Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Wish Upon a Star


Greg planted his shepherds' crook firmly in the moss-covered soil and let his weary body hang from it. Tramping across mountains was hard work and every year he did it, it got harder. He closed his eyes and let the breeze whip through his grey whiskers. It might be a difficult way to make a living but it was still better then sitting in some soul-killing office. The warmth of summer still clung to the wind but that wouldn't last long. Winter would soon show its teeth. He arched his back and felt his old bones creak. Bess, his dog, lay panting in the heather; her long tongue lolling happily out of the side of her mouth. He leaned down and let his work-weathered fingers comb her silky fur. Bess closed her eyes with pleasure.

"I'll catch my breath, girl, then we'll get the last of these buggers done."

She nuzzled his palm with a love pure and true. Greg adored two women with all his heart, Bess, and his wife, Mary. Leaning on the crook he surveyed the hill above him. He had one hundred and twenty sheep grazing the mountain, as long as he hadn't lost any. He'd checked just shy of one hundred already but there were more to do. Scattered across the hill were pens where he could gather his heard, it made the job easier but without Bess, it would be impossible.

High up, where barely a blade of grass would grow, the rest of his heard were wandering. It was as if they were doing it on purpose.

"Right! Standing around here won't get us home before dark," he said, pulling the tip of his crook from the ground. With a twitch of her withers, Bess sprang to her feet and was rearing to go. "Walk on!" he commanded and the dog bounded away in front of him, leaping gorse and fern gracefully. Greg remembered days when he could have done the same but they were a long time ago.

They climbed higher and higher until they reached the ancient sheep-pen used by his father and his fathers father. With a shrill whistle he sent Bess bounding up the mountain to draw his scattered flock down. Together, they worked the animals, Greg directing the dance with a combination of whistles while Bess followed his instructions precisely.

Soon the flock was a cloud of wool gliding slowly toward the open mouth of the pen. Then, one animal broke ranks and scarpered for freedom. Bess was about to chase down the renegade ewe but  Greg blew a long piercing call, stopping her in her tracks. The sheep galloped away without a backward glance and disappeared over a cleft in the hill.

"God Damn yea!" he swore. There was no way he was going to start all over again for one sheep. He got Bess turned back on the main group of animals and finished guiding them into the pen. As he swung the gate closed he looked at the area of mountain where the runaway sheep had vanished and said, "Nothing as stupid as sheep."

Dusk was drawing in by the time he examined the last penned sheep. They had passed the summer well, a few minor cuts but nothing serous. When he released the sheep he knew he'd have to go after the lost one. It was only one, but he was he kind of man who wouldn't leave a job half done. One tired step at a time he pulled himself up the slope to the last place he'd seen the sheep. When he got there he paused and scanned the heather. He thought he heard a faint sound but couldn't be sure until it came again. Any man that spent sixty years with sheep would have recognized the bleat of a ewe in trouble.

"What have you gone and done yea daft thing?" he said out loud as he clambered down into the gully, honing in on the cries. Fifteen minutes later he found her tangled up in a discarded length of barbed wire.

"Shush...shush," he cooed as he moved in on the struggling animal. Bess watched intently as he got down on one knee beside the ewe. Crimson blotches marked the spots where the sharp barbs pierced her flesh. The ewe's eyes were full of panic so he spent some time soothing the frightened animal before beginning to unravel the deadly wire. It took a while to get her free. Before he let her go he applied balm to the cuts. Infection could easily kill an animal. By the time he struggled up off his knees the sun was sinking behind the hill.

Climbing down the slope was actually harder than coming up. Each jarring step sent a shudder up through his aching body, rattling his joints and straining his muscles. There were't actual paths up here, just animal trails worn into the bracken. Even in the near-dark Greg found his way easily. He knew the mountain like the back of his hand. After a while he was forced to stop and massage his spine. The stars were beginning to appear in the darkening sky. He was about to get going when he noticed something. At first he thought it was the north star but then realized the speck was moving.

"Lookit, Bess. A shooting star," he said point up a the sky. Bess cocked her head as if admiring the phenomenon. "Perhaps I should wish for a new back."

