Excerpt

Little Sister

Isabel Ashdown

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Little Sister, by Isabel Ashdown, a psychological thriller about the secrets between sisters. In the following passage, something terrible happens while one sister babysit’s the other’s baby.

Prologue

You were perfect, unblemished. Innocent of ill thought, with a light that radiated from you like sunlight. You brought meaning to everything, and with you in it, my world had become a warmer place. Until I went and ruined it all.

***

The house was silent, and for a while, it was just you and me, alone, without the distractions and noise of the others to unsettle our peace. You were special, and from the first time I held you, I knew we had a connection that could never be put into plain words or easily broken. Everyone said I was spoiling you, that I should stop with all the little presents—spend my money on myself instead—but they didn’t understand that all I ever wanted to do was make you happy. And to protect you. That evening I sat in the living room for an age, staring beyond the muted movements of the television screen, willing you to wake for a while, so I could fill my eyes with your love, feel the reassuring thump of your heartbeat against mine.

“Try not to wake her,” James had said as they headed off for their party earlier that evening, dressed up in their black-tie best, looking quite the glamorous pair. “Just pop your head in every now and then—but don’t pick her up straightaway if she wakes! She’ll drop off again if you leave her for a few minutes.” At the front door, I saw her button up her neat fawn coat and whisper something to him—and he’d rushed back in with a box of chocolates, sliding them across the coffee table toward me. “Babysitter’s perks!” he’d said, and checking his reflection in the mantle mirror one last time, he’d dashed from the room and out into the night.

At some point, it felt as though hours had passed, but I’d started to feel strange by then, and it was hard to know if my sense of time was out, as so often happens. The clock said it was after one in the morning, but that couldn’t be right, could it? Surely I hadn’t been sitting here alone for that long? I was certain I had heard you cry out, and, although I remembered your dad’s words and knew I mustn’t go to you yet, I couldn’t help myself, and I rushed up to fetch you down. You were so pleased to see me, waving your soft arms and grabbing at the air, and I scooped you up and brought you into the kitchen, strapping you into your high chair so you could watch me make up your warm milk. I dropped a couple of breadsticks onto your tray, and you babbled and waved them in the air, and I felt light-headed with the joy of you. I was hungry too, and as your milk warmed in the bowl, I made myself a sandwich, carving the last of the breast from the Christmas turkey, and laying it out in a slow, careful pattern on a slice of the crumbly organic loaf that James always insisted on. I often wondered if he’d be so popular with the women if they knew what a fusspot he really was—and in an instant I lost my appetite, and I tossed the sandwich at the dog bowl, where it flopped open and spilled messily over the polished floor. The kitchen lights overhead felt suddenly too brash, and I flinched, swallowing my anger as I snatched up your bottle and slopped milk across the counter. I was so cross, I reached over to the switch for the lights, flicking them off so I didn’t need to squint anymore, and as I did so my arm swept across the worktop, sending the breadboard and meat knife hurtling into the sink with a clatter. When I heard you gasp in the dimness, I was sorry again, so sorry, and I reached out to put my hand on your shoulder, to soothe you and let you know I was there. When I heard you gasp in the dimness, I was sorry again, so sorry, and I reached out to put my hand on your shoulder, to soothe you and let you know I was there. I paused, my pulse racing, as I listened for any signs of them coming home, as by now I had no grasp of time, and it seemed possible they could be back at any moment, ticking me off for getting you up, for waking you unnecessarily. But the silence remained, broken by nothing more than the gentle whistle of wind passing the windows that looked out across the drive. They wouldn’t understand: all I wanted to do was hold you. I felt shaky as I stood beside your high chair in the half-light, watching the whites of your eyes blinking up at me, marveling at the porcelain perfection of your dimpled fingers and rounded cheeks. And then, as I went to lift you up, I heard the sound of tires on the gravel outside and the room grew instantly brighter, briefly bathing you in light, and in the seconds before the lights dipped, I saw your closed eyes and the blood on your sleep suit—fresh blood, bright and wet. I cried out—screamed—staggering in my panic to get to you, to save you. But I couldn’t save you, could I?

***

The great gulf of darkness opened up again like a silent roar, wrapping its weight around me and crushing my breaths as I went under.

