Laura meets Mad Sweeney where she meets anybody, these days – at the casino. She almost doesn’t see him at first, too busy slipping cards out of the holder and struggling to keep her bored expression carefully neutral while an old woman in a bad sweater and a sweaty balding man try to get lucky. It’s impossible to believe, later, since he’s so goddamn tall he towers over nearly everyone and everything, but it’s the truth. In point of fact, she doesn’t notice him until he slides into a seat across from her, chips clacking together as he places them on the worn felt of her table.
“You look well enough,” he says, eyeing her up and down. Laura gives him a blank, professional smile. One of those nights, she thinks, feeling a bubble of irritation. Well, he’d find himself disappointed soon enough. The man flags down a waitress passing by with empty glasses balanced on her tray. “Southern Comfort and Coke?” he asks, flicking a gold coin between his fingers out of nowhere. “Thank you kindly.”
Laura narrows her eyes.
“Neat trick,” she says, looking down at the cards she’s placing in front of each customer. She places the last card in front of the man, looking him directly in the eyes as she does. “Do it often?”
The sweaty, balding man looks nervous, eyes flicking between the two of them quickly. The old woman isn’t paying attention at all, pulling the cards back and forth in front of her eyes to see them clearly. The man just grins, a bitter twist to his mouth. “Often, and with panache,” he says, pleasantly enough, but his eyes are challenging. The flirtation that she usually sees isn’t there.
Laura looks back down. Her job isn’t to argue with the customers. It’s to deal cards – and catch cheaters.
“House busts. Winners all around,” she says.
An hour later, and she hasn’t figured out how he’s doing it, yet. The old woman has long moved on to the slot machines, and the sweaty balding man has nearly pulled out his remaining hair in frustration as the tall red-haired man continues to win and win, until the red-haired man says with a shit-eating grin that Laura finds irritating to no end, “Gonna take a swing?”
Stuttering a refusal, the sweaty balding man leaves shortly after that, grumbling and rifling through a much lighter wallet. “No balls these days,” the man mutters, frowning. Still, the man remains, allowing Laura to flip over his cards in relative silence. The waitresses replace his whiskey until his face has grown ruddy with the flush of alcohol.
“You look familiar. Have a little Irish in you?” he asks, suddenly.
Laura stares at him. “I’m not answering that,” she says.
“I’m dead serious,” he says, pointing a finger at her from around his glass as Laura resists the urge to snap it off. The finger circles her face in the air, before coming back to refer to his own long, imaginary hair. The ice in his whiskey tinkles lightly against the glass as he moves. “Hair’s too brown for my liking though. Needs a bit more of the red.”
“You should talk. You look like a red panda crawled on your head and died,” she says, annoyance finally getting the best of her.
The man’s eyes flicker, and Laura sees a hint of her own frustration reflected back at her for just a brief moment before it disappears. Then, since she’s already fucked up the “customer is always right with enough money involved” casino policy, she continues.
“I know you’re cheating,” she informs him. “I just don’t know how.”
The man leans back in his seat, considering her. “No cheating,” he says, “just Genuine Oirish Luck.”
Laura scoffs. “What kind of idiot to you take me for?” she asks, because she knows luck, and luck is not winning four out of five hands for a solid hour.
“I don’t know,” he says, leaning forward again. His eyes stare intently into hers. Despite the small table between them, Laura feels, suddenly, as if there is no space at all. “What kind of idiot are you?”
Instantly, Laura is furious. “If you want to be rude,” she says, sharply, “the bouncers can show you the fucking door.”
“You asked the question,” the man says, shrugging, then says, as if just musing aloud, “You’re kind of a bitch under that whole get-up, aren’t you? I suppose I can’t blame you. Livin’ like you do, you end up more dead than alive, dead girl.”
Laura’s been accused of being a bitch before. Of being a cunt, although she hates that fucking word. The rest is new, and she finds it a little disconcerting. “You’re just another boring, asshole customer,” Laura says, more defensively than she intends. “You know nothing about me.”
“Oh no? Let me guess,” he says, a cruel glint in his eye. Laura `doesn’t speak, staring him down, annoyed, as she crosses her arms over her chest. He doesn’t know her, and his pseudo-Sherlock bullshit won’t convince her that he does.
“You’re bored,” he says. “You work here hoping to find some excitement, watching people chase fortune, but none of you ever find it.” The man’s voice is lilting and airy, uncaring, even as his voice lowers and his tone becomes more intense, pure venom. “You work, you go home, you fuck your pretty boyfriend and wash the same little dishes in the same little house, wishing for something you’re too apathetic to try for. You’re bored, dead girl, and you’re boring.”
It's not true. Laura knows it’s not true. She has no boyfriend, she hasn’t fucked someone in a good long time, and she never washes the fucking dishes. But. Laura’s mind flicks back to the jacuzzi, the bug spray, the bright, fresh air as she slammed open the plastic foam top of the hot tub and gasped her breath. It was the closest she’d gotten to excitement in years.
Laura snaps back to reality, glaring, opening her mouth to spit the rage building on her tongue, but the man is already knocking back his drink, slamming it down on the table. “I might be many things,” he tells her, “but at least I’m not boring.” Then he walks away from her table, chips clacking together in his pocket.
Laura watches him, furious, and is glad when she sees the bouncers pick him up and drag him out.
After, she finds him beat to shit by her car, drunk and smoking. Dried blood covers his mouth and nose, smeared onto his cheek by an errant hand. He looks up at her hazily through his one unpurpled eye as she approaches, grin unfurling.
“Oi, it’s the dead girl. Come to live a little?”
“That’s my car,” she says flatly.
“Oh?” The man pulls forward to look back over his shoulder, then falls back with a grunt. “Bit of a piece of shit, innit?”
Fucking irritating, Laura thinks, pressing her lips together. “You’re getting blood all over it. Move.”
“Now, now, no need to be mean about it. Don’t you have any sympathy for an old man unfairly tossed out on his ass?”
“No, I don’t.” Laura informs him. “I’m tired. I’ve had a long shift, I got reamed out by my boss for not catching the cheater at my table,” she raises her eyebrows at him pointedly, “and I don’t need that same asshole getting blood on my car when I need to go feed my fucking cat.”
The man leans over and spits out blood. “Fuck me,” he says, muttering to the ground. Then, looking back up at her, heated, “I told you, I wasn’t cheating.”
