The Special Ones
The Special Ones
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Annotation: When four young people are taken against their will to become part of a cult, they are worshipped by their followers and become lost in their new reality--but what happens if they rebel against the one holding them captive?
Catalog Number: #138900
Format: Publisher's Hardcover
All Formats: Search
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Copyright Date: 2017
Edition Date: 2016
Pages: 298 pages
Availability: Available
ISBN: 0-544-91229-2
ISBN 13: 978-0-544-91229-8
Dewey: Fic
LCCN: 2016014198
Dimensions: 22 cm.
Language: English
Horn Book
In this hair-raising Australian import, the Special Ones live on a secluded farm, brainwashed into believing they have been reincarnated; their main task is providing spiritual guidance to their internet followers. A sharp (clearly intentional) midpoint plot-turn helps define the book as an affecting study of psychological manipulation and emotional resilience. Bailey's latest thriller features an impressively eerie tone, goosebumps-inducing atmosphere, and genuine surprises.
Kirkus Reviews
A teenage girl struggles to survive as one of four young spiritual guides held captive by a mysterio
Starred Review for Kirkus Reviews
A teenage girl struggles to survive as one of four young spiritual guides held captive by a mysterious cult leader in this chiller from Australia.Esther lives on a secluded farm with three other young people, all of whom are allowed varying degrees of freedom to move about the farm. Esther is not allowed to leave the front porch of the farmhouse, ever. She knows she's being watched at all times by him, a demanding and cruel unnamed captor who holds Esther and the others against their will, forcing them to portray the Special Ones, virtual spiritual guides for people seeking self-improvement. (The Special Ones are all white.) Followers of The Special Ones tune in nightly via internet chat to ask for advice, but Esther knows that she and the others are faking. They're just regular kids. But if they don't follow his weird and ritualistic rules, they risk punishment. The ultimate punishment is "renewal"—being taken away from the farm and never seen again. As daily survival becomes more challenging, the pressure mounts for Esther to keep up the ruse or face the uncertainty of renewal and his judgment. Riveting from the very first chapter, Esther's story is unpredictable and chilling, her narration viscerally revealing the quiet terrors of captivity and brainwashing. The Special Ones don't really have any special wisdom, but the characters—even him—are unforgettable. A complex, enthralling page-turner. (Thriller. 12-17)
Starred Review ALA Booklist
*Starred Review* Esther's spent the last two years confined to an isolated farmhouse with no running water, no privacy, and no escape. Esther and her fellow prisoners are "Special Ones," alleged reincarnations of four immortal beings, and they must play their parts with painstaking accuracy. They'd better: their anonymous captor ("him") is watching, gaping through cameras, administering "verifications," and remotely regulating Internet chats between his captives and flocks of Special One devotees. Minor "failings" mean punishment, while bigger blunders mean "renewal," with atrocities executed not by the captor but by the prisoners themselves. This exhausting show has kept Esther alive, but as order in the farmhouse crumbles, so too does her complacent facade. Dread snakes through every inch of this psychological thriller, and Bailey crafts characters with precision, unspooling complex character motivations (including those of "him"), and, in heroine Esther, delivering a disquieting blend of uncertainty and glorious defiance. Bailey's sophomore effort is not without fault e plot device strains credulity t taut prose, a slick story line, and more than a few startling twists will leave readers mesmerized. Exploring the muddy boundaries between compliance and choice, captivity and freedom, Bailey also manages to depict not only evil but also the minuscule moments of good that flicker alongside and in spite of it. Striking, subversive, and loaded with as much heart-pounding horror as heart.
Voice of Youth Advocates
The Special Ones are a group of four young people:  Felicity, Lucille, Esther, and Harry. They live on a farm with no electricity and wear handmade clothing. At the same time, they have an online presence dispensing life advice. If one of them receives a “renewal” notice, she will disappear, to be replaced by a new version of herself. Harry kidnaps a new girl and the others help them “remember” their previous life as the person who is being renewed. Sometimes hair gets changed or colored contact lenses are used to preserve the look. An unknown “He” is a constant threat as he listens to and watches them 24/7. After two years, the Harry and Esther get their renewal notices. What will happen next?  Renewed ones are never seen again, and Esther suspects they are killed. Once they have been renewed, Harry and Esther head straight to the police station, where support for Esther quickly sours as she reveals she had gone with Harry willingly. Esther (now back to Tess) struggles to come to terms with her life before the farm and to save the older renewed ones she now believes are still alive. “He” is also looking for “Esther,” wanting her back. This title is gratifyingly creepy and tense. The reader is constantly reworking theories as more information is revealed. Just who is Harry? Who is the omnipotent “He?” Readers will wonder how far they would go to survive. Some aspects strain credibility: why did Tess not get any emotional support sooner; and why do the police not believe her and start searching for the older renewed ones? These issues do not deter from the reading, however. The pacing, well developed characters, and vivid narration keep the reader intent on learning who “He” is and solving the twisted, suspenseful mystery of brainwashing and captivity. Give this to readers who want chills.—Sharon Martin.
Word Count: 70,745
Reading Level: 5.2
Interest Level: 7-12
Accelerated Reader: reading level: 5.2 / points: 11.0 / quiz: 500592 / grade: Upper Grades
Reading Counts!: reading level:5.6 / points:18.0 / quiz:Q69784
Lexile: HL750L

