Gemma Perfect: fantasy author
“Ellis, you’re going to be late for college. Again.” My family are always yelling at each other: I think it’s an antidote to where we live, the dignified and respectful manner of how things are done here. I love the way he adds in the again – the only reason I’m ever late for anything is because I’m working. Mum is rubbish at makeup and I’m good, so it always falls on me as the other girl in the family to do it. I’m a pro at pressed powder and coral lipstick now.
“I’m just finishing Mrs. Britton’s makeup, dad. Can you take me in?”
“Sorry for shouting,” I say to the lady lying on the table, taking another brush from the bag and adding blusher to her face. It’s not her fault we’re always so loud. “There, you look lovely. Enjoy the funeral.”
Mrs. Britton doesn’t answer me.
I close the door to the mortuary quietly behind me and rush up to my bedroom. I grab my bag, and head downstairs, remember my phone and run back up. No matter how many times I rush around, I always forget something. I steal a croissant off Isaac’s plate and run to the car.
“Thanks, dad.” I kiss his cheek, leaving crumbs on his face. “Sorry.” I brush them off.
“Does Mrs. Britton look okay? Her children are coming in at ten.”
“She looks as good as she can.”
“It’s fine. I need the money.”
“You don’t get paid.”
“I was joking.”
We are silent for the rest of the trip, my dad is as sombre and morose as his job, but I kiss his cheek again before climbing out of the car. Since my friend Molly died, I have this irrational – rational – fear that whenever I say goodbye it might be the last time. My family are definitely enjoying the additional affection and emotional outbursts several times a day.
Urgh. I’d rather do makeup on a hundred dead bodies than face college. I know I’m going to end up working for my parents anyway – this is just two years of pointless stress I don’t need.
College. Pretending not to be school, but just as bad, really. In a lot of ways worse. I hate the pretend, casual grown up-ness of it all – no need to wear a uniform, you feel relaxed and learn better in your own clothes; call staff by their first names instead of Sir or Miss, it fosters a good relationship and helps you learn. I’ve always hated it. Since Molly died, I hate it even more.
I shake my head and rush inside the building. I’m not even going to think about my best friend. It only makes me cry and I can tell by the way everyone looks at me that they think I’m weird enough as it is. I don’t want – or need – to give them any more reasons to ignore me.
As always there are too many people and I feel awkward – don’t believe people when they tell you it’s a phase. I’ve felt like this since I was thirteen, and it’s more than four years later, and I still feel like it.
I’m early for my first lesson but I sit in the classroom by myself anyway. If I go in the common room, I’ll only be ignored. At least in here there’s no one to ignore me. Yet.
The room fills up and I end up with Stephen sitting next to me. He’s nice enough but always smells of manure. He helps out on the family farm, so I can hardly blame him. Maybe I smell of dead people.
“Doing anything nice on the weekend?”
I shake my head. I never do anything nice on the weekend. I never do anything. I’m living my best life.
What a pair of miserable gits we are.
I get through the lesson. Just about.
I frown, actually it’s more of a scowl. When Molly was alive, I didn’t have to make small talk with manure boys; instead we would talk, and laugh, and make fun of people, run away from lessons if we hadn’t revised for a test and moon over boys together. “Damn you, Molly,” I whisper to myself, just as the buzzer goes signalling the end of the class.
I wait for the other students to leave, nodding at Stephen when he waves at me, hoping he sits by someone else next time, and then gather my stuff. I can’t stand the bustle of the corridors; getting pushed and crushed and jostled. I can’t stand the place at all. And this is the only good thing about college – I can walk out, and nobody will question me.
As soon as the urge comes over me to leave, I do it. Never second guess a potentially bad decision – you’ll only do the right thing, and then people will expect better from you next time.
I can’t go home; mum and dad will shout at me. First for wasting the opportunity of going to college, as if they don’t let any old body in; and then they’ll get me working – dressing coffins in frilly pink satin, doing even more makeup – or my personal favourite – greeting crying family members as they come to view their loved ones, and handing them tissues.
I go to the only place I feel any sort of peace at all. Molly’s grave. I cannot tell you why I enjoy sitting there, when the thought of her being dead makes me sob – still. but being near her helps.
