Blink – K.L. Slater

You don’t know this, but I watch you. I watch you a lot. And when you spend a lot of time observing someone, you often wish you could give them advice, tell them where they’re going wrong. Unfortunately, you are the sort of person who always knows best. The kind of person that carries on your merry way each and every day, oblivious to the danger that is right in front of your very face. Despite this, I would like very much to share something with you – as you would a friend, if you like. Even though I acknowledge you have no idea that it is possible to feel so much pain . yet. Here is what I would like to tell you; it’s a simple thing. When you first realise your child is gone, you will think it is the worst time. Very quickly, there will come a sort of seeping feeling, like your very life blood is oozing out and there is nothing, nothing at all, that you can do about it. You will feel it flowing away and it simply cannot be stopped. But by then, you have stopped caring about yourself.

For you only care about her, your baby. Forty-eight hours. This is the approximate length of time you will teeter on the edge of madness, still somehow believing it is possible to wish things back to how they were. You will stay awake for days, until they sedate you, and each time you stir from your drugged slumber, there will be one – just the one, single second – when you open your eyes and think everything is alright again. One single second when you believe it has all been just a terrible figment of your imagination. And then you will think that this must the worst time. And it is almost exactly this time that hope begins to crumble. It slides slightly at first and then it gathers momentum and then suddenly hope crashes away from you. If hope is like the softest snow, then the dread that replaces it is the razor-sharp ice that will slash and pare your very soul to ribbons. And everyone you know, every single person, they all say the exact same thing. They say, ‘Whatever happens, you must never lose hope.’ But it is too late for such cautionary words because hope has already gone.

It has completely gone. This truly feels like the worst time. But it soon becomes apparent that you are so, so wrong. For one day very soon, you will wake up to the realisation that the horror has only just begun. PART I 1 PRESENT DAY QUEEN’S MEDICAL CENTRE, NOTTINGHAM Tick tock, tick tock, goes the clock. It sits neatly on the wall, just at the periphery of my vision. At the other side of my bed there is a pool of light, a window. I can detect a soft, muted mass there. I think it might be the colour green. It brushes gently against the glass, whispering, when everything else in this small, white room is still and silent.

There are voices, footsteps. I hear them just outside the door. The two doctors step inside the room and I strain to catch their movements, a blur of white. They come every day at about this time, when the light is a little softer. This is how I know it is the afternoon. My heart pulses faster. Will this be the time they notice I am still here behind the invisible, soundproof partition that now separates me from the real world? To them, I am in a vegetative state, lying on the narrow bed, eyes wide open, frozen. Still as a corpse. But inside my head I am standing tall, hammering my splayed fingers and flat palms against the non-existent glass. Screaming to be let out.

Look at me, I yell. Look at me! But they hardly ever do. Look at me, that is. They talk about me, observe me from a distance, but they don’t touch me or look me in the eyes. If they did, a doctor or a nurse might see the slightest flicker of an eyelash, an almost imperceptible tremor of a finger. Dear God, even the cleaner might spot a spark of life if she’d only look at me occasionally. ‘It’s the cruellest thing,’ the female doctor says softly, taking a step closer to my bed. ‘That she still looks so alive, I mean.’ I am alive, I scream. I AM alive.

I summon every ounce of effort and determination I have in me and send it to the hand that lies motionless on top of the pale blue blanket. My left hand. The hand they can see because it is right in front of their unobservant faces. All I have to do is move a finger, shift my palm. A millimetre of movement, a mere twitch would be enough. If they could only spot it. Anything that can tell them I am very much still here. Frozen solid, but very much alive. A prisoner, buried inside my own flesh. ‘There’s nothing left of her, she’s just a shell,’ the male doctor states quietly.

‘It’s been that way since the day she had the stroke.’ ‘I don’t envy you,’ the woman sighs. ‘You’ll have to speak to the family soon.’ ‘There is no family,’ he replies. ‘We don’t know who she is yet.’ The door opens again, and then closes. The footsteps walk away and the room falls quiet. Now the only sound that fills the room is the raspy sigh of the defibrillator that is keeping me alive. And in between each raspy sigh, there is silence. I can’t breathe without one machine.

