I’m not following her. Whatever the others say, I’m really not following her. It’s just that wherever I go she seems to be there – in the park, the library, the shops. Outside her school. I see her pretty much everywhere I go. Anyway, who cares even if I am? I don’t mean her any harm, and I like seeing her.
She is there, a way ahead on the High Street – holding her mother’s hand and skipping along. Today she is wearing a neat little red coat, the frill of a pretty blue dress poking out from underneath, and legs in multicoloured stripy tights. A gust of wind catches her blonde hair and whips it back to reveal her beaming face looking up at her mum. Her white front teeth are a little too big for her mouth, making a kind of crooked, sparkling smile that sends little daggers of joy flying towards me. She is perfect. She’s golden.
Troy thinks I don’t deserve a friend like her. He’s right.
I press forward, head down again, pulling my hood up out of habit. A middle-aged woman is coming towards me, star- ing at her phone, heels clipping the pavement faster and faster. The others murmur restlessly.
She’s moving too quick for me to get out of her way, so my elbow catches her sleeve and she looks up. It takes a couple of beats for her to react.
I know what she sees: young bloke, hoodie, tatts, can of cider in hand and clearly off my face on something. Her look of fear and disgust lights a flame in me, gives me this drunken mix of shame, then anger, then power.
Troy thinks I should take her phone while she’s distracted. Bart thinks I should shank her, but that my knife isn’t good enough, and it probably wouldn’t make it through the wool of her coat.
The others pile in with their opinions but we’re not going to do anything really, not in the middle of the street with people and cameras everywhere. As the woman scuttles away – her phone clawed protectively against her chest – that hot bitter flow of power she triggered goes in the bank for later.
My focus changes, darts around the faces of the other passers-by. They’re pulling their gaze away, drawing back, minding their own business.
They know I’m dangerous.
I love thinking things like that. I don’t want normals to hate me, but if they’re going to, I’m glad they fear me as well.
Then I catch another glimpse of the golden girl as she disappears around the corner, stripy legs skipping. She doesn’t hate me or fear me. When she sees me, she smiles and waves like I’m a normal too. She knows what’s going on with me, without even having to ask. I’m not a threat, I’m a friend who’s always there, I’ve got her back. I wonder if I will run into her later, when her mum isn’t around to spoil things. Of course I will.
‘She’s not my sister.’ I’d said it so many times now, I was thinking about having it printed on a T-shirt.
The lady in the restaurant toilets blushed as she looked down, pretending to wash her hands really well as she realised what she’d said. Of course, I wasn’t Leah Stoke’s sister; everyone knows what happened to Leah Stoke’s sister.
‘Oh yes, um . . .’ she stammered.‘I mean, please tell your – your friend, what an inspiration she is. I read her dad’s book. It saw me through a really difficult time.’
‘Mm-hmm, of course, yes I will,’ I replied, secretly thinking, as if. As if I was going to walk back to our table in the corner where the five of us were waiting for our family-size stuffed crust, pretending we actually were a family, and say, ‘Hi Leah, just to let you know, you’re an inspiration.’
When I got back to the table, I genuinely thought about doing it, just to liven up the situation. I’d taken as long as I possibly could in the bathroom in the hope that something approaching a conversation would have started while I was there, but it hadn’t worked. I suppose Mum would have said that was my job, being the one who can talk for Britain.
My brother Dylan’s eyes were fixed on his plate and he’d slumped backwards on his chair, so his chin almost touched the table. He had his fork stabbed into a bit of pizza crust and was crashing it into another bit of crust, like they were toy cars. Slightly immature for a thirteen-year-old, but the mental torture of this meal had probably set back his development by five years.
David looked like he’d been scrubbed clean for the occasion. He’d clearly had a shave, and his hair had been combed out and rammed behind his ears, so he looked slightly less like a rough sleeper than usual. He was even wearing a tie – a hideous stripy one my mum had bought for him. But he hadn’t cracked a proper smile since we’d sat down.
Yes, I know, I know, he’s been through a lot, it’s no wonder he’s a serious kind of guy, etc., etc., but you’d think he’d at least try to turn on the charm. Mum had been going on about this dinner for weeks. She’d made Dylan wear proper trousers, frisked me for glitter before we left, and made us keep our phones firmly in our pockets.
