Grandad was the one who told us.
He’d been out with Sally for one of their walks through the New Forest. Supposed to be gone until late afternoon, but he came back early. Sally didn’t.
I was in the lounge when I heard the hammering on the front door. Loud, panicked. It was lunchtime and I was sat in front of the TV, watching Netflix. I paused the show and went to answer it.
It took me a moment to recognise grandad. Normally he’s this calm, gentle giant. He combs what’s left of his grey hair neatly to one side. Wears a suit, even around the house. Tie and everything. But today he looked different. His blazer was draped over one arm and his shirt was unbuttoned at the top. His tie was skewed. Sweat patches formed dark circles around his armpits. It was his eyes I noticed first, though. They were wide with an expression I’d never seen before on my grandad’s face: fear. Fear and panic.
“Where’s your mum and dad? Quick, Jack.”
The smell of cherry bubble gum wafted from grandad’s mouth as he spoke. He was chewing a piece almost frantically, his mouth working a mile a minute. My grandad always chews that stuff – he has as long as I’ve known him – and he always gave me and my sister pieces as a treat when mum wasn’t looking. The smell usually has positive connotations for me. Now though, like my grandad’s rumpled suit and panicked eyes, it just felt wrong. All of it did.
“What’s the matter grandad? Where’s Sally?”
“She’s gone, Jack. Jesus Christ, she’s–” Grandad paused and pulled in a shaky breath. Then he started sobbing. Never before in my life had I seen my grandad cry. I didn’t know what to do. The sight felt totally unnatural to me. The thing is, grandad’s always been the fun one. The one we’d joke around and play games with. Learning magic tricks; taking each other on in board games; playing dress up when we were little. Grandad is the kind of person who would tip us a wink even after we’d been told off by mum or dad, just to let us know he was still on our side. He’s only lived with us for the past year, but he’s been there my whole life. After mum, dad, and Sally, he’s the person I love most in the world.
Seeing him like this – his eyes red with tears and his grey hair dishevelled – I felt dread in my stomach. It was worse than anything I’d ever felt before.
“What happened, grandad?” I said. “What is it?”
“I swear I only left her for two minutes.” Grandad’s eyes were large and desperate. “I just went into the bushes for a pee, and told her I’d be right back. But then she wasn’t there. I looked all around and shouted and called her name. She’s disappeared. It’s like she’s vanished off the face of the friggin’ earth.”
I only thought of Sally’s diary this morning.
Three days had passed. Sally still hadn’t shown up, and things were getting desperate. The police, and our entire village, were in full search mode. Investigators had interviewed each of us separately, and were now “following up several lines of enquiry”. No one told me anything, of course. But I learned at lot from listening at closed doors. Apparently a group of travellers had been seen staying in an area not far from the spot my grandad and Sally were walking. Camping out illegally. I heard dad tell my mum that the police were talking to each of them separately. Seeing if they knew anything. And while that was going on we had volunteers combing the area where Sally had gone missing.
It was a big area, I overheard one of them say. Not many roads. Plenty of room for a little girl to get lost.
Sally’s bedroom is separate to mine, and the police searched it the day she went missing. Took away her phone and a bunch of other stuff in clear plastic bags. Just like they do on TV. But there was one hiding place I didn’t think they’d know about.
As I crept into Sally’s room this morning, I kicked myself for not thinking of the diary sooner. The last few days had been such a nightmare it hadn’t even crossed my mind. A blur of tears, questions, and hours of fruitless searching among the bracken. I’d felt useless, mainly. A spare part. Big brothers – especially ones who are quite a bit older, like me – are meant to protect. They’re mean to watch out for their little sisters. What good was I if I couldn’t even keep Sally safe?
Then I remembered the diary. I’d stumbled across it months ago, completely by accident. Or rather, I’d stumbled across Sally hiding it. I’d gone into her room one morning to find her cupboard door open. Sally was hunched over in the corner, half visible among the clothes. It was only as I walked closer that I saw what she was doing: stashing a pink book beneath a loose floorboard. I’d crept quietly out without saying anything. I didn’t want to startle her, and I’d guessed straight away what the book was. As a 15-year-old I had no interest in reading my 8-year-old sister’s diary, so I thought the best bet was just to stay quiet. Let her keep the secret to herself.
Now, walking across Sally’s room towards her cupboard, I had a weird mixture of fear and hope in my stomach. It was a long shot, I knew that. But maybe there was at least a chance I’d find something. Maybe I could help.
I creaked the door open. Sally’s cupboard was dark and messy. My shoes crunched across sweet wrappers on the floor. I pushed piles of clothes to one side. It didn’t take me too long to find it. The floorboard in the far-left corner had a hole in it clogged with paper. I pulled it out and worked my finger in. Then I lifted the board up.
The pink book was the only thing in the space beneath. Crouching down in the darkness, I opened it up. Used the light on my phone as a torch. The latest entry was dated three days ago. The day Sally went missing. As I read the first line, I felt fear growing in my stomach like weeds.
The alien came to visit me again last night. I never told you about the alien before even though I wanted to, because it made me promise. But now I think I have to tell.
The alien is tall and it’s got an ugly grey head and narrow black eyes. It visits me at least once a month. I wake up in the dark and it’s in the corner of my room by the cupboard, watching me. It hardly ever speaks, but the one time it did it told me I’d been chosen for an experiment. A special and secret experiment that I could never tell anyone about.
Then I followed it through the cupboard door and there was all this white light on the other side, so bright I couldn’t see, and the next thing I knew I was back in bed again and the alien was gone. I couldn’t remember anything.
I’m scared to tell but lately I keep forgetting stuff during the day, and my head feels funny. So now I think I have to. I don’t think I can tell mum or dad about it, though – they’ll be cross with me for keeping the alien a secret so long.
I re-read that page several times in the cupboard. The fear in my stomach had blossomed into a full-grown sense of dread. I kept thinking about how Sally had just disappeared – there one minute, gone the next. Like a hole had opened up in the sky and swallowed her.
After a few more minutes I got up to leave the cupboard. I kept the book in my hand – there were other entries that I still needed to read, and even then I knew I’d have to show it to someone. My parents or grandad, maybe, or the police. As I went to leave the cupboard, my foot crunched down on another sweet wrapper. I paused. There was something in the back of my mind nagging me – a sense I’d missed something obvious. I looked down at my feet. And as I did, the whole nightmare puzzle suddenly began slotting into place. Images flew through my mind like a film reel unravelling.
An image of the day I’d found out Sally was missing.
An image of us playing dress up when we were younger.
An image of a tall, shadowy creature, standing in the corner of my sister’s room. A creature that told her not to tell anyone about it, and that took her into the cupboard to do experiments on her. Experiments she couldn’t remember.
Mostly, though, I thought about the wrapper beneath my foot. The wrapper in my sister’s cupboard, one of many, that wasn’t a sweet wrapper after all. It was a bubble gum wrapper. Cherry flavoured.
The puzzle finished forming in my mind. I felt sick.
There was no alien. There never had been any alien.
It was grandad.