Spelunking, a new short story by Caragh Maxwell

12 Stories of Christmas, day 9: Curiosity made her open the black bag in the alley – a dead body was her grim reward

Open. Shut. Stretch. Breathe.

The mantra fuelled her movements as she reached for the front door of the office building, stepping out into the bleak, grey light of the morning, the same way she’d done every weekday morning for months. The spark of the white Clipper illuminated long, lavender fingernails, chewed lips and eyelids painted the shade of peonies. The rain was plinking out a soft rhythm on the top of the bin, and she allowed the smell of wet, warm concrete to envelope her. As a child, she would hide in the canopied porch of her grandparents’ front door during rainstorms, listening to the din and letting the drops run from the tips of her outstretched fingers. Others found it inconvenient; she found it comforting. The reverie collapsed under a conspicuous beep, and a little groove appeared between her brows as she answered the call. “Heya Ma.”

“You remembered how to answer a phone, did ya?” Her tone was biting. It had been over a week since they’d last spoken, a conscious decision. Since moving out, these 15-minute forays into her past had become tedious and she tried to cut them down to once a week, depending on how determined Maura was to offer critique. “Yeah I know it’s been ages. Sorry Mammy.” She heard a sniff, imagined Maura’s nose crinkling upwards. “How’s things? How’s Da?”

That was all the prompt she needed. Sineád tuned in and out as Maura reported back on doctor’s visits, weather warnings, local obituaries and grievances between neighbours. Her gaze wandered to the footpath, littered with rubbish bags. She could see this spot from her reception desk inside. Third floor, sixth window in. The rubbish was backdropped by Daly’s, a bottle-green public house that provided plenty of opportunity for people-watching when her mind wandered, gaze glazed over, chin resting on her palm or thumb absently clicking a pen. One forlorn bag leaned off to the side, squat and uterine, the ties knotted and re-knotted.


She did not feel frightened. She didn't feel anything, not since the second she had torn open his chrysalis on the corner of the street

The longer she stared at the bag, the closer it resembled a body, her retinas warping to catch an elbow, a foot. She could see something protruding from a tear in the side, but without glasses it might have been anything. She finished her cigarette quickly, pushing the smoke out in nervous little puffs. Her eyes never left the rip, fixated, the image of an uncut toenail growing sharper with every passing second. "And sure your your poor sister nearly dragging her belly along the ground at this stage, that child will walk out of her." Her mother's voice had become distant, a thin buzz in her ear. Caoimhe's third pregnancy in as many years was of no interest to her. Children were pig-ignorant and mothers were just as bad. "Yeah Ma, I know. God love her. When's she due again?" She stepped closer to the side of the pavement, creeping towards the inevitable. Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.

When she reached the bin-bag, she didn't flinch. Her fingernails deftly slit the thin plastic from the rip up, revealing a tangled mass of naked, milky limbs, topped with a slack face and unruly black hair. She held her breath. Maura's voice had ceased to exist to her, all sound fading into nothing, the silence swallowing the pair of them. The eyes were unfocused, one on Sineád and one pointed at the other side of the street. She held the gaze for a moment, empty green facing furious blue. She did not look away until she spotted the crusting around the mouth, stomach acid coating the chin, the neck. Turning to face the breeze, she emptied her lungs sharply. "Ma. Ma." Maura was still talking shite. "Look, I have to go, I'll ring you later." She hung the phone up and dialed again.

In the time it took the gardaí to arrive Sineád had been sick on the footpath. The pathetic remnants of two slices of wholemeal toast and a poached egg was her only other company as she waited for red and blue lights. She smoothed out her crinkled button-down shirt and tied back her hair to let the breeze touch her neck. She had not looked again since, but the outline of his knotted bones would not leave her. She lit another cigarette, chewing a thumbnail in between pulls. The gardaí took her information and escorted her back inside to a slack-jawed Becky from HR, who sent her home after getting as many gory details as possible. She was glad; the thought of another four hours stuck to an office chair was enough to make her stomach lurch again, retching up nothing but air.