Anyone would have thought she was going to announce her engagement. Which, of course, she was. Bless her, she didn’t think we knew.
Right now, her eyes were fluttering anxiously between David and his daughter Leah – the vision of loveliness sitting on the other side of him who hadn’t said a word all evening. As usual Leah looked like she had stepped straight off the set of an American soap opera about troubled, rich teens. Her back straight and her perfect face completely still, all poise
and cheekbones. Big lashes hooded liquid blue eyes, as she stared down at her bit of pizza like she’d never seen a Meat Feast before.
‘You’ve been a while, Ellie,’ Mum said. ‘We had to start on the pizza. And I wanted to say something before we all got completely stuck in.’ She put down her fork and laid a hand over David’s. His hand didn’t move, just lay deadened under hers as she squeezed it.
‘I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you . . .’ Here it comes. Come on Ellie, happy face, happy face . . . ‘David has asked me to marry him, and I’ve said yes!’
Around the table three sets of teeth flashed in stiff grins of mock delight. Dylan’s had bits of pizza in it, Leah’s was even and perfect, her smile looked warm, like she was posing at yet another photo shoot. As for me, I went the whole hog and clapped my hands together in delight.‘Wow! That’s brilliant!’
What an absolute disaster.
It wasn’t that I was jealous, or that I somehow wanted my mother all to myself. I had a life of my own, so more quality time with Mum was not top of my to-do list, and I did want her to be happy. But David and Leah weren’t going to make anyone happy ever, not even themselves.
Yes, that was a horrible way to think, but I couldn’t help wishing Mum had chosen Mr Average Divorced Man, an every-other-weekend dad with a few hang-ups. Like my friend Gloria’s stepdad who was perfectly nice and normal, until anyone mentioned his ex-wife’s name. But that was
Mum for you, the patron saint of lost causes. And you couldn’t get any more lost than those two.
Leah was saying something. I vaguely heard ‘You’ve been such a support . . . so great . . . you’re already part of the family . . .’before I switched off. And so, a moment later, when Mum made her second big announcement, I had to ask her to repeat it.
‘I said that we’ll be moving into David and Leah’s place. You know, over the shop. Ellie, don’t look like that, close your mouth.’
I’d been expecting the engagement announcement, but I’d never imagined we’d end up there.
‘Not the shop,’ I said.
‘It smells funny,’ Dylan cut in.
‘It just smells of books,’ David said defensively. ‘And it’s a great place to live. You can read anything you want, any time. All that knowledge at your fingertips.’
‘Wow, Dave,’ I said. ‘They should invent something like that for computers. Call it the Cyberwebnet, or something.’
An impatient snort came from Leah. If I had tossed my hair and rolled my eyes like that, Mum would have laughed and called me a little madam, but when Leah did it nobody seemed to notice.
‘Come on, Ellie,’Mum said.‘You can’t expect David and Leah to give up their home. And it’s David, remember? Not Dave.’ She was staring at me desperately in a don’t-ruin-this kind of way, which made me feel really sorry for her. ‘You’ll have your own room, and you can decorate it any way you like.
Just for a moment my brain ran off in a different direction, picturing the big mural I’d wanted to paint on my wall for ages, and who I’d get to paint it. I thought about the videos I could make in my new room, what I could do with more space . . . It must have shown on my face, because she smiled. She knew she had me.
Dylan clocked it too; his one ally was wavering.
‘This sucks,’ he said, slithering further down in his chair. Mum switched her attention to him. She’d done her research, knew exactly how close the stinking shop was to the nearest skate park and comic bookstore.
As she talked, it all came crashing in on me. I wasn’t that attached to the cosy semi we rented, but it was warm and comfortable. There was a stubbly-lawned garden to kick around in in summer, and it was three streets away from my friends. Now we’d be moving to the worst side of town, living in someone else’s place – Leah Stoke’s house. A place where tragedy hung in the air along with the dust.
I looked up and saw that Leah was looking back at me. Nobody but me heard her say: ‘Come on, Ellie. You want to be a great artiste, and suffering is what makes people great.’
I stared at her, my mouth clamped shut. I couldn’t really answer that one, could I? Suffering was what she did best. No wonder she didn’t seem to mind.
