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The Sham by Ellen Allen

© Ellen Allen

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Six months ago, my boyfriend was quite a catch. Ask anyone. But that was before the stubbly face, the cruddy clothes, the living rough in the woods. Before the headaches forced him to constantly rub his forehead like he’s trying to remove indelible ink. And way before now where he’s covered in blood, slumped under HOT DRINKS & CAKES on the supermarket café floor.

He’s holding her hand. It’s still attached to her body, despite the way her arm has been hacked apart. The artery inside is exposed like a kid’s toy, as if someone just wanted to see the inner workings, replace the batteries. It’s pulsing even after she’s dead; little electric shocks of blood splattering the tiles as if someone is squeezing a carton of apple juice a little too tight. Her hair is plastered to her head from where she’s tried to wipe it away. Funny how years of ingrained habits never leave a person. Even as she was dying, she couldn’t bear her fringe in her eyes.

He has a strange look on his face. Like he can’t quite process everything that’s just happened, everything he has done. Finally, he asks, “Are you okay?”

I nod, but I really want to shake my head. Blood is seeping from his nose, which reminds me of something Mum’s new husband Stevie once said, how his family’s jam factory was bombed in the war. How the houses down the road were smeared in jelly, dead bodies covered in marmalade, everything buried in strawberry jam. “Sure Jack,” I say. “I feel great.” But I really want to cry. “You?”

His skin’s so pale, so sick, like he’s undergone some kind of bleaching process from those chemicals you see on the telly that you apply to your teeth. He sighs, letting her hand fall to the floor. “I don’t want to drag you into this,” he says.

I shiver. The endless rain has filled us up and we’re defrosting into guilty puddles on the crusty polyester. Ridiculous thoughts whirl round my brain. Why are there carpet tiles on the floor? The grim residue of thousands of crumbs and spilt drinks has been weaved into the thread. What were her last thoughts? Was it the obvious, for Jack to just disappear, to get off her, to stop doing what he was doing? Or something more banal, like the fringe in her eyes or a useless errand she forgot to run? If we peel back her clothes, I’m certain she’s wearing matching underwear. We both have that in common. We wore our best bra and knickers for our Special Day, only,

I’m not wearing mine anymore and hers are drenched with blood.

“You don’t think I’m already involved?” I say. He’s not making any bloody sense. This isn’t my Jack. But then I’m not exactly sure who my Jack is. For that matter, neither is he.

“Come on, Em” he says. “I’m not like you.”

I plough my hand through the half a carrot cake that’s wilting under the warm lights. “No,” I say, churning my fingers under the icing, moulding shapes, “I’m normal. You’re anything but.” My joke is half hearted because it’s only half understood. I can list fifteen, twenty ways that Jack isn’t normal. The way he can remember every single thing he learns. The way he seemingly hasn’t had a past. There’s no evidence that Jack exists. At all. And we’ve spent days, weeks, months trying to work out who he is, where he came from, how. But he’s always kept something back, like I’m not enough of a grown-up to hear. I swear I’m in love with a hallucination.

“You know I’m different, Em,” he says. “We’ve been through this. I’m,” he tries to find a good word, “unusual.”

I run my fingers under the tap, squelch the globules of icing down the drain and glance outside. It’s a midsummer’s afternoon but it’s so dark, I can’t see a bloody thing. It’s the middle of the day and I’m just so bloody tired. “These past months,” my voice cracks, “they’ve all been unusual.” I try to find a good analogy. “It’s like I’m watching a movie half way through.”

He’s nodding. “Nothing makes sense.”

You don’t say.

She was just here. Attending the last major event of her life, maybe her biggest one of all. And now she’s half gone. Her soul disintegrated – not to heaven and all that crap, just vanished – but her insides are still moving as everything else has come to rest, like a snow globe after it’s been shaken and put down. The tears on her cheeks, faded. Dry.

But I can still hear her screams.

