To whoever’s reading this.
If you’ve found this journal, carefully hidden beneath the loose floorboard in the small back bedroom of this old weather-boarded house somewhere in the wide-open spaces of Nebraska, will you do me a favour?
Tell my friends I love them. And that I never stopped trying to find a way out and come home to them.
Oh, and look for me too. Would you? Please.
I’m probably buried somewhere in the back yard.
JOURNAL ENTRY ONE
First, you need to understand how I came to be thousands of miles from home, held captive by a man I barely know.
I met Jensen online. Facebook to be precise. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Are you rolling your eyes? But he wasn’t a complete stranger. We’d been Facetiming for a while, and during that time I got to see the real Jensen behind his frivolous Facebook persona. We got closer, opened up to each other, shared our innermost secrets and dreams. Well, I had. I didn’t know then that everything Jensen was telling me was made up; just what he thought I wanted to hear. Things that would make me feel connected to him, make me care.
Predators are masters of manipulation.
Back then I believed every word, but it’s true what they say about hindsight having perfect vision, and I realise now I was too trusting. But these days we are all too eager to spill our life story to virtual strangers online.
Social media is a predator’s playground.
In my defence though, it was easy to be so open. He was so easy, and we clicked in so many ways.
Never having known his father, and with no brothers or sisters, he understood the pain of being left a solitary orphan too young. Although less violent and sudden than my parents’ death at the hands of a drunk driver clocking over a hundred miles an hour on the M25, his mother’s slow malignant decline was tragic and no less traumatic.
We had the same tastes in music, movies and TV shows. He read. Socially aware, he was outraged by injustice and discrimination just because of a person’s skin colour or sexual orientation; worried about the state of the world, what we are doing to it. He loved dogs.
So how was I to know he’d turn out to be a monster?
I’d been so excited. I was finally going to meet Jensen. The girls at work were dead jealous. Unlike Cristina. Did she have some sort of sixth sense premonition she didn’t tell me about? I expected more support from her but, psychic abilities or not, turns out she was right. Coming here was the worst decision I’ve ever made. More likely though, I reckon she was just ticked off because I was holidaying in Colorado in spring rather than our usual seven days of decadence in a gorgeous European city.
How much do I wish we were having fun in Rome, Barcelona, or Amsterdam? And I would be having fun, because it’s impossible not to with Cristina. She’s sort of my alter ego; the wilder version of me. The person I would be if I dared. (Yes, the irony that it’s me who rashly flew thousands of miles to meet a man I only knew virtually isn’t lost on me.) Cristina may be fiery, loud and not afraid to say what she thinks, (probably down to her being half Italian) but she’s the kindest person I know. I knew that right from the first day at infants’ school when she marched up to the shy five-year-old me alone in the playground and announced that we were going to be best friends. And she was right. Twenty years later she’s the sister I never had.
So anyway, I was up for my trip to Denver. The only problem I had then was the actual getting there.
To say I’m a nervous flyer is an understatement of monumental proportions. A couple of hours flying to Milan, Zurich or Copenhagen are bad enough, never mind a transatlantic flight, and then some. Despite knowing statistically I’m safer in the air than on the road or even at home, and that the odds of the plane crashing were almost as long as my randomly chosen numbers coming up in the lottery, I still needed my usual Valium before I set foot on board.
And a bumpy ride hadn’t helped. Whenever the plane shook I looked to any nearby flight attendant, trying to calm my nerves by telling myself that as they’re weren’t rushing to strap themselves in their seats, but calmly serving coffee to a man in the aisle seat three rows up, everything was fine.
So, after ten anxious hours of figuratively, and occasionally literally, clutching my seat’s arm rests, getting through immigration and a protracted wait for my suitcase to make it onto the luggage carousel, I was more than a little fraught by the time I followed a crowd of fellow travellers into the arrival hall.
I skimmed the faces of the people waiting until my gaze found him… All six feet two of him: espresso-rich tousled hair and powerful rugby number-eight build. (I suppose the American equivalent is a Quarter Back, but without the armour. Rugby players are tough. The scrum cap being detested by purists, they make do with just a mouth guard, and maybe some duct tape to avoid having an ear ripped off.)
Then we were standing in front of each other, inches apart.
I remember how his gaze scanned my face as if committing every freckle and pore to memory; little creases appearing at the corners of his honey-hazel eyes as he smiled.
I barely had time to say “hi” back before he took my face in his hands and kissed me long and deep, stilling the chaotic turmoil that had been churning in the pit of my stomach. A calmness replacing it as he wrapped his hand around mine.
