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The Last Thing to Burn

A Novel

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“Immediate, intense, gripping, taut, terrifying, moving, and brilliant.” —Lisa Jewell, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Invisible Girl

“Brilliantly written...terrifying.”—Ruth Ware, #1 New York Times bestselling author of One by One

A woman being held captive is willing to risk everything to save herself, her unborn child, and her captor’s latest victim in this “intense, dark, and utterly chilling” (Jennifer Hillier, author of ​Jar of Hearts) thriller in the tradition of Misery and Room.

He is her husband. She is his captive.

Her husband calls her Jane. That is not her name.

She lives in a small farm cottage, surrounded by vast, open fields. Everywhere she looks, there is space. But she is trapped. No one knows she is there. Visitors rarely come to the farm; if they do, she is never seen.

Her husband records her every movement during the day. If he doesn’t like what he sees, she is punished.

For a long time, escape seemed impossible. But now, something has changed. She has a reason to live and a reason to fight. Now, she is watching him, and waiting…

Chapter 1 1
I’m not going back.

Not now, not ever. My right ankle is the size of a fist and I can feel bone shards scraping together, six-year-old shards, as I limp away from the farm cottage toward the distant road.

The destination is there, I can see it, but it’s not getting any closer. I walk and hobble and it’s still a whole world of pain away from where I am right now. My eyes scan the distant road, left, then right, for him. Very little traffic. Trucks transporting cabbages and sugar beets; cars ferrying fruit pickers. One bus a day.

I have my fiver, his fiver, my ticket out of this flatland hell. The creased green paper’s rolled and tucked into my hair, still black after these nine long years though only God knows how.

Every step is a mile. Etched aches and new pains melt into red-hot misery beneath my right knee: boiling fat and razor-sharp icicles all at once.

The track is pale October brown, the mud churned and dried and churned by the tractor. His tractor.

I move as fast as I can, my teeth biting down onto my tongue. I’m balancing different pains. Managing best I can.

He’s not coming. I can spot his Land Rover from a mile away.

I stop to breathe. The clouds are moving over me, urging me out of this forgotten place, helping me at my back, pushing me along toward that road, toward that one bus per day with his banknote hidden in my hair.

Is that?

No.

Please, no. It can’t be.

I stand completely still, my anklebone throbbing stronger than my own heart, and he is there on the horizon. Is that his truck? Maybe it’s just the same model. Some plow salesman or schoolteacher. I look right, toward the town past the bridge, and left, toward the village. Places I’ve never been to. My eyes lock onto the Land Rover. His Land Rover. Keep driving, for the love of God be someone else and keep on driving.

But he slows and then my shoulders fall.

He turns onto this track, his track, the track to his farm, to his land.

I look right at the nothingness, the endless fields he’s sculpted, and the spires in the distance, and then left to the wind turbines and the nothingness there, and then back. That’s when I weep. Tearless, noiseless weeping. I fall. I fold forward with a crack, a sharp stone beneath my right knee, a blessed distraction from my ankle.

He drives to me and I just kneel.

With a clean, clear-thinking head maybe I’d have managed to escape? Not with this leg. Not with him always coming back. Always checking on me. Always watching.

It’s Kim-Ly in my head now and I will not let him in. My sister, my little sister, it is you who gives me the strength to breathe right now on this long, straight-churned mud track in this unseen flatland. I’m here for you. Existing so that you can carry on. I know what’s to come. The fresh horrors. And I will endure them for you and you alone.

He stands over me.

Once again, I exist only in his shadow.

Consumed by it.

I won’t look at him, not today. I think of you, Kim-Ly, with Mother’s eyes and Father’s lips and your own nose. I will not look up at him.

I’ve made it past the locked halfway gate.

But no farther.

It’s still his land all around. Smothering me.

He bends and reaches out and gently picks me up off the dirt and he lifts me higher to his shoulder and carries me on toward the cottage.

I am as limp as death.

My tears fall to the mud, to the footprints I created an hour ago, the man’s size eleven sandal prints; one straight, the other a right angle—that one a pathetic scrape more than a print, each step a victory and an escape and a complete failure.

He walks without speaking, his strong shoulder pressing into my waist, hard and plateaued. He holds me with no force. His power is absolute. He needs no violence at this moment because he controls everything the eye can see. I can feel his forearm at the back of my knees and he’s holding it there as gently as a concert violinist might hold a bow.

My ankle is ruined. The nerves and bones and tendons and muscles are as one damaged bundle; sharp flints and old meat. Fire. I feel nothing else. The pain is something I live with every day of my life, but not like this. This is wretched. My mouth is open. A silent cry. A hopeless and unending scream.

