The summer when Jenny was ten her parents had taken her to Cornwall. They’d camped at a site near Penzance, and on the last day her father had driven them along the coast to a small cove. If it had a name she never knew it, only that the sand was fine and white, and the cliffs behind them had been full of nesting birds. It had been a hot day, and the sea had been deliriously cool. She played in the shallows and on the beach, then lay in the sun and read the book she’d been bought. It was The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, and she’d felt very adult to be reading it on holiday.
They had stayed there all day. There had been a few other families in the cove, but one by one they had all gone until only Jenny and her parents were left. The sun had settled slowly into the sea, casting longer and longer shadows. Not wanting the day to end, Jenny had waited for one of her parents to finally stretch and announce that it was time to leave. But neither did. The afternoon stretched into evening, and still her parents seemed as reluctant to end the holiday as Jenny herself.
They’d put sweaters on when the temperature dropped, laughing at the goosebumps on Jenny’s mother when she’d insisted on one final swim. The cove faced into the west, presenting them with a panoramic view of the sunset. It had been glorious, a vast smear of gold and purple, and the three of them had fallen silent to watch as it deepened into night. Only when the last rays of the sun had fallen behind the horizon did her father stir.
‘Time to go,’ he’d said.
And they had walked back along the beach through the thickening twilight, leaving just the lingering memory of the most perfect day of her childhood.
She thought about it now, conjuring the feel of the sun on her skin and the sand running through her fingers. She could smell the coconut of her mother’s sun oil, taste the saline tang of sea on her lips. The cove was still out there, and somewhere in the universe Jenny could almost believe that younger version of herself still existed too, forever caught on the cusp of that never-ending day.
As she lay on the floor of her cell, the ache from her amputated toe had joined with her other wounds to form a rolling wave of pain that seemed to carry her along. But now even that seemed remote, as though she were observing it rather than experiencing it herself. She was drifting in and out of consciousness, finding it harder to distinguish delirium from brutal reality. On one level she knew that was a bad sign, that she was beginning the descent into coma. But perhaps that was better than experiencing whatever her captor had planned. Hey, look on the bright side. One way or another, Jenny knew she was going to die here.
It would be much better if it happened before he came back.
She wondered about her parents now, and what they would do when they heard. She felt sad for them, but only distantly. The thought of David brought a deeper sadness. But there was nothing she could do about that either. Even her fear had become diluted and blurred, like something viewed through water. The emotion that still burned brightest, with a feverish intensity, was anger. Anger at the man prepared to fritter her life away as easily as scattering dust.
During one moment of lucidity she tried working at the knot on her ankle, but it was a feeble attempt. There was no strength left in her fingers, and all too soon her body’s shaking made even that impossible. She sank back, exhausted, slipping quickly into delirium again. Once she dreamed that she had the knife her captor had used on her. It was huge and bright, like a sword, and she sliced easily through the rope and felt herself soar weightlessly away, floating into freedom and sunlight.
Then the dream abandoned her, and she was back on the floor of the cellar, filthy and bloodied.
The grating noise seemed like another dream at first. Even the light that spilled on her melded seamlessly into images of blue skies, trees and grass. Only when something struck her face, splitting open the cut on her cheek with a sharpness like ice, did she become aware once more of where she was. She felt someone lift her shoulders off the ground, roughly shake her.
‘David…?’ she said, trying to make out the blurred figure bending over her. Or perhaps she just tried to say it, because the only sound that escaped her lips was a weak, dry groan. Her head snapped to the side as a rough hand slapped her again.
‘Wake up! Wake up!’
The face looming in front of her swam into focus. Oh. Not David. The man’s features were contorted with anger and disappointment. She felt like crying. So she wasn’t going to die in time, after all. That seemed so unfair. But already she was beginning to drift away again. She barely noticed when he let her drop, even the pain of her head striking the hard earth only a minor irritation.
Suddenly she was jolted back into herself by a shock of freezing cold. For an instant her heart seemed to stop. She struggled to breathe, her diaphragm spasmed to stone. She clawed in one breath, then another, blinking away water to see him standing over her. He held an empty bucket, still dripping.
‘Not yet! You don’t die yet!’
He let the bucket fall, roughly seized hold of her foot. In a few swift motions the knot that had been holding her was untied. Still wheezing for breath, Jenny was hauled to her feet. He half-dragged, half-carried her to the far end of the cellar. There was a brick partition here. He dumped her behind it, onto a hard and unyielding floor. Through blurred vision, Jenny looked above her and saw a rusting tap jutting from the wall. And then she noticed something else, something that penetrated even the insulin-starved fog. Next to where she was lying was a circular iron drain, and with sudden intuition Jenny realized what was going to drain down it.
He’d brought her to the killing ground.
He reappeared now, carrying a sack. Untying its neck, he upended it, spilling out a bundle of feathers close to her head. Jenny found herself staring into the terrified yellow eyes of an owl.
He was smiling down at her now. ‘Wise bird. For a teacher.’
Knife in hand, he reached down and grabbed hold of the owl by its feet. They were tethered, Jenny saw, but as he lifted the bird there was a sudden burst of movement. For a moment the owl seemed fastened to his hand. The knife clattered on the concrete floor as its wings beat wildly, then he dashed it hard against the wall. It fell to the ground in a soft explosion of feathers. He stared mutely at the wound on his palm, blood dripping from where its beak had ripped into his flesh. Good, a voice thrilled in her, as the room began to ripple out of focus. Then, as he sucked at the gouge, their eyes met. Not yet. Just a little longer. Then I won’t care what you do, she thought, seeing the intent blossom in them.
But he was already coming towards her. ‘You’re on the owl’s side, aren’t you? Poor owl. Poor little owl.’
He stood over her, his expression thoughtful. Suddenly he tilted his head, listening. Through the grey fog clouding her vision, she saw surprise blank his face. A moment later, filtering through the cotton wool enclosing her, Jenny heard it as well. A heavy bang, coming from above them.
Someone was upstairs.