One Step Behind – Lauren North

My heart is beating machine-gun-fire fast as I reach out to undo the new deadbolt at the top of the front door. I move to the chain next with the fluid movement of doctor’s hands – calm and steady – masking the truth, keeping the shaking fear deep inside. I used to think I was invincible. I used to think nothing could rattle me, but that was before. Where will you be today? Leaning against a tree in the park opposite our house, standing in broad daylight? Or will you be a shadow watching out of sight? A feeling I can sense but not see? How many emails will you send? How many ways will you find to torment me today? The questions are like caffeine hits to my exhaustion. I can’t have slept for more than three hours last night. My eyes itch, my muscles ache with heaviness, but at least the fog over my thoughts is clearing. Three hours. It feels like less. ‘Are we walking or driving, Mummy?’ Beth asks from behind me. I turn around and feel the love well up inside – a visceral heat. I wish I could shield them from you. Nine-year-old Beth, and Archie, six almost seven, are standing ready at the bottom of the stairs, school shoes on, dark-green book bags looped around one shoulder. Archie is a miniature version of Stuart, with shaggy brown hair and a wide toothy grin. He’s wearing grey shorts and a white polo shirt with a grass stain on the collar that hasn’t washed out.

His arms and legs have tanned a golden brown in the weeks of endless sun. Beth is more like me with her fair skin and the red freckles that sprinkle the bridge of her nose. Her green gingham summer dress is the new jumpsuit style, so she can do cartwheels and handstands without the boys seeing her knickers. Strands of dark-orange hair are already falling out of her ponytail and over her face, but I’ve given up trying to neaten it. She gets her independent streak from me, too. There is no last-minute scramble for reading books, no final cramming of spellings for the test, no lost items to hunt for in our house. They’ve been conditioned from the get-go in efficiency and routines. I’d love to take the credit but it’s Christie, our childminder, who’s behind it. ‘It’s really hot. Can we drive?’ Archie asks, dragging out the final word in the whiny voice we dislike so much but can’t seem to get him to stop.

‘Good idea, let’s drive,’ I say, as though walking was ever an option. There’s an instant sigh of relief around us, as though the hallway itself has been holding its breath. It’s your fault, of course, that my son is so scared. I’ve done all I can over the last year to hide my fear from them. But then you disappeared for a week in May. Seven whole days of not seeing you. No emails, and none of your sick gifts left on my doorstep either. I was a spring uncoiling – slowly, slowly – hoping beyond hope, day by day, that you’d given up. Day seven fell on a Monday, one of the first warm days of the year and my first school run in ages; Stuart wanted to take my car in for a service, so we walked the half a mile to Greenstead Primary School. But then you know that, don’t you? You were waiting in the doorway of the corner shop, two roads away from the school gates.

We turned on to the road and there you were, just metres from us. Watching. I tensed up so tight that the world spun and I grabbed Archie’s hand and then Beth’s and we ran flat out; running for our lives, I felt. I only stopped when I realized I’d dragged Archie to the pavement and he’d grazed one of his knees. We skipped the playground lines and went straight to the office, a mess of tears and blood and fear. Mr Bell, the head teacher, was a wave of calm and kindness over our panic. He sent Beth to class and Archie to the first-aid room for a plaster before sitting me in the staff room with a strong cup of tea that I slopped all over the new carpet because my hands were shaking so badly. It was only later, when I grabbed a spare minute during the night shift to phone Stuart, that I learned about the book bag. ‘Archie thinks he dropped it when you were running. I’m sure someone will hand it in.

’ They didn’t though. You took it. Another piece of us, of me, that’s yours now. I lie awake at night thinking of Archie’s reading diary and the comments back and forth between Miss Bagri, Archie’s teacher, and me or Stuart. The little notes that are meaningless, really, but somehow feel so personal, so telling, in your hands. A final big deep breath in before I down the last dregs of tepid coffee from my mug, grab the car keys and ready myself to open the front door. ‘Wait here,’ I say, throwing a glance back to Beth and Archie, who know without me telling them that they’re not to move until I’ve checked the doorstep. I yank open the heavy wooden door a few inches, just enough to peek out without the kids seeing the tiled doorstep. It’s a doll’s head today. One eye is open and staring up at me.

