by Hannah Stevens
The sun is high and there are no clouds in the bright blue sky. The winding path is dusty and stretches away from the tourist complex.
‘Look at that,’ says Zack, and he gestures upwards, ‘there’s not a single cloud. Have you ever seen a sky like that?’
‘Maybe once or twice,’ says Daisy. ‘But never in Greece, as I’ve never been here before.’ Zack laughs.
‘It’s so hot though,’ he says, ‘I hope it’s not too far to the village. Max will want to eat soon.’ He looks beneath the hood of the pram. It’s amazing how often a tiny two-year-old needs to eat. Max is asleep and holds the arm of his ragdoll tightly in his hand.
‘The guy from the pool said it wasn’t far, didn’t he?’ says Daisy. ‘I’m sure it’s not.’
They’re walking slowly, relaxed. It’s the third day of their holiday and they’re finally losing the tension they’d had at home. Daisy remembers the man from the pool earlier that morning, his perfect white teeth when he smiled, how he spoke to Max and made him laugh. The pushchair wheels crunch over the grit of the road and their feet fling dust into the air as they walk.
Fig trees line the side of the road. The leaves are wide and a dark green that looks out of place in the surrounding dust.
‘Wasps are the only insect that can pollinate figs, you know,’ says Zack. He reaches his hand between the green leaves and pulls a fig from the branch. ‘Would you like to share?’ he asks. The fig is bulbous, dark, lined. She shivers at the thought that there may be a wasp inside.
‘No, thanks,’ she says, ‘you have it.’ Zack shrugs, splits the fruit with his fingers and puts some of it into his mouth.
‘Sweet,’ he says.
‘How long have we been walking for now?’ asks Zack. The road is uphill, the town much further than they thought.
‘Forty minutes, I think.’ Max has started to cry: he’s hungry and hot beneath the red hood of the pushchair.
‘Maybe we should go back to the hotel?’ says Zack. ‘We can go for a swim and get a beer.’
‘Surely we’re nearly there now,’ says Daisy, ‘and won’t it be nice to meet some locals?’
‘I don’t really care,’ he says. He’s looking red in the face now. Sweat shines on his forehead, drips down his nose. Daisy notices he’s beginning to limp, thinks there must be blisters on his feet.
‘Look,’ says Daisy, ‘cherries.’ She picks a few from the tree. They are red-black ripe and soft in her hands. She stands still for a moment. There are tiny birds perched on the branches, pulling at the fat fruit. Their yellow beaks are covered with dark stains. Daisy watches them eat and then fly into the sky when they’re full. How nice, she thinks, to be so close to that beautiful blue. She offers a cherry to Zack, holding the fruit in front of him. He pretends he hasn’t seen. Daisy puts one in her mouth and the flesh is sweet.
The village is all white walls and cobbled streets. As they pass the houses on the outskirts, there’s some shade and they’re glad. It’s busy here. Daisy thinks that she recognises people from the hotel, but she can’t be sure.
Soon, they find a café. There are tables outside and they sit down.
‘It’s like a postcard,’ says Daisy. Wisteria arcs around doorframes and covers the front of white stone buildings. Daisy has Max in her arms now and takes him to look more closely at the plant. He holds his hands towards the purple flowers. These are for me, he is saying, I want them.
‘No,’ says Daisy and she doesn’t let him pull the flowers from the branches. Max squeals and for a second there’s silence as people stop talking and watch her. ‘Shhh,’ she says, ‘come on let’s get you something cool to drink.’
Daisy walks back to the table and sits down. She has a headache because of the heat and Max is still squealing, making noises as if he’s been pinched or worse. She feels the weight of his small body, the heat from him and how his skin is sticky from the sun cream she’d rubbed over him this morning.
They order water and two glasses of beer, some juice for Max. The waitress is dark skinned and she’s wearing pink lipstick. Zack watches her from over the top of his menu. The waitress knows this and deliberately avoids his eye.
‘Here, you take Max,’ says Daisy. She passes him across the table and begins to feel the heat of his small body dissipate from her lap. She lights a cigarette. Max wriggles to get down and she watches as Zack holds him tighter against him.
‘Put him on the floor,’ she says, ‘there’s nothing here that’ll hurt.’ The decking beneath them is smooth and clean. He puts Max on to the floor, close to his legs.
‘There you go,’ he says, ‘you can play now.’ The waitress brings their drinks. The glasses are cold, taken from the fridge and the beer is colder still. They drink it quickly. They order another and Zack finds his book from the basket beneath the pram.
‘This is more like it,’ he says.
‘I’ll be back in a few minutes,’ says Daisy. ‘I’m going to find the toilets.’
‘Okay,’ says Zack without looking up from his book.
Inside the café it’s hot, even though the sun doesn’t shine in through any of the windows. How can it be this hot in the shade, she wonders. It’s relentless. The café is full inside: people avoiding the sun, hoping for air conditioning that isn’t there. She follows signs that direct her to the back of the café and through a door to a courtyard. Outside she sees a cat lying in the shade. It has grey, thick fur. Daisy can see the glassy eyes of the animal follow her as she walks. As she nears the far side of the courtyard it stands and walks towards her. It stops and brushes against her bare legs. The cat feels soft and thin beneath the fur. She wonders if it has teeth or fleas and so she doesn’t bend down to stroke it.
‘Where is he?’ asks Daisy when she arrives back to the table, back to Zack, back to an empty floor. Zack looks up from his book.
