Urgh, this guy was a total creep.
I was standing in Smellting’s busy markets, trying to keep my mouth shut, my skin pricking with annoyance.
Smellting always attracted the worst kinds of people: creeps; burglars; dodgy kids trying to sell you poisoned Wine Gums; men who spat at you; women who threw their flowery teapots out their windows, hoping they would hit you.
I’d faced them all, but this guy was particularly bad: he was a creep and a crook.
“Listen sweetheart, this is my best cotton. It don’t matter how much you flutter your eyelashes at me, I’m not dropping the price.”
I narrowed my eyes, biting my tongue to stop myself from speaking. What did he mean flutter? I wasn’t fluttering anything — is that what he thought blinking was? I watched the marketer closely as he poured a packet of black buttons into a large jar. Bundles of fabric hung from his stall, surrounding his tiny head with greens, blues, and purples. But they were all muted, dull. Everything was dull here.
I guessed that’s what you got in a horrible town like this.
The marketer rolled his watery eyes at me, pushing the jar of buttons to the front of the counter. “Like I told you last week, I’ve had to increase my prices. Less and less people been showing up.” He grunted, folding his thick arms. “Sixty pounds and that’s my final offer.”
“But no one will pay that.” I tucked a lock of red hair back into my bun, trying to be patient. “That’s too much and you know that.”
The marketer stuck up a fat finger, waggling it at me. “No bartering girlie, I ain’t falling for it this time. Sixty pounds. Take it or leave it.”
“But that’s not fair. Please, can’t you just—”
A crash to my left made me jump. I spun around to see the new girl, Bliss, standing with a button in her hand, her large, brown eyes wide with fear. Buttons and broken glass were strewn across the footpath at her feet. The marketer made a strange sound, as if he were choking.
I turned back to look at him, his eyes now dark with anger. I’d completely forgotten Bliss was there.
“Right, I’ve had it with you two.” He pointed to the ground. “You’ll be paying for that and all, plus an extra tenner on top of the fabric for her clumsy mits. Do we have a deal?”
I scowled at him and reluctantly nodded. Aunt Agatha was going to kill me.
The marketer smirked, folding the fabric up roughly and shoving it into a bag. He held out a sweaty hand.
“You need to keep a closer eye on your little friend, sweetheart.” He glanced at Bliss and then looked me up and down like I was a piece of meat. “And you should stop growing,” he chuckled, wheezing. “If you get any taller, you’ll be bigger than my lads and they’re huge.”
I felt my face grow hot but said nothing. He always reminded me of an angry potato, but now was not the time to argue, even though I really wanted to shove the buttons right up his—
“Come on,” he said and flexed his fingers. “I ain’t got all day.”
I tried to put on my sweetest smile as I pulled notes and coins from my shawl pocket, counting the money quickly. The moment I handed it to him, he’d already turned away, sauntering over to a woman wearing a puffy red jacket. She was peering at some silk and beamed when she saw him. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see his tongue hanging out.
I rolled my eyes, my smile immediately fading. Men were so gross.
I grabbed my bags from the counter — one giant overflowing paper bag and two swinging from my wrists — as Bliss scurried to my side, her cheeks bright red. Her own bags covered most of her face, forcing her to peer around them. We’d been shopping all morning, but there was still a lot more to go. (My aunt never liked to make things easy.)
“I’m so sorry, Elva. I… I just wanted to have a look.” Bliss’ voice came out in a rush as if the buttons had gotten up from the ground and chased her through the markets. “I was holding the jar and then the next thing I knew it was on the ground and the glass and buttons and everything was everywhere.” She took a deep breath in, her eyes shining like large, brown marbles. “My f-fingers must have slipped.”
“It’s fine,” I said shortly. I tried not to imagine what Aunt Agatha would do to me when I got back to the factory. Dread filled my stomach. The last time I’d overspent, she locked me in my room for three days. I was only allowed out to wee and to eat one bowl of sloppy, grey porridge that I could’ve easily used as a hammer to escape instead.
But I couldn’t tell Bliss that. I couldn’t tell anyone. Everyone in Smellting loved Aunt Agatha.
