Esther is one of the Special Ones: four young spiritual guides who live in a remote farmhouse under the protection of a mysterious cult leader. He watches them around the clock, ready to punish them if they forget who they are—and all the while, broadcasting their lives to eager followers on the outside.
Esther knows that if she stops being Special, he will “renew” her. Nobody knows what happens to the Special Ones who are taken away from the farm for renewal, but Esther fears the worst. Like an actor caught up in an endless play, she must keep up the performance if she wants to survive long enough to escape.
About the Author
Em Bailey is an Australian author of many books for children. Her first novel for young adults was Shift, a psychological thriller published internationally to great acclaim, which won the teens’ choice Gold Inky Award and was selected as a Notable Book by the Children’s Book Council of Australia. Em Bailey lives in Germany with her partner and daughter.
Read an Excerpt
I hear the main gate slam closed, and I just know from the sound of it that Harry has news. He must have banged the gate really hard, as it’s a fair distance from the farmhouse. He would do that, I’m sure, only if he was sending me a message. He must have finally found our new Lucille. Relief floods me. We’ve never gone this long without one before, not in the whole time I’ve been here. Finally, we’ll have some good news for him. I’ve drawn the heavy velvet curtains on the windows, but the heat creeps in around the edges anyway. Beneath my corset and layers of petticoats, my body sweats. A heavy wind rattles the windows. Bushfire weather—that’s how my father would’ve described it. Fire was something my parents worried about a lot when we lived in our old house, surrounded by trees. Fire. Family. My old home. Things I don’t let myself think about in here. It will take Harry at least five minutes to cover the expanse from the gate to the farmhouse—longer if Felicity spots him coming—but even so, I long to gather up my skirts and dash out of the parlor, outside, to the very edge of the front veranda, and wait for him to come into view. I love watching Harry walk. There’s something so reassuring about his unhurried lope. But I am the Esther, and Esther doesn’t dash. Her remembering book is very clear about that. Esther’s movements are dignified, considered—especially in the parlor. Esther would never let excitement or nervousness show, or waste time watching people walk. Sometimes being Esther feels like wearing a Halloween costume. One that doesn’t fit. One I can’t ever take off. With great effort I stay in my chair, listening to the daytime noises of the farmhouse and continuing with my work. On the little wooden table beside me are the socks for darning. Clothing repairs are normally the Lucille’s task, but the mending has piled up to the point where it can’t wait any longer. The sock I’m currently working on is one of Harry’s and it has his smell. Hay, earth, sun. As I push the needle through the fabric, I picture him striding across the farm toward me, coming closer and closer. Past the chickens and the area where the crops grow. Past the peach tree completely covered, the Felicity assures me, with promising green nubbles of fruit. Then, finally, between the two lemon-scented gum trees standing like border guards where the farm officially ends and the kitchen garden begins. When I know Harry must be close, I strain to hear his steps—and yes, there they are. Purposeful but not rushed, matching the steady rhythm of his breath. I am always edgy when Harry leaves the farm. When I first arrived here, he made it clear that the farm was the only safe place left in the world. Beyond the front gate were innumerable dangers. Security guards, police officers, doctors, teachers, parents, all lying in wait to force us back into lives that didn’t really belong to us. And even though I don’t believe this anymore—not really—I’m always relieved each time Harry returns safely. The handle of the front door rattles as it turns. There are footsteps in the hallway and finally the parlor door swings open. Harry fills the doorway as air and light flood the dark, stuffy space. He’s breathing deeply, and when I sneak a quick glance at him, I notice that his wheat-colored hair forms damp swirls against his forehead. It’s hardly surprising, considering the thick trousers and woolen jacket he’s wearing. I put down the sock and hurry (while trying to appear not to hurry) over to the sideboard, where I have a carafe of water waiting. My hand trembles as I pour a glass for Harry. Slow, considered movements, I remind myself. He is probably watching us right now, and he mustn’t suspect how tense I am. Outside the window, the generator whirs. I have questions, lots of them, but I keep them in check. Conversations between Harry and Esther must be as formal as a script. I hand the glass of water to Harry, careful not to let our fingers touch or our eyes meet. “Did you see Lucille today?” My voice is smooth and calm and perfectly Esther, but I’m sure Harry senses my nervousness. Last time, the Lucille was renewed in four days. This time it’s been almost three weeks. The followers—especially Lucille’s—keep asking