In this extract from Helen Callaghan's tense new thriller Dear Amy, Katie has had enough of her mum, and her stepdad, Brian. She decides it's time to leave home.
Katie Browne is packing.
She gropes under her bed, seizing her blue backpack with the faux leather trim and begins stuffing clothes and toiletries into it with frantic energy, her eyes blinded by tears.
There is very little sense or order in this packing, but that’s all right, because it is the act of packing and not the objects themselves – the grey and green leggings, the Union Jack make-up bag puffed up to bursting with all her lip colours, the maroon jersey top with gold stitching that makes her feel so mature and sophisticated – that makes the difference.
Katie is leaving for good this time. She is never coming back. She has had enough. She flounces down on the bed, pulling on the pair of shiny red-brown ankle boots that her dad bought her a month ago.
On the window of her little room, the rain taps with increasing insistence, as though urging her to think again.
Nearly tripping over her discarded gym bag with her still-damp swimming kit nestling inside, Katie swings the blue backpack over her shoulder, all the while aware of the hateful murmur of the television downstairs in the living room and its chorus of canned laughter. They’ve turned the volume up but she is sure she can hear hidden whispering, her mum talking about her to that useless lump Brian. As though he has any right to an opinion.
As though he was her dad.
She is not staying here. That’s for definite. She’s not going to be treated like this in her own house, which has now become Brian’s house.
Brian, the big lazy sod, sitting there on the couch with his tattooed guns and loose jeans, like a low-rent Essex Buddha, one arm casually slung around her mother; always hogging the remote for the TV. Brian who thinks he can have an opinion on what she wears, where she goes, how late she stays out.
And her mum just sits there, letting him have his way. ‘He works so hard, love. Can you not be a little more respectful?’
Brian can fuck right off.
She’ll go to her dad. Her real dad.
‘Katie Browne? Is that you?’ He has to raise his voice as the rain is getting harder. Her gaze narrows as she pulls out her headphones, which tangle in her damp hair. ‘Yeah. How do you know me?’
Katie stomps down the stairs while popping her headphones in her ears, but not fast enough to tune out her mother’s sharp, ‘Where do you think you are going?’ from behind the closed door of the living room, just before she slams out of the house and walks with brisk purpose down the street.
It’s horrible outside. October now, and Cambridge’s slow, hazy summer has given way to jet-black nights and sheets of stinging rain, blown at her by a cold wind that whips through her hair and bites the tips of her fingers. Katie pulls up her hood and taps through her phone and Taylor Swift starts singing into her ears; a tiny bright noise.
She strides, nearly running, up the road with its leafy canopy of dark trees, and turns the corner on to Elizabeth Way and its constant roaring traffic.
In her pocket Taylor Swift is displaced by a comedy ringtone – a man declaring, ‘DANGER, DANGER, IT’S YOUR MOTHER CALLING!’
With a deft gesture, Katie swipes Decline and speeds up. The road is rising as it bridges the dark waters of the winding Cam below. Katie shivers, imagining swimming in it, with its fish and tangling weeds and muddy depths littered with broken bottles and rusted bicycles. She torments herself with the image of her white foot caught in sharp spokes, thin wisps of blood drifting out of her wounds up to the surface, where she cannot follow them.
With a snap she shakes her head, dropping the horrid daydream, returning to the real world of her own clicking heels on the drenched pavement and the approaching and retreating lights of the cars on her right as they roar past her with a hiss of crested water. She gets such morbid, mortifying thoughts sometimes, and she doesn’t understand where they come from.
Things were never like this when I was a kid, she thinks. She didn’t mind when Brian told her to do things; she never fought with her mum the way she does now. Back then she was just Katie, who liked to swim and liked to race and liked to win.
It had been enough then. But somehow it wasn’t enough any more. Now everything was confusing, and it seemed she was always angry, always stressing out over every little thing . . .
‘It’s your age, love,’ Brian had said once, when she’d made the mistake of mentioning it to him. ‘There’s nothing you can do. The only way out is forward.’
The phone buzzes once more against her curled fingers in her pocket, and as she takes it out and swipes Decline again, she becomes aware of a car pulling up beside her, its red brake lights glowing like hot coals through the rain.
The door swings open, and inside is an older man, with a baseball cap crushed down on his head. He cranes towards her, one muscled, knotty forearm holding the door handle. He is smiling at her, showing all of his teeth, almost as though he’s in pain. She has never seen this person before and she offers him an indignant stare, steps back and moves to walk on.
‘Katie Browne? Is that you?’ He has to raise his voice as the rain is getting harder.
Her gaze narrows as she pulls out her headphones, which tangle in her damp hair. ‘Yeah. How do you know me?’
It’s an unfriendly answer, and she can see him flinch a little, as though offended.
‘You used to go to the youth club in Hartington Grove. I drove the bus there, don’t you remember?’
She doesn’t. Furthermore, she hasn’t been to that youth club for about two years, since she started at St Hilda’s and began swimming properly, as she no longer has the time.
She shakes her head.
‘No? Well, I remember you.’ He chuckles, and it’s high, almost wheezy. ‘Look, you’re soaked through – can I give you a lift?’
There’s a long moment then as Katie considers. The man clearly knows who she is, and he must be a responsible person if he’s connected to the youth club. It is absolutely pouring now, each new raindrop raising its own tiny corona of water as it hits his car, the asphalt and the railings on the bridge. The sound of it fills everything. His car looks warm and dry.
