Sixteen-year-old Lil stumbles across a dangerous secret while searching for her missing sister in this gripping thriller that’s perfect for fans of The Darkest Corners and The Third Twin.
Sixteen-year-old Lil’s heart was broken when her sister Mella disappeared. There’s been no trace or sighting of her since she vanished, so when Lil sees a girl lying in the road near her house she thinks for a heart-stopping moment that it’s Mella.
The girl is injured and disorientated and Lil has no choice but to take her home, even though she knows something’s not right. The girl claims she’s from a peaceful community called The Sisterhood of the Light, but why then does she have strange marks down her arms, and what—or who—is she running from?
Lil sat back in her chair and read the words she’d typed into the status update on the Find Mella website: “We love you, Mella. We miss you. We’re here for you whenever you’re ready.” The message had been the same every day since Mella had gone missing—134 days. Lil added the sign-off: “Love, Mum and Mouse.” Mella was the only one who still used Lil’s childhood nickname. Ironic, now that Lil was over six feet tall.
Lil glanced at the rest of the page. There were a few new likes for the picture she’d uploaded last night of her and Mella at the beach last summer. The photo was just so Mella. She had one arm flung around Lil, and the other out wide, and she was smiling. A stupid pair of star-shaped, sparkly sunglasses were perched on her freckled nose. They were a child’s pair, won playing an arcade game earlier that day. Mella had refused to take them off, and Lil had to admit that their bright-green color complemented her sister’s pale-pink skin, flushed almost bronze after a summer of sunbathing. By contrast, Lil was blue white, pale as ice, made bluer because she was thrown into shadow by Mella’s outstretched arm. She was smiling, though—not broadly like Mella, but a half upturn of the corner of her mouth. A half smile. By comparison to Mella, everything Lil did seemed to be at half pace. Not in a bad way. It was just that Mella did everything at warp speed, at 1,000 percent, and like the brightest star in the sky, she threw everything around her into shadow. But the light that a star emitted was a long-ago memory of what once was. It had died out years ago. The thought stung, and Lil clicked out of the photo quickly, not wanting to think about death and Mella in the same sentence.
She logged into her e-mail. There wasn’t much in there. They’d had so many messages on this site in the early days—when the story had been on local news and radio—but they had mostly dwindled to nothing now. “No fresh leads,” was what the police said. There hadn’t been a single sighting in over two and a half months. Lil knew what the police thought that meant, but she would not . . . she could not believe that. Her sister was alive and they were going to find her. Even if it took the rest of Lil’s life.
Erin had sent a new message. She had been Mella’s best friend at school. She wrote every now and then. It was really nice of her. She and Mella hadn’t even been that close in the end. Mella had lost touch with a lot of her friends from high school when she started college, then lost touch with most of them when she began going out with Cai. Mella was like that. She just moved on from things. Unlike Lil, who had been friends with Rhia since she moved to Wales from London when she was nine, although just recently maybe Rhia wasn’t such a good example of Lil’s loyalty. Lil didn’t want to think about that now.
Instead she read Erin’s message:
Lil—hey! How’s it going? Haven’t checked in for a while, so I thought I’d e-mail. Any news? Dumb question, I know. You’d tell me if there was, right? God, I want there to be news. . . . I went up to the river yesterday—you know, by Haven’s Field? I don’t know why, I just wanted to see it. Probably sounds weird. You remember how she used to draw up there? Those damn trees! The ones she thought looked like women dancing? God, that girl could be crazy sometimes. Anyway. I’m rambling. Call me, won’t you? Even if there’s no news. It’d be nice to hear your voice.
Take care, Lil.
Call me! Call me! CALL ME!
Lil typed a quick reply:
Hi, Erin! Thanks for checking in. No news on Mella. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything. And I’ll try to call you soon. Hope everything’s good with you.
