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       The Enemy, p.10

           Charlie Higson
 

  “Don’t go to sleep,” said Jester.

  “What? No . . .”

  “Not while you’re walking. Do you want to stop for a rest?”

  “No way,” Arran protested. “We’ve got to keep moving.”

  Achilleus ran up with Big Mick, Blue’s best fighter. They’d been scouting ahead.

  “It’s all clear as far as the tube station,” said Achilleus.

  “Far as we can see, there’s no one around.”

  “Did you look inside the cupboards?” said Arran.

  “Inside what cupboards?”

  “Ignore him,” said Jester, comically twirling a finger around his temple. “He’s rambling.”

  Arran tried to laugh it off again. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m just tired. Didn’t sleep last night. You know what it’s like when you think you’re only thinking something and you say it out loud.”

  “Yeah,” said Achilleus, but he didn’t look convinced. He let Arran walk on a bit and went over to find Maxie on the left flank.

  She was walking along, grim-faced and alert. She nodded when she saw Achilleus.

  “I’m worried about Arran, man,” he said.

  Maxie looked concerned. “What’s the matter with him?”

  “He don’t look well. He’s saying odd things.”

  Maxie sighed. “Can you take over here? I’ll go and talk to him.”

  “Sure.”

  Maxie jogged to the front of the group and found Arran. He looked pale and red-eyed. Her heart started beating faster. He had to be well. He had to be. They couldn’t do this without him.

  She slipped her arm through his, and he turned slowly. For a second he looked vague and tense, as if he didn’t recognize her, and then his face relaxed.

  “Maxie.”

  “Achilleus says you’re not feeling very well.”

  “I’m feeling fine. I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”

  “You look awful.”

  “I’m just hot.” Arran put a hand to his forehead and swayed. Maxie had to catch him to stop him from falling.

  “Blue! Wait!” she shouted, and Blue held up his hand for the group to halt. Maxie took Arran to the side of the road and sat him down on the curb. He slumped forward, his head hanging down between his knees, and was sick on the street, throwing up a thin, watery stream.

  “You’re not good,” said Maxie.

  “I feel better for that,” said Arran. “I’ll be okay now.”

  “We’ll rest for a while.”

  “No. We’ve hardly gone any distance at all, Maxie. We’ve a long way to go today.”

  “You can’t go on in this state.”

  “I just needed to be sick,” said Arran. “I’m fine now.” He stood up and immediately staggered sideways into a car.

  He muttered something unintelligible.

  “What was that?” said Maxie.

  “I need to put my Playmobil away.”

  Maxie exchanged a worried look with Blue and Jester, who were standing watching.

  “This is serious,” she said.

  When I’m gone,” said Sam, “you’ll have to properly close the doors.”

  “I will, yeah, I will,” said Callum. “I should have done it before, but I wasn’t sure exactly how. I should have paid more attention to the emos.”

  They had found a pump and two more bikes in the back by the loading bay. Sam vaguely remembered some of the older kids using the bikes in the early days, before it got too dangerous out on the streets. These bikes were too big for him, though, so he was going to stick with his lucky bike.

  After finding the pump, the two of them had gone out on to the balcony and watched the grown-ups below. They halfheartedly pawed at the doors for a while, and threw things at them—one of them tried to force the doors open with a long stick. At one point a fight broke out and a mother was knocked down, unconscious or dead. Eventually they all gave up and wandered off. Sam’s bike lay untouched in the street.

  Callum guarded the door while Sam got the bike back inside. Then he pumped up the tires, mended a couple of punctures, and straightened out a bent wheel. Now that he knew Sam wasn’t going to be staying, Callum seemed to be behaving more normally, although maybe he was being just a little bit too helpful. As if he were anxious to get rid of Sam.

  For his part, Sam was dead on his feet, but he knew he had to keep going until he caught up with the others, or he might never be able to find them again. There was no way he would be able to get to the palace all by himself.

  He had a quick snack of stale biscuits and water before taking the bike back outside.

  Callum was hovering in the open doorway now, looking nervously up and down the street. It was obvious he didn’t want to leave the building at all.

