I pull slow on the zipper, feel it give tooth by tooth till the satchel's open enough to feel a hand inside of it for a corner-shop sandwich without bumping Andy's head. She's asleep against my shoulder since Newbridge but I haven't eaten in a day and it keeps my stomach awake. There aren't any lights on to examine how good the sandwich still is and I can't distinguish any kind of a scent any more but it hasn’t yet gone all the way to crust and tastes okay. There’s a woman’s face lit pale green by her phone about eight seats back I can see keeps looking at me in the dead TV screen reflection above us. It’s early, but news is twenty four hours now and it’s probable they’ve released our photos and have labelled me something awful. I eat the sandwich, crouched behind the head rest, checking back to see if she’s still watching. If Andy wakes she's going to ask me about Frankie and about the zip lock bags and I won’t know how to put it. I picture Frankie then. Sideways across the pillow back home and her hair spread out every angle, jaw gone slack opened to snore loud enough it trembles the IV drip. I smile at that. Out the window we pass yet another bedroom light up in yellow and one guy walk across carpet toward an open door in shorts. It could be Frankie's already awake. I picture her differently then, already busy at the bandages, the ointments, calling out to find where we’ve gone. It's that chemical butter they've got between the bread and beef, flavours your mouth stale and you sweat it out pores all day, but I kind of like that.
Only thing to see ahead is the face of the driver lit dashboard blue and the immediate M19 marked out in white line before it slips beneath us. I've got enough for two or three meals and a room. I’m doing it right. Do right by right itself. No one’ll thank you for it and that’s how you know. Da used to say that. That was where me and Frankie got it wrong. The sky is blotted through cloud into grey pink and insects start up gathering by anything lit, one dog off someplace barks himself out quiet over a spell. You can begin to make out the top part of things. Seed drill left out in a courtyard the back of a shed, rusted back into the ground where it has been dragged and let sink, the harrow part way detached to split. I can see two foxes slink under a low fence plank, bellies slacked to the hard soil, pulling with them a cat they’ve caught, still writhing, and all three stop a moment to look at the bus lights pass. I can see the factories come in, already running this hour, and men stood outside of them, smoking and ushering the trucks to their bays. Frankie used to do the Tarot cards when she had the strength. I wouldn't have them done on me. I'm superstitious, said it was a dark art, which she laughed at plenty. She did them on her friends and she did them on Andy when she was awake. I watched that first time. She let Andy cut and drew out three cards in rows of three, turned them one at a time.
"That's a moon card," Frankie said, "this one is for your imagination." Andy said: "My imagination. And there are two dogs."
"Yes, one is a wild dog and the other's a house dog."
"Can I keep it?"
"No, you have to look at the other cards. You get the whole meaning from the other cards."
"I want to keep it."
"Look at this one, no put that one back. It's, no, you have to leave it there see..." It turned out Andy was going to be a great artist, cards always read that. The bus rumbles on and I think to myself it seemed more like wilderness when it was dark. I could look out and speculate on things. Now it all looks like the normal world again and I feel uneasy we haven't travelled farther. Same half-light as when they came back out to the waiting room and shut tight the maternity ward door to try and explain to us about what was wrong with Andy. Like they even understood it themselves. An acute iron deficiency was as close as they could guess. I remember Frankie looking at them in disbelief, owing to how it hadn't shown in the cards. Remembering when the first tests came back and I told her to keep it, because of how I knew it was what we both wanted to hear. People are starting to wake up around us and check their phones, we can’t stay on this bus long.
I take a room above a bar and carry Andy upstairs to put her right to bed. Reception demanded she be awake on check-in but I explained she was unwell and kept the hood down over her eyes. I haven’t had the time to change how either of us looks.
“How old is she? For the ledger.” The lady asked, trying to guess from her chin.
“Just turned twelve.” I whispered back, which was out a year, hoping that might throw off the search a little.
The water in the bathroom only runs lukewarm, but I wash the bus off me anyhow and get a finger rubbed in at my teeth, my gums. I can still taste chemical butter and it could be I'll always taste it. I unpack Andy's things from our sports bag so she'll wake up with them around. I hide the zip lock bags down the back of the wardrobe and I set her favourite books by her bed with a photo of Frankie on top of them I took from the mantel back home, where her face is tight up against the sun in smiles and in that pink baseball cap gone ragged along all the edges. My phone is right now ringing out someplace back home I’ll bet. Frankie won’t care, once she’s realised I’ve taken Andy. She’ll call in the police, the news, any soul at all to listen and is going to parade the zip-lock bags, the wounds, the whole story. And she’ll do it like drearily seeing out a routine because it was always set to end this way and she was probably surprised it lasted to eleven years. I’m certainly surprised she physically lasted that long. Even eleven is too old. She can walk into a place and be mistaken for fourteen owing to how dark her eyes have gone. I should have done this before. I try to think of the right age.
The main street has this all purpose shop selling bread and tinned tuna so I can make food for myself back in the room and we can watch some television for a while when Andy wakes up and has to eat. I walk a little after that. Outside of our back garden, street lamps burn the ground their flat yellow, into the long stretch of shade sloped from the fence of our house to the flat lumps and the concrete. Shopping trolleys buried in dried out thicket and mounds of hard mud like they were patted into shape and scarred with concrete up out of them, skeletal like the ankles of something broken off. It seems like true wilderness to me, more even than unblemished land, on account of how even no animal will touch it. No one is ever going to tend this land or sow or drag anything alive out of it.
