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FRIDAY, JULY 17TH
The thunder starts as we’re saying goodbye, leaving each other for the summer holidays ahead. A loud crack echoes off the ground, making Connie jump. John laughs, the hot air dense around us.
“You need to hurry!” he shouts.
With a quick wave I run to my car. As I reach it, my mobile starts ringing, its sound muffled by my bag. From the ringtone I know that it’s Matthew.
“I’m on my way,” I tell him, fumbling for the door handle in the dark. “I’m just getting in the car.”
“Already?” His voice comes down the line. “I thought you were going back to Connie’s.”
“I was, but the thought of you waiting for me was too tempting,” I tease. The flat tone to his voice registers. “Is everything all right?” I ask.
“Yes, it’s just that I’ve got an awful migraine. It started about an hour ago and it’s getting steadily worse. That’s why I’m phoning. Do you mind if I go up to bed?”
I feel the air heavy on my skin and think of the storm looming; no rain has arrived yet but instinct tells me it won’t be far behind. “Of course not. Have you taken anything for it?”
“Yes, but it doesn’t seem to be shifting. I thought I’d go and lie down in the spare room; that way, if I do fall asleep, you won’t disturb me when you come in.”
“I don’t really like going to bed without knowing you’re back safely.”
I smile at this. “I’ll be fine, it’ll only take me forty minutes. Unless I come back through the woods, by Blackwater Lane.”
“Don’t you dare!” I can almost sense a shaft of pain rocketing through his head at his raised tone. “Ouch, that hurt,” he says, and I wince in sympathy. He lowers his voice to a more bearable level. “Cass, promise you won’t come back that way. First of all, I don’t want you driving through the woods on your own at night and, second, there’s a storm coming.”
“OK, I won’t,” I say hastily, folding myself onto the driver’s seat and dropping my bag onto the seat next to me.
“Promise.” I turn the key in the ignition and shift the car into gear, the phone now hot between my shoulder and ear.
“Drive carefully,” he cautions.
“I will. Love you.”
“Love you more.”
I put my phone in my bag, smiling at his insistence. As I maneuver out of the parking space, fat drops of rain splatter onto my windscreen. Here it comes, I think.
By the time I get to the dual carriageway, the rain is coming down hard. Stuck behind a huge lorry, my wipers are no match for the spray thrown up by its wheels. As I move out to pass it, lightning streaks across the sky and, falling back into a childhood habit, I begin a slow count in my head. The answering rumble of thunder comes when I get to four. Maybe I should have gone back to Connie’s with the others, after all. I could have waited out the storm there, while John amused us with his jokes and stories. I feel a sudden stab of guilt at the look in his eyes when I’d said I wouldn’t be joining them. It had been clumsy of me to mention Matthew. What I should have said was that I was tired, like Mary, our Head, had.
The rain becomes a torrent and the cars in the fast lane drop their speed accordingly. They converge around my little Mini and the sudden oppression makes me pull back into the slow lane. I lean forward in my seat, peering through the windscreen, wishing my wipers would work a little faster. A lorry thunders past, then another and when it cuts back into my lane without warning, causing me to brake sharply, it suddenly feels too dangerous to stay on this road. More lightning forks the sky and in its wake the sign for Nook’s Corner, the little hamlet where I live, looms into view. The black letters on the white background, caught in the headlights and glowing like a beacon in the dark, seem so inviting that, suddenly, at the very last minute, when it’s almost too late, I veer off to the left, taking the shortcut that Matthew didn’t want me to take. A horn blares angrily behind me and as the sound chases me down the pitch-black lane into the woods, it feels like an omen.
Even with my headlights full on, I can barely see where I’m going and I instantly regret the brightly lit road I left behind. Although this road is beautiful by day—it cuts through bluebell woods—its hidden dips and bends will make it treacherous on a night like this. A knot of anxiety balls in my stomach at the thought of the journey ahead. But the house is only fifteen minutes away. If I keep my nerve, and not do anything rash, I’ll soon be home. Still, I put my foot down a little.
