Jill’s isolation meant she was spared the outcry surrounding Rachael’s funeral. She later learned thousands turned out, as a wave of mourning at the loss of such innocence swept the country. A mysterious fire started in the house of Dominic Jackson and most of the contents were destroyed before the fire brigade got it under control. The fire starter would not be prosecuted, as no one saw anything or anybody in the vicinity. Or if they had, they weren’t about to turn in the person, who had done the village a favour. Though the fire cleansed only the building, it made those living on either side feel better such evil should be razed to the ground. The news the local Co Council planned to clear the site was met with relief; its ruins not a stain and constant reminder of the evil among them.
Jill spent another sleepless night, her last one on earth as she saw it. Both her parents attended Rachael’s funeral and her mother recounted word for word things she witnessed.
“Her father was in bits,” she told Jill. “I don’t know how he managed to stand, poor man.”
“Christ, woman,” Jill heard her father mutter, as he led his wife from the room. “Doesn’t she have enough to worry her?”
“I was only saying,” the argument continued down the hallway until the slamming sitting room door muffled it.
She couldn’t think about Tom and his suffering. Now, she needed all her strength to make it through the next few hours. She planned to spend as much time as possible with Toby, but it was difficult to make him stay by her side. His abduction earned him a fame of sorts, and there was a constant stream of callers from school asking him to play. He held court in one of the outbuildings. Jill eavesdropped once, to ensure he was sticking to the story rehearsed. To her relief he was, and while the tale of the men in the masks was embellished at each telling, they now wore the masks of the devil, pointed horns and all. He did as he was told.
Today was no different, and she couldn’t deny him his few hours of fame by ordering him to stay indoors. Sighing, she closed the door on the group of children and turned to where her father waited.
“I’ve been thinking,” he nodded towards the kitchen and she walked in. “Your mother is watching one of her shows,” He closed the door quietly and tiptoed across the stone flags.
“What’s wrong?” Jill whispered as she lifted the chair from beneath the table and placed it gently down to avoid scraping the wood on the stone.
Her father did the same and took his place opposite her.
“I’ve been thinking,” his voice so low she had to clear away the condiments that sat between them and lean closer to hear.
“I have a few pounds squirreled away, it’s not a fortune, I grant you, but enough to help you make a fresh start.”
“I don’t understand, Dad,” She was puzzled. “What do you mean?”
Listen, girl,” he grabbed her hands so tight it hurt. “After the funeral today, after I witnessed the suffering of that poor man, I managed to give your mother the slip for a few minutes. I went into one of those internet cafes. There’s a plane leaving Shannon tonight at six for Amsterdam. I got tickets for you and Toby.”
“But, Dad,” she tried to speak, but he raised a hand to stop her.
“I know Amsterdam is not a great starting point, but they were the only seats available. You could spend a week there and see how you like it. If you don’t, you can always move on. Now, stop interrupting me,” he saw how her mouth opened and closed trying to find the right words. “Anyway, it will be a fresh start and that thing, that spirit will get confused looking for you. Sure, she won’t think to look there.”
“Oh, Dad,” Jill felt her heart swell with love at the innocence of his actions and she started to cry.
Her father had never found it easy to display his feelings and there were times, especially during her teenage years when she accused him of not loving her, but his actions now left her no doubt.
“Stop now, girl,” he looked fearfully at the kitchen door. “If your mother hears, she’ll be in asking questions.”
Jill managed to drag her hands free and searched in the sleeve of her jumper for a tissue.
“Use this,” her father pulled another sail-sized handkerchief from his trousers pocket.
Jill wiped her eyes, breathing in the familiar smell of mints and tobacco trapped within the linen.
“There is no escaping the Wraith,” she folded the handkerchief and handed it back to him. “We’re tied together by my actions. I doesn’t matter where I go, she will find me. I could hide in a cave in Alaska and she would know where to look.”
Her father was no longer looking at her. He took to kneading the handkerchief between his fingers, and Jill realised, he knew this. He was trying to protect the one person he loved most in the world.
“You know something, Dad?” she laid her hand on his. “I don’t mind. Really, I don’t,” she assured him as she saw his look of disbelief. “If Toby is safe, I can face anything.”
Instead of spending the remaining time as she envisioned with her son, she stayed with her father, recalling better times and laughing over shared memories; interrupted only by Toby’s demands for snacks and drinks for his entourage. Her mother, too engrossed in her afternoon talk shows, left them alone, and they were free to sip tea and bask in the love of a father and his only child. Jill knew, as she watched her father’s face crease up in smiles, as he recounted yet another family tale that she was officiating at her own wake.
Outside the light began to dim as night closed in. Headlights from cars lit the yard outside, as parents came to collect their children.
“Will you deal with this?” Jill asked her father, when the first car appeared.
“No problem, girl,” he eased his way out of the chair. “I’ll tell them you’re having a lie down.”
