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Rated: 18+ · Novella · Drama · #2266228
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Intro

One minute Chloe Walk is happily swinging in Grandpa John's back twenty, the next, the little girl is missing. Has she fallen into the lake, or is it something more sinister?

What is the secret of Baxter's Hollow?


It is a place of tranquil beauty, of cool water and shady trees. It is a place of long, harsh winters. It is a place of secrets, of tragedy and loss. It is Baxter's Hollow.

Ravens County was a place of fierce, long winters; of despondency and desolation. No sooner had the leaves turned to bronze than the cold, biting winds swept down from the north, shaking the trees free of their last vestiges of summer. With the icy blasts came the graying skies, blocking out the last of the sunlight; creating a world of somber incertitude, a bleakness and depression that insinuated itself into the very soul of the people there.

Ashen faces, wrapped against the stinging, penetrating chill, moved listlessly through their lives, while their world stood frozen. It was the nature of the beast called winter, that it would draw out their spirit, pierce to the very heart of hearth and home, blacken the gladdest heart. Winter, which could bring joy to many, brought only harsh reality to the people of Ravens County.

It was late November and the air was filled with the threat of more snow to come. The small town of Matrix, in the north of Ravens County, had long since settled into its winter hibernation. The bare trees stood black and ominous against the gray sky. The people shuffled by in muffled silence as they gathered their supplies ready to close their doors, shutter their windows, light their fires and settle in until the spring arrived with new hopes, new growth, and the promise of better times.

As the hearse made its slow progress through the iron gates of Matrix Cemetery, it carried with it the last matriarch of a founding family. The Baxter's had built their homestead at the water hole, that came to be known as Baxter's Hollow, in a time when Indians still roamed the forests. For generations the Baxter men had chosen strong women to carry on their line. Martha Baxter was the last survivor of this breed. Now, she too had gone to the happy hunting ground.

The procession moved with dignified passivity towards the inevitability of the grave. The two vehicles that followed the hearse were somehow incongruous to this solemn occasion. One was a bright red Honda, its two occupants travelling in the silence borne of alienation. The other was a police four by four. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, only three people stood at the graveside. The policeman, Sheriff Bob Harris had been a friend of the family for several years. He had spoken to Martha only two days before her death. He was here to say farewell to a friend but also to keep a watchful eye on proceedings.

The driver of the red Honda was a social worker; Shirley Adams had been appointed to look after John Baxter only after Martha's death. She never knew Martha and was there only to support John in her official capacity.The old man, John Baxter, was the last of his family line. He was a proud man, attempting to stand to attention, but failing miserably as his arthritic joints groaned in the cold air. He looked down at the coffin and shed a tear, as he threw in his handful of dirt. Married to Martha for over fifty years, he always hoped that he would be the first to go. She was the love of his life, his soul mate. He had no idea how he was going to go on living without her.

"It's time to go, John," Shirley Adams, the social worker said, taking the old man's arm. He tried to brush her off, but somehow couldn't find the strength. Less than a year ago John had been a capable man, chopping wood on a daily basis, keeping the wood store full. Now he was a mere shadow of the man who had brought his new bride to live in the family home, all those years ago. His father had still been alive back then. John remembered standing in this very cemetery all those years ago, saying a final farewell to the man who had raised him with a Victorian sense of morality.

"I don' wanna go," John Baxter cried, "Oh, Martha, why did you have to die?" Overnight the spirit had gone out of him, after the body of his wife had been carried through the front door of the home they had shared for so long. She had died in her beloved kitchen, falling to the flagstone floor. John had cradled her as she slipped away, then he had carried her to her bed, using the last of his strength. It had been hard for him to let go; it had taken a lot of persuasion from Bob Harris before the funeral director could gain access.

"Come on now, don't make a fuss. You'll catch your death out here," Shirley cajoled, as the snow began to fall once more, covering the mound of earth that would soon fill his beloved's final resting place. All John knew was that someone in an office, who had no idea who John Baxter was, had made the decision that the old man needed full time care. He was being taken away from everything he knew and imprisoned in a world of walkers and commodes.

"But I wanna go home..."

"Now, John, we've talked about this. You can't look after yourself. You'll like it at Shady Pines once you get used to it." Shady Pines, a bit of a misnomer, not a pine in sight. The only vista from the windows was of concrete; streets, houses, shops, and even a factory. It was miles away from his home, both geographically and emotionally.

"I'll never get used to it. Baxter's Hollow is my home. It's where my girls are."

Shirley Adams thought the old man was rambling, confused, and trying to put off the inevitable. Sheriff Bob Harris wasn't so sure...


A year ago ...

It was early Fall in Ravens County and already the first hints of the northern winds were whispering in the trees, warning of the ravages to come. In Baxter's Hollow, the family were preparing to nestle in the warmth of their home, happy in the knowledge that they were prepared for the worst that Winter could throw at them. The wood shed was almost full, the freezer was well stocked with venison, rabbit and game birds, the cellar was stacked high with sacks of potatoes and flour, and Martha had been preserving for months.

