The Book of Storms (Excerpt)

Eleven-year-old Danny O’Neill has never been what you’d call adventurous. But when he wakes the morning after a storm to find his house empty, his parents gone, and himself able to hear the thoughts of a dying tree, he has no choice but to set out to find answers.

He soon learns that the enigmatic Book of Storms holds the key to what he seeks… but unraveling its mysteries won’t be easy. If he wants to find his family, he’ll have to face his worst fears and battle terrifyingly powerful enemies, including the demonic Sammael himself.

In the beautifully imagined landscape of Ruth Hatfield’s The Book of Storms, magic seamlessly intertwines with the everyday, nothing is black and white, and Danny is in a race against time to rescue everything he holds dear. The Book of Storms is available January 27th from Henry Holt Books for Young Readers!

 

 

The house is falling in.

The house is falling and Danny is falling, knees and elbows crumpling onto the floor, and an earsplitting crash is tearing through the air—that’s surely the roof, breaking in two, about to come pelting down on top of him.

His bedroom is flashing with the screams of rain and thunder bolts poured out by a storm in full, raging flow. Outside, the wind is flinging itself against buildings, howling into chimneys, twisting trees round benches, and leaping in spiteful glee as bicycles crash into cars and roof tiles fly through windows. The sky is singing with thunder, and an iron avalanche of hail is pounding onto the glistening roads.

Danny listens for a moment. As his bedroom curtains blaze with lightning, he curls his fingers tightly around the duvet, wanting to pull it over his head and hide in the soft darkness. But even that won’t save him when the house breaks apart. He’ll be crushed inside it. Trapped under fallen roof beams, he’ll struggle for air. Once the last breath has been squeezed out of him, he’ll die.

He shivers, watching flash after flash through the crack in the curtains. More than anything, he wants to creep into his parents’ bedroom, even though he knows he’s too old now for that sort of nonsense. And anyway, his parents aren’t home. Always, at the first sign of a storm, they run outside, pile into the car, and drive away to the nearest high point. They go to watch how storms behave, they say.

And he has to stay in his bed. But they’ve told him what to do.

Don’t go to the window. Don’t look outside. Hide under the duvet, cover your face, and everything will be fine. It’s only a storm: only rain and wind, thunder and lightning. Close your eyes and go back to sleep. Just tell yourself: it’s only a storm.

The skin of his scalp prickles, as if a horde of ants is burrowing into his hair. He clambers back up into bed and tries to force himself to sleep.

The night around him begins to burn with lightning; he closes his eyes and buries them in the crook of his arm. Everything will be all right in the morning. Everything is always all right in the morning. His parents come back, and he eats breakfast with them and laughs about how silly it is to be so scared by a thunderstorm. However long the night and thick the darkness, however loud the roaring storm, the morning always comes.

 

CHAPTER 1
The Sycamore

Danny O’Neill rubbed his eyes against the sunlight and wandered into his parents’ bedroom to find some clean socks from the washing pile. The double bed was empty, the crumpled bedclothes thrown back. Normally they made their bed as soon as they were up.

Danny put his hand on his short brown hair and tried to press it down to his scalp.

“Mum?” he called. “Mum? Dad?”

The house echoed with silence.

“Dad?” he tried again.

Again there was no answer.

Perhaps they were outside doing something in the garden. It was a bit early, but parents did strange things sometimes, for odd reasons of their own.

Downstairs in the hallway he found the front door ajar and the carpet soaked with rainwater. The phone table had blown against the bookcase and overturned, spreading scraps of wet paper all over the walls. Two framed pictures had fallen off their hooks and smashed against the baseboard. They were both of baby Emma, who’d died before Danny was born, and they’d hung there his whole life, fading a little more every time the sun broke through into the hall. Now that the glass was broken, raindrops had splashed over Emma’s cheeks, giving her a red rash that looked like chicken pox.

Where were his parents? They always came home. They were always there in the morning, no matter what happened at night.

He picked up the phone and tried to call their mobiles, but both numbers put him through to a recorded voice. Dead.

A thin breeze pierced his cotton pajamas, puckering his skin into goose bumps. As the prickling sensation crawled up over his neck, he wasn’t sure that it was all due to the cold.

The house was entirely still.

He padded through the kitchen to the back door, his feet leaving wet prints on the tiles, and pressed his nose against the glass panel. Twigs, leaves, and pieces of broken fence littered the lawn, but it wasn’t until Danny stepped outside that he saw what had woken him in the middle of the night. The old sycamore tree had been struck by a huge bolt of lightning and had split, right down its trunk, almost to the smoking earth.

It stood blackened and dead. A swing once tied to a low branch hung melted on its chains, and a few wisps of mist clung around the ground where the trunk was whole.

The lightning had struck only yards from his house. Only yards from the bedroom where he’d lain, trembling under his covers.

For a second Danny forgot his parents and gazed at the twisted wood. He wanted to reach out and touch the charcoal branches. Would they feel solid, or somehow light? Would they crumble away into dust under his fingers? A patch of ashy debris lay around the trunk: gray-black lumps of sycamore and charred stems of undergrowth. He stooped down, wondering if it was still warm, and his eye stopped, noticing something brown against the black cinders. A stick the color of the old, living tree.

He picked it up. Although the stick was as thin as a pencil, it didn’t crumble but stayed hard, refusing to break under the pressure of his fingers. For a second he frowned, wondering at its strange heaviness.

