I’m sorry. There’s no way to make you understand how sorry, so I can only hope that, in time, you will. For weeks I’ve been asking myself where it all went wrong, but now I see that it was only ever going to end like this. You deserve so much better, you and Zara, and I hope you find it. When she’s old enough, I hope you’ll explain things to Zara. Explain to her that I love her and this was all for the best. I’m so sorry.
I read the letter again. As if reading it for the fifth time will somehow change what’s written, will force the words into an order I can make sense of. But they are still the same.
The pounding in my ears is so strong that I am only vaguely aware of Zara screaming from the living room. I should go to her. Instead I lightly place the note down, smoothing it out with my fingers, reading it again.
It’s a joke. A sick kind of prank. I put salt in her tea, she covered our bedroom in tinfoil, I woke her up by pouring confetti on her, it’s what we do. It’s our thing.
And now she’s taken it to the next level – albeit an inappropriately extreme, off- the- scale level. Any moment now she’s going to jump out of the cupboard, or out from under the bed. Maybe not those exact spots, because I’ve checked them four times already, but maybe from some secret hideaway I haven’t discovered yet. Then she’ll spray silly string in my face, jump into my arms and tell me, ‘I got you good, D- bag.’
And I might be annoyed but only for a second because I’d have to give it to her, she really did get me good. Mostly I’ll be so relieved I’ll just hug her close and breathe her in and she’ll laugh and say I’m such an idiot for thinking she would ever leave me. Because she would never leave me.
As soon as I stepped through the front door, I knew something was wrong. Zara was screaming, and yet the flat felt weirdly still.
Without taking off my shoes or coat, I dashed into the living room. There was Zara, sitting purple- faced and trembling in her playpen. She had even dropped her knitted blanket, neglecting it in her distress. She stopped screaming as soon as she saw me and I whisked her up into a hug. Where the hell was Willow? There was no way she’d leave Zara alone in the flat. She had to be here.
‘Where’s Mummy?’ I asked. ‘Is she here?’
But Zara just nuzzled into my shoulder and said nothing. She doesn’t say all that much at the best of times, but she can definitely say ‘Mama’ and ‘here’, neither of which she uttered then.
‘I’ll be right back,’ I said, kissing Zara on the forehead and setting her down. She needed changing, but she could hang on five minutes.
After briefly checking all the rooms in the flat I started again, but searching properly this time. If this was some sort of joke and Willow was hiding, I’d find her. It was harsh of her to leave Zara crying like that, but then Willow takes pranks seriously. The living room: I checked under the sofa, through the coat rack, in the toy box. The kitchen: through the cupboards, in the pantry, under the table, even – though I knew it was crazy – in the fridge and the oven. After all, Willow was good.
Then our daughter’s room, behind the army of soft toys in the corner, under her crib, in her wardrobe. Only as I was leaving did I glance at the mantelpiece and that’s when I noticed it. The Disneyland Fund Box, the tin we’ve been putting coins and small notes into for months, was gone.
‘Willow?’ I could hear the fear in my voice.
Our bedroom: there, on our bed, was her ring. The slender silver ring, twisted into an infinity sign, that she has worn every single day for the last two years. I rustled through the drawers of the bedside tables, looked inside the wardrobe. Some of her clothes were gone. Some, but not all. Her jewellery box was gone too and all of its contents, other than that one ring on the bed. The one I gave her. Nice touch, Willow. She knew how to really make me panic.
Finally, I went to the bathroom.
Behind the door, the shower curtain, then in the cupboards, the first aid kit, the medicine cabinet. Then I saw the letter, stuck in front of the mirror. She’d often leave me notes – little Post- its whilst I was in the shower getting ready for work. But this was different. This letter wasn’t the ‘I love you, have a good day, D- bag’, not the ‘Missing you already’, not the sugar sachet, stuck to the paper, with the words ‘you make my life sweeter’. Not that she’d left me any of those for a while, thinking about it.
No, I could see straight away this was different. I am still staring at the letter as I now fumble in my coat pocket for my phone. Hands shaking, I call her.
Straight to voicemail.
Straight to voicemail.
It’s not even ringing.
I can feel my breath catching in the back of my throat.
It’s just a joke, Dustin, there’ll be some explanation. I call Georgia. She’s Willow’s cousin and her best friend. If anybody knows where Willow is, she will.
She answers on the sixth ring.
‘Dustin, still alive, are you?’ she says coldly.
That is Georgia all over. It hasn’t been that long since I last called. Anyway, I don’t have time for this right now.
‘Gee, have you seen Willow?’
There’s a pause.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ve just got back to the flat and she’s not here. Some of her stuff has gone, and Zara was on her own. And she’s left me this weird note.’
I know I’m gabbling, and I can hear in my own voice how close I am to tears.
