Bethany had awoken in some strange situations over the past couple of days, and the latest one was up there with the best (or worst) of them.
She couldn’t recall ever waking up outside, but there she was, lying on her back in someone’s front garden, with the cold rain of a winter’s night falling on her face.
She moved her arms and legs. Nothing was restrained. She listened intently for sounds caused by anything but the weather. No one was near her. She could hear nothing but the distant sounds of cars of tarmac. She raised herself into a sitting position and looked around. Her kidnapper was nowhere to be seen. No one watching from the shadows, as far as she could tell.
I’m free. Somehow I’m free!
As her fingers ran through the blades of wet grass surrounding her, she started to recognise the street into which she had been unceremoniously dumped whilst unconscious. Despite its veil of darkness, the street ran almost parallel to the one on which her family lived. She was only a matter of steps from her home, her family, and the warm embrace of her mother and father.
As excitement rushed through her, she had the urge to get to her feet and run home, but dizziness prevented her from doing so. She shook her head, attempting to clear it, only to find that she had exacerbated her lack of equilibrium. When things stopped spinning again, she gingerly drew her feet in and attempted to stand up very slowly.
With more success on the second attempt, she felt as if she could make it home when her legs once again started to give way. She ended up falling back onto her knees, waiting for her strength to return. She was getting cold and starting to shiver, but she felt as if she could do nothing about it. She needed the warmth of her home, just out of sight, but she was unable to take the necessary steps to get there.
She covered her cold face with her freezing hands and cried, her voice louder than she had anticipated. “How can I be so close to home,” she said, “but not be able to get to my own front door?”
Within seconds a yellowish light shone brightly behind her, followed by a brighter white light reaching every corner and crevice of the garden. She could hear a door being unlocked. Someone was coming to see why a crying girl was kneeling in their garden on a cold, wet November night.
She looked down at her clothing, confusion instantly clouding her mind. She was in a different school uniform. She didn’t have time to dwell on the confusion as she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Are you okay?” an old-sounding woman asked.
Bethany thought, fought the instinct to nod, and instead shook her head vigorously, feeling another wave of tears coming. It was as if the pressure behind her eyes would only be eased if she gave in and balled her eyes out.
“Where… how… what are you doing out here?” The woman was clearly just as confused by the situation.
Bethany gulped and attempted to answer, turning to face the woman. She looked like the stereotypical grandma with a white perm, trusting eyes and a thick, light pink bathrobe covering almost every extremity.
“My name is Bethany. I live on the next street but I’ve been missing for a couple of days,” She said.
The woman’s eyebrows lowered in a frown and then raised slightly. “You poor girl,” she said in a way that made her sound exactly like Beth’s mother. “Let’s get you inside for a moment and get you warm.”
The woman, who introduced herself as Catherine, put her arm across Bethany’s shoulders. Before she realised that she had done it, Bethany had jumped. A touch from anyone, for a while, was likely to cause such an involuntary reaction.
Catherine helped the girl inside and put a blanket over her shoulders.
“I don’t know if you want to talk about it, but I’m a good listener,” she said, after an uncomfortable few moments of silence.
Bethany shook her head, closing her eyes and discovering that she was fighting back tears. The dizziness had dissipated somewhat, but not entirely. “I just… I want my mum and my dad.” She paused and looked up at the woman with a broken smile. “Thank you for helping me, but I don’t even know if I’m ready to talk about this to anyone yet.”
The woman nodded with a shrug and a smile, like every patient grandparent seemed able to do.
Bethany appreciated the silence as it returned. It had felt like weeks since she had experienced true silence without some fear in her heart. Silence isn’t the same when you’re not sure you’ll live to hear anything else.
As the warmth of a nearby radiator started to remove the chill from the outside in, Bethany started to feel considerably better. Starting at her core and spreading outwards, a feeling of strength started to take her over. A realisation hit her that normal life could recommence. Yes, there were horrors in her mind that might never fully go away, but she was so close to home.
“Should I call the police, or your parents?” Catherine asked.
Bethany shook her head, this time without feeling dizzy. “No thank you. I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done, but it’s time I was getting home.”
“Oh, no doubt,” the woman said, as if she completely understood the situation. It was surprising to Bethany how concerned the woman seemed to be for a complete stranger. There was a comfortable feeling in the room, as if she had been visiting this woman for months, helping her with her gardening or lessening the woman’s loneliness by providing talkative company. “They’ll be terribly worried. Do you need me to come with you?”
Bethany smiled back in response. “I feel a lot better now, thank you.” She hoped that she sounded as genuinely grateful as she felt. As she stood up she said, “I’m sure I can make it home without a problem.”
“Little girl,” Catherine said, staring at her like a teacher at a misbehaving child, “If you’ve been through the ordeal you say, you should not be alone for a second. I’m coming with you.”
Bethany only nodded, once again on the verge of crying. I’m not prepared to start crying here, in front of this woman. If I start I might not stop.
