Every night she watches him re-enact his death.
If she doesn’t find the identity of his killer, she could become the next victim.
But if she solves his murder, she could lose him forever.
Goodbye, old life. Hello, new town, new people, new––everything. Dad has practically moved us a million miles away.
At least, that’s how it feels. This car ride is taking forever! My phone battery is starting to get dangerously low. I know that asking to plug it in will just get me a lecture on how I spend too much time on it. The only thing left is to just hope it lasts until we get to the new house.
“Jodi, look over there,” Dad interrupts my thoughts.
I pause my feeble attempt to entertain myself––scrolling through my phone for interesting TikTok videos––and look up.
“It’s just a beach. Big deal.”
My parents trade unhappy looks up front. They want me to be happier about this move, but I just can’t get myself to do that. It’s not like I haven’t seen a beach view before. And sure, it’s actually a really pretty one, but that’s not the point.
“What a view,” says Mum. “It looks just like a postcard.”
The white sand curves along the coast, white-capped waves lap at the shoreline. It’s early enough in the day that the sun is dancing over the surface of the waters in bright, flashing shards of white and yellow. A single umbrella has been jammed into the sand, but the car whips past it fast enough I can’t spot the person who put it there.
“Yeah, it would have been great if it stayed on a postcard,” I grumble under my breath, turning back to my phone. We drive along a curving path that overlooks the beach. The car slows down. At first, I think it’s because the curves are on the tricky side, but it strikes me we’re just close to our final destination.
Dad announces, “Alright! We’re here!”
I put the phone down. My mouth is suddenly super dry, nerves striking up a fluttering in the back of my chest. Good timing. I’m still on ten percent battery.
Dad parks in front of a large old cottage overlooking the beach. There’s a white stone path leading from our car up to the front door, and an old over-grown garden row on either side of the path. It looks pretty decent, despite being pretty weather-stained. The years of English Channel winds, rains, and sands have worn it down like my history teacher’s face. I always thought I’d outlast him at my old school, but he won.
It’s a nice house. I hate it anyway. I miss my old house. There might not have been a beach right down the road, but at least I knew what to expect out of the people in the neighborhood. I knew where the squeaky floorboards were, and how to get out into the backyard without anyone noticing and––
And it doesn’t matter because we’re already here. I was gutted at the thought of moving, but we had to. Dad was promoted in the police. They needed an experienced officer from the London Met and Dad’s super good at his job. He had to pass up a great promotion after my accident, so it’s his turn now.
Dad opens the front door and carries a giggling Mum over the threshold. I keep reminding myself this is what needs to happen for us to work as a family. It’s time my parents get a chance to be happy.
Breathing in the salty shore breeze gives me goosebumps. Looking up at the cottage feels strange, like it’s calling to me.
Although the sun is barely peeking over the horizon, a glow appears in the attic window. Weird. Maybe the lights are on a timer or something.
“Jodi, what are you waiting for? Come inside and see your new room,” Mum beckons.
The front door opens into a hallway, leading to a large open living room with a fancy tiled floor. I can smell the history of the room. An old grandfather clock stands in the corner, its pendulum swinging in time to the passing seconds. It came with the house. I wonder what exciting things it’s seen. Hopefully, I’ll show this house something more interesting than a reclusive invalid, like I did our last one.
There. That’s the way to look at it. It sucks, but I can use this to prove I’ve got more in me than what the last year has offered. I follow Mum to check out upstairs. My sneakers thump loudly on the stairs as I trudge up them.
“This room on the right is our bedroom,” Mum signals with her hand like an airline stewardess. “That room to the left is yours.”
I step through the open door. “It’s bigger than my last room.” I walk around the ample space. The smell of fresh paint burns my nose. Opening the curtains, the view of the beach is pretty cool––I might draw it when I get bored. Below the window is the porch roof with a large oak tree just beyond it, its knuckled branches jutting out in every direction.
“I think I like it.” I surprise myself with a slight smile. I planned on saying it anyway to make Mum feel better, but it wasn’t a lie. I can fill the space with some cool stuff, like an easel to draw that awesome view.
“Are you sure?” Mum frets. “I know you didn’t want to come out here, but the house––it’s lovely, isn’t it?
I nod. It’s a pretty house. Even if it wasn’t, I would agree. I told myself at the start that even though I hated the idea of moving, I wasn’t going to say that out loud.
It’s not about me now, not anymore. I took up all their time for too long. Now it’s their time. That’s what kids do when they get bigger anyway, right? They stop taking up as much of their parents’ time.
“I like it,” I tell her.
“We can change the paint,” Mum says. “If you want it to be a different color. Or––the curtains. Whatever you want, really.”
“I like it,” I insist, “The house is nice, Mum. And so is the room.”
Suck it up, Jodi. Give her something to work with.