Irritated, the man glares up at her. He takes a final drag of his cigarette, then flicks it a few feet away onto the concrete. Laura watches idly, frowning at the smear of blood left on the filter. He still hasn’t made any indication of moving. “Give a boy a lift, would you?”
“Are you a boy or an old man?” she asks him, acidly.
Laura wants to roll her eyes, but settles for kicking the man’s outstretched leg. “What’s your name, fire crotch?”
He hesitates, then says, “Mad Sweeney.”
“What kind of name is that?”
Mad Sweeney scowls. “It’s fucking mine, is what it is.” He puts his hands against the ground, slowly pushing himself up with a pained grunt. Laura eyes the spread of his hands against the concrete, the length of his fingers. “Are you giving me a ride or not?”
Against her better judgment, she does.
Maybe, she thinks as he fumbles to open her passenger side door, she’ll get lucky and he’ll murder her in her sleep.
The sex is good. Better than she expects. She slaps him across the face and he drags her roughly into the cradle of his body, his mouth fierce and angry against hers. It’s good enough that after, she lets him sleep on her couch. For eight months, he doesn’t leave.
Audrey and Robbie fucking hate him, no surprise.
“Why do you let him live in your house?” Audrey asks her, disgusted.
“He has his good qualities,” Laura says, and it sounds unconvincing even to her ears.
“In the sack, you mean,” Audrey says. She winces a little, as if she hadn’t meant to be so crude.
Laura shrugs. Then Mad Sweeney calls Robbie a cunt and punches him in the face, and that’s the end of his invitations to Audrey’s weekend barbecues.
Even when Laura ignores him punching her best friend’s husband, Mad Sweeney is still the worst roommate she’s ever had. He leaves his beer bottles all over the house, and he never contributes to rent. He’s never without a snarky comeback or muttered comment, and he argues with her about the dumbest shit she can imagine, like how she doesn’t wash the dishes correctly – as if he’s the saint of cleanliness – or how the mailman wouldn’t leave her shit in the rain if she weren’t such a bitch. She threatens to kick him out every other day at least. They fight, regularly, and with a viciousness that Laura finds sickly satisfying. All her venom and fury and ice – she spits it at him and he sends it right back.
A few months in, Laura is standing in the kitchen, arms crossed over her chest, and Mad Sweeney is glaring at her from the other side of the table, eyes wild. Dinner is long burnt behind her, and Laura can’t even remember how this particular fight even started.
“I swear by the years I spent in the fucking trees,” Mad Sweeney shouts, pacing and stabbing his finger at her with vicious punctuation, “you are the most infuriating cunt I’ve ever met.”
“Call me a cunt one more time.” Laura warns him calmly, blood hot under her skin.
Mad Sweeney scoffs. “Or what?”
“Or I’ll kick you so hard in the balls they’ll come back out your mouth,” Laura says, louder, less calm. She wants dig her nails deep into his skin, wants to hurt him in every way she knows how. She tries to smile at him, an ugly, vindictive thing, but it’s hard to do when she’s almost shouting.
“Jesus fucking Christ on a spit, I can’t stand you.”
“Then get the fuck out of my house,” Laura tells him, finally lowering her voice back to a reasonable volume. She manages a smile, then, all sarcasm, and uses the lilting, taunting tone she knows he hates. “Nothing is keeping you here.” And it’s true. She has no idea why she’s even let him stay with her this long, the infuriating piece of shit.
In an instant, he’s rounded the table and then he’s in front of her, gripping her arms so tight they will probably bruise tomorrow. Mad Sweeney pushes his face close to hers, close enough to kiss or claw his eyes out. Laura still hasn’t decided which she’s going to do.
“This is where I have to be,” he tells her, voice a growl in his throat. “I’m not leaving you just yet, dead girl.”
It sounds like he’s laying down a curse, Laura thinks.
“Don’t fucking call me that,” she says. She grabs at his face, then, thumbs pushing into his cheekbones hard enough that he grunts with pain, and pulls his face to meet hers. She kisses him, biting and sucking and on the verge of bloody, her hands crawling up to pull at his hair. She wants to claw the skin from his bones, rip his balls out of their sac like shucking goddamn peas. She wants to punt him across the room, she wants to feel him strong and firm and hot inside her. She wants, she wants –
As she fucks him, riding him furiously on the kitchen floor, his hands cruel and bruising on her hips, she thinks, God, I hate him.
“Do you believe in gods?” Mad Sweeney asks her, one day. They’re lounging in her front yard on lawn chairs, and Mad Sweeney is watching as the Jehovah’s Witnesses walk from door to door, feet dipped into a children’s blow-up pool that Laura dug out of the garage. Laura looks up from her book.
“What, like capital-G god?”
Mad Sweeney shrugs and reaches down into the cooler between them, pulling out a beer and popping it open. “Sure,” he says.
“There’s nothing to believe.” Laura replies. “I’ve looked.”
Mad Sweeney looks curious, then, eyebrows raising. “Oh?” He says, and there’s a smile playing about his lips that Laura doesn’t like.
“Jesus, Santa, the Toothfairy, it’s all just stories.” She informs him, setting her book down into her lap. “The world isn’t special. There is no magic. Life is just... not that interesting.”
“So no gods, no miracles, no afterlife, then?” Mad Sweeney asks. “You already know, is it?”
“When you die, you rot.” Laura says, firmly. “It’s a fixed system. Physics doesn’t take Sundays off.”
Mad Sweeney stares at her, eyes calculating. Laura has no idea what he’s thinking.
“What,” she says, feeling suddenly irritated.
Mad Sweeney chuckles, then, a bitter, humorless sound.
“That’s a very narrow view of the world,” he says.
He does have good qualities, Laura realizes eventually. Mad Sweeney feeds her cat, annoys her mother when she’s being particularly sanctimonious. He makes her laugh, though he often looks irritated after, as if he hadn’t meant to be funny at all. He’s not kind, or cloying, and he doesn’t expect her to perform for him. He tells her he already knows she’s a righteous cunt, and while Laura doesn’t think she’s the worst person in the world, at least she doesn’t have to deal with vague pleasantries or insincere small talk or compliments that make her want to punch other people in the throat. He’s easy to be around, Laura realizes, when he’s not making her want to strangle him.