"Call Chloe in, John, supper's almost ready," Martha called out from the kitchen. John Baxter was engrossed in his newspaper and didn't hear, or perhaps he was suffering from selective deafness, something of which he had been accused for the last fifty or so years. He was comfortable, enfolded by the soft leather of the battered old armchair, once his father's favourite spot. His pipe hung from his lips, unlit but ever ready. He wasn't allowed to smoke it in the house, but he could chew on it, savour the faint taste of cherrywood and Virginia's finest.

"John, it's getting dark outside and supper's almost ready. Will you please go and get the girl," Martha shouted, putting her head around the doorway between the kitchen and the family room. Martha was angry, and an angry Martha was something John did his best to avoid these days. He wasn't a man who enjoyed confrontation; it took a lot these days to make him truly angry. Instead he would brood on his displeasures, outwardly letting them wash over him, inwardly seething.

He hauled his aching body out of its cocoon by the fire and slowly crossed the flagstone floor of the kitchen, to the back door. He didn't have much energy left after a day of chopping logs. He hoped he wouldn't have to go far for the girl to hear him. He really didn't relish having to go outside now the sun was going down. He was beginning to feel his age, the more so when the weather grew colder, as it did now.

"Chloe!" he shouted from the doorway, but there was no response. Reluctantly, he left the warmth of the kitchen and headed out, past the barn, to Chloe's favourite spot by the water hole which gave Baxter's Hollow its name. The swing hung from the tree, motionless. "Chloe!" he called out again. His only response was the wind, gently rustling the fall leaves. The sun was setting fast and threw shadows across the water, shadows which looked like limbs, reaching out to snatch the unwary from this mortal coil, to drag them into the depths of despondency, and down, to a watery grave.

With heavy feet, John retraced his path. The shadows felt like they were following him, embracing him in a blanket of despair. The child, that had brought sunshine into their lives, had disappeared like the setting sun, bringing only darkness; a darkness that had an incalculable quality. John stumbled as he reached the wood shed, his body suddenly too heavy for his legs to support. He looked at the closed door and his mind drifted to the gloom inside, a gloom which now terrified him and drove him back to the light, and the warmth that was home.

"Has she come indoors?" he asked Martha, as he re-entered the house. He pulled his baggy cardigan closer around him; the chill air had got to his old bones. A shiver ran down his spine, not just from the cold. He wasn't a young man any more and he had to admit to himself that bringing up a child at their time of life was taking a toll on both of them.

"No, can't you find her?" Martha looked at John with fear in her eyes. She wiped her hands on her apron and removed the pot from the heat. "She has to be out there somewhere," Martha said, but her words had an ominous note. "Go check the barn, maybe she's hiding."

Martha searched the house, looking in every cupboard, every small space that a child could crawl into. Each moment brought her nearer to despair. John, now wrapped in his sheepskin jacket, headed back out into the cold night to search the barn, peering intently into every shadow, not quite sure what he expected to see. Then, with shaking hands, he opened the door to the wood shed, and stared into the gloom, but Chloe was not to be found.

"Where is she, John?" said a panicked Martha, close to tears.

*


11 years ago ...

"Frankie, do you know what time it is? Get yourself into the house, girl," John Baxter shouted. His words fell on deaf ears. Frankie Baxter had herself firmly entwined with Herby Walk, the boy from the grocery store. They had been 'walking out' for some months and the word was they planned to marry. Luckily the word had failed to reach John Baxter's ears. He was an old fashioned man who believed that girls should not be in the company of men until they were at least twenty. As far as he was concerned, Frankie was still his little girl and should still be playing with dolls, not contemplating marriage. He and Martha had become parents quite late in life. For years after their marriage they thought they would remain childless. Frankie came as a bit of a surprise.

Frankie was seventeen going on twenty one; she thought herself a woman of the world. She loved to dance and every boy wanted to dance with her. The trouble was that she also liked to drink, and when she drank, the dancing took on a horizontal nature. She had a well founded reputation among the young people locally as a good time girl. Up til now, John was oblivious to his daughter's promiscuous ways.

"When I tell you to come in, you do as you're told," John said, grabbing Frankie by the arm and pulling her away from the boy. He was damned if he was going to allow this sort of behaviour on his doorstep. John grew up in a generation where even holding hands came after a long courtship, and the first kiss came with the engagement. No way was he going to allow this sort of carrying on.

"Night Herby," Frankie said, reluctantly, as she was dragged inside. The door slammed shut and Herby Walk stood there with a lost look on his face. Frankie was the love of his life. He wanted to marry her despite her reputation. She was the girl who had taken his cherry; shown him the delights of an adult relationship. He felt that at nineteen he was more than ready to take the next step.


11 years ago ...

"Poppa, Momma, Herby and I got married," Frankie said, showing off the ring. Frankie had gone missing three days earlier. She had left the house at eight that morning, remarkable considering she rarely rose before noon. Martha had wanted to ring the Sheriff when she failed to return home that night, but John had a fair idea where she would be. He had reluctantly accepted that his little girl was all grown up, and what's more, was besotted by the Walk boy. Although he considered them far too young to marry, the deed was done and that was all there was to it.

"And where do you think you're gonna live?" John asked. He had not been slow to notice the Walk boy was carrying a suitcase. Herby Walk was alone in the world. He had grown up in an orphanage. Two years ago, Roy Weaver, the owner of the grocery store, had taken the boy in. It was a working relationship; the boy worked in the store to pay for his bed and board and a small wage, barely pocket change.

