The rain is falling in sheets now and the car tyres slide dangerously across the road. The sky above is covered in dark grey clouds, obscuring the bright light of the stars. The girl wipes her eyes and squints, trying to get a better view of the road ahead, but the tears keep cascading down her cheeks. The boy leans towards her. Too close. The girl starts screaming again. The boy tries to calm her down. The girl reaches out blindly to try and hit him. She needs to stop the car. Must get away from him somehow. Her tears leave her nearly unable to see the road ahead, the road markings start to blur together in her vision. She increases the wiper blade speed, but it doesn’t make any difference. Suddenly there’s a blinding light and the sound of brakes screaming.
And then nothing.
Bea opened her eyes slowly. The nightmares didn’t scare her anymore. They had become familiar to her, like opening the door to greet an old friend. Bea groped around in the dark until she located her phone. The time read 5.17am. Bea sighed and hauled herself up against the pillows. There was no way she was getting back to sleep. Instead she unlocked her phone and scrolled through her messages. There was only one from Tom sent last night. He must have sent it just after she fell asleep. A few weeks ago, that would have made her heart race but now it just gave a dull thump in her chest.
Hey Bea. Just talked to Lila. Wondering if you wanted to meet for breakfast before school on Monday? No pressure just let us know.
Bea groaned inwardly. The thought of going back to school tomorrow filled her with dread, even though it had been her decision. She tapped her fingers idly against the phone screen but decided to wait until a more reasonable time to reply to Tom’s message. Otherwise he’d ask why she had been awake so early. That line of questioning would ultimately lead to the dreaded question: are you okay?
It felt like Bea had been asked that question over a thousand times in the last few weeks. She wondered if anyone really cared when they asked you that. It’s just what you say to people without expecting a long or over the top explanation of how not okay they are.
Bea turned on the bedside lamp and fumbled around under the mattress until her fingers closed around the familiar worn cover of her notebook. She flipped through the pages, various bits of doodle-covered papers falling into her lap.
She found the next clean page and picked up a pencil, poised to draw when she had a change of heart and began to write instead. Bea didn’t tend to write much in the notebook, preferring to draw or sketch instead. It was the closest thing she had to a diary. If she did write, it was always in black or grey. Before, that wouldn’t have mattered. She would be able to see the different colours she imagined writing in. The ones that other people couldn’t see. They changed depending on her mood. She knew that would never happen again, but Bea would never stop trying. She wrote the date at the top of the page. Then she closed her eyes, willing herself to see the numbers in vibrant azure. When she looked, the numbers stared back at her. Still grey. Bea was disappointed, but not surprised. She pressed the pencil against the page, willing herself to make the motions necessary to produce letters.
Eventually, she managed to write two words.
Bea was so absorbed in the book for the next few hours she didn’t hear the knock on the door.
She blinked and looked up.
“Oh, morning Mum.” Bea shut the notebook quickly. “I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep so I’ve just been reading.”
Her mother stood in the doorway and a strange look passed over her face. She padded over to the bed and pulled her daughter close. Bea breathed in the scent of her mother’s perfume. Connie Elliott was a tall lady with a slim build and blonde hair steaked with grey. Once it used to fall to her waist but now it was cut sharply to just above her shoulders. She was very beautiful when she was younger, and still is. But there are lines on her face that weren’t there a few months ago and she always had shadows under her eyes. She’d never admit it, but Bea suspected she hadn’t been sleeping very well either. The only thing Bea had inherited from her mother was her long, wavy blonde hair. In every other aspect they looked completely different.
“Oh honey, I hope you weren’t up too early. I came to see if you wanted breakfast. Dad made pancakes?”
Before Bea could say anything, Connie interjected, “I supervised him the whole time.”
“I’ll be right down.”
Bea flashed her Mum a quick smile, hopped out of bed and sprinted into the bathroom to get washed.
Ten minutes later, hair damp and wearing her favourite pair of worn pale-blue denim jeans and a green t- shirt with an elephant on that she got at her favourite vintage store, Bea made her way down to the kitchen.
“Morning Bumble Bea.” Her father greeted her with a hug in the doorway. Bea’s father was a big man, he used to be a professional boxer and even though he retired years ago to work as an electrician he never lost the physique. Bea returned the embrace and mumbled a good morning against his chest.
He held her a little longer than usual before releasing her with a sigh. “Are you ready for the world’s best pancakes?” He grinned at Bea and ushered her to a seat at the table. Connie was already sitting and slid a cup of hot chocolate across the table.
“Madame.” Steve bowed and placed the pancakes down in front of Bea. Chocolate chip. She inspected them suspiciously. Her Dad wasn’t the greatest chef in the world and his cooking had, on occasions, been known to cause extreme gastrointestinal distress. Bea looked over at Connie and watched her take a small bite. She nodded surreptitiously. That was the all clear signal. They tasted like pretty average pancakes, which, for Steve, was an amazing achievement.
“Gordon Ramsey eat your heart out. Good job Dad.”
Steve smiled at Bea over his cup of coffee.