The next few weeks involved packing, bickering, sulking and finally loading all our possessions into a shabby rented van and driving across town to our new prison – sorry, our new home. The thing about David and Leah’s neighbourhood is that you couldn’t leave the back of a van open without someone to watch it. So, on moving day one of us had to be out on the street at all times. Mum, David, Dylan and I formed a silent chain – Mum passing things out of the van, the three of us ferrying them across the grimy, chewing gum-splattered expanse of pavement and through the shop to the flat upstairs. Leah was nowhere to be seen. I pictured her hiding in a tree or something, a wild animal startled by all the bustle. My things – the things which mattered – only filled about five or six boxes. We’d moved around quite a lot since Mum and Dad had split up. Stuff had gone into storage and never come out. Bits had been accidentally shipped to Australia when Dad moved out there, or left behind by accident when we went from one place to another. Plus, I’d also had to give a lot of my possessions away before this move. Because there are rules for dealing with Leah Stoke, just like there are rules for dealing with vampires. Laws that are bound in years of tradition and superstition until nobody in the Inner Circle would even think about breaching them. No loud noises. No sudden movements. You never mention the names Jane or Carey or ask for details of anything that happened on That Day. In fact, best not to push her for any information at all, which made conversation kind of difficult. These weren’t unspoken rules – they were printed out on a leaflet by Mum’s office at the charity and given out to
members of the press before publicity events. There were a few extra ones for us as well – no violent movies, no first- person shooter games. No toy guns for Dylan, no gritty grime for me. But the hardest rule of all was about what Mum and David liked to call Social Media, and what I called the basic human right to self-expression. One ill-timed selfie at Thorpe Park was all it took to make the whole thing explode.
It was one of our first trips out as a proto-family. As if the best way of getting to know someone is by queuing together for two hours in the drizzle, followed by a three-minute drenching on a log flume. I thought I’d put in a pretty stellar performance, keeping the conversation going, dropping into my acclaimed Claudia Winkleman impression to liven up those awkward silences. At one point, I whipped out my phone and took a shot of Dylan and me, gurning stupidly. I whacked the resulting pic on Snapchat to show the world I was still alive. Little did I know that I had committed a heinous crime. Nay, an outrage, an unspeakable violation of Stoke Law. Because, unbeknownst to me, Leah’s left flipping eyebrow was in the picture.
OK, it was more than an eyebrow. It was her whole profile and she was looking pretty dizzy and confused after an especially lethal roller coaster. I showed it to Mum, thinking she’d be pleased by this evidence of teen bonding, but instead her face went white and she looked a bit sick. She grabbed me by the shoulder and actually dragged me out of a queue we’d been in for ages.‘Take it off—’
‘Down, Mum,’ I corrected her.
‘Whatever. Just get rid of it now, before someone in the press sees it.’
I was baffled – why would the world’s press be looking at my Snapchat? (I bloody wish!) but Mum was freaking. She snatched my phone out of my hand and jabbed her fingers at random bits of the screen. Then David realised what was going on and started gabbling about privacy. He was strain- ing to keep his tone reasonable while his voice pitched higher and higher, until it became a manic squeak.
‘It’s the media,’ David explained in the frigid atmosphere of the car drive home, after his blood pressure had gone down. ‘They twist things. They take the smallest little detail and make it into something big.’
So that’s how I learned the final rule of living with the Stokes. Always protect Leah’s privacy. No image of Leah may be taken and shared. No comment may be posted in reference to her. No letting anyone know where she might be, or whether she might be having fun. No tweets, no gifs, no buts.
I could have argued. I could have said that the charity had a Facebook page with over sixty thousand likes and posted pictures of Leah every time she made an especially tear-jerking speech. I could have mentioned her annual appearances at the Amazing Children Awards – a huge bash at a plush London hotel sponsored by a national newspaper, which had even been on telly once. I could have mentioned that time she met the Queen.
But how could I fight when they’d already suffered so much?
The thought of what happened to Leah, and to Jane and Carey, still made me want to cry. I tried to imagine what I would be like if I was her, if I’d seen what she’d seen when she was just seven years old. It was impossible to picture it– humans aren’t built to understand pain like that. Your mind just blanks it out. When people talk about what Leah witnessed, they can’t even bring themselves to say it. They just say she’s ‘the girl who . . . you know . . .’
