“She is as fragile as her namesake and her thorns are her protection.”
Rose Austin is haunted by demons of the past and terrors of the night. Moving away was supposed to be her chance to escape, but soon she will discover just how impossible it is to break free. Especially when somebody is stalking Rose, somebody who is hell-bent on bringing back the past and relentless for revenge.
When those around her are keeping secrets of their own, Rose isn’t sure if she should trust anybody anymore, least of all herself. Whilst fighting to retain the façade of normality, the hold on her sanity begins to crumble. And if Rose can’t find the strength to save herself before it’s too late, then Rose will fall.
Darkness took control of her body. Twisted through her veins with burning toxicity. She opened her mouth to scream, only to discover that her voice had abandoned her. Only silence remained.
Silent tears. Silent screams.
Screams that were drowned out by the shadows slipping down her throat.
Her lungs had become heavy with the thick poison of the night. All she could do was choke, gasp. Desperate for mere morsels of air. But it wasn’t enough. It could never be enough.
Swean rolled down a face marred with agony. Pain was her master. It took control. Spread through her bones. Corrupted her mind. Seeped through every single fibre of her being. Pale eyes, wild with alarm and mania, rolled within their sockets.
From within the shadows that loomed above, there was movement. Claws reached out towards her with jagged talons. Those talons grazed her skin harder with every stroke. Until her skin broke. Until blood decorated her skin.
Even then, the didn’t stop.
The claws rose higher, higher, higher. Beyond her thighs. Beyond her hips. Beyond her stomach. Her body twitched and writhed in agony. She was desperate to escape from the torture.
Her struggle was futile. But she already knew that.
She’d known that for a long time.
Rose Austin’s eyes snapped open to darkness once again. It was softer, calmer. Yet her gut still coiled in terror. She found herself clutching at her throat in panic, as she lay in the middle of the stripped, narrow mattress. Her legs were constricted; tangled sheets entwined around the long, pale limbs. So tight that she had lost all feeling in her toes.
Rose kicked at the restraints. The nightmare was fresh in her mind as she struggled against the death-hold of the bed sheets. It was just a dream. Just another dream.
Those empty words didn’t take away its power. They would never ease her fear. The nightmares were hungry and she was vulnerable prey. They waited to plague her in the dead of the night, every night. There was no such thing as mercy. Each night was a battle for survival. For sanity. Each night, Rose lost.
She lay cold in the unfamiliar room. Surrounded by four bare walls and a lingering sensation of paranoia. The silence echoed around her in a deafening pitch. Behind her back, pale moonlight seeped through the thin curtains. It tinted her world a faint shade of grey.
As she trembled in the darkness, Rose closed her eyes. She repeated to herself a mantra she’d become dependent on over the years.
He can’t hurt me anymore.
Can’t hurt me anymore.
Can’t hurt me.
Against her hip bone, skinny fingers twitched. The mantra had become jaded. The words were nothing more than soundless whispers that barely fell from chapped lips. Only,she had stopped screaming, pleading, begging for help a long time ago. Those words were all she had. They were her only lifeline.
Rose would always be haunted. It was impossible to hide the miserable aura that permeated from her being. She was forever tormented by inescapable demons. No matter how hard she fought, how fast she ran, they were always there. Anchoring her to the darkness.
Whenever she least expected it, that anchor would drop. Then Rose would be drowning – in memories so terrible they left her too weak to escape. Pale blue eyes flickered down to her inner wrist at the recollection and the air became hot and heavy in her throat. Raised skin curved across the limb in a variety of crude patterns.
She trailed the marks with hesitant fingertips.
It’s never easy to escape the past when it’s staring you in the face.
It was the padding of small feet on the old carpet that withdrew Rose from her thoughts. The sound of gentle puffs of air and the movement of flannel tickled inside her ears. She didn’t look up as the bed dipped with a new weight. A small body brushed up against her.
The murmur of a smile brushed along Rose’s lips.
“Bad dreams?” The young voice quivered against the night. Rose became distinctly aware of the pressure from being stared at. The pressure that came from a pair of wide eyes in the dark.
An obvious lie. Rose was quick to change the subject. “What are you doing up?” She moved an arm to drape over the small body at her side in a familiar embrace.
“I heard you cry.”
Eyes shut. Bitterness pooled through her body. “You shouldn’t worry about me, Hope.”
“I don’t like it when you cry.”
“Well, I’m smiling now.” The lie was followed by a second wave of bitterness. It caused her jaw to tighten.
Hope shifted until the top of her hair brush against Rose’s collar bone. Made a strangled mewling sound as she strained in the dark. “Can’t see.”
“Of course you can’t, it’s dark.” Rose tapped a finger against a small, pert nose. The kid settled back on the mattress with a thump.