I couldn’t help the wide smile my mouth shaped itself into, or the sense of rightness that spread through me like a sunrise. And right then, looking into his eyes, I knew I would go anywhere with him, because with him was the only place I wanted to be.
How ridiculous I sound. But in truth, I’m no dewy-eyed romance junkie waiting for her prince to come. Of course, I have read romances, but not the, his steely blue eyes and she quivers kind; the kind that when it starts getting interesting, blushes and waits coyly outside the bedroom door until morning. I read the kind that follows them in and takes comprehensive notes. Realistic love stories full of angst and anger, where couples explode into furious rows. Emotional rides where the characters behave how real people in love do. And that includes sex. I don’t want soppy romance. I want passion. I want a real-life version of my favourite book boyfriends. A Nick Frost or Aiden Byrne to sweep me off my feet.
Even now I remember how Jensen’s hand holding mine elicited a renewed fluttering in my stomach, but the good kind that time.
Despite that, my gaze still drifted to the view beyond the windows as the train whisked us the twenty-eight miles from airport to downtown Denver. I could have had Jensen pick me up in his car or gone by taxi, but why would I do either when I could relax in a train and get there just as fast?
I love trains. The clackerty-clack of the lines reminds me still of childhood seaside holidays on the south coast got to by train. There’s no doubt my love of them stems from how much of my childhood was spent with my dad, playing with his huge train set. Complete with stations, villages and make-pretend countryside, it sprawled the entire attic space. I think dad secretly wanted a boy and hadn’t held out much hope that his daughter would share his passion, so he was thrilled I did. It’s a wonder my parents didn’t buy a house near a train station rather than the London Underground.
So, I’d arrived. And back then my only concern was how much I’d spent on the hotel room, but my return flight was so cheap I’d decided I could splash out, stay somewhere really nice.
The deeply carved inscription still declared the building to be the Colorado National Bank. Its ionic columns fronting the white stone façade, just a hint of the luxury inside.
As we stood at the hotel’s impressive entrance, Jensen’s relief that I’d arrived safely seemed sincere; his advice to get some rest so I didn’t get slammed with jet lag nothing other than genuine concern about my welfare.
One day into my visit, Jensen was everything I’d expected him to be: caring, funny, attentive, and I’d enjoyed spending time with him. I realise now he was just luring me into a false sense of security, but that’s hindsight for you.
We were sitting outside a café when he suggested it.
The 16th street mall reminded me a little of Oxford Street, only without the red buses and black cabs. Although I wouldn’t have said it was a mall, more like a high street. Aren’t malls enclosed spaces?
Whatever. You’re unlikely to find me in one. With their piped muzak, faux marble floors and ersatz domes in high vaulted ceilings, I detest these cathedrals of consumerism. They’re such depressing places, filled with the apathetic, shuffling from one same-old-same-old shop to another in a futile quest to find the meaning of life in Fendi or UGG, and carry it away in a plastic bag. As if self-fulfilment can be purchased. There’s a reason the reanimated deceased gravitated to the mall in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
But I’m getting off track again. Tangenting, Cristina calls it.
We were outside the café. I was convincing Jensen he should come to London; listing all the sights we could see from the open top deck of a bus on a tour of the capital: Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square. Because people should know there’s a hell of a lot more to see in central London than just Oxford and Regent Street shops.
He laughed and said that a girl who wasn’t into shopping was practically unheard of.
What can I say? I hate shopping, even for food. I get most of the regular stuff delivered once a month, so I only need to nip out to Sainsbury’s for the weekly perishables. And I only ever go clothes shopping when I absolutely have to. Shopping isn’t my idea of fun, and life’s too short to spend it buying stuff you don’t need.
Jensen’s grin was teasing. “Except books.”
Books: my Achilles heel. In my opinion it’s a physical impossibility to have too many books. And I told him so.
He continued teasing, saying he thought he was never going to get me out of the Tattered Cover Bookstore. Of all the things we’d seen, that was the perfect place to take me. Just the smell of a second-hand book shop... Heaven.
He laughed again, saying I could have spent all eternity there if he hadn’t dragged me away. And I said I could think of worse ways to spend forever.
I didn’t realise it at the time of course, but I’d just handed him the perfect segue. Or more likely he manipulated the conversation.
His gaze drifted; his question as to what I planned to do for the next couple of days innocent enough.
I was surprised when he said he had to go to Nebraska. It sounded so far away. To be honest, I’d be hard pressed to point out each county on a map of England, so I’m hardly likely to know where each state of America is. But as it turned out it’s the next state over, and the house outside the small town only a three-hour drive away.
