Alice carefully wiggled Alicia into a rose pink bunting and pulled the hood up, then wrapped her special blanket around her. A cold snap had settled on them, and Hackett had announced that it was the beginning of winter. For Alice, it meant fretting over whether or not her baby was warm enough. However, when Hackett asked if she was ready to go to the flea market, she beamed widely as she proclaimed, “Yes!”
He had warmed the car up for her as she had gotten herself and the baby dressed, and it felt good to settle against the heated leather seat after her quick journey from the house to the car. She liked how the car always lulled Alicia into a deep sleep, leaving her free to talk to Hackett without any distractions.
The flea market was in the next town over, which gave them plenty of time. Alice held Hackett’s hand with their fingers interlocked, and watched the dark trunks of the trees zoom past the car just beyond the edge of the highway. Their conversation was small, and mostly revolved around plans for Kate’s upcoming visit for the holidays, but it was still pleasant.
After a large curve in the road, the forest broke and they were once again driving past a number of small houses with large yards, shortly followed by businesses as they headed towards a large park in the center of town. There was a large field that was filled with a number of stands for vendors, as well as people bundled up against the cold. When Hackett parked nearby, Alice opened up the car door and frowned, wrinkling up her nose. “What’s that smell?” she asked.
“Just the paper mill,” Hackett replied. “Don’t worry, you get used to it.”
“It’s unique,” she said simply, trying to figure out what it was that had started niggling at her from the back of her mind. It was an unsettling feeling.
Alice got Alicia out of her carseat, then held her tightly as they walked to the flea market, keeping close to Hackett. She had never liked crowds to start with, but after the time she had spent alone in the tower, they made her feel even more anxious. It was a relief to let Hackett do most of the talking as they looked around, and to quietly fuss over her baby whenever she felt awkward. Still, it was fun, and she found an assortment of clothing and toys that she liked.
As Hackett was counting out money to pay one of the vendors, Alice turned and stared at some of the trees dotting the park, and the same strange feeling swept over her once again. She found herself walking trance-like towards one of them, certain that she had seen it before. There was a large bulge in the trunk that was impossibly familiar. As she neared it, a man came around from the other side and startled her so she jumped. He looked at her as he pulled his ladder around, the climbed up to continue wrapping a string of lights around one of the branches.
“Alice!” Hackett called, jogging up to her, taking her arm and pulling her back towards the flea market. “Don’t wander off like that. I just about had a heart attack when I turned around and you weren’t there.”
“I’ve been here before, but I don’t quite …” Alice trailed off. “Basil, are those lights purple?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Looks like it.”
“I think this is where Damon …” She raised her hand up to her head. “I can’t remember.”
Hackett quickly put their shopping bags down on the ground, and took Alicia from her. “Are you okay?”
“I dunno. It’s weird, like my heart is screaming that this is the right place, but I can’t actually remember a thing. I don’t want to look like an idiot, so I’m scared to say it.”
“Stay here.” He handed Alicia back to her, then trotted over to the man who was putting up the lights. Alice watched as he engaged him in a casual conversation, distractedly bouncing her baby as she waited. A minute later, he came back and picked up their shopping bags, saying simply, “Let’s go.”
Alice nodded, her stomach churning too much for her to speak. The smell of the nearby paper mill was permeating into her brain, somehow flooding her mind with nauseating thoughts about blood. Staring at the tree made her want to vomit.
She stumbled over a divot in the ground, and Hackett quickly caught her arm. After one look at her, he immediately took Alicia out of her arms and asked, “Do you need to sit down?”
“I think I can make it to the car,” she answered, leaning against him. “I just can’t breathe right now, that’s all.”
“You’ve gone pale.”
“It’s … that tree. I know it is. It has to be.” Tears spilled down onto her cheeks and stung her skin in the cold air.
Hackett helped support her to their car, and had her sit down while he buckled Alicia into her car seat and loaded up the trunk. He remained silent as they drove out of town, and Alice leaned back with her eyes closed as she took in deep breaths of air, trying to clear her head. Somehow she felt as if she ought to be having a flashback of some sort, but the images weren’t there – only the smell lingered heavily in her head.
“The man told me that they use the same layout for the lights every year,” Hackett finally said. “I’m going to get a team of investigators sent to that area to see if they come up with anything, just in case.”
“What if there’s nothing?” Alice asked.
“Then there’s nothing.”
“I don’t want anyone to waste their time because of me.”
Hackett sighed. “Alice, you are the only person who can connect the murder to Damon, so whatever you think you may or may not remember, we at least need to get it properly crossed off the list of possibilities. It’s not a waste of time, especially not after the way you nearly fainted.”
“You really think so?”
“Yes.” Hackett reached over to give her hand a squeeze. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to make some phone calls.”