The toilet door was closed when Abbie returned to the entrance hall, but the front was open, and she stepped straight into the crisp early hours of the morning.
It was dark. Street lamps led Abbie’s way along the road and out of the gated community. There was no sign of Amber, the girl Abbie’s dream had sent her to save, and Abbie had no idea where the girl might have gone. Possibly the teenager was already halfway home and would be in bed before Abbie had any chance of finding her. If so, Abbie would see her again in the morning. Of that, she was sure.
Still, Abbie held out hope that she might get the chance to find Amber before the sun rose on a new day. Because she had no inkling as to which direction Amber might have travelled, she would have to let instinct guide her once more. As she so often did when arriving in new towns, she would pick her route at random and see where it took her.
Before she left, Abbie looked back through the open gates towards Ian Delaney’s home. Had it been a mistake to threaten Toby? That Amber and Toby had been arguing indicated that the teenage girl might be wrapped up with the Delaney family, but it was far from conclusive proof. Abbie might have brought the ire of the Delaney’s upon her for no good reason.
She imagined seeing Harry again after he received her message, but this was wishful thinking. Foolish thinking, even. Upon learning that Abbie had returned to the town of her birth, Ian and Harry might decide to send people to scare her off or cause her the kind of damage her brother Paul had once caused Harry. They were unlikely to come and see her themselves.
All Abbie’s outburst had done was ensure, should she need to go against the Delaney’s, she had no chance of making use of the element of surprise. An invaluable tool.
She had been a fool. That was clear, but there was nothing to be done about it now. Nothing to be gained by replaying her corridor scuffle with Toby and analysing what she might have done differently. For now, Abbie would move on. If her words tonight incited Ian and Harry to action later today, she would deal with whatever they sent when they sent it.
Before she moved on, Abbie glanced to the spot by the gates where, years ago, she had left her bike. Now, that space was barren. Back then, after Harry and his gang had finished with Abbie, the friends had melted away. Harry had waited until Abbie’s strength returned and then arranged for a cab to pick her up. He had picked her from his bed and walked her downstairs. At the time, she had been in a trembling daze. Not yet filled with self-loathing or misery. It was too soon for that.
Harry had whispered in her ear. Told her what a cutie she was. He spoke as though they were good friends or sweethearts. As though the events in his bedroom either hadn’t happened or that they had been consensual. Even loving or romantic. Abbie didn’t speak. Numb to her core, she didn’t have it in her to feel or to say anything.
After putting her in the cab, Harry had told the driver where to go and paid the man. They had driven past the bike, but Abbie hadn’t noticed. When she arrived home, she thanked the driver and, like a robot, walked up the path, let herself into her home, and walked upstairs. Abbie had washed her face and cleaned her teeth, then stepped into her room. She had changed into her pyjamas and got into bed like it was any other night.
Lying in the darkness, the emotion had come. With a pillow over her face, Abbie had cried ceaselessly until, several hours later, the sun once more in the sky, her mother came to wake her for breakfast.
She never saw the bicycle again.
Bone tired, drained by lack of sleep and the weight of heavy memories on her shoulders, Abbie wound her way through the streets, trying to pretend she didn’t know these roads. Trying to tell herself this was aimless wandering. She had no destination in mind.
But she did.
It took her twenty-five minutes to get there. By the time she arrived, it was coming up on three in the morning.
It looked as always it had—a poorly maintained playground situated on the edge of a copse. A wooden fence marked a peanut-shaped perimeter. Woodchippings comprised the floor, atop which had been set numerous pieces of now-rusting equipment. A slide, a see-saw, a swing set, monkey bars, one of those cars on a heavy spring.
On one side of the playground was the line of trees that marked the beginning of a copse. On the other was a short stretch of grass that separated the park from a residential street. Abbie and her siblings were born in a hospital situated not five miles from where she stood. Two streets away was the house her parents had bought soon after Violet, Abbie’s little sister, was born. This was the closest place to which they could escape.
Paul was the eldest of the three siblings, two years older than Abbie and five older than Violet. Abbie remembered days when Violet was only two or three. Paul, himself only eight, had walked his two younger sisters to this playground. It was always empty. They had the place to themselves.
