Authors: Luana Lewis
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
Stella has been cocooned in her home for three years. Severely agoraphobic, she knows she is safe in the stark, isolated house she shares with her husband, Max. The traumatic memories of her final case as a psychologist are that much easier to keep at a distance, too.
But the night that Blue arrives on her doorstep with her frightened eyes and sad stories, Stella’s carefully controlled world begins to unravel around her . . .
For Genna Leigh
At first, she ignored the doorbell.
The sound rang out, echoing through the entrance hall, crashing through into the living room and clattering and bouncing inside her skull.
She stood at the window looking out at her garden, at a world that blazed white. A layer of snow coated the ground and the tangled arms of the trees and the Chiltern hills beyond. It looks like Narnia, she thought, as though Aslan might stride out from the forest at any moment.
The quiet was unnatural. Unnerving.
The snow had begun to fall at nine o’clock that morning. The newspapers carried warnings:
A Wall of Snow
. Airports cancelled flights. Her husband had left for work as usual.
The doorbell rang again. Longer, louder and more insistent.
She felt exposed, in front of the wall of windows stretching across the back of the house. Her home was a white concrete edifice, a modernist triumph of sharp angles and tall windows. Nobody should be able to get past the entrance to the driveway without the intruder alarm sounding an ear-splitting warning. And yet someone had. The snow was the
problem: it must have piled up so high that it had covered the infra-red eye of the sensor.
She pulled at the neck of her jumper. It was too tight and her throat itched. Her mouth was dry and her palms moist. It was three o’clock and darkness would come soon. Her husband would not be coming home. Inches of snow had turned to ice, had made the steep approach impossible.
She checked the locks on the patio doors. A draught whistled around the edges of the black steel doorframe, as if the cold was trying to force its way inside. The house was Grade II listed, nothing could be done, the doors and the windows could not be changed. She tested the locks once more and then pulled the heavy drapes closed.
The doorbell rang again. And again.
She paced the living room. A half-empty bottle of wine stood open on the coffee table. She breathed. In for three, out for three. She pressed her hands against her ears.
A normal person would go to the front door and see who was there.
Stella walked through to the large square entrance hall. A chandelier with myriad round glass discs spiralled down above the staircase. She flicked a switch and light bounced off the pale grey walls and shimmered, everywhere, too bright. She was disoriented, as though she had stepped inside a hall of mirrors and could not get her bearings. She would not panic. Nobody had ever tried to harm her at Hilltop. People intending to do harm did not announce themselves, or wait to be invited inside. But she could not think of a reason why someone would ring her doorbell in the middle of a snowstorm.
She checked the monitor mounted on the wall next to the
front door. A young woman was outside. She stood on the doorstep, her arms wrapped around her chest, shifting from one foot to the other. A beanie hat was pulled down low over her long fair hair. A short leather jacket, covered in studs and zips, barely covered her midriff.
Stella lifted the handset. ‘Yes?’ she said.
‘I’m freezing. Can I come inside?’ Snowflakes churned around her as she shouted at the intercom. She shivered with cold and she didn’t look like much of a threat. ‘Could I use your phone?’
She looked up into the camera. Her face was lovely on the screen, with cat-like eyes and high cheekbones.
‘I’m sorry,’ Stella said. ‘No. Try one of the neighbours.’ She placed the receiver back on to the cradle.
She waited until the screen faded to black and the person outside disappeared and then she returned to the living room and took up her place at the window. But she was uneasy and the spell was broken. The snow that covered everything – the lawn, the trees and the hills beyond – no longer seemed magical. She hated being alone. The daylight hours were difficult, the nights almost impossible.
The air shattered as the doorbell rang again.
The police would hardly be impressed if she called them out to complain that a young woman had rung her doorbell. And she didn’t want to disturb her husband. But she so wanted to call him and ask him what to do. Her BlackBerry was right beside her. She picked it up. Ran her fingers across the keypad. Put it down again. She would not call him, she would deal with this herself. She was getting better. Of course, she wasn’t. She was alone and helpless and useless. She wanted Max. If she had her way, she would have him home all day.
Max deserved a better wife. He had rescued her and then it had all predictably gone to hell.
She returned to the front door, a rising anger competing with her nerves. The intercom screen showed the same young woman, with her beanie pulled down almost to her eyebrows and the absurdly short leather coat that provided no warmth.
What is it
?’ Stella said.
She babbled as she looked up into the camera: ‘I used to live here,’ she said. ‘I came up from London to see my old house. I didn’t know the snow would be so bad. It’s all frozen and it’s really steep going back down the hill. Can I
Stella realized that the girl outside was very young. She couldn’t be more than fifteen years old. Fourteen, maybe. A child.
