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The Safe House

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She told you the house would keep you safe. She lied.
Esther is safe in the house. For sixteen years, she and her mother have lived off the grid, protected from the dangers of the outside world. For sixteen years, Esther has never seen another single soul. Until today.
Today there’s a man outside the house. A man who knows Esther’s name, and who proves that her mother’s claims about the outside world are false. A man who is telling Esther that she’s been living a lie.
Is her mother keeping Esther safe – or keeping her prisoner?
Year:
2022
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Language:
english
ISBN 10:
0008480915
ISBN 13:
9780008480912
ISBN:
A08F0085-4EC0-4350-A9BC-221F92AB9548
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MOBI , 483 KB
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Praise for Louise Mumford


‘The Circle meets Black Mirror in a thrilling, plausible and gripping debut. Frighteningly inventive.’ John Marrs, bestselling author of The One

‘A twisty, action-packed plot makes this intriguing thriller unputdownable.’ Roz Watkins, author of the DI Meg Dalton series

‘A brilliantly original premise which is horrifyingly believable – one for insomniacs everywhere.’ Catherine Cooper, author of The Chalet





About the Author


LOUISE MUMFORD was born and lives in South Wales. From a young age she loved books and would make up stories based on her favourite characters, so it was only natural that she studied English Literature at university and it was a delight to graduate with first-class honours. As a teacher she tried to pass on her love of reading to her students (and discovered that the secret to successful teaching is … stickers! She is aware that that is, essentially, bribery.)

In the summer of 2019 Louise experienced a once-in-a-lifetime moment: she was discovered as a new writer by her publisher at the Primadonna Festival. Everything has been a bit of a whirlwind since then.

Louise lives in Cardiff with her husband and spends her time trying to get down on paper all the marvellous and frightening things that happen in her head.





Also by Louise Mumford


Sleepless





HQ


An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd

1 London Bridge Street

London SE1 9GF

www.harpercollins.co.uk

HarperCollinsPublishers

1st Floor, Watermarque Building, Ringsend Road

Dublin 4, Ireland

First published in Great Britain by HQ in 2022

Copyright © Louise Mumford 2022

Louise Mumford asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved under Int; ernational and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

E-book Edition © May 2022 ISBN: 9780008480912

Version: 2022-04-11



Table of Contents

Cover

Praise for Louise Mumford

About the Author

Also by Louise Mumford

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Chapter 1: Sixteen years earlier

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11: Hannah

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14: Esther

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19: Hannah

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22: Esther

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27: Hannah

Chapter 28

Chapter 29: Esther

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36: Hannah

Chapter 37: Esther

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47: Hannah

Chapter 48: Esther

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53: Hannah

Chapter 54: Esther

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58: Hannah

Chapter 59: Esther

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Acknowledgements

Dear Reader …

About the Publisher





To Jason, always.





Chapter 1





Sixteen years earlier




There was a killer prowling around their terraced house, Esther’s mother told her. It pressed itself against their windows, slithered over the bricks and licked at the door-knocker.

The only thing to do was escape.

‘We are going to go far away and live amongst the trees. Would you like that? The trees?’ Mother asked, wrapping a scarf around five-year-old Esther’s mouth and nose so she couldn’t have answered even if she had wanted to.

Esther had no opinion on trees. She had opinions about the best food to eat for dinner, the best colour in the universe and who Mr Wiffles, her toy whale, had fallen out with that day. But trees? She saw a few scraggly ones from her bedroom window. They moved in the wind and shook their branches like they were laughing at her.

Maybe they were.

But, tonight, all Esther could see were the flames.

‘You’re going to have to carry some things. The rest we’ll leave behind.’ Her mother pulled Esther’s arms through the rucksack, which she had picked all by herself. It had whales on it too.

She could have helped hoist the bag onto her own shoulders, but she remained a dead weight. She wanted to stay here, at home. Even with the killer. Home had her bedroom with its deep-sea diver wallpaper and the bit of carpet that pulled up to reveal a hiding space under the floorboards. There was going to be no carpet in the new house; all the floors were going to be smooth, dust-free and easy to clean, so Mother said.

That was Esther’s fault.

‘But, Dad—’ Her father had raced off into the night, Mother had told her, gone to help, straight into the heart of the fiery monster that lay beyond their living-room window.

‘Your father will follow us; he promised. Right. We’re going to open the door now. Then it’s straight to the car. But you can’t take the scarf off even when you’re in there. Clear?’

Esther’s fault.

‘The new house is so much safer for you, Pips. I should have done this years ago.’ Because the killer outside, it wanted her particularly. The new house would protect her. It was a fortress, built to keep out the enemy. Except the enemy wasn’t a horde of people with guns and bombs, it wasn’t a nuclear blast, or flood or even the fire outside.

It was the air.

‘Got it?’ her mother asked and Esther’s hand instinctively went to her pocket where she kept her inhaler, even though she didn’t need to check – it was always there.

Her mother handed her the goggles and she put them on. Esther liked them at least: it made her feel like the divers on her wallpaper in the room that she didn’t want to leave.

She wasn’t ready to dive.

But it was over in seconds. Her mother pulled her, and, caught in her current, she bobbed along in her wake. Outside, their world had changed.

There was smoke, of course. But there had always been smoke. Esther felt the grip of that hand that squeezed her chest and she wheezed, reaching for the comforting shape of her inhaler, each breath something that threatened to squeeze out all the air from her body.

The sky was no longer black but a fiery, cloudy orange. Her mother bundled her into the back of the car, belted her into her child seat and started the engine at the same time as clicking her own belt into place. It was hard to turn her head in the scarf, but Esther did her best, trying to look back one last time at the small house that had been theirs.

And then, briefly, she really was under the sea, except the sea was made of faces, hands and fumes and the car swam through it all.

But soon that passed too. Hours sped by until dawn lightened the night sky. Concrete turned to wasteland and then bloomed green. Well, greener. Esther slept through much of the journey.

The roads finally ended. They bumped and jolted over a dirt track. Esther ran a finger around the edge of her scarf, her skin itchy and hot, but she wasn’t brave enough to inch the material back and let in some cool air because the killer was in the car with her.

It kept her company all the way to the House.

As soon as Esther saw it, she knew it needed that capital H. They had to leave the car and walk the last part, her mother scooping her up and running for most of the way. They could leave their home and everything they knew behind but that wouldn’t save them – save her and her weak little lungs that couldn’t even do their one job properly. Things had gone too far, her mother told her. The air was too poisoned, wherever they went. Except for one place, and one place only.

Finally, she stood before it, clutching her mother’s hand. ‘Our hideaway.’ Her mother dragged her closer. Set into the hill with earth making up most of its walls and roof, the front of it was a blank concrete face with two narrow windows.

‘To keep you safe, Pips.’ Her mother pulled her forward, into the shadow of the House. ‘Like you’re a toy, hmm? A special one. All snug in your packaging.’

But Esther had opened lots of those toys, the figure within pressed face first against the plastic and every time she’d almost heard each one gasp in relief as she freed them. Snug was not a new word to Esther, but that day, standing in front of the House, it did not mean cosy and protected.

It meant trapped.

***

Just her and her mother in the House in the hill. A prayer each day:

‘To what do we give thanks?’

‘The House.’

‘What protects the air we breathe?’

‘The House.’

‘What gives us plants and water and power and comfort?’

‘The House.’

‘What keeps us safe?’

‘The House.’

Princesses in their towers always pined for their escape in the fairy tales her mother used to read to her and for a long time she had not understood why. Out There was a smog-filled thicket of thorns waiting to wrap around her throat.

There was nothing for her there, her mother said. The House was her world, and she would never need to leave it again.

And that is how it was for the next sixteen years.





Chapter 2





A demon lived in Esther’s chest.

It squeezed her lungs and she heard that too-familiar wheeze. Water dripped down her bedside cupboard from the glass she had knocked over and she thought to herself that she would need to wipe that up before Mother saw it, but then her windpipe collapsed to a thin straw and no matter how hard she tried to suck in a breath, she couldn’t get enough air.

Panic bubbled.

She knew that all she had to do was stagger or crawl over to the inhaler somewhere on her dressing table and, in a few puffs, a blessed ease would spread through her chest. She’d done it before; she could do it again.

Breathe.

Breathe.

This was why she did not leave the House. The air was cleaner here amongst the trees in their hillside bunker, but cleaner did not mean clean. Not for her. Not anymore. The demon in her chest spent much of its time dozing because of the carefully filtered air that was pumped around the House. As she got older, Esther appreciated the time and planning that had gone into their home, everything from the backup filtration system run by a generator to the tubs that grew fresh vegetables and the water supply piped from a nearby well.

The House kept her demon drowsy. Out There, it would wake up.

The concept of Out There was quite a hazy one, Esther had to admit, built on the old films she watched, none of them dated beyond the millennium. She knew the world had moved on since then. The thing was, she also knew she would never be able to move on into it, not now, with its polluted skies that would make her demon roar into life with glee.

Stumbling, she gripped on to her bedspread, bunching it into her fist, the whole thing sliding off, dragging Mr Wiffles with it until he was almost touching her nose. Then, somehow, she was on the floor, but that was okay because she could pull herself up to the table and grab it if everything would stop spinning and the straw that passed for her windpipe would loosen up a little. There was nothing to fear.

Oh, but there was. The demon pressed down on her, squatted on her chest, put its clammy lips around her windpipe and then bit down hard.

She heard birdsong. Fake. Esther’s mother sometimes played ambient noise to stop the silence taking hold. The birds had been some of the first to go, she’d told her, even in the countryside, away from the suppurating heart of the city, though there were breeding programmes to protect what was left. In captivity of course. The skies were no place for them now, though Esther had seen shapes in the distance every so often, wheeling and graceful smudges in the sky. There were still people Out There. Esther knew it wasn’t some sort of B-movie apocalyptic wasteland beyond their door because people were like parasites, her mother told her – they survived anything, even poisoning their own air. It was the poor innocent creatures that suffered the worst: the animals, the children. Cities limped on, as did the people, their lungs blackening with each breath.

That was why Mother had built this place for her.

The House purred. It had better lungs than Esther: the beautifully engineered air-conditioning and filtration system that kept the air inside at optimum purity. And it had roots: a series of storage tunnels underneath that held everything that two people might ever need.

Esther swung out her arm and swiped for the inhaler, her hand grasping nothing. It was not on her dressing table. She needed to think. Where had she put it, before she went to bed the night before? But thinking was becoming difficult.

It was in those moments that she was closest to her father.

