Jill sprang up in the bed. Her heart raced so fast she found it hard to breathe. The only light in the room came from the slit at the bottom of the door, and she waited for her eyes to adjust. Looking around the room, she picked out the familiar shapes of the furniture. Deciding it was safe enough; she swung her feet onto the floor and sat a moment to allow the spinning in her head to subside. She didn’t dare turn on the bedside lamp in case it alerted her family. The murmur of their voices had woken her, and she couldn’t face them, not yet.
Her clothes were removed, so she slept in her underwear. The jeans and jumper she had worn were laid out at the bottom of her bed, so she didn’t have to search of something to wear. Once dressed, she crept to the window and looked down to the yard. Even in the darkness, she could pick out the outline of five cars. Her parents owned one of them, Joe another and more than likely, an assortment of aunts and cousins in the other two. No one would want to miss witnessing her misery, and even though she knew her thoughts were uncharitable, they were, she knew, true. She had always been the outsider in her extended family, the one most likely to cock things up, they said, and they were right. After Joe left, they arrived en-masse with suggestions of what she should do next. Despite tight smiles and words of wisdom, there was no mistaking the arched eyebrows, or knowing looks and comments, when they thought she was out of earshot. It came as a complete surprise to all of them when she inherited the house from her grandmother, and even though they warned against trying to go it alone, she ignored their advice. Oh, she proved them wrong, and managed to become self-sufficient, but at what price?
The bedroom door groaned, and she held her breath, waiting for the expected footsteps, but there were none. Tiptoeing to the top of the stairs, she listened as voices drifted up, but she could not make out what they were saying. Bess, who was lying at the bottom of the stairs, got up when she saw her mistress and wagged her tail. Jill brought her finger to her lips, warning her to be quiet, and laughed at the action. She had come to think of the dog as her friend and expected her to understand everything she said or did. To her surprise, Bess lay back down. So far there was no sight of her pups, and Jill was grateful for this, as their frolics would have surely made her presence known to those gathered in the kitchen.
Taking her coat from the rail in the hall, she crept outside, with Bess following at her heels. Her mother’s car was parked closest to the house and she saw in the light from the window, it was gleaming. Six years old and still in showroom condition, her mother always boasted. Jill frowned, recalling the home she had grown up in and the sterile condition of every room. A place for everything and everything in its place, was her mother’s mantra, and her house epitomised the neatness and order of her life. Even her husband, Jill’s father, had a role to play and she sometimes wondered how he bore her mother’s frigid rigidity, but it didn’t seem to bother him, and he remained the jovial and good-natured father she had always known. She shivered and pulled her coat tighter around her. The grass was coated with frost and it crackled beneath her feet as she made her way to the orchard. Here she could think without being disturbed. The trees would give her some shelter from the cold, and there was a little wooden bench where she could sit and think. She managed to keep her emotions under control since she had woken, but now, seated under the vast amphitheatre of stars, she broke down and sobbed. The dog seated beside her, moaned and nuzzled her face into Jill’s hands.
“Oh, Bess, what am I going to do?” she stroked the soft fur. “They’ve taken my baby and I don’t even know if he’s alive or dead. Oh God, this is all my fault.”
Above her the heavens glowed brighter than before and she turned her face to the sky. Tears ran down her cheeks and soaked the collar of her jumper, as she silently prayed for help. The cold breeze whipped around the bare trees and carried with it the voice of her loved one.
“The time is right,” it seemed to whisper, and Jill jumped up, when the words reached her.
“Nana,” she called, as her eyes searched the darkness. “Nana, is that you?”
There was no one there, and nothing to answer her cry. Cursing her imagination, she walked through the trees, and could not help but notice the dog’s reaction. She seemed wary, as she sniffed the ground, and once or twice, a low growl started in her throat, but whatever it was she saw out there in the darkness was soon dismissed as non-threatening, and she resumed her foraging. Jill’s body shook from weeping, and she leant against one of the trunks for support. The orchard, that once seemed such a happy place, now hung with the stench of neglect and death. The earth beneath her feet was damp and the fallen leaves, that days before blazed with colour, were now slimy with rot.
“There you are,” her mother’s voice startled her. “We wondered where you had got to.”
Her lips felt like ice when she brushed them on her daughter’s cheek, and Jill made no sign of protest as she linked her arm through hers and guided her back to the house.
“Now you mustn’t blame yourself,” her mother said, and Jill knew what she meant was, there would be many others who would. “I’m sure Toby has just run off and is hiding somewhere. He’ll be home when he gets hungry, boys are like that.”
Jill stopped, and looked at her mother.
“He hasn’t run away; someone has taken him.”
She could hardly believe how flippant her mother was being.
“Well, this has been an upsetting time for both of you, and I have to admit, I wondered how well you were coping, with the split I mean.”
“I know what you mean, mother,” Jill tried to remain calm. “I’m hardly likely to forget, am I?”
“That’s what I mean,” her mother patted her hand. “Toby is feeling the loss of his father too, and probably crying out for attention. What better way to get it, than by running away and causing all this fuss?”
“He did not run away,” Jill gritted her teeth. “And he has all the attention he needs. I spend every waking moment, outside of school, with him.”
“But he needs the company of a man, is all I’m saying.” Her mother started to pull her towards the front door.
