In his debut novel, The String Diaries, Stephen Lloyd Jones weaves together three narratives that follow a shapeshifter as he stalks his prey through generations. It’s a terrifying, mythical tale, and it opens with a bang: a mother driving through the night, her daughter asleep in the back, and her husband bleeding out beside her. Start reading below, but be warned that you may not be able to close this diary.
It was only when Hannah Wilde reached the farmhouse shortly after midnight that she discovered how much blood her husband had lost.
They had spoken little during the drive to Llyn Gwyr. Hannah concentrated on the road ahead, her vision blurred through rain and tears. Beside her, Nate slumped in the Discovery’s passenger seat, a crooked shadow. She tried to glance over at him as the distance to what they’d left behind increased, but it was impossible to comprehend the full horror of his injuries while they were on the road. Each time she suggested they pull over Nate shook his head and urged her on.
Get to the farmhouse, Hannah. I’ll be OK. I promise.
Close to midnight, after four hours behind the wheel, she watched the English place names flashing past the Discovery’s headlights surrender to their Welsh cousins: Cyfronydd; Llangadfan; Tal-y-llyn.
No other vehicles shared this night with them. And although Hannah could see little more than what lay directly ahead, she could feel the country growing wilder, opening up around her. The road bucked and twisted, tried to throw them loose. For a time they chased a rushing mountain stream, the fractured diamonds of moonlight on its surface the only clue to its presence. When the road looped, climbing higher, the reflections winked out, lost to the night.
Half a mile from Llyn Gwyr, near the crest of a hill, Hannah slowed the 4×4 to a crawl and turned off its headlights. She inched the vehicle up the final few yards of the slope, to where a clump of ash trees grew. For a moment she watched the silhouette movement of their naked branches.
Hannah switched off the ignition. The sound of the engine had masked the voice of the wind until now. Here, at the summit of the hill, it sang around them, buffeting the car on its springs.
By God, what were you thinking? Did you really believe this place would be safe?
In the passenger seat, Nate roused himself, lifting his head. He squinted out of the window. “What do you see?”
Beyond the trees, the land dropped away below them, receding toward the shore of an almond-shaped lake. Although the moon had draped itself in rainclouds creeping in from the west, a phosphorescence lingered on the water’s surface. The black line of a river, snaking down from the mountains, fed the lake at its westernmost point.
Llyn Gwyr’s farmhouse stood on the lake’s far shore. A steep gravel track, crossing the river at a stone bridge, linked it to the main road.
“I can hardly see a thing from this far away,” she told him. “Not in the dark, anyway.”
“There should be some binoculars in the door well. Check the bridge first. See if it’s clear.”
Hannah found the glasses, raised them to her eyes. Trained them in the direction of the river. She needed a moment to orient herself, and then she found the bridge. Its crumbling stone arch looked barely robust enough to support the weight of their Land Rover.
No debris on the bridge itself, that she could see. Nothing lurking beneath it. No signs of a potential ambush.
“OK, now check the house.”
She heard him shift his weight in the seat and try to conceal a gasp of pain. Immediately she wrenched the binoculars from her face. “Nate? What is it? What can I do?”
“Nothing, Han. I’m fine.” His voice was husky with exhaustion. “Go on. Check the house.”
She raised the glasses back to her eyes, trained them on the farmhouse this time. Its whitewashed stone walls glowed with the reflection of a nebulous moon. She found the outline of what she knew from photographs was a sagging slate roof. “What am I looking for?”
“Check the windows first. Are they intact?”
A pause while she checked all four. “Yes. The ones that I can see.”
“That’s good. What about the door? Is it open? Does it look like it’s been forced?”
“It’s difficult to tell but—” She frowned. “No, I think it’s secure.”
“That’s good, Han. That’s great. OK, look. I don’t think anyone is here. I don’t think anyone can be. But we’re going to be cautious all the same. We’re going to keep the lights out until we’re off the main road, and we’re going to drive slowly. The entrance is just up ahead. From what I remember of this place, it’s rough going until we get down to that bridge. Then it flattens out. We’ll park around the far side of the house so that nobody can see our car from the road.” He paused, hissing through his teeth as he shifted his weight again. “Are you ready?”
Hannah blew air from her cheeks, nodded. “Take the binoculars for me.”
She held them out to him. Felt his hand brush against hers. His fingers were wet, sticky. She felt her throat constricting. “Nate, are you still bleeding?”
“Doesn’t matter. Come on. We’re nearly safe now.”
She suddenly had to know. Despite his calming words, his encouragement, she was still reeling from the shock of tonight’s events. Before they went any further she needed to know exactly what she faced. On impulse, her hand went to the overhead light. She snapped it on.
Some of the hope Hannah had been clinging to died then, as she saw the true state of him. She clenched her teeth and forced her jaw to still itself, determined not to reveal how acutely his appearance affected her.
Blood drenched him.
His woollen jacket was saturated with it. The fabric of his shirt glistened and dripped. Blood pooled between his legs. It collected in the folds of the seat. It soaked his jeans.
