The first one, taken about forty minutes ago, hadn’t done shit, so Jack doled out another two SpongeBob-shaped pills apiece. Two, instead of the recommended one, because Shane and Gerry were fearful and riled to the point of nausea. Jack knew they wouldn’t go ahead with the job unless their nerves had been well and truly fellated. Jack double dropped as well, not that he needed to, but just for the fuck of it.

Jack was riding shotgun, his knee hopping up and down, his fingers drumming the dash. Beside him Gerry gripped the steering wheel and clenched his teeth.

In the back, Shane leaned forward and hunched between the two front seats. He rubbed at his eyes and said, ‘Ye getting anything?’

The car-park was empty, save the three lads in the car and a spatter of undying crows that lined the peripherals. They cawed listlessly from telephone poles as an empty Tayto packet went skittering across the lot on the back of a disinterested breeze. The crows watched the shit-box Fiesta and waited for the lads to get on with it.

‘I’m getting fuck all,’ said Gerry. ‘Duds?’

‘No chance,’ said Jack. ‘If anything, they’ll be too strong.’

Gerry was alarmed. ‘They can’t be too strong. We can’t go in there off our tits. They were just supposed to keep us calm. Benzos you said. Benzos to keep us calm.’

‘Relax, Gerry. Duffer knows what he’s about. He’s the best chemist I know.’

‘He’s the only chemist you know, and he’s fucked in the head from sampling his own wares to boot.’

‘Arra, we’re all a bit fucked in the head,’ said Jack.

Shane blew out a loud sigh. ‘He’s right there, Ger. Can’t none of us throw the stone on that count—oh-my-goodness, lads. I think I’m getting something. I can feel it in my legs. It always starts in my legs. Mmm, uh-huh, hmmm. Definitely getting a bit floaty here.’

Jack clapped his hands together, rubbing them fiercely. ‘Hon, Shaney boi! This is it, fellas. This is fucking it.’

‘What’s it like?’ asked Gerry. ‘Is it strong? Is it too strong? Maybe we should stick our fingers down our throats, puke ‘em up, like. I don’t want to be off my face here. That’s the last thing we need.’ At twenty-nine, Gerry had a year on his friends, and it was at times like this that he felt the nagging onus of maturity. Not that it ever did them much good, but there it was all the same.

Shane sucked in a fat yogic breath through his nose, and exhaled out his mouth. ‘Mmmm, it’s alright. Not too strong, not too strong.’ Then he groaned, a kind of a nervous whicker. ‘But it is a bit strong. It’s like, just coming up on yokes or something, you know. Oh lads, maybe it is a bit strong. Coming on me now.’ He was pushing the breaths out through pursed lips like a pregnant woman going into labour.

Gerry, whose experience of hard drugs extended to one bad mushroom trip in Amsterdam when he was twenty-one, looked on, his face draining. ‘Oh fuck it, Jack. They were only supposed to calm us down. Benzos, Valium or Xanax or something, like, not whatever the fuck is going on here.’ He gestured to Shane.

‘Woooo!’ said Jack, doing a little jig in his chair. ‘Buckle up boys. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.’ Jack drummed the dash and bobbed his head, jiving along to some unheard music. ‘Feeling something, fellas. Something going on under the crust. Those tectonic plates be shifting. Continental drift, fellas, subterranean energies surging. Woooo!’

‘Woooo!’ said Shane throwing his head back like a howling wolf.

‘Yes, Shane boi!’

‘Yes, Jackie boi!’

Gerry scrunched up his face, pushing his eyeballs into his skull. That first wicked tingle of narcotic glee had begun to tickle the base of his spine. As soon as he felt it, he knew it was too late to go back. Things, he knew, were about to get weird. ‘Fuck it,’ he said. ‘Here we go.’

#

Outside the car, the world was grey and dumb. The immortal crows sat sullen under a sky full of heavy cloud.

The town, Bally-who-gives-a-shit, was quiet and had nothing to say for itself. Weren’t many people about the place. The one or two souls they did see popping in and out of the shops didn’t trouble to glance in the lads’ direction. And if they did, sure what about it? The lads hadn’t done anything wrong. They were just a few lads sitting in a car, like. No harm, no foul. Not yet anyway.