They kept coming as they grew. It was their place. Even when Paul was seventeen, handsome, popular, and a troublemaker—even when he had plenty of friends and the constant threat of peer pressure—he still made time for his sisters. He would come here to play games with twelve-year-old Violet. He and fifteen-year-old Abbie would sit on the swing and chat. Talk like friends.
Paul was so protective of Violet. Abbie had grown jealous, had believed Violet was Paul’s favourite. However, they always found it easy to talk to one another. Then came the day Abbie told her family what Harry had done. She met her brother’s eye. Such black fury she had never previously seen. Abbie believed Paul was only protective of Violet and wished he would be protective of her too. That day he had proven he was just as protective of both his sisters, and by nightfall, when the police came to take Paul away, Abbie forgot her previous jealousy and wished it had been only Violet Paul had cared for. If that had been the case, he never would have been arrested—never would have been locked away for assaulting and permanently disabling Harry.
It hurt that Paul was in prison. But it was nothing compared to the pain Abbie experienced when she thought of Violet. Stepping into the playground, Abbie made for the swings. There were two. Bored teenagers had not pulled them from their chains. Abbie had always sat on the left, Paul on the right, and it was on the left she sat now. Abbie stared across the park and remembered being thirteen, tumbling into adolescence. Sitting with Paul, watching Violet play on the bouncy car. Violet was ten then, sixteen when she died. But she had never allowed adolescence to consume her, never lost that innocence. Violet loved to play and wouldn’t apologise for doing so. She tried to ensure Abbie had fun, too, even after the Harry incident and the pregnancy.
From her seat on the swing, Abbie watched the memory of Violet playing and laughing and jumping. Looking to her siblings and trying to convince her brother and sister to join her. Abbie heard a teenage version of herself say no and found emotion overwhelming her in the present.
Why was Abbie here? She was never going to find Amber. Memory, rather than instinct or her mission, had drawn her to this place, and now memory was going to crush her.
Choking on the past, Abbie rose from the swing and turned from the rest of the playground equipment. The streets on which she had spent her youth were now to her back. The trees to her front. She stared at the trunks, the branches, the leaves, and into the darkness. She had no idea what she should do next.
Then, the decision was taken from her hands.
Someone moved in the trees, not far from where Abbie stood in the playground. Close enough that after first hearing their feet, Abbie could almost immediately discern their shape.
They shifted, took a few steps across Abbie’s field of vision, stopped. They moved on the spot. Twisting towards Abbie, perhaps?
She was staring at the shape of them. Possibly meeting their eye, though she couldn’t know for sure. Out in the open, they would be able to see more of her than she could of them, but there was little moonlight. She doubted they could tell who she was.
Unless they already knew.
Leaving the swings, Abbie moved to the edge of the playground. Beyond the boundary was a metre stretch of grass between the last of the wood chips and the first tree. Abbie rested her hand on the fence and stared into the darkness of the trees.
The human shape didn’t move. Abbie was unarmed but unafraid, and she hopped the fence without hesitation, landing on the grass beyond.
She approached the trees. This could be a trap, but Abbie doubted it. It was far too soon for Ian and Harry to have learned of her presence and to have set something up. Especially something that would have had to speculate where Abbie might go after the Delaney mansion rather than act on precise information.
Odds were the person in the trees didn’t know Abbie, if they could even make her out. As though to support this hypothesis, the figure did not remain still or approach Abbie as she neared the trees. Instead, they turned. By the time Abbie reached the treeline, they were running from her as fast as they could.
Abbie did not give chase. She stood by the tree line and waited for silence to replace the sound of boots stomping through the undergrowth.
But silence did not follow footfall. What crept through the trees was an odd sound that did not seem to belong to any animal. At first, it did not seem human, but Abbie believed a person was indeed the source of the mysterious noise.
After a few more seconds of analysis, Abbie came to suspect that the sound could be created only by a human in pain. Not agony because this was no scream. Worse, this was the groan of a man from whom life was fast escaping.
Abbie entered the trees. She drew a mobile phone from her pocket, inputting the emergency services number as she went. Though she would not hit call until she had confirmed the situation.
Beyond the first handful of trees, the unnatural shape in the grass was immediately apparent. Despite the darkness, Abbie could discern the shine of something wet, slick in the grass. From this shape came the groan, and Abbie’s suspicions were confirmed. This was an adult male, and he had been badly injured.
