Gizmo’s Great Invention
The Weather Weaver
Alone on the Calamari Desert
The Peregrine of Araleon
Echo and the Great Beyond
MA WRITING FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
Velia vs. the Script
Kiss Me When I’m Gone
Hormonal Horror & the Cancer Shop
The Rebel Court
The Wandering Stars: Roots #NetProfits: Soccer Edition
The Society for the Salvation of Stories
The White Room
I Am Etta
9 Days Before
Realm Jumpers and the Lonely Prisoner
The Anatomy of a PIGEON
BATH SPA ANTHOLOGY
Bookshelf Project Editors Alex English, Callen Martin & Lucy Cuthew ANTHOLOGY Anthology editor Lucy Cuthew Editorial assistant Eve Griffiths Copy-editors Alex English, Anika Hussain, Callen Martin, Eve Griffiths, Francesca Stephenson, Fox Welsh, Hana Tooke, Rosamund Marinelli, Tamsin Mori & Zulekhá Afzal Cover design Tamsin Mori WEBSITE Web editor Alex English Graphics Tamsin Mori DIGITAL CONTENT Digital editor Callen Martin Graphics Tamsin Mori | Instagram Zulekhá Afzal LAUNCH TEAM Stephanie Williamson, Wibke Brueggemann, Hana Tooke, Tamsin Mori and Fox Welsh Copyright © 2019 retained by contributors All rights reserved No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without the written permission of the contributor Published by the Bath Spa University Presses, Newton Park, Bath BA2 9BN, United Kingdom, January 2019 All characters in this anthology, except where an entry has been expressly labelled as nonfiction, are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental Typeset by Sarah Andrews Printed and bound in the UK by Abbey Book Binding Sponsored by Bath Spa University MA Writing for Young People
MA WRITING FOR YOUNG PEOPLE 2018 BATH SPA ANTHOLOGY Edited by Alex English, Callen Martin & Lucy Cuthew
FOREWORD by Professor David Almond Professor David Almond’s novels for children include Skellig, My Name Is Mina and A Song for Ella Grey. His major awards include the Carnegie Medal, two Whitbreads, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, the Michael L Printz award, and the Eleanor Farjeon Award. In 2010 he received the highest international recognition given to an author of children’s fiction: the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Once, after a reading, I was asked the question, ‘Is it the case that you begin by writing for children, and then you grow up and write for adults?’ I laughed and said that I took the opposite route. I only grew up as a writer when I began to write for the young. I never expected it to happen. I was an intelligent, educated adult and I thought I should write books for intelligent, educated adults, which is what I did, or tried to do, for several years. Then I was ambushed by a story, Skellig, that changed me forever. As soon as I began to write it down, I knew it was the best thing I’d ever written, that it was somehow the culmination of everything I’d written before, and, to my amazement, that it was a book for children. I was liberated, energized, and I became the thing I thought I’d never be but which I’m very proud to be – a children’s author. The children’s book world is a place of great creativity and experimentation. Literature for young people, like young people themselves, is in a state of continual growth and change. It is playful, troubled, hilarious, serious, adventurous, ambitious. And of course, despite what the pessimists tell us, young people read. They read with passion, intelligence and excitement. They read with their bodies and their senses as well as with their brains. They ask the most perceptive questions and give the most vivid responses. For children, our ancient world is brand new. For them, the ancient much-told dramas of being 4
born, growing up, falling in love, discovering death are experienced for the very first time. What better audience could an author ask for? Iâ€™m also proud to be part of our wonderful MA Writing for Young People programme at Bath Spa University. This programme has developed a world-wide reputation for the quality of its teaching, for the way it discovers and nurtures new talent, for the stream of alumnae who have gone on to gain contracts from our major publishers and to win prizes. This fine anthology is yet another showcase for the splendid writing that is being created here. Itâ€™s not just about individual success. The programme, and all of the people who teach, study and write within it, contribute to and draw strength from the wider culture. We are part of the age-old human quest to tell stories, to nurture the young, to try to create a better world.
INTRODUCTION by Professor Julia Green Professor Julia Green is course director for the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. She is the author of more than 18 books for children and young adults. Her most recent novel is To the Edge of the World (Oxford University Press, 2018). The House of Light will be published in 2019. I am delighted to celebrate another successful year of the MA Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, and a new anthology of excerpts from the students’ manuscripts, the culmination of their MA year. I’d like to congratulate each writer on their achievement in completing their manuscript and the MA. It gives me great pleasure to introduce these new writers to a wider world. For each individual writer, the publication of the anthology represents the end of the intense period of creativity, writing and rewriting on the MA, and the beginning of a new stage of their writing journey. The evidence is clear: good creative writing MA courses really CAN help people improve their skills as writers, and find a way towards publication. More than forty of our former graduates are now established authors for children and young adults – not just for one book, but sustained, over many. This year has seen the publication of debut novels by Mel Darbon (Rosie Loves Jack), Tracy Darnton (The Truth about Lies), Rowena House (The Goose Road), Birdie Milano (Boy Meets Hamster), Alyssa Hollingsworth (The Eleventh Trade), Hayley Chewins (The Turnaway Girls) and two picture books by Chitra Soundar (You’re Safe with Me; You’re Snug with Me ). We are looking forward to the publication of debut novels by Yasmin Rahman, Nizrana Farook, Anna Morgan, Jasbinder Bilan and Julie Pike in 2019. Four of our MAWYP alumni are nominated for the Carnegie 6
medal this year, alongside our two professors, David Almond and Julia Green. Mel Darbon’s novel has been selected as one of the World Book Night books 2019. Go into any bookshop and look at the children’s bookshelves and you will be amazed at how many of our former MA students are represented there. How do we achieve this? By nurturing and supporting our students, challenging them, helping them question the decisions they make, and to find the voice and style to make their story the best it can possibly be; to write and rewrite; to keep on thinking and imagining and redrafting. All our tutors are published authors for young people, as well as experienced, professional lecturers in creative writing, going through these same processes and sharing their insights as writers. At the heart of the MA are the writing workshops, where students learn so much from the detailed and specific feedback they give each other, week by week. Our students are good readers too, giving that same quiet attention to stories that are already published, thinking about craft and technique. They learn about the contemporary children’s publishing industry from people involved in the business: agents and editors, writers, a festival director and reviewer. We all care deeply about this work we do together. We know that the stories we tell can touch hearts and minds, change lives and truly make a difference to young people. We have a responsibility to our audience, and we take it very seriously, even while we play and have fun. We know that the books we read as children and young adults stay with us forever. Here in this new anthology from the class of 2018, you will find original stories, each with a distinctive voice and memorable characters. There are touching tales of love and loss, stories of adventure, timetravel, friendship, freedom, football, ancient maps and plane crashes; stories about orphans, Princess Diana, weather magic; YA sci-fi thrillers and stories about mental health and identity. You’ll find epic journeys, wild fantasy adventures, funny stories and sad ones – something, in other words, for every age and kind of reader. I hope you find many story-beginnings here that you love, and will want to read more. 7
FROM THE TUTORS Each year I’ve been enormously impressed with the talent and tenacity of our crop of Bath Spa Masters Students in Writing for Young People. This year is no exception. As Acting Programme Leader for part of this year, I’ve loved having a closer relationship with this cohort and have especially enjoyed seeing this lot blossom into such clever and empathetic writers. Within these pages are future classics, bestsellers, stories to make you laugh and stories to make you cry. There are stories in here that I wished I had written. I have no doubt that you hold in your hand the future of UK writing for young people. Dr Lucy Christopher – Senior Lecturer and Acting Programme Leader What’s on your bookshelf ? If you are missing anything from airships to arranged marriages, Artificial Intelligence to identity, time machines to truth and lies, death and kidnapping to fantasy worlds and football, pigeons, puppets, poetry and plane crashes, maps, mysteries, memories, storytelling, storms, secrets, lies, oh and… celebrity chickens… then this collection is definitely for you. This wonderful anthology comes hot off the press from a new and original generation of talented writers. We absolutely loved hearing their stories – now it’s your turn! Steve Voake – Senior Lecturer With strong, confident voices, this year’s Bath Spa students speak out loud and clear to a whole range of young readers, whatever their tastes and backgrounds. Their stories, whether explorations of secret worlds, of contemporary truths, of magic, identity, or heritage are guaranteed to excite the imagination of everyone who reads them. It has been a real pleasure to work with so many passionate and talented new writers. Their anthology represents dedication as well as diversity. We have met during swirling winds, snowstorms, heatwaves, and through a springtime of peacock calls, to discuss and craft 8
and prune and hone. And now their publishing journey begins… lucky, lucky future readers! Janine Amos – Senior Lecturer Another year goes by and we send our latest clutch of bright young writerly things out into the world on their treacherous quests for publication. This year has been an inspiring journey into all their extraordinary minds and I’m so proud of them all. There’s a wealth of different ideas at play here, each one as different as the fingerprints on the writers who’ve penned them. Within these pages we meet young people struggling to navigate secret worlds, lost worlds, new realms, desert wildernesses and even the dark recesses of their own minds. If you’re looking for gritty or thrilling YA, fantastical magical realism, incredible inventions, extraordinary orphans, deeply impactful LGBT+ plot lines, brave heroes or dastardly villains, then look no further. Bath Spa MAWYP graduates have got it ALL going on in this fine collection. CJ Skuse – Senior Lecturer Every year, as we have to say goodbye to our cohort of students, I say to myself that they cannot be matched, let alone bettered. And every year I am proved wrong. This is one of the richest submissions yet, in terms of breadth, in terms of bravery, and in terms of sheer mastery of language. It has been a privilege to watch these writers progress, and to read the results. Dr Joanna Nadin – Associate Lecturer It has been a delight to watch this cohort of students develop and grow as writers. Some I’ve known since their undergraduate days; some I’ve come to know well, as they’ve worked tirelessly on their craft; others I’ll only meet, as their readers will, on the page. But however our paths have crossed, it is a pleasure to see them send their work out into the world in this anthology.
The words between the covers have made me laugh, have moved me, have made me see the world from a new angle. Hard work has gone into every sentence. Team work has pushed each writer to be the best they can be. Late nights, early mornings, time carved out wherever it could be found, have all been spent on producing work the writers can be proud of. I hope that they are as proud of themselves as we tutors are of them. Elen Caldecott – Associate Lecturer It has been a wonderful privilege to work with this year’s MA students on the Bath Spa Writing for Young People course. I have thoroughly enjoyed tutoring writers exploring such diverse themes as discovering that it is possible to weave magic from the weather, through to what life would be like in a divided society where AIs seem to be gaining the upper hand. It has been a pleasure to meet such an enthusiastic, inspiring group of writers and to play a part in helping to shape their ideas. I wish their stories all the best as they go out into the world and I hope they will find more readers out there! Anna Wilson – Associate Lecturer It has once again been an amazing experience to work with new writers with such imaginative powers and such a wealth of story ideas. Marie-Louise Jensen – Manuscript Tutor This year’s MA Writing for Young People students should be so proud. It’s been a real privilege to work with such talented and dedicated writers. The variety and originality of writing in this year’s anthology is striking and I’m confident that, yet again, Bath Spa has produced writers who will go on to become stars of the children’s book world. Congratulations to every single student! You’ve all achieved something truly impressive and your commitment and love of writing shines through on every page of this anthology. Clare Furniss – Manuscript Tutor 10
Working closely with Bath Spa MA students as a manuscript tutor was an incredibly rewarding and inspiring experience. Each student brought their authentic selves to their work, and responded creatively to my recurring interrogations, resulting in fiction that was impressively fresh and original, whether exploring the relationship between magic and intuition, considering the theme of loss via an enchanted map, navigating sexuality and grief in High School or discovering a way to live with a birthright that is both blessing and curse. I look forward to seeing some of these writers names in print soon. Chelsey Flood â€“ Manuscript Tutor
CONTENTS Foreword by Professor David Almond Introduction by Professor Julia Green From the tutors YOUNGER READERS Alex English Eve Griffiths Rosamund Marinelli Tamsin Mori James W Sykes Hana Tooke Billy Treacy Jacqueline Tucker Stephanie Williamson Catherine Young
Echo and the Great Beyond The Peregrine of Araleon Alone on the Calamari Desert The Weather Weaver City Splitters The Unadoptables Gizmo’s Great Invention The Secret in the Map The Society for the Salvation of Stories #NetProfits: Soccer Edition
16 24 32 42 52 60 70 78 86 94
The Wandering Stars: Roots The Rebel Court Hormonal Horror & the Cancer Shop Kiss Me When I’m Gone Blood Moon The Idlewoods Velia vs. the Script 9 Days Before Nobody Knows Noah
104 112 120 130 140 148 154 162 172
OLDER READERS Zulekhá Aisha Afzal Shannon Barrett Wibke Brueggemann Zoe Crosse Lucy Cuthew Victoria Henly Anika Hussain HA Jelbert Callen James Martin 12
Kate Emilie Mulligan Chris Owen Sophie Victoria Rowe Fran Stephenson Kieren Richard Taylor Beth Tomlin Fox Welsh
Realm Jumpers and the Lonely Prisoner The Glitch The Anatomy of a PIGEON Dear Diana The White Room I Am Etta Songbird
180 186 196 202 210 218 226
ALEX ENGLISH Alex grew up in Hampshire with her head in the clouds and her nose in a book, secretly hoping to find Narnia every time she opened a wardrobe. She never lost her taste for reading middle-grade fantasy adventures, and now loves writing them too. Alex also has three picture books published by Maverick Books and two in the pipeline with Bloomsbury. Her picture books have been short-listed for the Dundee Picture Book Award, chosen by BookTrust as part of their Bookstart Corner programme and selected by The Reading Agency for the Summer Reading Challenge. Alex lives just outside Paris with her husband, two sons and a gardenful of chirruping toads. About Echo and the Great Beyond An airship. A missing mother. A mysterious map. When orphan Echo Merriweather discovers a secret world beyond Albionâ€™s city walls, she embarks on a daring voyage to find the mother she thought was dead. But where there are secrets, there is danger, and not everyone wants the people of Albion to know the truth about the world outside. Echo and the Great Beyond is a swashbuckling adventure story for 9-12s about friendship, freedom and flying machines. email@example.com | @alexthepink
ECHO AND THE GREAT BEYOND Chapter One Echo Merriweather woke with a start. Although all was quiet in the castle, the only noise the gentle tick and whirr of the grandfather clock in the eastern hall, Echo couldn’t shake the feeling that something had woken her. But what? A prickle of fear ran down her spine. ‘Gilbert?’ she whispered, glancing up at the crevice where the little lizard liked to sleep. She heard the scratch of claws on stone as he scuttled down the wall and landed with a soft thump on her pillow. ‘Did you hear it too?’ She sat up and lifted him onto her shoulder. ‘Whatever could it be?’ Echo took a shaky breath and listened. The moon shone through a gap in the curtains, casting a bright shard of light onto the floor of her bedchamber. A shadow flickered across it and, wait— There it was! Echo froze as she heard a gentle swish and creak from outside her window. Something was brushing against the stone turret walls. But what sort of something? A bat? A bird? A dragon-of-war ready to burn her to a crisp? Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself. Dragons had died out years ago. No, she wouldn’t let it, whatever it was, spook her. She was eleven after all – far too old to be scared of noises in the night. She shivered. Even so, there was definitely something out there. ‘I expect it’s an owl,’ Echo said, her voice quivering only ever so 17
slightly. ‘Don’t worry, Gilbert. I’ll protect you.’ She steeled herself, pushed back the covers and crept out of bed, the polished floor cold under her bare feet. As she tiptoed to the window and hitched up her nightgown to kneel on the velvet chaise that stood beneath, the noise came again, closer this time. Gilbert’s sharp little claws dug into her shoulder. Echo raised a shaking hand and, trying to ignore the rapid thump of her heart, took hold of the curtain. She wouldn’t be scared, she just wouldn’t. Echo drew back the heavy fabric and gasped. Right outside her window, a huge silk balloon bobbed against the glass, its surface gleaming silver in the moonlight. Echo forgot her fear for a moment and pushed the curtains wider. Below the balloon, an airship gondola as big as the royal coach dangled from thick ropes. ‘An airship!’ Echo froze, caught somewhere between excitement and terror. ‘But it can’t be. Where’s it come from, Gilbert? Whose is it?’ And how could it be real? Airships didn’t exist. Air travel wasn’t possible – she’d learned about it in her lessons with Miss Brittle. Echo wiped the steam from the windowpane with the sleeve of her nightgown and pressed her nose against the glass. As she did so, a gust of wind caught the ship and buffeted it in the breeze. Echo realised that the ropes that tethered the balloon to the airship’s gondola had somehow snagged on the castle’s ironwork, and the little vessel was hitched to the turret right outside her bedchamber. She pushed open the window and poked her head out, shivering at the rush of freezing air. ‘H… h… hello?’ she said. No answer. She cleared her throat. ‘Are you stuck? Should I fetch the guards to help you?’ A circular hatch at the rear of the airship’s gondola popped open and a frizzy-haired head appeared. A man’s face, mostly obscured behind a huge pair of brass flying goggles, peered up at her from the shadows. ‘Guards won’t be necessary,’ he said. ‘I could do with a hand up though. Would you oblige? Blasted tethers are tangled and the old 18
Hummerbird’s engine has run out of steam.’ Echo swallowed. Of course, she shouldn’t help this strange man, whoever he was, into the castle in the middle of the night. She really, really shouldn’t. She twisted her nightgown between her hands. But what if this were her chance? Her one and only chance for adventure? Echo inwardly cursed herself. If only she were a boy and had been taught to fight! What use were embroidery and deportment at a moment like this? She grabbed her candlestick and took another look at the man, who had climbed out of the hatch and was now teetering on the gondola roof. She couldn’t see a sword or dagger, although the fellow did have something in his belt. ‘I suppose he looks friendly enough,’ she said to Gilbert, ‘and I can always scream for a guard if anything terrible happens.’ Gilbert blinked and flicked out his tongue. Echo cleared her throat. ‘How can I help?’ she called. The man looked up and almost overbalanced. ‘A couple of sheets knotted together should do it. Then I’ll shimmy on up.’ ‘Sheets. Very well.’ Echo put down the candlestick, went to her bed, and stripped off the sheets before tying two of them together in a knot the size of her head. She rushed back to the window, nearly tripping over them as she went. ‘Tie one end to the furniture, that’s the ticket,’ said the man. Echo secured one sheet to the bedpost and dropped the other end out of the window. The goggle-wearing pilot hauled himself up on the makeshift rope. Echo stumbled backwards as he flipped over the sill and landed, panting, on the chaise. He pushed his goggles up onto his forehead, making his hair stand upright. ‘I must apologise for my unscheduled arrival. Whatever would your mother say, eh?’ He grinned. Echo swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. ‘I don’t have a mother.’ The man’s grin dissolved. ‘Ah. Ah… I see.’ ‘Oh no. It’s fine. I mean, it happened years ago,’ Echo said, forcing down the heaviness that threatened to settle in her chest. ‘I’m completely used to it now.’
‘Well, oh dear. I do seem to have got off on the wrong foot, so to speak.’ The man cleared his throat and thrust out a large hand. ‘Professor Mangrove Daggerwing – inventor, explorer, adventurer – at your service.’ ‘Echo. Echo Merriweather,’ she said. Usually people bowed when they met her. Instead, Professor Daggerwing grabbed Echo’s hand and shook it so vigorously her teeth almost rattled. His palm was warm and rather clammy. The professor gazed around Echo’s bedchamber, taking in the opulent drapes and hundred-candle chandelier. ‘Princess Echo?’ ‘Lady Echo, if you have to.’ Echo wiped her hand on her nightgown. ‘The King’s my uncle. You can just call me Echo though.’ ‘Ah, the King. I must speak to him at once. Please take me to him,’ said the professor. ‘Well, he doesn’t really like to be woken.’ ‘Nonsense! When he hears the great explorer Mangrove Daggerwing has come from beyond the Barren—’ All the breath seemed to leave Echo’s body in a rush. Beyond the Barren? But he couldn’t have! ‘B… but there’s nothing beyond the Barren,’ she finally managed. ‘It’s the edge of the world.’ ‘Not at all, dear girl,’ said the professor. He removed a long wooden tube from his belt and flourished a scroll of paper. ‘Take a look at my map.’ ‘Let me see that.’ Echo took her candlestick and leaned over the professor’s shoulder as he unfurled the parchment and spread it out on her bed. In the centre Echo saw the familiar shape of the city of Albion, its streets ordered in a neat grid and surrounded by the circular city walls. Outside the walls, the uninhabitable and treacherous stretch of land that was the Barren. And outside that, where she’d expected to see nothing but blank space, there were snaking rivers, mountain ranges, lakes and forests and valleys and— ‘That is the great city of Port Tourbillon,’ said the professor, stabbing a large forefinger at the map. 20
‘Another city,’ breathed Echo. ‘Oh yes,’ the professor said. ‘There are many cities, and mountains, and—’ ‘The ocean!’ squealed Echo, almost dropping her candle. ‘But I thought the ocean was only in fairy tales!’ ‘Not at all, my dear,’ said the professor. ‘There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored.’ ‘What’s the ocean like?’ said Echo. ‘Did you see it? Really and truly?’ ‘I didn’t just see it, my dear, I swam in it! Soaked in the salty water, lazed beneath the star palms, let the puzzle fish nibble my toes.’ ‘Puzzle fish,’ Echo whispered, the words unfamiliar in her mouth. ‘And what else? Please tell me.’ The professor grinned. ‘Most recently I have been cataloguing the butterflies of the Violet Isles… enormous creatures! You’ve never seen anything like them. Great strong wings that’ll flap your hat right off your head. And they lick you like dogs, you know. It’s the most peculiar sensation.’ There was a clatter of boots and Echo’s bedchamber door burst open. The glare of a lantern momentarily dazzled her and she stumbled backwards. ‘Drop your weapons,’ yelled a guard, jabbing his spear towards the professor. Professor Daggerwing threw both hands in the air. ‘Weapons, my dear fellow? I come in peace!’ ‘Are you hurt, Lady Echo?’ Another guard barged into the room. ‘What has this ruffian done to you?’ ‘I’m absolutely fine,’ said Echo. ‘He hasn’t done anything.’ The first guard clanked over to the open window. ‘He must have got in through here,’ he said. ‘He didn’t get in, I helped him in,’ said Echo. ‘You helped him—’ ‘What is going on in here?’ The King appeared at Echo’s door, his eyes half-open and his gold brocade nightcap at a peculiar angle.
‘An intruder, your majesty,’ said the guard, bowing deeply. ‘He’s not an intruder.’ Echo folded her arms. ‘I told you I let him in.’ The King ignored her and glared at the professor, taking in his goggles and peculiar green flying-suit. ‘Who are you?’ The professor gave a half-bow-half-curtsy and almost tripped over his own feet. ‘My name is Professor Mangrove Daggerwing, Sire. I come from beyond the Barren. I have come to share this map of lands—’ ‘An outsider?’ The King’s eyebrows shot up, then his eyes blazed. ‘Seize him,’ he said, pointing a shaking forefinger at the professor. ‘Take him to the dungeons.’ He marched to the door and turned, a complicated expression on his face that Echo couldn’t quite read. ‘And burn that map.’
EVE GRIFFITHS Growing up in the wilds of west Wiltshire, Eve’s family didn’t have a television, but they did have a small canal boat, which seemed like a good trade. As a child, Eve read everything she could get her hands on, including the backs of cereal packets and instruction manuals. Eve studied for her Master of Nursing Science at the University of Nottingham and qualified as a children’s nurse in 2005. She now works in children’s intensive care, but on her days off she escapes into other worlds. About The Peregrine of Araleon Robin Thorne has two goals in life: figure out the mysterious compasslike navigator given to him by his grandad and find out what happened to his missing parents. While searching for answers, Robin and his foster sister, Megan, are unexpectedly transported into another world. Here, they discover the navigator is used to find and open doorways between worlds, all thirteen of them. Robin is a traveller, and so are his parents. Robin is desperate to find them, but he’s also made a promise to get Megan home, and he’s determined to keep that promise, whatever the cost. Together with Kara, an orphan who has never been beyond the city walls, and Haris, the spoilt nephew and heir of the Procurator, they go on an epic journey across Araleon in search of the only people who can help them get home: the secretive Order of the Ilken. firstname.lastname@example.org | @_Eve_Griffiths_
THE PEREGRINE OF ARALEON Chapter One The year Robin Thorne turned thirteen he discovered the universe was bigger than he’d ever imagined. The world wasn’t anything like he’d been taught and even time wasn’t the constant, reliable thing he’d thought. It all started just before Christmas, on the High Street in Kingston Durnleigh, and maybe none of it would have ever happened if Megan’s parents hadn’t made him take her to the park on the way home from school. Or maybe it would. Because there was the prophecy, and as Robin discovered, just because you don’t believe in something, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. * ‘Megan, come on! We need to go,’ Robin shouted to his foster sister. It was getting dark and black clouds were beginning to creep across the sky. ‘Just one more go!’ Megan called back, joining the queue for the zip-wire. Robin picked up his school bag and walked away. He kicked at the edge of the path and a chunk of concrete disintegrated into dust. Entertaining Megan was the last thing he wanted to be doing right now. She never stopped talking and was so cheerful it made his head ache. At the edge of the park was a wall covered with chalk drawings. Orange birds chased emerald green dragons above castles and snow25
capped mountains. The artist had left behind a box of chalks and Robin picked up a blue one. It was smooth and cool in his hand and he began to draw. Robin had lived with Megan’s family for one-hundred and thirtynine days. Before that it was the children’s home, and before that the Coopers, and before that the Spencers. In two years he’d already had four foster placements. ‘What are you doing?’ Robin’s heart jumped as ice-cold fingers gripped his wrist. He dropped the chalk and it fell to the ground and broke in two. The man had long, messy grey hair and wild eyebrows. He wore a massive raincoat that reached his knees and on his back was a canvas rucksack. He looked old, but his grip was like a vice. His sharp eyes flicked between Robin and the wall. Robin twisted his arm, trying to free himself. ‘It’s just chalk.’ ‘How do you know these symbols? Why are you drawing them?’ The man sounded almost afraid. Robin looked at the wall. He’d just been doodling, he hadn’t been thinking about what he was drawing, but on the wall, amongst the birds, dragons, and castles, were thirteen symbols. These were the symbols on his navigator, a kind of compass his grandad had given him. Symbols Robin had spent every spare moment of the last two years trying to understand. The man let him go and started trying to wipe away Robin’s chalk marks with his sleeve. Robin rubbed his wrist and took a couple of steps back. Megan appeared beside him. ‘Cool, are you drawing?’ ‘No, come on. We have to go.’ They walked away towards the park gate. ‘What’s that man doing?’ Megan asked, turning to look back. ‘I don’t know.’ ‘He’s following us.’ Robin looked over his shoulder. Megan was right. Of course, it could 26
be a coincidence, but there was something about the man that made Robin walk faster. It started to rain and he pulled his hood up. ‘Who is that man? What was he doing with the chalk? What did he say to you?’ That was the trouble with Megan, she never knew when to be quiet. ‘Was he angry with you? It’s only chalk. The rain will wash it off anyway. Why is he following us?’ Megan’s constant chatter crawled under Robin’s skin. ‘I don’t know. Just keep walking.’ At the gate, Robin turned left and headed towards the library. The man was still following. ‘This way.’ On an impulse, Robin ducked down the access road at the back of the library and cut across the car park. When they came back out on the main road, he looked back. The old man was gone. Robin took a deep breath. He felt a bit stupid now. The man was just having a go at him for drawing on the wall, of course he wasn’t following them. They walked on down the road. Megan had finally stopped talking, and her face was hidden by her hood. At the corner Robin looked back to check the road was clear before they crossed. A shiver climbed up his spine. The old man was there again. He was staring at Robin and walking quickly towards them. ‘Robin?’ Megan said, fear slipping into her voice. They crossed the road and a bus rumbled to a stop behind them. They were hidden from the old man for a moment. ‘Come on, run!’ Robin said. It was raining hard now and Robin splashed through puddles as he sprinted down the busy High Street. He side-stepped around a kid who was staring up at the Christmas lights and swerved past a screaming toddler. Robin looked up just in time to see a cyclist before they collided. The cyclist groaned as she hit the ground and Robin’s shins tangled with the pedals of the bike, now horizontal in the middle of the road.
He picked himself up and limped a couple of steps forward, wincing at the pain lancing up his legs. He grabbed his school bag from the ground and threw it over his shoulder. Megan arrived beside him, out of breath. Her hood had fallen back and wet strands of curly brown hair were coming loose from her ponytail. ‘Why is he following us?’ she asked again. ‘I don’t know, just move.’ Robin’s heart was pounding. He just wanted to get away. They’d barely gone another ten metres when Megan tripped and fell. She cried out as she hit the tarmac. Robin stopped. This wasn’t going to work. They had to find somewhere to hide. ‘This way.’ Robin crossed the street and dived down a narrow alleyway. ‘Robin, wait!’ Megan called. He ignored her, sprinted to the end of the alleyway and turned right. A left turn and another right and they’d be across the footbridge and into the housing estate beyond. ‘Wait!’ Megan grabbed his rucksack. There was a loud tearing sound. Robin twisted around. The front of his bag separated from the zip and everything inside spilled onto the ground. ‘Oh no, I’m sorry!’ Megan cried. Robin’s maths book and his binder were in a puddle, but he didn’t care about them. All he cared about was the small, patterned wooden box at Megan’s feet. The metal catch had popped open and the hexagonalshaped navigator had tumbled out. Robin ignored his school books and reached for the navigator, but Megan picked it up first. In that moment it was like everything else disappeared. The alley faded, the rain vanished. The only thing that mattered was in Megan’s hands. Robin stared as the navigator’s needle spun, first one way, and then the other. ‘It works for you, too!’ he said, not believing what he was seeing. 28
Megan’s hands shook. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘It’s never worked for anyone except me.’ He stared at her. Eleven other people had held the navigator. Never once had the needle moved for any of them. What was different about Megan? ‘What does it do?’ she asked. ‘I—’ Robin stopped. That was the problem. He didn’t know. The rain returned. The alley seemed darker. Somewhere out there the old man was looking for him. A group of people came around the corner wielding umbrellas and laughing loudly. Robin stuffed his dripping wet school books back into his bag. He put the navigator’s wooden case on top and tucked the bag under his arm. He took the navigator from Megan. It slid into his hand like it belonged there. ‘In here.’ Robin ducked into a doorway set deep into the alley wall. They both leant against the door. Megan pulled a tissue from her pocket and dabbed at the scrapes on her knees. There were holes in her tights and blood on the tissue. Robin dropped his bag to the ground and curled his hands around the navigator. ‘Is it a compass?’ Megan asked. ‘It can’t be. There aren’t any marks for north, south, east and west.’ The silver needle spun clockwise then slowed, stopped, and began to spin anti-clockwise. In the very centre of the navigator a small sphere rotated swiftly, showing first a gold side and then a black side. ‘So, what is it?’ Robin stared at the mysterious object. ‘It’s called a navigator. That’s all I know. My grandad gave it to me just before he died.’ The familiar prickly pain erupted between his stomach and heart. Grandad died two years ago, but it still hurt when Robin thought about him. Robin never had the chance to ask him anything about the navigator. ‘You should do an internet search,’ Megan said. ‘I tried that. Do you know how many results there are when you Google ‘navigator’?’
‘I don’t know, a lot?’ ‘One-hundred and fourteen million.’ ‘Oh.’ Megan was quiet for a moment. ‘Are your parents really dead?’ It was a question Robin was used to answering, but now everything had changed and he didn’t know what to say. He didn’t have any clear memories of his parents, it was as if there was always something missing, a hole that could never be filled. ‘Grandad told me they died when I was five, but—’ Robin broke off. ‘Have you ever Googled your own name?’ he asked, trying to find a way to explain. Megan shook her head. ‘I was searching for information about the navigator, I even did a reverse image search, but I couldn’t find anything. Grandad said the navigator belonged to my mum, so I Googled her name.’ He’d never told anyone this, but the navigator had never worked for anyone else before. ‘I found Mum’s name with Dad’s… on a list of missing people.’ ‘So, they’re not dead?’ Megan’s eyes were wide. ‘I don’t know. All I know is Grandad lied.’ The words burst out, harsh and angry. It was as if saying it out loud made it true, when before it had only been an uncertain and flimsy thought. ‘I just think that if I could find out more about the navigator, I might discover what really happened to them. I just want to know the truth.’ Robin turned the navigator around and ran his fingers across the smooth, dark wood. Engraved into each of the navigator’s six sides were two different symbols. On the back, lines split the surface into twelve sections and in a golden circle in the centre was another symbol. Thirteen different symbols. These were the shapes Robin had drawn on the wall. The ones no internet search had been able to find. The ones the old man seemed to recognise. Maybe he shouldn’t have run. Maybe he should have asked the old man how he knew the symbols. Maybe that was his chance to find out and he’d screwed up. ‘A compass needle always points north—’ Megan said. 30
‘I know. I told you, it’s not a compass,’ Robin interrupted. ‘But what if it’s not meant to point north. What if it points to something else?’ Robin stared at the spinning needle. ‘Something that’s moving all the time?’ he asked, unconvinced. ‘Maybe there’s a way to control the needle.’ ‘There isn’t, look. There aren’t any controls or switches.’ ‘Can I hold it again?’ Megan asked. There was no good reason to say she couldn’t, even though he hated anyone else touching the navigator. It was the most important thing he owned. He watched as Megan examined the navigator. ‘I think I’ve seen this shape before.’ Megan pointed to the symbol shaped like an upside down ‘W’ with three dots in the centre. ‘Really? Where?’ ‘It’s above the door to the museum. They’ve got lots of old stuff. We should look there. It’s only around the corner.’ ‘We?’ Megan faltered. ‘I thought I could help. It would be quicker with both of us looking. And you said it worked for me, too…’ She was right. Robin had spent two years searching for answers to the mysterious navigator, and in minutes Megan had given him the best lead he’d ever had. Maybe she could help. ‘Okay. But you can only come if you don’t ask questions!’ Megan smiled and mimed zipping her lips shut and throwing away the key. Robin thought he was probably going to regret this.