The light grew stronger and seemed to come straight at him. He was mesmerized by its beauty. When the object hurtled directly overhead. Greg couldn't help ducking and throwing his hands over his head. From behind him came a huge bang and the ground shuddered under his feet. Greg uncurled his hands and looked over his shoulder. A few hundred yards away a black furrow had been plowed into the side of the mountain. Greg hurried forward as fast as his legs would carry him. Bess was clearly less enthusiastic but kept up.

He followed the ragged trench until he came to a crater. In the bottom lay something about the size of an egg which glowed extravagantly. For the second time that night Greg got down on his knees. He reached toward the object expecting to feel heat. He always thought these shooting stars burnt up before they hit the ground. Amazingly his fingers touched the thing without being singed. He plucked the glowing item from the clay and held it tenderly in his hand.

"Beautiful..." he said to Bess, only to realize that the dog was nowhere to be seen. "Bess?" he called but the words wobbled as they came out. The smile fell from his lips as he felt his palm begin to tingle, then throb. The sensation grew in strength and ran up his arm, infecting his body and mind. He knew he'd made a huge mistake and tried to drop the star but his vision blurred and the world went dark.

***

Slowly, painfully, he opened his eyes. Far above the stars swirled into focus and he remembered what had happened. Gingerly, he sat forward and something fell from his hand. He looked down at the blackened lump lying in the grass. No longer did it glow, nor did it seem different from the rest of the rocks littering the ground, but what had happened was no accident. There was no way he was touching it again. He rolled onto his knees and struggled upright. 

"Jesus..." he groaned as he swayed on his feet. Tenderly he explored his body for injuries. Besides his headache, nothing hurt more than usual. Eventually his head cleared enough to see the moonlit countryside. All seemed normal, well normal except for one thing...he was alone.

"Bess! Bess! Where are you girl?" he called. A whimper came from a nearby bush and the dog edged her nose out into the open. She seemed terrified.

"It's all right," he said moving forward but rather than being reassured the dog skittered away and rocketed down the hillside toward home. This day was going from bad to worse. Bess knew her way, he was sure of that, what he was less sure of was his own ability to make it all the way down after what he'd endured. He took his first tentative steps down the mountain.

He found the going good, even easy. His strides seemed more fluid than usual and his feet found solid ground with a surety he'd not felt in years. It might have been an illusion but he thought he arrived back his own farm gate in no time. A light was burning in the kitchen window and a dark plume of smoke wafted from the chimney. On cue, his stomach growled for his dinner, he could nearly taste it from where he stood. He swung the gate open and the hinges sang their high-pitched song, a noise which always brought Bess running, but not tonight. Greg was starting to worry about the girl, he hoped she hadn't done herself a mischief. He crossed the cobbled yard and his boots rubbed familiarly against the time-smoothed stones. Today had been the strangest of his life and he couldn't wait to tell Mary about it.

He unlatched the kitchen door and ducked beneath the low-hung still. The house was warm and the air was thick with the smell of baking.  

"I'm home," he called as he hung his coat on the hook behind the door. He could hear the TV in the front room, it must be time for Coronation Street. As he did every night, he opened the fire-pit of the kitchen range and turned his backside to it. Mary often said If he was given a choice between heaven and hell, he'd choose hell as long as he could go in arse first!

"You'll never guess what happened up the hill," he called into the front room and heard the volume on the TV go down.

"What happe..." Mary said as she came into the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. When she lifted her eyes to meet his, her words cut off in mid-sentence. She stood there; starring: dumbfounded.

"What's wrong?" he asked as he saw the colour drain from her cheeks.

"Get out! Get out of here!" she yelled backing away and putting the kitchen table between them.

"Mary.."

"Get out!"

"Mary, what's wrong with you?"

Then confusion replaced shock on her features. "Those are Greg's. Where did you get them?"

"What are you talking about woman," he said, starting to lose his patience.

"What have you done to Greg?"

"I'm Greg..."

"No no no." she said backing further away.

"Mary," he said trying to round the table.

"Get away from me!" she screamed and ran from the kitchen, throwing the door open and leaving it open.

"Mary!" he called and thought about chasing her but it seemed the wrong thing to do. He went as far as the door and called her name once more but she was already heading down the lane. "Fecking hell," he said and closed the door. What the blazes was going on today?