I gestured with my head for Bliss to follow as we joined the moving crowd. She was a whole head shorter than me, a few years younger too, with copper skin and glossy black hair. Even in the usual gloomy light of Smellting, the strands seemed to shimmer. I wished my hair looked that soft, but instead it was a tangled, frizzy mess that I could never control.
Just like the rest of my life.
“Oi! Aren’t you kids supposed to be in school?”
I startled from my thoughts. A tall woman selling lavender shampoo and candles was eyeing us suspiciously. She looked a little funny, with a violet scarf wrapped tightly up to her bony chin. Grey tufts of hair sprouted from her head. People tutted and glared as they dodged around me and Bliss, annoyed that we were taking up even more space on the narrow walkway.
“School starts tomorrow,” I muttered, trying to nudge Bliss forwards. “And I’m in college, actually.”
The woman nodded knowingly, tapping her long nose. “Well, you be careful, girls. Strange things have been happening recently, very strange. I heard Maybell’s been missing for a week now, down on Bellamy Road.” She squinted at me, leaning so far forwards I thought she might topple out of her seat. “Aren’t you that Fayne girl? Does Agatha know you’re out?”
I desperately tried to keep a straight face. “It’s Elva, and yes, Bliss and I are out getting her supplies.”
The woman’s head snapped to Bliss so fast she had to have broken her neck. Bliss shrank into me.
“A new girl, hm? I hope you’ve been teaching her to sew properly! Last time I bought something from you, it fell apart as soon as I put it on! The best garments in northwest England, my arse!” She smiled, barring broken, yellow teeth. “But Agatha soon put it right. Said it was the work of one of the other girls. She got a good hiding, so I was told.”
She laughed, which sounded more like a dying frog, but I was only half listening. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the creepy marketer staring at us again. Pins and needles suddenly prickled down the side of my face, and I winced. The woman stopped laughing abruptly and watched me instead, an eerie smile appearing on her thin lips. I tried to avoid her gaze. Time to go.
I took a step back, and this time shoved Bliss harder, making us move with the crowd. The woman sniggered. Her high voice sliced through the noise as we hurried away from her.
“Watch the streets, girls! Don’t disappear like those other poor buggers!”
We weaved through the crowded markets, narrowly missing shallow holes and fresh chewing gum on the footpath. Food trucks on either side of us banged and crashed, overflowing with the smell of burnt chicken, salty chips, and sour pickled eggs. Marketers bellowed and screeched their deals, desperately trying to get anyone’s attention.
All I wanted to do was crawl under my blanket and hide from Aunt Agatha so she’d never find me again. Isn’t that how it was supposed to work as a kid? If I couldn’t see her, then she definitely couldn’t see me.
Ha. In your dreams, Elva.
I sidestepped a couple wearing matching puke-coloured coats and sighed. I desperately wanted to scratch the back of my head. The pain had moved from my face, and it stung like a couple of bees had gotten very angry. I shook my head. It was like the eyes of the creepy marketer and woman were burning into the back of me.
Without thinking, I dug my nails into my left palm and felt the usual jolt of pain. Felt the heavy bags cutting into my wrists. This was real. It was all in your head, Elva. Just like your aunt always said.
I gazed up at the grey sky. A lonely seagull flew high above me, its wings flapping gently in the wind. It passed over a large white banner that was tied from one side of the street to the other and read: SMELLTING MARKETS. I pulled a sour face. I wondered if anyone had realised how ripped and lopsided it was.
The seagull hovered over a chimney for a moment, then dived and disappeared. I wished I could fly like that. Fly far, far away from here. But I couldn’t. I dug my nails deeper into my palm. Eyes couldn’t burn you. Remember, the accident made you believe things. Stupid things, things that don’t exist. Things that could never exist.
Someone tapped me lightly on the shoulder. Bliss was trailing behind me, struggling to keep up.
“What did that lady mean,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, ‘“don’t disappear’?” She paused. “People aren’t disappearing, are they?”
I released my nails, a dull sting pulsing across my hand. “Of course not.” I tilted my head back so she could hear me better. “Don’t listen to her, this town is full of weirdoes. No one is disappearing.”
