Jenna is a wife, a mother, a doctor. She’s also the victim of a stalker. Frightening "gifts" are left on her doorstep, her home is broken in to, and when she leaves her house to take her children to school, he’s waiting. She feels powerless, and the police are unable to help.
Then her stalker is brought into the emergency room after a terrible accident, and Jenna has to treat the man who’s been tormenting her for months. With her stalker in a coma, Jenna is desperate to understand the life of this seemingly normal man. When she finds startling images on his phone, she is consumed by her need for answersand her own obsession leads her down a twisting path of destruction.
Just how far is Jenna willing to go to take back control of her life?
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.21(h) x 0.96(d)|
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Wednesday, June 12
My heart is beating machine-gun-fire fast as I reach out to undo the new dead bolt at the top of the front door. I move to the chain next with the fluid movement of doctor's hands-calm and steady-masking the truth, keeping the shaking fear deep inside. I used to think I was invincible. I used to think nothing could rattle me, but that was before.
Where will you be today? Leaning against a tree in the park opposite our house, standing in broad daylight? Or will you be a shadow watching out of sight? A feeling I can sense but not see? How many e-mails will you send? How many ways will you find to torment me today? The questions are like caffeine hits to my exhaustion. I can't have slept for more than three hours last night. My eyes itch, my muscles ache with heaviness, but at least the fog is clearing over my thoughts. Three hours. It feels like less.
"Are we walking or driving, Mummy?" Beth asks from behind me.
I turn around and feel the love well up inside-a visceral heat. I wish I could shield them from you. Nine-year-old Beth, and Archie, six almost seven, are standing ready at the bottom of the stairs, school shoes on, dark green book bags looped around one shoulder. Archie is a miniature version of Stuart with shaggy brown hair and a wide toothy grin. He's wearing gray shorts and a white polo shirt with a grass stain on the collar that hasn't washed out. His arms and legs have tanned a golden brown in the weeks of endless sun.
Beth is more like me with her fair skin and the red freckles that sprinkle the bridge of her nose. Her green gingham summer dress is the new jumpsuit style, so she can do cartwheels and handstands without the boys seeing her knickers. Strands of dark orange hair are falling out of her ponytail and over her face, but I've given up trying to neaten it. She gets her independent streak from me too.
There is no last-minute scramble for reading books, no final cramming of spellings for the test, no lost items to hunt for in our house. They've been conditioned from the get-go in efficiency and routines. I'd love to take the credit but it's Christie, our childminder, who's done it.
"It's really hot. Can we drive?" Archie asks, dragging out the final word in the whiny voice we dislike so much, but can't seem to get him to stop.
"Good idea, let's drive," I say, as though walking was ever an option.
There's an instant sigh of relief around us, as though the hallway itself has been holding its breath. It's your fault of course that my son is so scared. I've done all I can over the last year to hide my fear from them. But then you disappeared for a week in May. Seven whole days of not seeing you. No e-mails, and none of your sick gifts left on my doorstep either. I was a spring uncoiling-slowly, slowly-hoping beyond hope, day by day, that you'd given up. Day seven fell on a Monday, one of the first warm days of the year and my first school run in ages, and Stuart wanted to take my car in for a service, so we walked the half a mile to Greenstead Primary School. But then you know that, don't you? You were waiting in the doorway of the corner shop, two roads away from the school gates.
We turned onto the road and there you were, just meters away from us. Watching. I tensed up so tight that the world spun and I grabbed Archie's hand and then Beth's and we ran flat out, running for our lives, it felt. I stopped only when I realized I'd dragged Archie to the pavement and he'd grazed one of his knees.
We skipped the playground lines and went straight to the office, a mess of tears and blood and fear. Mr. Bell, the head teacher, was a wave of calm and kindness over our panic. He sent Beth to class and Archie to the first aid room for a Band-Aid before sitting me in the staff room with a strong cup of tea that I slopped all over the new carpet because my hands were shaking so badly.
It was only later, when I grabbed a spare minute during the night shift to phone Stuart, that I learned about the book bag. "Archie thinks he dropped it when you were running. I'm sure someone will hand it in." They didn't though. You took it. Another piece of us, of me, that's yours now.
