Winterbourne Hall is not safe. Even as Clare and Dorran scramble to secure the ancient building against ravenous hollow ones, they face something far worse: Clare's sister has made contact, but she's trapped, and her oxygen is running out.
Hundreds of miles separate Clare from Beth. The land between them is infested with monsters, and the roads are a maze of dead ends. Clare has to choose between making a journey she knows she might not survive, or staying safe in Winterbourne and listening as her sister slowly suffocates.
At least, whatever her choice, she’ll have Dorran by her side. And yet there are eyes in the dark. There are whispers in the mist. There is danger lurking in the snow, and one false step could end it all…
Release date: April 7, 2020
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 498
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Secrets in the Dark
“Clare? If you’re there, please answer. It’s me, Beth.”
Standing at Winterbourne Hall’s kitchen sink, Clare stared, shocked, at the crackling radio. Gusts of freezing wind howled through gaps in the old mansion’s stone walls. Even wrapped in the cotton dress she’d inherited from one of the manor’s old maids and a fur jacket borrowed from Dorran, she would have been far too cold in the kitchen without the fire. The blaze both warmed and illuminated the room, bathing Clare and Dorran in its orange glow.
Dorran stood close enough to touch. He still wore bruises and scratches from the monsters that inhabited Winterbourne, but his dark eyes shone in the candlelight as he looked towards the radio.
“Beth…” Clare’s heart missed a beat then returned with a vengeance, thumping furiously until her pulse was all she could hear. The last time she’d spoken to Beth, she’d been driving to her sister’s house in an attempt to escape the spreading stillness. That had only been seventeen days before, but it felt like half a lifetime. She had kept the radio running constantly since retrieving it from her car, but her hope of hearing from Beth had dwindled down to almost nothing.
Dorran moved first. He strode around the wide wooden table filling the kitchen’s centre and snatched the two-way radio off the shelf. Then he returned and placed it on the table in front of Clare. He didn’t try to speak but bent forward to listen, watching expectantly.
The radio crackled. Clare struggled to breathe. In a flurry of urgent panic, she dropped the dish towel, darted forward, then pressed the button to transmit her voice. “Beth? Beth, I’m here. It’s me. I’m here.”
She released the button and leaned close to the speakers. Her hands were shaking. Her throat was tight, and every nerve in her body felt on fire with a desperate need to hear her sister’s voice again.
Beth was the closest thing Clare had to a mother. Beth, at the vulnerable age of twenty, had taken Clare to dental checkups, to netball practice, and to school recitals. Beth had never stopped worrying about her when Clare moved into her own home.
The transmission was faint and distorted by a weak signal, but the voice was unmistakable. Beth took a gasping, hiccupping breath. “Clare? Is that you? Is it really you?”
She’s still alive. She’s okay. “Yes! I’m here!”
Beth was crying, and Clare couldn’t stop herself from following suit. She wiped her sleeves over her face as tears ran. At the same time, a grin stretched her cheeks until they ached.
Dorran moved silently. He nudged a chair in behind Clare so that she could sit, then a moment later, he placed a glass of water and a clean cloth beside her. She gratefully used the cloth to wipe some of the wetness off her face. Dorran took a seat on the opposite side of the table. He was tall, towering over Clare, but he moved smoothly and carefully; even his breathing was nearly silent. He folded his arms on the table, his dark eyes attentive, his black hair falling around his strong jaw, as he listened to the conversation.
“Sweetheart, are you okay? Are you hurt?”
Beth never called her sweetheart unless she was frightened. Clare guessed, after two weeks of no contact, Beth was about as frightened as she’d ever been. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
That was a half-truth at best. She still had red lines running across her arm and abdomen from where the monsters—the hollow ones—had attacked her. She grew tired too quickly. Her muscles ached. A bite on her wrist and thigh still needed dressing every day. But she was alive. And if the hollows were as prevalent as they seemed, that was better than what could be said for a lot of the world.
“What about you?” She pulled the radio closer, struggling to make out Beth’s voice under the distortion. “Are you in your bunker? Are you okay?”