The other has been burnt into a melted hole. I bite the side of my mouth, keeping my scream inside, and slam the door shut. ‘What is it, Mummy?’ Beth asks. ‘It’s nothing.’ Of course she knows it’s not nothing. It’s always something, but how can I tell my children what’s out there, what you’re doing to me? I run through the house and grab one of Detective Sergeant Church’s clear plastic evidence bags. ‘Go sit on the sofa,’ I say, shooing Beth and Archie away. ‘And put the TV on.’ They move without complaint and when I’m sure they’re gone, I open up the front door and scoop the doll’s head into the bag, careful not to touch it. I can taste the coffee rising at the back of my throat, but I work quickly, desperate to get back to the kids and make things normal for them.

At least there’s no glass this time, smashed into a thousand shards for me to sweep up. When the bag is sealed I shove it into my handbag to drop at the police station on my way past. Then I wash my hands three times and pull myself together; I step back to the children, forcing a bright smile. ‘OK. We can go.’ I open the front door again, wide this time, and the heat hits us. Like the residue of candyfloss on fingers, it coats our skin in a sticky film. No sea breeze today, nothing to take the edge off the heatwave. Both kids leap over the step and land on the path as though an invisible evil lurks on it. It’s an effort not to do the same.

We hustle to the car, parked further down the road than I’d have liked – but with no driveways, the cars on the road are packed tight on both sides, like Starbursts in a tube, and we can’t always find a space right outside our house. The street is a row of fifty semi-detached houses the same as ours, built a hundred and something years ago in dark-red brick, all facing out to the park with its boating lake, playground and many, many places for you to hide. We’re three roads back from the seafront where the property prices quadruple. Our estate agent, Wayne, has boasted of sea views from our house, which is laughable really. If I stand on a chair at Archie’s window and crane my neck then maybe I can catch a glimmer of the green estuary and the slow cargo ships making their way towards London, but I’ve not corrected him. The sooner we move, the sooner we’ll be far away from you. The moment we’re in the car I lock the doors, allowing myself a quick inhale of breath before it starts again. Road, mirrors, windows, road. My gaze flicks between them, staring at every parked car, every tree, every doorway we pass, searching for the outline of your figure, a glimpse of broad shoulders and dark hair. We stop at a pelican crossing, the green man beeping in time with my indicator as the children and parents flock towards the school.

There is laughter and shouts of ‘hello’. They look so happy, so oblivious. They have no idea how fragile their lives are, how quickly everything can be stripped away. The green man disappears. The last stragglers dart in front of our car. My hand reaches for the gear stick, my left leg already easing off the clutch, and that’s when it happens. I feel you before I see you. That strange sense of being watched that is now sickeningly familiar. Not now, I plead to you in my head. Not with Beth and Archie in the car.

Please no. Then I spot you. You’re standing on the pavement, tucked a little way behind a tree on the other side of the road. Your phone is in your hand, and it’s the screen you’re staring at, not me. But then you look up and our eyes meet. I’m watching you, Jenna, that look is saying. I freeze. Inside I’m screaming at myself to reach for my phone and take a photo of you, something the police can use to figure out who you are, but my muscles won’t react. All I can think about is keeping Beth and Archie safe. For the longest second the only noise is the tick, tick, tick of the indicator.

It sounds so slow compared to the beating of my heart. A horn blasts from behind me. I jump at the noise, a yelp escaping my throat. The traffic light has turned green. ‘What’s wrong, Mummy?’ Archie whispers from the back seat. I’ve scared him. ‘Nothing, darling,’ I reply, my voice too high. I spur myself into action, pulling the car over to the side of the road and parking askew on the kerb. I have to get a photo this time. My hands are slippery with sweat but I cut the engine, dig my phone out of my bag and open the camera.

‘Where is he?’ Beth asks, her voice sounding so young now, so full of the same fear that is surging through me, and I feel myself tearing in two, longing to be the mother she needs, the one who will always protect her, and knowing I can’t. How can I keep her safe when I don’t know who you are? Or what you want from me? ‘Get back,’ I whisper. He’s there. He’s right there. The car behind me honks again – a final beep of what-the-hell-are-you-doing-lady – before driving around me, blocking you from view for a moment. When the car is gone, so are you. Only the fear remains. Chapter 2 Jenna Every muscle, every joint, every single cell in my body vibrates with the urge to run. I can taste it in my mouth – a stale bitterness, like unbrushed teeth. We may be a more advanced species than most animals but our basic instincts remain the same – the surge of adrenaline, the fight or flight response.

All I want to do is take Archie and Beth and run away and never come back. And we are already running. Stuart keeps sending me links to houses in a village ten miles away. But he doesn’t get it. Ten miles isn’t enough to get away from you. We need ten thousand miles and an ocean between us. I could get a work permit for almost anywhere in the world. It wouldn’t just be a new house, it would be a different way of living. I haven’t told Stuart how I feel yet. He’s been right by my side through all the horrors you’ve thrown at me and I don’t know how to burden him with this new request.