He stops and opens the door that I scrub for him each morning and we go inside his cottage. I have failed and what will he do to me this time?

He turns and walks past the mirror and past the key box bolted high on the wall and heads into our one proper downstairs room. In Vietnam my family had six downstairs rooms. He takes me past the locked TV door and past the camera and places me down on the plastic-wrapped sofa like I’m a sleeping toddler extracted from some long car journey.

He looks down at me.

“You’ll want a pain pill, I expect.”

I close my eyes tight and nod.

“It’ll come.”

He takes the Land Rover keys from his pocket and walks to the key box in the entrance hall. He takes the key from the chain around his neck and opens the box and locks away the keys and then locks the box.

He comes back in. A man twice the size of my father but half the worth of a rat.

“Empty ’em.”

“What?” I say.

“Empty your pockets, then.”

I unzip his fleece, the zipper buckling as I sit hunched on his sofa, and reach down into my apron, his mother’s apron, and pull out my remaining four objects, the four things I have left in the world that are actually mine.

“Four left.”

I nod.

“Well, your fault, ain’t nobody to blame but yourself, Jane.”

My name isn’t Jane.

“Pick one.”

I look down at the plastic dust sheet covering the sofa, at the ID card, which contains the last words I possess in my own language, the last photo of myself, of what I used to look like before all this happened. It’s the last thing with my real name, Thanh Dao; with my date of birth, November 3; with my place of birth, Biên Hòa, Vietnam. It proves I am really me.

Next to it lie Mom and Dad. My mother with her smiling eyes and her cowlick bangs and that half grin I see in my sister sometimes. And my father, his hand in hers, with love and trust and friendship and warmth shining onto my mother from his every pore, his every aspect.

And then Kim-Ly’s letters. Oh, sweet sister. My life is your life now; my future belongs to you, use every second of it, every gram of pleasure. I stare down at the wrinkled papers and think of her Manchester days, her job, her hard-won independence, soon to be real, complete, irrevocable.

I inherited the fourth item from his mother. I didn’t want it but I needed it. I need it still. I found it in the storage closet up in the small back bedroom, the one he makes me sleep in one week out of every four. Of Mice and Men is his mother’s book but I’ve read from it or thought of it or wished from it every day for years so now, by rights, I’d say it belongs to me.

I look at him, at his lifeless blue-gray eyes.

“I need them Lenn, please.” I mesh my fingers together. “Please, Lenn.”

He paces over to the Rayburn stove and opens the fire door and pushes in a handful of coppiced willow and closes the door again and turns to me.

“You went leavin’ here so now you choose one of ’em. If you don’t, I will.”

He goes over to the sink, and I see the jar on top of the cabinet.

“Can I have a pill first, please.”

“Pick one and then you can take the pill.”

My ID card. My photo of my parents. My sister’s precious letters. My book. My, my, my, mine. Not his. Mine.

I already know which one it’ll be. I’ve rehearsed this in my mind. In the middle of the night. Planning. Scheming. Hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. For this.

“You didn’t even make it one-third out,” he says. “Don’t know what you were thinking, woman.”

I focus on Mom’s face. I memorize it through my ankle pain, through the hurt and the dry tears. I register the details. The asymmetry of her eyebrows. The warmth in her gaze. I look at Dad and scan his face and take in every mole and line, every beautiful wrinkle, every hair on his gentle head.

I push the photo toward Lenn and gather the letters and the book and the ID card back into my arms and onto my lap and bury them deep inside his mother’s apron.

This was a selfish act. But I think my parents would understand. They’d know I needed the book to keep sane and the ID card to stay me and the letters to get up each morning and go to sleep each night. They’d forgive me.

He picks up the photo and holds it by the corners so as not to touch the image. He puts it inside his oil-stained overalls and then he stretches up and takes the jar off the kitchen cabinet. It looks like something you’d find in a candy store, tall and made from glass with a screw-on metal lid. It contains tablets the size of pencil erasers. He won’t tell me exactly what they are but I know. He’s a farmer. He can order them without anyone asking any questions. He takes out a pill, the white dust marking the cracks of his calloused fingertips like some rock climber or weight lifter, and then he snaps it in two. He places half back inside the jar and screws on the lid so tight I can’t budge it, and then places the jar back on top of the cabinet. I’ve drugged him before, of course. Well, I tried to, did you think I wouldn’t? Fragments dissolved into hot gravy. Almost two pills. But he’s very particular about his food. He tasted something was off. By then he’d eaten most of his dinner. I watched him, praying, pleading, begging. He got sleepy, and then, dozy like a furious wasp at the end of summer, he came at me. That’s how I lost my own clothes and the silver ring my grandmother gave me when I left home. He tasted the horse drugs in his chicken pie gravy. He’s more careful these days.