Love, Lil xx
Lil wouldn’t call. Erin was lovely, but it was too painful to talk about Mella. It hurt having to tell people that they still had absolutely no idea where she was.
After clicking send on the e-mail to Erin, Lil turned her laptop off. She had planned to upload some more photos onto the Find Mella website—she liked to keep the page fresh—but she’d lost energy today. Instead she looked out the window. The rain was properly coming down now, and the wind was howling around the house like it wanted to take it down, brick by brick. Even in a torrential downpour, the Welsh countryside was beautiful. There was something so amazing about the way it just rolled on and on. Lil had loved it the second they’d arrived. Mella less so. She’d missed the buzz of London.
Lil stared out into the storm for a long time. She missed Mella so intensely it was a physical ache. Sometimes in the morning when she woke up, there would be a second before she remembered that Mella was gone, and then the realization would rush in like an icy blast, and it would be like losing her all over again.
Lil had real trouble sleeping now, and the doctor had prescribed some sleeping pills because she was so tired she couldn’t concentrate at school. She’d taken them and enjoyed blissful deep sleep, her dreams full of Mella: burying their granddad in the sand at the beach; driving into Old Porthpridd with the windows open, singing as loudly as they could to the radio; her, Mella, and Rhia eating chips in the rain, kicking their legs against the harbor wall.
After one week Lil had stopped taking the pills. Why should she have a peaceful night when who knew where Mella was? Who knew what she was doing, whom she was with, if she was even still alive? Lil cut off that last thought with a gasp. Mella was alive. Mella was coming home. Lil had to believe that or else . . . She couldn’t even consider the alternative.
Lil’s clock radio beeped the hour. “This is Capital FM Cymru, and the time is one o’clock on Saturday, the eighth of July. Flood warnings are in place across much of North Wales this afternoon as unseasonably bad storms continue to batter the country—”
Lil jerked out of her chair and turned the volume down. She had to meet Kiran at the kayaking clubhouse in an hour, and she was going to be late if she didn’t get a move on. She tugged her long hair, dyed unicorn purple this week—Lil’s natural color was as close to mouse as you could get without actually being one—back into a ponytail. She was going kayaking, so there was no point showering, but after a quick sniff of her armpits, she sprayed another long blast of deodorant into each one. Then she pulled on her goat T-shirt—the one Mella had bought her a few birthdays ago, the one with the words “Here’s looking at you, kid” and a picture of a fluffy baby goat on it—and took her gray tracksuit bottoms from the drawer.
Extra, extra, extra long for the vertically gifted, Mouse, she heard her sister saying. Even after four and a half months, Lil couldn’t get her sister’s voice out of her head. Not that she wanted to.
Her mum called from downstairs as she was pulling her red hoodie on. “Lilian! I’m going now.”
“Coming,” Lil shouted back. She grabbed her beaten-up white Converse trainers and bag and headed down the stairs to join her mum in the kitchen.
“Maybe I shouldn’t go,” her mum said. She was standing by the sink, and in the gloom, with her long, dark curly hair tucked behind her ears, she looked so much like Mella that Lil had to hold on to the doorframe and take a deep breath.
Lil flicked on the light and the mirage faded to reveal her mum: face pale and drawn, dark eyes ringed with bags. Lil wasn’t sure her mum had slept since Mella left. Her mum’s face was more lined too, and grew more so every morning, as though each day that Mella was missing was inked onto her skin.
“You should go, Mum. You deserve a treat,” Lil said as she crossed the kitchen to the bread bin. Lil’s mum was going to Chester to see an old college friend from her music academy. It was as far as Mum had gone since Mella left. Her mum needed to do this. Lil needed her mum to do this.
“It’s a long way,” her mum said. Despite being Welsh-born, her mum always spoke English to Lil. She had spoken English to Lil’s granddad, too, although he’d always responded in Welsh.