Light as a feather, a giggle slipped from Hope’s lips. As she reached for the abandoned sheets at the bottom of bed, Rose’s body strained and protested. Hope was quick to snuggle back against her as the duvet was pulled over them both.
The room was still for a while. Until a young murmur broke the silence. “Don’t leave.”
“I’m gonna miss you.”
Rose caught the sniff before Hope could bury her head in the duvet. Her hand came up to stroke the young girl’s hair, helpless as she whimpered.
“I’ll miss you too. But it won’t be for long.” A tear slipped out of the corner of her own eye. Rose attempted discretion as she wiped it away against the rough fabric of her pillow.
Hope stopped crying. Her head shifted upwards. “Promise?”
Relief flooded Rose’s system at the lack of sorrow in her voice. She leant down and kissed the top of the little girl’s head. “I promise. Now get some sleep.”
“Not-“ The protest was cut off as a yawn forced itself from the girl. “Tired.”
Rose shrugged. Her fingers stroked the thin wisps of hair that surrounded Hope’s face absentmindedly. “If you say so.”
Silence surrounded their embrace as the older girl waited.
Until, finally, Hope spoke up. “Can you sing first?”
Thin moonlight seeped through the thin curtains of the shared room. Rose caught a glimpse of a hopeful expression from the partial light. She sighed.
When she started to sit up a little, Hope squealed in delight. Two tiny hands clutched the duvet. Tugged it towards her chin as she began to squirm. Eager eyes squeezed shut in anticipation.
She didn’t really need to ask Rose to sing anymore. Rose sang for Hope almost every night. Small body curled against hers. Owlish eyes fluttering shut with every lyric.
As Rose began to sing, the moonlight faded away. The vision of Hope’s smile disappeared as their song filled the little box room. Rose’s voice wasn’t soft. It was broken, husky, bittersweet.
After everything she’d been through, singing was difficult for her. But Hope loved it when she sang, and Rose loved her. So for Hope, Rose sang the only song she’d sung in years.
“She has heaven in her eyes,
And a smile upon her face,
Her laughter sounds like music in the rain,
Her dreams a filled with symphonies,
A melody of her heart,
And I sing for her this lullaby.”
The last of the song was harmonised by gentle snoring. Rose felt the shift in the air from Hope’s heavy breaths. Felt the warmth that radiated from the little girl spread through her own body, all the way to her heart.
Rose remained still. Unwilling to ruin the single moment of perfection. Moments like this were so rare nowadays that she was inclined to make them last, even though she knew they never would. Minutes passed before she pressed a quick kiss on top of Hope’s head. Whispered an almost inaudible “Goodnight.”
Then, her attention returned to the empty walls around them both. They held no life, no love. Offered no comfort from the world outside.
But still, she smiled.
Rose knew that she wouldn’t fall asleep anytime soon. But with Hope by her side, the darkness wasn’t so scary anymore.
Rose had been told countless times that she wasn’t to feel guilty. That she was the victim. But she couldn’t help herself. Rose firmly believed that everything bad that had happened to her and her loved ones over the year was all a consequence of herself and her own weakness.
After all, her weakness was the reason they’d had to abandon their home. The reason they’d had to sacrifice everything they knew.
It was all because she couldn’t live with the whispers, questions, stares. So then the police had come knocking at their door, they’d had no other choice. Rose was fragile, and it wasn’t long before she would break for good.
So they had left. Moved from their small town to lose themselves within a city almost an hour away. The move had only worsened Rose’s guilt. Particularly as the result was a run-down, two bedroom terrace in a questionable area.
But ever since the police had arrived bearing news, Rose’s mental state had begun deteriorating. She’d confined herself to her room. Unable to move or talk. Barely able to breathe.
Her mum and Lucas, her lifelong friend, had tried all they could to help her. The only person Rose could really speak to had been Hope. The little girl would sneak into the room and talk to Rose about anything and everything. It had been the only source of happiness it Rose’s world.
In the end, it had been her psychiatrist who had suggested the move. To get away from the bad environment. Make a new home, new memories. Happy memories.
“This isn’t about running from your problems,” she had told Rose once during one of their sessions. “It’s about moving on.”
Rose’s mum, as always, had agreed with the woman.
Her mum hung onto Dr Mulligan’s words. Craved them, almost. That particular piece of advice had been repeated over and over since the moment she had told Rose that they were moving.
Rose had almost believed her, too. Because other than Lucas and his family, she had lost all love for the little town she’d grown up in. It had become the setting for a nightmare. A place to hold the constant presence of fear and pain. A constant remembrance of a past she refused to acknowledge.
In their new home, they had a second chance. Beginning college, rose wouldn’t be the damaged girl. The broken girl. The haunted girl. Not anymore.
