Running alongside Caroline Healy's article, The Writer's Choice: Short Story Versus the Novel, we have an extract from her latest novel, Blood Entwines.
In the aftermath of a blood transfusion that saved her life, Kara feels different. Her senses are stronger ... she can hear whispered comments not meant for her ears ... she can hear the person following her.
When Jack, her stalker, reveals himself and insists that Kara has something that belongs to him, she does her best to avoid him. But he’s determined to talk to her, convinced that they’re linked through the blood she received during her transfusion.
Jack is struggling against a dark and dangerous demon. His body is host to the evil power that wants Kara’s blood and will stop at nothing to get it, but when Jack himself is able to regain control he tries to warn her away. Can Kara save Jack without risking her own life?
Unbeknownst to Kara Bailey, it would take exactly two minutes and fifteen seconds for her to die.
Oblivious, she walked down the street, her eyes lowered and her pace even, the contents of her school satchel long forgotten. She was trying to make sense of what had happened earlier in biology class. Several thoughts crowded for attention at once.
We’re just friends.
Lab partners, that’s all.
Ashleigh is going to freak when she finds out.
A name repeated over and over, matching the rhythm of her footsteps.
One foot in front of the other.
Her brain teemed with questions. Why did he ask me? Why now? What about his stupid rule? Kara wasn’t sure how she was going to answer his proposition. A thrill of excitement zapped from the top of her head all the way to her toes. He was the hottest guy in her year.
But what about Ashleigh?
Her best friend would not be impressed.
The air smelt of damp autumn leaves. Stepping off the footpath Kara moved to cross the street. She didn’t see the car coming, failed to notice the shining front bumper as it sped towards her. She didn’t hear the screech of tyres or register the look of horror on the driver’s face when he realised he was going to hit her.
Over and over again in her mind.
It was the last thing Kara thought before slipping into total blackness.
Ben Shephard pushed thirty kilograms of weight over his head and exhaled. He liked to feel the stretch of the muscle as he strained, higher and higher. The sensation was uncomfortable and addictive at the same time.
He knew he should take it easy.
The torn ligaments in his knee had only just healed. He remembered the stabbing pain and shuddered involuntarily, dropping the weight back down quicker than he would have liked. He looked around the gym, worried that someone had noticed his momentary loss of control.
His right hand shook, the fingers twitching in tiny spasms. He balled it into a fist, closing his eyes. His body was getting cold; beads of drying sweat pricked his skin, the feeling almost unpleasant. It was the come down from the amphetamines. He could feel the last of the drug leaking through his pores. It left a stickiness, made his sweat smell sweet. As he stood there in the weights room, his eyes closed, it was easy to pretend that everything was OK.
He only had two tabs left. He would have to call Conor and ask for more. The first sports trial for St David’s University was only a week away. He needed to make sure that his old injury stayed well and truly in the past. Nothing was going to stand in the way of this scholarship, nothing and no one, least of all Ashleigh Jameson.
Earlier, just as the lunch bell rang, she’d cornered him by his locker.
‘Hi,’ she said innocently. Ben had known Ashleigh for a long time, had even fooled around with her during GCSE year but then his dad died and things changed.
‘Hey, Ash. What’s up?’ Her lithe body was blocking access to his locker. He had no choice but to talk to her.
‘I heard the head of PE is about to select candidates for sports trials.’
Ben frowned. Since when did Ashleigh start taking an interest in sport?
‘Ya.’ He waited, unsure where the conversation was going.
‘The events committee has decided a theme for the dance. We should go.’ Ashleigh leaned against the grey lockers, her lips parted ever so slightly. Ben could see the pink tip of her tongue between perfect white teeth. She smelt of strawberries.
‘Like, as friends?’ He shifted from one foot to the other, her direct gaze unsettling him.
‘Mmm.’ She didn’t actually formulate a response, her brown eyes large and unblinking.
He shook his head. Ashleigh Jameson was nothing but trouble.