Lil took out a slice of bread. It was moldy; so was the second piece. The third looked all right. She shoved the other two to the bottom of the pack, so her mum wouldn’t notice. Her mum had been struggling to keep on top of stuff since Mella disappeared. Not that she should be solely responsible for the shopping. It was just kind of hard to get about here without a car, what with being in the middle of a field in the middle of three other fields, on the top of a mountain. Things would be easier when Lil turned seventeen and passed her driving test. But that wasn’t until next February, and Lil hoped Mella would be home by then. She woke every morning hoping today would be the day that Mella came back.
Her mum was speaking again. “. . . there was an accident on the A55, near Brynford, earlier. Traffic jam, they said, on the radio. And the rain . . .”
“It’s Wales,” Lil said with a smile. “It always rains. It’ll stop. Eventually.” Hopefully.
“I don’t like leaving you,” her mum said.
“I’ll be fine. And you can call me. It’s only for one afternoon.”
“Sandi wants to go for dinner afterward too, but . . .”
“You should stay for dinner.”
“Really? Well, maybe . . . I don’t know . . . if you think I should. Do I look all right? I didn’t know what to wear. Maybe I should have gone for jeans. Do I look like I’m about to give a concert?” She sighed. “I look like I’m about to give a concert, don’t I?” She was wearing a white shirt and black skirt and Nain’s peacock broach. It was the outfit she used to wear for recitals, but still.
“You look great.” Lil smiled and said gently, “Seriously, just go already. You’ll be late.”
“Okay.” Still her mum didn’t move. “I just . . . I don’t know if it’s a good idea. What if she comes back and there’s no one here? You know what she’s like. So hotheaded, she’ll be off again before we know it.” Her mum sat down at the kitchen table.
Lil sat down opposite her and took one of her mum’s hands in hers. Delicate with long fingers, they’d once been her mum’s most beautiful feature. She’d had them insured when she’d trained as a pianist at the Royal Academy of Music in London. It was where she’d met their father, although by some bizarre coincidence he’d grown up in Wales too, only a couple of villages away from where Lil’s grandparents, Taid and Nain, lived. Now her mum’s hands were chapped and red. The moisturizer Lil had bought her for Christmas was still in its wrapper in the bathroom.
She held her mum’s hand softly but firmly, like she would a creature that might startle and run at a sudden movement. Her mum never used to be this fragile. She used to be kind of angry, especially about the things she cared about. Like the lack of music education in schools. That was her big topic. “Why is everything about maths these days?” she’d rant. “Art and music are just as important!” She and Mella were so similar like that, both passionate about certain things, and both of them would argue their point with anyone, even if the person didn’t argue back or didn’t care. Lil’s mum had once had a full-on rant at the postman for putting a political leaflet through their letterbox. “Do I look like I’d vote for them?” she’d demanded, even though the postman clearly didn’t care and was only doing his job. Mum didn’t seem to bother so much about stuff like that anymore. Or about anything very much, except Mella.
“You think I should go?” her mum asked quietly. Even her voice had changed. It was rougher somehow, like even saying words was an effort now.
“I do,” Lil said. What was the point of her mum staying locked up in the house? It was driving her crazy and it wasn’t making Mella any more likely to come home.
“Okay. But only because you asked me to.”
Lil held back a sigh. If her mum went anywhere these days, it was always “because Lil wanted me to.” If she made any decisions, it was “because Lil said so.” It was as if her mother had handed over her entire life into Lil’s keeping. After what had happened with Mella, she was too scared to say anything, in case she upset Lil and she disappeared too.
Her mum stood up then. “Right, looks like I’m going.” She took her lipstick out of her bag, pulled the lid off, and then looked at it for a long while, as though she’d forgotten what to do with it. Finally she put it back in her bag, unused. Then she zipped up the handbag. “Your aunt called earlier. Said she’d drop by after her shift. Oh, if you get a chance to speak to her before then, can you ask her to pick up some supplies? Milk and that. Some more bread, probably. Whatever you want, really. Didn’t get a chance to go to the shop, so there’s not much in.”