She’s not bored yet, either, or at least not totally, despite the shitty house and the shitty town and the shitty job. Before felt like being on autopilot, the same routine and the same people with different faces. Like reading through the pages of a history book, all established fact. Now each day is distinct and uncertain, even as Laura memorizes Mad Sweeney’s ticks and habits, like the way he prefers whiskey and never drinks Guinness, or the way his mouth tilts when she says something he finds interesting. Laura’s growing used to the way his eyes drag slowly over her skin before flicking away as he returns to other thoughts. She finds herself reaching for him outside of sex, leaning back against his bulk on the couch while he grumbles about her interrupting his television soaps. She reminds him flatly that she pays all the bills and Mad Sweeney wraps his arms around her, absent-minded, his complaints a low familiar murmur as she lays her head against his chest.
It’s not love, but it’s interesting enough to keep going with, for now.
“Tell me something true,” she says. They are sitting in her backyard, watching fireflies flicker in the distance. A fire that Mad Sweeney spent at least thirty expletive-filled minutes getting to flare up crackles in front of them. Mad Sweeney is halfway through a case of her beer and she’s following close behind.
Mad Sweeney looks at her, something shifting in his eyes that Laura can’t quite recognize. It’s been almost six months of living with him and there are still times when he feels like a complete stranger.
“I used to be a king,” he tells her, voice so quiet that she can’t even bring herself to call bullshit. Then he looks away, bottle moving up and down as he swallows the last of its contents.
She doesn’t ask him again.
One day, almost eight months after she first met him, Mad Sweeney drags her back to bed, petty and whiny in a way he usually only is when she refuses to let him pick what’s for dinner, or changes the daytime soaps he’s watching, or forgets to leave out a damned bowl of cream by the window.
“Don’t go to work today,” he says, his hand gripping tight around her waist as she moves to sit up.
“Some of us work for a living,” Laura says. “We can’t all stay in bed all day and expect to get paid.”
“I’ve got plenty of money,” Mad Sweeney mumbles, sliding over to place a kiss against her ribs. His hand flickers, and a gold coin slips onto her lap.
“How are you still doing that naked?” She asks, lifting the coin with her thumb and forefinger, twisting it back and forth to look at it closely.
“I’m a leprechaun,” he tells her, seriously.
“Yeah, right,” Laura says, and turned away from him, she misses the odd expression that crosses his face before he lays her back down to kiss between her breasts.
That night, she calls into work sick, forcing her voice to sound thick and wrecked as he mouths at her under the covers.
The next day, the morning newspaper already has an article on an arrest made at the casino the night before. MAN CAUGHT RED-HANDED, the article reads, Magic Tricks Not Enough To Escape Anubis Casino.
A week later, Mad Sweeney tells her that he’s found work from an old boss. It’s traveling work, and he’ll be gone a week or two at a time, sometimes longer. He’s sitting at her kitchen table, not quite looking her in the eyes when he says it. Laura watches him carefully. She almost wishes this were a fight. If he were going to leave her, he could at least have the balls to look her in the face and admit it.
“If you’re going to use my house as a home base, you can at least contribute to rent, now that you have a job like the rest of us.”
She half expects him to refuse – after all, if he has a job, there’s no need to stay with her any longer – but he agrees, albeit with his usual exasperation.
“Trying to screw me out of my hard-won money?” He says, scowling at her, and for a moment, everything seems normal.
“You’re the free-loader, here,” Laura says, crossing her arms over her chest.
“I think I’ve done plenty, what with washing the dishes and cooking and feeding your damn cat!” Mad Sweeney says loudly, but Laura recognizes when he’s really annoyed and when he’s just complaining, as usual, and she looks at him, unimpressed.
“All you cook are potatoes,” Laura says.
“That’s a stereotype,” he says, accusing.
The next day Mad Sweeney presses a kiss to Laura’s temple on his way out, and Laura knows it then, without question. There’s no way he’s coming back.
Weeks turn into months, and Mad Sweeney disappears. Laura falls back into her old routine. She goes to work, she cooks dinner for one, she feeds her cat. Once she tries to make an old Irish dish and ends up tossing it in the trash, the taste a mockery of Mad Sweeney’s familiar food. Two months after Mad Sweeney leaves, she buys weed from this twenty-something dealer and lets him fuck her on his Call of Duty bedsheets. She doesn’t buy from him again, and Laura wonders if she’s old enough to be having a midlife crisis.
It’s the same day to day, and when she eats dinner she stares out at the jacuzzi, contemplating. She doesn’t use it, but she thinks she will, eventually. She honestly doesn’t know what she’s putting off.
Then she comes home from a grocery run, and her cat is dead.
Of course her cat is dead. Laura stares at it for a moment, then turns her back to return to the kitchen.
She bought wine, meant to last her at least the week, but she drinks straight from the bottle now. She needs to be drunk to deal with this. After she gets about two-thirds of the way through, she begins contemplating what to do next. She could call Robbie, she supposes, but she knows where that would lead. She’s not morally opposed, but Robbie’s half in love with her, and she doesn’t want to deal with that. Laura’s still thinking when her bell rings.
“What,” she says flatly as she swings open the door, and is surprised to find herself looking up at Mad Sweeney.
“How are you even here right now?” She asks, half-wondering if this is a drunken hallucination, though she’s never heard of someone having one. She thinks for a moment, then adds, “My cat just died.”
Mad Sweeney shrugs, almost apologetic. “Genuine Oirish Luck,” he says. Then, “Sorry about your hell cat.”
Laura thinks she should be pissed, but it seems like so much work right now. She backs up and pulls the door open.
Mad Sweeney buries her cat, and after they don’t even fuck. He guides her back to her bed as she stumbles, murmuring old stories, and when she holds fast onto his wrist, he clambers in after her. Mad Sweeney wraps his arms around her, then, and Laura digs her nose into his shoulder as tears leak out against her will. She’s just drunk, she tells herself. But.
She can’t bring herself to hate him after that.
Mad Sweeney still leaves, from time to time. His boss still has work for him, he tells her. But he doesn’t leave as long, and Laura learns to expect him within two weeks of leaving. It’s a dangerous thing, she realizes, getting used to him again, and there’s an itch in her that she hadn’t registered before. This half-life isn’t enough, she thinks, and isn’t quite sure to what she’s referring.