"Poppa, we're gonna live here, of course," Frankie said. John was slow to anger but he could feel the heat rising in his veins. His daughter had gone against everything he believed in, and what she was asking would have meant he would be condoning her behaviour. John was a man of principal, even when those principals could cause pain to those he loved.

"Over my dead body," John said. Then he turned to the frightened Herby Walk. "Son, you're a married man now. You gotta take responsibility for your wife. Get yourself a job and find somewhere of your own to live."

"I got me a job, Sir, at the store, but it don' pay enough for us to rent our own place," Herby whined. It struck John that the boy needed to do a lot of growing up if he was going to look after his daughter. The job that Herby was so proud of having was little more than errand boy; the sort of job you take while you're still in school, not a man's job at all. And he knew that Roy wouldn't let the couple stay on at his place, no matter how many hours the kid put in.

"Then your wife's gonna have to work as well." With that John slammed the door on both of them. Of course, Martha cried, tried to change her husband's mind, but John was adamant that it was time for the girl to stand on her own two feet. Her mother had spoiled her; buying her the latest clothes, with money they could ill afford, allowing her to get out of her share of the chores. Now she was Mrs Walk she was no longer his responsibility.

*


A year ago...

"When did you last see your grand-daughter, Ms Baxter?" Sheriff Harris asked. He came as soon as he got the call. A missing nine year old child was a serious matter, especially in a rural community. Even if she had simply wandered off there were all sorts of dangers out there, not least hypothermia at this time of year. Bob Harris had two children of his own, one of them the same age as Chloe. He could well imagine what the old couple would be going through at this time.

"She came in for lunch around one. We had baked potatoes. I suggested she might like to make some cakes after, but she wanted to go with John," Martha said. Chloe was a bit of a tomboy, rarely interested in anything domestic; just like her mother, in fact. She spent most of her free time with her grandfather. And if they weren't filling the wood store, Chloe would be in the back twenty, beside the water hole, on the swing that John had originally built for his daughter, Frankie, the child's mother.

"And did she go with you, John?"

"She came with me to the wood shed. I had logs to chop. I asked her to stack them in the store and said that after she could play on the swing. There won't be much chance to play outdoors once the snows come." The winters could be harsh in these parts. Baxter's Hollow often got cut off from the town for any vehicle other than 4x4s. It was already late September and the snows could come at any time. Martha had already put by stores of flour and other dry goods and the cellar was full of her jellies, pickles and preserved fruits.

"Is it possible that Frankie came by and took her?" Bob Harris asked. He had been a humble Deputy at the time of Chloe's birth and the subsequent disappearance of the child's mother. He knew Frankie's reputation and hadn't been at all surprised when she abandoned her daughter. But he had to ask.

"After all these years?" Martha said.

*


11 years ago ...

It didn't take long before word got back to John that Frankie was up to her old tricks. The Sheriff had pulled her in for drunkenness and lewd behaviour, when he found her in the parking lot of The Silver Dollar with her panties around her ankles, throwing up over some guy who most definitely wasn't her husband. After a couple of hours in the drunk tank, Herby had been stupid enough to bail her out and take her home to the small room over the barber's shop that they called home.

It wasn't much of a place. The bed took up most of the space, with a sink and a single gas burner in the corner. The bathroom was down the hall, shared with three others. Frankie was no housewife. The floor was littered with clothes, some clean, some dirty; impossible to tell which was which any more. The sink was full of dirty dishes. A pot sat on the ring with congealed remnants of something out of a tin.

"What's wrong with you, why don't you grow a pair," John had said to his son-in-law, when he ran into him in town a few days later. Herby looked thoroughly downtrodden. John had heard that he had taken on double shifts at the store in order to keep his lazy, good for nothing wife in booze. John actually felt sorry for the boy, but felt that he had been proved right, that they were too young and irresponsible to get married.

"She's my wife, and I love her," was all the dweeb had to say for himself. John felt ashamed to call her his daughter. It was one thing for a teenager to act up but Frankie was now a married woman and with that should come some measure of constraint. He thought he had brought her up to be better than that. Neither he nor Martha had any problem with alcohol. Apart from a celebratory drink on the holidays, they never touched the stuff. Frankie was bordering on alcoholism, and, it seemed, was totally incapable of behaving decently when under the influence.

It came as no surprise when Frankie turned up on their doorstep several weeks later with a black eye and a suitcase. She stood there on the porch without a hint of remorse. It was like she took it for granted that her parents would take her in.

"So he's finally had enough?" was all John said. He was in two minds whether to let the girl into his home. On the one hand she had married very much against his advice and behaved appallingly towards her husband, on the other, she was still his daughter. He looked at her painted face and all he could see was the little girl who had spent hours playing on the swing by the water hole.

"I'm pregnant," she said, once she got inside. Martha immediately rushed to her daughter and insisted she put down her case and sit down. Even John softened towards his daughter in light of her condition.

"What sort of man throws out his pregnant wife?" John said.

"The sort who ain't the Daddy."

*


A year ago ...

