The Sixth Hand (Our Spoken Witness, Volume One)

In this 74,000-word speculative children’s novel, Quinn Rowse’ discovery of a watch with six hands, none of which tell the time, lead her to discover the mysterious world she’s been dreaming of her whole life is not imaginary at all. Thrust into a society fraught with tension and complicated rituals, Quinn has to find her place – and fast. She’s less than welcome in this new world, and even putting a toe out of line could lead to her being thrown out, or maybe even something far worse.

EXCERPT 1:

The man in red turned and almost spotted Quinn, half crouched behind the bannister. She wasn’t afraid of him – she was much too old to be scared by her dreams now – but she still didn’t want to get caught. The black dog at the man in red’s heels had its white teeth bared, and she didn’t fancy getting chased by it again.

The man in red paced back and forth across the hall, glancing now and then at the huge front door. Quinn been visiting the red house in her dreams since she was very small and that night was the first time she had ever seen the door’s heavy bolts pulled back. She’d tried to open it before but the bolts wouldn’t budge, even when she threw all of her weight at them.

The red house had many secrets, and Quinn had explored almost all of them. She knew where the sweet, doily-shaped biscuits were hidden in the kitchen. She knew that if she tapped three times on the window of the bedroom where the dreams always started, it would spring wide open. The piano in the long room filled with covered statues would play any song as long as she could hum it the tune. The berries on the bushes in the large garden would float away if she didn’t keep a tight hold of them, if she ate enough, she could jump so high she could almost reach the top of the high stone garden walls.

Quinn had filled dozens of sketchbooks with drawings of the red house’s hallways and secret rooms, but her little sister Dottie only wanted to hear Quinn recount the dreams where she’d been caught in the kitchen stealing biscuits or dancing across the dewy lawns and had to run with the black dog snapping at her heels. Dottie would curl up on the bottom bunk of their beds and pull the blankets up to her chin as Quinn told her about her most recent narrow escape.

The man in red never seemed particularly surprised to find Quinn in his house, only furious that she had broken some rule that she hadn’t known she was meant to follow. When she was little and she hadn’t realised she was dreaming, he had terrified her. Now she was fourteen, she knew that the red house was just a dream, no matter how real it felt, but she still kept away from the man in red. There was something about the hard set of his jaw, and the way he never called Quinn by her name. Imaginary or not, she didn’t want to get in his way if she could help it.

EXCERPT 2:

A gust of dry air and a rattle of wheels on tracks heralded a train approaching. The people waiting on the platforms stood up, folding away newspapers and hoisting their bags onto their shoulders. The train hurtled into the station. Quinn had been on the underground before and there was nothing unusual about the look of the train, except that it was only slowing down, not coming to a halt. A red light flashed above Quinn and the passengers on the platform stepped forwards like they were going to jump in front of it. Quinn yelped, but it was lost in the racket of the train’s clattering approach. As the passengers stepped out, they vanished. The train was moving slow enough that Quinn could see passengers already on board huffily moving aside as the new comers squeezed past them, as though they’d been there the whole time. The train rattled past and disappeared down the tunnel and out of sight.

The man in the blue suit was now heading towards the stairs. Careful to keep people between them, Quinn hurried after him.

Quinn climbed the stairs, the stairs grew wider and shallower. The tiles on the walls stopped abruptly halfway up, giving way to stone that at first Quinn thought was bare rock, but when she looked closer, was actually carved with hundreds upon thousands of twisting vines, each leaf sculpted to such perfection that she half expected them to rustle as people passed by. The staircase was winding; over her shoulder Quinn could no longer see the station. When she looked back, the man had been swallowed by the crowd.

Quinn tried to push through the crowd but the stairwell was too tightly packed, and she accidently trod on the tail of a spaniel. It shot her a disparaging look before winding through people’s calves, and then it, too, vanished from Quinn’s sight.

Quinn could smell the outside; damp and fresh. She sped up, stepping straight out from beneath a vast stone archway into a huge, bustling square.

There was a large pool of murky water, thick vines creeping from it and slinking across the stone ground. The buildings that lined the square were tinged green with moss, plants growing form every ledge and crack. The buildings formed an almost unbroken ring around the square, so it felt to Quinn as though she were standing at the bottom of a great pit, the orangey sky distant above the high spires and towers of the buildings. The crowd was funnelling towards the large archways that separated the buildings, which looked just as dark and uninviting as the square.

Quinn’s heart leapt; ahead of her, she spotted the man again. He was elbowing his way towards the largest opening in the square, on the other side of the pond. Quinn ran around it, ignoring the disapproving looks of the strangers she passed. 

“Excuse me,” muttered the man bustled into an elderly woman. Her heavy bag of shopping fell from her hand, a jars of unidentifiable liquid rolling fast away from her, right under Quinn’s foot.