A hero, her mother told her. A man who had lost his own life saving others.

Her mental picture of him had, over the years, shrunk to photograph size, bordered white. A man forever stilled in a dozen or so poses, next to a tree, holding a hat, pushing the hair out of his face. Esther couldn’t remember what that hair smelled like, or whether the skin on his hand was rough or smooth, or what he looked like when he wasn’t frozen in a smile.

She might not have known those things about her father but she knew how he must have felt as he died saving those other people from a fire that then killed him, choking for a breath that wouldn’t come. Frankly, as mementoes went, she would have preferred a pocket watch or something.

She sat on the floor by her bed, Mr Wiffles eyeing her from her blue bedspread, chosen when she was a child because she had wanted it to be his sea.

‘I … I …’ she tried out the words.

The cuddly whale gazed back at her, unblinking, his stitching a little looser now than it was sixteen years ago. Like everyone’s.

‘My inhaler …’ she tried again.

‘Well, how am I meant to see that from here?’ she grumbled for him in her head. ‘I’ve been lying on this bedspread for the best part of a week now and all I’ve had a chance to see is your sock drawer.’

She had to admit, Mr Wiffles had become more bad-tempered with age.

Then she heard it, the blessed clacking sound that signalled rescue.

‘Esther?’ A familiar voice. Her mother. ‘I’m here, I’m here – breathe …’

Esther hauled herself up like an old person as she took a puff, slumping around the dressing table leg as relief hit. Her breathing slowed and she pushed her hair away from her sweaty forehead.

‘Thanks …’ Esther said, her voice hoarse. ‘I nearly had it …’

There was a cool hand on her cheek as her mother’s face loomed into view. ‘It was on the floor by your bedside table. Lucky you have me, eh?’

‘Yes.’

She was. Every day Esther reminded herself how grateful she was to her mother, for this filtered air, for the House. Each breath made the demon in her chest smaller and sleepier until she could kid herself that it didn’t exist at all.

‘Ready?’ Her mother helped her up.

Esther was.





Chapter 3





‘Happy birthday, Pips!’

Mother appeared with the time-honoured slice of fig and cranberry loaf topped with a birthday candle that had done sterling service for the past sixteen years because it had never once been lit.

Birthday Breakfast was sacrosanct. Mother even wore her least shabby cardigan, though she never went so far as to change out of her stained work trousers and battered leather slippers. There was the special loaf, as dark as fruitcake. Bread and cakes required flour, which they only had in a limited supply, so this was a treat, served with jam and the best tea, its leaves slowly uncurling like feathery fingers in the infuser.

This birthday was a special one.

‘Tiara!’ Mother said, her own already in place, balanced precariously in the wire nest of her hair, its pink plastic jewels only slightly scuffed.

Esther could have tried a weak protest, but the tiara was ready in her jeans pocket and she stuffed it on, feeling its little comb claws grip into her hair. She would never be too old for the birthday tiara, even if it had originally been designed for a five-year-old and was now too small, as if she had drunk an Alice in Wonderland potion and not her cup of morning tea.

‘Twenty-one years old,’ Mother said, cutting the loaf as they sat at the tiny breakfast bar in their kitchen.

Twenty-one. A magic number. Esther expected great things from twenty-one because that was coming of age. Not eighteen, still stuck in the hormonal, sulky teens, no, twenty-one was an adult, a grown-up … an equal.

A grown-up with a question, or rather a birthday request.

Above them the skylight was a bright circle of white sky in the middle of the low ceiling and, below it, the stairwell was its dark shadow leading down to the storerooms, their basic gym, indoor garden and the front door. The concrete walls were painted a soothing green like the grass Esther could see moving beyond her bedroom window, but the paint was fading in places; the grey underneath beginning to show through.

In her imagination, the House was a boil under the skin of the hill. Mother told her that approaching it from behind, walking along the top of the hill, all someone would see was a gentle bulge and the privacy-tinted, extra-tough glass of the skylight, the sign that people lurked under their feet. Only from the front would they see the austere concrete façade looming over them and the hill sloping down from either side.

Esther reached for a slice of fig loaf.

‘Wait!’ Mother moved the plate away and then put her hands, palms up, on the countertop. ‘To what do we give thanks?’

Esther turned her own hands over and bowed her head. ‘The House.’

‘What protects the air we breathe?’

‘The House.’

‘What gives us plants and water and power and comfort?’

‘The House.’

‘What keeps us safe?’

‘The House.’

The House was their God and it was one who needed constant soothing in order to stop their worst fear: something going wrong. The generator, the air conditioning, themselves, bones and blood and infection. So far, their worship had worked. Mother made sure they carefully maintained themselves, like two cars from a reputable garage, but most importantly, they maintained the House.

After breakfast there was routine, birthday or no.

Routine was key. Jelly cube chunks of time could dissolve too quickly if they weren’t careful. Whole hours could be lost staring at the inside of a wrist, the bit where blue veins close to the surface were like a sunken map pointing to treasure that would never be found. Routine stopped this. It took time and chopped it up into manageable mouthfuls, never too much in one go, never enough to choke.

The Checklist directed their days. First was the garden.

The garden was the biggest room on the ground floor and had never felt the rays of the sun. It was windowless, with tables arranged under LED lamps, and on those tables were the tubs in which grew tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuces and whatever else they fancied eating, each one at a different stage of growing. Mother had studied do-it-yourself hydroponics before they moved and had made the containers herself. The plants in their cups were placed into holes in the tub lid with their roots dangling down ready to be sprayed with water by the pipes set underneath.

Each plant was slightly different in the curl of its leaves and the thickness of the stem and Esther liked to see the clean white tangle of roots when she lifted each one in its little pot. The tendrils were the plant’s brain matter, damp and fresh, reaching down to the water. Once, as a child, she had wanted to name all the vegetables as they grew but Mother had forbidden it as soon as Esther had started refusing to eat her vegetable friends.

‘Sunbathing season yet?’ Mother asked.

‘Well, it is spring – y’know. It’s getting warmer; gotta get my vitamin D …’ Esther smiled.

Sunbathing season had started when she had been a child and she had never quite given it up. So, on some days she collected a book and the creaky old folding chair and set it up close to the plant tubs, plonking Mother’s straw hat on her head in order to pretend she was on a beach or in the grounds of a fabulous hotel, the kind with poolside loungers and cocktails that appeared as if by magic. Next to her she plugged in their UV lamp, the one designed to help people who got depressed in the dark winter months, and she imagined it was an exotic sun with rays that would never tan her skin, nor burn it either.

It was the smell that brought her here. The filtered air and her weak lungs meant that most of the House was as scent-less as they could make it, but here no one could stop the rich, almost spiced aroma of the tomatoes. Mother called it grassy, but Esther could no longer remember what grass smelled like to be able to agree with her.

They continued to delicately check each plant for root rot, the birthday request on the tip of Esther’s tongue, but she could see that her mother was concentrating, her hands deft and quick, frowning as she adjusted her glasses. Now was not the right moment – and this birthday request had been asked before, on every birthday for the last four years. Each time it had been denied. The moment had to be not just right but perfect.

Esther could have asked her when they moved on from the garden to the next chore on the Checklist. On the ground floor of the House was the gym, a small room where a set of weights, some yoga mats, a poster with exercises drawn on it, a mirror and a running machine could be found. Lately its belt had begun to flap like a leathery tongue with every thud and so they worked together to patch it.

‘The old girl has some more years in her yet.’ Mother gave the edge of the machine a pat.

It was a sign, the mention of the word “year” – this was the time, Esther knew. She opened her mouth to speak, the question choking her as much as her asthma did, but then her mother gave a yelp and shook out her hand. ‘Tough old girl too – shit!’ Blood welled in her palm and she dropped the scissors she had been using.

In the time it took to help her mother wash out the cut, discover it wasn’t as deep as they feared, wrap a piece of linen around her hand and get back to the machine, they were late completing the Checklist and Mother’s lips had set in a tightly pressed line, her glasses pushed back onto her head in a distracted fashion.

Not a perfect moment at all. But that was okay – Esther had all evening and she could wait. She was good at that.





Chapter 4





Evening found the two of them together and the question Esther still hadn’t asked sat with them, patiently waiting its turn.

She read, choosing a book from the glass-fronted bookcases that took up most of one wall. According to Mother, books were both essential but also a hazard for Esther’s wheezy chest, which was why they were safely behind glass where the dust could not settle in between their soft pages.

Mother continued with whatever fantastical creature she was whittling out of scraps of wood, shaving fat curls from something that began as a lump but then grew wings, or horns, scales and claws. The little creatures lurked in every available space, their eyes watching from shadowy corners.

Esther knew their choice of entertainment would be viewed as simple by the people who lived Out There. An invisible net of electric signals covered the globe, Esther’s mother told her, a net that connected everyone, allowed a person to read books on a screen and buy clothes, watch films or find out any piece of information. Their wall of bookcases hardly measured up in comparison but Mother did not want the electric net to wrap around them here in their home because those signals did something to people’s brains and eyes; it hypnotised them like a snake so they lost hours watching pointless videos and arguing with people they had never met. Esther and her mother did not watch television, except for old films, and there was no newspaper delivery service to the back of beyond. Anyway, as Mother frequently said, they didn’t need to know about Out There. It didn’t concern them.

‘Twenty-one years old,’ Mother said again, holding out Esther’s present, her lips twitching into a smile.

This was the Birthday Guessing. Another ritual. Esther unwrapped the tea towel and held up the wooden figure.

‘A hippo?’ she tried.

Mother shook her head, chuckling. ‘No, the head just got away with me.’

Esther studied the creature in her hand. ‘A sheep?’

‘Nope. Couldn’t get the bum right. Give up?’

Esther always did every year. Mother didn’t let it stop her, but she was terrible at carving.

‘It’s an elephant!’

Esther studied it. ‘Where’s its trunk?’

‘Ah, well, the trunk fell off in a sad accident a few weeks ago.’

They laughed. Mother’s eyes were soft in the candlelight they used most evenings, not to save power, but because she liked the gentle, flickering glow.

‘Thank you.’

Esther would add it to all the others on her windowsill. But it wasn’t the present she’d wanted. Her laugh ended in a sigh. Twenty-one years old. She glanced at Mother.

Mother began carving something new, slicing the wood viciously as if removing a canker in rotten fruit. ‘Pips?’

Pips – short for Pipsqueak. Something small and inconsequential, not done growing. But she had. She was twenty-one years old, her growing was done and, though the small wooden not-elephant was sweet, that was not what she wanted.

