With shaking hands Jill unfurled the remaining three newspapers. The headline on each one was the same, though the face of the missing child was different. Moving to the edge of her seat, she pulled the papers closer and scanned the top of the page. They were printed years apart. Starting in 1999 and progressing in three yearly intervals. Her tension level increase as she read each report. From what little she learned from the few columns, the children were all abducted near their home, and there was no mention of them being found. A thud overhead made her look up. Toby was moving around and maybe; he would now be willing to eat.
The reception she received when she climbed the stairs was just as frosty as the one, he gave her at the school. She knew the anger he felt had to be directed at her, as he had no one else to vent it on. Using all her skills as a negotiator, she managed to get him to agree to chicken nuggets and fries. This was not the sort of food that she would normally feed him, but at least it was something. She watched him as he ate with head down and eyes fixed on his plate.
“I’ve hired a rubbish skip,” she said, trying to find something from her mundane day to interest him.
“Oh,” he looked up.
“Yes,” she tried to make it sound interesting. “There is so much rubbish here that I need to get rid of, and I was wondering if you’d give me a hand. You could even take tomorrow off school if you like.”
“Naw, can’t,” his head went back down. “I have a maths test.”
Well, Jill thought, that’s that, until…
“I could help you after school though,” he offered.
“You could?” She smiled down at him. “That would be great. There are too many spiders around here for my liking.”
“Women,” he laughed, before stuffing a nugget into his mouth, and the word made her heart ache, as he mimicked his father’s tone.
Jill’s mood was lighter as she cleared away the dishes. She could still feel the warmth of his small fingers on her skin, and she looked towards the photo of her grandmother on the dresser. It’s going to be all right, Nana, she smiled; I think we are going to make it.
The noise of the television in the room across the hall meant Toby would be entertained until bedtime. Meanwhile she’d continue clearing, at least until it became too dark outside. The long nights were drawing in fast and she looked towards the window and shivered. Though not afraid of the dark, there was something ominous in the back of her mind, something that warned of the danger that lurked in the blackness outside. Brushing aside such foolishness, she went back to her foraging, but no matter where she was in the room, her gaze was drawn back to the papers she placed on a chair, and the wide-eyed children who were lost. Promising herself she would go to the small local library next morning, after dropping Toby at school, she tried to avoid thinking about the outcome of each case, and the broken-hearted parents who might still be waiting.
The drive to school the next morning was more relaxed, and they managed to exchange a few words, mostly about the house and the clean-up, but it was a huge step forward. Toby smiled at her and stood waving through the bars as she pulled away from the curb. With a much lighter heart Jill drove into the library car park. At such an early hour, the place was deserted, and her footsteps echoed in the small room housing the books. After enquiring about access to microfiche, Jill followed the librarian to a tiny cupboard-like room and was shown how to work the machine. For a moment, just after the door closed, she felt entombed and looked around for another means of escape. There was a small, barred window in one wall, so the only way out was through the door. Brushing aside her fear, she started to scroll down the pages on the screen in front of her. Taking a notebook from her bag, she flipped it open for the dates she copied from the old newspapers. Starting at the earliest, the disappearance of a little girl in 1999, from an area only miles from where they now lived, she decided she would only research for an hour and settled down to work.
The face of seven-year-old Rachael Ryan swam into view, and she read the reports that stretched on for months. There were pictures of her tearful, anxious parents, Marie and Tom, huddled together, battling against the storm of the media intrusion. Jill tried not to look at the faces, to witness the helplessness they were feeling, and concentrated on the words that described the search for the child. It was hard not to notice how the writing filtered down as the months passed and the story reduced to no more than a side column in the middle pages. Once the initial shock of the child’s disappearance wore off, and every emotion was wrung from those who loved her, the papers lost interest and moved onto other things. Turning the wheel on the side of the screen, Jill searched for news that Rachael was found, but there was nothing.
The room, in which she sat, was laid out so the two desks it held fit snugly together at an angle. The only other thing in it was a filing cabinet. Swivelling around in her chair, she moved towards the other desk and the second computer. The screech of the chair wheels as they scraped the floor made her flinch. Clicking on a search engine, she typed Rachael’s name and waited. It took numerous hits until she found what she was looking for, and the site she chose was updated a month before. Jotting down the name of the man who posted the news, she began to read.
