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Authors: Georgia Bell


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This book is a work of
fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's
imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events,
locales, or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights
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First Edition: October 2013

For you, Dad.


“The world is indeed
full of peril and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much
that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still
grows, perhaps, the greater.”

J.R.R. Tolkien,
The Lord of the Rings




am eight years old. A scream rips from my throat and echoes down the pale
yellow hallway of the second floor. Wild-eyed and disoriented, I sit up and
grope for my teddy bear in the dark. Unable to locate him, I clutch the covers
to my chest and begin to moan a name over and over again, into my knees. My
father is there within seconds.

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit,” he croons and rocks me back and forth against his
“Hush Rabbit, hush.”

he holds me the sobs break free and I relax into my fear and grief. Eventually,
my breathing slows and the circles he traces upon my back with his hand become
lighter and lighter.
He lowers me
back down to the bed and tucks the red and white patterned quilt back around

Rabbit, back to sleep,” he says and stays with me until my eyes close and I
return to my dreams.

Chapter One: The Beginning
of the End


He wasn’t there when I looked out my bedroom window. The
shadows under the tall maple tree were empty when I pressed my nose to the cold
glass, my breath obscuring my vision so I had to wipe it away. Frowning, I
pulled the curtains closed and went to the kitchen, more tired than I should be
after an early night in bed.

I knew my mother had already left for work by her empty
coffee cup on the counter with a half-eaten piece of toast beside it. There was
also a pile of applications sitting on the table and I could see where she’d
circled the due dates with heavy lines of ink. Grimacing, I pushed the papers
aside, poured myself a bowl of cereal, and watched the milk dribble off my
spoon and land on the crisp white sheets.

When the bowl was half-empty, I reached across them
for the newspaper and methodically traced my finger down the bold type of the front
page. Like a nurse triaging patients in the ER, I read each of the headlines
first, deciding what order I would read the stories they described. Settling
back into the wooden chair, my pulse slowed as I made my way though the first
article about a house fire over on Johnson Street. From the description, it sounded
electrical given that the firefighters had mentioned bad wiring.

Glancing over my shoulder at the socket where the
toaster was plugged in, I made a mental note to ask our superintendent about
having an electrician visit.
apartment building my mother and I lived in was old, a six-storey walk up
without elevators, buzzers, or security like the new condominiums that were
crowding into any spare surface along the lakeshore. I preferred it that way,
but the trade-off was my constant worry about old plumbing and the DIY handiwork
of our landlord.

Skimming the rest of story, I noted that the couple who
had lived in the burned down house had escaped, but their cat had died. That
was why we didn’t have pets. An animal was just something else you cared about that
could disappear. I read that there’d also been a few break and enters in the west
end of the city, but they seemed to be mostly petty theft and vandalism. By the
time I worked my way through the local news I felt centered, and after putting
the dishes into the sink, I went upstairs to get ready for work.

Checking my reflection in the mirror, I tied my hair
back and was about to leave when I saw the neatly folded piece of paper on my
dresser. My heart thudded loudly in my chest as the tiny scrap of looseleaf
filled my vision. It had been sitting there for days, and although I hadn’t
touched it since I had dropped it there last week, I couldn’t seem to forget about
it. It was weird how something so small could take up so much room in my head. I
reached out to touch it, then changed my mind and turned to go. Cursing, I
turned back and not letting myself think too much, shoved the paper deep into
my pocket and hurried to the front door.

Standing on the landing outside our small apartment, I
rolled my shoulders back like a boxer ready to hear the bell, pulled the door
closed, locked it, and took a deep breath. Squeezing my eyes shut, I willed myself
to move down the stairs, to move away from the door. I plunged my hand into my
pocket and rubbed the piece of paper between my fingers like a talisman,
looking for strength that I was sure I didn’t have. With gritted teeth, I tried
to take a step and then felt the panic wash over me, waves of unease that
seemed to emanate from my guts and radiate out to every nerve ending in my
body. Doubt spread through me like wildfire and with prickles of dread and
relief in equal measure, I knew what I would have to do.