‘You told me that when I turned twenty-one—’

‘No,’ Mother said. The word pinched Esther’s heart. Mother put her whittling knife down and rubbed at her eyes. ‘You’re not coming with me—’

‘But I’m—’

‘Twenty-one. I know. But you’re not coming with me on the Yearly—’

‘But you—’

‘No. I have never promised and it doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s not safe.’

Their once-a-year supply trip, the day when Mother took their van and disappeared from sunrise to sundown, away into the Out There to buy all the things that could not be grown, patched, fixed or ignored. They had enough food to last for decades, the kind of dehydrated stuff that never tasted of the ingredients meant to be in it, powdered things, tins and packets piled high in the tunnels, but every year Mother stocked up on a year’s worth of edibles that could not last a decade, like pasta, flour, rice and, more importantly to Esther, the treats that only lasted one glorious week: fresh milk, fruit and meat.

They had been having a variation of this argument for the past four years.

‘I would wear my mask and goggles; I would stay in the van. I just want to—’

‘No.’

Want. The word filled Esther up and it pushed at her lips, making her temples throb.

‘So that’s an end to it.’ Mother put down the knife. ‘How about a nettle tea before bed?’

The tea was a powdery, dank liquid that cooled too quickly and left an aftertaste. One day Esther would say no, but Mother was already straining the dried leaves and, anyway, it was good for … Esther wasn’t quite sure what it was good for but it tasted awful enough to be good for a lot of things. Letting her eyes wander to the open door of her bedroom and beyond that, to the black rectangle of glass, Esther saw only her own face reflected back at her.

‘I only ever want to keep you safe.’ Mother put a small ceramic cup on the arm of Esther’s chair, stopping to pat her shoulder before returning to her seat and her latest wooden beast.

Safety for Esther meant the clean, filtered air of the House, which kept her chest demon drowsy and gentle. It had meant Mother uprooting her whole life to live in the trees under the hill, leaving behind any friends or family. It meant quiet, ordered, peaceful hours that could be ticked off as easily as those chores on the Checklist. Safety meant all of that, for as long as she lived … and that could be a very long time.

Candlelight flickered, and, as she drank the tea, Esther felt her eyelids droop.

Here was her final opportunity to argue her case. She was old enough and wise enough to be useful, to help, to take some of the burden from Mother’s shoulders – and if her being useful and being helpful meant that she got to experience a little of the world Out There then that would perhaps stop the feeling she had when she woke up in the morning, like someone had taken their fingernails to the chalkboard of her brain.

Each blink became longer and longer.

Slice, slice went the little carving knife.

Esther stayed silent.

And in the night, when Esther half-woke from a leaden sleep, she thought she heard from Mother’s bedroom next to her a faint, familiar, muffled sound.

Crying.





Chapter 5





It was no surprise when Esther woke up in front of the door.

For a second she thought she could hear a faint shuffling sound behind her. A dry sigh.

She had to be quick. Pushing herself up from the concrete floor, she sat and swiped at the dirt on her pyjamas. This had been happening for a few months now and, so far, Esther had been lucky. Each time, before Mother woke, she had managed to get upstairs and back into bed, ready to appear, yawning theatrically, as soon as she heard any noise in the kitchen.

She did not want to worry Mother.

‘Pips?’

Too late.

Mother stood at the top of the stairs that led to the living room and bedrooms. ‘What are you doing down there? Are you okay? What happened?’ She ran down the steps and took Esther by the arm before she could even try to stand up by herself. ‘I thought you’d collapsed.’

‘I’m fine, I’m fine. I think I must have walked here in my sleep, that’s all—’

‘What? Sleepwalking? Down here? But you could hurt yourself—’

‘I’m fine!’

‘God – you could open the door!’

‘But I haven’t – see? Still closed. Still locked. I’m sure it’s just a one-off thing. I feel great.’

‘Come upstairs – let me see you in the light …’

Before following her mother, Esther turned to the dark mouth of the tunnel stretching away from the storeroom. Originally the House had been planned as a Cold War bunker though that war had defrosted by the time the place had been built. The tunnel had been meant for ammunition stores but had never been properly finished. It still had a bare earth floor and was a long corridor with stubby offshoots like deep pores where Mother stored everything she thought they might one day need.

This was a place Esther rarely went. It had never been her playroom as a child. She had never scampered there, imagining it was a mummy’s tomb, a secret passageway, a cave, a dragon’s lair. Mother had never had to warn her to be careful, had never had to explain how those metal shelving units could be toppled if climbed upon, how the wicked edges on the machinery could slice into unsuspecting flesh. Maybe it was because of its earth floor, too grave-like; maybe it was the scratching she could hear under her feet, which she knew was caused by nearby small animals but still made the back of her neck prickle; maybe it was the cold, or the gloom … Whatever it was, Esther had stayed away.

Reaching behind herself to the massive front door, she placed her hand onto chill metal and then she brushed her fingers over a handle only Mother turned. Beyond it was their rudimentary airlock and then the final door, the one that led to sky and grass and wind.

And, of course, air.

But there was no time to linger. Barefoot, she ran, up the stairs and into her bedroom, wriggling free from Mother trying to take her temperature. She put on the clothes she thought would be suitable for Out There – because that was where she intended to go that day. Trainers to move quickly, her least shabby T-shirt and the jeans with only minimal fraying.

‘Pips?’ As Esther crossed to the kitchen, Mother belted her cardigan around a pair of pyjamas that once had been printed with stars. ‘There you are, my little night owl, up far too early this morning.’

Esther gave the customary soft hooting sound. She was the owl and Mother the early bird. Mother hooted back as Esther grabbed a glass and ran the tap, the trembling in her voice masked by the sound of the running water. ‘I’m going.’

There was silence.

‘Did you hear me? I said I’m—’

‘I heard.’

More silence.

‘I—’

‘I—I—I!’ Mother slammed the rucksack she had picked up from the sofa onto the floor. ‘That’s all I hear! That’s all you think about! But me? I don’t have the luxury of only ever thinking about myself. I have to think about you! Which is what I do, every bloody minute of every bloody day!’ She snatched the rucksack up from the floor. ‘I’m trying to protect you, because I’ve seen with my own eyes what that filthy, poisoned air does to you – I’ve watched you nearly die – but …’ She gave a muffled half-scream of frustration and Esther flinched. She tried to think how to explain it, this gnawing feeling in the middle of her that wanted out, that wanted to see something, anything other than these bunker walls and the never-changing trees beyond her bedroom window. Nothing came out of her mouth.

‘But you know what? I’m done.’ Mother marched over to Esther and pushed the rucksack into her stomach, the middle of it flopping over her arm like a deflated baby. ‘Done. Off you go. If you want to go on the Yearly so badly then do so. But you’ll go on your own. In fact – it will make a nice change. I think I’ll put my feet up for the day, relax, have a chat with the plants, whatever the hell it is you do whilst I’m gone.’

The bag in Esther’s arms seemed to weigh much more than empty cloth should have. Mother sat down and turned her face away, wrenching her slippers off without even looking at them. This was silly, Esther told herself. Her mother was being silly. There was no way Esther could do the Yearly on her own – she didn’t even know where to start.

‘There’s the list. Off you go.’ Her mother threw a piece of paper in Esther’s direction and she watched it float to the floor, slowly, slowly, not a feather because feathers were attached to birds and they could fly; they knew where home was even if they were far away from it. Esther didn’t even know where the van was, the one hidden beyond the treeline, kept running only for this once-a-year purpose.

But she could walk.

The nearest town couldn’t be that far away, could it? She would simply have to walk there. Squaring her shoulders, she picked up the list and took a breath before heading down the stairs, reaching the first front door.

Turning the handle caused a series of clunking noises that made the door shudder as it began to roll away. It should have been harder to open, Esther thought. She should have had to have put all her weight into it, but it yielded smoothly enough. It revealed a small porch area. A simple idea. Two doors that never opened at the same time, creating a safe space in between. There was even a special filtration system specifically for the porch that would clean and sanitise the air if needed – though they had never used that part. Yet.

Two whole suits hung, like limp people being punished for their crimes. They were overalls, nothing special, the kind of thing that buttoned up to the neck. The mask was the important bit, Mother said. They had recently upgraded: a slim glass strip that stretched from nose to chin with two parts that looked like mini aeroplane engines under each ear. The idea was that there no longer needed to be a seal around the edge; instead air was sucked in, purified via filters and any contaminated air was fanned away. No more fogged lenses and seal sweat. There were also goggles and a hood to be on the safe side.

‘It would take you nearly the whole day to walk to anything, you know,’ Mother’s voice floated down to her. ‘And that’s just a petrol station and a general shop. To get supplies at the DIY store you would have to go much further.’

Her overall hung in front of her, empty and waiting for a person to fill it out – someone who knew what they were doing. Thoughts spun at her and away but it was the list that did it in the end. She stared at the words and realised she didn’t even know what half of those objects were, or where to get them. The paper crumpled easily in her hand.

Esther clenched her other fist, feeling the sharp edges of her nails dig into her palms. She could have carried it on a bit more, the pretence, the foolery that she was a functioning human being who knew how to leave the house and get some tinned food and spare parts, but instead she sank to the floor and let her forehead rest against the cool metal door frame.

A shadowed figure appeared at the top of the stairs. ‘Are we done?’

Within the hour Mother was ready. She liked to make it there and back in one day, which meant for an eye-wateringly early start. Outside, a faint pink haze had begun to nudge night out of the sky. Perhaps that was what made her mother paler this morning, Esther thought, eyes sunken in bruised shadows, lips bloodless and cracked. Older.

The thought was not new, but each time it came as a razor, something that drew blood: what if Mother did not come back? What if something happened to her out there? What if she decided that enough was enough and she wanted to escape? What if the car careened out of control? What if, what if, what if …

Lately a new what-if had slithered its way into her brain.

What if, one day, Esther woke up and shuffled into the kitchen, still in her pyjamas, her only thought that of the kettle and the new loaf they’d baked last night, to find Mother cold and stiff in her chair, eyes open but never to see again?

What would Esther do then?

Mother shoved her out of the porch and closed the inner door. Metal clanged back into place, biting off any other words and leaving Esther alone in the waiting shadows.





Chapter 6





Time passed in the dark. Esther sat.

Next to the door was the shotgun. As soon as Esther had been old enough there had been lessons.

‘Target,’ Mother had said, showing Esther the cartoon face she’d drawn with big eyes and a clown mouth before pinning it onto the concrete dead end of the tunnel.

