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Stolen Youth

Debut Novel

Based on a True Story

Chapter 2

 

2024

 

Emma stood at the edge of the wharf and peered out at the wavy horizon. She had sailed boats on that ocean—tiny fibreglass vessels barely bigger than a bathtub. Now cruise liners were docking with explosions of flags. The steel cables holding the ships in place shimmered in the sunlight like they were alive. It was a far cry from the Warrnambool she remembered back then, that sleepy coastal town where nothing much ever happened.

 

"Another day in paradise," Emma muttered to herself as she stood on her balcony, sipping her morning coffee. She never left town after the summer of 2006 but did leave her childhood home, now settling into a small but comfortable apartment overlooking the ocean.

 

At 34, her life revolved around her work as a computer programmer and her solitary hobbies – gardening and people-watching from this very spot.

 

"Emma, are you still there?" came a voice through her earpiece.

 

"Sorry, Jake," she replied, lost in thought for a moment.

 

"Just taking in the view."

 

"Ah, the perks of working from home," Jake teased. "I'm stuck here in an office while you enjoy the seaside."

 

"True," she said, smirking slightly. "You should consider moving back."

"Maybe one day," he sighed.

 

As they discussed their latest project, Emma glanced down at her laptop, where lines of code filled the screen. Her work was more than just a job; it was her salvation, providing the stability and focus that her personal life lacked. The teenager who was once so vibrant and sociable now found solace in her adult life in the isolation of her apartment, her only company being the memories that haunted her.

 

"Emma, I need your input on these algorithms," Jake insisted, snapping her back to reality.

 

"Right, sorry," she said, refocusing on the task at hand.

 

"Are you okay? You seem a little... off," he asked with concern.

 

"Nothing I can't handle," she assured him. And it was true – Emma had become adept at managing her emotions, compartmentalising the pain and trauma that threatened to consume her.

"Alright, if you say so," Jake relented, not entirely convinced. "Let's get back to work."

 

Jake, ever the protective friend, hired Emma a few years ago after building a successful start-up in New Zealand.

 

As they dove into the intricacies of their programming project, Emma couldn't help but feel grateful for the steady rhythm of her life. The repetition of code, the hum of her computer, even the gentle ebb and flow of the waters outside her window – all these things provided her with a sense of grounding, a refuge from the turbulent memories that lurked just beneath the surface.

 

Even so, Emma Shepard knew that no matter how far she tried to distance herself from her past, the memories of 2006 and Benny Hallston would always be there, waiting in the wings.

 

--

 

Emma sat in the beige armchair of her therapist's office, her hands clenched tightly in her lap.

 

The room was warm and inviting, filled with comforting patterns and colours. Soft, golden sunlight filtered through the curtains, casting elongated shadows on the carpet. Jane, her therapist, settled into the chair opposite her, a calming presence in Emma's life.

 

"Let's start by discussing your week," Jane said gently.

 

"How have you been managing?"

 

"Fine, I guess," Emma replied, her voice barely audible. She stared at the abstract painting on the wall behind Jane, its blues and greens swirling together like a turbulent sea. Her thoughts began to drift away from the present, pulled back to memories of Benny and the agony she had endured.

 

"Emma?" Jane's voice interrupted her reverie. "You seem to be somewhere else right now. Can you tell me what you're thinking about?"

 

"Sorry," Emma murmured, blinking back tears. "I was just... thinking about Benny again."

 

"Ah, it's been a long time since you've mentioned him," Jane nodded, her eyes filled with understanding. "It's important to remember that healing is not linear. There will be days when the past feels closer than others. But you have made progress, Emma. Don't lose sight of that."

 

Just as Emma was about to respond, her phone buzzed in her pocket. Glancing at the screen, she saw an unfamiliar number. Hesitating for a moment, she decided to answer it. "Hello?"

 

"Emma Shepard?" The voice on the other end was shaky and hesitant.

 

"Y-yes, this is Emma Shepard. Who is this?" she asked, her heart pounding in her chest.

When Emma heard the words, "Emma, my name is Valeska Hallston. I'm Benny's ex-wife," a chill crept up her spine like icy fingers, and froze her in place. A wild panic set in as Valeska continued speaking; she was locked in an unrelenting custody battle with Benny. The situation was dire - he had fled Colorado with their children to Warrnambool, Valeska desperately needed help.

 

"Help?" Emma stammered. "W-what can I do?"

 

"Please," Valeska pleaded, her voice trembling with desperation. "I know how he manipulated you back then... I need to make sure my children are safe from him."

 

Emma hesitated, her mind racing. She could feel the weight of her past pressing down on her, threatening to engulf her once more. The thought of being involved in Benny's life again terrified her, but at the same time, she couldn't ignore the vulnerability in Valeska's voice.