“Yes, don’t worry about me. I’m in my bunker and getting thoroughly sick of staring at these four walls.” Beth laughed. “I paid for every add-on I could for this place… air filtration, water filtration, generator, aquaponics system. The only professional I didn’t think to hire was an interior decorator.”
Hearing Beth’s laughter made Clare feel lighter. She couldn’t stop her grin. “I guess people don’t really think about throw rugs and wall hangings when they imagine the end of the world, do they?”
Beth chuckled, but the noise didn’t sound quite natural. Clare’s smile faded. For a moment, the only noise in the kitchen was the soft static and a distant drip.
“It’s all gone to hell, sweetheart.” Beth’s voice had lost its colour. “Everything. It’s all gone.”
“Yeah.” Clare swallowed. “But you’re okay. And that’s what matters.”
“Are you at Marnie’s? Is she there? Can I talk to her?”
The questions were like being dunked in a freezing bath. Clare closed her eyes. She took a slow breath and tried to keep her voice steady. “I never reached Marnie.”
Marnie, Clare’s aunt, was the third piece of their tiny family. She lived on a farm two hours’ drive from Clare’s home. On that last morning, Clare had been trying to pick up Marnie on her way to Beth’s. She’d never made it out of Banksy Forest.
“Well.” Beth sounded like she was choking. “At least you’re okay. At least… at least…”
“I’m so sorry.” Clare stared down at the chipped wooden bench and shivered. The kitchen no longer felt as warm as it had a moment before.
There had been very little chance to think about the world outside the forest during the previous few days. But whenever she had, her mind had turned to her family and what might have happened to them. She’d felt sick every time she imagined it.
She felt sick again then, knowing that Marnie must have been waiting for her. Beth would have called her to say Clare was on the way. She’d probably been standing by her front door, a suitcase on one side and a cat carrier on the other. Clare could picture her easily. Brown hair that had started to develop streaks of grey. A body that had been made strong by a lifetime of working in the garden but was always a little on the plump side. She would have been wearing floral clothes and a knit cardigan, like she always did. She was a short woman, but she had a huge smile and an even bigger heart.
Did the hollow ones get her? Was it fast or painful and slow?
A warm hand moved over hers. She met Dorran’s dark eyes as he squeezed her fingers.
“But you’re okay.” Beth’s voice crackled through the radio again. She seemed to have rallied. “After your phone went out, I tried reaching you through the radio almost constantly. For days. You didn’t answer, and I thought… I thought—”
“I’m so sorry. I left the radio in the car. It took me a while to get it back.”
“That’s fine. You’re alive. I can forgive everything else as long as you just stay alive. Where are you? If you didn’t get to Marnie’s, does that mean you’re in your cottage? It’s not going to be safe—”
“No, no, I found a new house. It’s in Banksy Forest.”
She could hear the frown in Beth’s voice. “There aren’t any houses inside the forest.”
“That’s what I thought too. But it was well hidden. The owner, Dorran, is letting me stay with him.”
Again, Beth hesitated. “Is he a good sort of person?”
“Yes, don’t worry. He’s nice. And we have plenty of food—and a garden. Winterbourne was designed to be self-sufficient, and it’s hard to break into. I was lucky. Really lucky.”
“Be careful, Clare. Don’t trust him just because he’s friendly.”
Clare looked down at her hand, which was still enveloped in Dorran’s. She followed it along his arm, covered by the green knit sweater, and up to his face. Thick black hair, grown a little too long, framed a strong, reserved face. His dark eyes, shadowed under a heavy brow, smiled at her. She thought there was no one she trusted more.
“He’s good, I promise. You don’t need to worry about me. How are you doing there?”
“Holding up, at least.” A speck of hesitation flickered in Beth’s voice.
Clare frowned. “Are you sure? Do you have enough food and water?”
“Yes, that’s all fine. But the generator’s out. I’ve been trying to fix it, but it’s been a challenge without the lights.”
A chill ran through Clare. She pictured Beth, sitting in a dark box, having to feel her way through the space every time she needed food, the bathroom, or water. There would be nothing to see. Nothing to do. Just her, alone, listening to the seconds tick by.