As if on cue, the toaster beeped and Lil’s toast popped up. There was clearly no butter to go on it, and definitely no jam. Lil pressed the lever a couple of times before managing to catch the toast. She juggled it in her hands over to the plate. Mella used to jab a knife right into the toaster and skewer the toast out. “You worry too much, little Mouse,” she’d say when Lil squeaked at her about possible electrocution.
“I love you,” her mum said, tugging on her coat. “So much.” Her mum said this every day now. Lil couldn’t remember her ever saying it much before Mella left. She probably hadn’t thought she needed to. There was such raw need in her mother’s eyes these days. It hurt to look at her. All the love she felt for both her daughters was concentrated into just Lil now. It was kind of scary. Lil didn’t know what to do with all that love.
“I love you, too, Mum,” Lil said. It didn’t sound like enough.
“I wish you’d come with me,” Mum said.
Lil screwed up her nose and then tried to hide it.
Her mum smiled. It was watery. “Okay, well, I’ll be back by six. I don’t fancy the meal, so I’ll come straight back. Sandi’ll understand.” She shouldered her handbag. “Be safe today, Lil. And call me. Or I’ll call you. We’ll call each other.”
“Mum . . .”
It took her mum another ten minutes to leave the house. First she wanted to check that her phone was fully charged, and then she couldn’t find her car keys—which turned out to be at the bottom of her handbag. But finally, finally, she went, and after another brief hesitation—“Would you look at the weather!”—she was gone.
Lil waved her off from the shelter of the porch with a sense of relief. It was like someone had taken a rubber band off her lungs, and a little of the tightness that had been inside her eased. It was hard being positive all the time. Hope could be painful, especially other people’s. Especially her mum’s. It was so fragile. You had to be careful not to damage it.
Lil shoved the last bite of toast into her mouth. She chewed quickly because it was—yuck—cold, not to mention questionably moldy, and she went into the hall. When she stooped down to pick up her rucksack, she couldn’t help but flick a glance down the corridor behind her. Taid and Nain’s house was old—part of it had been built in the seventeenth century. Bits had been added on over the years, meaning that it was long and sprawling, with a narrow hallway that ran the length of it, from the front door to the back. There were no windows along the hallway, so it was always dark.
Mella had been convinced it was haunted. “A house this old? That many people living and dying here? It has to be, right?” she’d say. Lil said that she was being ridiculous. Still, sometimes Lil got a funny feeling about the place. It wasn’t helped by the back door, which had never fit properly and banged in windy weather. People weren’t as particular about locking their doors around here as they were in London, and a couple of times it had worked loose and swung wide open.
Shrugging off the thought of ghosts—What nonsense—she dragged on her coat and headed outside.
Lil’s bike was resting up against the wall of the house, just beyond the porch. In the past her mum would have nagged her to move it before it turned to rust. Now it was just another thing her mum barely noticed. The helmet was hanging off the handlebars. It was full of water. She tipped it out and then checked the bike’s wheels (not too flat), gave a quick squeeze of the brakes (all good), and hopped on. The wind nearly blew her straight off again. She had to drop her foot hard to the ground to stop the bike from toppling over.
She glanced at Taid’s green VW Beetle. Her mum had promised to insure her on it as soon as she passed her test. Lil would rather be insured on her mum’s little Renault, but she knew Mella would kill her for such sacrilege (and Taid would turn in his grave). They had both loved this car. Mella said driving it was like being in a sixties movie, although why that was a good thing, Lil had never established. Mella was a terrible driver. Whenever they were in the car together, Lil closed her eyes and prayed to all the gods she could name that they wouldn’t die.
“Take it, take it,” she could hear Mella say, as though right in her ear.
“I don’t know how to drive it,” Lil said, as Mella blew a raspberry.