Connie was pushing her pancakes around the plate but not really eating much. Steve started talking animatedly about some true crime documentary that was on last night. Every now and again Connie looked up at him and smiled a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Bea knew she wasn’t listening to a word Steve was saying.
The rest of breakfast passed with the scraping of cutlery against plates and Bea’s occasional comments to Steve’s endless current of conversation.
Unexpectedly Connie turned to her husband and snapped, “Steve do you think we could have one moment of peace and quiet?”
The words hit Steve like a bullet. He stopped taking instantly and slumped down in his chair. For such a big man he suddenly looked so small. There was a moment of awkward silence that seemed to stretch out endlessly. Bea looked between her parents who were studiously ignoring each other and felt tears prick at the back of her eyes.
“I’m going to my room. Thanks for breakfast Dad.” Bea pushed her chair back and hurried out the room. She stopped just around the corner and listened. Silence. Bea waited. Still nothing.
Bea knew her parents were trying hard for her sake to have a normal family breakfast. They hadn’t accepted that nothing would ever be normal again.
Today was December 5th.
Today Bea’s sister Sara turns eighteen.
Or she would have if she hadn’t died five weeks ago.
Bea couldn’t bear to hang around the house with her parents engaging in silent warfare, so she decided to go to her favourite place. She was getting ready in her room when her phone started ringing. Bea looked at the screen and hesitated a moment before answering.
Lila’s voice came bubbling through the phone. She must have been outside because Bea could hear cars and pedestrians and other outdoor-like noises in the background.
“Bea! I wasn’t expecting you to be up this early,” Bea pulled the phone back to look at the time and saw it was coming up to 11.30am.
“Lila it’s nearly the afternoon.” Bea put the phone on speaker so she could finish tying the laces on her yellow converse.
“I know but come on Bea, you’re not exactly a morning person. Anyway, I was calling to ask if you wanted to come shopping with me today? There’s a sale on at Angelique’s. Then maybe after we can go get lunch?”
“Oh… that sounds great, but could we maybe do that next weekend? I just wanted to have a quiet day today.” She didn’t add that she needed to be by herself today. Bea hoped Lila would get the hint.
“Sure of course. We can do something else. What about hanging out at my house?”
Bea sighed and tried to think of an excuse that wouldn’t upset Lila.
“Actually Lila, I’m not feeling that great today. Might be something I ate but I’m just going to spend the day in bed.” Bea thought for a moment and added, “Mum might call the doctor later on.” It hurt to lie to her but today she needed some space.
“Bea why didn’t you say! Sorry you’re not feeling well. Rest up and call me later to let me know how you’re doing okay?” Lila did not give up easily. It was one of the reasons Bea loved her. She promised to call later and hung up with a guilty sigh of relief.
Bea paused halfway down the stairs. She could hear her parents having one of their restrained fights. A couple of weeks after Sara died these fights started. It was like they were pretending not to yell at each other, so Bea wouldn’t hear.
“Connie you were in another world at breakfast. I thought we agreed for Bea’s sake to try and be civil today,” Steve whispered angrily.
“I tried Steve! What do you want from me? To just pretend like everything between us is fine. Bea isn’t a child. We don’t need to protect her from everything,” Connie hissed.
“Today of all days… why can’t you just-”
Bea didn’t want to hear any more.
“I’m going out,” she shouted over her shoulder and left before she could hear their reply, letting the door slam shut behind her.
Bea’s favourite place was a thirty-minute walk away from her house. She put her headphones on and let everything around her fade away except for the music. Trinity Square Gardens was a small park, running along the Thames. They had boat races along the river in the summer. An avenue of trees lined the path parallel to the river and between every tree was an ornately decorated bench. Just past the gate, there was a little café that sold ice cream in the summer and hot chocolate in the winter (never the opposite) and a large bandstand in the middle of the grass, decorated with fairy lights. They often hosted live music events here which had proved so popular the council had installed a piano in the bandstand for anyone to play. Bea had been coming here with her sister since she was old enough to walk. They would race each other up and down the river. During long, hot summer days they would lounge around on the grass, in their matching Audrey Hepburn sunglasses and cool off in the river in the afternoon.
Bea’s heart ached from the memories. She found an empty bench. The park was always busy during the summer holidays but during winter there were far less people around. Sara always loved the people. She would say it made the park feel alive and loved. Bea would laugh and agree but secretly she hated the crowds. She loved it when the temperature dropped, and the leaves fell off the trees to make secret pathways along the grass. Less and less people would venture out, preferring to stay indoors. She would drag Sara out and they’d sit in the park, bundled up in their coats and scarves and close their eyes. They would whisper to each other who they loved the most.
“On the count of three okay?” Sara asked.
“Okay,” said Bea.
They grinned at each other.
“I’ll race you to the swings,” Sara said, “loser buys ice-cream.”
“It’s on,” Bea stood up. “Ready, steady-” She shot off ahead of Sara.
“Hey!” Sara sprinted after her, her long blonde hair trailing in the wind.
Bea glanced back over her shoulder, laughing loudly. The sky above her sparkled.