“I’m doing fine, sweetheart.” Her voice took on the familiar hint of warning she used whenever Clare was doing something she didn’t approve of. “I have a torch. I’m using it judiciously—apparently an excess of batteries still isn’t enough—but I’m hardly suffering down here.”
Clare wasn’t sure if she could believe that, but she tried to keep her voice bright for Beth’s sake. “We can talk on the radio as much as you want. I can carry you around with me and keep you company.”
Beth laughed. “Oh, that would be fun. But I think it’s better if we keep our chats short.”
That was unexpected. “Why?”
“Tell me, Beth.”
“Too much noise attracts them.”
Dorran’s fingers laced through Clare’s, trying to reassure her. She barely felt it. Her hands were turning numb. “The hollow ones?”
“Yeah.” Beth’s voice cracked. “I was the only person in my street who had a bunker.”
Clare understood. Without shelter, all of Beth’s neighbours would have been affected by the stillness.
Under the static’s crackles and her own too-fast breathing, Clare thought she heard another sound. The noise had dogged her for weeks, following her even into her sleep, and every fibre of her being revolted against it. Fingernails, digging. Clawing. Scratching. They were at Beth’s bunker door. They’d heard her and Clare. They were hungry.
“We’ll get you out,” Clare said. The words left her before she could think them through, before she could even glance at Dorran for his agreement.
Beth snapped, “No! Clare, listen—”
“I can be there this afternoon.” Clare stood. She stared about the kitchen, frenzied, trying to piece together a plan. She didn’t have a car. Her little red vehicle was a crumpled wreck. But if she could get out of the forest, she was sure she could find some other form of transport. There would be street upon street of abandoned cars, their owners long gone.
As long as the temperature hasn’t frozen their engines too badly. As long as I can find the keys. As long as the snow isn’t too thick on the road—
“Clare.” Beth’s voice boomed through the hissing speakers, and Clare instantly froze. “Sit down.”
Beth only yelled when Clare was in trouble. It had been years since she’d last heard that tone, but it still held power over her. She meekly sank back into her seat, licked her lips, then tried again. “I can bring you back here, to Winterbourne. It’s safe. At least… safer.”
“No, you absolutely will not.” Beth’s voice softened until she only sounded snippy, not angry. “You said you had food there, didn’t you?”
Sort of. “Yes.”
“And shelter. You’re warm enough?”
“And that person you’re with. You’re sure he’s okay? He’s not strange or creepy or…”
Clare glanced at Dorran. Both hands clasped under his chin, he studiously watched the table, apparently not sure what to do with himself under her scrutiny. “He’s good.”
“Then you’ll stay there. It’s probably the safest you can be right now.”
“But if we can get you here, too—”
Beth sighed. “Clare, baby, it’s not going to happen. You must be hours away. There are hollows all up and down my street. If I try to leave, I’ll die. If you try to reach me, you’ll die. And how can you expect me to handle that?”
Clare closed her eyes. She took a moment to gather her thoughts. “You’ve been in there for two weeks. How much longer can you handle it? People aren’t designed to survive isolation that long—”
“I’m not completely isolated.” A thudding noise came through the speakers, and Clare pictured Beth tapping her radio. “I have this. I’ve been listening to the world. Humanity isn’t dead yet. People are trying to rally.”
“Do they know what happened?”
“No. There are endless theories. But none that make much sense.” Beth exhaled again.
Whenever Beth stopped speaking, Clare could hear the faint scratching noise. It seemed to be growing louder.
“After our phone call was disconnected, the news station I was watching lasted another four hours. They stopped updating the maps of the quiet zones and instead started listing places they still had contact with. Isn’t that horrible? It was faster to list the surviving cities than the lost ones. After each name, they posted the time they had last spoken to someone there. Gradually, the times for some cities grew further and further away… and eventually, they were taken off the list. Towards the end, they were talking about entire countries being gone.” Her voice was pained.
Clare bent close to the radio as the distortion worsened.