I lie awake at night thinking of Archie's reading diary and the comments back and forth between Miss Bagri, Archie's teacher, and me or Stuart. The little notes that are meaningless really but somehow feel so personal, so telling in your hands.
A final big deep breath in before I down the last dregs of tepid coffee from my mug, grab the car keys, and ready myself to open the front door.
"Wait here," I say, throwing a glance back to Beth and Archie, who know without me telling them that they're not to move until I've checked the doorstep.
I yank open the heavy wood door a few inches, just enough to peek out without the kids seeing the tiled doorstep.
It's a doll's head today. One eye is open and staring up at me. The other has been burned into a melted hole.
I bite the side of my mouth, keeping my scream inside, and slam the door shut.
"What is it, Mummy?" Beth asks.
"It's nothing." Of course she knows it's not nothing. It's always something, but how can I tell my children what's out there, what you're doing to me? I run through the house and grab one of Detective Sergeant Church's clear plastic evidence bags.
"Go wait in the living room," I say, shooing Beth and Archie away.
They move without complaint and when I'm sure they're gone, I open up the front door and scoop the doll's head into the bag, careful not to touch it. I can taste the coffee rising at the back of my throat, but I work quickly, desperate to get back to the kids and make things normal for them. At least there's not a glass this time, smashed into a thousand shards for me to sweep up.
When the bag is sealed I shove it into my purse to drop at the police station on my way past. Then I wash my hands three times and, pulling myself together, I step into the living room, forcing a bright smile. "OK. We can go."
I open the front door again, wide this time, and the heat hits us. Like the residue of candy floss on fingers, it coats our skin in a sticky film. No sea breeze today, nothing to take the edge off the heat wave. Both kids leap over the step and land on the path as though an invisible evil lurks on it. It's an effort not to do the same.
We hustle to the car, parked further down the road than I'd have liked, but with no driveways, the cars on the road are packed tight on both sides, like Starbursts in a tube, and we can't always find a space right outside our house.
The street is a row of fifty semidetached houses the same as ours, built a hundred and something years ago in dark red brick, all facing out to the park with its boating lake, playground, and many, many places for you to hide. We're three roads back from the seafront where the property prices quadruple.
Our estate agent, Wayne, has boasted sea views from our house which is laughable really. If I stand on a chair at Archie's window and crane my neck then maybe I can catch a glimmer of the green estuary and the slow cargo ships making their way toward London, but I've not corrected him. The sooner we move, the sooner we'll be far away from you.
The moment we're in the car I lock the doors, allowing myself a quick inhale of breath before it starts again. Road, mirrors, windows, road. My gaze flicks between them, staring at every parked car, every tree, every doorway we pass searching for the outline of your figure, a glimpse of broad shoulders and dark hair.
We stop at a traffic light, the green man beeping in time with my indicator as the children and parents flock toward the school. There is laughter and shouts of "Hello." They look so happy, so oblivious. They have no idea how fragile their lives are, how quickly everything can be stripped away.
The green man disappears. The last stragglers dart in front of our car. My hand reaches for the gear stick, my left leg already easing off the clutch, and that's when it happens. I feel you before I see you. That strange sense of being watched that is now sickeningly familiar.
Not now, I plead to you in my head. Not with Beth and Archie in the car. Please no.
Then I spot you. You're standing on the pavement, tucked a little way behind a tree on the other side of the road. Your phone is in your hand, and it's the screen you're staring at, not me. But then you look up and our eyes meet. I'm watching you, Jenna, that look is saying.
I freeze. Inside I'm screaming at myself to reach for my phone and take a photo of you, something the police can use to figure out who you are, but my muscles won't react. All I can think about is keeping Beth and Archie safe.
For the longest second the only noise is the tick, tick, tick of the indicator. It sounds so slow compared to the beating of my heart. A horn blasts from behind me. I jump at the noise, a yelp escaping my throat. The traffic light has turned green.
"What's wrong, Mummy?" Archie whispers from the backseat. I've scared him.
"Nothing, darling," I reply, my voice too high. I spur into action, pulling the car over to the side of road and parking askew on the curb. I have to get a photo this time. My hands are slippery with sweat but I cut the engine, dig my phone out of my bag, and open the camera.
