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Driving Home for Christmas

Roxie Key

I slam the boot shut on the third attempt. It’s jam-packed full of Christmas presents; I’d gone overboard as usual. Maybe even more so this year. With Aiden gone, I need to make it up to Tammy. She doesn’t understand; she’s only two. The least I can do is give her a nice Christmas. I check my phone. We’re fifteen minutes late. I roll my eyes at the thought of mum getting in a tizz, my perfect bloody sister who’d have arrived an hour early, done the washing up and set the flipping table by now. I hoist Tammy into her car seat, checking the straps three times. My phone bleeps. Low battery. I glance at the boot. Somewhere, amongst the glittering gifts and weekend bags, is my phone charger. I glance at Tammy, who is giving her undivided attention to a packet of chocolate buttons, and whip into the house for the spare charger. I’m in and out in thirty seconds. Door locked. I step towards the car, then dash back to check again, as if by some miracle it had unlocked itself. Definitely locked. I slide into the driver’s seat and tuck my phone under my right leg, as I always do. You never know what might happen.

‘Hi.’ As I pull onto the main road, I hear Tammy’s little voice, thick with milky chocolate.

‘Hey, sweetie.’ I smile into the rear-view mirror, but she’s not looking at me.

She’s looking behind me.

Pain blooms around my throat as my head is pinned violently to the head rest. I reach a hand to my neck, and there’s a belt or strap digging into my throat.

‘What the fuck?’

I feel hot breath in my ear. ‘Keep driving.’ A woman’s voice, deadly quiet. 

‘What do you want? Money?’

‘Shut the fuck up. Keep driving. M1 northbound. Go.’

I swallow, my throat dry and sticky. ‘Please,’ I rasp. ‘Who are you?’

I reach out to adjust my rear-view mirror, and I see her face. Heavy with anguish. Shadows under piercing blue eyes. A face I recognise. But from where?

‘Does Jenny Hurst mean anything to you?

Why do I know that name?

‘Tammy, are you okay sweetheart?’ I keep my voice light, hoping she hasn’t picked up on what’s going on.

‘She’s fine. And she will be if you do what I say.’ I see the glint of a knife.

‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Okay. Jenny? Are you Jenny? How do I know you?’

‘You were on the jury.’

My world tilts. Jenny fucking Hurst. Five years ago, I’d been the forewoman on her GBH trial. The one who delivered Jenny’s fate. Now, here she was. In my car. Threatening my daughter’s life. My sweet, innocent Tammy.

I steel myself as we join the M1. ‘I’m sorry. It was a unanimous decision. It wasn’t my personal decision.’

Jenny sits back, absent-mindedly twirling the leg of Tammy’s toy monkey around her finger.

I bristle, but try to keep my voice steady. ‘What do you want? Where are you making me go?’

We’re getting further away from mum. From my sister. From anyone who can help.

‘You’ll see.’

‘Why are you doing this?’

She leans sideways, dangling the monkey in front of my daughter’s face. Tammy makes a grab for it with sticky starfish-shaped hands, but Jenny swings it out of the way. She repeats this several times, and Tammy’s face screws up in confusion. She’s never been taunted like this before.

‘Jenny.’

Our eyes connect in the mirror. ‘I spent two years locked up. My husband left me. He took my kids. I have nothing.’

‘I can help you.’ I grasp at straws, prepared to say anything to save my daughter. ‘I can pay for you to get a lawyer–’

‘Oh, enough!’ She slams my headrest with a fist and my head jolts forward.

‘I couldn’t believe my luck when I passed you in Tesco. I’ve been watching you ever since. With your perfect little life.’

‘If you think my life’s perfect–’

‘Will you just. Stop. Talking.’ Her hand grips the top of Tammy’s car seat, inches from my daughter’s beautiful head.

The roaring of tyres and the blood rushing in my ears are the only sounds I can hear.

Jenny’s eyes drift to the window. I dread to think what she’s daydreaming about.

