read the first chapter of TRY NOT TO BREATHE by Holly Seddon

The hotly reviewed thriller of the summer

CHAPTER ONE

Amy

18 July 1995

Music thudded through Amy’s body and seized her heart. Music

so loud that her eardrums pounded in frenzy and her baby bird ribs

rattled. Music was everything. Well, almost everything.

Later, the newspapers would call fifteen-year-old Amy Stevenson

a ‘ray of sunshine’, with ‘everything to live for’. Her headphones

buzzed with Britpop as she trudged the long way home, rucksack

sagging.

Amy had a boyfriend, Jake. He loved her and she loved him. They

had been together for nearly eight months, walking the romance

route around the ‘top field’ at school during break time, hot hand

in hot hand, fast hearts synchronized.

Amy had two best friends: Jenny and Becky. The trio danced

in a perpetual whirlpool of backstories, competition and gossip.

Dizzying trails of ‘she-said-he-said-she-said’ preceded remorseful,

sobbing hugs at the end of every drunken Saturday night.

Nights out meant lemon Hooch in the Memorial park or Archers

and lemonade at The Sleeper pub, where a five-year-old wouldn’t

have been ID’d. School nights meant 6 p.m. phone calls once it hit

the cheap rate. She would talk until her step-dad, Bob, came into

the dining room and gave her that look: it’s dinner time, get off

my phone. Thursday nights were Top of the Pops and Eastenders;

Friday nights were Friends and The Word.

Amy’s Kickers bag grew heavier with every step. She shifted it

awkwardly to the other shoulder, tangling her wires so that one

earbud pinged out of her ear, the sounds of the real world rushing in.

She had taken the long way home. The previous day she’d got

back early and startled Bob in the kitchen as he stirred Coffee Mate

into his favourite mug. At first he’d smiled, opening his arms for

a hug before realizing that she’d made it back in record time and

must have gone across the field.

She’d had to sit through half an hour of Bob’s ranting and raving

about walking the safe route home, along the roads: ‘I’m saying

this because I love you, Ames, we both love you and we just want

you to be safe.’

Amy had listened, shuffled in her seat and stifled yawns. When

he’d finally stopped, she’d stomped upstairs, flopped onto her bed

and smacked CD cases around as she made an angry mix tape.

Rage Against the Machine, Hole and Faith No More.

As she’d surprised Bob the day before, Amy knew he was likely

to be home already. Waiting to catch her and have another go at

her. It wasn’t worth the hassle even though the longer walk was

especially unwelcome on Tuesdays. Her bag was always really

heavy as she had French and History and both had stupid, massive

textbooks.

Amy hated learning French with a passion; the teacher was a

dick and who needs to give a window a gender? But she liked the

idea of knowing the language. French was a sexy language. She

imagined she could seduce someone a bit more sophisticated than

Jake by whispering something French in his ear. She could seduce

someone older. Someone a lot older.

She loved Jake, of course, she meant it when she said it. She had

his name carefully stencilled onto her bag with Tippex, and when

she imagined the future, he was in it. But over the last few weeks

she had begun to see the differences between them more and more.

Jake, with his wide smile and deep-brown puppy-dog eyes, was

so easy to spend time with, so gentle. But in the time they’d been

going out, he’d barely plucked up the courage to put his hand inside

her school shirt. They spent whole lunch hours kissing in the top

field, and one time he’d climbed on top of her but she’d got a dead

leg and had to move and he was so flustered he barely spoke for

the rest of the day.

It had been months and months and she was still a virgin. It

was getting embarrassing. She hated the idea of being last, hated

losing at anything.

Frustrations aside, Amy hoped Jake had skipped judo club so

he could come and meet her. Jake and his younger brother, Tom,

were driven home from school every day because his snooty mum

worked as the school secretary. His family lived in the doublefronted

houses of Royal Avenue. He was always back before Amy

reached the two-bedroom terrace house in Warlingham Road where

she lived with Bob and her mum, Jo.

Jake’s mum, Sue, didn’t like Amy. It was like she saw her as

someone who would corrupt her precious baby. Amy liked the

idea that she was some kind of scarlet woman. She liked the idea

of being any kind of woman.

Amy Stevenson had a secret. A secret that made her stomach

lurch and her heart thump. None of Amy’s friends knew about her

secret, and Jake certainly didn’t know. Jake could never know. Even

Jake’s mum, with her disapproving looks, would never have guessed.

Amy’s secret was older. Absolutely, categorically a man. His

shoulders were broader than Jake’s, his voice lower, and when he

made rude remarks, they came from a mouth that had earned

the right to make them. He was tall and walked with confidence,

never in a rush.

Her secret wore aftershave, not Lynx, and he drove a car, not a

bike. Unlike Jake’s sandy curtains, he had thick, dark hair. A man’s

cut. She had seen through his shirts that there was dark hair in

the shallow dip at the centre of his chest. Her secret had a tall,

dark shadow.

