The Woods


By Vanessa Savage

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From the acclaimed author of The Woman in the Dark: a young teacher struggles to solve the mystery of her sister’s death while battling hallucinations of her own.

Two girls went down to the woods…
But only one came back.

There’s a lot from Tess’s childhood that she would rather forget. The family who moved next door and brought chaos to their quiet lives. The two girls who were murdered, their killer never found. But the only thing she can’t remember is the one thing she wishes she could.

Ten years ago, Tess’s older sister died. Ruled a tragic accident, the only witness was Tess herself, but she has never been able to remember what happened that night in the woods.

Now living in London, Tess has resolved to put the trauma behind her. But an emergency call from her father forces her back to the family home, back to where her sister’s body was found, and to the memories she thought were lost forever…


“You have to be brutal, cut right back to the bone,” he says to the girl.

She’s hesitant, blades held close, but not making the cut. “Won’t it kill it?”

His hand covers hers, forces her to cut. “No. It’ll give it the chance to bloom.”


“Once upon a time, two girls went into the woods and only one came out…”

“No. I don’t like this story.”

“You have to listen, Tess. You have to get to the end of the story.”

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“Can you take us through what happened after the wedding?”

There are two policemen in my room, one sitting by the bed in a crumpled shirt, one pacing the room, watching me. I’m in a private ward and there’s a uniformed officer outside—I saw him when the other two came in; he was talking to Dad and Julia. Dad was still wearing his suit, his jacket draped around Julia’s shoulders, white carnation drooping in the buttonhole. They both looked like they’d been crying and I wanted to call out that I was fine, but the pacing detective closed the door on them.

“I don’t remember,” I say, voice hoarse. My throat aches and my head is throbbing, the stitches tight and tender. It hurts to try to remember. It should have been such a happy day—for Dad and Julia, even if the rest of us weren’t feeling it.

“You went into the woods…” the sitting detective says. I don’t recall their names. They introduced themselves but I don’t remember.

My foot is bandaged and feels hot and swollen. Just a sprain, though, from the fall: I was lucky, they said.

“I was at the wedding, I drank too much champagne, and I went to lie down for a bit. I don’t remember anything after that.”

They’ve cleaned me up and stitched my head but there’s still dirt under my nails. Or is it dried blood? Oh God. Vomit rises, sour at the back of my throat. “Where’s Dad? I want to see my dad.” My voice breaks.

“He’s right outside, Tess. He’ll be in in a second. We’re trying to understand what you and your sister were doing in the woods near Dean House, some distance from your home. There are at least two hours unaccounted for, after anyone at the wedding last saw you and Arabella.”

Dean House: Bella and I were there, but that was last night—the night before the wedding. That night is all so clear. Not the wedding—pretty much everything about today is a blur, but last night…

Tess, wake up.

The voice makes me jump, but it’s not a whisper from the corner of the room, it’s an echo: Bella’s voice, the night before the wedding, pulling me from a dream of sex and Norse gods. The night before the wedding that we’d all been dreading. I had been sweating, skin damp and clinging to the sheet, the heatwave still going on. I wasn’t shivering like I am now. The storm didn’t break until the night of the wedding.

Bella was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt and I twisted to look at the clock, thinking I’d overslept and should already be at the hall, trussed up in my mint lace bridesmaid’s dress. But it was only four o’clock, still dark outside and hours from morning. I’d stayed up too late, trying to make inroads into the mountain of reading I had from school that had been gathering dust since the beginning of the summer holidays.

“Can’t you sleep again?” I pushed the sheets off me and sat up. All this, I remember, the crisp cotton of the sheet brushing against my legs, the groggy disorientation as I was pulled from sleep.

She shook her head. “I need to tell you something.”

“Go on then.”

“No—not here,” she said, pulling on my arm.

“Where are we going? We have to be up in four hours to get ready.”

“This can’t wait. Come on.”

I was thinking I was still in that dream as we walked up the lane in the middle of the night—Bella in shorts, me in my pajamas and flip-flops. I was thinking it was still a dream and, any minute, some Norse god would appear with Max’s face and sweep me off into the woods.