I can’t swallow without another. Breathe, I tell myself. This can’t be real. It can’t be happening. But it is. It is happening. And it’s very, very real. What I can still do is think. And I can remember. Somehow, I can remember the past with a clarity I didn’t possess before.

Yet I know instinctively that if I remember too much, too soon, the pain will be too intense and I will close down completely. And then what will happen to my beautiful girl? Everyone gave up on Evie some time ago. The official police line is that it continues to be an open case and any new information will be investigated, but I know they’re not actively pursuing new leads, because they haven’t got any. No evidence, no sightings. Nothing. For months after it happened, I slavishly read all of the comments people posted underneath the online news reports. They talked as if they had personal knowledge about Evie’s ‘terrible, neglectful mother’ and her ‘unhappy home’. Others openly discussed how Evie could possibly just disappear like that. Everyone an expert. European paedophile rings, a child serial killer, Romany travellers passing through – all those terrible theories of how and why Evie had gone.

I’d heard them all. Eventually, and without exception, they all wrote Evie off. Not me. I have chosen to believe that Evie is still alive, that somewhere out there, she is living and breathing. I have to hold on to that. That’s why I must not panic. Even though I cannot move a muscle or utter a sound, there has to be a way for me to help them find her, save her, while I can still remember everything so clearly. There is only one thing for it: I must think back, right to the very beginning. Way back, to before it even happened. 2 THREE YEARS EARLIER TONI The stark, bare walls of the new house were smooth and cold, like exposed bone.

Nothing to flesh them out. The whole place was just a slew of empty packaging, devoid of any content or character at all. One big smudge of magnolia eggshell. Definitely not mood-inspiring – unless you counted misery and dread. Yes, it was clean and functional, but I had always loved colour. I’d relished the plentiful space of our old living room with its big bay window, and the feature wall of turquoise and black paisley wallpaper that had taken me over a week to choose; a week living with wallpaper samples taped to the chimney breast and all three of us having a different opinion before agreeing on the same design. I glanced around the walls, the skirting boards, the tiny hallway and the clutch of minuscule rooms beyond. As if I might have missed the charm of the place the first ten times I’d looked around. I felt as if my life had been bleached of colour and texture, like my very soul had been daubed an insipid magnolia shade, inside and out. I turned away and stood at the small window which looked out on the damp patch of scuffed grass.

The letting agent had had the audacity to call it a ‘front garden’, what a laugh that was. Weeds choked the slender borders and dandelions sprouted between the paving slabs in awkward, impractical places, buffeted by the cool breeze and swaying like drunken soldiers. I turned away from the window and looked around the room. Piled up in the corner were a few cardboard boxes and overstuffed bin bags. The sum total of the last eight years of our lives. All the good times and the bad times were documented in those bags; sentimental items tangled up together and packed in tightly so nothing moved, so nothing else could slip. A burst of laughter, bright faces and family times filled my head and then were gone, like the brief flash of an old celluloid film before it finally dies. Perhaps one day I’d manage to unravel it all, smooth out the fine, knotted threads of everything that went wrong. Finally make sense of why the nightmare had happened to us. Maybe then I’d have a chance of sleeping again.

A noise at the door made me start but I turned to see it was only Mum, her face worn and lined, her wiry frame too rigid and tense. Her energy and drive to get things done was enviable, but now it stuck in my side like a blunt needle, constantly reminding me of my own inadequacies. She frowned at me, seeing the truth with her special mother’s X-ray eyes. ‘Leave no time for thinking, isn’t that what we said?’ She clapped her hands and there I was, ten years old again with Mum demanding I hurry up and get dressed before I miss the school bus. If only it were that simple, I’d willingly transport myself back there. What I’d give to have another go at life, make some better decisions. ‘Fancy a cuppa?’ I nodded, watching as Mum walked over to the boxes and perused the handwritten labels. I caught sight of my handbag sitting there on the floor, where I’d left it while I humped in bin bag after bin bag from the boot of the car. I moved forward and reached past Mum to pick up the bag. ‘Just need to check my phone,’ I muttered as she turned to watch me.

