A girl called Gracie.
A small town called Coongahoola with the dark Bagooli River running through it.
The Bleeders — hundreds of ‘Believers’ who set up on the banks of the river, who start to buy up the town and win souls.
The River Children — born in the aftermath of the infamous River Picnic. They begin to go missing, one after another.
Gracie Barrett is the naively savvy spokesperson for her chaotic family (promiscuous dad, angry mum, twins Lucky and Grub, Elijah the River Child and fervent, prayerful Grandma Bett), for the kids who are taken, for the lurking fear that locks down the town and puts everyone under suspicion.
Gracie is funny and kind, bullied and anguished, and her life spirals out of control when she discovers she knows what no one else does: who is responsible for the missing children.
Coongahoola is where hope and fear collide, where tender adolescence is confronted by death, where kindness is a glimmer of light in the dark.
Read the first chapter under ‘Excerpt 2’ below.
All Our Secrets is jaunty, quirky and heart-achingly real.
A compelling read… — Radio NZ National
… pulls off two ambitious feats: creating a child narrator who is authentically pre-teen but who can hold adult reader interest, and integrating a well-plotted mystery that keeps tension high and readers guessing. Highly recommended. — NZ Listener
All Our Secrets is available in hard copy at all good bookshops, and here.
From every telegraph pole on Main Road, Nigel’s face looked down at us. His brown hair was bleached by the November sun and the sticky-taped ‘Missing’ posters were crinkled and curling. Sometimes, when I was on my own, I’d whisper hello to him. I’d stare into the little grey dots that made up his eyes, as if the harder I looked, the better I’d understand what was behind them. I thought it was sad that he was much more popular now that he was missing, but I knew why. Up there on the telegraph pole, Nigel was elevated to a new status. He was no longer part of our ordinary world.
The first bad thing happened back when Elijah was five. Some people reckoned it triggered all the terrible things that happened later. But despite what they said, it wasn’t Elijah’s fault. He’s my brother and I know everything about him, even that he was circumcised at nine months (though that’s not much of a secret – the fight Mum and Dad had afterwards was loud enough for the whole of Australia to hear). I know better than anyone that he didn’t mean to kill Sebastian.
It was a hot windy afternoon at the end of the Christmas holidays. Toby from next door was at our house minding the Lothums’ new kitten, Sebastian, while they were at work, and Mum was supposed to be minding Toby and us. One minute Sebastian was sleeping in his shoebox bed, the next he was exploring our rug, and Elijah – oblivious to Sebastian’s escape – was riding along the hall on his tricycle.
Elijah never took things slowly, and tricycle riding was no exception. He’d been born in a Coongahoola hospital record of thirteen minutes – beating Johnny Hall by two minutes – and has been in a hurry ever since. He spoke his first words (‘Mama Bett’ and ‘God’) before he was eight months old and took his first steps at tremendous speed two weeks before his first birthday. Not even skidding off our back veranda and breaking his right leg at the age of three slowed him down. I can still remember the sound of plaster scraping on floorboards as he chased me up and along the hall. It’s only now that I realise he was born fast for a reason: if not for his speed, he’d never have lived to go into Year Five.
But, sadly for everyone (especially Sebastian), on this fateful afternoon Elijah’s speediness worked against him.
‘Here I come!’ He turned his tricycle to face us. ‘The fastest racing driver …’
I sat up. Toby was constructing a Lego tower, frowning in concentration.
‘… in the whole wide world!’ Elijah’s feet were whirring on the pedals. ‘Brrrrrm.’
‘Slow down!’ I said, uneasy about Elijah riding his trike inside. ‘Smash Grandma Bett’s vase, and she— ’
My plea was flattened by the roar of wheels on wood.
Elijah wasn’t the fastest racing car driver in the world, but he was far from slow on his little blue tricycle. I rescued as much of our Lego town as I could, sweeping my arm across the carpet as I dived off the rug and onto a beanbag. Toby grabbed Sebastian’s shoebox bed and leapt into Dad’s chair. That was when he realised the shoebox was empty.
Three cries sounded at once. Elijah’s breathless ‘Champion of the world!’, Toby’s high-pitched ‘Sebastian!’, and the eerily baby-like scream of Sebastian himself as the wheels of Elijah’s bike crushed his tiny body. It was more spine-tingling than a possum’s cry, and it was the first and last sound I ever heard Sebastian make.
Then all I could hear was the dull whirr of the dusty old fan that sat on our TV.
None of us could bear to take a closer look at the corner of Grandma Bett’s rug where Sebastian’s black and white fur blended into the black and grey wool. His scream had been evidence enough of his fate.
‘He’s dead,’ Toby said finally, staring at the wall. Tears slid down his cheeks, his chin quivered and his ears glowed red. This was before any of the murders. Sebastian’s death was our first.
Not even three simultaneous screams had been enough to wake Mum. I found her flat on her back on top of the worn-out green bedspread, one arm flopped over the edge of the bed, an almost-empty glass bottle poking out from under the blankets. She was snoring louder than Grandma Bett snored when she had the flu, and her breath stank like one of the sprays she cleaned the bathroom with. I shook her until her red eyes blinked open and stared at me. Her hair was a tangle of knots and blue eyeliner snaked down her cheek. She didn’t seem shocked when we told her what’d happened. She just mumbled something about Toby going home, and me and Elijah taking Sebastian back to the Lothums’. She wasn’t even worried about how the Lothums would take the news. I wondered, for probably the millionth time, why I couldn’t have a normal mum like my best friend Shelley and everyone else in the world did.