Over a year after she first met Mad Sweeney, she asks him.
She waits until after, when they’re laying together in her bed, sweat cooling. They’ve been doing this long enough that she curls against him, his arm wrapping around her and tapping an absent, incomprehensible rhythm on her side.
“Why were you there, that night?” For a moment, Laura thinks she’s going to have to explain what she means, but somehow, he seems to know exactly what’s in her head.
“No particular reason. I was just a man wandering, riding on the wings of fortune.” His voice is light and airy, a joke.
She smacks him, lightly, on the chest. “No, seriously.”
Turning over, Mad Sweeney looks at her. For a moment, she almost thinks he’s going to cup her cheek, a gentle gesture from an ungentle man, and her gut churns with discomfort. But he doesn’t. He just looks at her, eyes intense on her face.
“I saw you,” he says eventually, and her breath catches in her chest. What did you see? She wants to ask, but she’s not sure she wants to hear the answer when he’s looking at her like that.
“What, like a stalker?” She manages. She tries to make her voice sound wry, unaffected.
He rolls his eyes then, and Laura can breathe again.
It all falls apart eventually, and later, Laura thinks she shouldn’t have been surprised.
It starts with a phone call, almost two years after Mad Sweeney leaned against her car and asked her for a ride. Mad Sweeney is using all of her shampoo in the shower, and Laura is stretching out her legs under the bed’s large duvet, contemplating whether she wants to bother with actually making breakfast or if she just wants to make some oatmeal. She’s finally decided on cooking, if only because she wants bacon, when the phone rings. She doesn’t recognize the ringtone, and reaches over to answer the small phone on the side-table next to her. She doesn’t recognize the number, either.
“Hello?” Laura answers, curious despite herself.
“Ah, is this the esteemable Laura Moon?” A man asks amiably. There’s a rasp to his voice though, a hard edge that isn’t quite pointed at her. He’s older, she thinks. Probably confused, or an Evangelist.
Laura frowns. “I think you have the wrong number – “
“No, no, I’m very sure you’re exactly who I want to speak to,” the man says. “I apologize, I had forgotten that you aren’t a Moon at all these days, are you? But regardless – I assume you’re familiar with our mutual friend, Mad Sweeney?”
That makes Laura pause. She glances at the closed bathroom door and the steam curling underneath.
“You could say that,” she says.
“Good, good.” The man says, sounding pleased. “Now –“
“Hold on a second.” Laura interrupts, a headache starting to build. She has the strangest feeling of déjà vu, as if she’s heard this voice before and decided, quite frankly, that it belonged to an asshole. She says, annoyed, “I have no idea who you are or why you’re calling me ass early in the morning. What do you want?”
“Ah, but you won’t hang up, will you? You’re curious.” The man says, sounding amused. “You may call me Wednesday. I am Mad Sweeney’s employer.” Wednesday pauses, then adds, “As for what I want… I think I’d very much like to meet you, Ms. McCabe.”
“What?” Laura says, flatly.
“Oh, I hate speaking over the phone.” Wednesday tells her, although Laura gets the feeling that he knows damn well that’s not why she’s confused. “Never know who’s listening, do you? In any case, let Mad Sweeney know that I’ll be stopping by tomorrow. Our business together is concluding, and sooner is better than later when it comes to wrapping up loose ends. I’ll be coming through on my way to pick something up, anyway. Have a lovely day, Ms. McCabe.”
Wednesday hangs up, then, and Laura looks down at her phone, unnerved.
Mad Sweeney exits the shower fifteen minutes later while Laura is stirring eggs by the stove, bacon cooling on paper towels next to her.
Pants slung low on his hips, he reaches out next to her and snatches up a few pieces, stuffing one in his mouth. Laura doesn’t bother to try to smack at his hand like she usually does, and Mad Sweeney’s eyes narrow.
“I need you to sit down,” Laura says.
Mad Sweeney does, slowly, rubbing the towel around his shoulders into his hair. “Are you pregnant?” he asks, sounding suspicious.
Laura stares at him, unimpressed, and Mad Sweeney shrugs. He chews thoughtfully and swallows. “Where’s the body, then? Better to chop it up and bury the pieces separately.”
At this, Laura just rolls her eyes. Mad Sweeney grins, and pops more bacon into his mouth. “Your boss called.” Laura says. “He says he’s coming tomorrow. Wants to ‘tie up loose ends.’”
Mad Sweeney’s eyes go wide and he sucks in a breath. The he starts coughing, loudly, chewed bits of bacon flying out of his mouth as he tries to exhale his food. Through the loud hacking coughs, Mad Sweeney curses.
“Fuck.” he says. Then adds, “Shit. Fuck. Goddamn motherfucking piece of—” and the words grow increasingly louder and more incomprehensible until Laura isn’t even sure he’s still speaking English.
Carefully, Laura sets aside her pan, flicking off the gas and flame underneath it. She turns to face Mad Sweeney, who by now is pacing back and forth in front of her dining room table.
“I think we should rob the casino.” Laura tells Mad Sweeney simply.
At this, Mad Sweeney freezes. “What?” He says, turning to face at her fully. “No.” He’s looking at her like she’s crazy for even suggesting it, but Laura is long immune to that.
“I’ve been eliminating options one by one until I came to my final decision, so while this may sound irrational, I have completely rational reasons for wanting to do it.”
“Do what, get yourself killed?”
Distantly, Laura recognizes the expression on Mad Sweeney’s face, a strange mix of anger and complete bewilderment. She sighs. “I’m not planning on dying anytime soon. Don’t pretend like you’re too good to steal from my job when you let me pay for your shit for over a year.”
“I want more than this,” Laura continues, waving her hand to encompass the entirety of the room and town behind her. Then she flicks her finger back and forth between them. “Don’t get me wrong, this has been great. But to stay here, day after day, living the rest of my life in this shitty town with a shitty job – that would represent failure to me.”
Mad Sweeney opens his mouth, but Laura pushes forward. She knows that face – knows he’ll respond with incredulity and anger, shut down and call her insane, when really, this is the opportunity that she’s been searching for. “I’ve worked at the casino for years, and I can tell you every single thing that every single person in that building will do and what they see. Years of predictive behavior, and you’re good enough at magic tricks that last time they couldn’t even catch you. I have a perfect plan.” Laura shrugs. “And you owe this Wednesday guy money anyway, right?”