Quinn toppled forwards, slamming onto the ground.

“Micah’s light! Are you alright, dear?” said the old woman.   

“I’m fine,” said Quinn. Her knees were sore and smeared in green sludge.

“Back in my day Scouts had some sense of decorum,” the old woman grumbled. “It’s like they think there’s some kind of war on. A few breaches of curfew and everyone loses their heads. Nonsense, I tell you. Are you sure alright, dear? You’ve a nasty cut on your head there. I can send Pushkin to get someone if you need?” said the old woman, indicating the terrier whose head was poking out of her bag. Quinn blinked at it.

“Er, thanks,” said Quinn. Over the old woman’s shoulder, she spotted the man in the blue suit once more; he was standing at the mouth of the archway, talking to another man who was dressed exactly the same; Scouts, the old woman had called them. Quinn darted away from the old woman, who looked a bit put out.

One of the Scouts was rummaging in his pocket. Quinn’s heart leapt as she glimpsed something gold in his hand; a pocket watch! She crept closer, trying to get a better look at it, but before she was near enough to see what the Scout was doing with it, a piece of paper unfolded from thin air a few inches from his face. “Blimey, Diver, look at this!” said the Scout.

Diver. Quinn froze to the spot, but out of shock this time, not like with Toby. “Breach of curfew? Through a Liminus?” said Diver.

The Liminus? But that was where Quinn had come from!

“Spicers again, I suppose,” said the other Scout. “Third time this week. We’d better get on it, or they’ll have our guts after what happened with the last one.”

“Hang the meddling swine by their toes, I say,” said Diver.

Quinn had heard enough. She wanted to run back to the stairs, get back through the Liminus, but Diver and the other Scout were headed in that direction. If they knew that was where she’d come in, there was no chance of her getting back that way. She ran through the archway and out of the square.

The street was wide, but the buildings were so tall that Quinn walked in almost complete darkness. The street was lined by crowded shop fronts. One was curtained by strips of shimmering fabric that was a different colour with every angle it twisted in a breeze that Quinn couldn’t feel. There were stacks of huge, iron pots and small copper ones with curved handles. Tables covered with small bottles glittered in the sunlight, almost disguising their strange, moving contents. Other shops sold loaves of bread, wrapped up in brown paper by the old woman in the doorway, or pastries that were every colour Quinn could imagine. There was a stand covered in old books with frayed bindings, protected from the sun’s glaring rays by a tattered awning that was held up only by a thin, silver pole.

Above the shops were windows to what must have been homes; laundry fluttered in the non-existent wind. The clothes were bright and not at all extraordinary; Quinn thought she spotted a t-shirt with her favourite band on the front. Amidst the strange plants that seeming to be growing unsuspended from the windows, she spotted a bright red radio like the one her mum had in her art studio, and she spotted a woman in one of the lower flats straightening her hair in a large, ornate mirror. Strangely, this didn’t make Quinn feel easier in her surroundings. Every ordinary thing she spotted was like a jolt right through her bones, a reminder that she wasn’t dreaming.

Quinn had no idea what she was going to do now. There had to be somewhere she could hide, somewhere she could find out answers. She saw more Scouts here and there, lurking on street corners and behind the sellers on the market. She did well steering away from them enough she could be obscured by the people around her.

Quinn clutched the watch in her pocket and carried on walking. She came to an abrupt halt, looking at a glass of water in stall teller’s hand as it filled itself apparently of it’s own accord. The teller smiled at Quinn. She blinked at him and darted away, rounding the corner onto another street, just as eclectic and crammed with bizarre stalls and shopfronts as the others had been.

Quinn spotted a little boy running at break-neck speed down the pavement. He was chasing after another boy, clearly older than he was. They hurtled into each other in a doorway, grabbing at one another. The older boy was holding a stuffed animal, his arms high above his head so the little one couldn’t reach it. The little one squawked and squealed, reaching desperately, grabbing at the older boy’s clothes. There was a loud crack, and one of the boys yelped. Quinn blinked, and the older boy had vanished, running off around the corner she had just come around. The little boy was lying flat on his back, covered in soot, and clutching the stuffed animal, which seemed rather singed.

“Oi!” someone called from behind Quinn. She turned; the sandy haired Scout was pushing through the crowd, right towards Quinn.

Quinn into a run, heading down an alleyway. There was a wall at the back of it, but Quinn clambered onto the top of the bins next to it and climbed over it, glimpsing the Scout staggering to a halt behind her. She jumped down, apparently into someone’s back garden. A group of women holding cups of tea gasped at her. Quinn streaked past them; there was a stone wall at the end low enough to jump.

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