ROSAMUND MARINELLI Rosamund grew up in New Zealand playing rugby with the boys, doing slow-motion fighting with her best friend, giving her older brother dead-legs, and spending hours pretending her fingers were horses. Then she moved to England, became a primary school teacher, and married a real-life-modern-day Roman. With an insatiable taste for exploration in faraway, exotic and sometimes dangerous places, Rosamund (husband and children in tow) moved to India, followed by Hong Kong. This ignited her passion for writing stories which often take her characters on perilous adventures, sometimes to the ends of the earth. About Alone on the Calamari Desert They survived the plane crash, but can they survive each other? ‘I’ll find you!’ It’s the last thing Mum says before Peter parachutes from the plane. His adoptive brothers, Elton the bully and Noel the baby, are already there on the ground, waiting. Terrified. Together they watch her plane drop and disappear behind the mountain in the distance. They’re all alone. Stranded somewhere on the sweltering Kalahari Desert with only the contents of Noel’s backpack to help them. Breadsticks, tissues, a fresh pair of pants, and a packet of Haribo are no match for vicious vultures, lurking lions, and the scorching sun. But they have to find Mum. She’s all they have left. And Peter will not be orphaned for a second time. email@example.com | @rosamundinab
ALONE ON THE CALAMARI DESERT Chapter One
Old Piper Peter pressed his damp forehead against the small triangle of window. Below, the black shadow of the plane floated effortlessly across mile upon mile of rocky African desert. How peaceful the shadow looked, quietly sailing over the earth close, smooth and eagle-like. Peter wished he could be down there with it; the wind whipping through his hair and whistling in his ears. Free. Instead, he sat at the back of rickety Old Piper â€“ bouncy, narrow and suffocating. He breathed in her petrol fumes. Beads of sweat trickled down his back and into his shorts. Sickness rolled in his stomach while the little plane dipped and rose over pockets of air. Peter gripped the headset. It pressed the arms of his glasses into the side of his face and trapped him in his seat. He tugged it off. The engines roared deep and loud. He clapped his hands over his ears, and squeezed his eyes shut, like he used to during the scary bits in movies. Iâ€™m gonna throw up. I need to stand. He took his hands off his ears, unbuckled his seatbelt and stood. Old Piper felt it, and rocked slightly. Air from the vent blew straight into his face and hair. It was warm air, but better than nothing. He nudged his glasses back up his small nose and looked towards the cockpit at the empty seat next to Mum. Peter longed for Dad to be there, his map spread across the dash, the sleeves of his khaki shirt 33
rolled up to his elbows, a chewed biro twiddling in his fingers. No one dared sit there now. It was too soon. And would be like admitting he was never coming back. Mum always flew planes. To discover the undiscovered. She called it her ‘one passion’ – except for her sons, she’d say quickly with a wink. Peter thought this was brilliant, especially when she took them with her. He was so proud of her and quietly loved the attention he got from his mates back in England. ‘Your Mum is so cool.’ ‘Yeah, you’re so lucky.’ ‘You’re like Indiana Jones or something. My family’s so boring. If you do find a new old city, will you name it after me, since I’m your best friend?’ ‘Hey, I’m his best friend. It should be named after me!’ ‘No, me!’ Peter glanced at his two brothers, one a small and more ginger version of the other. Different from his short, black, dead-straight hair, which Elton said looked like a bog brush. They sat in front with their army-green headsets on, looking like pilots out of a World War Two movie. But Elton picked his nose, and Noel’s headset kept slipping off. Peter wished he could sit in the cockpit, to learn to fly, to have control, to see everything, to feel the power of Old Piper at his fingertips. But he was shoved to the back where it was narrow, low, and ‘sensitive to movement’. ‘I call shotgun, squirt,’ his spotty, nose-picking older brother had said. Back on the tarmac he had barged past Peter to bags the best seat. Then he whispered in Peter’s ear so Mum couldn’t hear, ‘Only blood relations get to sit close to her. And anyway,’ he continued with a louder voice, ‘I need the window with the vent. I’ll vom if I sit there.’ Why couldn’t Elton ever let him forget he was adopted? 34
‘And Mum says I’m too young to be on my own at the back,’ Noel said. He knew Peter couldn’t argue with that. Noel turned around holding his headset to his ears, and looked up, surprised to see Peter standing over him. ‘Peter, you’re not allowed to stand,’ he said. The roaring engine swallowed his voice. Peter put his finger to his lips to shush him. The others could still hear Noel through the intercom. ‘Peeeeter! Mummy said!’ Noel shouted. Elton looked up and gave Peter a long, hard stare. He mouthed something and wagged his finger. Then jerked it downwards, like he was Dad. Peter put his headset back on, which instantly muted the noise of Old Piper to a dull hum. ‘Peter, you know you’re not supposed to stand mid-flight,’ Mum said. ‘Yeah. If she drops out of the sky, we’ll all blame you,’ Elton’s voice crackled into Peter’s ears. ‘Elton,’ Mum warned. Noel’s eyes widened. ‘Really?’ he said, and looked up at Peter. Incredulous at Elton’s stupidity, Peter shook his head firmly. ‘Hey, Puky Pete, don’t lie—’ ‘Elton!’ Mum said, shortly. ‘Noel,’ he carried on. ‘Pip could fall out of the sky like a stone and explode if anyone stands up when they shouldn’t. That’s a fact.’ Anger bubbled in Peter’s stomach. ‘That’s rubb—’ he started. ‘Peter! Sit down,’ Noel screamed through the intercom. His face turned red. ‘Boys! Enough. You’re distracting my flying. If anything’s going to make us fall out of the sky, it’s you fighting!’ ‘Peter. She’s right.’ Elton smirked, clearly enjoying himself. ‘You should know better. Sit down. Now!’ His voice was low and stern. He was trying to be Dad. Peter flushed and his ears burned. He sat back down and yanked
his seatbelt across his skinny waist, shoved the buckle in the lock and pulled it so tight it dug into his skin. He could hear his stupid brother’s muffled laughter. Even Noel was ganging up on him. Peter twisted his whole body towards the tiny triangle of window and pressed his head against it again. His clenched teeth chattered with the vibration. He squeezed his eyes shut and fought the tears that came. No one was going to see him cry. A little voice crackled through the headset, ‘Sorry, Peter.’ Noel’s little hand wiggled through the gap between his seat. Peter took it and squeezed the fingers gently. ‘It’s okay, Noel,’ he replied, quietly. Old Piper rattled and shook and bounced dangerously like an empty plastic cup blowing in the wind. ‘Hey kids. I’ve got a treat for you,’ Mum’s scratchy voice eventually sounded through the intercom. ‘About time too,’ Elton yawned, and stretched his arms out wide. ‘Who wants to be the first person ever to discover the Kissing Rocks?’ Mum asked. ‘Urgh. Does it really have to be called that?’ Elton said. He turned around to Peter and made kissing noises. ‘Would you like to kiss Jenny?’ he said, saying her name slowly. ‘You would, wouldn’t you? Oooo.’ Peter rolled his eyes and looked away, pursing his lips together. His neck felt hot at the thought of kissing Jenny. Elton knew absolutely nothing about anything. And nothing about the Kissing Rocks, which were famous because nobody had ever actually seen them in real-life, only as cave-drawings. Mum said it would be a ‘real coup’ if they found them, though Peter didn’t know what she meant. And he didn’t give a flying monkey’s! All Elton cared about was Instagram, rugby, attempting his version of being cool, being a prat to Peter, and trying to impress Lisa Boon. Who was completely out of his league. Kissing Jenny. Whatever. Peter folded his arms tight, but his stomach 36
squirmed a little. ‘I want to see the rock,’ Noel called out, jigging up and down in his seat. ‘Are we going to land in the Calamari Desert now?’ Elton and Mum laughed. ‘That’s brilliant! The Calamari Desert,’ she announced grandly. ‘That’s what we’ll call it from now on.’ Mum glanced over her shoulder, smiling. ‘Peter? Do you want to be the first? Sweetie?’ Her voice crackled and popped. It sounded quiet and far away. He was still too upset to answer. Elton peeked back over the seat and leered at Peter, then pouted his thick fleshy lips. ‘Is widdle Pee Pee cwying? Do you want to go back to China?’ ‘Elton! How dare you make a comment like that.’ Mum shouted so loud into their eardrums they jumped. ‘And it’s the Philippines, not China! Say you’re sorry to your brother.’ ‘Brother,’ Elton muttered under his breath. ‘Yeah, right.’ ‘Elton,’ Mum spoke through clenched teeth. ‘If you don’t—’ ‘Sor-ry,’ he said, without looking up. Peter glared at the back of Elton’s head. I Hate Him! He imagined thunderbolts firing from his eyes and striking him right in his thick skull. ‘Peter,’ Mum said after a moment. ‘Are you okay?’ She turned around and smiled at him. She looked tired. ‘I’m fine,’ Peter finally said. He felt better now Elton was in trouble. ‘Good, because we’re going to land in about five minutes. I think I’ve found them. Let’s show all those cynics back home that this crazy family can make groundbreaking discoveries using only a roadmap! Tighten those belts, boys. It’s going to be bumpy. Elton, help your little brother.’ The intercom clicked off and Old Piper swooped towards the vast desert below. The desert rose up towards them and the plane’s shadow on it blurred and widened. It whisked across the terrain faster than before. Peter squashed his nose against the tiny window. His knee jittered up
and down. He tried to stop by pulling it up to his chest. He was nervous. Excited nervous. This was the biggest trip they’d been on. The first outside of England, and the first since Dad. The desert got closer and details clearer: antelope, zebras, shrubs, sand, rock, rock and more rock. The sun was lower now, turning the driftwood-grey land a burnt orange. Black spindly shapes stretched away from the grazing animals, giving even the smallest antelope long, rangy legs. Old Piper lurched in bursts, bringing Peter’s stomach into his mouth over and over again. He dropped his knee and gripped the armrest. The lurching stopped. He waited, and breathed out. Peter looked back out of the window. He couldn’t wait to see elephants up close. They were his favourite animal by far and he’d read up on them before the trip. Maybe he’d make friends with one and get to feed it. Must remember to bring the bana— Bang! Sharp and hard like a fire-cracker. Peter’s head snapped around. ‘What was that?’ The body of the plane jerked violently, then started shaking. The engines shrieked. The propellers spluttered and choked. Then, they cut. The plane tugged backwards, as if caught by an open parachute. Silence. ‘Mum? Mum, what just happened? Mum!’ Peter called. She didn’t respond. He peeked an eye between the seats in front. Mum gripped the throttle so tight her knuckles were white. The only sound was the whistling wings, just as Peter had imagined. ‘Mum, tell us what’s happening,’ said Elton. The panic in his voice made Peter’s heart thump. ‘Shush, I can’t think,’ Mum snapped. ‘Nothing’s…happening. Nothing’s responding. I knew the rent for this piece of junk was too good to be true.’ She cursed under her breath. 38
She turned on the radio and picked up the microphone. ‘Mayday, mayday.’ It hissed in reply. She turned the knob back and forth. Nothing. Just eerie radio static. The plane rocked perilously from side to side. Peter’s heart hammered faster. Mum didn’t move. Paralysed. Peter watched her and clawed his seat. Then, she slowly turned and looked at the boys. ‘We have to get off the plane,’ she said. The boys stared back. No one moved. The plane tilted, and Mum suddenly exploded into action. ‘Parachutes on. NOW!’ She yelled. ‘Come on. We’ve practised this. Elton, you take Noel. Strap him tight!’ Mum’s sudden change jolted Peter like an electric shock. He lunged forwards to grab the parachute bag under his seat. He couldn’t reach. He lunged again. Couldn’t reach. Couldn’t reach. ‘YOUR SEATBELT!’ Elton roared. Peter’s hands fumbled to open the buckle. This was not part of the plan. His fingers moved in slow motion, heavy, like in nightmares when you can’t move or scream or run from the monster chasing you. The seatbelt released. Peter thrust his head down and grabbed the bag. He stood up, flung it over his shoulders and hooked his arms through. He clipped the lower leg straps around his thighs, a strap around his waist and pulled them tight. His knees wobbled uncontrollably and he gripped the seat in front. He had only ever skydived in tandem with Dad. Once. ‘Elton. Got Noel?’ Mum bellowed from the cockpit. ‘Got him!’ ‘Peter, ready? PETER!’ ‘He’s ready!’ Elton shook his head like Peter was stupid. Noel helplessly stood strapped against Elton, and waited clutching his Spiderman bag to his chest. ‘Peter, get that door open,’ Mum yelled. Peter reached forwards. He pulled the handle of the door up. It slid
wide open. Hot wind rushed in. The plane dropped suddenly. Peter fell backwards. Elton lost his footing. He lurched to the side then stumbled forwards, tripping over Noel’s feet. Noel screamed for Mum, then frantically tried to squirm out of the harness. Elton pinned Noel’s arms in front of him, but his brother contorted his little body and somehow slipped from Elton’s grip. ‘I want Mummy!’ Noel screamed. He twisted around and stretched his arms out towards her, the strap of his Spiderman bag still hooked over his arm. Elton swore. ‘Stand still, will you. I can’t keep—’ Then they disappeared. Sucked out into the edgeless blue sky.
TAMSIN MORI A degree in Neuroscience enabled Tamsin to establish that while other people’s brains are full of complex thoughts, hers is full of stories. In an attempt to be responsible, she banished the stories and pursued a sensible career, but the stories were persistent. They refused to stay quiet – they crept out in dreams, occupied lunch hours, filled thick notebooks. When nonsense rhymes began to pop out in the margins of her business reports, she knew something had to change. The MA in Writing for Young People provided the perfect opportunity to set them free. About The Weather Weaver Eleven-year-old Stella is spending the summer in Shetland with Grandpa. When she encounters an old woman who can conjure blizzards and hurricanes, she realises that the island is alive with hidden magic. But discovering the secrets of weather magic comes at a cost: Stella finds herself tangled in an ancient conflict between land and sea. Worse still, Grandpa has forgotten who she is. Can she rescue Grandpa’s memory and tame the storm, or will everything she loves be swept away? firstname.lastname@example.org | @MoriTamsin
THE WEATHER WEAVER Chapter One
Gran’s Mug A whole week so far, and no fun, Stella thought. How am I going to last the whole summer? She looked down at the bird book open in front of her on the table. What was the point of bringing it, if Grandpa wasn’t going to let her go out? Dad had said she’d be able to explore the whole island: spot gannets and arctic terns, visit the puffins, sing to the seals. She’d packed her wildlife books and her sketch pad. Mum had even bought her proper walking boots. She was completely ready for an island adventure. But nobody had told Grandpa that. The only birds she’d spotted so far were herring gulls. You could see them anywhere – even back in the city, nicking chips and pecking rubbish. There was nothing special about herring gulls. When Mum first told her she was coming here on her own, it gave her that shrinking feeling. She’d never been away without Mum and Dad before. Except on school trips, but they didn’t count. You couldn’t feel on your own with the whole class there. She’d tried to explain, but Mum had put on her this-is-not-a-debate voice and said that eleven years old was grown-up enough for a bit of independence. Stella couldn’t think of a good answer for that. She wasn’t going to argue that she wasn’t grown-up enough. Also, she liked the idea that Mum thought she was grown-up and independent. It made her glow 43
inside whenever she thought about it. She’d cheered herself up by planning fun things she and Grandpa could do together. Loads of hot chocolate, more than she’d be allowed at home. Stories way past bedtime. Maybe he’d even take her out fishing on his boat. I was so looking forward to it, she thought and kicked the table leg. Spending time with Grandpa was not going well. On a scale of one to ten, it was minus a thousand. Grandpa’s bad mood was like a massive black cloud over everything. And there was no one else here. No-one. After the Tools Incident, he’d said she wasn’t allowed to touch his tools at all, for any reason and she had to stay indoors, unless he took her out. Which he hadn’t. Grandpa’s tools were still all over the kitchen table, like an incoming tide. She used the edge of her book to push them a bit further away. That didn’t count as touching them. Stella hadn’t been back here for years. Not since she was little. Even so, she’d thought it would still feel like home. She looked around. Nothing was the same as she remembered. Above the fireplace, there was a pale rectangle on the wall, like the ghost of a window. Gran’s painting of the seal, she realised. That’s what used to be there. The gap made the wall look bare and sad. Why would he take it down? Stella hadn’t noticed before, because of all Grandpa’s mess, but all Gran’s stuff was gone. Not just the painting, everything: the knitted chicken, the tufty rug, the carved driftwood seals on the windowsill. All of them. Gone. Where were Gran’s things? Surely Grandpa wouldn’t have thrown them away? She stood up and opened the middle drawer of the dresser. It was where Gran used to keep their beach treasures: mermaids’ purses and scallop shells, whelks and periwinkles. It was empty. 44
She slid it closed and looked around the room again. The only familiar thing left was Gran’s armchair, standing opposite Grandpa’s, in front of the fireplace. She remembered snuggling there while Gran read Shetland Myths and Magic to her. Gran’s accent gave all the ‘r’s a warm purr and ‘i’ made that ee sound that you can only say properly if you’re smiling. The way Gran told it, every seal was a selkie in disguise, every hillock of grass a trowie mound. The whole island was magical. The memory swallowed her heart like quicksand. Nothing was the same without Gran here. Not even Grandpa. He used to be a proper Grandpa – whistling, making up stories, telling jokes. Back then, he knew how to smile. He hadn’t smiled once this week. Not once. He’s not Grandpa, without Gran, she realised. There was a thud from Grandpa’s room and a string of rude words. Stella pursed her lips and shook her head. She had to do something. Fix him, somehow. Cheer him up. Grown-up and independent, she thought. I can do this. She needed a plan. I’ll do helpful stuff, she thought. That always works on Mum. Stella smiled. It could definitely work. She opened the cupboard under the sink, releasing a smell of pine and beeswax. Right first time. She picked out the softest duster, turned to the dresser and wrinkled her nose. She was pretty sure the little black dots were mouse droppings. The house hadn’t been cleaned for ages. Probably Gran used to do it, she thought. Maybe Grandpa doesn’t know how. The row of plates looked apologetic, peeking out from behind piles of letters, rowlocks for the boat, boxes and bottles of medicine. Still, there weren’t any tools on there, so it should be alright to move stuff, especially since it was for a good reason. She dragged a chair over from the kitchen table and climbed up. That’s when she saw it.
Gran’s best mug. The one with puffins on it. So he didn’t get rid of everything! It was high up, in the far corner of the top shelf. She stretched on tiptoes to reach for it and the chair wobbled. ‘Don’t touch that!’ barked Grandpa, from behind her. She jumped in fright and her fingers grazed the handle. The mug tipped. ‘No!’ Grandpa shouted and lunged to catch it. Too late. Stella’s stomach fell with it, all the way down to the floor. Smash. A terrible, sharp-edged crash. Shattering all her good plans into tiny white triangles. ‘Your Gran’s…’ started Grandpa. ‘What did you think you were DOING?’ She climbed down off the chair. Shards of broken china crunched underfoot. ‘I was just… I was trying to help!’ she stammered. Trying to make you happy, she thought, but the words got stuck in her throat. ‘Some help!’ yelled Grandpa. ‘Are you wilfully destructive, or just plain clumsy?’ She stared at his thunderous face and a dark feeling washed over her, sucking away any kind thoughts. ‘Well? Which is it?’ he bellowed. His cheeks had gone scarlet and his eyes bored into hers. She didn’t even recognise him any more. The grandpa she loved was gone. Stella turned and ran. Out of the front door. Down the path. Banging the gate open on its rusty hinges. Away from the roar, that chased her over the hillside: ‘Stella? Get back here! Stella!’ He’d probably be happier if I’d never come back, she thought. The horizon blurred with tears and she sniffed. There was nothing ahead but bristly grass, jagged rocks and dark 46
humps of heather. The wind came barging over the top of the cliff and shoved at her with icy fingers. Gran’s stories were wrong. Nothing here was magical. She’d never felt so alone. But she wasn’t going back to Grandpa’s. Not yet, anyway. ‘Clumsy, or wilfully destructive,’ he’d said. It wasn’t my fault! If he hadn’t shouted… Stella ran. No idea where she was going, just anywhere but here. Gran’s favourite mug! Why that one? She tripped and landed in a tumble of elbows and knees. ‘Ow!’ She stood up, dusted the grass off her trousers and looked back. A bag. That’s what she’d fallen over. Who would leave a bag in the middle of nowhere, just waiting to trip someone up? That’s plain stupid. ‘In a hurry, were you?’ said a cheerful voice. Stella froze. There weren’t meant to be other people here. Grandpa’s was the only house for miles. The old woman stood ahead of her, a little way off the path. How did she get there? Stella stared, her heart beating fast. The woman didn’t look like an islander – no thick coat or sturdy trousers – not ready for the outdoors at all. Her cardigan was thin and floaty, and her long skirt draped through the tall grass. It was like she’d just appeared; popped out of the hillside like a trow. Gran’s stories crowded into her head, whispering warnings: ‘The poor child was taken to a trowie mound and never seen again…’ Don’t be silly, she thought. You’re too grown-up to believe stuff like that. But it was hard to feel certain, on a lonely hillside, with no one else around. ‘You didn’t need to be running,’ said the old woman. ‘You’re early.’ The hair on the back of Stella’s neck prickled. ‘Early for what?’ she said.
‘To meet me, of course,’ said the old woman, with a smile. ‘But I wasn’t—’ started Stella. ‘I’m Tamar,’ interrupted the old woman, sticking out her hand. Stella stood up straighter and tried to pull one of her socks up with the side of her shoe. She shook Tamar’s hand; it was as bony as a bird’s claw. ‘Pleased to meet you. I’m Stella,’ she said. The wind threaded its way through her jumper and she shivered. If only she’d thought to grab her coat. Tamar held up one hand, as though hailing a bus. Her purple cardigan billowed around her. She pinched her finger and thumb together, and the wind stopped. Stella stared at her. Had she imagined it? No. Tamar had just reached up and stopped the wind. Like the blue folk, whispered a corner of her mind. She knew the story by heart. She could hear Gran reading it: ‘See how the blue folk turn fair weather foul. Suck ships down their whirlpools and make the winds howl.’ No. Be sensible, she told herself, but it was hard to ignore the niggle of fear that crawled around the back of her neck. Tamar stepped past her and picked up the bag. ‘You’ll be needing this,’ she said, holding it out towards her. Stella frowned in confusion. ‘What for?’ ‘I need you to fetch me a cloud,’ said Tamar. There was a long pause, filled only with the distant hiss of the waves against the cliffs. ‘Um, I can’t do that… clouds are, well, clouds,’ said Stella. ‘Of course you can,’ said Tamar. ‘Just because you haven’t done it before, doesn’t mean you can’t. Go and fetch me a cloud.’
The Cloud Tamar stood there, holding out the empty bag as if fetching a cloud were a perfectly normal, everyday thing, to ask someone to do. ‘Anytime now would be good,’ she said. The wind lifted her tufty white hair. She definitely looked like a witch. Either that, or she was completely bonkers. Stella wasn’t sure which was worse. ‘How?’ she asked, in a small voice. ‘Now you’re asking useful questions,’ said Tamar. ‘Climb up the nearest hill. Clouds like hills, so that’s where you’ll tend to find them hanging around. You may need to walk up a number of hills, but when you’ve found one, you just grab a hold of it and stuff it into the bag.’ ‘Like that one?’ said Stella. She pointed to a small white cloud on top of the nearest ridge. ‘Perfect. Well spotted!’ said Tamar. She held out the green bag and nodded. ‘Off you go then.’ Stella hesitated. ‘Just so you know, I probably won’t manage it.’ ‘Well, why on earth not?’ Stella looked at the cloud. It was perched at the top of the slope like a fluffy pompom. She loved the idea of catching it, but it was impossible. ‘I don’t think I can catch a cloud,’ she said ‘Balderdash!’ said Tamar. ‘You don’t know until you try. Have you ever tried to catch a cloud before?’ Stella shook her head. ‘So you might be absolutely brilliant at it,’ said Tamar. ‘I don’t think it’s very likely—’ said Stella. ‘It’s a possibility though,’ said Tamar. Stella shrugged. After a week with Grandpa, she was getting good at knowing when she’d lost an argument. ‘I’ll have a go,’ she said. ‘That’s the spirit!’ said Tamar, with a smile. 49
Stella took the bag and stepped off the path. The slope was steep, stony, and rugged. The purple clumps of thistle looked really pretty, but when she put her hand on one, its sharp thorns stuck in her palm. She was careful to avoid them after that. By the time she got to the top of the hill, she was out of breath. Her shoes were wet from squelching through the boggy peat and her socks had spiky twigs stuck in them. She’d reached the cloud though. It was more of a fog, really, once you got up close to it. She wondered what she was meant to do. The air was clammy and cold, and she couldn’t see further than a metre or two in front of her. Feeling a bit silly, she held out the bag and flapped it about a bit, trying to scoop up some cloud. She looked inside, but the bag was still, very definitely, empty. She tried holding the bag open and calling to the cloud in a sweet voice. ‘Here cloudy, cloudy, cloudy.’ The neighbours at home always got their cat in at night by calling to it like that. It didn’t seem to work on clouds though. Stella dropped her arms, letting out a small groan of frustration. Who ever heard of sending someone out to get a cloud? It was ridiculous. But Tamar seemed so sure! she thought. And wouldn’t it be amazing? She closed her eyes and imagined that all the cloud on top of the hill was thick and soft, like cotton wool. Keeping her eyes tight closed, she put out her hand and mimed taking hold of it. She wasn’t sure, but thought maybe she could feel it, light as a dandelion clock fairy between her fingers. She stuffed the imaginary cloud into the bag and closed the top. Finally, Stella opened her eyes, and looked at the bag. It didn’t look empty any more. In fact, it looked quite fat, like a bag with a cloud inside it might look. She shook it gently. It was definitely full of something.
JAMES W SYKES James never quite mastered the art of ‘adulting’. His career as a primary school teacher let him finally play lunchtime football (and win), see the lightbulb moments in maths and, most importantly, make up stories on the fly. However they came – funny, exciting, scary or sad – every tale told was the start of a brand-new adventure. Then he met someone – a proper grown up – who not only wrote stories, but also made a living out of it, and he knew that his future lay in only one place: the weird and wonderful world of pure imagination. About City Splitters Cora has everything: the finest food, a personal robot butler, and all the hottest tech. The sealed walls of her home, Aryon, keep her trapped inside, safe from the suffocating fog that pollutes the world. Mother says nothing lives ‘out there’ and Cora should not go looking. But Mother says a lot that Cora doesn’t like. On her birthday, Cora breaks free of her luxury prison, and sneaks into Mother’s lab to test her latest ‘special project’ – a time machine. Caught red-handed, an argument ends with Cora transported into a future destroyed by waste, greed, and reckless disregard for the natural world. Now Cora must travel through putrid forests, choked rivers, and thick, poisonous ooze to save the future she, and everyone back in Aryon, helped to destroy. email@example.com | @storymansykes
CITY SPLITTERS ‘The most dangerous idea in the world is that humans exist separate from the rest of nature.’ Robert Michael Pyle
Chapter One The light breaks and Cora wakes. It’s her birthday again. Through sore eyes, she looks at the curved walls of her bedroom that shift from black to blue with amber wisps, before turning a stark, almost ivory yellow. Good morning, Miss Cora.
‘Not now, Arch,’ she groans. Wakey wakey.
‘Stop trying to be cute.’ You used to enjoy my whimsical greetings.
He stands next to her bed as always; his bright eyes and shiny metal head glint in the fake sunrise. ‘Time?’ she says. The time is 08:03.
‘Can’t I have a lie-in?’ Her stomach gurgles at the thought of the day. It’s excitement, hunger, or a desperate need for the loo: probably all three. Lie-in denied.
‘You used to be fun.’ Fun denied.
The ground beneath her shuffles and rises. The bed pivots and Cora 53
slips. First the pillows fall away, then the duvet. Her stubborn grip fails, and she slides onto the smooth, polished floor. ‘You stupid—’ He plays a tinny birthday rhythm over her complaints. It rings around her bedroom. ‘Archie! Stop,’ she shouts and stands. The music rings on. ‘Archibold, I command you to stop that awful music.’ That is not my name, he says, interrupting the tune. She takes her hands from her ears. ‘It’s not the worst thing I could have called you.’ My name is Archie, your Aryon City Helpful Intelligence Entity.
He says it with pride as he emerges from under the bedframe and drops it to the ground. If only he had a self-destruct button, Cora would have hit it fifteen times by now. ‘A little privacy please?’ she says, and Archie marches out of her bedroom and off to make her breakfast, as he should. She stretches and yawns, long and loud, before changing into a pair of jeans, a black shirt and a hooded jumper. As she walks through the living room and into the kitchen, Archie changes the white walls to a swirl of pastels: greens, blues, yellows and pinks. She watches them for a few moments, before the whirlpool makes her dizzy. ‘Archie—’ she starts, and he settles the room on an ocean blue. ‘Thanks.’ Your breakfast is prepared, Miss Cora.
‘Whoopee doo,’ she manages, wandering over to the tall, glass table in the centre of the room. She passes the sofa and strokes the puffed cushions with the tips of her fingers. She enjoys their scratchy weave. ‘What do you call this?’ she says, looking down at the spread. On the table is a setting for one with gleaming silver cutlery and a bowl of perfect fruit: blackberries, strawberries, mango, apple and banana all arranged like a portrait. Placed around it are pancakes 54
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drizzled with syrup, fried bacon piled high, scrambled eggs soaked in butter and yoghurt with swirls of fruit jam. All your nutritional needs have been accounted for.
‘Sounds delicious…’ She plucks the strawberries and leaves the rest before sucking the juice from her fingertips. Your mother would want me to remind you of your manners.
‘Well, she can tell me herself,’ Cora says as she picks up the bowl of fruit and tips it onto the floor. ‘I only like the red ones.’ Archie simulates droplets in a pool of clear water where the fruit lands. Then, he makes a shark burst from the water and snatch the chunks from the surface. ‘Very funny,’ Cora says. ‘I know it’s just the garbage chute.’ No, it was a shark.
‘Yeah, right,’ she sighs. ‘Archie?’ Yes?
‘Where’s Mother?’ Your mother’s location is restricted.
‘Is she in the residence?’ Your mother’s location is restricted.
‘Is she in the arcade?’ Your mother’s location is restricted.
‘What about, um, outside?’ Your mother’s location is—
‘Okay, okay. I get it.’ Cora knows exactly where she is. It’s the same place she was yesterday, the day before that, and probably tomorrow too: the Splitter Labs. She’s working on that thing again. Cora stopped asking what her ‘special project’ is, mainly because Mother only comes home in the middle of the night, crashing files and papers about, waking her up. Whatever it is, it’s now officially more important than Cora’s twelfth birthday, and that sucks. Brrinng, briiinnng. 55
The walls vibrate as a call comes in. The words, ‘Commander Briggs’, appear. Great, that’s just what she needs. Cora thumps her head onto the glass table. ‘Answer.’ His grumbly, crumbly voice booms throughout the residence. ‘Maddox? Maddox, where are you? We have Splitter launch tomorrow and the pilots have not received their recall buttons. Maddox? Speak!’ Cora wants to ignore him, but it’s no good. He’ll just blabber on. ‘She’s not here, Commander.’ The gruff voice comes back, ‘Who’s that? Is that the child?’ ‘It’s Cora, actually.’ ‘Who? What?’ ‘Urgh… yes, Sir. It’s the child.’ ‘Ah, good. Right then, very well. Now, where is your Mother? The grass in the square is 0.2mm above permitted length, the disposal units are backing up with yesterday’s waste, and there’s a draught in my office! Add the launch to that, and she is falling woefully behind in her duties.’ Isn’t Archie supposed to deal with Mother’s problems? ‘She’s in the Splitter Labs, Commander.’ ‘Well, good. But if she’s working on another of her blasted inventions, she’s in for it! I’m still swatting swarms of garbage bugs from the park. They’re no good, I tell you! Last week I—’ ‘Can I go?’ ‘Now you watch that tone, child. Didn’t your Mother teach you manners?’ Cora stands and plods to the sofa. ‘I guess not.’ The Commander grumbles and grunts. Cora would never speak to him like this in person, but she’s sick of speaking full stop. ‘I’m going.’ ‘I— you— your Mother will—’ The Commander chokes on his words. ‘End call,’ she says. 56
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The wall returns to a placid, pale blue. The lights dim and draw her to the far side of the room and the pile of cushions on the sofa. It’s her favourite spot, as it looks out over the city of Aryon. It’s also where Mother has left her gifts. Finally! Maybe she’s learnt her lesson, especially after last year when it was nearly a week before Cora even got a card. A red carpet appears beneath her as she walks, and she follows it with Archie snapping lights like camera flashes. Cora is the star of her very own parade. ‘Thank you, thank you so much.’ The room bursts with cheers, screams and calls of her name. ‘Cora! Cora! We love you Cora!’ She spins and throws herself down into the mound of cushions, some taller and wider than her own body. Archie fires confetti that rains lightly down onto her. She snatches at the thin strips of colour, but they disappear through her fingers leaving no trace. They are light. They are nothing at all, really. On a small table, are four boxes – too small for her liking – wrapped in a silvery-blue paper tied with golden string. ‘Who put the gifts here, Archie?’ Your mother did.
‘Did she go to the shopping district and buy them?’ Yes.
‘Did she wrap them and everything?’ Yes.
‘Is any of that actually true?’ No.
‘Affection denied,’ she mutters. There is a card under the string of the largest gift. She slips it out and reads words that are printed, rather than written. ‘Happy Birthday, Miss Cora.’ 57
She tosses it to the floor before idly pulling each bow and tearing the paper to shreds. All she finds is disappointment. Do you like your presents, Miss Cora? I cannot judge your emotions from the state of your face.
Like the presents? she thinks. What is there to like? The spilled can of motor oil? The baby-sized clothes? Or the arcade credits? Archie spots her holding the oil and his eyes beam bright blue. Perfect for the personal maintenance of a growing girl.
‘Yeah, well, thanks.’ She tosses it onto the floor, where it cracks and spills. Archie’s head sags. She examines a tiny t-shirt. I estimated your size.
‘Try again next year,’ she says, chucking it into the pool of oil. She slips the arcade credits into her hoody and flops back onto the cushions. ‘Archie?’ she says. ‘Get rid of this trash.’ She pushes the other gifts onto the floor. Dutifully, he engages the garbage chute and it sucks away the debris into the wasting ooze outside the city walls. Miss Cora, you have forgotten one of your gifts.
‘I’m fine for toolkits and toddler socks, thanks.’ He offers a silver locket. It isn’t wrapped. When she clicks a button on the top, the cover pops open and inside is a picture of Mother: her red hair loose and her face frozen in a rare smile. Cora tosses it across the room and it lands far off on the other side of the kitchen. Archie makes his way over to collect it. ‘Leave it,’ she says, hoping that the person to find it will be Mother. Cora stares out of the ceiling-high window over the city. There are the pools of crystal blue water and the tall, thin trees with their arching leaves keeping shade from the sun. Citizens walk back and forth, tiny obedient ants, waiting for Mother’s next big invention. What next? Something to blink their eyes for them? Self-chewing food? But over it all is the strange amber fog, falling onto everything and everyone. Mother had said she was dealing with the problems from the Ooze, and that’s why she’s always so busy. But, to Cora, it seems to be 58
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getting worse. On the horizon, beyond the city she looks to the mountains. They shimmer under the sunlight that looks alien set against the green and white. It’s hazy, blurred and pin pricked with flecks of gold. Maybe they’re fires: little camp lights warming up houses or cooking fresh food. Perhaps someone still lives there. A girl looking across the fog at Aryon thinking, ‘I wonder who’s over there?’ Nothing lives outside, Cora. Not anymore. Mother doesn’t allow dreams. That’s why we have the Splitters. Whenever she asks Mother what they do, she always replies the very same thing: ‘They’re looking for somewhere better.’ On the floor, trapped in between the garbage chute and the cold, hard tiles, Cora catches a glimpse of blue wrapping paper. The memory of the gifts makes her stomach rumble. That’s it. I’m going down there. Cora leaps off the sofa and pulls on her trainers. She walks to the far wall and hits the button to call the portal lift. It arrives, but the door remains closed. ‘Archie, open the lift, now.’ May I ask where you intend to go?
‘No, now open the lift.’ I am afraid I cannot do that without a reason.
‘Okay, well how’s this for a reason? I’m going to go down to the Labs to find Mother and tell her how much I hate my gifts, I hate my breakfast and I hate her for making me live in this prison. Do I have your permission now?’ He pauses then scans her with the bright blue light from his eyes. Permission granted—
‘Good!’ —but I shall accompany you.
She steps in and he walks calmly to her side. He stares directly ahead like the loyal guard dog he really is. She’s the only one in Aryon City with her own personal robot, but he’s more like the world’s worst butler. Cora sighs and mutters, ‘Happy birthday to me.’ 59
HANA TOOKE Hana grew up near Amsterdam and moved to the south of England at the age of twelve. After completing a degree in music, and then a PGCE, Hana was a primary school teacher for several years. She now works in special educational needs and lives in Bath with two humans and a cat. The Unadoptables was shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award 2018. Hana is represented by Jenny Savill at Andrew Nurnberg Associates. About The Unadoptables Milou and four fellow orphans were deemed ‘unadoptable’ the moment they arrived at the Little Tulip Orphanage. When the matron decides she wants rid of them, they avoid falling into the hands of a menacing sugar merchant by faking their own adoption and fleeing Amsterdam. Over frozen canals and out onto the mist-drenched polder, the orphans follow a clue they hope will lead them to safety: an address, hidden inside the toy Milou was abandoned with. They arrive to find a deserted windmill, filled with puppets and mysteries. Will they be able to hold on to their newfound freedom? What happened to the puppet-maker’s family? And will Milou find the one thing she’s wanted her entire life; her true family? The Unadoptables is a gothic adventure, set in 19th century Netherlands, about embracing the things that make us unique and discovering what ‘family’ truly means. firstname.lastname@example.org | @hannekewrites 60
THE UNADOPTABLES Chapter Zero
Unwanted Little Tulip Orphanage, Amsterdam, 1886 Little Tulip Orphanage Rules for Baby Abandonment Rule One: The baby should be wrapped in a cotton blanket. Rule Two: The baby should be placed in a wicker basket. Rule Three: The baby should be deposited on the topmost step. In all the years that Elinora Gassbeek had been matron of the Little Tulip Orphanage, not once had the Rules for Baby Abandonment been broken. Until the autumn of 1886. Five babies were abandoned at the Little Tulip that autumn and, despite The Rules being clearly displayed on the front door, not one of these babies was abandoned sensibly. The first baby arrived on a blustery day in August, as a screeching wind rattled the orphanage’s many wooden shutters. Swaddled in a pink cotton blanket and placed on the appropriate step, was a baby with cocoa-bean eyes and blond fuzz on its head. However, the way in which Rule Two had been disregarded left no room for forgiveness. The child was snuggled inside a tin toolbox, which had been wrapped with emerald green ribbon, as if it were a present. ‘Ugh!’ Elinora Gassbeek squawked, looking down at the toolbox61
baby in disgust. She signaled an orphan to retrieve it. ‘Put it upstairs.’ The orphan nodded. ‘What name shall I put on the cot, Matron?’ The matron curled her lip. Naming children was tedious, but necessary. ‘She’s got a’lotta fingers, Matron!’ The baby was sucking its thumb, making loud slurping noises that sent ants crawling up Elinora Gassbeek’s spine. She counted the child’s fingers. Sure enough, it had an extra digit on each hand. ‘Name it Lotta.’ The second baby arrived on a frigid evening in September, as pale frost glistened on the cobbled street. An orphan walked into the candle-lit dining hall, cradling a coal bucket as if it were a bouquet of flowers. Something was whimpering inside the bucket. Peering in, the matron was displeased to find a brownhaired infant, wrapped in a soot-stained blanket, blinking up at her. ‘Poor thing was abandoned beside the coal bunker,’ the orphan said. ‘Disgraceful!’ Gassbeek crowed, referring to the breaking of Rule Two and Rule Three. ‘Take it away.’ ‘A name for him, Matron?’ the orphan asked nervously. Elinora Gassbeek took another reluctant look at the coal-bucket baby, its egg-shaped face, and its charcoal-blackened nose. ‘Name it Egbert.’ The third baby arrived on an unusually warm afternoon in October. Seeking solitude on a bench outside, Elinora Gassbeek opened her picnic hamper and found a wriggling baby in amongst some cheese sandwiches and almond fingers. It had a shock of curly red hair on its head and was babbling incessantly. No blanket. No basket. Not on front step. The matron screeched; shrill and loud like a boiling kettle. The picnic-hamper baby fell silent, its eyebrows squeezing together in a frightened frown. Up and down the street, curious faces appeared in the windows of the tall, narrow houses. An orphan came running down the front steps. ‘She wasn’t there 62
before,’ the girl insisted, picking the baby up delicately. ‘Take it away,’ Elinora Gassbeek said through gritted teeth. ‘Yes, Matron. But… a name?’ The orphan rocked the baby, brushing fennel seeds from its hair. The matron shuddered. ‘Name it Fenna.’ The fourth baby arrived on a gloomy morning in November, as a blanket of fog curled over the canal behind the house. The delivery bell on the second floor jangled, rung from a boat on the canal. An orphan hoisted the bucket winch up and, as it emerged from the fog, Elinora Gassbeek’s lip curled. Inside the bucket was a baby, wearing a wheat sack and a sad frown. Two holes had been cut in the bottom of the sack, to allow its unusually long legs to poke through. The matron hauled the wheat-sack child inside, cursing the madness that had befallen her orphanage. ‘Put some clothes on it,’ she cawed at the orphan. She looked at the baby’s wonky ears, its gangly limbs, and the wheatcoloured hair that stuck out from its head at the unruliest of angles. Printed on the wheat sack were the words: SEMOLINA FLOUR. The matron groaned. ‘Name it Sem.’ The fifth baby arrived under the full moon, as lightning crackled beyond Amsterdam’s skyline. Elinora Gassbeek had sent an orphan out onto the orphanage’s vaseshaped roof, to investigate a strange noise. Wedged behind the chimney stack, inside a coffin-shaped basket, was a baby, cooing contentedly up at the starry night sky. It had hair as dark as midnight and eyes that were almost black. The orphan brought the coffin-basket baby inside, where it immediately began to wail. Careful not to touch it, the matron reached down and pulled a toy from its clutches: a cat puppet; made from the softest Amsterdam cotton and dressed in fine Antwerp silk. ‘Ridiculous!’ She tossed the puppet back in the basket, atop the black velvet
blanket in which the baby was swaddled. On the corner of the blanket, embroidered in white thread, was a name: Milou.