“One of the newscasters said he needed to get a glass of water and almost ran off the stage. The other followed about a minute later. Finally, it was just an intern—this miserable, dead-eyed kid—reading off a list of names from a piece of paper. I think his supervisor had told him to do it, and he didn’t know any better. Everyone else had left. Trying to flee somewhere. Trying to reach their families. It was just this kid on national TV, doing his best not to cry as he faced a camera in an empty studio. Then the building’s lights went out. I could hear the kid screaming. I don’t know why. Just scared? Or had the hollows gotten into the building? I don’t know. But that was the last news broadcast. I still have the TV in my bunker, and when the generator worked, I turned it on a few times a day and tried to find some kind of life through it. Nothing.”
Clare stared at her hands. Bandages wove around one, protecting her wrist. “You said there were still people out there, though.”
“Yes. I catch them on the radio sometimes, talking to each other. Not the people I would have expected. No government. No military. From what I can figure out, those kinds of people are pretty much gone. Whatever happened started in large cities first. They were overrun before they even realised there was a problem… before they could even start evacuating…” She took a shuddering breath. “Some of the prepper types survived. People who lived out in the wilderness. People who had their own bunkers. But they’re dropping one by one, and I’m hearing fewer broadcasts each day. The preppers take too many risks. They try to push their luck, to venture outside, to fight back.”
“The preppers can’t be the only people out there. Are there any other survivors?”
“Mostly? People who are hiding. Do you understand what I’m saying, sweetheart? The heroes are dying. If you want to survive, don’t take risks. You have a good thing where you are now. Stay there. Weather it out. We might be able to meet up afterwards.”
“It’s got to end at some point, somehow. That’s what people are saying. Either we find a way to kill them effectively, or they starve.”
Or humanity dies out. Clare tried not to follow that third option. “Are they capable of starving?”
“No one knows. They’re hard to kill. You can hurt them—cut them open, bash parts of their heads in, whatever—but they’ll just keep walking for days afterwards. One man talked about a hollow he caught in his barn. He chopped it in half at its waist, he said, and it just kept dragging itself along the ground. After three days, its spine had started to grow… well, he described it as little claws. It was sprouting crab-like legs out of its back and was using those to scuttle around faster. He killed it properly before it grew anything else.”
Clare remembered the hollows she’d seen. They were monstrous, contorted beyond what a person should ever have to endure. Skin grew. Bones grew. They broke out of their confines, and somehow, the creatures neither felt pain nor collapsed from infection.
Beth chuckled. “They make us humans look awfully fragile by comparison.”
“They sure do.”
“Here’s everything I know about them. They’re like animals. They’re hungry, but they still have some kind of survival instinct. They don’t like light or fire, and they’ll hide if they think you’re a threat. So if you ever get trapped, make a lot of noise and use light to chase them away. But they won’t stay away for long, so safety—somewhere they can’t get to—is always your first priority.”
They won’t stay away for long. Clare knew that firsthand from her time in the forest. The hunger was always pushing them. Eventually, it won over caution. They would never give up until they ate.
“They don’t fight each other,” Beth continued. “But they don’t work together, either, thank heaven. They’ll eat another hollow if it’s already dead, but they always prefer warm-blooded things. Humans or animals.”
“They can’t infect you, can they?” Clare tried not to stare at the bandages on her wrist.
“People say they can’t. It’s not like a virus. It’s… I have no idea. Some people say leaking radiation. That hundreds of nuclear bombs went off without anyone realising, and that’s what’s deforming us.”
“But radiation would kill you long before anything like this happened.”
“That’s what I mean about the theories. Most of them are half plausible, but none really make complete sense. Aliens. Government experiments gone wrong. Some people say this is the rapture, except good people seem to be dying alongside the bad. But whatever it is, they agree that you have to be exposed to something to be affected. No one is immune; nobody’s come walking out of a city that was affected. If you come in contact with it, you become a hollow.”
Clare’s heart skipped a beat. “Whatever caused this… is it still out there? Could it change us, as well?”
The radio was silent for a moment. Clare stared at it, fixated, and felt Dorran lean in closer, as well.
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