Once we’ve found a buyer for the house, then I’ll say something. There are two viewings scheduled today. Stuart is taking a long lunch to show the buyers around the rooms that have been our home for the last decade. No For Sale sign, of course. I can’t have you finding out our plan. Another car passes us. I drop my phone and glance across the road. The street is still empty and so I do the only thing I can do – I drive away, I carry on. The moment we’re parked outside the school I tell Beth and Archie to sit tight and play on their tablets, then I step out of the car and call the police. I don’t want the kids to hear this.

They are already so aware of you and what’s happening. Flashes of Archie’s tear-stained face and pleas for just one more bedtime story flood my thoughts. He never used to be scared of the dark. Beth will never admit to being scared too, but her sudden mood swings – angry one moment, desperate for cuddles the next – tell their own story. The call is the usual back and forth. When, where, what, followed by a ‘We’ll send a patrol car’. I’ll get a call tomorrow or the day after from DS Church – the nasal-voiced detective who’s managing my case. She’ll tell me they’ve failed again. ‘Ready to go, kids?’ I ask, finishing the call and opening Archie’s passenger door. As they grab their bags and clamber out I feel my skin itch again with the heat and the feeling of being watched that will follow me now for the rest of the day; the rest of my life, I think sometimes.

We’re swept towards the school by the tide of parents and children. I spot Christie walking just ahead of us with the train of kids she’s had over for breakfast this morning, along with her own daughter, Niamh. Beth and Archie skip ahead to join her and their friends and I hurry to catch up and try not to feel ditched. When I think about leaving Westbury, Christie is always my first thought. She has taken care of Beth and Archie in her home since Beth started school five years ago, wiping their noses, their bottoms and their tears with a motherly love I’ll never find in childcare again. Plus, they adore her and she says yes every time we need her to. ‘Hey sweetheart,’ Christie says to Beth as she reaches her side. Christie is in her mid-thirties with long brown hair she wears in a messy bun. She’s always smiling, and always wears baggy jeans and a loose t-shirt. ‘Christie, I got ten out of ten on my spelling test yesterday.

’ Beth’s voice is bouncing with a joy I rarely hear. ‘That’s wonderful.’ Christie holds out her arm and Beth moves closer, the pair hugging as they walk. I feel a strange mix of happiness and jealousy seeing them together like this. I’m glad Beth loves Christie. It makes our childcare situation so much easier, and yet I can’t help but wish it was me Beth was hugging right now. The bell rings as we step through the gates into the playground and four hundred children sprint to their class lines. I kiss Archie first and hold him close. ‘Have a good day, Archie. I’ll see you …’ I jump forward in my head, wading through the sludge of tiredness to remember my shift pattern this week.

I finish at nine thirty tonight, then another twelve-hour shift tomorrow – seven till seven. ‘Tomorrow night, hopefully.’ I emphasize the final word and squeeze Archie a little tighter. He might only be six but Archie knows as well as anyone that I can’t simply walk away at the end of the day like Stuart can on his building site. A&E doesn’t work like that. ‘Or Friday, OK?’ ‘Bye, Mummy,’ Archie says, pushing me away a little. I bend down and lean close so his classmates don’t hear. ‘Remember not to hold it, baby. If you need to go to the bathroom, just ask. Mrs Smith or Miss Bagri will take you.

’ He nods distractedly, his mind already in the classroom. Archie’s class starts to move and I step over to Beth and the Year Four line. She sees me coming and gives a small shake of her head. No hug today, then. The realization stings for a moment but I push it away. Beth is growing up and I have to respect that, regardless of how much I want to hold her right now. ‘You didn’t tell me about your spelling test. That’s really great, well done,’ I say, shoving my hands in the pockets of my trousers. ‘I forgot,’ she says with a shrug. ‘Well, I’m proud of you.

’ I smile as brightly as I can. ‘Have a good day.’ ‘Don’t forget the ribbon, Mum,’ Beth says, eyebrows rising up and head tilting forward in a way that makes her seem older than nine. ‘Ribbon? What ribbon?’ She gives me her trademark sigh and eye roll. ‘I need an egg box, an empty cereal box and some red ribbon for a Father’s Day gift we’re making. I told you about it at the weekend. We need it on Friday.’ I nod. ‘Right. Yes of course.

