It’s a rainy night on a dark country road. The blustering winds swirl chaotically through the trees, as the sideways rain buckets down, creating a chaotic drive for one lone car, which struggles through the conditions. Inside, it’s even more chaotic, as young couple Shane and Emma attempt to get their baby, Fia, to sleep. Shane is straining his eyes to see the road, as he competes with the rain and the screaming cries coming from the back. Navigating is a nightmare, as the stressful situation is causing some friction.
“I actually can’t hear the SatNav at all, could you please just settle her…” Shane says, clutching his temple.
Emma responds, equally snappy, “Shane, I’m trying, the whole reason we’re leaving the city is to try to get her to finally sleep, I’m not just going to magically do it now! Just keeping going straight”
Shane apologises for snapping, as they agree it’s just the lack of sleep talking, and that this trip to his Aunty’s Holiday home is just what they need - hoping that fresh air, quiet nights, and the countryside will actually help Fia sleep. They continue driving for another 30 minutes, through what looks to be only woodland and fields, until they eventually come to what Shane refers to as “a shop”. It actually looks more like an old house, with a few faded ice cream stickers from the 90s on the windows. Apparently this is it, there’s not a Spar, or Centra, or Mace anywhere. Not even a Daybreak. No wonder Shane’s Aunty never comes here anymore, Emma thinks to herself, as she rushes from the car to the shop, leaving Shane to mind the baby. It looks to be closed, but Shane insists you have to knock. So she knocks. But nothing.
Emma peers into the dark, dusty old shop, which is reminiscent of a set of a Martin McDonagh play. Just before she can retreat back to the car, a light flickers on in the conjoining house. After a few moments, an old woman appears hobbling towards the door, staring through the hazy glass as she unbolts four separate locks, before creaking the door open slightly.
“Ye here for the shop or the inn? Cause the inn’s the other door”, she states firmly in her gruff voice which entirely suits her appearance.
Slightly disarmed by the women, Emma stutters out, “Oh em, yeah, I’m here for the eh shop”.
The woman looks her up and down with a look on her face she reserves for out-of-towners, “You best be coming in so…”.
Slightly intimidated by the woman, Emma is afraid to ask her if she has fire-lighters, but after four scans of the dusty aisles, she approaches. “Do you eh, have any of those fire-lighter things?”
“Fire-lighter things? Sure there’s wood all around ye” she responds in a cutting fashion. “Where ye stayin’?”
Emma is not 100% she wants this woman to know where she’s staying, but her nerves make her blurt out the following, “Oh, eh, we’re staying in my husband’s aunt’s place…” She keeps going, “It’s a cottage up in Carraig Dun Wood…”
Before Emma can give the exact address and area code, the woman cuts her off, “The Geraghty Place?
“That’s the one! You know it?” Emma responds in the most upbeat tone she can, hoping it will convince her to not come and kill her in her sleep.
“I do, unfortunately”, the women continues, “They built that house where they shouldn’t have. And they’ve paid the price” - her tone shifts again, as a genuine concern creeps into her voice, “You be careful round there, now, they don’t take well to outsiders.”. Before she quizzes her on the ominous phrasing of “they” Shane bursts in, hood up and baby in one arm, reminding Emma to grab some dog food.
The woman stares at Fia, which chills Emma to the bone, maybe it’s her she’ll come after! “I didn’t know ye had a child with you… you keep a close eye on her, at all times..”
After paying up and getting the hell out of the shop, Emma can’t stop thinking about what the woman said. “They” who are “they”? She quizzes Shane, who reassures her it’s just Old Alice messing with her head. Shane explains to Emma that the locals were terrified and obsessed with fairies. Not your Tinkerbell fairies, but the devious Irish kind. So afraid that they wouldn’t even build on what they thought was “their” land.
When they arrive at Shane’s Aunty’s place, it’s not the scenic countryside cottage Emma had imagined. It's hidden down a dark road, amongst a rather creepy woodland. It was probably once white, but the paint’s faded and has been weather beaten to a dreary grey. Inside isn’t much better, with dusty 90s carpets and faded wallpaper giving it the feel of a holiday home that’s no longer holidayed in. So 90s, in fact, that it had an answering machine, which even had a message on it. It was from Shane’s Aunty, who had apparently been hesitant to give them the house.
It went like this:
“Shane. It's me, Margaret, your Aunt. Just wanted to leave you a message to tell you a few bits about the house. The Heating is a bit fussy but if you get the stove going it will heat up the whole house. When you're locking the door you will need to pull it towards you, it's a bit finicky. Now, this is important, be sure to lock up at night with the dog inside. And be careful around the cottage, the ground is quite... uneven, and it's very overgrown, so stay on the beaten track. Just be careful, please. We will see you soon, if not, at Christmas. My love to Emma and Fia...Goodbye.”