Part One

Jess

Emily is across the room, her shape made silhouette by the earthy glow of lamplight beyond the front window. There’s someone with her; their head is tilted in concern, their hand resting on her shoulder, and even through the vapor of my dazed mind, I can see that she is crying, from the way her chest rises and falls with each shuddering breath. It’s a tiny movement, but one I remember from earliest childhood, the way she’d turn inward as she tried to keep it together, tried to hold it all inside. I see her now, aged four or five, casting aside her new red scooter, wanting instead my purple one; I was bewildered as she turned her back to me and stood at the low garden wall, unspeaking, taking these same shallow breaths, trying to contain herself. Like a volcano, that’s what Dad used to say. She’s about to blow.

The paramedic tells me to stay still for a while, and I’m so tired I don’t argue. I just close my eyes and drift, and wait for them to tell me what to do next. I’m rocking, standing alone on the deck of the ferry, seeing the island for the first time, the sea sunglass-bright, sailing past cheerful yellow buoys and bobbing yachts as the densely wooded land and stony beaches come into clear view, a picture-postcard setting for idyllic grand houses and country-quaint cottages. Behind me, beyond the white spumed wake of the vessel, dark Napoleonic forts rise up through the distant waters, and I’m afraid. What is this, I wonder, this strange meandering train of thought? I can feel the hard surface beneath me, and my fingertips move listlessly, recognizing the rough furrows of the kitchen floor tiles. Am I drunk—or dreaming— or dying even? My head feels submerged, as though I’m looking up through water, yet at the same time there’s a feeling of clarity that frightens me. I feel the weight of a hand on my wrist, of fingers tugging at my eyelids, the assault of bright light on myretinas, and I gasp for air, my memories suddenly, horrifically breaking through the surface: awake, aware, remembering.

I gasp for air, my memories suddenly, horrifically breaking through the surface: awake, aware, remembering.

***

“There’s a doctor on the way,” the plainclothes officer says as she passes me a glass of water, indicating that we should move into the living room. I’ve been perched on a chair under the archway of the open-plan kitchen, a blanket draped around my shoulders as I gaze out into the dining room, where James and Emily answer questions, their eyes drawn back to me from time to time, their faces distraught. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have a tea or coffee?”

I shake my head, almost afraid to speak, as I attempt to take in the reality of the situation. Daisy has gone. Gone? I want to feel more, but I can’t, my senses deadened by the impact of the fall, my thoughts and emotions slow to respond. It seems impossible that life can change so swiftly, so entirely, from one moment to the next. Already my mind is crawling over what I can remember—and scrabbling for what I cannot—and I pray to God that I’m not responsible for this in some way, that there wasn’t something I could have done to prevent it.

As we leave the clean light of the kitchen and pass through the dining room, I glance back at Emily and James, now seated around the family table with two other officers, a photograph of Daisy placed starkly in the space between them. Emily’s neat dark bob has lost its party sheen of the night before, and she looks tiny beside James, whose posture is like that of a great wide-shouldered boy. His youthful peaks of hair seem incongruous in contrast with his abruptly aged expression. “What now?” he asks the officer opposite him. His voice is husky, his tone softly urgent. “What happens now?” The pain that exudes from him and Emily is unbearable. They look drained of life, transparent beneath the bright glare of the dining room lights, and I know she’s aware of me standing there, but my sister won’t look up, she won’t meet my eye.

“It doesn’t look as if anything’s broken.” We’re in the living room, an open doorway separating me and my traumatized sister, and the woman is looking at me for a response. She points to the sofa, and I sit.

“What?”

She gestures toward my bloodied shirt as she takes out a notebook. “It looks like a nosebleed to me. But we’ll get you checked out all the same. So, Jess, I’m DCI Jacobs,” she enunciates carefully, and I realize she’s told me this already, that she’s not sure if I got it the first time.

They don’t always send a detective out straightaway, do they? But what do I know? I have no idea what’s normal, or who arrived here in what order tonight. My gauge of time is completely off. I look beyond the inspector, out into the empty space of the doorway toward the dining room as another officer passes by. The place is thrumming with people. Did they all arrive while I was lying on the kitchen floor? Or did I just not notice them turning up as I sat on that hard chair, trying to  bring my mind back into focus?

“Jess?” the inspector repeats, and I snap to attention, trying to blink myself toward some sense of clarity. She’s older than me, maybe nudging fifty, and her hair is cut in a close, ear-tucked style, entirely gray. She’s not vain, I can tell, but there’s an attractive energy in her dark eyes, a sparkle of life. She stares back at me, as though trying to work me out, and then the questions come. Were you alone all evening? Did you hear or notice anything unusual? Was the back door locked? Are you certain? When did you last see your niece, Chloe? How old is she? Fifteen? What time did she go out? Are you sure? Do you get on well with your sister? And your brother-in-law? When did you last look in on Daisy? When did you last see Daisy? I try my best to answer them all, but I’m sure I must come across as guilty in some way, because I can’t quite seize all the details, and even in my confused state, I can see how some of the gaps seem oddly placed.