‘Dustin, is this some sort of joke? Because if it is, it’s not funny . . . ’
My heart sinks. So she hasn’t seen her.
‘No, I’m being serious. Fuck, Gee, do you think something has happened to her?’
Again there’s silence. I can hear Georgia breathing heavily down the phone.
‘I’ll call you back, Dustin. I’ll try and get hold of her. In the meantime, don’t, don’t panic, yeah?’
I hang up and wander back into the living room. Zara is no longer wailing, she’s asleep. How long has she has been on her own for? How long would she have been on her own if I’d said yes to the pub with the boys after work? The thought makes me feel sick.
I look back at the note, clutched in my fists, trying to breathe through the panic pounding in my chest and to block out the words in my head.
It’s not a prank, Dustin. She’s gone.
Because that makes no sense at all.
‘We aren’t the sort of couple to argue,’ I say firmly, staring at the two police officers now sitting on my sofa. ‘We don’t argue, we never argue, we always agree on everything, we are really happy, like, really happy.’ My leg is bumping up and down, bouncing Zara as she moodily sits on my lap. ‘My friends thought it was weird, actually, how happy we were, but why was it? We never found anything to argue about.’
One policeman looks from me, to his notepad, to his colleague and I know I sound like I’m protesting too much. She nods gently at him.
So far, they have tried to suggest that Willow actually wrote the letter. That she wanted to leave, that it was her decision. Yes, it was in her handwriting, but someone must have forced her to write it. That must have been it. I came to that conclusion after Georgia called back to say she couldn’t get hold of Willow either. Why wouldn’t she answer the phone, unless something, or someone, was stopping her from doing so?
And OK, there is no sign of forced entry, but maybe the front door was unlocked. Maybe Willow was just opening the door and they ran up behind her. How could they believe she actually decided to take off and leave me, leave her child?
Even though she’s quiet now, I can’t stop thinking about how I found Zara all alone. Her nappy full, eyes red, cheeks hot. Suddenly I realise I haven’t changed the nappy yet. The last few hours have been a complete fog. After Georgia called back I tried everyone I could think of. Naomi and my other friends from the office – not that Willow was ever friends with them, as such, but they might have seen her. And then all of our New Haw friends, one by one. Nobody had heard from Willow.
I hope the policemen can’t notice the smell. I hope they don’t start making assumptions about my capabilities as a parent. I know they’re already judging Willow, even they don’t know anything about her. They don’t know how happy we were, and what a good mum she was. I know it sounds clichéd, and Georgia especially would roll her eyes at hearing me say this, but for us it was love at first sight, and that feeling never went away. We were special, we still are.
‘How old is Willow?’ ‘She’s recently turned twenty. She’s a year younger than me. We met in New Haw, when Willow moved down there for college.’ I’m giving them more information than they strictly need, trying to fill the silences. I know they’re thinking Willow is young to be a mum, I can see the judgement in their eyes. But I’m hoping that the smallest detail might be useful, might be a clue as to Willow’s whereabouts.
The policewoman, who introduced herself as Nancy, looks down at Zara. They can smell her nappy, I’m sure of it. I can.
‘And how old is your daughter?’
‘Fifteen months . . . but I don’t see how that’s relevant,’ I reply sharply.
They’re going to ask why she’s such a quiet baby, aren’t they? They’re going to say that’s something to do with our parenting: trauma or neglect or something. People always say how quiet Zara is and how surprising it is given I rarely shut up. But she’s fine, she’s just taking her time. The doctor said it’s fine and it is.
‘We’re just getting an idea of you and your family.’
‘This is about Willow, you need to be looking for her,’ I say a little bit too loudly. ‘Why are you in here chatting to me, instead of out looking for her? She’s in trouble, someone could be hurting her!’
My breathing is really shallow. Willow used to get panic attacks and I wonder now if this is how she used to feel, like no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t force enough oxygen into her lungs. I feel like I’m choking on the emotion of it all. Why are we wasting time? Every second we spend here could be spent getting us closer to Willow.
‘We understand that this is a horrible situation—’
‘It’s not a “situation”. It’s a . . . an abduction or something!’
‘Dustin, it’s important you remain calm and don’t jump to conclusions.’
I’m squeezing Zara so tightly, I feel her start to squirm in my grip, but I can’t bring myself to let go. ‘I can’t. I can’t . . . ’ I try to say something useful, to make them take this seriously, but words don’t come. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
‘You don’t need to do anything just now. We will report her as a missing person, but we have to let you know that as she’s over eighteen and not vulnerable . . . ’
‘And if, once we’ve looked at the evidence, it seems likely she left of her own accord—’
‘But she didn’t!’
‘If she did leave of her own accord . . . well, there isn’t a lot we can do, as she is an adult. Especially, as I said, since she doesn’t have a history of mental illness and isn’t a danger to herself or others.’
No. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. They are supposed to help. If they knew Willow like I did, if they knew what our life was, they would never think she wanted to leave.
‘But for now, you can help us, by giving as much detail as possible.’
I swallow, shuffling Zara closer to me. ‘I want us to be looking for her,’ I mumble quietly.
‘This will help as well, Dustin,’ Nancy says. ‘Did Willow seem sad? Did she open up to you about anything at all? Was there anything out of the ordinary when you saw her before work this morning?’
I shake my head.
‘And she didn’t take anything with her? Apart from the clothes missing from her wardrobe and those you’ve described her as wearing when you left the house this morning?’ She looks down at her notes. ‘Black leggings, an oversized grey jumper, Adidas socks and red puma trainers?’
I nod my head, then something occurs to me. ‘She must have also been wearing her necklace, I’m guessing. She didn’t leave it behind, at least. She took the jewellery box she keeps it in.’
‘Could you describe it?’
‘She always wears it. It’s a silver chain with a small angel pendant.’
Nancy notes it down. ‘And . . . ’ I hesitate. ‘There’s some money missing too.’
Both officers exchange glances, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out what they are thinking. ‘It was just a money box, we were saving for our trip to Disneyland. It was Willow’s idea, and it was in such an obvious place,’ I say quickly.
They both look at me and nod, but fail to write anything down on their notepads.
‘And you’re sure she doesn’t have any family that she could have gone to? Not even a distant relative?’ Nancy asks.
‘She has a cousin, Georgia, but, like I said, I’ve already spoken to her and she said she hasn’t seen her. Otherwise it’s like I told you – it’s just us.’
‘We’re friends with all the same people. But they haven’t heard anything. I’ve already told you this. Do you think I didn’t try calling everyone I knew when I was waiting for you guys?’
‘Is that how you met – mutual friends?’
Why is she asking me that? Why does that even matter?
‘We met about three years ago, in a pub . . . ’
Thinking about that night now makes me choke up again. I look back at the two people sitting opposite me, feeling my stomach sinking further and further. I swallow. ‘I . . . I just want her home.’
They look at each other, before turning back towards me. Nancy’s voice is gentle. ‘Do you have family, Dustin?’
I nod slowly.
‘Maybe it would be a good idea to stay with them tonight?’
I’m shaking my head so vigorously, I know it must look ridiculous, childish. ‘No, no, I’m not in touch with my family. I haven’t been back home in a long time.’
‘Dustin, we believe it’s best you go somewhere you aren’t alone, where you can get support.’
‘I’ve got friends here. My work friends.’
‘Will they be able to help you with Zara?’
‘Well . . . ’
I think about staying at Danny’s house. Danny, who sees girl after girl and goes out drinking more nights of the week than he should. I think about being there with Zara when he gets up for work, still drunk the next day. Or Naomi’s, sleeping on her tiny, lumpy sofa, Zara’s crib crammed into her cramped little living room. God, no.
Besides, I can’t leave our flat – what if Willow comes back? I have to stay. I think about asking one of them to stay over, to keep me sane as I pace back and forth waiting powerlessly for Willow to return. I sigh. What would they be able to do or say? It’s not like they’d be able to help really.
‘I need to stay here in case Willow comes back.’
I can tell by their faces they think I’m being difficult, but I don’t care. If I ever had a right to be difficult, it’s now.
Nancy places a hand on my arm. ‘If there’s anyone at all you can stay with tonight, who can give you a bit of help with Zara, we really want you to get in touch with them. Besides, Willow has your number, I’m sure she will call when she’s on her way back.’
Willow and Dustin are the perfect couple.
Or so he thought, until she disappeared . . .
'Amelia Mandeville is an author to watch' EMMA COOPER
Meet the couple you'll fall for head over heels, and discover the novel that will break your heart and put it back together again
"I felt ALL the emotions reading this book" *****
"The characters were so relatable" *****
"You never want it to end" *****
"Putting this book down will be your only challenge" *****
"The romance was magical" *****
Willow and Dustin. They're the perfect couple, everyone says so. And since the birth of their baby daughter, Dustin is sure his little family is all he will ever need.
So his world is shattered when he arrives home to find that Willow has disappeared, leaving only a cryptic note to say goodbye with no explanation of where she has gone or why she has left.
Determined to bring her home, Dustin sets out to find Willow. But the more he learns about the girl he loves most in the world, the more he feels like he's trying to solve a puzzle without all the pieces.
Was Willow really keeping secrets from him?
Or was he just not looking closely enough in the first place?
***WHAT READERS ARE SAYING ABOUT AMELIA MANDEVILLE***
'She has touched my soul and lit up my heart'
'You feel every emotion on the spectrum with these characters'
'Her book is everything I could have hoped for and more'
'It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it left me wanting more'
'Easy to read and yet terribly emotive'