We’re trying not to look at her – neither of us wants to relive it – but it’s a car crash. I can’t not look. She’s my second dead body. Quite different to the first. She’s just dead. The other one was dead, dead. And I can’t keep myself from asking all the wrong sorts of questions. Does she weigh less now than she did alive? How long does a body take to decompose? And then I think of Grace. Best friend Grace. But she left me behind in a better town, a different life. She lives in an underground box too.

“God, this is awful,” Jack is King of the understatement, “for everyone.” He wipes his face with the back of his hand, spreading her blood across his forehead, which makes me gag and I run back to the sink.

“Everyone’s a mess,” I say – talk about Queen of the bloody obvious – “Even Mum’s been affected.” She pops into my head now, but how she was just after the first girl went missing. She’s playing Shiny New Families, ramped up on pills, trying to salvage Christmas. I can’t even think about how much trouble I’m in. Just being here with Jack puts me in direct violation of everything we’ve agreed.

Everything is an abomination. Trickier than I ever imagined. My plans to leave town with Jack seem way more confusing, more difficult than they have been in my head. Everything smells disgusting. Maybe it’s her? Or maybe it’s everyone else. Sweat, someone’s insides, a stewed coffee pot that must have been on for hours. And the noise is something else. Not like those slow-mo surreal montages you see in the movies but panicky, messy and LOUD. Her blood is mixing with the rainwater now, like we’re all popsicles, dripping raspberry cordial round our fusty feet on the grimy viscose tiles. The sirens won’t stop wailing and the people’s cries are matching them nee for nah. Because we are all participants in her death. We all killed her.

Even me. Especially me.

Nothing will ever be the same again.

The police are heading towards us and I know what they’re going to ask. They’ll want me to repeat everything. Again. And I won’t have anything else to tell them because we all know how it began. How her death – today – is the result of eight different situations that started with the four of them. Becky, Cath, Kitty and Rebecca. The day I met Jack. The just-before-Christmas day of the corybantic bird, the small boy and the huge, ginormous, humdinger of an argument in the playground of the local park.


The past six months


The argument or How “Muzzling a Sparrow” can kill a friendship

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 fucked 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.

She pulled out her hand, on the end of which was a small boy, no more than nine or ten that I swear I hadn’t seen at all. His clothes were grimy, his face was dirty but he wasn’t so skinny looking. He obviously had owners, parents, a mother of sorts.

Kitty answered my question. “We found him in the supermarket.” She placed her hands on his shoulders, her head not coming up much further than his. When Kitty was little, she’d been really little, like, so tiny that Social Services wanted to put her in care. One time, she’d been left by herself for a whole weekend with nothing to eat except a box of garibaldi biscuits. I couldn’t imagine what that must feel like, to be permanently hungry for days at a time. For a while, her kindergarten teacher fed her two or three hot meals a day. “This is Charlie,” she said. “He’s come to have a little fun.”

I looked at Charlie who they were kettling between them but he wasn’t laughing. He didn’t want a little fun. Cath was giving him a look that suggested he shouldn’t even think about moving but she didn’t need to bother. He was terrified, his body completely upright, his feet rammed into the ground. He couldn’t take his eyes off a small cardboard box that Rebecca was carrying. It looked like the kind of box you take animals to the vet in, with air holes so they can breathe.

I bundled Lily from the baby swings to her pram, fumbling with her straps and the buttons on her rain cover. “I was just leaving,” I said. “I just popped out to give her some fresh air. She needs her tea.”

Becky leaned in. “She looks happy to me?” she said, and right on cue, we watched Lily fall asleep.

I pulled up my hood and drew the drawstrings down to keep it in place. This was no time to look cool; I wanted to be hidden. Rebecca was peering inside the box, as if she was ready to take out whatever was inside. I racked my brains for something, anything, that we might have in common.

“Hey,” I said. “Did that boy ever ask you out?” We had Sports together on Wednesdays. We’d never spoken but I’d heard the gossip, watched her flirt. “The one in the football team?” Rebecca is by far the prettiest, the only one of us with a Real Life string of boyfriends behind her.

