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It all unfolds with cinematic clarity: the gunshot, the scream. Every detail sharp and clear. Time slows as her eyes plead with me to help her. In my mind I bundle her behind me, shielding her body with mine, but she is too far away and I know I cannot reach her in time.
But still I try.
My legs are weighted with dread as I run toward her, the fist around my heart tightening.
A second shot.
Her knees buckle. She crumples like a paper doll.
The ground falls away beneath my feet and I crawl toward her like the animal I have become. My palms are sticky in the arc of blood that is staining the floor red. Blood is thicker than water they say, but hers is thin and beacon-bright. Adrenaline pulses through me leaving numbness in its wake, as I press against her wrist, desperately seeking a pulse. With my other hand I link my fingers through hers the way we used to, before I brought us to this place that has been our ruin. A lifetime of memories strobe through my mind; cradling her close in the maternity wing; Easter eggs spilling out of the wicker basket looped over her pudgy arm; her first day of school, ribboned pigtails swinging as she ran across the playground.
She can’t be gone.
Fingers of panic press hard against my skull. The color leaches from the room. A black-and-white hue descending upon me. I tighten my fingers around hers, afraid I’m going to faint. Afraid I’m going to let her go.
A flicker of eyelids. A murmur from her lips.
I lie next to her, gently rolling her toward me, holding her in my arms. I can’t, I won’t leave her. Family should stick together. Protect each other. Instead, I chose to come here.
This is all my fault.
The drumming in my head grows louder—the sound of footfall. I don’t have to look up to feel their anger, solid and immovable.
The acrid smell of gunpowder hangs in the air along with my fear.
Looking up, my eyes meet the shooter’s; they are still holding the gun and sensations return, hard and fast. The pain in my stomach is cutting and deep and I am no longer sure if the blood I am covered in has come from her.
Or is coming from me.
Her top is soaked crimson, as is mine.
The pain increases.
Terrified, I tug at her clothes, my clothes. Praying. Let her be okay. Seventeen is no age. Let it be me.
At last I find the wound but before I can apply pressure to stem the flow of blood there are hands on my shoulders. My elbows. Pulling.
Darkness flickers at the edge of my vision but still I fight against it. I fight against them.
My hands are restrained, feet kick out, teeth sinking into flesh, but it’s fruitless. I am growing weaker.
Her fingers twitch. Once. Twice.
“Tilly!” My scream rips through me as I am yanked to my feet. “Tilly!” I scramble for traction, every fiber of my being straining to reach my daughter.
I am still wrestling to be free as I am dragged, my feet scraping the ground.
I know they’ll never let us leave here now.
Not alive anyway.
Fears. We all have them. That creeping unease. An aversion to something. For me it’s spiders. It stemmed from a nature documentary years before about the black weaver, a matriphagous breed that switches on her babies’ cannibalistic instinct by encouraging her spiderlings to devour her. Unable to tear myself away, I had watched through splayed fingers as the mother circled her lair, tapping and vibrating the web, stimulating her young’s primal instinct until they attacked her in a frenzied swarm. Hundreds of scuttling legs. Sinking fangs. The sound of the adult being consumed after venom had dissolved her from the inside out had stayed with me. What possessed a mother to sacrifice herself like that? How could her children turn on her? Of course that was long before I was a parent.
The instant I saw Tilly, tiny hands fisted, eyes squinting in the unaccustomed light, I plunged headfirst into a love that was absolute. A fierce desire as her mother to shield her from the world however I could. And she needed shielding. I knew how damaging it could be out there.
I had been damaged.
That morning, though, I had no idea how I was going to shelter her from the contents of the letter. As I drove toward school, I tightened my grip on the steering wheel as if it might somehow stop the sense of everything spinning out of my control. It didn’t.
What was I going to do?
I slotted my rusting Volvo between two shiny 4x4s. Hordes of kids traipsed past the car, spines curved under the weight of the books they carried, dragging their feet toward the black wrought-iron gates. I rubbed my temples, trying to dispel the pounding behind my eyes.
“Do I have to go back to school, Mum?”