He was still standing in the kitchen half an hour later when the night was filled with blue light from a a Garda car racing into the yard. He opened the kitchen door went out on the stoop. He spotted Mary and the neighbours from down the road standing outside the yard wall.

Sargent Casey leapt from the squad-car with his batten drawn. "You...don't move," he yelled pointing the club at him.

"What do you mean...you? And this is my house! What the hell is going on?" he demanded. This seemed to knock the wind out of the guard who looked around as if looking for guidance from Mary. Mary was in floods of tears and had no guidance to give. The Sargent turned back and said, "This is Greg and Mary O'Brien's house, who are you?"

"You know damn well who I am, Sean. We've sank plenty of pints down at Finnigan's," he said harshly. "Including last night."

"You think you're Greg O'Brien?" the Sargent stuttered.

"Who else would I be?" he said walking forward to join the Sargent at the car. What the hell was going on?

"Don't move," the guard said but Greg kept going. "Don't move!" Casey yelled in a tone that stopped Greg in his tracks. He actually though the man would brain him that sick of his. The guard looked him up and down before asking, "Where did you get those clothes?"

"They're my clothes!" Greg said getting annoyed.

The guard pointed at his pants and asked, "What's that?"

Greg looked down and saw blood from the injured sheep he'd freed up the mountain.

"Blood," he said but got no further into the explanation before the Sargent rushed him and knocked him to the ground. To say he was shocked was an understatement and that was before he felt the bite of handcuffs on his wrists.

"What's going on!" he screamed but nobody seemed interested in answering that question.

***

Greg was pushed harshly through the Garda station by a man he always considered to be a friend.

"Are you going to tell me what this is all about?" he asked, hoping his civil tone would bring some sort of sanity back to the situation.

Sargent Casey didn't reply, instead he punched him viciously in the back forcing him to grit his teeth and stifle a cry. He was guided past parts of the station he'd never seen before, toward a steel-doored cell. He was shoved inside so hard he nearly lost his footing.

"Take it easy, I'm an old man you know!" he yelled and turned to see a look of befuddlement on the Sargent's face. There was a protracted moment during which Greg believed anything could have happened but it was Sargent Casey who moved first. He grabbed some clear plastic bags from a shelf and threw them on the bunk then spun Greg around to unlock the cuffs.

"Take those clothes off and put them in those." he said pointing at the bags on the bed. The guard was a ball of barely controlled fury, his jaw was working overtime as he ground his teeth and his fists were balled ready for a fight. Greg had no idea what he had done to deserve this kind of treatment.

"What for?" he demanded.

"Evidence."

"Evidence of what?" he said throwing his hands in the air at the absurdity of the situation. He had never once in his life broken a law...or at least no laws that mattered.

"You're being held on suspicion of causing harm to Greg O'Brien."

"Have you gone completely nuts. I'm Greg O'Brien!"

The guard whipped out his truncheon and cocked it over his shoulder. "Get those clothes off before I knock you the fuck out and do it for you," the big man snarled, his shoulders bunching under the blue shirt and his face going an alarming shade of red. As mad as this whole thing was, Greg felt it was better to do what was being asked rather than getting a taste of that night-stick. When the bags were full of his working clothes Casey snarled, "All of them," indicating his y fronts.

"Jesus Christ," he muttered as he stripped down his underwear and tried to cover his manhood as best he could. After a short time of standing bollock naked in the cold he was given a set of musty smelling clothes to put on. They smelt like they had been robbed from a wino.

"Can I use the toilet now or is that forbidden?" he asked snidely, not believing he ever counted this man among his friends.

Casey pointed to a room across the corridor and said, "Leave the door open."

Greg went in and was about to pee when he caught his reflection in the mirror. He nearly died at what he saw. Instead of a seventy year old farmer looking back at him, he was faced with a twenty something year old man he'd never seen before. His hair was full and dark, his face wrinkle free and glowing with youthful health. He reached up and traced the line of his jaw. The fingers in the mirror did the same on the face of the young man. What he was seeing was beyond belief, beyond understanding, beyond rationalization. In shock he turned to the guard and asked, "Do you see this?"

"See what?" he snapped with disdain.

"Me you see me? This."

"Of course I see you. You're the crazy one, not me."