‘I think I have stuff on that night.’ He moved her gently out of the way, focused on the combination of the lock. He had biology after lunch. He needed his course book.
When she spoke, her voice was syrupy, her breath hot near his ear. He knew, even without looking at her, that her cheeks were flushed, the glow of anger spreading across her skin.
‘I heard somewhere,’ her words breathy, ‘that the head scout for St David’s hates queers.’ She laughed. ‘If he suspects for a moment that any of his future stars are that way inclined, he wouldn’t think twice about cutting them from his list.’
Ben stiffened, his back muscles tight, his heart thumping. He began to sweat.
Ashleigh sighed, as if bored. ‘My father socialises with him at the club. You know, afternoon rounds of golf, luncheons. It would be terrible if rumours began to circulate.’
She stepped back, the tickle of her breath on his neck evaporating. Ben clicked the last digit of the combination and swung open his locker, reaching for his books.
He didn’t bother to turn round.
‘See you later, Ben.’ Her voice was light, sweet, like bubbled chocolate.
In the weights room, Ben returned the weights, reflecting on their conversation.
He had one rule, one cardinal rule: no dating. And Ashleigh had spent the last year trying to get him to break this rule. But he needed to stay focused on his priority, on his training. The scholarship was so close, almost within his grasp. There were three more games, three more, and then the scholarship was his.
Assuming Ashleigh didn’t follow through on her veiled threat. What harm could it do? One date with her? Put to bed any rumours, get her off his case. The idea of having to capitulate to Ashleigh’s blackmail left a bad taste in his mouth.
Ashleigh was gorgeous, the fall of her long, blonde hair, the smell of her perfume, the peak of her breasts inside her school blouse. She had a body to die for. It was a pity she was a total head case.
He wiped his neck and forehead with a towel, walking to the changing room. Ashleigh thought she could manipulate him. She assumed that she’d left Ben with no choice. But she was wrong. There was always a choice.
On the other side of town Kara bounced off the bonnet of the car before cracking her head against the ground.
As Kara’s blood seeped from her nose to the dark tarmac, Hannah Quinn hurried along the school corridor. She was late. Her parents would be expecting her home promptly from after-school study. Her fingers fumbled with the strap of her satchel. She could barely close the bag around all the books she was carrying.
With her free hand she pinched the bridge of her nose, keeping her gaze downcast. She was getting a headache.
Please don’t let it be a migraine. The thought made her hurry – half stumble, half jog – towards the main exit.
What if someone saw her? Fearful, she slowed down. She had to seem indifferent, had to make people believe she was mundane, less than mundane: forgettable.
The stigma of having epilepsy was bad enough. But it was the attention of Ashleigh Jameson, and for all the wrong reasons, that made her life hell.
Only one more year to go, then she’d be eighteen and legally independent of her parents. No more school, no more medication, no more Dr Morris. The Institute for Cerebral Abnormalities – Hannah would never have to set foot inside its revolving doors again. But, until then, she had to melt into the background, remain unnoticed.
At least Ben Shephard had no idea who she was. He walked right into her at lunch, stabbing her bicep with the corner of a science book. He’d looked at her blankly, a small frown forming on his almost perfect brow, as if his brain was struggling to remember. What a cretin. She sat two seats in front of him in English class and had done so for the last year. Not that she ever expected a guy like that to remember her.
Her headache was getting worse. The dreams were back. It was a girl, a college student this time, alone, in the cold, afraid. Hannah ran her hand across her forehead, attempting to smooth away the dream memory, the sensation of fear. She needed to get home. Walking down the steps of the school building, she let her long hair conceal her features, her shoulders rounding against the evening chill. Mousy Hannah Quinn, nondescript – that was the way she liked it.
As Kara’s legs twitched in unsightly convulsions, Mrs Rosemary Bailey pushed a shopping trolley around the supermarket. She was trying to decide what to make for dinner. Not that it mattered – Kara rarely ate anything substantial after a day at school anyway. Rosemary considered phoning the clinic, mentioning Kara’s lack of appetite to them. It wasn’t something really important but the counsellor had told her to keep an eye out for any changes.