I didn’t root around for the phone, but stood stock-still, hugging the handbag to my chest like a prize. Mum looked at me for a long moment. ‘What?’ I challenged. She broke her gaze, sighed and pulled open a box, effortlessly plucking out the kettle and two mugs she’d shrouded in bubble wrap. ‘Tea,’ she announced, disappearing back into the kitchen. I hated deceiving Mum. But then, deceit was probably too strong a word. What I was doing didn’t affect her in the least. It was more a case of me not telling her every last thing. After all, at thirty-five years of age, I was more than entitled to make my own decisions without involving my mother.

That’s what I told myself anyway. It was true I had a lot to thank Mum for. After months of deliberations and dithering, she had persuaded me to up sticks from Hemel Hempstead and move Evie to Nottingham, closer to her, to make a fresh start. I’d always thought it was an overused phrase: make a fresh start. You could say it so quickly and easily, but in reality it took months to plan and sort everything out. And even then, there was still masses left to do. Still, I had already arranged for Evie to start at the local, Ofsted-rated ‘good’ school, St Saviour’s Primary, at the beginning of term. Like Mum said, it was important to keep her educational upheaval to a minimum. Somehow, I’d muddle through and try to do my best for my daughter. For our now less-than-perfect family.

‘Evie is really excited about starting her new school,’ Mum called from the kitchen. ‘She was chatting to me about it this morning before I dropped her off at playgroup.’ A spike of conscience jabbed me in the guts. I hadn’t yet had time to sit down and talk to Evie properly about all the change, what with selling and renting houses and making all the necessary moving arrangements, as well as trying to settle Andrew’s medical bills with the insurance company. It had all been a nightmare. But I was pleased to hear Mum say Evie was excited. ‘I’ve made an appointment to look around the school tomorrow afternoon at two,’ I called back to Mum. ‘If you fancy it, you could have a run over with us.’ She groaned. ‘I’ve got my osteopathy appointment.

I had to cancel it last week, remember, because of collecting your keys?’ I received the barb loud and clear. ‘I don’t think he’d appreciate me doing the same tomorrow, but I do want to know all about it when you get back.’ Though Mum was fond of reminding me how much she helped me and Evie out, truthfully, I don’t quite know what I’d have done without her. How I’d have got through, after Andrew died. Eighteen months ago, they’d called him back to Afghanistan for an urgent mission. A ‘special operation’, his sergeant had called it, attaching status with a few meaningless words as if Andrew ought to be grateful – honoured, even. He had been both of those things. I’d wished desperately that this time, by some miracle, he wouldn’t want to leave Evie and me. But as soon as I broached the subject, Andrew had said simply, ‘It’s my duty.’ And I knew that meant the subject was closed.

He didn’t know it then, neither did I, but in that single moment he had indelibly sealed his fate. He had sealed all of our fates. I knew Andrew loved us but he loved his job and his country too. And me and Evie, well, we never really stood a chance from the moment he got called up. Andrew was already estranged from his remaining family when I met him, due to some terrible family argument from years ago that was still alive and kicking. I’d tried to reach out to his dad and brother after the accident, offering to take Evie, who they’d never met, to Liverpool to visit them. I never received a reply. After the accident, Mum had helped us financially, even though, since her partner Brian had died three years earlier, she hadn’t a great deal of money to spare herself. We’d been through years of hell and worry with Dad’s heart problems before his eventual death. Then two years after Dad had died, Mum had met Brian at her local rambling group and we thought she’d found a new shot at happiness.

Sadly, within six months, Brian had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and Mum had had to go through it all again. Sometimes, it was hard to fight the feeling that, basically, life just sucked.

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