter the pair of you.’

Neck gingerly stretches out a hand and using one finger, applies the tiniest amount of pressure to the still-warm head. She slides down a little.

‘Pair of f*cking pussies, you are,’ says Tongs as he revs the engine and manages to get us out of the undergrowth. We drive along a little way in silence again. I’m still practically in Neck’s lap.

‘I’m a weekday vegetarian, you know,’ I say. ‘So if you’re planning on feeding this one to me for dinner, I’m afraid ye’ll have to make other arrangements.’

‘Nah, she’s not for you,’ says Neck, with the vague hint of a smile curling the corner of his thin little mouth.

‘Oh, she’s not, no? All for the boys, eh?’

‘Not for us either,’ says Neck.

Something about the way he says it makes me uncomfortable. There’s a change in the atmosphere in the car. I shift on the seat so I’m not touching Neck as much, so I can’t feel his Tayto breath moving my hair.

‘What’s it for so?’ I ask.

‘Ho ho,’ says Tongs. ‘Just you wait and see.’

It’s freezing now that there’s no windscreen, the only heat coming off the steaming deer. I suppose I could leap straight ahead of me, out the front and over the bonnet, but I’d likely impale myself on the jagged glass still left around the edges.

‘Lads, will ye just tell me where we’re going? Or else let me go, I’ll not tell on ye. Sure I don’t even know your real names, do I?’

Nobody says anything. I read somewhere that humanising yourself to your kidnapper can sometimes endear you to them, make them more sympathetic. Apparently, there was once a serial killer who paid for a potential victim’s flight home because she told him her dad had cancer.

‘I’ve a nick name, too,’ I say. ‘It’s Lopey. My name’s Penelope because my parents had notions back in the day, but I was never called Penny, I was called Lopey because I was forever moping and loping about the place.’

Again, neither of them say anything.

‘Did ye get your nicknames from something ye did or… or how did they come about?’

Jesus, they’re making me feel like I’m inflicting myself upon them, trying to sit with the cool kids at lunch.

‘Neck,’ I say. ‘Is that just, like, a sort of D4-type way of saying Nick? Did you actually grow up real posh and now even though you’ve escaped your yuppie past, everyone still calls you Neck?’

Neck unzips his black fleece so that I can see his throat. He runs his finger across a long scar above the twin points of his collar bones.

‘Jesus, what happened to you?’

‘That was meant to be a threat,’ he says, drily.

‘What was? It’s not me with that scar.’

‘No, but…’ He tuts and shifts in his seat, rolls his eyes. ‘I’ll fuckin’, like, do it to you if you don’t stop nattering on.’

‘Nattering?’ I say. ‘I’m hardly here by choice. Just trying to…’ I glance at the deer, open-mouthed and glassy-eyed next to me, ‘…lift the mood.’ Neck looks out the window.

‘What about you, Tongs? Were you birthed using a pair of tongs in lieu of forceps? You know, I heard about that happening to someone, I think my second cousin? Came early and was born on the kitchen floor, and her elder brother had to haul her out with the tongs from the fireplace. Don’t know if he ever recovered. Can ye imagine having to extract a baby from your own mother’s-’

I realise we’ve left the road. We’re driving through undergrowth and then the car stops suddenly, sending the deer lurching forward, only to land with a whack against the seat, sending globules of blood flying onto my face. I wipe them away.

‘Have we arrived?’ I ask. Neck’s arm is back around me, as tightly as it had been at the start. He flicks the handle of his door and kicks it open, dragging me with him.

‘Best to stay quiet,’ he whispers, and it’s not menacing, I just sort of believe him.

I don’t know what part of this vast park we’re in, don’t even know what time it is; it’s pitch black, and it’s sort of hitting me that Rhonda is dead and these guys know something. Now that we’re out of the vacuum of the car, the night seems huge and the weird atmosphere that arrived after the deer seems to have escaped out into the world because I can feel it still. I’m almost glad of Neck’s arm around me.

Tongs hoists the deer out of the car and over his shoulder, then takes off into the woods. We follow. Rhonda is still in the boot. Neck keeps his arm around me. The ground’s uneven and it’s too dark to see what’s underfoot. It occurs to me to try and make a break for it, but I don’t know how I’d find my way out of here and I’d make an unholy racket crashing through the undergrowth. If Neck has any speed on him, which by the looks of him he does, he’d have me back in a minute.

Suddenly we’re ducking under a large sheet hung between two trees that I hadn’t even seen coming; it had been totally camouflaged. Behind the sheet is a clearing in which sits a pair of tents, the gazebo ones you see at festivals. Tongs heaves the deer off his shoulder and throws it on the ground. He rummages inside the entrance of one of the tents before returning with a small axe, and commences hacking her into several pieces. I look away, the sound of it turning my stomach. Neck steers me into the tent where the axe had been.