 

"Valeska, I..." Emma paused, her resolve wavering. "I understand what you're going through, but I don't know if I can help you."

 

"Emma, please," Valeska whispered, her voice barely audible now. "I wouldn't be asking if there was any other way. You might be the only person who can help us."

 

"Let me think about it," Emma replied softly. "I'll call you back."

"Thank you," Valeska said, relief evident in her tone. "Thank you so much."

 

As Emma ended the call, she looked up to see Jane watching her, concern etched on her face. Emma knew that whatever decision she made, the ghosts of the past would continue to haunt her. But in that moment, she also realised that maybe, just maybe, there was still a chance to confront those demons and keep them from hurting others – even if it meant wading back into the stormy waters she had fought so hard to escape.

 

The sunlight had begun to dim, bathing the room in a soft orange hue as Emma walked back and forth nervously. Her heart pounded in her chest with a blend of trepidation and resolution, leaving tracks in the worn carpet with each stride she took. The atmosphere was oppressive with anticipation.

 

"Emma," Valeska's voice trembled through the phone, "you have no idea what it's like to worry every day if your children are safe. I can't sleep, I can't eat... I need your help."

 

Emma stopped pacing and leaned against the window, watching as families strolled outside, their laughter cutting through the heavy silence. She clenched her fists, her nails digging into her palms as she fought to hold back tears.

 

"Valeska," Emma began, her voice choked with emotion, "I know how much pain you're in. But you have to understand, I'm terrified of facing him again. What if he comes after me?"

 

"Emma, I would never ask you to do this if it didn't involve my children...Do you have any evidence from back then? Something that could testify to his character?"

 

Emma stared at the fading light outside, memories of her past with Benny threatening to overwhelm her. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to focus on Valeska's words, on the desperation and urgency that filled them.

 

"Maybe," she whispered, the single word barely audible even to her own ears. "I'll help you."


What Emma omitted was that, that summer of 2006, she struggled to find support from her family or even local police. She was unsure of what she had really committed herself to.

 

"Thank you. Thank you so much," Valeska breathed, relief flooding her voice. "You don't know how much this means to us."

 

As the call ended, Emma slid down the wall to sit on the floor, her head resting against the cool glass of the window. Her decision had been made, but she knew that her journey was just beginning.

 

With a deep breath, Emma stood up and squared her shoulders, her eyes filled with determination as she gazed into the fading twilight. 

 

For herself and for Valeska's children, 

she would face the unresolved demons that haunted her past and fight to keep them from claiming any more victims. She owed it to them – and to herself – to see this through to the end.

 

"Think, Emma," she muttered to herself. "There must be something out there – old emails, texts, social media posts. Something that proves what he did to me."

 

As she continued to search, a knock on her door startled her. She hesitated for a moment before opening it to find Lily, her new friend from the gardening class they shared. The warmth in Lily's smile and the concern in her eyes immediately made Emma feel more at ease.

 

"Hey, did you forget our coffee date today?" Lily said softly.

"What time is it?" Emma had a history of disassociation dating back to an event that led to her hospitalisation that only ever reared its ugly head when she came under duress.

 

There were periods of her past that she seriously struggled to remember - and even just now - how long had it been between her phone call with Valeska and Lily knocking on her door?

 

As they stood in the doorway, Emma felt a sudden impulse to confide in Lily. Other than with her therapist Jane, Emma had not dared tried to revisit her past in any conversation.

 

"Remember when I told you about the summer I ended up in hospital?" Emma began, her hands shaking as she recounted the story. 

 

"Well, I was in an extremely volatile relationship that ended badly, now he's back in Warrnambool and he's trying to take his children away from their mother. I've agreed to help her gather evidence of his abuse so that she can win the custody battle."

 

"Wow," Lily breathed, her eyes widening in shock. "That's a lot to take on, Emma. Are you sure you're up for this?"

 

"I have to be," Emma replied firmly. "But I'm going to need someone to bounce ideas off of and keep me grounded through all of this."

 

"Then you've got me," Lily said without hesitation, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "I'll do everything I can to support you."

 

"Thank you, Lily," Emma whispered, feeling a surge of gratitude for her friend's unwavering loyalty.

 

Emma sat at her computer, fingers flying over the keyboard as she meticulously documented Benny's abusive behaviour from 2006. She gathered text messages, emails, and any other proof of his actions that she could find. With each piece of evidence, she felt a sense of grim satisfaction – this was her chance to finally bring Benny to justice.

 

"Are you sure you want to go through with this?" Lily asked, watching Emma work with concern etched on her face. "It seems like a lot to take on."