“Have this.”

He pours me a glass of water from the sink and hands it to me along with the snapped half pill and I take it and swallow it.

“Can I have the other half, please, Leonard?”

“You’ll get poorly, you know you will.”

The pill’s taking effect slowly. I urge its haziness down my body toward my ankle, faster, willing it down there through the blood vessels and nerve pathways to dull the pain away.

“We’ll see about the rest of that pill. Maybe after you’ve had dinner.”

That is hope right there. The chance that I might black out, be swept away by the tide into a deep and dreamless sleep. He’ll be watching me, monitoring me, he always is—gazing, staring, owning—but I will be at the bottom of the sea by then, a break from this fenland life, a sabbatical from hell.

“Better get the sausages on while I watch them tapes. I want ’em like me mother did ’em, proper brown and no pale bits.”

I try to stand from the sofa but my ankle’s too raw, even with the horse pill kicking in. I drag myself over to the fridge while he sits at the old PC, careful to unlock it with his password, his broad back shielding it from me. The screen lights up. Everything in his fridge is his food. Oh, I’ll eat some of it, but I didn’t buy or grow or pick or choose anything. I drop the sausages, Lincolnshire, into a cast-iron skillet on the Rayburn. He’s scanning through the tapes, the tapes from the seven cameras installed by him in this house, his house, to monitor me every single day. The sausages spit in the pan. I watch the fat liquefy and boil inside the sausage skins, bubbles moving, and then one bursts open from its side and fizzes.

“You’ve had quite a day, ain’t you?” he says, pointing to the screen, to me a few hours ago collecting my belongings, my four objects that are now three, and leaving this place through the front door.

“Quite the little holiday, you’ve had, eh?” He looks over at the potatoes in the sink. “Make sure there’s no lumps in it this time, Jane.” He turns back to the desktop screen. “Me mother’s never had lumps. I don’t like eatin’ no lumps.”
Photograph by Will Dean

Will Dean grew up in the East Midlands of the United Kingdom and lived in nine villages before the age of eighteen. After studying law at the London School of Economics and working in London, he settled in rural Sweden where he built a wooden house in a boggy clearing at the center of a vast elk forest, and it’s from this base that he compulsively reads and writes. His debut novel, Dark Pines, was selected for Zoe Ball’s book club on ITV, shortlisted for the National Book Awards (UK), The Guardian’s Not The Booker prize, and was named a Telegraph book of the year.

"I cannot remember the last time I read a book this immediate, intense, gripping, taut, terrifying, moving and brilliant. Only 243 pages long but I'm not sure I could have taken it being even a page longer, the tension was so agonizing . . . It deserves to be number one, it deserves to be a huge movie, it deserves to win awards. My book of the year, and it's only February. Bravo, Will Dean."

– Lisa Jewell, #1 New York Times bestselling author of INVISIBLE GIRL

"I could not stop reading this! Brilliantly done . . . I’m awestruck!"

– Denise Mina, internationally bestselling author of THE LESS DEAD

"This outstanding thriller by Will Dean might be the best book you read this year. THE LAST THING TO BURN is intense, dark, and utterly chilling — I felt this one in my bones."

– Jennifer Hillier, award-winning author of JAR OF HEARTS and LITTLE SECRETS

“I couldn't put it down. A visceral nightmare of a book with one of the most evil villains I've come across in a long time. Powerful writing.”

– Steve Cavanagh, award-winning author of THE DEFENSE

“Ratchets up the tension to the point where I had to check my pulse.”

– Liz Nugent, critically-acclaimed author of LITTLE CRUELTIES

“A heart-racing exploration about human survival. An addictive and insightful thriller.”

– Maxine Mei-Fung Chung, critically-acclaimed author of THE EIGHTH GIRL

“Brilliant.”

– Elly Griffiths, internationally bestselling author of THE LANTERN MEN

"Compelling. A well-written domestic thriller."

– Mystery & Suspense Magazine

"A story of pain and survival that I almost guarantee will stay with you long after you close the book."

– Men Reading Books

"Outstanding and heart-wrenching . . . . Dean explores the resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of unfathomable evil. This harrowing journey is one worth taking."

– Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"This is the type of book that shakes readers to the core and becomes a touchstone reference in the years that follow."

– Bolo Books