Mella would have taken the car. It wouldn’t have bothered her that she had no license or that the insurance had lapsed. But Lil wasn’t Mella.
She set her teeth and mounted the bike again, then pedaled hard up the drive and turned right onto the narrow road beyond. The house was halfway up a mountain, and it was downhill for two miles to the main road at the bottom. You went left for the kayaking club, which sat on the river, and right for Old Porthpridd, the nearest village, if you could call it one. It had a café, a newsagent’s, and a bike shop. “Is this it?” Mella had asked. Lil was not into shopping, not like Mella, but even she’d been disappointed. It had taken a while to get used to the fact that it was forty miles to Caerwen and the closest proper shops. “And two hundred miles to any decent ones,” Mella always said. They’d been here seven years, but Mella had never stopped missing London. “I’m getting out of here, Mouse,” she’d say. “The first chance I get. And I’m never ever, ever, ever coming back.” Lil hadn’t taken her seriously. Hadn’t considered how long “never ever, ever, ever” really was.
With the wind slapping her cheeks raw and threatening to tear her from the bike, it was going to be a struggle to get anywhere today. Her body was already rigid with cold. After a while she realized her muscles were aching, and she forced a deep breath out of her lungs and drew her shoulders down away from her ears. The wind ripped into her again and her shoulders shot back up, tense and hunched. It was an effort to keep the bike upright.
She only had to make it down to the river. Kiran would give her a lift back. He would have picked her up, too, if he hadn’t had to drop his little twin brothers off at their science club. But Lil wondered again why she was even bothering going. Mella had been the kayaker. Lil was just pretending. Before Mella went missing, Lil had mostly just hung out in the café at the kayaking place, waiting for her to finish up. Then after Mella left, Lil went there to pretend that Mella was out kayaking and would be back any second. It was stupid, but for whole seconds at a time Lil could convince herself that Mella was about to walk in like she used to, curly hair tamed in a long French plait down her back, unpeeling her wet suit. “Why, Mouse,” she’d say. “Fancy meeting you here! And, yes, I don’t mind if I do have a hot chocolate. Sure is nice of you to offer.”
It was in the café that Lil had met Kiran, in May. She was finishing a hot chocolate, doing her usual pretense of waiting for Mella and bracing herself for the long cycle ride home, when a super-tall (taller even than her) guy walked in. And amazingly that wasn’t the first thing she noticed about him, because he seemed to have fallen into a pot of neon paint. His T-shirt was lime green and his trainers were tangerine orange. More amazing than that was he didn’t look ridiculous. Just bright and happy. And like he didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought of him. Lil liked that, so she smiled, brighter than she had in a long while, and he smiled back.
“Hi,” he said with his Birmingham accent. “You here for the induction?”
Lil had never been interested in kayaking, but there was something about the way this guy asked that made her want to try it. Not because he was cute, although he was: with his brown skin, deeper-than-deep-brown eyes, and caterpillar eyebrows that were a facial expression all on their own. He had stubble, too, that curved around his full lips.
So she’d done the induction, much to Gavan’s surprise. He ran the kayak club with his partner, Jon, and had been on Lil about doing a course ever since Mella went missing. “It might do you some good. Get a bit of fresh air in your lungs.”
Cai—Mella’s boyfriend and one of the instructors at the club—had been surprised too, and Lil had loved that, because she hated the thought of Cai knowing anything—anything—about her. She still wanted to gouge his internal organs out with a blunt instrument for what he’d done to Mella.
The wind whipped around her again, bringing her back to the present and nearly knocking her over. She ducked her head against it, which meant she wasn’t looking where she was going. When she took the next bend, she didn’t see the girl lying motionless in the middle of the road until she was almost on top of her.
A.J. Grainger lives in London, England, where she works as a children’s books editor. She loves writing and editing because it means she gets to talk about books all day. She is the author of Captive and The Sisterhood. Visit her at AJGrainger.com.