Every night she waited. Silent, still. The limbs of her twelve-year-old body ached with the effort. Her heart hammered in the quiet of the room—drumming, chanting; a cruel, betraying boom that gave her away. Every night she wished for morning, for the light. It always came too late. Sometimes, she wished instead for darkness, wished herself part of it—wisp and smoke and shadow, able to sink into the night and escape. When she held her breath and shut her eyes real tight, she could imagine that escape—imagine she was somewhere else entirely. If she kept still long enough she could pretend this night would be different; that maybe, this night, he wouldn’t come for her—
But he always did.
Seventeen years later…
Ella was rooted to the spot. A scream carved an icy path inside her, from her head through every limb, with no release. Three seconds passed, three minutes—it could have been three hours—an immeasurable streak of sheer panic and hysteria. Then, it was suddenly still, as though a giant hand had reached out and smothered the world in shadow. Her breath caught in her throat, thick and heavy, like smoke. Her hand, foreign and white-knuckled with tension, kept a tight fist on the cordless black phone—the one thing that kept her tied to the centre of it all, to the cataclysmic news from the other side of the equator.
‘Ella?’ It broke Ella’s trance. ‘You still there? Hello?’
Aunt Mandy. Her mama’s sister… her dead mama’s sister.
Ella stared ahead, unseeing. ‘I have to go,’ she said, the words spluttering from her, coarse and splintered. She barely registered her own voice and swallowed repeatedly to soothe the scratchy burn at the back of her throat. ‘I…’
She didn’t know how to end that sentence. It was like everything she was certain of up until this point had disintegrated into dust. She had never felt more unsure or alone than she did right now.
‘That’s okay, my darlin’, I understand. You take care. And let me know about the arrangements… Call me anytime, y’hear?’ Her aunt paused for a long moment, waiting. Eventually, she hung up.
Ella didn’t move. The phone clicked dead then onto dial-tone as she stood there, unwilling, refusing, to process what she’d learnt. Her mind raced. Threads of thought
chased themselves like dead leaves on the wind. Slowly, a single question began to form. It was both simple and complicated at once.
She slumped against the living room wall. It just couldn’t be true. She couldn’t believe it. She wouldn’t. There had to be some kind of a mistake—someone, somewhere, had gotten things horribly wrong.
The phone started to wail, and she hit the end-call button fiercely, returning to the suffocating silence.
Mama… she’s dead…
The three words jarred her. She seemed to fumble around them for a while, feeling her way, searching for a weakness, a gap, a hole in the truth. But there was none, and when her mind wrapped itself around the finality of fact, something inside her broke. Her head filled with pictures and memories, and the crushing torment of knowing it was all she had left.
She shoved the phone back on its cradle with such force it wobbled and fell off, and she stared at it, not daring to touch it; it was contaminated with truth. It had snatched the world from under her feet, and all that remained was a heavy, sickening ache, and yet she felt that somehow, it was the last tie to everything that came before it. Blinking back tears, she slowly picked it up, clutched it like a small child to her chest, and cried.
Lying motionless in the cramped bunk of her cabin, Ella dug deep for the motivation to move. The vessel’s engine grumbled steadily somewhere beneath her, and morning was only just beginning to seep into the room. She eased herself off the top bunk, careful not to step on her sister, Brooke, snoring gently in the bed below.
She parted the heavy curtains. The dawn cast itself over the Atlantic, impossibly beautiful set against the recent tragedy of her mother’s passing; it seemed wrong somehow, that these two extremes could co-exist. She took a deep breath, forcing the raw grief back inside its box, trying not to lose her grip; losing herself instead to the pink-tinted sky tilting and realigning with each dip of the vessel. She’d forgotten how breathtaking it was to watch the day break over the ocean.
There was a lot she’d forgotten, and in just a few hours, stepping back on homeland, she was going to have to face the fact that her voluntary memory lapse was bringing her home just a little too late. She was determined never to forgive herself for that.
Travelling to an island which claimed to be one of the remotest places in the world took time, and there was only one way to reach Saint Helena—by sea, on an old Royal Mail ship. It had cost them two full weeks. Two weeks was a long time to have to sit around and grieve from afar, helpless and isolated. Still, a shorter time would have made no real difference. It was useless to blame an age-old journey plan for her own selfish mistake of not visiting when she’d had the chance. If she’d have kept her word, she would have seen her mama at least one more time. Instead, she’d put it off, time after time, always coming up with a feeble excuse; always accepting her mama’s gentle understanding on the other end of the phone-line, accepting it as approval.
And now… it was too late.
The guilt had always tugged and niggled, although up until now it had been small enough to shrug off; now, it was a life-sized weight around her neck that she couldn’t cast aside even if she’d wanted to.
She’d been on auto-pilot for the last fortnight, busying herself with anything she could, simply to avoid having to think; it was a little less painful to deal with in robot-mode, even if it was a coward’s way forward. Unfortunately, three days on the ocean gave her plenty of time to correct that; boredom was no friend to grief, or guilt.