His story about his grandfather getting out of hospital and how he wanted to get him settled, make sure he was okay, didn’t sound like a story at all. Just genuine concern for the elderly relative who’d practically brought him up when his mum got sick.
It’s silly I know, but I couldn’t help the small twinge of envy at Jensen’s obvious fondness for his grandfather. I only knew my mum’s mum, and she wasn’t the sort of woman you got close to. My over-riding memory of her is complaining. Oh, those interminable Christmases. Hours of how dry the turkey was, turning up her nose at our gifts, and why couldn’t we watch the film on the other channel... Even the house seemed to sigh with relief when dad drove her home.
“You could come too. I know Gramps would love to meet you.”
And that’s how he reeled me in. With one small innocent sentence.
I remember picturing a big sky and wide-open spaces, room to breathe. One day had almost exhausted what Denver had to offer in the way of sights, so I thought, why not?
I might be misremembering, hindsight playing tricks on me, but for the briefest of moments, barely a heartbeat, had there been a flicker of something in Jensen’s eyes as he smiled? Something… malevolent. If it was ever there it had gone in an instant, then he checked his watch and said we’d better go, or we’d miss the start of the movie.
Is it really little more than twenty-four hours since I spoke to Cristina? It feels like an age, yet on the other hand like I’ve just hung up. I can remember our conversation almost verbatim…
“Just got in, you dirty stop-out? It must be gone midnight there.” Cristina’s filthy laugh was cut short as she’d sucked down coffee. Even if the sound of her slurping and swallowing hadn’t zipped skywards, bounced off a satellite in space and hurtled down to my end of the line, I would have known she was. She can’t go more than five minutes after getting up before her first caffeine fix of the day.
She was quick to follow that up with a complaint, but to be fair she had reason to. I’d forgotten to text her to say I’d arrived safely.
“I was ready to call Interpol to track you down.”
I’m still not sure they have jurisdiction here and told her she’d be better off calling the FBI, or if they won’t help, a Private Investigator. What’s that they say about many a true word spoken in jest?
Cristina scoffed at my teasing about her having wild parties every night in my absence.
“Yeah, right. After working my arse off all day, it’s more like a glass of wine and feet up in front of the telly, with just Milù for company. She says hello by the way. She misses you too.”
A picture meandered across my mind’s eye of our rescue kitty slinking across the wooden floor; inky black, tail flicking, stalking shadows cast by the morning light from the sitting room windows.
“It’s not the same without you, Abs. It’s too quiet, and you’re too far away. How far are you?”
I could tell her exactly because I’d checked: Four-thousand, six-hundred and eighty-three miles. I don’t know why I checked. I just felt compelled to know how far I was from home.
Now I feel even further away, and wonder if I’ll ever return…
Cristina was happy to hear Jensen was living up to my expectations, but now I realise even her pleasure had a hint of foreboding. “Because you never can tell what a person’s really like when you only know them virtually.” I probably didn’t notice it at the time because I wasn’t thinking that way.
Of course, she couldn’t resist adding that although she was happy he was living up to my fantasy, (her word, not mine) I wasn’t to do anything stupid like running off to Vegas and getting married.
As if. I’m not in a hurry to become Mrs Anyone. And anyway, as I told her, Denver was okay, but I couldn’t see myself living there. So, if things had ever got that far, I’d have had to convince him to move to London.
I do remember her envy showing just a smidge when she asked me about the hotel. “Is it as fancy as you hoped, you flash bitch”.
She’d been wary when I told her I was checking out for a couple of days, and why; wondering if meeting Jensen’s family (such as it is) on this first visit wasn’t a bit fast. And she was a tad scathing, when I told her where Jensen’s grandfather lived.
“Nebraska? It’s all wide-open nothing there isn’t it?”
Cristina’s more of a city girl than me and snorted derisively when I said I like the countryside. To be fair, she does too, but a very particular kind. “The Cotswolds. Rolling hills, sleepy honey-stoned villages, sipping chilled Chablais outside a quaint country pub. Not miles of flat as far as the eye can see, like Norfolk,” she retorted before singing, “And the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye…”
She laughed when I reminded her that’s Oklahoma.
“Same diff. And Nebraska’s in Tornado Alley you know.”
As tornado season had only just started I assured her I was safe.
“As safe as you can be where everyone and anyone has a gun.”
Maybe it’s because we’re British, but she and I aren’t alone in finding the idea of anyone being allowed to own and carry a gun not only preposterous, but terrifying. Even so, I thought she was being unnecessarily paranoid.
“I’m fine,” I told her. “Nothing bad is going to happen.”
Had I been tempting fate saying that? Or had my destiny already been written?