Everybody remembered the rain. They remembered it because the early August days had been flawless, and the heat had been almost unbearable. The streets had been too hot to walk on so the kids had been out in force on two wheels, bikes thrumming on the shimmering tarmac, their laughter carrying in the way laughter only really carries in summer.
Then, out of nowhere, the skies had darkened like a bruise and split wide open. It had happened so suddenly that even the weather reporters had been taken by surprise, almost apologetic on their midday catch-ups. The storm had been supposed to miss the east, they said, it should have been scooped out across the coast where the North Sea would pummel it into nothing. Instead it had cast its sights on Norfolk and struck with a fury that made windows rattle and trees bend backwards. Not a soul had been out that day, not unless they had no choice. The city was a gallery of ghostly faces who watched the downpour through their fogged-up windows.
Everybody remembered the rain, afterwards. It’s what they said in every statement, and on every broadcast. She shouldn’t have been working. Her mother must have been crazy to let her out. The rain was so strong it must have washed her out to sea.
Everybody remembered the rain. The rain that kept the city indoors.
Not a soul had been out that day, not a soul apart from that one poor girl.
And the man who took her away.
* * *
At eleven, going on twelve, Maisie Malone was too old for foot stamping, but she’d clean run out of options. She’d tried arguing her case a hundred different ways, to the point where her mum had actually put her fingers in her ears, dancing from foot to foot while yelling, “Lalala.” She’d tried shutting herself in her room but her mum had threatened to take away her phone. She’d tried the same old threat that she always used, to run away and never come back. But mum had just shrugged and called her bluff, because the whole point of the stupid argument was that Maisie didn’t want to go outside. So where was she going to run to? The cupboard under the sink?
Other than stamping her foot on the worn living room carpet, what else could she do?
“Just look, mum, it’s pouring!”
It really was. It had switched from sunshine to monsoon in a heartbeat, the rain coming down so hard that there was a river of it running down the hill.
“I know what rain looks like, Maisie,” said her mum, walking out of their tiny kitchen in her dressing gown and PJs—even though it had gone noon. She had a soft pack of Mayfairs in her hand and the same yellow disposable lighter she must have owned for as long as Maisie had been alive. “I also know it can’t hurt you. Not unless you’re a Gremlin.”
She looked Maisie up and down.
“Actually, maybe you are a Gremlin. That would explain a lot of things.”
She wanted to scream the house down, but there was nothing guaranteed to make mum lose her rag like a tantrum. Her phone was a brand-new iPhone 7—well, brand new to her, mum had got it off Facebook marketplace for cheap because it had a scratch on the screen—and she’d already lost it once for refusing to help hoover up. She couldn’t risk losing it again, not now that she’d finally figured out how to install the Minecraft app.
“Look, I’ll do it tomorrow,” she pleaded. “Mr Walker’s never even bothered if we’re late.”
“Yes, he is,” mum said, lighting up a cigarette. Maisie waved the smoke out of her face, glaring hard. “And it’s not even him, it’s his customers. They expect their papers on time. No point getting them a week after the news, is there? It won’t be news then. It will be olds.”
She laughed at her own joke and Maisie grunted.
“It’s the free paper,” she moaned. “Nobody even reads it.”
Her mum inhaled deeply, holding the smoke in her lungs. She turned around to breathe it back into the kitchen—the only place she was really supposed to spark up—but it still went everywhere, so strong that it made Maisie’s head ring. Every wall in the house was yellow, and she wondered if her lungs were the same.
“Maisie, what did I say to you yesterday?” her mum said, her calmness infuriating.
Maisie shrugged, but she remembered all too well.
“I said you needed to do your rounds, didn’t I? I said if you leave it until tomorrow then you’ll regret it. And here we are, a quarter past three on a Wednesday afternoon, and do you regret it? Yes. You wanted the job, you wanted the extra money. Nobody forced you to do it, and if you want to quit, you can call Mr Walker right now.”
Maisie stamped her foot again, but all it succeeded in doing was plastering a smug grin on her mum’s fat, yellow face. For a moment she half thought about doing exactly that, calling Mr Walker and telling him to stick his job where the sun didn’t shine. But he paid her three pounds an hour, and the tenner it got her every week helped pay for all the stuff that mum’s benefits couldn’t stretch to.
