BY ALLEGRA CHAPMAN
Copyright is held by the author.
AVA LOOKED down, contemplating the streaks of red across the grey kitchen tiles, the chunks of meat clinging to cupboard doors, the pink worms of brain matter spilling over glinting white skull. The axe felt heavy in her hands. A swell started in the pit of her stomach, and rose with an acid heat into her throat. She dropped the axe, turned to the sink next to her, and threw up. Then she ran the tap and rinsed all trace of bile and stomach juices away. She pulled off the yellow rubber gloves that clung to her skin as if they didn’t want to let her go, and placed them neatly next to the sink.
As she turned, the woman was standing in the living room, just on the other side of the kitchen counter. She was wearing the same tailored navy blue skirt and jacket, her dark hair still held in a neat bun by a silver clip. She was surveying Ava’s work with a critical eye.
“I’m proud of you,” the woman said curtly. “Good job.” Her lips were still drawn in a severe line across her pale face, but her eyes were approving. Ava nodded, then walked to the door and let herself out of the house. She headed for home.
Crista was lying on the sofa watching TV. Everyone had been raving about this show on Twitter, and she was trying to work out what she was missing when her sister walked through the door.
“Ava! God, you’re late. Didn’t you get my messages?” Crista sat up and saw Ava standing just inside the doorway, behind the sofa, staring towards the kitchen. “Ava, you OK?” she asked. Ava turned slowly towards her.
“Hmm? Yeah I’m fine, just tired. Long day.” Ava smiled casually. Crista lay back down.
“You work too hard. There’s some pasta still in the pan if you want it.”
“No thanks, I’m not that hungry. I just want to go to bed. I feel like I could sleep for weeks.” Ava left the room and Crista heard her heading up the stairs. The first episode was ending and the autoplay was counting down the seconds before it would start the next one. Crista looked at the clock and decided she’d give the series one more try, and then go to bed.
The next morning, Crista was making toast and singing along to the radio when Ava came down.
“Hey, sleep well?”
“Fantastic!” Ava stretched and beamed brightly. “I don’t think I’ve slept that well in ages.”
“There’s coffee in the pot,” Crista told her, and Ava headed straight towards the machine.
“Thanks, could you stick some bread in there for me too, please?” Crista put two extra slices in the toaster for her sister just as her own popped up. As the two women sat down to eat at their kitchen table, the radio news was just starting.
“This is the news at 7. The Prime Minister will face questions in parliament today…”
“Pass me the butter please?” Ava asked her sister.
“I’ll swap you for the milk.”
“. . . but his position remains in doubt.
“Police have confirmed that a couple were found dead in their home in North London last night. The pair, who have not yet been named, are believed to be residents of the South Woodford area, and a Metropolitan Police spokesperson has said that a murder investigation is underway.”
The sisters froze, Crista’s toast halfway to her mouth and butter dangling from Ava’s knife. Mention of their little area of London on the news was rare, particularly for anything so brutal as a murder.
“Oh my god,” Ava whispered. “I . . . you don’t think it was near here, do you?” Crista shook her head and glanced nervously at her phone.
“I’m sure . . . we’d have heard . . .”
They finished their breakfast in silence, checking Twitter in agitated bursts for news but finding nothing new. As she stood up to go to work, Crista threw her arms around her sister, who was still nibbling on her toast.
“Take care,” she whispered. As Ava reached up to hug the arms Crista had wrapped around her, Crista felt a crawling sensation like fingertips scampering over her arms and up her back. Her chest tightened and for a second she couldn’t get air. She stepped back from Ava, gasping in oxygen and shaking her head to clear her vision. She waved a hand at Ava to tell her she was OK, but then she realised Ava hadn’t asked. Instead, her sister was looking around the kitchen as if she had never seen it before. “Ava?” she asked, once her breathing had settled. Ava looked up at her, nervously.
“Sorry, I just . . .” She shivered.