Bally was a prissy little shit of a town whose only ambition was to go to work, and listen to teacher, and pay its taxes. The lads hated it almost as much as the crows did. They hated the suburban stink of the place, the cloying civility and the limp-dicked pleasantness of it all. But most of all, they hated the fact that they still lived there, in this dishonest little town. A place so shrinking small when the world was yawning so wide.

Bally’s idea of excitement was a young fella found hanging off the big oak in the tidy towns’ millennial garden. Or some young wan raped behind the tidy towns’ rugby club. Or some speed racer’s brains scattered all over Tawny Hill, his young body ejected from the vehicle after colliding with the otter statue in the centre of the tidy towns’ memorial roundabout. They were great for tidy towns in Bally.

It was a place where you went to knuckle down, and follow the rules. Overbearingly polite middle-class white smiles blinded you at every turn. Servile, gutless, sexless. It was a grey, dumb, dreary, piss-ant, nothing of a town.

Its population remained undisturbed by notions of better things, each grimly accepting their lot. For the most part, they just waited around patiently and politely for their own deaths to come and ass-fuck them into the dirt. For the most part.

And the crows, having fuck-all else on, just sat around watching, and bitching, and waiting for the next quiet sadness to unfold.

#

Jack had the Mac pumping.

The lads sang together about stepping into velvet moments. Their voices, mannish and guttural, clambered and jostled roughly in and out of tune. The volume on the radio was loud enough to drown out the roughest edges, so it seemed to them that it was their voices that propped the tinny radio speaker’s melody aloft, and even lent to it a subtle consonance that it may otherwise have lacked.

The song ended, and Jack turned off the music so they could assess their progress. An inventory of self was required.

Shane was lying down in the back seat rubbing his hands up and down his torso. He had already stripped down to his vest, and you could tell by the way he tugged at it that he wanted that off too. He was breathing quickly and loudly through his nose and groaning slightly. ‘Mmm, hmmm, mmm.’

‘What’s that, Shaney kid?’ asked Jack.

‘I was just saying there, them lyrics ya know?’

‘Stop. They’re insane,’ said Jack.

‘Oh man, completely, absolutely. Like, fucking mental, like. It’s like, some people just know things, and they just understand things, and when they sing them, they can tell us, and that’s why everyone loves Fleetwood Mac, because the things they tell us are the truth, and when we hear it we know they’re not lying to us, and we love them for that, for telling us the truth like, even if it’s a sad truth. Like, it’s even more beautiful sometimes, if it’s sad you know, because it makes us feel less alone with our own sadness, especially if it’s the truth you know, and that’s why, man, that’s why, eh, that’s why, eh…’ He took a deep breath. ‘Jesus. This shit is fizzing through me now, lads. I’m like a starchy towel, lads, just all wrinkled, too many folds in my fabric.’

‘Your folds are grand. You’ll be grand,’ said Jack, reaching back to pat Shane on the leg.

Shane wriggled in the back, squirming like a dying snake. ‘Oh, lads, I’m not sure anymore. It feels a bit fast. Things are going a bit fast. I probably shouldn’t have double dropped. There’s a degree of kittens drowning in a bucket going on.’

Gerry, who had only moments ago been on the verge of a breakdown, was lying back in his own seat wearing a pair of sunglasses. He reached behind him and clasped Shane’s hand. ‘Don’t worry, man. Let it wash over you. We got you, brother. Just give it a second to level out okay?’ Gerry gave his hand a little squeeze. ‘I love you, man.’ How easy the words came to him. How natural and right they sounded. Why had he never told his friends he loved them before?

Jack smiled, bobbing his head while looking at Gerry. Both of them holding and touching Shane as he shifted about in the back.

‘Uuugghhh,’ said Shane. ‘It’s a bit much, lads. Maybe I should sit this one out, lads. Maybe I should go to the hospital. I should probably go to the hospital.’

‘Not at all,’ said Gerry giving his hand another squeeze. ‘You’ll be grand in a tick. Jack, throw on another song there for our man. Smooth out those wrinkles for him.’

Jack, took his phone out and started to swipe through his music. ‘I got just the thing. Shane kid, you just relax there and I’ll sort you out.’