‘Now don’t get any ideas,’ I say quickly, seeing the sleeping bags on the floor. ‘You better not lay a finger on me, now or-’

‘Would you relax?’ says Neck. ‘I’m not gonna touch you. You weren’t part of the plan in the first place.’

‘Well I can see that, ye didn’t even have a blindfold for me. I’m just saying, don’t think-‘

‘I’m not. Give us a bitta credit, ya mad thing.’ He laughs a little and picks a dark green hoodie up off the floor. ‘Here, stick this on ya. It’s f*ckin’ freezin’.’

I slip it on and as my head pops through the neck, I hear it. The tearing of flesh. Gnawing coming from the tent next to ours.

‘What the f*ck is that?’

‘That is why this whole mess happened in the first place.’

‘It sounds like a f*cking werewolf or a tiger or something?’

Neck gives me a somewhat surprised look.

‘Do you watch a lot of nature programmes, do ya?’ he asks.

‘Watch a few, like. Enough to know the sound of something being devoured. Jesus. It’s not…Tongs… Tongs isn’t a werewolf, is he?’

‘No, Tongs isn’t a f*ckin’ werewolf. But you were half right.’

‘Half right? He’s a whole wolf?’

‘No! The tiger bit.’

‘He’s a tiger.’

‘No! But that is a tiger you’re hearing.’

‘F*ck off!’

‘Serious!’

‘Where did lads like you get a f*cking tiger? No offence.’

‘We rescued him, didn’t we?’

‘Ye rescued him.’

‘Yeah. From the Kennedys.’

‘Sure I read about that. But when the news said they’d “lost a tiger” I didn’t think they meant they’d fVcking mislaid one.’

‘They told the cops the tiger was definitely in one of the trailers that was burnt to smithereens, think they mighta thrown a dog carcass or something in there to convince them. Wanted to hunt us down themselves.’

‘And you burnt their circus down?’

‘We did what we had to do. Couldn’t leave a lovely creature like that in the hands of those coked up mad yolks. They didn’t treat him right. He was half starved.’

‘Well, what’s his name?’ I ask.

‘It was Kennedy, he was their mascot, like. But we renamed him Leonard.’

‘Leonard?’

‘Yeah, after Leonard Cohen. Wanted to imbue him with a bitta dignity, after the mortification of life in the circus.’

‘Yeah alright,’ I say. ‘But like, why do ye have him here? Why did they shoot Rhonda over it all? I’m more confused than I was at the start, Neck. And why did ye bring me here? You’re hardly planning on my being Leonard’s next meal… are you?’ I begin to panic, but Neck puts out a hand.

‘Would you relax?’ he says. ‘He’s very civilised. He’d be insulted if he heard you going on like that.’

‘Would he?’ I say.

‘He would of course. C’mere till you meet him.’ He takes me by the arm.

‘Eh, you’re alright, I think I’ll stay here,’ I squeak, digging my heels in, but Neck drags me out.

‘He’s mad friendly, so he is!’

Tongs is standing outside Leonard’s tent having a smoke.

‘Leonard’s delighted with himself,’ he says, smiling a little. He’s lit a fire in the centre of the clearing.

‘Tigers can eat up to twenty-five pounds of meat a day, you know.’

‘So I’ve heard…’ I say. ‘How long will that deer last him?’

‘She was small, only about three days,’ he says. ‘I’ll stick the rest of the meat in a couple of freezer bags. But he’ll need something else by the end of the week.’

I shift from foot to foot.

‘How long have ye been here?’ I ask, looking around. I notice that they’ve hung sheets between trees all the way around us, forming an enclosed circle. The sheets on the inside facing us are white, but where they fold over the ropes I can see the other sides are expertly painted like leaves, trees and undergrowth. The sound of the deer being ripped and torn still emanates from the tent.

‘Few months,’ says Tongs, exhaling.

‘And where did ye get the camouflage sheets? They’re class.’

‘I painted them meself,’ says Neck, proudly. ‘Rhonda gave us some she had spare.’

‘You’re mad talented.’ I tell him. ‘Did you take art classes?’

‘Just paint what I see,’ he says.

Just then, there’s a rustle from Leonard’s tent and I leap up. Tongs and Neck chuckle as an enormous head peers out from the tent. The tsigah. His broad, beautiful shoulders are almost on a par with mine as he emerges and pads towards us, blood around his mouth and on his paws.

‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ I say.

‘Don’t be bleedin’ rude,’ says Neck to me. ‘This is Leonard. Leonard say hello.’

Leonard sniffs me. My arms are clasped up around my face and I’m paralysed.

