The night has laid claim to Cherrywood Terrace. Street lamps pool the pavements and burglar alarms wink from the walls of slumbering houses. A chink of light escapes between old Mr. Shannon’s bedroom curtains. He never sleeps at night, or so he tells her, staying awake with crosswords and books of poetry in case death comes calling in the small hours to catch him unawares.
In the room next door her parents are sleeping. Her father’s faint, rhythmic snoring is the only sound to break the silence as she rummages through the clutter at the bottom of her ward- robe. From deep in the toe of a boot she has outgrown, she removes a phone and reads the last text she received. The one she has ignored until now. The challenge is clear. It’s dangerous, high-risk, reckless, unnecessary. She doesn’t have to take it on yet, even as she repeats these words to herself, she feels a coiling excitement, the giddy fever of knowing she can do it— will do it—and no one will ever call her a coward again.
She shoves cans of spray paint and a torch into her back- pack, along with the phone. Better change her trainers for boots. Turnstone Marsh will be swampy in places. She pauses on the landing. Madness, she thinks. Why am I doing this? But anger has pushed her this far and it remains the barb that drives her down the stairs.
Out on the terrace she hesitates and looks toward a house on the far side. She was there earlier, silently entering and leaving the same way. She shrugs the memory aside and walks swiftly to the end of the terrace where a pedestrian lane provides a short-cut to Turnstone Marsh.
It’s darker here. Her footsteps sound too loud. The wind tosses her hair as it tunnels between the high walls on either side of her. She sees it flailing in the shadow cast before her and pauses, afraid she is being followed. All is silent when she looks back. No footsteps behind her, none coming toward her. She reaches the end of the lane and crosses the road to the marsh.
Bells of white bindweed flutter like specters in the roadside hedges and she hesitates, torn between the desire to return home and burrow under her duvet and the need to continue on and complete the challenge. She climbs an embankment and jumps down on to the spongy grass. The humps and hollows of the marsh are familiar to her. This is where she used to ride her mountain bike when she was younger, but her surround- ings look different now, eerie and threatening. She takes the torch from her backpack and sweeps it over the jagged outline of Toblerone Range. She remembers the struggle to cycle to the top peak, then the exhilarating ride across the humps. The thrill of descending without stopping or falling off. Now, she is facing an even bigger challenge and she is anxious to complete it before her parents awaken and discover she is missing.
She follows the path by the river. The ground is firmer here, safer than walking along the grassy trails. At the end of the marsh, she crosses Orchard Road and stops outside the haunted house. The gate is padlocked. She shines her torch along the boundary wall and finds a gap where the bricks that have bro- ken away provide her with a foothold to climb over.
The outside walls of the house are covered in graffiti. Last year, the front door was removed and used for a Hallowe’en bonfire. At the entrance, the smell of mildew forces her to a standstill. She asks herself once again why she has taken on such a senseless dare. It’s white-knuckle, crazy stuff. A man died in this house. Seven days dead before he was discovered by the postman. His ghost could be waiting inside, ready to wail at her when she steps over the threshold. Even if ghosts don’t exist, there will be rats watching her, waiting to bite.
She turns to leave, then changes her mind. She must go forward if she is to reclaim her position with The Fearless. She climbs down the steps into the basement. In the beam from her torch, she sees old, moldering furniture, rusting pots and pans. She almost trips over a horse’s saddle. Slashed open, its fleece, scraggy as a crow’s nest, spills from the interior. She takes the cans of paint from her backpack. The walls are already covered in graffiti, stupid swirls and squiggles and angles and curses. That’s just vandalism. She believes graffiti should have a pur- pose. It should make a statement. A protest against authority, particularly parents who’ve forgotten what it’s like to be young. She positions her torch on the floor and sets to work.
It’s done. She videos her art with the Fearless phone. The cover loosens and flaps against her hand. Impatiently, she pulls the phone free and films the junk strewn across the basement. This will add atmosphere to her video. Paws skitter across the floor. She sprints toward the stairs.
At last, she’s out in the open. The fresh air feels damp on her skin and she can breathe freely again. The anger that gave her the courage to complete the challenge turns to relief but she feels regret, also. She has broken a promise she made to some- one special. She pushes this stab of guilt aside and argues with herself that friends are more important. Belonging matters. And she will be back in the circle again—right in its center— after tonight.