Things Esther had discovered: gunshot was loud; kickback could hurt a shoulder; no matter how much you tried to breathe out calmly you never quite hit your target.

Face hot, arm trembling, she had breathed and concentrated and shook out her hand, clenching and unclenching her fingers, every day for months until the gun felt like an extension of her arm, until her breathing calmed almost as soon as she raised the muzzle, until she could simply sense when to pull the trigger and when she did – dead shot. Most times.

‘Show me,’ Mother had said every so often, resting her head back against the sofa, her eyes watchful.

So Esther had. She would unload and check the gun, already cleaned and primed, always cleaned and primed, and then she would reload, snapping it all into place with deft, practised movements.

‘What keeps us safe?’

‘The House.’

Mother had smiled. ‘And the bloody gun.’

In the end thirst made Esther get up off the floor.

The Checklist and chores had to be done first, but then the day was hers to do with as she pleased. Usually she danced to old music CDs, cooked something weird for dinner with the ingredients she chose by closing her eyes and pointing to random tins in the cupboard, and watched back-to-back films on DVD that she had seen a thousand times before.

This time she did not want to dance, or cook, or watch a film.

Esther pressed her forehead against the glass of her bedroom window and thought of nuns. Nuns did penance, their fingers working delicately over rosary beads, praying for their souls, anyone’s souls, for the world. Sometimes it felt to Esther as if she was the penance and that Out There healed itself a little more after each of her careful rosary days.

‘Bollocks,’ Mr Wiffles said, swimming on her bedside table. ‘You’re not a nun. Nothing you do makes any difference to what goes on Out There.’

A nun probably wouldn’t have wallpaper with cartoon fish on it, Esther considered. Redecoration was not a priority, according to Mother, though, of late, she had begun to bring back little taster pots of paint from her once-a-year trip. So far, Esther had managed to paint one entire bedroom wall in a not exactly matching colour but at least one that was plain and had no cute-eyed creatures on it. Luckily their duvet covers were so faded and threadbare by now they couldn’t see what the original patterns had been and she had picked off all the stickers from her dressing table. The one shelf on her wall was empty, testament to the great doll and toy massacre of two years ago when she had swept them all into an old hydroponics tub and lugged them down to the tunnels. Mr Wiffles had been the only survivor.

She wandered out into the living room. On the wall was a small air quality monitor, a half-moon of colour: green to yellow to amber to red with a needle that never moved but lay dead and defeated in the wedge of green. Green for go. Green for safe. Never anything but green. Esther’s eyes flicked to it anyway.

The other window lay on the floor. She changed it monthly, a big square piece of paper. It had started as an art project when they had first moved in, but had quickly become a fixture, the large painted sheet taking pride of place on the wall over the sofa. ‘See, Pips? We can have whatever view we want,’ Mother had said. This month she had planned a return to her favourite under-the-sea theme and had been thinking about fixing a little ledge into it so Mr Wiffles could have a pretend swim.

The big blank square was a white void.

She did not want to paint.

Wandering again, she ended up in Mother’s room. Neat bed, neat bedside table, clothes neatly folded on the nearby chair. The only signs of a personality were the misshapen wooden creatures peeking out from odd corners.

They watched Esther open the wardrobe as the familiar scent of lavender wafted out from Mother’s home-made essential oil perfume. The clothes within were a mix of drab greys and browns, a few patched pairs of jeans, some T-shirts in the exact same hue of vomit green and a couple of jumpers that had clearly lost the battle with the washing machine. There was nothing exciting amongst them.

Except for the dress.

The dress was an emerald velvet, which shone like sleek fur in the light. It was the colour of precious stones in expensive rings, or of a lush forest canopy somewhere exotic. It was the kind of dress someone wore to a cocktail party in a smart London venue where similarly dressed people laughed softly and chinked glasses. It had no place in Mother’s wardrobe.

But there it was.

Of course, Esther had asked about it. ‘Foolish sentiment,’ Mother had said. ‘Guess I couldn’t bring myself to leave it behind. I married your father in that dress, chose green because I always hated the idea of looking like a white frilly toilet roll cover on my wedding day.’ Esther had never seen a photo.

It slipped on so easily. The hemline fell flatteringly mid-calf, the skirt flaring out in a way that made Esther feel as if she was in a 1950s film. The only mirror in the House was a small square above the bathroom sink and she would have had to climb onto a chair to see the bottom half but she didn’t need to – she already knew how she looked; she’d done this before.

She looked like someone else.

But the dress fitted poorly and the neckline scratched her skin. What would her mother think, catching her playing dress-up like a kid? That was no way to convince her that she was ready for the Out There – and convince her Esther would. In fact, she had a better plan, she thought, wrenching the dress off and shoving it back onto its hanger before returning to the living room to tidy away her coffee mug. She had tried to do too much all at once by saying she would go on the Yearly. No, baby steps were needed. A walk perhaps. Yes. A quick stroll around the House, suited up, masked. It would be a start.

Definitely. A really good start.

After a cup of tea. And maybe a snack, to keep her strength up. And when the tea had been drunk and the snack eaten, she sat and told herself she was just about to get going and that she simply needed a minute. The minute stretched.

A shadow flitted over the skylight.

Esther froze. Clouds scudded over the sky and caused shadows all the time. This had not been a cloud. Too fast. A flicker. A scuttle.

She looked up. It was a circle of sky – that was all – in its own little periscope tunnel. She knew the glass was toughened and tinted on the outside, so anyone stumbling across it on the hill would think it merely a drain cover.

No one had ever stumbled across it.

She put the mug down with trembling fingers, as slowly as she could, almost believing that if she made a too sudden movement she would somehow draw attention to herself.

Flicker.

Esther moved away from the skylight even though she knew she was being silly. It was just a storm cloud in the sky, an animal, any number of easily explained and completely harmless things.

Esther took a few more steps backwards, telling herself she couldn’t be seen because of the privacy glass, that there was no one there anyway, that shadows flickered across the skylight all the time and it was completely normal.

A loud thud came from the direction of her bedroom.





Chapter 7





It wasn’t just a thud. It was a thud, a scramble and then a slither.

‘What the bloody hell was that?’ Mr Wiffles said.

Esther stopped in the bedroom doorway, her stomach tingling with shock. There on the glass was the ghost outline of a bird, beak in profile, wings outstretched as if coming in to envelop her in a feathery hug.

Just a bird.

She replayed the sound in her mind. The muffled thump of its head against the glass, the beak sharply tapping like a spectral fingernail wanting to be invited in.

To Esther, birds were small black shapes wheeling through the sky, tiny blobs seen at a distance, never near the House, never close enough to see properly.

Heart thumping, she edged to the window. At first, she couldn’t see anything, just the patchy long grass that formed a green sea around the front of the House. Perhaps the bird had already flown away, Esther thought, and all she would have left would be its glass ghost on her window.

There would be nothing to see.

In the end she almost had to press her face up against the window and twist her neck before she caught a glimpse. A smallish, brown, speckled thing; perhaps a sparrow, though Esther wasn’t sure as she’d never really learnt the species of birds. Why bother when they were so few?

It was still.

For a moment she thought it was dead. It was sat as if roosting, its little wings folded on its back and its eyes were closed. For some reason, the idea of a bird she couldn’t even name being dead made Esther’s eyes sting. Then she noticed the heave of its chest, perhaps the only sign that something was wrong. Why didn’t the bird fly away?

A rush of heat flushed from the nape of her neck all the way down to the small of her back. She tapped the window gently and the bird’s eyes flicked in her direction and then away again, panicked. It tried to move, its wings rising listlessly, but all it could manage was a hop-stumble a few inches away. She couldn’t work out whether it was the legs or wings that were to blame.

She knew what Mother would have done. Mother would have told her to stay where she was, that it was too dangerous to go Out There for a bird that was too stupid to distinguish between glass and air. Mother would have told her to wait until she got home.

Mother told her a lot of things.

Her steps took her down the spiral staircase that punched through the heart of the building, and then, once more, there she was, standing in front of the airlock just as she had been when she had woken up that morning, except this time there was no echo of a shuffle behind her, no papery sigh from a dream she could no longer remember.

Door. Handle. Esther concentrated on doing, not thinking. She wouldn’t have to go far. A few steps, suited up with a mask on, a few steps to show Mother that she could deal with things too, that she could make decisions on her own, that she could help.

The world tilted and shimmered as she put one foot into the suit followed by the other, then over the shoulders it went. Even when she sank to her knees and took a few deep calm breaths, not wanting to wake the demon, she knew everything was fine. She was going out for a few minutes – that was all – to see if she could help a fellow creature in distress. That was what people did. Adults.

She should have done this years ago.

Legs feeling weak, she hauled herself up and reached for the mask.

The important thing.

It clicked into place and the little fans on either side of her jaw whirred into action. She was a diver once more, though without an oxygen tank strapped to her back. As her heart hammered, her demon opened one sleepy eye.

No.

Wait.

Calm.

All she had to do was scoop up the bird and bring it inside. She had placed an old box by the door that looked the right temporary home for it.

Another breath.

Mother had chosen this place because the air was the safest it could be and she also had her mask, whirring away over her nose. She would be fine. Baby steps.

Another deep breath, then she grasped the handle and pulled the heavy door across.





Chapter 8





Esther stared through an open door.

The strip of metal on the ground marking inside from Out There was a wall too high to climb, a sea Esther shouldn’t swim, a desert that would burn out her lungs.

All she had to do was take a step. Just one.

It was too bright.

The glare scoured her eyeballs and made Esther squint as the demon in her chest opened a lazy eye and she heard the wheeze in her breath. Disorientated for a second, she put out a gloved hand against the door frame to steady her and stayed like that for a while, aware of the inhaler in her pocket, carefully breathing her chest demon back to sleep.

The bird wasn’t far away. It must have moved a little in the time it had taken Esther to open the door. Esther reconsidered. She wouldn’t actually need to walk out there to reach it – all she would have to do is stretch across to it on hands and knees, the lower half of her body safely in the House. Compromise.

She was a mole, blinking in the daylight. Moles weren’t blind, Esther recalled as she willed herself to take another step, but they used movement and scent sensors on their nose to get around and find prey. Perhaps, in another twenty years she would snuffle a path through the House in the same way.

On the outside wall next to the front door was a small keypad, Esther noticed. Nothing as common as a key for this House; no, it required numbers in a set pattern like a spell to get back in, a spell she did not know. The door would have to remain open, even if she ever got up the courage to walk to the bird, otherwise she would lock herself out.

