Eighteen-year-old Emily Heath would love to leave her dead-end town, known locally as "The Sham", with her boyfriend, Jack, but he's very, very sick; his body is failing and his brain is shutting down. He's also in hiding, under suspicion of murder. Six months' ago, strange signs were painted across town in a dialect no one has spoken for decades and one of Emily's classmates washed up in the local floods.
Emily has never trusted her instincts and now they're pulling her towards Jack, who the police think is a sham himself, someone else entirely. As the town wakes to discover new signs plastered across its walls, Emily must decide who and what she trusts, and fast: local vigilantes are hunting Jack; the floods, the police, and her parents are blocking her path; and the town doesn’t need another dead body.
**This book is unsuitable for younger teenage readers. It depicts adult situations, murder & profanity.
Terrorising ten-year-olds was clearly a well-rehearsed routine and the four of them got busy: Becky yanked off his coat, gloves, shoes and trousers; Cath pulled out string; Kitty grabbed Charlie’s hands; and Rebecca tied them behind his back. They seemed to plug into each other, becoming connected, operating in rhythm. But it was Becky that seemed to pollute them for the worse, like a fucked up blood transfusion. All the time, she was goading me. Daring me to stop them.
I did try. Pathetically. “Come on, guys,” I said. “Let him go.” They began to circle Charlie, me and the pram. “Give him his coat and shoes back at least.” He was shivering uncontrollably in his sweater and pants.
I scanned the common above us, and the river path below, but a rush of people desperate to use the climbing frame seemed unlikely. Jim definitely wasn’t coming. Even so, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being watched. Every bush or tree seemed to convey some sort of threatening shape.
Rebecca opened the cardboard box and pulled an animal out as Charlie began to cower, trying to dissolve into the sludge beneath him. In the darkness, it took me a while to make out the shape of a bird, about the size of her palm.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“We’re ‘Muzzling the Sparrow’,” she said, as she passed the bird to Kitty.
“It’s an old local custom, a sport,” said Kitty.
“For who?” I mumbled, well out of earshot. “The mentally retarded?”
Kitty knelt down. “Charlie,” she said. “Meet Mister Sparrow here. His wings have been clipped so he can’t fly away. We’re going to put its wing in your mouth...”
“– You need to use your teeth to turn it around –”
“– Get its head in your mouth before it pecks you to hell –”
“– When you’ve ripped its head off, then you get to go home.”
I responded in the only way I knew how. The only way I could cope since last year, since Gracie died. “A pure qubit state is a linear superposition of the basis states,” I mumbled.
Becky gave me a what-the-fuck-are-you-saying kind of look but I was forgotten as Charlie began to make shrill shrieking noises, terrified to have the bird in his mouth, terrified of what they would do to him if he didn’t.
“This means the qubit can be represented as a linear combination of 0 and 1,” I stuttered.
To the four of them, Charlie’s reaction was better than telly. He couldn’t balance with his hands tied behind him and was shuffling around on the muddy grass. Kitty was moving towards him trying to put the bird in his mouth but he was refusing, darting back, moving his face from side to side. The other three were skipping around us, egging him on, chanting his name, “CHARLIE, CHARLIE, CHARLIE”, euphoric in their malevolence. They seemed to blur into each other with their curly hair and black clothes. In the dark, it was hard to tell them apart.
I mumbled louder. “Multiple qubits can exhibit quantum entanglement.”
Kitty looked to Becky – she couldn’t get Charlie to acquiesce – and Becky moved in, kneeling down, pinning him to the ground. Rebecca cut off his air by holding his nose. He had no choice but open his mouth as Kitty rammed it in.
Charlie gagged and threw up the bird.
Becky picked it up from where it lay in fits on the floor and poked it back in his mouth, speaking slowly as if he were a four year old. “T–h–a–t’–s c–h–e–a–t–i–n–g. B–i–t–e i–t–s h–e–a–d o–f–f a–n–d y–o–u g–e–t t–o g–o h–o–m–e.” She sounded deranged.
One of Charlie’s socks came off as he thrashed on the ground. He was desperate, beginning to realise he might have to do what they asked before he’d be released. A greeny-black paste was spreading over his face and body as the bird was splattering him with its poo. It was mixing with his tears and the rain.
I couldn’t stop with the equations, “entanglement is a nonlocal property allowing a set of qubits to express higher correlation than is possible in classical systems,” as I retched from the smell. Bird poo, sweat, tears, mud and then wee. Charlie had wet himself.
The bird had fallen out again, or Charlie couldn’t keep it in, and Cath ran forward to stuff it back. But Charlie couldn’t bear to open his mouth. She lunged at him, screaming, “OPEN UP!” shoving him towards the frame of the swing. He fell on it hard. We heard a bone crack. Then a long wail came out of Charlie like he was about to be put down.
Becky picked him up and manhandled him back into position; on his knees, in the centre, bird in mouth. I saw a bone poking out of his skin, jutting through his collar. I could smell what I thought was poo. Human shit. But Charlie didn’t notice that he’d soiled his pants because the only thing he could focus on was the bird; the sparrow was fighting to live, gouging out his cheeks, pecking at his eyes.
It was too much. I once saw two men fighting outside a bar, really kicking and punching the crap out of each other, blood everywhere, and I couldn’t move then either. It was surreal to see that much nastiness up close and it sort of transfixes you, glues you to the spot. I couldn’t leave Charlie but I couldn’t save him either. I was relegated to my role as impotent bystander.
Just like when Grace died.
“You have to stop,” I cried, tears rolling down my cheeks.
About Ellen Allen
In a previous life, Ellen Allen was an Associate Director in a small consultancy firm (focusing on Sustainable Development and Climate Change) running research projects and writing client reports. She doesn’t find fiction writing too dissimilar in process but she gets to use her imagination considerably more! She now lives in the south of France with her small daughter.
You can contact Ellen Allen on twitter @EllenWritesAll or on facebook www.facebook.com/EllenWritesAll