Jill opened the door of the outbuilding and let the dogs out. As usual, the pups clambered around her legs, but soon became bored and wandered off towards the orchard. Only Bess remained by her side, as she filled the food and water dishes. She sensed that her mistress was still sad, and ignoring the tantalising smell of the food, followed her across the yard towards the house. Stopping short outside the front door, she threw back her head and sniffed the air. Her fur rose and a growl rumbled from deep within her throat. A look from her mistress warned that she would not tolerate such behaviour, so she slunk by her, and into the house.
It was safer here, with no scent of death. She waited as sod after sod was heaped on the dying fire, aware that the cold fingers that clutched at her heart were not felt just by her alone. Laying her head on to Jill’s lap, she looked up at her with eyes wide with fright.
“I did a terrible thing tonight,” Jill said, stroking Bess’s soft fur. “I have become a monster. I know now what my grandmother meant when she said the act might leave a dark stain on my soul.” She brought her hand up to her heart. “I have lost something; I feel it inside. Oh God,” her words trailed off into a fit of sobbing.
Beside her, Bess moaned and looked towards the window. It was dark as pitch outside, and yet, her mistress had not drawn the curtains. She walked across the cold slabs on the kitchen floor, the pads on her feet allowing her to move in silence and pressed her nose against the frosted panes. Her eyes searched the night with a sight denied her human owner. The pups, which had come back from their nocturnal foraging, stopped their play, and looked towards the two, red pinpricks of light that burned through the dark. Sensing their mother’s gaze, they too looked at the sky, and sniffed the air. Checkers groaned, and nuzzled against her sister, as she too became aware all was not as it should be. It was only the noise of the approaching motor that roused them from their fright, and they ran to the gate.
Inside the house, Jill wiped her eyes as she heard the car pull up outside. Though the fire was now blazing, she still felt frozen to the bone. Holding her hands out to the flame in search of warmth, she saw how transparent her skin looked. The light appeared to shine right through them, until she could pick out every muscle and vein. There was no knock to announce the caller, just the creak of the door opening and the sound of a heavy tread in the hall.
“All right,” Paul nodded at her, and set down the suitcase he carried.
“Yes, thank you,” her voice was hoarse.
She watched as he reached into the pocket of his overcoat, and withdrew a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. She knew from the logo, that it belonged to the only off licence in the village. He caught her look of surprise.
“I know, I know,” he said, as he peeled the paper off the bottle. “But I thought tonight, of all nights, we could both do with a drop.”
Jill never replied but watched him take two glasses from the dresser and half fill each of them. She took the proffered drink and sipped. The pungent amber raced like fire down to her empty stomach and warmed the solid block of ice there. It stung her eyes and clouded her vision. Paul stood beside the table and emptied his glass in two gulps, before refilling it.
“Well, is it here?” He sat in the chair at the opposite side of the fire.
“No, I don’t think so,” she avoided his eyes, as she took another sip.
“But it’ll be back,” he looked around the room, paying careful attention to the shadowy corners.
“Yes,” Jill sighed. “If what the book says is true, it will be back.”
She tried not to think about the drive home from the graveyard. The empty country roads that in the past were such a novelty, now became a pathway to the grave. Aware that somewhere close by a ghost-like figure kept pace with the car, she tried to concentrate on the blackness beyond the headlights, as she descended deeper and deeper into the abyss. If the Wraith was there, she gave no sign. When Jill emerged from the car, she knew there was something in the night air, an energy not there before. It didn’t come into the house, but she felt it circling as she fed the dogs. Bess was aware of its presence; it was obvious in her restlessness.
“What do we do now?” Paul’s question startled her.
“We wait, I suppose,” she shrugged. “If it finds anything, it will let us know.”
“Jesus,” he rubbed at his forehead. “How did we get involved in this?”
“You don’t have to stay,” Jill became angry. “I never asked for your help. You decided to come to the graveyard.”
“Oh, don’t I know it.” He finished what remained of the whiskey in his glass and stood to refill it.
“Make that your last one,” she warned. “You’ll be no use to me drunk.”
His look was one of contempt, as he slowly screwed the lid back onto the bottle.
“I’m just saying,” she tried to appease him. “We’ll need a clear head to face the next few days.”
“You’re right.” He sat and put the glass down on the stone floor. “It’s just all so…” he spread his hands and allowed the words to trail off.
“Unbelievable,” she finished the sentence for him. “I feel the same way, but at least you’re innocent of any of it. I’m the one who called her here, and I’m the one who will pay the price, whatever that may be.”
“Ah, but I’m as much to blame. I could have stopped you, and I didn’t.”
An uneasy silence settled. Jill waited until he finished his drink to suggest showing him to his room. As they started to mount the stairs, Bess scratched at the front door, begging to be set free. Jill opened it and the dog walked out. Pausing for a moment on the step, she looked up at her mistress.
“I know, girl,” Jill nodded, and seemingly satisfied, the old dog walked away.
Her mistress understood her first duty was to her own children. Gathering the pups, she used her nose to usher them into the safety of the outbuilding. An old piece of twine allowed her to pull the door closed on them. Once they were locked away and out of harms reach, she set off across the yard.