“It’s unsettling, isn’t it?” Crista asked. Ava nodded absently, but then her eyes narrowed.
“The news. The murder.”
“The — Oh, right. Sorry.”
“Ava, are you OK?”
“I think I zoned out for a bit. I just had the weirdest feeling . . . like when you’re half asleep . . . but no, I’m totally fine.” She smiled at Crista.
“Come straight home tonight, OK? Until they know what happened to those people.” Crista studied her little sister’s face, but she seemed much more with it now. Ava nodded.
“You too. Take care.”
On the tube on the way to work, Crista normally just focused on her book and ignored everyone. But today she felt restless. She couldn’t concentrate on what she was reading, and found herself having to go over sentences several times before she took them in. Her eyes kept flicking up from the page and around the carriage. That’s when she saw a woman watching her. The woman was smartly dressed in an immaculate and stylish navy blue skirt and jacket, with a black blouse. She had very dark, almost black, hair pulled back into a bun. She was looking straight at Crista, but not in an unkind, or even a kind, way. Her expression was inscrutable. She just wasn’t taking her eyes off her.
Crista tried to look down at her book again, found her mind wandering, fragments of images flashing into her brain that were gone again before she could process what they were, her eyes darting restlessly from passenger to passenger, then back down to her book. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed when she looked back to where the woman had been sitting and realised she was gone.
Crista was at her desk, with her headphones on, typing to the beat, when the same scuttling feeling she had felt earlier ran along her spine. She looked up, and found herself looking straight at the back of one of her colleagues. Darren. He was coughing, so loudly. And sniffing. Repeatedly. It cut through the music in Crista’s ears and scratched at her skin. His shirt was such a sickly shade of pink, she felt queasy looking at it. She felt her face getting hot as she glared at the scraggly hair around his hairline on his neck.
Then something caught her eye from the corner of the room. As she looked around, she saw the woman from the tube, in the navy blue suit, standing calmly, watching her.
Just then, Crista’s phone lit up. Ava was calling. Ava never called, she communicated solely by messages. Crista pulled off her headphones and answered it.
“Everything OK?” All she could hear was Ava sobbing. “Ava? What is it?” Crista gripped the phone tightly.
“It’s . . . Adam,” she managed to blurt out. “He’s been arrested!”
“What?!” Crista was aware of several of her colleagues looking round as she shouted, but she didn’t care.
“They’re saying . . . oh god, Crista, they say he killed someone.”
Crista felt as though she were on pause. Her brain wouldn’t connect to her body; she couldn’t move or talk, and her fragmented thoughts were scattered in her mind like a jigsaw with too many missing pieces. Nothing would come together. She didn’t know if it was a minute or an hour before she managed to drag a jagged word drily through her throat.
“Not . . .” she rasped. “The radio . . .”
“No!” Ava tried to catch her breath. “No, it’s someone else. A woman. A week ago. But they’re saying there’s DNA . . .”
“There . . . there can’t be.”
“I was with him. I stayed at his that night. And she was killed in Clapham…”
“Well then, that’s it. He can’t have done it.”
“They’re saying I was asleep. And that he went . . . it doesn’t make any sense!”
“What did Adam say?”
“He didn’t even know her! He was crying. They showed him a picture of her, and he started babbling about a woman in a blue suit, and then they took him away and . . .”
Crista’s blood ran cold. She looked around her, but the woman she had seen earlier was gone. She gripped the phone tightly and tried to force air in and out of her lungs.
“Where are you? I’m coming.”
Crista didn’t know how much later it was, but the light was draining from the sky. She looked around and didn’t recognise the street she was on. There were houses all along it, no defining features.
Ava. She had been going to meet Ava. Adam was in trouble. How had she ended up here?
On the other side of the road, she suddenly saw Darren from work. He was striding purposefully, the collar of his black coat pulled up against the chill, his rucksack bobbing behind him, earphones in his ears. He didn’t glance around, didn’t notice Crista.