Crazy? Yes it was crazy. There was no other way to explain what he was seeing. Were they all seeing the same thing? Could it be a trick of his mind after picking up that thing up the mountain. It might have given him a shock or radiation or anything. He looked back at the guard and asked, "How old am I?"

"I'll be the one asking the questions," he growled.

"Please...how old," Greg was on the verge of tears.

"Mid twenties, at a guess."

"Oh God. It can't be...its not possible," he said looking back in the mirror again. That thing up the mountain had done something to him. Swapped his body with someone else, or something. He needed help, he had to get someone to help him. It was no wonder that Mary went mad when she found him standing in the kitchen.

"What shit are you on about now? Are you on drugs? Is that it?"

Greg turned on the Sargent with wide eyes and rushed forward. He was desperate for him to see what and who he was. "It's me! It's Greg O'Brien! I can't explain whats happened but is me. You got to believe me. Something happened on the mountain but I cant explain what. I passed out it...it....its all a blur."

"What happened up on the mountain? What did you do to Greg?"

"Nothing! I'm Greg." he said, beyond desperate to find one person who could see his side in this.

"We'll find out..." threatened the guard but he didn't get to finish the sentence. Greg grabbed him by the shirt.

"I'm Greg. I'm Greg. I'm Greg! I'M GREG!" he yelled. The punch caught him clean, sending his chin all the way over his shoulder, driving him into the arms of Morpheus for the second time that night.


***
When he woke he was in the cell and the door was locked. He spent a long time exploring his face with blind fingers. He wished there were a mirror on the wall or something so he could see himself in. It felt like his face from the inside but on the outside his skin was smooth and tight. His hands and body were changed as well. He hadn't noticed them before but the body he was in was not his. It was still him inside, he still had all his memories, his emotions but how could he reconcile the two. When the cell door opened again, it was not Sargent Casey on the other side but a suited man he'd never seen before.

He was hauled into the interview room and the most difficult night of his life began. He tried to tell them what happened but even to his ear the story was nuts. Stars falling from the sky, strange glowing rocks, blackouts...who in their right mind would swallow all that. Greg knew he had to make them believe, so he told them everything. Everything that happened, everything he remembered. In all the detail he could remember, to try to prove he was who he said he was. In the end they looked at him like he was crazy.

Eventually they put him back in the cell and time passed even slower. He worried about Mary. She must be going out of her mind, wondering where he was, why he hadn't come home and who she'd found standing in her kitchen. He was sure of only one thing, he had to get out of here and back to her. It felt like days before Sargent Casey reappeared with a sandwich and a mug of tea. 

"What's going on Sean? What are they going to do with me?"

"Don't call me Sean...you don't know me!"

"Just tell me."

The Sargent put the tray on the bunk and glared at him for a second or two. Greg thought he would walk out without answering but it seemed Sargent Casey couldn't help being a decent man. "That depends on what they find on the mountain. There are hundreds of solders and guards up there right now. You better pray that Greg is in once piece when they find him or you'll never feel the sun on your face again."

"They won't find him because I'm Greg and I'm right here!" he nearly cried.

"Shut up and eat your food," he said slamming the door closed.

"I'm right here!" he yelled hammering the door with his fist. Someone had to believe him.

A while later the suited man returned with a question. "You said you were on the mountain when something fell from the sky and changed you into a younger man, is that right?"

"That's what I have been telling you all night. I know it sounds mad but yes, yes, that's exactly what happened.!"

"Can you show us where it happened? We might find something that could prove what you are saying is true."

"Of course. I'll take you to the exact spot."

"Right, lets go," said the man standing aside to let Greg out of the cell.

They got him some boots and an overcoat before cuffing his hands in front of him. They lead him through the station which was now crammed full of people talking on radios and peering over maps. As he moved through the building a hush fell over those who were gathered under the roof. Outside the station stood two four-wheel-drives with their doors open. Once they were aboard the engines started up and began plotting a course back to his own house.

They had to go through his yard to get onto the mountain path. One of the guards got out to open the gate and Greg caught a glimpse of Mary watching them through the kitchen window. She was so pale and drawn, Greg wished he could hold her and make her understand. He smiled and raised his fingers to wave but her face morphed into a mask of hate. She spat at him, his lovely Mary. The phlegm splattered against the inside of the window and she vanished from sight. That just about broke his heart but he had to find a way back to her, he just had to.  

