Chapter OneMature

Chapter One

It was the difference, she reflected, between expecting something and realising that it didn’t matter anyway.

Caroline Johns threw her last piece of bread out onto the water, watching for a moment as two ducks squabbled over it while an industrious third dived to retrieve the tasty morsel. The sight brought a quick smile to her lips; well, wasn’t that the way of life? You could argue over it, or you could actually do something – and only those who tried succeeded.

Until, of course, someone took away your piece of bread and raced off squawking with it.

She chuckled at the thought, and decided she was through at the park. Clearly, there was only so much depressed philosophising a girl could take before the carefully maintained greenery and the hijinks of the natives got to her.

She grabbed her handbag, a big black crocheted thing interwoven with pink threads she’d picked up in the market only yesterday, and was fumbling around for her sunglasses when a buzz sounded in her ears.

"Oh, right," she muttered, and called up the translucent comscreen overlay just as her hand collided with one of the arms of her sunnies.

Her screen blossomed into sight, sublimating reality behind its translucent dark storm-grey frames. The smaller upper-hand frame revealed who’d messaged her, and Caroline made a small ‘hm’ noise at the back of her throat before turning her attention to the text itself.

Tracy | Carrie, are you still right about tonight?

Caroline rolled her eyes good-naturedly, and, focussing past the screen, shoved on her glasses and started off across the perfect green grass, simultaneously clueing in her speech-to-text program.

"Of course I am," she muttered, and even after nearly two years, she could still appreciate the way the text rolled across the window, only a short lag between when she spoke and when it began to faithfully transcribe. She favoured a round-lettered font in crimson – the simplicity ensured it was appropriate for personal chats, but also that it stood out as unique in the bustling chaos of chatrooms and group chats. You couldn’t get a much better deal than that.

Caroline | Of course I am. You two just have fun.

She cancelled the window, pausing briefly to consider changing the skin to purple, and her vision faded out to the rolling green and brightly-hued roses of the Carvey Botanical Gardens.

For once, she didn’t slow down and allow herself to enjoy the sight and rich scents of the various blues, violets and reds, but instead tugged at her shirt collar and walked on, her long-legged stride confident but quick, her monster handbag thrown over one shoulder.

The station was only two blocks from the Gardens, a vaguely militant, utilitarian building constructed as a perfect square. Its one-storey height meant it stood in favourable contrast to the three-stories around it, but its gunmetal grey paint job could never be anything but ugly.

Caroline’s bus had already arrived, and she hurried towards it, worry etching creases on her tanned forehead, but she wasn’t late. With relief, she noted the passengers disembarking. Just a bit early after all.

She slowed her pace and loitered around the terminal until it was time. Unlike as was usual for her, she didn’t tarry – no talking to strangers, catching up on the latest from the City. Anything. The last two times Caroline had been there, she’d felt eyes on her the whole time. Watching. And though she usually didn’t mind, this wasn’t a pleasant sensation in the least.

She’d closed and locked her front door with relief on those days. Even knowing she was being so ridiculous…

Then it was time to board, and Caroline shouldered her concerns, and attempted to calm her heartbeat back to its usual placidity. Whoever it was, they had clearly gone.

There were the usual people on the unpopular 2:15, she noted as she took her seat, glancing at her ticket to make sure it was correct. Caroline knew them all by heart: the nervous-looking blonde woman who now sat two seats behind her but was usually in front, the eight or so men wearing the blue and yellow tunics of the local South Carvey Knockers, and the two businessmen in pinstriped suits who somehow always managed to get themselves seats in the back and spent the whole trip rustling through papers, or at least made a good show of looking like they did. Caroline didn’t know which. But it seemed suspicious to her that they didn’t just use their NIs. Surely all major businesses would have acclimitised to them by now.

Of course, paper should just be dying out full stop, even though it never seemed to.