“Hey you,” I take a seat on the bench next to my best friend’s grave, and the tears fall before I’m even aware of them. I’m a wreck. Molly has been dead for eleven months and I’m still not over it. ‘Over it’ is a ridiculous notion anyway. Of course I’m still sad. “I had to sit by smelly Stephen again, in history.”
Even as I speak aloud, talking to my dead best friend, I know it isn’t healthy, I know it isn’t good for me. I wish I could let go, talk to someone else. But that’s the problem; no one else will talk to me. Molly and I had been like sisters, closer than friends, more like family. Since her death, I know I’ve withdrawn from normal life and I know I can’t help it either.
I flick through the photos on my phone. Me and Molly when we were tiny – our mums had been friends since before we were born. Dressed as little witches for Halloween. Making silly faces. Laughing.
No wonder I’m struggling to live without her. We’ve been inseparable since we were born.
It’s time to go. As much fun as wallowing in a graveyard is of an afternoon, I can’t be late picking Isaac up from the bus stop.
The biggest pain of having a family business, a family business where we all live, and my parents work – and make me work – is that there is never any switch off. My parents are workaholics. We own the only funeral home for miles around. And the people just keep dying.
Isaac is the last off the bus, chatting intently with his friend over the merits of the new computer game they both want. Dorks.
“Hey, Isey. Good day?” He nods but doesn’t answer me, so I ruffle his hair, because I know he hates it. I’m a good sister.
I let the boys walk ahead, listening to music on my phone so I don’t have to listen to their inane conversation about computer games, Pokémon and Marvel films. Dorks.
We reach his friend’s house first and then Isaac talks to me. “Thanks for picking me up.”
“I do it every day.”
There’s nothing else to say so I ignore him, and he ignores me, as all good siblings do.
When we get home, I pretend that all is well with my world; I lie about my day, the lessons I’ve done and the friends I’ve caught up with. And then I insist on going up to my room to do even more work.
With the door shut and locked – yes, locked. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not that funny when your little brother and his friends steal your bras to use as slingshots or burst in the room when you’re only wearing your bra and knickers, because of, you know, a dare, and catch you absolutely not pretending to be famous.
Anyway. Door locked, snacks laid out on the bed for demolition and a fetching underwear only ensemble, I eat.
Like with many of the things I’m failing at in my life – getting over Molly’s death, succeeding at college and living my healthiest life – sitting in my underwear and eating chocolate is something I’m aware of as maybe not being my best choice. I know I have unhealthy habits, and afterwards I might regret this little snack marathon, but in the meantime, salt and vinegar crisps or sour cream and onion?
Teenagers have so many big decisions to make, no wonder I need a bit of fuel to help me along.
Fletcher shuts the door and leans against it. His mother and aunt are in such a state of near insanity, tinged with an unnervingly hysterical edge, that he cannot bear to be in the same room as them.
He shakes his head when he can still hear their voices and climbs out of the window. He sinks onto the floor, under the ledge and shuts his eyes.
“They’ll find you,” his cousin Talia says, the amusement evident in her voice. He opens his eyes; it’s clear on her face too.
“Maybe not.” He stands up. If he’s not here, they can’t find him, if they can’t find him, they cannot ask him – again – which colour cloak he wants to wear, and which of his wands he’d prefer to use for the ceremony, and has he given any thought to his first rule of business when he’s the head witch of the whole damn country.
As he heads off down the drive, he greets three more members of his extended family, gathering in preparation for the most exciting day of their lives. He nods and smiles, accepts cheek kisses and pats on the back, and then runs.
He’s the fastest runner in the school, and the only reason he isn’t the fastest in the county is because his teacher cannot convince him to join the team; he would win, because magic makes him fast. Same as magic makes him clever. Same as magic makes him funny. Same as magic makes him handsome. And cool. And irresistible. And popular. He can only imagine what it would be like to have zero magic, zero unfair advantage over almost everyone else in this little village, and just be himself. Maybe himself would suck. Maybe it’s better that he’ll never have to know.
