THE BRIANS by Hilary Coyne (2nd place, Flash Aug21)

The Brians came back last night. I didn’t notice until my son said, “Mummy, there’s a Brian in a box at the end of my bed. I don’t like him. Can you throw him away?”

I wished I could. But we can’t. We wronged them somehow, long ago. No-one remembers exactly how; we just know that when they come we must put up with it.

I never know how long they’ll stay or how much they’ll need to eat. Last time we lost a nest of tables and the top of the wardrobe. I can see the teeth marks when I’m lying in bed.

Usually, we simply ignore them and sweep up their messes after they’re gone. They’re mostly up at night in the quiet parts of the house. If we meet on the stair, we eye each other warily but pass without a word. This time is different. I hear whispers in the night, coming from my son’s room. When I go in he’s asleep and there’s no sign of the Brians. In the morning he is tired and evasive. “No Mummy, I wasn’t talking to the Brians. Why are you so horrible to them?” I swallow my fear.

Less furniture is missing or broken this time but other things have disappeared. My son’s new shoes, the pillow from his bed, a family photo. Their appetites are changing.

This morning I saw a bloodstain on my son’s sheets. The very tip of his littlest finger is missing. He told me sleepily, “the Brians ate it, Mummy. They said they had to or they’d starve. You don’t give them anything to eat!” His eyes flashed pure hatred and my whole life slipped to the floor.

I kept him home from school. Now every time I leave the room, the whispering starts up again. I linger at the door but the words are muffled, indistinct. The Brians are angry, insistent, cajoling. I hear my son’s voice – questioning, interested. When I go in, I sense movement – the Brians darting behind chairs and up the chimney – and my son looks up at me, hostile and so much older than his years. They are going to take him, I realise. And soon. Impotence wraps itself around me like a straitjacket.

A thought comes to me late at night. I wait for the whispers in my son’s room to stop, when I’m sure he’s asleep. There’s no sign of the Brians but I know they are there, filling every corner, just out of sight.

I made them an offer. Me instead of my son. They came out then and I saw their sly, victorious smiles, calculating, reckoning. But they were pleased with me and it made them generous.

#

The Brians are gone now, and I don’t think they’ll be back. The debt is paid. My son’s finger has healed and he hugs me often. We sit in silence, his little hand reaching up to stroke the patch over my left eye.

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