Irrationally on edge, she found herself twisting round to study them all, her gaze slow and steady as it swept across the bus’ comfortable interior. But the footballers were busy talking amongst themselves, their boisterous voices breaking over her like waves in stormy weather and their laughter like porcelein breaking. The woman was staring out the window – without seeing, Caroline knew her hands would be interlocked primly on her lap, maybe even white-knuckled as she contemplated some unfortunate twist of fate – and one of the businessmen was scowling at something while the other jotted something down. He held the back of his clipboard right up, obscuring his face, but she could see the arm holding the pen move. Hardly menacing activities.

Wait, was he looking at her? The one with the scowl? – No, of course not. Or if he was, he was wondering if she was a madwoman.

She sat back against her seat with a sigh, and forced herself to close her eyes. She was just getting paranoid. That was all.

But she couldn’t keep her eyes closed.

The bus took on more passengers, let them off again. The lull of its movement and hum of the engines proved oddly soothing – machinery going about its business, day in, day out. Nice, normal rhythm underlying all the chatter and the laughter and shouts.

Then it was her stop, and Caroline grabbed her purse, combed her hair back with a hand even though the brown mass was so short it didn’t really need it, and departed with a customary smile for the driver, an unconscious glance to the GPS nestled between steering wheel and monitor, and a graceful leap from the top step to the ground.

The bus pulled out of the stop with a sudden roar of the engine, and Caroline was alone, standing on the corner of Smith and Wesson.

She trudged home, giving Old Lady Andrews a wave as she went. The poor woman’s husband had died last week, leaving her with no one. She spent all her time dressed in mourning and sitting on her rocking chair on the veranda. It seemed nothing could move her until her melancholy was over, yet she returned every wave with cheerfulness.

Caroline’s house was the fifth on Wesson, the second of two tiny units built wall-to-wall. Two similar units faced her, and two more headed them both off. Paul, her next-door neighbour, often complained about the construction. He was studying to an architect, though since his main complaints were about the uselessness of the little courtyard their units framed, and how people kept mistaking them for some kind of institutional building, it was impossible to guess from his attitude.

Then again, the entire street was full of what might be called ‘unusual architecture’, so maybe that was all he could find to complain about. Caroline felt herself grinning at the thought.

But he wasn’t home as she passed by, and if anyone else was, they were keeping to themselves. She felt a tug of disappointment about that; it was always nice to see your neighbours – if only to be sure nothing had happened.

Or maybe she was too much of a country girl. That one triggered a snicker.

She planned her evening out as she groped in her bag to find her key: shower and change, go to work – covering Tracy’s shift was an annoyance, but Caroline certainly wasn’t about to begrudge her friend a much-needed night out with her boyfriend to patch things up. Besides, she’d just owe her a favour later – but once she’d unlocked the door and waltzed through into her brick-walled lounge, her plans died instantly.

Something was wrong.

The room itself was fine, just as she’d left it; the outdated books she’d never quite gotten around to selling arranged neatly in their bookcase, her TV resting on its cabinet opposite her stuffed old falling-to-pieces couch, the both of them in front of her resting against their respective walls. Her oblong coffee-table looked untouched, although considering the mess of things on it, it was difficult to say for certain.

Had she left the window open that far? A panic rose in her, and, unconsciously, she brought a hand up to clutch at the throat of her blue shirt. Her grey eyes darted here and there. She always left it open a smidgeon – to let the air in – but it was halfway open now. Would anyone play this prank on her? They knew how she was…

And then, with a breeze blowing gently through the far window, stirring the white curtains with their yellow daisy patterns, came the mingled smell of cigarette smoke and the scent of lilac cologne, wholly unfamiliar, and much too strong to have come from outside.


Goosebumps rose on her flesh, the fine, dark hairs on her arms pricking up, and the haunted, watched feeling returned, mixed in now with a sort of numb, frantic certainty: someone invaded my home!

She stood paralysed, the urge to check everything assailing her mind all at once, but everything looked fine didn’t it? Just the everyday home of Caroline Johns, waitress, absolute nobody… but that smell… she crossed the room, and it was much stronger near the hallway leading to the bedrooms.

Caroline shuddered, and backed away.

The worst thing was, even if something had been stolen, she still couldn’t call the police.


The End

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