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Image / Culture

Read an extract from Amanda Cassidy’s latest novel: The Returned


By IMAGE
13th Aug 2023
Read an extract from Amanda Cassidy’s latest novel: The Returned

The Returned

Freelance journalist Cassidy's debut novel Breaking was shortlisted for the CWA Dagger Awards. Her second novel The Returned hits shelves next week. The writer, who lives in Dublin with her husband and three children, says the idea for her latest book was inspired by her own terrifying house fire when her daughter was a newborn.

Jolting awake, May is suddenly aware of a smoke alarm beeping urgently. Nancy is standing in front of her, screaming. The room is engulfed in thick, black smoke. She immediately thinks of the little ones upstairs. Both women stare at each other in horror, paralysed by the realisation. Then Nancy pushes past her and, tucking her face into the bend of her elbow, begins to make her way upstairs. May watches the young mother disappear into the haze, like a ghost into a cloud, one arm extended ahead of her. Reaching out.

Nancy feels her way upstairs, disorientated and desperate. She knows this house by heart – every landing creak, every scuff of carpet. At the top, gripping the wooden banister, she makes a sickening split second choice. Eyes streaming, she bursts into Joey’s bedroom, calling her five-year-old son’s name, praying he isn’t too scared to move. He does that sometimes–hides if he’s frightened. She’s tried giving him coping mechanisms for his anxiety. Hugh thinks she’s reading too much into it, but all she knows is that sometimes Joey’s behaviour isn’t like her friend’s children and that concerns her.

‘Joey’, she screams, thick smoke catching in the back of her throat. Nancy tries to force her streaming eyes to make out the familiar sprout of curls. ‘Joey,’ Nancy croaks again. She makes it to his bed and roots around in the soft fold of the sheets with her palms.

Empty. 

She tries to scream his name again, but her roar is punctuated with violent coughing. Dread frays the corners of her mind. her breath is sticky and her lungs painfully tight. The next bedroom, her and Hugh’s, faces onto the back garden. Nancy’s legs give way and, blinded by the black plumes, she crawls the last few metres towards the door, pushing desperately against it, clawing her way towards the baby –towards her younger son. The blast of heat is cruel against her skin. She cries out as the smoke clings to her, sipping into every pore.

What she sees in that moment will haunt her for the rest of her life. Flames arch high around the window of the bedroom, licking at the walls and ceiling viciously, leaving black claw marks. Her drapes sway grotesquely with the force of the fire. She’ll never forget that sound –the whoosh and crackle that pulled everything towards it. When she relives this night over and over, Nancy will wonder what might have happened if she’d just gone upstairs a few minutes earlier. Or if she hadn’t forgotten her phone and returned to the house. She’ll go over every last smoke-filled second wondering if she could have saved him, had she made a different choice. Acrid smoke chokes as she drags herself around the side of the double bed.

Everything is black or blackening.

Reaching what she thinks is the chest of drawers, she hauls herself upright and with the last of her energy, hooks both arms heavily into the tiny cot that sits next to the bed. The flames have reached the other side now. Her bedclothes flare brilliantly, momentarily lighting up the swirls of fog. She wants to lie down, to float away into this great mesmerising heat. her hand loses its grip on the edge of the cot. But it’s the feel of those tiny spindles that spur her on– the memory of the last few weeks spent poking her hand in through that narrow gap between them, to stroke his warm, velvety palm.

With one final push, she leans low into the cot, searches the bedding with both hands carefully. Then frantically.

How could she even consider life without him? There’s nothing. She feels nothing at all, Just the cruel curl of empty blanket, the crisp sheets she tucked in to neatly just hours ago. Her lungs are screaming. The flames are at her feet. she understands that this is all her fault. She thinks of Joey and how she finds him in her room sometimes, watching his baby brother sleeping. She tries to call both her son’s names over and over but there is no more left of her voice.

Nancy traces the small rectangle of the cot again with both hands. She fills in the spaces where the baby should have been with flattened palms, tapping and fanning. She uses the bony part of her shoulder to stem her streaming eyes. Head bent low, she can just about see the outline of it. There’s no doubt in her mind.

The baby is gone.

Then the baby blanket goes up in flames and her sleeves are on fire. She opens her mouth to scream but her body is ablaze. She stumbles backwards, intense pain ripping through her. Everything is lost. The light fades, turns inside out. Then suddenly there is nothing left at all.

 

The Returned (Canelo) is in bookshops 24th July €14.99

Eason’s exclusive online price €13.99 here