The bird wriggled uncomfortably, flicking its gaze across to her and away again in that panicked rhythm. But it didn’t move. There was definitely no disease, no sores around the beak, or mangy feathers, or weeping eyes.

Mesmerised, she wanted to stroke it. How come it looked so healthy? How had it survived so well? It was even smaller than it had looked from the window, and the caramel brown markings on its feathers reminded her of a fawn. It was one of those fidgety birds that should have been bobbing its head about and hopping from side to side, searching for the next meal, or mate.

It would die without her.

Immobile, it would freeze in the night, or be eaten by something else, whatever predator was left in these woods.

Esther imagined how she would save it. She would cup it gently between her gloved hands and carry it inside, into its waiting box. She would drip water from a syringe into its beak and feed it worms, no not worms; she’d have to go outside for those – seeds, she’d feed it seeds, from the pantry jars and hide it from Mother, until it was well and then she would show her what she’d done, the life she’d saved, the responsibility she’d taken on, how thoughtful and careful she was.

The trees rustled their branches together and the grass flattened. The bird flicked another glance at her as she crouched, the lower half of her body safely behind that narrow metal strip that formed the threshold.

‘Hello, bird,’ she said, her words briefly steaming up the inside of her mask. ‘My name is Esther and you flew into my window.’

Flick. Bird glance.

‘I don’t come outside much. Well, I never come outside. The last time I was out here I was five.’

She remembered coming in through this front door for the first time, gripping Mother’s hand as she was pulled through and into the quiet. It settled over them like a blanket too tightly tucked. Their old home had whistled and banged; footsteps had thudded and taps had dripped; the traffic had purred outside.

Eventually she had got used to the silence.

‘I think you’re hurt, bird.’

Flick.

‘Do you have family? Are there other birds waiting for you somewhere?’

And where was that ‘somewhere’? Mother had told her that, long-term, the air was dangerous for every living thing. When she imagined people Out There, she imagined them hollow-eyed, grey of pallor with a constant dry cough. So how come this bird was here, healthy enough, energetic enough to hurl itself happily into what it had thought was the sky?

Was Mother … wrong?

There was only the laboured rise and fall of its little bird chest to suggest the thing was still alive.

‘Bird?’

If it died out there then for weeks, months afterwards she would have to watch its slow decay from her bedroom window: feather to flesh to flaking bone. She would make herself watch it – as punishment for her weakness.

‘Bird?’

But there was no more eye flicking.

All she had to do was crawl forward a bit. She could do it, she had to, because if she couldn’t actually leave the House then going on the Yearly with Mother would be pretty difficult. She was safe. She was suited. She had the mask and her demon was asleep.

Then she heard it.

It took her a moment to realise what it was. But there carried on the wind that made the grass sway and the trees wave, it came again.

A voice.

A man’s voice.

A man stood where no man should be. He was far enough away that she could not see his face properly but also much too close and a part of her brain told her that made sense because he’d come down from the roof, their roof, the top of their hill. Whilst she had been putting on her suit, he had run down the side of the House, after peering into their periscope skylight, and then he had circled around her so that now he was halfway between the House and the trees. Now there was an open door for him.

She stood and grabbed the handle, knowing the door would lock automatically from the inside, as soon as it was closed.

‘Hello?’ he called.

He probably thought he was dressed for the terrain and weather. It was spring but his coat wasn’t thick enough for the cold here, the padding lightweight and cheap, nothing like the thickness of Mother’s. And his boots were thin-soled things with probably no grip. She couldn’t get a handle on his face though, to look at his eyes and try to work out the person behind them. Just blurred tanned skin and curly brown hair.

His next words were carried on the wind and fractured like a bird’s wing: ‘Esther Allbright? Can you help me?’

Can you help me?

A question directed to her and only her by the first new person she had seen in sixteen years. Then it hit her. He knew her name. The weight of it rooted her to the spot, her fingers tight on the door handle, heart loud in her ears and her legs hollow china.

She slammed the door closed.





Chapter 9





He had known her name.

Names had power – that was what the fairy tales had taught Esther. Like Rumpelstiltskin. The miller’s daughter would have had her baby taken by Rumpelstiltskin if she hadn’t found out his name and this had made him so angry he had stomped down hard enough to trap himself waist-deep in the earth until he eventually tore his own body in two.

Names could kill.

The stairs. Esther wrenched off her mask and ran up them, needing to get away from the door, the metal threshold and the man beyond who held her name so easily on his tongue.

Stumbling on the top step she nearly sprawled onto the floor of the living room but steadied herself and, without thinking about it, raced into Mother’s bedroom where she came to an awkward halt. Of course she knew this was not what she was supposed to be doing.

A strange man knew her name.

But there was no reason to think he wanted to hurt either of them, she argued with herself. It would be like wanting to hurt the shy little creatures that scampered away in the woods. Esther sat on the bed. But people did, didn’t they? They hunted those shy little creatures because they could, because it was fun to hurt things that couldn’t hurt you back. To cause fear.

That was when the thudding began.

Esther knew it was him, knocking on the metal door but the sound of it here, in a place usually so silent made her crouch and cower. The door would hold. He was just a man. He couldn’t get in.

Thud, thud.

The sound reverberated into her brain and she thought of Rumpelstiltskin stomping away in fury, slamming his foot down with unnatural force. Each thud was the stamp of a foot, except it should have been her stamping her feet, enraged at losing her name to the monster at her door.

Thud.

‘Esther Allbright?’

Instinctively she scuttled backwards on the bed, bringing her knees up to her chest and accidentally swiping the things from Mother’s bedside table with her foot.

A large wooden carving of something that looked like a melted bear fell to the floor and broke open along a seam Esther had never noticed before. She remembered Mother whittling it years ago – ‘a little night-time guardian is what I need’ – and since then he’d stared a bit cross-eyed over her bed whilst she slept.

Esther had never realised that it twisted open.

She’d never realised that it was hollow.

Or seen what was inside.

Pills.

Thud.

Mother did not suffer from high or low blood pressure, or cholesterol. She didn’t have heart disease, or diabetes. She hardly ever got a headache or a cold. The pills were glossy capsules and there were a hundred reasons why she would have had them hidden by her bed. They were perhaps indigestion tablets, or laxatives. They could be anything.

But why hide them?

With shaking hands, Esther scooped them up and stuffed them back into the bear, keeping a few in her pocket before fitting the two halves of the carving together again. So easily done. She could almost believe that there was nothing inside it, that it was just a silly wooden carving like all the others scattered around the place.

Thud.

Dying birds, shouting men, pills in the pit of bears’ stomachs – it was all too much. Esther pulled the covers over her head and waited for the noise to stop.

***

Time, elastic with fear, stretched and then snapped back.

Silence. Esther stared at the stitching on the underside of her mother’s bedspread.

‘Get up out of that bed, girl!’ She couldn’t see Mr Wiffles, but she could hear him shouting from her room.

‘I just need a moment.’

‘What do you think those pills are for, hmm? Come on, think, girl, use the old brain cells, I know you’ve got ’em!’

Medication for an illness: that’s what they were, though Esther hadn’t known her mother was sick. The man calling her name and now this, the broken bear and the contents of its stomach, these things felt like they were adding up, a horrific sum. It felt like they were leading somewhere …

Esther should have spent more time thinking, she realised, continuing to stare at the stitching. She had been an insect in a cocoon, safely hidden from the Out There, but all cocoons have to be broken eventually; all baby insects have to haul their fragile bodies out of the mucus and slime and …

What?

What happened to them then? If the nature documentaries were anything to go by then those insects were quickly snapped up by a long sticky tongue. They were dinner.

‘Come on, girl – UP!’ came Mr Wiffles’ voice again.

So she did. She dragged herself out from under the covers, wondering if the man had given up, if – when she went to the window – she would see him at the door, still like a statue, waiting for her. Her Rumpelstiltskin.

But that wasn’t what she saw when she gripped the windowsill and forced herself to look.

What she saw was Mother.





Chapter 10





Bent double, moving slow.

Esther watched the figure bundled up in a coat, which she knew had a tattered lining, in boots whose leather was as soft as a tongue and it could have been any time in the last sixteen years: Esther at the window, watching, Mother Out There.

She rolled a tyre in front of her.

The man was gone.

Had a whole day passed whilst she had cowered under the covers waiting for the man to give up banging on their door? Then she noticed: that was no new tyre. The sky was morning-bright and the papery-thin quality of dusk was still a full day away. It was too early.

This day, a day that had hardly changed in all those years, had suddenly shattered into sharp edges. Esther put a palm on the glass and tried to slow her breathing.

There was no denying what she had seen. A man. She had to tell Mother.

Everything.

Mother zigzagged across the grass to the House, as if following a path only she could see. She paused before nearing the front door, let the tyre fall and bent down.

Esther had forgotten the bird.

Mother straightened and Esther was close enough to see the expression on her face, the frown and the way her eyes darted around to the top of the House and then directly to Esther’s window. Esther didn’t need to step back because the window was mirrored for privacy, but she did anyway. That frown was not sadness or disgust.

It was anger.

She disappeared out of view for a few minutes and came back with a shovel, which she used to jab a few times at the spring-soft earth, the grass shorter in front of the door. Esther wondered if the bird had died. A brown clod came away and Mother shook it onto the ground nearby but she didn’t start digging again. Instead, she leant against the shovel, head bowed. Perhaps, Esther thought, she was briefly overcome with the fragility of life, the poignancy of the little dead carcass.

Perhaps she was praying.

‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today for Bird …’

But Mother’s next movements weren’t mournful. She let the shovel drop and kicked at the earth she had uncovered, scattering some of it back into the small hole. Then she picked up the bird in her gloved hand and, with one powerful swing, she hurled it away from her.

Esther stared.

Maybe it had been the way the injured or dead bird had dangled from its wing, head lolling, or maybe it had been the viciousness of how the bird had been sent arcing into the sky, but there was something about what she had just seen her mother do that made Esther take another step backwards. The bird might still have been alive, but she had thrown the poor creature away from her as if it were a bit of rubbish.

Esther moved. Out of the room and down the stairs, hand on its chill rail, until she was back at the door once more, a blank of steel grey, huge and forbidding.

It opened.

Mother appeared, dusting her hands onto the back of her jeans, face calm.

‘Was it alive?’ Esther asked, too loud, too high.

Mother gave her a long look. ‘The bird? No. Dead. They just can’t cope in that rotten air, not even out here, away from the cities.’

It hadn’t been dead, Esther thought, except she hadn’t thought those words – she had said them.