That night, slipping beneath the softness of flannelette bed-sheets, her mind closed itself to any thought of the body. He had been taunting her all evening, distracting her from reality TV and her dinner. RTÉ News had dedicated a two-minute segment to the discovery of a body on a side street in town. They did not reveal a cause of death and asked for information. The memory of the smell was enough to warrant going to bed hungry. The chicken, broccoli and potatoes remained pristine, untouched on the plate, snubbed in favour of churning. She would sleep, she told herself, and he would leave her in the night. The cool, quiet darkness would brush the cobwebs from her skull and she could start again tomorrow.

Sleep came fitfully, ending in paralysis. Sineád was no stranger to it; from her first childhood nightmare to her last stressful Wednesday, lucid dreaming had become an old friend. It started from darkness as always, crawling from the corner of her bedroom like some insipid spider, legs reaching to bury the bed in earth and death. Her traitor body pinned her to the mattress, arms stuck limp, breathing air thick as treacle. Only her eyes were her own, flickering endlessly, black on black on black. The empty left side of the bed sunk with the weight of an unseen object. No, no object. She could smell it, and her mind returned to the side street, the rain, the black bag. With great effort, she rolled her neck and came face to face with him. The empty eyes trained on the darkness, limbs tangled like the roots of a wisdom tooth, crusty, slack mouth hanging open. With nowhere to go, she studied him.

She did not feel frightened. She didn’t feel anything, not since the second she had torn open his chrysalis on the corner of the street. No sadness, no fear, no disgust – nothing but curiosity for her own lack of emotion. Someone once told her she was a wisp; nothing but a fleeting onlooker trapped in a circular infinity, floating through people and places with no dropped anchor, no shackle to bind her to a reality of her choosing. Their exact words were “Sineád, you’re a flaky, heartless cunt” but she drew her own meaning from that.

Who was this stranger that had invaded her space?

He visited her the next night, and the night after that, and that. Always on the left side, in the dark, luminescent-white and statue-still. She had begun to see him during the day, too, a passing glance in her rear-view mirror, a flash in the corner of her eye as she stepped into the office. The lack of sleep was hurting her more than the haunting and cracks were starting to develop, caverns so wide that she was sure to fall into one, just her and the Bin-Bag Man, perpetually tumbling towards the Land of Fake Sleep.

The fifth night, two glasses of wine in, she called Tommy. She had met Tommy two years previous, a chance encounter at a bar. He lent her a lighter and it was over; he lit her bones like kindling, filled her with a light so bright that she thought it might burn her up if she kept him around too long. So she pushed him to arm’s length, letting him in enough to adore her but not so much that she could feel the same. It was just better that way.

He answered on the second ring, and was on the way 15 minutes after that. Upon arrival, there was no small talk. That was good; it made her feel more wanted, to know someone was desperate for her. They quickened their pace down her hallway, her bare feet padding on laminate wood, his thumb tracing circles on the back of her hand.

When it was over, he rolled onto his back, eyes heavy. The warmth of his skin drew her in but she would not allow herself to slip into the crook of his outstretched arm. Instead she let her eyes trace the inky patterns on his forearm, looping across sayings and symbols and shapes, creating a map of the inside of his head.

“You busy tomorrow? We could grab coffee and go for a walk down the canal.” He plucked the smoke from between her fingertips, soft streams pouring out of her nostrils as she let the question hang in the air. It floated between them, and to reject him meant to say goodbye for the night. All the same, he was looking at her, waiting for an emphatic “yes honey-sugar-sweetheart I’d love to” but it never came. Her pursed lips were his answer; it had been his answer the last time he tried to call, the last time he sent an unanswered text, the last time she pretended not to see him at the supermarket check-out. “Should have known.” He sat up and ran a hand down his face, throwing back the duvet. “Where are you going?” She did not move to follow him.

“I’m going fucking home Sineád. Six months without a word and you pick me up again only to pull more of the same. Bollix to this.” He put his T-shirt on, and Sineád only watched, motionless, wordless. “So you’ve still nothing to say, no?” He began dressing faster, angrily buttoning his jeans, fumbling with the zip. He couldn’t find one of his socks – Sineád could see it hanging from a chair at the end of the bed. “No wonder you’ve nobody. You treat people like commodities Sineád, ya can’t just use and abuse and expect everyone to keep running to you. That’s not how it works for decent people.” She flinched as a tear ran down the side of her nose, cold and unexpected. He didn’t stop at the bedroom door, not even a goodbye for her, not even a see ya.

“I know,” she whispered, but by the time she found her voice the front door was mid-slam, sock still dangling reproachfully from the chair.

