A pulse-pounding psychological thriller for fans of The Couple Next Door, The Girlfriend and The Escape
**THE ADDICTIVE PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER THAT EVERYONE'S RAVING ABOUT **
'Twisty and gripping' Erin Kelly
'I loved it' Rachel Abbott
'An incredible debut' Hollie Overton
Maria wants to be friends.
But Maria is dead . . . isn't she?
When Louise Williams receives a message from someone left long in the past, her heart nearly stops.
Maria Weston wants to be friends on Facebook.
Maria Weston has been missing for over twenty-five years. She was last seen the night of a school leavers' party, and the world believes her to be dead. Particularly Louise, who has lived her adult life with a terrible secret.
As Maria's messages start to escalate, Louise forces herself to reconnect with the old friends she once tried so hard to impress. Trying to piece together exactly what happened that night, she soon discovers there's much she didn't know. The only certainty is that Maria Weston disappeared that night, never to be heard from again - until now. . .
A pulse-pounding psychological thriller for fans of He Said/She Said, The Couple Next Door and I See You.
Release date: September 5, 2017
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 320
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Listen to a sample
The e-mail arrives in my inbox like an unexploded bomb: Maria Weston wants to be friends on Facebook.
For a second I miss the Facebook reference, and just see “Maria Weston wants to be friends.” Instinctively I slam the laptop shut. It feels as though a sponge has been lodged in my throat, soaking up water, swelling and clogging, leaving me struggling for breath. I attempt to breathe deeply, trying to get myself back under control. Perhaps I was mistaken. I must have been mistaken because this cannot possibly be happening. Slowly I raise the lid of my laptop. Hands shaking, I go back into the e-mail and this time there is no denying the bald fact of it. Maria Weston wants to be friends with me.
It’s been a fairly unremarkable day up until now. Henry is at Sam’s tonight, so I’ve put in a long day working on some initial plans for a client who wants everything from walls to carpets and sofas in varying shades of beige and taupe, but at the same time doesn’t want the house to look boring. When I saw I had an e-mail, I was glad of the distraction, hopeful of a personal message rather than yet another company trying to sell me something.
Now though, I’d be grateful for marketing spam, and I long to go back to the mild tedium of a few minutes ago. This must be someone’s idea of a sick joke, surely. But whose? Who could think this funny? Who even knows the effect it would have on me?
There’s an easy way out of this, of course. All I have to do is delete the e-mail, go to Facebook, and decline the request without looking at the page. A part of me is screaming out to do this, to end it here; but another part of me—a quiet and buried part—wants to see, to know. To understand.
So I do it. I click “Confirm Request” and I’m taken straight to her page: Maria Weston’s Facebook page. The profile photo is an old one from a pre-digital age that has obviously been scanned in. Maria, in her green school uniform blazer, long brown hair blowing in the wind, a small smile playing across her face. I scan the screen, searching for clues, but there is very little information on the page. She doesn’t have any friends listed or photos uploaded other than the profile one.
She stares at me dispassionately from behind my computer screen. I’ve not felt her cool gaze for over twenty-five years, not been the recipient of that look, which tells you she’s sizing you up, not in an unpleasant way, but appraising you, understanding more of you than you want the world to know. I wonder if she ever realized what I had done to her.
The red brick of the school buildings lurks in the background, familiar in a way but strange too, as if it belongs to someone else’s memories, not mine. Odd, how you spend five years going to the same place every day, and then it’s over, you never go there again. Almost as if it never existed at all.
I find I can’t look at her for long, and my eyes roam around the kitchen, wanting something mundane to fix on, a break from this bewildering new reality. I get up and make a coffee, gaining comfort from the ritual of putting the smooth shining pod into the machine, pressing the tip of my finger onto the button in the precise way I always do, and warming the milk in the frother.