Max. Where is Max now?

The night air was thick and still. Hot, even at that hour. It felt wrong. Unusual for August: there should have been rain in the air, clouds to cover the stars and moon. The heat and dryness made it seem like I’d been transported somewhere else in my dreams, somewhere with warm seas, twisted olive trees, cicadas, and bright lizards swarming the walls.

Bella stopped by a crumbling, ivy-choked wall and turned back to look at me. She bent down, laced her hands together. “I’ll boost you over,” she whispered.

Dean House watched from behind the wall, windows black. My scalp prickled and I could feel the hairs rise as I figured out where we were. No way.

“Not scared, are you?” she said, a challenge in her voice.

I remember all this, I think, but I’m not sure I’m remembering it right. There’s a woodenness to the memory that makes me think I’m missing something. The dream I had seems more real than this.

“What is it?” the detective says, leaning forward. His hair is thinning on top; I can see the light from the fluorescent bulb shining on his scalp. “Have you remembered something?”

I shake my head. He doesn’t want to know about the day before the wedding. It’s not relevant. It’s not. Then why does my chest feel tight, full of fluttering fear? Why is the night at Dean House so vivid and the wedding a blank?

I look up at the detective. “I remember going upstairs and then I woke up in the ambulance.”

I pick at my nails—is it my blood? My hands are shaking.

I was scared. I didn’t want to go in there. Bella looked on the verge of tears and I wanted to be back in my bed.

The night grew quieter as we dropped into the garden. Even my breath, quick and panicked, sounded muffled. That house had always been the haunted house when we were little kids, daring each other to open the front gate and go up the path. I never did it. I’ve never been the brave kid. Then Julia and Greg Lewis bought it, and what was it then?

Bella marched away around the house and I hurried after her, tripping over tangled tree roots hidden in the weeds. I knew this garden well but it was the house I was afraid of. Bella didn’t stay in the garden, she went right to the front door and opened it. It wasn’t locked.

Wait, why wasn’t it locked?

I’m wondering now if any of it was real, or if it was all part of a dream—haven’t I had this dream before? The house, a rainy nighta scream hidden by the roar of a monsoon-like downpour?

“Bella, what are you doing?”

She glanced back at me and then stepped inside the house.


I can’t tell the detectives any of this; I don’t want to get my sister into trouble. I followed her up the dark hallway, hissing her name, flinching at every creak of the floorboards. What if someone was there? What if Greg came back and found us in his house? He could have had a heart attack.

Bella flitted like a ghost in front of me in her white T-shirt, disappearing through a door on the left. I glanced nervously up the stairs—what monster exactly did I think I’d find?—and followed my sister.

The room was like something out of Miss Havisham’s house. Everything coated in dust, cobwebs hanging from the corners, lit up from the moonlight shining in the uncovered window. There was an empty mug on a side table, a book facedown on the arm of a chair, a pair of shoes lined up in front of the cold fireplace. That was fine, perfectly ordinary, but it was all covered in dust like no one had lived there for months. That seemed impossible, I remember. It shouldn’t have been so dusty. Greg hadn’t been gone that long. And despite everything, it made me feel guilty—that no one was looking out for Greg, that no one was helping him while his house crumbled around him.

The goose bumps rose on my arms again. Bella was standing in front of the back window, pressed right up against the glass, fogging it with her breath, looking out into the woods. I could see her footprints, a clean path through the dust on the floors. Too much evidence we’d been there.

My stomach lurches and I have the urge to jump out of my hospital bed and rush back to the house to clean everything we touched. Or have they already been there? Do they already know we trespassed there?

“I’m sorry,” Bella whispered—whispers still from the shadows in the corner of my hospital room. Her shoulders were hunched and I think she was crying. “I’m so sorry, Tess, but you need to see. You need to wake up.”

I can taste sour champagne in my mouth, and mud and dead leaves. I can feel them on my face still. I keep touching my cheeks, expecting to find them covered in leaves and dirt. I was found in the woods near Dean House, but I don’t remember how I got there.