‘What?’ he says, ‘he’s here isn’t he?’ He looks beneath the table, notices the blisters on his bare feet. Max is gone: the space empty aside from his ragdoll lying on the floor. Zack picks up the doll, looks around them. The table behind is empty now. Who sat there before? Had there been a family? Or was it a man, on his own, wearing something dark? Zack stands. Daisy is pacing the length of the decking at the front of the café, checking beneath tables, behind burnt legs wearing shorts.
‘I’ll check inside,’ he says, ‘he can’t have wandered far, can he?’ And he couldn’t have, could he? But still, there’s a tightening in Zack’s throat, a coldness that settles on his bare, sunburnt shoulders.
‘I’ve just come through that way,’ says Daisy, ‘he wasn’t in there.’ She snatches the ragdoll from his hands.
‘But you weren’t looking for him,’ says Zack. ‘He’s small, and they’re easy to miss when you’re not looking for them, aren’t they?’ He tries to laugh but it gets stuck and doesn’t make it past his lips.
‘Fine, you go that way,’ says Daisy and gestures towards the door. ‘I’m going to check out here. We’re right on the road, Zack, what if he’s gone in that direction? Fucking hell, why weren’t you watching him?’
Inside people turn to look at Zack as he enters. He’s trying to be calm, it’s still early on. There’s still time to find him; they don’t need to panic yet, do they? He registers the concern of the family by the door. They must have heard the conversation outside. Soon, people are standing, looking beneath tables, moving chairs, heading out the back entrance to the cobbled courtyard. A few women have gone out front to find Daisy. He hears their feet as they walk quickly across the wooden boards and then land on the dusty road in front.
Daisy is shouting Max’s name now. He can hear her calling and wonders how far away she is. Her voice is high and tight. He hears it shake, he hears it grow louder, higher, reach further across the village. He sees people step from their front doors, into the street, and listen to his wife with open mouths and wide eyes. What they can hear now, is less like words: less human than when she first began to shout.
The police are formal. The man asks questions carefully, the woman sits silently, takes notes. Where did you look, they ask. Did they recognise anyone nearby? Why hadn’t they been watching Max? How long was the boy missing before they asked someone to call the police? There’s a fan on the table and it makes a noise as it moves. It reminds Daisy of last summer, when a dragonfly was trapped in the kitchen, the sound its wings made against the windowpane.
They write Max’s details onto forms, enter him into computer screens. His age is noted (two), his hair colour (blonde), the colour of his eyes (green), the clothes he was wearing (blue shorts, red t-shirt, a white sun hat, silver jelly shoes). Any distinguishing features? Yes, they say, a small birthmark on his neck. All of these things, him in small pieces, thinks Daisy.
The policeman’s hair is silver at the temples. He’s thin, tense. Daisy can see the ripples of tendon at the base of his neck as he speaks. She tries to concentrate on that, tries to avoid the hard stares of the policewoman opposite her, tries not to think of the weightlessness on her lap, the lack of heat there.
‘Why are you not out there looking for him?’ asks Daisy.
‘There’s a process of dealing with these things,’ says the man, ‘There is a way.’ It doesn’t sound right, how he says it, but his English is better than their Greek. He stands with his notebook and closes the door of the interview room behind him. The woman doesn’t stand. Instead she pulls her chair closer to the desk, watches them closely, watches them as if they are about to make another mistake.
Today they’re digging for Max. In the village where Max was last seen there’s a patch of earth that’s of interest. The police had hesitated when they’d said this, when they’d arrived at the hotel to advise a dig was taking place later that day.
Daisy and Zack stand and watch them. They’re behind a cordon. Like cattle in a pen, says Daisy. In front of them, pieces of string have been placed on the ground: guides along the earth. A woman in a white suit points at intersecting lines and directs others with spades to begin.
They cut and dig into the soil with sickening precision. Zack is holding Daisy’s hand. Or maybe she’s holding his. And then somebody is holding her and Zack up.
Soon they pull a long piece of cloth from the earth. And then Daisy falls through the arms of the person trying to keep her on her feet. She drags her fingers across the dusty floor. She feels the soil press and gather under her nails.
The people digging lie the dusty white dress on the floor. It’s covered with small blue flowers and there’s a pocket on the chest. They put it into a clear plastic bag and it’s labelled and taken away. Nobody knows who the dress belongs to. Nobody knows why it was there. Zack wonders who would bury a child’s dress like that, wonders why nobody wants to talk about it.
Daisy is crying now. She presses Max’s ragdoll to her nose and her tears disappear into the soft material of the doll.
Seven months later Daisy is at home. Zack isn’t there anymore because she made him leave. In her bed there’s no room for him now: the ragdoll sleeps on his pillow. Today she’s changing the sheets. She smooths them and folds them and tucks them in tight at the corners. She plumps her pillows, feels the feathers move inside the case. Isn’t it sad that they’re no longer attached to birds, that they’re no longer in the sky, she thinks, and she wonders if these birds ever even got to fly.
Hannah Stevens is a short story and flash fiction writer with a PhD from the University of Leicester. Her creative work has been featured in a number of anthologies including High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories published by Valley Press and Unthology 10: Fight or Flight, published by Unthank Books. Her stories have also been included in many small-press publications including Fairlight Books, Idle Ink, Losslit and Necessary Fiction. You can find out more about her at www.hannahstevenswriter.com.