He finds himself at the graveyard, at his father’s grave, a place he goes to so often, that the grass is worn away where he always stands. If his father was alive, he would still be the head witch and Fletcher’s biggest worry would be… what? He has no worries because magic makes his life so easy.
But at least he wouldn’t be the ‘chosen one’ if his dad was still alive. He hates being the ‘chosen one’. He even hates the way people say it, their voices all low and the words pronounced too clearly. The ‘chosen one.’
He shakes his head. “Cheers, dad.” Of course his father doesn’t answer and Fletcher touches the headstone briefly before leaving the graveyard.
His mother is calling for him, and his aunt – he can hear them in his head – and while he can ignore them, they’ll know that he’s heard them. It’s not worth the hassle, though he’s gutted that they noticed his absence so quickly.
He’ll head home and bite his tongue while they worry about the ceremony, and the extra guests, and the hundreds of other things they bicker about daily which he refuses to get involved in. You’ll have to get involved once you’re the head witch, they often warn him, cackling. He keeps his sarcastic answers to himself; it’s not worth the aggravation.
No wonder he needs to escape when the four women he lives with – his mother Elodie, his aunt Ember and two cousins, twins, Thea and Talia – love to gossip, bicker, argue, fuss and fight about every tiny detail of their lives and everyone else’s.
This ceremony has got them in the biggest tizz of their lives. The closer it gets and the bigger the fuss, the more Fletcher just wishes he could run away. It’s the palaver he can’t stand. Nothing is ever simple with witches.
He’s slow heading home, the reluctance clear with each step. None of them mean any harm and he loves them all – especially his mother. He knows how bittersweet this ceremony will be; there would be no need for it if her husband, his father, hadn’t died. But being the only male in the household is difficult and he knows that even when he is in charge of not just the witches but all the supernatural creatures in the country, they’ll still hen peck him to death. It’s just what they do.
He’s passing the park when he hears a commotion, lots of shouting and jeering. He changes course, wanting to know what the fuss is about; nobody else would know it but Fletcher likes to keep watch over their little village – he’s put plenty of magical protections in place, quietly, and they help keep the area a nice place to live. This doesn’t sound nice – and it doesn’t sound just like kids messing around.
He’s right. As soon as he gets closer, he can see that all is not well. There’s a young boy tied to the roundabout, crying and begging to be freed, and five slightly older lads laughing, and spinning and spinning and spinning him, despite the fact that he’s thrown up all over himself, and judging by his clothes maybe even wet himself.
Fletcher breaks into a run. This is one of those times that he’s so glad that he’s a witch. “Hey! Cut it out!” He shoves through the throng of boys and stops the roundabout. One of the boys shoves him and Fletcher turns to face him, frowns. The boy backs off, doesn’t say a word or move again. Fletcher glares at each of them in turn. He doesn’t need to use violence – he detests it – but he uses his magic to stun them, to still them and silence them.
The younger boy also has a black eye and a bloody nose. “Here, let me help you.” Fletcher uses magic to clean the boy’s clothes – magicking away the sick and drying the trousers with a simple word. He unties him and the poor boy starts sobbing. He seems oblivious to the fact that his aggressors are as unmoving as statues.
“Are you okay?” Fletcher asks, sending healing magic the boy’s way.
He nods. “Thank you.”
“It’s fine. Why were they being horrible to you?” Fletcher gathers the rope and ties each of the older boys to the roundabout, in turn. He moves them easily as though they are parcels and not people, plonks them down and wraps the rope around them. The young boy watches the scene with open-mouthed awe.
“They just don’t like me. I’m their age, but smaller.”
Fletcher shakes his head. This poor boy cannot help his height. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Jack, they won’t bother you again. I promise.”
This is when his powers fill him with pride and happiness. He quickly spells each of the boys, making them incapable of bad thoughts or deeds, and making them choose each day to be kind and helpful from now on. He also removes the memory of this incident from their minds. He doesn’t want them to remember poor Jack wetting himself through fear.
Then he spells Jack – giving him just a touch more confidence, a touch less anxiety about his differences. And then he offers to walk Jack home.