“They aren’t magic tricks, and I don’t need any fucking money, are you daft?” Mad Sweeney says. “What the fuck are you thinking?”
At this, Laura feels the first bubbles of real annoyance. “I’m thinking that this a perfect opportunity. That you’re in deep with this Wednesday, and that he said some weird and ominous shit about wanting to meet me. Is it so surprising that I might want to take advantage of that to move up in the world and make sure that my brake line doesn’t get cut afterward?”
Mad Sweeney’s mouth twists downward. “Grimnir doesn’t want money,” he says. “And I don’t owe him, exactly.”
Laura crosses her arms. “Then tell me why you’re acting like the man has a collar on you like a fucking puppy. You’ve told half the people in this town to kiss your Irish ass, so what magic power could he possibly have to make you terrified of him?”
Mad Sweeney scrubbed at his face. “Are you fucking kidding me right now?” He mutters, under his breath. “I don’t deserve this, I really don’t. I’m not a bad person.”
Laura rolls her eyes. “Well?” She asks, resisting the urge to tap her foot.
“He’s a god,” Mad Sweeney says.
Laura tilts her head. “What?”
“He’s. A fucking. God.” Mad Sweeney says, each word short and clipped. “And he can get me something I want.”
“A god? Really.” Laura says. She didn’t know it was possible for her voice to sound this dry.
“Yeah, fucking really,” Mad Sweeney says, voice mocking. He looks angry and defensive, his features settling into a scowl.
“So if he’s a god, what does that make you?” Laura asks, not even sure why she’s humoring him. “His disciple or something?”
Mad Sweeney’s scowl deepens. “I’ve fucking told you. I’m a leprechaun.”
“Oh, of course. A leprechaun.” Laura says, as if it all makes sense. Then she says, nonchalant, “Last I checked you were about five too many feet tall to be on a cereal box.”
Mad Sweeney grits his teeth. “We don’t have time for this,” he says. “You need to leave.”
“Leave?” At this, Laura finds herself genuinely surprised. “This is my house,” she says, “I’m not leaving.”
“Look, Grimnir, you can’t trust him—” Mad Sweeney starts to say, urgently.
“Don’t need to trust him—”
“And you don’t want to be anywhere near him, either.” Mad Sweeney finishes.
“What would a ‘god’ even want with me, anyway?” Laura asks, exasperated.
Mad Sweeney eyes flick away from hers. “Sometimes the gods just like to fuck with us,” he says, quietly, looking down.
Laura leans her head into her hand, her previously building headache exploding into full force. “I’ve been living with a delusional cultist,” she says with a sigh. “Jesus Christ.”
At this, Mad Sweeney’s eyes snap back to hers, burning with a helpless sort of anger. “No, he’s headed to Kentucky for Easter’s yearly brunch,” Mad Sweeney says, all sarcasm and bitterness.
Laura lifts her chin. “Prove it.” She says. “If you’re a leprechaun, if gods are real, prove it.”
Instantly, a golden coin flickers into Mad Sweeney’s hand.
“I’ve seen that before,” Laura says.
Mad Sweeney stares at her seriously, and Laura’s heart pounds in her chest. She doesn’t know what she would prefer – that he be insane, or the world. Mad Sweeney’s fingers flicker over and over as he pulls coins from the air. He goes faster and faster, each coin tinkling as it hits the ground, until finally he just lifts a hand and holds it open, and a stream – a hundred, a thousand, more – coins pour onto her floor.
Laura stares down at the pile, and looks back up at Mad Sweeney. It could still be just a normal magic trick, Laura thinks. There’s nothing he’s done that couldn’t and hadn’t been done by some mustachioed man with a top hat and cape. And yet.
Mad Sweeney’s eyes seem to burn her, fierce and defiant in the face of her disbelief. Laura remembers her childhood, desperate to believe the stories were real. Her heart beats wildly in her chest, thumping in her ears.
“Is that it?” she says.
Mad Sweeney’s expression shutters closed. “It doesn’t matter,” he says, ignoring the gold glittering between them like a burning pile of autumn leaves. “What matters is that Grimnir is coming for you.”
Stick to facts, Laura thinks. Stick to things you both can agree could be real.
“What does he even want with me, anyway?” Laura says, exasperated.
Mad Sweeney crosses his arms. “It’s more ‘delusional cultist shit’ you won’t believe. All you need to know is that he’s dangerous.”
“Try me. I’m not getting run out of my dead grandmother’s shitty house,” Laura says. “At least tell me why he’s coming now.”
Mad Sweeney breathes in deeply through his nose. “Fine,” he mutters. “Fine.” Looking up at her, that same serious look on his face, he says, “Grimnir hired me to keep you from meeting your future husband.”
Laura laughs against her will. “What?”
Mad Sweeney looks away, and Laura’s chuckles settle down. She’s never seen him look ashamed, before. “Grimnir has a job for him, one that he wouldn’t do if you were in his life. He hired me to get you out of the way. Make sure you never even met.”
“He wanted me to kill you,” Mad Sweeney continues. “You were supposed to die in a car accident a few years into your marriage, make your piece of shit husband grieve and get angry, be willing to do anything for the man who hired him. You were supposed to die with Robby’s cock in your mouth.”
This is insane, Laura thinks. Ridiculous. Even for a man named Mad Sweeney. Laura isn’t sure what to make of any of it, and so she decides to latch onto the one thing she understands. “He wants you to kill me?”
Mad Sweeney looks away. “I’m not sure,” he says, “Technically, I already took care of it.”
“Is that what you call it? Staying in my house, drinking all my beer, burying my damn cat –” Laura says, growing angry. “Because your boss didn’t want me to meet some imaginary man?”
“I didn’t have to do it that way!” Mad Sweeney snaps. “I could have robbed you, kidnapped you, hell, I could have run you over with a damn car, it didn’t matter to that piss-headed bastard. What mattered was that you were out of the way.”
“How generous of you,” Laura says. “Deciding to fuck me instead.”
Mad Sweeney clenches his jaw, but doesn’t answer.
Laura shakes her head, feeling the anger drain out of her. “Was everything a lie?” Laura asks, tired. “Was it a lie every time?”