I sit there amid the trappings of my very comfortable, very middle-class, nearly middle-aged life. The kitchen gadgets and the photo on the fancy fridge of me and Henry on our first holiday alone last summer, a selfie taken by the pool: our skin salty and sun-kissed, a shadow around Henry’s mouth where the dust has stuck to the remnants of his daily ice cream.
Outside the French windows, my tiny courtyard garden is wearing its bleak late-autumn clothes, paving stones slick with the earlier freezing rain. Chipped plant pots trail the dead brown remains of my doomed summer attempt at growing my own herbs, and the darkening afternoon sky is a dull sheet of slate gray. I can just see one of the tower blocks that loom here and there like malevolent giants over the rows of Victorian terraces all turned into flats like mine that make up this part of southeast London. This room, this home, this life that I have built up so carefully. This little family, with only two members. If one of us falls, then what is left is not a family at all. What would it take to tear it all down, to bring it tumbling and crashing to the ground? Perhaps not as much as I thought. Maybe just a nudge in the back; a tiny push, so slight that I would hardly feel it.
The kitchen with its muted dove-gray walls and bleached wood worktops is warm, uncomfortably so. As the coffee machine hums its everyday tune, I half listen to the news on the radio, which chatters all day every day in my kitchen: a sporting victory, a cabinet re-shuffle, a fifteen-year-old girl who has killed herself after her boyfriend posted naked pictures of her online. I flinch at the thought of it, sympathy for her mixed with a shameful gratitude that there were no camera phones around when I was that age. I move over and open one of the French windows, feeling the need for fresh air, but an icy blast slams it shut again.
My coffee is ready, and I have no alternative but to sit back down at the laptop, where Maria has been waiting for me: steadily, impenetrably. I force myself to meet her eyes, searching futilely for any hint of what was to happen to her. I try to see the photo as a casual observer might: an ordinary schoolgirl, an old photo that’s been sitting on some mother’s sideboard for years, dusted and replaced weekly. It doesn’t work; I can’t see her like that knowing her fate as I do.
Maria Weston wants to be friends with me. Maybe that was the problem all along; Maria Weston wanted to be friends with me, but I let her down. She’s been hovering at the edge of my consciousness for all of my adult life, although I’ve been good at keeping her out, just a blurred shadow in the corner of my eye, almost but not quite out of sight.
Maria Weston wants to be friends.
But Maria Weston has been dead for more than twenty-five years.
I’ve been awake all night in an attempt to maintain some kind of hold on what has happened, on what I have done. My eyes are red and prickling with tiredness, but I daren’t go to sleep. If I sleep, when I wake up I’ll have one blissful, terrible second when I’m unaware—and then it will all come crashing in on me, its power multiplied indefinitely by that one unknowing second.
I think of the last time I saw the dawn in, lying in Sophie’s bed. This time it’s a more tempestuous and bleaker affair. A ceaseless summer rain has been falling all night, and the branch of a nearby tree is thwacking intermittently against my windowpane. It’s not just the chemicals keeping me awake, although I can still feel them coursing, unwanted, around my veins. I’ve been sitting here on the floor for four hours, as my bedroom turns gradually from darkness to a dull gray half-light. I’m surrounded by the debris of my elaborate preparations for the evening that, twelve hours ago, stretched out invitingly, bright with the promise of acceptance and approval. There are three dresses strewn on the bed, with the accompanying pair of shoes for each lying discarded in front of the full-length mirror. My eyes rest dully on the stain on the carpet where Sophie dropped my new bronzing powder and I made a clumsy attempt to wipe it up with a bit of tissue dipped in a glass of stale water.
The dress I wore lies in a crumpled heap next to me—I’ve pulled on an old sweatshirt and leggings. There are dark smudges under my eyes and my lips are dry, the remains of my lipstick clinging to the cracks and bleeding into the skin around my mouth.
