“Come on, Nat. Don’t be so frigid.”
Cool, clear water ran beneath the bridge where they sat, white foam churning around protruding boulders. Though the river appeared inviting on this unseasonably bright spring day, it was cold enough to snatch breath from lungs.
Natalie Anders’s legs dangled off the grey stone wall separating the bridge from the drop to the water below. Beside her, Anthony bumped her shoulder with his, and she deliberately edged away again.
“Leave me alone, Ant.”
This part of the moors was a favourite with tourists and locals alike, but most of them—their parents included—had claimed spots on the flatter ground, near where the river grew calmer and shallower and easier to paddle in. A small circle of trees hid the picnic spot from the bridge, and children’s laughter and the occasional squeal of excitement drifted through the tree trunks.
Natalie wrapped her arms around herself, hating how exposed she felt in her swimming costume. If their mum and dad knew about this, it would kill them. They’d adopted her ten years ago at the age of six, when Anthony had been seven. Mr and Mrs Anders had been trying for years, unsuccessfully, to give Anthony a brother or sister, and, in the end, they’d agreed they couldn’t face going back to that baby or toddler stage and had decided to adopt an older child.
Natalie had been that older child, but she’d never really been a little sister to Anthony. At least, he’d never seen her that way. When they’d been younger, she’d just been this annoying kid who’d been brought into his home and who only seemed to take up his parents’ time and energy. He’d never been kind to her. Ever since the first day, he’d gone out of his way to hurt her—sneaky pinches when their parents weren’t looking, or sticking his foot out to deliberately trip her, or knock her hand whenever she was picking up a glass or plate, making her appear particularly clumsy and messy.
The Anders were good people. They came down hard on their son when they caught Anthony telling Natalie she wasn’t a real member of their family, and that if she told on him, it would be her they’d get rid of because she didn’t belong here anyway. She wanted to believe their reassurances that Anthony would get used to her being around and he was a bit jealous right now. But he didn’t stop—he just got better at hiding it.
She remembered the exact moment it had progressed to something more. Something far crueller. She’d been thirteen, and Anthony fourteen. She’d only recently started her period, and it was just another thing for him to taunt her with.
“You’re a woman now, aren’t you?” he’d said, his tone snide, but laced with something that made her even more anxious than normal. “If you’ve got your period, it means you’re ready to have sex.”
“Get lost, Anthony. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, stop acting like you’re something special.” He’d pushed his hand down the inside of her thigh. “You know you want it.”
She’d cried out in shock and shoved his hand away, but it hadn’t been the last time. He’d seemed to take her rebuke as a challenge, and, over the next few years, as they both grew older, things only got worse. He’d take every opportunity to walk in on her—in the shower, or changing in her room. She begged their parents for a lock on the door, but they only laughed at her request. They thought she was being silly—a typical teenage girl worrying about herself too much. She couldn’t tell them the truth. Anthony was their only birth child, and they worshipped the ground he walked on. They loved her, too, she knew that, but it wasn’t the same. If they were forced to choose between blood and water, they’d instinctively take the side of blood.
Natalie had never felt comfortable in her own skin, and her adoptive brother did nothing to help matters. She felt as though she was walking around wearing someone else’s body, like an alien planted into human form. At school, other girls seemed to instinctively know how to dress and act, while she never managed to cross that invisible divide that would make her one of them. Everything she did was always wrong—her clothes not quite right, her laugh too awkward and loud, her frizzy mop of hair that grew outwards like a helmet.
Her self-consciousness only increased around Anthony, and sitting here now, on the side of the bridge, staring down into the rushing water below, she wished there was a way she could vanish altogether.
A shriek of laughter and water splashing came from behind the circle of trees where their parents were enjoying some time without their two sulky teenagers. It was their mother’s birthday, and she’d wanted to spend some quality family time with them both, though Natalie suspected the idea of that had been far more enjoyable than the reality. This was a popular picnic spot in the area. Dartmoor ponies ranged freely, always garnering plenty of attention from the tourists and locals alike. In the small stony car parks, ice-cream vans served Mr Whippy cones to the kids and teas and coffees to the parents.