I heard the sadness in her voice. I heard it in my own as I said, “It’s been six weeks, Tilly.” As though that was long enough to make everything right.
She wasn’t coping well. Neither was I but, for her, I pretended we’d get through it. We’d be okay. Even if I didn’t know how.
“We talked about this,” I said, but not unkindly. “It was your idea to come back on a Friday. Ease yourself into it. It’s one day, Tilly.”
She tucked her unruly dark hair behind her ears as she looked anxiously out of the window. Her face looked smaller, skin ashen, black bags nestled beneath bloodshot eyes. She’d refused the offer of counseling, spending so much of her time shut away in her room that now, being outside was overwhelming.
“You already have so much to catch up on but if you really can’t face it I won’t make you. You can come and help me in the shop instead. It’s time to try to rejoin the world.” I spoke slowly, deliberately, although each word was rough, grazing my tongue. Our Family Liaison Officer had said it was best to forge a routine, a semblance of normality, but was it? Sometimes being a parent was torturous. Spinning in circles like a bird with a broken wing. But Tilly was studying for A Levels. It was such an important year. Besides, at school she’d be with Rhianon and, although I knew the cousins were no longer inseparable, I hoped that away from the family drama they could begin to heal.
God knows, we all needed to heal.
It was dizzying how quickly she pinballed between sadness and anger, but I knew it was all part of the hard ball of grief that ricocheted inside her.
She flung open the car door, a lengthy sigh escaping the mouth that no longer smiled.
“Wait,” I called, snatching her lunch from the backseat. “If it becomes too much you can always ring me.” She snatched the Tupperware from my hands, her expression as hardened as the plastic.
“Try to have a good—” The slam of the car door sliced my sentence in two. “Day.” A constriction in my throat prevented me from calling her back. What could I have said to make things right? She stalked away without a backward glance, swamped by her black winter coat, which snapped at her ankles as she walked. Weight had fallen off her. Again, I had found her half-eaten breakfast dumped in the bin. On top of the browning banana skin, a smattering of Rice Krispies ground to dust where she had crushed them with her spoon. She never could stand milk.
She stooped as she crossed the road without waiting for the crosswalk signal, the weight of both her rucksack and the world on her shoulders. I contemplated calling her back but I knew she couldn’t hide away forever. If she rang me I could be back there within fifteen minutes, no time at all, but I knew sometimes even sixty seconds could feel like an eternity. The desire to protect her, in the way I hadn’t been protected at her age, to whisk her away for a fresh start, was fierce and stabbing, but after that morning’s post, it seemed more out of reach than ever.
Tilly merged with the throng of children crunching over the autumn orange leaves that carpeted the pavement. I was reminded of the times Gavan and I would tramp through the forest searching for gleaming walnuts, a wellington-booted Tilly nestled between us, her small gloved hands in ours. The smell of moss and earth. It was still so clear to me, the joy of it.
One, two, three, lift! We’d swing her back and forth as she clung on like a baby monkey, her infectious giggles making Gavan and me laugh. Even when she grew too tall, too heavy, she’d raise her knees to her chest to prevent her feet from dragging on the floor, as if she couldn’t quite accept how big she’d grown. I watched her as she stamped up the drab gray steps, finding it hard to equate the carefree, smiling child of seemingly five minutes ago with this solemn seventeen-year-old. She was a young woman now, lost to me, almost. The days of being able to make everything in her world right again with a mug of hot chocolate and a cuddle were long gone, and I longed to have them back.
The Special Constable with the patchy beard and straggly ponytail, who patrolled the high school at 8:45 and 3:15 every day with a ferocity that would put a lioness guarding cubs to shame, half-ran toward me. My rational self knew that he was going to tell me off for parking in the wrong place, but still, my hands were shaking as I released the handbrake. Each time I saw a police uniform it evoked such a physical response, sickness rising like a serpent. I zoomed off the yellow lines before he reached the car, and it wasn’t until he disappeared from sight in my rear-view mirror that my breathing began to slow.
I would always associate the police with bad news.
With endless, endless questions.