I should tell them we were in the house the night before the wedding. We didn’t do anything wrong other than sneaking in. We didn’t steal or break anything. It had nothing to do with what happened after the wedding. I should tell them. But…

“I’m sorry,” I say.

wake up

“I really don’t remember anything.”

I remember the taste of mud and leaves, but I don’t remember being in the woods in the storm. I do remember the ambulance, the paramedics wheeling me into the hospital on a stretcher. Dad and Julia were there, and Max. But…

I blink and see a flash—Bella in the woods, sprawled on the ground, facing away from me.

“Wait,” I say as the detectives move toward the door.

Another flash. Me crawling toward her, reaching out my hand to touch her shoulder.

“Where’s Bella? Is my sister okay?”

Clutching her shoulder, rolling her onto her back and…

wake up


Chapter 1

“Wake up, Tess.” Sophie leans in closer to me. “Stealth approach, two o’clock.”

I blink and pull myself back into the present, glancing over my shoulder to see two men approaching our table, creased shirts and red faces a sure sign they’ve been here a while. Not bad-looking, but neither does anything for me.

“Are you interested?”

Sophie pulls a face and shakes her head.

I grin. “Okay—so who am I?”

Sophie looks at me. “You’re…Tanya Nibbington, a tree surgeon from Norfolk, here visiting a friend, celebrating graduating from tree surgeon college.”

My smile widens. “There’s a tree surgeon college? In Norfolk?”

She shrugs. “What am I?”

“Maeve Larson, undercover detective over from Sweden. Working on a case.”

She drains her drink. “Nice.”

“Or…” They’re almost through the crowd to our table. “Or we could just tell them to buzz off and enjoy our girls’ night.”

“Is that what you want? If you want to go somewhere quieter and talk?” She says it quietly and seriously and it makes me aware of how off I’ve been tonight.

I’m not being fair. We play this game a lot. We come to this pub a lot. It’s full of city boys, looking for a pickup. I’m rarely interested, but since Sophie turned thirty she’s become keener than ever to “meet the one” and we’re here for her. But I don’t think he’s going to be here, in a sweaty shirt, five pints down on a Tuesday night.

I squeeze her hand. “Don’t be daft. I’m fine, and we don’t want to miss the chance of finding your Prince Charming, do we?”

“It’s all right for you, Tess, you’re twenty-six. Oceans of time before you’re old and wrinkled and on the shelf like me.”

I laugh at her. Sophie looks about twenty-two.

“But really?” I say, nodding toward the approaching sharks.

She sighs. “You’re right, you’re right. We should be going anyway—I’ve got twelfth graders first thing in the morning and I won’t survive the class with a hangover.”

“Ladies…” Creased shirt number one has reached the table. He crouches down, drapes his arms across our chairs. He smells of beer and sweat.

“Did you want our table?” I ask. “We’re just leaving.”

I stand up just as creased shirt number two arrives and manage to bump into him.

“Ah—don’t go. We wanted to buy you a drink.”

Creased shirt number one has said something to make Sophie laugh and I roll my eyes.

“Come on, Maeve Larson,” I say, pulling on her arm. “We’ve got school in the morning.”

“School?” This is from creased shirt number two, sounding alarmed. “You two are still in school?”

I swallow the urge to laugh. The lighting isn’t that dim in here—how much have they had to drink?

“That’s right,” I say. “We’re both fifteen. Still want to buy us that drink?”


“You are such a cow,” Sophie says after they’ve fled, stumbling over chairs in their haste to get away from us. “He wasn’t bad close up.”

“Oh, please—you would have hated yourself in the morning. And he would never have called again.”

“But I wanted to be Maeve Larson, top detective with fourteen brothers and sisters. And you—I would have called you Nibs as a nickname and you could have told them all about your charmed life as…”

“A single, broke woman. Living in a one-bedroom flat. Who has to be up for school in the morning to teach five classes of snarky teenagers.”

“Ugh. The truth does not make for a sexy story. Although do I really want fourteen brothers and sisters? Sometimes I wish I was an only child. My brother is twenty-five going on twelve and a total pain in the ass most of the time.”