The Sheriff stood looking at the swing, imagining the little girl happily going to and fro in the dappled sunlight. His own daughter, Beth, was in the same class at the Elementary School. The two girls weren't exactly friends, in fact there had been times when they seemed like the worst of enemies. He had come to know John and Martha well, as they sat waiting outside the Principal's office, after the two had got into yet another tussle.

"Have you found anything?" Harris asked, as one of the divers came up for air. A head shake told him that the answer was no. He had thought from the off that it was unlikely the child had drowned. She was a good swimmer, often beating girls several years her senior in the annual gala. But it was his job to cover all the bases. His men had done a sweep of the area but found nothing untoward; no signs of a struggle, no little girl's clothing, none of the clues that normally accompanied an abduction.

He had put out an Amber alert as soon as the child went missing. He knew everybody in these parts and there was nobody that obviously sprang to mind as the possible abductor. It would have to be someone passing through. But that made it all the less likely that the child would be found. His only hope was that Chloe had either wandered off of her own accord or had been abducted by one of her parents. He needed to find Frankie and see if she had the child, or at least, get from her the name of the father.

The light was failing fast. With the setting of the sun came a chill wind. Already there was a glistening on the trees as the frost started to permeate. Before long the water hole would freeze over. Baxter's Hollow took on a new life once Winter truly set in. The water would freeze solid enough for the locals to go skating, those that had a suitable vehicle to negotiate the road from town, that is. John and Martha didn't mind as long as people brought up the mail or picked up their supplies on the way. They were glad to have the company.

"Let's call it a day, guys," the Sheriff said, as the last of the divers came ashore and reported no findings. He still had men out searching in the woodland. The whole town had turned out to search the school, the church, empty buildings, outhouses, anywhere a little girl might hide. Everyone had been asked to search their memories for sightings of strangers in the area. The children were questioned in case Chloe had mentioned seeing her mother recently.

"Do you think there's any chance at all that Frankie came back for the child?" the Sheriff asked Martha, as he pulled up outside the house to report on the search. Martha shook her head. Frankie had never been a mother to the child, why would she start now?


10 years ago ...

Frankie proved an impatient mother-to-be. She had been sensible and given up drinking and rampaging for the duration, but it was taking it's toll. Her temper was short and she found much to complain about, especially once she started waddling, her large belly getting in the way of any normal movement. She showed no interest in matters domestic and spent her days lolling on the couch with a magazine and her evenings in her room listening to music. John and Martha had forgotten how noisy their daughter could be.

"Turn it down up there," John shouted, as Kylie's latest reverberated around the house. Frankie had done nothing to prepare for the coming child; she didn't even have diapers. Martha spent her evenings knitting baby clothes and embroidering a quilt ready for her first grandchild. Even John had accepted the situation and was making a crib in the secrecy of the wood store. He had picked out the best logs and hewn them by hand into a rocking cradle his ancesters would have recognised and been proud of.

It was coming up for Christmas and luckily the weather had been quite mild up to now. Martha prayed that the spring thaw would arrive before her grandchild did. Winter in these parts was not a time for rushing to the maternity hospital. The roads would be treacherous at best, impassable if they had a heavy snowfall. Although generations of Baxter babies had been born right here in Baxter's Hollow, Martha would much rather her grandchild was delivered in the safety of a modern hospital.

"Happy Christmas, dear," Martha greeted her daughter on Christmas morning. It was gone ten and she and John had already had their breakfast. She looked out of the kitchen window as she washed up the breakfast things. There were the first flakes of snow, drifting down from a yellow sky. It wouldn't be long before the ground had a good covering. John was heading in from the wood store, a pile of logs in his arms. His feet were already leaving a pattern on the path. Snow can be quite beautiful viewed from a window, in the warmth and safety of your home, but as John opened the door to come in, an icy blast brought a flurry into their comfortable kitchen, reminding them how deadly the weather could be to the unwary.

The turkey was in the oven, and Martha was preparing the vegetables, when she heard a yell from the lounge. "Momma, I think ... aaaaaah!" The baby was coming, two months early. Martha helped Frankie to the sofa. The girl had a terrified look in her eyes, like a startled deer in the headlights. She was clutching her belly and moaning gently, then she let out another scream. Wetness began to show on the girl's skirt. Martha checked that it wasn't blood. As she did so, Frankie let out another scream.

"John, John!" Martha shouted. "Bring the car round, we need to get to the hospital, now!"

*


A year ago ...

"I don't know what else we can do," admitted Sheriff Harris. A month had passed since Chloe's disappearance. It had now become a case for Federal law enforcement. "They're gonna put her face on the milk cartons, but ..." Bob Harris hated giving bad news to people and this was the worst, well almost. As long as there was no body I suppose there was always hope. But then, maybe hope was a worse killer than grief.

"Thank you for everything you've done," John said. He looked over at Martha, half asleep on the sofa. He had never seen her look so old. There were dark circles around her eyes, which were also bloodshot from crying. She seemed hunched when she walked. All the life had gone out of her suddenly. She lived for that child and now she was gone there was nothing left to fill her days.

"Do you think Frankie might have taken Chloe?" Martha asked in bed that night. It sounded more like wishful thinking than any real belief. Frankie had shown no interest in the child up to now, so why would she suddenly come back for her after all this time? John didn't have an answer. "Or maybe the child's father?" Now Martha was clutching at straws.

