A nudge on the ribs jerked Alan awake.
“Where is the baby?” Shauna was frantic.
He blinked several times compelling his eyes to refocus. “Sam was right here… how long was I out?”, Alan stuttered, as he pulled himself up.
“I don’t know, Alan. I just came!” Her voice trailed as she scampered through the sinewy, svelte trees, stumbling over the roots. The woods were balefully still, all he could hear was the crunching of the dried leaves under her feet.
He squinted long and hard at the empty baby basket. The sight spurred him into action, he hastened behind his wife. There was little wind, just enough to flap his windcheater against his sides.
They hurried along the path and entered a thicket of trees, their voices hoarse from repeatedly calling Samantha, their one-year-old daughter’s name.
After what seemed a long time, Shauna paused and scanned her surroundings; the cloudless sky had allowed the sun to pierce unconstrained through the grove, the tangerine light cast a pattern of shadows on the brushwood.
“Samantha!” She called out again.
Nothing. Alan felt the hair stirring on the back of his neck. He ambled close to Shauna, raising his hand to hold her.
“How could you, Alan? What happened here?” Shauna bawled, as she backed away from her husband. “I leave you alone with the baby for a short while, and this is what you end up with?”
Alan dropped his hand. His eyes were grim. His gaze traveled beyond his wife, Shauna, to take in the copse around them. Vast uncharted woods thickly populated only by the tall silver birches and thick scaly pines, the ground flush with hair-cap moss. The woods were a maze of deep gorges alternating with steep hillsides and myriads of stratified rock formation, providing a nesting habitat to the scores of wild animals. He shuddered as his mind conjured up images of Samantha lost or hurt somewhere out there.
Alan’s voice came out in a whisper, “let’s call the police, Shauna.”
The day had completely transformed by the time the police arrived.
The morning that was brimming with effulgence had culminated into a dense, murky fog. The mist skittered around silently, creeping through the boscage, swathing everything in a diaphanous silvery haze.
By the time the police arrived, the darkness was descending on their shoulders and the insects buzzed around their beaming torch lights.
Detective Inspector Sean Neill walked up to the couple.
The husband and wife were sitting on two ends of the checkered picnic cloth. An array of untouched food lay in between them. The hiking gear—the rucksack, the mat, the map case and the rest of the equipment was plonked in a heap, on one side.
After a brief introduction, Inspector Sean got down to business, excavating the particulars from the complainants.
“Inspector please, Samantha is out there, somewhere in the dark woods, lying injured or trapped or heavens know what else… can you please concentrate on looking for her rather than wasting time on us”, Alan exclaimed, his voice bleak and brittle.
“Mr. Alan, we are following a standard protocol. There are department procedures to be complied with. I would advise you not to work yourself in a state.”, Inspector Sean replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “Anyways the rescue party has already been organized and please be assured that we’re giving it our best shot.” He gestured towards the squad of police officers swarming in the woods.
“So, if you please, get on with it from the beginning…” he exclaimed, letting his eyes rest on Shauna a tad bit longer. As expected, it eked out a response from her.
She pressed her lips into an angry thin line. Her fingers curled tightly around the baby rattle as she stared at Alan, her eyes boring holes into his skull as she spoke, “it was my idea to spend some quality time hiking around here. We’ve recently moved here from the city as my aunt has bequeathed to me her villa. We’d been too caught up in getting the place in order and this seemed a perfect place to wind down.”
“It had all been going great. We had already hiked for almost an hour and a half. We had plans to go on for a while longer when Samantha, our daughter started to cry and fuss incessantly.” Alan continued.
“She was hungry.”, Shauna cut in. “I breastfed and settled her, however I realized that it wouldn’t last for long so I ran through the rucksack to check her feeding bottles. That is when I accrued, the horrible blunder I had made… I had left her feeding bag in the boot of the car. I put Samantha to sleep in the baby basket, leaving her with Alan while I headed back.”
