“Toby,” Jill’s scream caused her mother to drop the cup she was holding, and the crash mingled with the dying cry. Overcome with exhaustion, Jill had fallen asleep in the chair by the fire, and it was the sound of Toby’s voice that woke her.
“My God,” her mother, always the drama queen, brought a hand to her heart and feigned severe shock.
They were alone in the kitchen. Her father, Joe and the others had gone to join in the search.
“What time is it?” She chose to ignore her mother’s theatrics.
“A little after nine,” she bent to scoop the fallen china into a dustpan. “I thought it wiser to let you sleep. There’s no news yet. I was talking to your father a few minutes ago.”
“I heard, Toby,” she looked up at her mother in dismay. “He called me, said he was in a cold, dark room.”
“Really,” her mother sniffed and walked to the bin.
“Yes, mother, really.” She didn’t mean to sound so cross, but her mother had a way of winding her up. “Why is it so hard for you to believe I might have heard him?”
“I had to put up with that sort of thing all my life,” her mother sat at the table. “Your grandmother was always predicting things. I had nightmares imagining the sort of oddities she had stored in the attic.”
“What sort of things?”
“Oh, God knows,” she sighed. “All manner of stuff; from bits of bog oak to books and herbs. It still has that strange, musky smell, don’t you think? The attic, I mean. I never liked the place, and we avoided it as children. That’s why I never understood your fascination with it.”
“It was just a place to play at dress up and explore,” Jill said.
“A place to fill your head with her nonsense more like,” her mother replied. “I don’t know how many times I caught her reading to you from those awful books. Do you remember the summer I refused to let you come here?”
Jill shook her head.
“Well, you were very young, and I warned her what would happen if she continued with her nonsense. It really was the last straw, taking you in to the woods at night! The shock of not having you visit that summer taught her a lesson.”
Jill got up and joined her at the table.
“What happened?” She asked.
“Oh, she promised that there would be no more of her so-called “teachings”, and I allowed you to resume your visits.”
Jill looked at her mother in wonder. How could she have been so cruel as to deprive them both the highlight of their year?
“I know what you’re thinking.” Her mother made a great show of brushing some crumbs into the palm of her hand. “But your grandmother was starting to get a bit peculiar at that stage, and I only wanted what was best for both of you.”
“Is it not possible she was right, that she had second sight or whatever you want to call it?”
“Oh, her predictions came true, no doubt of that, but it was mostly guess work. Anyway, she never shared any of her secrets with us. We didn’t have the power or the mark,” she reached across and pulled back the collar of Jill’s blouse, exposing the crescent shape. “So, there you have it.”
Was that it, Jill wondered? Was it jealousy that made her mother and aunts treat her with such disdain? Managing to keep her tone low and even, she asked.
“Why did Nana think she had powers?”
“I see you avoided the history lesson,” her mother sneered. “It seems one of our ancestors was burned as a witch.”
“What,” Jill gasped. “You can’t be serious?”
“It’s true; I checked it out for myself when I was older. I suppose I wanted to rub it in her face, show that her stories were fairy tales made up to make her life seem more thrilling than it was, but she was right. It happened in the sixteenth century, and it was the only thing of note that ever happened to this family.”
“A witch,” Jill shook her head in wonder.
“Yes, a witch,” her mother sighed. “That’s why she never had electricity installed in the attic. She said there were books up there that were hundreds of years old and best kept in the dark. Honestly, can you believe it?”
“I don’t know,” Jill said. “I don’t know what to believe.”
“Don’t go getting ideas in your head,” her mother warned. “Your grandmother was a dreamer like you, and no doubt, she managed to fill your head with her nonsense, but that’s all it is, nonsense.”
“The woman they burned, she was just a healer, right?”
“Probably just some misguided soul, who imagined she had power.”
The ringing of the telephone roused them, and Jill waited as her mother went to answer it.
“Just some reporter,” she shrugged, when she came back. “I told him you were too upset to speak to anyone.”
“Why don’t you have a wash,” her mother suggested. “The kettle is boiled.”
Wrapping a cloth around the handle, she carried the black pot over to the table and set it down beside her daughter.
“Thanks, I’ll do that.” The old kettle weighed a ton, and her arm ached as she carried it up the stairs.
In a house with no heating system, taking a bath was a major event, so she had come to rely on washing in the sink. Pushing the stopper in place, she turned on the cold tap and poured the hot water. Using her finger as a gauge, she got it to the right temperature and was glad to put the kettle down on the wood floor beside her. Stripping off her sweat-soaked clothes, she stopped for a moment to stare at her face in the hazy mirror above the sink. Dark circles were beginning to form beneath her eyes and added to the pallor of her skin. They made her look ghostly. Sighing, she picked up the washcloth and soap that lay waiting and plunged them into the water. She shivered, despite the warmth, as she washed her upper body, then balancing on the edge of the old bath managed to wash her feet.