A sudden rush of wind rips through the trees, buffeting my little car and, as I fight to keep it steady on the road, I hit a sudden dip. For a few scary seconds, the wheels leave the ground and my stomach lurches into my mouth, giving me that awful roller-coaster feeling. As it smacks back down onto the road, water whooshes up the side of the car and cascades onto the windscreen, momentarily blinding me.
“No!” I cry as the car judders to a halt in the pooling water. Fear of becoming stranded in the woods drives adrenaline through my veins, spurring me into action. Shifting the car into gear with a crunch, I jam my foot down. The engine groans in protest but the car moves forward, plowing through the water and up the other side of the dip. My heart, which has been keeping time with the wipers as they thud crazily back and forth across the windscreen, is pounding so hard that I need a few seconds to catch my breath. But I don’t dare pull over in case the car refuses to start again. So I drive on, more carefully now.
A couple of minutes later, a sudden crack of thunder makes me jump so violently that my hands fly off the wheel. The car slews dangerously to the left and as I yank it back into position, my hands shaking now, I feel a rush of fear that I might not make it home in one piece. I try to calm myself but I feel under siege, not only from the elements but also from the trees as they writhe back and forth in a macabre dance, ready to pluck my little car from the road and toss it into the storm at any moment. With the rain drumming on the roof, the wind rattling the windows and the wipers thumping away, it’s difficult to concentrate.
There are bends coming up ahead so I shift forward in my seat and grip the wheel tightly. The road is deserted and, as I negotiate one bend, and then the next, I pray I’ll see some taillights in front of me so that I can follow them the rest of the way through the woods. I want to phone Matthew, just to hear his voice, just to know I’m not the only one left in the world, because that’s how it feels. But I don’t want to wake him, not when he has a migraine. Besides, he would be furious if he knew where I was.
Just when I think my journey is never going to end, I clear a bend and see the rear lights of a car a hundred yards or so in front of me. Giving a shaky sigh of relief, I speed up a little. Intent on catching it up, it’s only when I’m almost on top of it that I realize it isn’t moving at all, but parked awkwardly in a small lay-by. Caught unaware, I swerve out around it, missing the right-hand side of its bumper by inches and as I draw level, I turn and glare angrily at the driver, ready to yell at him for not putting on his warning lights. A woman looks back at me, her features blurred by the teeming rain.
Thinking that she’s broken down, I pull in a little way in front of her and come to a stop, leaving the engine running. I feel sorry for her having to get out of her car in such awful conditions and, as I keep watch in my rearview mirror—perversely glad that someone else has been foolish enough to cut through the woods in a storm—I imagine her scrambling around for an umbrella. It’s a good ten seconds before I realize that she’s not going to get out of her car and I can’t help feeling irritated, because surely she’s not expecting me to run back to her in the pouring rain? Unless there’s a reason why she can’t leave her car—in which case, wouldn’t she flash her lights or sound her horn to tell me she needs help? But nothing happens so I start unbuckling my seat belt, my eyes still fixed on the rearview mirror. Although I can’t see her clearly, there’s something off about the way she’s just sitting there with her headlights on, and the stories that Rachel used to tell me when we were young flood my mind: about people who stop for someone who’s broken down, only to find there’s an accomplice waiting to steal their car, of drivers who leave their cars to help an injured deer lying in the road only to be brutally attacked and find that the whole thing was staged. I do my seat belt back up quickly. I hadn’t seen anyone else in the car as I’d driven past but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, hiding in the back seat, ready to leap out.