It was what I did every morning.

My shoulders slumped in defeat as I reached out and turned
the doorknob, checking to see if it was locked. Then I unlocked it and locked
it again.

Unlocked it. Locked it.

I counted to five out loud, got halfway down the
stairs. Turned around and did it all again, hating myself.

When I finally left my building and caught the bus ten
minutes later, I concentrated on the smell of diesel and the grit under my feet
as I stood in the morning crowd. I tried not to look for him in the shadows. Tried
not to wonder if he was one of the passengers behind me. Tried not to turn
around and scan their faces, looking for those eyes, the ones I knew so well I
saw them in my sleep.

It was raining by the time I got to work. You’d think obsessing
over a newspaper every morning would give me a chance to check the weather, but
I hadn’t even brought my umbrella. If only what I searched for in the newspaper
was as easy to predict as bad weather. Sighing, I pulled the collar of my coat
up and ran up the steep stone steps of the library.

Shaking the water out of my hair as I walked into the
building, I waved to the security guard. “Good morning, Tomas.”

“Morning Rachel,” he said, white teeth flashing. “Good
day for ducks, huh?”

“Quack, quack,” I said, moving towards the elevator
and feeling my heart race in anticipation. My stomach clenched and I felt my
half-eaten bowl of Cheerios roil. Steeling myself, I stood there for a full ten
seconds. Trying to summon courage from somewhere inside me. “Just be normal,
Rachel,” I whispered. “Be normal for once.”

But well before the numbers had counted down to the
ground floor and the doors opened, I moved towards the stairwell, unable to
endure what others seemed to do without thinking. Apparently today wasn’t going
to be any different, but I couldn’t shake the uneasiness that had hung over me
since I woke up. The feeling that something was about to change forever.

up the cement steps of the stairwell, I climbed to the fifth floor – my home
away from home. For the last four years I’d spent a lot of my time at the
city’s central library, one of the best in the province. I’d started working
here in the ninth grade, when, forced to fulfill my volunteer hours somewhere,
I had chosen the quietest, least interactive option that was offered. I had no
idea that it would become such a sanctuary. It was the one place where my
reluctance to engage with the world was completely unremarkable.

seems I suited the library too, because at the end of my placement, I’d been
offered a part-time job at the checkout desk. This pleased my mother, who I
suspect was simply glad to have me out of the house, and annoyed my best friend
Lacey, because it confirmed for her that I was hopelessly uncool. It had been
beyond me to explain to either one of them what it was that I loved about working
here, beyond the hushed empty spaces. As they had always been, books were my
one chance to live vicariously through others, to immerse myself in the safest
world I could imagine – one in which events had already unfolded. Nothing
could hurt me if it had already happened.

now, with my senior high school credits completed early as a result of my
non-existent social life, I chose to finish my last year of high school year
here on a co-op placement. While other girls my age were revelling in homecoming
dances, comparing GPAs and picking out duvet covers for their freshman dorms
rooms next year, I was working full-time in historical archives. I’d just been offered
a paid position for next year, and had accepted, despite promising my mother
that I would apply to university. So far, I had managed to avoid the topic successfully,
but deadlines were looming and if the neat pile of papers she had left for me
this morning was any indication, she had definitely not forgotten.

into the tiny staff room to put away my lunch, I nearly stumbled over Jane as
she bent awkwardly down to place her own bag in the bar fridge.

Here Jane, let me get that for you.”

Jane stood up slowly and pressed one hand to her lower back, the other hand
rubbing the enormous belly that swelled out in front of her. “Thanks, kiddo,”
she said and sighed in relief as she leaned back against the wall. “I’m really
at the point where reaching anywhere below my knees is futile.” She shook her
head. “Trevor had to put my shoes on this morning.”

a sympathetic smile, I tried to sidle around her to cram my lunch and hers in
the overcrowded fridge.

peered over my shoulder. “Damn, are we out of milk?”

quick check confirmed we were indeed milk-less.

bad enough I have to drink decaf. I hate black coffee,” she said, closing her
eyes and resting her head against the wall.