They bounced their way up the dirt road and when the road ran out they walked. His body might be young and fit but his heart was broken. The climb seemed endless. Normally it was only himself, Bess, and the sheep up on that hill but today the place was packed. Lines of people were searching the bracken, beating it with sticks, combing for clues to a crime that had never happened.

Greg led them higher and higher, nearly to the top of the mountain. He found the spot he was looking for with no trouble at all. He pointed out the trench gouged into the ground by the falling star and the crater where it came to rest.

"This is the spot. The rock is around here somewhere," he said, getting down on his knees to search. Surely some clever science type person could discover what had happened if they had the star to work from.

"We'll take it from here," said the suited guard hauling him up to his feet.

"Hang on, we have to find the star," yelled Greg trying to free himself from the policeman's grip. As he was herded back from the crater he saw a group of men move up and start photographing the area. Then they produced something that looked like a metal detector and started scanning the ground.

"What's that?" asked Greg.

"Ground radar. We will soon find where you burred him."

"There is nobody burred..."

"Get him out of here, Sargent," said the suited man turning away. .

"Get moving," snapped Sargent Casey giving him a shove to begin the journey. They were never interested in finding the fallen star. They just thought they'd be able to cut the search short by playing along with his madness. As Greg began the climb down he knew he was more lost than ever.

When they got back to the station Greg was locked in the cell once more. He started to wonder how long they could hold him before they charged him or could they charge him? After all, he hadn't done anything.

It was dark when they took him from the cell again. This time there were more people in the interview room waiting for him. There was Sargent Casey, the two suited guards and another man who was seated in the corner. They took him through all his answers again and again until his head was spinning.

"So what happens if we let you go? Were do you live? What's your name?" demanded the Guard in the suit.

"I've told you a thousand times, I'm Greg O'Brien and I live here."

"But you admit you don't look like Greg."

"I know, I know that more than anyone. I cant explain what happened but there has to be an explanation." All the men exchanged glances. The suited guard continued to ask questions.

"So, if released you intend to go back to the O'Brien farm and Mary."

"Of course, she's my wife. I'll explain what happened. Once we've talked she will see the truth...I know she will."

"And you still maintain you did nothing to hurt Greg O'Brien?"

"Did you find a him up on the mountain."

"No..."

"And you never will because I'm sitting right here. So...are you going to charge me or let me go."

All attention moved to the stranger who was sitting in the corner of the room taking notes. He looked pained and worried but eventually he nodded his head and closed the notebook he was writing in. He delved into a bag by his feet and withdrew a vial and a syringe.

"What's that?" asked Greg, not liking this one little bit. Needles were never good.

"Hold him, Please," the man said, his voice cultured and soft.

Sargent Casey and the suited guard pinned him to the chair as the man filled the syringe from the vial.

"What are you going to do to me?" Greg yelled.

"This is only a sedative, you've had quiet a day. It'll help you...cope."

"Don't touch me with that!" yelled Greg trying to free himself.

"You're a very sick young man. We're going to get you the help you need," said the man approaching with the needle. He pulled Greg's sleeve up exposing the fleshy part of his shoulder and jabbed him.

"It won't take long," the man said to the guards as if Greg were not even in the room. He slid a cap back on the tip of the needle and returned it to his bag.

"Mary needs me, you can..." Greg said but his head began to fill with cotton wool and all the strength left his body. Slowly the guards released him and Greg slumped back in the chair. His body might be unable to work but his ears were working just fine.

"So you're going to section him, Doc?" asked Sargent Casey.

"He is clearly delusional. We need to find out who he is and until then...its for the best."

"I better tell Mary what's happening," Sargent Casey said and was about to leave when asked another question. "How long do you think he'll be locked up."

The doctor shook his head and said, "It's hard to tell right now but as things stand...he may never be let out."

"Throw away the key if you can," said Casey as he left the room.

Greg got his elbows under him and with a huge effort he lifted his head and said, "The wish..a new back..wish on a.."


Then his mind blinked out like a shooting star racing across the night sky.

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