I look at Mum. “I have a super important question to ask you.”
“What’s the WiFi password?”
Mum laughs. “I should have guessed that would be your first question.” Tires squeal outside. I wince at the sound. Mum does, too. “Sounds like we picked the wrong moving company, doesn’t it?”
“A little bit,” I say, with a nod. Peeking out the window, I catch sight of the large metal box van down beside our car. “At least we packed it well?”
“I hope so,” she says, with a sigh. “You want to come give us a hand?”
“Sure.” I follow her back down the stairs. The moving van is crammed floor to ceiling with boxes and furniture. They must be boss at playing Tetris.
Dad’s already down there, staring into the back of the truck with a truly dismal look on his face. “Did we need to keep all this stuff? Some of these boxes haven’t been opened since we moved last time. That was ten years ago!”
Mum gives him a prod in the ribs. “They’re filled with memories. So, we need to keep them. You don’t want to get rid of your daughter’s baby pictures, do you? If we don’t have those, we won’t be able to embarrass her when she brings a boyfriend home!”
That grabs his attention. “Hopefully, that won’t be for a while.”
Hopefully, it wouldn’t be a while and there will be a cute guy in this new town. I mean, there has to be an upside to this whole thing, right? Some little boost to moving out here?
Of course, Dad’s not going to be able to find out about the guy right away. I don’t want him brandishing a baton and trying to threaten my hypothetical boyfriend off.
“Well then, we’d better keep Jodi occupied if that’s how you feel.” Mum claps her hands together. “Let’s get this truck unloaded!”
We start unpacking, and I begin carrying boxes up to my room. It’s weird, seeing my whole life packed into just a few boxes. It really points out how I haven’t done all that much with it. Well, that’s depressing . . . Almost as depressing as the dirty boxes giving me a black mark on my new white jeans. I should really learn not to wear white.
On the upstairs landing, I stop to stare at the ladder hanging from the ceiling hatch above me. I swear that wasn’t there a minute ago. Come on, Jodi. Careful where you’re walking; you could’ve bumped into that thing.
Mum always says I walk around with my head in the clouds, and here’s the proof.
I step around the ladder and deposit the box in my room.
Mum or Dad must have pulled down the ladder. Wait, no. They couldn’t have done it. They’re still bringing in the downstairs boxes. What reason would they have to pull the ladder down, anyway? Stepping over to it, I put one hand on the worn wooden rung.
Dad said the place has had a lot of renovation. There’s hardly anything left of how it was, just the old banister, staircase, and grandfather clock.
And this ladder.
The wood is worn, rough beneath my palm. I think on it, then grab hold of the ladder and shove it back up into the ceiling, the hatch folding up after it. There. Now I can’t run into it, and my parents can’t say I’ve gone off and skipped out on helping with work.
My weak arms throb as I set the last box down on my floor. Time to unpack. I get out my collection of pictures I’d drawn and printed photos to stick on the newly painted walls. Dozens of pics, ranging from family photos to a load taken with my bestie Stacey. The first one I put up is my sweet sixteen—my last birthday and first night out since recovering from my accident at the end of last year. A date I almost didn’t get to see. Stacey was my rock after the accident. Now, we’ve moved hundreds of miles away from her.
It’s definitely the worst part of this whole thing.
My eyes burn. I have to stop putting the pictures up to stop tears from really springing to life.
Stacey can come visit soon. It’s not like you’re never going to see her again.
That doesn’t make me feel any better. I already miss her. For a few long moments, I just lay on my bed and wallow in that feeling. It’s only a month’s worth of ingrained therapy sessions––a post-accident recommendation by the doctor that Mum insisted on, and more helpful than I will ever admit––that has me eventually groaning and hauling myself up.
Don’t wallow. Distract.
The window calls to me. I drift towards it, pulling out my phone and snapping a few pictures. It’s easy to lose myself in the filter setting, and soon I’m sending the whole batch to Stacey. She responds almost immediately with a slew of emojis: a shocked face, a sunny beach with a vibrant umbrella, a huge smiley, and a thumbs-up on one line, and a boy and a question mark on the next. Typical Stacey.
I smile. When I told her I was moving, she said, “Well, at least you might find a hot guy to steal your first kiss.”
She’s had hers ages ago––and quite a few since––we joke she’s had my share. The stupid accident ruined my social life. I only had Stacey, by the time I was feeling better.
Maybe things will be different out here.
High-pitched tones interrupt my thoughts. It’s Stacey FaceTiming to see the house. Her beaming face and bouncing blonde curls invade my screen. I’ve always envied her curls instead of my long, straight brown hair. Stick straight, to the point nothing can be done with it.
Stacey asks, “So, is it the hellhole you thought it’d be?”