He turns around and nods, starting the roundabout spinning faster, and faster and faster. The boys have come out of their stupor and all he can hear are moans and groans and the sound of five boys throwing up as the roundabout spins on its own, faster and faster and faster.
He runs home after dropping Jack off safe and well at his house. His mother and his aunt’s voices have been in his head for over half an hour calling for him, and he knows they’ll be worrying now that he hasn’t come home sooner.
“Sorry!” he calls out as he shuts the thick wooden front door behind him. His mother is the first to swoop down on him; perfume and voluminous sleeves enveloping him.
“You’ve been gone so long.”
“Less than an hour, mam.”
“Which is a long time when we have so much to do.”
She holds his chin, peering intently at him. “You did well tonight. Good boy.”
Ember totters into the room, always on the highest of heels; he has no idea how she doesn’t fall over. She kisses his cheek, leaving a smudge of red lipstick. “My lovely nephew. You are too soft. Even the twins would have given those boys black eyes and bloody noses in return for what they’d done to that poor boy.”
Fletcher just nods – his aunt is pretty blood thirsty and always thinks she’s right. It’s not worth arguing with her. There were two things his father always instilled in him when he was alive; in preparation for when Fletcher was in charge. Number one was trusting his own judgment and gut. And number two was to always be kind. Their magic gave them an unfair advantage over everybody else; nothing was that difficult for them and life was easy but not everyone else lived like them. You never knew what sort of day someone was having, what sort of life they lived behind closed doors. Kindness cost nothing and Fletcher stuck to his father’s mottoes as much as he could.
It didn’t mean that he didn’t have a mean streak or lash out every now and again. But it did mean that he tried his best. He was pleased with how he handled that incident today. He knew his father would have been proud.
I push all the wrappers onto my already messy bedroom floor and lay on my bed, stretching my arms and legs out so I look like a starfish.
There’s homework to do, washing to put away that my mum placed on my desk, and I know if I go downstairs my parents will find me something to do – more makeup or engraving name plates or transferring ashes into beautiful caskets.
I don’t want to do any of that.
I just want to mope.
Moping is lovely. My mum and dad want me to snap out of it – this slump I’ve been in since Molly’s death – but the truth is, I kind of like it. I like laying around, indulging in my tears, my sadness, my anger that leukaemia finally stole my best friend. I like feeling sorry for myself – nobody else does. All the sympathy I was given initially has waned. Even my friends can’t be bothered with me anymore. I don’t blame them, but I don’t want to snap out of it either.
I’m not ready.
I’m not ready to let her go.
If I let her go, then she’ll be gone.
“Ellis.” My mum, knocking the door.
I sit up, groaning, and take a deep breath. “Come in.”
I feel sad when I see my mum come into the room. I don’t want to admit it, because it’s ridiculously selfish, but my turmoil has definitely taken a toil on my mother. She’s always careful with me now, she doesn’t want to tip me over the edge, she doesn’t want to push me away either. And, of course because I’m seventeen I use it to my advantage. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. She has a tentative smile on her face. “Hiya lovely.” She sits on the bed, stroking my hand. “How was school?”
I shrug and she leans over, kisses my head. “Ooh, you should wash your hair, sweetie. You’ll feel better if you do.”
Okay, so maybe my standards of personal care have dipped a little, but I don’t need it pointed out.
“And maybe it’s time to-”
I interrupt her with a sigh, tears easily filling my eyes. “Mam, please don’t nag me.”
She pulls me into a hug. “Sorry, lovely. I just thought you might feel better if you looked after yourself a bit, that’s all. I hate seeing you upset.”
Upset? The sad truth of it is, that I keep the lowest of my moods from my mum and dad and Isaac. I manage to get up, get dressed, go to college, eat. I go through the motions of work and family life and then when I shut my bedroom door I sob, I howl, and I cry the whole night through.
Molly was more than my best friend; she was an extension of me. And she had all the best bits. She was funnier than me, cleverer than me, nicer than me. The friends who don’t want to know me anymore because I’m so flipping miserable were really Molly’s friends and I was lucky enough to tag along.
