ReadingRoom

The creepiest book of 2020: Part I

ReadingRoom is devoting all week to the best-selling book in New Zealand right now, In The Clearing, the brilliant new thriller by Ngāpuhi author JP Pomare, inspired by creepy Australian cult The Family. Today: The creepy opening chapter.

I don’t know why, but I wanted the girl to feel pain – I wanted to see her vulnerable but only so I could comfort and soothe her. People can be kind and mean at the same time.

Adam shared the plan with us this morning. It sounded so simple; all we had to do was stop the van by the edge of the road, pull her into the back, then fly away with her to the Clearing.

Riding in the jolting van, I was so giddy that I couldn’t keep my hands still. Adam, sitting up front with Susan, was opening and closing his blade. It’s about an inch long and when he punches it between your ribs it sucks all the air out of you and replaces it with a burning. Twenty metres from the bus shelter we waited under the shade of the big eucalyptus until we heard the school bus groaning along the road. The bus was nothing like I’d imagined. It was longer, with windows all along the sides. Adam folded his blade away and picked up the stopwatch. He knew exactly where the girl sat, up towards the front.

Even if the rest of the bus was empty, she would always be there on the left side, looking out at the trees whirling by.

Adam knew that most days she had a ponytail swinging down over her pink backpack. Adam had what he calls a ‘watcher’. Someone out there studying the movements of the people around the child.

That’s how he knew that today, and every Wednesday over summer, the girl’s grandfather had a tournament at the bowls club that didn’t finish until three-thirty, so he wouldn’t be home for another twenty minutes.

Their neighbour, Roger, was out in the paddock most days feeding the calves on his farm. Roger normally waved, and the girl waved back. Adam knew that today Roger was meeting with his accountant in the city.

Adam knew everything. He always knows everything. He made us recite the distance she had to walk once she got off the bus: one hundred and sixty-one metres. There were three straights and two corners. The first straight, where trees hang over the road, was seventy metres, ending in a gentle hill. We couldn’t grab her there because you could see it from the main road. The next straight was forty-eight metres. That was where it needed to happen.

I was nervous at first to see the world outside; it was all so strange and new. On the drive out there, we passed through towns and I got to see all the cars and the houses. Then we were driving beside endless plains of pale grass. It reminded me of the story about Freya in the woods.

Adrienne told me about the woman who calls herself Freya. She is free, she cares for nothing but her family. Freya has a secret. Adrienne said her secret is so sharp it could cut her. Adrienne wants me to understand something about Freya, but I don’t know what it is yet.

Adrienne knows everything, too. Adrienne makes things happen just by thinking them. I love my mother.

We were ready in the back of the van. I knew the plan by heart, and I could repeat it back to Adam in his words. Our sister was coming home to us. Susan started the engine again as the bus lurched around the bend towards the shelter. I was squeezed in between two of the minders, Tamsin and Indigo. Tamsin is small and wiry; she has strong arms and a mole with a single hair poking out beside her nose. I could smell her sweat. Indigo is shaped like the fridge in the Great Hall but with rounded shoulders. She was so calm, like she had done this many times before. Tamsin and Indigo were nurses at the hospital where Adam used to work. That was before Adrienne changed their lives.

Adam turned around to face us. I knew he was the same age as Adrienne but he looked older. He had two wrinkles running up from between his eyes when he said, "The first impression is the most important. We don’t want the child to fear us. Her caveman instincts will be flight or fight. We cannot calm her down out here and we do not want her to develop any associations with us, negative or otherwise. Not yet." He turned back to face the front, still speaking. "Capture a child’s trust and you will have its mind." I have heard that before at the Clearing. If she didn’t remember us or the collection, the child would simply wake up in her new home as if placed there by the hand of God. Which, now that I think about it, is true.

Her grandfather hurt her. She was my sister, and someone was hurting her, so I had a duty to help. It was my duty to Adrienne and to God.

The bus shuddered to a stop on the side of the road, the door hissed open. The weather was hot and the wind pressed the side of the van. We’re in drought, Adam had told us, and today was hotter than I can remember it being. Sweat trickled down my forehead and into my eyes. I swept it away with the back of my hand. I needed to be able to see the child.

She was big for a seven-year-old; even bigger than Annabelle, who is eight. She shrugged her schoolbag onto her back and started walking up the road towards her house.

In the front seat, Adam had his eyes fixed on the girl. I wasn’t breathing at all in that moment. I had to tell myself to inhale, to focus. Adam looked at the stopwatch, then at the girl. When I gripped the brown bottle in between my thighs, I could barely turn the cap. My hands were too sweaty.

When she was around the first corner, the van moved forwards. "Wait," Adam said. He raised his hand, his eyes still shifting between the watch and the girl.

My heart was thunder, but my breath was an ocean tide. "Now," he said, and the van moved again.

In the Clearing by JP Pomare (Hachette, $34.99)

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