But what she also considers is that this man could not possibly have spotted who she was with her hood pulled forward as she walked along – he must have passed her in his car and circled back. She considers the fact that his face sparks not the slightest twinge of recognition, and yet he can identify her, deeply hooded, in the midst of a rainstorm at night.
The disconnect between their acquaintances is too much, too alarming, and Katie realizes that however bad it looks or makes him feel, there is no way in the world she is getting in that car with him.
‘Thanks a lot,’ she says, being polite, thinking fast, ‘but I’m only going to the steps. They’re two seconds away.’ She gestures to the other end of the bridge, towards the roundabout. ‘My dad’s waiting for me,’ she adds, and this qualifying titbit, walking out of her mouth, surprises her – not just the words, but the little quaver of fear that enters her voice on the word ‘waiting’, an unwelcome note they can both hear. ‘I’d only get your car wet.’
Something twitches in his face again, but then his smile is back. ‘All right, if you’re sure, love. Get out of the rain soon!’ He proffers her a friendly wave with his free hand and the car door slams shut. Within seconds he has pulled smoothly away, without looking back.
Her sense of relief is extraordinary, and she considers for a second abandoning her escape, returning home, slipping up the stairs to her bedroom and facing the storm when it comes.
She calls her dad, wanting him to come and get her. After two rings she is switched to voicemail, his recorded greeting chirpy yet impersonal.
Her coat and hood are now sopping with rain.
She tries to shake the feeling that he’s deliberately sidelining her call, in the same way that she is snubbing her mother’s calls. She would admit to herself, if pushed, that the reason she never phoned him before setting out is that he would almost certainly have tried to persuade her not to come over.
Her dad is always telling her that he will ‘be there for her, no matter what’, and yet whenever she actually needs something, like for him to turn up and watch her swim in a gala, or stand up to Brian, or, say, pick her up in the pouring rain after she’s had an encounter with some creepy man, the call goes straight to voicemail.
Her cheeks burn and she ignores them.
Now that she’s reached the bottom of the steps of the pedestrian exit, she starts to consider her situation more calmly. She is in a warren of residential streets near the river, outside a closed beauty shop.
Katie pauses under the awning, wondering whether to try again or simply abandon the whole venture, when she hears steps: someone is walking along Abbey Road, with heavy boots and a brisk, rolling gait, a person hidden by the intervening wall.
She thrusts the phone back in her pocket and waits for whoever it is to pass by her, but the steps just stop – there is no sign of anyone when she finally abandons the shelter of the beauty shop’s porch and returns to the street, and she guesses that they must have turned into one of the houses nearby.
Well, whoever they were, they aren’t there now, and she needs to get a move on. She has a plan.
Just beneath Elizabeth Way and along the riverbank there is a footbridge – just a few minutes’ walk from here. She can re-cross the river there and make her way along the well-known streets back home. No car can follow her over it, and anything would be better than waiting here.
Young as she is, Katie knows that the suggestion of decamping to her dad’s house when there’s a crisis is like throwing a match on to the petrol of her mum’s insecurity. That’s why it was a great plan when Katie was furious and wanted to hurt her mother, but not so good when, as now, she’s exhausted, a little scared and soaked to the bone.
If she can sneak up to her room before they see the back-pack she can just say she went out for a walk to clear her head. There would still be a bloody awful row, but not as bad as it could be.
She heaves her wet rucksack over her shoulder; everything in it must be damp. What a stupid night this has been, she thinks. That bloody Brian, he lives to wind me up – and sets off under the overpass, the river gurgling and pattering placidly on her right, the huge concrete pillars on her left. Above her head, cars roar.
The well-lit tracery of the footbridge is visible just ahead and she smiles slightly to herself. She will go home and get dry and, once they’ve stopped shouting at her, she’ll get into bed and stream some rubbish TV to her laptop. In fact, her mother might even decide not to continue their fight, but instead take pity on her bedraggled state and make her a mug of hot chocolate and some toast to enjoy in front of the telly – it’s been known to happen before. Katie knows that their rows make her mum feel horribly guilty, but she never understands why.
This fantasy pleases her as she trudges along the rails on the side of the river, so it takes her a second or two to work out that someone is walking up behind her – someone in heavy boots walking quickly, too quickly.
She jerks around, but not fast enough, and there is the shocking intimacy of arms – strong, knotty arms – snaking around her waist, her neck, forcing her head back, a big rough hand covering her mouth.
‘Ah, Katie,’ he whispers, and his breath is hot against her chilled cheek as she tries to scream, to struggle. ‘I think we got off on the wrong foot there.’
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THE UNMISSABLE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLING PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER
Would you risk your life to save a stranger?
A local schoolgirl has been missing for weeks when Margot Lewis, agony aunt of the 'Dear Amy' advice column, receives a letter:
I've been kidnapped by a strange man.
I don't know where I am.
Please help me,
This must be a hoax. Because Bethan Avery is another young girl, who went missing twenty years ago.
As more letters arrive, Margot becomes consumed by finding the sender and - unlike the police - convinced that the girls' disappearances are connected.
Solving this puzzle could save someone's life - but could it also cost Margot her own?
'A first-rate psychological thriller. It's simply impossible to guess what's coming next' Irish Independent
'Terrific - delivers suspense, twists and smart writing' Julia Heaberlin, author of Sunday Times bestselling Black-Eyed Susans
'Haunting . . . this story will stay with you' Jane Corry, author of My Husband's Wife
'Skilfully handled. An accomplished psychological thriller' Daily Mail