A briar snags her jeans. In the darkness, it feels as if a hand has gripped her ankle to prevent her escaping. She bends and pulls at the material, swears softly as the phone slips from her hand into the long grass. By the light of the torch she finds it. The cover has fallen into a patch of thistles. Prickly leaves sting her fingers as she tries to pluck it free. She leaves it there, anx- ious to be gone from this spooky, derelict site.
She clambers through the gap in the boundary wall and jumps down on to Orchard Road. Once outside, she videos the gate and the exterior of the bleak house where the ghost of Isaac Cronin roams through the moldy rooms.
She presses record on her phone and shouts, “A message to The Fearless. It’s done. No one can ever call me chicken again.” She spins across the road, giddy with triumph and a story she is longing to tell. The moon pearls the sky, shining coldly and mercilessly down on the last exhilarating moments of Con- stance Lawson’s young life.
It began with a phone call. Still sleepy, Karl Lawson reached for his mobile on the bedside locker, surprised to see his broth- er’s name on the screen. Justin never rang in the morning. An early riser, he was usually on the M50 by now, hoping to reach Junction 9 before the peak-hour traffic slowed everyone down. “Is Constance with you?” he asked before Karl had a chance to speak.
“No,” he replied, the abruptness of Justin’s question snap- ping him fully awake. “Why on earth should she be here at this hour?”
“Has she been in touch with you this morning or last night?” “I haven’t seen her for a few days. Why? Is something wrong?” Justin hesitated, as if choosing his words with care. “She’s not in her bedroom. I thought she might have called over to talk to you.”
“Talk about what?” Karl left his bed and crossed to the win- dow, from where he had a view of his brother’s house. Justin’s car was still in the driveway.
“Things were a bit fraught here last night,” Justin admitted. “And she usually runs to you when she thinks we’re trying to clip her wings.”
Fraught was probably a euphemism for blistering fury, Karl
thought. He was familiar with the rows Constance had with her parents. She was the eldest of three and often complained that her upbringing had been a dress rehearsal for the siblings coming up behind her. Justin was right in thinking she could have confided in him but not on this occasion.
“Was it a bad row?” he asked.
“Apart from telling us we’d ruined her life, no worse than usual,” Justin replied. “But that’s neither here nor there at the moment.”
“What was the row about?” “Does it matter?”
“If you thought she’d come straight to me then, yes, it does matter.”
“We’re not allowing her to attend the Blasted Glass concert.” “Ah, for God’s sake, Justin, you can’t—”
“We discussed it with the other parents.” Justin cut across his protests. “We all agreed that the girls are too young . . . and they are. You should have asked our permission before you told them you had those tickets.”
“I’d no idea there’d be a problem. They’ve been looking for- ward to that gig for weeks.”
“I don’t want an argument about this,” Justin snapped. “Right now I need to find her or she’ll be late for summer camp.”
“Have you phoned her friends?”
“Jenna’s already done so. They’ve no idea where she is. They texted each other last night about the concert. Hate rants about parents, I should imagine, but Constance never mentioned anything about where she was going this morning . . . or if she planned to go out during the night.” Justin’s voice sharpened, as if the latter possibility was too dangerous to entertain.
“Night? Constance would never go out at night.” Even as he spoke, Karl knew this was untrue and the alarm he sensed behind his brother’s questions added to his disquiet.
“What about the riding-school?” he asked. “Doesn’t she help out in the stables when she’s on her school holidays?”
“Not without telling us . . . usually,” said Justin. “But you could be right. I’ll check there. It’s either that or she’s training in the park with the Harriers.”
“I presume you’ve rung her mobile?” “She left it on her bedside locker.”
“Then she can’t have gone far. That phone is like an exten- sion of her right arm.” Karl’s feet were cold against the wooden floor but the chill that ran through him came from an uneasi- ness that, as yet, had no direction.
“I’ll check the beach,” he said.
“Why the beach?” Justin sounded surprised.
“If she’s out riding, that’s where she could have taken the horse. She’s just working off some teenage angst. We’ll find her quickly enough.”
After they ended the call he sat on the edge of the bed and checked his texts. Three days since he had last heard from Constance.
Have you got the tickets, Uncle Karl? I have indeed, he’d texted back.
And backstage passes to meet the band. You owe me, kid.