A vibration under my leg reminds me that my phone is within reaching distance. I glance in the mirror again, and Jenny is still preoccupied, one hand still grasping the thing around my neck. Whilst trying to keep my head impossibly still and my eyes pinned to the road, I slide the phone out. On the fourth attempt, I unlock it. What now? My eyes flit to Jenny, then to the phone resting on my leg. I tap on the WhatsApp icon. It opens on our family group chat. I can barely see what I’m typing… I try to type HELP and share my live location. I pray to a god I don’t believe in that I’ve done both these things properly.

‘What are you doing?’ A sharp voice slices into my thoughts.

‘Nothing.’ My eyes fix firmly on the road.

‘What’s in your lap?’

‘Nothing. I had an itch.’ I let the phone slip in between my knees, out of sight.

She narrows her eyes. ‘Just fucking drive.’ The thing around my neck is pulled tighter.

I do the maths in my head. I’ve been driving for five minutes. That means I’m ten minutes from mum’s house. If they pick up my message straight away, they could be just ten minutes behind me. The way my sister drives, it could even be seven.

I scrabble around in my head for an idea of how to attract attention. As I pass a speed camera, a thought occurs. Glancing in the mirror, I see that Jenny is staring at Tammy with a funny look on her face. A desperate yearning. My jaw sets, and I press down gently on the accelerator. Not enough for her to notice. Slowly, gradually, I increase the speed. 75. 80. 85. Fast enough to be pulled over by the police.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Her voice slices through the silence and my whole body fizzes with dread. ‘Slow the fuck down.’

‘Sorry,’ I stammer. ‘I didn’t realise I was speeding.’

‘Like fuck you didn’t. Don’t you dare try attracting attention.’

I drive in silence, my heart hammering against my ribs. I take deep breaths. I can’t lose my shit. Not today.

‘Turn off here,’ she says sharply.

I indicate without question, panic spiking in my chest. I drive on for what feels like miles, Jenny barking directions, all the while gripping onto the belt around my neck. I’m going as slow as I can. Buying myself some time.

And then I see the sign that says ‘quarry’.

‘Turn in there.’

‘Why are we here?’ I’m shaking. I can’t stop.

‘Just drive in there, where the fence is broken.’

I manoeuvre the car over the bumpy grass and through the broken part of the fence. ‘What are you going to do?’

Jenny’s eyes meet mine. ‘I’m going to take Tammy out of the car now. And you’re going to drive over the edge of the quarry.’ Her voice is devoid of emotion. And so much emotion is erupting inside me. I want to scream as she reaches over and unclips Tammy’s car seat, pulling my daughter into her lap and reaching for the door handle. She still holds the knife in her left hand.

‘Please,’ I beg. ‘There must be another way around this.’

She shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so.’

Tammy is crying now, reaching for me. But she’s pinned to Jenny, as I am to my seat.

‘If you won’t drive yourself into the quarry, it’s no problem. You’re going to end up in there either way.’ She points the knife at me. ‘I’m getting out now.’

‘Wait!’ I shout. What can I do to stall her?

Her eyes slide back to mine, waiting to hear what I have to say.

But I’m frozen.

Something steals her focus; her head snaps to one side. I twist painfully. It’s another car.

‘Fucking hell.’ Jenny’s face contorts in anger as she stares at the approaching vehicle, the knife still hovering in the air by my face. This isn’t part of her plan.

Taking advantage of her distraction, I make a grab for the knife, the blade slicing into the soft skin of my palm, and plunge it behind me, into her thigh; the only part of her I can reach.

For a split second, I’m paralysed with fear that I’ve missed her and hit my daughter instead, but then Jenny screams out, flinging Tammy to one side, freeing up her hands to yank the blade out and stem the blood flow. My fingers, slippery with her blood mixed with mine, fumble around behind the headrest to release the strap. The pressure on my neck makes me dizzy, but I manage to free myself. I reach for my daughter and pull her into the front seat.

What happens next isn’t my plan but makes perfect logical sense in the heat of the moment. I release the handbrake. Apply the child locks. Stumble out of the car. Slam the door shut. Shove the car over the edge of the quarry.

I collapse to the ground with Tammy clinging onto me like a koala, as the approaching car pulls to a stop beside us. My sister tumbles out, her face twisted in horror at the sight of us both covered in blood at the edge of a quarry on Christmas Eve.

But we are okay. And Jenny’s gone now.

Copyright 2020 Roxie Key