When 16-year-old Abigail’s mother dies in Scotland–leaving a faded photo, a weirdly cryptic letter, and a one-way ticket to America–she feels nothing. Why should she? Her mother gave her away when she was a baby, leaving her to grow up on an anti-nuclear commune and then in ugly foster homes. But the letter is a surprise in more ways than one: Her father is living in California. What’s more, Abigail discovers she has an eighteen-year-old sister, Becky. And the two are expecting Abigail to move in with them.
After struggling to overcome her natural suspicions of a note from beyond the grave (not to mention anything positive) Abigail grows close to her newfound sister. But then Becky is found dead, the accidental victim of an apparent drug overdose. As Abigail wrestles with her feelings and compiles a “Book of Remembrance” of her sister’s short life, she uncovers a horrifying global plot aimed at controlling teen behavior: one that took her sister’s and mother’s lives, with vast implications.
Read the first two chapters here!!
“My name is Abigail Thom. My mother, Sophie Thom, died here last night. Apparently she left something for me.”
The receptionist tapped away at the computer before directing her up the stairs to the second floor and then to the nurses’ station in Ward B. There, Abigail repeated the above sentence, word for word. “Can you spell that?” asked the pinched-faced nurse. “Of course I can.” The nurse didn’t find this funny. She was Scottish, after all. Scots didn’t find funny things funny. Scots liked to be miserable. Why else did they play the bagpipes? Why else did they drink and smoke themselves into early graves? Why else did they pledge undying love to crap soccer teams that failed at everything but religious bigotry?
“A-B-I-G . . .”
“Not you, your mother.”
The nurse had typed three of the four letters into her computer before raising her eyebrows and looking up from above her cheap glasses. “I’m very busy.”
“It’s Sophie. S-O-P-H-I-E.”
“Just a moment.”
The nurse tapped into the computer. Abigail looked around her. Ten beds lined each side of the room, curtains in between, some drawn, some not. The beds were all occupied. All the women looked the same: withered, yellow, and 173 years old. Her mother had probably been in one of those beds. Which one?
The smell of antiseptic was even stronger in the private room than in the ward. Perhaps they doused the rooms of the dead with an extra bottle. There was a window at one end overlooking the murky River Clyde and its ominous ship-building cranes. There, below it, was a single bed under a buzzing fluorescent light and a sheet-covered body.
As if in a dream, Abigail walked to the head of the bed, lifted the sheet, and looked down at the face. She felt a flicker of the faintest recognition from the photo. But this woman was old, a stranger. Her eyes were closed. Her lashes were thick and black, no mascara. Her eyebrows were full, nice shape. Abigail stared. Her mother had plucked a little, yes, but not much. No need.
Hmm, so that’s where my tiny pinned-back ears come from.
Had she tattooed lip liner onto her lips? They were full, and defined at the edges. Not thin Scottish lips at all. Exactly like Abigail’s, in fact. She could see from the shape of the sheet that her mother’s once-slim build was now emaciated, dead-thin.
She’d imagined meeting her mother many times. Never like this. Was she beautiful? Can a dead face be beautiful? Her hair was still a lovely, raven black. But mostly, she was dead, and, no, dead cannot be beautiful.
After gazing at the face for another ten seconds or so, Abigail turned and walked toward the door.
“Wait!” the nurse called, replacing the sheet. “She left you something, remember?”
Abigail stopped but didn’t turn around. The nurse retrieved a plastic bag from the bedside cabinet and handed it to her.
“Thank you,” Abigail choked out. And then she was hurtling through the corridor and down the stairs so fast that she had to lean against the brick wall of the hospital when she finally made it outside. Her breath came in heavy gasps. She realized she was clutching an old, thinning Tesco supermarket bag. There was something square and heavy inside.
Calming herself, she walked down the hill and across the road into the park. The rain had stopped, but she didn’t notice. Climbing over a fence into the woodland by the river, she found a spot under a tree and emptied the Tesco bag of its contents: a thick padded package about twenty centimeters square. Abigail laid the plastic bag on the wet grass, sat down on it, and examined the package. It was inscribed with a thick, black marker.
For my daughter Abigail Thom: URGENT!!!
She picked at the sticky brown tape and tore it off. Money. Jesus. Abigail’s eyes widened. Her heart fluttered. British Pounds, lots of them, bundle after bundle after bundle of twenties.
One of the bundles fell to the ground. She glanced around the shadowy park, afraid that someone may have seen her— then scooped it up with trembling fingers and shoved it all back in the supermarket bag. She scrambled closer to the river and knelt in the mud, no longer worried about getting wet or dirty. The park was deserted. She unfolded the typed letter that had come with the package. Inside the letter was an American Airlines e-ticket. She gripped it as she read.
Dear Abigail, I don’t know where to start, so I won’t tell you the beginning. I’ll just tell you the end. There are five things I want you to know:
Your father is alive. His name is Grahame Johnstone. He lives in Los Angeles. I was going to wait until you turned eighteen to tell you about him but I will be dead. Very soon, I think. I only told your father about you yesterday, the 18th July. For everyone’s sakes, you need to know him.
You have an older sister called Becky. Please show her this letter. Please tell her I love her, as I love you, that I still remember her beautiful face, and that I have thought about you both every day. She was an inquisitive and determined baby. Ask for her help.
The ticket in this envelope is a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. Your father is expecting you. He will collect you from the airport.