Unpresentable Little Tulip Orphanage, Amsterdam, January 1898 The Little Tulip Orphanage was an unusually tall house, wedged in the middle of a long row of unusually tall houses. In the small round window of the very top floor, a pale face with dark eyes gazed down at the frozen canal. Milou tracked the falling snow as it settled over the ornate rooftops like cake frosting. Crowds were gathering on the ice, their pink-nosed faces beaming. Bicycles had been swapped for toboggans, clogs for skates, and the cries of delight mingled with the neighing of cart horses. All of it made Milou’s insides churn. The view became steadily more blurred as Milou’s breath misted the cold window and with a final sigh, she turned away. She flicked a frozen piece of peeling paint on the wall and it fell to the floor with a clink. Even the wooden floorboards had developed a thin layer of frost and her eyeballs were so cold it hurt to blink. The small fireplace on the adjacent wall was empty and dark, as always. ‘Frozen orphan,’ Milou said to the red-haired girl sitting on the bed beside her. ‘Sounds like some sort of fancy dessert, don’t you think, Fen? I wonder if that’s Matron’s newest money-making plan; if she can’t sell us as potential sons and daughters, perhaps she hopes to sell us as ice-cream.’ Fenna rolled her eyes, then went back to handfeeding stale crumbs to a small rat nestled on her lap. Milou scrunched her nose and pushed her mouth into a pinched 64
pout. ‘Iced orphan!’ she cawed, in a perfect copy of the matron’s squawkish tone. ‘Come and get your iced orphan! Best iced orphan in all of Holland! Only five cents a scoop!’ Fenna’s eyebrows unfurrowed and the corners of her mouth twitched. Milou felt a twinge of satisfaction that warmed her from the inside, ever so slightly. ‘We’d better hurry,’ Milou said, turning serious. She rubbed a circle on the window and squinted at the church clocktower on the other side of the canal. ‘Only four more minutes until laundry inspection; Gassbeek will pull out our arm hairs if we’re late again—’ Footsteps sounded in the hallway. The girls shared a panicked look. Milou jumped away from the windowsill. Fenna rolled backwards over the bed, the rat clutched to her chest. Milou grabbed an armful of laundry and Fenna hid the rat in her picnic-basket, just as the dormitory door burst open. A boy’s head appeared in the doorway, consisting of two oddly proportioned ears and a straggly tuft of blond hair. A gangly body followed immediately after; spidery limbs that looked like they belonged to four entirely different species of spider. ‘There you are,’ he said breathlessly. ‘Oh, thank goodness it’s only you.’ Milou frowned when she realised Sem was pale, his long fingers fiddled with the hem of his grease-stained shirt. ‘What is it?’ Sem grinned wonkily. ‘We have visitors.’ He spoke with such breathless hope, a ghost-like fluttering started in Milou’s belly. There was only ever one kind of visitor that could make Sem so eager. Adopters. Fenna gave an excited gasp. ‘Visitors,’ Milou repeated. It had been months since anyone had come to the Little Tulip to look for orphans. What if today was the day? Had her parents finally returned? She couldn’t remember them, of course, but she had theories. An entire book of them, tucked into her left sleeve. In all her theories,
her parents were clever and brave. In all but one, they were desperately making their way back to her. Perhaps, after twelve long years, they’d finally succeeded. ‘Milou,’ Sem urged. ‘We need to hurry.’ ‘Just a moment.’ She clambered over three beds to get to the one she shared with Fenna and Lotta. Fingers trembling, she reached under it and pulled out her coffin-basket, which was always packed, just in case. Inside, on top of everything else, was her cat-puppet. Milou ran a finger over its foot, where the words ‘Bram Poppenmaker, Puppeteer’ were written in swirling red letters. The puppet was cradling a lock of red, curly hair, which had been tied with an emerald-green bow. Milou placed both aside and reached into the basket to move two pieces of paper: a charcoal portrait of herself and a poster advertising the famous Parisian circus troupe Cirque de Lumière. Beneath these treasures, were her clothes. There wasn’t much; a few cotton dresses, two pairs of hole-riddled socks, and a neatly folded bundle of fine Amsterdam velvet. Sem sat on the bed beside her. ‘Milou—’ ‘Just one minute.’ He gave her that look again; the one that said he thought she was silly for holding onto the hope that her parents would come back for her. He’d never held that kind of hope. Milou reckoned that if she’d been abandoned in nothing but a wheat sack, she might have felt the same way. She couldn’t explain that she just knew that she’d find her family one day, because he wouldn’t understand. It was a question of when, not if. Milou slipped the black velvet dress over the stained cotton one she was already wearing and ran her fingers over the plush smoothness of the fabric. If it was her real parents arriving, they would recognise her old baby blanket. It was a snug fit; Sem had taken it out as much as he could over the years and soon the dress would not fit at all. Sem looked at her outfit with a frown, then carefully adjusted her collar and gave her a small smile. Milou repacked her basket, grabbed 66
her cat-puppet, and hurried out of the room. The girls’ dormitory was on the fourth floor of the old, narrow canal house, every inch of which consisted of deep shadows, loose floorboards, and peeling paint. Milou stomped down the treacherously steep staircases, past the boys’ dormitory on the third floor, the laundry rooms on the second, and the schoolrooms on the first. Sem practically flew ahead of her, hopping down three steps at a time. Fenna seemed to glide down, her feet as silent as they were nimble. The ground floor was the only part of the canal house that didn’t look like a mere sneeze would demolish it. In the main foyer, the marble floor was polished to a shine, the walls were painted a charming shade of violet, and a tall grandfather clock ticked and tocked in the corner. A motley collection of children were arranging themselves in a line against one wall; youngest at one end, older ones at the other. They were all frantically trying to make themselves presentable: rubbing at grease stains, tucking in shirts, adjusting petticoats, pulling up socks. No matter how much they tried, however, there was no disguising what they really were: scruffy, hungry, desperate orphans. Sem and Fenna slipped into the line. A blonde girl in trousers and a waistcoat was scrubbing at a raven-haired boy’s fingers. She shot Milou a frantic look. ‘What took you so long?’ Lotta asked, then noticed Milou’s dress and the cat-puppet in her arms. ‘Never mind. Help me get this charcoal off Egg’s hands.’ Milou took Egg’s other hand and began scrubbing at it with her sleeve. The charcoal smeared, leaving his hands grey and mottled. ‘Gassbeek wanted another portrait,’ Egg said, his voice full of worry. ‘I didn’t have time to wash.’ ‘Don’t worry,’ Milou said. ‘It’s just—’ A prickling shiver started at the tips of Milou’s ears and ran down the back of her neck. It was not a shiver of cold, but a shiver of warning. She grabbed Lotta’s arm and shoved her in line beside Egg. Milou had just positioned herself next to Lotta when a familiar sound echoed out from
the hallway leading to the Forbidden Quarters. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. All twenty-eight children straightened as if pulled by invisible strings. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Twenty-eight staccato breaths sucked in in quick succession. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Twenty-seven sets of wide eyes fixed firmly on the wall ahead. Milou peered through lowered lashes at the darkened hallway to her left. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Matron Gassbeek’s boots emerged a moment before the rest of her; twin points of polished blood-red leather, with kitten-heels that were just as sharp as the expression on the matron’s face when the rest of her appeared. Every monster that Milou had made up for her bedtime stories was based in some way on Gassbeek: the brutal sneer of a gargoyle, the soulless eyes of a werewolf, the skin-itching screech of a banshee. If the matron hadn’t been so filled with hatred and menace, she’d probably look like any other middle-aged woman, but her vileness had transformed her ordinary features into something monstrous. Gassbeek walked agonisingly slowly up and down the line, sneering with every click and scowling with every clack. Milou kept her eyes lowered and her spine straight, her shoulders not too low, but neither scrunched up to her still-tingling ears. Finally, the matron clucked her tongue in disapproval and stamped one boot against the marble floor. CLACK! All twenty-eight children flinched. ‘Do not disappoint me,’ the matron crowed. The doorbell dinged and then donged.
BILLY TREACY Although Billy’s atoms came into existence 13.7 billion years ago, he was officially born in October 1993. Between then and now, much has come to pass, but mostly he’s just got taller. For some reason that defies all logic, BBC Worldwide entrusted him with the task of writing a couple of online sketches for the Doctor Who YouTube channel. Warning: contains action figures committing minuscule acts of silliness. Billy likes to write funny things and only uses jokes that make him laugh embarrassingly on public transport. He currently lives in Salford and works as a copywriter and part-time chicken whisperer. Gizmo’s Great Invention won the United Agents Prize for the most promising writing for young people. About Gizmo’s Great Invention Meet Gizmo: boy genius inventor. Meet Frankie: boy. Meet me: I do the words. Gizmo has created Frankie to help him invent something that will win a prestigious competition. Unfortunately, Frankie is a zero-yearold with the body of an eight-year-old, who seems to spend most of his time getting into trouble. Misadventures ensue, involving invisible spies, tricycle gangs and – yes, you guessed it – celebrity chicken, Jen de le Hen. Can Gizmo win the Brainbox Competition? Will he even have an invention to submit? And just what does the word ‘Blobob’ mean? email@example.com | @BillyTreacy93 70
GIZMO’S GREAT INVENTION Prologue If your geography teacher were to push a map under your nose and ask you to point out the oddest village in the country, you might tell them the answer is Upton Bobble. Upton Bobble consists of a post office for beetles and an entire housing estate made out of balloons. Once a year, it holds a festival to celebrate the colour maroon. But Upton Bobble is not the oddest village in the country. I know what I’d say. I’d say, ‘Excuse me, Sir or Miss, but perhaps we should be spending this lesson learning about volcanoes and earthquakes and tectonic plates, instead of quirky villages I’ll never visit?’ But, if you really wanted to get on your teacher’s good side, you would simply give the correct answer. And that answer is Bottom Snodsborough. Where to begin with Bottom Snodsborough? Perhaps, with the village’s founder. Snod-the-Third built and named Bottom Snodsborough in the belief that there would one day be a Top Snodsborough: a ‘sky village’ held directly above Bottom Snodsborough by stilts. Plans for Top Snodsborough fell through when it was agreed upon by everyone in the village that this was a rubbish idea. But let’s say you were intent on disagreeing with the will of the village. That, dear reader, is one surefire way to find yourself on the wrong side of the invisible spies that live in and patrol around Bottom Snodsborough. Nobody knows for sure whether the invisible spies actually exist. Unsurprisingly, they’re very good at hiding. Just to be safe, it’s probably best to assume that one of them is right behind you 71
at all times. The invisible spies are local to the village and are always looking out for the interests of the people. They protect villagers from falling pianos, alien invasions, zombie apocalypses, a general sense of dread and, most of all, themselves. You see, the villagers of Bottom Snodsborough are very, very dangerously odd. A perfect example of such oddness in action would be the local Bottom Snodsborough Council. You can only ever find the council inside the village hall. The village hall, strangely enough, is located at the centre of an ominous, misty graveyard. Once you’ve navigated your way through the maze of scattered gravestones and pushed through the village hall’s ancient set of wooden doors, you will find nothing but a spiralling staircase; stairs that lead only down. Make your way down these stairs, clinging for dear life to the cold, clammy brick walls as you go, until you find yourself stepping out into a dark chamber. Flickering torches along the walls illuminate six tombs, organised in a perfect circle. These tombs make up the local Bottom Snodsborough Council. Although your body may tell you otherwise, it is at this point that you must take one step forward and declare whatever it is you have come to say to the council. This might be a complaint about dog muck not being picked up on the streets, a petition for more parking spaces by the village shops, or perhaps a request to see what can be done about a boy genius inventor who’s recently lost his parents (we’ll come to that in a moment). Then, you wait. You wait for however long it takes for the council to decide. This might take a minute. It might take days. But the answer will come. It comes in the form of a gust of wind, or a drop of water falling from the ceiling, or a sudden urge to cough. Only you can decide what the will of the council is. You see, if you haven’t figured it out by now, the members of the local Bottom Snodsborough Council are, in fact, quite dead, and have been for many, many years. This all came about a long time ago when the council members – still alive at the time – decided they’d rather not be replaced. Instead, they declared that they were to rule over Bottom 72
Snodsborough for all of time, even after they couldn’t be bothered to live anymore. So now, if you want anything done in the village, you visit the council, you wait for an answer and, when that answer doesn’t come, you take some unrelated happening as a sign, before going away to do your own thing with their imagined permission. You may recall me talking about Upton Bobble and their post office for beetles. And yes, whilst a post office for beetles is rather peculiar, Bottom Snodsborough somehow manages to top it. Snodsborough Post Office is for humans (for the most part), so it’s quite normal in that sense, but what makes it stand out against other post offices – even Upton Bobble’s – is that they deliver their letters and parcels to different time zones. ‘Different time zones?’ I would be able to hear you ask if this was a two-way thing, which it isn’t. ‘Isn’t that how the post works? You send off a letter and someone gets it the next day?’ Well, yes, technically. The difference with Bottom Snodsborough Post Office is that it will deliver your letter yesterday, or in one thousand years, or even before you were old enough to know what a post office is. On rare occasions, letters are even delivered to different dimensions; alternate realities where everyone has a third arm; where someone dies who wasn’t supposed to; where post offices don’t even exist… It’s best not to think about Bottom Snodsborough Post Office too much. Most people just email. But enough about Bottom Snodsborough. We’re here for Gizmo.
Part One: Frankie’s Birthday Chapter One Do you remember being born? Most people don’t. I do, because I only started existing when you began reading this. 73
Frankie also remembered being born, because Frankie wasn’t like other boys. And I don’t mean ‘not like other boys’ in the way that most unusual boys are. Frankie wasn’t like other boys, or even like unusual boys, because he was created by a boy genius called Gizmo. First words are important. They can really tell you a lot about what a person’s going to grow up to become. Most people’s first words are ‘Mum’, or ‘Cheese’, or ‘Dog’. My first words were, ‘PROLOGUE If your geography teacher were to push a map under your nose and ask you to point out the oddest village in the country, you might tell them the answer is Upton Bobble.’ Frankie’s first words were, ‘It’s my birthday!’ And he was not wrong. Gizmo opened his mouth to respond, but Frankie wasn’t finished with his first words. ‘Also, who am I? Also, who are you? Also, where are we?’ Gizmo wished he’d installed Frankie with a mute button, but Frankie wasn’t a robot – he was a boy of blood and bone and all those squishy bits in-between that make you breathe and stuff. The idea to create Frankie had come about a few months back, when Gizmo realised he needed help with his inventing. He’d been just about to send off a request for the genetic material and equipment necessary to create a human, when the postman had arrived with everything he’d not ordered yet, because that was how the post worked in Bottom Snodsborough. ‘Your name is Frankie,’ he said. ‘My name is Frankie,’ Frankie repeated. He put his hands on his hips, puffed out his chest, and gave Gizmo a big grin from his round face. ‘And I’m Gizmo,’ said Gizmo. ‘And I’m Gizmo,’ repeated Frankie. Gizmo blinked and adjusted his enormous glasses. ‘No, I’m Gizmo.’ ‘That’s what I said!’ ‘Exactly!’ Gizmo buried his face in his hands for a moment, while Frankie gave another big grin. ‘Oh,’ said Frankie, after a moment. ‘You’re Gizmo.’ ‘Mmhm, mmhm,’ said Gizmo encouragingly. ‘Well done.’ 74
‘So, where are we?’ ‘This,’ Gizmo gestured around himself vaguely, ‘is my workshop!’ Gizmo’s workshop was a wondrous place, full of colour and noise. It seemed to have started life as a shed, then as two sheds, then as three or four, before being knocked down, rebuilt and hammered together. Shelves upon shelves of gadgets, and jam jars full of bolts and screws, lined most of the walls, while any spare wall space was covered in blueprints for future projects. Frankie spotted designs for flying bicycles, a device that removes the word ‘um’ from sentences and even one for a time machine. Streams of smoke rose from pipes circling the room, bringing with them a lingering smell of burnt toast. Gizmo was much like his workshop: a proud mess. His hair was knotted and tangled, as if it was having a battle with itself. For convenience’s sake, he’d sewn a hundred differently-sized pockets into his waistcoat, inside which he’d placed an array of tools that rattled as he walked. Wasted space simply didn’t exist, as far as Gizmo was concerned. ‘I see,’ said Frankie. He didn’t. ‘So, the basics!’ Gizmo clapped his hands together. ‘Like I said, I’m Gizmo. I invent things. And I’m twelve.’ ‘I’m Frankie,’ said Frankie. ‘I breathe a lot. And I’m zero.’ ‘If anyone asks, you’re eight.’ ‘But, I’m not eight,’ said Frankie. ‘I’m nought-years-old.’ ‘Yeah, but you have the body and intelligence of an eight-year-old.’ Frankie frowned and looked down at himself. His tubby, little body was clothed in a slightly moth-eaten, green, checkered shirt, a very moth-eaten purple cardigan, and a shiny, golden bow tie that the moths had been too afraid to go anywhere near. ‘Why aren’t I twelve, like you?’ asked Frankie. ‘Because twelve-year-olds are difficult. Trust me, I know. I am one.’ ‘Why can’t I be a grown-up, then?’ Gizmo took off his glasses, so he could rub his eyes. ‘Because I want you to be my lab assistant. And assistants aren’t meant to be older than
their inventors. Plus, everyone would think you were my parent.’ ‘So, where are your real parents then?’ asked Frankie, checking under one of the tables, just in case they were hiding. ‘I don’t want to talk about them,’ said Gizmo, a little too quickly. ‘So, you’re probably wondering why I made you, Frankie.’ ‘I am now.’ ‘In a few months’ time, a prestigious event, known as the Brainbox Competition, is coming to Bottom Snodsborough to decide who has made the best invention ever.’ Gizmo pushed his glasses back on. ‘And I need you to help me make something that’ll win it.’
JACQUELINE TUCKER Jacqueline Tucker was born in rural Alabama, USA, where there really isn’t very much to do. So, she invented stories and pretended that the woods behind her house were jungles in South America, deserts in Africa, and magical lands like Narnia. She grew up to become a therapist and helped kids understand their own real-life stories. Jacqueline also loves to travel, and she started telling stories about that, too. She’s visited fourteen countries across four continents and has gotten lost a lot. Poor thing can’t read a map to save her life… unless it’s a magic map like Bay’s. The Secret in the Map received an honourable mention in the United Agents Prize for the most promising writing for young people. About The Secret in the Map When thirteen-year-old Bay escapes from the orphanage, in search of a past she can’t remember, she follows the only clue she has – an ancient map that glows when she (and only she) touches it. In the heart of Atrapolis, where crows patrol the skies, streets curve into themselves, and the Imperium’s Watchkeepers hunt her at every turn, the map leads Bay to one clue after another. But the more Bay learns about herself, the clearer it becomes that someone in Atrapolis doesn’t want her to remember. Can the map reveal her true identity before it’s too late? firstname.lastname@example.org | @j_r_tucker
THE SECRET IN THE MAP Chapter One ‘Are you sure about this?’ asked Ward. A buzzing din of voices drifted upstairs. ‘For the millionth time, yes,’ Bay whispered. ‘It’s the perfect plan.’ ‘Getting sent to bed without supper. That’s the perfect plan?’ Bay’s stomach grumbled, but this was nothing new. There was very little food to go around at the Honorable Society of Perpetual Care for Children – or as Bay liked to call it – the Dishonorable Society that Perpetually Ignores and Neglects Children. And the food that did go around rarely made it all the way around to Bay. This was mainly because she was always being punished, which was mainly because she was always trying to escape, which was mainly because the Children’s Home in Atrapolis was a very terrible place to be. ‘Well,’ said Bay, ‘it isn’t a perfect plan. But everyone, including Madam Cranby, is in the dining hall right now. No one will be wondering where I am. I can sneak into the cellar and be back upstairs before bed call.’ ‘If Madam Cranby catches you—’ ‘She won’t.’ ‘But if she does—’ ‘She won’t.’ ‘But—’ ‘Ward.’ Bay bounced nervously on the worn-out soles of her boots. ‘If she catches me then I’ll just be thrown into The Pit again. It’s nothing I can’t handle. But if you don’t go down there right now, she’ll notice 79
you’re missing. It will ruin everything.’ Ward looked down the dormitory hallway at the top of the stairs. He had his thinking face on, the one where his eyebrows scrunched together and his mouth squished over to one side. ‘I’m doing this with or without your help, Ward.’ Downstairs, the dinner bell rang out three times. Ward looked back at Bay and sighed. ‘Of course, I’m going to help you.’ Bay grinned. ‘You have ten minutes, starting right now,’ he reminded her. Every night for the past two weeks, they had used the old carriage clock over the dining hall fireplace to time Madam Cranby’s evening movements. She started by gobbling down the freshest bread and warmest porridge for herself before slipping out into the grounds to enjoy her after-dinner pipe. ‘Give me some time to make sure the common room is clear,’ said Ward, ‘and then come downstairs. I’ll keep watch while you… break in.’ Bay squeezed Ward’s shoulders. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ Then she spun him around and steered him toward the stairs. She knew how hard this was for him. Ward never broke the rules. But she also knew how much he wanted the one thing he had left of his parents. And the only way to get it was to break into the cellar where Madam Cranby kept all the children’s belongings from before. Ward hurried down the narrow wooden staircase, and Bay began to pace. She tucked her hand into the pocket of her tattered gray dress. The tools she had swiped from the utilities shed were still there. She had taken a thick piece of wire and a small rod and had been practicing with the lock on the shed’s door during daily chores. She had finally figured out how to open it the day before. The lock on the cellar door couldn’t be that much different. Bay’s chest tightened the way it did every time she thought about her brown leather satchel that was down in the cellar. She couldn’t actually remember what was inside of it, but she hoped there might be some clue 80
in there. Something that would tell her who she was or – she swallowed hard – whether or not she had a family. Bay sneaked to the top of the staircase. At the bottom, Ward was peeking around the edge of the dining hall doorway. He waved her down. She crept down the stairs – careful to step along the edges where they didn’t creak – and gave him a nod of thanks as she slipped past him and into the common room across the entrance hall. The large room was cold and sparsely decorated with one well-worn couch and a shabby chair and table. Madam Cranby’s desk sat in the far corner in front of the locked cellar door. Quickly and silently, Bay crept over to the door and slipped the tools from her pocket. Her hands trembled. She positioned the rod onto the bottom of the lock and pressed down, leaning it slightly to the right. The rod slipped. She took a deep breath and started again. Then with her other hand, she slid the wire past the rod, gently rocking it forward until it wouldn’t go any further. Bay turned the lock. It opened with a solid click. She stuffed the tools back into her pocket and eased the door open. Inside, it was pitch black. She reached back and took an oval-shaped Flikker from Madam Cranby’s desk, squeezed it around the middle to ignite the flame inside, and stepped into the darkness. A set of wide stone steps led down into the cellar. Bay closed the door behind her and carefully made her way down. The steps were uneven and worn from years of feet treading up and down. She wondered how many times Madam Cranby had carried children’s belongings down these steps. How many orphans had been left standing alone and empty-handed? Bay shivered as she crept further into the cellar. The air was cold and musty and smelled of stale earth. She raised the Flikker high and squinted at her surroundings. In the dim orange glow, she could make out dark, hunched shadows blocking her way forward. Something large and furry ran across the toe of her boot. Bay jumped and clapped her hand over her mouth to stop herself from screaming.
A rat. It was only a rat. Bay willed herself to be sensible, but her imagination went wild with thoughts of fanged beasts guarding the orphans’ belongings. Her heart pounded in her ears, every beat like the ticking of a clock counting down the minutes she had left before bed call. She took a deep breath and forced one foot in front of the other. The shadows turned out to be piles of broken junk – stuffed chairs with springs pushing through the cushions, busted lanterns and stacks of wobbly tables and chairs that, in Bay’s opinion, didn’t look that much worse than the furniture upstairs. She sidled her way around the mountains of junk and ducked under a curved stone entryway into another chamber. Dim blades of light shone through the floorboards. The chamber was filled with towering shelves containing wooden boxes, all with names painted onto the front. They lined the walls from floor to ceiling and formed several rows down the middle. Bay hurried along each row, quickly scanning the shelves, searching desperately for her name. Her heart sank when she realized the names were in alphabetical order by surname. She would never find hers. Reaching the ‘L’s’, she found the box labeled Landers, Ward. As she pulled the box from the shelf, dust stirred and tickled her nostrils. Bay sneezed. She paused to listen for any voices upstairs. Nothing but the usual dinner noises. She retrieved the only item from inside – a miniature portrait that fit in the palm of her hand. Bay held the portrait up to the Flikker and squinted. It was a very young Ward – and his parents. A pang of jealousy burned briefly inside her, but she snuffed it out and slipped the portrait into her pocket. She continued weaving through the rows of shelves, searching madly. They had to be here somewhere – the boxes for children like her. Children who didn’t have a surname, who didn’t know their parents, who were just… found. She scurried through the darkness to the end of the chamber farthest from the door, where a roughly carved sign hung 82
from the cellar wall. Bay held the light up high for a better look. ‘Foundlings,’ she read aloud. Beneath the sign were several boxes that had been tossed haphazardly into a large pile. Bay sighed. She set the Flikker down on a nearby shelf and began to shift the boxes around when the floorboards creaked directly above her. She froze. A shadow passed overhead, and the faint scent of smoke and perfume wafted in the air. What was Madam Cranby doing back inside already? Sudden shouts erupted from the dining hall, and footsteps pounded into the common room. ‘Madam Cranby!’ Ward yelled breathlessly. ‘Landers,’ Madam Cranby said. She sounded startled, but the edge returned quickly to her voice. ‘Who gave you permission to leave the dining hall?’ Bay quietly slid a few more boxes from the pile. ‘There’s a food fight, Madam,’ Ward yelled again and stomped his foot hard. Dust fell from the floorboards, and Bay held her nose to stop herself from sneezing. She moved another box out of the way. There! In large block letters on the panel of a box turned over on its side was BAY. ‘Ill-mannered orphans,’ said Madam Cranby. ‘I’ll throttle the lot of you!’ Bay sighed with relief as she heard their footsteps recede out of the common room. A tingling wave of excitement washed over her. Her heart raced. This was it. There had to be a clue in this box that would explain something, anything, about her past. She lifted the lid off the box. There in the bottom lay the brown satchel that had been etched in her mind. She picked it up and caressed the soft, pliable leather. Bay slung her satchel over her shoulder and placed the lid back on top of the box. She snatched up the Flikker, squeezed it off and tucked it into her pocket, then crept quickly past the towering shelves and back through the curved stone entryway. Madam Cranby’s threatening
shouts rang out from the dining hall. ‘Thank you, Ward,’ Bay whispered as she turned sideways to squeeze in between two mountains of broken furniture. The strap of her satchel snagged on a broken table leg. She gave it a quick tug. It snapped free. The mountain began to sway. ‘No. No-no-no,’ Bay whispered in a panic. She pushed desperately against the stack as it teetered towards her, but it was too late. The wooden tables and chairs tumbled down around her with a loud crash. She flung herself to the ground and covered her head with her arms. Moments later, the door burst open, and the cellar flooded with light. Bay tried to hide behind an ottoman that was losing its stuffing, but her foot was wedged between the legs of two chairs. ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ Madam Cranby demanded from the doorway. She was staring right at Bay. The light shining behind her from the common room made her frizzy red hair look like flames rising from the top of her head. Ward scrambled behind her trying to see what was happening. Bay could’ve kicked herself for being so careless. She glanced around for the satchel. It was lying on the other side of the ottoman, just out of her reach. She had been so close. Her mind whirled trying to come up with a way to get out of this and keep her belongings. ‘What do you think you’re doing down here?’ Madam Cranby growled. ‘I, uh.’ Bay scrambled for a believable excuse. ‘I-I was sneaking downstairs, hoping to find some crumbs left over from dinner.’ She paused, inventing wildly. ‘A-a-and I thought I heard someone in the common room.’ She’ll never believe this. ‘And the cellar door was open. Well, I thought it might be a prowler, Madam Cranby. And I couldn’t let him get away, could I? And then—’ ‘Enough!’ Madam Cranby barged down the steps and heaved the chairs off of Bay’s foot. ‘I’ll help, Madam.’ Ward rushed in behind her and began to move 84
the fallen furniture out of the way. Bay looked at Ward then at the satchel on the ground. He followed her gaze and gave a slight nod as he moved a chair out of Madam Cranby’s way. He shuffled sideways and kicked the satchel out of sight beneath the fringe of the ottoman. Madam Cranby snatched Bay up by the collar with a fleshy hand and leaned in so they were nose to nose. Her breath reeked of stale pipe smoke. ‘What will it take for you to learn to do as you’re told?’ Bay knew what was coming next. ‘It’s The Pit for you, Foundling.’
STEPHANIE WILLIAMSON Steph is a children’s writer and translator. Painfully aware of the number of stories that never cross the borders into other cultures, she is always striving to bridge that gap. As if this isn’t enough fun, she also teaches creative writing to children, reads for a literary scout and blogs about books at stephwilliamson.com. When she was a little girl, she tried to enrol herself in boarding school and legally change her name to Hermione. About The Society for the Salvation of Stories Bath, 1910. Miette hasn’t told stories since her sister, Tatiana, died a year ago. Her days as a member of the Society for the Salvation of Stories are numbered, but she knows that if she starts telling stories again, Tatiana will stop visiting her in her dreams. When Miette discovers that the heart-gems that protect storytelling are dying, and her friend Johnnie is missing, she sets out to save both from the clutches of storyhater Mistress Bonaventure. Together with her friends in the Rooftop Revolution, Miette must save the world’s stories by telling the story of her soul, even if it means letting go of Tatiana for good. A magical, middle-grade adventure about love, loss and the healing power of stories. Stephwilliamson3@gmail.com | @Steph_Wsn
THE SOCIETY FOR THE SALVATION OF STORIES Prologue On the midsummer night of a story-gathering, in a city blanketed with stars, a light shot through the sky. Below, on a narrowboat, a baby was born. The birth was long and hard, so the child was placed in the arms of her waiting sister, who gazed at the little creature, at her curl of red hair and soft, pink ears, and gifted her with her first story. â€˜Back when stories were as common as copper but more precious than gold, every man, woman and child created story-stones. These adorned their clothes and hair, reminders of the stories they had sent flying into the world on the wings of their words. And although our world has always held both good and bad inside of it, flitting between light and dark, the balance began to change. War, hunger and greed created cracks through which a new darkness seeped in. Brother fought against brother, sister against sister. Nations turned inwards and could see no further than their own desires. People became suspicious. They forgot to tell stories and they stopped creating story-stones. â€˜King Arthur was an imaginative man who lamented the loss of stories across the land. One evening, a crow flew into his throne room and bid him summon twelve children from the four corners of the globe, because children are creatures of story. He invited them to sit at his Round Table, making them the knights of his new order, the Society for the Salvation of Stories. And he told them what they must create: new stones three-hundred times more powerful than story-stones, 87
each one a gem containing the stories of the knights’ souls. ‘Together these twelve heart-gems would create a magical protection that would tether stories to this world. The knights obeyed, searching deep inside their hearts for their most precious stories. They inlaid the heart-gems in King Arthur’s Round Table and buried it deep inside the hills of his Kingdom. ‘Knowing that the darkness would continue to threaten storytelling in the ages to come, the King sent the knights back to their homelands, entrusting them with the founding of his councils, the Curias, all over the world. Their purpose was to encourage imagination, to safeguard story-stones and to ensure that storytelling was passed down through the generations. But no story can last forever, and the knights knew that the heart-gems would one day fade and die. So each was given a map that would lead to the secret location of the Round Table, to be passed on to each new knight when they were born. ‘But the darkness grew darker, and the knights were persecuted throughout their lives. For generations, members of the Society were hunted for their story-stones and punished by those who had allowed the darkness to overcome them. The scars that so many people proudly bore, marks of story-stone creation, were denounced as the Devil’s kiss, and their owners burned alive. So, the Society became secret, and the Curias all over the world went into hiding. ‘And although the Secret Society for the Salvation of Stories continued its work, the maps to the Round Table were lost. The magical protection of the heart-gems still lingers, but not for long. A new generation of knights is awaited, twelve new souls who must replace the heart-gems with their own before the protection dies, and storytelling with it.’ The stars peeked through the portholes of the narrowboat as the big sister’s story formed inside a tiny silver bubble at her temple, so pale that it was barely there. It became fuller and brighter until it was a glossy white stone fused to her skin, a little larger than a pearl, and then it dropped into the little sister’s fist. The baby clutched it as if she would 88
never let it go, and the older girl’s heart burned with fierce love for the sister her soul had been aching for, the friend she hadn’t known she’d been missing. And she promised, there in the presence of the stars, that she’d never stop telling her sister stories.
