The full moon crept across the sky, spilling light on the gaps between the trees. The search party pushed their way deeper into the forest. The light from their torches showed them the way.
Laura Kildare walked in a dream-like state, past the barriers and groups of police officers. The forest was full of strange faces, searching in the wrong direction, oblivious to where Sofia and Ben lay.
She sensed something in the moment before she saw it. A sudden shot of adrenaline pumped through her blood.
Something caught her eye as she pushed her way through the dense undergrowth. It was Sofia’s gold necklace. Then she saw her body. The rust-coloured pine needles had fallen on her like decoration. Laura screamed; her face was the colour of a ghost. It was a gruesome canvas that would haunt her. There was no sign of Ben.
Sofia Sheridan was a French musician who moved to the remotest part of Ireland to forget her past and start again. It was the beginning of everything and also the end…
Peace settled on him as he ran through the fields. He was flying. The roads were drowned after days of rain. He stopped for a moment to study his reflection in a pool of murky rainwater and splash his sweating face. His shadow, dark and furtive, scaled the low, stone wall. He slowed his pace when he neared the house, and huddled into the coat he’d stolen from a laundry line.
Silence, just the way he liked it. This was the quiet hour, when children were at school, and parents gone their separate ways for the day. The world was empty, except for Sofia and the child. Puffs of smoke billowed from the chimney. He knew her routine off by heart. Tomorrow she would be back to work, but today she was at home with the child, just the three of them alone together. He had timed it perfectly.
A car horn made him jump. She couldn’t be leaving! He hid behind the old oak tree at the bottom of the lane to catch a glimpse, but it wasn’t her. A Porsche with a fall of rain on the roof whizzed past. The driver was blonde and clean-shaven, not the rugged farmer he’d seen her arguing with in the pub.
He glanced at her bedroom window. The curtains were pulled tight – private, keep out. Anger surged within him; she’d spent the night wrapped in the arms of her lover, while he had slept alone in a cold barn.
“Good morning, Sofia!” He beamed broadly when she entered the kitchen, hungrily taking in the half-naked sight of her as she stood barefoot in front of him. She stared at him, trying not to let the shock register on her face. His movements were manic and agitated. His eyes had a strange stare. She glanced behind her, wondering if she had time to escape.
“Who are you?” she asked. There was a faint flicker of recognition in her eyes. She pulled her jumper on over her long, dark curls. A soft thud from upstairs told her that Ben was out of bed and on his way downstairs. Any minute he would be in the kitchen with them.
He marched across the room to confront her, wagging his finger in front of her face. “We’re old friends! Don’t you remember me? Maybe it’s my new hairdo, I let it grow out a little, thought I’d try something different.” His words tumbled from his dry, cracked lips, as if his thoughts were racing too quickly for him. There were bubbles of spittle at the corners of his mouth and his eyes darted wildly.
“Put the kettle on,” he said. “Where have your manners gone? It’s only polite to offer your guest a cup of tea.” He winked conspiratorially at her.
Silently, she filled the kettle, trying to keep her hands steady. She would not let him see that she was afraid – deathly afraid.
“What’s your name?” he asked, turning towards the little boy, dressed in his Superman pyjamas as he stood hesitantly in the doorway.
“I’m Ben. What’s your name?” His big blue eyes watched the stranger warily.
“Never ask someone like me his name, but today is a special day, so you can call me Daz, short for Darren.”
“Ben, come over here like a good boy,” Sofia smiled at her son.
“I see you’ve finally gotten the oven fixed.”
“You’ve been here before,” she said. It was a statement, not a question.
“Before!” he snorted. He paced around the room picking things up and putting them back down again. His speech was fast and furious. He bent and picked up a pair of stones from the pile that Ben had left on the kitchen floor, and started rubbing them together until sparks flew. While he was busy with the stones, Ben grabbed the poker from the fireplace to attack the strange man in their kitchen.
“There’s no need for that, love,” Sofia grabbed the poker from his chubby fingers. “We’ll build a fire later.” Carefully, she put the poker to one side.
“Is that tea ready, yet?” he asked, dropping the stones to the floor.
“Nearly.” She coughed to hide the tremor in her voice. “I’m meeting someone in the village in an hour, so I can give you a lift when you’ve finished your tea.” She didn’t have to look in his direction to feel his eyes following her every move. His crazed eyes watching as she reached in the cupboard for a clean cup. Suddenly, he was behind her, standing dreadfully close. He tugged her hair playfully.
“I was messed up and lonely until I saw you,” he whispered, his foul breath hot against her neck.