Crista felt her heart thudding in her chest, felt rage pulsing through her veins. Her vision tinged red. She shook her head, trying to clear it, and as she turned she saw, further down the street, the woman in the navy blue suit. As she looked into the woman’s eyes, she knew she was meant to step forward. To follow Darren.
Her fists clenched by her sides and her muscles tensed, ready for action. But, in the moment before she lifted her foot, her sister’s face flashed before her eyes. She saw Ava laughing, her head on Adam’s shoulder. Adam. What had happened to Adam? What was happening to her? Was it connected?
Crista pushed her foot down into the concrete, and forced herself to breathe, deeply and slowly. She closed her eyes and thought of cool water, wide open fields with grass gently swaying in the breeze. Her sister’s smile when she was a child. The two of them curling up with their mum on the sofa to read a book on a rainy day. She held these images with all her might, forcing out the other pictures that were trying to push their way in. She held herself still until she knew Darren must be long gone, until she sensed the world around her turning dark. She felt herself starting to fall.
Then arms were coming around her, holding her upright.
“Woah, are you OK?” she heard a man’s voice ask from a long way away. Then she felt the pull. It began at the base of her skull and felt as though a thread was sliding all the way up her spinal column. For a moment she was suspended somewhere between here and not here. She was aware of a world around her but she wasn’t in it. As though she were caught in the middle of falling asleep. She had words she wanted to say, but if she was making any noise at all it was probably incoherent mumbling. Crista wasn’t sure how long it took for everything to come back into focus, and when she looked up into the concerned eyes of the bearded man in the blue hoodie she couldn’t remember why he was worried. He was holding her, one arm around her back and the other cradling her arm. He was supporting her weight. She stood up, and smiled apologetically.
“Are you OK?” he asked again. Crista nodded.
“Yes. Sorry. I’m not sure what happened . . .”
“You looked like you were going to faint. I’ll get a cab, they’ll take you to hospital…”
“No,” Crista was so embarrassed. What had she been doing? Why would she have fainted? “I’m OK, honestly. I feel fine. Must have been low blood sugar. Thank you so much!” The man looked dubious. He still had a hand on her arm, and seemed nervous to let go.
“Are you sure? Do you want me to call someone?”
“I’ll be fine, honestly. Thank you, really.” He nodded, still looking worried, but after a few seconds’ hesitation, he turned and walked away. Crista leaned back against the wall behind her, steadying her breathing and shaking off the embarrassment. She’d never fainted before. She looked around. Where was she? She didn’t recognise this street at all. She’d been looking for someone . . . Ava. And Adam. She was going to help them…
Little flashes came back to her. Images full of blood. Ava crying down the phone. A woman in blue. Something had happened to Adam. Something had happened to her. And when that man put his arms around her . . . Crista felt ice spreading over her body. Something had happened to Adam. Then he’d gone back to his girlfriend. Ava. When Ava had hugged Crista, those fingers crawling up her spine . . . Now that man had held her . . .
Crista began to frantically hurry down the street in the direction the man had gone, but there were so many interconnecting roads, she didn’t know which he had taken. Her body felt heavy and her muscles burned with the effort after only a few hundred metres. There was no sign of him anywhere. At one crossroads she saw a sign towards the train station. She could get to Ava. But that meant leaving this man out there with . . . Crista didn’t even know what.
Which way should she go?
By day, Allegra Chapman is a diversity and inclusion specialist and Co-Creator of the multi-award-winning consultancy Watch This Sp_ce. By some of the rest of the day, she is a writer and journalist whose work has been featured in The i Paper, Bylines Network, Baby Bloomberg, The Everyday, and many more. She is also a charity Trustee, parenting rights campaigner and mother of two young children. In 2023, she was named as one of the U.K.’s most inspiring female entrepreneurs by f:Entrepreneur. Allegra lives on the south coast of England and is happiest at the beach.