Sometimes it all blended into a swirling, solid mass. The past. The present. Impossible to separate.
The fear has never really left me. Recurrently concealing itself in the layer between skin and flesh, waiting patiently for another trigger. The chance to attack.
I can’t remember.
And sometimes, consciously, I couldn’t remember. The lie became my truth. The pressure in my head insufferable.
Then, shadowed by night, the bony fingers of the past would drag me back and I would kick and scream before I’d wake. Duvet crumpled on the floor. Pajamas drenched in sweat. And alone.
The scar on my forehead throbbed, a reminder of my helplessness.
Thoughts of the letter filled my mind once more as I drove toward work.
What was I going to do?
The realization that I was unlocking the door for one of the last times stung like disinfectant being poured onto an open wound.
I drank it all in. The light bouncing off the windows as the day gathered strength. The breeze kissing the “Laura’s Flowers” sign as it creaked its delight. The way the key molded into my fingers as though it should always be mine. Soon, it would be someone else’s key. Someone else’s dream.
The door was streaked with dried egg yolk. I told myself it must be from the trick-or-treaters that had roamed the streets the previous night cloaked in black, plastic fangs protruding from bloodstained lips. I really should stop reading too much into things.
But my edginess stayed with me, despite the comforting floral smell that wrapped around me like a hug as I stepped inside.
I couldn’t believe it was over.
When I’d opened the shop ten years before I had thought I’d eventually pass the business down to Tilly, or even to my niece Rhianon, who spent as much time at our house as Tilly did at hers. They loved gardening, kneeling side by side, fingernails caked with mud, trowels in hands, digging over the small flower bed that was theirs in the corner of our garden. Nurturing dandelions and buttercups because they were sunshine-yellow bright; pulling anemones and asters which hadn’t yet flowered; flashing me gappy smiles as I handed out cherry ice pops. As they transitioned into teenagers, their corner of the garden grew tangled and wild, their interest in flowers lost. For the first time I was grateful they weren’t wanting to step into my shoes and walk the endlessly worrisome path of the sole trader; declining business and too many bills.
Crouching, I scooped a clutch of brown envelopes from the doormat and saw “Final Demand” stamped in red. I dropped them all onto the once-polished counter that was now coated with a thin film of dust. Over the past six weeks I’d been home more than I’d been at the shop; I wanted to be there for Tilly, of course. But it was difficult to know how to be around her when she said she needed space. I’d wandered around the house like a ghost. Touching Gavan’s possessions as I’d once have touched his face, wondering who I was if I was no longer someone’s wife. I had long since ceased to be anyone’s daughter.
I’d had a sick feeling in my stomach for weeks, akin to thrashing around in a boat on a violent sea, but as I stepped inside the shop it was fleetingly as if I’d found the stillness that comes once a storm has passed. The shop gave me space to let my tears flow, unfiltered and raw, without worrying about being strong for Tilly.
Here I could feel.
As I did every morning I checked the diary, though I already knew it was empty. The pain behind my forehead pulsed harder. It wasn’t only the fact that I’d been closed more than open recently that had affected business. Ten months ago the scandal had hit and the local papers printed their carefully worded vitriol with their “allegeds” and their “possiblys,” bringing my family to its knees. It was printed that although Gavan was Welsh, my mother was English, as though that made a difference. Insinuating I didn’t belong in Portgellech, the once-bustling fishing town where nowadays fishermen are as scarce a sight as the red kites that once soared across the gray and barren coastline. The community tightened ranks; some even referred to me as “the English girl” despite me living there all my life. They chose to get their flowers from Tesco, the BP garage, anywhere—it seemed—but from me.
But that wasn’t quite fair. Scrape away the thick layer of self-pity I wore like a second skin and my rational self acknowledged that I couldn’t compete with the prices of supermarkets or the convenience and speed of online delivery services. Perhaps it was inevitable that it would all fall apart sometime, the whole business with Gavan just sped things up. Still, I was probably overthinking it all again. It was a notoriously quiet time of year. Wedding season was over and there was always a lull until December.
