Here’s the first ever public excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Chionophobia. I may post a larger chunk closer to publishing time, but for now, here’s how the story gets rolling:
Chapter 1: Screamers
You would expect to hear the occasional scream, when you spent seven hours a day, five days a week, in this place. But you’d know it was nothing serious; just a couple of hyperactive boys getting a little too zealous in their horseplay, or maybe two quarrelling girls pulling the hair out of each other. With fifty classrooms in the school, all connected by long, thin corridors, it wasn’t difficult for sound to travel. And with six hundred and fifty children aged eleven to fourteen in varying degrees of hyperactivity, there was a high likelihood that, every now and then, you’d hear scream or two coming from another part of the building, and it wouldn’t alarm you.
But fourteen-year-old Jamie Metcalfe was alarmed, so alarmed that he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. The other pupils in room twenty-two had the same reaction; they abruptly stopped moving and speaking, despite the break-time bell having rung less than a minute ago, causing everyone to burst into chatter and fuss with their schoolbags.
These were not the usual sort of screams; these conjured up pictures in Jamie’s mind of a certain kind of story you’d see infrequently on the news: the report of a maniac coming into a school wielding a gun.
The muffled quality of the screams made it seem like whatever was happening was not taking place right outside the room, but was not very far away, either. It seemed as if there were as many as five people making noise. The shrieks were loud and gravelly, enough to make anyone hoarse. At a lower volume, but audible in the gaps between the screams, were terrified sobs.
The sensible thing to do was stay put, but it was only a matter of time before curiosity got the better of someone. And within a few seconds Alex Vennard dashed for the door.
Mr Reed, who had been mesmerised like the rest of the class, came to his senses. “Alex, don’t go out there!”
It was too late. Like cattle, everyone streamed out after Alex, creating a bottleneck at the door, as pupils tried to squeeze past each another.
“Stay inside! It might not be safe!” Mr Reed protested, but his words fell on deaf ears.
Jamie was the last pupil to exit the room. Everyone else had formed a line along the corridor windows, their faces gazing downward.
Room twenty-two was on the upper floor of the school. Panes of glass all along one side of the corridor overlooked the playground below.
“I don’t get it,” someone said.
“This is weird,” another remarked.
“What’s wrong with them?”
Jamie squeezed between two pupils and peered down, seeing just what he expected: the school playground, a carpet of pure, seamless white, shining so bright that he had to squint. The snow had fallen during period one, and had kept going for about an hour and fifteen minutes, ceasing as abruptly as it had started. It wouldn’t provide much depth on the ground, but a snowball was a snowball regardless of how much work you had to do to pack it together. The pupils had watched the flakes fall beyond the classroom windows. Some of the girls had oohed and ahhed, and everyone was looking forward to getting outdoors and pelting each other senseless.
When Jamie’s eyes adjusted to the brightness, he saw the focus of everyone’s attention. From this vantage point, he could see the foyer jutting out of the building and the doors which led to the playground standing open. Seven pupils were lying in the snow, just outside those doors. They had their coats and gloves on, were screaming and writhing, but seemed unable to move much, as if wounded. Just inside the doors, a crowd had gathered.
“Why don’t they get up?” Claire Forbes asked. “Have they been injured?”
“Injured by what?” Jamie wondered. “I was thinking it was somebody with a gun, but we didn’t hear shots or anything.”
“Silencer?” Alex suggested.
“Don’t be daft!” Daniel Richards objected. “You’ve been watching too much CSI.”
“Have you got a better idea?”
“Look at everybody,” Claire said. “Why are they just standing there? Why doesn’t somebody go out and help them?”
“They’re afraid of being shot,” Alex suggested.
“If they were afraid of being shot, they wouldn’t be standing in the doorway,” Jamie said.
Beyond the windows in the foyer, he could see the crowd growing steadily. The mass suddenly surged, pushing five persons – three of them teachers – through the doors, where each one of them immediately tripped, landing in heap on top of the other casualties. They started struggling, but couldn’t seem to stand up.
Jamie caught sight of something in particular about one of the pupils in the snow: a red and white striped woolly hat that he’d given to someone special for Christmas last month.
Mr Reed piped up. “Whatever’s going on, it looks serious. Now will everyone please go back into the room so that I can – Jamie! Get back here!”
Jamie Metcalfe kept running, shoving his way past pupils from other classes who had also come out for a look, having heard the screams.