how much longer it will be before they see her again. And it’s only a matter of time before he loses patience with us. Harry gulps down the water. “Yes,” he says when he’s finished. “I saw her.” Although it’s the answer I was expecting, I can barely keep from flinging my arms around Harry’s neck. I refill his glass to give myself time to regain composure. If any of the followers are watching, they need to see that we have everything under control—that Lucille has simply gone away and will come back soon, just like she has before. “How is she?” I ask. Two dents appear on Harry’s forehead, as though invisible fingers have pressed into his skin. The impressions are gone in an instant, but I know what they mean. When normal forms of communication are restricted, you learn to gather information in other ways. That slight frown means there are changes to the Lucille. Significant ones. “Her hair seems straighter, and a little lighter.” Like me, Harry knows better than to let his concerns show in his voice. “She’s obviously been spending some time in the sun.” Automatically, my eyes flick over to the photograph above the mantelpiece. Gilt-framed. Dominant. The image itself is a little blurry—as if it’s been enlarged—but it’s still clear enough. Four figures stand on the veranda of an old stone farmhouse. Three of them are girls in gloves and long white dresses. The smallest girl in the photo has thick braids and a cupid’s kiss of a face. Above her, written in old-fashioned cursive, is a name: Felicity. Near her is a male, and his beard makes him look older than he really is, which is probably no more than nineteen. He has one arm protectively around Felicity, his shoulders seeming so broad compared with her tiny child’s frame. Harry. To his left is a girl with dark curls and a curvy figure. Her chin is held up in a way that could be proud or defiant, or both. Lucille. The fourth figure, standing near the front door, is a tall, thin girl with her hands clasped. Her expression is smooth and unreadable. That’s me. Esther. Screwed into the wall beneath the photograph is a little brass plate. I can’t read the engraving from here, but I know what it says. The Special Ones. The followers often ask me the same question during evening chat:
What were you thinking about when that photograph was taken?
At first the question frightened me so much, I could barely type a reply. I was convinced they’d picked me as an impostor. That they already suspected the girl in the photo was a total stranger to me.
It’s hard to remember exactly.
My hands would shake as I typed my reply.
It was so long ago.
Not a great answer, I knew that. But no one ever challenged me about my response, and gradually I became more confident. My answers improved.
When that photograph was taken, I was thinking about how I, as a Special One, can help to guide you, my loyal follower, through your times of need.
Sometimes I’d even twist the question around, making it seem as though I were doing the testing.
What do you think I was thinking?
“The sun is good for the soul, and its effects on Lucille will soon fade once she’s back here,” Harry says mildly now. “And her hair will right itself too.” I turn to find that he has moved from the doorway and is standing near me now, also looking at the photograph. I nod in reply. Of course, we both know that the Lucille’s hair won’t really right itself, but at least changing straight, fair hair into dark curls will be easy compared with other transformations I’ve had to make—like the time I had to turn a Felicity’s short, dark frizz into smooth, plaitable blondness. Besides, the greatest challenges with reintroducing a Special One have nothing to do with physical appearance. “Otherwise, she’s just as she was,” Harry adds, draining another glass of water. I take this to mean that her height and weight are pretty accurate, which is good news. In Lucille’s remembering book, she is described as being taller than Felicity but shorter than Esther. She needs to be soft, but in no way plump. “And she has that same look in her eye.” There’s the slightest hint of a chuckle in Harry’s voice as he says this. The Lucilles always have a particular expression. In her book, this is described as “being filled with strong emotion,” but I have always secretly thought of it as sulky and troublesome. I suspect Harry feels the same. No matter what the look is, the Lucille needs to have it. That expression is what the followers will be expecting. Harry tips his glass toward me as I pour, the water forming a connecting arc between us. “Where did you find her?” I ask. “In a food court, eating a hot dog and chips,” says Harry. “Poison,” I say primly, but my mouth salivates. When was the last time I ate anything like that? Probably when Mum took me to the local shopping center, soon after we’d moved. She was hoping, I guess, that the outing would make me see the benefits of our new location. But what fun could I possibly have without the friends I’d left a thousand kilometers behind? Mum dragged me into shops, where I steadfastly refused to try on anything, and then I picked, stony-faced, at the lunch she bought me. “Poison,” agrees Harry, but I think I catch the tail end of a smile on his face before I