Dalma

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Chapter 4

It was much later on that I became aware of what had happened in the forest, from newspapers and some of the more loose tongued police officers. The forest itself was vast, covering the East side of the town and stretching back to the hills twenty miles away, reaching up their slopes. The search teams were combing the distance slowly, picking their way through the undergrowth and shining torches into caves and gaps in the rock. It was in one such cave that they found Mira, feverish and broken, at around the same time Petyr and I were first meeting Milan. Once they found her, they knew they were close to finding Dalma.

Melina Horvath, a personal friend of Mira's family and a community leader, was at the head of the search along with Mira's father. They searched the cave and the woods around it for half a mile, but found nothing. They weren't aware that they were looking for something that didn't want to be found.

The hunter's best weapon is stealth.

The first one disappeared while we were on our way to Dalma's house. She had been a high school student, and had volunteered for the search without a second thought. They found her halfway up a tree, neck broken and body twisted. The second managed to scream before he vanished into the trees, drawing the others closer. Around the time we found the trap door in the basement, Melina Horvath herself went missing. Mira's father and his brother found blood, but nothing else. Losing three people was enough to drive them away and hand the search over to people with firearms, and the police obliged.

I could feel the tension in the air as I dropped from the van into the mud. The rain was easing off slightly, but the chill refused to abate. The trees blocked most of the wind. Beyond the first line of them there was only blackness. The sound of the wind against the leaves and branches was overpowering everything else that could be making a sound in there, a snap of twigs, a following footfall, or a cry of pain. I swallowed at the thought of treading through the darkness, escort or no escort.

I looked around at the assembled police forces. There must have been most of the town's complement shivering around their cars. Some had a determined, gung-ho look in their eyes, clutching their pistols close to them. The smarter officers were checking and maintaining their weapons, making sure there were fresh batteries in their torches. Most of the two dozen men and women were nervous and twitchy. A bad combination with firearms. Half of them are going to end up shooting each other in the dark.

Christina was stood apart from Milan and I and was talking with another officer: a tall, greying man with a trimmed beard and a slim frame. Snippets of their conversation floated over to me. Taking into account my more basic desire to be close to her, I felt fairly safe with her beside me. She was level headed and professional, even in the face of the horrors we had found in the basement. She beckoned Milan and I over to her. The older man eyed us with an air of arrogance, as if we weren't needed. He spoke to Christina dismissively, and she snapped back at him. As shaky as my Hungarian was, I knew the words for 'shut up', 'idiot' and 'do what I tell you'.The older man reddened and stalked away, and Christina managed a small smile at us as she motioned for us to follow her.

The assembled officers were split into groups of four. Milan and I were part of a group of five, with Christina and her two officers from the van. The groups spread apart and advanced into the forest.

I could barely see ten metres in front of me. The ground was soft and wet underfoot, but the canopy was keeping out a good amount of the wind and rain. Pinpoints of light flashed in my peripheral vision, the torches from the rest of the group. Before long ice cold water had soaked through my shoes and socks and mud was spattered up my trouser legs. Christina stayed ahead of us, torch shining into the blackness, hand on the butt of her gun in its holster. Milan shivered beside me, grumbling a little at first, but he quickly silenced himself in fear. His face was a cast in shadow, thinning hair soaked through, eyes bulging and snapping to the left and right. There was no sound but the beating of the rain on the leaves, the crunch of the undergrowth beneath us, and our own ragged breathing.

We walked like that for twenty minutes until we started going uphill. Tense voices whispered low and distorted through Christina's radio occasionally, and after one report Christina drew her gun so suddenly that Milan threw himself to the floor. The officers behind us drew their guns as well. We crept forward more slowly. A few of the trees ahead of us had fallen and we skirted around them, and found ourselves in front of a huge black shape, jagged and set into the raising ground.

The rock face jutted out, and I saw moss growing in the torchlight, and the bare bones of trees erupting from the top soil. One of the officers overtook us and walked along beside Christina. We picked our way around to the mouth of the cave and paused, Christina looking back at us and nodding tersely.

Milan stepped forward and called into the cave, his voice shaking. I joined him.

"Dalma!" I called in. The darkness swallowed my voice, and spat it out in a dull echo. The police officers edged forward and shone their torches into the cave. The first thing my eyes found was the blood, some fresh, some dried, trailing back like a macabre pathway. The trail ended at the carcass of a deer, flesh mostly eaten away. It looked like it had been there for a day or two. A few feet away from it was a woman, slumped against the cave wall, her stomach had been opened up, leaking and dripping onto the rock. The side of her head had been smashed in, her features obscured by the damage. Later, I could put a name to the body: Melina Horvath.