Mother stopped dusting her hands. ‘Sorry?’

All of the heat in Esther’s body rushed to her face. ‘It wasn’t dead. I … I … saw it – from my window.’ Mother tilted her head in an ironically bird-like gesture. ‘You just threw it away. You could have … helped it.’

A blanket-lined box, seeds, water in a tiny bowl.

‘The bird was dead, Pips.’

So you could have buried it, Esther thought. You could have folded its little wings neatly against its body and you could have laid it in the earth. With care. Instead you tossed it away. Esther made sure these thoughts stayed in her head this time. Her fingers traced the outline of pills in her pocket.

‘Why are you back early?’

‘Bloody flat tyre on the van!’ Mother pushed past her, removing her mask as she headed into the tunnels.

‘Wait!’

Mother paused and turned. She worked too hard, Esther thought, looking at the bruised hollows under her eyes, her sunken cheeks and reddened hands. Day by day: the constant checks and maintenance, the worry of being the only person in charge. Except that was where she was wrong, wasn’t she? She was no longer the only person who could be in charge. It was time she let Esther share the load.

She pictured a man in a poorly chosen jacket, and she remembered the sound of those thuds echoing through the House.

‘Mother, there was—’

‘Esther, can’t this wait?’ Mother fluttered her free hand weakly.

‘No! Just now—’

‘Why are you wearing your overalls?’

Esther’s heart lurched. She looked down at herself, at the overalls that normally hung on a peg by the front door, the ones she never wore because she never went anywhere. The ones she was quite clearly wearing right now.

‘I …’ She watched Mother’s eyes flit about the porch, looking for other signs of disobedience. ‘I was … I put them on in case you needed help with the tyre …’

She wasn’t quite sure where that excuse had come from but it was good. She could tell by the way the frown between Mother’s brows smoothed out a little. ‘I don’t need help.’ She went over to where Esther’s mask hung and stared at it for a second too long. Esther’s heart would have lurched again but it seemed to have frozen in her chest. She would know, Esther thought, she would be able to tell that the mask had been used, that it had been worn. There would be something to give her away, a thumbprint or smudge of lip balm on that treacherous clear plastic.

Mother adjusted the strap on the mask. ‘Take the overalls off, Esther,’ she said and then walked into the darkness of the tunnel, returning a few minutes later rolling a new tyre in front of her.

There was no point telling her about the man who needed help because Mother wouldn’t want to help him. No point in thinking that dead birds would be buried. Esther sighed and watched her mother readjust her own mask and roll the tyre out of the doorway into the bright daylight outside. But it was pollution and the air from which Esther had to be protected – not people.

‘Can you help me?’ the man had said.

A man, not a fairy-tale monster – possibly lost, bigger than a bird, harder to launch into the undergrowth, but no less vulnerable out here in Mother’s kingdom. She could not let Mother get to him first.

***

Outside again, the world a dizzying swirl of colour.

Esther had waited an hour after Mother had left, just to be sure. Standing in the open doorway, masked and suited, she wondered if he would return, if he had even been real. But she did not have to stand there long. First as a small stick-like smudge under the trees and then growing larger and larger, he came towards the House. It was as if he had been waiting for her.

Esther’s heart swelled in her chest, squeezing up against her demon who opened an eye and snuffled. She took a measured breath and gripped one hand in the other.

On he came, walking with long, purposeful strides and now he was a distinct figure in the scrubby grass and bracken that was the House’s personal moat.

Heading straight for her.

Esther instinctively moved backwards, one hand stretched behind her, feeling for the reassuring solidity of the door frame at her back.

It was the intent with which he was moving. This time, there was no hesitant standing and staring. This time he was walking in a direct line to the door, as if he knew exactly what he was planning to do and wanted to get on with it. It didn’t matter if previously he had asked for help, it didn’t matter about his stupid unsuitable clothes or his brown curls. His moving forward made her want to scoot back, despite everything.

Of course, she was not expecting what happened next. How could she have expected that? She had not known about the danger lurking right there in front of the House. If she had known she would have warned him; she would have run out and yelled for him to stop.

But he did not stop. He kept on and Esther could only watch in horror as up from the long rough grass reared two huge snapping metal jaws. They caught the man’s leg, mid shin, and brought him crashing to the ground.





Chapter 11





Hannah




Sixteen years ago

The afternoon it happened seared itself, barbecue-hot, onto the pink meat of Hannah’s memory.

It started with sunshine and a back garden decorated with bunting and balloons and enough party food to give twice the number of children a sugar rush for days.

‘I am five today!’ Esther occasionally paused in her racing around to come and shout this at Hannah in case she had forgotten.

‘I know, Pips.’ Hannah smiled and smoothed her hot, flushed cheek. ‘Now sit here by me and calm down a bit.’

‘But I’m in the middle of a game!’

Hannah had seen the game, which was really a group of girls tearing around in a circle; girls she didn’t know, just like she didn’t know anyone in this new town.

‘And now you’re in the middle of a hug!’ Hannah grabbed Esther and squeezed as the little girl giggled at first and then, as Hannah did not let go, wriggled, squirmed and twisted free.

‘Great party! Grace is having a blast.’ Another mother’s face got in her way. Hannah couldn’t remember her name. The woman took a swig from her glass, one she had filled from the wine bottle she had brought with her. ‘Sunday afternoon treat, eh? Especially as Jonny’s driving.’ She smiled at Hannah and Hannah lifted the corners of her mouth in response, making a note to never let Esther go to a party at Grace’s house. ‘Want some?’

‘Oh no – I have the party bags to sort out.’

‘That sounds like the kind of thing wine was invented for …’

Ned played the monster and chased screaming children around their small back garden. As she cut the cake, Hannah watched him. People often referred to their spouse as their ‘better half’ and that’s what Hannah had truly thought when she met him. He was better than her: kinder, more patient, more forgiving, slow to anger, quick to laugh. Hannah would zip through a day like a maddened wasp looking for someone to sting, whereas bumblebee Ned would linger over the pollen.

But she couldn’t escape it – this was all his fault. A promotion he couldn’t pass up. He had dragged them all out here to this dingy town with the massive, smoking steelworks on its edge. The dragon, it was called. A nickname for a monster. The huge structure and its outbuildings and the pipes coiling around it all cast a shadow on the houses and shops, the nurseries and the school that spread out around it. Before this they had lived in a leafy village, the kind of place you could imagine was almost in the countryside.

She forced a smile and busied herself, making the children eat their sandwiches before they went for the sweets. It was a happy day, she told herself.

Until the evening.

The guests were gone. There was nothing more to do but wipe up the icing smeared on the table, pick up the bits of wrapping paper and put the plates in the dishwasher. Esther toddled off to the lawn, happily pulling up handfuls of grass.

Until she wasn’t.

Hannah could only have taken her eyes off her for a second whilst she emptied the bin. Then she turned and her little girl wasn’t pulling up the grass but laid out on it, her lips turning blue. Hannah stumbled to her, out through the patio doors and only a few steps to her little body, Esther’s chest heaving but with no breath for any wails or cries, panic making her eyes widen so she looked like one of those helpless baby seals Hannah saw on nature programmes. The ones that would soon be clubbed to death.

One of her fingers twitched.

She had never heard a wheeze like it, a death rattle. Hannah froze. She remembered reaching out a hand but not knowing where to put it, not knowing anything that she should do because she didn’t know what was wrong. This was not a cut or a bruise or a temperature or a tooth coming through. This was nothing Hannah had ever seen before. She felt Ned push her away, moving through CPR steps that had been wiped clean from Hannah’s brain, yelling at her to call an ambulance.

Then came a moment that was not a moment but a black void that nearly gulped Hannah whole. In the ambulance, balanced on a narrow seat, hands clasped as if in prayer but really just to stop them shaking, Hannah heard that terrible death-rattle wheezing stop.

Nothing gaped at her.

She moved but the paramedic moved faster, and she could only see his back as he did something she could not make out. Her hand fumbled for Ned’s but Ned was in their car behind them, only room for one parent in the ambulance. There was no time to think. There was simply that aching silence where breath had once been before the paramedic performed some kind of magic spell, hands moving quickly and then there was a gasp and coughing and that dark mouth of black nothingness closed its rotten lips.

Help and hospital and calm, reassuring voices came next, and Hannah sat in the waiting room chair with its back that dug into her shoulder blades, Ned’s hand finally on hers.

A doctor told them about asthma and Hannah grabbed onto every word, listened so hard she could hear her heartbeat thud in her ears. Fine, fine, fine were the words she kept hearing; Esther would be fine. They would be able to take her home.

‘What caused it? I mean, she’s never had an asthma attack before.’ Hannah twisted the tissue in her lap.

The doctor attached his pen to his clipboard. ‘To be honest, medical science still hasn’t worked out the cause of asthma. You have the leaflet about triggers, yes? But those triggers simply provoke an attack once a patient already has the condition. A trigger could be an allergen like dust or pollen, or it could have been exercise – she had been running around, you said? Smoke or pollution. But it can be certain foods, fragrances, additives …’

Smoke or pollution. Smoke or pollution. The air itself. All the poison she could not see, and if she couldn’t see it, how could she protect Esther?

‘But she’s fine now, yes?’ Ned touched her arm. ‘We just have to keep a watch on her and use the pump like we were shown.’

Yes. From now on, she had to be vigilant; she had to keep watch, keep Esther in sight, keep her safe. Because that afternoon when she had frozen on a sun-drenched lawn in the middle of summer had shown her a truth she’d needed to see. Esther had to be kept safe, because if she got into trouble again the terrible truth was that Hannah couldn’t trust herself to save her.





Chapter 12





Hannah hated the playground.

Not the fact that the paint was flaking and the safety flooring was cracked and uneven, nor that the turret at the end of the monkey bars always smelled of mould. No, though all of that was bad enough, it was not the actual playground that was at fault.

It was what loomed over it. The steelworks. Pipes coiled around its bulk as if the main building was a dying animal and those pipes were choking the life out of it. They slithered off into other outbuildings, connecting the whole thing together, a diseased, dirty town all of its own, with sheds and bridges and footpaths and towers. It was wreathed in smoke as it was almost every day of the year: ‘carefully managed’ reactions and ‘a natural by-product’ of the cooling system so the guidelines stated. The dying animal at the heart of it all was a dozing dragon. A light sleeper. It wouldn’t take much to prod it into wakefulness when that smoke would belch and flame would spurt.

There was a beauty to Hell, however, Hannah had discovered. Often at sunset, the dying rays of light caught the smoke and made it glow, made the sky into a slab of gemstone that caused Hannah to sometimes stop and stare.