The song came, gentle chimes, soothing synths, and the eerie healing tones of Enya. It was the tune from Lord of the Rings. ‘This one,’ said Jack. ‘This one always cheers me up when I feel like killing myself. The essential humanity of it all. The innocence of the hobbits in the face of such corruption is beautiful. Something wholesome about it. This should smooth out your wrinkles nicely.’ He kept patting and rubbing with his free hand.

Shane just kept squirming and lifting up his vest, rubbing his hands all over his chest, tweaking his nipples.

Gerry squeezed his hand. ‘Jesus, Jack, what’s in these things? He’s off his game.’ Gerry’s spoke words of concern, but his voice was all pancakes on a Sunday, and his face was smiling, benevolent, Christ-like behind the dark sunglasses. He felt amazing.

‘He’s fine, Ger. The skinny lads always feel it a bit more on the way up. He’ll smooth out. Just listen to the hobbit music, Shaney, and you’ll smooth out just fine. What about you, Ger? How you feeling? You feeling it?’

Gerry paused, then raked a hand through his hair. ‘I just hit a wave the very second you asked me that. Fuck man. These are too strong.’ He started to rub the top of his head, clenching and unclenching his fist around tufts of hair. ‘How are we gonna do it in this state? There’s no way.’ He was breathing all fast and heavy like Shane was before. ‘Oh jeez, now I’m fizzing too. Oh fuck me, Sam really loved Frodo didn’t he? And it was such a pure love. Like, it was a love that could only exist in a book. I can see why you would turn to it—oh fucking hell—’ Gerry bent over and pressed his forehead against the steering wheel.

‘That’s it, Gerry, just ride it out. Just a small bit of turbulence while we take off. We’ll be at cruising altitude before you know it.’

Gerry looked over to Jack, his cheek still pressed in the clammy rubber of the steering wheel. ‘You’d never actually do it though? Would you?’

‘What? Top myself? And end up like those poor bastards up there?’ Jack nodded to the three crows on the telephone wire.

The trapped souls screamed and screamed and screamed, but all the lads heard was, ‘Caw, caw, caw.’

‘Ah fuck it, Jack, don’t start that shit about the crows again. Not now.’

‘Relax, Ger. I’m only winding you. Lookit, this is the hard part. It’ll even out soon I promise. Hang on, I have an idea. Wait here.’ Jack got out of the car.

Gerry shouted after him in alarm. ‘Wait! You can’t just leave us here!’

Jack just smiled back. He walked around to the driver’s side window, and made the roll-it-down signal with his hand. It took Gerry a minute to figure out the lever, but he eventually managed to get the window rolled down. Jack leaned in. ‘I’m just going up the road for a sec. Hang tough, keep an eye on Shane. He probably shouldn’t have double dropped. But you and me are okay, aren’t we?’

‘Yeah. Yeah, you and me are okay, Jack.’

‘Good man. Now, gimme them sunglasses. I need them.’

Gerry handed them out the window, and when he took them off Jack laughed at him.

‘Jesus, your eyes, man, they look like fucking marbles!’

‘Jack, I’ll need those back. Don’t forget to bring them back.’

Jack winked. ‘Trust me, Ger. I got you, man.’

Gerry watched Jack walking off, wondering where the fuck he was off to. Shane moaned in the back seat. The hobbit song was earnestly climbing toward climax. He looked back and could see Shane was crying.

‘Shane. Hey, Shane. Talk to me, man. What’s happening?’

‘I’m fizzing, man. Every inch of me is vibrating with pure potential. We can do anything, like. We’re free, Ger. We’ve always been completely free, we just didn’t know it.’ Then he tensed, moaning and shivering like a lab monkey.

Gerry clenched his teeth. He craned his neck to get a better look at the crows. Things were becoming intense. The windows were starting to fog. The two lads were panting. Shane finally lost his vest and now wore it over his face.

Gerry, feeling the heat too, kicked off his shoes and peeled his socks off. He felt better as the cool air hit his sweating toes. ‘Fucking socks.’ He leaned back to talk to Shane. ‘Shane, Shane man, it’s the socks. Take off your socks you’ll feel better. The socks are blocking your circulation, man.’

Shane had his eyes squeezed shut and was humming the hobbit tune, shaking his head back and forth.

Gerry turned around and started to unlace his friend’s shoes. ‘Don’t worry, man. It’s the socks. You’ll understand once they’re off.’

