Heat stiffens the air and knocks at the window. Beating on them, baking the bus, roaring with the life of a wildfire. Space is gone; every corner crammed with adults, children, dogs, cats and a bird cage covered in an oil-stained cloth.
“Last drop of water?” Matt offers the warm flask to Eva. She twists off the lid and tilts her head, shaking the last beads of liquid into her dry mouth. The final flecks spread out small and wet on her tongue.
“It’s hot,” says Matt.
Eva nods while looking out the window. It’s an obvious fact – one which is repeated in the shining foreheads of the passengers and shimmering edge of the cracked horizon. “So hot,” she agrees.
The aisle is full of people. Some of them crouch with their knees on the floor, but most stand, clinging to the hot plastic bars.
To Matt’s side is a large Spanish woman in her late 50s. She hikes up her long purple skirt so that her thick legs are uncovered. Eva sees that the woman’s thighs are chafed raw, bleeding badly. Red lines run down to her feet and disappear between her toes.
“I really think I should let her–” Eva starts.
“Don’t. I know it’s horrible, but if you stand up, you won’t sit down again.”
People faint now and then. Eva envies their respite – she’s been awake for nearly 26 hours, and Matt too. The night before, they stopped at a small lake surrounded by poorly assembled tents. The moonlit water shone like heaven. Yesterday’s driver had warned against bathing. Matt obeyed, Eva tried to, but others were scrambling in, cooling off. The pull was too much. She is paying for it now; along her arms the skin is bug-bitten and itchy. She feels as red as the dropping sun, as hot as a welder’s iron.
Time moves in that impossible way it does: dragging, merciless, sticking – then gone all at once. On the fourth hour Matt falls asleep and, after many scratching minutes of resentful observation, Eva does too. The hours of hazy consciousness that follow are marked by vague recollections of a howling dog thrown off into nowhere, the gags of somebody with travel sickness.
At 4am, Eva and Matt are jerked to attention by the bus braking hard. The driver stands up, says something in Spanish and walks off the bus.
“What’d he say?”
“Tyres are knackered, it’s all the rocks,” says Matt. “We have to stop.”
“But where are we?”
“They’re saying it might be walking distance to Molina.”
People are filing off. Those in the aisle are glad to be free anywhere, the dogs are yelping, getting to their feet, and the cats are in their cat boxes, silent, maybe dead. Eva looks out at the muted night and sees nothing.
“Where are the people going? What’s the point? It’s night-time.”
“We can’t stay here, we won’t find our way on our own.”
The driver is unloading tent lamps and handing them out, one between two. The cicadas are loud, and below the lamp’s lights are shadows scuttling across the dusty ground.
The group sets off walking. It’s not the driver at the front, but another man in a cowboy hat. Matt, holding tightly to Eva’s hand, pushes through the people to stop and keep pace beside the driver.
“Si alguien habla ingles?” he asks.
“Si,” the man says.
“Thank you,” says Matt. “We’re going to Molina?”
“Si. The bus – it couldn’t take more. We’d have been on our side.”
“And Molina, it doesn’t have, unrest… um, disturbios?”
“No riots, no nothing. It’s very small. Most the old people there died years ago, before the refugees.”
“Gracias.” Matt lets the man walk on ahead of them.
The first hour is the worst. The group has an unspoken pact to stop when someone else needs it. The children are passed around bodies, put on shoulders and in arm-cradles where they make mewing sounds in their half-sleep.
“I wonder if it’ll be safe,” Eva says to Matt, breaking a long silence.
“I’m sure it will be.” He puts his arm around her waist. “It’s in the middle of nowhere.”
Their legs go numb from walking. After two paper-mouthed hours the town appears in a haze of dried grass and slanting roofs. An expansive walled castle lies on the hillside. The sight is rendered opaque in the dawn light; there’s no artificial shine of streetlights, not even the distant prick of a swinging bulb.
When the town entrance is in sight, the man in the cowboy hat brings the crowd to a halt and murmurs bubble. The cowboy doesn’t look old – mid 30s, perhaps. He has a natural authority. His face is full of nonchalance while the rest of the group are biting their lips and straining their senses.
Eva and Matt stand scratching and foot tapping. They observe with nervous eyes when the bus driver pushes his way through to find them.
“You are fluent in English?” he asks.
“Yes, both of us.”
The man gestures for them to follow and brings them to the cowboy.
“They are English,” the driver says, passing them over.
“Wonderful!” says the cowboy, turning to face them. His cheeks are flushed, mouth full of big white teeth, and his accent is the echo of a burned-up land.
“I’m Alfie,” he says. “You guys?”
They exchange murmured introductions, details of where they’ve come from: once Wales, then France, most comfortable was Germany. There for two years – undocumented – until the unrest started.
Alfie claps his hands together, a definitive gesture. “I’m afraid I need your help,” he says. “The man who runs the castle, he’s– he’s basically a prick.”
“He doesn’t trust the Spanish. He thinks if word gets out he’ll be flooded with people and it’ll all fall apart. Will you come with me, to talk to him?”
Matt looks uncertain.
“I mean, we can,” says Eva, “but will we really help?”
“Yes. Trust me.”
After a stern and indiscernible phone call between Alfie and the man from the castle, the group are brought into town.