Not to mention the extra money she got for selling the other things.
Besides, mum was right, it was only rain.
She sighed, looking at the door.
“Please?” she tried, one more time.
She was surprised to feel her mum’s arm around her, pulling tight, the cigarette held high above her head so it wouldn’t burn her eye out.
“I’m proud of you, Lazy-Maisie,” her mum said. “You’re growing up fast, you’re becoming such a big girl.”
She let go, then slapped her on the bum.
“Go on, get it over and done with. I’ll bung some fishfingers in the oven and we can have sandwiches the second you get in. Yeah?”
Maisie blew another sigh through her lips.
* * *
It wasn’t even that bad, after the first few seconds. It wasn’t cold rain, there was an almost pleasant warmth to it, like standing in the shower. It was as powerful as a shower too, more so maybe, compared to their own one with its limescale crust and its pitiful flow. Once the shock of being hit in the face by a thousand angry droplets had passed, Maisie almost enjoyed the feel of it.
The ride through the estate was almost all downhill, but she kept one hand locked on the brakes to stop her wheels from sliding all over the place. The water steamed its way into the drains, pooling so deep in places that there were little whirlpools. Every time she steered through a puddle she sent sheets of water over the empty pavements and she almost laughed at the thought of drenching imaginary people—her mum being right at the top of that list. The newspaper bag was a tonne weight on her shoulder but she was used to it, and she took it easy around the corners so that it wouldn’t drag her over.
Every now and then a car would pass, moving almost in slow motion, headlights blazing even though it was the middle of the day. A couple of people waved to her, a couple more pointed and laughed. One old woman even rolled down her window and asked her if she wanted a lift home. She didn’t reply, she knew better than to talk to strangers—even kind ones in flowery frocks. She just stood on her pedals and fought her way up the hill on the other side of the estate until she wheezed into the first little cul-de-sac that made up her route.
It was deserted, like some kind of zombie apocalypse had hit—which wasn’t too weird a thought, really, given that everyone who lived around here was about a hundred years old and moved like the undead. She parked her bike outside the first bungalow and wrestled with the gate. Then she ran into the driving rain, so fast that she slipped on the cobbles and flew into the door. Her knuckles cracked against the wood and she brought them to her lips, wincing as the pain pulsed through her hand. The newspaper was drenched the second she pulled it from her bag, but she managed to push it through the stubborn letterbox, poking the last corner in with her finger until it snapped free and dropped.
It took her less than eight minutes to do the first side of the road, a little longer to do the opposite because Number 4 had a mean old dog and she was always terrified it was going to bite off her thumb. Grabbing her bike, she wheeled down the main road and into the next cul-de-sac, which was almost identical to the last. She spotted a few crinkled faces behind the net curtains and offered them unenthusiastic waves. If they waved back, she didn’t see. The rain poured into her eyes, turning the world into a kaleidoscope of blurred shapes and colours.
She finished the street then took refuge in a bus shelter, pulling the sodden hair from her face and blowing the raindrops from her lips. The downpour drummed its fingers against the roof, dropped mercilessly onto the street, locking her inside a cage of glass and falling water. Drying her hands as best she could, she yanked the phone from her jeans, her heart tripping over itself as she noticed how wet the screen was. It still worked, though, telling her that half an hour had passed since she’d left home. Again, that brief thought tickled her brain: she could call Mr Walker now, quit this stupid job, dump the papers here then go home.
But if she did that then she lost her Saturday round. The one that took her to the heath. The one that really made the money. Twenty quid some days.
She shook her head, pushing the phone into the waterproof newspaper bag to keep it safe. She only had three streets left to go, and it wasn’t like she could get any wetter.
Bracing herself, she stepped out into the rain and crossed the deserted street, the water coming up to her ankles and filling her trainers from top to bottom. She squelched to the first bungalow, her feet ridiculously heavy, and rested her bike against the crumbling brick wall. She was halfway up the path, a paper in her hand, when she paused.
The front door was open. Not just a crack, either, it was wide open. From where she was standing, Maisie could see water pooling on the hallway carpet, droplets hitting the top of a walnut phone table. It was ridiculously dark inside, and when she glanced at the two large front windows—one a living room, presumably, the other the bedroom—she saw that the heavy curtains were pulled tight.