She laughs sourly. She doesn’t know why she’s asking, what difference it would make. She only knows that it does. “Was it a big umbrella lie, under which there were many smaller lies?”
“The job was done when you missed meeting Shadow Moon,” Mad Sweeney says.
“And when was that supposed to be?”
Mad Sweeney hesitates. “December,” he says finally. “Last year.”
Well there’s that, at least, Laura thinks, then dismisses it. There’s a train of thought there she doesn’t want to follow just yet, a conclusion about the both of them together that she doesn’t want to make.
“Take care of your boss,” Laura says. She looks up at Mad Sweeney, his eyes not quite able to meet hers, and walks away.
That night, Mad Sweeney sleeps on the couch for the first time in months. Laura knows he’s awake, the loud sound of his snores not filtering through the walls. In her chest, Laura feels a dull ache.
If any of this is real, Laura thinks, pushing the thoughts out into the darkness, give me some kind of sign. Prove it. Give me a vision, a ghost of Christmas past, something.
She waits, and when she finally falls asleep, hours later, she doesn’t dream anything at all.
The next morning, Laura makes herself oatmeal and settles onto the opposite end of the couch, Mad Sweeney pulling back his feet to give her room. He stares at her, neither of them speaking, until Mad Sweeney glances at the clock and stands up. His tank top rises up over his stomach, and Laura sees the pink creases from where his belt dug his jeans into his skin as he slept.
“I called Grimnir last night,” Mad Sweeney says. “I’m meeting him out of town today.”
“Okay,” Laura says. Mad Sweeney starts gathering his things, a process Laura watches out the corner of her eye. She finishes her oatmeal, rising to place her bowl in the kitchen sink. There’s no sign of the gold coins from the day before.
“Stay in the house.” Mad Sweeney says from the living room. “Don’t watch the TV, don’t use the internet, nothing. Don’t leave and –” he hesitates, then says, with a mutter, “Don’t throw out my shit until I get back, alright?”
“I think you mean my shit, Carrot Top.” Laura says.
Mad Sweeney lingers at the door for a brief moment, and then he leaves, grabbing his jacket as he goes.
A few minutes later, Laura hears a knock on the door. Sighing, she swings it open. “What did you leave this time?” She asks, and then the figure in front of her registers.
An old man.
“Ah, Ms. McCabe, I’m glad I caught you at home.” The man smiles, and Laura thinks of a snake oil salesman, each word carefully designed to coerce and wheedle. “I thought it might be best if we met privately, Mad Sweeney has such a temper, and I’m concerned he doesn’t quite think clearly when you’re involved.” The man – Wednesday, it must be Wednesday – smiles at her plaintively. “Now, are you going to let me in?”
To be honest, Laura hasn’t decided yet. She has the feeling that Wednesday is dangerous – he’s a god, she hears in the back of her brain – although she isn’t afraid of him. There’s a strange scent to him too, ozone-copper like a penny struck by lightning, and she’s reluctant to let his old man smell soak into her furniture. Laura pulls open the door, waving halfheartedly to her couch. “Come on in,” she says, flatly.
“What a lovely home you have,” Wednesday says as he enters, pulling his hat from his head. He gestures with it to the couch. “May I?”
Laura waves again, and Wednesday settles down. Laura pulls a chair from the kitchen, refusing to sit next to him.
“I hope you don’t mind the small subterfuge. Mad Sweeney was concerned that we wouldn’t get along, and you know how he tends to overreact.”
“You tried to have me killed,” Laura says.
“Nothing personal, my dear,” Wednesday says pleasantly, but his eyes flash. For a moment, Laura sees that one of his eyes is missing, replaced with an empty socket, blue-black blood oozing. Then she shakes her head, and he sits there, unchanged. “I have certain plans in place that I don’t need you meddling around in.”
Laura gestures to him on the couch. “I’m not the one interfering.”
“Not yet,” Wednesday concedes.
“Why now, then?”
“Mad Sweeney has always been the type to follow his passions, and he has a bad habit of running away from his troubles when he sees them coming.”
Laura feels annoyance bubble up in her gut. “Just say what you want, old man,” she says, words clipped.
“I’ve lent him to you long enough now, girl, and I’d like my man back now.”
Laura blinks. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“He came here on my orders, and he’s indulged your whims and foul nature long enough.”
Foul nature. As if he has any right to talk, the con man that he is. “Do I have to give him up freely, then?” Laura asks, mocking.
“Consider it a sacrifice, if it makes you feel better.”
“Then you’re shit out of luck, old man.” Laura says with a bitter smile. “You might think you’re a god, but that doesn’t mean I’m just going to give up what belongs to me just because you want it.”
“I am a god, dear girl,” Wednesday says, “and that’s exactly what sacrifice means.”
Laura scoffs. “You may have Mad Sweeney fooled with your weird cultist bullshit, but don’t pretend with me.”
“You don’t believe in gods?”
“No,” Laura says. “I don’t.”
Wednesday smiles, his eyes cold. “Then let me correct your assumption,” he says.
“What, you’re going to summon a pile of gold coins from the air? It’s been done.”
“I’m not interested in parlor tricks,” Wednesday says. Then, “You want to know faith?” Wednesday asks. His eyes are stormy, unreadable. “You want to see magic and gods?”
“No such thing,” Laura says.
“Oh, I beg to differ,” Wednesday says, and quickly, faster than Laura ever expected him to move, he taps her on the forehead.
She wakes gasping, her eyes blinking open wide and panicked as she sucks in air. It tastes sour and still on her tongue and she coughs, feeling it dry out the back of her throat. She stumbles forward, not quite seeing, and feels the ground soft and sliding underneath. She glances down, and realizes she’s walking on sand. Bewildered, she wonders if she’s been drugged, somehow. Looking up and seeing the starry expanse, she thinks there can’t be any other explanation for seeing the entire universe in a single sky.
“You are Laura McCabe.” A voice says from behind her.
Laura turns. Standing behind her is a man in plain black robes, his face placid and expectant, as if Laura had interrupted him from a gardening session he was hoping to get back to. What he was doing in a godforsaken desert, Laura had no clue. What fucking peyote shit was this?
“Where the fuck are we?”
The man continues to look at her calmly. “This is the End of All Things,” he says, simply.
“Bullshit.” Laura says immediately.