What was wrong with Justin and Jenna, he wondered as he pulled on a T-shirt and jeans. Constance had been a fan of Blasted Glass ever since Karl introduced her to their new music. The fact that he could get free concert tickets for her and her friends had been an added bonus. He imagined her disappointment last night, her anger over her parents’ decision.
He heard Sasha’s door opening, the soft patter of her feet on the landing.
“Daddy . . . Daddy.” She ran across the bedroom, two Dora the Explorer heads waggling on her slippers, her Dora dressing gown flaring behind her as she jumped into his arms.
He hoisted her on to his back and they descended the stairs, singing the Dora theme song at the top of their voices. She held his neck in a strangle-like grip until he lowered her into an armchair and put on a DVD.
“Ten minutes, that’s all,” he said. “Then you have to get dressed for summer camp.”
Sasha ignored his warning, her attention already focused on the screen. Having moved seamlessly from the Teletubbies to Bar- ney then on to Dora, her latest phase showed no signs of abating.
Nicole was still in her nurse’s uniform when he entered the kitchen. She looked tired after her night shift in Emergency.
“Rough night?” He kissed the top of her head.
“Chaotic, as usual,” she replied. “But no dramas.” She plunged the handle on the cafetière and filled the kitchen with the smell of freshly brewed coffee. “What’s new in your world?” “Justin just rang.” He accepted the cup of coffee and drank
it standing up. “Sounds like Constance is in trouble.” “How so?”
“She’d a row with her parents last night.” “Not another one?”
“This time she’s letting them cool their heels. She wasn’t in her bedroom when Jenna checked earlier.”
“That’s not like Constance.” Nicole sat down on a kitchen chair and yawned. Mascara smudged the skin under her eyes and wisps of blonde hair feathered her cheeks.
“She’s thirteen,” Karl replied. “Testing the waters.”
“I’m surprised she’s not here. You’re usually her first port of call when there’s trouble on the home front.”
“That’s what Justin thought,” he replied. “But not on this occasion. I know you’re tired but can you hold the fort for a short while longer? I told Justin I’d drive around, see if I can find her. I’ll be back in time to bring Sasha to summer camp.”
“Go on, then. I’ll get her dressed. I suppose she’s watching Dora again.”
“Need you ask?” He pulled the hall door behind him and glanced across the road toward his brother’s house. Justin had already left for the stables.
The morning traffic was beginning to build as Karl drove through Glenmoore. Once past the village and on to the coast road, it eased. It was still too early for the dog walkers but a few joggers were already in action. Karl parked his car on North Beach Road and walked down the wooden steps to the beach. Coral clouds stippled the sky and a cormorant, surfacing from the sea, flapped its wings as it landed on a rock. It was going to be a hot day.
Apart from a shoal of dead jellyfish glistening on the sand, the beach was deserted and unmarked by any indentations from horses’ hooves. He walked toward a formation of rock that curved naturally into a sheltered cove. Nicknamed Ben’s Shack as a tribute to the teenager who had organized the first beach party there, this was where the young people from Glen- moore gathered in the summer. The Shack parties had been a rite of passage for him and Justin during their late teens: bonfires blazing, guitars playing, bottles clinking, weed and sex; a potent mix. Justin had met his wife, Jenna, who was also a Glenmoore local, at one such party. They often reminisced with Karl about those nights, laughing ruefully and vowing to lock their children in towers rather than allow them anywhere near Ben’s Shack.
Karl entered the cove, expecting to find dead embers and bent beer cans. The sand was clean. Clearly no beach parties had taken place there for a while. The uneasiness he had felt since his brother’s phone call lessened as he walked back to his car.
Justin rang. Constance was not at the riding-school and he was driving to Glenmoore Park in the hope that she might have decided to run with the Junior Harriers.
Nicole was stretched on the sofa when Karl returned home and Sasha, dressed in jeans and a Dora T-shirt, was snuggled against her as she watched her DVD.
“No luck,” he said. “I’m sorry I took so long.”
“Do you think we’ve any reason to worry?” Nicole hugged Sasha closer.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” he replied. “I’ll call over to Jenna and see what’s happening.”
“I can drive the kids to summer camp.”
“No, you won’t,” he said. “It’s way past your bedtime. I’ll pick up Matthew and Lara, and come back for Sasha.”