She took another couple of steps, the newspaper already limp. Something was going off in her head—not a noise, exactly, more a feeling. It was an alarm, instinctive, unmistakable. There was something off about this house. Something wrong. She smudged the water from her eyes, noticing how painful it was to blink. Behind her, the street stood silent and still, almost like a cardboard theatre set. Nothing felt quite real beneath the fury of the storm, as if it might start to fold and crumble. The house just waited.
It’s only a house, she told herself. And just like that, the feeling went. Any longer and the newspaper would dissolve, so she ran to the front door and threw it inside, getting ready to bolt back to the street.
A voice stopped her. A voice from inside. Thin, reedy, and desperate.
It was as though the day had filled her with rainwater and then frozen her solid. For an awful moment, Maisie couldn’t even move. She took a step back, her skin tingling, her scalp shrinking so fast she wondered if her hair would drop out.
“Please?” the voice said. It sounded old, ancient.
All of a sudden, Maisie felt terrible for even thinking about leaving. Maybe somebody had fallen over and couldn’t get up? Old folks were always having accidents and breaking themselves, she knew that from watching Casualty with her mum.
“Um…” she said, her voice hiding in her throat. “Hello? Do you need help? I’ve, uh, I’ve got a phone.”
She reached into the newspaper bag, fumbling for it. There was no reply from inside the house—at least none that she could hear over the pounding rain—and she walked to the door, craning in, not quite willing to put any of herself closer than it needed to be. There was a weird smell from inside, stronger even than the rain-churned earth. It was a rotten smell, like when they didn’t put the bin out in the middle of summer, but there was something medicinal about it too, something that reminded her of hospitals. It caught in her throat.
“Hello?” she called, louder this time. It was impossible to see anything in there, there just wasn’t enough light in the day. The world might have ended halfway down that corridor. “I’ll call an ambulance, hang on.”
She found her phone, almost whooping with triumph. Her hands were shaking, her thumb too wet to unlock it.
“Give me a second,” she said, typing in her passcode. “It will be okay.”
Still no reply.
“Come on, dammit,” she growled at her phone. It finally unlocked, and she glanced at the copper number screwed to the side of the door, trying to remember what flower this cul-de-sac was named after. Geranium Close? Gerbera Close? She was so flustered that for a moment she couldn’t even remember the number for 999.
It’s 999, you idiot!
She dialled it, holding the phone to her ear and listening to it ring.
Come on, hurry up.
There was no movement inside the house, just a deep, heavy, silent darkness that made her tummy feel funny. She stared into it, trying to make sense of anything there, trying to find a contour or edge or outline that would ground her.
There, wasn’t that something? A deeper shadow amongst the gloom? Tall, thin. A clock, perhaps? A coat stand? She focussed on it as the phone rang, and rang, and—
The shape moved, it moved fast. Maisie had the sudden sense of a train punching its way through a tunnel, a rush of darkness so swift and so sudden that the scream burned itself out of her before she even knew it was coming. That wall of shadow rushed towards her, filling the doorway, and a hand clamped itself over her jaw.
The phone clicked, a tiny voice asked her what the emergency was, but she couldn’t answer.
Another hand grabbed her hair, twisting her head and wrenching her inside. And hidden by the thunder of the rain, Maisie’s world went black.
“Are we nearly there yet?”
It took every ounce of patience that Robert Kett had left not to slam his foot on the brake and run, screaming, out of the car. To be fair, he’d been feeling like this for the last three hours, ever since the ten-year-old, pigeon-shit-green Volvo had pulled away from their house in Stepney and begun the infuriating drive north-east. Two of the three kids in the back had asked this question every ten minutes. The third was only eighteen months old, too young to speak in full sentences, but her relentless screaming had more than made up for it.
Outside, the world was on fire. The freak summer storm yesterday seemed to have sucked every drop of moisture from the sky, and the sun set about its work with a hammer. It filled Kett’s windscreen like liquid and turned the tarmac to a shimmering mirage. He’d been squinting so hard, and for so long, that it felt like the front of his head had been compressed in a vice.
“Dad? Are we?”