Another bolt of lightning shoots through the sky and disappears into the woods. The wind whips up and branches scrabble at the passenger window, like someone trying to get in. A shiver runs down my spine. I feel so vulnerable that I release the handbrake and move the car forward a little to make it look as if I’m going to drive off, hoping it will provoke the woman into doing something—anything—to tell me that she doesn’t want me to leave. But still there is nothing. Reluctantly, I pull to a stop again, because it doesn’t seem right to drive off and leave her. But neither do I want to put myself at risk. When I think about it, she hadn’t seemed distressed when I’d driven past, she hadn’t waved frantically or given any indication that she needed help, so maybe somebody—her husband or one of the breakdown services—is already on their way. If I broke down, Matthew would be my first port of call, not a stranger in a car.
As I sit there, dithering, the rain picks up speed, drumming urgently on the roof—Go, go, go! It makes my mind up for me. Releasing the brake, I drive off as slowly as I can, giving her one last chance to call me back. But she doesn’t.
A couple of minutes later, I’m out of the woods and heading toward home, a beautiful old cottage with climbing roses over the front door and a rambling garden at the back. My phone beeps, telling me that the phone signal has kicked in. A mile or so further down the road, I turn into our drive and park as close to the house as possible, glad that I’m home safe and sound. The woman in the car is still on my mind and I wonder about phoning the local police station or the breakdown services to tell them about her. Remembering the message that came through as I drove out of the woods, I take my phone from my bag and look at the screen. The text is from Rachel:
Hi, hope you had fun tonight! Off to bed now as had to go straight to work from the airport so feeling v jet-lagged. Just wanted to check you got the gift for Susie? I’ll call you tomorrow morning xx
As I get to the end I find myself frowning—why was Rachel checking to see if I’d bought Susie a present? I hadn’t, not yet, because with the run-up to the end of the school year I’d been too busy. Anyway, the party isn’t until tomorrow evening and I’d been planning to go shopping in the morning to buy her something. I read the message again and, this time, the words “the gift” rather than “a gift” jump out at me, because it sounds as if Rachel is expecting me to have bought something from the two of us.
I think back to the last time I saw her. It had been about two weeks ago, the day before she’d left for New York. She’s a consultant in the UK division of a huge American consultancy firm, Finchlakers, and often goes to the U.S. on business. That evening, we’d gone to the cinema together and then on for a drink. Maybe that was when she’d asked me to get something for Susie. I rack my brains, trying to remember, trying to guess what we might have decided to buy. It could be anything—perfume, jewelry, a book—but nothing rings a bell. Had I forgotten? Memories of Mum, uncomfortable ones, flood my mind and I push them away quickly. It isn’t the same, I tell myself fiercely, I am not the same. By tomorrow, I’ll have remembered.
I stuff my phone back in my bag. Matthew’s right, I need a break. If I could just relax for a couple of weeks on a beach, I’d be fine. And Matthew needs a break too. We hadn’t had a honeymoon because we’d been busy renovating our cottage so the last time I’d had a proper holiday, the sort where you do nothing all day but lie on a beach and soak up the sun, was before Dad died, eighteen years ago. After, money had been too tight to do anything much, especially when I’d had to give up my job as a teacher to care for Mum. It was why, when I discovered shortly after she died, that rather than being a penniless widow, she was in fact wealthy, I was devastated. I couldn’t understand why she’d been content to live with so little when she could have lived in luxury. I was so shocked I’d barely heard what the solicitor was saying, so that by the time I managed to grasp how much money there was I could only stare at him in disbelief. I’d thought my father had left us with nothing.
A crack of thunder, further away now, brings me sharply back to the present. I peer through the window, wondering if I can make it out of the car and under the porch without getting wet. Clutching my handbag to my chest, I open the door and make a dash for it, the key ready in my hand.
In the hall, I kick off my shoes and tiptoe upstairs. The door to the spare bedroom is closed and I’m tempted to open it just an inch to see if Matthew is asleep. But I don’t want to risk waking him so instead I quickly get ready for bed, and before my head even touches the pillow, I’m asleep.
Copyright © 2017 by Bernadette MacDougall