But I won’t be here then.
I rummaged through drawers stuffed with ribbon and polka dot cellophane in search of some tablets to ease my headache. Then the bell tinged as the front door opened. I glanced up. My fleeting optimism dissipated when I saw it wasn’t a paying customer, but Saffron for the third time that week.
“I’m so sorry.” I popped two Tylenol out of their foil cocoon. “I haven’t sold many.” In truth I hadn’t sold any of the Oak Leaf Farm organic veg bags Saffron had been bringing me in to trial—offering me 20 percent of all sales—but out of guilt I’d again bought two myself. The drawer in my fridge was stacked with limp carrots and browning parsnips.
“That’s okay. I guess a florist isn’t the first port of call when you want to buy food.” Briefly the corners of her mouth curved into a tense smile.
“It’s not the first port of call when you want to buy flowers nowadays.” I grimaced as I swallowed the tablets down dry.
“We’ll be okay as long as Amazon doesn’t start selling bouquets.”
“They already sell flowers.”
“Then you’re buggered.” Her hair, a mass of tight black spirals, sprang as her head shook with a laughter that sounded hollow. She looked as tired as I felt and I knew that despite her jokes she was as worried as I was. It was so tough being a small business owner.
“There’s no hope for the independent retailer is there? Not when customers want everything to be available twenty-four-seven,” I said.
“You mean it isn’t?” She tilted her chin and shielded her eyes, searching for something in the sky. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a delivery drone.”
I didn’t laugh.
“Thanks for the tip you gave me last week, Laura.” She plucked a white rose from the bucket next to the counter and inhaled. “That new coffee shop around the corner placed a regular order for potatoes. I do love a baked potato.” She patted her impossibly flat stomach. Give her another ten years and the carbs would settle around her middle, the way they had on mine when I hit thirty.
Saffron chattered on and I tried to maintain my end of the conversation. Normal. I could do normal. But my mind kept returning to the letter. Adrenaline ebbed and flowed. Saffron’s sentences fragmented. The words drifted out of my reach.
“Laura?” The way she said my name made me realize she’d asked a question I hadn’t answered. Her voice sounded so very far away. I tried to focus but she had taken on an odd tinge. Even then, I put my disorientation down to stress. To grief. It wasn’t until a sweet, sickly smell tickled my nostrils that it crossed my mind that it was happening again, but it was impossible to think that it could, it had been so long. But I knew I was right when I was hit by a spinning sensation. Arms and legs flailing. I wasn’t aware at what stage I fell to the floor, plummeting into blackness. I only found out later that I had. Time became irrelevant. It could have been seconds, minutes, hours later before I became conscious of a distant voice. An odd rasping roared into my ears—my own panicked breath. An angel—a blur of brilliant white light. I thought I was dying.
I thought I was dying again.
But as my hazy vision focused I saw it was Saffron in her white jeans and blouse. Her concerned face loomed toward mine.
“Are you okay?” Her hand was on my shoulder.
I tried to speak but my mouth was full of coppery blood where I’d bitten my tongue.
“I’m calling an ambulance.” The panic in her voice somehow calmed me.
“No.” I sat up. “Please don’t.” Gingerly, I pressed the back of my head where I’d hit it on the floor. I knew from experience that later I’d be sore and covered in bruises, but at the time embarrassment was my overriding emotion as I struggled to my feet. “It’s a seizure. I’ve had them before.” But not for years, since before my parents disowned me. It was like after they’d thrown me out, my body had fallen into a reverse shock almost—instead of breaking further apart, it had fallen back together. Perhaps Gavan had been the cause of my seizures returning. He had been the cause of so many things. I was thinking of the letter again and it all became too much. I began to cry.
“I’m so sorry.” She looked stricken. “That looked awful. I didn’t know whether to call 999 first or try to help you. It all happened so quickly.”
Although I was fuggy and disorientated and it felt like I’d been out for hours, in reality it had likely lasted less than a minute.
“How are you feeling?” she asked doubtfully, still gripping her phone.
Sick. Exhausted. Afraid.
