The narrative switches between the present day and the past. The story follows Grace, who is trying to rebuild her life 22 years after the trauma that shattered it. After meeting her long time pen pal Bobby Walker in person for the first time, she discovers he is not who he claimed to be. He forces her to participate in a violent crime spree, and later violently attacks her. Grace kills him in self defence.
The novel begins with Grace giving a talk at her hometown school about her experience. Distracted by thoughts and visions of the past, she is forced into a "fight or flight" situation when she realises a student in the assembly hall who heckles her is also named Bobby. She kidnaps him at knife point and flees.
Pursued by the Police and - unbeknownst to her - an old school friend called Nick and a local journalist - Grace desperately wrestles with her demons in order to prevent history repeating.
Can she break free of the past, or is she forever bound by it? And will she ever find out the real reason by Bobby Walker targeted her?
Grace will appeal to the vast audience for novels of this genre. Readers who enjoy the thrillers of Gillian Flynn, S.J. Watson and Karin Slaughter would be the primary audience for this book.
David Fox is a history graduate, author and freelance writer from the UK. He has one anthology of short stories published, called Static: Collected Stories and a second, Unreal: Collected Stories, Volume 2, due for publication in March.
David also regularly publishes short fiction on Medium where his work has earned a small but dedicated following. He is also known for his freelance work, having had non-fiction articles published on Movie Pilot, Vocal Media, WhatCulture, Just-Football and others. All told, his articles have been viewed well over a million times.
My Facebook author page has 151 engaged follows, with a 326 friends on my personal page. My Twitter profile is followed by 261 people, 134 follow me on Medium (where I often post short stories) and my email list currently has 73 subscribers. I will be able to regularly promote the book on these platforms, as well as via my website.
This twist-filled thriller could be compared to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, though this novel is concerned with ever-repeating cycles of violence, and whether the cycles can be broken.
They say you should never go back, and Grace had always sworn she never would. Over fifteen years since she had walked away from the school gates as a cocky teenager, certain she would never return, she was back.
The school looked less imposing than it had all those years ago. The wrought iron gates she had walked through no longer loomed over her and even the teachers she could see milling around looked diminished - far from the terrifying authority figures they once were. Grace was back at her old school to give a talk in an assembly as a guest speaker.
She waited out in the hallway as the children filed in, reflecting on how her life had turned out to be the opposite of what she had expected. Leaving school, she knew she would never come back - not just to the school, but to the town. She had everything planned out. She would be a poet and would live a bohemian lifestyle somewhere cool; London, Paris, New York, maybe splitting her time between all three.
None of that happened. Instead, a monster in human form shattered her entire life. Closing in on two decades later, and she was still working to rebuild the broken remnants. Starting with this talk.
The assembly hall was quiet, unusually so for one featuring a guest speaker. It was an unseasonably warm spring morning, with barely a hint of a breeze. The sunlight shone through the gaps in the blinds of the school hall windows, breaking into little beams, illuminating the dust that had been hovering out of sight. Thin slices of dust and light - tangible enough that small children would try to hold them.
Hundreds of children packed into the assembly hall, blissfully unaware that this day would go down in history. As Grace stepped up to the dais erected on the small raised stage, the children's faces showed conflicting emotions. Some were already rapt with attention, others bored or daydreaming. The boisterousness and noise that followed the children's entrance into the hall had ceased, the squealing and chattering and turning around to see where your friends were sitting had stopped. On the stage, the small woman with a commanding aura spoke.
Her first words were: "everything you're being taught is a lie."
At these words the face of the head teacher behind her was rigid, eyes wide in surprise. His face said: I knew this was a bad idea. The children's faces were saying something of their own - suddenly, everyone was focussed on the stage. This was far from the "you're all winners" speech they usually got. The woman on stage was dark, and not just because her outfit was various shades of black like her hair. She exuded darkness. Wore it like a shroud. She had come through flames - and maybe walked through them willingly and now would burn anyone who got too close.
Grace gazed out at the sea of alien faces, trying to concentrate on deep breathing to calm her nerves. Her heartbeat thumped in her ears. She hadn't meant to start like that. The words just came out, unplanned. Stumbling, she corrected herself.
"Let me explain what I mean. Your head teacher here," she jerked her thumb towards the tall, gaunt man behind her, "wants you all to hear a story about morals and decency and how you're all going to make it if you're good people. Because he's a teacher. It's a teacher's job to give you hope - even if it's false hope. It's a teacher's job to instill confidence in you, to tell you good things will come to you if you pay attention, study hard, pass your exams, don't chew gum in class and speak respectfully to others. But here's the thing: your teachers are wrong.