Mrs Lothum was the same age as Mum and Dad and had been made my godmother for accompanying Mum in the ambulance after she nearly gave birth to me in Woolworths. That didn’t mean I liked her though. She worked at the Post Office and had a reputation for being the town’s biggest gossip. She was always talking, telling me things I didn’t really want to hear, and her constant questions – How’s your father? What does your father make of it? Is your father going to be at the blah blah blah – left me feeling like a deflated balloon.
Mr Lothum was watching an old episode of Astro Boy on a tiny black and white TV. I didn’t recognise him at first, with his bare head shining in the lamplight. I’d only ever seen him in his brown cowboy hat. He had a droopy moustache and little dents in his cheeks like cartoon cheese.
Elijah must’ve been nervous because after I gave him a hurry-up elbow in the ribs he spoke even faster than usual: ‘IwasbeingthefastestdriverintheworldandIwasgoingbrrrrrrrrm andhewasontherugnotinhisbedIdidn’tseehimjustheardhis … cry.’
Mrs Lothum got the message, though, because she sat down heavily on the couch and blew her nose so hard it sounded like a cow mooing. Elijah held out the shoebox that’d once been home to a pair of Mr Lothum’s size twelve Blundstone boots, but had since been lined with a flowery tea towel to make the kitten’s bed. Inside it, wrapped in the tea towel, was the tiny squashed body of Sebastian. Mrs Lothum’s arms stayed tightly crossed in front of her, so Elijah carefully placed the box down next to the TV Guide on the coffee table. I happened to glance over at Mr Lothum and saw tears sliding down his bumpy cheeks. Mr Lothum was crying! I didn’t even know that men could cry. Neither of them walked us to the door and we could still hear Mrs Lothum blowing her nose until after we’d got past the Wilsons’ fence. I was so relieved to be out of their house I agreed to race Elijah home, even though we both knew he’d win.
The whole thing would’ve been forgotten sooner – by us, Toby, the Lothums and the rest of Coongahoola – had it not happened the same week as the screening of a horror movie at the Coongahoola Picture House. In The Omen, a little kid called Damien is riding his tricycle in circles around his nanny when she suddenly falls several stories to her death. Comparisons were made and even people who hadn’t met Elijah started calling him Damien. People also commented on Elijah’s eyes, saying that they were ‘intense’ or ‘piercing’, and, until they grew bored of it, bigger kids would tackle and hold him down, searching for the ‘666’ birthmark under his hair.
Then there were the Baptist church people. They were always looking for something to kick up a fuss about, and that summer, apart from the screening of The Omen, there wasn’t much.
What made things a hundred times worse was that Elijah was one of the ‘River Children’. This was the name given to the group of kids born after the famous celebration of 1974 – the celebration known by those who could say the words as ‘the River Picnic’ (and by those who couldn’t as ‘that night’ or ‘the you know what’).
The River Picnic was one of the biggest events that ever took place in Coongahoola, and even wilder than the street party the night Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister and old Mr Buckley’s Staffordshire terrier was put down. It was years before I’d hear more than snippets of what went on and I still don’t know all the details. The adults spoke about it in whispers and only when they thought us kids were out of earshot. All I knew for sure, apart from the fact that Stu Bailey’s wife drowned, was that four times more babies than usual were born the following October and not all of them looked like their dads.
Though some kids tried to convince me otherwise, Elijah definitely belonged to our dad. He looked up at me with the same brown eyes, big and round like the eyes of the Andersons’ Jersey cows. Elijah sulked with Dad’s pouty lips, had a suntan even in winter and his brown hair stuck up like the Sydney Opera House no matter how many times Grandma Bett dragged a comb through it. The fact that the Muller twins, Abigail and Sammy, also shared Dad’s Jersey cow eyes was something kids at school teased me about.
Anyway, some people acted like the River Children were cursed or something, and Sebastian’s death didn’t help. When another of the River Children, Tristan Kelly, filled his next-door neighbour’s car muffler with apples, claiming ‘Lucifer made me do it’, Ken Knowles from the Baptist church decided to take action. He said that Elijah and Tristan’s behaviour was attributable to their being River Children and he organised a meeting to decide what to do about this ‘abominable’ group. For all the town knew, Ken warned, all the River Children might have evil tendencies – and where would it stop? ‘A kitten-killer at five – a killer of who-knows-what at ten?’ he said of Elijah. But Grandma Bett helped prevent the meeting, after appealing to the parents of the River Children, who didn’t want their children victimised. That Father Scott’s sermon the Sunday after Sebastian’s death was on the innocence of children was no coincidence, Father Scott being one of Grandma Bett’s closest friends.
As it turned out, it was the River Children who had something to fear, not stupid Ken Knowles and his church. Things got scary for everyone, but the River Children copped the worst of it by far.
Copyright Jenifer Lane 2017