Christina hissed into her radio, and the reply came back distorted and broken. The other two officers were alert and tense, keeping their eyes on the treeline. Milan was spitting bile onto the forest floor, coughing and bent double. Christina snapped orders at her men, and cast a sympathetic look at Milan and I. I didn't feel much better than he did, my insides were twisting and turning.

"Ok?" she asked. I shook my head. What the hell am I doing out here? She spoke again, and gestured around us and pointed to her police badge on her chest. She brought her hands together, as if she was gathering things in front of her. Back up is coming, that's what she means. I hope that's what she means. I nodded to her. She was as disturbed as we were, but keeping it together. Her eyes did not keep still, flicking around the cave and the surrounding darkness.

Dalma wasn't a child, not anymore. I didn't know what she was. I thought back to the basement, the bible and the crucifix in her parents dead hands. Possession wasn't logical, but then again nothing had been logical about this. A child on her own couldn't have brought down man the size of her father, or the deer. A hunters best weapon is stealth.

I looked up into the trees, above eye level. The canopy hung low in a few places, and as the younger officer passed beneath it a dark, lithe shape dropped on him without a sound. I shouted in alarm, and it was drowned out by the officer's scream of pain. Christina and the older officer wheeled around and shone their torches, guns raised.

Dalma's clothes were hanging in rags from her thin frame, crusted with dirt and dried blood. Her arms and legs were wrapped around the officer's upper body, and he was reaching around frantically to swat her off. Blood was running down his chest and shoulder as Dalma sunk her teeth further into him. Milan was frantic, calling out her name over and over as Christina and I ran forward. The other officer raised his gun, but the target was too small, an inch too far over and he would hit his friend in the throat. Christina and I took a hold of Dalma's arms and pulled, but they might as well have been made of steel. She moved like a whip, striking Christina with enough force to throw her to the floor. I tried to hold on to her arm as the officer's legs started to buckle: he was losing too much blood. Her arm budged slightly with all my force behind it, but all that served to do was get her attention.

She turned her head quickly towards me, tearing the officer's flesh away. Her eyes shone furiously in the darkness, her face contorted in fury. Her mouth was full of blood, which she spat towards me as she kicked off of the officer and pushed me to the floor.

Her grip was vice like around my wrists, and it was taking all of the strength in my arms to keep her away from my neck. She made no sound, she was entirely focused, staring coldly and hungrily at my jugular vein. My grip was failing, my arms trembling with the strain. She was inching closer and closer... And suddenly she was gone.

Milan had her around the waist, and she was whipping her arms and legs around. Now she was growling and hissing. Christina was frantically tending to her officer, who was twitching in the wet leaves. She was talking to him gently, trying to keep her own composure as well as his. It wasn't working.

Dalma's elbow whipped around and connected with Milan's nose, and he dropped her. She landed on her feet and spun around, latching onto him with her arms and teeth. Milan screamed, back-pedalling. He was pleading with her, frantically trying to get through to her. I pushed myself to my feet, as Milan tripped on a root and fell backwards behind a tree trunk, out if my sight. He hit hard, the wind knocked out of him, his pleading turning to a wheeze, then quickly to a gurgle. I made it around the tree, but Dalma was gone. Milan was sprawled out, holding his neck as blood squirted out between his fingers. His eyes were bulging, staring at me. I knelt beside him and joined my hands with his at his neck.

He was running out of time. His legs were twitching as the blood left them. His body started convulsing. I clung to his wound desperately, my hands slick and slipping off of him. He cared about Dalma. He only wanted to help. I wondered if she even knew what she'd done. She had left the man who had been more of a father to her than hers bleeding to death in the woods. Unceremonious, uncaring, more than he deserved. Just left here like a piece of meat. Wait.

The hunters best weapon is stealth. I heard a rustle above me and rolled to the right. Dalma fell and missed me by a foot. I was up and running towards Christina and the remaining officer, bringing my arms up to shield my neck. I made it five or six metres before I felt her leap onto my back and sink her teeth into my shoulder. Fire shot through my neck and right arm, and I stumbled. Christina looked up at me, bleary eyed. She drew her pistol.

"Christina, shoot!" I screamed. Dalma wrapped a thin arm around my neck and sunk her teeth into my forearm. Christina grimaced, I could see her hand shaking. She gritted her teeth and pulled the trigger.