When Hannah raised her eyes to his face her emotions betrayed her and she sobbed. He was dying. She could have no doubt. Scarcely any life could remain inside him. His lips had lost all of their color. His cheeks, where he had not wiped blood over them, were as pale as milk. Despite the cool air inside the 4×4, sweat stood out in beads upon his skin.
Nate tried to smile, but when his lips drew back from his teeth she saw a corpse leering at her. “I think the bleeding is starting to slow down.”
Her voice trembled, on the verge of a scream. “We need to get you to a hospital, Nate. Right now.”
He shook his head. “No. We can’t. I’ll be all right. I promise you.”
“No. Hannah, listen to me.” Nate paused, and she saw he was gulping for air. “We can’t take any risks with this. You know that, I know you do. What happens to me is irrelevant. We have to protect Leah.”
The scream pressed at the back of Hannah’s throat, taunting her. At the mention of Leah’s name, she turned to look at their daughter, asleep on the back seat. The sight of her smooth face, so fragile and so serene, terrified her and rallied her in equal measure.
He was right; they had no choice. But how did she meet Nate’s eyes and accept his words without protest? How could she become an accessory to sacrifice like that? It tore something within her. Only two people in the world she loved like this. Putting one before the other was unthinkable. As was the alternative.
Nate eased his hand out of his jacket, stared at his bloodied fingers. “This is survivable, Han. Believe me. I’ve lost a lot of blood, I know that. I realize how bad it looks, but I’ve seen injuries like this before and I can make it, I swear. As long as we can get inside soon.”
Hannah batted tears from her eyes. She didn’t believe him. He was a ghost. But she found herself swallowing the scream and twisting the keys in the ignition. “Hold tight, then. We’ll be there in a few minutes. Are you comfortable?”
“Are you serious?”
She forced herself to laugh. It sounded like she was choking.
Easing off the handbrake, she nudged the 4×4 into motion. They coasted over the brow of the hill and followed the road down the other side, descending through forest that reached for them with arms of spruce and Douglas fir. She saw the turning on the left and took it.
Once they were off the main road, boxed by tall conifers, she risked using dipped beams. The track below them was little more than a rocky slope. She had to keep their speed under walking pace to navigate around the larger boulders and avoid jolting Nate as much as possible. Even so, every couple of yards he groaned as the wheels alternately skidded and gripped on the stones. She flinched at his every sound.
Damn the odds, keeping fighting until you have nothing left.
Wasn’t that her father’s favorite phrase? This sense of helplessness, this fear, served no one. She forced herself to consider what she knew about blood loss. If Nate were to stand any chance of survival, she had to prevent him going into shock. His labored breathing and sweating were symptoms of serious hypovolemia.
She had to stop the bleeding. She had to keep him warm. And she had to get liquids into him.
They drove past a wooden sign, black lettering on a rotting whitewashed plank. LLYN GWYR. One of her father’s prepared bolt-holes.
At the bottom of the incline, the track’s surface improved. She followed its curves, easing the Discovery over the arched bridge and swinging it toward the farmhouse. Its headlights swept the front of the building, illuminating all but Llyn Gwyr’s windows. Those black countenances remained stubbornly impenetrable.
The driveway looped around the far side of the house. They passed stone-built stables and an empty cowshed. Gravel crunched under the Discovery’s tires as she pulled up behind the house.
Hannah switched off the engine, then the lights. She pulled the keys from the ignition. “I’m going to unlock the house. I’ll be back in a minute to help you inside.”
“Take the torch.”
She nodded, reaching behind her seat and grabbing their powerful four-cell Maglite. Leaning forward, she kissed him. His lips were clammy, cold.
“Don’t go wandering off anywhere,” she said.
“Forgot my hiking boots anyway.”
Good that he could still joke. But she could barely hear his voice.
Hannah put her hand on the door handle, hesitating. Now that they had arrived, she was reluctant to get out of the Discovery; it had been their haven for the last five hours. As if seeking to dissuade her further, the wind railed with greater force.
Every minute mattered now. She could delay no longer. Hannah opened the car door and jumped down onto the driveway.
Immediately the wind slammed into her, rocking her back on her feet. It gusted and eddied, an angry wraith, pasting her hair to her face and squeezing fresh tears from her eyes. Swinging the car door shut, tucking her head down, she zippered her fleece and stepped away from the Discovery.
Although her vision had not fully adjusted to the darkness, she could discern the outline of the farmhouse against the sky, the deeper black of its windows, the back door, the conservatory. A vague impression of outbuildings off to her left.
Quickly, Hannah closed the distance between the car and the main residence, wondering what she would find. She knew the place had stood unoccupied for years. Her father paid someone to check on it every now and then, but she had no idea how often. She noticed that one of the ground-floor windows—of what might be a living room—had been smashed. Not good. But there was no time left for caution. She had to get Nate inside.
Hannah reached the back door and peered through the kitchen window. Nothing but darkness within. She found the key and was sliding it into the lock when she heard movement behind her.