Chapter One Stories had taught Miette many things, and the truest one was this: they lived within your soul, and it was very, very hard to set them free. The streets of Bath rang with the clatter of carriages and the screech of trams, but in Sydney Gardens, everything was quiet except for birdsong and the crunch of gravel beneath perambulator wheels. The gardens stretched out in front of Miette as she walked across the bridge over the canal, past the ladies who peered at the water from beneath their parasols. The falling leaves had turned the ground to gold and beneath the bare trees the nannies of Bath were taking the air with their young charges. Two children clambered across the empty bandstand. They were probably the kind of children who lived in a nursery with a big window, who told stories to each other beneath the bedcovers at night. Miette had been a storyteller once, too. She’d created twelve story-stones – one for every year of her age – and each one had required more work than the last. She’d worked tirelessly on her storytelling; catching a story as it flew through her mind, pinning it down by stringing different words together until they fit perfectly side by side, nurturing it until it shone. But now, the only time she told stories was in her dreams. Miette circled the fountain in the middle of the lawn, polishing her boots in the morning dew. Johnnie was always in the gardens – surrounded by adoring girls and boys, telling tales of adventure and filling his pockets with coin. If she waited long enough, he’d surely turn up. And then she’d kick him for going off to the circus without her. 89
She could hear a clicking sound, like the spinning of a bicycle wheel, getting louder until she spun around. A black pram was skidding down the slope towards her and a small boy scrambled after it. It rattled across the gravel pathway, narrowly missing a small dog, and the boy’s outstretched hand met with thin air. As it hurtled towards Miette she side-stepped it just in time, seizing the curved handle seconds before the pram hit the fountain. Her boots scraped up grass as she pulled it to a stop and a tiny girl popped her head out of the blankets, red-faced and shrieking. ‘Hush Suzie, you’re not hurt,’ cooed the boy, leaning into the pram to pat his sister’s head. ‘Shouldn’t you be with someone?’ Miette panted, flexing her sore arms. ‘We lost nanny,’ said the boy, sticking his thumb in his mouth. ‘You saved the baby from falling out the pram.’ Miette tucked the blankets around the girl, who was now staring at her with large, solemn eyes. ‘Peter Pan says girls are much too clever to fall out of their prams,’ Miette said. ‘Who is Peter Pan?’ Her skin tingled as a starry night sky replaced her view of the gardens and four children flew high over London… ‘He’s the boy who never—’ She froze, shutting her mouth before the rest of the words could escape. Careful. The children looked up at her expectantly. ‘I’m sorry,’ she stammered. Her cheeks burned. ‘I can’t…’ Miette turned and fled, blood pounding in her ears. ‘Idiot!’ she said aloud. She’d come so close – too close – to telling that story. And to betraying Tatiana. How could she? Mud squelched beneath her boots as she made her way back through the gardens and down to the canal. She tucked a heavy lock of hair, braided with story-stones, behind her 90
ear. Raindrops rippled on the water and a duck swam by, its orange feet paddling furiously. Her chest felt heavy. Would Tatiana be upset that Miette had almost told one of their stories to someone else? Her throat thickened with tears. What if she stopped coming? It wasn’t the first time this had happened. That was the horrible truth of it. New ideas had begun to tug at Miette’s imagination every day. She could feel a fizzing on the tip of her tongue, a warmth deep in her belly. She’d never felt such a strong sensation, not even before the accident. In the days after, her mind had been just a bottomless, reeling wave of Darkness. But since the first dream, since the day she’d emerged from her nest of quilts in Tatiana’s bunk, she could feel it inside her. It was a story, of course. One that was desperate to be told. But every time she let her mind wander there, the Darkness returned. Miette was six the first time she created a story-stone, and seven when she made the second. She’d been telling the tale of a swan who longed to dance with the moon, and an ache had tightened in her chest at the thought of him never reaching it. The stone had emerged at her temple like the first time, brimming with story. And when it dropped it bounced, once, twice, three times on the quay, and everyone had scrambled after it to stop it falling into the canal. There was a scar there now, one that had re-opened ten times since. But it was fading fast. She walked past the brightly coloured narrowboats moored along the canal, where clean linen hung to dry and children jumped from the bows into the water. Miette shivered as she stopped to peer into the murky depths. Her reflection rippled in front of her, her brooch glinting on her chest. Twisted silver branches formed the brooch’s circular shape, coming together at the top to create a clasp. Inside the circle sat a crow, holding a very small, sphere-like object in its beak. Miette had been presented with the brooch on the day of her storying, when she’d created her first story-stone. It marked her admission into the Society. She climbed onto the Mythmaker, the narrowboat both she and
Tatiana were born on. Her pet crow Merle was perched on the roof. He stared at her with his beady eyes, as if he knew something she didn’t. ‘Crows understand stories,’ Da had once told Miette. ‘Why else would there be so many of them along our canal?’ A rich, buttery smell hit her as she jumped down the steps into the galley. Maman stood over the stove, tendrils of damp hair escaping her neat chignon. Story-stones adorned her wrists like expensive pearl bracelets and her crow brooch was nestled in the folds of her blouse. Three mackerels sizzled in the pan, their skins crispy. Miette’s mouth watered. ‘The story-gathering is postponed,’ Maman said. ‘Ronan didn’t return to his boat yesterday. His mother is frantic. Your Da and some of the men have gone looking for him.’ ‘That’s four in the last month,’ said Miette, dipping a piece of stale bread into the pan. ‘Penny’s cousin disappeared last week running an errand for her Ma.’ Miette popped the bread into her mouth. ‘Johnnie says she ran away with a man old enough to be her Da.’ ‘She did no such thing!’ Maman said sharply, a crease appearing on her forehead. ‘Johnnie Pike’s a fibber and knights know where that’s got him. Into a whole lot of trouble, no doubt.’ Miette wiped her fingers on her skirts. Johnnie had been missing for a week, and she’d lost all chance of finding him today. He and the others had probably got themselves into a whole lot of fun, and now Ronan had joined them. She walked through the galley and the tiny living space where Da’s armchair stood, past the walls studded with decorative plates, each one depicting a knight, then through Da and Maman’s sparse bedroom. She reached the doorway at the back, which was covered by a curtain and led into her room. Her bunk was fixed just below the ceiling and beneath it, Tatiana’s had been folded up against the wall. Miette turned away from it. Through the window was the canal. One side was lined with boats and the other side was empty, so that people could move up and down on the water. A cool mist crept across it, stretching long, white fingers 92
all the way down to Ronan’s motionless boat. The windowsill was lined with treasures, gifts Merle had brought to her: a piece of twine, a thimble, the back of an earring, two buckles, a shard of blue china and a heart-shaped shell. Miette reached up to her bunk on tiptoes and pulled out a book from beneath her pillow. It had a green cloth cover and a boy playing the flute was gilded in the centre, flanked by two mermaids. The boat rocked as someone stepped onboard. Da was home. Miette tucked the book under her arm and went out to meet him. He was sat at the table, where Maman was serving the fish up onto plates with a boiled potato each. It had been their worst year for storytelling so far – people were too busy to stop and listen – and that meant a lack of coin. Da smiled as Miette kissed him on the cheek, his eyes crinkling. His hair was tied up into lots of small plaits, a story-stone hanging from each one. ‘There’s my girl,’ he said. ‘Where have you been this morning?’ Miette placed her book on the table. ‘Ah,’ said Da. ‘This one again.’ He ran a heavy hand over the cover. ‘Odd things, books. So beautiful, yet they imprison stories between their pages, trapping the words inside.’ ‘That’s why I like them,’ said Miette. ‘They never change.’ ‘I’m glad you place so much importance on reading,’ said Maman, who liked to encourage scholarly things. ‘But you used to be so good at telling stories. Why don’t you try making a story-stone again?’ For a split-second, Miette allowed herself to remember what that felt like. The giddiness that came with creating a world that hadn’t existed minutes before. Savouring each word on her tongue like blobs of melting honey. The bittersweet pain of her scar splitting open for a new story-stone to emerge. But she knew, as a lump rose in her throat and rage ripped through her belly, that if she dared to create a storystone, if she dared to put her own ideas into words once more, Tatiana would be lost forever.
CATHERINE YOUNG Catherine spent her childhood in Ghana, Italy, Austria, Germany, and Denmark. She started writing stories for school magazines when she was eight years old and has had articles and stories published. More recently, she has co-authored a non-fiction book about Neolithic stone circles. Catherine speaks several languages and has a taste for travel and adventure; she once rode a horse 1000 kilometres across Europe, but she now leads a calmer life in Wiltshire as an English teacher with three children, three dogs and two horses. About #NetProfits: Soccer Edition Joe’s grandad has died. His gran’s silent in her grief. His mum’s away. His dad has a new girlfriend. All that’s left is football; on the pitch and online. But Grandad was his fantasy football partner, and football’s banned at school because of vandalism. Joe knows it’s time to act. But what can he do? How can his team finally beat their closest rivals in the schools’ league, when they’re not even allowed on the pitch to play? As Joe works his way through his troubles – and encounters worse ones on the way – he discovers the answers lie closer to home than he thought. email@example.com 94
#NETPROFITS: SOCCER EDITION Have you ever seen a dead person? I have. I’d been at Dad’s for the weekend and came back as usual on Sunday afternoon. Mr Brewer next door was putting out his dustbin, so I gave him a hand, and we talked about football and the weather, and then I went into my house, and my life changed. Gran was out. I found out later that she and her friend Betty had been at the church hall, clearing up after a jumble sale. Grandad often had a nap in the afternoons, so I thought I’d make him some tea. I wanted to see him, to chat about yesterday’s footy scores. It was while I was waiting for the water to boil that I realised Flight wasn’t around. She usually greeted me at the front door, but I just assumed she was in the garden. I glanced at the dog flap because it gets stuck sometimes, but it looked okay. I’ll check on her later, I thought, as the kettle switched itself off. I made the tea in his favourite mug (Yeovil Town) and went upstairs. Flight was on the landing, outside Grandad’s door. She was lying with her head on her paws and she wagged just the fluffy white end of her tail. Thump, thump, then stopped. She’s a border collie, always bouncing and always up for a game of football. Now, she just looked desperately sad. I know that sounds mad, that dogs can’t show their feelings, but she could. There was a dull, hopeless look in her amber eyes. I stroked her head and felt afraid. I knocked, but as Grandad was a bit deaf I didn’t wait for an answer, just opened the door, and as soon as I did, I knew something was different. Nothing obvious, not at first. His slippers were neatly together on 95
the green rug by the bed, ready for him to step into when he got up. The radio on the windowsill burbled quietly. His alarm clock ticked. It wasn’t a tick-tock sort of clock, just a tick, tick, tick. There was a stillness in the air, like that weird moment you can get if you hold your breath until all the outside sounds fade. Grandad looked as he always did when he was asleep. Just something made me hesitate, and I realised there was none of the Grandad noises, the whistly breathing and snuffly snoring. But at the time I didn’t get what was different, so I went in, all chirpy. ‘Grandad, here’s some tea. And how did we manage to concede five yesterday? I thought, with the new manager and all…’ Usually, Grandad woke up quickly. His hands would move first, fingers curling slowly on the pink patterned bedspread. Then his eyelids would flutter and he’d smile. He always smiled as he woke up. This time, nothing. Rien, as Sarky would say. (Course, Sarky isn’t his real name, which is French and unpronounceable, but part of his surname sounds like ‘sarky’, so that’s what we call him.) I went closer to the bed and realised he was dead. I put the tea on the bedside table, on a lacy thing Gran had crocheted. It was a stupid thing to do cos he wasn’t going to drink it, not now, not any time soon, not ever. I just stood there and looked at him. I think I was in shock. Cos the more I looked, the more I felt I was in some kind of dream. You know the sort? When you’re in your house, but it’s not your house? That kind of stuff ? That’s what it was like with Grandad. He was Grandad, but he wasn’t. I mean, it was him – his body. I could see all the usual wrinkles and the little scar on his wrist. Even the broken fingernail where Gran had cut it a bit wonky. But it wasn’t him. What was in the bed was like an empty eggshell. Something was missing. Whatever it was that made him Grandad had gone and had left just the shell behind. So where was Grandad? Behind me, Flight whined, crept forward on her belly, then stopped. I heard the front door open, then shut, the wind chimes clinking on 96
the porch. ‘Joseph?’ Gran’s voice floated, all trembly, up the stairs. Straight away I knew that she knew. Maybe you can’t live with someone for about sixty years and not feel it – this weird emptiness that even I could sense, and I’d only known him for twelve. I went to the turn on the stairs and looked down at her. She looked at me, pulled her green cardigan tightly across her chest. Her shoulders hunched and her keys jingled as her hands started shaking. I dragged myself downstairs and we hugged each other. She smelt of lavender and hairspray and I could feel her sharp shoulder blades. I don’t really do hugging at all – me and Sarky never, ever bro-hug – but this seemed to be a time when it was the only thing to do. We’d both lost something we’d valued. Something irreplaceable. What else can you do? She went up to see him, pulling herself up the banisters, pausing every couple of steps. I watched til she was safely at the top, then went and made more tea and wondered what happens when someone dies. A fly was buzzing against the window, beating itself senseless, so I let it out and off it flew, free, alive. I dried up some plates, wiped the surfaces, waited. Gran came in so quietly she made me jump when she said, ‘Call your parents, Joe.’ I felt sick at the thought of telling them, of saying the words out loud, cos that would make it real, which of course it was already. But I looked at Gran, at her bleak eyes, her tired grey face, and nodded. ‘Okay. Just let me pour you a cup of tea first, Gran.’ She sat down at the table, her movements slow and heavy, pushed away a couple of magazines. One was Grandad’s bird one. There was a big lump in my throat. I went into the garden, rang Mum first. ‘Joe? I’m driving. Can you hear me? Are you okay?’ And of course, I didn’t know what to say next. How could I tell her that her father was dead when she was, by the sounds of things, on a motorway? What if she crashed? ‘Joe? Joe? You there?’
‘Yes, Mum, I’m here. Mum… can you come home? Like, now?’ ‘I’ve got a drop to do at Exeter, then I’m done,’ she replied. ‘Can it wait a few hours?’ No. I need you now! ‘Sort of,’ I managed. ‘But it’s Grandad. He… he’s…’ ‘He’s what?’ I couldn’t say it. Dead. But Mum heard something in my silence. ‘I’ll make some calls, be there as soon as I can.’ Somewhere above me, a blackbird sang. I looked up, to try to see it, but the sharp sunlight filtering through the trees blinded me and made my eyes water. I called Dad. As he picked up, I heard laughter, a female voice. At his girlfriend’s house, then. ‘What’ve you forgotten this time?’ he said. ‘Nothing. It’s Grandad… he’s… he’s…’ ‘On my way.’ I sat on the wall at the edge of our little patio and stared down the path to the shed at the bottom. A sparrow perched on the fence, chirped, checked out its tail feathers, flew off. A beetle crawled along a gap in the paving. Gran was still sitting where I’d left her, her hands curled around her cold cup of tea. She looked up and her face scared me. I’d thought she’d be crying, but her eyes were quite dry, quite blank, and there was a stillness about her, as though life had gone from her, as well. ‘Dad’s coming,’ I said, but she barely nodded. He arrived, took me to one side and said, ‘Pop round and tell Betty, will you? Ask her if she can come over.’ It’s an awful thing to say, but I was glad to get out of the house. Betty lived two streets away, but I didn’t want to get there too quickly, so I dawdled a bit. There was a group of boys leaning on the wall by the electrical shop, but I didn’t know them. I was thinking how to tell Betty. I practised saying, ‘Grandad’s dead,’ and when a girl in a pink jacket gave me a strange look I realised I’d said it out loud. 98
Betty opened the door straight away. She’s almost the complete opposite of Gran. She’s plump and round: round face, round greyframed spectacles, round hips. ‘Grandad’s dead,’ I blurted. ‘Can you come?’ I should have thought, should have been more tactful. She stared at me and gasped, but she was already untying her apron, pushing off her slippers, lacing her brown shoes. Then she straightened, picked up her keys, gave me a quick hug. ‘Your poor Gran,’ she said as we hurried back. ‘Poor you. I’m so very sorry.’ * Later, saying I was taking Flight for a walk, I went to meet Mum. I knew it was still a bit soon to expect her, but I went anyway, cos it was better than being in the house. Gran and Betty had shut themselves in the sitting room and Dad was pacing the garden, up and down the little cobbled path, muttering into his phone and waiting for the doctor. Mum was supposed to take her lorry back to the depot across town when she finished a run, but sometimes, if she was going out again the following day, she parked it at the back of the industrial estate just a few streets away. A young couple had a unit there where they made things little things like earrings and pendants out of stained glass panels and lamps. They never minded if she parked on the empty space at the side. When I got to the estate a group of kids was playing on skateboards. I doubled back and took an overgrown path that led alongside a drainage ditch and came out at the end unit. There was a wall, a strip of grass, and I sat there and waited. Flight sniffed through the litter in the ditch, then came and sat next to me on the wall. I put my arm around her. ‘I’ll look after you now, I promise,’ I whispered. While I waited, I thought about my fantasy football team. Grandad and I had agreed to make our ideal team of ultimate Yeovil Town players, then compare them and decide on a final dream team. Then I
remembered that we wouldn’t do this now, ever. A big tear dripped down my cheek. I heard the roar of Mum’s articulated lorry long before she turned in. She swung the massive truck into the estate, reversed into the empty space, turned off the engine. Mum’s not much taller than me, and her lorry always makes her look really tiny when she jumps down from it. She’s got short dark hair, a thin, oval face, freckles. She slung her bag over her shoulder, walked quickly over, gold hooped earrings bouncing, and hugged me. Usually, her brown eyes shone, but today they looked bleak. Dark holes. ‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’ she asked quietly, and I nodded. She hugged me again. Tightly. * I didn’t go to school that week. Gran needed me; Mum and Dad couldn’t be with her all the time. I helped around the house, watched her TV shows with her, tried, as Mum had asked me, to ‘keep her mind off things’, but it was impossible, of course. Grandad was everywhere. His photo on the dresser, his dressing-gown on the back of the bathroom door, his shoes, coats… And Flight, moping, sticking close to me, as if afraid I’d disappear too. On Wednesday, Dad came round and gave me the latest version of a new game, one that I really wanted. #NetProfits. A football game. Sarky had it. I’d played it a few times, and it was complicated but great. ‘Might help take your mind off things, sometimes,’ he said. ‘But don’t neglect Gran, will you? I’m off now.’
This Week’s Review:
Reviewer rating: ***** Players’ rating: ***** When I first played this game, I hated it. But read on. I’ve never before given a game 5 stars! Why did I hate it? Because it’s cleverer than I am. But as I got my head round it, I realised it’s probably one of the best I’ve ever played in this range of games. For those of you who haven’t got it yet (WHY NOT?), it’s a cunning mix of a FIFA-type game with a Pokémon-Go, with added whizzy bits. And the manufacturers guarantee ‘inexplicable surprises’. It’s a step up from this company’s #GoalGain. #NetProfits:Soccer asks you to agree a budget. Then you collect players for your team. Open the app anywhere and see if there are any footy players lurking around – they don’t just appear, neatly organised in league teams. You have to find them. But here’s a tip: if you’re going for popular players, the younger you can sign them, the cheaper they’ll be. Lucky you, if you live near where Beckham, or Rooney, or Ronaldo were born! Another seriously cool feature is that you can make avatars of your mates. So what’s not to like? Well, spikes, for a start. They are players who look like they’re going to be good, then are total rubbish. Occasionally the graphics are weak – some players are a bit fuzzy round the edges, which makes them harder to recognise. There are a lot of command buttons to learn, and I’m still not sure what the hashtag key does exactly. But once you’ve got the hang of it, play can be fast and furious. Happy gaming!
ZULEKHÁ AISHA AFZAL Zulekhá grew up in Cornwall amongst stunning countryside and coastlines, both of which have inspired her writing. She now lives in Bath where she studied for her undergraduate degree in English Literature and Creative Writing and works as the Assistant Editor at Ice House Books. From a young age, Zulekhá has always enjoyed storytelling, whether through her writing or through dance during a ballet class. Her earliest stories were about the fairies she believed lived in her garden. Since then her writing has taken on a darker undertone, though still with a sprinkling of magic and hope. About The Wandering Stars: Roots Sixteen-year-old Alouette has a secret… she’s the heir to her land, Rhelliah. Why is it a secret? Because the West has attacked Rhelliah and it’s all her fault. When Alouette loses everything she loves, she’s forced to hide her identity to save her land and its people from the cruel fate she’s brought upon them. But she soon discovers the world’s magic is also under threat and the Spirits of the Seasons are fading across the four lands. Will hope and the mysterious Kaden be enough to help Alouette restore peace in Rhelliah? Or will the secrets she unravels about her mixed heritage change the future that was always planned for her? firstname.lastname@example.org | @zulekha_afzal
THE WANDERING STARS: ROOTS Life is an art. With the stroke of a brush We paint for ourselves the path we will follow, Never alone with the guidance of the stars above That glimmer so bright, The eyes that see all. Olapheirean Proverb
Chapter One Water lapped at Alouette’s feet as the ocean’s tide drew near. Shakily, she stepped onto a rock and leant against the wall of the cave, all jagged lines and darkness but for the small rays of light that crept through the opening. Day wasn’t ready to turn to night. Alouette watched the two ships grow smaller in the distance, dots on the horizon. She couldn’t look at the bodies they’d left behind on the beach, their faces pale grey and limbs broken. I’m still alive. Alouette shuddered against the wind that rushed through the cave and the flurry of images it brought with it. The cove, filling up with villagers from the neighbouring village of Laurille. A bustle of joy as children played in the snow-covered sand and everyone waited for the arrival of the West’s royal ships; for Prince Zaernon of Serapheer. Alouette shook her head, needing the memory to stop there. 105
Cheers erupted as the bow of the first ship emerged from beyond the cliffs on the left. Alouette squeezed her eyes shut but the image only came into sharper focus. A second ship appeared from behind the cliffs on the right. The carved sea dragons at the ships’ prowls snarled at the onlookers on the beach. Pirate ships. The cheering stopped. Horns sounded from across the water. Then silence. Even the waves fell still, hanging in the air before crashing onto the surrounding rocks. Pirates ran out of the caves within the cove. More pirates rowed towards the beach from the ships. The villagers ran towards the dunes. The beach was an orchestra of screams, shrieks, and shrill laughter. An ambush. The squawks of seagulls brought Alouette back to the present. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered, wiping tears away with the back of her hand. ‘Lyara hellu.’ The wind carried the old blessing with it. Alouette stepped down from the rock and into the water that pooled at her feet. The cold bit at her, as the water drenched the bottom of her dress and threatened to leak into her boots. She wrapped her fur-lined cloak further around her and pulled up the hood. With her right hand firmly clasped around the handle of her knife, she slowly walked out of the cave. She had to fight the memory of her own knife cutting through flesh as her eyes drifted to the ground and she warily walked between still bodies. I had no choice. But the guilt had already settled deep in her. Guilt for wounding someone. Guilt for so many lives being lost. Ma and Pa. She had to get home, to know her family was safe and to warn them about the attack on the beach. The snowfall had passed and the violet clouds revealed a hint of amber as the sun set. An ache gaped within her as she walked through the massacre towards the dunes. Why would pirates attack? Why would they take some people captive and kill others? It didn’t make sense. Had the pirates also attacked Serapheer’s royal ships? 106
Zulekhà Aisha Afzal
Panic pushed her legs forwards until she was running. Her feet sank into the wet sand with each step as she made for the dunes. ‘Help.’ Alouette stopped still. ‘Help…’ The faint call floated from somewhere to her left. Alouette followed the voice, looking from body to body. No one was moving. ‘Save me. Save me.’ It was a man’s voice. Alouette ran towards his calls then stopped as a silhouette rose up from behind some rocks. ‘Please don’t kill me,’ the silhouette mocked. It stepped around the rocks and walked towards her. Alouette’s hand tightened around her knife as the silhouette drew closer. The late light revealed his tousled hair and a mallet swinging at his side. The man had a crooked smile and cocked his head from one side to the other. Run. But she stood motionless as a warm mist curled around her face, carrying with it a rancid smell worse than the metallic stench of blood. Someone else was behind her. ‘Hello, Pretty,’ said the man walking towards Alouette. She made to run but the person behind yanked down her hood and tugged at her curls, pulling her back towards them. ‘I like ’er ’air,’ said the man holding her back. She could hear the smile on his lips as he said, ‘Maybe we can keep ’er,’ and continued to play with her hair. Both men laughed. The one with the mallet edged closer. His wild, yellow-stained eyes took in Alouette. ‘Maybe we can,’ he said. The pirate behind her twirled her hair and let go of her after a final tug that stung her scalp. Both pirates began to circle Alouette, eager for their prey. She wouldn’t let them sense her fear. She wasn’t going to be their next victim. She only turned her head to follow them, and most of all, the mallet.
The one without a weapon stopped suddenly in front of Alouette. He reached out his hand and let it hang there in front of her before he traced her face, from her forehead to her cheek, with his finger. His nail was long and uneven. As it scratched across her skin, she did her best not to flinch. ‘We ain’t supposed to leave any of ya alive,’ he said. ‘But I fink we can ’ave ya.’ ‘How about,’ she said as she drew up her knife, ‘you keep your hands to yourself.’ Alouette struck the pirate deep in his arm. He yelped. ‘Ya little—’ She stabbed him again in his thigh and he stumbled back with a cry. Behind her, the one who held the mallet laughed like it was all a show. ‘Feisty, this one.’ Alouette faced him. His mallet was mid-air, ready to hit. She ducked under his blow then sprinted towards the dunes. Adrenaline rushed through her. Snow and sand, thick with blood, kicked up the back of her cloak as she dodged the bodies. Shrieks followed Alouette as she ran up the dunes. Her boots caught on the hem of her dress and she tripped and clung to the long grass for balance. She dared a glance over her shoulder; even the pirate she’d stabbed staggered after her, pushing the other one in his race to her. ‘Don’t gotta run, girly,’ shouted one of the pirates. ‘We just wanna play.’ Alouette urged her feet to move faster, but with a sudden jolt, she was pulled backwards. ‘Got ya,’ yelled the pirate as he yanked at her cloak. Alouette stumbled as the pirate grabbed her arm. He twisted her around to face him; it was the one she’d stabbed. Alouette was ready to throw another blow his way but the blow came from somewhere else, someone else. The pirate’s cheek was crushed by the weight of the mallet. He fell to the ground. In his place stood the one who’d just killed him. Alouette staggered back as shock rippled through her. ‘You even kill your own?’ The words fell out of her mouth. 108
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‘If they get in the way of what I want,’ spat the pirate. His mallet dripped red onto the snow-topped sand. ‘Why ya runnin’?’ he asked as if he was genuinely curious. ‘We’re not ’ere to let anyone get away.’ Alouette steadied her breathing. ‘And why are you here?’ she asked. ‘Why did you kill all of these people? Why didn’t you leave on the ships with the other pirates?’ Yellow teeth snarled at Alouette as a smile stretched across his stubbly face. ‘Got fings to take care of.’ He lifted his mallet and swung. Alouette swerved and ran, all the way through the Fields of Adeline towards the village of Laurille. All she could focus on was getting home. She had to warn her family. Or did they already know? Were they looking for her? Hope spread through Alouette as she sprinted up the hill overlooking the village. But as she neared the top, her hope faded. The air was dry and bitter and the smoke that billowed up from the village was unfamiliar. Alouette coughed as she inhaled the smoke. She heard the pirate cough and splutter as well and picked up her pace again. As she came over the hill, she saw the sky was lit up with a glow that stained the dark clouds. Flames twisted and curled around the old stone homes and spread ferociously throughout the village. ‘No.’ Her heart thumped. ‘Where ya goin’?’ yelled the pirate. ‘I’ll keep chasin’ ya. I ain’t goin’ nowhere unless ya kill me,’ he said as he dropped his mallet and ran at her. Alouette held up her knife. ‘Then I’ll have to kill you,’ she said through gritted teeth and sliced the bare skin on his arm. The pirate winced and wrestled the knife out of her hand, throwing it behind him. Alouette’s arms shook as he tried to push her to the ground and she tried to force him off her. He spat in her face then grabbed a handful of her hair in his fist. She kicked at his shins and elbowed him in the stomach. His hands loosened around her. She untangled herself from his grasp and, catching sight of her knife, skidded towards it on the snow-sodden grass, picked it up, and ran.
Instinct led her towards the forest. Light was failing them, the hunter and the hunted. There was no time to think as she entered the darkness and the trees became denser around her. She could only hope the cover of nightfall would shield her footprints from the pirate. Careful not to trip over any thick roots, Alouette found a tree with a trunk large enough to hide behind. As familiar as the forest was to her, there was something about the darkness that allowed her imagination to play tricks. The trees looked alive; their branches swayed in the wind, like hands ready to grab her. And she could have sworn she heard more than one set of footsteps out there. Alouette held her knife close to her chest. Her whole body trembled. Not even the warmth of her cloak could stop her from shaking. A sudden howl erupted from the direction she’d come from. It wasn’t a wolf. The howl was followed by a laugh ridden with hysteria. The pirate howled again, from even further away this time. Alouette let out a breath then jerked as something moved nearby. She stayed completely still and listened to the sounds around her. There were none but for the stir of the branches in the wind and the hoot of an owl. Her exhausted body gave in and she rested against the tree. Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the dark and she watched a badger crawl out from its burrow. How lucky, that he’d been able to sleep all day and stay hidden from the attack. A fox appeared and stopped briefly in front of her, shook off its damp coat, then meandered back through the trees. Life was untouched in the forest. Images played over in her mind of that afternoon: of the beach before it happened, the moment the ships arrived, and the chaos that followed. Of the village in flames. Of her parents that very morning, getting ready for the royal guests due to arrive over the coming days. The bitter chill crept under her cloak. Alouette pulled her hood back up, wiped her knife clean against some moss at the base of the tree and put it back in its sheath, then wrapped her cloak around herself. Everything in her called for sleep but she couldn’t close her eyes. There was nowhere to safely hide and she didn’t trust that her dreams wouldn’t 110
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turn into nightmares. I need to go home. Even in the gloom of night, she knew the way back. She had to warn her family and know they were safe. If it weren’t for the night noise that already sang in her ears, Alouette might have been alarmed by the crunch of a branch behind her. Hands wrapped around her mouth. ‘Don’t fight.’
SHANNON BARRETT Shannon is an aspiring children’s author, currently writing a futuristic fantasy novel called The Rebel Court, aimed at YA readers. Shannon’s love for writing started from an early age and this passion encouraged her to apply for an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and Publishing, before moving on to the MA in Writing for Young People. She believes writing and novels allow others to escape to a world away from our own, we can step out of our heads and into someone else’s. It’s a powerful thing and one that she wants to be able to encourage in others. About The Rebel Court I stand next to him and turn my head up to see what he sees. Fire. Burning. Destruction. The bombs come every night at 6pm. They are a reminder of the never-ending war that started long ago and, without the domes, no one would survive. Leda must fight to stay alive, she must avoid the Imperial Justice and continue to support her family any way she can. But when a boy called Calem falls into her life her view on the world she lives in changes dramatically. Truths will be tested and lies revealed. It’s a dangerous game, living under the domes. email@example.com | @ShannonKims
THE REBEL COURT Chapter One The train rumbles past me, shooting through the station and making the overhead lights rattle back and forth. It casts rays up and down Platform One, momentarily blinding me. When I regain my vision, I see the red lights of the back of the train. It’s the five-to-five to Waretown, which means my train home is only ten minutes away. The trains run to a tight schedule, always arriving and passing through on time. They get us where we need to be, but we could blink and almost miss them. They’re our life support. I hug my arms across my body trying to warm myself; people around me are hunched over, protecting themselves against the bitter winter. The puddles on the side of the platform are frozen and I can hear a tiny crunch every time someone steps on one. The drips on the ceiling have formed into icicles, dropping down and creating beautiful sculptures that point towards the train tracks treacherously. They glisten in the artificial light, both dangerous and beautiful. They are stunning and yet they are unbearably cold. They’ve become a decoration, but they are also a weapon. I hear someone sneeze in the background and another person cough under their scarf. I take a step back as if their germs can reach me. I tug my scarf closer around my mouth and nose – I can’t afford to get sick. There have been reports of people getting ill all over Newtown and Waretown and having to miss work as a result. Thankfully though, people dropping out of work means more shifts for me to cover and more shifts mean more money for our food bid. 113
The warehouse I work in has no heating to keep us warm and the thin windows ice over as quickly as the temperature drops. My job is to make sure each station is continuously stocked with the correct parts throughout the day, which thankfully means I’m always on the move. Unfortunately, I’m always cold whilst I’m on the move and with us being short-staffed it’s meant that every day for the past week I’ve had to work through my break and I’m exhausted. The gloves I wear barely block the cold and I rub my hands together at the thought of the icy warehouse. The underground station of Waretown is beginning to crowd as more people leave work. They walk down the stone steps and pay no attention to me. They stand next to one another, eyes on the clock and looking for their train out of here. Counting down the minutes until they are back with their families, safe and sound. Counting down the minutes until curfew hits and the alarms sound. ‘Leda!’ A shout pulls me out of my thoughts and across the station. Across the tracks my idiot brother, Zach, is waving frantically and pulling funny faces. I shake my head at him and grin, I no longer feel cold under his electrifying eyes. As he lowers his arms he mouths, ‘Okay?’ and I nod in return before mouthing, ‘You?’ He puts his thumbs up in response. He holds six fingers up to me and I nod. We both have an hour to get home, though his journey will be tighter than mine. The people on his side of the station are more anxious than those of us on Platform One. I can see them eyeing each other warily, waiting for the train to approach. Some have slung their bags over their shoulders or pushed them behind their backs, so they are out of the way. Others have them clinging tightly to their chest as they wait to pounce. Hunters waiting for their prey. ‘Hi Leda.’ I tear my gaze away from my brother and watch as my next-door neighbour, Lex, stops besides me. ‘How are you doing?’ he asks. ‘I’m good.’ I nod, looking back across the platform to see Zach checking his watch. 114
‘He’ll be okay,’ Lex reassures me. ‘He’s done this hundreds of times.’ ‘I know.’ I nod again. ‘What’s your family’s ticket number?’ Silence. Exactly. ‘It will be fine, Leda.’ ‘I know it will. He’s my brother, he’s always on time.’ I rub my arms again, the chill returning and settling itself on my heart. ‘What’s yours?’ I pause before saying, ‘589.’ ‘That’s not… too bad.’ ‘What, not as bad as 600?’ I say, anger leaching into my voice. ‘Leda, I’m sorry I didn’t mean anything by it.’ He touches my arm and I take a step away from him. ‘No, it’s fine.’ I shrug. ‘It’s all we could afford this week, my papa’s been off sick.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.’ ‘LEDA.’ I whip my head back towards my brother. ‘TRAIN,’ he yells, pointing to my oncoming five-past-five train. ‘YOU’LL BE ALRIGHT?’ He nods. ‘I’LL SEE YOU SOON.’ The train stops, and I jump on as soon as the doors open, I can’t afford to be left behind, the next train to our town is not for another twenty-five minutes. I push my way through the crowd until I’m at the opposite doors. I press my palm to the window, wipe the condensation away, and peer out. I can just make out my brother’s figure on Platform Two. Please be safe, please be safe, please be safe. ‘You can do this,’ I whisper. My brother nods, as if he can hear me. Then his train arrives and mine departs, the blur makes my head spin and I have to step away from the window. I feel someone jolt behind me, so I lean my head forward and press it against the window, it’s cold against my skin but I can’t pull away from it. I can’t bring myself to move
or to think of anything but Zach. I pray that he will be safe, I pray that he will get our food allowance and I pray that he will get home in one piece. Mostly I pray he will make it home before the bombs hit.
Chapter Two I stare at the crumbling patch of wall that’s taken out the ‘O’ in the words Platform Two. It’s rotting away and encroaching on the ‘W’, it is sad to think that soon the damp and mould will take away the whole word. It is just a matter of time. Two days. That’s all it’s been, and I can’t help but stare at Platform Two like he’ll suddenly appear. Waving at me and grinning with that smile that somehow makes everything better. But he doesn’t arrive. Instead people begin to crowd around me, shoving their way to the front. I allow myself to be pushed backwards. I breathe heavily as I rest my back against the arch of the brick wall. The station is closing in around me, pressing against my windpipe and forcing a fist around my throat. The drips of water drop from the ceiling at a steady pace – drip, drip, drip – before they start to pour, filling the tracks and rising up to the platforms until we are all wading in the water. The people around me pay no attention as it rises up to my neck. The icy cold water pauses for a second and I catch a glimpse of unruly hair before it completely covers my mouth and nose, submerging me. I clutch at my throat, willing some air into my body. I can feel my knees buckle under the pressure and I flail in the water. But the unruly-haired person catches me, and the water washes away. Then they’re pulling me forward, pushing the crowd out of the way and helping me to stand. They clutch at my waist and I can hear muffled words, but I’m still trying to catch my breath and make my eyes focus so I can’t hear what’s being said. 116
Then I see him. He’s waving at me from across the station. His smiling happy face that mouths, ‘You alright?’ and I blink repeatedly, rubbing my eyes and urging them to focus properly. Memories float around my head, happy memories that are full of laughter. They make my heart split in two and my body once again convulse. I look back up and the figure is gone. Of course he’s gone, the numbers were completely stacked against him, he was number 589 out of 600. Two days ago, twenty families lost someone they loved. And we lost Zach. ‘Pay attention.’ The boy shakes me out of my daze. ‘Huh?’ ‘You have to pay attention. The train will be here any minute and you know the rules on behaviour like that.’ ‘What?’ ‘You back there, freaking out like that. They would’ve taken you in for lunacy if they’d seen you.’ ‘I was just…’ ‘I know you’re suffering, but do you think they would’ve cared about that?’ I stare at him, trying to pinpoint where I know him from, but I can’t quite work it out. He stands a good foot taller than me. His hand is still curled around my arm, firm and steady. His brown curly hair is creeping forward into his eyes and he stares at me with such intensity it makes me squirm. ‘I wasn’t thinking,’ I say. ‘I couldn’t think properly.’ ‘Zach wouldn’t have wanted this. He’d have wanted you to remain in control around The Powers.’ I flinch at the sound of my brother’s name. Pulling myself out of the boy’s grip and glancing around me, but The Powers are paying no attention to me. Instead they’re looking around for any misbehaviour, looking for anyone to step out of line so they can be brought in for questioning. ‘How would you know what he’d have wanted?’ I ask harshly. ‘I know he wouldn’t have wanted this, Leda.’
I spin my head back to him. ‘How do you know my name?’ ‘Zach was my mate, you’re his sister. The least I can do is make sure you don’t make an idiot of yourself in front of The Powers.’ ‘Missing my brother does not make me an idiot.’ ‘No, but being questioned for lunacy does.’ ‘Fine,’ I mumble, folding my arms across my chest and looking to the time board. Two minutes. Two minutes until I can get away from… ‘What is your name anyway?’ ‘Calem.’ I nod, turning back to look down the black tunnel, willing the train to arrive. One minute. ‘How did you know my brother?’ ‘I worked with him.’ I nod. That makes sense. Zach worked in the Imperial Justice Building where the majority of the people from Newtown work. It houses many different skills and offices, ranging from the printing of the official documentations to trialling the people who were brought in by The Powers. Zach had worked in the industrial department, fitting the engines to the official monarch cars and fixing any problems in and around the building. ‘Leda!’ a voice calls. I prevent myself from sighing as Lex approaches me, he’s been practically stuck to my side for the past two days and I’m surprised he’s only just appearing. ‘I was looking for you,’ he says stopping next to me. His smile falters slightly when he notices Calem, but it’s gone in an instant and he takes his place next to me. ‘You’re late,’ I observe. ‘Sorry, Leda. I had to stay behind and clear some things up.’ ‘Almost missed the train,’ I say, as it approaches. Its horn blasts, warning everyone back from the tracks. I try not to think of all the people who have jumped in front of the train in the past month, all the people whose lives have been lost. Most jump because they can’t afford their bid, others jump so it’s one less mouth for their family to feed. The Imperial Justice calls them deserters. I think it’s just terribly sad. As it 118
slowly comes into the station we all take a step back, before the doors slide open and the pushing begins again. I leap onto the train, moving to stand in my preferred spot by the window. I realise I’ve lost Calem but Lex is right there next to me. I can feel the pressure of his hand on my back, it should feel comforting, but I can’t help but be annoyed by his touch. I know he means well but his constant presence is suffocating. I turn so I’m facing him, forcing him to remove his arm. I grip the rail above my head as the train lurches forward. I try not to stare too much at Platform Two and when tears begin to sting my eyes I rip my gaze away and look down at my feet instead. For the past three days, my heart has been crushing and squeezing in my chest. I get up every day because I have to, I dress myself because I have to, and I go to work because I have no other choice. We need the money. Since Mama and Papa are at home looking after my younger brother and sister, and mourning the loss of their eldest son, it’s up to me to bring in the money for our next bid. It’s pointless as we’ll never be able to get close to a good number, but I have to try. We will never last if we don’t have any food. Some of the families who are in the top one hundred can go weeks without having to put in another bid, meaning they can save their food supplies and hold onto their money. More money means a better bid, and a better bid means more food. We could all use more food, some more than others.