Sometimes they would talk about school and friends or how annoying their parents were. Other times they would tell each other secrets. One of their favourite games was to try and have a conversation using only song lyrics. Sara was always the best at that game. She loved music. Bea and Sara had both taken music lessons as children. It soon became clear that Sara was a natural. Music flowed in her veins. She loved to sing and dance and would make Bea put on performances with her for their parents. Bea took a liking to the guitar and she was pretty good at it but preferred to stay in the background. Sara was always front and centre, never afraid of what people thought. Everyone one else was a shadow in the light of her eclipse.
At this time of year, Bea and Sara were often the only people in the park, though she’d never felt alone. Her throat felt thick and fuzzy and tears threatened to spill down her cheeks. Bea furiously wiped her eyes and blinked rapidly, staring up at the sky. Even though it was freezing, the sun felt warm against her cheeks. Eventually she closed her eyes. The sun’s heat intensified, and Bea breathed it in. She whispered under her breath hoping Sara could hear her.
Happy Birthday Sara.
Then the world went cold and dark as if someone had plucked the sun out of the sky. Bea shielded her eyes and found there was a boy standing directly in front of her.
“Excuse me, is seat taken?”
Bea narrowed her eyes. She didn’t want to be rude, but she also wanted to be alone. She was trying to think of a polite way to tell the boy to go away when he fished something out of his pocket.
He waved it in front of her face, stopping briefly so Bea could look at it. A necklace. It was beautiful: a white gold chain with a crescent moon in the middle. On either side, trailing up the chain were little stars, each studded with a tiny diamond. “I saw this on the ground just behind the bench and thought you might have dropped it.”
“No.” Bea stared at him, waiting for him to leave. “Thank you anyway,” she added, feeling a little guilty for her rudeness. After all, he was only trying to be nice.
The boy shrugged. “Alright. I’m guessing the seat is free so hope it’s alright if I sit down?”
Without waiting for an answer, he sat down next to her and held out a hand. “I’m Adam.”
Bea hesitated for a moment, then slowly extended her hand as well. “Isabelle. But everyone calls me Bea.”
They shake. His grip was firm, but his hand felt cotton soft. Adam looked directly at her and for a moment Bea forgets that she’s sitting on a bench, in a park, shaking hands with a stranger. Time stretches out and this moment feels both new and familiar. Adam laughs a little awkwardly and Bea realises she’s the one staring now. She blushes and quickly released his hand.
They sat in silence for a while. This doesn’t bother Bea. Recently silence had become preferable to her than conversation. Evidently Adam did not feel the same. He breaks the blissful silence. “So… what brings you to the park today?”
Bea contemplates telling him the truth. Well Adam, today is my sister’s birthday. She’s dead. She died five weeks ago in a car crash. I’ve come here because I didn’t want to stay at home with my parents, pretending everything is normal when it never will be again. I feel closest to her here and I just want to sit by myself without anyone bothering me. How about you?
“Just fancied a walk,” Bea said with a quick smile. Adam nodded and turned back to face the water. Bea stole a covert glance at him; he was very beautiful. He had brown hair the colour of dark chocolate, ends slightly curling into the nape of his neck. Bea guessed he wasn’t originally from England, as his skin had a golden hue like he’d spent his childhood in the sun. His face was hard and angular. But the most interesting feature about him was the large bruise covering almost half of his right cheek.
“How’d you get that?” Bea asked.
“What?” Adam deadpanned.
Bea lifted her hand awkwardly and pointed in the general direction of Adam’s head. “Uhm, the shiner on the side of your face?”
“Oh that. You think this is bad, you should see the other guy.” Adam winked at her.
Bea raised an eyebrow. She got the feeling that wasn’t the entire truth but didn’t pry any further. She changed the subject.
“So, what brings you to the park?”
Adam appeared to be waiting to be asked this. He sat up and his face brightened as he launched into an animated story. “I just finished work and I was walking to the bus stop when I saw the most beautiful girl. She was walking into the park. I had to talk to her, so I followed her. I saw her sit down on a bench.”
Bea’s heart sped up and she found herself leaning into Adam.
“I followed her over to the bench and made up a story about dropping a necklace just to have an excuse to talk to her.” Adam paused and turned to look at her. “By the time I realised I was talking to the wrong girl it was too late.” He grinned.
Bea’s mouth dropped open. “Excuse me?”
Adam erupted into peals of laughter and Bea felt herself turning red, but she smiled despite herself. A real smile.
“Wow I can’t believe I nearly fell for that.”
“Hey, I’m sorry I was just trying to break the ice. You look a little sad, so I wanted to cheer you up,” Adam looked at her sheepishly.
“Mission not accomplished.” Bea tried to glare at him but there was something about his face that made her want to smile.
“I really am sorry. Let me make it up to you. Can I buy you a coffee? I know the best place just down the road.” Adam stood up and offered Bea his hand.
Bea looked up at the boy standing in front of her. She could just make up an excuse about needing to go home. But she was intrigued by Adam. For the first time in a long time Bea felt excited about meeting someone.
Bea took Adam’s hand. “Okay. Let’s go.”