Alfie whispers now and then to the driver who leads the group to a white church with a terracotta roof. A place they can sit, rub aches and rehydrate.
Eva and Matt are allowed just a few gulps of stale water before being towed towards the castle walls. It’s a 20-minute walk and the town is heating up; sunlight bouncing like skimmed stones across the empty windows.
Alfie tells them that the man who lives in the castle is an American named Dale. He bought the castle and restored it from a little-visited tourist attraction into his own personal sanctuary. The closer they get, the more oppressive the twisted castle walls look, sprawling wide over the deep wave of the hill.
They meet Dale at the gate. He’s smiling a gaudy smile with his blonde hair slicked back like Sinatra. He wears a white suit with an unbuttoned pink shirt underneath.
“Guuuys!” He prolongs the word, clapping Matt and Eva on the back before turning to Alife. “My friend. How have you been? In fact, where have you been?”
“You know what it’s like.”
They make the arduous walk up the hill to the castle. Dale leads the group up the many stone steps, going too fast for them to keep up. They reach the top panting. They’re shown to a living area and Dale throws himself on the sofa, unbothered, while they breathe in the grandeur.
The stone floor is layered with Persian rugs and green velvet sofas sit in a curve opposite the fireplace. Above the alcove is a giant flatscreen mutely playing the world news. Eva sees the breaking headlines running, running, running. Enough floods and chaos to satisfy an old testament God, the numbers of ‘environmentally displaced persons’ growing, growing, growing.
“You guys must be knackered. Sit down, we’ll get you some food.”
Alfie plonks down next to Dale. Eva and Matt sink into the sofa next to them, their eyes flicking to and from the headlines.
They’re given trays of food: hard cheese, olives, cured meats and warm seeded bread. On the side, a jug of ice-cold water. They eat quickly and in silence, this feast followed by offerings of wine and whisky.
“It’s the morning,” says Eva dumbly. Dale laughs his Hollywood laugh.
“It’s noon somewhere, right?” So, they drink. Dale and Alfie leave the room to talk.
“Well, this is creeping the fuck out of me,” says Eva once the door has closed.
“I– I think we should leave.”
Matt considers her then nods. The door opens as Eva reaches it. Her mouth makes an oh shape. There in the doorway is Dale, still smiling; Alfie, not; and the bus driver with dried up eyeballs and a lit cigarette.
“Let’s talk business, kids,” says Dale, shooing them back into the room.
Eva clears her throat, “Look, we don’t really get what’s going on, but to be honest we’re just going to leave now.”
Dale’s smile turns into a laugh. “I said business, baby, I’m giving you two jobs.”
“We don’t want jobs,” says Matt.
“Sure you do. Alf tells me you’ve been running amuck for gone half a year now.”
“We’re just trying to get back home.”
“Pftt!” Dale waves his hand dismissively. “Home-schmome. I pay money – good money, too.”
“No, thank you,” says Eva, taking Matt’s hand.
“Do you know how hard it is to get staff out here? How hard it is to keep the fleeing Spanish Inquisition from coming to find homes?”
“Ask some of the people from the bus if they want jobs. He left them in the church.” Matt gestures at the driver who exhales a cloud of smoke and scratches his neck.
“What good are they to me? They don’t speak-a-the-English. And they’ll tell all their friends, their family, their long-lost-relatives and they’ll come and they’ll fill the town up and up and up, until it’s bursting, and then the unrest starts and, well, I suppose you know what happens next.”
Eva gives him a hateful look.
“Anyway,” says Dale, nudging the driver, “it’s not really a request.”
The driver produces a silver gun. They’re ushered out the room by the driver who takes them down a long corridor. He steers Matt, his hand on his shoulder, into a small room and tells Eva to follow.
“Stay,” he grunts, his worn hands flicking through the keys on the key chain. The driver continues to fumble, the gun hanging, barely clutched in his left hand.
Movement comes before thought. Eva lunges for the gun, her hands slick with sweat landing on the cool metal, closing around it. The struggle begins – the driver lets the keys drop to the floor, his cigarette is bitten hard between his teeth, his fingers still clasp the handle but Eva twists the barrel, pushing it to face him, while Matt retrieves the keys from the floor. The barrel is pushed between them, facing up, then at Eva, then the driver. Matt makes for the man’s arms, the driver senses the tall presence rise up behind him and… it’s enough.
The space is all noise as the bullet breaks the room. Reverberating. Ringing through the air like a bell, mingling with the depthless cry which follows it. Then there’s the jangle of keys, the slam of the thick wooden door, the muted click of a lock turning.
The noon sun filters white and delicate through the thin slit of the window. It’s a strobe through the quiet. On the stone floor, blood the colour of cherries travels in lines, spreading out in a red web. Young blood filtering into the ancient cracks of the castle in Molina de Aragón.
About The Author
Caragh Medlicott is a freelance writer and Associate Editor for Wales Arts Review. After
graduating with a First-Class degree in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from
Cardiff University she began a full-time writing career in Cardiff. She has a particular interest in
short stories that explore the minute magic of culture, place and identity. Previous short stories
have appeared in East of the Web, The Cardiff Review and Parthian’s Cheval 12 anthology.
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