No. Rose Austin would just be the new girl.
The poky bathroom was ancient and freezing. Pale eyes squinted with effort as Rose attempted to turn the stiff shower handle. It gave away with an ear-piercing shriek. She hopped into the tub the moment water began to fall from the rusty showerhead.
Cold water chilled her to the bone. Numbed her skin. But it failed to numb the sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach. The water hit her skin like icicles. She braced it because she wanted to hurt. Deserved to hurt. She’d felt worse before, anyway.
All my fault.
Sharp nails dug deep as she scrubbed her scalp. She hissed at
the bite of pain. Her body collapsed against the grimy tiles the moment she was through. Weak against the watery onslaught. Eyes closed as each drop slapped her skin.
Head hammering, Rose couldn’t hear her own thoughts. She shut the water off, still numb. Her step out of the tub was jerky.
With a dull squeak, her hand wiped at the condensation on the small round mirror above the sink. Fingers twitched. Tapped out an unbalanced beat against the cheap metal frame. The chill in the air had goosebumps on her skin. But it was her own reflection that froze her blood.
She forced her thin lips to stretch into an upward curve. The happiness didn’t reach her eyes. Rarely ever did. The murky blue held a certain melancholy tone that she could never quite disguise.
“I smile like I have a gun pressed against my back,” she summarised. Defeated, she puffed out her hallowed cheeks. Blew the gush of air up towards a wet, dark blonde strand that hung over her forehead.
“No going back now.”
In an instant, she was reeling against the sink. The mirror blurred in her vision. Hands came down to grip the porcelain for dear life. But as her eyes grew heavy, she knew it wasn’t enough. She was powerless. Her own body had become a dead weight from those four simple words.
In the mirror, Rose caught glimpses of another little girl. With features not as harsh and skin not as pale. She stared right back at Rose, a similar look of fear in her expression.
The girl stood on her own. A patched-up bag hung from a bony shoulder. The corner of a book stuck through the thin materials and dug into the back of the girl’s thick. Rose knew it would darken a bruise that was already there.
Fists were clenched, knuckle white. Rose saw this and realised she could no longer feel her own fingertips. Watched, as the girl unclenched her fist until Rose could hear the crisp snap of knuckles. The action was repeated. Again and again and again.
Cold sweat ran down the girl’s brow. A small, salty bead dripped past an eye and ran down the side of her face. Both eyes, wide and scared, were focused on the space behind Rose.
Rose didn’t have to turn around to see what had her attention. She already knew.
It was a door, and it terrified the younger girl. Because of what was on the other side. Of what would happen once she stepped inside. She took a cautious step forward. Rose could feel her own lungs burn as she held her breath. She wanted to scream at the girl to turn around. Leave. Walk away and never step food near that door.
But she couldn’t. Instead, she had to watch as the girl took a second step. Blinked back the tears in her eyes. “Well,” Rose heard the girl say to herself. Watched the youth take in a lungful of air and mimicked the movement. The next words tumbled from the girl’s mouth in a mixture of trepidation and resignation. “No going back now.”
With each step forward, Rose’s dread increased. No, she thought in panic. No, no, no. One word. Over and over until she was talking aloud. A desperate plea as she watched the hand reach for the door. Her own hand reached out. Fingers pressed against the mirror as she begged the girl not to do it. But a hand pressed down on the handle, and Rose knew that there was nothing she could do.
Then came the sound of a door opening. Rose fell back with a cry. Eyes shut tight so she no longer had to watch. Her back hit the bathroom wall. Cold tiles sent shockwaves through her system. She was snapped back to reality in a blur of chaos and nausea.
Rose’s eyes revolved in the back of her skull. Until the eyelids eventually peeled themselves open. She couldn’t breathe. Could barely see. Her body was weak as it slid to the ground. She lay on her damp towel. A dripping mess. Shivering as she sobbed in silence.
He can’t hurt me anymore. Can’t hurt me anymore. Can’t hurt me.
She repeated the mantra a dozen times. But those words would never erase the past.
Her hair was still damp, skin still cold, when a plate of charcoal was placed on the table before her. The kitchen smelt of burnt toast. Pale yellow walls were filled with the sound of Hope’s humming and their mum’s swearing.
The kitchen was the brightest room in the house. Yellow walls, white cabinets. Like an egg. Their own cheap, aged round table and four rickety chairs stuck out like a sore thumb in a room barren of family accessories. The entirety of the house felt the same way. It was their furniture, but it no longer felt like theirs.
Elizabeth Austin, Rose’s mum, was scowling at the ancient toaster. Her finger jabbed at the button a few times. “I can’t stand this bloody thing.” She grumbled a few more curses under her breath.