Chapter One

I hear the main gate slam closed, and I just know from the sound of it that Harry has news. He must have banged the gate really hard, as it's a fair distance from the farmhouse. He would do that, I'm sure, only if he was sending me a message. He must have finally found our new Lucille. Relief floods me. We've never gone this long without one before, not in the whole time I've been here. Finally, we'll have some good news for him.
     I've drawn the heavy velvet curtains on the windows, but the heat creeps in around the edges anyway. Beneath my corset and layers of petticoats, my body sweats. A heavy wind rattles the windows. Bushfire weather--?that's how my father would've described it. Fire was something my parents worried about a lot when we lived in our old house, surrounded by trees.
     Fire. Family. My old home. Things I don't let myself think about in here.
     It will take Harry at least five minutes to cover the expanse from the gate to the farmhouse--?longer if Felicity spots him coming--?but even so, I long to gather up my skirts and dash out of the parlor, outside, to the very edge of the front veranda, and wait for him to come into view. I love watching Harry walk. There's something so reassuring about his unhurried lope.
     But I am the Esther, and Esther doesn't dash. Her remembering book is very clear about that. Esther's movements are dignified, considered--?especially in the parlor. Esther would never let excitement or nervousness show, or waste time watching people walk.
     Sometimes being Esther feels like wearing a Halloween costume. One that doesn't fit. One I can't ever take off.
     With great effort I stay in my chair, listening to the daytime noises of the farmhouse and continuing with my work. On the little wooden table beside me are the socks for darning. Clothing repairs are normally the Lucille's task, but the mending has piled up to the point where it can't wait any longer. The sock I'm currently working on is one of Harry's and it has his smell. Hay, earth, sun. As I push the needle through the fabric, I picture him striding across the farm toward me, coming closer and closer. Past the chickens and the area where the crops grow. Past the peach tree completely covered, the Felicity assures me, with promising green nubbles of fruit. Then, finally, between the two lemon-scented gum trees standing like border guards where the farm officially ends and the kitchen garden begins.
     When I know Harry must be close, I strain to hear his steps--?and yes, there they are. Purposeful but not rushed, matching the steady rhythm of his breath.
     I am always edgy when Harry leaves the farm. When I first arrived here, he made it clear that the farm was the only safe place left in the world. Beyond the front gate were innumerable dangers. Security guards, police officers, doctors, teachers, parents, all lying in wait to force us back into lives that didn't really belong to us. And even though I don't believe this anymore--?not really--?I'm always relieved each time Harry returns safely.
     The handle of the front door rattles as it turns. There are footsteps in the hallway and finally the parlor door swings open. Harry fills the doorway as air and light flood the dark, stuffy space. He's breathing deeply, and when I sneak a quick glance at him, I notice that his wheat-colored hair forms damp swirls against his forehead. It's hardly surprising, considering the thick trousers and woolen jacket he's wearing.
     I put down the sock and hurry (while trying to appear not to hurry) over to the sideboard, where I have a carafe of water waiting. My hand trembles as I pour a glass for Harry.
     Slow, considered movements, I remind myself. He is probably watching us right now, and he mustn't suspect how tense I am.
     Outside the window, the generator whirs. I have questions, lots of them, but I keep them in check. Conversations between Harry and Esther must be as formal as a script. I hand the glass of water to Harry, careful not to let our fingers touch or our eyes meet. "Did you see Lucille today?"
     My voice is smooth and calm and perfectly Esther, but I'm sure Harry senses my nervousness. Last time, the Lucille was renewed in four days. This time it's been almost three weeks. The followers--?especially Lucille's--?keep asking how much longer it will be before they see her again. And it's only a matter of time before he loses patience with us.
     Harry gulps down the water. "Yes," he says when he's finished. "I saw her."
     Although it's the answer I was expecting, I can barely keep from flinging my arms around Harry's neck. I refill his glass to give myself time to regain composure. If any of the followers are watching, they need to see that we have everything under control--?that Lucille has simply gone away and will come back soon, just like she has before.
     "How is she?" I ask.
     Two dents appear on Harry's forehead, as though invisible fingers have pressed into his skin. The impressions are gone in an instant, but I know what they mean. When normal forms of communication are restricted, you learn to gather information in other ways. That slight frown means there are changes to the Lucille. Significant ones.
     "Her hair seems straighter, and a little lighter." Like me, Harry knows better than to let his concerns show in his voice. "She's obviously been spending some time in the sun." Automatically, my eyes flick over to the photograph above the mantelpiece. Gilt-framed. Dominant. The image itself is a little blurry--?as if it's been enlarged--?but it's still clear enough. Four figures stand on the veranda of an old stone farmhouse. Three of them are girls in gloves and long white dresses.
     The smallest girl in the photo has thick braids and a cupid's kiss of a face. Above her, written in old-fashioned cursive, is a name: Felicity.
     Near her is a male, and his beard makes him look older than he really is, which is probably no more than nineteen. He has one arm protectively around Felicity, his shoulders seeming so broad compared with her tiny child's frame. Harry.
     To his left is a girl with dark curls and a curvy figure. Her chin is held up in a way that could be proud or defiant, or both. Lucille.
     The fourth figure, standing near the front door, is a tall, thin girl with her hands clasped. Her expression is smooth and unreadable. That's me. Esther.
     Screwed into the wall beneath the photograph is a little brass plate. I can't read the engraving from here, but I know what it says. The Special Ones.
     The followers often ask me the same question during evening chat:

