Flight of the Fantail is a debut YA novel by Steph Matuku, published by Huia. We are pleased to publish the first chapter to whet your appetite for this spooky homegrown mystery.
A busload of high school students crashes in bush in a remote part of Aotearoa New Zealand. Only a few of the teenagers survive; they find their phones don’t work, there’s no food, and they’ve only got their wits to keep them alive. There’s also something strange happening here. Why are the teenagers having nosebleeds and behaving erratically, and why is the rescue effort slow to arrive? To make it out, they have to discover what’s really going on and who or what is behind it all.
The old bus swung around a tight bend on the winding mountain road, and the class erupted into thrilled shrieks and raucous laughter.
Devin’s bag on the seat next to her tipped, spilling toiletries everywhere. She hurriedly stuffed the bottles and tubes back inside, but she wasn’t fast enough. Idelle had already snaked her hand through the gap in the seats and made a triumphant snatch. She inspected her prize, a mocking grin on her perfectly made-up face, her long brown curls still glamorously obedient even after a sweaty six-hour bus ride.
Next to Idelle, Chantelle tittered behind a manicured hand.
‘It’s not strong enough,’ Idelle smirked. ‘You still stink.’
‘Give it back.’ Devin held out her hand half-heartedly. It was a token gesture rather than a demand, and Idelle and Devin knew it.
‘Sweet as, Stinky.’
Idelle threw the bottle high over Devin’s head. It sailed through the air, smacked Mrs Harlow’s sunburnt shoulder and plopped into her lap. She twisted round and glared down the aisle.
‘Whose is this?’
‘You can tell it’s Devin’s, Miss,’ shouted Idelle, ‘because it doesn’t work.’
Chantelle collapsed in a fit of sycophantic giggles.
‘Sorry, Miss,’ said Devin automatically. It was pointless narking on Idelle. She’d just get mad.
Mrs Harlow heaved up out of her seat and strode down the aisle, the innocent deodorant held in front of her like a weapon. Devin waited, resigned. Mrs Harlow went straight past her and stuck her face into Idelle’s. Idelle squeaked in surprise and quickly tried to cover up with a winning smile.
‘If I catch you playing silly buggers one more time, Idelle Watkinson, you are off this trip. I don’t care if we have Search and Rescue airlift you out or we throw you in the back of some pig-hunter’s ute. It’s all the same to me. You got that?’
The winning smile turned into a scowl. ‘Yes, Miss.’
Mrs Harlow dropped the deodorant onto Devin’s bag and went back to her seat.
Idelle stuck her tongue out at her back.
Eva was watching from across the aisle, a sardonic smile on her face.
‘What d’you think you’re looking at?’ Idelle demanded.
Eva gave Idelle a lazy once-over. ‘I’m not sure,’ she drawled. ‘A slut?’
Mandy, sitting beside Eva, laughed. ‘A stupid slut?’
‘A stupid, ugly slut?’
‘A stupid, ugly, boring slut?’
Chantelle stood up, her face as red as her skimpy tank top. ‘You better shut up, you … you …’ She lowered her voice to a hiss, casting a quick glance in Mrs Harlow’s direction. ‘You muggly futt!’
Eva surged to her feet, eyes flashing. Her short black hair was sticking up where she had been leaning against the window, and there was a red mark on her cheek.
A voice yelled, ‘Chick fight! Chick fight!’
It was Jahmin, conducting with an invisible baton and urging the other cheeseballs around him to join in. Eva made her fingers into the shape of a gun and shot Jahmin through his frizzy ginger head.
He cheerfully blew her a kiss, nudging Liam next to him. But Liam was scowling across the aisle, either at Rocky or Eugene, Eva couldn’t tell. Both boys were oblivious anyway. Rocky was jabbing at his phone, frowning, while Eugene was happily chanting along with everyone else, the upturned collar of his denim jacket not quite concealing the bruise along his jaw.
Chantelle waved, blushing prettily. Eva rolled her eyes and sat down again.
‘Shut up!’ Mrs Harlow roared.
The chanting ground to a halt.
The bus climbed higher and higher. Mrs Harlow left her seat to have a quick muttered conversation with the driver. The narrow road wasn’t tar-sealed, and the long, hot, dry summer had left the surface cracked and dusty.
Eva’s stomach did an uneasy flip-flop as the bus swung close to the crumbling edge, giving her a glimpse of a river, creek, whatever,glinting between scrubby bush and the feathery tops of tree ferns far below.
She pasted a bright smile on her face. ‘Hope you packed your wings.’
Mandy gently squeezed her hand. ‘We’ll fly together, babe.’
‘Love you too, you muggly futt.’
Eva laughed. ‘What the hell even is that?’
‘Clearly something totally amazing.’
Mandy started plaiting her long blonde hair, leaning forward to look past Eva so she could use the window as a mirror. Several clumps of loose clay fell from the cliff face to the road. The bus lurched and Mrs Harlow, who was returning to her seat, stumbled, clutching wildly at the seats.
The new kid, Theo, gave a muffled ‘Ooof!’ as Mrs Harlow knocked him in the face with a large breast. His book and glasses flew to the floor, and Idelle and Chantelle nearly fell off their seats with hysterics as Mrs Harlow tried to regain her footing, looking remarkably like a cartoon character skating on a banana peel.
Suddenly, there was a high-pitched whine from the ancient bus engine and a high-pitched scream from Awhina. Awhina was always top of the class, always perfectly co-ordinated in immaculate vintage clothing, and never, ever screamed. She leaped at the bus driver in a swirl of blue paisley, and grabbed his shoulders. She screamed again, ‘Help! Help me!’
The bus pitched violently sideways and scraped against the cliff. It ricocheted off and swung back again. Now everyone was screaming, bags and belongings falling everywhere.With a startled cry, Mandy tumbled out of her seat and into the aisle. From her position on the floor, she could see the bus driver slumped sideways, his eyes closed and blood trickling from his nose. Awhina was trying desperately to grab the steering wheel, but the driver was in the way.
Mandy crawled down the aisle towards them. Fighting for balance as the bus swung this way and that, she seized the big man around his shoulders and yanked him back as hard as she could. It was like wrestling with a sack of spuds. Awhina snatched at the wheel and managed to get some control.
‘Can’t you stop it?’ Mandy cried.
‘His bloody foot’s stuck!’
Mandy looked down and saw the driver’s foot wedged against the accelerator.
‘The brake! Hit the brake!’
There was a tight bend ahead. The bus was going too fast. There was nothing they could do.
As the bus left the road in a clatter of gravel and soared through the air, Mandy turned to find Eva. She wasn’t screaming. She looked bewildered and beautiful.
Mandy closed her eyes. Eva was the last person she ever saw.
Flight of the Fantail
By Steph Matuku
Published by Huia