Rebecca cast an apprehensive glance at Becky. “What boy?” Her facial tic went into overdrive. “There isn’t any boy, not at school.”

“I thought –”

Rebecca took a swipe at Charlie’s head and he fell to the ground, mewing in the mud like a kitten.

I flared, rushing forward.

Rebecca matched me step for step, begging me to challenge her, but she was yanked back, last minute, by an invisible leash. She had to ask Becky’s permission to take me on.

Becky shook her head and her guard dog backed down.

I tried to focus on Charlie. “Why aren’t you wrapped up indoors listening to Christmas carols, Charlie?” I asked.

Becky laughed. “I don’t think he lives in a Dickens novel?”

I took the brakes off Lily’s pram, trying to edge us a little closer but the wheels were bogged down, semi buried in the shifting mud. “Where’s your mum, Charlie?” I asked. “Is she up there?” I pointed beyond the meadow towards the town centre, the noise and lights but I was making things worse. At the thought of his mum, Charlie began to cry, his eyes wide and full of tears. “She must be worried about you, Charlie,” I said. He was too upset to speak.

Cath scoffed as she parted her fringe. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I know his mum. Right about now she’ll be wandering the aisles, hunting for obesity-sized tins of chocolate and very cheap alcohol.”

“Well,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “No different to ours then, eh? Some of our parents are always in the pub.”

Becky nodded slowly. “You’re right,” she said. “Guess, we’re pretty similar in some ways?” She motioned her hands at the others. “We were thinking how difficult it must be for you right now? Just moved to a new town, a new dad?”

“Yeah,” agreed Kitty. “A greengrocer at that.”

I lifted my head towards the sky where the drizzle was threatening to pour. I massaged the drops over my face and took a deep breath. “Nobody can have anything against greengrocers, can they?” I mimicked Stevie, “Everyone needs fruit and vegetables”.

Becky shook her head. “No. No,” she replied. “We just feel for you. All this change?”

Charlie was whining like an injured dog.

Rebecca lifted her leg and brought it down hard on his foot to shut him up. He began to squeal louder and louder like a kettle burning to boil.

Becky didn’t react. She didn’t even blink.

My God, it’s true what everyone says. You really did Happy Slap that kid from the Special Needs school? You actually beat up an autistic boy while the others recorded it on their phones.

Rebecca turned to me. “And what’s with all those people that come to stay all the time?” I was embarrassed by the endless roll call of lodgers that trudged through Stevie’s place. It was just another beacon that made me stand out; every stranger in the town began and ended their journey at our house. Stevie considered it free advertising for his shop. “And your new dad, he puts you to work, doesn’t he?” she added. “It’s like child labour or something, making you work in his factory and his shop.”

I took a step back. “I don’t mind the shop, especially late at night. I like working, earning my own money.”

“We earn our own money too.” Rebecca smiled. “Just not in the conventional way.”

I looked at Charlie, then at her. “Well, my job’s not as demanding as yours,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, “but you have to work at a greengrocers and live on the High Street.”

“What’s your problem with the High Street?” I burrowed myself in with undiscovered courage and just for a second, I imitated her tic, blinking double time. “You live on the council estate.”

I’d never seen Rebecca speechless; the look on her face made me want to be anywhere else. Cath puffed herself up to rally to her friend’s defence. “Well, we might all live on the council estate, but unlike some,” Cath waved a hand dismissively at my clothes, “we don’t all look like it.”

That’s the last time I help with your bloody homework.

“Yeah,” said Kitty. “You sound funny too.” It was predictable behaviour. Kitty only ever owned a smidgen of her personality; the rest belonged to the group.

I gently defended my southern accent. “Well, I’m not from round here.” I glanced down at my jeans and coat. “But we’re all wearing pretty much the same thing, aren’t we? I mean, except for the boots, maybe the coat, we don’t look that different.”

“No, no, no.” Cath’s voice was shrill. “We don’t look alike at all.” She stepped gingerly through the sludge. “We’re aiming for similar looks,” she poked my arm, “hardly the same thing.” She was stabbing my chest. “Not all of us are successful.”