The commotion in the yard wasn’t missed by her mother, who no sooner had she seen the lights, made it her business to go see who it was. She didn’t try to refute her husband’s story about Jill resting, but relished the attention of the women, who consoled her suffering, then marvelled at the return of her grandson. Jill watched from behind the net curtains, aware these women only wanted to gossip. Denied the facts by Jill’s refusal to talk to the newspapers, they send their child to play there, in the hope the boy or one of his relations would fill in the blanks.
I don’t envy you,” Jill thought, as she watched each boy climb in the back of the waiting car. No doubt they’d be grilled on the way home.
Taking some chicken portions from the fridge, she turned on the oven in the old gas cooker. Tonight, she’d make one of Toby’s favourite dishes, barbecued chicken and chips. She wanted him to remember this meal, this night for the rest of his life. Not in a bad way, but in a way, that would make him feel warm every time he recalled it. No matter what her mother said, she would smile and ignore it.
“God, it’s freezing out there,” her mother came in, rubbing the frost from her arms. “I’ll do that if you want?” She eyed the array of jars Jill set out on the table to make the sauce.
“No, its fine, Mam,” Jill smiled. “You go sit by the fire. I’ll call you when it’s ready.”
“Okay, the news is on in a minute anyway,” she left the room, glad not to get her hands dirty.
Jill marinated the chicken and placed it on a tray. Oven chips would do as a complement, no need to waste the gas.
“I fed the dogs,” Toby stormed into the room, just as Jill shut the oven door.
“Good boy now wash your hands,” Jill ordered.
She studied him as he ran the soap between his fingers. He was growing fast, his new trousers barely reached his ankles, and he only had them a couple of months. Despite the kitchen’s lone bulb, there was no hiding the highlights in his hair. It changed colour of late, become darker, like his father’s, but the flecks of coppery-red among the shiny tresses came from her. His eyes though, remained the same and he turned them to full effect on her now.
“Are you okay, Mam?”
“Of course,” she handed him a towel. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know,” she waited as he dried between each finger. “Just something the lads said.”
“What something?” She could feel her throat grow tight.
“They were asking me if Mr Jackson was one of the bad men. I did what you told me, I said I didn’t know that they all had masks on.”
“Well, that’s all right then, isn’t it?” She waited to see what would come next.
“Yeah, I know, but…”
“Well, Tommy said, that his mother said, that if Mr Jackson was one of the bad men who took me, then you must have known something about it, because you were always talking to him.”
“What!” Jill could feel the colour draining from her face.
“I know, he’s a fool,” Toby threw aside the towel and sat down at the table. “Me and the lads are out with him. He is a pig, but I wish I could have told him, you know. About Rachael’s Mam and stuff, but I can’t.”
“No, Toby, you can’t, and you know why, don’t you?” Jill knelt beside her son, repeating again the reasons why. “We would all be in terrible trouble if anyone found out how we found you. What we did was against the law and a lot of good people would go to jail for helping me. You understand, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I know, and I’ll never tell because I crossed my heart and everything,” he reached out and brushed a stray hair from her face. “But I know Mr Jackson is dead, the lads told me, and the other bad men too.”
“Yes, they are, but that had nothing to do with you,” his touch made Jill’s throat grow tight with unshed tears.
“Yeah, I know. Rachael’s Mam killed them.
“How do you know that?
“Rachael told me.”
“When?” Jill tried to keep her voice steady.
“When we were in that place, you know?” He was bored from her questions.
“Oh, right,” Jill stood and made a great show of checking on the chicken. “What did Rachael, say?”
“She said her Mam would freak out when she found them. That she would be so mad at the bad men she might tear them limb from limb, but she was always saying stupid things like that,” he looked up to heaven and sighed,” Girls.”
Jill’s hands shook as she helped him set the table for dinner. The gossips in the village felt she knew about her son’s disappearance. That was it, the final straw; and she was glad he would no longer live in this place. Despite her fear she’d somehow manage to get through this night with as much normality as possible. Later, when the house was quiet, she’d write Toby a letter explaining the truth about what happened. She could post it to her solicitor on her way through the village later with instructions he’d receive it on his twenty-fifth birthday. By then, he would be mature enough to understand her actions. She would also fashion a makeshift will and get her father to witness it. The house would be sold, the proceeds put in trust for her son, with instructions that her parents would be his main guardians, but giving Joe visitation rights, should he decide to ask for such. Now all she had to do was get through dinner and put her son to bed as though everything was all right.
She’d visit the graveyard as late as possible. Although it was a weeknight, the pubs would be busy as those who attended the funeral would have tales to tell. No one could blame them if they drank a little too much that night. Many of the pubs’ patrons entrusted their children to the care of Dominic Jackson, and the horror of what he did and what he might have continued to do, would reverberate for many years to come.