What were you thinking about when that photograph was taken?

     At first the question frightened me so much, I could barely type a reply. I was convinced they'd picked me as an impostor. That they already suspected the girl in the photo was a total stranger to me.

It's hard to remember exactly.

     My hands would shake as I typed my reply.

It was so long ago.

     Not a great answer, I knew that. But no one ever challenged me about my response, and gradually I became more confident. My answers improved.

When that photograph was taken, I was thinking about how I, as a Special One, can help to guide you, my loyal follower, through your times of need.

     Sometimes I'd even twist the question around, making it seem as though I were doing the testing.

What do you think I was thinking?

     "The sun is good for the soul, and its effects on Lucille will soon fade once she's back here," Harry says mildly now. "And her hair will right itself too."
     I turn to find that he has moved from the doorway and is standing near me now, also looking at the photograph. I nod in reply. Of course, we both know that the Lucille's hair won't really right itself, but at least changing straight, fair hair into dark curls will be easy compared with other transformations I've had to make--?like the time I had to turn a Felicity's short, dark frizz into smooth, plaitable blondness. Besides, the greatest challenges with reintroducing a Special One have nothing to do with physical appearance.
     "Otherwise, she's just as she was," Harry adds, draining another glass of water.
     I take this to mean that her height and weight are pretty accurate, which is good news. In Lucille's remembering book, she is described as being taller than Felicity but shorter than Esther. She needs to be soft, but in no way plump.
     "And she has that same look in her eye."
     There's the slightest hint of a chuckle in Harry's voice as he says this. The Lucilles always have a particular expression. In her book, this is described as "being filled with strong emotion," but I have always secretly thought of it as sulky and troublesome. I suspect Harry feels the same. No matter what the look is, the Lucille needs to have it. That expression is what the followers will be expecting.
     Harry tips his glass toward me as I pour, the water forming a connecting arc between us.
     "Where did you find her?" I ask.
     "In a food court, eating a hot dog and chips," says Harry.
     "Poison," I say primly, but my mouth salivates. When was the last time I ate anything like that? Probably when Mum took me to the local shopping center, soon after we'd moved. She was hoping, I guess, that the outing would make me see the benefits of our new location. But what fun could I possibly have without the friends I'd left a thousand kilometers behind? Mum dragged me into shops, where I steadfastly refused to try on anything, and then I picked, stony-faced, at the lunch she bought me.
     "Poison," agrees Harry, but I think I catch the tail end of a smile on his face before I hastily look down.
     Harry and Esther are not allowed to look directly at each other for more than three seconds at a time. What does Harry make of me in those brief glances? Does he just see Esther--?her neat hair, her tightly corseted body, her controlled face? I used to hope that he would see more, or at least sense the things buried deep inside. But then I wondered if this was the wrong thing to wish for. Maybe Harry wouldn't like the real me. Esther is capable, strong. She gets on with things without complaint. She doesn't freak out at the sight of blood or cry when things don't go her way. In other words, she's nothing like I am inside.
     There's a long silence until, with a start, I remember that there's another question I'm expected to ask. The most important one, even though I already know the answer.
     "Does Lucille remember who she is?"
     In my peripheral vision, I see Harry shake his head. "I would say she's completely forgotten everything."
     "Awareness is sometimes slow to dawn," I recite. "After all, it's been a long time since Lucille's old form left us. It's not surprising that she's forgotten a few things."
     Harry nods. "The renewal process can leave the mind temporarily confused," he says. Somehow Harry can make the stiffest of his mandatory phrases sound natural, even comforting. "Once she is safe at home with us, she will soon remember."