This was a partial lie. People had been disappearing. In fact, I’d heard that three people from my art class wouldn’t be coming back this year. They’d just vanished and no one had heard from them since. Not that it bothered me — a couple less jerks to pick on me was music to my ears. But then there was that couple, Tracey and Kian, who always used to snog in the corridors (ew) right outside my photography class. They’d gone missing too. And then a week later Mr Grieves, who owned ‘Grief Bakery,’ never came back to his shop to lock up. I’d even heard rumours that some bodies had been showing up; they’d been seen on Craggy Beach, in alleyways, in people’s gardens. But no one cared in Smellting. Everyone just pretended that it wasn’t happening. People were disappearing, but not anyone important.
I guessed some of them had it coming to them.
Bliss nodded, and I turned back around. Even though she tried to hide it, I could see the fear hiding behind her eyes. At least she didn’t hate me, like everyone else in this town — not yet anyway.
“What’s next on the list?” I shouted, as we passed an annoyingly loud coffee machine and a stall selling piles of cheap jewellery. I wrinkled my nose. “My aunt doesn’t need verruca cream again, does she?”
I glanced back at Bliss, whose cheeks were red again. She hastily pulled a long piece of paper from her jacket pocket — the paper was pale pink, or Dusty Agatha Rose, as my aunt had named it. She’d planned to have the colour copyrighted before anyone else could snatch it up.
Bliss’ eyes widened. “T-There’s only one thing left… We have to get a… a… ”
“A… p… p…”
I whipped around so fast that I hit someone passing me. An elderly man swore very loudly, clutching a faded hat to his chest. But I didn’t care. I stared at the list, following my aunt’s handwriting to the bottom of the page:
Toothpaste and soap (the expensive ones, DO NOT BUY CHEAP)
White sewing thread (100m)
1 kg of potatoes
Three meters of canvas fabric (green, cotton)
I blinked, frowning. What did she mean, a pig? A live pig? A pet pig? An image of a cute pot-bellied pig appeared in my mind. It was wearing my aunt’s favourite diamond earrings and had a mole on its lip exactly like her. It oinked at me.
But before I could think more about my aunt as a pig, I walked straight into someone.
“Hey! Watch it!” My head swam as several potatoes fell out of my bag, along with two bottles of acid green shampoo that was already leaking everywhere. “Can’t you see that I’m trying to… walk…”
Hunched in front of me was a man who, quite oddly, wasn’t blinking. He was wearing a dirty, red jumper and ragged jeans and, although he looked quite young, his tan skin looked thinner in places, like it’d been stretched over his sunken cheeks.
And he was staring at me.
From somewhere nearby, I could hear Bliss’ muffled voice, as if underwater. But all I could do was look into his pale, green eyes.
I stumbled backwards, surprised that I could move my legs. They felt like jelly.
“Who are you?” I asked accusingly. “Did my aunt send you to check on me?”
The man said nothing, but continued to stare at me, his eyes softening as they moved from the top of my head to my feet. It wasn’t in the same way the creepy marketer had done before — his gaze was different, gentle. Sad.
He closed his eyes for a moment, and I noticed that lines ran up his neck, like deep scars. Then he opened his eyes again and they were full of fear. His lips trembled.
“It’s Grace… she’s… she’s…”
And then he stopped, his thin body convulsing forwards.
I yelped and tried to grab him as he fell but couldn’t because I was still holding the stupid bags.
“Stay back!” he pleaded, stumbling backwards. His hands were shaking terribly now, and he dragged them through his black hair, again and again and again, like he was trying to rip it out. “P-Please, don’t follow me!”
Then, before I knew it, he turned and staggered away from me, disappearing into the crowd.
I stared after him but couldn’t move. It felt like my insides had turned to ice, and I heard nothing but my crashing pulse.
Because no one ever talked about her.
Aunt Agatha had forbidden it, so I never did. Not to anyone.
No one even knew I had a sister — a twin sister. Because Grace and my parents weren’t just in another town, in another city, in another country.
They were dead.
And I’d killed them.