“So, you had to walk all the way back to the parking lot?” Inspector Sean asked, his voice shrewd. “You must have been gone a long time then?”
“We had already reached the dividing point and I was carrying the maps which showed that to reach the parking lot, I just had to take the left-handed trail at the fork. I completed the loop on the trail from there, it brought me out of the forest near the point where we’d started, which means I was back within an hour.”, Shauna replied, her brows knitted in a scowl.
“And then …”, Sean prodded her to continue.
Shauna’s face tightened and she darted a sharp look at Alan, “when I came back with the supplies, I found Alan sound asleep and the baby basket empty…” tears welled up in her eyes and trickled down her face as she looked up at the Inspector.
Sean turned his attention towards Alan. Alan was huddled in a corner with his arms wrapped around his body. He rubbed a hand over his dark stubble, as he struggled to speak. It seemed Shauna’s words had robbed him of any speech. He said hesitatingly, “err… I really don’t know inspector. I don’t remember dozing off. I was with Sam all the time…all I remember is being woken up by Shauna.
I‘m sorry Shauna… I really am…”, Alan broke down into sobs.
“Did you notice anything missing or any signs of foul play?” The Inspector asked.
Shauna explicitly disregarded Alan’s reaction, she made no attempts whatsoever to address his remarks. When she spoke, her gaze was fixed on the Inspector, “I found the baby basket knocked over, the wine was all over the picnic cloth, but there’s nothing significant missing.”
“Do you have any relations around this area?” The inspector inquired.
“Only my brother…he has been estranged from the family. We have not communicated for years.”, Shauna replied.
Inspector Sean looked around, the escalating darkness and the fog had rendered an ominous air to the whole ambiance. To the north-side of the trees, a small crowd of locals had started to gather.
He lowered his gaze and concluded the conversation. He reassured the couple while warning them of the possible questionings in the future. They were advised not to leave the countryside without informing the police of their whereabouts.
Sean strolled away from the grieving parents accompanied by his junior, “Keep an eye on them. I smell something fishy here.”
Shauna pulled down the window pane. It had been raining all day. The gentle tapping on her window was slowly being replaced by thunder and lightning. The sky had turned a sooty-gray.
A quick glance reminded her that suppertime was long over. She sauntered towards the kitchen and made herself a turkey sandwich with a side helping of salad. She leaned against one of the worktops and brought a loaded fork to her mouth. The smell staved her off, her core repelled at the very thought of putting it inside her mouth. She picked up the tray and discarded its contents into the garbage bin.
She reached for the booze and walked out. It had been two years since the tragedy—the catastrophe that had turned their life upside down.
She curled her pajama-clad legs beneath her and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. She huddled into her rocking chair as her mind leafed through her memories.
After dancing back and forth the incident a million times, innumerable meetings with the authorities, hundreds of speculations and conjectures, the police had finally decided to back off. Inspector Sean had phoned her this evening, informing that the case would be considered unsolved however they would await any fresh evidences for an active pursuit.
She fiddled with the remote and the TV screen sprang to life. She flitted from one channel to another nonchalantly until something on the screen made her stop. Samantha’s pictures flashed across the TV screen one after the other.
It was a repeat telecast of the feature that the local news network had done on the case. Her pulse quickened as the voice of the news anchor echoed across the room.
“Samantha Dealer’s case is one of the most perplexing cases we’ve witnessed in these parts. After evaluating all the facts, there are few confounding questions in front of us:
The first and the foremost being, why did the mother, Shauna Dealer leave her one-year-old with the stepfather to get the baby bag? Why did she not send the father?
How could the stepfather slip off into a deep slumber in a span of an hour, so much so, that he had no clue about the baby’s whereabouts? Is there more to it than the Dealers are willing to share?
The third and the most important question —what happened to Samantha? There have been few instances of wild animal attacks on children including the fatal mauling of a five-year-old local boy, few years back —does that present sufficient evidence to end the Dealer’s mystery.”
Shauna flung the remote control on the floor. She pressed both her hands over her temples.