I pause by the door to stare at a blond girl walking away from me. It’s another game I play a lot—the pounding heart, the twist in my gut when I see a blond girl in skinny jeans, or hear a laugh that sounds familiar, the tilt of a head. Sometimes I make myself look away. Sometimes I follow her, just to check, just to see…

Of course it can’t be her. Could never have been my sister.

“Shit,” Sophie mutters, going pale and touching my arm. “Sorry, Tess. I didn’t think—my crass remark about wanting to be an only child…”

I sometimes wish I’d never told Sophie about Bella—it’s such a tragic mess. It’s easier to be what I pretend to be to the rest of the world, my own permanent version of our games: an only child, a city girl with a nice flat and a good job.


“Oh God, I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” Sophie says as we walk toward the bus stop.

I laugh and tuck my arm in hers. “A sentiment echoed by every kid we’re teaching tomorrow.”

“At least we get paid for it, I suppose. And I do love it most of the time.”

“Do you? Really love teaching?”

“Of course.” She sounds surprised. “Why on earth would I put myself through all the crap bits if I didn’t love it for the good bits?”

Do I love it? Even the good bits? Have I ever loved teaching, like properly “it’s-my-vocation” loved it? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself too often lately.

“Do you want to stay at my place tonight?” I say as I see a bus heading toward us. “It’s not late—we can be sensible and drink tea, but continue the evening.”

I’m feelingmelancholy. Flat. None of the night-out buzz I felt earlier, getting ready for two-for-one happy hour with my best friend.

“Aw, Tess, I can’t. I haven’t got any of my stuff with me and I can’t go to school tomorrow dressed like this.” She gestures down at her sequined skirt.

I smile. I laughed when she turned up earlier in sequins and high heels. If it’s over the top for a Tuesday night in town, it’s definitely over the top for teaching. “That’s fine. It was just a thought.”

“Are you okay? You’ve been a bit down tonight.”

“Things areI’ve been having bad dreams. Bad thoughts that keep creeping in and…” Sophie frowns and I shake my head. “No, don’t worry. I shouldn’t have had gin-based cocktails, that’s all. Gin makes me maudlin.”

“But it’s not only tonight…” Her voice trails off and she sighs. “No, sorry. Not the time. But let’s catch up tomorrow, okay?”

She gets on her bus and I wave as it signals to pull away.

“Good night, Maeve Larson—I love you and your fourteen brothers and sisters!” I shout, and I see her laugh and blow a kiss through the window as the bus accelerates away.

My smile fades and I pull my coat closed as I wait at the empty shelter for my own bus and the bad thoughts crowd in around me to keep me company. I’m lucky, I tell myself. I have a good job—a great job. I have amazing friends. A flat of my own. My life is good. It is. All I need to do is believe it.

Chapter 2

I’m late. I’m bloody late. I took forever to fall asleep last night and when I did my slumber was filled with tangled fragments of dark dreams that kept jerking me awake.

My phone buzzes—a message from Sophie: Where are u? Not still sleeping off the cocktails?????!

I call her. “I overslept! Can you—shit!” I bang my leg on the table and lean down to rub my calf through my trousers. “Can you cover for me?”

“Again? Oh Christ, TessI’ll try.”

Eight forty. Shit. It’s the third time this term I’ve been late and we’re only five weeks in. Sophie’s got her own class to teach—I can’t expect her to keep this from the head of the department for me.

The anxious knot in my stomach grows as I wait at the bus stop and it passes nine o’clock. There are going to be twenty-three teenagers waiting at school for their English lesson and I’m still fifteen minutes away. I’ve already had one verbal warning; this time it’s going to be a written one, a permanent warning on my record. I’m tempted to call in sick, pretend I was too ill to phone earlier, but I’ve already done that twice this term. Two missed days, three late days in less than half a term. I can’t lose this job. I can’t.

The bus comes and, despite my anxiety, I’m tempted to let it drive by. Same route to work, same walk at the other end. Every day, the same. I get this urge every so often to get on a different bus, ride it to the end of the route and see where I end up. Walk away from the school and the sick feeling I get in my gut when I sit in front of my first class, feeling like a fraud. What am I doing? That’s what I think on those days.

