In the darkness, this hillside,
this deserted place in the heart of rural England, might be anywhere.
It is a place of outstanding beauty, covered in lush grass and wild flowers of vivid colour, that in the summer time are peppered with fat bumble-bees, tracing lazy arcs over hazy meadows and rich woodland. It is the kind of place that should to be full of light and happiness.
The night is warm, but the wind is high, the humidity almost cloying. The air thrums with a kind of electricity, the precursor to a building storm over the horizon. It is a night full of strangeness and expectation, a night on which dogs whine at empty shadows, where the darkness seems just a little deeper, where you might look out of your bedroom window and fancy that you see someone lurking there, if only for an instant. The approaching thunderheads make us wish we could be safe at home, behind locked doors and shuttered windows, away from this feeling of dread and unrest. We wish we could leave this place, and never discover the true source of that potent fear, and perhaps we should, (we almost certainly should), but someone has to honour a life about to be lost. Someone must bear witness for which, dear reader, I am truly sorry.
Two figures are making their way steadily up the hill, towards a thin line of trees at the summit. One is much smaller than the other, only a child. The taller shape is hunched and awkward, urging the smaller figure relentlessly onward. The smaller of this mis-matched pair is a young boy named Johnny Lassiter.
He is barely ten years old, and he is terrified.
Somewhere deep inside his child’s heart is a voice, much older than his own, that tells him his life is about to end. He is crying but tries not to make a sound as he does. He knows that if she hears him, she will strike him again. He doesn’t want to be struck, of course not, but that is not the source of his terror, what scares him more is her touch; leathery, cold and somehow inhuman.
‘Loathsome’ is the word he wants but he does not know it.
He will never have the chance to learn it.
“Quit yer bawling ye dirty brat. The sound of your snivelling makes me want ter puke my guts so it does.” Her voice is like no other voice in creation, something older than the world, a sound out of the void. Somehow it hurts inside his head, as if the words bypass his ears and are seared into his brain. She jerks the length of dirty twine that circles his neck, cutting off his breath and Johnny releases a harsh yelp as his head is yanked viciously backwards. He retches, but does not vomit (there is nothing in his stomach to bring up anyway) and steadies himself as best he can. He wipes his eyes on the backs of his small dirty hands, bound by the same rough string, and trudges grimly forward. He knows that they are going beyond the trees, though he doesn’t know what waits there.
Despite his long captivity, despite all he has suffered up to this point, as little as an hour ago he really thought he would be rescued. Now he simply prays that whatever is waiting for him at the end of this wretched trek, it won’t hurt too much.
Though he thinks it probably will.
He wonders how many others have been brought here, trudging barefoot through the mud and grass. He hopes it hasn’t been many, but that voice in his heart knows better.
They have walked in the darkness for what seems like hours, brambles scoring dozens of stinging scratches across his calves, tearing at the tattered fabric of the corduroys he has worn for weeks. Wet leaves and twigs brush his face, but if he slows to push them away, she yanks the twine until his throat narrows to an agonising pin-hole. He is so tired, so completely used up, that he is almost on the point of collapse when they finally reach the clearing.
The moonlight is just bright enough to see by, and he has time to discern a shape in the darkness ahead of him, tall and imposing, a deeper black against the night sky. He is still trying to make sense of it when she strikes him hard on the point of his skull, and he passes gratefully into unconsciousness.
He wakes up only once more. He is lying on his back, unable to move, staring at the stars. He is aware that she is hurting him, cutting him open with something. There is pain, but it seems far away and somehow unimportant. He remembers his bedroom, his toys, the Lego pirate ship he was building resting unfinished on the shelf above his bed. He thinks about his Mum and Dad and baby sister Sharon. He thinks about riding his bike up and down the lane by his house, and how he loved the reckless feeling of going fast. He thinks of those things that ten year old boys hold dear, those things as adults we must eventually forget, locked away in the dustiest corners of our hearts.
These are the things that Johnny Lassiter will never have the time to forget.
He dies silently, still looking up at the stars.