Justin’s car was still missing from the driveway. Karl unlocked the front door and entered the kitchen, where Jenna was speaking on Constance’s phone.
“She wouldn’t leave the house in the morning without tell- ing us where she was going,” she said to Karl when the phone call ended. “She loves helping out with summer camp and she should be getting ready to leave right now. I’m worried some- thing’s happened to her.”
“Nothing’s happened to her,” Karl reassured her. “She’s sulking somewhere, probably regretting running away but afraid to come home in case she’s in even more trouble.”
Jenna stared at the mobile screen, as if she expected a mes- sage to flash into view and solve the mystery of her daughter’s whereabouts. “I’m making my way through the names in her address book. I’d no idea she knew so many people.”
The kitchen door opened and Lara, her younger daughter, flounced into the room in her nightdress.
“Where’s Constance?” she asked.
“She’s just gone out for a little while,” said Jenna. “But she didn’t give me a cuddle.”
“Here’s one now.” Jenna scooped her up in her arms and hugged her. “Constance will give you all the cuddles you want when she comes back.” She buried her face in the little girl’s hair, her voice muffled. “It’s time to get dressed for summer camp.” She handed the phone to Karl. “Will you ring a few of those numbers while I’m upstairs? Someone has to know something.” “Will do.” Karl took the phone and hit the number Jenna pointed out to him. It continued ringing and he was about to
cancel the call when a youth answered.
“Yo, bitch. What’s up?” The voice was young and brash. “Is that Lucas O’Malley?” Karl asked.
The youth’s sharp intake of breath was followed by a pause. When he spoke again his tone was more muted. “Who’s that?”
“I’m Constance Lawson’s uncle. Is my niece with you?” “No. Why do you want to know? Is something wrong?” “Hopefully, nothing’s wrong. She’s gone off without her
phone and her parents are trying to contact her.”
“So, why ring me? I hardly know her.”
“Are you in the habit of calling strangers ‘bitch’?” “It’s a term, man. It don’t mean nothing.”
“If you see her tell her to ring her parents immediately.” Karl was ending his fourth call, and was no nearer to find-
ing out anything about Constance’s whereabouts, when Mat- thew, his nephew, rushed into the kitchen in his tracksuit and trainers.
“Has Constance really run away?” he asked as he shook cereal into a bowl.
“Of course not,” Karl replied. “She’s probably with her friends.”
“She’s always with her friends.” He spooned Rice Krispies into his mouth and swallowed noisily. “She hates living with us. That’s what she said last night. Girls are so stupid. They’re always crying about something.”
Karl left his nephew musing over the shortcomings of big sisters and escaped into the living-room to ring the next num- ber. He kept looking out the window, convinced Constance was going to rush through the gate, sheepish, apologetic, her pony- tail swinging, horrified that her friends were being contacted.
When Jenna came downstairs with Lara, he ushered the lit- tle girl and Matthew into the car, and stopped at his house to collect Sasha.
Cars were arriving and leaving the campus in Glenmoore College, which served as a summer camp during the holidays. Matthew had joined the football camp and Karl dropped the girls into the arts and crafts room. He made his way to the field behind the school where the track and field camp was located, hoping to see Constance among the volunteers. No sign of her anywhere and Justin, obviously sharing the same hope, was already speaking to the coach. It was clear from the slope of his shoulders that Constance had not turned up. Nor had she been seen at the train station, the shopping center or the cafes in the village, he told Karl as they walked back to their cars.
Jenna had finished checking the names on Constance’s phone when they returned to the house.
“I know it’s too early to call the police.” Justin slumped into a chair and rubbed his chin. “But I’m afraid to let it go on any longer.”
“Getting the police involved at this stage seems like a drastic step,” said Karl. “She’s only been gone a short while.”
“This is drastic,” Jenna replied. “It’s ten o’clock and we’ve no idea how long she’s been missing.”
“Did her friends mention anything about a dare?” Karl asked. “A dare?” Justin sat up straighter. “What do you mean?” “Constance did something stupid a few weeks ago.” He hesitated, aware that they were watching him intently. “She begged me not to tell you. She was afraid of how you’d react—”
“Cut the crap and tell us what happened,” Justin snapped. The brightness had gone from the morning. Karl was conscious of this dulling as he began to speak, a thumbprint smudging his future, but he was unaware that the familiar whorls and lines of his life would never be the same again.