stifled a sigh. “How about I run over to Sam’s and buy some more?”

would you, Rachel?” Her face lit up like a child being offered candy.

no problem.”

smiled her thanks and wobbled out the door in the direction of her desk.
“You’re an angel.”

small shiver ran down my spine at her words, lodging itself in my already
disquieted stomach. Suppressing a shudder, I grabbed my purse and headed back
out on the street.

first thing I noticed as the bells tinkled my arrival at Sam’s Downtown Convenience
Mart and Lottery Center was that Sam was having an argument with a customer. A
man in a well-cut black suit leaned across the counter towards Sam, speaking
and gesturing with unusual intensity. Although I couldn’t hear what he was
saying, a quick glance confirmed that Sam seemed upset by their conversation.
His jaw was clenched tight; his hands clutched the edge of the counter in a
white-knuckled death grip.

I wondered what could have happened to create the look of hostility on Sam’s
face. He was a family man and typically, a pretty friendly guy. In all of the
years I’d been coming in here, he had always been unfailingly polite. He’d even
remembered my name after my first visit. I liked the way he pronounced it too,
his accent softening the ‘ch’ so it sounded like Ra-shelle.

to avoid conflict, and unsettled by their anger, I walked quickly to the back
of the store to grab the milk and stalled for time by checking the expiry dates
on all of the milk cartons, all the while listening intently for the bell that
would signal the man in black’s departure.
I stood at the refrigerated shelves, straightening the rows of cartons
until my fingers began to numb with cold. Finally choosing a small carton with
the latest date possible, I wandered over to the magazines, feigning interest
in the celebrity gossip as I waited. My hopes that Sam’s irate customer would
leave were fading, but my stomach was tightening at the thought of approaching
the customer service dispute unfolding just a few feet away.

several more minutes passed without the slightest sign that the two of them
were going to knock it off, I took a deep breath and walked uncertainly towards
the counter. The man speaking intently to Sam immediately noticed me hovering.
Stepping back, he motioned me forward with a grand sweep of his arm, his face a
mask of polite contempt. Mortified, I hoped they didn’t think I was
eavesdropping and I stepped up and rummaged quickly though my purse to find my
wallet. Cursing in my head as I fumbled around in my bag, I heard the bell ring
as another customer entered the store behind me. With embarrassed relief, I
finally managed to fish my wallet out and pulled out a $20 bill.

glanced up and then froze, my hand still held out in front of me, the money
lying limp in my hands. My heart thudded, loud and insistent in my ears as the seconds
stretched into the silence. Staring at Sam across the counter, it was clear
that I’d made a serious mistake. Sam wasn’t angry. He was terrified. His glassy
eyes were so unnaturally wide that the whites were completely visible all the
way around his irises. Looking straight back at me, his lower lip began to
quiver as a bead of sweat rolled down the side of his cheek to drop noiselessly
onto the counter.

I said, my voice husky with fear. “Are you feeling okay? Do you need help?”

shook his head with the smallest of gestures and his eyes flicked quickly from
me to the man now standing slightly behind me, then back again.

I closed my eyes and fought to remain on my feet.
Breathe, Rachel
. My heartbeat pounding in my ears was the only
sound I could hear until the piercing wail of a police siren echoed through the
now silent convenience store.

my eyes again, I saw that Sam was trembling visibly as he stared out the window
at the police car that had pulled up across the street from his store, his
expression hopeful. Two uniformed officers climbed out of the squad car and strode
quickly away from us, heading towards another building a few doors down on the
opposite side of the street. The man in black stepped behind me, placing a
tight hand on my shoulder as he leaned against me. I felt something small and
hard press into my back as my vision swam.

carefully,” he said in a quiet conversational tone, his mouth near my ear. “Sam
and I are in the middle of a business negotiation.” I could smell the
unpleasant combination of coffee and garlic on his breath and my stomach protested.
“Go sit behind the counter, don’t move. Don’t say anything. Do you understand?”
He placed a great deal of emphasis on the last sentence.

slightly, I prayed that I would be able to walk without falling. My legs felt
wooden and stiff.

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