  Sam climbed into the saddle, checked once more that the road was clear, and pushed off.

  This was more like it. The bike went fast and straight. He whizzed along to the junction and turned onto Camden Road. Soon he was climbing the hill past the prison. It was heavy going, and halfway up he had to get off and push. All the while keeping a lookout for any grown-ups. Once he got to the top, it was downhill all the way to Camden.

  He got on the bike and took one last look back.

  Good-bye.

  A few seconds later he was sailing down the hill, the wind in his hair, dodging in and out of the cars in the road. The kids had given up checking cars long ago. Most were out of gas, and nobody knew how to start them, or unlock the steering, without the keys. Besides, a lot of the roads were blocked by abandoned and burned-out vehicles.

  Sam almost didn’t spot the group of people up ahead before it was too late. They were moving down the hill between the cars in the same direction as him. Sam had had too many disappointments today to let his guard down and hope that this could be his friends. He was right not to be too optimistic. They were grown-ups, walking slowly but purposefully.

  He would have to go around them. He cut off down a street to the right. He didn’t really know the area around here. His mom and dad had never let him ride his bike on the roads. They said it was too dangerous. He’d only ever ridden in the park before, or on special trips to Epping Forest.

  He told himself that he’d find his way. If he just kept heading downhill he was sure he’d hit Camden Town.

  There was a dark thought scraping at the back of his mind, though.

  What was it? What was wrong?

  Something to do with the grown-ups.

  No. He wasn’t going to worry about them. They hadn’t seen him. He could get around them all right.

  They weren’t after him.

  What were they after, though?

  Maxie was sitting with Arran under the blue-painted railway bridge by Camden Road station. She had moved him here to be out of the sun. He was shivering, but she didn’t think it was from cold.

  “You’ve got to keep everyone together,” he muttered.

  “Don’t worry about that,” said Maxie.

  “I wish I didn’t have to.”

  “Didn’t have to what?”

  “Worry.”

  “You don’t, Arran. You’ve been cut. You’re sick.”

  Arran grabbed Maxie’s arm. “That doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “It’s like I was saying to Freak—” He broke off, confused. “Was I saying it to him? Did I say it? I don’t remember. . . .”

  “What? What were you saying?”

  “We shouldn’t have to deal with all this crap, Maxie. We’re just kids. I never realized before. Our moms and dads used to deal with crap so that we didn’t have to. They worried about things for us, and they did difficult things for us, so that we could just keep on being kids. We used to laugh at them and call them boring and pointless, but they protected us, they made the world safe for us so that we could play. I don’t want to be an adult, Maxie. I want to go back to being just a kid again. But I can’t. It’s not an option. I’ve got to be a father to these little kids, and you’ve got to be a mother. They ne
ed us. I wish they didn’t. I wish I wasn’t needed. Look around. I sit down for a rest and everything falls apart.”

  Maxie stood up. Arran was right. The excitement of being outside was making everyone careless. There was still a party mood. Kids were perched on cars, chatting, or sitting on the curb in the sun.

  Maxie shouted to Blue. He strolled over, trying to look cool.

  “What’s up?”

  “We need to keep alert,” she said. “We need to keep organized. We have to be ready at all times.”

  Blue shrugged. “We’re ready.”

  “We’re not.”

  Blue gave her a look. “The only one not at their post is you, girl.”

  “I’m making sure Arran’s all right.”

  “Ain’t you got someone else can do that?”

  “Yeah.” Maxie went to find Maeve.

  Ollie was at the rear of the group, nervously looking back the way they had come. The other skirmishers, armed with javelins, slings, and rocks, were squatting in the shade of a van, talking about soccer. Ollie wished they were taking this more seriously.

  “It’s not right,” he said, trying to get their attention.

  “Chill out,” said one of the Morrisons crew. “There’s no one around.”

  “Yeah, but there should be people around,” said Ollie, squinting up the road toward the top of the hill. “We haven’t come down this way for ages because it’s always been too dangerous. So where are all the grown-ups now?”