I’ve been sitting here on the floor for so long only because I can’t move. I would have expected my heart to be racing, but in fact an iron fist grips it so tightly that I am surprised it is beating at all. Everything has slowed to a funereal pace. If I move my hand to brush my hair behind my ears or pick something up off the floor, however quickly I do it, it’s as though I am moving in slow motion. My brain struggles to make sense of it all, my thoughts moving sluggishly through the past couple of months, trying to figure out how it has come to this.
I suppose it all began a couple of months ago, the day the new girl started. I’d spent break listening to Sophie talking to Claire Barnes and Joanne Kirby, not saying much myself. We were all sitting on that bench at the far edge of the playground, the three of them with their skirts rolled over at the waist so many times there was hardly any point in wearing them. Matt Lewis was watching Sophie from the other side of the playground and I could tell what he was thinking. It was that day, the first one of the year where you could smell spring in the air. I sat on the end of the bench, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my face, hoping they wouldn’t expect me to contribute anything. The sky was the most amazing blue, and Sophie and the other two were sort of shining, their impossibly glossy hair reflecting the sunlight, their smooth golden skin glistening. Of course they knew the effect they were having; they weren’t that stupid.
Sophie was redoing her mascara and talking about a boy she’d got off with the weekend before at Claire Barnes’s sixteenth birthday party. Obviously I wasn’t invited. Claire and Joanne only tolerate me tagging along because I’m friends with Sophie, and sometimes I feel like I’m hanging on to even that friendship by the tips of my fingers.
“Basically, we were kissing and all that, and then—well, you know the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a boy? That happened.”
Claire and Joanne shrieked.
“Oh my God!” Claire said. “That is so embarrassing! You know I got off with Mark that time, at Johnny’s party? We went down the fields and I was down there, you know, giving him head, and nothing much was happening and I looked up and guess what? He was asleep!”
Sophie and Joanne fell about laughing and I smiled, to show that I understood the joke. At least I know what giving head is, even if I am hazy on the details. I’ve tried to imagine doing it to someone, even someone I really like, but I can’t. I have no idea how it works, for a start; what you would do with your mouth, your tongue. I shuddered.
Claire leaned in to the other two as if about to impart some great piece of wisdom.
“It’s all right for you two, it’s still all quite new to you, but I’m actually getting a bit bored with sex, you know. It’s all Dan wants to do. You know, sometimes I’d like to go into town or go to the cinema or something?”
Sophie and Joanne fell over themselves to agree. It’s funny, Sophie’s always so cool, so together, but sometimes when she’s with Claire I can see her soft underbelly, the cracks in her facade. They’d recently started letting me go into town with them after school. We would all walk down in a group, but when you get to the path by the river it’s too narrow to walk anything but two-by-two, and I could always feel Sophie and Joanne silently jostling to be the one who got to walk with Claire rather than with me.
Until tonight, I’d never even kissed a boy, and I remember praying that day that the others wouldn’t find out. Sophie knows, but I don’t think she’d tell. At least they never try to involve me in those conversations. I’m always so frightened of saying something stupid, something that will betray my lack of experience. Most of what I know about sex I’ve learned from the pages of Just Seventeen magazine, although God knows it could be more helpful. The problem-page woman seems to assume you have a basic knowledge, so there are always phrases and words I’m not sure about. You’d think maybe sex education at school would have covered this, but no, so far it’s been an ancient 1970s video of a woman giving birth, and some embarrassed talk about penises going into vaginas. Well, even I knew that. The only lesson that had promised to be interesting was the one where Mrs. Cook was going to teach us how to put a condom on a banana but guess what: Mrs. Cook was ill that day, so we had to make do with hearing from one of the other classes in our year who’d done it the week before.
The new girl’s name was Maria Weston. She looked OK, sort of normal uniform, not trendy but not square either. Miss Allan made Sophie look after her, but Sophie basically showed her where the toilets were, and the lunch hall, and then ignored her for the rest of the day. Esther Harcourt tried to make friends with Maria, but even a new girl could see that Esther, in her hand-me-downs and thick-rimmed glasses, was not the route to social success at our school. Funny to think that I used to hang out with Esther all the time at primary school. I loved going to her house because her mum let us go off into the woods for hours, although they were vegetarian hippies so we got some odd stuff for tea. I sort of miss her in some ways; we did used to have a laugh. Couldn’t be friends with her anymore though—nightmare.