She did not look at it this morning. Three months had passed since Esther’s first asthma attack. Whilst Esther played with a neighbour’s child, a gentle boy a year or so older than her with messy hair and a ready laugh, Hannah read. Her local library had only a few reference books about asthma and Hannah currently had them all, as well as all the leaflets she had been able to find in her day job as a sales representative for a drug company, visiting GP surgeries trying to sell them new versions of antidepressants.

What Hannah did not now know about asthma was not worth knowing. She had learnt that, globally, it was more common in girls than boys after puberty and found more amongst city people than those who lived in rural areas. Doctors first thought it a neurological condition, the nervous system sending the wrong signals to the lungs, but now the popular idea was of it as an allergic reaction of some sort. In reality, from Hannah’s reading, the true picture seemed to be more complicated than either theory.

Two things became ingrained on Hannah’s retinas:

1) There was no cure.

2) The first few years of exposure were vital.

On her next trip to the library she was going to search out anything she could find about steelworks.

‘Found it!’ Ned appeared at her side, sat on the bench next to her and waggled the inhaler with a smile on his face that set Hannah’s teeth tingling.

‘I told you to check it was in the bag,’ she said, not smiling in return.

‘I know, I know, but no harm done, yeah? Our house is literally just over there’ – he pointed off to where their road began – ‘and it is stuffed full of the things. It would only take a sec to get one. We don’t even need the bag.’

The bag. It sat between them and in it was everything Esther needed in order to leave the safety of the house. Every parent of a five-year-old had a similar thing, filled with wet wipes and a favourite toy, emergency snacks, a spare jumper and sun cream. Hannah’s bag had all of those things, of course, but more importantly it held the various inhalers that kept Esther from the massive black void that had waited for her in an ambulance months ago.

‘Three.’ Hannah put down her book.

‘Hmm?’

‘Three times this week so far.’

It was Saturday. Three asthma attacks: two mild, one less so. The shaking of the inhaler was a talisman, like a witch doctor waving a stick at the bad spirits. Be gone, foul demon! And it had, each time, but each time it returned and each time there were those terrifying gaps between Esther’s wheezy, rattling breaths.

‘I know.’ Ned picked up her book, read the title, frowned and put it down again. ‘But she’s just a kid, yeah? I don’t want to make a big deal about it. It’ll scare her.’

‘She should be scared!’ Hannah lowered her voice. ‘No, I don’t mean that. I mean … we should be scared. We shouldn’t have to go back to the house to get the inhaler; it should be ingrained on our brains that we bring it – we check the bag, we bring the bag. You weren’t there in the ambulance with her.’

Perhaps that was the problem. He hadn’t been there to feel the great aching void when Esther had stopped breathing, to feel the nothingness blow a freezing kiss at him. If he had, he would feel as she did. If he had, he would check the bloody inhaler was in the bloody bag.

She watched Ned run over to the swings and pick Esther up, whirling her around until she was red-faced and panting, the dragon steelworks waiting in the background.

Three asthma attacks this week.

Ned suddenly put Esther down and Hannah knew by the way Esther’s shoulders hunched, by the way she crouched over, the way her hand went to her throat as if that could help.

Ned shouted and she gripped the inhaler, already on her feet.

Four.





Chapter 13





Hannah stuffed tissue into the cracks with a knife.

It was hardly going to make much of a difference, she realised, but she liked doing it. It was soothing, almost. Like meditation. The idea had come to her whilst she had sat at the reading of her aunt’s will and it had taken all of her determination to stay in her seat and not dash out, past the open-mouthed faces in her haste to get home. Not that there had been many faces to rush past, just the solicitor and a distant cousin.

She was still wearing her smart black dress. The knife sank into the tissue as she wiggled it into the small spaces of the window frame, pushing and pushing until it wedged in tight.

Her house was a death trap. People said that, didn’t they? About run-down places with dodgy floorboards and faulty wiring, with plaster hanging off the ceiling and sharp carpet tacks waiting to pierce a foot. But no one ever thought of the gaps, the cracks, the seams, the edges of things. Where the air got in.

Through the window she saw it.

The works.

It was a smoky God towering over the houses. She hated her street. The houses were squashed together with their dirty brick and shoddy windows, the little gaps between the roof tiles and the broken guttering hanging like a fractured finger pointing to the massive smoking chimneys beyond, too close, as if pasted onto the backdrop with a careless hand.

The pollution, however, was a grit on her eyeballs, scraping them with every blink. Ned told her she was imagining it. But it was everywhere. Because, and she hadn’t realised this until now, there were places like this steelworks all over the country, all over the world. There were worse places even, and they all had their guidelines and regulations. They all had their lip service. Just because you couldn’t see it, the air, didn’t mean something hadn’t gone badly wrong with it. Esther was proof of that.

Hannah stepped back, her hand aching. That was one window done. Sealed. With tissue, admittedly, and even that would probably not last long because Ned would come home and try to open the damn thing. But she could already feel the squeezing around her heart loosen slightly. The problem, now she was thinking of it, was that there were so many other places in the house she would have to sort. She could almost feel the draught.

Hannah had been thinking about Chernobyl a lot lately. She must have been around fifteen when she had seen the footage on the news. She thought not so much about the explosion of the Soviet reactor itself but afterwards, the invisible cloud of radioactive materials that had spread as far as Western Europe, nothing anyone could do to stop that poisoned air finding its way into millions of homes. And lungs. There had apparently been radioactive sheep in Wales.

But once you searched for Chernobyl on your desktop computer, well then it was only a few keyboard clicks to a whole raft of other stories. Take polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the toxic component of traffic exhaust and cause of eye and lung irritation, blood and liver disease. Then there was tiny particulate matter which, when breathed deeply into the lungs, lodged fast, waiting, a patient assassin. The cause of cancer, heart disease, stroke. Some studies were beginning to link air pollution to dementia.

Asthma.

She had got a whole new set of books out of the library. Not about asthma or factories, but ones on architecture and planning laws.

Hannah began with a new tissue and a new window, stuffing the paper into the edges where she could feel the air chill her fingers.

‘Why is she home?’

Hannah jumped. ‘Jesus! You scared me!’

Ned came into the room. ‘Why is Pips home?’

‘School called. She had an attack.’

‘Okay … but the school has her inhaler. They know how to use it. I thought we agreed she should always try to stay in school, even if she has an attack?’

‘She was exhausted.’

Ned said nothing and then: ‘What are you doing to Esther’s window?’

Hannah didn’t respond. He could see well enough, after all. Words weren’t really working for them at the moment. She had tried them all, in all of their combinations: explaining, cajoling, pleading and reasoning.

There were other words in the inside pocket of the black handbag she had left in the hall. More useful words printed on a legal document that proclaimed her the only beneficiary of her distant aunt’s considerable estate. She should tell him about that because that was the rule, wasn’t it? No hiding things in a marriage. However, Hannah was beginning to believe that the exact opposite was true. Marriage only worked if you hid your true self. After all, look what happened when she showed her fear to Ned – he reasoned it away, shooed it off with a flick of his hand. She would tell him about the inheritance when the time was right.

She wasn’t stupid – she knew that tissue paper was hardly the solution.

The solution would come from those legal words. Those words would become numbers in a bank account, which would allow them to move away from the steelworks, find a corner surrounded by trees and hidden from the world, but even then, Hannah knew that the world would still find them. It would come and clamp its dirty mouth over theirs.

Nowhere was safe.

Unless she made it so. And she had a plan for that.





Chapter 14





Esther




The world stretched out around Esther, so much of it that she had to look down to the ground to anchor herself in case she floated off, away into the vastness. Her feet moved and then she was there, her own bedroom window above her on the first floor, its reflective glass glinting in the light.

The front of the House towered over her and she stared at it, mesmerised at being able to see it from the outside. The concrete looked rough like a lizard’s skin.

In front of her a man was caught by the leg in a trap.

But Esther couldn’t look at that yet.

Squinting, she turned her face to the sky. Rabbits froze in headlights, she’d read. She sympathised with them as she froze in this glaring new world, pinned by a spotlight sun, unsure of what to do next. If there had been a shadow somewhere, she would have crawled into it, happy to let the shade soothe her eyes.

She reasoned with herself. The damage was done. If the air was so toxic it could kill her through a mask, well, she was out in it now. The sky above her was the kind of blue that seemed lit up from within, a piece of curved stained glass into which a dead bird would no longer fly. The breeze tugged at her hood and the air moved against her forehead like breath.

The man swore.

Can you help me?

Yes, Mister Strange Man, I can, Esther thought. I can and I will because that is the kind of person I am.

When she started walking, she almost expected to bounce. Mother had taught her about the astronauts on the moon and how they had bobbed along in the dust, free of gravity. She was untethered from her space station, floating out into the void.

An explorer, an adventurer, someone brave.

Someone foolhardy.

There was a reason Mother kept them safe in the House. What was she doing? What made her think she could wander about with the demon in her chest and her heart banging hard like a frightened traveller pounding on a door.

What was she doing? She was giving help.

One foot moved in front of the other.

Beyond were the trees. Even after everything humans had thrown at them, trees had carried on photosynthesising and sheltering and filtering; they, miraculously, continued to help despite the pollution, the destruction, the strange diseases that ate away at them. And they hid, of course. The house was invisible from any main road though Esther didn’t know how far the forest spread, or even if there was a road nearby.

Her feet kept moving.

Trees. They were just trees, she thought, forcing herself to look over to them, to concentrate on them because otherwise her breathing might begin to hitch and that would wake the chest demon. She wished she’d tucked Mr Wiffles into her overalls, if only to hear him grumble at the cold and tell her to ‘Buck up, girl!’

That was another shock – the cold. Used to the ambient, controlled temperature of the House, the skin on her wrists prickled into goose bumps, though it was spring and the sun shone.

Then she stumbled to a halt. The bear trap. A bear trap had reared up from the grass – grass that she had stared at for sixteen years and that had never done anything interesting in all of that time. There were monsters waiting to take a bite out of her. How could she forget? One was already occupied, slowly chewing into the strange man’s leg, but it might have friends. She studied the grass at her feet as she inched forward, this time at a much slower pace, watching out for a glimpse of rusted metal.

Sky, bird, tree.

The little fans in her mask whirred.

A man in a bear trap.

In a shuffling, careful way, she stopped as close to the man as she was willing to get. The trap was the kind of thing designed to bring down an animal twice the size of this man, a horrible, jagged-toothed monster of a thing that she’d had no clue was lurking so close to their front door.