‘Good boy, Leonard,’ says Tongs. ‘Good boy.’ Leonard flicks his tongue and licks around his mouth. He gives my leg a lick as well. His tongue is so enormous it feels like a gloved hand rubbing up and down my thigh. Neck sits down by the fire and Leonard ambles over and lies down next to him, big bloody head in his lap. Tongs sits down as well and after a minute I manage to unclench my body and perch gingerly across from the others. They’re like a happy little family. Leonard is purring, all sleepy after his meal.

‘So. You went to the circus, saw that, eh, Leonard, was being mistreated, and just decided to liberate him?’ I ask.

‘Not exactly,’ says Tongs. ‘There’s more to it than that, but what would you have done?’

He is looking for something in his pockets and after a moment, produces a deflated white balloon. He begins to blow into it, his cheeks round and pink underneath his straggly facial hair.

‘Well, I mean, probably like, reported it to the authorities,’ I say.

‘Ach,’ scoffs Tongs, inhaling deeply as he ties a knot in the balloon’s end. ‘They’d’ve done sweet fuck all. We needed to take action. Couldn’t have a troop of deranged fuckin’ clowns tormenting this prince one minute longer.’ He leans over tickles Leonard’s ear affectionately, then returns to the balloon and begins twisting it.

‘See,’ says Neck, ‘we used to do a bitta work for Rhonda. Shift a bitta blow here and there. We’d even deliver to the clowns now and then, but we’d never been inside the tent, seen what went on in there. Never even occurred to us that maybe we shouldn’t give it to people who were in charge of wild animals.’ He laughs. Leonard slobbers happily on Neck’s lap.

‘So one day, about last week,’ Tongs continues, not looking up from the balloon, on which he is scribbling with a marker. ‘We call into Rhonda to pick up, and she’s in a wee state. We ask her what the matter is and she tells us.’ He pauses and holds up the balloon, which he has mangled into something resembling Rhonda with a little black beret and black boots. As he talks, he waggles the balloon Rhonda from side to side. It is eerie in the firelight.

‘Tells us she’d been to Kennedy’s and she was withdrawing her sponsorship. Said they were abusing a tiger, every one of them absolutely outta their mind during the show. Said she couldn’t bear to stay.’ He cleared his throat. ‘So I said, “Rhonda, give us a wee pair of tickets and we’ll go down, see for ourselves.” F*ckin’ grim, depressing freak show, it was. This lad being made to jump through hoops, hit with a whip, shouted at by f*ckin’ Malachy, the f*ckin’ creep. Not a chance, not a chance in hell we could let that go on. Not a chance.’ He shakes his head. ‘Not a f*ckin’ chance.’ He pulls another balloon from his pocket and begins working on it.

‘So after the show, we torched em,’ grins Neck. ‘Burnt them to the bleedin’ ground. It was whopper. They saw us taking off with one of their trailers, with Leonard inside it. Didn’t catch us, though.’

‘Jesus,’ I say. ‘And where’s the trailer now?’ I want to interrogate everything they’ve just said, but this seems like the most sensible question to ask.

‘Ah, we torched that too, once we had Leonard safely here.’

‘And no one saw?’

‘We left it out on the side of motorway miles out and scattered. The clowns won’t find it, or us.’

‘Won’t you need it to transport Leonard?’

‘He’s not going anywhere,’ says Tongs. ‘He can ride in the back of the car if he needs to, sure.’

‘Sure,’ I say, mesmerised by the numerous balloon creatures that are fluttering from Tongs’ busy hands like petals. They glisten all amber through the flames.

‘Those poxy clowns would be hard pressed to find us here,’ says Neck, ‘but we’ll find them.’

‘Aye, that’s it,’ says Tongs. ‘We came back to White Sheets to check on Rhonda as soon as we had himself established here in the tent. We thought they might have gone for her after what we did. But we were too fuckin’ late.’

‘You only missed Malachy by a minute,’ I said.

‘Aye,’ said Tongs. ‘I know. We have to make it right. So our Leonard is gonna eat well from now on. A clown a week. Isn’t that right, pal?’ He tosses a balloon version of Malachy, scar and all, into the fire where it explodes with a bang.

‘It is. A clown a f*ckin’ week.’

Bang, bang, bang.

We sit around the fire for a long time. Neck gets up and brings a bottle of whiskey from one of the tents, gives me a plastic cup full of it. It burns, but I’m thinking about Cian with the tissues in each nostril and how Mam and Dad hunting down those gurriers had been the biggest news in our family in a while. I wonder if I’m on the news yet; if my phone’s ringing on the shelf behind the counter of White Sheets. I look at Leonard, all lit up. His strong, lithe body. Faint scars running against the stripes of his back. Neck’s hand stroking his fur, gently, over and over.