Where was the out-of-her-depth girl from Biology? This was Cath version 2.0, her highly-strung twin.

I batted her hand away from my body. “Really?” I stared purposefully at Cath’s bottom. “What makes your jeans better than mine?” She was always the biggest of the four, always the one starving herself in the school canteen. I paused. “It’s not your arse, that’s for sure.”

I watched her face contort. “Are you calling my arse fat?”

I backed away, shunting the pram through the mud behind me. I stole a glance in the direction of the towpath praying that Jim might appear. He’d be heading home from work by now. Usually Stevie’s lodgers stay a week or two – Israeli students, circus crew, dancers from Up With People! Basically anyone who looked the least comfortable in our town – but Jim had already broken the record by three and a half weeks. “Well, not fat.” I stammered, looking at Becky. “I mean, not exactly fat.”

“Are you really calling her arse fat?” Becky’s tone had changed and her voice had dropped to a whisper. “Because it isn’t is it?”

Grace’s voice that was pounding in my head. You’re such an idiot, she was saying. You didn’t trust your instincts. You believed that you and Becky could be friends.

Becky jutted out her chin, moving towards the others. “You know, it’s pretty careless,” she said. “Losing your friend?” She pulled a glum face, sarcastically sticking out her lips, pretending to look sad as the other three laughed. Rebecca’s smirk said it all.

I glanced at Lily, still asleep in her pram. I looked at Charlie shivering on the ground. His breath was pumping out of his mouth in short, icy bursts. I didn’t know what to do.

Becky read my mind. “What? You going to rescue him?”

The other three moved closer, crowding round her, enervating her. They were willing her to turn, to cross the inevitable line against me.

She walked to Charlie where he lay on the ground, spat in his face and turned to see my reaction. “You going to play mummy and daddy?”

I rushed to find a tissue for Charlie under Lily’s pram but he cowered as I came towards him, using his own sleeve to wipe his face. “What would you know about playing mummy and daddy?” I waved my hands in her direction. “You haven’t exactly had good role models. I mean,” I said. “Look at your Mum.”

Becky took a step towards me, the circle around me closing tighter and tighter. “Don’t talk about my mother?” snapped Becky. “Or we’ll start talking about yours?”

My hands were shaking but I stood my ground. “Well, at least my Mum isn’t violent.” Stevie had said that absolutely, under no condition, were we ever to mention how Becky’s Mum had attacked some woman in a nightclub after his dad had left them both. It was off limits. “And great, I mean, my great,” my lies were tumbling out in a muddled mess. “My Dad’s great.”

Becky thrust her face in mine, nose to nose, her eye sockets covered with so much black eyeliner, she looked like she’d been punched in both eyes. “Oh yeah?” she countered.

“Yeah,” I stammered, walking around the pram to protect Lily. “I’ve had two wonderful fathers. Some people don’t really have any, do they?”

“I HAVE A FATHER?” Becky yelled. Spit was flying out of her mouth.

Stevie’s family politics weren’t mine to own, in the same way he hadn’t taken ownership of me, but I couldn’t let it pass. I lifted my right eyebrow, the only one I’m able to raise successfully, and delivered my killer one line that I would be very proud of later. “Yeah,” I said slowly, “but yours is such a cliché. And now you have to share your father with one of mine.”

“THAT’S IT?” she screamed.

Crap. I’d gone too far.

She took a look around the playground, then at me, then at Charlie. “Let’s start this thing,” she said to the others. “Now. There’s no one here to stop us?” she challenged.

I was reassured and offended that I wasn’t a threat to her plans. I’d failed any test of friendship but it was kind of perverse. As a distant member of her family I hadn’t met her requirements for bullying. I’d snuck between the cracks and my punishment was clear.

They were going to make me watch while they bullied someone else.