David had every right to make special demands, to shelter her from harm. I’d just have to keep my online life all about me.
Perfect – that was just the way I liked it.
I did feel a nagging guilt though, as I climbed in the van to get the most important box from the back. It was sturdy, heavily taped up and ostentatiously marked EXTRA TAMPONS to stop Dylan getting nosy, but inside was a whole stack of notes, a ton of glitter, a top-of-the-range GoPro and a fold-up tripod that I’d bought with my summer job savings last year.
‘This is a heavy one,’ David commented mildly as I passed it into his arms. I avoided his eye and scuttled back into the van.
I didn’t want to lie, but sometimes these things are necessary. I didn’t mean any harm – I wasn’t going to violate anyone’s privacy, but still. If they found out that I was planning to run my own vlogging channel from my bedroom
they’d probably explode with outrage. It would just have to stay secret for now. ‘That’s the lot,’ Mum said, plonking down the last rickety box on the shop floor and pushing her hair out of her eyes with a grubby wrist. The door closed behind her and, for a couple of moments, we were all still. A muted beam of sunlight poured in through the dirt-misted windows, lighting up millions of atoms of dust as they flew around us – the crumbled remains of dead books suspended in the air. I breathed in a big noseful of stale paper and damp, mingled with the kebab shop fumes from outside. My new home.
On the back of the door hung a faded but cheery sign, hand drawn in felt tip by a much-younger Leah, which said Back soon! Just in case someone was desperate for a book whilst David was in the loo. The counter was tatty, most of the space on it was taken up by a CAREY collection box and a cash register covered in faded Post-it notes. Behind it was a glass case with allegedly valuable first editions inside, although they looked just as ratty as the other books to me. Underneath the case, I caught sight of a green light blinking sluggishly through the murk – an ancient Wi-Fi router, encrusted with grime and half buried under a pile of junk mail. The slow-beating heart of my future multimedia empire. The rest of the shop was a maze of shelves, narrow corridors, dead ends. David had told me once that he’d deliberately set it up not to make any sense at all.
‘A good bookshop is like a voyage of discovery,’ he liked to say. ‘You find things quite by accident which might change your life.’I looked at some of the faded spines of the books on display: Old Moore’s Almanac, Lady Good-For-Nothing, a Novel by ‘Q’ and a collection of Fifty Shades of Grey built into a little pyramid. David’s amazing store of knowledge, I presumed.
Looming from the top of the cash desk was a narrow wooden staircase which led up to what David liked to call the ‘mezzanine’ – a crooked balcony crammed with even more bookshelves. It looked like the whole thing could drop on his head at any moment.
‘Not many people go up there,’ he admitted when he saw me staring.‘But they should, that’s where I keep all the good stuff!’
‘Um, maybe I’ll check it out later,’ I said, treading the line between politeness and dripping, venomous sarcasm. I bent down, grabbed EXTRA TAMPONS and started lugging it towards the chipped wooden door that hid the staircase to the flat. I wasn’t going to stand still in this place for long.
It took several days to work out just how much the shop, and the crummy flat above it, completely and utterly sucked. It was even worse than I imagined.
For a start, it was draughty. I’d get up every morning and need to put on my unicorn slippers and fluffy dressing gown just to get as far as the bathroom. Once inside, I’d have to run the shower for at least ten minutes before the water got semi- warm, by which time I’d have everyone banging on the door to get in because there was ONLY ONE BATHROOM FOR FIVE PEOPLE.
Mum had filled every room with plug-ins and scent diffusers but, despite her efforts, the book smell was starting to cling to my stuff, and everything in the flat was cold. The plates in the kitchen cupboard chilled the food before we got it to the table, my laptop was like a block of ice on my knees. Even my clothes turned my skin to goose pimples when I slipped them on.
David didn’t seem to feel it and had a nasty habit of wandering around wearing sleep-shorts and a T-shirt, displaying his hairy legs and bony bare feet to the world. Leah had this hideous brown fleece that she slipped into as soon as she came home, somehow managing to look elegantly sloppy. She didn’t complain. David and Mum spent most of their evenings in the family room. They played Scrabble, listened to Radio 4, read books and newspapers. What they didn’t do was watch TV because David didn’t have one. Weirdo.
