Hostage - Clare Mackintosh
Don’t run, you’ll fall.
Past the park, up the hill. Wait for the green man, not yet, not yet…
Cat in the window. Like a statue. Just the tiniest tip of his tail moving. Twitch, twitch, twitch.
Another road to cross. No green man and no lollipop lady—she should be here…
Look both ways. Not yet, not yet…
Don’t run, you’ll fall.
Mailbox, then lamppost, then bus stop, then bench.
Big school—not my school, not yet.
Bookshop, then empty shop, then the ’state agent where they sell houses.
Now the butcher’s shop, birds hanging from their necks in the window. My eyes squeezed shut so I don’t have to see theirs staring back.
Dead. All dead.
8:30 A.M. | MINA
“Stop that, you’ll fall.”
A week’s worth of snow has pressed itself into ice, each day’s danger hidden beneath a nighttime dusting of powder. Every few yards, my boots travel farther than my feet intended, and my stomach pitches, braced for a fall. Our progress is slow, and I wish I’d thought to bring Sophia on the sled instead.
Reluctantly, she opens her eyes, swiveling her head, owllike, away from the shops, to hide her face in my sleeve. I squeeze her gloved hand. She hates the birds that hang in the butcher’s window, their iridescent neck feathers cruelly at odds with the lifeless eyes they embellish.
I hate the birds too.
Adam says I’ve given the phobia to her, like a cold or a piece of unwanted jewelry.
“Where did she get it from, then?” he said when I protested. He held out his hands, turning to an invisible crowd, as though the absence of answer proved his point. “Not me.”
Of course not. Adam doesn’t have weaknesses.
“Sainsbury’s,” Sophia says now, looking back at the shops, now that we are safely past the birds. She still pronounces it thainsbweez, so cute, it makes my heart squeeze. It’s moments like this I treasure, moments like this that make it all worthwhile.
Her breath makes tiny mists in the air. “Now the shoe shop. Now the-e-e-e…” She draws out the word, holding the next in her mouth until it’s time. “…fruit and veg shop,” she declares as we draw level with it. Fwoot and veg. God, I love this girl. I do.
The ritual began back in the summer, when Sophia was fizzing with excitement and nerves over starting school, questions tumbling out with every breath. What would her teacher be like? Where would they hang their coats? Would there be bandages if she scraped her knee? And tell me one more time, how do we get there? I’d take her through it again: up the hill, across one road, then another, then on to the high street. Past the bus stop by the secondary school, then along the parade, with the bookshop, and the estate agent, and the butcher. Around the corner to Sainsbury’s. To the shoe shop, then the fruit and veg shop, past the police station, up the hill, past the church, and we’re there, I’d tell her.
You have to be patient with Sophia; that’s what Adam struggles with. You have to tell her things again and again. Reassure her that nothing’s changed, that nothing will change.
Adam and I dropped her off together, that first day in September. We took a hand each, swinging her in the middle, as though we were still a proper family, and I was glad to have an excuse for the tears that pricked my eyes.
“She’ll go off without a second glance, you’ll see,” Aunty Mo said, seeing my face as we left home. She isn’t an actual aunty, but “Mrs. Watt” is too formal for a neighbor who makes hot chocolate and remembers birthdays.
I’d made myself smile back at Mo. “I know. Daft, isn’t it?”
Daft to wish Adam still lived with us. Daft to think that day was anything other than role-playing, for Sophia’s sake.
Mo had crouched down to smile at Sophia. “You have a good day, now, petal.”
“My dress is scratchy.” It came with a scowl Mo managed to miss.
“That’s nice, dear.”
Mo leaves her hearing aid off to save on the batteries. When I pop ’round, I have to stand in the flower bed by the lounge window and wave until she sees me. You should have rung the bell! she always says, as though I hadn’t done just that for the past ten minutes.
“What next?” I’d said to Sophia that first day as we passed the greengrocer, anxiety bleeding from her fingers to mine.
“Police station!” she’d said triumphantly. “Daddy’s police station.”
It isn’t where Adam works, but that doesn’t matter to