He cleared the lorry and pulled back into the left-hand lane of the A11 before glancing in the rear-view mirror. Alice frowned back at him, her jaw bulging as she chewed a piece of gum that had lasted the entire journey. A white van overtook them, a blinding flash of sunlight cutting into the car, and for a moment the seven-year-old looked just like her mum, as if Billie was sitting right there in the back seat. It was such a powerful vision that Kett felt as though his mind had been cut loose from his skull, the vertigo making him grip the wheel like a drifting astronaut clutching a tether.
He turned back to the road, swallowing nothing but dust.
“Dad?” Alice said.
“Dad?” added her three-year-old sister, Evie. “I’m hungry.”
“Aad,” went the baby, before breaking into another klaxon-like wail of fury. It was so loud that Kett had to close his eyes for a second, and in doing so he almost missed the sliproad. He indicated, pulling off, the sun mercifully falling over his shoulder. The car seemed to instantly cool by ten degrees.
“I’m hungry!” whined Evie. “I need a poo.”
“Are we nearly there?” said Alice.
“We are,” he said, and for the first time that day it wasn’t a lie. “We are. Ten minutes, I promise.”
Although it would be longer, because he couldn’t quite remember where he was going. He’d spent the first twelve years of his life up here, but that was thirty years ago now and the roads had changed since then. He half thought about pulling over and firing up the satnav, but if he stopped now then the chances were the girls would pile out with or without his permission, and Moira’s screams would quadruple in strength.
He scanned the forest of green signposts ahead, spotting one for the north of the city and swerving into the next lane over. Somebody leaned on their horn as he cut them up and in a moment of blind fury he almost contemplated climbing out of the Volvo, dragging them from their car and arresting them right there on the hard shoulder.
Except you’re not on duty any more, he reminded himself. Not technically, anyway. The whole point of coming up here is to get away.
Get away from London. Get away from the job. Get away from everything that reminded him of Billie, his wife.
He slammed on his brakes just to annoy the man behind him, slowing to a crawl as he approached the traffic lights ahead. They’d just switched to red when he put his foot down, the old Volvo roaring through the lights and onto the circular. He checked his mirror, seeing the car behind him screech to a halt, a red face gurning through the windscreen.
He might not be on duty any more, but there was nothing to stop him being an arsehole.
“I can feel a poo coming out,” said Evie.
“For heaven’s sake,” he grunted. “Just hang on, it’s right up ahead.”
Luckily it was halfway between lunch and pick-up and the roads were relatively clear. He raced up the circular, looking out onto a city that he had mostly forgotten—and which had entirely forgotten him. Other than flashes of the cathedral spire, etched in golden sunshine, there wasn’t a single thing here that he could remember from childhood. Occasionally a police car would drive by and he waved reflexively, and the one time an ambulance blazed past in full concert mode he had to avoid the urge to chase it. He kept his head down, kept his pace steady, as they made their way up the hill.
“Evie’s pooped herself,” said Alice with an unkind laugh.
“I haven’t! You have!” she retaliated.
“You’ve pooped your pants!”
“I’ll poop in your pants!” Evie squealed.
At this, Kett almost managed a smile. He slowed, scanning the street names, finding the one he wanted and turning the car off the main road. Only when he saw the house ahead did he remember to breathe, and it felt like the first breath he’d taken all day, flooding his body with relief. The girls sensed it, all of them falling quiet.
The street was busy, cars parked up both sides, and Kett had to drive halfway up before he found a space. He pulled in, bumping up onto the kerb. Then he switched off the engine, and for a single, blissful moment there was no sound at all other than the gentle whisper of the wind in the trees outside.
“Is this it?” screeched Alice at a thousand decibels. “Are we here?”
He nodded and they broke into cheers that could have shattered every window on the street, Moira making a noise that might have been joy or might have been terror—Kett wasn’t sure. He opened his door, the hinges squeaking almost as much as his joints did as he climbed out and straightened up. Alice had already unbuckled herself and was climbing into the front.
“No!” yelled Evie, wrestling with her bumper seat. “Wait for me!”
Kett closed his eyes, pushing down on a sudden wave of anxious energy. What he wouldn’t give to have Billie here right now, her soothing voice, her smile. She would have calmed the girls in a heartbeat.
But she’s gone, he reminded himself. She’s gone.
He opened his eyes, liquid sunlight searing its way into his head.
“Come on,” he said, helping Alice out of the car. “Let’s go start our new life.”