by Amanda Saint

Stephanie had forgotten how truly deathly it was round here in the winter. No shops or cafes open in the parade facing the beach. The only place welcoming customers was the massive new Wetherspoons. She couldn’t go in there. That would be too depressing. Even worse than being indoors with stay-at-home Stacey.

The tide was way out, the sea flat, dull, grey. One of those days when everything feels too still, too heavy, as if the cold and the clouds could press you right down into the ground. The neon lights from the amusement arcade were the only bright thing around but even they seemed muted, as did the jingles and crashes from the machines inside.

She’d walk up the hill to the flagpole to get warm. She couldn’t go back to the house yet. It was as if the nicotine-stained walls were stealing her breath. The raggedy old furniture and peeling wallpaper dragging her back to the past. Erasing everything she’d become since she left.

The path snaked upwards alongside the beach and as she reached the first bend, the one where Diane had fallen from, a woman appeared coming the other way. Her hood was up so Stephanie couldn’t see her face but, somehow, she knew who it was.

When they drew level, the woman stopped. ‘Steph. I thought it was you. My God. It’s been so long.’ She stepped forward and pulled Stephanie into a hug. ‘How are you?’

‘Emma! How lovely. I’m good, how about you?’ She pulled back from the hug before Emma noticed her flinch. The bruises on her arm where Ryan had gripped her to try and stop her leaving, were tender still. He worried what coming back here would do to her. And she was starting to think he was right to be concerned. She was certainly feeling off kilter.

Emma reached out and grabbed her hand. ‘Sorry about your mum. You’re back for the funeral?’

Stephanie nodded. Images flashed in her mind of the two of them as teenagers. Drinking cider in the old lime kilns down at Hele Bay before going to the sweaty, dry ice—filled discos in the community centre. Determined to go even though the cool kids ruled there and Stephanie and Emma were the squares, swots. Why hadn’t they spoken in so long?

‘I’m sorry we lost touch when I came home. Why did you stay away so long?’ Emma asked. No judgement in her voice, just curiosity it seemed.

Stephanie bit her lip, turned to face out to sea. Why did she? She cleared her throat. She could tell Emma. She knew what Stephanie had escaped from. ‘I was scared.’ A shiver ran through her. That was the first time she’d said it out loud.

‘Scared of what?’ Emma joined her at the sea wall, gazed down at the beach below, as if she knew Stephanie could only say it if she didn’t look at her.

‘That I’d break the spell. It seemed like magic that I’d got away. Like it could never happen twice. I did think about visiting. But something told me if I did, I’d be stuck here for good. Like Stacey.’

‘Stacey made her own choices. She could have left too,’ Emma said.

Stephanie shook her head violently, gripped the railing as if she would wrench it from the rocks and throw it out to sea. ‘No. There was only ever going to be one of us that got away. And it was always going to be me.’

‘How can you know that?’

Stephanie prised her fingers from the railings and stuffed her hands in her pockets, taken aback at the force of her reaction. ‘Because I was the one who always said no and Stacey always said “Yes, Mum. Of course, Mum”. No matter how crazy Diane’s demands got, Stacey always did as she was told.’

Emma turned, patted Stephanie’s arm. ‘Come see me. We’ll go for a drink. I’m living at my mum’s so you know where to find me.’

Stephanie watched her walk away until she vanished round the corner, then carried on walking up the hill. When she reached the flagpole, she climbed up on to the rocks surrounding it, panting but no longer cold. She flung her arms above her head and waved them wildly in the wind that was picking up, as if they were sails and the breeze could carry her away.

Down on the beach waves were slapping onto the shingle now, shifting it around, dragging some of it away and sending it elsewhere. But the big boulders stood resolute, unmoved by the winds and the water for centuries. Going nowhere.

Amanda Saint is the author of two novels, As If I Were A River (2016) and Remember Tomorrow (2019). Her short fiction collection, Flashes Of Colour, is coming in 2020 and she’s currently working on a flash novella too. Amanda founded and runs Retreat West, providing writing competitions, courses and retreats, and Retreat West Books indie press, which publishes short fiction, novels and memoirs.