Brooke seemed to be coping. Then again, Brooke had never been in the habit of adorning anything with her heart, let alone her sleeve, so Ella’s guess was as good as any. You never could be sure what was there under the surface with Brooke. She was more subdued than usual, and seemed to have agreed to the trip only so Ella wouldn’t have to make it alone, but maybe she knew Ella needed this, and needed her, even if neither of them realised how much. This would be the closest thing to closure either of them could manage, if there was any such simple thing.
Ella jumped as Brooke shifted suddenly in her sleep.
Stuffing her head under one of the pillows, Brooke let out an overly loud groan, more agitated than a premenstrual dragon.
‘Why are you up so early?’ she grumbled, her voice muffled by the pillow. ‘Close the curtains, will you?’
Ella smiled in spite of herself. Her sister made it easier to function; easier to fake normality. If there was anyone in the world that could keep her anchored and sane in all of this, it would be Brooke. Whilst everyone else tiptoed around Ella, magnifying what had happened, treating her like a delicate crystal ornament—she could trust Brooke to be herself. And whether or not Brooke knew this, it was exactly what Ella needed.
Brooke stood at the stern of the vessel and studied the surf trail as the ship slowly cut its path. The ocean was a piercing mid-day-blue mirror to the cloudless sky above, the heat bouncing off the water in a rippled dance. The wooden rails separating her from the inviting depths below were sun-warm and comforting against her bare arms. If she craned her neck at just the right angle, she was able to catch her first glimpse of ‘home’.
At this distance the island was little more than jagged shadow and rock, jutting up out of the water—misshapen teeth in the mouth of a sleeping dragon. Soon, she’d have no choice but to climb into that mouth. For now, it was still shrouded in haze, shimmering against the horizon like a mirage, and Brooke found herself wishing that were all it was; a mirage would have been easier than reality.
Too soon though, the ship pulled into the harbour, and the horn reverberated with finality. The short boat-ride to shore from the larger vessel was a whole lot more fun than Brooke remembered it to be, perhaps because an actual moment of joy had been so unexpected this close to landing. Sea spray and salty air aside, the uneasiness inside her grew. It had been stirring since leaving the airport in England.
She should have stayed. She should have kept herself away from all of this, not agree to come back; should have made her excuses and left it at that. But how could she have done?
She didn’t see the point herself, in coming home this long after Addie’s funeral, but she knew Ella wanted to, maybe needed to. She knew if there was ever a time she needed to step up and be there for someone else, it was now, for Ella.
Now though, as the boatman steered them all toward the harbour, her selfless act was looking really stupid. She wanted to leap overboard and swim all the way back to safety.
‘This is it,’ Ella said suddenly.
She looked smaller and more vulnerable than Brooke had ever seen her. Brooke aborted her wild ideas of escape, and reached for Ella’s hand, squeezing it.
‘We’ll be alright, El.’
Ella nodded, and smiled a weak but obviously grateful smile, and Brooke hoped the simple lifelong mantra of all families everywhere would be enough to console Ella somehow.
We’ll be alright.
It sure as hell didn’t have Brooke convinced.
One of the boatmen at the pier offered a hand as she stepped out onto the wet landing step. She looked around her, waiting for Ella to follow. The wharf was teeming with men in yellow hard-hats and overalls, not hard at work but just as she’d left them—filling the position of laid-back onlookers. A few of them she recognised. Some of them smiled, some ogled, and some weren’t bothered either way. They merely looked glad for a timeout and a smoke.
Ella reached her side and began unzipping the bulky life jacket, following the first boatload of twenty-odd passengers up the wide harbour steps in the direction of transportation to Customs. Brooke followed suit, her fingers fumbling and catching in the zip. They boarded the bus in silence, spoke only when spoken to during the clearance procedure in Customs, and then ventured towards the exit of the building.
Brooke cast a side glance at Ella; she was pale. Facing the crowd at the seaside during passenger arrivals was never easy on the passengers. The other side of seven years, they had been a part of the waiting crowd. Brooke had been, at least. Ella never had time for ‘that sort of rubbish’—watching people return home just so you could scrutinise them; judging how much they’d changed during their time away, by the clothes they wore, or the way they greeted someone—that was not Ella’s idea of leisure. It was a bit of an island tradition though, and true to form, when they left the cool, safe darkness of the building, and the sunlight hit them once more, so did the gaping assembly of people.
There were so many of them. Some were caught up in their own reunions, oblivious to two more passengers arriving. The rest, they were all eyes.
Brooke’s gaze automatically swooped to the spot where she’d sat as a teenager: a ‘front-row’ spot near a large, out-of-use storage building. She half-expected the same group of people to be perched there, stuck in a time loop of some sort. Instead, there were nameless faces, all along the building front and the half-walls, all the way up toward a flight of stone steps leading to one of the many hillside paths in the valley capital. To the right, yet more bystanders, spanning the width of the street. They had, as had always been the practice, formed a semi-circle around the gate of the Customs building, dotting themselves between parked vehicles, eagerly waiting like paparazzi for celebrities, or wild animals with barely-curbed appetites.
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