Short of setting it alight, Stacia Dunne had a hard time seeing how a few embers could kill a guinea pig. Was ash not just what was left behind when something else burned off and so, really, not even a thing at all? More a memory, half-there, the flaky ectoplasm of what is used up. Certainly not a poison. She’d once told Tommy Moran she’d let him have a go if he downed a pint spoiled with three soggy menthol ends and he’d spent the rest of the night getting sick down the lane and trying to convince the bouncers that it hadn’t been owing to the drink. But she knew she’d only dropped one butt, and there it was, still in the pen. Couldn’t have been more because she’d only had four smokes last night, two straights two pinners, and the other three stubs were still accounted for in the crook of her bedroom window. Not that any such hard evidence would convince her mother.
- Christ’s sake, could you not go one night without smoking whatever crap it is you’re on these days.
- What, tobacco?
- Don’t be smart. You could at least have let the poor thing get settled before deluging it with molten debris. Must have felt like bleeding Krakatoa out here, the size of the creature. And after its coming all the way from Peru. How do you think your Father’s going to cope with this? You know he’s needed a project since he left the library.
- It’s not from Peru, mum, that’s just the breed. It’s from down the road. Your man with the jacket breeds them in his back garden and sells them online. And it’s not a project, it’s a fucking rodent.
- Don’t be silly, Love, your Father doesn’t have any time for social media.
- No but the lad in the pet shop does.
- Fair enough. Anyway, it’ll be you telling him, I’ll say that much.
When she told him the news, Stacia’s father nodded, placed a slow hand on her shoulder and said he forgave her - she’d made no admission - before solemnly carrying the little round corpse down to the end of the garden where he buried it in a shallow hole next to the begonias and laid a stone slab so the foxes wouldn’t get at it. She watched all this from the sill of her bedroom window and, true enough, the black and grey flecks dispersed by her anxious flicks floated over and into in the inflatable paddling pool he’d set up as a makeshift trough. But Stacia wasn’t convinced. More likely, she thought, that it died of fright. It had shrieked from the moment they released it from its shoebox into the pen, and didn’t cease nor soften its wails until the early morning after she had forced sleep with the help of the joints.
Late nights were normal since she’d begun freelancing. She could get away with doing far less now and was glad to be well compensated by over-funded founders who couldn’t tell the difference between actual work and a copy-paste job. But following exotic hours in a screen-lit bedroom fuelled by energy drinks and handfuls of dry granola made her feel she was spiralling. In a way she missed the routine of the IT department. On the other hand, she liked the not paying taxes. He would have gotten a kick out of that. Stacia, the suck-up, going off grid and sticking it to the Revenue Commissioners. But it couldn’t last. She’d soon have to start declaring her income if she wanted a mortgage and to get back into a place of her own.
Her mother always knocked too loudly.
- Ana, Love, your dinner. You’ll need to eat if you’re heading out again tonight.
She was always told she’d been named after Ingrid Bergman’s character in one of her mother’s favourite period dramas, but a young Anastacia had been embarrassed to realise that the spelling of her name did not match that of the titular Russian duchess but rather the American pop singer. She had been consoled then because she stuck anyway to using that first part of her name, only making the change later, after lots had happened, when Dylan Kaplan, who she’d fancied at the time, had taken her name, Ana Dunne, and got half the school calling her Anadin, and the shame had rent her until she went to college and was able to reintroduce herself to the world as Stacia. To spare them, she had never told her parents the reason for the change, and having put it down to a phase they never accepted its permanence. Just one more reason why living in that house was such an unwelcome resuscitation.
Stacia had no great preference to be out alone in the dark but it was always evening by the time she managed to wake and see through the fog of last night’s smoke to get out for a run. She never ran quickly, as was glad to be out of the house, but the guilt of the smokes moved her to run further and longer in proportion to the previous night’s indulgences. Her route rarely changed, down along the canal and over the Chapelizod bypass then into the park through the south gate, the spike of Wellington’s obelisk on her right side presuming to penetrate her view of the city. She tended to lose the last light as she ran by the old magazine fort and through the tall trees up to Chesterfield Avenue. The straight road, dissecting the park and measuring its breadth, was lit sparsely by gas lamp, so that as she passed each light a stretch of undisturbed darkness lay before the sanctuary of its next neighbour. But she had great eyesight, and if she let her gaze pass beyond the immediate darkness of the roadside to the still blacker canopies of the low oaks she could see the commuters’ headlights illuminate the unliving eyes of foraging deer. There were times when a higher and seemingly less startled pair of eyes suggested to Stacia that something taller stood among the animals, and she felt the need to remind herself that in fawning season, before the cull, there was bound to be a disparity of height and temperament between young and old. Most nights the cars passed with enough frequency that she could have confidence in her footing on the tarmac, but on weekends and in later hours the windrush of cars might fade and leave no sound to vie with the rhythm of her breath and slapping soles. Feeling the beginnings of fear in such emptiness, she would fixate on that next methane moon, knowing that to look around or to quicken her pace could do nothing but reveal or embolden the terrible things that, in all likelihood, lived only in her.