As he pulled at Shane’s laces, he could feel the sweat gathering on his brow and stream down his ribs from his pits. He was blinking it from his eyes now, and with each blink was visited by a red flash of images projected onto his eyelids. Images in which he bludgeoned Shane’s face in with his own shoes. The drugs were going sideways.

By the time he got to the socks, he was starting to panic. The process had become too involved. The taking off of Shane’s shoes seemed to be an obvious allegory, not just for their situation and not just for his life, but for something even vaster than that. It disturbed him that the shoes did not come off easier.

When Ger finally got the socks off, he sat back into his chair as though he had just defused a bomb. He needed very much for things to be okay. He felt his resolve waning. He thought about his son. He thought about the crows. A sadness stirred within him, twisting in his guts like sour milk. He knew that if it were to rise from the depths it would consume him entirely.

And Shane, whose mind was blown wide the fuck open, felt it too. He felt it through the wool and heat of his own inner dealings. Something about the kid, Shane thought. Gerry had a little boy once. He didn’t talk about it. Nobody did. Nobody could. Shane sat up. He knew he must speak. So he opened his mouth and forced the words to come.

‘You were right. It was the socks.’ Shane felt as though he were a dog trying to speak English. All he knew was that his heart was beating too fast, and that Gerry was about to burn himself up. If Gerry was lost then they were both lost. He pinched the bridge of his nose tightly and set to forcing the world right side up again, jamming manners down the gullet of reality. ‘Yeah, man, yeah, much better without socks. Phew. Starting to come out of it a bit now,’ he lied. ‘I think we’ll be okay with the socks off.’

Gerry smiled, but it was the smile of a fisherman that had sailed too far out to sea and snagged some terrible doom in his nets. Then grimly, as though its emergence were inevitable, began to reel in his line.

‘No need to reel it in, man,’ said Shane. ‘The socks are off. We’ll be grand.’

Gerry knew what he meant. He didn’t believe in telepathy, but things were getting to a stage where he felt he could no longer rule out some kind of biological synergy. Thoughts transmitted, not by magic, but maybe via some kind of pheromone in their sweat, some class of hormone exchange. Either way, Gerry knew exactly what Shane was saying to him. The heart of the words were there, beating in the stale air between them. The knowing, and the knowing of the knowing, and that knowing too, and on and on forever, each a mother to a child and a child to a mother. Gerry stopped reeling his nets, and let the great ponderous shadowy nightmare of his past submerge slowly back into the depths from whence it came. ‘Yeah, man. It was the socks,’ he said.

Shane laughed. ‘Yeah, man. Those fucking socks.’ And just like that they were safe again.

Gerry looked around, coming out of it a bit.

The windows had fogged up completely now. A narrow shaft of light had broken between a gap in the overhead gloom. It radiated a strange and muted daffodil haze through the window condensation, an eerie end-of-the-world kind of light.

‘Can you put that hobbit song back on please?’ asked Gerry. He was holding out Jack’s phone to Shane, a slight wince pinching his features. The simple task of finding and selecting the hobbit song loomed over him like the threat of violence.

Shane gently took the phone from his friend’s hand. ‘Good idea,’ he said.

Then they sat and listened for a while. It seemed like they might be okay. They were on fire, all popping neurons and electric nerve ends, waves of intensity breaking and receding. It was too much, but it was okay too.

The passenger door opened. It was Jack. He penetrated the delicate atmosphere of the car, brutishly heaving himself into the passenger seat, disturbing the air with his body. ‘Jesus H. Christ alive, lads. We definitely should not have double dropped these fuckers! I just had the best fucking talk with the lad at the offie. What a nutter. Some strange heads wandering around out there, lads. But lookit, we can’t go in like this, lads. I barely made it out of the offie alive, never mind the fucking bank. We need to calm way the fuck down, like. Smooth out our towel ruffles or whatever, smooth them right out to fuck before we even think about stepping into that bank.’

Jack’s presence was jarring. Both Shane and Gerry were sitting forward now, focused intensely on the rabid pulse of chaotic energy that had just landed.

‘Surely we’re not still going ahead?’ said Gerry, his nerves set to jangling all over again.

‘Surely we are, my man,’ said Jack. ‘Now is the perfect time. Can you feel the crackle of the destiny in the air, the hum of fate in your bones? It’s like opera music.’