“I guess it’s not awful,” I have to admit. “You’re not here though. And there are like no McDonalds or anything as we’re on the edge of nowhere.”
“No me—obviously being the worst bit.”
“Pretend I’m there. Give me the grand tour.”
I start in the bedroom, and lead her out through the hall, down the stairs, and into the living room. “Oh God! It’s so cool. So big,” Stacey’s jaw drops. “Thought you said it was just a cottage? What. A. Lie. We should totes have a housewarming party. This room’s big enough for twenty of us! I could invite—”
“Stacey! There’ll be no teenagers coming for a party here, thank you very much,” says Mum leaning out the kitchen doorway. “Not twenty. Not even four.”
“Sorry, Mum. No parties,” I turn back to my smiling friend and give her a death stare. “Are you trying to get me into trouble?”
Stacey lowers her voice, “No, but you’re thinking about it too, aren’t you?”
I glance over at my Mum, who’s still watching me, and then head for the kitchen. I’m totally thinking about it––can you blame me?
Stacey changes the subject, “how far away is this place, anyway?”
“It took, like, three hours to drive here.” I tilt the phone, so it pans over the kitchen, but she’s lost interest in the tour.
Stacey laughs. “Three hours, so––not close then.”
“No.” I agree, slumping sideways against the kitchen counter.
It doesn’t upset Stacey. If anything, her smile widens and shows off her teeth. “Guess I’ll have to spend the whole end of the summer holidays at yours since it’ll be too far to go there and back.”
“Yes!” The word comes out way too excited, but there’s no taking it back now. “You’re going to need to–”
“Jodi!” Dad’s voice. He’s somewhere outside the house.
Stacey frowns. “Let me guess. You’ve got to split.”
“Sorry,” I tell her.
Stacey waves a hand at me. “It’s fine. Just – call me later?”
It’s not hard to find Dad. He’s out in the garage at the back of the house, fumbling with the automatic sliding door. “You rang?”
“No jokes,” warns Dad. “Get over here, and when I say so, press the button.”
I do as I’m told, watching while he adjusts the door. He gives the signal; I press the button and it comes down seamlessly.
Dad lets out a relieved sigh. “You have no idea how hard that was.”
“Pretty hard, if I didn’t even get a high five out of it,” I say.
“Sorry.” Dad gives me a belated high five. “I’m just––there’s a lot going on.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.” My gaze catches my bike, leaning against the back wall. It’s repaired now, just a few scuffs remain from where the driver hit me, and I skidded across the road. The thought makes my stomach twist into knots.
“Maybe one day you’ll ride it again.” Dad interrupts the quiet pause. He must have seen me looking.
My stomach lurches even worse at that comment. There’s no way I can talk about riding that thing right now. So, I change the subject by asking about the first thing that comes to mind: the ladder. “Have you been up to the attic today at all, Dad?”
Dad shakes his head. “No, your mum and I have been downstairs all day. Why, did you hear something? Tell me we didn’t move somewhere with rats!”
A slight shiver climbs up my spine. If they didn’t pull the ladder down . . . Then who did?
* * *
After lunch, Dad gets ready to go to the station to meet the Superintendent. As the new Detective Inspector of Bridport, he has to show his face. He has a new suit and shiny shoes, which makes him look all tight and squeaky. His dark hair’s weird all slicked back, but Mum still tells him he looks good.
“Very professional,” she adds on, and then kisses him on the cheek and sees him out. Once he’s gone, she turns to look at me, announcing, “Let’s head out for a walk, Jodi. We need to see what this town has to offer us.”
I wince. A stroll through town with my Mum is the last thing I want.
I tell her, “I think I’ll skip it for now. I’m just going to finish with unpacking my room, maybe take a nap.”
“Suit yourself, but don’t go out on your own. Not yet.” She kisses my forehead.
“I won’t.” I roll my eyes when her back is turned. I’m sixteen, not six. I know Mum has just been trying to look after me since my accident, but she must realize I’m better and practically an adult now.
Despite moving all our furniture into the new place, it still feels empty after she leaves.
I head back up the stairs. The ladder is back down again. That proves it––one of my parents must be messing with me.
I should check it out.
But I don’t budge. The most I can do is reach out and put a hand on one of the lower rungs, fingers running over the worn wood.
Come on legs. I am the only one here. I’m not scared. You got this Jodi! It’s literally just the attic ladder! If Mum and Dad didn’t pull it down themselves, then the latch must just be faulty. Right?
Rocking forward, I peer up into the blackness and call, “Hello?”
No answer, not even from the sea. A frightening silence has taken over. My rubber-soled shoes squeak as I walk around the ladder. No other sounds. Just an occasional release of my swift, pent-up breath.
“Is anyone there?”
Of course, no one’s there. That’s ridiculous! If someone else was in the house, Mum and Dad would have noticed.