Extract: The Retreat by Sarah Pearse
This is a warning for all our guests at the wellness retreat. A woman’s body has been found at the bottom of the cliff beneath the yoga pavilion. We believe her death was a tragic accident, though DS Elin Warner has arrived on the island to investigate.
A storm has been forecast, but do not panic. Stick together and please ignore any rumours you might have heard about the island and its history. As soon as the weather clears, we will arrange boats to take you back to the mainland.
In the meantime, we hope you enjoy your stay…
Read on for the first chapter of The Retreat by Sarah Pearse!
Thea’s scream rips through the clearing, startling the birds from the trees in a flurry of flapping wings.
The sound isn’t human; it’s high-pitched and desperate, the kind of scream that turns your stomach inside out, makes your ears burn.
She should have waited until they got back to camp. He told her to wait.
But Thea had insisted. Half an hour and three beers since they’d snuck away from the camp for some time alone, and she couldn’t hold it any longer: ‘Don’t look at me like that, it’s your fault for bringing so many cans. Shout if you see someone coming…’
Laughing, she’d walked a few feet away, carefully positioned herself so Ollie could see only the sandy tips of her white pumps, the thin trail of wet already winding through the dusty floor.
The scream intensifies.
Ollie freezes for a moment, but instinct kicks in: he lurches into action, pivoting toward her. But almost instantly, he comes to a halt, a cloud of dried soil and leaves kicking into the air.
A movement: someone stepping out from the tangle of branches.
The rock on the cliff above, the island’s namesake, is casting them in shadow, but Ollie can see right away that this person isn’t from camp. They aren’t in shorts and a T-shirt like the kids, or the cheery green of the camp leaders; they’re wearing something dark and shapeless.
Ollie’s eyes dart to Thea. He can now see her frantically thrashing in the dense underbrush.
He wants to move, to do something, but his body is locked. All he can do is stare, his heart lunging in his chest – hard, knocking thuds against his ribs.
A violent flurry of movement, and then a sound: the sharp liquid crack of something bursting and breaking.
It’s a sound he’s never heard before.
Ollie closes his eyes. He knows it’s Thea, but in his head, he’s turned her into something else. A puppet. A mannequin.
Anything but her.
His eyes flicker open and it’s then he sees it: the watery trail has become something darker, thicker.
It splinters into a fork – the liquid tip of a snake’s tongue.
Another strike: this time harder, faster, but it barely registers, and neither does Thea’s second scream – blistered, cut off, like it’s clotted in her throat – because Ollie’s already running.
He darts into the woods, making for the cove he and Thea found yesterday while the others were building the fire. While they’d both pretended they had stopped there just to talk, to drink, it was obvious it was going to become something more.
His hand on the soft band of skin above her shorts, her mouth pressed against his…
The thought is too much; he speeds up. It’s as though he’s running blind
– the setting sun flicker-flashing through the trees overhead, his eyes seeing nothing but a blur of shadowy green and the grey-brown carpet of leaves. His trainers are slipping out from under him, the dry ground as slippery as mud.
Barbed branches pull at his shirt. One catches his arm, snags the soft skin on the inside of his wrist. Blood flares – a ragged line of tiny red beads bursting through his skin.
It feels like he’s done this before – a weird déjà vu, as if in a dream, one of those panicky ones where you wake up sweating and panting, the type that sticks with you for a while afterward.
A few yards on and the trees start to thin, the woodland floor giving way to sand, the rock beneath, flattened elephant-folds of dusty limestone. He’s reached the steps Thea found yesterday, nothing more than wooden treads knocked into the soil. Momentum tugs his body forward with each step. He’s forced to lean back to stop himself from falling.
When he reaches the bottom, he jumps down onto the sand and runs toward the small overhang he and Thea had lain in last night, contraband bottles in their hands.
Ollie drops to all fours, hollowing his back to crawl under. Once he’s inside, he sits with his knees drawn up to his chin and concentrates on breathing. In and out. In and out. Being still. Staying quiet.
But his body won’t cooperate; he’s shaking with jerky spasms that he can’t control.
Ollie clamps his hands over his head as if the pressure will force away the scream still ringing in his ears. But now it’s not just the sound, it’s the sight: Thea’s body folding, collapsing – like a puppet master had violently jerked at her strings.