Natalie wished she could go back to her childhood again. Even though none of it had been fun, with Anthony pinching and teasing her all the time, it had been preferable to this.
“Go on,” Anthony insisted, jabbing her in the side with his elbow. “Just pull down the front of your swimming costume a bit. Show me your tits.”
She bit the inside of her mouth to stop herself screaming. “Leave me alone.”
“Fine. I’ll do it myself.” He reached for the strap of her costume and yanked it down her arm.
She pushed away his hand. “Get off!”
Infuriatingly, he laughed. None of this meant anything to him. It was all just a game. He liked to see her embarrassed and humiliated.
“You’re my brother, Anthony. You know how wrong what you’re doing is.”
He snorted. “And you know we’re not brother and sister. You’re sixteen, I’m seventeen. There’s nothing to stop us.”
“How about breaking our parents’ hearts,” she snapped, though of course she would rather die than let Anthony get what he wanted. She didn’t think he even really wanted her in that way. He only wanted to get under her skin, and it worked, too.
“They can’t see. And anyway, if you ever said anything, you know I’d tell them that you made a pass at me, and when I was horrified and told you no, you freaked out and went running to Mummy and Daddy.”
She glared at him. “They’d never believe that!”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Do you think? Are you willing to take that risk?”
A fresh spurt of fear went through her. Would he use that threat to force her? She loved her parents with all her heart. Even though they’d brought her into a world that contained Anthony, they’d never made her doubt for even one moment that they loved her as well. But she was always aware—often with Anthony’s help—that while they loved her and had given her a home and a life, she wasn’t a blood relative. A part of her always felt like she was only ever borrowing them, and they could be taken away at any moment. And then what would happen to her? She’d be all alone again.
So, was she willing to take that risk? Give Anthony what he wanted, or risk losing her parents, forever?
No, she knew she’d never be able to do it. Just the thought of him putting his hands on her sickened her. It broke her heart to think of her parents going through the turmoil of finding out that she and Anthony had never been the siblings they’d been hoping for. They’d also be forced to choose a side between them. They’d lose one of them and go through hell.
His hand was back on her bare thigh. “Are you still a virgin, Nat? I bet you are!”
“That’s none of your business.” She shifted to one side to get away from him, but he shuffled along, too, bringing himself closer.
She wanted to get up and walk off, but it was her mother’s birthday and she didn’t want her to see they were fighting again. It always upset her, and today was supposed to be about them spending time as a family.
“Who better to break you in”—he smirked—“than the person closest to you.”
“Ugh. You’re disgusting.”
His mood changed, turning cold and angry. “You should be happy for the offer, Nat! Ungrateful bitch. No one else is going to want you. Look at the state of you. Your stupid hair and skinny legs. It’s not as though another boy is ever going to think you’re sexy.”
They didn’t look anything alike—her with curly, light-brown hair, him with a straight blond cut in that ‘curtains’ style all the boys seemed to be wearing at the moment. He’d been the year above her at school and had made her life there hell, too. He was one of the cool kids, while she felt like a total loser. He made sure everyone at school knew she was adopted, too. ‘Seriously, it’s pretty clear we don’t share a single strand of DNA.’ He joked about how her own parents didn’t even want her—which was true, but still hard to hear.
On occasions, she tried to retort, commenting that someone did want her, because his own parents had taken her in, and that at least they’d chosen her, where they’d just got stuck with him. When she’d said it, and other kids around them had laughed, she’d felt proud of herself, but later, at home, when no one else was around, he’d made sure she paid for it.
“Good! I don’t want anyone to think I’m sexy. I just want to be left alone.”
She’d had enough. Even if it meant her parents realising they were fighting, she didn’t care. She just had to get away from him.
Natalie pushed herself back, so her legs were no longer dangling over the edge of the wall, and got to her feet. She remained in a half crouch, preparing to jump off the side of the wall and onto the road that travelled over the stone bridge.
“Where the fuck do you think you’re going?”
Anthony reached out and wrapped his fingers around her calf, yanking her back. Natalie teetered, her arms pinwheeling, her heart racing. For one horrifying second, she’d thought she’d been about to fall.