Later on while attempting to rock Fia to sleep, Emma does a tour of the house, and finds a bunch of old photos of Shane and his cousins as kids. They’re all playing, eating ice cream or jumping around on rocks - full of smiles, and colourful 90s clothing. All except one. One of them never seems to smile. When she asks Shane about it, he explains that it’s his cousin, Dermot, who was a little bit odd. It seems to be one of those things that’s never really discussed in families - every family has one. Emma’s family has her cousin Aoife, who’s actually an affair baby, not the child of her uncle Liam. Shane’s family has this. According to Shane he was a normal happy kid, and then one summer, he just changed. Got weird. They all speculate what happened to him, but nobody knows, and they’ll probably never find out.
That night, even though the surroundings had changed, the usual pattern hadn’t. Fia cried all night. But, this time, she had company. Charlie, their usually quiet dog, was restless. Crying, and barking. He’d scratch at the door, but just stare outside when Shane would open it. He put it down to the new, strange smells around.
The next morning, the couple take Fia for a walk, as Shane brings them on the tour of everything there is to see. The little stream, the field, the pond where sometimes there’s frogspawn, and the forest. It’s all actually gorgeous. Which makes Emma wonder why none of it has been built on. Holiday homes should have popped up everywhere during the boom years. As they walk down one of those roads with grass down the middle, Emma notices something hidden in the woods.
“What’s that over there?” she shouts to Shane, who’s wandering ahead. “What’s, what?”.
“That hill thing over there!” Emma says as she approaches it, seeing what seems to be a man-made hill of rocks.
“Oh my god you found a Fairy Fort, awesome!”. Shane begins to climb on it. “Me, James and Dermot used to play on these things all the time. You’re not meant to apparently, they’re cursed or something. I actually think it’s why they’re afraid to build things here. Gas isn’t it?”
A little bit spooked about fairy stories, and a little bit weary of Shane climbing rocks with Fia strapped to his chest, she demands he gets down, which Shane laughs off. “It’s grand, it’s only an old tomb or something, don’t let Old Alice get to ya!”
Just as Emma realises he’s right and relaxes slightly, Charlie barks, making her heart nearly stop dead. He barks and barks, and suddenly turns and makes a byline back to the cottage. “Strange smells” Shane states once again.
That night the routine continued as Fia cried, and Charlie barked. They tried all their tricks. Rocking her, walking her round, singing to her, Shane even drove her round the dark roads to see if that helped. It didn’t. She just continued to cry. Finally, at 9am, she’s falling asleep, and Charlie’s settled down. Emma’s been awake all night, half trying to get Fia to sleep, and half thinking about what Old Alice said- “they don’t take kindly to outsiders”. Under the guise of “seeing do they do decent coffee” she leaves Shane with Fia, and heads back to the shop. She knows full well Old Alice won’t have good coffee, but she might have more info.
Emma arrives at the shop. In daylight it looks even more like a relic of the past. She approaches, a little bit terrified of this little old woman. She rings the bell again, and same as before, she hears creaks from above, as eventually, a little figure emerges approaching the foggy glass door. She opens it slightly, peering out with her sunken eyes.
“Is it the shop or the inn you’re after?”.
“The eh, em shop, please” stutters Emma, as the door slowly opens for her.
“You’re still here so” says Old Alice, as she looks Emma up and down. Old Alice shuffles back behind the counter, as Emma wanders around a bit.
Eventually, she approaches the counter, placing a Nescafe Gold Blend down, which is probably what your dad called, “good coffee” back in 96. But it’s not really the coffee she’s after. Old Alice asks her if “there is anything else’ after she’s paid, as she considers just leaving it. But, fearing that there’s just the slightest chance any of this is true, she plucks up the courage.
“Eh, the last time I was in. You, eh, mentioned “they” you said they don’t like outsiders, and to be careful of my baby. What did you mean?”.
Old Alice responds without missing a beat. “You know who I meant. You and your husband just don’t want to admit it”.
Emma can’t believe she’s about to say this out loud, but she does… “Do you mean Fairies?”.
Old Alice begins stocking packets of cigarettes behind her, not looking Emma in the eye. “Call them what you want. You city folk think it’s all a big joke, but it’s not. People pay real consequences for disturbin’ them.”
Emma digs deeper, “What kind of consequences?”. “
Old Alice continues. Sometimes they just mess with ya, sometimes they curse your stock, and sometimes worse, sometimes they take what’s yours…”.
Emma is now truly freaked out but continues to ask questions, “What do they take?”.
Old Alice stops what she’s doing, as she turns to Emma looking at her dead in the eye. “They take children, and replace it with one of their own. Looks the same, but it’s not.”