Terrorising ten-year-olds was clearly a well-rehearsed routine and the four of them got busy: Becky yanked off his coat, gloves, shoes and trousers; Cath pulled out string; Kitty grabbed Charlie’s hands; and Rebecca tied them behind his back. They seemed to plug into each other, becoming connected, operating in rhythm. But it was Becky that seemed to pollute them for the worse, like a fucked up blood transfusion. All the time, she was goading me. Daring me to stop them.

I did try. Pathetically. “Come on, guys,” I said. “Let him go.” They began to circle Charlie, me and the pram. “Give him his coat and shoes back at least.” He was shivering uncontrollably in his sweater and pants.

I scanned the common above us, and the river path below, but a rush of people desperate to use the climbing frame seemed unlikely. Jim definitely wasn’t coming. Even so, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being watched. Every bush or tree seemed to convey some sort of threatening shape.

Rebecca opened the cardboard box and pulled an animal out as Charlie began to cower, trying to dissolve into the sludge beneath him. In the darkness, it took me a while to make out the shape of a bird, about the size of her palm.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“We’re ‘Muzzling the Sparrow’,” she said, as she passed the bird to Kitty.

“It’s an old local custom, a sport,” said Kitty.

“For who?” I mumbled, well out of earshot. “The mentally retarded?”

Kitty knelt down. “Charlie,” she said. “Meet Mister Sparrow here. His wings have been clipped so he can’t fly away. We’re going to put its wing in your mouth...”


“– You need to use your teeth to turn it around –”


“– Get its head in your mouth before it pecks you to hell –”


“– When you’ve ripped its head off, then you get to go home.”

Holy crap.

I responded in the only way I knew how. The only way I could cope since last year, since Gracie died. “A pure qubit state is a linear superposition of the basis states,” I mumbled.

Becky gave me a what-the-fuck-are-you-saying kind of look but I was forgotten as Charlie began to make shrill shrieking noises, terrified to have the bird in his mouth, terrified of what they would do to him if he didn’t.

“This means the qubit can be represented as a linear combination of 0 and 1,” I stuttered.

To the four of them, Charlie’s reaction was better than telly. He couldn’t balance with his hands tied behind him and was shuffling around on the muddy grass. Kitty was moving towards him trying to put the bird in his mouth but he was refusing, darting back, moving his face from side to side. The other three were skipping around us, egging him on, chanting his name, “CHARLIE, CHARLIE, CHARLIE”, euphoric in their malevolence. They seemed to blur into each other with their curly hair and black clothes. In the dark, it was hard to tell them apart.

I mumbled louder. “Multiple qubits can exhibit quantum entanglement.”

Kitty looked to Becky – she couldn’t get Charlie to acquiesce – and Becky moved in, kneeling down, pinning him to the ground. Rebecca cut off his air by holding his nose. He had no choice but open his mouth as Kitty rammed it in.

Charlie gagged and threw up the bird.

Becky picked it up from where it lay in fits on the floor and poked it back in his mouth, speaking slowly as if he were a four year old. “T–h–a–t’–s c–h–e–a–t–i–n–g. B–i–t–e i–t–s h–e–a–d o–f–f a–n–d y–o–u g–e–t t–o g–o h–o–m–e.” She sounded deranged.

One of Charlie’s socks came off as he thrashed on the ground. He was desperate, beginning to realise he might have to do what they asked before he’d be released. A greeny-black paste was spreading over his face and body as the bird was splattering him with its poo. It was mixing with his tears and the rain.

I couldn’t stop with the equations, “entanglement is a nonlocal property allowing a set of qubits to express higher correlation than is possible in classical systems,” as I retched from the smell. Bird poo, sweat, tears, mud and then wee. Charlie had wet himself.

The bird had fallen out again, or Charlie couldn’t keep it in, and Cath ran forward to stuff it back. But Charlie couldn’t bear to open his mouth. She lunged at him, screaming, “OPEN UP!” shoving him towards the frame of the swing. He fell on it hard. We heard a bone crack. Then a long wail came out of Charlie like he was about to be put down.

