TO: Jupiter Lane Residents’ Association
FROM: Tash Lear / Public Relations Dept.
SUBJECT: Final settlement
Thanks again for your enormous help in moving the situation forward to a successful and happy conclusion for everyone. I’m extremely pleased that the company was able to use its resources to resolve what could have been a devastating situation for you and your families.
On a personal note, I would like to add that it has been a pleasure spending time with you and being a part of this next phase in your lives.
All the best,
The sunrise was astonishing.
First a tiny sliver of gold, like one of lights she had seen along the coast, appeared at the horizon. It grew quickly, turning from a blade to a bulge in the few moments that Jemma had stared, open mouthed. As the light got more intense she couldn’t see the shape of the sun any more — just a mass of intense yellow-white that bled its colour into the water below. It was only a few minutes into the day, but the sun seemed to take up half the sky, turning it white then yellow then orange then blue.
There was no heat yet, but the breeze had dropped and the waves had stopped crashing. Jemma looked away, down at the grass behind her, and could still see the shape of the sun burnt into her retinas. It turned the grass purple wherever she looked and got worse when she blinked.
Something caught her eye. There was a twinkling in the distance, back inland across the flat earth and far away from the fence that had stopped her in her tracks last night. Her back was to the sunrise now, but something — perhaps half a mile away — was catching the rays and throwing them back at her. It kept flashing, cutting though the dark patches in her vision and forcing her to blink to try and work out what it was.
Before she knew what she was doing, Jemma was slowly trudging towards it.
After a few minutes of walking the flat ground started to rise — almost imperceptibly — but it gave her a better view of the land. As her eyes had got used to the light, she could see that beyond the short grass was a concrete path, and a small wall, roughly topped with stones that jutted out at different angles. Behind the wall was a row of small terraced houses.
She kept walking. Soon she could see that, like the beach huts, the houses were all painted in different pastel colours. Another set of holiday homes? These ones didn’t look so jaunty — they were serious and well kept. There was no sign welcoming visitors to their very own sun-drenched paradise, or a tatty shop threatening to sell ice creams in soggy cones. None of these houses had naff names, just large silver numbers on their front doors. This was somewhere people actually lived.
Or had lived. As she approached the wall she saw no signs of life. To the side of the row of houses was a drive that joined a small road that snaked off into the distance. Residents could leave their car, then walk down a walkway on the other side of the wall to the front of their house, trot up the path, admire their immaculate front garden or the flowers in their window box, look out across the sea, then let themselves in through their colour-coded front door. (She had already spotted that a lemon yellow house meant a vermillion front door, while a turquoise house meant a purple one.)
But there were no cars. No people. No noise at all, apart from a small window that had been left open, in a bay window in one of the houses, which was picking up the wind, twinkling in the sunlight, and squeaking as it swung. The window was attached to the house that was dead in the centre of the row. Jemma reached the low wall and clambered over it, catching her hand on the rough stones that sprang from the top.
She was standing in front of the middle house now, and she scanned them left and right. There were nine houses in the row. The one with the open window was number five, and painted white, with a black door, a little black gate where the flagstones met the path, and black windowsills.
Jemma nervously walked up the path to the front door. It had a small round porthole, which she peered through, cupping her hands to her forehead to block out the bright light that was dimming her view of the inside. She could see a set of stairs heading upwards almost immediately behind the front door, and a small corridor on the right that led to the back of the house, and to a kitchen. A stainless steel sink was catching the light too. She saw no one inside.
Jemma moved to look through the bay window to the right of the front door. There were no nets but the dark grey curtains were half-drawn. Through the gap she could see the living room. It was the kind of living room that you would expect to see if you were about to rent a furnished house. There was a tastefully beige three-piece suite, but no TV. A bookcase, but no books. A mantelpiece, no ornaments.
She decided to look through the windows of all the houses in the row. She made her way back to the path and walked to number one, admiring its pink exterior and red door as she stepped quietly up the front path. In number one the curtains had been left open, and there the front room was completely empty. Not a stick of furniture. Number two — in a cool mint green — had white venetian blinds. She looked through them into a lounge that was a mirror image of number one, and also devoid of life or furniture.
As she made her way through the pastel-shaded frontages she was met with the same view through the bay windows. A small, empty lounge with an unused fireplace. Number five was the only one that appeared to be furnished. All the others were completely bare. All of them, she realised, had at least one patch on the wall that was cleaner than the rest of the wall where a picture or mirror had been removed.
It was pretty easy to break into number five. The small window that had been left open in the bay window was reachable when Jemma stood on the window ledge, and she hoisted herself halfway through it using the remaining strength in her arms. When the top half of her body was through the window, she bent over into the room and reached down to slide the window lock open on the large sash window.
The window frame cut into her stomach and she grazed her forearm, but the metal latch slid across on the third try. She jumped back down to the flower bed and edged open the lower pane, using her palms to grip the glass until there was a gap big enough for her to get her hands through. Her arms were aching, and she was exhausted and sweating, but the feeling of the warm sun on her back made her feel desperate to get inside and lie down. With one last burst of strength she he heaved at the window, succeeding in opening it half-way.
Throwing her bag through the opening, she scrambled over the window ledge after it, landing in a heap on the carpet in the front room. It smelt dusty, and the air in the room was damp and cool. She lay there for a few seconds to catch her breath then, dragging herself to her feet, she started to explore the house. The lounge door met a smart but dingy hallway — at one end was the front door, at the other end a small kitchen with net curtained-windows. Gingerly — not because she was worried she’d bump into anyone but because the front of her thighs burned with pain — she climbed up the set of stairs just outside the lounge door.
At the top of the stairs was a small landing, and Jemma could see two small bedrooms, one double room painted yellow at the front of the house facing the sea, one single painted blue at the back facing the road, and a smart bathroom in between with a white suite and no windows. Each bedroom had basic furniture and a bed, but were devoid of bedclothes or curtains. The light streamed into the front room through the bare windows, reflecting off the yellow walls and making the room look like it was glowing. She walked through the open door, and flopped onto the bed.
Letting out a long, wheezing sigh, Jemma fell asleep.
Jemma woke with a jump with her heart racing. She’d been dreaming about something — something violent — but the images faded the instant her eyes opened. It was dark, and the house was silent. Without moving, Jemma took stock of her physical situation via a series of tiny movements. Her lip was throbbing where she’d been sleeping on it, and her mouth and throat were painfully dry. Her shoulders and back ached from carrying her bag for so long. Her legs felt completely seized up. Her feet, still in her sodden boots, were freezing and were crusted to her socks. And, she realised, she had never, ever been so hungry.
As she got up, her clothes — which had been wet and dry countless times — released a musty, salty smell. “Christ, you’re disgusting,” Jemma muttered to herself. But before considering anything like personal hygiene, she had to eat. She eased her sore legs into a walking motion, and hobbled down the stairs and into the kitchen.
Dinner was delicious. Jemma had been lucky — the fridge was empty, but in the cupboards were a few usable items. So she sat at the kitchen table and ate a hearty meal of stale crackers and cold tinned ravioli. She felt her strength returning, and with physical strength came a surprising sense of satisfaction. Yesterday, the day before, whenever it was… She’d been right on the edge. Now alone in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, freezing and eating what could only be described as a disgusting meal, she felt peaceful for the first time in years.
Even when she realised that, seeing as the lights were working fine, the microwave would’ve worked too.