In reality, Bethany knew that she would probably get to the woman’s front door, peer out into the darkness, and freeze, worried that some other crazed paedophile would jump out from behind a bush to snatch her. In most walks of life, such a fear was somewhat irrational, but her recent experience had taught her that such fear made sense.
They left the house and walked, mostly downhill, to Bethany’s front door. She had expected the old woman to walk slowly, but she had, in fact, struggled to keep up with her. The woman waited at the end of the driveway, in the rain, wearing a coat over her bathrobe, as Bethany approached the house.
She tried the handle, and on finding it to be locked, she knocked on her own front door. She couldn’t remember ever having done so before. This has been my home for most of my life, but right now I feel like a stranger.
She wouldn’t yet realise the extent of that feeling. It would return, again and again, haunting her. In the coming years, innocuous phrases and events would trigger some terrible memory, and hollow words of reassurance and comfort would not get rid of that feeling.
In reality, no one would understand her, and she would be foolish to think that she could return to the life she had known before Friday. Her parents would smother her in kindness, but she would feel on some level that it was undeserved. She would blame herself, despite the words of others, for the events that she could not have possibly changed. She would spend her life wishing to tell the former, innocent version of herself that she should say no, yell and tell, but it wouldn’t change the reality of it all.
There was a clunk as the key turned in the front door and a metallic scrape and the suck of rubber seals as the door opened. The door opened slightly and the smell of stale coffee drifted into the night air. Bethany recognised part of her father’s face staring at her, and then his left eye widening in apparent disbelief.
The door flung open. Both father and daughter stood there for a second, staring at each other, neither able to speak.
When the realisation dawned on her father, his arms were instantly around her. Despite the coldness of the rain still falling on her, this was the best she had felt in an age.
Realising that they were being watched, Bethany introduced Catherine with a wave of the hand in the direction of the end of their driveway. “She helped me get home,” was all she could say before her emotions took over, her tears mixing with the rain striking her cheeks.
He helped his daughter inside the house and thanked the woman for being willing to help their little girl. Catherine excused herself and headed for home, offering to provide further help if called upon.
The front door closed and Bethany immediately felt the warmth of the central heating, combined with a feeling she had not even realised was contained within those cream-coloured walls. She felt happy and comfortable. More than anything else, she felt loved.
Her dad’s confusion was compounded by the foreign school uniform in which she had been returned.
“I think this uniform belongs to one of the other girls,” she said through the tears, reaching for a tissue from a box near the sofa.
“Did the others get free?” her dad asked, raising an eyebrow.
She shook her head in response, her bottom lip quivering, preventing her from saying anything sensible for the moment.
Her mother appeared and put another blanket over her shoulders, sitting her down. “Rest for a minute, Beth.” She had a calming, soothing tone to her voice that sounded terrific to her. “There will be plenty of time to tell us what happened.”
Bethany had grown to about the same height as both of her parents. Neither were thin or old, but they looked more gaunt and grey than they had looked just two days earlier.
Beth shook her head, as if in serious denial about something, before taking a deep breath and saying, “I need to tell you, and I need to tell the police.”
“I need to do it now.” She demanded, still in her customary soft voice.
Her mother went for the phone with her hand over her mouth.
“Tell me, Beth,” her father said, crouching in front of her and looking into her eyes, “are you okay?”
She didn’t know how to answer that. Am I okay? She was better than the other girl, but having a pulse and drawing breath were hardly the qualifications for being alright. Not really, no, but I’m alive. That’s more than I can say for the other girl.
Bethany put a hand in a blazer pocket, wondering if she would find any further tissues there. Instead, she discovered a slip of paper. She withdrew it and unfolded it. It was a message for her, courtesy of her kidnapper:
You’ll notice that you’ve returned home in a different outfit. I liked your school clothes, so I’ve decided to keep them. I swapped your clothes with Abigail Castle, who is almost the same size and I put you in her uniform instead. If you don’t want it, simply deliver back to her family at 30 Garden Crescent, which I believe to be only a couple of streets away from you. Make sure you don’t walk there alone as there might be some nasty people out there.
I enjoyed having you in my home, albeit briefly, and I’m sorry we didn’t get the chance to get to know each other more. Circumstances have required me to leave very quickly. I trust you will learn from the past 27 hours and that you will look after your virtue, which makes you beautiful. I have been in the presence of some very pretty young girls, most of which you make look ordinary.
Enjoy your future. It saddens me that I had to leave you behind.
Bethany froze, unable to speak, unable to cry. She just sat there, holding the note until her father took it from her. He put his arms around her shoulders’ causing her to flinch again. It was too soon for spontaneous physical contact, even from a loving parent.
She raised her head and looked at the clock on the wall. It was only six o’clock in the evening. It felt so much later, and at the same time, she couldn’t figure out where the rest of the day had gone.
There were so many questions that her parents would want to be answered. Had she run away? Had someone taken her? What had she been doing? What was she wearing?
When she recovered sufficiently to address their queries, she would tell them everything, and then she would tell the police. If I can tell everyone quickly enough, maybe the other girl will be saved from this monster.