Frankie had never named the father of her child; John wasn't even sure she knew who it was. To all intents and purposes, Frankie had been no better than a prostitute, sleeping with random strangers for the price of a drink. As Frankie was still officially married to Herby Walk at the time of the birth, Chloe had taken his name. But Herby had made it clear he wasn't happy about it and he had never had any dealings with the child, going out of his way to avoid contact.

"You don't suppose Herby would ..." Martha let that thought hang in the air.

*


10 years ago ...

The snow was falling heavily as the car pulled away from Baxter's Hollow. The tyres crunched over the crystals as Frankie lay in the back screaming in pain. Martha sat beside her, holding her hand. The trees were already heavy with snow from the day before; only the center of the road had cleared in the weak sun. Now the road was once again covered by a good layer.

"If it doesn't stop soon we're never gonna make it," John said, gripping tightly to the wheel. They were making a snail's pace over the slippery surface, unlike the baby, which seemed in a hurry to meet the outside world. "How's she doin'?" Frankie's scream gave him his answer. "Martha, you better call out the Sheriff; he can meet us with his four by four, I think we might be needin' it." Martha took out her cell phone and dialled 911.

Chloe Virginia Walk came into the world in a snowdrift, half way to the small hospital in Matrix. Her first sight of the world was her grandmother, Martha, who delivered the child. The second face she saw was Sheriff Walter Stone, a burly man in his later years, looking forward to retirement. He soon assessed the situation.
"Martha, you take the child and John and I will help Frankie. Don't worry folks, I'll soon have you safe at the hospital." He was as good as his word. The police vehicle soon covered the miles. When they pulled in to the ambulance bay, staff were waiting. Frankie was wheeled into the Emergency Room, while Martha handed the baby over to a nurse, who rushed her to a waiting incubator.

"Frankie, don't you want to go say hello to your daughter?" John said, a few hours later. Frankie shook her head and turned away, burying her head under her pillow. She was in a room on her own, away from the other new mothers. She had shown no interest in the baby. It was Martha who sat in ICU, watching as Chloe struggled to hang on to life.



A year ago ...

Fall moved into winter quite slowly the year Chloe disappeared. For the people of Matrix, the child's disappearance soon became yesterday's news, as they prepared for the holidays. The town became a flurry of shopping, of seasonal entertainments, as the inhabitants took advantage of the late snows. Only a few close friends had thoughts of the missing child and the effect it was having on the folks at Baxter's Hollow.

In Baxter's Hollow, winter set in the moment the child's laughter was no longer heard. John carried on with his wood chopping, in anticipation of the cold to come; but there was a sluggishness to his step, a weakness to his arm, that hadn't been there when Chloe came to help. It had become a chore rather than a pleasure. Now he only occassionally wandered into the back twenty. Every time he looked at the swing, he pictured the little girl; the sun shining on her fair hair, the smile on her face; it broke his heart. Then he would look at the water; its murky depths a reflection of his soul. It was tempting to just walk into the water, to allow it to immerse him in its darkness, to release him to the light.

Martha had taken to sleeping late. John would take her a cup of tea and leave it on her nightstand, but it inevitably went cold. When she did get up, she would head straight for Chloe's room, like she expected the child to be there in her bed, and not missing at all. The anguish on Martha's face on finding an empty room, it was like the child had disappeared all over again. John often found her just sitting, there on Chloe's bed, staring out of the window, but seeing nothing.

John couldn't bare that look on his wife's face, so he would go back to his wood chopping and stay out of her way until it was too dark to see. Martha tried to make an effort, even if it was just preparing simple meals. But when it came time to lay the table, she would lay for three and the misery would return. She rarely ate what she cooked, and her once robust frame was reduced to little more than a skeleton. When John reached out to her at night, she would turn her back on him, only deepening his own sense of loss.

*


10 years ago ...

Frankie returned home a few days after the birth. Chloe was to remain in the hospital for several weeks. Her lungs were underdeveloped and she was prone to infection. It had been touch and go for the first few days but Frankie never once went to sit with the child. That fell to Martha, and, occassionally John. Now that Frankie was home, John's visits to the hospital were curtailed. He felt that Frankie needed him. It was not natural for a new mother to reject her child the way Frankie had rejected Chloe, and he feared for her sanity.

He need not have worried; only days after coming home, Frankie was back to her old tricks. As soon as his back was turned, she helped herself to his car keys and headed to town, and the nearest bar. It didn't take her long to pick up a trucker who happened to be passing through Matrix on his way to the City. John's car was returned by Deputy Harris, while Frankie slept it off in the drunk tank.

John was at a loss what to do about his errant daughter. He had hoped that becoming a mother would have brought her to her senses. He kept Frankie's exploits from Martha; she had enough to worry about, Chloe was still not out of the woods. Martha kept vigil at the child's side while John struggled to control her mother. When she wasn't able to get her hands on the car, she would phone some of the guys from her old High School and get them to drop by. Of course, they brought an ample supply of liquor, with only one thought in mind.