She didn’t lie back down. Grabbing a dressing gown and her Macbook, she perched on the large suede sofa that had been privy to bleaker Saturday nights than this one. The man’s name had been circling the town since Tuesday. His father owned a fishing tackle shop on Oliver Plunkett St and his cousin was the year above Sineád in school. Hunched over the keyboard in the semi-darkness, she weaved a path through mutual friends on Facebook. Twenty-seven, barman, loved indie-rock bands and his dog. She scrolled through old profile pictures and tagged albums trying to sear his beaming face into the back of her head, a kind face with crooked teeth and wide nostrils. There was only decay.

By 11 o’clock the next evening, she was approaching three days without sleep. The apartment stank of cigarettes and coffee, Holly Golightly’s sugary accent reverberating off the window panes as her Breakfast at Tiffany’s DVD played through for the third time in a row. Anything to quell the ovoid droop of her eyelids. Her lashes had become stone, dragging down the bin-bag man to rest on a canvas of veiny, lavender skin. She pulled up his Facebook again and again, ignoring the looming red bubble of her mother’s messages right next to the search bar. He lived in Ashfield, a housing estate not far from her. Just a walk out the Tullamore road and a turn past the hospital. A photo revealed a green front door and a bench on the front lawn hewn from red oak and wrought iron.

She could probably find it.

The balls of her feet itched and she kicked away her slippers, drawing up her legs and thinking. What was his bed like? He had seen hers. He knew the gap between the mattress and the wall, been privy to the layout of knick-knacks and framed posters that looked down on the duvet, the flannel, her dotted sheets and checkered pillow. He had blankly gawped as one breast hung free from the side of her vest T-shirt in the night. She wanted to be an observer, too.

3am. Another cigarette. Another Facebook search. A screenshot this time, the green door and the oak bench. Without waiting for common sense, she slipped out her front door and into a voile of drizzle. She cut an ethereal figure in the amber wash of streetlamps, breath mingling with the rain. The aroma of petrichor filled her lungs again, taking her back to the front door of her grandparents’ house.

Past the hospital and Ballyglass Cemetery. She was moving quicker than usual, feet skimming puddles and cracks with an alien grace. The hunger to know outweighed the exhaustion and now she was transcendent. When she reached the housing estate she paused, standing still at the edge of a crab-grass green intersecting two rows of semi-detached houses, the pebbledash glinting in the light of a crystalline, heavy moon. To her left, fourth house down. The outline of a bench.

Picking her way through parked cars and curbs, she kept her ears up for the sound of feet falling or the click of a door handle. Nothing. The side gate was unlatched, waiting for her. It swung noiselessly and she made her way to the back of the house, her breathing rapid and erratic. His garden was that of a single man; a uniform patch of grass bisected by a languid, pegless washing line. A bathroom window had carelessly been left open, and with an expertly placed heel and a steely determination, she hoisted herself onto the windowsill. She was small enough to slip through the gap and into the bath beneath, dropping softly into the white porcelain.

The bathroom, too, was unremarkable. White tile and teal walls, a disposable Bic razor leaning on a tube of Colgate and a well-worn toothbrush, the bristles smushed and wiry. He had run out of toilet paper; the empty roll sat on the floor next to the toilet, seat still up. She bit back disappointment as she exited the room. How could someone so unremarkable be the cause of such agony? Confusion kicked in, shaming her for being creepy and exhausted. This was weird; this was something a weirdo would do, or a pervert, or a sociopath. Still, curiosity propelled her through the next door.

She located his bedroom, and as she pressed on the handle her stomach fluttered. It felt wrong – it was wrong, but it had to be done. She needed to know him, to see him as he saw her. It was only fair. The room was lived-in. The walls were palest blue, smattered with smiling faces, beer mats and a large painting of a striped lighthouse. It smelled of aftershave, of clean washing and comfort. The bed was unmade, the duvet askew and inviting, a white Clipper lighter forgotten between the pillows. Her bones had turned to rope, pulling her down towards the sheets. Sineád pressed her nose to the pillow and allowed herself to be consumed by him, his crooked teeth beaming at her from every wall, his scent deep in her lungs. So this is who you are. The rain drummed steady on the window pane and her heart absorbed the sound. She closed her eyes and dreamt of nothing at all.