  “They’re hiding from us, man,” said the other boy. “Anyone tries to attack, they’ll be massacred.”

  Ollie looked around at the scattered group.

  “Everyone’s relaxed too much,” he said.

  “Except you,” said the boy, and the others laughed.

  “Be quiet a minute!” Ollie put a finger to his lips.

  “What?”

  “You hear anything?”

  “No . . . No, wait. Now I hear something.”

  There was a swooshing sound, like waves rolling pebbles across a beach, and a murmur like the wind.

  “Something’s coming,” said Ollie.

  Josh was moving among the kids, trying to keep them alert. Most grumbled at him, and when he got to the Morrisons team, who were supposed to be guarding the right flank, they looked half asleep. Josh struggled to remember the name of the tall, dozy-looking kid with the Afro who was meant to be in charge. Lewis. That was it. He was sitting slumped against a storefront, his eyes closed.

  “We should be ready in case anything happens,” said Josh, worried that he was sounding like some anxious teacher on a school trip.

  “I’m conserving my energy,” said Lewis, and he yawned.

  “You should be watching the flank. In case any grown-ups come in from the side.”

  “I’m listening,” said Lewis. “I’ve got bat ears.”

  “I don’t want to be a pain in the ass,” said Josh. “You might think this is all a joke but—”

  “It’s cool,” said Lewis.

  “What’s cool?”

  “You’re cool, I’m cool, everything’s cool.”

  “If we lose any kids . . .”

  “I won’t lose you no kids, bro. I’m cool. You got nothing to fear, Lewis is here.”

  “You think I’m scared?” said Josh. “I ain’t scared. Nothing scares me, man.”

  “If you say so, bro.”

  “Yeah, well, just tell me if your bat ears pick anything up.”

  Lewis slowly opened his eyes. “I’m hearing something now, man.” He jumped to his feet surprisingly quickly, and Josh could see that his whole body was tensed. What had he heard?

  “Up, up, up!” Lewis yelled at his team, and in a moment they were all ready.

  Arran was aware of shouting. Coming from the rear of the group. He’d been lost in his thoughts, trying to regain his strength so that they could get moving again.

  “What’s going on?” he said.

  “Dunno,” said Maeve, who was sitting with him, unable to do much more than offer sympathy.

  “Help me up.”

  “Arran . . .”

  “Help me up, Maeve!” Arran snapped, and Maeve hauled him to his feet.

  “Where’s my club?”

  Maeve fetched Arran’s pickax handle and gave it to him.

  Lazy. He’d been lazy. He was supposed to be in charge, a leader. He pushed his way through the milling kids to the rear of the group, where the commotion was. He saw Ollie. Ollie would know what was going on. He was sensible.

  “We heard something,” Ollie explained.

  Before Arran could say anything, someone shouted.

  “Look!”

  People were coming over the brow of the hill. A solid line of grown-ups, their shuffling feet scraping on the street, a low moan rising from the herd.

  Sounds like the seaside, Arran thought, and closed his eyes for a moment. He was back in Portugal with his mom and dad. Lying on his back, sunbathing.

  “Have you got your lotion on?”

  “Yes, Mom . . .”

  She leaned over him. Smiled. Arran liked it when she was happy. Then her smile grew wide so that her mouth was a gaping hole surrounded by jagged teeth. She lunged at him—

  “I’ve got my lotion on!” Arran shouted.

  “What?”

  “Nothing.” Arran wiped sweat from his face.

  “Jesus,” said Ollie. “There’s loads of them.”

  “Get into place!” Arran yelled, just as Blue ran up with Jester and the rest of the fighters.

  Arran was pleased to see how fast the kids got themselves together and back into battle formation.

  The front line of grown-ups stopped about a hundred yards away, and the two groups stood looking at each other.

  “What are they doing?” said Blue.

  “God knows.”

  Jester whistled. “They’re like a bloody army,” he said. “Can you take them, d’you think?”

  “Don’t know,” said Blue. “I’ve never seen so many in one place before. They ain’t usually this organized.”