One evening, the night before Chloe was due to come home from the hospital, John returned home and saw a light coming from the wood shed. His first thought was that some bum was sleeping in there. But he soon realised that Frankie wasn't in the house. He moved across the ground as quietly as he could. The door to the wood shed was partly open. He peered through the crack and there was his daughter with a stranger. Her skirt was raised and this guy had his head between her legs.

"What the hell ..." John shouted, throwing the door wide. The guy jumped up and quickly fastened his trousers. He ran out of the door like a bat out of hell. "How dare you..."

"Poppa ..."

"You have brought nothing but disgrace to this family. Your mother is at the hospital with your child and you ..."

"I'm sorry, Poppa, but a woman has needs ..."

I suppose it came as no surprise to Martha, that the day she brought Chloe home from the hospital was the day that Frankie chose to disappear. John had driven into Matrix to collect Martha and the child. When they returned to Baxter's Hollow, Frankie was gone. "How could she just up and leave her child?" Martha asked, but it was a rhetorical question. She knew the answer; Frankie had never wanted the child in the first place.


8 months ago ...

As the Spring thaw came to Matrix, and the town's citizens looked on the world with new hope, not so at Baxter's Hollow. There it seemed like perpetual winter. The trees took on their new year's foliage but it only served to cast a shadow over the water hole and the inhabitants of the house. The curtains were always drawn now, blocking out the light that so reminded John and Martha of the brightness that was Chloe.

John still went about his daily ritual of chopping logs, filling the wood shed right to the door. He kept away from the back twenty. Every time he went near to the swing, he would see Chloe, in her favourite dungarees, going too and fro, laughing, and calling to him "Grandpa, Grandpa, Grandpa." But it was the water that he most wanted to avoid. Somehow it wanted to draw him in, to consume him into its murky depths.

Martha, too, had changed beyond all recognition. John no longer feared her wrath; she was no longer capable of such strong emotion. He looked into her eyes and saw only his own reflection. The light, that once excited and enthralled him, had long since gone out. He saw only a premonition of death. She had begun to eat again but not with the same enthusiasm. Food, which had once been a thing of pleasure, was now merely fuel.

"We haven't been able to find Frankie," Sheriff Harris said, when he called round. He had really been hoping that the child was with her mother. The alternative didn't bare thinking about. It was common police knowledge that if a child was going to be found alive and well, it would be in the first twenty four hours. However, when there was an absent parent involved that time period could well be extended. In this case both mother and child were missing. It didn't give Bob Harris much hope.

"You said you haven't any idea who the father is; do you think he knows he has a child?"

"I'll be honest with you, Bob, I don't think Frankie even knew who he was. You've heard the stories; it could have been anyone," John admitted. It was still hard for John to admit that his daughter was the local bike, even after all these years. He was ashamed of Frankie, and if she turned up on his doorstep now, he wasn't sure he wouldn't dispossess her. Not that John expected to ever see her again.

*


Nine years ago ...

Chloe was a bright child, and despite her poor start in life, was quite forward. Already she was running Martha ragged, and she wasn't quite a year old. She took her first tottering steps and managed to grab John's pipe and empty the contents all over the floor. Then she stomped around with the pipe in her mouth, doing her juvenile impression of him.

"Take that filthy thing away from her ," Martha protested, but she was trying her best not to laugh at her granddaughter's antics.

"She looks so much like Frankie was at that age," John said, with a tinge of sadness. "It won't be long before she's out playing on the old swing."

"It will be a while before that happens. It's far too near the water," Martha protested. Maybe because of her premature birth, or maybe because she didn't have her mother around, Martha was far more protective of Chloe than she had been of Frankie. Maybe that was where she went wrong with her daughter; maybe the girl had enjoyed far too much freedom. But Martha was determined that Chloe wouldn't go the same way. God help any boy that came calling.

John was of the same mind. He hoped he had learned from his mistakes with Frankie. He could only hope that he and Martha would still be around to guide Chloe into adulthood. Each day now he would discover another aching joint. Things he had done with ease not so long ago were now proving difficult. He had noticed changes in Martha as well. Each time she bent to pick up the child it would be accompanied by a groan. She didn't sleep so well these days either. Nights of walking the floor with a teething baby had turned into a habit of sleeplessness.

At their age, grandparenthood should be about short periods of fun, ending with the child being handed back for the hard stuff. They weren't the only grandparents raising a young child, even in their small community, but they were of a different generation because Frankie had arrived when they were already in their forties. Just when they should be taking life easy, they were embarking on a new labour of love. John prayed each day that they would be able to cope.

*


3 months ago ...

Fall came early to Baxter's Hollow. It was only early August but already the nights were colder. John busied himself with his log chopping, even though they had more than enough fire wood to keep them going through the winter. It had become an obsession, born out of loss, and also a form of escape. With each swing of the axe another piece of his anger and grief was chipped away. He could lose himself as he saw the uncut pile diminish and the wood shed fill to the rafters.

Martha rarely left the house these days. John would have to cajole her even to attend medical appointments. Her health had declined considerably since Chloe's disappearance. Her blood pressure was worryingly high and she had suffered from occassional chest pains. The doctor had diagnosed angina. "She must avoid stress at all costs," she had told John. But what can be more stressful than a missing child.