Becky picked him up and manhandled him back into position; on his knees, in the centre, bird in mouth. I saw a bone poking out of his skin, jutting through his collar. I could smell what I thought was poo. Human shit. But Charlie didn’t notice that he’d soiled his pants because the only thing he could focus on was the bird; the sparrow was fighting to live, gouging out his cheeks, pecking at his eyes.

It was too much. I once saw two men fighting outside a bar, really kicking and punching the crap out of each other, blood everywhere, and I couldn’t move then either. It was surreal to see that much nastiness up close and it sort of transfixes you, glues you to the spot. I couldn’t leave Charlie but I couldn’t save him either. I was relegated to my role as impotent bystander.

Just like when Grace died.

I opened my mouth, to make any kind of noise, tears rolling down my cheek.

But it wasn’t my voice I heard. It was someone else’s.

“YOU HAVE TO STOP!” it shouted, as a tall boy lolloped past me in bright blue trainers, tossing a banana skin to his side, still eating its contents. His hands were flailing high above a brown curly mop top of hair and he was tanned, in the middle of winter, like he’d been living entirely outdoors. His face was blaring “MODEL” but his outfit screamed “CHARITY SHOP” as if he’d just run through a second hand stall at the local market and come out the other side wearing the clothes of five different people of different shapes and sizes. He had on a brown bobbly scarf like someone’s Nan might knit. He very nearly pulled it off. Almost. Like he’d walked off the pages of a ‘recycled fashion’ photo shoot or something. He reached Charlie by tripping over his feet as if his legs were surprised by their existence and he affected a handsome plummet to Charlie’s knees. “I’m Jack,” he whispered, with traces of an accent I couldn’t quite place. “You’re safe.”

I exhaled as if I couldn’t ever remember having done so before.

Charlie spat out the bird and threw up the remains of his stomach over Beautiful Boy’s knees, collapsing into his arms. He was gasping for air like he’d just been let out of a bottle, de-corked. He wasn’t yet able to speak.

“WHO DID THIS?” Jack shouted. He was stroking Charlie’s head.

No one said a word.

He cast a quick look in my direction then glared at the other four. “WHO DID THIS?” he demanded again. When still no one spoke he pulled a penknife from his pocket and ignoring the eight mean-girl eyes boring into his skin, he untied Charlie’s hands. “Okay now,” Jack whispered in his ear. “You are o-kay.” His hands pulled away at the string easily, practically, as if they were used to getting things done.

Jack looked up and gave me a smile. Not one of those we’re-going-to-be-lifelong-friends smiles or even we-might-like-each-other-a-bit smiles. It was more like he’d taken a look around at the five of us and decided I was the least offensive. “No one should ever be this cruel to another person.” He was talking to himself, directing his anger inward but his hands were shaking. He followed my gaze to Rebecca’s bloody piece of cotton wool that lay near my boot. He opened his mouth to say something but it was Just Too Gross To Mention.

Becky and the others regrouped in a huddle at the edge of the swings, glaring at Jack, whispering frenetically. Deciding what to do I guessed; how to handle their newfound impotence.

I could feel my breathing almost returning to normal. We’d won, Team Becky had lost. Charlie had a tooth hanging off his gum. He pulled it out, immune to the pain and stared at it for a moment, still kneeling, sodden. We managed to give each other an almost smile.

Even if it was short lived.

Jack was crouched on one knee, trying to stand but he couldn’t get up. He reached out to touch Charlie’s face as if to reassure him, but his hands were trembling so much, that instead of calming him down, Charlie began to hyperventilate.

I moved forward, my hand hovering over Jack’s shoulder, wondering if I should help. I looked at Becky and the others, but the four of them were crowded in over-excited whispers. Watching the new freak show.

“Jack?” I said.

He didn’t answer. He tried to raise the opposite leg but that gave way too.

I shuddered. Just when I thought we were through, I was being yanked back in. I tapped his shoulder, speaking a little louder. “Jack?” I said.

He was in some sort of trance, rubbing his thumbs over his temples, his head on his knees. He was shaking it occasionally like he was trying to get rid of something inside, kind of like a horse or cow might bat away flies. Clearly, this wasn’t the first time he’d felt that way; his body was uncomfortably comfortable. This was his default battle posture.