“Jesus Christ, Anthony! You nearly made me lose my balance.”
He laughed again, a sound she’d grown to hate. It never meant anything good was happening. “Don’t be such a drama queen. You were fine.”
“No, I wasn’t. Leave me alone, Ant.”
She glanced around, frantic, hoping someone else was nearby. They hadn’t even seen another car pass over the bridge for at least ten minutes. Everyone else was gathered on the other side of the trees, in the clearing where erosion by the river had carved a natural pool and the flat ground tempted the spread of picnic blankets.
She managed to shrug him off again and jumped down onto the road. The wall they’d been sitting on wasn’t high—only a couple of feet—so she was still within reach. He jumped to his feet as well but didn’t get off the wall. Instead, he leaned towards her and grabbed her arm and tugged her back again. Only this time, he didn’t stop with her arm, and he shoved his other hand down the front of her swimming costume, getting a good handful of her breast.
Natalie gasped in shock, her mind blurring with panic. All she knew was that she needed to get him off her. He was higher up than she was, and she put both hands against his stomach, palms flat, and pushed.
His hand instantly vanished from her breast. He caught hold of her arm for a fraction of a second, yanking her forwards, but her thighs hit the wall, keeping her in place. Her skin was slippery with sweat from the unseasonably hot day, his palms most likely sweaty, too, and his grip was only there for a fraction of a second. Just as she’d done only moments earlier, his arms pinwheeled, his heels teetering on the edge of the stone wall, the river beneath. His eyes widened in horror, locking with hers, and she read his understanding of what was happening. She could reach out and grab him, an arm or a foot, and pull him back in to regain his balance. But she didn’t, and she recognised that he understood that as well.
Anthony tipped backwards and vanished from view.
She stood on the road, the wall still between her and the drop to the river. A horrific combination of a crack and splash signalled he’d hit the surface, and she flinched. It wasn’t a massive fall, maybe twenty feet, but the river was fast and full of rocks and boulders that protruded from the surface. In other calmer areas, children liked to climb across the boulders, using them to get from one side of the river to the other.
Shaking overtook her body. She suddenly felt distanced, as though it was no longer her standing there but that she was peering through the eyes of someone else. No cries for help came from the river below.
If she looked, he’d most likely not even be there. He’d have hit the water then swam to the riverbank and climbed out. She pictured him striding across to the clearing, soaking wet and furious, to deliver on his threat of telling their parents that she’d tried something with him.
Did she want that? Did she want him to be gone?
She didn’t want to check. If she just stood there, not knowing, she could imagine he was fine, and he’d fallen and landed in the water and swam to safety.
But that sickening crack echoed in her head. She wanted to put both hands over her ears to try to block out the sound, but deep down she knew it was something she’d hear for the rest of her life, every time she closed her eyes.
You need to look!
He might need help. He could be hurt. But if she went for help, he’d tell them all that she’d pushed him.
You can’t just leave him there, Nat. You can’t!
She could, couldn’t she? She could turn around and walk away.
But she knew she needed to check.
Natalie forced herself forwards, placed both trembling hands on the stone wall, warmed from both the sun and their bodies, and leaned over.
The river came into view beneath. Anthony’s body lay across one of the boulders as though draped there. His head hung off the side, submerged up to his chin, so both his nose and mouth were covered by water. His arms and legs bobbed and rose, bumped and buffeted by the rapids. He must have landed directly on the rock, perhaps broken his back or neck, unable to pull his face out of the water. Or perhaps the fall itself had killed him, not the drowning.
From downstream, someone screamed, the sound high-pitched and piercing.
That broke Natalie’s stupor.
“Help!” she cried, her mind a jumble of thoughts. “Someone help me!”
God, my poor, poor parents.
This was going to destroy them.
“Help!” she screamed again, louder this time. “My brother’s fallen!”
But even as her heart broke at the devastation this was going to cause the people who’d brought her into their home and treated her as one of their own, a second, conflicting emotion sparked inside her. Hope.
She was finally free.