Bob Harris had become a regular visitor to Baxter's Hollow. Each time he appeared, Martha brightened, only to fall back into the depths of despair when he told her there was still no news of either Chloe or Frankie. "Take heart, Ms Baxter," he would say, "the fact that they are both missing makes me think they're together." This did nothing to lessen Martha's grief. Not only had she lost her beloved grandchild, but now her only daughter as well. She had accepted Frankie's absence up til now, picturing the young woman off gallivanting with some random man. Even the image of her drunk in a gutter somewhere was better than her current thoughts. Could someone have taken them both, mother and daughter? Could he be inflicting pain and suffering on her girls?

John was fast running out of logs to chop and now had to force himself to go to the back twenty. He picked up his axe and headed out, past the barn and up to the water hole. The swing hung there, motionless, a constant reminder of his loss. "Damn you!" he shouted, taking his axe to the rope. It simply swung away from him, undamaged. He swung the axe at the seat, leaving the blade embedded in the wood. He fell to his knees, covering his eyes against the image that always haunted him. For there was Chloe, laughing and shouting "Higher, higher," as the swing took her up into the green canopy and down again to the hard earth. He couldn't shut her out, no matter how hard he squeezed his eyes shut; she was always there, calling to him, like she had called him that day.

He raised his head and looked out at the water, inviting him, taunting him, shimmering in the dappled sunlight, yet with something much darker beneath the surface. How easy would it be? He could be like Chloe, and Frankie, and simply disappear. But then his thoughts turned to Martha, sitting at home, waiting, always waiting. How could he ever leave her? How could he cause her even more sorrow? A chill ran through him, not caused by any breeze, but caused by the ghosts of the past, haunting him in this place. He pushed himself up from the ground with some difficulty. Then he staggered from this place of sorrow, past the barn and on to the wood shed. There he stood, staring at what had become his life's work; a shed full of fire wood. That's where Martha found him, several hours later.

"Come in now," she said, gently taking his hand and leading him, "Your work's done, the shed's full." Despite her own grief, Martha had not failed to see what John was doing. He was storing up his emotions with every piece of wood that found itself in that shed.


A year ago ...

"Are you going to help Grandpa today, or do you want to play on the swing?" John asked his granddaughter.

"I want to help you, Grandpa. See, I've got my working clothes on." Chloe was dressed in denim dungarees and an old t-shirt. It was her favourite outfit. She was not the sort of little girl who liked to dress up. Her hair was, at her insistance, cut in a short, boyish style. Martha had made the mistake of buying her a dress once; she had reluctantly put it on, then she had run outside and got it covered with mud. Martha took the hint and put the ruined dress straight in the garbage.

Chloe ran on ahead to the wood shed. John wandered on behind. It was not that he had no enthusiasm for the work, more that he was feeling his age. John found himself doing everything slowly these days. "Can you manage that big log, hun, or shall Grandpa do it?" Chloe was not a child to give in. She wrapped her hands around an outcropping and dragged the heavy log over to the old man. "OK, you take your end and I'll lift this end." Between them they lifted the log onto the stands. "Stand back now." He lifted the axe above his head and brought it down on the log. Then he eased it out and brought it down again. After a few minutes the log cleaved in two.

Chloe carried each half in turn to the block, where John split it into usable sized pieces. "Stack these over by the door," he told the girl. They continued to work through the morning. Chloe was growing up fast. She could now lift quite sizable logs on her own, and John was certainly grateful for that. His back was starting to feel the strain, although he would never admit it; he had been raised with the principal that hard work never killed anyone, it was inactivity that did for you.

"Lunch is ready," Martha called out from the kitchen window, which she always kept open when John was outside working. Martha, too, sensed the years creeping up on them both, and her greatest fear was that John might collapse and she wouldn't hear him calling. "Go wash up now, you two," she said, as the workers made their way into the kitchen. "Look at the mud you've dragged in on my nice clean floor," she chastised. They both knew it was mock indignation on Martha's part, and they grinned as they removed their muddy boots and made their way to the washroom.

After a lunch of baked potatoes with sour cream and chives, John was ready for a rest. He snuggled down in his old armchair and soon drifted off to sleep. "I'm baking cakes this afternoon, do you want to help me, Chloe?" Martha asked quietly, not wanting to wake him up.

"No thanks, Gran, I'm gonna go play on the swing; if that's OK?" Martha nodded. Chloe had never shown an interest in domestic pursuits. Martha had tried to encourage her with cooking and sewing and knitting, but she just wasn't interested. Frankie had been much the same; even when she was expecting Chloe, that nesting instinct never kicked in.

Chloe ran out, past the wood shed and the barn and on the the edge of the water hole and the swing. She loved it here. It was so quiet. As she pushed herself off the ground, and soared up into the tree tops, all she could hear was the wind. The trees sang out as the wind strained at their limbs and pulled at their leaves. The water rippled with pleasure as the breeze tickled its surface. It gave the little girl a feeling of contentment, an at- oneness with nature.

After a few hours a feeling of guilt overcame Chloe's pleasure, the thought that Grandpa had so much work to do, and that she should be helping. She, too, had noticed how unkindly the years were treating him. She jumped from the swing and ran back past the barn. There was no sign of Grandpa, but there was a large pile of logs beside the wood shed door. She could take them inside, stack them carefully, save him the job.