It became clear what the man in the dark had been doing before Abbie arrived in the playground and why he had fled at the sight of a newcomer. But Abbie had heard no signs of a struggle. That meant the fleeing man had attacked the shape in the grass five minutes ago at the earliest, and most probably longer ago than that. Knowing she had no time to waste, Abbie dropped to her haunches beside the man and called for an ambulance. While she told them where she was, she saught the wound, though there was little light by which to see.
“It’s bad,” she said. She did not tell them to hurry because she knew they would already come as fast as was possible.
Sliding the phone back into her pocket, Abbie leaned forward and held the man’s shoulders. He was on his back but cloaked in darkness.
“Mr, can you hear me? I need you to speak or show some sign if you can hear me. Best case, you’d tell me where they got you. Ideally, you’d also add your attacker’s name and address, but I don’t want to ask for too much.”
At first, there was no response. Abbie continued to hold the man. She was about to speak again when he released a more prolonged but more coherent groan. Still clutched in Abbie’s hands, he found the strength to raise his head.
The moon was weak on this mid-June night. What there was of it pierced the canopy of trees irregularly and without much enthusiasm. Still, some spotlights made it to the ground. By raising his head, the victim of this deadly crime brought his face into such a beam. When he met Abbie’s eye, it was clear she, too, was caught in enough light for him to at least partially make out her face.
“My God,” he said. His voice was a weak whisper. Either shock or blood loss might have stolen the power from his voice—possibly a combination of the two.
No one had wounded Abbie. Still, the shock was enough to render her speechless for at least ten seconds.
“I’ve called an ambulance,” she said when she regained control of her voicebox.
Somehow, despite his weakness, the man kept his head raised.
“It’s you,” he whispered. “After all these years… you came back.”
Tears glistened in his eyes, and Abbie felt them stinging at the corners of her own.
“Yeah, well, it’s just a pitstop,” she muttered.
Still, he held his head from the ground.
“My beautiful, beloved daughter,” he whispered.
“Yeah, dad. It’s me.”
Abbie felt a strange sensation in her stomach. A swelling that seemed to rise to and infect her heart. She tried to speak but found there were no words to be had. She stared at her father as he spoke again.
“My sweet, beautiful, Violet.”
Abbie felt something catch in her throat. Felt the strange rise in her stomach turn to something else: a churning, a pain. Now the tears did come, did run down her cheeks.
But her father was dying. Fighting feelings of jealousy and resentment, Abbie put a hand around the back of her father’s head and encouraged him to lie down.
“Yeah, dad, it’s me, it’s…” she paused, swallowed down the resistance. “It’s your Violet. Lie back now. Lie back.”
“We love you so much, Violet,” said Abbie’s father. But he did as he was told. Lay back into the dark. He lay back, and his moaning became a rasping, and the rasping grew weaker and weaker.
He lay back, leaving Abbie alone in the dark with her tears. Praying the ambulance would arrive before it was too late.
Carter ran faster and faster the further he got from the stranger in the playground. It had been too dark to make out anything about her, but had she seen anything of him?
Her line of sight would be even worse.
Don’t think about it—nothing to be done now.
His shoulder hit a tree, and he almost tripped a couple of times. Then he burst free of the copse.
On this side of the trees, the copse opened onto a slope of gravel and dirt. Having forgotten this fact, Carter came too fast onto the incline and lost his footing. He fell, landed on his behind, and skidded onto the pavement below, rolling almost into the road.
The night was quiet. There were no vehicles in sight.
Crying, trembling, Carter rolled back away from the road and dug in his pocket for his photograph, for his strength.
He had allowed himself to believe he had returned home only because of his dream and only for her. Yet immediately, Carter had run into one of those responsible for his suffering, and the photograph had not entered his mind. He had thought of revenge.
With wet cheeks, Carter reached forward and stroked the smiling face in the photograph.
And left a bloodstain across her perfect features.
Carter had cut and scraped himself when he fell down the slope to the road.
But the blood smeared over her photograph was not his own. Of this, Carter was sure.
Carter tried to wipe her features clean with an unblemished finger but only managed to smear the blood further over the glossy image. This made him cry harder than ever.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
He brought the photo close and pressed his lips to it, though he knew it would mean tasting the blood.
“I’ll be better,” he said. “I promise you that, Amber.”
END OF SAMPLE