hastily look down. Harry and Esther are not allowed to look directly at each other for more than three seconds at a time. What does Harry make of me in those brief glances? Does he just see Esther—her neat hair, her tightly corseted body, her controlled face? I used to hope that he would see more, or at least sense the things buried deep inside. But then I wondered if this was the wrong thing to wish for. Maybe Harry wouldn’t like the real me. Esther is capable, strong. She gets on with things without complaint. She doesn’t freak out at the sight of blood or cry when things don’t go her way. In other words, she’s nothing like I am inside. There’s a long silence until, with a start, I remember that there’s another question I’m expected to ask. The most important one, even though I already know the answer. “Does Lucille remember who she is?” In my peripheral vision, I see Harry shake his head. “I would say she’s completely forgotten everything.” “Awareness is sometimes slow to dawn,” I recite. “After all, it’s been a long time since Lucille’s old form left us. It’s not surprising that she’s forgotten a few things.” Harry nods. “The renewal process can leave the mind temporarily confused,” he says. Somehow Harry can make the stiffest of his mandatory phrases sound natural, even comforting. “Once she is safe at home with us, she will soon remember.” I suddenly hear Felicity’s voice, wafting in on the hot northerly wind. She’s out in the garden, singing a jumbled song. “Merrily we roll along, on a cold and frosty morning.” Most songs are forbidden in here, of course, and I am not even allowed to hum—but the Felicity is expected to sing nursery rhymes. For some reason, though, this particular Felicity always gets the words wrong. It makes me uneasy. It’s the sort of thing that could make him very easily upset. The song stops and a plaintive voice calls out, “Is Harry home yet?” Harry gives a low laugh, and I smile too. The Felicitys are always so sweet. It’s hard not to get attached. “Yeah, I’m home, Flick,” Harry calls. “I’ll come right out.” He turns to me. I keep my eyes firmly on the ground, although the urge to look at him is always strongest when he’s about to leave. “I’ll take her down to the farm and get some ingredients for dinner. Today’s word was . . . ?” “Rejoice.” It worries me that Harry so often forgets the guiding word, as it is supposed to shape everything we do, think, and feel each day. In our remembering books it says that the guiding words form the basis of the teachings for our followers; that he watches us always, recording everything we do and say, and then the most inspirational—the most Special—moments of our lives are made into short films from which our followers can learn. When I received the guiding word this morning, there wasn’t much to rejoice about. But the news about the Lucille has changed things. “Rejoice—that means meat, if you ask me,” says Harry thoughtfully. “No chance of getting a rabbit at this time of day, though. How about a chicken?” I hesitate. We have only five chickens left, and their eggs are very valuable. I should say no. Esther is supposed to restrain this kind of extravagance, and it’s really too hot for roasting anyway. But the idea of eating fresh meat rather than the boiled potatoes and green sauce I’d been planning is too tempting to resist. Plus, there’s the added thrill of saying yes to Harry. “I’ll make some mash to go with it,” I say, and look at Harry just long enough to see his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Perfect.” He strides off, whistling, and I feel a pang, knowing I’ll be alone in the farmhouse again. “Make sure she wears her hat,” I call after him. The Felicity in the photograph has very pale skin. “And don’t let her on that peach tree.” I don’t remember which Felicity broke the tree-climbing rule—the first, or the second?—but I’ll never forget her punishment. The image of that tiny figure, lashed to the peach tree for an entire day, crying out for water and forgiveness, still flashes into my mind sometimes. I doubt Harry will forget it either. He was the one who had to tie her to the tree in the first place. I hear Felicity squeal with joy as Harry appears outside, and I picture her flinging herself on him, as though it’s been months since she saw him and not just a few hours. I’m glad she can do this with Harry. A child her age needs physical contact—hugs, kisses, tickles—but Esther is not allowed to touch the other Special Ones, and the Lucilles just don’t do that sort of thing. In the kitchen I catch sight of them through the window, Felicity holding Harry’s hand as they make their way past the gum trees. A little while later a squawking, flapping noise rises on the wind, gaining rapidly in tempo and intensity until it is suddenly cut short. Harry’s news has filled me with optimism. There is still a lot to do, but I feel strong and capable, energized despite the heat. Soon there will be four Special Ones back here again. This means another person to share the work, to speak with the followers, and to keep him happy. Part of me remains tense, though, because what lies ahead is daunting. Planning for a kidnapping is never easy, even when you’ve done it as many times as I have.