A low moaning sound crept into his ear.

“The last… the most precious piece of me.… Oh…” Danny instantly knew it was the tree that had spoken, although he had no idea how he’d known. It hadn’t moved a single twig.

“Hello?” he said, unsure of how to address a dying tree.

“Oh… don’t bother… with the niceties.…” The tree was gasping a little now. “No time… It had to be… Step into the light. I can hardly see you.…”

Danny was standing in bright sunlight. “I’m in the light,” he said.

“Oh… oh… there’s light.… Then this must be the darkness… and there’s no time… not for anything.… No time left…”

The tree fell silent. Danny cast his eyes around for something to make it talk again. What had it said? The most precious piece of it? The last? He looked down at the stick in his hand. Maybe if he returned the last good piece to the tree, it would have some energy left to speak.

He stepped forward and wedged the stick into the cleft trunk. As soon as his hand let go, the world seemed to fall silent. Birds sang and traffic rumbled along in the distance, but a frozen hush hung about the air.

The tree shook. Danny thought it looked more like a shiver of anger than one of death, but then, what did he know about the body language of trees? Either way, returning the stick didn’t seem to have helped.

With a last spasm, the stick fell to the ground and Danny bent to pick it up again. As soon as his fingers touched it, he heard the tree’s voice, much fainter this time.

“Idiot boy…I can’t…You’ll have to…work it out…but…why is…Where is it? Why not… come… back…”

“Work out what?” asked Danny. “What d’you want to get back?”

The tree was losing the last breath of its speech, and the words that followed were said carefully, as if it knew it had no time to think of more impressive ones.

“It’s… Sammael.… He wants… He’ll use sand… put dreams… in your mind.… Be careful… who you ask.… Most important… most…”

The last sigh drained from the sycamore tree, and the earth under Danny’s feet seemed to swell in one final clench before settling back down into scorched lawn. He looked at the stick in his hand, then put it down and picked it up again. Each time his fingers let go of it, the same hush seemed to fall.

He tried clutching it tightly and saying “hello!” in as clear a voice as he could muster. To which he could have sworn he heard a faint, echoing gasp that rippled for a moment around his feet like the wind swaying through a cornfield. But nothing more.

Danny decided that he’d better tell his dad, who knew about trees. Swinging around, he stopped with one foot half in the air as he remembered. His parents weren’t there. And they weren’t here, either.

What could have happened? Maybe when they’d gone to look at the storm, they’d been trapped somewhere and couldn’t get out.

Maybe they were dead.

No. He shook his head to clear it of the thought. They couldn’t be dead. Someone must know where they were.

Perhaps if he told someone else—but he didn’t quite like the idea of that, either. Last Christmas, up at Aunt Kathleen’s farm, he’d said something about being outside in a storm and there’d been a furious row—Mum going off-her-head ballistic at Aunt Kathleen, and Aunt Kathleen yelling about obsession, and Dad screaming about how she’d get Social Services sniffing round them again, as if last time wasn’t bad enough.

Even though Danny’s parents sometimes ignored him for so long that he reckoned he could walk halfway to France before they noticed he’d gone, there was something about the idea of Social Services that made him nervous. Sure, Mum was always on the computer, and Dad mostly hung around outside staring at the clouds, and sometimes dinner didn’t happen until he was so sleepy that he nearly fell asleep facedown in mashed potato, but at least the things around him were his own. And his parents might be scatty, but they did make sure he had a nice home and clean clothes, so even when dinner was late, at least he didn’t have to go to school the next day in the same potato-crusted shirt.

But Social Services would look at his family and see what they didn’t do, not what they did, and he had a pretty good idea that they wouldn’t like what they saw.

What else could he do? Monday mornings meant going to school. Danny always quite enjoyed them, because they had double art and there wasn’t a proper art teacher anymore, so he got to keep his head down and draw whatever he liked while the rest of the class made their phones bark like dogs and tried to climb out the window, then come back in through the door without the substitute teacher noticing. Art was the only class where nobody looked at the clock.

He felt a strong urge to be there, sitting at the quiet table by the window, trying to draw something complicated. He never thought about anything when he was drawing, apart from lines and shadows.

Well, why not? Maybe his parents were just delayed somewhere. They’d probably driven farther than they’d meant to, that was all. They would definitely be back when he came home.

Danny stepped back inside, put the stick on the table, and got himself a bowl of cornflakes. He sat down, but he couldn’t manage more than a couple of mouthfuls of cereal before he started to feel sick.

What was that stick? Sitting next to his bowl on the table, it just looked like an ordinary piece of stick. His fingers wanted to reach out and pick it up again, but he was suddenly scared of what else might happen. Would he hear other strange voices, breaking through the silence of the house?

No, of course not. His mind was playing tricks on him. Or someone else was. Yeah, that must be it—his parents liked trying to catch each other out with silly tricks, and they’d just played one on him. That’s all it was. A silly trick.

He got dressed and picked up his schoolbag. Some trick. Whatever his parents were doing, it wasn’t very funny.

“Bye!” he shouted backwards as he left the house, so that if they were around, they’d know he hadn’t been fooled. And as he walked down the path to the garden gate he listened hard for sounds in the house behind him.

But when he turned his head around for a last look, there was still nobody there.

 

Excerpted from The Book of Storms © Ruth Hatfield, 2015

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