He bashes his hand against the rock above him. Bashes again and again until there’s ripped-back skin and blood.
Red smears across his knuckles, a sharp thread of pain pulling through him that he tries to hold on to, to distract him, but it doesn’t work.
The truth is still shouting.
He left her. He left her. He ran.
Ollie puts his head between his legs and takes a long, shuddery breath.
Minutes pass, but no one comes. It’s getting late, he can tell. The last of the sun is almost gone, the sand in front of him now in shadow.
He’ll wait a little longer, he decides, then he’ll try going back to camp. As time ticks by, Ollie half convinces himself that it was a joke, a prank Thea got roped into by the boys. He clutches at the thought: he’ll get back to camp and she’ll be there, laughing at him for running away like a kid.
A few minutes later, he drags himself from under the overhang. Straightening up, he glances carefully around him, but the beach is deserted; there’s nobody there.
As he runs back through the forest, he’s still clinging to the thought: It’s a joke. Thea is fine. But as soon as he enters the clearing, he knows. The dark trail from before is now a stream of blood forming a winding downhill path.
Ollie tries to look at her, but he can’t bring himself to see past her white pumps, now perfectly still and streaked with red.
It isn’t real. Not Thea. She can’t be…
He turns away, bile rising in the back of his throat.
It’s then that he notices something on the ground, sitting on top of the dusty leaf litter.
A large stone, about twelve inches long. The surface is mostly weathered, with tiny scuffs and dimples where it’s been battered by the waves and sand, but it’s also smooth in places, the outline softly contoured.
Crouching low, Ollie picks it up. It feels warm, gritty against his palm. Something about it is familiar, he thinks, slowly turning it between his fingers.
It hits him, and he holds the stone still.
Tipping his head, he glances up at the rock on the cliff face behind, then looks back at his hand.
Ollie looks from one to another until his eyes blur.
He realizes that what he’s holding isn’t just a stone.
The subtle curves and contours resemble the rock above him.
Thursday, 10:00 am, 2021
‘So here’s the update as promised… we’re at the beach waiting for a boat to take us to the retreat, but what I didn’t realise is quite how remote Cary Island actually is… I reckon it’s a twenty-minute boat ride from the mainland at least.’ Jo flips the phone’s view from her face to show the sea, a glimpse of the island visible in the distance.
‘I’ve had loads of people asking about LUMEN, so I’ll explain the vibe. LUMEN’s a luxury retreat on the gorgeous island you’ve just seen, off the South Devon coast. The architect was inspired by Mexican legend Luis Barragan, so we’re talking luxe villas nestled in woodland with views out to sea. There’s some pretty special stuff: an outdoor yoga pavilion, glass-bottomed pool, and this crazy rope swing stretching out over the water… you can drop straight off into the sea. One of the most spectacular features is an amazing villa on a private islet – that’s for all you honeymooners. I couldn’t get my mitts on that one as it’s already booked, but it looks stunning.’
‘I’ll be taking you out on the kayaks with me later today, but to give you an idea of the wellness activities on offer, they’ve got paddleboarding, meditation, kayaking, hydrofoil surfing, and loads more.’ She pauses. ‘Now for the creepy bit: I love the backstory to this place. The rocky outcrop on the side of the island, you can just about see it from here, it gives the island its nickname: Reaper’s Rock. Spooky, right? And according to a lot of the locals, the island is cursed. Apparently’ – she lowers her voice to a hushed whisper – ‘the rock is said to be a manifestation of the Grim Reaper. During the plague, people were quarantined here and then left to die. So the story goes, their souls are still wandering and will only be at peace when the Reaper takes a new victim. Stay too long and you’ll be next…’
Jo flips the camera again to show her mock-terrified face. ‘Eerie, isn’t it? But that’s not the only thing. There was an old school on the island that burnt down back in the day. Abandoned until it was used by the local council as an Outward Bound centre in the late nineties. All fine and dandy until a group of teenagers were murdered at the hand of the island caretaker, Larson Creacher, in 2003.’ She lowers her voice again. ‘Is it wrong to say all the spooky stuff kind of adds to the appeal?’
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