Of course, there was more to it. More than what that dimwitted news-anchor could comprehend.
She couldn’t let Alan go because Alan was stoned and unsteady– they had been smoking weed all morning. She was still sober, so she had gone back to retrieve the baby’s things. They had already informed the police but revealing all this to the news networks would have stirred up a hornet’s nest.
And oh… they were calling Alan, Samantha’s stepfather…Only if they knew the truth!
He was the only father Samantha had ever known. She had gotten to know about her pregnancy, weeks after she had lost her husband in a car accident. Alan was her childhood friend; he had supported her every step of the way, nurturing her steadfastly through thick and thin.
She had seen him around Samantha.
Alan had always considered Samantha a beacon of light in his life. Despite the public presumptions she knew in the depths of her heart that Alan was as harmless as a dove.
Guilt seared her insides and she buried her face in her hands.
Alan… What had she done to him?
He was the one caught up in the eye of the storm. Her smoldering fury, the perpetual police inquiries and the media sensationalism had pushed Alan off the deep end. She had steered clear of him letting him suffer alone. Grief had threatened to consume him and she had provided no reprieve for his anguish.
At nights she had heard him thrashing round in his bed. He was often discovered by the domestic help in the herb garden behind the patio, lying with his face down into the ground, wailing in pain.
His suicidal tendencies had followed soon after. This was the second time he was admitted in the hospital owing to such proclivities.
Alan’s diary caught her eye, she picked it up. A handful of Samantha’s snapshots tumbled down. She took a peek; pages were smeared with his torment, misery, and remorse that had torn him apart by inches.
Tears trickled down her cheeks.
She wanted to run to him, swaddle him and chase away his demons, and fend off the despair. Samantha was his daughter too… it had been hell for him as well.
Wasn’t she equally at fault? Hadn’t she punished him enough? Enough, for taking a nap?
It was time to move on.
She picked up the pen to sign the deeds of the house.
She couldn’t stand staying in the wretched place any longer.
Something made her pause. Her mind pieced together a puzzle, she felt as if a fog bank had cleared from her brain.
She was going to leave the estate to her brother. Was the villa a credible reason for her brother to commit an unthinkable crime?
She picked up the phone to inform Inspector Sean of the latest development.
The sunlight peeped through the white sheers and lay in a lazy sprawl across the room.
Alan picked up his newborn baby from the crib and held her close, drinking in its warmth. His eyes brimmed with tears of relief and joy as he walked up to Shauna who was resting on the hospital bed.
He gently stroked her cheek with his knuckles as he tenderly spoke, addressing both his wife and his newborn daughter, “You make everything alright.”
Shauna looked at Alan, her face drawn with exhaustion but still beaming, “I’m sorry, Alan! Everything will be alright from now on, I promise. I’ll never let the past meddle with us.”
The door to their cubicle swiveled open and one of the nurses peeped inside, “Can you please get these medications, Mr. Alan.”
Alan was waiting at the pharmacy, as voices from the TV screen drew his attention. His favorite channel ‘National Geographic’ was on. He looked on, spellbound as the researchers elaborated on the lion’s behaviors in Serengeti Lion Project —
“When a new male lion takes over a pride, the cubs represent a major impediment to their reign and reproduction. The incoming males are unwilling to be stepfathers and kill all the young cubs in their new pride.”
A smile sneaked in as Alan sighted the congruity between the humans and animals.
Hadn’t he done the same. The events of that fateful day writhed in front of his eyes.
How, deep into the woods, he had dug a hole in the ground with his hands, how that tiny bast**d had kicked her feet when he had laid her inside that hole and mounded heaps of earth on her… how it had all fallen into place…
He snickered as he spotted a poster with a quote hung on the one of the walls of the hospital.
‘If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain.”
Lions behavior- (source google– https://cbs.umn.edu/research/labs/lionresearch/social-behavior)
‘If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain.” –by John Green, (the author of the book ‘The Fault in Our Stars’)
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