The Smallest Thing
"A compelling plot that keeps readers turning pages."
~Publishers Weekly The BookLife Prize
The very last thing 17-year-old Emmott Syddall wants is to turn out like her dad. She’s descended from ten generations who never left their dull English village, and there’s no way she’s going to waste a perfectly good life that way. She’s moving to London and she swears she is never coming back.
But when the unexplained deaths of her neighbors force the government to quarantine the village, Em learns what it truly means to be trapped. Now, she must choose. Will she pursue her desire for freedom, at all costs, or do what’s best for the people she loves: her dad, her best friend Deb, and, to her surprise, the mysterious man in the HAZMAT suit?
Inspired by the historical story of the plague village of Eyam, this contemporary tale of friendship, community, and impossible love weaves the horrors of recent news headlines with the intimate details of how it feels to become an adult—and fall in love—in the midst of tragedy.
~Catherine Linka, author of A Girl Called Fearless
Sunday, July 17
It’s close to midnight before the house falls silent and I’m sure Dad is asleep. I roll out of bed and dig out the clothes I’ve stashed under my “Keep Calm and Carry On” pillow. Slipping out of my pajamas, I feel the sting of the cool night air against my skin. I pull on jeans and a cami, then cover up with a baggy sweatshirt, knowing I won’t be wearing it for long. Holding my breath, I ease up the handle of my window and feel the locks slide from their slots. With a sharp press against the wooden frame, the seals break like the pop of a champagne cork muffled inside a tea towel. I freeze, listening for any sign of disturbance from down the hall. Mum and my little sister Alice are the light sleepers, but I doubt they’d hear me tonight from three hundred miles away. Dad sleeps like the dead. I push open the window and peer at the garden below. In the long, violet midsummer half-light, Dad’s potting bench is just visible. It looks a long way down.
I know that climbing out of the window is a childish thing to do. I’m almost eighteen, for pity’s sake, close to official adulthood. I should be able to leave by the front door, like a normal person. But if Dad had any inkling of where I was going, or why—or, most especially, with whom—he’d nail the front door shut. If he insists on treating me like a child, then a child he gets. Out the window I go.
I dangle a foot over the ledge until it meets the roof of the sunroom. Swinging myself over the edge, I drop soundlessly onto the potting bench, feeling the weathered timber lurch beneath me. I do a quick check that the coast is clear and scurry across the garden, over the low back wall, and out into the village. My heart thuds in my throat, pumping euphoria through my veins. I am free.
Flashing across the open village green, I duck into the shadow of the war memorial and check for gimlet-eyed neighbors. An upstairs light is on in Dr. Spencer’s cottage. If he’s about to leave for a house call, he’s bound to spot me. News travels faster than the plague around here and if I’m seen, my dad will know about it in ten seconds flat. But I have to risk it. I have to see Ro.
I sprint for the edge of the churchyard and hunker down below the wall, out of sight, trying to catch my breath. The air is warm tonight and the breeze picks up the scent of freshly turned earth from the other side of the mossy limestone wall. I’ve had to borrow one of Mum’s black dresses twice this week to attend the funerals of elderly neighbors, a rare occurrence even in a village with as many oldies as ours. At both services, everyone talked about good people, solid members of the community, their quiet lives well-lived. In other words, two perfectly good lives wasted away in the dullest corner of the British Isles.
Alongside the churchyard’s newest residents are the sunken graves of ten traceable generations of my ancestors—the Dead Syddalls, as I call them—person after person who never had the guts or the wherewithal to leave the village of Eyam. It boggles my mind to think that most of them never even saw London, never had the urge to uproot and try a different life. When I think of all the invaders who traveled from far-off lands to conquer our little island—the Vikings, the Romans, the Normans—and all the adventurers who sailed the uncharted seas in search of new worlds, I can’t believe I ended up descended from people who never aspired to anything more than the simple country life. Well, that family tradition ends with me. I’m moving to our capital, no matter who tries to stop me, and I swear I am never coming back.
At the crest of the hill I clamber through a rocky entrance, shining the light from my phone onto the damp rock walls around me. A few uneven steps and I burst out into Cucklett Delf, an open, grassy bowl rimmed with trees. At the bottom, a narrow path crosses the stream that marks the Eyam village boundary and meets a rough track coming from Ro’s farm on the hillside opposite. The tingle of adventure prickles my skin, and my breath becomes shallow with anticipation. Only now that I am no longer in danger of being caught am I suddenly afraid. Ro and I have talked and dreamed about this possibility for months, since the first night we met, but now I’ve made it real and my doubts about his resolve come creeping in.
From the darkness, the sound of boots crunching against the stony path moves my way. I tuck my hair behind one ear and lean against the rock beside me, trying to look casual, willing my heart to be quiet. I feel Ro’s presence coming closer and closer until I can hear his breath and see his dark, rangy silhouette. His arms wrap around my waist and pull me toward him. When his lips slip against mine, I finally relax.
“Well, this is an unexpected treat,” he mumbles at last, his mouth brushing against the top of my head, softening his voice.
“I needed to see you.”
His fingers touch the purple streak in my pale hair. “Sneaking out at night? You’re turning into a right rebel, aren’t you?”