“It’s not very fancy I’m afraid,” Jill led Paul into one of the guest bedrooms.
The fact it had hurriedly been vacated was evident in the tossed bed and scattered clothes hangers.
“I’ll get you some clean sheets,” she hurried back along the landing, and returned with an armful of linen.
He helped her strip off the old ones and remake the bed.
“Any news from your parents?” He asked.
“There’s a few messages on the answering machine.” She struggled to get a pillow back into its case. “I didn’t listen to them.”
“I saw them going into O’Brien’s as I was leaving the village.”
“Oh, really,” she recognised the name of the pub. “Were my aunts and cousins with them?”
“Aye, the whole troop,” he swung his case onto the bed.
“I’ll leave you to unpack,” she started towards the door.
“There’s not much,” he said, as he flung back the lid.
Once he heard her steps descending the stairs, he started to empty the few items onto the quilt. An old set of pyjamas, faded by the years, and only worn on occasion. Like that time, he had gone to hospital to have his appendix removed. He smiled, remembering Maura’s scolding, when he refused to wear them.
“Do you want the other patients to have a setback?” she said. “Seeing you in the nude is an acquired taste. Now, put them on.”
His admittance to the ward was a hurried one, and with only the hospital gown to hide his shame, he had to sit bare cheeked on a hard-plastic chair, as he waited for his wife to arrive. The pyjamas, striped and bought in haste, had been presented to him, not in a clear wrapper, but newly ironed. He knew she’d rushed home after her trip to the shop to press the creases out, and his pretence at not wanting to wear them was just that. A mock refusal meant to drive her into a flurry of protest. That, and the odd occasion he’d been forced to attend some conference or other, were the only times that they’d been parted in over twenty years.
“Ah, but we’re parted now,” he whispered, as he brought the softness of the cloth to his face.
A plastic shopping bag served for his few toiletries, and he laid these, one by one on top of the small bedside table. A tube of shaving balm stood side by side with a razor and can of deodorant. He hung the spare trousers and shirts in the wardrobe.
The door to Toby’s room was open, so he walked in. The bed was made, and he smiled at the superman pyjamas laid out in wait. The shelves of precious trinkets that lined the walls made Paul recall the small treasures his own sons loved to collect. He moved around the bed, running his hand along the smooth wood of the baseboard. A row of trucks on top of the chest of drawers drew his attention, and he rolled one of the fire engines along the polished surface. The small wheels moved easily, signalling a well-loved toy. Books and paints sat in a pile against one wall, and bits of play dough, fashioned into shapes that could only come from a child’s imagination, dotted every surface in multi-coloured blobs. A blind man would have recognised this was a child’s room. The earthy smell of football boots vied with those of talcum powder, old books and make believe.
“I’ll find you, Toby,” Paul said. “I promise you. I’ll bring you home, and with God’s help, it won’t be in a box.”
“Paul,” Jill called from below. “Did you say something?”
He walked out onto the landing and looked down to where she stood.
“I was talking to myself. Having a bit of a senior moment, if you will.”
“That’s all right,” she smiled. “I’ve been doing that a lot of late. Why don’t you come down, and I’ll make something to eat?”
She was busy working in the kitchen. He sat at the table and waited, as she fried eggs to go with the cold ham from the fridge.
“Sorry I can’t run to anything better,” she said, as she placed the plate in front of him. “But I haven’t been in the mood to shop.”
“This is grand, girl,” he assured her, as he tucked in.
Though it was many hours since she last ate, Jill picked at her food.
“Lost your appetite?” Paul asked, as he made a sandwich of the ham and eggs.
“I thought I was hungry, but I’ve no stomach for it.”
Instead she sipped at the tea and watched him eat.
A sudden glare of light outside the window announced the arrival of a car. She watched the curtains as the headlights were extinguished, and the slamming of a door resounded in the still night air.
“Reporters?” She asked, afraid they had found her.
Paul lowered his half-eaten sandwich and stood up.
“Stay there,” he ordered. “I’ll get rid of them.”
A hesitant knock sounded on the door before he could reach it. She held her breath, and listened to the squeaking of the hinges, and the muffled voices from the hall.
“It’s all right,” Paul came back in, closely followed by Tom.
“How are you?” he asked Jill.
“Okay. How are you?”
She knew he must be feeling far worse than she was. The look on his face told her everything she needed to know. He seemed to have aged ten years in the last few hours.
“I couldn’t settle at home,” he sat down beside Paul. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” she assured him. “Would you like something to eat?”
“No, I’m fine. I had something earlier.” He said. “What I really wanted to do was apologise for the way I spoke to you in the graveyard.”
“There’s no need,” she reached across and took his hand.
“I know you’re only trying to find your son. I’d have done anything to find Rachael, I’m so sorry.”
“Please, don’t,” Jill said, and Paul was forced to clear his throat.
Outside in the orchard, the sound of Bess’s howls echoed in the still night. They listened as every dog for miles around joined in, and the noise of their cries was bloodcurdling.