“My child is here,” she said, refusing to make eye contact with him.
“Ok, ok!” He backed away from her. “There’s no need to lose the plot.”
He sat at the table and waited quietly for his tea. “Thank you.” He smiled gratefully, exposing his brown, rotting teeth.
“I’m scared,” Ben said, hiding behind his mother’s legs. She lifted him up into the safety of her arms and went to the open door to pull on her socks and boots. “Skittles!” she called their Labrador. “Skittles, where are you?”
“Stop shouting!” He thumped the table with his fists. “There’s no time for tea. We have to go. Come on.”
“We’re ready,” she said, helping Ben into his coat. She grabbed her bag and prayed that her mobile phone was inside.
“He’s a baddie,” Ben whispered. She glared at him to be quiet.
“Let’s take the scenic route,” he suggested as the cold air hit them. “A walk will do us good.” He smiled, almost pleasantly. “Follow me.”
“We’ll be faster in the car and it’s cold this morning,” she said, shivering involuntarily.
He stared at her for a moment and shrugged. “Lead the way,” he said, relenting.
They walked to the bottom of the lane where her car was parked. He reached underneath the car where he had hidden the gun.
“I don’t want my child anywhere near a gun. I’d like you to unload it.”
“I give the orders around here,” he sneered. “Get in the car and drive. We have business to take care of.”
He climbed into the back seat. Ben started kicking and screaming. “That’s my seat! It’s not your seat!”
“It’s okay, pet,” Sofia said. “It’s only a short drive to the village and you can have your favourite hot chocolate at the coffee shop.”
“Pet,” Dan murmured, grabbing a long strand of her hair and running it over his lips.
The car started, stalled and backfired before finally moving.
“You’ve got a small gun in your exhaust,” he joked. His arm was across the back of her seat and he gently tugged her hair again.
“Don’t do that!” she snapped.
“I think you have anger issues,” he said, affecting a snooty tone. “Perhaps you should take a course in anger management.”
The car backfired again. She prayed it wouldn’t break down completely. It should have been serviced weeks ago.
“This is a noisy car,” he said, rubbing his forehead.
“Yes, they’ll hear us coming.”
“They won’t hear us leaving, darling,” he sneered. “We’ll drive away into the sunset and live happily ever after.”
He covered his head with the hood of his coat and huddled down in the back seat as they approached the village. Ben was crying, struggling to undo the straps of his seat. “He’s turning into a monster, mommy. He’s a monster!”
Frantically, Sofia scanned the main street for a familiar face, willing someone – anyone – to see her. She slowed down outside the pub, but it was closed. The wooden shutters were locked tight. The village was deserted, except for a woman in the distance, walking her dog.
The postman’s van was parked outside the post office. Alan, the postman, was sitting in the driver’s seat, sorting through a bundle of letters. “Please help us, please,” she prayed silently. Alan glanced in her direction and smiled, shaking his head to indicate that there were no letters for her, before bowing his head to refocus on his sorting. She wanted to scream.
“This is our stop,” she said as brightly as possible.
“Keep driving,” he hissed from the folds of his coat. She felt the cold graze of the gun sliding down the back of her neck. She drove as slowly as she could, desperate not to leave the safety of the village. “Step on it with that pretty little foot of yours,” he ordered.
She drove past the community centre, the primary school, the church with its crucifix, and the daffodils that were coming into bloom. A woman, standing at her gateway, glanced in her direction, but quickly looked away, as if she didn’t want to see her. Once the village was behind them, he began to laugh hysterically; loud peals of laughter, like the laughter of someone locked in a cage that was dying to escape.
The intersection to the next village loomed ahead and she sped up to take the turn. Surely, their nightmare would end there. “Reverse! Reverse!” he roared. “Reverse or you’ll be sorry!” She reversed back to the intersection and took the turn that led towards the mountains. He leaned forward and grabbed the wheel, steering them towards a dirt track.
“Where are you taking us?” she asked.
“You’ll soon find out.”
She stared out the window, searching for some way of escape. Nobody would ever find them out there in the wilderness. They drove along the dirt track, deeper into the woodland. A sombre grey-green gloom stretched ahead of them. The village and the warmth of the coffee shop were far behind. A ghastly emptiness confronted her. She strained for the thud of an axe or the revving of a chainsaw, but there was nothing only deafening silence.
“Get out of the car,” he ordered. Slowly, she unfastened her belt and helped Ben out of his seat. Darren started running around the car, around them, around and around in circles, shooting imaginary arrows in the air. She watched him, dreading the horrors he had planned.