Grace strode to the front of the stage, eyes blazing. She was in her element, no longer sure if the speech was for anyone but her.
"Sometimes bad stuff happens to wonderful people. Sometimes great things happen to evil people. Life is a lottery. It makes no sense, and you shouldn't trust anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. Why would you trust someone in a place where some girls are pregnant but still need to put their hand up to use the toilet and can't chew gum?"
She could feel the head teacher's eyes driving ice spikes through the back of her head, but kept going.
"I can't decide if false hope is a good thing sometimes. Ignorance is bliss and all that. But I was unhappy - like a lot of you - when what happened...happened. I was unhappy but hopeful. I thought things could get better. That's when I wrote to a guy named Bobby Walker. If I knew someone outside, a kindred spirit I couldn't find here, I could get out of the funk I was in. Bobby knew more about life than I did, and the irony is he almost killed me with that knowledge. But he said all the right things in the beginning. In letters - and now online - you only have to reveal what you want to, and you can invent the rest. You can become the person you want everyone else to think you are. I still don't know who Bobby was. But at the time, I thought he was my soulmate. But people aren’t always what you think. Sometimes they’re dangerous. Sometimes they’ll destroy your whole life. Unfortunately, when I met Bobby, he did just that."
* * *
It was ten in the morning and Grace sat alone in a dingy cafe, listlessly picking at her scrambled eggs. Her leg was shaking, and every ten seconds she would look up from her plate at the door, hoping - silently praying - for the ding-a-ling of that little bell.
It was ten in the morning and Grace sat alone in a dingy cafe, listlessly picking at her scrambled eggs. Her leg was shaking, and every ten seconds she would look up from her plate at the door, hoping - praying - for the ding-a-ling of that little bell.
She always felt sorry for people so sat alone, eating breakfast alone, reading a book at their lonely table, trying desperately to make it seem like they are worth something in the world. She pushed her plate of eggs aside. She only ordered them because she felt bad sitting there buying nothing.
The minutes ticked by. The door remained closed. Grace tapped her feet to the sound of The B52's cranking out of the tinny radio speaker behind the counter. She didn't care for them, but was trying to make the wait go by quicker.
She wished she had picked a better meeting place. The walls were a disgusting yellow pallor, like a smoker's teeth, while a certificate on the wall proudly proclaimed the cafe was of an "intermediate" level of hygiene. The cafe was almost deserted, save for a bored-looking waitress and Grace's friend Sam, there as insurance, casually pretending to read a paper in the back of the room.
Grace sifted through the papers lying between her coffee and cigarettes. All letters. All from the same person. She looked through them reading each signature.
Until she reached the final one.
See you soon, Bobby...
Grace picked up the napkin holder and gazed at her reflection, adjusting her jet black hair for what must have been the tenth time. She shook her head in disapproval, finding nothing but flaws. The way her left eyelid was slightly lower than the right. The little hole in her nose from the piercing that was a drunken mistake. The mole on the side of her neck. She glanced at the door again. He was late. He probably chickened out, she told herself - he saw the photo with that last letter. That was it. He saw her face. That disgusting mole. Ten more minutes. Just ten more minutes.
She had been telling herself ten more minutes for an hour. Her friends had told her this was a bad idea. Even Sam, her best friend, was sceptical - she agreed to come along mainly as protection. The only advice from her mother had been not to get raped, but her mother thought every man in the world was a potential rapist so that didn't hold much sway with Grace. As everyone pointed out, Grace didn't know Bobby, only through letters that could be lies and just recently the phone conversations. But Grace thought differently. She knew. There was something in his voice, something soothing and kind; this was the guy she had been waiting for. She was tired of messing around with all the fuck-ups and morons the opposite sex had provided in her life so far. If she didn't do something she really would end up as one of those people eating every meal alone.
She had many pen pals but Bobby was her favourite. His friendly letters had recently turned into love letters and then those turned into haunting, yearning, romantic words that made her cry. His words made her cry. That was enough for her and she told him that they had to meet. Bobby lived hours away but had agreed to travel to meet her in a dingy backstreet cafe, nine o'clock sharp. He was late. Bobby Walker sauntered through the door at ten fifteen. Ten fifteen was when Grace would live again.
