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.
THE SMALLEST THING
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.
Monday, July 18
I stare at Dad’s text, but it takes ages for the words to make sense. I see them—passed away in the early hours—but I can’t get a grasp on what they really mean. I know people die every day, several every second even, but my mind can’t seem to reconcile the sudden end of my neighbor, how he could be laughing and talking with me a few days ago and then be suddenly gone, like someone hit the “off” button on his remote control and threw away the batteries. It doesn’t add up. He was young—younger than my parents by a long way—and healthy. He was a doctor, for goodness sake! I force my mind to picture him dead, lying in hospital, the life gone out of him, but each time he sits up and grins as if he’s just pulled the best prank ever. What scares me most of all is, if this could happen to Dr. Spencer, it could happen to anyone. We’re all just a flick of a switch from oblivion, every single one of us. I feel as if someone has performed one of those tricks where they yank away a tablecloth, leaving the plates and cups in place. From a distance, it looks as if only the cloth has been moved, but everything on the table has felt the silent friction of its departure.
I brush my hands across my face to rub away these shaky thoughts. I need something solid and logical to grasp onto, something that makes some sort of sense. I text Deb.
Monday, July 25
On the morning of my third funeral in as many weeks, a crowd gathers outside our small stone church, filling the forecourt and spilling out through the lych-gate and into the street. The mood is quiet and respectful, but underneath is an air of worry. I don’t know anyone who didn’t like Dr. Spencer—there was nothing to dislike about him—and ordinarily, almost everyone in Eyam would turn out to pay their respects. But this flu thing has people in a flap, and almost half have stayed away.
Dad has no such qualms. He immediately steps through the gate and circulates among our neighbors, shaking hands and offering supportive words. I hold back, staying out of his way. Since I handed him my notice last week, he’s been more distant than ever. “Why in God’s name would you want to move there?” was his first response, before he remembered he was supposed to put his foot down and forbid me. Mum didn’t seem surprised by my news or Dad’s response when I rang to tell her. “He’ll live,” she said, confirming my fear that he had hung all his hopes on my staying, not just to keep me close to home, but to set me on a track that follows in his footsteps. His plans couldn’t have been any further from mine if he’d decided to send me on a homemade rocket ship to Mars.
I have not mentioned Ro’s part to either of them. Why rock an already unstable boat?