I’m not weird just because I live with dead people. But people think I am. And I can’t blame them. There is something creepy and macabre about our household. We are used to it, but even Molly would get weirded out when I talked about embalming or ashes or doing dead women’s hair with my own hairspray because we’d run out downstairs. Dead people are creepy. They can’t help it and I don’t believe it. I quite like them – I try to make them look their best and I always talk to them, but other people think I’m the weird girl who lives in the funeral home. And without Molly I am the weird – sad – girl who lives in the funeral home.
My mum pushes my hair back off my face, my flat, straight, couldn’t get it to curl if my life depended on it, hair and kisses my forehead again. “Anyway, dad’s asking if you want to go along tonight.”
“Chilli in the woods. Have you forgotten?”
I feel bad, but I had. Chilli in the woods is my father’s favourite annual tradition – I think he likes it more than Christmas. It was started by our family friend Sheelagh, and now we do it every year. And every year it grows, as people invite their friends, and then they invite theirs.
Now about seventy of us head to the woods near Caswell beach, eat chilli and sing songs around the camp fire. It’s old fashioned and unsophisticated – we usually end up with soggy bottoms and burnt marshmallows, but I love it. I’ve been doing it since I was five, and even though Molly always came with us, I do want to go.
Someone will bring giant saucepans of chilli and someone else will bring the rice, there’s fresh baguettes, party bags for the children, beer or cider in cans, cup drinks for the children, and without exception every year I leave at midnight feeling better than when I got there.
Maybe it will help me this year.
“How long till we go?”
“Maybe I’ll wash my hair.”
My mum looks pleased and I pretend not to notice, but she’s right. After it’s washed and dried, I feel better. I feel more like my old self.
I put clean clothes on for the first time in a long time. I actually feel shocked when I open my wardrobe and see colour – I have officially been ‘in mourning’ since Molly died. Only wearing black, grey and navy – all through the summer, as well – all through the heatwave. No wonder nobody wants to talk to me.
I pull out a yellow top, covered in little white flowers and a pair of blue jeans.
Downstairs my parents are packing the car – folding chairs, baguettes, crisps, alcohol, and my dad is clutching his guitar. He’s not very good at it, but he’s so proud that he can play a few tunes. I grin at him. “Mustn’t forget that, dad.”
Isaac gives me a high five. “I knew you’d come to chilli in the woods. Remember last year when Molly’s marshmallow caught fire-”
“Mum, it’s fine. I like talking about her.” I turn to my brother. “It was funny, Isey. It’s okay.” He looks gutted and I kiss the top of his head.
“Do you reckon Chris will have the song sheets tonight?”
Each year the singalong around the camp fire gets more and more intense – guitars – plural – song sheets, and the conductor, Chris, Sheelagh’s husband who sings in a choir. I always sing – I’m not great at it but it makes me happy. Last year Molly joined me for a few songs, we held hands and warbled away, the fire making our eyes water and the camaraderie and happiness amongst the group making us both smile.
This year will be different, but at least the people there don’t think I’m weird and sad. Most of them like me a lot.
We park up and gather our stuff, trudging up the long path to the camp fire. Anyone can use it, but in all the years we’ve been coming, we’ve never clashed with another group.
We hear everyone before we see them – a rush of voices, laughter, kid’s shouting. I know my mum will have prepped them all, that no one will mention Molly, but I’m still nervous. We went everywhere together – I still reach for her or turn to tell her something, I feel like part of me is missing.
“Hey!” The calls start and Isaac shoves his stuff into my arms, and he’s gone. The younger kids run around, climb trees, build dens and find sticks for marshmallows.
The men build up the fire and take charge of keeping it roaring away all evening.
Everyone pitches in and so do I. And I feel the sadness slip away from me, the constant ache in my chest lifts – it really does. It’s like magic. I look around this group of people – all friends or family, and I grin. We range in age from a few weeks old, little Jacob, to over sixty and yet we have more in common than not. The biggest thing being that we think it’s important to gather here, every year, making a tradition out of nothing, making family out of strangers.
When the music starts, guitars and voices blending to sing feel good songs from Delilah to Country roads, my eyes are streaming with tears. I don’t even try to stop them or wipe them away; I’m with people who love me and I can feel their sympathy and love as clearly as I can feel the heat from the fire.
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