I don’t answer at first. I’m not a rebel, not really. I’m just a girl who’s ready to start her real life. But if I want to be the person I know I am, and less like the girl my parents think I should be, I’m going to have to make some waves.
“I got the job,” I blurt, getting straight to the point.
“Really?” he asks, and I’m not sure if his tone is excitement or shock.
“She rang me today. It’s only three nights a week to start, but she says the tips are good and I can probably pick up extra shifts, plus that will leave my days free to work on my mosaics and take them around the markets. And … you’re not going to believe this … she said she’d listen to your demo and think about bringing you in.”
“You’re kidding,” he says. This time he’s definitely excited.
“Yep. And look at this.” I pull out my phone and show Ro the room I found for rent. I pause on the picture that shows the window facing a tiny courtyard and not the one facing a faded brick wall. I definitely don’t show him the kitchen the size of a shoe box or the avocado-colored bathroom with a wall decoration that looks alarmingly like toxic mold. “I’ve got enough saved for the deposit and two months’ rent, plus whatever you have. I think we can do it. We can finally get out of here.”
I can barely contain my excitement, but I sense Ro’s hesitance through the darkness.
“When do you start?” he asks.
“She wants me August first.” It’s all happened so fast, much faster than I’d imagined, and I’m scrambling to put the pieces of my plan together. It will be a lot easier if Ro doesn’t put up a fight.
He pulls back and peers at me in the dim light. “That’s only two weeks away. What do your folks think?”
I let out a long sigh that feels like it’s been trapped inside my whole life. It’s all Ro needs to understand that my rebel streak has yet to extend to telling my dad any of this.
“This is stupid, Em. All this sneaking around. I should be able to pick up my girlfriend at her front door and take her out, not always have to meet her where we won’t be seen. And now you’re escaping through the window like bloody Rapunzel?”
Technically, the prince snuck in to see Rapunzel, but now’s not the time to quibble over details. “I’m not the greatest fan of risking my life, either. But you know what my dad’s like.”
“And you think he’s going to let you go to London? Why do you even need his approval?” Until I turn eighteen there’s a long list of things I can’t do without an adult to vouch for me, including renting a mold-infested room in a flat with three strangers and a boyfriend voted least likely for parental approval. And, technically, I can only work as a bar back until I’m legal to serve drinks, but I won’t bore Ro with that hitch just yet, either. If the job offer had come a month later, I wouldn’t be in this pickle, but it didn’t and so I am.
“Then, let’s just go,” I tell him. “We can put the flat in your name and my parents can approve or not. Who cares? We might not get another chance like this, and as long as we have each other, we can work out the rest when we get there.”
Ro’s gaze roams across my face, and for the smallest of moments I think he’s going to say no. And then he throws back his head, his long, dark hair flying around his face, and howls like a wolf on the prowl. “Emmott Syddall, you’ve got balls,” he yelps.
“Oh no, I don’t,” I say. “I’ll prove it.” I grab his hand, pulling him off the path and into the soft grass, peeling off my sweatshirt as I go. Ro shucks his jacket and fumbles with the button on my jeans, sending up the scent of coconut from his hair and a whiff of rugged leather. As he kisses me down into the grass, I’m enveloped in the primal scent of moist earth and fresh bracken, its spores warmed by the summer sun and primed for release. With the babble of the stream for background music, I fantasize about a lumpy bed in a damp room with a window that faces a wall. And finally, I feel alive.
* * *
Ro slings his arm around my shoulder as he walks me back to the village. We press together down the narrow path, so close we look like a three-legged monster. But neither of us speaks. As a bank of clouds rolls across the moor, blotting out the last of the moon light, the temperature drops and he pulls away from me. “You know I love you, don’t you?” he says.
“Of course,” I say back, but something prickles just underneath my skin, a sense that he wants to say more, that there’s a “but” to this declaration. I don’t press him because I don’t want to hear it, and he doesn’t continue, so we walk in a silence that I fill with plans.
“How are you going to get back in the house?” he asks as we reach the edge of the churchyard.
My London daydreams lurch to a halt. Oh, bugger. I haven’t thought about that. My plan to get out was flawless; my plan to get back in is nonexistent. There’s no way I can climb back up to the window. I have seriously cocked up, and when my dad finds out, the days I’m counting down until I move out will feel more like a lifetime.
As we round the corner, a trio of bright blue flashing lights illuminates the village green.
“Oh, bugger me,” I hiss, pulling away from Ro. If my empty room has been discovered and my dad has wigged out and called the police, I’m a dead woman. If he catches me with Ro, I’m buried as well. If Dad ever actually met Ro in person and gave him even a sliver of a chance, he’d see he wasn’t so bad. But Ro’s dad’s farm once belonged to a Syddall, and although the feud was buried over a century ago, the Torre name will forever be synonymous with land thieves and charlatans. And people wonder why I want to leave.
Ro takes a step backward, no doubt having similar thoughts. But as we skim the churchyard wall, I can see that the lights come not from a police car, but an ambulance. Several villagers have gathered around, and there’s no way I could get by without being seen.
“Something bad’s happened,” I say. “You should go.”