‘I’ll call a taxi to take you back down to the station,’ Stella said.
‘You can’t. They’ve shut down because of the snow.
. The tube isn’t running either, I’m stuck here. I can’t go back down the road or I’ll break my neck.’ Her voice was rising with outrage and distress. ‘Can I just come inside?’
The girl was shaking with cold. Her lips were a purple gash, startling and dark against the pale skin of her face. She looked as though she was about to cry. Stella felt sorry for her. Not sorry enough, however, to risk opening the door.
‘No,’ Stella said. ‘Go and try one of the other houses. You’ve got an entire street to choose from.’
‘Please,’ the girl said, ‘I’m so cold. Why can’t you just let me in?’ She pouted at the camera and she stomped her white trainers on the black marble tiles.
Stella slammed the receiver back against its white plastic
cradle. She watched as the girl tried in vain to keep warm. She paced up and down, leaving a haphazard pattern in the snow around Stella’s front door. She wrapped her arms around herself and bounced, up and down. At a certain point, she stopped fighting. She sank to the floor, her head on her knees.
The cold must be unbearable, like torture.
The minutes passed as Stella sat in front of the fire on her grey linen sofa. She pressed her bare feet into the soft, Chinese deco rug. She stood. She walked around the navy border, placing one foot in front of the other as though she was on a tightrope. She stopped at the yellow and orange parrot embroidered in the right-hand corner. She did not understand why the girl insisted on waiting outside her door.
Her thoughts came fast and fragmented. One day it would be different. She would be free of her chains. But she was losing time. She found it harder and harder to remember what she had been like before.
The house was silent.
Almost forty minutes had passed since the bell had rung for the first time. The girl at the front door must have decided to brave the steep hill that was Victoria Avenue. She was right: if she tried to make her way down, she might slip and fall. But after all – and here Stella tried to make herself feel less guilty – what was the worst thing that could happen to her? She might end up with a wet backside. And once she made it down the hill – wet backside and all – she could walk along the High Street and she would be inside the cosy inn within minutes. The Royal Oak: good wine, an open fireplace and exposed beams. The television above the fireplace had sort of melted along the bottom but no one seemed to
notice it was a fire hazard. Stella could feel the soft sheepskin throws against her skin. She could taste the Bloody Mary – poured from a jug on the counter, slices of lemon arranged on the wooden board next to the glass pitcher. Max had described it all. He often walked down there alone on a Sunday evening. Stella had never walked with him, but maybe she would go, for the first time, when he came home to her the next day. He must be desperate for her to leave the house, though he hid it well.
The silence had become a pressure, pushing against her eardrums, and the darkness drew closer.
Max would not force her back into a world that terrified her. But she had been hiding a long time. More and more often she feared it was too late. Whichever way she looked at it, she was a recluse.
With any luck, the girl had gone to pester the neighbours, families with children of varying ages whom Stella had never met.
Or she might still be outside, waiting.
The silence and the waiting became unbearable.
Hilltop was her home, she was safe inside. If she went down the road paved with paranoia and self-pity she knew where it would lead – into a padded cell most probably. She
safe. Nothing had changed; no one could get in. It was just a girl.
Hilltop was her own private kingdom, her palace and her prison.
Stella returned to the entrance hall. She tilted the shutters and peered out into the silvery-grey landscape. Heavy snowflakes swirled everywhere, as though a million goose-down pillows had been sliced open in the sky. With each passing second, the light grew weaker. The girl sat with
her back to the polished steel front door, her knees pulled up to her chest and her head down. She was a child: helpless and cold.
A part of Stella was excited, the part she usually kept locked down tight. A little of her old self stirred in her chest. She needed to take a risk, to shatter the invalid’s life she had created for herself before it was truly too late. She needed to know that she could still be of use, to someone. She was tired of being inside, immobilized, waiting for something to happen, tired of waiting to get better while other people went on with their lives and her husband stayed away. She punched in the code, turning off the motion sensors. She rested her left hand on the door handle. There was a human being outside, alone and suffering. With her right hand, she reached for the deadbolt. She opened the door.
The blackened sky was shot through with violet. Icy air raged inside and heavy snowflakes blew through the open doorway then melted as they landed on the heated floor.
The girl was covered in white. Ice crystals had settled everywhere, in her hair and on her shoulders, and they clung to her leggings and her shoes.
She blinked up at Stella. ‘It’s fucking freezing out here,’ she said.
Her blue eyes were defiant and full of mistrust. She stayed where she was, unsure whether she was to be allowed inside. She made no sudden movements and she did not try to force her way in. She waited to be invited.
Stella took a step backward and nodded. With stiff, frozen fingers, the girl picked up her bag and scrambled to her feet. She stepped across the threshold.