‘Books are so much better,’ he had said the first time we met him.‘You use your imagination. When you watch TV it’s all served up to you on a plate – you don’t get to think.’ Thinking is overrated. After a hard day’s thinking at school, the last thing I wanted to do was come home and think some more.
So, I spent most of the time in my room, listening to Dylan’s muffled gaming next door, watching a few seconds of YouTube footage followed by a whole lot of buffering, and trying not to think about the fact that Leah had once slept here. Ten years ago, after Jane and Carey were gone, little Leah had all her nightmares in here, looking up at the heart- shaped crack in the ceiling and calling for a mum who was gone for ever. Shuddering, I closed the iPad case and went out to the landing to the so-called family room.
Mum, David and Leah were gathered there on the battered brown sofa. Leah was asleep, leaning against her dad’s shoulder. His arm was around her, keeping her warm, and her honey hair spread across her shoulders, shining in the lamplight. Mum sat upright on the other side of him, reading a dog-eared Mills & Boon from the shop, her cup of tea resting on the pile of books they used as a side-table. She looked almost prim – except for the giant pig slippers.
‘Ellie, hello!’ she said as if she was surprised to see me. ‘Why don’t you come in and we’ll play a game of cards.’
‘The iPad’s stopped working,’ I said, sinking down onto a stack of encyclopaedias by the door. ‘My phone’s got no reception, and the internet’s SLOWWWWWW
‘Last night, Gloria texted me that her dad has won a holiday in Barbados and I didn’t see it until seven this morning. Mum, she’s my best friend, she thought I didn’t care.’
David rested his hand on Mum’s as if to say I’m here for you, be strong when dealing with your hell-daughter. Then Leah stirred in her sleep.
We all tensed up, and I felt hot suddenly – ashamed maybe, but also completely pissed off. I spun on my foot and walked away.
Late that night I lay in bed listening to all the weird sounds of the shop settling down for the night – the plink-plink of ancient hot-water pipes, the creak of floorboards. Through the tissue-thin walls, I heard Dylan muttering in his sleep and David’s short, neat little snores drifted across the hall- way. Somewhere downstairs in the shop, an ancient book got tired of clinging onto life and fell to the floor with a papery slither.
I had got used to the pinkish glow that the kebab shop sign next door cast onto my ceiling. I told myself it was like being in an apartment in New York, with a sleazy neon sign blinking out of my window. But what I hated were the fights that sometimes started out there – I never knew whether someone was going to get seriously hurt; whether, because I didn’t call the police, somebody would die.
I wondered if it was like this when Leah first lived here and, for a minute, I hated David. All this stuff he went on about, putting Leah first, doing what was right for her. How could this have been right for her? No wonder she didn’t sleep in this room anymore.
Which reminded me of the persistent, scratchy thought that had bothered me from the day we’d moved in. Leah now slept in a tiny box-room at the end of the corridor, but all that was in there was a neatly made single bed, a wardrobe, chair and desk stacked up with homework books. I’d never seen a less personalised girl’s bedroom. I’d also never seen the light on in there, and never seen her come out of it in the morning.
Creeping softly into the corridor, I looked at Leah’s bedroom door – it was slightly open, and no crack of light showed from inside. Curiosity pushed me forward. I wasn’t thinking, had no plan, but just nudged the door open a tiny bit more.
An earth-shattering creak pierced the silence, but nobody was there to hear it.
Leah’s bed was empty.
So, if this wasn’t Leah’s room – where did she sleep?
The girl who... survived
The girl who... inspires
The girl who... has something to hide
People can't bring themselves to say what happened to her. They just describe her as 'the girl who... you know...'. But nobody really knows, no one sees the real Leah.
Leah is the perfect survivor. She was seven years old when she saw her mother and sister killed by a troubled gang member. Her case hit the headlines and her bravery made her a national sweetheart: strong, courageous and forgiving.
But Leah is hiding a secret about their deaths. And now, ten years later, all she can think of is revenge.
When Leah's dad meets a new partner, stepsister Ellie moves in. Sensing Leah isn't quite the sweet girl she pretends to be, Ellie discovers that Leah has a plan, one she has been putting together ever since that fateful day. Now that the killer - and the only one who knows the truth - is being released from prison, time is running out for Ellie to discover how far Leah will go to silence her anger . . .