Her mum’s relationship with kitchens was complicated. Elizabeth enjoyed sitting in them but she abhorred cooking. As evidence, Rose’s nose scrunched up at the sight of the burnt toast before her. She tried to be discreet when she pushed it away. Hope, however, watched from the seat next to her. The girl giggled behind her hand.
A third plate of burnt toast landed opposite them. Elizabeth scraped back the chair with her spare hand. “Well, that’s my morning meltdown taken care of.” Elizabeth breathed the words, distracted by a search for her missing cup of coffee. Rose noticed it by the fridge and wordlessly pointed in that direction.
Sporting her typical combination of tangled and an exhausted expression, Elizabeth Austin fell into the chair. She cupped her procured brew in her hands like it was the most precious thing she owned. At seven in the morning, it most likely was. Then, she peered over at Rose’s untouched plate. Rose caught a flicker of concern pass through her gaze.
“Not hungry, love?”
“Nervous,” Rose lied.
Her mum tutted in sympathy. “I’m sure you are. But you know what my father used to say to me?”
“Something rude and inappropriate?”
Elizabeth’s lips quirked. “Only when he was drunk.” Blowing into her steaming drink, her eyes never left her daughter. “But, whenever I was nervous, he would say to me that although the moment before the jump is scary, it’s the sensation of falling that tells you it was worth it.”
“You realise his metaphor kills you at the end, right?”
“That was probably the point, cankerous old git.” Elizabeth stopped grumbling long enough to bring her mug to her lips and take a long sip. The mug was placed back on the table with a sigh. Either as a result of the caffeine or merely for her daughter’s benefit, she wore a tender smile.
“College might not be the most exciting adventure, but it’s a start. You never know. Hell might freeze over and you could actually enjoy it.” She snickered at Rose’s discomforted groan. “Okay, maybe not. But a smile wouldn’t be asking for too much, would it?”
Hope looked up from her bowl of Coco pops. Eyes the colour of crisp summer skies glistened with mirth. “Smile, Rosie!” She urged, eager as a puppy.
Rose forced the corners of her lips to stretch. Teeth bared in what she suspected was the most cringe-worthy grimace of all time.
Hope took a quick intake of breath and ducked her head. Attention back on her cereal, eyes even wider.
Elizabeth reached out and patted the side of Rose’s arm. “Close enough, love. That’s close enough.”
Ten minutes later, they said their goodbyes at the front door. There was a tinge of gloom in the air. Hope’s arms had held tight around Rose’s neck, in a hug that lasted longer than usual. Then she’d run into the living room to watch Rose from the window.
Elizabeth appeared long enough from the kitchen to see Rose off.
She was twisting a dish cloth in her hands with nerves, gnawing at her bottom lip.
“You’re going to be great today, my love.”
Rose almost believed her.
As she walked down the street, she would turn around just to get one last glimpse. Hope would be at the window, waving away. Rose would wave back, trying not to cry. As she neared the corner of their street, her glances became more desperate. She was determined to hold onto that image. Just to help her through the day. Unable to look away, she took a step back. Released a sigh that was lost to the wind.
Another step and the collision happened.
She heard a curse before she was even aware her lips had moved. She stumbled. Liquid burned her skin through the fabric of her hoodie. Rose became an awkward combination of arms and legs to stop herself from landing on the pavement.
When she looked up, a dark gaze was already awaiting her. Eyes that burned hotter than the coffee that stained them both.
With either pain or irritation, the redhead’s body trembled. Rose couldn’t see her face through the long strands of hair. But she felt the glare. It was sharp, intimidating. She gulped hard against a sudden lump in her throat.
The apology was cut off. A hand tightened around a cardboard cup. It was empty – the contents a puddle on the ground, a stain on fabric. A coffee bean logo split in half between the ministrations of sharp red nails.
Rose raised a hand. Wondered if she could help. Eyes shot down at the movement. Disgust filled the girl’s haughty expression.
When Rose looked down, she saw why. Her sleeve had slid up, the tip of a jagged scar visible.
Sometimes, she forgot how unnatural they were to everybody else. That scarred skin wasn’t normality. Nobody else truly knew what the significance those crude marking meant. The battle they symbolised. But whilst the scars on her wrists were horrible, they held no comparison to the scars she wore inside.
“-Sorry.” She choked. The word was so strained it barely survived the scant distance between them.
The girl’s scoff was a sledgehammer to the remnants of Rose’s confidence.
Spite dripped from the word. She shoved Rose out of the way and walked on. The empty mug was dropped on the ground at her feet. Rose watched the girl walk away. Teeth gnawed at her bottom lip in concern. She couldn’t help but agree. She was a freak.
Rose Austin, what have you gotten yourself into?