On the bus, I close my eyes and feel myself drifting, jerking awake with a start as my phone starts ringing at the bottom of my bag, a harsh interruption that has my fellow passengers staring at me. I fumble for it, hunched over, pausing before answering when I see it’s my dad.

“Tess?” His voice is faint, muffled.

“What’s wrong, Dad?” I know he’s not ringing for a casual chat. That’s our Sunday-night routine, ten minutes of talking where we fill the silence but say nothing at all.

“It’sJulia. She’s home.”

There’s too long a silence as my brain scrabbles to make sense of his words. “Home? She’s better?”

His turn for silence. “Nothere’s nothing more they can do. She wants to die at home.”

Breath gone, I lean back in the seat. It shouldn’t be a shock. Julia has been slowly dying for the past year. I’ve seen it on my too-infrequent visits to see her in the hospital. Less Julia, more shadow each time. But stillhad I thought she would go on fighting forever? Maybe I had—she’s always been so bright and alive. All my most vivid memories of her from the beginning are of her bringing our house back to life—against our will at first. Well, mine and Bella’s at least. The three of us, after my mother died, were drifting along living a half-life, then along came Julia, so vibrant, a whirl of glaring color impossible to ignore or freeze out and, God, Bella and I resented that. We were so horribly hostile toward her at the beginning, but she never gave up trying, our so very not-wicked stepmother.

“Will you come home?”

Home? My throat closes at the thought. Go back to the house, to the village, to that fishbowl where everyone knows me and everyone knows what happened to Bella? I can’t be anonymous there, can’t be safe and invisible like I am here. If I go back home, will they all be there—Sean and Jack and Max and Lena? I can’t. Christ, what a reunion that would be. I can’t do it—can’t gather round Dad and Julia to watch Julia die when the last time we were all together was to watch them get married. The gap where Bella should be would be too huge and glaring. I just can’t.

“II can’t. I have work. It’s midway through the term and…”

“Please, Tess, she has no one else. Come for a weekend, at least. You haven’t been back here in so long. Jack and Seanthey won’t return my calls. I even tried tracking Greg down but no one seems to have any idea where he is. I’ve left messages for Max and Lena—their parents can’t get back from Spain until next month and that might beI don’t want her to die alone.”

Jack and Sean—no, of course they wouldn’t bother, not even with their mother dying.

“Dad, I…” My voice trails off. What excuse can I possibly give?

“The doctor says she has weeks at the most.”

He doesn’t need to say anything else. Last chance, last chance for all of us to say goodbye, to say anything. What would I give for a last chance with Bella? With my mother? A last chance to say all the things I never got to say because I thought I had forever to say them.

I glance up. We’re approaching my stop. “Dad, I have to go. I’m already late.”

“But Tess…”

“I’ll call you later, okay?”


  • "Dark and thoroughly compulsive . . . a definite up-all-nighter."—Kate Hamer, author of The Girl in the Red Coat
  • "A beautifully told tale of family secrets . . . highly recommended."—Nuala Ellwood, author of Day of the Accident
  • "'Tense and creepy . . . brilliant."—Harriet Tyce, author of The Lies You Told
  • "Gripping."—Daily Mail
  • "Creepy, atmospheric, unpredictable . . . utterly addictive and impossible to second guess."—Claire Douglas, author of Do Not Disturb
  • "Taut, tense and brilliantly gripping."—Simon Lelic, author of The Liar's Room
  • "Immersive and eerie."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 15.0px; font: 13.3px Times; color: #000000; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}Heat

On Sale
Aug 25, 2020
Page Count
384 pages

Vanessa Savage

About the Author

Vanessa Savage is a graphic designer and illustrator. She has twice been awarded a Writers' Bursary by Literature Wales, most recently for The Woman in the Dark. She won the Myriad Editions First Crimes competition in 2016 and her work has been highly commended in the Yeovil International Fiction Prize, short listed for the Harry Bowling Prize, and the Caledonia Fiction Prize. She was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award.

Vanessa lives by the sea in South Wales with her husband and two daughters.

Learn more about this author