I’m sure I must come across as guilty in some way, because I can’t quite seize all the details, and even in my confused state, I can see how some of the gaps seem oddly placed.

“So you can’t remember anything from around seven p.m. until your sister and brother-in-law returned home together at two a.m.? Did you speak to anyone on the phone? Or maybe you watched something on television?”

I turn my head toward the TV and close my eyes, recalling a remote image, barely a memory at all. “There was something with a dragon in it,” I say. When I open my eyes, she’s looking at me as if she doesn’t believe me, or else she thinks I’m insane.

“A film, I think,” I press on. “Animated. But I wasn’t really watching it. It was just background noise. I remember thinking I was hungry. Maybe I made a sandwich.”

Her brow crinkles as she scribbles in her notebook. “What kind of sandwich?”

I think for a moment. I’ve no idea what kind of sandwich; I just said it, for something to say, to make her stop looking at me like that. Shit. Why do I do this? Why do I keep getting it wrong? “Turkey?”

After making another note, Jacobs rises and returns through the dining room into the kitchen, and I trail behind her, wishing I could shrink myself down to nothing and slip away through a crack in the floor. I hover in the entrance as she takes a tour of the kitchen, peering at the few dirty items in the sink, opening the fridge and scrutinizing the contents. On the kitchen wall beside me, an old photograph of Chloe looks down—not the funny, fawn-legged Chloe of today, but the little Chloe of years ago, long before I ever knew her. Her eyes are the same eyes, the exact startling blue of her father’s, but here they are unadorned, not yet blackly lined and painted like those of the teenager I’ve come to know so well. My heart lurches at the thought of her, of the pain she has yet to feel, of the gaping hole that’s about to open up in her world. She adores her baby sister, loves spending time with her on the play mat, an unspoken return to toddlerhood. She’ll pile up the bright wooden blocks, higher, higher, until Daisy can resist no longer, reaching a chubby hand forward to send the tower toppling. “Daisy, you dodo!” Chloe will cry out in mock surprise. Emily hates that.

“Don’t call her a dodo, Chloe! It’s horrible!” I have to cover my mouth and turn away, and Chloe will catch me and shoot me a little smile as she scoops Daisy into her arms, allowing herbaby sister to tug at her long copper-dyed hair with softly grasping hands. I love those girls.

DCI Jacobs leans out to speak to Emily and James, who are still being interviewed at the dining table. “Sorry to interrupt . . . Mr. and Mrs. King, do you have any turkey left over from Christmas?”

Emily looks confused—offended even—and shakes her head.

“We threw the last of it out a few days ago.”

“Thank you,” the officer replies, and she jerks her head for me to return to the living room with her. “So,” she says when we are seated again, her voice low and controlled. She rests her elbows on her knees and leans in so I can hear and see every word formed on her narrow lips. “Let’s start again. And this time, if the answer is I don’t know, then you say I don’t know, OK? There is a one-year-old child missing, and I’m keeping my voice down for the sake of your sister out there, but in child abduction cases, time is of the essence. The baby isn’t walking yet, so we know she hasn’t simply wandered off. She’s been taken.”

She pauses, staring at me closely, making sure I’m getting the severity of the situation. “Everything you tell me will be followed up on, and we can save a lot of time if you can resist the urge to make up what you don’t know. Do you understand?”

Her voice is solid and reassuring, and I feel her eyes drilling right down inside me, as if she’s lifted the top off my head and peered in. She’s giving me a second chance.

“I’m sorry,” I stammer, and my voice sounds pathetic. “I just— I just panicked. I’m trying to remember, honestly. But I was out cold earlier. It’s a heart thing—they call them ‘episodes’—and I haven’t had one for years, and I thought I was over them, but they—they can hit me like a sledgehammer. And afterward, there are these small chunks of time missing, and my mind feels like sludge, and I thought if I didn’t say anything you’d think I had something to hide, and Daisy—Jesus, Daisy—”

And that’s when it really hits me. My niece is gone. Sweet, beautiful Daisy is gone.

__________________________________

From Little Sister. Used with the permission of the publisher, Kensington Books. Copyright © 2018 by Isabel Ashdown. 




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