The man gave a guttural cry. In the past few hours she had failed to save a bird and ventured into an outside so terrifying it could literally raise up jaws out of the ground.

Thoughts flashed across her mind but nothing coherent. Man. Mask. Teeth. Scream. Air.

Air, air, air. She’d breathed it in, great gulps of it, and it was as if she could feel it in her, something ragged in her lungs, scratching them with every new heave of her chest.

The man moaned.

The bear trap had clamped over his shin, a trap that might have easily bitten into her rather than him. How had Mother not noticed something like this when she was building the house—

Esther’s brain stuttered to its realisation. She remembered her mother zigzagging across the grass as she had come towards the House, avoiding the dangers she already knew were there. Oh.

Mother knew all about the trap. At some point, probably early on, or maybe even as the House was being finished, she went out and found that monster, and maybe others lurking out there in the grass. She found them and then brought them here. Set them.

Mother did this.

The man carefully edged his leg straight out in front of him. How much damage did one of those traps do, she wondered? She couldn’t believe Mother would set something that would break bone and she hoped a trap like that would be designed to catch and hold prey, not cut off a leg. It had probably been out there for years, the mechanisms weak.

He would be fine.

She wanted to run back to the porch and close the door behind her.

There wasn’t any blood that she could see, and he hadn’t fainted, but he didn’t move, no longer staring up at the sky but at her. She couldn’t meet his gaze, but focused instead on the mud on his trousers, his fingers red with the cold as they trembled near the trap’s teeth.

What she should have done was obey her mother, even though she hid pills and threw injured birds away like litter. She should have stayed safe inside where she had always lived.

Instead, she cleared her throat and the words when they came were easy enough to say: ‘I can help.’





Chapter 15





‘Are you insane?’ The man glared at Esther.

Esther opened her mouth and then closed it again.

‘I mean, what kind of weirdos are you? Bear traps in your front yard?’ He pushed himself up onto his elbows and grimaced at the pain, his face sheened with sweat.

Once again, Esther fish-gulped. He sat up straighter and brushed at his jacket, an oddly fussy gesture, to care about his clothes when his leg was stuck in a great big piece of metal.

If she had been expecting a Disney prince of some sort then that was what she got – except this was one of those early versions where the face was still a bit too bland, the skin too smooth and someone had gone a bit wild with the hair.

‘Well, come on then? Help me!’ He pointed to the trap as she stood unmoving. ‘There are springs either side, you see? We need to push down on them and then I can ease my leg out. I tried to do it on my own but they’re stiff, rusted I think. It’ll need two of us—’ His words were cut off by a grunt and he clutched his knee.

His voice was just a voice. Male. Impatient.

‘How do you know my name?’

He paused. Esther gripped one of her hands in the other, thinking of nuns in convents standing peacefully in prayer poses. Calm. She needed to stay calm despite the fact she could hardly hear what he was saying over the sound of her own heart beating. He wore a flat bag across his chest and on its front flap was a big bright badge made up of red circles with a silver star in the middle.

‘Why are you here?’ Her voice was muffled by the mask, a robot question asked by a robot girl in a strange face shield. A weirdo. But feeling like a robot made her braver than she would otherwise have been, she needed to be robotic, to ask the questions that needed asking, to be cautious and careful – like Mother.

‘I’ve been looking for you for days.’ The man stared up at her, winced and went to rub his leg but stopped himself. ‘Your mother needs to sign some paperwork, for the land she bought. This land. I got lumbered with hunting you out. Your lot—’

‘My lot?’

‘Doomsday preppers. Homesteaders …’ Esther didn’t know if he could see her expression but he faltered anyway, his face screwing up as he gingerly touched his leg. ‘Fuck this hurts!’

Homesteader. The name made them sound like two characters in a western. People who stared at the intruder whilst standing on their wooden veranda, shading their eyes from the sun, chewing a stalk of straw, wearing gingham.

His expression softened. ‘I’m Tom.’ And he held out his hand to her as if they were business colleagues meeting up for the first time. She stared at his fingers whilst her heart tried to burst out from her throat. Eventually his hand dropped. ‘So … if you could just …’ He gestured towards the trap.

The man winced as rusting teeth from the trap dug slowly through the thick material of his trousers. She considered him. Tom. The only new person she had met in the last sixteen years. Someone who talked about the world so easily, a world she had only ever known neatly squared off in a television screen. Paperwork, land, preppers.

A potential threat.

A quick calculation. His leg was injured but even without that, he wasn’t heavily built, didn’t look muscular or all that strong. Not threatening – and Mother had taught her all about that.

He winced again and grasped at his leg.

Mother had taught her that people Out There looked ill, air-starved and grey of pallor, but this man didn’t. His face could have been considered a bit pale but that was more likely to be caused by shock setting in.

Esther knelt next to him and looked at the trap. It was as he’d said: a thing with rusting teeth spread out wide enough to hold, but not seriously injure, an unwary leg. The springs on either side had also scabbed over in a rough rust but, she reasoned, if they’d moved to snap him, then they’d move back again, given a little push.

‘I can help you open it, free your leg.’

‘That’d be dandy. Thanks,’ he muttered.

She could see in the way his jaw tensed that he was gritting his teeth. There was the red bump of a shaving nick on his chin.

‘We have to work together,’ she said.

They each placed a hand on one side. He had nice hands – slim fingers with nails that were clean and neat enough for even Mother to approve. Esther knew she should have been concentrating on freeing this man without severing his leg but for a moment all she could think about was how this couldn’t possibly be her. This had to be a dream – her in the Out There, her hand only inches away from another person’s, working together with a stranger to free him from a trap set by her own mother.

‘Ready?’ he asked.

She blinked and let her breath out slowly, like Mother had taught her when firing a gun. Steady the hand.

‘On one, okay? Three …’

His hair was an old velvet brown.

‘Two …’

The velvet brown was the colour of a much-loved teddy bear, a comfortable sofa, a well-worn pair of cords. Esther braced herself and stared at a spot just past his cheek. Not his eyes – she wasn’t ready for those.

‘One!’





Chapter 16





The trap fought them with an animal intensity, its springs creaking under the pressure in a squeal of pain.

As she pushed down, Esther wondered if this man might be stuck in it and what would she do then? Mother would stuff him and make him into a scarecrow to frighten away anyone else who stumbled onto their land.

The metal teeth widened a fraction.

‘Keep pressing!’ he said.

‘I am!’

‘You’ve got to press harder!’

‘I am!’

The teeth widened a fraction more. They both watched the jaws stretch open in a ghastly yawn … more … a little more …

Knocking his hand away she kept up the pressure on both springs whilst he got ready to free his leg.

‘Don’t let go!’ he said.

‘Do you think I’m an idiot?’

No, a voice whispered in her head, he thinks you’re a weirdo who set the trap in the first place.

With a grunt, she put all of her force behind her final shove at the springs and, with a gasp, he wriggled his leg out and scrambled away from the thing, breathing hard, holes in his trouser leg and his forehead sheened with sweat.

Esther allowed the teeth to gently close once more and then she kicked it from her.

They both lay on the grass for a moment appreciating legs that had not been chewed off and hinges that could still move.

Tom’s chest heaved and he ran a hand over his face.

‘You okay?’ Esther sat up again.

Tom carefully prodded at his shin. His trouser leg was mangled but it didn’t look as if the trap had bitten right through. Taking a few deep breaths each time he did so, he inched his trouser leg higher until they could both peer at his calf.

‘Okay is probably stretching it a bit but I’ll live.’

He’d been lucky – for a man who’d got caught in a bear trap. His shin was a mess of swollen red cuts and scrapes but within the swelling there was no wicked glint of bone.

He lay on the grass, staring at the sky.

‘What’s with the fancy dress?’ he said, not looking at her but at the clouds.

‘Huh?’

He waved dismissively in her direction. ‘The get-up.’

She glanced down at her overalls, the tiny fans in her mask whirring away like polite bees. ‘My asthma … the air …’ was all she could manage of the eloquent explanation that formed in her brain but mangled itself in her mouth. ‘I know in the cities it’s worse but even out here I have to be careful.’

Tom frowned and turned his face to her. There was grass stuck in his hair. ‘Careful of … the air?’

‘Yes. I know you think it’s safe here in the countryside and, well, it probably is for you but—’ He looked at her strangely and she didn’t know how to explain it. Possibly she needed diagrams and a flow chart.

She was cut off by his grunt of pain as he tried and failed to get to his feet.

‘Can you stand?’

Stupid question, Esther, she berated herself. He has just shown that he can’t.

But that wasn’t the question she’d wanted to ask. What she’d wanted to say was: ‘Can you leave now?’ Because she had a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach, her hands were shaking and she needed some time in the dim quiet to work out everything that had just happened.

He tried to haul himself up again, wobbled and sank back down onto the ground. ‘Give me a minute.’

A minute wasn’t going to solve it though. In a minute his leg would not marvellously heal itself so he could get up and hike down the hill for however long it would take him to get to his car, a car which he would then have to be able to drive using said leg. A lot could happen in a minute – but not that.

The problem was that there was another question Esther should be asking and that question was, ‘Do you want me to help you inside?’ It clogged in her throat even though every heroine in every romantic film she had seen would have asked it by now, would have shouldered some of his weight and staggered across to the House, ready to tend to his leg (and this would probably have involved taking off his shirt, though the problem was with his shin, not his chest). Halfway through the film they would be nearly kissing but obviously interrupted because there was still half a film to go and—

The demon in her chest yawned and sucked all the air out of her lungs. She doubled over. Sinking to the ground, her world narrowed to the width of her windpipe.

A hand grabbed her arm. ‘Esther?’

She was too busy fumbling in the pocket of her boiler suit for her inhaler to fully comprehend that there was a stranger’s hand on her arm. If she hadn’t already been having an asthma attack that would probably have caused one. But her head was too full as she told herself that there was nothing to worry about, she had had thousands of these kinds of attacks throughout her life, thousands, though it had been years since she had been outside whilst having one and, oh God, she had just realised that she would have to take her mask off to use the inhaler and everything in her screamed that that should not happen and all of those screaming voices were her mother’s—

Her arms gave way.

At least she would be able to see the sky as she died, she thought, and not merely a tiny slice or circle of it but the whole glorious thing curving over her like a beautiful glass bowl in a blue she had never known was this vivid. In a film, this would be enough for the doomed heroine – the fact that she got to see the sky and she would die smiling … but Esther blinked and her chest rattled again. This wasn’t enough; it was