* * *
Grace shook her head to shift the memories of Bobby. In the years since that day in London, his appearance in her thoughts had been less and less frequent, and yet now, talking about it all to these kids, his memory was once again front and centre in her mind.
Not just that memory, either. At the back of the hall, a figure caught her eye. Not a pupil, but he didn't look like a teacher. He looked familiar somehow. An older version of someone she had known, long ago. His hair shorter, his waistline a little wider, but...no. Grace shook her head. That was a lifetime ago. There was no way it could be him. She hadn't seen or spoken to Nick in years, how could he know she'd be here? More to the point why would he even care? It was then, lost in her thoughts, that Grace heard a murmur from one of the kids sitting in the front row. The kid was smirking as he turned to his buddy and muttered something...
* * *
The head teacher, Mr. Addison, was silent in his chair behind Grace as the students took in her ramblings. He was tall and lean as a knife, his thin, angular and unhappy features making him reminiscent of a vulture someone had stuffed into a suit. He tutted under his breath as Grace spoke. Starting her speech by decrying education was bad enough, but he worried about where it would go - she'd probably be encouraging the kids to do drugs by the end of it. He was already regretting his decision to allow her to give the talk. He didn't want this. What he wanted was to get the kids in, teach them the prescribed curriculum and get them back out again with a minimum of fuss. Instead, he had to sit behind an unhinged woman, living on the edge of sanity, spouting dangerous nonsense to the children in the name of education and community service.
He heard the faint murmuring from the front row of the assembly hall before Grace did - but then after decades of teaching his hearing was attuned to the early signs of trouble. He didn't realise how much trouble.
Later, from his hospital bed, he will tell the Police that, no, they did not search Grace when she entered the school as it was not policy. He will tell them that Grace's caseworker assured him she had been signed off by not one but two psychiatrists as no sort of danger to herself or others. He will tell them that those psychiatrists were wrong. He will be heralded by the media as the selfless teacher who risked his life to protect his pupils from harm, but as the weeks drag on the media narrative will turn, from hero teacher to the dangerous maverick who risked his children’s lives to help a violent criminal avoid prison.
If he knew how it would all turn out, he would have stayed in his seat. But instead, he saw Grace stride to the front of the stage and ask the boy to repeat what he had muttered to his friend. Mr. Addison jumped into action, sweeping down the front row and grabbing the offender, a known troublemaker named Bobby Bryant, by his collar. He was so concerned with getting Bobby out of there that he didn't see Grace reach down into her boot, and didn't see the light glinting off the blade until it was too late.
* * *
"Dude, that bitch looks crazy."
"Um, excuse me?" Grace challenged the boy. Stay calm, her inner voice hissed. Remember why you're here. You cannot do community service at your old school and have it end in violence.
The kid, cocksure, and clearly thinking himself some kind of wit, looked at her with the expression of exaggerated innocence people use when they have been overheard saying something they weren't supposed to.
"What?" he replied.
"What did you say to your little pal just now?" Grace was getting more annoyed by the nano-second.
The kid, all piss and vinegar now, spat back at her, "I SAID - THAT BITCH LOOKS CR-AAZY!". He did some flailing around for good measure. He was proud of himself in that moment, already envisioning it as the thing that would immortalise him in the annals of school history.
It was then that Mr. Addison gave a heavy sigh and swooped down from the stage - which suggested this was not the first time the kid had crossed the line - and grabbed him by the shirt collar. "OK Bobby," he said, "you're outta here."
Grace blinked. Once. Twice. Bobby? His name is Bobby? In her already vulnerable state, just hearing that name sent her over the edge. She coolly stepped down from the stage toward Bobby and his head teacher. Inconspicuously she reached into her left boot where she kept the knife she went everywhere with, and aimed it at Bobby's chest.
She didn't anticipate what happened next. Bobby was quick, he spotted the knife and darted out of the way. The next thing Grace knew, the knife was stuck in Mr. Addison's chest instead. He screamed in shock and pain, crumpling to the floor. The assembly hall was at first silent, then frenzied.
Grace reacted with surprising speed and composure. She waved the knife the air.
"Nobody fucking move! Nobody!" She grabbed Bobby and held the knife to his throat. "Everyone stay where you are and nobody else gets hurt!"
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a staff member reaching for a mobile phone. She began to back out of the hall, still with the knife at the kid's throat. Grace felt a pang of sympathy. She knew what it felt like to be in his position.
"You're coming with me," she whispered to the panicking teen. "Damn right I'm fucking crazy."
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