Shane looked at Gerry, and Gerry at looked Shane, and neither could deny it. They were doing it. They were doing it today.

‘Don’t worry, lads. I got us some corner softeners, a few cheeky towel straighteners.’ Jack opened the plastic bag at his feet and pulled out a bottle of Powers and a lash of cans. He broke off a can and passed it over to Gerry, then one back to Shane.

‘Ah stop, cans!’ said Shane. ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ Shane cracked the tinny and sucked it down like a halfway insane twenty-eight-year-old man who was tripping too hard in the back of a knackered old Fiesta and about to rob a bank. ‘Oh, cans,’ he said, kissing the tin. ‘Never leave me.’

The very proximity of the booze was reassuring to him. The fact that it was there, warming in the plastic bag between Jack’s feet, was enough to steady him. Booze was how you slowed down the squirrels in your head, made them dozy enough to catch, made them placid and pliable. You could, in Shane’s experience, drink your way out of any problem. Slow the squirrels, gather them up in your arms, and stroke their fur til they purred with acquiescence and kindness. Booze was a dear, dear friend of his, an unflappable ally in the face of the uncaring void. ‘Good man, Jack, you absolute legend of a man.’

Jack cracked his own tinny and cheersed with his friends.

Gerry was smiling too, warmed by Shane’s new confidence. ‘Fuck it,’ he said. ‘Cheers, lads. Here’s to getting rich.’ They sucked on their beers and all involved felt a great deal better.

‘Here’s to getting the fuck out of Bally!’ said Jack. They all cheersed again, the sticky smell of sudsy beer filling the small car.

‘We can move on now from the fucking hobbit love song, can we? Something a bit meatier,’ said Jack.

‘Ah now,’ said Shane. ‘Nothing too meaty, like. We’re only just recovering here for fuck’s sake.’ He took another long dirty pull from his can. The beer spilled down his chin and pooled in his belly button, but he didn’t care. It was giving him his life back.

‘Don’t worry, kid, nothing too meaty yet, just something to improve our temperaments and overall physicality. Now let me tune the sonic vibrations to eeeeeasy.’

The lads waited expectantly. Their breathing had slowed, and the atmosphere of barely suppressed panic had been diluted by a semblance of calm.

The first loose notes of a playful piano came over the speakers, followed shortly by the lyrics. It was the theme song to Cheers.

‘You gone done it now, Jackie boy!’ said Shane hunching between the two front seats once more. Jack and Shane belted out the first verse and when it came to the part about everybody knowing your name, even Gerry couldn’t resist.

The song ended, and the lads held onto one another. Jack put a hand around the neck of each friend and pulled their heads in close so the three of them were pressed together at the forehead. ‘This is it, lads. This is fucking it. Today is going to be our day.’

Shane pulled back.

‘Shane, kid, take your time.’ Jack reached into the plastic bag at his feet and passed another can back to him. The lads weren’t ready. Jack knew this. They would never be ready, not like he was ready. But he could fool them into thinking they were. He just needed to stroke them right. They were loose now, dispersed, evaporated from the drugs. Now all he had to do was put them back together in a manner that best suited the job.

Jack blinked, rubbing his eyes. He was fizzing hard as fuck himself, but he could take it. He loved this shit. They were out in the woods on this one, he knew, way past bedtime. They’d ducked under the do-not-pass yellow police cordon and they were out in fuck-knows-what-now territory.

Jack smiled, because he knew, like all frontiersmen knew, that this is where the magic happens.

‘Lads,’ said Shane. ‘I feel a bit better now. I mean for a while there I didn’t feel so hot. For a while there I thought I was gone and not coming back.’

‘We got you man, and you got us,’ said Jack, taking his shoes off. ‘Offt, sorry now, lads, my feet are honking. We’ll have to crack a window here.’

‘You want me to roll these back ones down?’ asked Shane.

‘Do, kid,’ said Jack.

‘Fuck it let’s air her out,’ said Gerry rolling his window down too. The sharp twang of fresh air gave them each a pang, a stab of lucid pleasure. The air was electricity, energy and life, delicious everything.

Jack reached once more into his bag of tricks and pulled out a box of Marlboro lights. He opened the pack and tossed one over his shoulder and into the back seat without looking. Then he took off Gerry’s sun glasses and placed them back on the bridge of his friend’s nose. ‘They look better on you, Gerry.’ He felt Gerry relax as soon as the glasses settled on his face.