I take the route back stopping by the river for a cigarette. It runs rust brown but I can see fish in it clearly, slipping over rocks to fight the current. Flies hover head height like they're staring you down and there are stray cats stalking the long grass, malnourished and inbred going back generations and down through to the kittens, trying to turn up something in the rubbish spilled over the bank from the bridge.
"You shouldn't feed them. Should fix ‘em, them ones. It’s a cruelty." My Da used to tell me. "People setting cats stray they don’t know or care to keep any longer and is it a wonder then when they go and breed bad?" He was from there. He knew what was right. They catch the scent of the tuna, start to lump over through the wet grass to me. Only now it dawns on me that I was that kind of a stray. I bred bad. I would sit by the bedside and watch Frankie cut. I had the needles already emptied in her for the pain. She started with shin bone, slices off of that. It was slow. It could take about an hour watching and we both cried and I couldn’t speak for the night after it. Then we would get the bandages on her right away, the disinfectant over them and the slices still wet into the zip lock bags. It was by accident they found out. Frankie cut herself in the maternity ward and the scent of it stopped Andy crying. When she brought her to the breast the child struggled over to where the cut was half-healed and suckled off that. A day of it stopped whatever was killing her.
I wonder about Andy being awake when I get back, but there's the note if she is. Phone in the room, she could go call Frankie, but it takes so much to wake her now, I know when I open the bedroom door she'll still be curled tight on the pillow and I'll have a hell of a time shaking her for the feed. Taking longer to wake her to eat, and I wonder if on some cold morning I won't manage it at all and then why that seems almost worse than why it is I’ve brought her out here. Doctors suggested it was the iron she needed, got her supplements but it was only Frankie’s cut that interested her, chewing the flesh around it. We tried her on uncooked beef, on carpaccio, blue steak. Finally they had to admit, the only thing keeping Andy alive was feeding from her mother.
"There aren’t napkins. You forgot the napkins." Andy prying the zip lock bags open with a thumb and the one eye squinted shut, so that fluid, some blood, leaks between bed sheet folds to blot. We have on MTV and the far three walls blush purple into blue out of the dark, outlining a shadow where the plaster is threadline cracked that the paint hides by daylight.
"We can use the toilet roll, nobody’s looking." She laughs at this.
"I dropped some of the liquid, Da. It's all greasy here. Will they change these sheets tomorrow?"
"No, we're going to keep them. We can wash them in the sink."
Later on I pop the window and smoke through the gap, half watching Andy fight her eyes taking in a video of a man turning goat till I look again and she's out cold, bathed in white strobe carried all the way to the curtain and glass and most likely backlighting me with it. The smoke escapes upward into neon on a chip shop across the street there's nobody inside of.
"Hospital told me they’d take her.” I said to Frankie once after we sealed the bags and cleaned up. “They want to know what it is. They can try things out we wouldn’t think of.” It was too late to go to bed and the needles were starting to wear off on her so we took coffee looking out the back window onto the main road and watched the traffic begin to swell.
"Doctor said it has to be me. Or else she doesn’t get what she needs. How are they going to give her that?" It was a stupid question to ask anyways. She was all but gone to bone in one leg, shape of it just held in with bandage. Kept up talking about starting on the shoulder next till the leg healed right, seeing how that was.
"Leg’s not going to heel." I said. Coffee was cold but I let it crest my lips, stick and part the cold surface like a skin. "Nothing about this is going to get better. We have to stop it, Frankie."
"For what, stop it? She needs her mother. You can’t hope to know about it"
I’m looking out to see if there are any police cars or angry mobs, but all I can make out is dog tracking between brown and green only bottle banks under our window to nose through where somebody's collapsed in a snackbox. I can see the space around where the smoke clears into the chip shop neon, where it's pitch black from the street up to the sky and I think how the neon, the lamplight, the warmth of the room and the burning stars are all just the exceptions to the one overall dark.
I dial back to zero on the remote control and catch a single frame of a news report showing a woman's face making an appeal which could've been anybody's face at that hour and for seeing it through tears. I’m cleaning away the empty zip-lock bags. She’s finished three days-worth in an evening, hungriest she’s ever been. Andy asked me once why kids on TV never eat from red, zip-lock bags the way she does. She asked me when her mom was going to get better so we could all of us go out and play. She quit asking about a year back. You can’t scrub out or sanitise the scent of blood and fresh cut meat from hanging around a house.
The pills haven’t worked. I finally talk myself into taking out the knife and I breathe and start out by scratching Daddy & Andy 14/09/15 into the wall paint. I’ve read up on how this has to happen. I’m sat the other side of the room from her bed, bleary eyed from the tears and the three-quarter-bottle of Paddy I’m washing courage into my system with, toying with the blade. Da was full of talk about doing right. It should have been done to me way back when. Should’ve been him before that. I’m growing blue from the music playing out on the radio and the room corner splotches back into focus with Andy sat part-way up in the bed under sheets.
“Are you okay, Da? Is something wrong?”
“Go back to sleep Andy.” She’s brushing the mop of hair out of her face when the door of the room gives inward under the weight of two guards, the receptionist and a slew of drunks, it looks like, who’ve seen something on TV and all of them shambled up here from a bar. How I didn’t smell that. Had to be the whiskey.