by Oonah V Joslin
Christmas Eve, twelve hours of snow and no let-up. It was piled five feet deep against the hedge and the surrounding woodland was a fairy tale of white.
“Who on earth would be out in this?” asked Emily when the doorbell rang.
Reginald, still in his slippers, answered the door.
“Good evening constable. Come in. You look frozen.”
“Evening, Reg. I’d be glad to.” He brushed himself down, kicked his boots against the step and thankfully made for the roaring fire.
“Will you take a drink or are you still on duty? A whiskey perhaps? Emily, get the man a whiskey.”
“I never touch spirits as a rule but...” he consulted his watch. “Go on then.”
“So, are you just checking round to see that folks are okay?” asked Emily.
“No indeed not. I was in the woods searching for...” he hesitated. The smell of pine needles and spices made all the more poignant what he had to convey: “a missing girl.”
Emily nearly dropped the glass. “Oh no!” She handed him the drink and went and sat by the fire. “Since when?”
“Yesterday. She was out caroling and when the singers got back to the church, she was missing. Nobody noticed when she’d gone. Thought she might’ve slipped off home, it being so cold, but no. We’ve been out all day looking but to be honest this snow has covered all traces and if she’s injured and out there... I just happened to come out at the back of the woods, here.”
Reginald went and stood by his wife. “Is there nothing we can do to help?”
“Just keep an eye out and if you see anything at all, call us. The search has widened now, over as far as Ashenall.” The policeman looked at the glittering tree. “At Christmas too,” he said, shaking his head and he downed the whiskey in one gulp. “Anyway, must be off.”
“Oh Reg,” said Emily, anguished by the news. “It was one of those carol singers that came by the house yesterday. I gave them some money.”
“Don’t take on, dear. You heard the constable. They’ll find her.”
“But that’s the third, Reg, the third! They never found my Francine, or that other girl.”
“Yes but that was twenty — thirty years ago now, Emily. There’s surely no connection.”
Emily picked at her supper. She could think of nothing now but that poor child and her own poor child. Reginald could never know how that felt. He’d never been fond of children. For her, no other child could replace her Francine. She looked out at the snow still falling as she saw to the dishes. Reg read his book and sipped on a brandy.
The shattering of a dropped plate and a scream brought him running to the kitchen. Emily was standing by the door with the snow blowing in and the wind howling through the opening. He pulled her inside and forced the door shut.
“What the hell’s going on, Emily?”
“It w... was Francine! I’m sure it was. Sh... she’s out there, Reg.”
“Emily, it can’t have been Francine. That was thirty years ago.”
Shaking from cold and fear she said, “Wh... wh... what if it was the m... missing girl?”
“Okay! Alright!” Reg ushered her upstairs, got her into bed and then fetched a large brandy. “I’ll go and take a look around and I’ll phone the station and I want you to stay here and drink that.”
She tried to steady the glass.
“Did you hear what I said, Emily?”
“Stay here. Drink this,” she said mechanically.
Reg dressed warmly and walked out into the blizzard. It was the only way to pacify her. Skeptically, he examined the ground near the house. There were no footprints except those of the policeman. He trudged a few paces into the woods and stopped in the lee of a tree to light a cigarette.
A sudden peripheral movement caught his eye: probably a fox. No there it was again. He took one more drag and then dropped the butt into the snow and went to investigate. Deeper into the woods, as the trees thickened, the air became much stiller.
Every time he stopped another flitting shadow, another wisp of grey, another glimpse here or there, led him on. Sometimes it indeed looked like a child but he knew it couldn’t be. He could find no prints and the randomness of the sightings was odd.
Reginald entered at last, a familiar clearing. It was his secret place. He alone knew the lost entrance to the old mine shaft — or he alone could tell where it was. The snow had stopped falling but cushioned every sound. Pallid moonlight encrusted the white hummocks with shades of amethyst and sapphire, and the black trees huddled round like conspirators. It was utterly silent.
The icy air that he drew into his lungs felt as if it had never been breathed before, and with sudden clarity, apprehension seized him. He should go back. It was folly to have come here. He had left tracks. “Damned hysterical woman!” he said aloud. “How am I supposed to find a ghost in a whiteout?” He laughed.
The laughter died on his lips when he saw three diminutive wraiths approach, wisps of girls — mere shadows. They joined hands and circled him as in a children’s game.
“We found you,” said the missing girl.
“You like games, don’t you?” said the second.
The third had a face he knew well. “Happy Christmas, Reg. It’s been a long time.” She looked so much like her mother.
Copyright © 2007 by Oonah V Joslin