He heard a high pitched ‘Sweeeet,’ from Shane in the back. ‘Fire?’

Jack tossed him the lighter. ‘I know you’re off ‘em. Fuck it, we’re all off ‘em, lads, but today is a special day.’

‘No argument here, Jack. Come here you dirty little slut of a fag,’ said Shane putting the flame to his cigarette.

Jack fished one out for himself then passed one to Gerry. They were fizzing to fuck, the whole lot of them, but the ruffles and ridges, the edges and snags were rounding down and smoothing out.

Jack flicked through his phone, pressed a tune and Nina Simone began to sing ‘Lilac Wine’. They sat and smoked and sucked on their cans, swallowing capfuls of whiskey with the damp November morning breathing in on them.

Several songs passed without a word.

Then Shane said, ‘I think I should have the sawn-off.’

And Gerry said, ‘I thought we agreed, I was getting the sawn-off and you and Jack would hold the replicas.’

‘Yeah, I know, I know,’ said Shane. ‘It’s just that, well, if things get hairy, you know? I don’t want anyone getting trigger happy here. Like, no offense lads, but I’m the least likely to use it. I mean, I don’t want to hurt anyone in there, I really don’t. That’s why I should have it. It’s safer for everyone. Nothing against ye, lads, but ye have both been known to fly off the handle on occasion. Jack, sure you know that yourself, and Gerry, ‘member that time you bottled your man outside Decks.’

Gerry and Jack exchanged a look.

‘What if you gotta pop one off just to quiet the place down, are you capable of that?’ asked Jack.

Shane sat up. He was cruising now. The jitters had all but evaporated and he was cruising. ‘I’m capable of a lot more than you think, Jack.’

Gerry was cruising too now. The glasses were a big help. The shaded screen between his eyes and the world allowed him a measure of detachment. ‘I think he’s right, Jack. Shane can do it. Let him have the sawn-off.’

Jack’s face was blank as he rubbed his chin. ‘Alright. You’ve got the shooter, Shane. Make us proud.’ Jack reached under the seat and pulled out the sawn-off shotgun they’d robbed from the Clancy farm. He handed it back to Shane.

Shane tossed his fag and took the gun in his lap. Then he rolled the window back up, and put his vest back on, then his T-shirt, then his hoodie. Shane held the sawn-off lightly, running his hand up and down the length of it, stroking and fondling the cold perfection of its hard rounded surface. He looked at the clock. It was getting time. Shane, cracked the breach and checked both the barrels. He snapped it shut, and leaned forward again. ‘It’s getting to be about that time,’ he said.

‘Hmm, getting to be about that time,’ agreed Gerry.

Jack opened the glove box and took out the replica handguns. One for Gerry, and one for himself. Then he handed out the masks, Donald Trump for Jack, Kim Jong-un for Gerry and Leo Varadkar for Shane.

The lads bent putting socks and shoes back on feet without hesitation. Had they known what the story was with the pills bubbling in their guts, they might have waited a bit. They might even have called it off, but as things stood they were unaware how badly they had timed their consumption. It was the enteric polymer that coated the SpongeBob pills which delayed the release of chemicals somewhat longer then they had anticipated. The second dose was only now beginning to dissolve. In a few minutes the effects would be apparent.

‘Are we nearly right, lads? The time is upon us. How’s the heads?’ asked Jack.

‘Grand,’ said Shane.

‘No bother,’ said Gerry.

‘Alright then—’

Without another word, they pulled on their masks and got out of the car.

It was at this point that time began to slow down. Perhaps it was the drugs. Or maybe, like Jack said, it was the insistent hum of destiny vibrating in each of their skulls. Or maybe the moment was just so dense with imminent repercussion that time had no choice but to slow down in order to allow its swollen passage through the narrow band of occupied universe.

The boys slammed each door, the sounds echoing in quick succession, thunk, flump, clunk, and lingered like gunshots in the empty car-park.

They walk three abreast now, cutting through the silence of the town, car park gravel crunching underfoot as they make their way to the bank entrance.

Then, pushing open the double doors wide, the lads float in. Their blood hot and throbbing, the thrum of it filling their ears. Shining and cursed, ready to grab their own lives by the throat.