After a while I get up and walk into the tent with the sleeping bags. Nobody says anything and I climb into one, let the heat from the whiskey pour into my hands and feet. I’m asleep almost straight away.

In the morning, I wake and I’m alone, though the bags on either side of me look to have been slept in. Birds trill and I can hear the roar of the city in the distance. I struggle free of the sleeping bag and crawl to the door. Looking out, I see Neck piling sticks and leaves into the bonfire pit. Rhonda’s lying on a white sheet on the ground, Tongs standing over her. I climb out and approach them.

‘What are ye up to?’ I ask.

‘Ah, just getting poor old Rhonda ready,’ says Tongs, nudging her corpse affectionately with the toe of his boot. Looking down, I see that in addition to the bullet hole in her forehead, Rhonda’s throat has been cut.

‘What the fuck? What happened to her?’

‘Just took a little offering,’ Tongs says. ‘Rhonda died in the name of saving our wee Leonard. Her strength is gonna be in all of us when we go after those clowns.’

He points at the bonfire pit. I look around and see by the stone circle the three plastic whiskey cups from last night, plus a fourth one, each half full of black blood.

‘It’ll probably have congealed a wee bit,’ says Tongs cheerfully. ‘Had to do it last night before it dried up inside her, you know? Besides, it’ll be less messy now when I have to dismember her.’

‘Dismember her?’

‘Aye. I know it sounds rotten, but sure we can’t let her go to waste. We don’t know when we’ll catch the first clown, can’t have Leonard going hungry while we track them down, can we?’

‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ I say.

‘Well, don’t do it in here, if you are,’ says Neck, tossing another bundle of sticks into the pit. ‘Go outside the sheets if you have to. But I want nice loud vomitin’ so we can keep track of you. Don’t think about runnin’ away. We’ll only hear you and have to bring you back.’

I look back at Tongs. He’s moving around Rhonda, looking at her from different angles.

‘Have you ever done this before?’ he asks Neck.

‘Nah, mate. Not like that.’

‘What’s the best way to do it, would you say?’

‘F*ck knows. How’d you do the deer?’

‘Badly. I’d like Rhonda to have a damn sight more dignity than fuckin’ Bambi though. F*ck it, let’s toast to her first. Before anything else.’

He turns and picks up two of the cups, handing one to Neck and one to me. The cup is cool.

‘Leonard!’ calls Neck, walking around the other side of Rhonda. ‘Lenny boy. C’mere. There’s a good fella.’

Leonard comes padding out of his tent and over to where we stand. Tongs takes the fourth cup and empties it on the leaves in front of Leonard’s paws. Leonard leans forward and begins lapping it up, his shoulder blades like fins beneath his fur.

‘To Rhonda,’ says Tongs, raising his up above Rhonda’s body.

‘To Leonard,’ says Neck, following suit.

They look to me and there is nothing I can do.

‘To justice,’ I say, and down the cup of blood, metallic and slick in my throat.

Balloon Animals by Laura-Blaise McDowell was first published in Still Worlds Turning (No Alibis Press).She holds an MA in Creative Writing fromUCD and her stories have appeared in various publications.

The shortlisted stories for the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year are:

Parrot by Nicole Flattery (The Stinging Fly, Issue 39, Volume 2, Winter 2018-19)

A Real Woman by Orla McAlinden (Full of Grace, published by Red Stag)

Mother May I by Amy Gaffney (HCE Review, Volume 3, Issue 1)

Sparing the Heather by Louise Kennedy (Banshee, Issue 8)

Balloon Animals by Laura-Blaise McDowell (Still Worlds Turning, published by No Alibis Press)

The Lamb by Andrea Carter (Counterparts: A Synergy of Law and Literature, The Stinging Fly Press)

Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin from Writing.ie said: “Writing.ie has been sponsoring the Short Story of the Year for several years now and the standard of stories is always, as you’d expect, incredibly high – shortlists have featured some of our most noted writers. Writing.ie is very much focused on creating opportunity for writers, providing resources to help them improve and information on outlets for publication, and we carry this through into the short story category of the An Post Irish Book Awards. We take submissions from online journals and magazines as well as traditionally published books/collections, so not only do we get a wonderful mixture of submissions, but the playing field is wide open for all short story writers to submit and perhaps be shortlisted beside established names. The competition is judged completely anonymously so we never know who has written what until the shortlist announcement!

The judges were Alison Lyons, Director of Dublin Unesco City of Literature; Bob Johnston from The Gutter Bookshop; and literary agent Simon Trewin. You can vote for your favourite short story on the An Post Irish Book Awards website anpostirishbookawards.ie

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