I hadn’t seen them coming, Dead Body and her friends. The playground was dark. 4pm-Christmas-Eve dark and the streetlights weren’t all working. I had smelt them though; the frozen air sort of turned synthetic. It was the same sickly trail of floral make up and sugary perfume that wafted through the school canteen and corridors behind them. Becky and I had looped one another the entire term in ever decreasing circles; I’d tried to avoid exactly what I thought was about to happen, tried to ignore that sort of weird in-bred small-town thing, where everyone is related to everyone else. I told myself if was just another messed up family situation Mum had put me in when she remarried. But despite the inevitability of it all, I had to fight an impulse to grab my baby sister and run. But I didn’t.
I mean, how bad could one girl and her three friends be?
I saw them as they reached the railings. They were lit up under the one working light, dressed in standard identikits - dark jeans, polo necks, black jackets, knee length boots - as if they were members of some sad tribute band or worse, part of some sort of cult. I grabbed the chains as Lily swung back towards me and she rocked in her seat, wanting more, but to push her back even a couple of feet seemed to be too far. I peered into the darkness beyond – I couldn’t help feeling we weren’t the only ones there – but I couldn’t see anyone else. I couldn’t see a bloody thing.
Becky lifted the kiddie-latch – don’t let her in, don’t let her in – but the gate slid open easily, welcoming my misery and she sashayed through as if she was always allowed entry where the rest of us struggled. Kitty and Rebecca were right behind her but Cath leapt over the fence, screaming “IT”S CHRISTMAS!” with a giddy yell, landing with a skid in the mud and sliding to a stop with her hands in the air. The others laughed, celebrating School’s Out. Their long blonde hair tumbled down from their hats but only Cath’s was real. Becky had dyed hers not long after I arrived and Kitty and Rebecca predictably followed. Jesus knows how they made it look so perfect. I untied mine but it needed a wash. It kinked and it frayed. It blew round my face in a frenzy.
Becky smiled. “Hey?” she said.
I twisted my hair under my hat in a hurry. “Hey,” I replied.
The four of them surrounded the baby swings, circling Lily and I, surveying us closely in the same way that someone might inspect a new species.
“Cath says you’re helping her with her essay?” Becky always spoke in questions. “Cath always needs help in Biology?”
“I offered to help, yeah,” I said. Truth was, Cath had pleaded, saying how she wouldn’t pass without it. I never understood how she ended up studying a subject she clearly didn’t get.
“Well, thanks?” she said.
We stood facing each other for a couple of seconds in the damp, surrounded by water – under my feet, over my head – like we were submerged in a dark drain, giving each other new-girl smiles, the kind where you don’t know how smiley you should be.
“Well,” she said. “Welcome to our town?”
I threw a small smile in Cath’s direction. “No worries.” I was struggling to contain Lily in her seat as she tried to climb out. She’s always so fearless. I swear she’s the eldest child, not me.
Rebecca gave me a sarcastic wave with high in the air hands, “So,” she said. She was exhausting to watch; she always blinked more than usual, like she’d just eaten something spicy or drunk something too hot. “Welcome to The Sham.”
The Sham? Mum had called our new home a lot of things since we arrived; crappy, small, dead end, shit. Stevie says you can tell a lot about a town by its name, which makes Clevesham one messed up place. “Cleve” is how – in the old days – they used to spell,
cleave (kleev) verb, also cleaved, or (Archaic) cleft, clave, cleav-ing.
1. Cleave:To adhere closely, to stick, to cling, to remain faithful
2. Cleave:To split or divide, penetrate or pass through
See how weird that is? If you use the word one way, it means to join but use it another way and it means to divide, which is sort of how Mum feels about the place the entire time. Stevie says it’s the only verb in the English language with two almost contrary definitions, with synonyms and antonyms that match. That’s before we even get to the “Sham” part. It’s from the old English word, “hom”, meaning home, but in these parts, it also comes from “hamme”, which is the land on a river that floods a lot (I’d heard that in winter, the swings serve more as swimming pool than park). So kind of not very homely at all. I’d been planning my escape ever since we arrived.
Becky opened her mouth, like she knew what to say but couldn’t decide how to say it. She looked a little like a goldfish before something came out. “So, we’re sorta related, I guess?” Becky said.
“I guess.” The politics surrounding my new stepdad made me uneasy. “Just by marriage,” I added.
Becky nodded like she understood. Like we weren’t to blame for our (step) parent’s shitty decision-making skills two decades ago. She cocked her head to one side. “You’re always on your own?” she said. “How long you been here now?”
“Er, it hasn’t been that long.” I watched my breath turn to smoke on the air. “A few months or so,” I added, remembering how Mum, Lily and I had huddled in Stevie’s shop when we first arrived. The shock on Stevie’s face that was all too real. That we were actually there.
Cath wore her hair with an extreme side parting, constantly scooping it out of her eyes like she was drawing a curtain that never stayed put. “I heard you lost your best friend?” she said. “I heard she died of cancer. That’s why you moved here.”
Becky reached for my hand. “Want to tell us what happened?” she asked.
There’s a big gaping hole where Grace used to be, that’s what happened.
I pulled back my hand, letting go of the swing and we watched Lily in silence. Backwards. Forwards. Backwards. She gave a little yawn as Becky put her arm round my shoulder pulling me into their circle. “You’re always babysitting?”
The smell from her hairspray made me feel icky. “I don’t know,” I stepped back, trying to move my face away from hers. “I wouldn’t call it babysitting. My Step Dad’s in the shop, Mum’s stuck inside and well, she’s my sister.” I shrugged my shoulders. “That’s kind of different.”
Becky nodded slowly, peering into the surrounding darkness to make sure we were completely on our own. When she seemed satisfied, she leant in towards me with a conspiratorial smirk. “We’re babysitting too?” she whispered.
I looked at each of them in turn, trying to figure out what the hell they were talking about. They stared back at me smugly, giggling, sharing a secret I hadn’t yet uncovered. I couldn’t see anything apart from Lily, the five of us and the vague outlines of the animal rockers and see saw. We were surrounded by a tiger, a rhino and a bear. “I don’t understand,” I mumbled.
And then I heard a whimper from behind Kitty’s back.
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The ShamMystery / Thriller
Eighteen-year-old Emily Heath is desperate to leave her dead-end town, known locally as "The Sham". She'd love to leave with her boyfriend, Jack, but he's very, very sick; his body is failing and his brain is shutting down. He's also in hiding, unde...