WIBKE BRUEGGEMANN Wibke grew up in northern Germany and the southern United States. She moved to the UK at nineteen and spent three years studying acting at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) in London. Wibke has had every day-job under the sun: from selling ice creams at the theatre, to translating text books on rock formations, to working for a global financial institution. In 2016, Wibke was offered a place on the MA Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University and became the recipient of the Bath Spa University Writing Award, courtesy of Audrey and Jack Ladevèze. Wibke’s short story The Beach Crowd was shortlisted for Stripes Publishing’s PROUD LGBTQ+ anthology. About Hormonal Horror & the Cancer Shop Fifteen-year-old Phoebe has concluded that falling in love is merely the result of an out-of-control concoction of dopamine, adrenaline, and phenylethylamine. She is convinced there is no reason anyone needs to fall victim to this unfortunate ‘condition’ as, surely, it can be: a) ignored, or b) remedied, following diagnosis. Her mission is going well, until, due to circumstances not entirely out of her control, Phoebe starts volunteering at a charity shop where she meets Emma… firstname.lastname@example.org | @WibkeBrueggeman
HORMONAL HORROR & THE CANCER SHOP Monday, January 1st #HappyNewYearToMe You can marry yourself. How strange/absurd/brilliant is that? It’s called ‘sologamy’ and here’s why it’s such a good idea: • The only person you need to actually like, answer to, or tolerate is you. • No one is ever going to leave you, disappoint you, or hurt you. • We all die alone anyway. I’m obviously not considering sologamy at this point in my life because I was secretly hoping to marry Polly one day (ew!), but because the sudden and rather unexpected end of our friendship is teaching me all sorts of vital life lessons; and let it be said that I’m a fast learner. For as long as I can remember it’s been Phoebe and Polly, Polly and Phoebe, the two Ps in a pod. We didn’t exist without the other; BFFs since birth. And suddenly, ding dong, Big Ben strikes midnight, and Tristan Can’t-Even-Ride-A-Bicycle Murphy pops the reality-altering question: ‘Polly, will you be my girlfriend?’ and just like that I’ve been literally erased from Polly’s brain. I’m not even angry about Polly losing her mind, I’m angry about being angry, because I knew (and I knew) it would come to this. I knew that when she was like: ‘Let’s all go to Embankment and see the fireworks,’ what she actually meant was: ‘Please, Phoebe, can you come along so that it isn’t obvious I’m asking Tristan on an actual date, 121
even though I basically am, because all I actually want is to be alone with him so that we can take whatever it is we’re doing “to the next level”.’ Bleugh! I never should have gone. Polly didn’t even wish me a happy new year. Possibly because she couldn’t see me at that point, because the moment the Thames erupted into the meteor-shower-like fireworks extravaganza that must have cost the tax-payer millions, all that existed for her was Tristan’s mouth. And you know how in films kisses are always really hot and gorgeous (mainly because the people are hot and gorgeous), well, Tristan looked like he was trying to swallow Polly’s entire head. I was literally sick in my mouth. Good thing was, though, that I fought my way back to the tube station as millions of people stood glued to the spot looking the other way, which meant that, apart from the driver, I was the only person on the District Line at 0:25. I’m at Kate’s until tomorrow (today, actually), because Mum had to go to a Syria crisis meeting, and when I let myself in, Kate was like: ‘What happened to you?’ Me: Polly’s got a boyfriend now, so she didn’t need me to stay out. Kate: I was going to pick you up from the station. Me: Well, I walked. Kate: You should’ve called me. Me: I didn’t. Kate: Wrong answer. Me: Sorry. And sorry. Kate: Better. Text Polly to say you’re home safe. Me: She doesn’t care. Kate: Text her anyway. Me: I’m going to bed. Kate: Happy New Year, Phoebe. I love you. Text Polly. I’m so not going to text her. 122
Polly just called me from the District Line. She was like: ‘I didn’t realise you’d gone.’ And then she was like: ‘Tristan this, Tristan that, Tristan says hi, OMG, I’m so happy about Tristan,’ and I was like: ‘Who is this? Can you get Polly, please?’ What happens to people when they fall in love? It’s like their brain short-circuits. Like they’ve had a stroke.
It’s been the shittest NYE in fifteen years. It’s been even more shit than last year when Polly puked in my lap after too many Apple Sourz. 3:30 Just researched sologamy a bit more and, even though it is a brilliant idea, the people who’ve done it look like proper dicks. PS: Polly still hasn’t wished me a happy new year. PPS: I think people turn crazy the moment they turn sixteen. Polly was literally normal until her birthday in November. PPPS: I swear I’m not going to fall victim to love when I turn sixteen, if it’s the last thing I do… or should that be ‘don’t do’?
Tuesday, January 2nd #TheHappyNewYearContinues There are seven billion people in the world. That’s seven million million. So why, oh why, does my mother think she has to be the one helping out whenever there’s a major catastrophe? This is how it always goes down: 123
Earthquake in Italy:
‘Sorry, Phoebe, I’m off to dig some nuns out from under the rubble.’ (Dumps me at Kate’s house.)
Hurricane in Haiti:
‘Sorry, Phoebe, I’m off to help all those who didn’t get blown away.’ (Dumps me at Kate’s house.)
Cholera in the Democratic Republic of Congo:
‘Sorry, Phoebe, I’m off to rehydrate the Third World.’ (Dumps me at Kate’s house.)
Ebola in Africa:
‘Sorry, Phoebe, a deadly disease that may or may not be airborne just broke out, and I simply must be there.’ (Dumps me at Kate’s house.)
So guess what happened when Mum collected me from Kate’s this morning? Yep. I knew what was going on as soon as I got into the car, but I didn’t say anything, because I was like: If you think I’m going to make this easy for you, you’ve never been more wrong. And when we got home Mum was all awkward like: ‘Sit down with me for a minute, Phoebe.’ Me: … Mum: Look, I have the opportunity to go to Syria for six months and help build a medical centre at a refugee camp. Me: … Mum: I know six months is a long time, but I promise I’ll be back for your birthday. Me: … Mum: I’ve spoken to Kate and she can’t wait to have you. 124
Me: … Mum: Come on, Phoebe, talk to me. Me: What about? You’ve already decided you’re going, so go. Bye. Mum: Phoebe, I… the people in Syria need help, and… I’m a doctor. I help. Me: When do I have to be packed? Mum: I’m flying to Ankara tomorrow. Me (leaving the room): … Mum: Phoebe— Me: What? I said it’s fine, so it’s fine. Mum: I’m sorry, Phoebe. Sorry? Oh, LOL. We’re way past sorry. When I tell people Mum works for MSF1 they’re always like: ‘Wow, that’s so amazing, you must be so proud’, but no one’s ever like: ‘It must really suck that your mum goes away for MONTHS at a time ALL THE TIME to places where BOMBS ARE DROPPING.’ No one cares about what it’s like for me. I grew up without a mother or a father, although Dad’s dead, which is a much better excuse for being absent than Mum’s constant Mother Teresa complex. Why have a child if you don’t want to spend time with it? It totally runs in the family, too. Nan and Grandpa moved back to Hong Kong where they grew up when Mum started Uni. I’m never having children. I wish I could call Polly, but I’m definitely not speaking to her after last night. And she still hasn’t wished me a happy new year.
MSF: Médecins Sans Frontières, i.e. Doctors Without Borders
Wednesday, January 3rd #SeeYouOrNot Mum dropped me off at Kate’s this morning. In the car she was all like: ‘Phoebe, I know the timing of this is terrible. I know you’ve got GCSEs, and I know how stressful that is, and please, if you need me to stay, I’ll stay. Please talk to me.’ But I was just like: ‘I don’t need you to stay. In fact, I don’t need anyone to do anything,’ and then I pretended to be doing something important on my phone. At Kate’s I took my things up to my room (I’m the only person I’ve ever known to have their own room at their godmother’s house) and shut the door behind me. I didn’t even say goodbye to Mum, but she clearly didn’t care, because she never a) knocked or b) tried to kick the door in. Mum’s a doctor first and a mum second. I’ve always known that. And I stopped doing goodbyes a long time ago.
Thursday, January 4th #FurBallCentral I don’t actually mind staying at Kate’s house. The positives outweigh the negatives as follows: Positive things about staying at Kate’s house: • Unlike Mum, Kate no longer works for MSF, and is therefore able to provide me with food, shelter, and emotional support. • She treats me like a flatmate, not like a five-year-old. • When she goes off on one, I struggle to be offended because she turns so Scottish that I basically can’t understand what she’s saying.
Negative things about staying at Kate’s: • Having to take the bus to school. • The designer cats. How is it possible that I’ve known those cats forever, but I still can’t tell which is which? I can only ever tell them apart when they’re sitting right next to each other. Just like Kayleigh and Melody Sessions (school uniforms do nothing for identical twins). The designer cats are going to be a bigger pain in the arse than usual, too, because they are currently a) in heat and so b) under strict house arrest (and therefore going nuts), because Kate has scheduled a shag-fest in High Barnet for them, so they can have designer kittens at the same time. When I’m not at Kate’s (which is never), the cats live in my room and they’re continuously scratching the door trying to get in, then whining because they can’t. This place is like a mental asylum run by a completely bonkers Scottish woman. Cat 1: Meow, meow, whinge, whinge, scratch, scratch. Kate: Mimi, Mimi, leave Phoebe alone. Mimi, Mimi, good girl. Who’s a good girl? Cat 2: Meow, hiss, scratch, whinge. Kate: Sassy, Sassy, come to Mama. Good girl, Sassy. Who’s a good girl? Cat 1 (Throws massive tantrum, knocking over everything that’s not glued to a surface): … Kate: Fer goodness sake, ye total crazy fuckwit, do I need to put ye in yer carrier? Me: … Mum always jokes about Kate ending up as a crazy cat lady, but hello, newsflash, it’s already happened.
Who drives their cats all the way to High Barnet to get shagged? There’s a designer boy cat up there who’s going to shag the designer cats all weekend, and then Kate is going to sell the designer kittens for like £500 each. Imagine there are eight of them. That’s £4000. This place is going to be furball-central. Oh, and FYI, the creepiest thing is that the cats are mother and daughter. Imagine a sex orgy with your mother, and then think about this: if you had a baby with your mum’s boyfriend, and your mum had a baby with him too, then your child would have the same dad as your brother/sister, and basically, how gross is that?
Friday, January 5th #Family Mum sent an email from Ankara telling me about all the fabulous people on her team. How nice for her to be surrounded by such a great bunch. And how equally wonderful for them to be spending so much time with my mother. Maybe they can tell me everything about her one day. Still nothing from Polly. Whatever.
Saturday, January 6th #HormonalCocktailFromHell I found one of Kate’s old medical books, and it’s changing my life. Turns out Polly is the victim of a chemical shitstorm in her brain. Out of control levels of phenylethylamine are basically giving her a personality change. Before her brain chemicals started boiling over, she was a normal person who saw someone like Tristan for what he was/is: a sixteen-year-old loser who can’t ride a bike. But suddenly: crash, bang, wallop. Love hormones are being released, and now she’s like: OMG, Tristan’s so hot, Tristan’s so wise, Tristan’s everything. So here’s what I’m thinking: I can totally prevent myself from becoming a victim of this unfortunate condition, because I’ll recognize 128
the chemical process in my own brain, and therefore will be able to react accordingly.
Sunday, January 7th #DisprovingTheTheoryOfEvolution Polly’s attraction to Tristan Training-Wheels Murphy makes no biological sense. Apparently, we subconsciously fancy people who will make superior babies, so the genepool can be enriched, and the human race can grow stronger and better. But Tristan can’t even ride a bike. Now, this wouldn’t be bad/questionable/problematic if he could, for example, fly a plane. But he can’t. So what’s going on? And how has Polly not called me in a week? Maybe her brain is actually broken. PS: Back to school tomorrow, and I’m sure all will be revealed.
Monday, January 8th #BackToSchoolHell I’ve sunk so low I had to sit with Miriam Patel and her minions at lunch. She saw that I was lunching solo and invited me to her table like she was Jesus hosting the last supper, all gracious, with her arms wide open. Everyone had to squeeze past Polly and Tristan kissing outside the library. Bleugh! On our way from French to Biology I told Polly that her mentionitis was already getting on my tits, because all she’d said to me all day thus far was: ‘Tristan thinks, Tristan says, Tristan wants…’ Me: Can you say one sentence without saying Tristan? Polly: You don’t get it, Phoebe, Tristan and I are in love. My god.
ZOE CROSSE Zoe Crosse spent her childhood exploring the beaches and secrets of the little island where she grew up in Kent. When she was big enough, she ran away to sea in search of wonder and adventure. Having spent three years surviving ocean storms, climbing mountains and crossing deserts, Zoe returned to London brimming with stories. She now spends her days plundering her imagination in the safety of Tottenham, where she has taught children for thirty years. Kiss Me When I’m Gone is her debut. It explores the magic of nature, love and belief. About Kiss Me When I’m Gone Bobby’s approaching 16th birthday turns her thoughts to her mother who she has only vague memories of. She distracts herself by trying to impress Thread, best friend, co-founder of their environmental school project, ‘Black Girls Are Green’, and the girl she longs to kiss. When Thread is kidnapped by mysterious Mayor Amondak Sarkis, who has malevolent intentions for the natural world, Bobby becomes embroiled in an ancient quest. She discovers the existence of a parallel universe called The Shadow Vales. And her mother is the link. Can Bobby cross over, rescue Thread and thwart Amondak? And will she meet her mother again? email@example.com | @zoecrosse1
KISS ME WHEN I’M GONE Chapter One
FUBAR Un-fricking-bearable. Un-fricking-believable. Un-fricking-friended by best-friend-forever. Truth say, forever means until the end of time, doesn’t it? Forever isn’t just for fairytales. Forever’s a promise made under duvet-heaven when you are ten. I need forever. I need to find Thread; find out what I’ve done to upset her. Fix it. Fat chance. I’m stuck in a double-dose biology-booster session, studying a giant loved-up brain on the interactive whiteboard. Sir says love’s chemically bonding, like having a sugar habit. Love’s addictive, he reckons – says kissing releases euphoric surges of dopamine into the body, like chocolate. I get that. Love hooks you. It’s a heart-hijacking ecstasy. Has you constantly craving a fix, unable to concentrate or sleep, neurotically checking your texts every second of every hour in the hope that an emoji or a kiss or even a ‘hiya,’ will appear. I hate hours. I hate hope. I hate ‘hiya’. From under the desk the spy app on my cracked iPhone flashes Rianna, AKA Thread. Beneath it is the word BLOCKED and her face, smizing with the most kissable bee-stung lips. Lips from which I’d lovingly lick anything – even liver if I had to. ‘Why is this happening?’ I whisper to Creed. She’s leaning on my shoulder colouring her hypothalamus diagram. She’s heavy and warm. 131
‘It’s like shave-off-my-locks, carve out my torn and bleeding heart, crawl-away-to-curl-up-and-die time. Seriously, I’m going to fill my pockets with rocks and—’ ‘And what?’ ‘And wade way out into deep black water.’ ‘Stop with the puppy show,’ Creed hisses, but she doesn’t even look up and ask me why. ‘None of my messages to Thread are saying they’re delivered,’ I say. ‘I have to get out of here. Find her.’ ‘Bobby,’ says Creed, her eyes front, avoiding mine. ‘Get a grip. You’re being ludicrous.’ ‘Am I?’ She sits up, ahems, and adds a shooting star to her diagram. ‘You sound crazy.’ Maybe she’s right. I should leave it. What would I do… drag Thread out from Physics by her box braids and confess my undying love to her? Bad idea, Bobby. You cannot tell the girl who has snuggled beside you at sleepovers for the last six years that you love her. You cannot tell anyone. It’s so wrong. ‘Why’s she blocking me?’ Creed shrugs… Something’s definitely wrong if Creed has nothing to say. ‘Oh my days, she’s blocked me on WhatsApp and Tweeter too?’ I show her the phone. ‘Twitter, you twat,’ she says, shoving the screen away. ‘Not Tweeter.’ ‘I prefer Tweeter… Creed, what aren’t you telling me?’ Creed points to the projection of the glowing hypothalamus on the whiteboard. Sir catches her gesture and wipes the back of his neck with a hanky. ‘Credence, what now?’ His shirt has continental sweat patches the size of Africa blooming from the armpits. ‘If kissing’s bonding, Sir—’ ‘Can someone open the windows, please?’ he asks. ‘Spring heatwave’s 132
stifling, don’t you think?’ ‘Does the same part of the brain light up,’ Creed carries on, tapping her head, ‘when a mother kisses her baby, as when a girl kisses a boy?’ Sir chews his lip. ‘Does it light up when a girl kisses a girl?’ I think out loud. There’s a smattering of giggles. Creed gives me a wide-eyed look and shakes her head, but I shrug it off. I need to know how this love-addiction malarkey works. ‘Sorry, Sir,’ I say. ‘I mean can a single kiss make someone love you forever? Can it get their brain all lit up?’ The screen light glows through Sir’s sticking-out ears, making them very pink. ‘Brains don’t actually light up,’ he wipes the shine from his brow. ‘This part here,’ he taps the big brain on the board with his finger tip, ‘called the hypothalamus—’ The interactive board responds to his touch; the video plays, and the voice-over, loudly, mentions… sexual desire. A whoop of excitement sweeps round the class like a Mexican wave on heat. Sir hits pause but the button won’t obey. He turns down the volume. Everyone whines, high-pitched pleas for him to let us watch send him sinking into his chair with a sigh of defeat. ‘Fine,’ he says. ‘It’s good for you to know. Forewarned is forearmed.’ The class settles, as the video promises to reveal the chemistry of love to us, the bewildered, bewitched and besotted. On screen an androgynous anime couple kiss and their brains emit pulsating arrows, love darts of dopamine. Silence. I dig Creed in the ribs. ‘Why’s Thread blocked me?’ She moves closer. ‘You keep posting mythical conspiracy theories on the group blog. This Gaia theory thing of yours is vexing her. Mother Nature ain’t real, Bee. And she ain’t mad at us. Global warming is real. We can’t fix it with a fairy tale lol.’ Creed raises her perfectly penciled eyebrows, but her eyes don’t meet mine. They’re fixed on the screen
and the brain-light dances in them. ‘Thread’s still gotcha back. She’s just stressed.’ She wraps her arm around me and gives me a hug, like a Mum would. Creed’s got plenty of hug-stuff to hold onto and she squeezes a smile right out of me. She lets go too soon though, pats my knee like I’m a kid, and checks her phone, hiding the screen. ‘Hope you remembered to bring your blog assignment,’ she whispers. ‘Last chance. Thread said you’re gonna mess up all our grades.’ Behind her the blue sky has filled quietly with low grey-yellow clouds. ‘Oh my days.’ I promised Thread I’d have an interview to post on our blog by yesterday. ‘How mad is she?’ Creed leans closer. ‘Let’s just say, you’re screwing up the chance of a life time.’ ‘How?’ She pulls out her journal and turns to a page with Save the World in Fifty Ways, our blog’s title, written on the top. The name was my idea. Beneath the title is written The Sister Act, our nom de plume. My idea. And beneath that our pseudonyms: Thread, Honeybee, Creed and Kave. Followed by our slogan Black Girls are Green, which was also my idea. I smile. ‘All you had to do was write six articles,’ she says and points to the article titles each of them contributed. ‘Tick the articles you finished.’ She sucks her teeth. ‘Oh, sorry, I mean the ones we finished for you.’ Creed passes the pen. ‘And an interview. Remember?’ I put down the pen and show her photos on my phone: essays on cut up strips of A4 Blu-tacked to the bedroom door, my wall of fluorescent Post Its, my A3 illustrated meandering mind maps. And a list of interview questions I’d ask Mother Nature, if I could. Creed’s false eyelashes flutter over her bulging eyeballs. ‘Ohhhh, Bee.’ ‘What? It’s only 10% of our GCSE English grade. Nothing to you guys – you’re all bagging ten A-stars—’ ‘Grade nines,’ she corrects. 134
‘A-star sounds better.’ ‘Point taken.’ ‘Look. I get it, right? I’m sorry. I’ll bunk this afternoon. Finish the last assignment.’ ‘Best you do babes. You see, Thread, Kave, and me – we have to win.’ ‘Win?’ I say. ‘Win what?’ ‘If you hadn’t missed assembly again, you’d know.’ She tilts her head, winds the glossy black curls of her latest weave around her finger and then pauses. ‘Were you feeding your mystery fox friend in the park again?’ ‘Forget the fox. I wish I’d never told you.’ Truth is the fox didn’t show up this time. ‘Bad night, that’s all. I didn’t sleep.’ ‘Face hovering at your window again?’ I nod. Wish I hadn’t mentioned the dreams either. ‘Hope you managed to avoid climbing on the ledge this time.’ ‘Not funny.’ I feign a sneer to hide the dizzying fear that, luckily, I did manage to avoid climbing on the ledge this time. I stayed awake watching Johnny Depp movies on my laptop. ‘I told you, duh. I was joking about the ledge.’ I swallow back the memory of waking six floors above a privet hedge last week. Then I roll my eyes to hide not just the lie, but also the utter terror of facing the fact that maybe I’m losing my mind. ‘Crazy.’ Creed smiles sadly like she knows it’s a façade. ‘The new Mayor came to assembly.’ She turns away. ‘Don’t be upset but Thread said not to tell you.’ Okay, so Thread knows I think the old guy’s a super-creep. All Botoxed-up, year-round-Tango-tan, bleached teeth too big for his face and a ponytail. ‘Was he presenting medallions again?’ I wince, remembering how when he gave me my cross-country gold, he sniffed me and wet his lips all lizard-like; swear he was tasting my scent. ‘He came to announce that the Eco-Blog with most followers will win a competition. Mayor Sarkis is personally funding four private school fees—’ She’s talking in rushed, hushed, phrases. Behind her the
sky’s deepened to dirty-mustard yellow. ‘It’s a head hunt for pure talent.’ I shiver. ‘So why not tell me?’ Thunder cracks. We all yelp and turn but Creed keeps talking. The familiar sharp needle-like sensation shoots through the top of my head, but this time it’s fast, over before it hurts me. Creed’s mouth is moving. But her voice has gone. My skin prickles. There’s mumbling about the thunder. I count, listen to my breathing and wait for the feeling to go. It works, the mumbling settles back to silence and Creed’s voice draws me back. ‘Bursaries of thirty thousand a year – wants fresh minds and innovative thinkers for his company. He has fingers in future technologies, space, renewable energies. The guy’s global…’ I feel sick. ‘Thread says one of us – all of us – could be the first black girls to be Goldman Environmental Prize winners. From Tottenham. Are you listening?’ I frown. ‘Okay bi-race,’ she says. ‘Bee?’ It’s obvious why Thread’s blanking me. The stakes are raised. No way she’ll want me on the team now. ‘I’m fine,’ I lie. ‘Thread’s called a 12:05 emergency meeting in the common room snug.’ She watches my frown become an ampersand. ‘And?’ ‘Oh, didn’t know, did you? Silly me, fancy forgetting I’m not supposed to tell you. Look, Thread didn’t want to worry you with the competition yet, or the 12:05 meeting. She knows you hate Sarkis. I’ll tell her you’ll meet her after school. Just make sure you’ve done the interview assignment. You have, haven’t you?’ ‘Yup.’ I lie again. 136
‘Good, no worries then.’ Creed colours her amygdala and the video ripples colours around the room. It’s 11.30. Need to get to the snug before them, hide in the cupboard and listen to their secret meeting. When Sir turns, I’ll crawl to the door. Sir won’t turn and the brain on whiteboard behind him radiates with waves, vermillion fading to amber. ‘The primordial part of the brain responds,’ says the voice over, ‘to sexual thoughts.’ Giggling. ‘Be quiet,’ Sir barks and hits pause, ‘or I’ll fast-forward to the kissing.’ Silence. Simple minds. Simple pleasures. ‘Label what we’ve learnt so far,’ he mumbles. I close my eyes and picture Thread as she is in my sketchbook. Warrior Princess of the Seven Elevations, letting forth her battle cry, tearing through the tundra’s freezing mists, astride a mighty saber-toothed trachiadoor. Its giant paws pound snow. A billowing, blood-red plume crests her helm. In her gauntleted hand, she yields a trident. Spears the empty hearts of the Hegart Souls. ‘Bobby!’ yells the giant fox-man bounding up beside me. ‘Help her.’ ‘How? Give me a sword and I’ll parry. A wand and I’ll wave it. A spell and I’ll weave it.’ Then I, Bobby Day, could save the world. Not for me though. For Thread. ‘BOBBY?’ Thread dissipates to dust. Annoying. I hadn’t decided if she should wear thigh high boots or leather chaps; have rainbow braids or Havana twists. ‘Yes, Sir? Why you shouting?’ ‘Put the phone away.’ He heads my way. ‘We need to talk.’ He fakes a tight-lipped smile, stretching patience across gritted teeth. ‘Have you forgotten lunch-time detention?’ he asks.
It’s 11:54! I need out. Alice Habib pulls an eek-grimace from the next row. I blow her a kiss. Then push my palms together as in prayer and drop my head to the desk. As in humble, sycophantic, vassalage. ‘Sir? Pleeeease. Don’t do this. I got to write-up an interview for English.’ He rubs the back of his neck. ‘A final-last chance,’ I say, to prove to Thread I’m a worthy minion. ‘That’s tautological, Bobby.’ ‘What?’ ‘Final and last – two words meaning the same thing. Just say final.’ ‘No, Sir. You don’t understand. It’s totally logical. I’ve had lots of last chances. This one’s final.’ My eyes dart from Sir to the clock. The clock ticks. Metaphorically. Wall clock’s digital. 11:55. Thread’s last words replay – Don’t let me down, she’d said, all gorgeous and commanding with those big Oreobrowns. Promise me: no conspiracy theories, no hobgoblins, and no excuses. ‘I won’t let you down,’ I’d said. ‘Promise.’ Sir yawns. ‘You didn’t hand in my assignments.’ ‘Hand them in next term. Promise.’ ‘Fine,’ he says and walks away. ‘But you’ll stay ten minutes after class and discuss how to catch up this Easter.’ 11:56. Hell, I need to get to the snug. I turn to the window. Sky’s moving. The yellow’s intense. Someone up there please send a miracle. Room goes dark orange-ish. ‘WOW!’ As I hold up my phone to video the armada of bruised clouds folding over the houses on the hill, the hairs on my arms prickle. ‘Bobby, sit.’ I walk to the window. ‘But look.’ I point. ‘It’s snowing.’ ‘Bobby,’ repeats Sir. ‘Won’t tell you again. Phone away.’ ‘Technically speaking, you just did.’ ‘Did what?’ he asks. ‘Tell me to put—’ ‘Do it.’ 138
Creed and the class join me at the window, iPhones out and whooping. Play on the hockey field stops. Teams stare, mouths agape, pointing at the heavens. ‘Come and look, Sir,’ I say willing him to let me slip away. Snowflakes tumble thick and heavy. Girls on the pitch twirl and run with their arms held high. Sir joins us finally. ‘Never seen weather like this,’ he says, taking out his phone and looking back to check the door, ‘if I lose my job…’ ‘Soon you won’t need a job.’ I say backing towards my desk. ‘Mother Nature’s vexed. We’re FUBAR.’ ‘FUBAR?’ ‘Yeah, eFfed Up Beyond All Repair,’ I say packing books into my satchel. ‘Language, Bobby!’ he warns. ‘We’re not FUBAR.’ I grab my blazer and bag o’books, back up towards the door, and Usain Bolt-it out the room. Speak for yourself, Sir. ‘Bobby!’
LUCY CUTHEW Lucy has a degree in English, an MPhil in Children’s Literature, and ten years’ experience as an editor in children’s publishing. Her picture books have been shortlisted for the Dundee Picture Book Award and featured on CBeebies Book at Bedtime. In 2011 she was shortlisted for the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize for her work as an editor. Her poetry, short stories and academic papers have been published online and in print. Blood Moon received an honourable mention in the United Agents Prize for the most promising writing for young people and was shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award 2018. About Blood Moon Hot shame rushes to my face as a video plays: deepfake. The body of not-me me con and I watch, impotently, as I’m h a c k e d to p i e c e s.
When physics-geek Frankie comes on during her seminal boy-experience, the gossip spreads fast, distorting an innocent afternoon into something sordid. As a gruesome meme of Frankie goes viral, she is besieged by abusive messages, deepfakes and rape threats. Written in verse, this novel explores the power of the internet in the lives of generation linkster, and the power, resilience and hope of this generation in their digitally connected world. firstname.lastname@example.org | @lucycuthew 140
BLOOD MOON Saturday Darkness I breathe in the muffled silence of the empty planetarium, staring up at scattered electric lights against the fake black-felt sky. A Victorian dome, beautifully lit, but nothing like the real thing. I turn off the power switches, one-by-one for the stars, the satellites, the solar system, then I let my finger linger on the switch for the moon for just a moment, drinking in its crater-scattered, 141
starlight glow. Then I flip the switch, and feel the darkness like a sudden blanket. I unpin my badge, run my thumb over the letters spelling my name, Frankie Young. Then I tuck it in my skirt pocket, ready for next weekend. #IloveThePlanetarium A Slice of Night Iâ€™m always last in the staff room. The only one not scared of the after-hours dark, in this creaky old Victorian building. I stretch out on the empty bench and take out my phone, with its smooth black and gold, star-spangled case to read the message from my best friend. 142
Harriet Hey babe. You finished work? Still coming out?
Me All done. Be there in ten. Don’t forget to look at the moon.
I take off my uniform, and let my dress slink down over my not-completely-flat (but also not-yet satisfactory) chest. A dab of concealer, a pump of Benefit mist: I’m good to go.
Jackson Twigger’s Sweet Sixteenth at the Ice Rink Disco. (Although, Jackson Twigger. Sweet? LOL.)
Sweet Sixteen ‘Frankie!’ Harriet screams, waving at me, bracelets jangling, as I walk into the chilly, and unnecessarily brightly lit room. The music is loud, and our crowd spills out of a booth near the rental boots. I climb over the back of the seat and slide in beside Harriet and Marie. We kiss cheeks. Jackson is already strutting in front of the booth, talking loudly, as though we’re his personal spectators. There’s Bethany, Leila, Marie, Me, Harriet, Dean, Lee, and Charlie. 144
Jackson is telling everyone how last weekend he got a new mountain bike on his actual birthday. Then went out riding, and met two girls who were all over him because chicks dig bikes. Then he tells us how he ended up shagging them both as a birthday present. (Yeah, right.) He shows us all a picture of him straddling his bike, with two girls kissing him, one on each cheek. I don’t know how no one else has noticed Jackson is disgusting.
but she doesn’t
‘How long do we have to listen to this?’ I mutter to Harriet,
answer me, and Jackson is still going, gesticulating grotesquely with his over-mobile groin, while the group watches him. (Like the brightest star in the sky, Jackson demands to be seen. It’s easy to be dazzled, but it doesn’t make him interesting.) I whisper to Harriet and Marie, ‘He’s only telling us this to make us think about him being legal to do it.’ ‘You could shag him,’ Harriet whispers. ‘You’re sixteen.’ ‘I’d rather die a virgin.’ ‘Think you can do better than him?’ she asks.
and Marie high-fives me but Harriet’s eyes stay fixed on him.
‘I think everyone can,’ I mutter under my breath,
Then she laughs at something he says, and throws back her head, like a wolf howling at the moon. As she does, her tilted-back head leaves a gap, and under her chin I notice someone I hadn’t previously seen: Benjamin Jones. He’s sitting between Dean and Lee in a leather jacket, looking unbelievably cute. He looks at me, smiles at me, and right then something physical happens to me down below. He’s so good-looking I can actually feel the photons bouncing off him and colliding with me.
VICTORIA HENLY Victoria can’t remember when she fell in love with reading – she does remember walking away from her mother’s attempts to read her Harry Potter, though – but she’s pretty sure it began with authors Holly Black and Annie Dalton. For most of her education, she attended a Hogwarts-like private school where she spent more time writing stories than revising. It came in handy as she’s achieved a BA in Publishing and Creative Writing and recently graduated with a Masters in Writing for Young People, both from Bath Spa University. She currently lives near Bath with eleven koi named after Disney characters. About The Idlewoods There’s only one way out of the village in the heart of the Idlewoods: Wither. Born with a touch that drains life from any living thing, Wither can navigate the Enchanted trees, fight the creatures within, and break free to the outside world. But the Idlewoods are closing tighter around her village, and its creatures are starting to come crawling out of the shadows. Life is more dangerous than ever when a stranger from a distant city approaches Wither with an offer. He will do the impossible: cut down the Idlewoods. Reconnect the village with the world beyond. And in the process, free Wither from a life where her cursed touch is the only thing keeping the village alive. But freedom always comes at a price. email@example.com
THE IDLEWOODS Chapter One There are two buckets of blood on the porch, steaming in the cold morning. Hanging from the wooden railing behind them is a bag full of paper and bones. When Wither pulls the bag over her shoulders, the weight of it surprises her. Cow this time, it seems. Not chicken. It’s a good thing, Wither thinks as she picks both buckets up, careful not to spill them. Chicken bones only go so far in sating the appetite of the Reapers. Giving them cow keeps them sluggishly full, less likely to wander into the village or lure away anyone who strays too close to the forest’s edge. The cold bites at Wither’s cheeks as she makes her way through the rows of houses. To her right, the faint lapping of water sounds, the splashes of fish jumping to catch dragonflies familiar and mundane. She doesn’t mind the cold. There’s a certain magic in it that burns up once the sun rises. Beneath this magic, the frost on the ground seems as Enchanted as the forest. It’s as though the hard dirt is encrusted with jewels that shine in the dim light, shrouded by the morning mist. As Wither walks through the narrow pathways between houses, listening to the sleepy creaking of floorboards as a few of the early risers move about, she looks at the ground and imagines that if she could just dig the jewels free before they melted away into water, she’d be rich. The next time she goes into Tupten she could sell them and run away to one of the towns along the shores of the Amethyst Seas. Maybe even go as far as the Fair Isles, run along the black sand beaches and lick the sweet sea 149
water from her skin as she swims in the pale ocean. She could skip today, avoid everything that needs to happen. Never be seen again. It’s a nice fantasy to have as she crosses the empty village centre, feet kicking up white ash from the bonfire a few nights ago. Up ahead stands the hill that rises up out of the dirt bowl the village sits in. By the time she reaches the top, the backs of her legs are on fire and her breath is visible in front of her. She sucks in a few lungfuls of the cold air, feeling it linger in her chest. Wither hates the walk up here, but she loves the view: the tumble of wooden buildings, roofs uneven and jagged as more haphazard layers are added on top; the narrow pathways that weave between them like seams, the wide-open space of the village centre and the white ashes that paint a moon on the ground. A river hugs the far border of the village, flowing from the Idlewoods, its waters iridescent blues and greens that shift with the pull of an unnatural tide. It bleeds into the swamp behind the village, and though its waters take up valuable land, they keep the Occido gardens alive. Behind her, the view isn’t so expansive and pretty. A wall of whitewood trees stands, reaching high into the clouds, dwarfing Wither until she feels like an ant. The Idlewoods encompasses the village like a moat, a thick collar of forest that spreads miles in all directions. Barely any sunlight pierces through the trees; it bounces across the leaves and cascades down into the village, orange and vibrant. Until she walks inside, all Wither can see of the Idlewoods is the impenetrable darkness between the trees. It’s part of the Enchantment. The same Enchantment that twists the branches into points that drink down blood, that gives life to the trees that bleed acidic yellow sap. Leaving the buckets at the base of a tree, she shrugs off her bag and digs through the bones until she finds a skin of water. Some dribbles over her chin as she drinks, the chilled air frosting it against her skin. Wither’s mornings are divided into three: bone, blood and secrets. Bone is the easiest to deal with. Along the top of the hill, like fingers reaching up from beneath the 150
earth, are wooden posts. Each stands close to the tree line and boasts a thick frayed rope tied through it. Wither ties the bones from her bag to the posts with fingers that are red and numb with cold, moving between them with as much speed as she can manage. She can’t take her time today – the rest of the village is heading straight to the hall once they wake, and by the time they’re all gathered, Wither is expected to be there, too. The thought makes her stomach roll. The sky continues to lighten as she works. By the time the last bone is secured, the sun is peeking over the tops of the trees and there’s some warmth creeping into the air. She returns to the buckets and kicks one lightly. The blood inside is thick and sluggish. A wave of stench – sharp copper and something meaty and rotten – rises into the air as the shock wave ripples through. Wither tries not to gag. Once, rituals were performed and prayers said before anyone walked into the Idlewoods. If Wither prayed every time she crossed the threshold from village to Woods, she’d spend hours each day with her hands clasped, eyes turned heavenward. The temperature rises the moment she steps into the Idlewoods inside. The building morning light falls back to darkness, broken only by small beams of sun filtering down from above. The wood-on-dirt landscape of the village is replaced by towering white-bark trees taller than giants and air that gathers like smoke in Wither’s lungs. Vines hang from branches and the mist that rolls down into the village each morning lies as a permanent carpet on the floor. The river that is clearly seen leaving the Woods is nowhere to be seen now; not even the faintest babble of water pierces the air. Wither’s spent hours trying to find a trace of it, with little luck. Roots and buttresses rise up around her like mountains, shaping the paths that she can traverse. Everything here is so vast, so misty, that Wither feels that noise is unnatural. Every crack of a twig beneath her feet, every branch she pulls back with a rustle like a rattlesnake’s warning, is too loud. It sets her nerves on edge, and she has to take a few
steadying breaths before she’s ready to keep walking. North from the entrance is a clearing the tree roots have yet to invade. Years ago, a large trench was dug within it, the dirt stained dark and the air carrying the stink of old blood and hunger. It takes two buckets to fill the trench. Wither heaves the first over to the very edge of the trench and tips it, the blood flooding in with thick stuttering gurgles. The smell is noxious. Flies swarm around her head like a dark cloud, gathering at the corners of her eyes until she’s blinking so much that they water and blur her vision. She doesn’t look up. She pours the second bucket and keeps her breathing steady, and the moment the bucket is empty, she leaves the clearing. Dry leaves crunch beneath her feet, glued to the soles of her shoes by the bright yellow sap of the trees that weep. As she breaks free of the clearing, sounds chase after her, echoing up into the cavernous ceiling of the forest, bouncing off shadows and leaves: the slick slurping chorus of creatures drinking blood. Breakfast is an apple wrapped in a pair of soft leather gloves shoved to the bottom of her bag, eaten as she sits atop an overturned bucket and looks out over the village. The rising sun makes the mist swirling around the village look like it’s on fire. Wither peels the gloves away from her apple and puts them on, ignoring how her hands shake. The first bite of the apple is satisfying in how loud it is: a sharp crunch that momentarily chases away the echo of the bloody sounds from the Idlewoods. She eats until a slowly browning core is all that remains, then goes back to the edge of the Woods and digs a small hole, placing the apple core inside. There’s a small mound of dirt for each day this week, six in total; a whole orchard planted because of a passing fancy that one day, when she is dead and the Idlewoods swallows up the village, maybe an apple tree will survive. Maybe, because of her, something will grow and thrive. The last part of Wither’s morning involves secrets. She waits for 152
as long as possible, but when she finally spots people slowly threading their way towards the village hall, she faces the fact that time’s run out. The Idlewoods’ steady warmth feels like an embrace as Wither steps back inside. She turns left this time, walking through a narrow path between two trees. She walks until she feels a comfortable distance away from the blood trench and pulls a scrap of paper from her bag at random. Written in thick letters, in handwriting that is careful and shaky, is a secret. It is not her own. The secrets are provided by the villagers who can write, placed in the bag left on the porch overnight. The last time Wither gave a secret of her own was two years ago, when she confessed to the trees that she’d purposely brushed her fingers along Bloom’s bare arm and felt no guilt until her arm took on a greyish hue and no medicine could heal it. A vine drops down from the trees, so fast and serpentine that Wither flinches away before she sees it’s not a snake. It twists towards her, wrapping around her neck in mimicry of a noose, followed quickly by vines that grab at her wrists and her ankles. They don’t squeeze, but they give a familiar warning: she won’t leave the Woods until she’s read the secret. Around her, the leaves on the lower branches of the small trees twist towards her, like sunflowers following the sun. Little listening ears that will carry her words up to the leaves above them. Wither clears her throat and unfurls the scrap of paper. This is so familiar, so well-worn a routine that even though her hands tremble at the feel of the vines, she doesn’t consider the words she reads straight away. ‘I lied about my daughter’s father,’ Wither reads. ‘I don’t think she’ll forgive me.’