Emma says nothing, as Old Alice continues, edging closer to her. “tis called a Changeling, I’ve seen it before. A terrible thing”.
Royally freaked out by this conversation, and still a little mad at herself for potentially believing in fairies, she leaves in a hurry.
Emma gets back to the cottage looking a little shook. And not just at the prospect of instant coffee. What Old Alice said is really getting to her, so she brings it up with Shane, knowing he might laugh her out of the room.
“Shane, have you ever heard of a Changeling?”
As she predicted, Shane starts laughing, telling her that Old Alice is just messing with her. Emma has now picked up Fia, and is holding her tightly.
“Seriously Shane, I know it sounds ridiculous, but look at your cousin.”
Shane shakes his head. “Emma, he was probably just dropped on his head or something, my cousin Dermot isn’t a fairy, listen to yourself”.
But Emma keeps pressing, “It makes sense, Shane. Why doesn’t your aunt come here anymore? Why did he suddenly change?”.
Just to calm Emma down, Shane agrees to call his mum and press for more information about Dermot and the house. Ten minutes later, Shane re-enters the room, phone in hand, with a worried look on his face.
“So I eh, talked to my Mam. I didn’t outright ask if my cousin was a Changeling, but I did ask about this place and about Dermot.”
Shane goes on, “She said the locals never wanted my aunty and uncle to build here. They thought it was cursed or something, so they were always a bit hostile towards them. Then, something happened with Dermot, something she won’t talk about. My Mam doesn’t know was it something with a local or an accident or what? But, he never really recovered, so Margaret just doesn't like to come back here. Or talk about it.”.
Although a little weirded out, Shane still keeps face, “I think she’s just blaming her weird son on bad Jou Jou or something, but, I’m happy to leave in the morning if you want to?” Cradling Fia, Emma accepts, and they agree to leave first thing.
The fact they’re leaving in the morning doesn’t change the routine of the night. Shane and Emma take turns with Fia, as she wakes up about seven times. It’s probably more accurate to say she went to sleep twice, briefly. At around 4am right on queue, Charlie starts up again. It begins with a growl, and progresses to a bark. He rushes to the front door again, now snarling. “Charlie, shut up!” shouts Shane.
Shane eventually summons up the power to leave bed and try to settle Charlie down. But, nothing works. Not even ham from the fridge. Charlie keeps barking and growling. So, Shane decides to let him out. This time, he steps outside. Stopping a few metres from the door, barking directly at the hedges beside the cottage. Growling, snarling like Shane’s never seen. Not even when he cornered the neighbour's cat, Pudding. And Charlie hates Pudding. Shane steps out after him, inquisitively looking into the bushes. He hears something, something moving. Probably a rat or fox or something he tells himself. But he hears it again, as Charlie backs away from it slowly. He stares into the bushes, hoping his eyes might adjust a little more to the darkness, and give him some indication of what it is. He hears more rustling, as Shane thinks he can just about make out something moving. Something small. But, it may be his mind playing tricks, or just the shape of leaves and branches dancing in the wind. He calls out to Emma upstairs.
“Em, I think there’s something out here!”. Shane continues staring into the bushes, as Emma emerges at the door, holding a baby monitor - with Fia’s tears audible through it.
“What do you mean “something?”
Emma stares at the bushes, hoping here eyes adjust to the darkness. Then, she hears something too. It’s coming from the long grass, as she shouts to Shane.
“There’s something over here...”
They both follow the noise which takes them around the side of the cottage. Emma puts her fingers to her lips, giving Shane a “sshhhh” and jolting her eyes towards the long grass.
“I don’t hear anything?” says Shane, shining his phone torch towards where Emma was looking. The look of fear and terror dawns upon Emma’s face when she hears those words, as she glances down at the baby monitor - now deathly silent. She looks back towards the cottage.
“Fia’s not crying” she shouts to Shane and she begins to run back.
Shane and Emma bundle back through the door, the fastest either has run since their respective teenage sporting years. They’re shouting, “Mommy’s coming” and “It’s ok Fia” as they barrel up the stairs. But, they both stop dead at the doorway to the bedroom. Fia is in her crib, sleeping, only making the faint sound of a peaceful slumber. Shane checks his phone, it’s 4:15am. Fia’s never slept like this before 8am. They both stare at her, edging closer towards the crib. Just as they get to her side, the silence is broken by a loud growl. Charlie is now standing at the doorway, snarling, directing his attention towards the crib. He looks afraid to enter the room. His back is arched, his airs stand on end, as his snarls become louder and more fierce.
Shane tries to calm him down, “Charlie, relax, it’s just Fia”.
After taking another glance at her daughter, Emma turns to Shane with despair in her eyes and voice, uttering the words, “Is it?”.