Since her stepdaughter had moved to St Aloysius’ School, things were much better. Kara was staying out of trouble. There were no fits of rage, no fires, only occasional, quiet anger. Kara seemed altogether more placid, thanks in part to the counselling as well as the move.
Maybe things were beginning to turn around. Finally.
Rosemary stopped to pick up a copy of the daily paper, the front-page headline catching her eye. A missing girl, a college student, had disappeared on her way home from the campus library. That was the second missing person in a month.
Rosemary dropped the newspaper into the trolley, rounding the corner to the tinned-food aisle, beans on toast for dinner. As she reached to the top shelf for a tin, Kara’s lungs constricted, desperate for oxygen-drenched air on a tree-lined street on the other side of town.
Kara’s heart weakened and slowed its furious pumping while Ashleigh Jameson strutted down the corridor of St Aloysius’ School at the end of another great day. She paused occasionally to allow her manicured hands to brush through her blonde hair. She liked the way it moved, fanning around her shoulders when she walked.
She smirked to herself as she spotted Hannah Quinn scuttling in the opposite direction. She hated that girl. There was something about her, always lurking, watching with those grey eyes. It made Ashleigh feel ill at ease. She spent so much time scheming that the thoughts of an observer, ever watchful, made her uncomfortable.
However, there were always ways to make the likes of Hannah Quinn irrelevant.
Her phone pinged in her pocket. She retrieved it, sliding her finger across the screen. A text message from Jenny:
OMG Ash. Just heard news. BS asked Kara to Halloween dance. FB me when u get home! Jx
Ben Shephard had asked Kara to the dance. Ashleigh stopped in the hallway, stunned.
The concept was unimaginable. What was he thinking? Everyone knew Ashleigh was better-looking than Kara, more popular than Kara, more fun than Kara. In fact, if it wasn’t for Ashleigh taking Kara under her wing when she moved to the school after her meltdown, Kara would be a nobody like Hannah Quinn.
‘That little back-stabbing bitch!’
Ashleigh’s voice carried in the empty corridor, the words echoing. Her jaw clamped tight, her teeth grinding. She thought of her anger-management classes and tried to count to ten. The last thing she needed was to lose it in the middle of the school corridor. Her father paid a lot of money for her to keep her temper in check.
Taking a few shallow breaths, she steadied herself for a moment, putting her manicured hand on the wall. Something would have to be done to remind Kara how to be a better friend.
Ben should have paid more attention to their earlier conversation at his locker.
Clearly he’d underestimated Ashleigh’s intent. She would make him pay, make them both pay.
Kara’s heart stopped. Her body jerked once, then lay perfectly still.
He was paralysed, enveloped in total darkness. He could not open his eyes, could not move, but he could smell others close by, could hear, acutely, all their conversations.
He was powerless and it made him think of that night, on the roof, almost two years ago. It wasn’t his fault; he hadn’t been in control. He kept telling himself that, over and over again.
Sometimes the guilt was so heavy it pressed down on him like a tombstone.
Now, it was almost time, no room for memories, only retribution. It was his burden. And he would bear it to the end, no matter what happened.
He was growing stronger by the day – he could feel it.
He had a plan.
He would destroy it. Free himself.
It was nearly time to wake up.
Rosemary banged the heel of her hand against the Perspex window. She felt so useless. She had insisted on staying in the viewing suite to watch.
Kara was her responsibility, the last remaining tie to Patrick and the life they’d had together. And now the doctors were letting her die. She could see her stepdaughter, her body unresponsive on the operating table. A sob escaped Rosemary’s treacherous lips, tears blurred her vision, but she could not look away.