Jill no longer trusted herself to speak. If her mother’s nonchalant attitude was anything to go by, what chance did her son have, if the police took the same view?
The warmth of the kitchen stung her cheeks.
“Here she is,” her mother smiled at the sea of anxious faces, as though displaying something she had caught. “I found her wandering in the orchard.”
Jill was right in her assumptions. Two of her aunts, her mother’s sisters, rose to meet her. They were accompanied by their daughters, four of the most repressed creatures the world had ever seen, and they now stood beside their mothers, with the same sad, fixed smile. Jill understood none of them, especially her cousins, felt any pity for her, and they would derive a perverse pleasure from her distress. It was easy to imagine how Jesus felt, when they each placed a Judas kiss on her cheek. Her father stood behind her during their murmured assurances her son would be all right, and she was glad of the strength of his hand, as he stroked her back.
Joe’s face was a mask of worry and pain, and she walked to him and held out her hand. Instead of taking it, he wrapped his arms around her, and she was once again enveloped in the familiar scent of his body.
“We’ll find him,” his voice was hoarse with unshed tears. “I’m going to join in the search as soon as it gets light.”
“Thank you,” she pulled away and looked around at her family. “I had a flat tire; I was only a few minutes late.”
The explanation dissolved in a fit of weeping and her father hurried to take her in his arms.
“It’s not your fault, girl,” he said, hugging her so tight she struggled to breath. “It could have happened to anyone.”
“But it happened to me, Dad,” she pushed him away, sat at the table and buried her face in her hands.
Outside in the yard, Bess howled and scraped at the front door.
“I thought I told you to lock the dogs up!” Her mother glared at her husband.
“I thought I did,” he walked out into the hall and opened the door.
Before he could stop her, Bess ran by him into the kitchen.
“Oh, for goodness sake,” Jill heard her mother fussing, as the dog brushed by her, leaving traces of its coat on her expensive wool dress.
“She’s all right,” Jill wiped her eyes and put her arm around the dog’s neck.
“What possessed you to get three dogs?” her mother asked. “One is bad enough, but three?”
“Now, Nora,” Jill looked at her father, surprised by the sternness of his tone. “Jill has enough to contend with, without you going on at her.”
“I’m just saying,” her mother’s eyes blazed with anger. Never had he dared to answer her back, and in front of her sisters! It was too much, and she lost no time in letting him know. If by doing this, she transferred the attention back to her grieving daughter, then so be it. “If Jill had not had her mind on other things, none of this would have happened.”
If her words were intended to shut him up, they had the opposite effect, and he rounded on her.
“Talk sense, woman. If Toby has been kidnapped, it would have happened anyway, and no amount of watching him would have prevented that.”
“Well,” his wife refused to be beaten. “If she,” she pointed at her daughter. “Had spent more time taking care of the things that needed doing, she would not have had a flat tire.”
“You fucking bitch,” Jill jumped up and faced her mother.
Though aware of the gasps from her aunts and cousins, she continued.
“What gives you the right to accuse me? It’s unlikely you would ever be voted mother of the year. Where were you, when I needed you?”
Turning to her father.
“Dad, I asked her if I could move in with you for a while, until I could get myself sorted out, and do you know what she said?”
She knew by his reaction, and the way he looked at his wife, that he was unaware of this.
“She said a child wouldn’t fit in with her lifestyle,” she glared at her mother. “Well, you won’t have to worry about it anymore, will you, mother? Toby might be dead for all we know, and still all you can think of is yourself. You make me sick.”
She ran from the room, out the front door and almost collided with the car pulling up outside. The headlights dazzled her, and she brought a hand to her face, to shield her eyes from the glare.
“Jill,” Paul O’Farrell said anxiously as he climbed out. “Are you, all right?”
Instead of answering, she hurried over to him.
“Is there any news?”
“No, I’m afraid not, but we’re expanding the search. There are over two hundred volunteers, and we’ll start checking the barns and outbuilding at first light,” He looked up at the sky. “It won’t be long now.”
“What time is it?”
“After three, I told everyone to assemble at six a.m.”
The sound of the front door opening made her look around. Her father stood silhouetted in the light from the hall.
“Is everything all right?” He asked.
“Yes, Dad. This is Paul O’Farrell. He’s the detective in charge of the case.”
The two men shook hands.
“No news, I’m afraid,” Paul said to her father.
“It’s early days yet,” he answered, as though hoping the detective would confirm this.
When he did not, her father asked him in, but the offer was refused.
“I have to go home,” Paul said. “I’m just going to have something to eat, before we start back on the search.”
“Keep us informed,” her father shook his hand, before going back inside.
The door closed, and they were once again enveloped in darkness.
“You should try and get some rest,” Paul said to her. “I know it’s not easy.”
“There’s only twenty-four hours left,” she whispered, and unsure of what she meant, he moved closer. She looked up at him, and he could see how she struggled to contain herself. “That’s what they say, isn’t it? If a child is not found in the first thirty-six hours, then it’s usually too late.”
“Ah, that’s just nonsense,” He tried to reassure her. “You watch too many detective shows. I’ve known people who’ve turned up months, and even years, after they have gone missing.”
“Not children though, none of the children have been found.”
Instead of answering, he patted her back, before climbing in his car. His silence told her all she needed to know, and she waited until he was out of sight before going inside, to face the wrath of her mother’s wounded pride.