The man’s eyebrows furrow, turning downward to transform his face. He looks severe, skeletal. “Wotan is stretching his limits to send you here,” he says. As he speaks, each word is slow, firm. The man’s voice reverberates in her head. “He should know better. You aren’t meant to be here yet.”
The man pauses, considering, and then adds, “You cannot stay.”
“Great!” Laura informs him, lifting her arms and slapping them back against her sides. The sound echoes in the supernatural quiet. “Then send me back.”
The man shakes his head slowly. “My dominion is over the dead. I did not bring you here, I cannot return you. I can only shift you elsewhere.”
Laura releases a sharp, pointed breath. “So this is death, then?” she asks. “Since you can’t send me back, what, am I supposed to be dead now? Or go to some weird Limbo world?”
“It is the End of All Things. This is the entrance, for some. For others, it is not. The path differs for all. And you are not dead yet, Laura McCabe.”
Laura can feel a headache building. She wishes the End of All Things had more alcohol available. This is by far the worst trip she has ever been on, and she shouldn’t even be considering this drug-induced farce, but -
“Is this where I’ll go when I die?” Laura asks, evenly.
The man shakes his head. “You believe in nothing,” the man says, “so to nothing you will return.”
Laura frowns at this. “Are you fucking kidd—”
But he’s no longer there, and neither is she.
“Of course,” Laura mutters, once the nausea has passed and vision returns to her eyes. Her headache is building, pulsing behind her eye, and she wants this shit over already. Raising her hand to her forehead, Laura shifts her weight. A series of cracks sound loud and sharp under her foot. Laura looks down, around, and she knows she’s nowhere near a desert.
Bones, bleached white and cracking, litter the ground, the trees.
It looks like a grand orchard, like the apple ones her great-grandfather owned in Massachusetts. It’s creepy as hell, and Laura feels a chill run down her back. Goosebumps spread up and down her arms.
“Now where am I?” she asks aloud, because last time a person appeared out of thin air, and she’d rather hedge her bets. Laura waits a moment, and no one shows up, she begins walking. She follows a slight tug in her gut, hoping that it will guide her to an exit to this wonderland nightmare.
Laura wanders between the trees, bent unnaturally and twisting into impossible shapes. When she looks at them, her head pulses and she feels dizzy. She swallows down the ball of vomit building in the back of her throat and stops looking. She follows a vague path through the bone orchard, ignoring vague shapes on the ground that seem made up of dust and ash. It feels like she’s been walking for hours. It feels like she’s only just opened her eyes. Has she always been walking? Isn’t she tired? Why doesn’t she sit down next to one of those ashen shapes, and just rest for a while?
Shaking her head, Laura ignores the quiet voice, and feels validated when she finally passes through a thick copse of trees to find a clearing. Laura breathes in relief, feeling her headache recede, just barely. As Laura looks around, she realizes that the area isn’t a clearing, exactly. Despite the sudden retreat of the dizzyingly grey trees around her, it was only to make room for another – the largest tree she has ever seen. Laura strains her neck to look at the thing, stretching up beyond her visual line of sight, larger than any redwood tree she’s seen in National Geographic. She can see the edge of the universe in the gaps between of its thick branches.
She’s still taking in the details of the monstrously huge tree when she catches something moving by its edge.
“Hello?” Laura calls, the pulsing in her head beginning to increase, thudding loudly along with her heartbeat.
From around the curve of the central tree, a man steps out. Or it looks man-shaped, almost, with the exception of its head: that of a massive white-furred buffalo. Its eyes burn with fire, and Laura can feel their heat from thirty feet away.
“What the fuck,” Laura says, a whisper forced out of her throat.
“BELIEVE.” The creature speaks. Its mouth does not move, but the words are already piercing through Laura like the sharpest needle, the fastest bullet. They are consuming her head, her thoughts. It is everything she can hear, everything she’s ever thought, the words coming in a sudden string:
BELIEVE. BELIEVE. BELIEVE. BELieve. BELieVE.beliEVe.believe.believebelievebelieve—
Laura gasps for breath and spins, wrenching herself away and nearly collapsing into a sharp pile of bones beneath her. She stumbles over them, backing up quickly to slam herself against one of the unnaturally bent trees. She is paralyzed, each breath a war against her own treacherous body. In a panic, she realizes the tree is reaching for her, the tips of its branches sharp and browned with dried blood. It touches the middle of her chest and begins to push deep into her, between her ribs, and Laura chokes, a scream trapped on her tongue.
She wakes, suddenly, body convulsing. A few feet away, Wednesday has made himself comfortable, reading a magazine on the couch. As if feeling her eyes on him, Wednesday glances up from the glossed pages, setting the magazine aside when he realizes she’s awake.
“You bastard,” Laura gasps when she finally gulps in enough air. Her chest feels as if it’s on fire. She lifts the collar of her shirt and sees a dark red mark like a lightning strike blossoming between her breasts.
“I’ve been called worse,” Wednesday says. He leans forward, a wicked smile on his face. Laura has time enough to think that there should be a gold tooth there, faked and rotten to show his nature, when his voice booms loud in her head.
Do you believe? She hears in Wednesday’s voice, and Wednesday’s lips haven’t moved.
“No,” Laura says out loud. Then adds, “Not in you.”
Wednesday doesn't jerk back, but Laura sees the surprise, the bright flash of dark, venomous hatred.
“No matter,” Wednesday says, leaning back again to rest against the back of her couch, “so long as you do at all.”
He’s lying, Laura thinks, and realizes, suddenly, that something about her frightens Wednesday. Some influence, some ability she has – it’s a threat to a fucking god. Even through the throbbing pain in her chest, the insane, dizzying shift to her worldview, she can adapt. She can work with this.
“This is how this is going to go, old man.” Laura says, sharp, vicious, “You leave me and fire crotch alone and I don’t fuck up whatever operation you have going on.”
Wednesday widens his eyes, laughs, a mockery of humor. “You believe you can?” He says, chuckling.
Laura shrugs. Wednesday’s eyes narrow and he shifts back into seriousness, false laughter falling from his face. As Wednesday observes her, Laura wonders if he’s always this mercurial, if it is the way gods just are. “Mad Sweeney knows where to find me.” Wednesday says, finally. “I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t arrive on time.”
“Well get used to disappointment, because you don’t have a say in what he does,” Laura says firmly.
