Silent Night Prologue

County Limerick 2019

Anna lay awake. Her eyes shot open now. She’d been vaguely aware of the creaks and whispers of the old house in the minutes while she drifted blissfully on the edge of sleep and the start of another day. It would be Martin, treading softly from his warm bed to the sitting room, a soft blanket trailing the floor behind him, probably wrapped around the boy’s shoulders as he walked, cocooning him from the errant draughts that blew this way and that through the old cottage. He would quietly switch on the TV, muting the sound in case he alerted his mother that he was switching on the games consul. There was something oddly comforting about the sounds, oddities from her childhood, whispering a yawning murmur through the years of dampness, that she was safe now.  She was home. This had been her parents’ house. She knew it should be a sad place, a place of loss, of death, of sorrow, but it wasn’t.  Not anymore.  Instead, Anna saw it as her one link with the past, her one link with her sister. It affirmed that there’d been a time, long ago, when she’d been part of a happy family; she’d had parents who cared for her, and a sister she adored.  It seemed the right thing to do – to come here, when the world as she knew it had begun to transform around her.  Adrian had said no, begged her to stay in their safe semi, surrounded by the strangers they called ‘the neighbours.’ But, how could she stay, knowing what she knew? Her world as she’d known it had been turned on its head. She had a chance to start again and this was going to be her new beginning.

            In real terms, the cottage was no distance at all from their old home, but in every other way it was a million miles away. It was surrounded by five acres of woodland and scrub. The eight years of neglect since her father’s death had cultivated complete privacy around the house. Tucked at the end of a muddy boreen, only the rising smoke from the fire in the grate alerted the world that there was some kind of civilisation in the midst of the wilderness.

            In some ways, it was perfect. She didn’t love Adrian anymore; maybe she hadn’t realised it before, but she knew it now. She hadn’t been heartbroken. She supposed she should have been. Instead, she was just faintly relieved it was over. Had she guessed that the foundations were rotten to the core, her children the only shard of value to come from ten years, perhaps she’d have left earlier. It made no difference now. She loved her kids, loved her work, loved this place and maybe for now, until she knew what to do for the best, maybe that was enough. She looked across the cramped bedroom. A large oil on canvas sat silently, shyly waiting for her inspection. In the half-light, she could just make out the flecks of green and blue, water, flowing freely, energy in a decaying world. It was always like this with the abstract ones. She needed to live with them, so she hauled them around to various parts of the house, sometimes for months on end and then at some point she’d look at it and know it was complete. It was not a process Adrian found easy to live with.

Her little man – man of the house now – was making his way about his daily activities while she and the baby slept soundly. Then something, she couldn’t say what, among those familiar, soothing old house sounds raised a feeling of panic in her. What if it wasn’t Martin? What if it was someone else? It might be someone dark, someone dangerous. Anna couldn’t quite put a finger on the growing unease that was stretching along her spine, filling her with ominous dread. Perhaps it was something in the sound of the footfall. Martin wouldn’t be wearing shoes; he wouldn’t even have taken the time to put on the slippers he was quickly growing out of. Anna tossed her feet across the side of the old bed, at the same time talking down the mounting panic in her heart. How many times had she risen during the night to rattle the locks? Checked they were completely closed? Make sure her little family were as safe as she could make them? No-one knows we’re here. She’d meant the words as a prayer, one that might give her some courage, but somehow it only managed to draw a greater sense of loneliness and a foreboding chill through her thin frame.

Anna looked around the room, frantically trying to pick out something that might act as a weapon. Her mind tripped chaotically from one object to the next, but she could see nothing. From beneath the bed she grabbed a shoe, looked at it for a moment, and then, knowing it was no use, dropped it again.

She was hardly at the door when she heard the first shot.

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