(n.) the feeling of being stared at
The trees hugged the edge of the village in a way that meant Amber only realised she was crossing into it when she saw the first sign.
Welcome to Lower Cwealm. Amber paused, staring at it for a moment with a frown. Underneath, it said, Twinned with, and then instead of a town in France or Germany, as she expected, there was a word she couldn’t read.
She wasn’t even sure what alphabet it was in.
Shrugging, Amber pulled out her phone and took a quick photo. She could send it to her parents when she finally got wifi—she was mad at them, sure, but they’d be worrying by now. That done, she grabbed her case again, walking into the village.
On first glance, it was all picturesque. Amber hopped up onto the pavement as soon as she was able, walking past rows of cute, neat cottages with gardens that looked like they belonged on the cover of a magazine. She found herself smiling and paused outside the small newsagents. She didn’t know where the B&B was and there was no one on this street—she might as well ask for directions.
Amber pushed open the door and squeezed herself inside. It was a narrow shop, as wide as the counter the man she found herself facing was sitting behind. Rows of magazines stared at her from the left and Amber smiled at the man, the smile dimming when he continued to stare, eyes wide.
“Hi,” she said. He didn’t say anything and Amber’s fingers tightened on her case. She shifted from foot to foot. Did he understand her?
“Are you… from around here?” he asked finally.
Amber shook her head. “From Leicester,” she said, not sure why she was offering the information up. Maybe the silence was getting to her. It was thick in here, intensified by the blank stares of the magazine models. “Look, could you give me directions to the B&B please? The one owned by the Chandes?”
He seemed to brighten a little at that, though it was hard to tell. Amber hadn’t realised how dark it was until just now. She squinted at him, trying to make out his features. It was difficult.
“Past the church, turn right at the phone box. You won’t miss it.” He paused and Amber wanted to leave, but her feet remained where they were as she waited for whatever else was going to come out of his mouth. “Staying long, are you?”
She bit the inside of her cheek. The side of her face felt like it was burning from so many staring eyes. The plastic handle of her case bit into her skin.
“No,” she said and, all at once, everything seemed to recede, the room expanding and brightening and Amber took a long, deep breath.
The man smiled at her. Amber blinked; for a moment, it had looked as though he had far too many teeth, but then she was just looking at a man, a man who owned a small newsagents.
“Well, good luck in finding it,” he said pleasantly. “Don’t be afraid to come back if you can’t!”
Amber stumbled out of the shop, into the afternoon sun, and walked away as quickly as she could without making it look like she was running. She gulped down the fresh air almost desperately. She could see the church not far off, its spire climbing above the other buildings, and she headed for that.
What was wrong with her? She’d been on edge all day and it wasn’t like her. A woman stepped out of one of the houses, pausing to watch her, and Amber kept her expression neutral, walked right on by. The further into the village she walked, the more people there were, and they all looked at her as she passed.
Did no one come here?
Well, the bus driver had said…
Amber shook her head, dislodging the thought before it could fully form. No point in thinking like that. Besides, it was obvious she was from out of town, with her backpack and everything.
She stopped in front of the church. It was as nice as any she’d seen, an elegant grey building, sitting higher than the low wall that surrounded it. The gravestones all stood in relatively good condition, the grass around them trimmed and neat. Whoever was in charge, they kept it well.
The phone box was further up the street. Amber saw it out of the corner of her eye, a flash of red, and headed for it at a steady pace. She passed a young couple, hand in hand, and ignored their gawping. The box was on a corner and Amber looked right, saw the sign for the B&B up ahead.
The phone rang, so loud that Amber clapped a hand over her mouth to stop herself screaming. Heart racing, she looked around. A woman and her two children across the road, they glanced at her but not the box. An old man heading her way, the same.
Still, someone had to be calling for something, and the noise was grating, especially with Amber’s mood as frayed as it was. She pulled open the door and picked up the phone.
Nothing but heavy breathing and Amber pulled a face, was about to hang up, when—
“You’re moving into Matty’s place.”
The voice was unexpected. Young, female. Clearly someone who had known her aunt. Who knew she was here right now.
Amber looked around, but although there were a couple of people still looking at her, none were on their phones. She swallowed.
“Yes,” she said quietly.
“You should leave,” the girl said. “You should turn around right now and get out of this place.”
Amber shook her head. “Look, I don’t know who you are but I’m not—”
“If you don’t leave, it’s not you they’re going to hurt. Okay? They’ll hurt her, they’ll hurt—”
“Ivy!” another voice called, older, male. Amber heard something—footsteps?—and pressed the phone closer to her ear, like that would help her hear more.
“Just go,” Ivy breathed.
The call ended.
Amber pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it, mind racing. That girl had sounded—scared. Not like the bus driver. The bus driver had been scared of something nebulous, unreal. It had made it easy for Amber to dismiss him.
This girl… she knew what she was talking about. Amber had heard it in the tremor in her voice, the conviction of her words. She put the phone back on the hook and stepped out of the phone booth.
She could leave. She could hike the five miles back to the last village and find somewhere to stay overnight, get the bus back to the station in the morning.
And she could go back home. Talk it out with her parents. Fall back into the same patterns when they got sick of her lack of ambition. Get back together with Jamie.
Amber frowned, lifted her chin. She’d spoken to the solicitor last week about coming here; it wasn’t a leap to think that the news had probably spread. She was the only new person in this village, easy to spot. The girl—Ivy—was a teenager.
Amber grabbed her case again and walked towards the B&B, determination dogging her every step. She wasn’t going to let anyone—not bus drivers, creepy newsagents, or bored teenagers—scare her away.