He pulls me into the church’s lych-gate and gives me a long, hard kiss. “Don’t get caught,” he whispers, then scoots off into the darkness.
Slipping around the edge of the village green, I pat down my swollen lips and flushed face, trying to look as if I’ve just stepped outside to see what’s going on. I glance back at Ro for a last snatch of moral support, but he’s long gone. I have no option now but to get out of this mess alone.
A small group, fleece jackets and fluffy dressing gowns wrapped hurriedly over their nightwear, has gathered near the gate of Dr. Spencer’s cottage. At the center, our neighbor, Mrs. Glover, holds court, her hands waving excitedly. An ambulance in the village could be the highlight of her year, a guaranteed source of gossip for the nosey old bat. I inch into the periphery of the cluster, but before I can glean what’s going on, the front door of Dr. Spencer’s cottage opens and a paramedic backs out, jockeying one end of a stretcher. A second paramedic has the other end, and between them, under a white blanket, lies the stocky form of the young doctor who confirmed I was “healthy as a horse” at my checkup just last week. He had seemed completely fine. Even through the semi-darkness and flash of blue lights, I can see his handsome face is pale and glossy, as if this is a wax version of the compassionate man who always warms his stethoscope. An oxygen mask is secured across his face, and his eyes are glazed. Down one side of his cheek is a dark rivulet that appears to have come from his nose. My mouth goes dry. I am fairly certain the rivulet is blood.
The chatter among the group stills as Dr. Spencer is carried by. Each of us shrinks back, as if hounded by a fog-like sense of doom. Whatever has happened to Dr. Spencer is serious. I pull away, leaning out of the fog’s reach. As the solemn procession moves past, Dr. Spencer’s unfocused eyes suddenly seem to clarify, his stare connecting with mine. In that wild-eyed glance, I see fear. I hold his gaze, the blood chilling in my veins, finding myself in the disconcerting position of offering our family doctor my silent reassurance that he will be okay. And then the paramedics load him into the ambulance and pull away.
“What’s going on?” an all-too-familiar voice says behind me.
I keep my eyes forward, praying my dad won’t recognize me, won’t sense the presence of his own flesh and blood.
“Emmott?” he says. Truly, I have no luck.
I’m ready with a lie about being woken by the commotion, but Mrs. Glover (God love her) saves me by pouncing on the opportunity to share valuable information with my dad. “It was just the flu is all,” she gushes. “But he took a terrible turn. I heard the fuss next door, and then the ambulance arrived. Poor lad looks awful.”
My dad nods gravely. “Where’s Louise?” he asks.
His question is answered when Dr. Spencer’s wife steps out of the house, closing the door behind her. In her loose sweatshirt pulled over pink polka dot pajamas, Louise looks like a little girl who’s woken up from a bad dream. Pale, disoriented, and frightened, she’s a barely-recognizable remnant of the energetic leader of our village conservation group. It’s the change in Louise that shocks me into realizing how serious the situation is.
For a second, Dad looks torn between the panicked old lady and the vulnerable young woman, his wayward daughter temporarily forgotten.
“I’ll drive you to the hospital,” he tells Louise, taking her by the elbow and guiding her to his car. He’s only gone a few steps before he turns to me and narrows his eyes. I think for certain he’s going to come down on me like a ton of bricks. I prepare for a public humiliation of epic proportions, but instead, he says, “Make yourself useful and make Mrs. Glover a cup of tea. And then get yourself home.”
As I watch his receding back, a flicker of anger flares inside me. Is my father really so consumed with the welfare of our neighbors that he’s oblivious to his daughter’s covert activities? Or does he simply not care? As his car pulls away and my neighbors disperse back to their beds, I wonder if I’ve just been handed the freedom I’ve been fighting so hard to win. If Dad has given up trying to control me, my victory feels far less sweet than I’d expected.
“I don’t know what we’d do around here without your dad,” Mrs. Glover says, shuffling her slippered feet back toward her house.
It’s meant as a compliment, but beneath her words I hear the sting of comparison, the suggestion that she finds me lacking. A knot of fury unravels inside me, and I’m reminded of why I hate it here. No matter what I do, no matter where I go, no matter what I accomplish in my life, I will always be measured against the standard of my dad: a man who never left the village he was born in, who is proud to descend from similarly unambitious blood. She’s right that I am nothing like him—but I will always be judged as something less.
I step toward the old woman, determined to set her straight, but then I remember: I’m leaving. I don’t have to be nice, and I don’t have to live up to my dad’s standards anymore.
“Make your own cup of tea,” I say. And with that, I march home to bed.
I don’t go back to sleep, though. I toss and turn for hours, planning my escape to London one minute and feeling bad for telling off Mrs. Glover the next. I barely feel I’ve slept when, sometime around dawn, I get a text from Dad.
Dr. Spencer is dead.
Lisa Manterfield is the award-winning author of The Smallest Thing and A Strange Companion. Her work has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Los Angeles Times, and Psychology Today. Originally from northern England, she now lives in Northern California with her husband and over-indulged cat. Learn more at LisaManterfield.com.
Black text on 60# cream paper
Softcover, matte finish