When Amy thought about him, her nerves exploded and her

head filled with a bright-white sound that shut out any sense.

Her secret touched her waist like a man touches a woman. He

opened doors for her, unlike the boys in her class who bowled into

corridors like silver balls in a pinball machine.

Her mum would call him ‘tall, dark and handsome’. He didn’t

need to show off, didn’t need to boast. Not even the prettiest girls

at school would have thought they stood a chance. None of them

knew that Amy stood more than a chance. Way more.

Amy knew that he would have to stay a secret, and a short-lived

one at that. A comma in her story, nothing more. She knew that

she should keep it all locked in a box; perfect, complete, private,

totally separate from the rest of her soundtrack. It was already a

memory, really. Months from now she would still be snogging Jake

at lunchtime; bickering with her friends; coming up with excuses

for late homework; listening to Mark and Lard every night on

Radio One. She knew that. She told herself she was cool with that.

The feeling Amy got when he touched her hip or brushed her hair

out of her face was like an electric shock. Just the tips of his fingers

made her flesh sing in a way that blocked out everything else in the

world. She was both thrilled and terrified by thoughts of what he

could do to her, what he would want her to do to him. Would they

ever get the chance? Would she know what to do if they did?

That kiss in the kitchen, with the sounds of the others right

outside. His hands on her face, a tickle of stubble that she’d never

felt before. That one tiny kiss that kept her awake at night.

Amy turned into Warlingham Road and the ritual began. She

put her bag down on the crumbly concrete wall. She unrolled the

waistband of her skirt so it was no longer hitched up. She decanted

her things, finding her Impulse ‘Chic’ body spray and cherry lip balm.

Amy shook the spray and let a short burst of sweet vapour fill

the air. Then, after looking around self-consciously, she stepped

into the perfumed cloud, like she’d seen her mum do before a night

at the social club.

She ran the lip balm along her bottom lip, then the top, kissing

them together and then dabbing them matt with her jumper. On

the off-chance that Jake was waiting, she wanted to be ready, but

not make it obvious that she’d tried.

Amy’s Walkman continued to flood her ears. ‘Do You Remember

the First Time?’ by Pulp kicked in and Amy smiled. Jarvis Cocker

smirked and winked in her ears as she set everything back in the

bag, shifted it to the other shoulder and continued down the road.

She saw Bob’s van in the road. Amy was twelve doors away

from home. As she squinted, she could make out a figure walking

towards her.

She could tell from the way the figure walked ‒ confident, upright,

deliberate ‒ that it wasn’t Jake. Jake scuttled around like a startled

crab, half-running, half-walking. Amy could tell from the figure’s

slim waist that it wasn’t Bob, who was shaped like a little potato.

When Amy realized who it was she felt a rush of nausea.

Had anyone seen him?

Had Bob seen him?

How could he risk coming to the house?

Above everything, Amy felt a burst of exhilaration and adrenaline

thrusting her towards him like iron filings to a magnet.

Jarvis Cocker was still talking dirty in her ears; she wanted to

make him stop but didn’t want to clumsily yank at her Walkman.

She held her secret’s gaze, biting her lip as she clicked every

button until she crunched the right one down and the music stopped.

They were toe to toe. He smiled and slowly reached forward. He

took one earphone, then the other from the side of her head. His

fingers brushed her ears. Amy swallowed hard, unsure of the rules.

‘Hello, Amy,’ he said, still smiling. His green eyes twinkled, the

lashes so dark they looked wet. He reminded her of an old photo

of John Travolta washing his face between takes on Saturday Night

Fever. It had been printed in one of her music magazines, and while

she thought John Travolta was a bit of a knobhead, it was a very cool

picture. She’d stuck it in her hardback Art and Design sketchbook.

‘Hello…’ she replied, in a voice a shade above a whisper.

‘I have a surprise for you… get in.’ He gestured to his car ‒ a

Ford Escort the colour of a fox ‒ and opened the door grandly like

a chauffeur.

Amy looked around, ‘I don’t know if I should, my step-dad’s

probably watching.’

As soon as her words were in the air, Amy heard a nearby front

door, and ducked down behind the Escort.

A little way up the pavement, Bob set his tool bag down with a

grunt. He exhaled heavily as he fumbled for his keys and opened

his van. Unaware he was being watched, Bob lumped the tool bag

into the passenger seat and slammed the door with his heavy, hairy

hands. He waddled around to the driver’s seat, heaved himself up

and drove away with a crunch of gears, the back of his van shaking

like a wagging tail.

As excited as Amy was, as ready as she was, a huge part of her

wanted to sprint off up the road and jump into the van, safe and

young again, asking Bob if she could do the gears.

‘Was that your step-father?’

As she stood up and dusted herself down, Amy nodded, wordless.

‘Problem solved, then. Get in.’ He smiled an alligator smile. And

that was that. Amy had no more excuses, and she climbed into the car.

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