  A smaller group of grown-ups pushed to the front and stepped clear of the pack. Almost as if they were in charge. At the vanguard of this new group was a huge fat father whose neck didn’t seem able to support the great cannonball of a head that lolled over his chest. Random tufts of hair sprouted from his otherwise bald scalp. He was wearing shorts and an England vest with the cross of Saint George on it. A pair of wire-framed glasses with no lenses in them perched on his squashed and rotting nose. He rolled his head back and stared at Arran. It looked like he was laughing.

  “They must have been following us,” said Arran, his head clearing as his system was pumped full of adrenalin. “We need to avoid a fight if we can.”

  “How we gonna do that?” said Blue. “Look at ’em. They’re not going to go away.”

  “We’ll back off,” said Arran. “See what happens. Maybe get to somewhere safer. Somewhere we can defend. Where’s Ollie?”

  “Here.”

  “Stay with us. We’ll need your firepower.”

  He and Blue shouted orders, and the kids began to retreat from the grown-ups. Arran and the best fighters stayed at the back, facing the enemy. The road in the other direction was still clear. Maxie and Lewis kept with their teams on the flanks. The little kids had formed into a tight, frightened bunch in the middle. They were huddled so closely together that it was difficult to keep them moving. They kept bumping into each other and anxiously looking back. Maeve and Whitney goaded them, shoving them along, encouraging them, telling them not to worry, but there was a mounting sense of panic.

  Staying indoors all the time, the little kids had been sheltered from the worst of the fighting. They weren’t used to this. Some of the older kids, too. They weren’t all fighters.

  The grown-ups kept pace with them, advancing down the hill. Creeping closer. The father in the Saint George vest still at their head.

  “Stay together!” Arran sh
outed.

  Then three emaciated grown-ups blundered out from a side street, so starved they might as well have been skeletons. They made a dash toward the little kids to try to separate them from the group, but were swiftly knocked down by Lewis and the Morrisons fighters on that flank. Maxie watched them go into action and was impressed by their skill. Blue had been right: frizzy-haired Lewis might have looked dozy, but he moved fast when he had to, and dealt with the grown-ups ruthlessly and efficiently.

  The sudden attack, though, had spooked the little kids. A bunch of them broke away and started to run.

  “Stop them!” Maxie yelled, but there was nothing Maeve, Whitney, and the others could do. In a moment the little kids were darting in all directions, and even some of the older kids were starting to run. A bunch barged right past Maxie, who screamed at them to get back, but it was no good.

  “Come on,” said Lewis, and he and his team ran after the fleeing kids. “We’ll get ’em.”

  As the orderly group broke up, it seemed to give encouragement to the grown-ups. The fat father in the Saint George vest raised his arms above his head, bellowed, and at last they attacked, coming as fast as they were able down the hill.

  “Hold the line!” Arran shouted, and the fighters got into position, spears bristling.

  Nothing was going to stop the grown-ups; they waddled and limped and scurried onward. The kids watched them getting closer—a hideous row of smashed and diseased faces.

  Arran stood fast, Achilleus on one side, Blue on the other, more fighters spread out across the road. Behind them in a shorter line were Ollie and the skirmishers. Silent. Waiting.

  Closer and closer the grown-ups came until at last Arran gave the order.

  “Fire!”

  A hail of pellets, stones, and javelins flew at the grown-ups, and as they went down, Arran moved the fighters forward. The first wave of attackers was almost immediately smashed to the ground, and this hampered the rest from getting forward.

  Arran spotted Saint George clambering over a body. He took a swing at him, but the fat father ducked just in time.

  “Maxie!” Arran shouted. “We need support!”

  Even as he said it, Arran looked around to see Maxie arriving with her flanking squad. Their eyes met. They must have both been thinking the same thing at the same time. They were linked. For a moment it was as if nobody else existed. Arran was so proud of her. She was brave and strong and clever. She smiled at him and he smiled back. He knew at last. He knew that she felt the same way about him as he did about her. He just knew. He couldn’t say how. And she understood. He felt a great force of happiness well up inside him.

 
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