     I suddenly hear Felicity's voice, wafting in on the hot northerly wind. She's out in the garden, singing a jumbled song. "Merrily we roll along, on a cold and frosty morning." Most songs are forbidden in here, of course, and I am not even allowed to hum--?but the Felicity is expected to sing nursery rhymes. For some reason, though, this particular Felicity always gets the words wrong. It makes me uneasy. It's the sort of thing that could make him very easily upset.
     The song stops and a plaintive voice calls out, "Is Harry home yet?"
     Harry gives a low laugh, and I smile too. The Felicitys are always so sweet. It's hard not to get attached.
     "Yeah, I'm home, Flick," Harry calls. "I'll come right out." He turns to me. I keep my eyes firmly on the ground, although the urge to look at him is always strongest when he's about to leave. "I'll take her down to the farm and get some ingredients for dinner. Today's word was . . . ?"
     It worries me that Harry so often forgets the guiding word, as it is supposed to shape everything we do, think, and feel each day. In our remembering books it says that the guiding words form the basis of the teachings for our followers; that he watches us always, recording everything we do and say, and then the most inspirational--?the most Special--?moments of our lives are made into short films from which our followers can learn.
     When I received the guiding word this morning, there wasn't much to rejoice about. But the news about the Lucille has changed things.
     "Rejoice--?that means meat, if you ask me," says Harry thoughtfully. "No chance of getting a rabbit at this time of day, though. How about a chicken?"
     I hesitate. We have only five chickens left, and their eggs are very valuable. I should say no. Esther is supposed to restrain this kind of extravagance, and it's really too hot for roasting anyway. But the idea of eating fresh meat rather than the boiled potatoes and green sauce I'd been planning is too tempting to resist. Plus, there's the added thrill of saying yes to Harry.
     "I'll make some mash to go with it," I say, and look at Harry just long enough to see his eyes crinkling at the corners.
     "Perfect." He strides off, whistling, and I feel a pang, knowing I'll be alone in the farmhouse again.
     "Make sure she wears her hat," I call after him. The Felicity in the photograph has very pale skin. "And don't let her on that peach tree."
     I don't remember which Felicity broke the tree-climbing rule--?the first, or the second?--?but I'll never forget her punishment. The image of that tiny figure, lashed to the peach tree for an entire day, crying out for water and forgiveness, still flashes into my mind sometimes.
     I doubt Harry will forget it either. He was the one who had to tie her to the tree in the first place.
     I hear Felicity squeal with joy as Harry appears outside, and I picture her flinging herself on him, as though it's been months since she saw him and not just a few hours. I'm glad she can do this with Harry. A child her age needs physical contact--?hugs, kisses, tickles--?but Esther is not allowed to touch the other Special Ones, and the Lucilles just don't do that sort of thing.
     In the kitchen I catch sight of them through the window, Felicity holding Harry's hand as they make their way past the gum trees. A little while later a squawking, flapping noise rises on the wind, gaining rapidly in tempo and intensity until it is suddenly cut short.
     Harry's news has filled me with optimism. There is still a lot to do, but I feel strong and capable, energized despite the heat. Soon there will be four Special Ones back here again. This means another person to share the work, to speak with the followers, and to keep him happy.
     Part of me remains tense, though, because what lies ahead is daunting. Planning for a kidnapping is never easy, even when you've done it as many times as I have.

Excerpted from The Special Ones by Em Bailey
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Esther is one of the Special Ones: four young spiritual guides who live in a remote farmhouse under the protection of a mysterious cult leader. He watches them around the clock, ready to punish them if they forget who they are--and all the while, broadcasting their lives to eager followers on the outside. Esther knows that if she stops being Special, he will "renew" her. Nobody knows what happens to the Special Ones who are taken away from the farm for renewal, but Esther fears the worst. Like an actor caught up in an endless play, she must keep up the performance if she wants to survive long enough to escape.

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