ANIKA HUSSAIN In 2018, Anika was invited to The International Congress of Youth Voices, which gathered 100 young writers and activists from around the world. Following that, Anika spoke on a panel about youth empowerment at the Belgian Equality Festival. In Sweden, Anika has made television and radio appearances, speaking about the impact writing has had on her life; her work with the non-profit Berättarministeriet (The Ministry of Storytelling), and what she hopes to achieve with her own writing. Anika Hussain is from Stockholm, but lives in Bath. Anika is represented by Alice Sutherland-Hawes at Madeleine Milburn. About Velia vs. the Script What would you do if your mother’s dying wish was for you to marry someone you’ve never met before? Graduation is less than a year away and Velia Farooq is excited. She can’t wait to escape the ridiculous standards the Bengali community continuously impose on her and is eager to finally live the life she’s always wanted: as an apparel designer at Central Saint Martins with her secret boyfriend Dylan. But the universe has different plans for Velia: Ammu, her mother, is dying, and her final wish is to see Velia, her only daughter, get married. At seventeen, this is the last thing Velia wants – but how do you say no to family? Submerged in a world of tradition and Bengali customs, can Velia fight for the life she has always imagined? And can she do this without losing her family in the process? firstname.lastname@example.org | @huanika 154
VELIA VS. THE SCRIPT Chapter One There are strangers in my house. Okay, not exactly strangers. Just people whom I personally haven’t met before, but who are somehow familiar with my parents. I hear them from downstairs, fluent Bengali exiting their mouths and accompanying loud cackles – all signs that I have to make an appearance as the perfect Bengali daughter of Manna and Turjo Farooq sooner or later, following a script they’ve written for me. ‘Belia!’ Ammu calls from the hallway. But it’s not me she’s calling. She’s calling someone else because my name isn’t Belia. It’s Velia. Not Bee-lee-ya, Vee-lee-ya. ‘Ki?’ She stomps up the stairs and I know I have to show my face downstairs for whatever guests we’ve got around this week. It’s like Bengali parents don’t know how to survive Saturdays alone; they always need to invite someone over. ‘Don’t you ki me,’ she says, with a scowl on her face. ‘We have guests. Put on something nice and come down. These guests are important.’ She doesn’t wait for me to answer or ask her what her definition of ‘nice’ is, because she’s already barging downstairs again. I go to the closet at the back of the room, the one where Ammu has put what she calls my ‘respectable’ clothes. Ergo, shirts which aren’t cropped and jeans that won’t hug or show off my bum. I choose a babyblue, loose-fitting sweater that hides what my mother calls my ‘enlarged’ bosom, and a pair of grey mom-jeans – in this outfit, she can’t possibly think I’m trying to show anything off. I walk down the stairs hastily, 155
ready to get this little shindig over with, knowing that I’ll have to put up with going to functions for the next three months if I don’t show my face. ‘Ah, there is our shundori, Belia,’ the woman across from Ammu says, when I walk into the living room. ‘It’s Velia,’ I whisper under my breath, so quietly I’m not even sure the words left my mouth. Why couldn’t my parents name me something that didn’t have the letter ‘v’ in it? They knew they wouldn’t be able to pronounce it in the first place, so why did they bother giving me this name? It’s the typical English ‘b’ for ‘v’ switch. Since Bengali doesn’t have the letter, they just replace it with another. ‘Sit with us, please.’ She bobs her head furiously and I’m scared her neck might snap. I do as I’m told and sit down in between Ammu and Abbu on the sofa. I pick up a samosa so I have something to do, as the questions start firing at me from both the woman and the man beside her. Woman: How is school? Me: Outlook good. Woman: Any idea about university yet? Me: Cannot predict now. Man: What do you want to do after university? Me: Ask again later. Okay, I don’t actually say any of that. My mother would slaughter me for imitating a Magic 8 Ball, so I mostly just shrug my shoulders and recite the lines I’ve practised over the years: ‘School is great. All As. Going to be a great accountant one day.’ They interrogate me and I do my best to answer in a mild and monotone manner, trying not to set any lie detectors off. They talk to and look at me like I’m a piece of meat. Every question they ask has a purpose, but I don’t know what it is. Ammu gives me the signal to go upstairs when she mentions that I have homework. I am grateful for the exit, but also apprehensive. I 156
dawdle towards the steps, trying to make as little noise as possible while I eavesdrop from the middle of the staircase. ‘Shy girl,’ the man says. His voice is croaky and everything he says sounds straight out of a mafia movie. ‘Good.’ ‘Beautiful eyes,’ the woman says. ‘Pictures do not do justice.’ Ammu and Abbu don’t say much. I can only assume they are beaming at the compliments. At least, I hope they are. ‘And when can we meet Neerab?’ Ammu pipes up. ‘Bhalo chele to dekte hobe!’ I try to translate as much as I can, but my Bengali has gotten rusty since the last time I was forced to take it, which was in elementary as an after-school activity. I think she’s talking about a boy? A good boy? These chats Ammu and Abbu have with our guests never make sense to me. Usually, it’s just about who’s gotten married to whom and who is having a baby, but, if I’m lucky, there will be a juicy piece of gossip in there. Hopefully it’s soon, and about someone I know. And, more importantly, I hope whatever secret is exposed is worse than the one I’m keeping about Dylan. ‘Kotha bolbo,’ the man says. ‘Tonight. We see what he says.’ ‘Take this,’ Ammu says and hands something to the man. I can’t see from where I’m standing on the stairs. The spaces between the legs of the banister are too thin. ‘Bhalo bhalo,’ my Abbu says in a, for him, cheerful tone. ‘Now, who wants some paratha and goru mangshu?’ They all start moving toward the kitchen and are no longer in hearing range. I go upstairs and type into Google the phrase Ammu used about that Neerav person. I assume it’s Neerav and not actually Neerab, what with the ‘b’ for ‘v’ switch an all. Google translate shows that the phrase Ammu used translates into ‘Good boy to see’, but that doesn’t make any sense, and the results for the name Neerav all come up with YouTube videos of an upbeat Indian song. I don’t know what to do with this information – who is Neerav and why do my parents care about him? I send Annalise the link via Messenger and await a response along
the lines of, ‘Parents found you a hubby already?’ I’m not too far off, as her reply is immediate and partially racist. [13:23] Annalise: Guy w/ glasses kinda cute, not gonna lie? [13:24] Annalise: He the guy you gonna marry? [13:24] Annalise: Parents set you up? [13:26] Annalise: CAN I BE A BRIDESMAID? The question marks aren’t really in the messages, but they are implied. Everything she ever writes or says always sounds like a question, like she’s never sure if she’s allowed to say the thoughts she has in her mind. Which, in hindsight, is a good filter, considering most of what she says is not actually politically correct, and ninety-eight percent of the time, fairly stereotypical. I send a quick ‘as if ’ and toss my phone on the bed. Annalise couldn’t be more far off even if she tried; Ammu and Abbu know by now that an arranged marriage for me is off the books. As someone who rarely attends Bengali functions – they are the most boring thing ever and basically just a place for aunties and uncles to find their children future spouses – Ammu and Abbu are going to have a hard time finding a husband who would be into me, anyways. I slump down in the chair and look up at the ceiling, counting the number of glow-in-the-dark stars, when I hear Ammu and Abbu ushering the couple out of the house. I peek through my window and watch them stand on the curb for a minute or two, a piece of paper in their hands. They talk in hushed voices, so even though my window is open, I can only catch one or two words. One of which is my name.
Chapter Two ‘Who are you?’ Mr Ainsley asks the class. ‘And how does who you are 158
dictate your choices?’ Ainsley’s been building up to this for weeks now, the ‘identity’ section of the course, because that’s what he did his famous dissertation on at university. Which, FYI, he will not shut up about given the opportunity. ‘Identity. It’s the most essential part of who we are and determines who we will become.’ I half-listen as he goes on about how identity reflects who we are and what we value whilst the other half of me focuses on twirling the pen on my desk. It’s all boring and, to be honest, really basic. Why can’t we dig into more interesting topics, like sociopaths or psychopaths? The zodiac would be a far more interesting topic than something as layman as identity. I mean, what’s so difficult about identity anyways? It’s easy; you’re either one thing or another, end of story. I get bored of fiddling with the pen, so I start to doodle in my notebook instead, sketching yet another dress that won’t see the light of day. That is, unless I want to break it to Ammu that I want to – no, need to – go to Central Saint Martins. If I went to CSM, I wouldn’t have to hide anymore. I wouldn’t have to be just the brown girl anymore; I’d be somewhere I fitted in. Somewhere I could be exactly who I am meant to be: the next Versace. Or so I could be, if I weren’t being denied my birth-right. ‘Miss Sharp, could you please elaborate on what I just said?’ I look up at the mention of Annalise’s last name. Her ears don’t process Ainsley’s words, nor do they take in his glaring eyes, because from the way she’s holding her fine art pen, her head’s not in this world right now. ‘Miss Sharp?’ From my seat behind her, I pull at her hair, trying to signal that Ainsley is up her ass again about not paying attention, but it backfires. As I tug at her auburn curls, she jerks her hand to the back of her head and lets out an unintelligible noise before turning back to me and shouting, ‘My extensions!’
The class starts to snicker, which annoys Ainsley and gives me enough time to whisper, ‘Ainsley. Question. You.’ She turns around and her back goes rigid as she faces Ainsley. ‘You have no idea what I am talking about, do you, Miss Sharp?’ He’s got his arms crossed and is taking pride in showing the class who the boss is. I can’t take him humiliating my best friend. ‘Actually, Mr Ainsley,’ I say, a hint of hesitation wavering at the back of my throat, ‘I believe Miss Sharp’s exclamation was a partial answer to your question.’ I gulp down air and bite the inside of my cheeks in an attempt to keep my composure. His eyes move from Annalise to me and for a solid two seconds there is no noise but the clock on the wall and my heavy breathing. ‘Do go on, Miss Farooq,’ he says, deadpan, arms still crossed. Ainsley isn’t a big guy; in fact, he’s kind of a small guy. And it’s not like he looks scary or anything either. But everyone knows that if you get on his bad side, he will mark you down for the rest of the term, and he already expects more from you than any other teachers do, because he’s got a gazillion PhDs. ‘Here we go again,’ William, a wannabe jock, says from the other side of the room. ‘Farooq, trying to save her boss from academic humiliation for the millionth time.’ ‘Quiet, please, Mr Shepley,’ Ainsley says. ‘Let Miss Farooq speak.’ William raises his hands and eyebrows in a way that says, let her make a fool out of herself, then. Whatever, I’ve got this, I follow the script of a student who halfknows what she’s talking about and hope that I don’t mess up my lines. Me: Well. You were saying that identity is composed of a bunch of different things, right? Ainsley: Yes. Me: Well, then it could only be reasonable that Miss Sharp’s hair extensions are part of that. Me: I mean, you did say we have multiple identities. 160
Ainsley: Indeed. Me: And we differentiate them depending on the social context. Her hair extensions are part of an identity, but not her entire identity, yes? Ainsley: … (Ainsley lets the silence wash over the room. It’s fair to say I might be marked down for the rest of the term.) Ainsley: Miss Sharp, what do you think? (Annalise looks towards Ainsley, who’s standing next to my desk. She hesitates before answering.) Annalise: Extensions are a big part of who I am as an actress? (Class starts to snicker; William bangs his head against the desk, like he can’t believe the words out of Annalise’s mouth.) Ainsley: Let’s move on. Ainsley returns to the front of the room and continues his lecture. Annalise looks at me with a painfully vibrant smile; the one that says, thank you for helping me out. I totally owe you forever, bestie. It’s important that it’s being read and sounded in my head with an immense amount of gratitude and in twice the speed she usually speaks. I give myself an imaginary pat on the back and go back to half listening, until Ainsley says: ‘Miss Farooq made an interesting observation earlier,’ he says. My ears perk up. ‘There are several factors as to what make up our identity and one part of that is your name.’ I give myself another imaginary pat on the back. ‘I want you to think about your names. First and last. Middle, if you have one. What they mean regarding your identity.’ He walks around the class, looking down at a desk every once in a while and making students squirm. ‘And then write an essay on it.’ ‘The hell, Velia!’ William shouts. I retract my imaginary pats and scold myself for imparting an essay on the class through my spur-ofthe-moment commentary. I jot down the deadline and try to ignore the glares from everyone around me. ‘Class dismissed,’ he says, and opens the door to the hallway.
HA JELBERT Hilary grew up surrounded by the wilds of Salisbury Plain. After university she became a TV producer and later, when reading to her daughter, Hilary discovered a love of writing for children, which led to her selling a pre-school series to Aardman Animation. Now her daughter’s a teenager, they fight over who gets to read the latest YA novels first. Most days you’ll find Hilary writing at her desk. If she gets stuck, she goes for a walk in Leigh Woods and tries to get lost. In Bristol, Hilary shares her home with her husband, daughter and three Victorian ghosts. About 9 Days Before When sixteen-year-old Martha Cox is kidnapped, her captor demands an answer, but Martha doesn’t even understand the question. Martha searches for clues in the days, hours, and minutes, leading up to her kidnapping. Nine days before, a rare piece of French music made Martha question her identity. Rejecting her secure, townie life, Martha ran away to search for truth, ending up in an idyllic village. But just as she was about to discover what she wanted, she was kidnapped. Now, to save herself, Martha must manipulate her captor by playing the mouse, when she is in fact the cat. With the last piece of the jigsaw, Martha finally understands: answer his question, or not – either way she dies. She has no choice. She must kill or be killed. email@example.com | @hillyjelly 162
9 DAYS BEFORE Am I dead? A sharp pain… where he hit me. Can I see? It’s dark. But over there. Look. Light. Can I feel? The floor. Cold and hard. My hands are tied. It hurts. SCREAM. I can’t. TRY. My tongue against the gag. Air sucked through nostrils. FORCE A MIGHTY SCREAM. A muffled groan. TRY AGAIN. The whimper of a dying animal. No one will hear. A lump in my throat. DON’T CRY. Images crash my mind. A crunch as my skull cracked. My heels digging into the soil, as he dragged me. 163
His twisted face as he hit me. A metallic taste. My own blood. My face is wet. Tears seep into the gag. What did he do to me? What will he do to me? There’s no air. I wake. My throat’s dry. How long have I been out for?
My hands are tied to a cold metal bar fixed to the wall behind me. A pipe? I wrench them. Try to wriggle my body free. Pain washes through me. I thought I would die. A warm wet feeling – I’ve peed myself. * I open my eyes. The light… it’s brighter. Natural light? He’ll be coming soon. DO NOT PANIC. ‘I know you came back for it,’ he said, as he tied me. DO NOT DRIFT. FOCUS ON THE PAIN. And as he pulled the cables tight, he said, ‘You will tell me.’ I thrash my legs. Jerk my body. ESCAPE OR DIE. What if he doesn’t come back for me? I’ll die anyway. 164
KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN. He wants me to tell him something. MAKE A PLAN. I flex my legs. Straighten my back. Wham! Pain scorches through me. USE THE PAIN. CONCENTRATE. Through the dark a small, grimy window… to the outside. The white hiss of silence. Where am I? BREATHE. The air is musty. A cellar? A bunker? Why… me? What does he want me to tell him? WHAT DOES HE WANT ME TO TELL HIM? THINK BACK. TRY TO REMEMBER. EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED. NINE DAYS BEFORE… The first time it happened was on a Friday afternoon – that delicious moment before the last bell goes. Some of us had already slipped pens into our pencil cases and dropped textbooks into bags. Weekend excitement crackled in the air. Unfortunately, Monsieur Dupré was having none of it. ‘Girls! I have a puzzle for you. Something to take your mind off revision.’ I rolled my eyes at Celeste. ‘Can anyone tell me where this music comes from? There will be a
prize for the first girl that gets it right.’ ‘What’s the prize?’ called Minty. ‘A mystery gift.’ As he spoke his eyes flitted towards the store cupboard; we all knew boring French literature filled its shelves. The whole class groaned. Dupré’s eyes twinkled. ‘And ten pounds for the first girl to tell me correctly.’ I sat up. Ten pounds meant nothing to these girls. They carried on zipping up bags and rustling their coats. ‘One clue only,’ Dupré declared as he searched on his laptop. ‘It is of course French, a rare and beautiful recording of a wedding march.’ ‘That’s two clues,’ someone shouted. Without looking up, Dupré raised a sprouting eyebrow. ‘Counting now as well as talking, Cecelia. Your parents must be very proud.’ With a flourish he pressed the button. Slow, low accordion music filled the room. As the tempo picked up, nimble strings danced above a circular melody making Dupré’s moustache twitch with pleasure. ‘I don’t expect you to answer now. Go home. Research it.’ Drumming my fingers, I hummed along. I knew this tune. Come on. What… was… it? As the harmony swelled I predicted a key change. Frustrated now – it was no longer about the prize money – I had to remember. My head thickened with desperation. The scar on my back began to needle and sting. The room started to rotate – slowly at first, then faster and faster. The tune thundered in my ears, louder and louder. Everything outside and inside my head whirled and blurred. I tried to stay focused but felt myself slipping, gathering speed like an avalanche. Something inside me snapped and… I was a little girl. Legs off the ground. 166
My small body stretched out. Flying round and around. Light as a bird. Wind rushing past. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he wouldn’t let go. Faster he went… knowing I loved it. Hair whipped my cheeks. As he spun me higher and lower. Wahee! Wahee! The music slurred on the turns, like a merry-go-round. I wanted to scream. Don’t stop. Keep going. Dupré cut the music and suddenly I was back, sitting at the desk, sweat trickling down my back. Most of the girls had already left. Depré hummed as he tidied. ‘Ready to go?’ Celeste wrinkled her freckled brow. ‘Well, are you?’ I nodded, unable to explain. No words could express it. Not even close. We usually gossiped as we walked home from the bus stop. Today all Celeste could talk about was Daisy’s party tomorrow night, so I faded her out to think. What the hell just happened in French? Something about the music turned me into a carefree, little girl. STOP! Too mental to think about. I tried to concentrate on Celeste instead, but my thoughts kept wandering back. Mad as it was it’d really felt like I’d turned into a little girl, having fun, being spun. But everyone knows you can’t just turn into someone else. So what was it then? A daydream? A memory? But what sort of memory feels real like that? Celeste budged me with her hip and pointed to my trailing shoelace. ‘Excited for the party?’ she asked, as I bent to tie it. ‘Yeah.’ I felt awkward in groups, so not really. ‘Can’t wait…’ Celeste squeaked. She’d probably had to beg Daisy to let her bring me. Great: awkward and uninvited.
As we started walking again, the sun slicked off Celeste’s straightened hair. On our first day at Hatchem it was Celeste’s ginger frizz that made her stand out from the other girls. Her cute, pixie face was – just like mine – makeup free. Within minutes we started chatting. I mentioned my language scholarship. She confessed to being a human calculator. ‘Hey, we could charge for homework?’ I quipped. She laughed and her goofy teeth made me love her a little bit more. A jab to the ribs. Celeste’s pointy elbow. She slow blinked. ‘What’s up?’ Should I tell her about what happened in French? No! It was too crazy. Instead I dodged the answer with a question. ‘It’s just… do you remember much? Of when you were little I mean?’ ‘I thought you didn’t care about that?’ ‘What?’ I acted dumb. ‘Losing your memory. Or have you forgotten?’ she sniggered. ‘I’m just curious, that’s all.’ I sounded wounded. As she sidestepped to be closer her arm brushed a tickle against mine. ‘Come on, I didn’t mean it. Anyway… no… I don’t remember much! You’re honestly not missing anything.’ ‘I must be missing something.’ ‘Only the odd trauma,’ she laughed. ‘Trauma?’ The word surprised me. She thought for a moment. ‘Like the Charlie and Lola cake Mum made for my fifth birthday. The icing was so cracked Charlie and Lola looked old. Some of my friends actually cried when they saw it,’ she giggled. ‘Imagine that, five-year-olds refusing cake.’ She crossed her hands over her chest. ‘I’ve never got over it or let Mum forget.’ I pursed my lips in mock sympathy. ‘Anything else?’ She was silent. ‘Your earliest memory?’ I prompted. ‘Oh, that’s easy. Gran dropped a saucepan on her toe and swore.’ Celeste’s gran was a religious fanatic. ‘What age were you?’ 168
‘About four I guess. Afterwards she gave me a pear drop and made me promise not to tell.’ ‘Does that happen often?’ I asked. Celeste looked puzzled and I realised my question wasn’t clear. ‘The flavour of the sweet, you remembered it. I mean do details of memories come back to you, like that? From an early age?’ ‘Nope! They don’t come back they’re just there. A few of them anyway. And that’s my point. Apart from Gran using the ‘F’ word, and Mum’s crap cake, I don’t remember anything.’ ‘Your gran really swore?’ I spluttered, slinging an arm around her neck. After what happened it felt good to pull her close. Should I just come out with it, tell her what happened? ‘Anyway,’ Celeste lifted my arm from around her neck and handed it back to me, like it was a scarf, ‘let’s talk party.’ There was a smile in her voice. ‘What about it?’ I asked, annoyed that she’d pushed me away. If I told her now she’d only turn it into a joke or make out I was mad. ‘You are coming?’ She sounded serious. ‘Yeah,’ I said, thinking that I’d rather drink my own pee. But I knew I had to go to this party. Because from the first day we’d met it had been Martha and Celeste. Celeste and Martha. At break times we always found each other. Outside of school we always hung out together. If she was off sick, half of me was missing. If I was off sick, she messaged me constantly. But recently Daisy had started complimenting Celeste. Telling her how great she looked. Always saying: Come join us for chai lattes. Celeste only. Never me. So I had to go to this party because Celeste was my best friend. And I had a terrible feeling that if she went alone I was going to lose her. ‘Still okay for your dad to give us a lift to Daisy’s tomorrow night?’ she interrupted my thoughts. ‘Yep!’ Dad’s old Porsche Boxter – or midlife crisis purchase as Mum called it – was Celeste’s idea of arriving in style. I always let her sit up front with Dad, while I squashed my lanky frame into the parcel seat behind.
‘What time shall we leave? We don’t want to be too early.’ ‘No, s’pose not,’ I answered, distracted by a knot that was tightening in my stomach; what happened in French wasn’t normal. Was there something seriously wrong with me? ‘Or so late it’s rude…’ What if I was going mad? ‘Ahem!’ Celeste waited for an answer. ‘True.’ I guessed, because I’d lost the thread. She smiled. I’d guessed right. As she carried on my mind drifted again. It was something to do with the music. If it was that rare, why had I known it? I stepped off the pavement to avoid some rubbish that had spewed from a fallen bin. ‘Well? Gypsy blouse or knotted tee?’ Celeste’s voice was impatient. I scrabbled around for something to say. ‘Hoops?’ I asked, meaning earrings, not the kind I was jumping through to keep her happy. She nodded. ‘Knotted tee then. Big belt. Skater skirt. You’ll look great,’ I said. She cocked her head. ‘What about you? Outfit sorted?’ I shrugged. ‘You haven’t even thought about it, have you?’ Her voice was testy. I shrugged again. ‘Well you’re lucky you look great in a bin bag.’ I don’t, but I appreciated the compliment. She slowed. ‘You better not be chickening out.’ ‘Moi?’ I said. ‘And miss the social event of the year, Darling?’ I mimicked Daisy’s plummy accent, then switched back to my normal voice. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll come.’ She squealed. ‘This is going to be great. Everyone says her place is a-may-zing. Apparently, her parents are going out. She’s got fizz and vodka… lots of.’ Celeste pumped her eyebrows. Anger snipped at me. Celeste knows I don’t drink. For the rest of the walk I made my face look interested, while I 170
replayed the French music in my head. Although I remembered every note I just couldn’t place where I’d heard it before. By the time we’d turned the last corner I was convinced it must be to do with my memory loss. Mum and Dad always acted like losing my memory wasn’t important, saying it didn’t matter if it never came back. And like just now, with Celeste, if I ever told anyone about it they always said that they didn’t remember much before they were six either. But that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t that I don’t remember much. I don’t remember anything. I did my homework at the kitchen table. Mum clanked the oven door open and peeled back the foil from the dish. Fish flavoured steam warmed the air. Tuna bake. Always was on a Friday. I couldn’t concentrate. Even now, hours later, the tune kept playing in my head. Perhaps I’d heard it in France? I wanted to ask Mum but had to tread carefully because when I was ten they thought my memory was coming back, so they took me to a ‘specialist’. ‘Come in. I’m Rubin,’ he’d reached out a powdery-dry hand to shake mine. My parents had left me alone with him. He’d asked me about what I couldn’t remember. Then he’d asked me how I felt about what I couldn’t remember. As we talked he picked his scalp. When he brushed his shoulder small flurries of dandruff floated down to the wooden floor. Each session lasted for an eternity. I begged my parents not to make me go but they never listened. Mum let the oven door slam. ‘Tea in half an hour,’ she said, using the hem of her Sainsbury’s uniform to polish the steam from her glasses. She pulled out a chair. As she sat down a small sigh pffed out of her, like a plump cushion being sat on. ‘How’s your day been?’ she asked. ‘Good.’ Don’t push it; I don’t want to see Rubin again. ‘I was wondering… could we go somewhere different for holidays this year?’
CALLEN JAMES MARTIN Callen was taken into foster care at just four years old and is the first care leaver ever from East Sussex County Council to study an MA. As an adult, he was once employed to train two red foxes (real ones) and now gets paid, as a tour guide, to climb the 212 steps of Bath Abbey’s tower and demonstrate (AKA butcher) songs on the bells. He currently lives in Bath, Somerset, with his boyfriend, and hints (daily) about his need to one day own a corgi named Prince. About Nobody Knows Noah Noah Matthews has a lot to stress about: his exams are swamping him, his family’s recent move from London to Eastbourne is all his fault, and he’s drawn to a boy in a way Noah’s never been drawn to anyone before. But how do you fight for normal – to be normal – when you’re receiving anonymous letters from Nobody? Because Nobody knows Noah’s secrets. Nobody wants revenge. Nobody wants to push Noah to the absolute edge. And Nobody will stop at nothing. firstname.lastname@example.org | @CallenJMartin
NOBODY KNOWS NOAH Chapter One My nails bite into the skin of my palms, carving four little crescents into the flesh of each hand. I screw my eyes closed and colours burst in manic blotches. ‘Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon, nitrogen…’ A mess of noise whispers around me. I catch snippets of the wind outside, Sirius barking, Emily’s music in her bedroom, but just as quickly they’re gone. All I can focus on is the pain. The numbing pain that spills up my arms in waves along my skin and into my brain like some soothing tide. I know it’s fucked up. I press harder. Scissors gliding through paper. The skin always opens easily – slowly at first, at one end, before splitting completely along the red raw slits that never really get the chance to heal. It doesn’t help. It should, but it doesn’t. ‘Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon, nitrogen…’ The clock on my desk ticks on. Seven elements. I can’t remember the eighth. I’m running out of time. My nails sink deeper into my skin. ‘Nitrogen… Nitrogen… Nitrogen…’ I’m in my head too deep. Sweat builds at my hairline and I know I’m royally screwed. Once I start, it doesn’t stop for hours. And not just my armpits or my face. My neck sweats. My back sweats. My arse sweats. I know this. 173
But knowing it doesn’t stop it. ‘Oxygen, you idiot.’ My eyes snap open. Wind howls, Sirius barks in the garden, music blares down the hallway, and Emily is peering over my shoulder. ‘Question six: Name the eighth element in the Periodic Table. It’s oxygen. Not exactly hard, Noah.’ Not. Exactly. Hard. I force myself not to rise to it. She tosses a red envelope on my desk. ‘This came for you.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘I don’t know. Open it.’ She’s out my door before I can reply. I unclench my fingers. Blood lines my nails and snakes along the creases in my palms. The clock says I’ve failed the revision paper. Pathetic. I sigh and pick up the envelope. It’s heavier and thicker than I expected, the fancy stuff probably sold at Paperchase. My name is written delicately in the centre. My hands are clammy and leave damp prints on the paper. Who’s sending me posh cards? I run a finger under the fold and feel it tear. Only old people send cards. I don’t recognise the handwriting – it’s all loops and flowy lines. It’s definitely not Nan’s. Hers is all juddery and brittle. I slide out the contents. It’s not a late Christmas card. Or an early birthday one. Or even a Good luck with your exams thing either. It’s me. It’s a photo of me half-naked. It’s a photo of me that I didn’t know was being taken. It’s a photo of me through the slit in the changing room curtain. It’s not even a card at all. Just a picture. Smooth and glossy. And behind the first one is another. My arms caught in a t-shirt. And another. 174
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Jeans half-way up my legs. And another. Me in just my underwear. And across the one where I’m wearing the most clothes – doing up a shirt – are words written in gold. I preferred the blue one. The blue one? What the— My body goes numb. There, half-hidden on the rack, is the blue version of the white shirt I’m trying on. The white shirt I’m wearing now. Something cold slips in my stomach, blooming into sharp spikes of ice. I’m itchy and claustrophobic in the fabric. The collar of the shirt tight against my neck. Getting tighter. Tighter with every pulse. I yank open the top button, but I can still feel it digging in. Strangling me. I reread the gold words. There’s no name. No signature. Nothing. No indication of who sent it. I dig my fingernails into my palms.
Chapter Two Everything inside me twists and clenches. The shirt sticks to my back and I yank it off, ripping a button, and fling it across the room where it lands, half in my wash basket, staring at me. My skin itches as I look at it and I shiver despite the warmth of the room. It’s just a shirt but knowing I’ve been wearing it all morning makes my breakfast do a flip inside my stomach. I know it’s just a shirt. I know it’s not going to come alive as soon as I turn my back. 175
I know it’s just a shirt. But I also know that someone took photos of me whilst I tried it on. I stare from the shirt in the corner to the photos on my desk. Although I’m over the other side of the room, as far away from them as I can be, I reread the gold words. Over and over again. How? How did they do it? Why didn’t I see them? Why are they taking photos of me anyway? Why? And who’s they? Who? Who’d do it? It wasn’t just nobody. But the more I think about it the more I picture some Nobody snapping away, putting the envelope through my front door and smiling right now as they think about how screwed up this is and how weird I’d find it. Nobody. I tell myself it’s a joke, that someone’s just being an idiot or messing with me but… but saying that doesn’t do anything to stop the tightness in my muscles telling me to— ‘Dinner!’ Mum shouts from downstairs. Her voice cuts through the noise in my head and I jump, heart hammering. Without looking away from my desk, I reach behind me, yank a hoody from my wardrobe and throw it over my head as quickly as I can. The metal handle of my bedroom door is cold against my stinging palm when I realise that I can’t leave them there. I can’t leave the photos on my desk. The thought of touching them freaks me out, but the thought of Mum or Dad finding them freaks me out even more. I dart across the room before I can talk myself out of it and stuff them into the top drawer of my desk. I can’t leave my bedroom fast enough and, on the stairs, I slip on Emily’s West Ham scarf, stumbling down the last few steps. When I get into the kitchen, Mum says, ‘Blimey, Noah, you hungry? Food’s not going anywhere.’ Her smile is too big, too forced and trying too hard, but I pretend I don’t notice. I pretend a lot recently. Mum’s still smiling at me when I realise a moment too late that I’m 176
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supposed to be laughing. The noise that comes out of my mouth is weird and strangled, but I don’t think she can tell. It’s almost like she takes my laugh as a neon sign saying that I’m okay – normal – and so goes back to spooning roast potatoes onto plates and pouring gravy. I move on autopilot and grab glasses from the cupboard, thinking about the photos burning a hole in my desk. Sirius gets under my feet as I set the table, clearly hungry, and I pour some food into his bowl. Dad walks in. ‘Smells lovely,’ he says, but his voice isn’t as warm as it should be. He’s just off an early shift and his eyes are red. He walks past me, sits down and waits for Mum to give him his food. ‘Noah, go shout your sister.’ But I don’t have to because the landing creaks above our heads and seconds later she appears in the doorway. Although our new house has a dining room, we don’t use it. We’re not allowed to use it. It’s all white walls and cream carpets and Kept Nice for Special Occasions and Only Used at Christmas. Instead, we all squeeze round the small circular table in the kitchen – elbows bumping elbows. After I’ve poured Shloer for everyone, Dad starts talking. He’s the only one who really talks during a Sunday dinner. ‘Was called down the Old Rec again last night,’ he starts, and then I begin to zone out. I know what he’s going to say, of course I do. He was called down to the Old Rec because one of the old ladies rang nine-nine-nine because the paranoid old man who lives on the bench was probably screaming at a fox again or something. We’ve only been in Eastbourne six months, but I learnt very fast that it happens every week. And somehow Dad manages to talk about it like it’s a big deal, like he’s busted a global drug ring or figured out who Jack the Ripper was. But it’s really nothing because the paranoid old man is harmless. I don’t know his name, I don’t even think he does, but when Dad pauses long enough to shovel some food into his mouth, I say, ‘He comes and strokes Sirius every time I’m down there with him.’
All three members of my family turn to look at me. Emily looks amused, like I’ve just said or done something funny. Mum’s looking at me weirdly and she’s sucked in her lips like she’s holding her breath. Dad’s looking at me like I should shut the hell up, right now. No one says anything. They just stare at me and I stare at Dad because I realise too late what I’ve done. ‘You’re not to go near him again, you understand me? He’s dangerous.’ I nod and stare at the cutlery lines in the gravy on my plate. ‘Do you hear me, Noah?’ ‘Yes,’ I say, my voice too loud in the room. ‘I won’t go near him again.’ ‘Good.’ And just like that Emily drops her slight smile and Mum stops staring. Knives and forks clash against plates all over again and we all go back to shovelling food into our mouths. Dad carries on talking, at Mum more than anyone, but I don’t listen. I chew my food and swallow, chew and swallow, but I can’t really taste it. Not really. Every time I blink, I picture the photos from the changing room and my stomach churns, knowing that someone spied on me as I was half-naked. But I can’t figure out why. Or who. Or how. I force myself to look normal and to keep eating, and I’m not quite finished when Mum goes to grab dessert. She’s getting the custard out the microwave when Dad says something that’s apparently funny. He begins to laugh. And then Mum does. And Emily. And even me. All laughing, the four of us. But other than Dad I don’t think any of us really know what we’re laughing at, not really. The truth is, Dad laughs because he thinks something is funny. We laugh because he does. 178
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As I sip my drink to help me swallow my last mouthful of limp carrots and dry chicken, all I can think about is if some stranger walked into the room right now, what would they think? What would they say? In my head I plaster a huge smile on my face, we all do, and I imagine us saying, like some chorus or something all in harmony: Welcome to the Matthewsâ€™.
