Emily inched through the doorway. A grey corridor stretched into the school. Closed doors sat in the walls. White silence filled the air. She moved deeper. Her thoughts seemed loud. Suddenly, a door opened. Emily startled as a woman stepped into the hallway. She had a dress the colour of river ends. A scrap of paper with the name ‘Jane’ was pinned to her front.
“What’s happening? Why doesn’t anyone speak?” Emily said. Jane jolted. She gripped Emily’s arm and pulled her down the corridor. They pushed into a small room. Emily started to speak. Jane shushed her. She grabbed papers from cupboards and shoved them into Emily’s hands. The pages were rough. Emily began to read:
My words will stay here. I will leave them. When they are all safe, I will go. When you are wordless, you are cold. I don’t want to be cold. But the words are hard to keep inside…
“I don’t understand,” Emily whispered. Jane motioned to the pages. Emily turned to another:
When Mary used up her words, I tried to give her mine. She wouldn’t move. I whispered my words into her hands and her hair. I pressed my mouth to her ear. She grew cold. They made me leave her…
Jane draped a blanket round Emily’s shoulders. Emily didn’t glance up. She started a different page:
Every day, I write a few words. It stops them spilling out. I’ve seen people when their words rush. They can’t stop them. When they start, I run away. I feel the words in me.
Emily let the papers fall. She looked up at Jane. She knew she shouldn’t speak. The silence had begun to feel like sleep. The night smelled of hiding places. Jane picked up a lamp and led her into the corridor, down a passageway, up spiral stairs, and into a long room full of beds. Some had slumbering shapes. Many were empty. Emily climbed into the bed nearest the door. It was cold. She rubbed her feet. She tried not to wonder whose bed it had been. Jane laid the blanket over her and then walked toward a bed at the back of the room. Emily pulled her torn clothes off and buried beneath the covers. She wondered if the silence was spreading over the country. She pictured her village: the bakery bristling with pastry smells and the church busy with song. She wanted to walk in green ways and bird shadows. She ached for her old home. The darkness was loud with night rains and sleep sounds. Her thoughts softened into a dream.
Hands shook her awake. She pulled the covers off her face. A wiry girl was standing by her bed. She had the face of someone guessing cloud shapes. She pointed to a scrap of paper pinned on her chest. It said ‘Lottie’. Emily glanced across the dormitory. Young women and girls were tidying their beds and forming a queue at the door. Emily wanted to ask them how long they’d had been hiding in the school. She wondered if they had families or homes. Silence ached. Grey light inched from thin windows. Lottie handed her a dress the colour of daffodils snatched from a puddle. Emily got changed under her covers. Then she joined Lottie at the back of the queue. Lottie raised her eyebrows. She made shapes with her hands. It seemed like she was trying to tell a joke. Emily tried to understand, but shook her head. They followed the others down the spiral stairway and into a broad hall. They sat at a long table. Emily fidgeted. Her dress was too big. Something pricked her chest. She snatched at a scrap of paper pinned to her front and tore it off. It said ‘Silvia’. Shivering, she pushed it away. She tried not to see it. She felt a warm hand on her arm. Jane handed her a bowl of porridge. It tasted of sieved water. Lottie nudged Emily and pulled a face at the porridge. Emily smiled back at her. She hurried her food. She scrunched her eyes to make the letters spelling ‘Silvia’ blur. Silence lurked beneath the clatter of spoons on bowls. The noise felt like leftovers. She gazed round the table. A woman with eyes like polished rain looked back at her. Her name scrap said ‘Beth’. Suddenly, Lottie gripped Emily’s wrist. Her face was close to Emily’s.
“My words are coming. I can feel them.”
If Emily pushes Lottie away go to Chapter Six
If Emily tries to stop Lottie speaking go to Chapter Five