Pamela wouldn’t call it love—not yet. She had embraced that word too fast with Josh, and it had opened the door to complications, forcing her from all she had known. No, this time she would find a better name for it.
She studied Tom’s form as he leaned against the stall’s counter, the gun awkward in his hands. He squinted, adjusted his posture before firing—a routine intended to deceive but which was only fooling Tom. The tracksuit swaddled his fey frame; his was a body that could never hope to protect a woman, but Pamela reasoned that she had been protected too much already.
“That was so close,” she lied as Tom approached without the plushie he had coveted. His cheeks matched the bright bunting zig-zagging between the stalls. Pamela rewarded him with a toothy smile. “Cheer up! Plenty of time for another go later.”
He shrugged, shuffling his feet. “Maybe. Y’know I can’t be late tonight, yeah?”
“I know, hun. Big day tomorrow.” Pamela inched closer, her fingers pressing quick shapes along the hem of his jacket. Moments later the fabric of her own twitched with the buzz of her pocketed phone. She increased her mental tally, feeling watched.
“Yeah.” Tom’s baby-blue eyes darted around the fete. “I’m a bit nervous.”
“’Course you are.” Pamela squeezed his arm briefly. “But I’ve watched you train for long enough to know first place on that track is yours to lose.”
Pamela gestured at her outfit. “Hey, who do you think you’re talking to here?”
Tom laughed, and the sound calmed the tide that had been churning inside of her since afternoon practice. The breeze tripped across them as they pressed through the crowds; it felt like an echo, a caged memory of a time when Pamela would run with her arms outstretched until she could run no more.
Her phone buzzed again; this time Pamela checked it. Thirteen missed calls and ten messages. She drew a shaky breath, her fingers tightening.
“If we don’t have much time then we should make it count.” She nodded towards the trees bordering the park. Beyond, the purple light of the hotel pushed back against the sunset. “I’ve booked a room.”
Tom’s throat bobbed. “But I said—”
Pamela lifted a finger to her lips. “Don’t be daft, hun. Neither of us can. But don’t you think it would look a bit funny booking by the hour?”
She watched his brows pull together, his plump lip being squeezed between his teeth. Was this a face she could grow to love? Possibly.
“You’re very handsome, you know,” she added, her hand brushing his. “Come on, Tom. We both need this.”
The sudden buzz of the phone made her jump, and her courage spilt on the traitorous breeze. She needed to let Lachlan know she’d be late back—he would worry if she didn’t, and Lachlan always struggled to control himself when he was worried. Loves her too much, he’d tell her. Just wants to know she’s nearby so he can keep her safe. Because she needs looking after.
Pamela’s thumb hovered over the screen. Lachlan had looked after her since college—helped her to see that despite the long days and nights spent training she would never be a champion runner, that she would never cut through the wind the way she wanted.
But it was fine though. She still had talent enough to teach at a school—to nurture those pupils who were blossoming into better athletes.
Pupils like Tom.
Her lungs shrivelled at the acknowledgement. She stared at Tom and the facade crumbled, betraying gangly limbs and an awkward face. Her skin felt slick and damp.
“Miss, you alright?”
Pamela licked her lips. It felt as though hundreds of eyes were now fixed on her, watching her try to reconstruct her image of Tom. “Hun, we’re not at school now. Don’t call me that.”
Tom pouted. Seeking a moment’s respite, Pamela unlocked her phone and checked the alerts. Strange how only two of the calls had been from Lachlan. The others were from a number that wasn’t stored but was familiar—
Her body recalled echoes of the night last summer—palms pressing against the moist window as she had straddled him in the back of her Corsa, the alcohol on his lips masking his inexperience. She had called it love then, but it had made him obsessive, too familiar. Changing schools had been the only option.
She opened the first message, her heart pushing, her skin retreating.
You sick bitch I know what you did to my son and now so do the police
A gasp bled free, the sound alien to Pamela’s ears. The amber hue of the park began to bleach.
Tom’s voice was nasally, pleading. Pamela ignored it and continued to scroll, each message a threat or declaration that punched her in the gut. Josh had kept the photos. Why had he kept the photos?
She almost dropped the phone as it buzzed again. This message was from Lachlan.
you want to explain why the fucking police have just turned up? what have you said?
Pamela’s legs buckled beneath her and she slumped to the floor. She punched them, mewling, hating them for being so weak. If they hadn’t been so weak—if they just hadn’t…
She felt eyes on her. Rubbing her own, she stared at the passing crowds, then at Tom. He was just a boy, a boy to be nurtured, protected. Her skin crawled, something deep inside of her pushing his broken facade away.
And then the wind returned, pressing against her. Lurching to her feet, she turned into it and suddenly felt weightless, untethered. She took one step, then another, and then she was running—the wind pushing and jostling her like it did so many years ago. Moving beyond the fete into the park, Pamela closed her eyes and lifted out her arms.
She was running, and for a beautiful moment if felt like she had never stopped.