A boxer punched me in the shoulder with enough force to spin me. The shot from her handgun might as well have been a cannon blast. It echoed around the woods. In my ear I heard a screech, piercing through me like a hot knife through butter. The ground rushed up to meet me and slammed into my cheek. I couldn't move. I heard a second shot, then a third and fourth. Rough hands pulled me onto my side and squeezed my shoulder, igniting fresh fire in my head.

I lifted my head slowly, somehow it felt heavier. I saw Christina, gun pointed at what looked like a bundle of rags. She was crying.

***

The sling on my right arm was making it impossible to do anything. Even holding a coffee in my hand felt strange. Petyr smiled at me as I spilled a little on my fingers and hissed.

"I have to admit, I'm a little surprised they want me back."

He nodded. "I can see what you mean. The review board have cleared you of wrongdoing, given the circumstances."

I sighed. My cast was coming off at the end of the week, and my skin itched like mad underneath it. It was gratifying to hear that the option to teach was still open for me. I had been bored and alone with my thoughts for weeks since I left the hospital. The problem was, I didn't think I was ready for it.

Dalma had been her real name. Her parents had been found in the north of Hungary, and they had never given up hope of finding their daughter. I'm glad I hadn't been there to see their faces once they were told she was dead.

They told the police that Dalma had been acting strangely all of a sudden, with seemingly no reason why. She wouldn't eat, barely slept, and stopped talking. She went missing on her fourth birthday, taken by the puritanical couple posing as her parents. What they had done to her, their God only knew, and judged them for it.

Petyr looked at me closely. "You are still thinking about it."

"I can't not think about it."

He looked into his coffee sagely and sighed. I was getting a little better in truth. I was dreaming about the forest less and less, and whenever I heard Mira hit the floor it was a lot quieter. Christina had been distracting me. I glanced at my watch. I was running late.

"I need to drink up. Christina'll be waiting for me."

"How are things with her?"

I smiled, hoping the awkwardness I felt didn't show. "Okay, we're okay."

He smiled, either ignoring my lie or not seeing it. Things could be worse in truth, but our fling had fizzled quickly. At the very least she had been a very good motivation to learn more Hungarian. She had been a good friend besides, and I didn't want to let the awkwardness take us over. We needed each other, especially after Dalma.

Petyr and I parted ways with a smile, and I set off towards Milan's neighbourhood. The sun was shining again, and I walked comfortably without a jacket. It got a little colder as I walked past Dalma's old house, and I thought I smelled rotting meat, but it was probably just my imagination. I knocked on Milan's door, and Christina answered. She smiled at me as I kissed her on the cheek.

"Are you all right?" I asked in my best Hungarian.

She nodded. "I'm fine. Zsuzsa is upstairs with Hanna."

"Okay," I looked up at the landing. Zsuzsa had been Milan's wife, and Hanna was their daughter. Christina and I came over to the house a couple of times a week, just to make sure they were both all right. We spent time with them, helped them with the housework and the cooking. Christina brushed her hair back from her eyes and moved close to me. She was troubled.

"What is it?"

She sighed and looked up the stairs. "They have been up there for a while. I heard Zsuzsa crying."

"Do you think we should go up and see them?"

She paused and nodded. Hanna's room was the first one on the left at the top of the stairs. Zsuzsa was outside, leaning on the wall. She was defeated, utterly lost. It seemed like it took her a moment to even recognise us. She's getting worse.

Hanna's door was ajar, and I peered inside. She was stood by the open window, staring out at the forest. My breath caught. I walked in slowly. Hanna didn't react to the creak of the door, or my footsteps. No, please. Not her.

I cleared my throat. "Hello Hanna."

She slowly turned to face me. Her eyes did not meet mine. Dread took a hold of me.

"Hanna, look at me."

Her expression was blank. Her eyes slowly crept across my face, and her gaze met mine. Her expression came alive into a look of recognition, then a sad smile. Christina followed me into the room and kissed her on the cheek. Relief flooded through me, and then sadness. I couldn't go back to the school, Dalma had taken that from me too, even if they had agreed to take me back.

I sat down on the bed next to them, Zsuzsa lingered at the door. Hanna smiled me, with a little less sadness, just a little. I felt Christina's fingers interlace with mine. She saw the expression on my face, and I could see the same one on hers. Emptiness. We were trying our best to take each other's mind off of that emptiness, but that's all we were doing. Trying, not succeeding.

"Zsuzsa, come here," I said gently. She walked over slowly, tentatively. Christina let go of my hand as she slid over to let her sit down. There we were, the people Dalma left behind. I wondered what would become of us. Was this it? Would she be hanging over us forever?

I hope not. Otherwise, the human spirit isn't really worth much.


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