“That’s how they shoot birds,” he said. There were no birds, no happy chirping or calling, no sign of any life whatsoever except for an upturned barrel with “POISON” painted in black writing on its surface. There was a tool shed behind them. The wood was syrupy-new. Perhaps it meant that workmen came and went. Fervently, she prayed for someone to materialise out of the grey-green nightmare. She jumped as a twig dropped onto her coat. Tenderly, he brushed it away.
“The colour suits you,” he said. “It brings out the colour of your eyes.” His hand lingered on her shoulder. She shrugged him away.
“Someone saw us. They’ll be looking for us.” Her voice was steady and calm despite the pounding of her heart.
“Nobody is coming for you. It’s just you and me, baby.”
“My friend will be wondering where I am. I was supposed to be meeting Laura Kildare in the village. She’ll be wondering where I am. They’ll be on our track soon.”
“It’ll be a lonely track for them.” His gaze was unwavering. He looked dead behind the eyes.
“Would you like a cigarette?” she asked, rummaging around in her bag, praying for her mobile phone. It wasn’t there; lost somewhere in the house, as usual. Silently, she cursed it.
They sat on a moss-covered log, surrounded by the dark, looming trees. He watched her as she brought the cigarette to her lips and slowly inhaled. She hated his mad eyes on her. He took off his jacket and placed it on the ground before lying on top of it, staring up at the grey clouds. Cigarette smoke hazed across his young face.
She glanced at him; he was barely twenty years old, and reed thin. His arm muscles were strong and defined and his stomach was concave beneath his worn, thin shirt. His brown hair was long and unkempt. Dark circles rimmed his soulless eyes. His cheekbones protruded from his pale face; he looked like he hadn’t eaten in days. For a brief moment, she almost felt sorry for him.
Ben buried his face in her lap, occasionally peeping at the stranger. He hadn’t said a word since they got out of the car. She rubbed his hair, trying to reassure him. “Good boy, Ben.”
“Is he a good boy?”
“I suppose every parent thinks their son is good.”
“Not my father; he thinks I’m the devil’s son.”
“Watch your mouth!” she snapped, and got up from the log. He grabbed her ankle and caressed it as she tried to walk towards the car.
“Wrong way, love,” he said. “We’re heading in there.” He pointed towards the forest.
“I’m not going in there,” she said quietly. “It’s dark and miserable in there.” Her voice was pleading.
“Well, that’s where we’re going,” he said, jumping lithely to his feet. “That’s the plan.”
“I don’t want to go there,” she said, standing her ground.
“I don’t care what you want!” He pointed the gun at her and she started to walk.
The darkness was all-encompassing. Their footprints were lost in the rotting carnage of fallen leaves. The trees stood close together, like soldiers in a never-ending army. There was no sound – no birds, no wind – just impenetrable silence. Several times, she almost lost her footing in the squelchy, dank undergrowth. There was no sign of life – human or animal. It was only them and him, marching forwards, further and deeper into the darkness.
“I want to go home, mom,” Ben whimpered.
“Soon, pet. We’ll be home soon.” She was carrying him in her arms, humming gently, trying to pretend they were out for a walk in the forest.
“Keep walking,” he ordered, prodding her in the back with the gun.
“Why are you doing this to us?” she asked, turning slowly to face him. If he was going to shoot her, then he could shoot her while looking at her.
“I’m on the run.”
“Who are you running from?”
“Some bad people.”
“They’ll find you.”
“Nobody will find me in the forest. The trees are my friends, my only friends, and they’ll hide me forever.”
“I’ll drive you wherever you want to go. You can get on the ferry or a plane and go anywhere you like. I can give you some money.”
“You don’t have any money.”
“I can get a loan from the bank. The manager knows me well.”
“You’re trying to trick me,” he frowned.
“I’m not trying to trick you. I’ll get the money for you, even if I have to re-mortgage my house!”
“I grew up in that house you’re living in.” He had a faraway look in his eyes. “It wasn’t a home after my mother died. She was the only one who ever loved me. My father hated me even more after she died. He blamed me.”
“What would she think of you now?” Sofia couldn’t help herself.
He smacked her across the face. “Don’t talk about my mother!”
“Leave her alone! Leave her alone!” Ben started screaming, horrified by the trickle of blood running down his mother’s cheek.
“I’m okay, Ben. Hush now. It will all be over soon.”
“How’s your boyfriend? I see he stayed the night.”
“He’s a friend. He drank too much wine and didn’t want to risk driving home.”
“Did you have a good night?” he leered. “Whore!”