Mr Vance burst through the front door like the wrath of the Boomer generation.
Beard bristling, eyes blazing, cudgel walking stick brandished in one hand, ale bottle in the other, the old man strode in, roaring like a hippo, fag hanging from his lip, looking for someone to smite. Before him, his belly swung with the weight of a wrecking ball, at his feet, his corgi yipped, bared teeth, and raised hackles. The front door banged against the wall.
“Right, let’s ruddy have it then!” he bellowed, releasing a cloud of smoke and firing little meteors of phlegm. His upended bottle spilled beer down his arm and onto the carpet as he brandished it, first at Dot, who was pressed up against the wall, eyes wide, then at Mandy who was kneeling next to Anna on the floor. He waved it around the room but finding no-one else there dropped it to his side with disappointment. His corgi put its teeth away. “What’s going on?” he demanded.
“Call an ambulance. Anna’s had a fit,” Mandy said, not looking up from her daughter.
“Is not fit,” Dot said, pulling herself together. “I saw creature, very dark, riding her. When it knew it was seen. It went inside.”
“Possession? There’s quaint. I knew something was off,” Mr Vance said and looked down at his dog. “Didn’t I bloody say?”
The corgi yipped in response.
“Mr Vance? An ambulance, please?” Mandy said, trying to roll Anna, who was as stiff as if she’d been concussed, but at least no longer shaking, into the recovery position.
“Is not job for ambulance,” Dot insisted. “Now I know it, I can see its stain. On tile there. On Alexa radio. It is in walls. It seeps out like black honey.”
Mandy looked at her. What Dot said made perfect sense. It explained the groaning house, the weird gravity around the tile, the misbehaving Alexa, the sense of being watched, the foreboding. It fit completely, “Mr Vance, an ambulance, now,” she said.
The old man already had his phone out, an ancient flip-top, he flicked it open, “Untwist your panties,” he said, holding it at a distance so he could see the buttons.
Dot nodded and pulled out an iPhone in a glittery pink and sequinned case. “I know who to call also,” she said.
Mandy put a hand on Anna’s neck and another on her forehead. The girl’s neck was burning but her forehead was cold and clammy.
“Hold on, sweetheart,” she told her.
Anna woke in the ambulance, bleary-eyed and seemed to take nothing in. A squat, blonde paramedic was doing… Mandy wasn’t sure what she was doing, medical stuff, when Anna raised her head and peered around.
Orange light flashed rhythmically by outside, signalling they were in the Royce Tunnel, passing under the River Aran. Not far to the hospital now. Anna coughed weakly.
“Hello, love,” said the paramedic. “Can you tell me your name?”
Mandy had to bite her tongue and grip the seat not to answer for Anna, or to push the woman out of the way and check on her daughter herself. She contented herself with reaching out and holding her hand.
Anna snatched her hand away and rubbed it as if it was dirty.
“Can you tell me your name, love?” the paramedic insisted in the no-nonsense way of medical professionals.
Anna blinked, focused on the woman, and smiled condescendingly, “Not for all the tea in China,” she said, dreamily.
As they left the tunnel, the light turned white once more and Anna passed out again.
Ward A1 West smelled of antiseptic, desperation and mould.
Anna was in the corner bed nearest the door in a room of ten beds. The other occupants, transferred from A&E, were in various combinations of drug-induced stupor, whimpering discomfort and middle-distance staring. Many were likely re-evaluating their life choices. Mandy hadn’t properly counted but between the ten full beds, there were around nineteen arms, only eighteen and a bit legs, and less than the full complement of eyes and fingers.
From what she could gather, there had been a mass pile-up following an illegal street race through the side-streets of Ponty, but she’d only paid it a passing interest.
Anna was mostly unconscious and the few times she had roused, she hadn’t made much sense. Once, she had spoken in Welsh, which was concerning as she had never learnt it. The doctors said they were keeping her until she was lucid, for observation. Twice she had been whisked off for tests and scans, leaving Mandy to stare around the ward.
At the next bed, a girlfriend was quietly and persistently sobbing. She occasionally touched the gap on the bed where her boyfriend’s left arm would be. Mandy perversely wondered if that had been her favourite part.
“I am hungry.”
Mandy looked at her daughter. Her eyes were open! She was regarding Mandy with a very level, expectant gaze. “Sweetheart, you’re awake!” She rushed forward, gave her a kiss and a hug.
“Off me, woman!” Anna snapped, waving an arm in front of her. “If I do not eat immediately, I will have to start on that youth there,” she smiled. “Though it seems someone has already had a slice.”
With an offended huff, the girlfriend turned to object but caught Mandy’s eye and thought better of it. Mandy sat back and pointed at a covered plate on the bedside table that had been delivered earlier. “There’s your dinner, sweetheart. Dig in.”
Anna picked it up, quizzically examined the plastic cover, tapped at it, then lifted it to expose the slices of chicken, veg and congealing gravy. She dropped the cover and, holding the plate in one hand, used the other to grab the food and cram it into her mouth.
Mandy watched her.
Anna tossed the plate back onto the table, “Mother! I need more!”