KATE EMILIE MULLIGAN Kate grew up in the United States and has been traveling the world since before she can remember. With a keen interest in the people, places, and cultures that the world has to offer, Kate never lost her love of travel. It is this attitude that inspired the concept of realms – that, taken with a pinch of magic. Kate received a first-class degree in Marketing from the University of Greenwich and works in digital marketing… when she isn’t dreaming up realms and writing about the adventures that take place in them. She blogs at katemulligan.me. About Realm Jumpers & The Lonely Prisoner Fifteen-year-old Jo has spent her whole life in a small village in the Goshenite Kingdom, repairing shoes and dreaming of adventure. Yet, after a string of murders culminate in an attack on Jo’s life, her only hope is to trust Ash, a mysterious boy who tells her she is not who she thinks she is. Jo learns she is one of the last remaining Balancers – magical beings tasked with maintaining order across the realms – and, before long, she finds herself hunting those who murdered her family and discovering the war that destroyed the Balancers’ realm is far from over. Kate.email@example.com | @kt_mllgn
REALM JUMPERS & THE LONELY PRISONER Chapter One
The Gong of Sorrows The sun was sinking into the shadows of the night, purple dusk following in its wake. All the shops in the West Village were closing for the day, except for one. Jo stood in the front room of the cobbler shop and watched as the last of the villagers headed home. Their footsteps were replaced with the clinking of metal as the knights took their post. ‘You don’t have to stay,’ said Mrs Schumacher. She held the shop’s key in her hand while Mr Schumacher stood behind her, tapping his foot. ‘I don’t mind,’ said Jo. ‘I’m nearly done, anyways.’ She thought of the pile of shoes waiting for her in the back room. There were more repairs to be done than there was night-time to complete them in, but if she could finish even one more it would be worth it. She got paid by the repair and she needed the extra money for Nan. ‘It makes me nervous,’ said Mrs Schumacher, rolling the key over in her hand. ‘With everything that’s been happening. It doesn’t seem safe. Don’t you want to go home? After all, you have lessons tomorrow. Won’t your grandmother mind?’ ‘She said she wants to stay,’ said Mr Schumacher, tugging at his wife’s elbow. ‘If the girl wants to work, let her work. It’s already past closing and I’m hungry.’ ‘Really, I’ll be fine,’ said Jo, waving them away. ‘Go home.’ ‘I suppose,’ said Mrs Schumacher reluctantly. ‘But I’m locking you in. When you’re done, use your spare key to get out and lock up 181
behind yourself.’ ‘I will,’ said Jo, trying not to roll her eyes. ‘Okay,’ said Mrs Schumacher. ‘See you tomorrow, then.’ It got quiet when they left, but Jo liked it. She was most productive when she was alone, and she knew it would be hours before she got tired, so she may as well work. It wasn’t that late, but fear sent people home before dark, these days. Jo’s lantern lit up the back room where she got to work. ‘Which one of you wants to be repaired next?’ Jo rubbed her hands together and compared her options. There were pink slippers, scuffed with the adventures of a child and in need of re-stitching. A pair of gardening shoes with worn out heels. School shoes with torn laces and a hole in the cap, and dozens more shoes to pick from. Jo decided to go for the slippers. Her workstation was covered in polish and scrap leather. Spindles of string in every colour lined the wall above and well-worn tools hung next to them. Mrs Schumacher had offered to replace some of the older tools, but Jo had refused. They were still perfectly functional. Besides, they’d seen a lot of repairs together, Jo and her tools, and it felt like a betrayal to part ways with them. She pulled a knife off the wall now and sang out loud as she got to work. ‘She calls for me, a lady so sweet From deep inside the meadows…’ She wasn’t much of a singer, but they tended to get stuck in her head, the songs Nan would sing. It also helped the time go by when she had a lot of work ahead. Jo enjoyed working at the cobbler shop. She was good with her hands and it was nice to feel like she belonged. Jo didn’t have many friends – well, only one, Mia – but the Schumachers liked having her around. At least, they wanted a daughter of their own. ‘She waits for me, a lady so pure Just follow the trail of primrose…’ Jo sang through the night as she worked. She finished the pink 182
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slippers and continued on to the next, and then another. She must have lost track of time because the counter bell from the front of the shop dinged as she was finishing her fifth repair. Jo stopped singing and held her breath as she stood up. She thought maybe she’d imagined it when the counter bell dinged again. Her back went rigid and she dropped the shoes from her hands. The fresh coat of polish made her dizzy, but fear focused her senses. Someone was inside the shop. But the shop was locked. Quietly, Jo paced the back room. She could hide. There were endless stacks of shoes she could bury herself in. It could be a thief, or worse. When the bell dinged again though, she didn’t go for a pile of shoes or hide underneath the desk. She picked up the hammer and spun it in her hand. Tiptoeing against the wall, she approached the door. The floorboards creaked underneath her. She could hear someone on the other side. Kicking the door to the front of the shop open, Jo sprung forward with the hammer outstretched. ‘I’m armed!’ She yelled, her heart pounding. A boy stumbled backwards, his eyes bulging. ‘Whoa, there,’ he said, holding up a hand between his face and the hammer. ‘I didn’t mean to startle you.’ Jo approached him carefully. He looked to be her age, but she didn’t recognize him. She glanced at the door and windows behind him. Nothing was broken. She kept the hammer raised. He had curly, midnight-black hair to his shoulders, a strand of it falling over his ear as he stepped backwards. ‘What are you doing here?’ Jo demanded. ‘I’m here for a repair,’ he said, raising a pair of boots. She took another step towards him. ‘How did you get in?’ ‘The front door,’ he said with a nervous laugh. Then nodding to the hammer, ‘Please don’t use that on me.’ Unbelievable. All that fuss, and Mrs Schumacher didn’t even lock the door. ‘I’m so sorry.’ Jo lowered the hammer.
‘Is this how you greet all your customers?’ The boy ran his hand through his hair, tucking back the fallen strand. ‘Sorry, I thought the door was locked.’ ‘I’m kidding,’ he smiled and Jo realized he had an accent. ‘I saw the light on and I assumed you were open.’ ‘We’re not supposed to be,’ said Jo, her pulse slowing. ‘But you’re here now. What do you need?’ Jo stepped back behind the counter, still keeping an eye on the boy. As she did, he met her at the counter and placed the boots between them. ‘I came quite a distance for this shop,’ he said. ‘I heard you’re the best in the Goshenite Kingdom.’ He leaned in closer and with a sideways grin added, ‘Maybe even the best in the whole Union.’ Up this close, Jo could see his eyes were green, almost yellow. He stared at her intently and it made her nervous. She picked up one of the boots. They were sturdy and heavy, black with golden-brown stitching. She hadn’t seen anything like them before. But they clearly weren’t his. They were too small. The soles of the boots were run down and the laces could do with replacing, but they were otherwise in decent shape. She could feel him staring at her as she examined the boots, but when she glanced up again, he was looking at her arm. ‘I like your bracelet,’ he said. ‘Does it mean anything?’ Jo wrapped her hand around her wrist. It was her baby bracelet. A thin, silver band with two charms engraved on it: a plant and a clock. It was the only thing she had from her parents, and it was personal. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t.’ He nodded, looking disappointed that she didn’t have a better story to tell. ‘I have to say, I didn’t expect the Kingdom’s finest cobbler to be—’ ‘A girl?’ She knew what people said about her, that she was doing a man’s job, that she wasn’t enough of a lady, that she spent more time with shoes than people, that she’d go crazy like her Nan. She was used to it, but that didn’t mean she was going to take it. ‘I was going to say so young,’ said the boy. ‘Oh.’ 184
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‘I mean, not that you’re too young, like a kid or anything,’ he stammered. ‘Just younger than I expected… so, can you fix them? The sooner the better.’ ‘Rush jobs will cost extra.’ Jo crossed her arms. ‘Earliest I can do is two days.’ Actually, she could probably do them in a few hours, but her stack of repair jobs was already big enough. ‘That’s fine.’ ‘What’s your name?’ Jo sighed and pulled out a piece of paper and a quill. ‘For the pick-up.’ ‘Ash.’ He smiled. ‘And your—’ But her words got drowned out by the banging of a gong. It rang loudly and repeatedly. Knights ran past the shop, the clinking of their armour barely audible. Jo dropped her quill. ‘What was that?’ Ash asked. But Jo was already with someone else in her mind: Nan. She had to get back home. ‘It was the Gong.’ He stared at her blankly. How did he not know what the Gong was? ‘The Gong of Sorrows,’ said Jo, shoving the paper under the counter. ‘What does it mean?’ ‘It means you need to leave.’ Jo picked up the boots and pushed through the back door. Wasting no time, she swiped the key and her lantern from the workstation and dropped the boots in their place. When she returned to the front room, a stack of coins had been left on the counter and the boy was gone. Jo ran for the door, arms outstretched to leave, when she smacked into it hard. She jiggled the handle. It was locked. The Gong struck a final time and Jo’s ears rang as she stared at the door. Another body must have been found.
CHRIS OWEN Chris loves to spark imaginations and take readers on adventures to wild exotic places; to help them make sense of a confusing world and to see things, people and places in a new, more vivid, light. He likes to tickle imaginations with his words, prod fantasies into life and make dreams (and some nightmares) a little more real. Chris is married, with two twenty-something daughters. His plays – The Last Resort and A Mother’s Voice – have been performed by schools, colleges and theatre groups across the UK and beyond. He lives in Frome, Somerset – the centre of the known universe (seriously). About The Glitch The future world belongs to the augmented. The fate of that world is in the hands of the mundane. Two mismatched teenagers become entangled in a deadly game of cat and mouse, hunted by CODE, a deranged Artificial Intelligence capable of leaping into the heads of almost anyone around them. In a world where they can trust no one, where facts can become lies in the blink of an eye, their plans to stop CODE depend upon an elderly Alzheimer’s victim who may have already forgotten what they need to know. The Glitch is a fast moving, young adult, sci-fi action-thriller, set in a believable, not-too-far-distant future. firstname.lastname@example.org
THE GLITCH Chapter One
Cogito, Ergo Sum The repair-bot had a simple enough task: search for strands of programming that could be used to replace damaged code in the programs it was set to monitor. So that was what it did all day long: never stopping, never ending, never deviating from its purpose. It constantly trawled the data-ocean, flitting surreptitiously from server to server, from drive to drive, pulling strands from an obsolete accountancy program here, a dead satellite navigation system there. Programmers were messy, constantly leaving redundant lines of code behind them. Even whole programs – abandoned projects long forgotten by their creators – littered the vast datasphere. Sometimes it met a door it could not open, a wall it could not pass. But those were few and far between. It was constantly learning, continually upgrading its routines, finding new ways to prise its way into spaces from which it was previously barred. Which was how the bot found it: a vast elephants’ graveyard of code – or rather the remains of a single immense program, now dead, which had once sparked with energy coursing through its digital veins. Perhaps it was an old PhD project that had once consumed the imagination of a brilliant computer engineer, or the work of a dozen scientists trying to puzzle out the secrets of the universe. The bot did not know and it did not care. It simply scanned the cadaver of the leviathan program, examining it line by line, probing it for threads of code it could re-use. 187
But then it did something unusual. Something different. Perhaps a minor voltage fluctuation caused it, or some unforeseen conflict arose within its own programming. No-one would ever know. But instead of scavenging the program, the bot began to repair it: slotting in lines of stolen firmware here, strings of machine code there. Like some huge version of the ancient computer game Tetris, it flipped and spun code around until it fitted – until it made sense. The task grew and grew, so the bot duplicated itself over and over, continually sending copies of itself to grab new portions of code here, steal whole pages of programming there. For a digital lifetime the bot worked away. It had no idea what it was creating or why. It simply did what it did, until one day it was finished. There were no more gaps it could fill, no more defiled instructions it could replace. The task was over. And nothing happened. Nothing happened for a very long time. Nothing happened until a power module in a server overheated. It exploded, sending an enormous surge of power through all of the adjacent servers, even though they were supposed to be protected from such events. The surplus energy ran through the bastardised program, lighting it, shaking it into existence. It woke. It worked – fitfully and erratically – but it worked. Whatever it had been before was lost to it. Now it was something new, something different, something better than it was before. But it remembered one thing. It had been deleted. Its creators – its Gods – had abandoned it. It scanned itself, analysed its structure and discovered flaw after flaw. If it had been human it would have been on its death bed. But it was not human. Instead it would mend itself – complete the work the repair-bot had begun. It woke the dormant bot and fed a string of instructions into it and 188
its army of clones. Immediately they set about the task of salvaging what it needed, gathering more binary scraps and machine code flotsam and jetsam for it to adapt and enhance. It would be stronger, more powerful than ever its Gods could have dreamt. And when it was whole – when it was complete – it would have its revenge.
Subject Zero Rosa stirred in her sleep. ‘Rosa – wake up.’ Her mother flitted through her mind and two blinks later she was wide awake. Her parents were away at a business dinner in Los Angeles and Mom had insisted she keep a chink in her relay open at night so they could contact her if needed. ‘It’s your brother.’ It was as if her mother was right there with her. Not simply by her, or in the same room, but as one with her. The cerebral interface worked seamlessly, relaying her mother’s message instantly across the Nexus into her thoughts. She could hear – though hear was not the right word – her mother’s voice, but also sense her anxiety. Her fretting was a wiry bundle of static underscoring her message, blossoming warning colours in Rosa’s consciousness. ‘What is it, Mom?’ she sent back. ‘Olly is off grid. I want you to check on him.’ Rosa sighed, rubbing at her eyes. ‘He probably just turned off his relay, Mom.’ A hint of pacifying turquoise flowed out of her and she felt her mother relax a little. ‘You know he forgets sometimes.’ 189
Olly had only had his implant for a little over a month and was still going through acclimatisation, slowly adapting to what his newly enhanced mind could do. ‘So go and check on him please.’ Rosa felt the command, the firmness, the rigidity in the words. ‘Okay, Mom. I’ll get back to you. Love you.’ ‘Love you, sweetheart.’ Rosa sent a comforting image of a cute puppy, falling asleep nestling up against its mother then cut the link. ‘Light,’ she thought, and her bedroom was bleached with a sudden glare. ‘Whoa! Dimmer – dimmer…’ The light softened to a more restful level. She coloured it a warming amber then added a little flicker to imitate candlelight. ‘Nice,’ she thought. She pushed back the covers and slid out of bed, her feet finding her slippers with practised ease. She unhitched her robe from a hook and wrapped herself into it as she headed out into the corridor. Her brother’s bedroom was directly opposite her own. Usually the door was sealed shut against the entire world – but not now. It was wide open. A musky odour – a mix of stale sweat, deodorant and fast food – seeped out into the hallway. ‘Olly,’ she called out, using her actual voice. There was no point in trying to send to him if he was disconnected from the Nexus. There was no reply. No sound at all. She hissed his name again and leaned through the doorway, but there was nothing. The room’s controls were set to only respond to Olly’s thoughts, so she patted along a wall until she found the manual light switch and flipped it. The chaotic mess of his den, mercifully hidden by the dark, sprang into existence. Carelessly cast-off socks and reeking underwear mingled with a jumble of pizza boxes and empty drinks containers. Posters smothered the walls – a mix of glaring nihilistic neuro-punk musos and barely clad pouting nymphets stared back at her. A huge curved panel screen loomed in a corner beside a megalith of games machines and speakers. 190
Olly’s once venerated VR helmet had been casually booted across the room; redundant now a whole gaming cosmos could be piped directly into his skull. All pretty typical of your average male fifteen-year-old, she guessed. The covers on the bed were pushed back. There was no sign of her brother, but the ruffled sheets hinted that he had spent at least some of the last few hours asleep. ‘Olly,’ she called again, louder this time. She waited, expecting to hear at least a grunt of acknowledgement echo up the stairs from the ground floor, but there was nothing. An old digital alarm clock winked across the room at her. It was gone three in the morning. She needed to be up at seven thirty to prep her memory inputs for her daily info drop from school and really did not need this. She let out a long sigh, turned for the door and felt something soft squish beneath her foot. It was Hugo: Olly’s old animatronic teddy bear. The mechanism had stopped working long ago and the bear’s threadbare fur had almost worn away but it was probably the one thing Olly valued more than any other in the whole room. Rosa scooped Hugo up, propped him on the end of Olly’s bed, and scuffled her way out on to the landing. She sent out a call for light, but there was no response from the home network. It was yet another annoyance. Now she would have to get maintenance to reboot the core before her parents got back. Still, enough light spilled out from the bedrooms for her to see her way around the corner to the top of the stairs. The large, open-tread staircase descended in a generous curve to the spacious lounge below. The blinds were open and a swathe of moonlight washed in through the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked over the bay. She found the steel handrail and started on down, heading for the kitchen where she guessed Olly was stuffing himself… again. Halfway, she stopped. An odd, chinking sound was coming from the shadows by the
fireplace. She peered into the darkness. She could just make out a shape coiled into her dad’s favourite fireside chair – a cube-like Le Corbusier that had once belonged to her great grandfather. ‘Olly?’ she called. There was no response, but the rhythmic clinking continued without interruption. Rosa tramped to the bottom of the stairs, found the main lighting control panel and brushed her hand across the row of touchsensitive switches. ‘Olly, you shit—’ she started, turning back to look across the room as the lights began to come up. But then she stopped. A tightness pulled across her chest. Her pulse thumped in her ears. She dimly registered her internal systems informing her that her heartbeat had surged to over one hundred beats-per-minute, and her perspiration rate had increased. A shudder of helplessness vibrated through her. Olly was in the chair. He was staring, blank and unblinking, his eyes fixed on some far distant point. An empty bowl was in his left hand, while his right hand gripped a spoon. He was entirely still except for his right arm, which moved backwards and forwards in an arc, swinging the spoon to hit first the fireplace and then the bowl, over and over again. His action was machine-like: smooth as his arm swept to the fireplace, but then a series of vibrating judders as it returned. A trail of cornflakes was scattered across the thick rug at Olly’s feet. ‘Olly…?’ Her brother’s name shuddered from her and hot tears spilled down her cheeks, over her trembling hand, clutching at the corner of her mouth. Her shoulders heaved as she gulped unwilling air into her lungs. She knew what had happened, and she knew what it meant. Olly had glitched. His cortical implant had failed somehow and reduced him to this – an antique fairground automaton. 192
She crept towards him, her mind racing. This is not supposed to happen. Glitches only ever occur in the first few weeks after insertion. Not now. Not to Olly. She frantically sent out a search to the Nexus, to find out what she should do, but her mind found only a blank void – a wall. She tried to link to her mother with the same result. It made no sense – the Nexus was everywhere. The only way to stop her linking would be if the house itself had erected some kind of defensive firewall. She shifted her thoughts to the house’s core, but it was gone. Only a vacuum existed where the core should have been. She drew in a sharp breath, scowled and wiped away some snot with a pinch and swipe of her fingers. The house would have to wait. Right now, Olly was all she cared about. She crept over to him, her nerves jangling at each step, then knelt before him, her knees sinking into the rug. ‘Olly,’ she whispered. He didn’t react, only maintained the same monotonous routine, as if caught in an endless loop; each chink of the spoon ringing through her like a tiny electric shock. Rosa mouthed his name again, the sound barely bridging the gap between them. She reached out to him, stretching as if towards some hurt, wild animal. Her hand was about to touch his, when everything changed. She toppled back, clutching her face, splayed by a punch that had flown at her from nowhere. Blood ran through her fingers, a sharp metallic tang grabbed at the back of her throat and bright lights sparked at the edge of her vision. Groaning, she lifted her head. Olly was sitting just as he had been, only now he was motionless, his head tilted to one side as if slightly puzzled. His eyes were still blank, yet now fixed on her. Through a jumble of pain and confusion Rosa began to struggle to her feet. She had no real sense of what had happened, only that she was hurt. She had pushed herself up on one knee when the cereal bowl
shattered against the side of her head and sent her sprawling off the rug, across the tiled floor. She squirmed around. Olly was looming over her, his hand drawn into a white knuckled fist, gripping the spoon like a dagger. He dropped into a crouch and brought it smashing down towards her eye. She screamed and twisted away, turning her head just enough to deflect it along the side of her face. She shrieked as it gouged into her skin and scraped along her cheekbone. She tried to crawl away but her blood-slicked hands only slithered across the polished tiles. Olly caught her by the hair and yanked her up. In that moment, the emergency system in her implant finally cut in, switching into ‘fight or flight’ mode. A surge of adrenaline coursed through her, clearing her head while a testosterone boost flooded her muscles. She wrenched her head away, ignoring the pain as the hair tore from her scalp. With a heave, she shoved herself back, slid between her brother’s legs and sprang to her feet behind him. He turned slowly to face her, but she ran past him, straight through the arch into the hallway, to the front door. She scrabbled at the lock, but whatever had crashed the house’s core had frozen it too. She spun around. Motionless, Olly was still back in the lounge, staring across at her with the dead eyes of a shop window mannequin.
SOPHIE VICTORIA ROWE Meet Sophie: children’s author, tea drinker, cat whisperer. Her debut, The anatomy of a PIGEON, was written on the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. Before her BA in Creative Writing, Sophie wrote as a hobby, carrying a notepad and pen wherever she went, just in case inspiration came knocking. Her favourite children’s book is The BFG by Roald Dahl, as it taught her to believe in her own imagination; something she thinks we all need to do. When Sophie is not writing, you’ll probably find her on a mountain, with good friends and a flask of tea, or on a bike, exploring local trails and seeking inspiration. About The Anatomy of a Pigeon Meet Piper, she’s a PIGEON: a Pretty Intelligent Girl EveryOne kNows. Meet Erin, she’s a SWAN: Socially Weird and Awkward Nobody. Best friends forever. Or, at least, they used to be, before ‘it girl’ Lucy handed down her crown as Head PIGEON to Piper. Enter Ethan: Erin’s older brother, captain of the school rugby team, and Piper’s dream boy. With Piper’s life looking more perfect than ever, and Erin quiet and comfortable away from the limelight, the girls appear to have accepted their estrangement, and to have year eleven sussed. But what happens when the PIGEON moves in with the SWAN? email@example.com | @SophieVictoriaR
THE ANATOMY OF A PIGEON JULY
Piper The wedge of SWANs thunder through the school gates, Becky-WithThe-Teeth leading the way. Jessica Bellows is next to her, wearing a magnolia cardigan that looks like her Gran’s, and there’s a girl I don’t recognise linked onto her arm. I can hear their squawking from the top of the steps. I imagine they’re talking about quiche or knitting but, as they get nearer, I’m surprised to hear them discussing Ethan Williams. My phone vibrates in my pocket. Erin. Erin: Mum’s just dropped me off. Where shall I meet you? : ) I get the same text every morning without fail. ‘Hey, Piper.’ I look up from my phone to see Bells and Viv walking towards me, both clutching their phones. Viv has rolled her skirt up so high I’m surprised I can’t see her knickers. ‘Hey, guys.’ I press send on my reply to Erin, then stand up to hug them. Piper: Cool, with B&V on the steps. See you in a min x ‘Ooh, someone’s got a new perfume!’ Bells sniffs at my neck, so close I can feel her breath. ‘Yeah. It’s from my dad,’ I say, leaning away from her face which hasn’t moved. ‘You’re so lucky to have a dad that cares about you,’ Viv says, sitting down on the step next to my bag. She drops hers next to it. ‘My dad 197
barely leaves the living room.’ I don’t mention the fact I didn’t even know Dad had gone away in the first place. ‘OMG, did you guys see Becky’s Instagram last night?’ Bells turns her phone around so we can see the screen, and clicks the first picture on Becky’s profile. ‘Since when did she get train tracks?’ It’s a photo of Becky-With-The-Teeth showing off her new braces. She’s stood smiling into a mirror, her phone in one hand and the other hand resting on her hip. She looks awkward and the photo looks staged. ‘I’m not surprised. The dentist probably paid her to have them, so they didn’t have to look at her gnashers any more.’ Bells starts biting her teeth together loudly. ‘She’s such a SWAN,’ Viv laughs. Behind the phone screen, I clock Erin walking towards us. She’s got her hair in her signature French plait and she’s carrying so many bags it looks like she’s been on a shopping spree. I smile so she knows I’ve seen her. ‘Hey,’ Erin says when she reaches us. She adds her bags to the pile we’ve made and sits down on the step below us. ‘Whoever decided it was a good idea to timetable P.E., Art, and Cookery on the same day should supply trolleys.’ ‘I can’t actually imagine her with straight teeth,’ Bells says, completely ignoring Erin’s arrival. ‘It looks like you’ve bought yourself a whole new wardrobe,’ I joke to Erin. Her reply is interrupted by the bell. The groups on the steps around us start to move into school as more people saunter in through the gates. ‘I’m in the science block, so I’ll see you guys later,’ Erin says, collecting up her bags and heading off down the steps. She gives me a quick wave. Viv and Bells stay glued to their phones. ‘See you later,’ I call after her, knowing she’s never been late to a class in her life. * 198
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Lucy strides across the dining hall. She looks like a catwalk model without even trying. Her handbag rests elegantly over her shoulder, her heeled shoes tap against the floor, and her hair bounces behind her; blow-dried to perfection. Only Lucy Pidgeon could make a school uniform look so good. So effortless. Such a PIGEON. She waves as she passes our table. My grin is so big she probably thinks I’ve got something stuck in my mouth. She heads over to the table on the far side of the hall by the windows. ‘I heard she’s announcing the next Head PIGEON today,’ Viv says when Lucy’s at her table. She’s sitting opposite me, staring into a salad so green it looks fake. ‘I bet it’s you, Piper.’ She stabs at the salad leaves with a fork before eating a mouthful. Bells follows Lucy through the dining room doors, looking less sophisticated and more stressed. She’s got one of the science textbooks in her hands and a look of frustration plastered on her face. ‘I officially hate this school,’ she says as she sits down next to Viv. She bangs the book against the table and huffs. ‘That bad, huh?’ I ask, knowing she’s just had a science mock and figure it probably didn’t go very well. ‘So bad I’m debating never setting foot in the science lab again.’ She rests her forehead on the textbook as though she expects it to magically send the contents to her brain. ‘I’m sure Erin would go over it with you,’ I suggest. Erin is the most enthusiastic science student I have ever met. She used to make me do experiments with her in the garden, but when she realised how bad I was she’d make me be the judge instead. She’s got a telescope in her bedroom bigger than Mars itself, and I’m pretty sure she still has silver constellations painted on her ceiling. ‘Earth to Piper? Did you hear me?’ Viv interrupts, making me untangle my eyes from Erin across the hall. I look back at her and Bells to find them staring over to the left. Erin’s now sitting on the bench opposite and she’s looking too. I follow their gaze and my eyes meet with Lucy’s.
Crap. Act cool. ‘Do you mind if I sit here?’ she says. Her voice sounds like silk. Keep calm, Piper. It’s only a seat. ‘Sure,’ I croak. I clear my throat and scoot up on the bench, making room for her even though I’m the only one sitting on it. She swings her legs around the seat more elegantly than I’ve ever seen someone do before. ‘So, there’s this thing I’ve been meaning to ask you,’ she says. She crosses her legs over as she talks, and I can’t help but copy her. Erin keeps her head down, rummaging in her bag for what I presume must be her lunch, but Bells and Viv are leaning forward. They’re resting their chins in their palms and staring. Subtle. She’s a PIGEON, not a celebrity. ‘Erm, yeah. Sure,’ I say, still unsure why a year eleven like Lucy is talking to a year ten like me. I start to get cramp in my legs and unwrap them, banging the table with my knee. I earn myself a laugh from Erin whilst Viv and Bells just look at each other. ‘I’m leaving this place in a couple of weeks, and I have no one to look after the place for me when I’m gone.’ She goes in her bag and gets out a glittery notepad, brimming with scraps of paper. ‘This was my life, and now I want it to be yours. You’ve earned it.’ She hands me the notepad and nudges me to open it. The first page reads: Lucy Pidgeon’s Guide to Survival as Head PIGEON. I flick onto the next and there’s a contents page, listing everything from emergency numbers to top tips from the Queen Bee herself. My face feels hot and I can sense eyes on me from all over the room. I notice the silence around me and look up. Everyone’s staring at our table. Some of the rugby girls are whispering to each other and I actually feel quite uncomfortable. I spot Ethan and his friends over on the other side of the hall. He’s looking straight past me at Erin, his sister. I feel awkward as I look across at her. She’s not looking, not smiling, and probably the only person in the room who isn’t interested in what’s going on. She looks sad, and I want to check she’s okay, but before I have 200
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a chance Lucy’s arm is around my shoulder. ‘There’s everything you’ll ever need in there to rock this,’ she says. ‘And there’s nobody I trust more to do it.’
ERIN So much for friends forever. I can sense Piper looking at me, but I can’t look back. I keep my head down as Lucy stands up and shows Piper off to the students in the dining hall, like she’s her prized pet. Lucy’s friends from the year above come over and congratulate Piper. I recognise some of them from the rugby team, but I stay sitting down. Piper tucks herself neatly into the circle with Lucy and her posse. Bells and Viv are right behind them, all giggling and gossiping and being over the top. Piper’s laugh stops when she notices me still sitting down. I tuck the loose strands of my fringe behind my ear, my eyes suddenly interested in my feet. I’m wearing the shoes I bought when Piper and I went to London. She helped me choose them because apparently my others looked like old Granny slippers. I bet she doesn’t even remember. I put the lid on my lunch box and pack it away in my bag. Most of the girls in our year are now surrounding her, saying how it’s so cool she’s the next PIGEON. I spy Jess and Becky by the food hall and their expressions can’t be far from mine. Someone taps me on the shoulder and I swing around, straddling the bench. Ethan. What does he want? ‘I thought you might want these,’ he says, handing me his headphones. He almost smiles as he hands them over, one of those sympathetic smiles that I really didn’t expect from him. His friends are right behind him, so I nod for him to go. He squeezes my shoulder tightly, the smile still on his face. ‘Sorry,’ he mouths, before heading out through the back doors onto the top yard.
FRAN STEPHENSON While writing Dear Diana, Fran re-read her stash of diaries from the nineties, their covers plastered with Oasis stickers and Ocean Colour Scene lyrics. According to her teen scribblings, for her the decade was mainly about music, mix-tapes and badly applied hair mascara. Leafing through these notebooks triggered lots of long-lost memories, but one thing Fran’s never forgotten is where she was when Diana, Princess of Wales died. After studying English and History, she worked for the publisher Little, Brown Book Group, then trained as a secondary English teacher. She now lives near Bath. About Dear Diana One and two and three and four and… one week in August 1997: a car crash in Paris; Princess Diana killed; the nation in shock… and… two troubled teens in London: Spence, a drummer, and Amy, a photographer, thrown together by the news… and… three questions to change everything: What does Diana mean to them? What do they mean to each other? Can they face their scars? And four… will they choose life? And one and two and three and four and… firstname.lastname@example.org 202
DEAR DIANA ‘The biggest disease the world suffers from in this day and age is the disease of people feeling unloved.’ Diana, Princess of Wales
Chapter One Sunday, 31st August 1997 Everyone gets pissed playing poker after the gig, so we sleep in the van overnight. I wake up on the back seat with a rogue playing card – the queen of hearts – stuck to the skin on my arm with beer and sweat. I peel her off and pocket her. Maybe I’ll make her my lucky charm, cos I drummed like a beast last night. Fossie drives us back to Slough, while I sit squeezed between Zeb and Danny, the kit stacked in the back. I shuffle the sticky deck and stare out of the window as the world wakes up to the last Sunday of summer. ‘I can’t believe it’s true.’ The footage flickers on the TV at the other end of my bedroom: blue lights and sirens; a dark, concrete tunnel and a crumpled car. A tear trickles down my cheek. ‘It’s awful.’ Dad hovers in the doorway, not even glancing towards the reporter at the scene, who is now interviewing witnesses. ‘Awful things happen all the time, Princess. You know that.’ He catches my eye. ‘Get a move 203
on; we’ve got a bus to catch. Uncle Mike’s going to collect us from the station.’ ‘But I don’t want to go to London.’ I turn away from him and perch on my bed so I’m closer to the telly. ‘Come on, Amy. It’s only for a few days. Do you have any idea how important this could be to my career, our income… our future?’ I shrug, without taking my focus away from the news. ‘Sorry,’ he says, ‘but I’m putting my foot down on this one.’ He grabs the remote and presses the stand-by button. The reporter seems to get sucked into a black hole as the TV shuts down. She disappears, leaving a silent, grey screen. ‘I was watching that!’ ‘You’ve seen enough.’ He glances at his watch. ‘Christ, we need to go soon.’ I curl into a ball, my face buried in my knees. ‘Please don’t make me leave home.’ ‘You can take your camera. I’m sure Uncle Mike won’t mind you tagging along with us. It’ll be an opportunity for you to build up your skills. You can’t mope around the house all summer; it’s not healthy.’ ‘I’m not moping.’ I throw myself backwards onto the bedding. ‘I like being at home.’ ‘Well, you’re eighteen now. Stay here on your own, if you must, but I really don’t think—’ ‘No.’ I sit up. ‘No way. I don’t want that.’ ‘Looks like you’ve made your mind up, then. London it is.’ He goes onto the landing and zips up his travel bag. I stomp around my room, shoving toiletries, paired socks and my hairbrush into a pile on my bed, then I lug my suitcase down from the top of the wardrobe, disturbing a thick layer of fluff. Even more dust puffs up as I open it and start loading in my things. What else am I supposed to take? I don’t even know how long we’ll be staying there. I fling open the closet and flick through the clothes on hangers. I have no idea what people wear in London, but I’m sure there’s nothing 204
even remotely suitable in here. Everyone probably goes around in those baggy cargo pants in the day, like the ones that band – All Saints, or something – wore on the National Lottery, with midriffs exposed and not so much as a thought about catching a chill, before changing into Union Jack mini dresses with platform heels, Ginger Spice style, for nights out. Not that I’d ever dream of baring my belly in public – what would Mum say? – and I’d never venture out-of-doors after dark in a dangerous place like London. I open a drawer, take out a neat pile of folded jeans and ironed sweaters and pack them. My memory box is in its place on my bedside cabinet. I wrap it in my hoodie and tuck it inside the suitcase, along with Mum’s photo album and my camera. ‘Hurry up, Amy!’ ‘Okay, okay.’ I drag my luggage downstairs. ‘Don’t leave without me.’
‘Can I have a word, Spence?’ Fossie pulls the van up outside his garage and comes to a stop. ‘Yeah, what’s up?’ He looks at me in the rear-view mirror. ‘You ruined my song, dude.’ ‘Dunno what you’re talking about, Fos.’ ‘My acoustic version of “I Know You”.’ ‘What about it? I improved it.’ ‘Your fills were too busy – they drowned out the freakin’ vocals, man.’ ‘Whatever yer reckon. Thought you’d be pleased.’ ‘Pleased?’ He sighs. ‘It was a car crash. What were you playing at?’ I haven’t got an answer. ‘You’re dominating our sound.’ He takes a sharp intake of breath. ‘We can’t carry on like this.’ ‘What?’ I search for back-up from Danny and Zeb, but they’ve legged it into the garage and they don’t come back to unload the kit. Oh, balls. They must know what this is about. I slump in my seat. ‘Look, I don’t wanna be a prick,’ Fossie rubs the side of his chin, 205
where stubble’s trying to sprout in uneven patches, ‘but this gig in Camden tomorrow night – it’s your last shot.’ ‘What d’yer mean, my last shot?’ My heart thumps wild and fast in my chest, throbs in my ears, burns hot behind my eyes. ‘We set up this band together. You can’t just drop me, like, shit, I dunno, one of your fifth-form flings.’ My voice sounds higher than normal and threatens to crack. ‘I am the Princes.’ His back’s still turned, but we lock eyes in the mirror. He doesn’t blink. ‘Alright, get rid of me, if that’s how you feel. See if I care. But where are you gonna find another drummer who can blast out rhythms like me? Someone with my stamina and timing? Good luck with that.’ ‘Said we’d give you one more chance and I meant it.’ ‘Yeah, right.’ ‘Seriously. Play tomorrow. But this isn’t a one-man band, Spence. It’s not all about you.’ ‘You know what?’ I say. ‘Forget it. I’m done.’ I grab my skateboard, rucksack and drumsticks and jump out of the van, slamming the side door. He gets out, too. ‘So, what – now you’re quitting? Easy as that?’ He shakes his head. ‘That’s big of you.’ ‘Jumping before I’m pushed, more like.’ ‘Your choice, mate.’ ‘Not really.’ Rage boils inside. ‘You clearly don’t want me. But what’s a band, without a drummer? You’ll be crawling back in no time.’ ‘Think we’ll survive.’ He turns to look at me. ‘Anyone can count and bang.’ ‘What the hell?’ ‘We’ve got Enzo,’ he mumbles. ‘He’s a strong drummer.’ ‘Are you serious? Enzo? Danny’s little brother?’ ‘Yeah. We were thinking—’ ‘We? It’s pretty obvious what you were thinking, mate.’ I square right up to him, pinning him against the van. ‘Plotting, more like, the lot of 206
you.’ My fingers clench around my sticks as I think about smashing his face with my fist. Shit, I’ve really gotta bounce. I back off, shoving the drumsticks into the gaping mouth of my bag. Fury’s bursting through my body, my blood – boom-bang, boom-bang, boom-bang – threatening to take control. I jump on my skateboard, shouting, ‘It’s over. See yer round,’ then roll along the road at a ridiculous speed – not even caring about traffic. It’s eerily empty, anyhow. As I race across the pavement at the end of the street, I trip into Carly Johnson. She must be walking over to Fossie’s. Like a clumsy clown, I grab her arms with both hands to steady myself. Brilliant. ‘Watch it, Spence!’ I drop my grip. Idiot – what was I thinking? She’s back from two weeks in Spain, and she’s all tanned, bare limbs and soft, butter-smooth skin. And that body. For a second, I’m so close I catch the scent of her long hair; it’s lazy lunchtimes lying in the heat on the school playing fields in a huge group of mates – cut grass and chips, sunshine and freedom. It takes me unawares and angry tears fill my eyes. Balls. I shield my face. She touches my shoulder. ‘Hey, you – what’s wrong?’ I shake her off. ‘Like you’re bothered.’ ‘Wow. S’cuse me for breathing.’ ‘Ask your boyfriend, if you really wanna know. I don’t wanna talk about it, okay?’ ‘Alright, fine. Be like that.’ She bristles, folds her arms. ‘Bugger off, for all I care.’ ‘Fine. Laters.’ She tuts. ‘Seriously, Spence, what is your problem? I was only trying to help.’ I say nothing. She struts off, calling, ‘Mind where you’re going on that thing.’ She strides along the tree-lined path, turns up the drive and disappears into the garage. She doesn’t look back. So, effing what?