John returned to his labours, not noticing that the wood pile had diminished. He dragged another large log over to the saw horse. As he lifted it, he groaned. "Grandpa, is that you?" Chloe's voice was coming from deep within the wood shed. "Grandpa, come look; I've found something."



The present day ...

John Baxter sat in his room at Shady Pines, looking out of the window. It wasn't much of a view, just the back of another building; a concrete slab punctured here and there by pipework and air vents. But that wasn't what the old man was seeing. He was seeing cool water and shady trees, a place of tranquil beauty, a place of tragedy and secrets. He was seeing a little girl, in denim dungarees, swinging high into the canopy and shouting "Grandpa, grandpa, grandpa, grandpa ..." The sound of her voice echoed around inside his head. He couldn't shut it out. He closed his eyes tight but still the image invaded his peace.

The moment was broken by the arrival of Shirley Adams. "Good afternoon, Mr. Baxter, and how are we today?" That singsong voice drove John mad. He had been living in the retirement home for a week now. The food was OK but not a patch on Martha's cooking. He had tried the communal lounge but found the chatter of the old women annoying. There was only one other man living at Shady Pines, Victor Highgrove. Unfortunately, Victor was in the latter stages of dementia and was uncommunicative and often violent. John could understand his frustration.

"WE want to go home. I have work to do; the wood won't chop itself you know."

"Now, now, Mr. Baxter. We won't have any more of that. This is your home now. And they have central heating; no need for any more wood chopping. It's time to take it easy at last." The woman had no idea what was going through John's head. Take it easy, how could he take it easy? His girls were back there waiting for him, cold and alone.

"We need to talk about your old home, Mr. Baxter. You see the state won't pay your fees here at Shady Pine while you own a property..."

"I don't give a damn about what the state will or won't pay. I don't want to be here, so they're only wasting their money anyhow." John picked up a book that he had been given to read and heaved it at the Social Worker. She ducked out of the way of the missile but it scared her. She quickly left the room and went off to inform the doctor in charge that she was considering a court order to compel John Baxter to sell his home and remain at Shady Pine for his own and others' protection.

John was aware that he had made things worse by his outburst but he felt the woman was plotting against him. There was no way he could possibly sell Baxter's Hollow. It had been his family's home for over a century. It was the only home he and Martha had known as a couple, it was where Frankie was born and it was where Chloe had spent her entire life.

John knew that he had to escape, to go home to Baxter's Hollow, to stop them from selling the place. To stop anyone going in the wood shed.

*


"Yes, this is Sheriff Harris... You say John Baxter has gone missing...three hours ago ...OK." Bob was in no doubt that John had headed home, to Baxter's Hollow. His mind slipped back to the day of Martha's funeral. It was something John had said that had been niggling him ever since. 'It's where my girls are' he had said. OK, the guy was grieving but it still seemed a strange thing to say given that neither Frankie nor Chloe had ever been found.

He had spoken with Martha only two days before she died. She had been coming out of the wood shed when he arrived. John was in bed with a chill. It was strange to see Martha carrying fire wood; that was always John's job. He remembered how obsessive John had become in his wood chopping; was that his way of dealing with things, or was there a more sinister reason behind it?

He was taking no chances on this one. He pulled his weapon from its holster and checked it over thoroughly. John Baxter might be an old man but there was no telling what frame of mind he might be in.

*


John paid the cab driver and waved him on his way. He didn't even bother to unlock the house. He headed straight for the wood shed through the quickly thawing snow. The door was open and swinging in the breeze. "Oh God, please tell me nobody's been in there." He looked around for footprints but saw only his own. That was not to say that someone hadn't been here before the fresh snowfall yesterday. He entered the shed and looked around. There was definitely less wood in there than there had been the day Martha died, the day Martha decided to collect her own firewood.

He looked over to the far corner; no, that wood hadn't been disturbed, not since Chloe ...

If only the women in his life would listen to what he said, if only they would do as they were told...

*


When Bob Harris arrived at Baxter's Hollow, he too went straight to the wood shed. He found that most of the wood had been strewn outside. Towards the back of the shed the wood had been cleared. Someone had been scratching in the dirt. He went back to his car to fetch a flashlight. He wasn't quite sure what it was that he had seen, there in the dirt, at the back of the shed, but to him it looked like a little girl's arm.

He wasted no time radioing in his findings and putting out an APB on John Baxter.

*


The swing still hung there, motionless, albeit with its seat cleaved in two. John fell to his knees as the image came back, of the child on the swing. But this time it wasn't Chloe he saw but Frankie, his own sweet, innocent Frankie. The child was calling to him, "Poppa, poppa, poppa ..." He lifted his head and looked out across the water. It had been frozen but the ice was now just fragmented pieces floating in the wind.

The trees cast their black, leafless shadows over the water, looking to John like limbs, stretching out to claim him. Beneath the surface the dark murkiness reflected his soul. The invitation was there. A few steps ...

"John, don't!" shouted Sheriff Harris. John turned his head slowly toward the man who had become his friend.

"You found them?" Bob nodded. John got up from his knees with difficulty. "This is our home, Bob." Then he turned back to the water and took those last final steps to Baxter's Hollow.

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