He is a clever man, Abigail. I saved £25,000 each, for you and Becky. Please don’t tell your father about the money. It is your and your sister’s inheritance, from me. Please accept your father’s kindness. He will be kind to you. Use this money to be happy, use it to be free.
No matter what you and Becky think of me now, I know with all my heart that you will feel differently one day. I do love you, Abigail. I have always loved you.
Her mother signed a squiggle at the bottom of the letter. A signature, in black pen. No wonder she typed the letter, Abigail thought. Her handwriting! It was terrible, almost illegible, with little flecks of ink everywhere. She must have been very sick. With all the shaky markings, it almost looked more like Stophie Them than Sophie Thom.
For a very long while, Abigail sat alone by the river. She read the letter once, twice—over and over. Each time she had a different reaction.
Her mother had loved her.
Her mother was a junkie, or a drunk.
Her mother made no sense.
Her mother was dead.
Her mother was crazy.
Her mother was a liar.
Her mother had obviously NEVER loved her.
The e-ticket was American Airlines flight number 3846, leaving Glasgow Airport at 10 p.m.
Abigail looked at her watch. Nine thirty p.m. She grabbed the bag of money with her free hand, gently clutching the ticket and the letter to her chest. She scurried up the riverbank, through the woods, jumped the fence, and ran all the way back to the hostel.
The care-worker was talking to a friend on the phone. “Oh hi, Abi,” he said, returning to his conversation. His concern over her bereavement had obviously run its course, or else he’d forgotten. She didn’t have time to argue with him about her name. She ran into her room, slammed the door shut, and sat on the bed to get her head together. Could she trust her mother? This letter? Did she really have a father and a sister in Los Angeles? She glanced around. The window was painted shut and so filthy she could hardly see through it. There were no pictures or posters on the walls, only the marks where previous residents had placed theirs. Camelia’s narrow bed was unmade, the cheap nylon sheets stained from years of God-knows-what. Staff didn’t bother nagging residents to launder their sheets or make their beds. But Abigail didn’t need to be nagged; she washed her linen once a week and made her bed first thing every morning.
Routine was all she had. This grotty hellhole was all she had.
Right. Even if the letter was total shite, she had to get out. A crap situation in America was better than a crap situation here. And, the money was real.
What would she need? Her thick jacket? No, not for LA. Her books? Since arriving at No Life, she’d borrowed three books every week from the local library to keep her brain from rotting: two serious, one lighthearted. This week they were The Principles of Biochemistry, The Silence of the Lambs, and Funny Physics Problems. She stuffed them inside her backpack. (She loathed stealing on principle, but the library could replace them; besides, the staff always gave her dirty looks whenever she hung around the stacks too long.) What else? The Shining DVD, of course. Her black Fly boots? They were full-on winter wear. But she loved them! She’d wear them on the flight, even though it was midsummer. She’d wear her dark grey combats, her STUFF THE MONARCHY T-shirt, and her cropped black leather jacket. Her favorite outfit.
She threw some underwear, spare T-shirts, and socks in the back, then tucked the money, letter, and e-ticket into the side pocket beside Nieve’s photo. She checked the chest of drawers and the tiny sagging rail in the wardrobe she shared with Camelia. Nothing important there. No personal effects. Nothing sentimental. What was the point in gathering things when she knew she wouldn’t be staying anywhere for any length of time? Abigail’s essentials, her whole world, couldn’t even f ill a backpack. Last, she went to the bathroom and added her toothbrush, toothpaste, and Fibre Putty hair product.
Stick to the routine. Invent a new one. Abigail could see herself as if looking into a mirror. She snapped into a kind of robot mode under stress. She became methodical, neat, diligent. Most people found it creepy, which also suited her just fine. They left her alone. Now, she made a mental list to make sure everything was in order. She retrieved the e-ticket from the backpack pocket.
Ten p.m. tomorrow.
Yep, plenty of time. The length of the flight would be eleven hours. The books would keep her busy.
Was her luggage the right size and weight? No way could this flimsy backpack weigh more than thirty-five pounds, even with the books. But when her eyes reached the bottom of the e-ticket, her heart froze: VALID PASSPORT REQUIRED.
Why had her mother not thought about this? Why on earth would Abigail have a passport? As if kids who are abandoned by their mothers get to go on skiing holidays in Switzerland and summer camps in France! As if she’d ever had the opportunity to get out of this godforsaken country! Sunnier, wealthier, happier Edinburgh was only fifty miles away, and she’d never even made it there. (Once, the care workers at Netherall House organized a trip to Loch Lomond. Abigail was excited. It turned out to be a twenty-minute drive. In a minivan. Normal schoolchildren in full-sized buses laughed at them en route. The minivan full of “special” children eventually parked in a deserted lot. The ten children got out and threw stones into the lake. It rained. They drove home.)
She had been nowhere, done nothing. She’d be stuck nowhere if she didn’t find a passport. Shite. She couldn’t snap out of robot mode. Now she had to focus.
Hooked? Get the rest!
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About the Author
Helen FitzGerald is the second youngest of thirteen children. She grew up in the small town of Kilmore, Victoria, Australia, and studied English and History at the University of Melbourne. Via India and London, Helen came to Glasgow University where she completed a Diploma and Masters in Social Work. She worked as a probation and parole officer for ten years. She’s married to screenwriter Sergio Casci, and they have two children.
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