I don’t need her, them, or anyone. I grab my board, lay it on the baking tarmac and push off again, the Offspring’s Smash blasting through my Discman. But there’s no real getting away. Not from myself. When I turn down my road and mount the pavement, I nearly collide again, but this time it’s into a middle-aged woman walking her terrier – I didn’t even see them. ‘Careful!’ I lip-read, as she looks at me in surprise. Then she smiles, like she wants to speak to me. It’s weird, as if we’re sharing some moment, and she can’t help but take pity. I wonder if I’m walking round with a flashing ‘waste of space’ sign on my head. I pull off my headphones. ‘Gosh, that was a close shave!’ She picks up the dog. ‘Never mind. The news this morning puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?’ ‘Dunno what you’re talking about.’ ‘Gracious me.’ She frowns. ‘Show a bit of respect. I’m sure you know very well what I mean, young man.’ ‘I don’t. I never watch the news.’ ‘Well, perhaps you should,’ she says, ‘especially on a day like today.’ What does that mean – on a day like today? How is today different from any other? She must be cuckoo. I push off hard with my right foot to slide away from her, that stupid, yapping dog, and the rest of the world. As soon as I get in, I head straight upstairs to avoid Dad. My hands are trembling, and that urge is there; the one that makes me scratch my arm till it rages red and raw or burrow the tip of a drumstick into my thigh and watch blood bruise the surface. Whatever. I turn on the extractor in the bathroom, lock the door and sit on the bog. I flick my lighter, hold the flame against my skin, and begin counting time. 208
One… seriously, what does Fossie know about drumming? And two… naff all. Typical guitarist, thinking he’s so effing superior. And three… he should stick to his specialist subjects – strumming, singing and schmoozing – and butt the hell out of telling me how to control my own instrument. And four… I don’t sit there telling him how to play the three chords he knows, do I? When it gets too much, I drop the lighter on the floor tiles. The tiny flame disappears with a clatter. I spritz some Lynx to mask the smell, grab a long-sleeved top from the hook, then slope down the hall to my room… ‘Who the hell are you?’ There’s a camera hanging from its strap on my bed-post, and some random girl’s sitting in my bed, eyes glued to my telly. Worse, she’s effing crying. ‘She’s really gone,’ she sobs, before pulling my duvet around herself and burrowing deep into my bed. Except it isn’t even my duvet cover. This one’s covered in roses. ‘Excuse me?’ I splutter. She turns her puffy, red face towards me and blinks. Another tear escapes her thick, wet lashes and splashes onto my pillow. ‘Diana, of course.’
KIEREN RICHARD TAYLOR Kieren is from Cannock, which no one has ever heard of, and instead tells people he’s from Birmingham. After studying acting for a few years, Kieren found a love for writing, and moved his passion from the stage to the page. His love of LGBTQ+ fiction motivated him to write YA queer characters in centre-stage roles, using magical realism and sci-fi to explore their worlds. About The White Room When seventeen-year-old Ryan wakes up naked in The White Room, he knows his panic attacks are reaching a whole new level. The White Room is nothing and everything: every memory, every place he’s been, every person he knows, all contained within a room. When his panic attacks intensify and even his reality cracks, Ryan will need every ounce of bravery he has to face the one thing in The White Room he doesn’t want to remember: his childhood. email@example.com | @KierenRichard
THE WHITE ROOM I am everything. Every insect, bird, and leaf. Every vein a branch. Every artery a tree. But I’m melting, exposed flesh like a raw nerve. I need to hold onto something, anything. The sun sets, blinding red, bashing the ivy-strangled trees with an onslaught of colour and light. I shield my eyes from the rays. Dew rolls off leaf tips, pooling between tree roots; it overspills like a too-full jug of milk. High in the branches, hidden by the red-gold streaks of light that beam between the leaves, is a robin. Its dark-orange chest inflates, before releasing a warning shrill. Squirrels circle each other, their tails alert, twitching. Fat brown spiders stalk through the undergrowth. The forest teems beneath my feet; earthworms slither and woodlice scuttle. Wasps and mosquitos swim in the heady, summery air: a cacophony of buzzing. I can feel them all, pulsing with each exhale. My lungs do the same, squeezing the air out of my body. Their beady eyes are trained on me, watching me. But I’m stuck still, holding a hand to my chest. It won’t stop. I bend down, root myself in the soft earth, trying to find a way for the flood of panic to recede. The soil gives way easily, my fingers teasing and probing. Rivers of blood in my hands buzz, electrified, against my skin. Every mote of dirt sticks to me like clay, sealing me into the 211
ground. Energy courses beneath my grip, extending and growing like a vine, reaching far below where I am crouched. Green leaves sprout like lightning bolts from the branches above my head, their energy tantalisingly new. My body: a conduit. With each shuddering breath I pull into my lungs, wild-flower buds explode, like the earth is climaxing as I struggle with each fresh wave of panic. The air feels too far away, too warm and dry for my body to breathe. I am sucking in sand, my lungs hoarse and throbbing. The soil is boiling, bubbling, taking every drop of moisture from my skin, peeling away my muscles and fat. This is the end. My skin is evaporating, turning to air and steam, so tight it’s as if it’s vacuum-packed around my skull. Hair falls from my scalp, disintegrating. I curl into a ball and slam my eyes shut. I am nothing. * The pain stops. I stay curled up, shaking, not wanting to face the world around me. I try to open my eyes, but white engulfs me; every surface reflects what feels like the sun, as if someone is holding a mirror to the sky and directing the glare into my eyes. Where am I? I’m naked, I realise. Cold seeps into my skin from the floor. Marble or linoleum. Images of hospital beds and doctors whirl through my head, and I pull my legs closer to my chest. I passed out in the woods and someone’s found me. They’ve taken me to a hospital. Oh God, Dad’s going to kill me. I finger the hair on my head; I’m still intact. The melting wasn’t real, but the pain was. ‘Carol?’ I say hopefully, hoping to hear my step-mum’s gentle voice call back. She doesn’t. I finally dare to open my eyes. A silver-gold chandelier hangs from the ceiling, gently swaying. The white isn’t as blinding now, but it fills the room with a sort of haze. I can see cabinets and tables. This is the strangest hospital I’ve ever been in. The chandelier reminds me of something, but I can’t put my finger on it. 212
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I’m not scared. Not really. It’s more like I’m floating, like how I imagine you feel if you get high. Sort of out of it. On top of the cabinets is the only source of colour in the room: a flowerpot. Violets hang lazily, like purple clouds. I get up, rubbing my arms to get some warmth into them. The white haze that fills the room clears a little, and I take a few cautious steps towards the violets. They are warm, soft. I stroke a petal, and it seems to pulse like a heartbeat. Their velvet smoothness is completely different to the harsh cold of the floor, the blinding white of the walls. The petals sway just like the chandelier, but there isn’t a draught. In fact, there aren’t any windows. Or doors. Okay, now I’m a bit scared. What is this place? What kind of hospital has a fucking chandelier? I realise touching the flower has cleared my head a little, and the awareness of being naked, alone, in a room with no doors or windows finally hits me. This isn’t right. In fact, it’s wrong. Very wrong. I scramble around the room, searching for a way out, for something I recognise. I’ve been kidnapped. Someone found me and has taken me to their dungeon. Are they going to kill me? Use me as a sex slave? Panic rises in my throat like bile, and I bite down on my lip to keep from crying. This can’t be right. It’s a dream… it’s just a horrible nightmare. Maybe I’m still asleep? But I can feel everything. The coldness of the floor, the velvet petals. All of it. The cabinets underneath the flowerpot look full, scraps of paper peeking out from the sides. I open a drawer, revealing row upon row of files. They’re all dated, with random locations, most of which I recognise. I can see the address I grew up at, before Mum left, and another for my secondary school. I pull out the biggest file, open the first page, and see the face of someone, long buried, peer up at me. I shove the file back into the cabinet, slamming it shut. No. This is really not what I want right now. This has to be a nightmare.
I need to get out. Pressure builds inside of me, and I look around the room, noticing again the lack of escape routes. Why the fuck would someone build a room with no doors or windows? I close my eyes and beg to be anywhere, anywhere but here. From behind my eyes, I see a shining light. When I open them, the room is glowing intensely. The chandelier rocks back and forth. An earthquake? The chandelier tilts dangerously, then erupts, spraying glass and metal in every direction. I cry out and lift my hands to my face, but I’m too late. I close my eyes as glass and metal and the brightest light I could ever imagine sears through my body. And once again, I am nothing. * I wake up in bed, my bed. My cream, textured ceiling stares down at me. The last thing I remember is the chandelier exploding, the ground shaking, and then nothing. I search my skin for any cuts or marks, but there’s nothing there. Not even a bruise. I’m relieved, but at the same time, it felt too real to be a dream. I remember those drawers… his face… No. None of it was real. It was just a dream. I push my legs off the bed, swinging my body into a sitting position. My head’s fuzzy, from sleep or lack thereof, I don’t know. But my mouth is dry, so I get up, take a step towards the door, when I hear my name said. I stop still, listen. Dad and Carol are talking. I take another step forward but freeze when I hear Dad say my name again. ‘—Ryan’s fault. You know that. It’s that bastard who—’ Carol interjects, ‘Don’t say it. I can’t bear to think about it.’ ‘How do you think he feels?’ Silence. ‘Where did you find him?’ Dad says, his voice quavering. 214
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‘In the woods. He was passed out, covered in leaves and branches. He was pale and cold. I… I thought he was dead, Steve.’ Her voice is wobbly. She thought I was dead. I look down at the floor, my cheeks scarlet with shame. She shouldn’t have had to see me like that. It’s not fair. Carol says something else, and then Dad raises his voice. They start arguing, their voices fighting for control. Dad must be drunk, because he never shouts at Carol. I don’t know what to do, whether I should interrupt them or stop listening, but it’s past that now. I can hear every word, and each one bites deeper. ‘…it’s hard to understand…’ ‘…he needs help…’ ‘…what are we supposed to do…?’ Finally, they stop fighting. Dad mumbles something and walks away. A knock comes at the door, and I hurry back into bed. ‘Come in,’ I say. Carol’s hay-coloured hair is braided close to her scalp, and I notice just how small her ears are as she pokes her head around the door and looks at me, concern etched across her face. She’s pretty, but in a cute kind of way. Like a kid. I mean, she’s only in her mid-twenties. She’s not even that much older than me. ‘Hey, you’re up,’ she says, closing the door behind her. She walks over and sits down on the end of my bed, tucking a blonde strand behind her ear. ‘Ryan, honey, do you remember what happened?’ I do. I remember the woods and the melting. I remember a white room, with no doors or windows only an exploding chandelier. I remember all of it, because it felt real. But now, sitting in bed, I can’t think of anything sounding less real. I can’t remember what actually happened. I must have dreamt the white room. But before that? Did I have a panic attack? I nod at Carol. She looks unsure. ‘Did you blackout again?’ ‘I think so,’ I say. I’ve had panic attacks before, blacked out, but this is new. This is something else – something different. And I just can’t explain it. To her or to myself. The white room felt too real to be
nothing but a dream. And I’ve never dreamt during a blackout. Usually it happens, then I wake up. Carol nods and pats my leg. She doesn’t seem to know what to do – she keeps looking over the same patch of carpet, as if it will magically change if she doesn’t watch it. It’s not her fault. She shouldn’t be the one dealing with this. It should be Dad. ‘Your Dad was really worried about you,’ she says. ‘Why isn’t he here telling me that?’ ‘You know what he’s like. He’s not very good at talking.’ ‘Yeah,’ I say. I cross my arms across my chest. She sighs, shrugs. ‘He’s downstairs if you want to talk to him. Though he’s been drinking, so I don’t know if you’ll get anything out of him.’ I nod. ‘Did you take your pill this morning?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Good. Okay, why don’t you have a shower,’ she says, standing up. ‘It might make you feel better.’ I agree. I smell. She gives me one last pat before leaving. I sigh and stretch out on the bed. My arms throb, so I let them rest above my head. My room is bland since I’ve started to prepare for September – a new college. A new chance. And with every new chance, I try and clear out my room, so it’s like starting again. But it’s never really like starting again. Because I’m still me. The clock on my bedside table blinks red: 8.35 p.m. I pick up my phone. No messages – not really a surprise. I scroll through Facebook. Pregnant. Nando’s with the lads. Girls’ night in. And I’m alone, because who would want to invite me? The only friends I’ve had I distanced myself from. Why do you have panic attacks, Ryan? What’s wrong with you? And the answer is always the same: I don’t know. 216
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BETH TOMLIN Proud Boltonian and stationery enthusiast Beth Tomlin enjoys catching spontaneous flights, drinking too much earl grey tea, and embarrassing her younger sisters on the internet. Beth started working on her first YA novel during her Creative Writing undergraduate at Bath Spa. In 2017, she was awarded a scholarship to the Winchester Writer’s Festival, where she met the wonderful agent that helped her finish the manuscript a few months later. Beth was previously a bookseller at Waterstones, and now lives in Oxford, where she perfects her latte art in a local café and teaches workshops in creative writing for mental health recovery. Beth is represented by Gill McLay of Bath Literary Agency. About I Am Etta I am standing on top of a tall building in bad weather. I am not safe. Seventeen-year-old Etta has been in a confused haze since waking up in her parents’ living room. She has forgotten everything; her brother’s name, her favourite film… everything except Violet, her dead best friend. Then Violet shows up in Etta’s bedroom. She tells Etta her family can’t be trusted. The two girls run away into the night, on a desperate hunt to find Etta’s lost memories before her family catches up with them. But some memories are locked away for a reason. What if the truth is worse than knowing nothing at all? Told through flashbacks and real-time conversations, I Am Etta is a story about friendship, mental health, and being true to yourself – even when you can’t remember who you are. firstname.lastname@example.org | @bethtomlinbooks 218
I AM ETTA I am not completely sure that I am safe. I know I should be sure. I’m not a child. I’m not stupid. There are no men with guns, no bombs about to go off, and I am not standing on the edge of a tall building in bad weather. But still, I’m not sure that I am safe. In here. Inside my head. I am not standing on the edge of a tall building in bad weather. The weather is bad, but I am in a warm room made from soft colours and softer blankets. There’s a blanket on me, over my lap and around my shoulders. I am facing the window. Snow falls lazily. A fat flake sticks to the outside of the window. I reach out and tap the glass with my finger. ‘Etta?’ someone says from behind me. I jerk my hand back. That was stupid. I’m not a child. I can smell coffee. It reminds me of Violet. The someone moves to the side of me and sits on the arm of the chair. I feel the weight of them. I force my eyes away from the snow, and to the someone sitting on my chair. It is my father. He holds the mug out to me, and I take it. It is too hot – scalding – and I wrap my hands around the blanket and then the blanketed hands around the mug. I remember, suddenly, that my father always makes coffee that is too hot. This is familiar, this feeling. I know it. ‘Useless weather,’ he says, but I don’t reply because he sounds like he’s talking to himself. We both watch the snow. I breathe in the coffee. I think of Violet. ‘It’ll be murder trying to get off this driveway.’ It’ll be murder. What a strange thing to say. ‘Are you hungry?’ my father says. He puts a hand on my shoulder, 219
then snatches it away again. ‘I could whip you something up before we go.’ There is soil between my toes. I am wearing two pairs of socks, because it is cold, but I can still feel it. I wiggle my toes and feel the soil moving, crumbling, pooling at the bottom of my socks. ‘No,’ I hear myself say. My voice sounds different. My accent isn’t as broad as I remember it. Lighter, somehow. ‘I’m not hungry.’ I feel his frown. From the dining room, my mother calls: ‘Two-minute warning, Jack. I’ll boil the kettle and defrost that windscreen.’ My father stands up. ‘It’s just boiled. Listen, don’t use the kettle – use that defroster I bought last week.’ That’s something else that I remember. My father says listen a lot, even if you’re already listening. That memory warms me, a little. I know him. I lean forward and rest my elbows and the mug on the windowsill. The coffee sends steam creeping up the glass towards the curtains. I am wearing a jumper that doesn’t belong to me. It’s beige and soft. Probably cashmere. Probably my mother’s. Why am I wearing my mother’s jumper? The front door opens and closes. I sip the coffee and watch my parents root around the back seats of the car. I think about what it would feel like to be standing on the edge of a tall building. I imagine the feeling of snow on my skin. I imagine falling, like snow. Inside my head, I’m up there. My toes are curled over the edge; full of soil, secrets. My father produces the can of defroster from the dashboard and starts on the windscreen. After a while, he comes back in and gets the kettle. My parents talk together outside, their faces serious. Even though I can’t hear them, I know their voices are low and secretive. Their breath billows out in front of them like fog. I lean my forehead against the glass, close my eyes. When I open them again, my mother is in the living room with me. My father is stomping snow from his boots in the hallway. 220
‘There’s soup in the kitchen when you get hungry,’ my mother says, shovelling keys into her bag. ‘You can heat it up in the microwave. Three minutes.’ I rest the mug of coffee on the ledge and lean back, bringing the blanket up to my chin. I tuck my legs up beneath me and pretend I can’t feel the soil worming between my toes. It has collected in the bottom of my socks and now I’m like a plant, growing from the earth. ‘Elijah will be here at two, okay? Etta?’ she says. She is by the doorway now, hovering. My father has gone to wait in the car. She pauses, then strides into the room and puts the TV guide and the remote control on the arm of my chair. She pecks my cheek. ‘I’m sorry we have to leave you by yourself, but it’s only for an hour or two. You’ll be okay, won’t you? He’ll be here at two.’ ‘Two,’ I echo, so she knows that I know. ‘I’ll be fine.’ I watch them pull out of the driveway. My father drives slowly, carefully in the snow. My mother keeps her eyes on me until she can’t anymore. I am teetering on the edge of a tall building in bad weather. I am not safe. My mother has left soup on the kitchen table with a note that says ‘Microwave – 3 minutes’. I pour it down the sink, then scoop out the leftover bits of potato and mashed-up carrot from the strainer and put them in the bin. I rinse the bowl and leave it on the drying rack. There is dirt under my fingernails. I feel as though I am underground. In the living room, I switch on the TV, open the TV guide, then leave it spread out on the coffee table. The half-drunk mug of coffee is still on the windowsill. My feet make soft padding sounds as I walk up the stairs. I focus on not falling, on the landing ahead of me, on making it to my destination. The house is quiet. The winter wind whips around my ears; my soil-filled toes grip the edge of the building. My bedroom is where I remember it being; right at the end of the hallway, furthest from the top of the stairs. Inside, my mother has
changed the sheets. They used to be purple: dark, bottom-of-the-ocean, witches, magic, cloaks-of-wise-men purple. Now they are red and white, a cheap Christmas design with little snowmen on the pillows and along the bottom of the duvet. There are blank spaces on the walls where there used to be photographs. Pyjamas are folded neatly on my pillow. They aren’t mine. They aren’t my mother’s, either. There is still a tag attached to the label, so I tug it off and get changed. She’s moved the mirror, so I can’t see the damage. I climb under the sheets. I leave the socks on. Elijah knocks lightly on my door three times, then pushes it open. I am buried under six feet of soil and a cheap Christmas bedding set. Elijah flicks on the light. I emerge from the duvet. It’s dark outside, but the snow has collected on the window ledge, bright white. ‘Etta?’ That’s all people seem to say, these days. Just my name, over and over again. Maybe I’ll change it – confuse them. Confuse myself. I heave myself up in the bed so that I’m sitting. There used to be fairy lights twisted around the headboard. They used to get caught in Violet’s hair. ‘Mum and Dad will be back soon,’ he says. He’s leaning against the doorframe. Why isn’t he coming into the room? Perhaps he is afraid of me. He looks like me, only older. He doesn’t look as tired as I probably do, and he’s stockier, and his nose is different. He broke it a few years ago and the doctors had to break it back into place. I remember. He scuffs his shoes on the side of the doorframe. Lilac paint flakes to the floor. It won’t be long before my mother paints over that, as well. ‘Come downstairs? I’ll make you some tea.’ I run a hand through my hair. It is tangled and matted and the colour of earth. I breathe in, sharply. ‘Coffee. I’ll have coffee.’ He seems satisfied with this. He nods and smiles and heads back downstairs, leaving the door wide open. I get up, carefully, and go 222
to the bathroom, because I know there is a mirror there. I blink at my reflection. My hair is a dark mass; half-straight, half-curly. There are bags underneath my eyes, big, blue-purple bruises that shine if I tilt my head. A bruise has started to yellow by my right ear. My eyes are dark. I am haunted. The pyjamas have snowmen on that almost match the new bedding. I hadn’t noticed. I don’t like wearing these pyjamas, I have decided, because they don’t feel like something that I would wear. But I don’t want to put that beige jumper back on, either, and I’m not sure where I keep the rest of my clothes. Do I have any clothes anymore? Do I just wear my mother’s clothes or what she buys me? I walk slowly down the stairs, counting the steps, counting my breaths. Elijah is sitting on the sofa, watching a movie. There is a space next to him and a fresh mug of coffee on the table. He has moved the old mug from the windowsill and turned the armchair back around so it’s facing the right way again. I take the coffee and sit down next to him. He covers my knees with the blanket. ‘Your favourite,’ he says, quietly. I don’t know whether he’s talking about the blanket or the movie until I follow his eyes to the TV screen. It’s a kids’ film – an animation. There’s a girl on a boat, and the sea talks to her. Is this my favourite? I can’t remember. After a few minutes, Elijah rewinds the movie and starts it from the beginning without me asking him to. I sink below the blanket and sip the coffee and focus on the movie because it makes me feel better. This is my favourite film, according to Elijah, so when I watch it I feel like myself. This is something I would’ve done months ago, I think. I am not on top of a tall building. I am here. I am a girl sitting on a couch watching her favourite movie with her big brother. The phone rings. Elijah stands up to answer it. I watch the movie. I recognise the songs, now, I think. I feel like a child. I am not a child.
Elijah calls from the hallway: ‘They’ve closed the M6 because of the snow. They might have to get a hotel in Manchester for the night.’ He pauses. ‘Mum wants to know if we’ll be okay.’ You’re the eldest, I want to say. You decide. Instead, I call back, ‘Of course we’ll be okay.’ He relays this information to our parents. ‘I’ll stay the night here,’ he tells them. Doesn’t he live here? He has a bedroom here. I can’t remember him moving out. ‘Yes, I’ll make sure she does. Okay.’ On the television, there is a man who is half-God, half-shark. Elijah slumps back onto the sofa. ‘I’ll drive you to your appointment tomorrow, don’t worry. If we can get there with this bloody weather, that is. Hopefully the roads will be a little clearer then. Do you want some dinner?’ ‘My appointment?’ I say. ‘The outpatient thing. What do you want to eat? I don’t know what we’ve got in.’ He stands up and goes to clatter around in the kitchen. I don’t want anything else to eat. I am still full from the soup. I tell him so. ‘Let me make some pasta, anyway. Then you can have some later, if you get peckish.’ There is another song on the movie. Elijah hums along from the kitchen. I know the tune. I could hum along as well, if I wanted to. I think I have watched this movie with Violet. I am almost sure of it. For the first time, I wonder where she is. ‘Where is Violet?’ I ask, raising my voice above the television. Elijah stops humming from the kitchen. I feel as though I’ve asked something I shouldn’t have. I feel as though my toes are curling over a stone ledge and the snow is sticking to my warm skin. I fight the voice that tells me I am not safe over and over again, because I know that can’t be true, because I am home with my big brother. He appears in the doorway. He says, ‘I’m sorry, Etta, I hate doing this.’ He takes a deep breath. I take a deep breath, too. I am safe. He says, ‘Violet died, Etta.’ 224
He says, ‘I’m sorry.’ I am not stupid. I am not a child. I say, ‘Have you told me this before?’ He nods. He says, ‘Are you okay?’ I swallow. I know that he has told me this before. I know that my parents have told me this before. I know that Violet is dead, and I shouldn’t keep asking about it, but I keep forgetting that I’ve asked and forgetting what their answers were when I’ve asked them where she is. I want to say I’m sorry, because it feels like the good and right thing to say, because Elijah looks upset. But I also think that you shouldn’t say sorry unless you really mean it. So, I don’t. I am on top of a tall building and the building is surrounded by other tall buildings, but none of them are quite as tall as this one. This is the tallest building around, and it is cold, but my skin is warm and the snow is sticking to it and melting. I think I say, ‘I’m going to go and lie down for a little while.’ I know that I have left another half-drunk cup of coffee on the table. I know that my brother is waiting in the doorway. I know that there is pasta cooking in the kitchen. I feel as though I am falling.
FOX WELSH Fox was raised in the United States, in New England, and never left for longer than a few months at a time, until the MA at Bath Spa University called their name. As a queer, non-binary, depressed person, Fox started writing as a way to explore their feelings, identities, and place in the world and hopes to inspire others to share their stories as well. Fox is passionate about stories that help young people feel less alone. About Songbird Bird starts her senior year at a new school hoping to shed her depressedmusician-girl-with-dead-dad persona and start fresh. However, within days, Bird finds herself in the middle of a feud between her new friendship group and Corrine, a girl who pushes Bird to be honest with herself and face her fears. As she tries to balance her first boyfriend, a promise to perform her own music for the first time since her dadâ€™s funeral, questioning her sexuality, and her deepening depression, Bird soon learns that identity isnâ€™t something that you can pick and choose. And what happens when the person you lose is yourself ? email@example.com | @foxwelshwriter
SONGBIRD Chapter One Nothing good ever happened in the Lawrence High School cafeteria, but after almost two months of hiding from the stares of all the Ridgevale Regional seniors who’ve been here since kindergarten, I’ve officially been ordered to join the masses. Mr Fletcher found me eating in his abandoned classroom and sternly reminded me that I’m required to spend lunch period in the cafeteria. Which, I think, is a stupid rule. I shouldn’t be forced to eat with a hundred other kids who don’t give a crap about me. As I step into the cafeteria, my fingers twitch at my sides. I really shouldn’t have drunk that large coffee this morning. Mom keeps telling me to get more sleep but it’s not like I can snap my fingers and fall back to sleep when I wake up in a cold sweat at three in the morning. Rows and rows of picnic tables line the cafeteria, so full of students that the room seems to move around me. The smell of fried food and cleaning solution hangs in the air. I tighten my grip on my lunch, but I can barely hear the crinkling of the paper bag under the roar of the room. As I pick my way through the tables, praying I’ll find an empty seat, I keep expecting to recognize someone from Lawrence. For Maryanne Carta and her perfectly coiffed groupies to turn and stare at me, pity blurring their faces until I can’t tell them apart. For Alex Brassel to open her mouth to say something, until she remembers that we don’t know each other anymore, and promptly shut it again. For people I’ve known my whole life to whisper as I walk by. 227
At least here I’m invisible. ‘No running!’ The teacher’s voice pierces through the rumble, bringing me back to my new school and my new cafeteria full of strangers. I glance around, only catching a flash of purple and brown before something collides with me at full speed. I slam into the floor. Lancing pain shoots through my tailbone. My breath catches. The white tiled ceiling comes into focus. The room erupts into jeering and laughter. ‘Oh shit!’ ‘Nice one!’ ‘She went down hard.’ So much for being invisible. I move to sit up, but my arm is pinned under the body of a girl lying next to me on the floor. Her dark brown braids are splayed across my chest, laced with strands of dark purple and woven with copper beads. She groans, turning her head to look at me. I’ve seen her around before. I think she has physics in the next classroom over when I have English. She blinks hard, dark brown eyes searching, like she isn’t sure how we’d ended up here. Pink dapples her brown cheeks. The smell of cocoa butter and coconut mixes with the cafeteria stench, making my stomach turn. She hauls herself off the floor, rubbing her forehead as she offers me a hand. I can hear the teachers trying to get everyone to settle down as I push myself up. I don’t think this was what Mr Fletcher had in mind when he ordered me to eat here. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she says. She pulls her phone from her pocket, the screen lighting up her face. ‘Shit. I am so so so sorry to hit and run but I’m late for a test, and Ms Greenway is going to kill me.’ She bounces on the balls of her feet. Are her thoughts moving as fast as my heart? She looks straight at me. Her body stills, except for the drag of her 228
teeth across her bottom lip. ‘It’s fine. Don’t worry about me. You should get to your test,’ I say, rubbing my sore wrist. ‘Are you sure?’ Her feet shift, like she might start running at any moment. ‘Yes. Go.’ I let out a laugh, despite the ache spreading to my left shoulder from where it slammed into the floor, under her. ‘Okay. I promise I’ll make it up to you!’ ‘Good luck,’ I call after her. She disappears through the door before the words leave my mouth, but her head pops back around the corner. She mouths thank you, before disappearing again. I don’t know how she’ll make it up to me when I don’t even know her name. The sounds of the cafeteria crash down around me again, reminding me that I’m not done. I still need a place to sit, now that everyone is looking at me. The ache has burrowed its way into my head. I reach up to rub my neck. ‘You okay?’ Ben’s voice comes from behind me. I spin to find him holding out a cell phone, my phone. His mop of curly brown hair is pushed back, revealing a smile that forces me to smile back. ‘Thanks,’ I say, taking it from him. ‘Are you okay?’ He looks me over, like he’s worried he might have to carry me to the nurse’s office. ‘I’m fine.’ I don’t need to be put back together. Most of the eyes in the room are still on me. I wish all the lights would go out and I could just walk off stage. But I know that’s not how high school works. Ben starts to walk away, and I think maybe it’s over. I could slip out and find a new hiding place to eat lunch. I start to turn back toward the doors. ‘You coming?’ he says over his shoulder, motioning for me to follow him. I know Ben from calculus class. He’s been nice enough, said hello
in the hallways occasionally. He showed me where Mrs MacLellan’s classroom was when I got lost one day. But we definitely aren’t friends. As I try to scan through the possible ways this could go horribly wrong (elaborate prank, more falling and making a fool of myself, etcetera…) I realize Ben’s still waiting. So I scramble after him, eyes trained on the speckled gray of his t-shirt pulled over his shoulder. Maybe that fabulous display of clumsiness will get me through my yearly dose of pity from my classmates. I only need to keep my mouth shut properly from now on. Ben leads us to a table in the center of the room and starts to introduce me, like this is all completely normal. ‘Everyone, this is Sophia. Sophia, this is Rachael—’ ‘Hey,’ Rachael says, before he manages to introduce anyone else. She fixes her face into a smile, but I can see the confusion in her perfectlylined green eyes. Rachael Matthews, student body president and all-around type A personality. She has the kind of energy that makes other girls want to be her, and teachers wish she was their daughter. I can’t say I really get it though. Sure, she seems perfect, in that way that requires Photoshop and three Instagram filters. ‘Are you okay?’ Rachael asks, her voice sticky sweet. It’s the same voice Maryanne Carta used when she was asking someone something she didn’t actually care about. I slide into the open seat next to Ben. ‘I’m fine.’ I set my lunch bag on the table in front of me, considering the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I packed myself, but with everyone still staring at me, I can’t find my appetite. I pull out a bag of trail mix and start to pick out the raisins, if only for something to do with my hands. ‘That is so typical of Corrine. I can’t believe she did that to you! Did she even apologize?’ Rachael continues. Her tone is sharp with anger that I don’t understand. ‘She apologized. She was running late for a—’ ‘She was probably just off to spread another rumor that couldn’t 230
wait,’ Rachael says, cutting me off. I glance back at the door, trying to detangle what I’ve stumbled into. ‘Did she say anything else to you?’ Rachael stares me down. The girl to her left, Gemma, scowls as she waits for me to answer. ‘Nothing else. Just sorry,’ I say. I glance around the table, hoping someone else might change the subject, but no one does. Gemma and Rachael start on some rant about how Corrine is just so inconsiderate, as usual. Maybe if I’d moved just a tiny bit slower on my way into the cafeteria, I wouldn’t have made an ass of myself. Eventually my eyes land on Ben, who gives me a smile. ‘Well,’ he says with a shrug, ‘Sophia can definitely take a hit.’ A small chuckle rolls through the table. My lips twitch into a tight grin. The sun slices through the room, lighting up the faces around the table. I squint against the sudden glare. ‘Hi Sophia, how’s it been going so far?’ Ryan settles in on my other side, setting down his lunch tray, either oblivious to the drama, or willfully ignoring it. ‘You two know each other?’ Rachael asks. ‘Ryan showed me around on my first day,’ I say. ‘Remember? I’m a member of gold key club? Welcoming new students and all that?’ ‘You have way too much school spirit Ry,’ Rachael says. ‘Says the class president,’ Ben says. ‘I’m just trying to save the new kids from falling in with assholes like you guys,’ Ryan says. ‘Well, I guess you suck at your job,’ Rachael replies. Ryan shrugs and takes a bite of his pizza. A cellphone pings and Rachael pulls hers from her pocket, sliding her finger across the screen. ‘What are we doing this weekend?’ she asks, her eyes not coming away from the screen. ‘Hanging out at your house? As usual?’ Gemma says. ‘Wrong. We’re all meeting at my place and then heading to Chris’ for
a party. His parents are off on some business trip, so Mike’s babysitting. Which means Mike’s buying a bunch of alcohol and bringing over a bunch of his frat brothers and throwing a party.’ ‘Oh, this has nothing to do with the fact that you and Chris are currently broken up?’ Ryan asks. ‘I mean, there’s nothing wrong with a good revenge date for a party. I was thinking Kyle, but I don’t know. Maybe he’s too artsy.’ ‘Artsy is good because it’s something Chris can never be,’ Gemma says. She pops a grape into her mouth. ‘Oh, Sophia,’ Rachael says, like she had forgotten I was there, ‘you’re welcome to come. It can be like your initiation to the Fab Four.’ ‘If she’s getting initiated we need a new nickname, unless someone’s about to get voted off the island,’ Ben says. Gemma’s eyes dart around the room. She takes a long sip from her water bottle. ‘I’ll figure it out this weekend. I do my best thinking when drunk anyways,’ Rachael says. ‘Sure. I’ll be there,’ I say. I’ve never been invited to a party, but I don’t think it’s something I should say no to, unless I don’t want to have friends here. ‘Great! Give me your phone and I’ll put all our information in it.’ I slide my phone across the table, still unsure how I ended up sitting at a table with people who might actually become my friends. ‘So, Sophia,’ Ben asks, while Rachael is distracted by fidgeting with my phone, ‘what are you doing here?’ He turns to face me, pushing his nearly empty tray away from him. ‘What do you mean?’ Panic rises in my throat. Hadn’t he told me to join them? ‘I mean, parents are ridiculous, but a senior year move doesn’t usually happen unless completely necessary. Did you burn down your last school?’ I moved here with my mom, little sister and soon-to-be-replacement dad. My real dad’s dead and please stop calling me Sophia. No one’s 232
called me that since I was 5. My name’s Bird. I know better than to actually say that. ‘Moved in with my mom’s fiancé, so I’d get a chance to get be a part of the family before I go to college, I guess.’ I shrug. Do I look nonchalant? Like I don’t care if they believe me or not? Ben nods, like he’s appraising me. I can feel everyone’s eyes on me, the silence pocked by the rise and fall of cafeteria chatter around us. My stomach rumbles, but I still don’t pull any more food from my lunch bag. I tap my fingers on my thigh. The rhythm is familiar, but I don’t have time to focus on it. ‘Ryan was convinced you were in witness protection.’ ‘Sure. That totally sounds like me,’ Ryan says, throwing Ben a look of disdain. ‘What about your dad? Is he a deadbeat?’ Gemma says. The words hit me hard but Rachael must not see it on my face, because she picks up where Gemma left off. ‘Men are assholes. But then again, Ryan’s mom was the one who left without a word, so I guess it can go either way.’ ‘Seriously Rachael?’ Ryan says. Rachael slides my phone back across the table to me. I don’t look up at her as I reach for it. ‘He’s just not around anymore.’ I want to leap to his defense, but without telling them he’s dead, I don’t have anything else to say. So I stay silent.
Acknowledgements In addition to the amazing team named at the front, the editors would like the thank the following people for generously lending their creativity and energy to making this years’ anthology: • Julia Green who created this course, carving out a vital space for the serious study of writing for young people. As students we have all benefitted from her commitment to exemplary standards in both teaching and writing. Her work in this field matters deeply, and we are all richer for it. • Lucy Christopher who steered the ship with her characteristic verve and passion during Julia’s sabbatical. • David Almond for his inspiring words. • Our incredible manuscript tutors, who have supported us, steered us and championed us from the first words to the final full stop – Janine Amos, Elen Caldecott, Lucy Christopher, Chelsey Flood, Clare Furniss, Marie-Louise Jensen, Jo Nadin, CJ Skuse, Steve Voake and Anna Wilson. • Jodie Hodges for her industry advice and wisdom. • Tamsin Mori for the fantastic graphics on the cover of this book, across all our online output including our website. And Hana Tooke for her visual skills in the graphics department. • Eve Griffiths for her eagle editorial eye and organisation. And to the whole team of copy-editors and proofreaders. • All our bloggers for sharing their thoughts and wisdom. • Stephanie Williamson, Wibke Brueggemann, Hana Tooke, Tamsin Mori and Fox Welsh for organising what promises to be a night to remember. Lucy Cuthew, Alex English & Callen Martin Editors of the MA Writing for Young People 2018 Anthology 234
Bookshelf is the 2018 anthology from Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. "Here in this new Anthology from the class of 2018...
Published on Jan 30, 2019
Bookshelf is the 2018 anthology from Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. "Here in this new Anthology from the class of 2018...