Although sunset is hours away, clouds hang low, paling the sky a dull gray. Grandpa moves methodically, long accustomed to working his allotment. I stare at him, trying to take comfort in his well-rooted presence but it isn’t easy. All I can bring myself to see are the thin wisps of gray upon his head, the lines etched deeply along his knobbly hands.
‘Here it is. Thyme, good for warding off nightmares.’ says Grandpa as he picks some plant stems. I eye them for a moment until he thrusts them into my hand.
‘Pa,’ I say, ‘it’s getting dark. We should go home.’
‘Still plenty light, Sprig,’ he answers, moving to the next patch. Even my nickname causes me to tremble, it’d been cute once but now it was another reminder that I was small and skinny. I stand frozen, the thyme being crushed by my clenched fist. Grandpa turns, and places a leathery hand upon my shoulder.
‘We talked about this, Sprig. You’re safe now.’
But she isn’t – comes a thought that makes me shiver. Grandpa rubs my arm up and down, thinking I’m cold. I don’t answer him, there’s nothing I can say, and eventually he looks up to the sky and runs his dirtied fingers across his beard before speaking.
‘That’s enough for today.’
It’s a short walk home but trees linger sporadically beside the path, sinister in the murky light. I wrap myself tightly around Grandpa’s arm, not wavering from the middle of the path, and on my other side is Max, my beagle. Max doesn’t question me or push me to be brave. He merely senses my fear of the trees and runs at them, barking, then, once he confirms they aren’t dangerous, he lifts his leg to leave his scent. When all else fails, Max can make me feel safe.
For a brief moment I feel normal, swinging my vegetable basket to and fro, until Lily pops back into my mind.
‘Do you think they’ll find her?’ I ask, and I feel my Grandpa tense before replying.
One of the trees is different, vaguely familiar. Its green leaves split into three prongs, like dog paws waving in the wind.
‘Pa, what tree is that?’ He barely glances, recognising it without effort.
‘Maple,’ he replies, then as he feels the tug of my dead weight on his arm, ‘what is it? What’s wrong?’
Whilst I’m thinking, Max checks it out and gives a bark as if to say, ‘all clear.’ Whatever memory had been triggered disappears as more ominous ones smother it.
After supper, Grandpa takes me to bed, where I squirm on the mattress, like a worm being baited on a hook.
‘Please,’ I plead, even though I know it’s hopeless.
‘It’s time, Sprig. You can’t sleep with me forever. Besides, Max is here,’ he gives Max a rub behind his floppy ears. As he shuts the door I grab Max, pressing his soft warm fur into my cheek, then cry myself to sleep.
It’s dark and damp. A door bangs. There’s a scared voice of a young girl.
We sit beside each other, hand in hand. Her dungarees are muddied, her hair frayed where her ribbons have come out. Together we crave for the the sliver of light, that creeps through the gap of the door. It isn’t a normal door. It lies flat upon the ceiling, always out of reach.
The door opens, letting in the light, and we shrink back. He’s there, the keeper of my nightmares. He comes often and this time he takes Lily, laughing at my feeble attempt to stop him. The door slams shut again, gusting up a few leaves that drift slowly down into the dark. They are mauve, the same colour as my sheets. It’s a reminder of something, at once vitally important but then strangely insignificant. Like the leaves, the thought is adrift upon the chill breeze. As they fall to the ground they slowly darken – purple, violet, black – until all light is stolen from them. It’s a bad omen.
I’m blind, being jostled atop his shoulder as he carries me. I’m so malnourished he doesn’t even bother to tie me up. The wind’s upon my cheek, and somehow blows away the blindfold. We’re in a sparse woodland, but I barely glimpse it before being thrown once more into a hole. Lily isn’t there, and I know she’d be back in that dark room while I stand in my own grave.
The sky begins to fade; I look up to mark the presence of the sun but there’s nothing. Instead the light’s simply an amorphous shape being constricted from all sides. My beating heart is like a percussion band – da-rum, da-rum. The hole closes in, and my hands struggle to gain purchase in the heavy, damp earth. I fight with every ounce of strength I have, swimming up through the dirt.
I’m exhausted, my arms unresponsive, numb as if they’d fallen asleep. They are; you are – comes an errant thought. My legs continue to kick frantically, and I slowly rise. The soil being thrown atop of me transforms to vegetation, leaves of green, red and purple. And through them, I glimpse the face that lurks there, waiting for me. The drums skip a beat then fall out of rhythm – tum-da-rum, tum-da-da-rum – as the tempo steadily rises.
I call to the face for help, knowing that he has no compassion, no remorse. He has heard my cries for months and never answers. I keep pleading anyway. The only response is a thickening of foliage. I can still see him, and the blurring motion of the shovel he wields. His body looms over me, seeming to grow, or perhaps it is me that is shrinking.
I am running out of time. Where’s Max? I should hear the barking by now, and the sirens. I gasp for breath as the light is extinguished. I’m screaming, yet I’m unable to make a sound, my throat clogged with soil. The drums go still.
All I can feel is the twitching of my fingers on my outstretched hand. ‘Max’, I whisper, ‘save me.’
The wind begins to howl and bay, the blackened leaves ripped free by its fury. It hurls against the drum’s membrane, reverberating.
I lurch upright from my sweat soaked sheets, my body tense. My eyes flutter around my room, praying that it was only a dream, but knowing that it’s also more. I see his face in every shadow and even when I switch on the bedside light to banish them, my fears remain.
Max is there, his howling ceased as I woke and as he snuggles back into me I pet him gratefully.
‘Good boy,’ I say, ‘you saved me.’
Just like he did that day in the woods, and every night since.
My bedroom door opens slowly as Grandpa comes to check on me. He doesn’t ask what the dream is about, or whether I’m alright, he just scoops me into his arms.
‘Sorry,’ he said, as he carries me to his room. I look back over his shoulder at the bed, and the colourful sheets.
‘What’s that, Sprig?’
‘There were maple leaves, where he kept us. Purple ones.’
‘Norwegian purple-leaved maple,’ he replies slowly. ‘Rare in these parts.’
I can’t go back to sleep, and despite the late hour, I convince Grandpa to call the detective. He looks at me as he talks with her, his brow furrowed. He often struggles with whether to be supportive or firm, and I can tell from the discussion that he’s sceptical of my dream.
‘Sorry for calling so late,’ he says, I can’t hear the detective’s response.
‘No, the nightmares are getting better.’
‘Yes, still asleep,’ he says, his eyes locking onto mine.
‘It’s just, we went through the details again today and something new came up.’
He runs his free hand through his beard before continuing, ‘it’s probably nothing.’
‘There were purple maple leaves, where they were kept.’ His voice suddenly perks up as he decides to put his faith in me. ‘They aren’t common, might help narrow down the search.’
‘Yes, I’m sure.’
‘Okay, you too. Goodnight.’
A few days later, the detective knocks on the door, a rare smile on her face. I can feel it even before she says anything, a sense of hope.
‘We found her,’ are the only words I heed.
Later that night we watch the news. Mostly, the media focuses on him and his face squints at the bright camera flashes as if burned. In my nightmares he’s a creature of shadow and I know that seeing him in the light will help evaporate his stain from my soul.
Finally they talk of the rescued girl, switching to another camera feed. I see her, asleep in a hospital bed, and know exactly what she is dreaming of. I lurch forward, splaying my fingers against the television screen.
‘Lily, we’re safe now.’