Wednesday smiles, cold and unpleasant. “I think you’ll find that I do.” Wednesday rises, placing his hat back on his head. “Tell Mad Sweeney that I’ll be expecting him in three days. He knows where I mean. I recommend you say your goodbyes tonight. “
“Over my dead body,” Laura says.
“I assure you, Ms. McCabe,” Wednesday says, “that was the preferred solution.” Then Wednesday walks over to the front door and opens it himself, clearly not expecting any further hospitality from her. “Have a good day,” he says, oozing charm, and lets himself out.
An hour after Wednesday leaves, Mad Sweeney arrives, pushing her front door open with a slam, eyes wild.
“So you’re a leprechaun, then.” Laura says.
Mad Sweeney’s head whips around, quickly finding Laura in the darkness, looking over her shoulder at him as she sits at the kitchen table. She’s cradling a glass of whiskey and ice against her temple.
“Wednesday was here.” Mad Sweeney says. It isn’t a question, and Laura doesn’t answer it. “What—"
“Don’t,” Laura says, “and sit down. You’re going to drink with me until I process this shit.”
Slowly, reluctantly, Mad Sweeney sits. If Laura knew that admitting he was a mystical creature was all she needed to make him listen for once, she would have done it sooner.
Laura takes a sip of her drink.
“And then he implied he wanted to kill me, and left.” Laura says, forty minutes later, finishing her drink in a final swig. She still can’t look him in the face.
“Shit.” Mad Sweeney says, then more emphatically, “Fuck.”
“What did you want from him?” Laura asks dully.
Mad Sweeney hesitates, looking uncomfortable.
Laura says nothing. He’ll either answer, or he won’t. He’ll answer or he won’t, and Laura will know what decision to make, then.
“There’s a war,” Mad Sweeney says finally. “Between the old gods and the new. Grimnir knows where it will be. I work for him, I get an invitation.”
At this, Laura snaps her head around to look at him. “You’re doing his dirty work so you can go to a god bar fight?” Laura says, disbelieving.
Mad Sweeney gives a small shake of his head. “It’s a one-way ticket to a bloodbath,” Mad Sweeney says. He looks away. “And it’s what I owe.”
“I don’t care what you owe,” Laura says. She stands, picking up her glass and shoving it forcefully into the empty sink. Mad Sweeney washed the dishes last night, she realizes. The glass bangs loud against the stainless steel, the sound resonating in the empty kitchen, but the glass doesn’t break. “You don’t get to fuck around with my life. I don’t care if he’s a god.”
“That’s what gods do,” Mad Sweeney says from behind her, sounding bitter and tired. Laura turns.
“Not anymore,” she informs him. She waits until Mad Sweeney looks up from the table and his clenched fists, until he’s really seeing her. “We’re going to kill him first.”
It would probably be more exciting than stealing from her casino, at least, Laura thinks idly.
Mad Sweeney straightens as if struck by lightning. “You’re fucking mad.” He says reflexively, standing up quickly. The chair screeches behind him as he does.
“I don’t need your permission,” Laura tells him, stepping forward. Mad Sweeney matches her pace, pushing around her kitchen table, and they’ve done this so many times, now, but this is the first time Laura thinks it might actually matter.
“You’re a mortal,” Mad Sweeney tells her. “You’ll die.” He sounds incredulous, awed. Mad Sweeney has never looked at her like this. It’s intoxicating. She’s never been less bored in her life than now, when she’s plotting the end of a god.
“I’ve seen death.” Laura says. “I hear it’s called the End of All Things.”
Laura lifts her shirt up and over her head and throws it to the floor, the lightning mark still in sharp relief between her breasts. Mad Sweeney is a burning heat inches in front of her and he reaches out with one large hand, the index finger tracing the edges of the mark. Laura shudders from the sensation despite herself. Her nipples peak into sharp points in the cool air, and Mad Sweeney lays his palm fully against the mark, covering it with the spread of a single hand.
“I shouldn’t be surprised you survived,” Mad Sweeney says, looking up from his hand between her breasts to look Laura in the face, an intense heat in his eye that she recognizes, a sort of pride that she doesn’t. “You’re such a righteous cunt.”
“Don’t call me that,” Laura says. “Or I’ll break your finger off at the knuckle.”
Mad Sweeney leans down to press his mouth to hers, then, hands coming up to tangle in her hair, and Laura lets him.
They fight again in the morning, when Laura catches Mad Sweeney digging into her purse for her keys.
“So now you’re just leaving?” She says from behind him, arms crossed, and he doesn’t jump, but Laura recognizes the sudden tension that spreads across his shoulders.
Mad Sweeney curses in what Laura assumes is old Irish, and turns to face her. “I’d invite you along, but – you’re not invited.”
Laura laughs. “The hell I’m not.”
Mad Sweeney scowls, his voice loud and frustrated and familiar. “You’re not coming with me.”
Laura lifts a hand from her crossed arms and shakes her keys at him pointedly. “I’m the one driving, so—”
She’s already starting to move past him to the door when Mad Sweeney grabs her arm tight and swings her around. “This is dangerous,” he says, urgently. She glares at his offending hand and he drops it quickly, raising it by his head as if it had never touched her. He continues. “You think I’m a righteous prick? You think I’m a shite? Well each and every goddamn one of them is worse.”
“I don’t care.” Laura says. “That asshole doesn’t get to choose my life, or who I’m with, or when I kick them out. You running away to some fucking god war is just not acceptable to me.”
Laura wraps her hand in Mad Sweeney’s shirt, pulls it tight to pull him towards her. Despite his bulk, Mad Sweeney doesn’t fight it, lets her pull his body even closer to hers. Laura’s voice is firm and serious, each word a threat. “Look here, Ginger Minge. You tell me where this place is and I let you come with me, or so help me God I will wreck you in every way I know how.”
Mad Sweeney stares at her, his eyes flickering over her face. Laura feels like all her muscles are wound tight.
Suddenly his shoulders slump, and Laura knows she’s won. She breathes.
Laura waits until they’re on the highway, her phone glowing with a map of the long road to Kentucky.
“Now,” she says, feeling the thump of excitement burning in her chest, “tell me everything.”
Mad Sweeney glances over at her, then stares back out at the road.
“My name is Suibhne mac Colmain,” he begins, “and I was a king, once.”