Charlie was petrified. He began to squeal like this was all part of the game. That he was about to be forced to do something even more awful than ripping off a bird’s head though God Knows I couldn’t imagine what he thought that might be.

Jack let out a long, low, guttural grunt as he fell to all fours. I glanced across the park as the wind blew through to lift up the trees with a moan and I tried not to imagine the dozens of people that felt like they might be suddenly revealed, dotted underneath. Jack turned to face me and I could see he seemed sort of conflicted, like he begrudgingly needed my help. He grabbed my hand and pulled me towards him with a force I hadn’t expected, as the blood emptied from his cheeks. His face seemed to resemble one of Lily’s blank colouring books. He whispered, “Something bad is going to happ –,” before his fingers bent back on themselves and he collapsed, hitting the slushy ground with a loud thump. His body convulsed with small enough amounts of energy to move his eyes, a finger, a foot before he wound down, like a battery-operated doll. Passed out.

Something bad already had.

We all rushed forward but Rebecca was the only one able to mutter what we were thinking. “What the bloody hell happened to him?” she said.

Becky prodded him with her boot. “Maybe he’s having some kind of fit?”

“You mean like epilepsy?” I said.

“Epilepsy?” she said. “Yeah, that’s it.” She giggled. “It’s a bit strange though isn’t it?”

Rebecca sneered. “He’s strange,” she said.

Cath leaned into his face. “Good looking, though,” and we all nodded; he was the specimen now. “Even if he is a weirdo,” she added.

Rebecca crouched down next to him. “We should put him in a strange position, do something embarrassing.” She looked to the others for justification. “He was telling us off like he was our fucking father, or something.”

I gave a little yelp. “No! Don’t.” I used to have asthma attacks as a kid and the fit is bad enough. I mean, breathing is a pretty basic skill. But what’s far worse is the look on people’s faces afterwards. You’ve been panicking because you can’t pull in enough air, ordering yourself to calm down when all you want to do is freak-the-bloody-hell-out and then you realise everyone has been gawping. It’s not sympathy. It’s pity, embarrassment. And it sucks. Without thinking, I knelt down and rubbed his back. “You can’t do anything to him.”

Becky seemed hesitant, though I wasn’t sure why. She was staring at him.

I grabbed his hand and pressed down hard. Jack stirred and mumbled something, something I couldn’t decipher until he repeated it, a little louder. “Bat in the hat, with the cat, near the rat.”

“What?” I said.

He began to shout. “CAT NEAR THE RAT WITH THE BAT.”

Becky and Rebecca backed off, weirded out. It was a slight chink of diffidence if only for a second but it was peace enough to get Charlie’s attention and I motioned my head towards the crowds, telling him to Just Get The Hell Out Of There while he had a chance.

He did, scrambling through the mud in his underpants and one remaining sock. He scarpered across the meadow, away from us all.

There was an uncomfortable pause. “Well,” said Becky. “We were just leaving anyway?” She looked pointedly at the others. “We have to be somewhere?” She made it sound like she was leaving a tea party, a dinner, some anodyne social event. Rebecca, Cath and Kitty nodded; they’d been given their orders. Becky looked at Jack, giving me an are-you-sure-you-know-what-you’re-doing? face but she shrugged it off. I knew they’d have other plans; the town’s so small, they are the local nightlife.

As she left, I saw her take in the scene: Rebecca’s tampon lying in a puddle; a catatonic bird pumping its chest up and down in the mud; the coat, boots and one sock of a broken child covered in his own faeces and Rebecca’s insides; and the most breathtakingly beautiful boy I had ever seen lying in convulsions on the floor. “Catch ya laters, Em-i-ly?” she sang.

I thought about what Jack had said. That something bad might happen. I watched Becky and the others march away; shoulders up, proud, defiant. It would take more to knock them down than a small defeat with us.

Maybe it would take a dead body?

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