Peeping through the door, she made sure her mother was not about, before running across the hall to her room. With only the bunched-up clothes she discarded to hide her shame, she didn’t want to run into her mother and listen to her sighs of disapproval. For the first time, she turned the key in the lock. Throwing the sweaty clothes into the wash basket, she went in search of clean ones. Her wardrobe now consisted mainly of jeans and jumpers. There was very little reason to dress up, and the sturdiness of the clothes she chose was more suitable for farm work. The only concession was the business suit and an assortment of blouses she had not stored away in the attic.
Looking up at the ceiling, she thought of her mother’s words, and wondered what secrets the room held. Weary from lack of sleep and worry about her son, she sank down on the bed and pulled on her jeans.
“I’m tired, Nana,” she whispered, and put her head in her hands. “And I’m so frightened.”
It was either lack of food or sleep that caused the dizziness in her head and she moaned and curled into a ball in the centre of the bed. Without realising it, she was crying again, and she clutched at the quilt as her body shook from sheer terror. A soft breeze ruffled her hair, its touch like the hand of a loved one and she heard for the first time the voice that was lost to her.
“You will find your greatest ally among the dead.”
“Nana,” she shot up in the bed and looked around the room.
No one there; the only sound was the shrill, constant ringing of the telephone in the hall below. But she had heard it, her grandmother’s voice telling her what to do. She was too caught up in her own nightmare to even think about being afraid, and then why should she be? Her grandmother loved her, and she knew in that moment love could survive the grave. Still, the words made little sense and she moved to the edge of the bed and stared at the wall. The pattern of flowers on the old wallpaper blended and merged before her tired eyes and she shook her head to clear it.
“Shit,” she blinked, but the movement continued, stems knotting together to form words.
Easing her way up, she walked tentatively across the room and placed her hand against the wall. The pattern was the same as it had always been, but between the buds and stems a single word had formed. “Sentinel,” she whispered the name, and strained her eyes further searching for a clue, but even that had vanished, and she was left to wonder if it was all her imagination. Of course, it had to be, as there was nothing left on the wall, no matter how she squinted or approached it from a different angle. I’m going mad, she thought. That’s it; the horror is causing me to lose my mind.
“Jill,” her mother called from the hall below.
Walking to the top of the stairs, she looked down. Her mother waved the telephone receiver at her.
“It’s Paul O’Farrell, that detective,” she whispered. “Do you want me to say you’re busy?”
“No, I’ll take it,” she ran down the stairs and took the phone from her mother. “Paul,” she said, and waited for his reply.
“There’s no news yet, I’m afraid,” his voice was heavy with defeat. “I just wanted to see how you were.”
“Is there nothing?” She started to cry; all her self-control worn away.
“No, we questioned his classmates this morning and one or two remembers him walking along the village towards home. That’s about right, as we found his satchel at the side of the road. It looks like he got into a car.”
“Oh, Jesus,” she sank down on to the stairs. “What are we going to do?”
She knew he was still speaking, but she heard nothing of what he said. Instead her grandmother’s words returned and the outline of the message on the wall swam before her eyes. Of course, Sentinel. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? Dropping the phone, she ran into the kitchen.
“There was a bundle of old newspapers here,” she pointed at the table. “What have you done with them?”
“I thought they were rubbish,” her mother said. “I put them outside in the bin.”
Jill ran out the front door and around the side of the house to where she kept the bins. The lid of the green recycling one was pushed down hard, and she pulled, praying that the papers were not torn or wet. To her relief they lay much the same as when she had first found them.
As she walked back to the house, she heard her mother apologising to Paul for her rude behaviour. He was still holding, afraid something happened to Jill, and she took the receiver.
“Paul, I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I just remembered something. I’ll tell you later.”
“Fine.” He didn’t sound at all sure, but happy enough to go along if it helped ease her suffering. “I’ll ring you in an hour or so. We’ll talk then.”
“Great, thanks,” she said, anxious to get off the phone and hung up.
Unrolling the bundle on the kitchen table, the newspaper name leapt out at her, Sentinel. Her mother decided she was best left alone and wandered off to watch television in the other room. Jill scanned the familiar pages, using her finger as a guide. She didn’t want to chance missing out on one word and perhaps overlook a clue. There was nothing new in what she read, and her thoughts kept coming back to the photograph of Rachel’s father, as he crouched beside the grave of his wife. There was something in his face, a look she remembered from the mirror upstairs. Like hers, his face was devoid of hope.
Her car keys lay on the worktop beside the sink and she snatched them up and went into the hall. Taking the notepad beside the phone, she scribbled down Paul’s number and the address where she was headed.
“Will you ring this number for me?” She asked her mother. “Tell him I’m going there, and ask him to meet me, if he can,”
Before her mother could protest, Jill was out the door and in her car. As she passed the outhouses, she heard Bess’s barked protest at being locked in, but she had no time to stop. Not even certain she was on the right track she prayed Rachael’s father would know something, anything that might lead her to her son.