"Where is he?" Beth asks, her voice sounding so young now, so full of the same fear surging through me, and I feel myself tearing in two, longing to be the mother she needs, the one who will always protect her, and knowing I can't. How can I keep her safe when I don't know who you are? Or what you want from me?
"Get back," I whisper. He's there. He's right there. The car behind me honks again-a final beep of What the hell are you doing, lady?-before driving around me, blocking you from view for a moment. When the car is gone, so are you. Only the fear remains.
Every muscle, every joint, every single cell in my body vibrates with the urge to run. I can taste it in my mouth-a stale bitterness, like unbrushed teeth. We may be a more advanced species than most animals but our basic instincts are still the same-the surge of adrenaline, the fight-or-flight response.
All I want to do is take Archie and Beth and run away and never come back. And we are running. Stuart keeps sending me links to houses in a village ten miles away. But he doesn't get it. Ten miles isn't enough to get away from you. We need ten thousand miles and an ocean between us. I could get a work permit for almost anywhere in the world. It wouldn't just be a new house, it would be a different way of living. I haven't told Stuart how I feel yet. He's been right by my side through all the horrors you've thrown at me and I don't know how to burden him with this new request. Once we've found a buyer for the house, then I'll say something.
There are two viewings scheduled today. Stuart is taking a long lunch to show the buyers around the rooms that have been our home for the last decade. No for sale sign, of course. I can't have you finding out our plan.
Another car passes us. I drop my phone and glance across the road. The street is still empty and so I do the only thing I can do-I drive away, I carry on.
The moment we're parked outside the school I tell Beth and Archie to sit tight and play on their tablets, then I step out of the car and call the police. I don't want the kids to hear this. They are already so aware of you and what's happening. Flashes of Archie's tearstained face and pleas for just one more bedtime story flood my thoughts. He never used to be scared of the dark. Beth will never admit to being scared too, but her sudden mood swings-angry one moment, desperate for cuddles the next-tell their own story.
The call is the usual back-and-forth. When, where, what, followed by a "We'll send a patrol car." I'll get a call tomorrow or the day after from DS Church-the nasally voiced detective who's managing my case. She'll tell me they've struck out again.
"Ready to go, kids?" I ask, finishing the call and opening Archie's passenger door.
As they grab their bags and clamber out I feel my skin itch again with the heat and the feeling of being watched that will follow me now for the rest of the day, the rest of my life I think sometimes.
We're swept toward the school by the tide of parents and children. I spot Christie walking just ahead of us with the train of children she's had over for breakfast this morning, along with her own daughter, Niamh. Beth and Archie skip ahead to join her and their friends and I hurry to catch up and try not to feel ditched.
When I think about leaving Westbury, Christie is always my first thought. She has taken care of Beth and Archie in her home since Beth started school five years ago, wiping their noses, their bottoms, and their tears with a motherly love I'll never find in childcare again. Plus, they adore her and she says yes every time we need her to.
"Hey, sweetheart," Christie says to Beth as she reaches her side.
Christie is in her midthirties with long brown hair she wears in a messy bun. She's always smiling and always wears baggy jeans and a loose T-shirt.
Reading Group Guide
One Step Behind by Lauren North
1. What were your first impressions of Jenna and Sophie? Did these change over the course of the novel?
2. Early in the story, Jenna is faced with an ethical dilemma when she meets her stalker for the first time. Did you sympathize with her point of view? What decision would you make in that situation?
3. What kind of mother is Jenna? Do you think this changed as the story progressed? Are mothers judged differently or more harshly than fathers?
4. In Jenna’s chapters, she talks to her stalker as though telling the story to him. Why do you think the author chose to write the novel in this way? Did you like it?
5. Which character did you relate to the most, and why? Did this change at any point in the novel?
6. The story is set during a heat wave. How big a part do you think this played in the novel? Would the novel have felt the same if it hadn’t been as hot?
7. How does Lauren North create a sense of tension and unease in One Step Behind?
8. What did you think of Matthew as a young boy? Did your opinion of his character change as the novel progressed?
9. What do you think the future holds for Jenna and Stuart?