’ There’s a vague memory of a conversation about ribbon. Beth caught me as I was collecting a letter from the doormat, pulse racing, vision blurring, wondering if it had been delivered by the postman or by you. ‘You will get it, won’t you?’ Her face changes and she’s suddenly so small, so nine again. ‘Yes, yes. I haven’t forgotten,’ I lie. ‘Your class is moving. You need to go.’ ‘And it’s non-uniform day on Friday,’ she says, ignoring me. ‘I know. You’ve told me ten times this week.

You saw me write it on the calendar. Your dad’s taking you to school on Friday and he knows too. Plus, Beth, you’re old enough now to remember yourself, aren’t you?’ I know she’s thinking of the time when Archie was in Reception and she was in Year Two. One of my rare drop-off days long before you, when my only excuse was juggling family and work. I’d missed the letter in the book bags about a non-uniform day, raising money for the hospital of all places. Beth and Archie had been the only kids in dark-green-and-white uniform next to a parade of purples, pinks and blues. They’d both cried as they’d gone into school. Beth flashes me a quick smile before racing off and joining the end of her class line. I wait until she’s disappeared around the corner and allow the relief to sweep through me. Beth and Archie are safe.

You can’t get to them in school. It’s only me now. I turn away and join the bottleneck of parents trying to get through the gate and look around for Christie or a familiar face to join in the polite ‘How’s things?’ parent chat, but I don’t recognize a single mum. ‘Hi, it’s Jenna, right?’ a voice says from beside me. I’m already nodding as I turn to face the woman. She’s slim in skinny cut-off jeans and a black vest top. Her shoulder-length blonde hair is dead straight and shining with health. She’s early forties like me, but looks more youthful somehow. I peer at her forehead, searching for the lines, but her skin is smooth and taut. ‘Yes.

’ ‘Hi, I’m Rachel Finley, Lacey and Freddie’s mum.’ She must register my blank expression because then she adds, ‘Lacey and Beth are best friends, and Freddie and Archie seem to be heading the same way. I was hoping we might bump into each other.’ ‘Oh right, yes of course. It’s nice to meet you at last,’ I reply as though I know what she’s talking about. ‘Look, no pressure, but I’m chair of the PTA and we’re absolutely desperate for new members. I wondered how you felt about joining? You don’t have to decide straight away. But there’s a PTA mums’ night out coming up – you can come along if you want and just have a good time. Here’ – she pulls out some folded pieces of paper from her bag and hands them to me – ‘it’s just some more information and our contact details, in case you want to think about it.’ I can feel myself staring open-mouthed at Rachel, trying to find the nicest way I can to say no, because it is a no.

There is no way I have time to bake cakes or organize raffle prizes. ‘Er … it’s just I work a lot so I’m really not sure I have time.’ ‘No worries. Just think about it. I’d better run. See you at Lacey’s birthday party on Saturday?’ ‘Wouldn’t miss it.’ I stretch my lips into a smile and watch her stride away, wondering who this woman is and what party she’s talking about. Has Beth mentioned a Lacey recently? There was a girl she kept talking about a few months ago, but I’m sure her name began with a T. Am I that out of touch with my own children? Too many drop and runs at Christie’s house. Too many assemblies, sports days, parents’ evenings that have clashed with a shift I couldn’t swap, leaving Stuart to do the brunt of the work.

But school is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my absence as a mother. I missed Archie’s fifth birthday party at the aquarium. I missed Beth’s gymnastics competition and the third-place trophy she received. Twice I’ve worked on Christmas Day and missed seeing their faces as they rushed downstairs to find their presents under the tree. But it’s the little stuff that eats at me the most – the family dinners, the laughter at bath time, the learning to tie shoelaces, games of snap. Sometimes I kid myself that it won’t always be this way, but it will. It’s one of many sacrifices I’ve made for the job I live and breathe. Stuart and I went into starting a family with our eyes wide open to the juggling act ahead of both of us, but unlike Stuart, it’s me who carries the burden. The guilt has grown year after year, from the first settling-in session at nursery when I left a screaming, red-faced four-month-old Beth. It’s grotesque and spiky, this guilt I feel inside; a mound like the outer shell of a horse chestnut – hard and sharp – jammed in my stomach.

And all of that is before I consider what you’ve done to me, what you’ve stolen from my life. As I slide back into my car, I feel my phone vibrate in my bag. A wave of nausea crashes over me but I dig it out anyway. An email alert appears on the screen, then another and another. Five in total. All from different email addresses. All from you. My eyes dart around the road, looking beyond the parents and the school traffic, searching for you. The fear is as real as if you’re reaching into my car and wrapping your hands around my neck, squeezing tighter and tighter until I can’t breathe

.

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