The search for the missing child was called off after six months. The police spokesman offered no further explanation, other than to say that their resources would not allow for any further action to be taken. There were a couple of comments from those involved in the case with one man’s voice rising above the others. The detective in charge, Paul O’Farrell, she noticed had posted the site. She scrolled down in search of a face to go with the name. She found him in a photograph with Rachael’s parents. His face was etched with the same worry as theirs. Weather-beaten features stared back at her and his eyes looked kind, if not filled with distress.
It took a while to finish reading what he had written, as there were many articles on other children who had gone missing over the years, but she concentrated on Rachael. So far much of what he’d posted she learned from the newspapers, but there was the odd veiled suggestion more could have been done in the case. It was obvious he was protecting himself from the retaliation of his superiors. Sighing and stiff from sitting, Jill looked at her watch amazed to find over three hours passed. There was so much to do at home, she could no longer delay, and she reached for the mouse to close the site. Her finger slipped on the wheel and the page in front of her moved down a little. Her hand froze as she read the headline.
Marie Ryan, Rachael’s mother, committed suicide on the first anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance. Friends spoke of her heartbreak at the loss of her child and the terror she felt at not knowing what happened to her. This, along with the guilt of allowing Rachael to run to the ice cream van alone, was too much for her, and she took an overdose of pills while her husband was at work.
There was no further mention about Rachael, other than a picture of her mother’s burial, and the image of her father at the grave. It was clear he was a broken man. Clicking off the internet, Jill sat back and watched the screensaver for a moment. She tried to relax as she watched the Jurassic scene, and the dinosaurs lumbering across the landscape, but the colours hurt her eyes and she closed them.
From somewhere outside in the corridor, she heard the constant tick tock of a clock and she tried to steady her breathing in time to its beats. Why, she wondered, have I let myself get involved in this horror? It’s not as though I have much time on my hands. Her grandmother saved the papers for some reason. Jill knew her grandmother had developed some strange habits in her last years, to which the array of dried roots and herbs that cluttered the kitchen cupboards bore witness. Jill tried to recall the names of the strange things the jars held, and smiled when she realised, she had dusted each one before placing it back. Perhaps she was developing some of her grandmother’s eccentricities after all, and she vowed to throw all the jars in the rubbish skip.
Outside it started to rain and a chill wind blew the drops into the porch of the Library. Jill shivered and pulled her coat tighter. The sky was grey, the clouds swollen. She had no choice than to make a run for the car. There would be no let up for the rest of the day, and she had to put the wiper blades on high power. Turning the heater on full, she waited for the warmth to reach her feet. Blasts from the vents cleared away the condensation clouding the windows, and she guided the car out onto the road.
It was lunch time, but the school yard was deserted when she drove past; the teachers thinking it wiser to keep the children inside. Now and then an anxious, small face appeared in the steamy windows lining the corridors. There would be a lot of unspent energy. Jill smiled at the thought of the teachers who would have to rein it in.
The blue light announcing the police station shone like a beacon through the gloom. The building was a nondescript bungalow and the few cars that lined its forecourt gave the impression that very little policing was needed to keep the small village in order. Despite the warmth from the car heater, Jill shivered and slammed her foot on the brake as the traffic lights outside the station turned red. The rain eased a little, and she glanced towards the porch at a huddled figure. His collar was pulled up. There was something familiar about him, and she edged a little closer to the passenger seat to get a better look, as he made a run for his car.
With only the pavement and a low wall dividing them, he was not too far away. She felt for the window switch and let it down a little. He was about to climb into the car, when something made him look up. She wasn’t sure if it was the whiz of the window motor that attracted his attention, but for a moment their eyes locked, and she saw him frown. The blare of a car horn behind her jolted her and her foot slipped off the clutch, stalling the car. Fumbling for the ignition, she turned the key and the engine sprang to life. Her hand trembled as she reached for the gear lever, aware he was standing there, watching her drive away.