Anyway, at lunch Sophie hadn’t even sat with the new girl, and Esther was already staying away by then because Maria had been so cold to her at morning break. As I got closer to the tills, I started on the daily task of scanning the cafeteria trying to work out where I was going to sit. Maria was sitting on her own at one end of a table with a group of real losers at the other end, including Natasha Griffiths (or, as Sophie calls her, “Face and Neck” due to her orange foundation and white neck). Face and Neck was holding forth on the subject of her English homework and how brilliant Mr. Jenkins said it was, and how he’d asked her to stay back specially after class at the end (I bet he did; everyone reckons he’s a right old perv). I was about to pass Maria, wondering whether it was going to be OK to sit with Sophie (she was with Claire and Joanne on the far left corner table, which for some reason is the cool table—basically unless you are only having a yogurt for lunch it’s fairly embarrassing to sit there), when I caught Maria’s eye. She was eating her baked potato and listening to Natasha banging on about her Shakespeare essay, smiling like she could already tell how full of crap Natasha is, and something made me slow my pace.
“Is anyone sitting here?”
“No, no one!” she said, moving her tray to make room for me. “Sit down.”
I unloaded the shameful fat-filled lasagne from my tray and sat down, pressing the sharp end of my apple juice straw into the little silver disc until it popped, a bead of amber liquid oozing from the hole.
“So, how’s your first day going so far?”
“Oh, you know, good; of course it’s difficult… you know…”
She trailed off.
“So, crap basically?” I grinned.
“Yeah.” She smiled in relief. “Total crap.”
“Where did you go to school before? Did your mum and dad move?”
Maria concentrated very hard on cutting the skin of her potato. “Yes, we lived in London.”
“Oh right,” I said. April seemed like a funny time of year to move, so near the end of the school year.
She hesitated. “I was having a bit of trouble with some of the other girls.”
I sensed she didn’t want me to press her, so I didn’t.
“Well, everyone’s really nice here,” I lied. “You won’t have any problems like that. In fact there’s a group of us that goes into town most days after school, you should come.”
“I can’t today, my brother’s picking me up outside school to walk home. But I’d love to another day.”
First lesson after lunch was math, and Sophie swung into the seat next to me, freshly made up after a bitching session in the bathroom and reeking of Christian Dior’s Poison. I told her that I’d been talking to Maria and that I’d invited her to come into town with us. She turned to me.
“You’ve invited her out with us?” There was a dangerous edge to her voice.
“Yes… is that OK?” I tried to check the tremor in my voice.
“Does Claire know?”
“No… I didn’t think anyone would mind.”
“You could have checked with me first, Louise.”
“Sorry, I thought… she’s new, and…” I rearranged the books on my desk needlessly, panic building. What had I done?
“I know that. But I’ve heard some things about her already, stuff that happened at her old school.”
“Oh, it’s OK, she told me about that.” Maybe this would be OK. “None of that was true.”
“She would say that though, wouldn’t she? Did she tell you what it was about?”
“No,” I admitted, my cheeks beginning to burn.
“Right. Well, maybe you should get your facts straight before you go inviting people out with other people.”
We carried on doing our algebra in silence for a few minutes, although I noticed Sophie was still looking over my shoulder to copy my answers.
“She can’t come tonight as it happens,” I ventured eventually. “She’s got to meet her brother.”
“I heard he was a bit of a weirdo as well. Anyway, I can’t go into town tonight. I’m doing something with Claire.”
I clearly wasn’t invited to this mystery outing, so I said nothing. I was surprised Sophie couldn’t feel the heat radiating from me, shock and worry oozing through my pores.
When the bell went she scooped up her stuff and went straight off to the next lesson. At the end of the day she didn’t even say good-bye to me, she just went giggling off, clutching Claire Barnes by the arm, without looking back. I was so frightened that I’d ruined everything with her. Shit shit shit. What was I going to do?
I’m still sitting shell-shocked at the kitchen table, Maria’s Facebook page open in front of me. Questions crowd my mind. Who is doing this, and why now? I try to wrap my mind around the horrifying possibility that somehow, somewhere, Maria is still alive. When a new Facebook notification pops up, I click on it with trepidation.
Sharne Bay High Reunion Committee invited you to the event Sharne Bay High School Reunion Class of 1989.
Reunion? I click feverishly on the link, and there it is: Sharne Bay High School Class of 1989 Reunion, taking place two weeks from Saturday in the old school hall. On top of the request from Maria, it’s a sucker punch right in the solar plexus. Can it be coincidence, getting this the same day? I click on the Facebook page of the group organizing it, and although there’s no way of telling who has set it up, it seems bona fide. There’s a post pinned to the top of the newsfeed from our old English teacher Mr. Jenkins, who apparently still works at the school. There were all sorts of rumors that used to go around about him—keeping girls back after lessons, looking in through the changing-room windows, stuff like that—but I don’t suppose there was any truth to them. We all thought the PE teacher was a lesbian because she had a glass eye, so we weren’t the most reliable of witnesses. The rest of the newsfeed is full of excited chat from people going to the reunion, dating back a couple of months. Why has it taken until now for me to be invited? My neck is flushed and there are treacherous, foolish tears prickling at the back of my eyes. How easily, how stupidly I am transported back through the years; how quickly that familiar rush of shame washes over me: shame at being left out, being left behind. Still not really one of the gang. An afterthought.
I click on the list of attendees, furiously scanning for his name. Yes, there it is. There he is, eyes crinkling away at me from his profile photo, his right arm around someone out of shot. Sam Parker is attending this event. Why hasn’t he said anything to me? Obviously we hardly spend hours chatting, but he could have mentioned it when I was dropping Henry off. Maybe he’s hoping I don’t find out about it.
Other names I recognize jump out at me: Matt Lewis, Claire Barnes, Joanne Kirby. For a heart-stopping second I see Weston and think wildly that it’s Maria, but no, it’s Tim Weston. My God, her brother. He wasn’t at school with us—he was a year older and went to the local community college—but he used to hang out with Sam and some of the other boys in our year, so I suppose it’s not so surprising that he’s going. There are loads of other names—some I know, others that I don’t remember. So many names, but not mine.
I keep scanning the list of attendees until I find Sophie. I knew she’d be there. I click on her profile. I’ve looked at it before, but always resisted the temptation to friend her. This time I go straight to her “friends” section, but Maria’s not there. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Sophie hasn’t received the same request I have, only that she hasn’t accepted it. She’s got five hundred and sixty-four friends. I’ve got sixty-two and some of those are work-related. I’ve thought about deleting my account before, to prevent myself from getting sucked into that terrible time-wasting vortex where you find yourself poring through the wedding photos of someone you’ve never met instead of meeting a work deadline; but actually it’s important to me, particularly in the last couple of years. Since Sam left, I have had to shrink my world, in order for the important things not to fall apart: Henry; my business. I don’t have the time or energy for anything else, but Facebook means I haven’t completely lost touch with my friends and old colleagues. I still know what’s going on in their lives—what their children look like, where they’ve been on holiday—and then on the odd occasions that we do meet, the thread that binds us is stronger than it would otherwise have been. So I keep posting, liking, commenting; it stops me from falling out of my world completely.
The wind is rising outside and a strand of the wisteria that trails around the outside of my French windows taps on the glass, making me jump. Even though I know it was the wisteria, I get up and peer out, but it’s nearly dark and I can’t see much beyond my reflection. A sudden sprinkle of rain rattles against the windowpane, as if someone has thrown a handful of gravel, and I jump back, heart thumping.
Back at the kitchen table, I click on Sophie’s profile photo. It’s one of those faux-casual ones where she looks impossibly gorgeous but manages to give the impression it’s any old snap she’s thrown up there. Look closely and you’ll see the “natural” makeup, the semi-professional lighting, the filters applied in the edit. Lean in closer and you might see the lines, but I have to admit she’s worn well. Her hair is still a tumbling waterfall of molten caramel, her figure enviably but predictably unchanged since her teenage years.
I wonder if she’s ever looked for me on here, and I click back to my own profile picture, trying to see it through her eyes. I’ve used one that Polly took, me sitting behind a table in the pub, glass of wine in hand. Under my newly critical gaze it looks like the photo of a person self-consciously trying to look “fun.” I am leaning forward on the table in a short-sleeved top and you can see the unattractive bulge of my upper arms, in grim contrast to the gym-toned, honey-colored limbs on display in Sophie’s photo. My mousy brown hair looks lank and my makeup is smudged.
My cover photo is one of Henry taken last month on his first day at school. He’s standing in the kitchen, his uniform box-fresh but marginally too big, looking heart-wrenchingly proud. Only I had known his private worries, confided to me last thing at night from deep beneath his duvet: “What if no one wants to play with me, Mummy?”; “What if I miss you too much?”; “What will I do if I need a cuddle?” I had reassured him as best I could, but I didn’t know the answers to those questions either. He had seemed too small to be going off on his own into the world, out there where I couldn’t protect him. I wonder briefly if Sophie knows that Sam and I have a child, or even that we were married. I push down the thought of Henry, trying not to think about what he might be doing at Sam’s tonight, trying not to worry about him; it’s like trying not to breathe.
I think about what it will mean if I become Facebook friends with Sophie, and scroll through my timeline, trying to see it through her eyes. Lots of photos of Henry; posts about childcare stresses and working-mother guilt, especially when Henry was starting school and only went mornings for the first two weeks. I wonder if Sophie has children. If she doesn’t, she’s going to find my timeline extremely tedious. If she scrolls back far enough at least she’ll see the photos from our summer holiday, Henry and I tanned and relaxed, all tension eased away by warmth and distance from home.
What she won’t be able to see is that I was married to Sam, that’s if she doesn’t know already. I removed all the evidence of him from my timeline two years ago when I realized that he’d deleted his own Facebook account, the one with the story of us on it. He had simply started again. All the holidays, the days out, our wedding photos carefully scanned in several years after the event: gone, replaced by his shiny new narrative. He wiped me clean away like a dirty smear on the window.
I check to see if Sophie is Facebook friends with Sam, and she is. He must have his privacy settings very high, because all I can see are his profile photos, which are either of him alone or landscapes, and the date two years ago when he “joined Facebook.” I struggle to tear my eyes away from his photo. I know that I’m better off without him. Yet there is still a part of me that yearns to be with him, the two of us luminescent in a dull world that wants everyone to be the same.
I start clicking through the photos on my laptop, trying to find a better one for my profile picture, wondering whether to take a new one, although selfies are always horrendously unflattering, so maybe not. What about one of those “amusing” ones where you put a picture of the back of your head, or a blurred photo? Mind you, maybe she’s looked for me before and seen the current one, so if I change it today and then send her a friend request, she’ll know that I’ve done it on purpose to impress her.
That brings me up short: impress her? My God, is that what I’m trying to do, even after all these years? I look back through the prism of time and it’s perfectly clear that Sophie was using me to shore up her own ego; that she needed someone less attractive, less cool than her to stand beside her and make her shine even brighter. I couldn’t see it then, but she was jostling for position as much as I was, just a few rungs up the ladder. But receiving this message from Maria has plunged me back to the playground and the lunch hall, where fitting in is everything and friendship feels like life and death. My professional achievements, my friends, my son, the life I’ve constr. . .
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