They were cutting Kara’s beautiful hair. First with sturdy silver scissors they cut chunks of matted mahogany, greasy with road dirt and dried blood. Then the shaver peeled off flurries and finally wisps of hair so light that it could be carried on the gentlest of breezes. The operating team trampled on the discarded hair as they gathered around Kara like a flock of feeding vultures, prodding her, attaching wires, wiping her skin with pads dipped in dark orange fluid.
The equipment around the operating table beeped, the noise urgent, demanding a response. The red digital number on one machine kept climbing, counting into the hundreds. Rosemary’s attention was focused on the heart-rate monitor, its screen showing the slow, laborious beat of Kara’s heart, struggling to keep going, straining to keep her alive.
The surgeon cut an incision two inches long at Kara’s temple. Blood oozed. Rosemary turned away, bending over, resting her hands on her thighs and breathing deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth.
‘I will not be sick,’ she said, her lips pursed together. Touching her forehead with cool fingers, she closed her eyes, counting silently to five.
She would watch every minute in the hope that her presence would give Kara strength. Straightening up she returned to her position at the window, her arms folded, her hands tucked in tight.
He heard them congregate around him, the gentle wheeze of breath in and out, cold hands grasping his wrist. He wanted to twist away, to pull back, but he was stuck, ridged, his body solid in paralysis. What were they doing?
No! You fools.
Not that, anything but that.
The pierce of needle into his flesh.
He could feel every press, every pinch, every hand on his body. But he could not retaliate.
Anger curled within him.
They had stolen from him. They had taken the one thing that had the power to destroy them all. It was his burden, his responsibility.
How could he make amends for the actions of other people?
The door to the theatre swung inward and a nurse in blue scrubs pushed an IV drip stand towards the table. She spoke with the doctor, her words urgent, her body language tense. The blood for the transfusion arrived. It was a rare type, Kara’s type, the same as her father’s. Rosemary leaned forward, stretching her neck so she could see. The surgeon nodded, gesturing to his colleague to finish the job, to sew Kara’s skin together, delicate stitches with a needle that shone silver in the light of the theatre.
The nurse draped a bag of blood over the drip stand, connecting it to a port in the back of Kara’s hand. They were giving her an infusion, bag after bag of platelets, filling her till she was stuffed with someone else’s blood.
Slowly the liquid moved down the line into her body, a streak of red in the opaque, plastic tube.
Please let her be OK, please.
Rosemary shifted her weight from one foot to the next, balancing on the balls of her feet as if ready to sprint.
They’d had a disagreement that morning, Kara and Rosemary, over something trivial, the tension building between them. It was an almost daily occurrence, this quiet bickering. Kara hated Rosemary. There was no denying that fact. Since the police report into Patrick’s death things had been . . . difficult.
‘No!’ The memory of Kara screaming, her face tear-stained. ‘It’s not true. It’s not true. You’re a liar.’ The detective standing there, his hands like chunks of meat, useless by his side.
‘Say something!’ Kara crying, pleading with Rosemary to challenge the report, to declare the outcome ridiculous, but Rosemary had been too tired to fight any more.
Kara could not remember closing her eyes, yet here she was, wrapped in a warm cocoon of darkness. She was on the cusp of fully falling, of losing herself completely to sleep. The notion appealed to her. She was tired. Why not have a little rest?
I’ve lost my shoes, she thought, drifting on a wave of semi-awareness. She could feel her toes tingle, like when you put your feet into hot sand at the beach. Her skin felt different too, downy, like a newborn baby’s. She pulled her mind away from the lull of sleep. Something was bothering her, an annoying wisp of afterthought. What had she been thinking about? She must try to remember.
Silky warmth travelled through her body from her toes to her legs, her torso, her arms, right the way down to her fingertips. It felt nice. She sighed contentedly and let her consciousness drift by, lazy and uninhibited.
But there it was, that annoying thought. Why couldn’t it leave her alone? She just wanted to sleep, to drift.
Exasperated, she heaved her mind into action, trawling through the boxes of memories.
A voice, female, reassuring and supportive. No, that wasn’t it.
Red, fire-engine red. Her mind skidded away from the image as if scalded.