“Fine,” I said, the bitter taste of the lie and blood on my tongue.
“You don’t look it. Are you sure you don’t need checking over?”
“No. Honestly, there’s nothing the hospital can do for me.” There was a beat and I thought she’d insist on a doctor and all the implications that would bring. “You could fetch me some water though.” I sat on the stool, elbows on the counter, my head in my hands. Seconds later a glass was placed in front of me and it felt like a dead weight as I lifted it to my dry lips and sipped before wiping the dribble snaking down my chin with my sleeve. “You can go. I’m going to lock up and head home myself.” I was drained of energy, like I’d been powered by electricity and then unplugged.
Saffron hovered uncertainly. “I could give you a lift.”
I hesitated. I’d be a danger on the road, but I’d only met Saffron about a dozen times; I didn’t want to put her out. “I’ll call a friend to pick me up.”
It didn’t take long to scroll through my contacts. Even if it weren’t for recent events, Gavan and I had been one of those couples who spent all our time together, so I didn’t have many friends. I hesitated at Anwyn’s name. My sister-in-law and I had been so close once, but our fractured family now barely spoke. Still, I called and it rang and rang before her voicemail kicked in. I pictured her watching my name flash up on the screen, choosing not to answer.
I didn’t leave a message.
The shop bell pealed. I raised my heavy head. Saffron had cracked open the door; I’d almost forgotten she was still here.
“Are you sure you’re okay? I could drive your car and pick mine up later. It’s no trouble.”
I was feeling so unwell I couldn’t face getting the bus, and I certainly couldn’t afford a taxi.
“Yes please,” I said. “That would be nice.”
But it wasn’t nice at all.
Three is a power number, although I didn’t know that at the time; I came to learn it later. It took three men to witness three things; a creation, a destruction and a restoration—Noah, Daniel and Job. There were three founders of the Roman Empire. It took three decisions to destroy my life.
Sometimes when something awful happens you sift through memories afterward, desperate to pinpoint the exact moment things went horribly, horribly wrong.
Saying yes. That was the first mistake I made.
I still had two to go.
They’d changed the classrooms around in the six weeks I’d been off. By the time I’d located my English group I was late.
“Sorry,” I muttered to Mr. Cranford.
And rather than snapping at me like he normally would with his stale coffee breath he said, “That’s okay, Tilly. It’s good to see you back.” His words were soaked with sympathy and somehow that was harder to bear than his shouting.
All the good seats were taken. Rhianon was sitting at the back with Ashleigh, Katie and Kieron. Katie’s and Kieron’s bodies were angled together, their heads tilted toward each other, and I knew they were no longer purely friends. The thought of his lips on hers made my heart feel like it was breaking all over again. It was only a couple of months ago that he’d told me he loved me as his fingers strayed under my blouse, into my bra.
For God’s sake, Tilly. Pull yourself together.
I dumped my rucksack next to an empty desk right at the front. The chair leg scraped loudly across the floor as I pulled it toward me. Mr. Cranford waited, whiteboard marker in his hand, until I was settled before he carried on.
“This half term we’re going to be studying Othello.” There was a collective grumble. “No need for that. Plays are one of the oldest forms of entertainment.” His pen squeaked as it wrote “Shakespeare” across the board. “You can’t beat a good tragedy—” He froze. Our eyes met. His were full of apology. I could feel the tears welling in mine. Quickly, he began to speak again. “Plays were accessible, cheap…”
I zoned out. My mind cast back to the “theater” Dad had made for me and Rhianon, cutting the front out of a large cardboard box and painting it red. Mum had hung two pieces of yellowing net curtain from a wire. Our audience of Uncle Iwan, Aunt Anwyn, Mum and Dad would queue at the door until Rhianon collected their shiny fifty pence pieces. The stars of the show were the sock monkeys we’d named Dick and Dom—mine turquoise and white striped, Rhianon’s red polka dot—and we’d move them from side to side as they spouted nonsense we thought was hilarious. There was never a script.
