"Take my hand, little one."
Fran finds her standing by the swings. A little girl, Esther, no older than seven years old, by herself in the dead of night, her pretty but old-fashioned yellow dress covered in grass stains and her hair disheveled. She says she's waiting for Father, and that strikes Fran as particularly odd.
After Esther is reunited with her family, Fran can't stop thinking about this pious child whose imaginary friend is God. Fran's instincts tell her something is very wrong. Why does Esther keep running away from home, and how did she get that bruise on her leg?
Fran's husband warns her not to get too close, but one morning, Esther and her family disappear. Where did they go? Why did they leave their furniture behind?
Fran knows in her gut that something terrible is going to happen to that child, and she can't stand by while it happens. No matter the cost.
After all, she found her. But can she save her?
Release date: January 14, 2021
Print pages: 359 pages
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Sarah A. Denzil
“Take my hand, little one, you’re safe now.”
The child blinked but did not move. Fran squatted down on her haunches to enter the girl’s eyeline. It hurt her sore muscles, but she ignored the pain. She was more concerned with the child who was alone on the village green at 5:00 a.m.
Fran retracted her hand. Perhaps that was the wrong track.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
In a darling yellow dress, complete with bows and a Peter Pan collar, the girl looked like a living doll. She was around six or seven years old, with straw-golden hair around her shoulders. Above shiny black Mary Jane shoes were a pair of frilly white socks. The kind of clothes her mother used to wear as a child in the sixties. They struck Fran as old-fashioned but cute.
“Father is coming. He’ll find me here.” Her voice had such conviction to it. Such absolute sincerity.
“We can find your daddy together if you like. What’s your name?” Fran was beginning to feel conflicted. Had she lingered here alone with a child for too long? Would it seem strange? She straightened and glanced around the empty park, hoping to see a mother or father over near the see-saw or the swings. She didn’t want to call the police right away, because she didn’t want to scare the girl. But as time went on it was looking like the safest option.
“Esther.” She spoke clearly and didn’t seem shy at all, just reticent. It hadn’t occurred to Fran the first time she spoke, but she heard it now. The American accent; a rarity in Leacroft.
“Where does your daddy live? We can look for him now.” She eyeballed the stoic child desperately. What was one supposed to do in a crisis like this? Take the girl home before calling the police or wait out here in the predawn chill? Wander around together searching for the parents? When Fran set out for her early morning jog, this hadn’t been part of the plan.
“Arizona,” said the child.
Fran pulled her phone out from the pocket of her running tights. Her reflection showed dimly in the dark screen. She turned towards the rows of houses running parallel with the village green, wondering which the girl wandered from. Just as she was about to give up and call the police, she heard the rustling of feet coming from behind. Fran saw a woman sprinting across the park, slip-sliding on the dewy grass. Fran reached out for her, ready to steady her as she approached.
“Whoa,” Fran said, as though to a frightened animal, “take it easy here, the ground’s wet.”
“Esther? Esther, is that you?”
The woman fell to her knees and pulled the child into a bear hug. She had the same American accent as the girl. Even in the dark Fran noticed how young the mother was. Barely twenty-five, perhaps even younger. Her hair was brown, thick and wavy. She wore a long dress covered by a cardigan, sensible boots, no obvious jewellery. The clothing seemed good quality, natural cotton which suggested it might have been handmade. It certainly wasn’t from a chain store.
“Are you Esther’s mum? I’m Fran. I found her about five minutes ago. I was just passing by on my jog and saw her standing here alone.” Fran wasn’t sure if the woman was listening, but she continued with her explanation regardless. “I was just about to call the police, actually. She said she was waiting for her father, but that he lives in Arizona.”
The woman stood and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. For the first time, Fran saw her red-rimmed eyes and patchy skin. There were grass stains on her dress where her knees had hit the ground.
“Thank you,” she said. She gazed down at her daughter, taking the child’s hand in her own. “Her daddy isn’t in Arizona, but we just moved here, and she’s confused. I got up early, put the trash in the can... umm, wheelie bin?”
“That’s right,” Fran said, encouraging her attempt at learning British vernacular.
“She just zipped past me in a blur. I lost her on the street. We live on the east side of the village near the brook. Thank God you were here.”
“Are you okay, hon?” Fran asked. “What’s your name?”
“Mary,” she said. “Mary Whitaker. We moved here last week. We’re just settling in, you know. I’m so sorry for this. She’s usually so good, I don’t…”
Fran placed a tentative hand on Mary’s shoulder. “Kids do this kind of thing all the time. So, I’m told, anyway.”
Her eyes widened. “You don’t have kids? I’m so…” Mary glanced guiltily away. Fran was sure she was about to say, “I’m so sorry”.
Even though Fran knew to take that with the desired intention, she still removed her hand from Mary’s shoulder and inwardly winced. It was nothing new, and, in her mid-forties, Fran thought she would’ve become numb to it. However, she hadn’t, and she never would. It still hurt.