She tried again. A name. That’s what she was looking for. The heaviness and warmth threatened to distract her again, pulling her away from solving the mystery. No, no. Just concentrate for a minute more, she told herself. A name, yes that much she knew, but whose name?
B. The letter sprang to her mind like a rapid reflex.
B for boy. Yes, she thought to herself, that was it.
A boy whose name begins with . . . Bill? Bobby? Barry?
No, no and no. Not the right name.
An irritating buzzing began somewhere in the distance. It sounded like an irate bee. She was distracted from her task as she listened intently. The buzzing grew louder, coming closer, humming towards her, circling to the right side of her head. She wished that she could open her eyes, move her hand, swat the irritation away, but she couldn’t.
The sound reminded her of the dilapidated electric shaver her dad used to use. When she was little she supervised his morning shaves. She would dutifully watch at the alabaster sink as he neatly trimmed his beard.
A crack in her memory. She hugged the jagged piece of pain to her heart. She must not think of him. The only way she felt better was if she didn’t think of him.
The buzzing increased and swooped near to her right ear and then away. Swooped again, coming closer. She didn’t like it. It was too loud and she was getting cold, very cold. She wanted to concentrate on remembering.
Why was it so cold?
B is for . . .
The name, think of the name.
Ben Shephard. That was it! She smiled to herself in triumph.
The buzzing stopped. All was quiet. Then the pain came. A silent scream erupted in her mind. She could not move, could not cringe away as it burned and seared through her body. First her chest then her arms, legs, her face, eyes, ears, lips; they were on fire, painful, excruciating fire, and she wanted to die.
If she could just die, then the pain would stop.
Rosemary looked down into the operating theatre. One of the machines stopped beeping and for a moment silence hung in the air, curling in tendrils like mist. The heart rate monitor was crashing, the green line indicating Kara’s heart beat faltering, the space between the peaks and troughs lengthening.
The surgical team froze for an inhale of breath, then moved as one, congregating around Kara, hands moving fast, needles injecting into the soft flesh of her arm; a machine rolled to her bedside; words fired from one doctor to the other, none of which Rosemary could hear.
Instead she watched horrified as the nurse peeled back the surgical gown, exposing Kara’s chest. Rosemary could lip read the words cardiac arrest.
The nurse squirted clear gel on to stainless steel paddles, handing them to the surgeon. He shouted something and they all stepped back as if afraid that death was contagious. The surgeon pressed the paddles to Kara’s chest and sent a volt of electricity through her. In an unconscious holding of breath, they all leaned towards the patient expectantly. The heart rate machine remained silent for such a long time. Rosemary counted the seconds in her head, each one excruciating.
Then a beep; a green peak on the screen. Then another beep; a trough. Slow at first, then more regular the beep, beep of the machine matching the thump, thump of a pumping heart.
Rosemary exhaled. Kara was alive.
The girl’s limbs began to shake, bouncing against the hard surface of the table, her spine curved to breaking point. The tube in her mouth dislodged, and her hand fell off the side of the operating table, the electrodes peeling from her skin.
‘Kara,’ Rosemary called, her entire body pressed against the glass divide.
The nurse next to the IV drip flung herself across the patient, anchoring the flailing limbs, holding Kara’s body down. Another nurse leaned over Kara’s legs, weighing them. The surgeon stabilised her head and neck and for a full minute the team waited for the convulsions to stop.
There was an exchange of worried glances, the lifting of an eyebrow, the dart of a pupil.
Something was wrong.
Caroline Healy writes young adult fiction, literary fiction and short stories. Her work has won several awards and is showcased in journals, literary magazines and short story collections around the globe. She won the Doire Press International Short Story Award for her collection A Stitch in Time. When she is not writing she is teaching dance, drinking tea or eating chocolate. Her harshest critics are her two cats, Lady Emma and Treble. If they don’t like what she has written, they fall asleep across her keyboard. Caroline lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Find out more about her on her website and follow her on Twitter here.