 

"Valeska needs my help," Emma replied without looking up from her screen. "I can't just sit back and do nothing."

 

"Emma, you really need to take a break," Lily insisted one evening as she found Emma hunched over her laptop, eyes red and bleary.

 

"You're going to wear yourself out at this rate."

 

It happened again, how much time had passed?

 

But Emma shook her head, determination burning in her gaze. "I can't stop now. There's still so much to do."

 

"Okay, but promise me you'll at least get some sleep tonight?" Lily pleaded, resting her hand on Emma's shoulder.

 

"Fine," Emma sighed, finally giving in to her friend's insistence. "But first, let me finish this email, I'm trying to obtain my witness statement from back then."

 

Emma's life then became a whirlwind of activity, focused solely on her mission to help Valeska. The once vibrant garden she tended with passion and care now lay neglected, overgrown with weeds and wilting flowers. Her bookshelves, previously filled with novels waiting to be devoured, gathered dust as Emma's attention remained fixed on the computer screen.

 

"Hey, are you free this weekend?" Alice's voice resonated through the phone, breaking Emma from her work-induced trance. "There's a new art exhibition I thought we could check out."

 

"Sorry, Alice," Emma replied distractedly, her fingers still tapping away at the keyboard. "I'm swamped with... stuff. Rain check?"

 

"Emma, this is the second time you've bailed on our plans," Alice sighed, concerned audibly in her tone. "Is everything okay? I haven't seen you this week."

 

"Everything's fine, really," Emma insisted, swallowing her guilt. "I'm just… busy."

 

Alice paused, "Take care of yourself, Emma."


"Thanks, Alice. I will," she lied, hanging up the phone and immediately diving back into her research.

 

She withdrew from the world around her, prioritising the welfare of a woman she'd never met over her own needs and relationships.

 

"Emma, have you eaten today?" Lily asked one afternoon, standing in

the doorway of Emma's home office. A concerned frown creased her brow as she observed her friend's dishevelled appearance.

 

"Uh, I think so," Emma muttered, scanning her cluttered desk for evidence of food.

 

"Here," Lily said, handing her a wrapped sandwich. "You need to take care of yourself too, you know."

 

"Thank you," Emma mumbled, briefly tearing her gaze away from the screen to accept the offering.

 

"Any progress?" Lily inquired gently, perching herself on the edge of the desk.

 

"Slowly but surely," Emma replied, a hint of determination seeping into her voice.

 

Each new piece of information fueled her drive to continue, despite the toll it was taking on her personal life.

 

"Valeska, I promise you, I will find enough evidence to ensure your children are safe from Benny," Emma vowed one night during a video call with Valeska. The fear and desperation in Valeska's eyes only served to strengthen Emma's resolve.

 

"Thank you, Emma," Valeska whispered, tears brimming in her eyes. "I don't know what I would have done without you."

 

"Neither do I," Emma thought as she stared at the screen, feeling both the weight of responsibility and the 

satisfaction of fighting for someone who couldn't fight for themselves, his children. It was a battle she was determined to win, no matter the cost.

 

The air was thick with tension and the scent of stale coffee as she delved deeper into the digital world, determined to uncover something, anything family court could possibly use.

 

"Come on, there has to be something here," she muttered under her breath, her fingers flying across the keyboard. Her heart pounded in her chest as if each beat were screaming for justice.

 

"Emma, are you sure about this?" Lily's voice cut through her thoughts like a knife, causing her body to tense. "I mean, digging up someone's past could be dangerous."

 

She felt confused, where did Lily appear from?

 

"With what Valeska is going through, I don't have a choice," Emma replied, her gaze never leaving the screen. She knew the risks, but her desire to help Valeska outweighed her fears. "Benny has hurt too many people. He can't get away with it anymore."

 

"Alright, just promise me you'll be careful, okay?" Lily said, her concern evident in her tone. Emma merely nodded, her focus unwavering.

 

As Emma sifted through layers of information, she felt a chill run down her spine.

 

"Gotcha," she whispered triumphantly as she stumbled upon an old news article detailing an assault charge against Benny from years ago.

 

Her hands shook as she printed out the page, adding it to the growing dossier on her desk. She knew this was only the beginning.

 

"Emma, it's getting late," Lily said softly, placing a hand on her shoulder. "You need some rest."

 

Emma wondered, Will this be enough? What if I can't find anything else concrete? The questions swirled in her mind like an unrelenting storm, yet she refused to let them deter her.

 

"Valeska is counting on me," Emma thought grimly, her fingers trembling over the keyboard. "I won't let her down."

 

She wasn't sure when she last slept or ate, finally collapsing on her desk.

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