One of the other patients, encased in plaster from the waist down, had been unconscious since they’d got here. Mandy got up, stole his dinner and brought it to her daughter.
Anna devoured this one in much the same way.
“Mmm. Mmm! Yes! Good! More!”
After a quick search of adjoining Ward, Mandy returned with another plate that had been left unsupervised. Wordlessly, she handed it to Anna and watched her daughter grab handfuls of food, breathing heavily and making grunts of satisfaction as she stuffed it into her face.
A jolly-seeming man came onto the ward and looked around. He spotted Mandy and Anna and approached them. He was a rather fat, completely bald man in his fifties. He wore a pale blue, short-sleeved T-shirt with the Salvation Army logo over the heart. He had a kindly face and used all of it to smile hugely at them, “You must be Mandy,” he said, shaking her hand with both of his. “Dot contacted me,” he said, waggling his eyebrows meaningfully. “I’m Kevin. And hello! This must be Anna. How are we, Anna?”
Anna just eyed him suspiciously as she licked the plate clean.
“Hmm, okay then, not a chatty-patty, that’s fine,” he laughed robustly at this, his bald head and cheeks wobbled like Santa with severe alopecia, and he turned to Mandy. “How’s the young lady faring then, mum?”
“Kevin, I’m no expert,” Mandy said, still staring at her daughter. “But I’d say she’s pretty bloody possessed.”
“What? Nonsense, mother!” Anna scoffed. “I am your daughter! The very flesh of your womb! Do you not know me? Furthermore, I am still hungry. Is it not your blood’s call to nourish me? Why do you starve me so?”
“Pull the other one,” Mandy said and, with all the confidence she could muster, added: “Anna, if you can hear me, we’ll have that bastard out of you in a jiffy, don’t you worry.”
She turned a desperate and expectant look on Kevin.
“Priest! Ignore this woman!” Anna said from the bed. “She has been touched by madness! Her menses have undone whatever semblance of rationality she may once have possessed! I am Anna!”
Kevin was looking at Anna with his eyebrows raised.
He leaned in towards Mandy and muttered, “Normally, they’re more subtle than this.”
“I am subtle!” Anna bellowed. “There are none subtler than I! If you lack the wit to perceive how there are interlocking layers to my duplicity, then I pity the feebleness of your mind!”
There was silence in the Ward. Anna became aware that not only were Mandy and the priest staring at her, open-mouthed, but the boy in the next bed, his girlfriend and a patient near the window were all gawking. She looked up and moved her mouth, appearing to be running what she had just said back through her mind. Her eyes widened.
“I say ‘duplicity’ because… I am a very devious… child,” she announced. Then looked about to see if anyone had bought it.
“Kevin,” Mandy said. “There’s a demon in my daughter and it’s an idiot. I want it out. Now.”
Kevin nodded, “Demon, what is your name?”
“Anna,” said Anna.
Kevin nodded again as if he were expecting that answer. He drew himself taller, “I, Corporal Kevin White, minister of Christ and the Church, in the name of Jesus Christ, command you, unclean spirit, if you lie hid in the body of this child created by God, or if you vex her in any way, that immediately you give me some manifest sign of the certainty of your presence in possessing this child!” Kevin thundered, dramatically, but still a bit jollily.
“Yeah. It’s Anna,” insisted Anna. “I’ve already told you.”
Kevin withdrew a cross and approached the bed, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and-“
“Oh, begone with your vexatious prattle, priest!” Anna thrust out a hand.
Kevin was flung back against the wall.
With a deep, reverberating thud, he bounced off it and landed, to his evident surprise, on his feet. He was still looking surprised when a nurse, who was hurrying past with an armful of blood bags, stopped and stuck her head in suspiciously. Kevin smiled his jolliest smile at her and she couldn’t help but smile back. She cast a quick look around the rest of the ward. The visiting girlfriend and the two conscious patients smiled innocently at her too. She frowned, shrugged and hurried off.
“That,” remarked Kevin after she had gone. “Is probably the springiest wall I’ve ever been supernaturally flung against.” He turned and ran an appreciative hand over the surface. “Barely felt a thing.”
“Um, Kevin?” Mandy prompted him.
“Oh, right, sorry,” he laughed his jolly laugh, then focused seriously on Anna. “Demon! I command…” he started strongly but trailed off and looked apologetically to Mandy. “Listen, Mandy, this process will be much easier at your home, you know,” he said and lowered his voice. “Less chance of nurses calling Children’s Services.”
“Home?” Anna sneered. “I would not willingly make your life easier, priest, but find me a haunch of meat and I will consider it!”
Which gave Mandy an idea.
“Hey, ‘Anna’, I’ve had a thought,” she said.
“Yes, Mother?” Anna simpered in a grotesque parody of innocence.
“You know what we have at home?” Mandy said, she wasn’t sure if this would work, but given the food fixation it was worth a try. “We have: the kitchen, the sweet-cupboard and the fridge.”
The girl was about to sneer a retort but stopped with her mouth open.
Some saliva ran out and down her chin.
Atrociously loudly in the silence of the ward, Anna’s stomach rumbled, like jellied thunder.
“Yes,” she said, wetly. “Well played, Mother. Yes, take me home and feed me.”