“You’d better get Esther home.” Fran smiled and put her hands on her hips.
“My goodness, yes,” Mary said. Her eyes moved towards the rising sun. “Elijah will wake up soon.”
“Is that your husband?” Fran asked.
The woman nodded. “Best not to worry him about this.” She gave Fran a tentative smile.
Fran watched them walk the entire length of the green. Mary’s shoulders were slightly slumped. Esther walked straight, her blond hair swinging from side to side. A chilly March breeze cooled the nape of Fran’s neck. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what troubled her. Was it the age of the mother? The strange self-possession of that child? Or was it the fact that Mary seemed afraid to tell her husband about what had happened to their daughter?
Shower water rinsed away the sweat. After Mary collected Esther and took her home, Fran had run hard for another forty minutes, lapping the village three times before she stopped. Without the interruption in the middle of her run, she would’ve beaten her personal best.
Never one to linger, Fran turned off the water and wrapped a towel around her body. She ran her fingers through her short hair and went back to the bedroom to dry. Adrian snored peacefully; face flattened against the bed linen. After almost ten years of marriage, she still found his belly-flop, spread-eagled style of sleeping adorable, and his grey hair sexy. Ye Olde Silver Fox was her funny nickname for him, which was apt considering their age difference. She walked over to the bed and mussed his hair.
Adrian’s tongue clapped against the roof of his mouth as he came to, smacking his lips for moisture. He rolled over, rubbed his eyes and blinked at her. She smiled at first, but then she remembered the events of the morning and a shiver wormed its way down her spine. She thought about Esther, and those soft, yellow eyelashes batting against the delicate skin beneath her eyes.
“You’ll never guess what happened on my run.”
“Was that badger poking around our bins again?” He pulled himself up to lean against the headboard, a rotund, reddish belly emerged from beneath the duvet.
“I found a little girl.”
He rubbed his eyes. “What?”
“A kid. On the village green. Just standing there, right next to the swings, no parents in sight. It about gave me a heart attack.”
Adrian gestured for Fran to sit next to him on the mattress. He placed one hand over hers. “Is she all right?”
“Yes. She’s… she’s completely fine. Her mum showed up a few minutes later, but…” Fran sighed heavily. “Ady, those few minutes made my heart race. I didn’t know what to do! Forty-six years old and come undone by a girl standing in the park.”
He rubbed her back, catching water droplets with the palm of his hand. “It was five in the morning, Franny. You’ve a right to be rattled by finding a missing child.”
“I know,” she said. “But there was no harm done, thank God. The girl was reunited with her mother in less than ten minutes, no one was hurt or anything, but…”
“What?” He leaned closer.
“It’s hard to explain now that I’m away from them. I just got this feeling.” She turned away from her husband so as to avoid the eye-roll. As a man of logic and reasoning she knew he barely tolerated her instincts. “First of all, they were both American.”
“Don’t you think it’s odd?”
“I suppose it is a little. But, perhaps they moved here for a job.”
“Why would anyone move from Arizona to Leacroft for a job? What could there possibly be here worth moving to? All of those kinds of jobs are in London and we’re at the wrong end for the country for that.”
“Yes,” Adrian said. “I see your point. What else was strange.”
“The way they were both dressed. You know those pictures of my mum as a toddler? In those cute old-fashioned dresses? Well, the child was wearing something similar to that. And the mother, who, by the way, was extremely young to have a child that age, was in this long dress that I’m sure she’d made herself. It was all a bit Little House on the Prairie.”
Adrian laughed at that. “Maybe they’re homespun people. Not everyone wears polyester from Primark.”
Fran lifted her hands. “I know, I know. But there was something off about them.”
“Did the girl seem afraid?”
“No, she said she was waiting for her father.”
“On the village green?” Adrian frowned. “Does he work nights or something?”
Fran tugged at her bottom lip. That gave her an idea to do a little research on the Whitakers. A new family in the village would certainly be fodder for the gossip machines. Adrian had a point, if the father worked nights, Esther could have slipped out to try and find him. But then she remembered something, and as she did her back straightened.
“What is it?” Adrian asked.
“The woman, Mary. She said, ‘Elijah will wake up soon’. If Elijah is the child’s father, then he must have been at home.”
“Mary and Elijah,” Adrian mused. “Very biblical. That might explain the homemade clothes. Maybe they’re religious. Did they seem Amish?”
“Possibly.” Fran stood. “Mary sounded like she didn’t want Elijah to know about the child running away. Wouldn’t she want to tell her husband something like that?”
“I’d tell you,” Adrian said, giving her hand a little squeeze. “But not everyone has the kind of relationship we have.”
“No, they don’t. Maybe she’s scared of him and that’s why Mary didn’t want him to know. But why would the child think to meet her father in the park?”
“You’re spiralling, Fran.”
“I don’t care.”
His thumb smoothed gently over her skin, like a finger caressing a baby’s cheek. “Careful, Franny.”
Her gaze met his, saw the warning, dismissed it.
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