I glanced over my shoulder, certain Rhianon would be sharing the same memory, but I was confronted with the back of her head, long blond hair hanging silkily over her shoulders. She’d twisted around and was whispering something to Katie and Kieron in the back row. My stomach churned as I assumed it was about me.
It was hard to pinpoint exactly when we’d drifted apart. She hadn’t come over recently, but even in the months before that when she’d visited she had spent more time in the kitchen talking to Mum than she did with me. If I snapped at Mum over dinner, when she questioned me endlessly about my day, Rhianon would roll her eyes. Once, she even said, “Don’t speak to your mum that way.” It was rough for her at home, I knew. Her parents were arguing and it was calmer at our house. Mum listened to Rhianon. Mum always found time to listen patiently to everyone. Sometimes I thought Rhianon was jealous of the relationship I had with Mum, when her relationship with Aunty Anwyn was tense and strained, but then teenage girls aren’t always close to their own mums, are they? Saying that, even I could see Aunt Anwyn had changed. She had become angry I suppose, resentful almost. I guess it must have started with the shit-storm with Dad and Uncle Iwan’s construction business. Everything circled back to that. I don’t know the ins and outs because my parents only drip-fed me what they thought I needed to know, but Ashleigh’s parents bought one of their houses on a new estate. Problem was they had built it on a former landfill site. Ashleigh got sick. Not like a cold and cough sick but proper ill. Leukemia. That’s when it all kicked off. It was months ago, but the memory still smarted: Katie standing on her chair, raising both her voice and her thinly plucked eyebrows.
“Listen up. Ashleigh’s in the hospital because Tilly’s dad built on toxic land. It’s his fault Ashleigh is sick. She might literally die.”
The other kids had started shouting abuse. I raised my palms.
“Honestly, it wasn’t toxic land. Basically, there are all these safety checks before a build starts, aren’t there, Rhianon?” I turned to my cousin. Our dads were in business together after all.
PRAISE FOR LOUISE JENSEN'S THE FAMILY"This gripping psychological thriller slowly lures you in, then keeps you guessing about who's good--and who really isn't--all the way to the end"—Heat
- "Raced through it in a day! Creepy and compelling.—B. A. Paris, New York Times bestselling author of Behind Closed Doors
- "Twisted and suspenseful, each layer of deception is peeled back for maximum dramatic impact."—Woman's Weekly
- "A very good study of vulnerability, and how our best intentions can often lead us astray."—The Guardian
- "A clever, addictive thriller about family, loss and lies. Packed full of secrets and twists, it will keep you guessing until the final page."—Alice Feeney, NYT Bestselling author of His & Hers
- "You never know what will happen next or who can be trusted... rolls from revelation to revelation to the point where it is nearly impossible to figure out everything that is going on. It is a fun ride to take!"—Book Reporter
- PRAISE FOR LOUISE JENSEN'S THE DATE
"Holy cow, what a read!...One of the best psychological thrillers I've read this year and without doubt a new all-time favorite!"—It's All About Books
- "This book had more twists and turns than a rollercoaster, with the heart thumping feeling to go with it! If you like psychological thrillers, then definitely read this one.... you will not regret it! Five Stars!"—Stardust Book Reviews
- "The Surrogate, her latest and most adventurous book yet, plants her firmly on my list of "must-read" authors... I really think this is the author's best book yet and it is definitely one of the best psychological thrillers I've read this year."—The Book Review Cafe
- PRAISE FOR LOUISE JENSEN'S THE SISTER
"Dark, twisty, and irresistible-I simply could not put this book down. Captivating characters and an intense emotional ride make for an absolutely gripping page-turner!"—Sara Blaedel, #1 internationally bestselling author of The Forgotten Girls
- "I was gripped to The Sister from the first page until the very end. I thought it had all worked out until I was proven sooo wrong."—Robert Bryndza, bestselling author of The Girl in the Ice
- "This thriller's compelling characters and explosive climax combine for great vacation reading, especially for fans of Lisa Scottoline's After Anna."—Booklist
- "Unexpected twists and turns keep readers turning the pages. Jensen consistently delivers the goods."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Feb 2, 2021
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing