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       The Enemy, p.13

           Charlie Higson
 

  Whitney came over and tickled the dog behind his ear.

  “Cute,” she said, and Maxie smiled.

  “Listen,” Whitney went on, “I’m sorry about Arran. We all are.”

  “It’s okay.”

  “I didn’t really know him,” said Whitney, “but I could tell he was all right. You had a thing for him, didn’t you?”

  “I don’t know. We never spoke about it.”

  “Sometimes you don’t have to, girl.”

  “It just seems so unfair,” said Maxie angrily. “You wake up one morning with your whole life ahead of you. So many things to see and do, and then—bang! You’re dead. There’s nothing. I can’t stop thinking about how his life has just stopped like that. He’ll never grow up. Never have kids of his own. Never grow old.”

  “Just think of him like that, yeah?” said Whitney. “Forever young. Always the beautiful Arran you knew.”

  “Forever dead,” said Maxie.

  “Hey, come on, think positive,” said Whitney. “That’s an order.”

  Maxie gave a bitter, slightly hysterical laugh. “Think positive? Look at us, Whitney. Look at what’s happened to us. What’s to be positive about?”

  “At least Big Brother ain’t on TV no more.”

  “No.” Maxie gave a snort of laughter that almost slid into tears.

  “See, you can still laugh.”

  “I feel dead inside,” said Maxie.

  “It’ll pass. We’ve all lost people.”

  “I know. I’m sorry. It’s been a horrible day.”

  “Too many friends have been killed,” said Whitney. “Too many.”

  “Yeah,” said Maxie. “Arran’s not the first and he won’t be the last. Every time someone dies, I don’t think I can take anymore.”

  “But somehow you do, don’t you?” said Whitney. “You carry on.”

  “Yeah,” said Maxie, and she wiped away a tear.

  “I dunno,” said Whitney. “Maybe, when this is all over, when we’re safe and we can rest, that’s the time to cry. Right now, like your man said, we gotta stick together and help each other.”

  “I know. Thanks, Whitney.”

  “And listen.” Whitney held Maxie’s arm. “Blue. He’s all right, you know. He has to act tough cuz he’s our leader. But he ain’t stupid. You need to work with him.”

  “I’ll try.”

  Whitney gripped Maxie’s head in an affectionate arm-lock.

  “You’re strong. I know it, girl. Together we can be stronger.”

  It was a moonless night, and no stars shone in the clouded sky. Some kids had made flaming torches, but they were quickly burning out. Those that had them were using their flashlights. They had to keep in a huddled mass, though, or risk getting split up in the dark.

  Freak was plodding along, lost in his thoughts. He felt someone nudge him in the side.

  “You planning on going to the Oscars? Make some more cheesy speeches?”

  It was Achilleus. Freak sighed and looked away. “Why do you always have to pretend to be so tough, Akkie?” he said.

  “Who’s pretending?”

  “Don’t you care about Arran?”

  “Yeah. I care. He was all right. But you don’t fool me. I know what that speech was really all about.”

  “Oh yeah, what?”

  Achilleus put on a whiny voice, mocking Freak. “Don’t blame Sophie, it was an accident, us kids have to stick together . . . Bullshit. You’re just feeling guilty about what you did to Arran and don’t want no one to blame you.”

  “What do you mean, what I did to Arran? I didn’t do nothing to him.”

  “It was you got him killed, Freaky-Deaky.”

  “What are you talking about? I never shot that arrow.”

  “Didn’t need to. He was already dying. And Deke was already dead. All because you wanted to go looking for a stupid vending machine.”

  Freak felt a lump in his throat. He fought hard not to sob. “Don’t say that.”

  “It’s the truth, Freaky-Deaky. You know it and I ain’t never going to forget it. You nearly got us all killed. You think if Arran hadn’t been bitten he would have gone crazy back there? No. And he wouldn’t have gotten shot. All your fault.”

  Freak swore at Achilleus, who spat in the road and walked over to Mick. He said something to the big Morrisons kid, who looked at Freak and laughed.

  Up at the front, Jester was talking to Blue, their flashlights raking the road in front of them.

  “We should try to go faster,” said Jester. “We’ve lost a lot of time. We should have arrived in daylight.”

  “We’re safer at night,” said Blue. “Less grown-ups around.”

  “I don’t feel safe. Not after what happened today.”

  “Wasn’t right,” said Blue. “Grown-ups don’t usually act like that. Clubbing together. They was an army. I’ve not seen that before.”

  “You still think that the park is the best way to go?” said Jester.

  “Yeah,” said Blue. “It’s wide open—we can see anything that’s coming. Grown-ups don’t like wide-open spaces. I was thinking we could even set up camp for the night. Post sentries around the edges. Let the little ones rest.”

  “They’ve rested enough,” said Jester. “We were hours in Camden waiting for Arran to die.”

  “That’s cold, man,” said Blue. “What do you think we should have done? Finished him off ourselves?”

  “Of course not,” said Jester. “But it was obvious he was going to die.”

  “We did what we did, man,” said Blue. “Couldn’t have done it no other way.”

  “I know,” said Jester. “And I think it was good the way you took control. I think you should take overall charge.”

  “What do you mean?” Blue turned to Jester but couldn’t clearly see his features in the dark.

  “We don’t need two leaders,” said Jester. “Maxie can look after the little kids. She’s a girl. She fell apart when Arran died.”

  “We’ll see,” said Blue. “The Waitrose crew ain’t necessarily gonna accept me as their boss. We need Maxie.”

  “Maybe.”

  “And what about when we get there?” said Blue.

  “How do you mean?”

  “Presumably you got someone in charge at the palace.”

  “Yeah ...”

  “So what happens? Eh? I just sit down and do what I’m told?”

  “Don’t worry about that,” said Jester. “We’ll work something out.”

  “Yeah,” said Blue. “We will.”

  They crossed the road at the top of Parkway and entered Regent’s Park by Gloucester Gate.

  The park had changed. The flower beds were overgrown. The short, well-kept grass was now waist high and tangled with weeds and wildflowers. Here and there young saplings pushed up through the undergrowth. Only a few inches tall now, but in time this would become a forest.

  There was a playground near the gate. A relic from a forgotten age. And the little kids stared at it in wonder as they passed. Maxie gave Godzilla back to Joel and went to relieve Josh and join her team on the right flank.

  Josh walked up front where Jester and the others were discussing the best route to take.

  “Best stick to the path, I reckon,” said Blue. “It’ll be clearer and we’ll have a better view. Who knows what might be hiding in the long grass.”

  “Like those raptors in Jurassic Park,” Josh chipped in.

  “There’s a lot of things out to get us in London these days,” said Blue, laughing. “But dinosaurs ain’t one of them.”

  “You never know,” said Josh. “The world’s turned upside down. I wouldn’t be surprised. Nothing surprises me anymore.”

  “Don’t be scared of no dinosaurs,” said Blue.

  “Who said anything about being scared?” said Josh. “You know what they call me? Josh, the Boy without Fear. I’m gonna kill me a dinosaur.”

  “Don’t nothing scare you, man?” said Blue, trying not to laugh.
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  “Nah. Grown-ups is stupid, and slow. And they got no weapons. Dogs is stupid too. Nothing scares me. Something tries to scare me, I just kill it, man. Dead.”

  “Well, I’m glad you’re on our side,” said Blue. “Now, let’s get going.”

  They had to stretch out along the path, as it wasn’t as wide as the roads they’d been traveling on. The flanking parties stayed close on either side, pushing through the grass.

  The emos, Ben and Bernie, were helping the smaller kids along, listening to their chatter.

  “That’s the zoo over there,” said Monkey Boy, pointing past a line of trees toward where some of the zoo’s structures were just visible.

  “I used to like the zoo,” said Ella. “I had a birthday party there once. My favorites were the lions and tigers.”

  “What happened to all the animals, do you think?” asked Joel, clutching Godzilla tightly. “When all the keepers died?”

  “Did the animals all starve to death?” said Ella. She sounded tearful.

  “I don’t think so,” said Bernie comfortingly. “I expect the keepers moved them somewhere safe.”

  “They wouldn’t have had time,” said Curly Sam, one of those annoying small kids who thought they knew everything.

  “I’m sure the keepers had time to make sure they were all right,” said Bernie.

  “Did they let them out, then, do you think?” said Ella.

  “Yeah, ’spect so,” said Ben, smiling at Bernie. “They would have set them free.”

  “Then they might be in the park,” said Ella, suddenly fearful, and Ben immediately regretted saying anything.

  “I thought you liked the lions and tigers,” said Bernie quickly.

  “I did when they were in cages,” said Ella, “but not running free.”

  “Lions are dangerous,” said Monkey Boy.

  “Will we be eaten?” said Joel. “Like the Christians?”

  “What Christians?”

  “In the Colosseum. In Rome. They used to feed Christians to the lions.”

  “If any lions did get out,” said Bernie, “then they’d be miles away from here by now. They’d be long gone. They’ll have gone to the countryside to find cows and deers and things like that.”

  “I don’t want to go to the countryside,” said Ella. “I don’t want to be eaten like a Christian.”

  “You’re not going to be eaten by a lion,” said Bernie.

  “Yes,” said Curly Sam. “The only thing that’s going to eat you is a grown-up.”

  “That’s not a very helpful thing to say,” said Bernie.

  “It’s true, though,” Curly Sam insisted. “They eat kids.”

  “What was that?” said Ella, her voice very high and thin.

  “What was what?”

  “I heard something moving in the grass.”

  “It’ll be the bigger kids,” said Bernie, trying to sound calm, even though she too thought she had seen something moving. “They’re protecting our sides.”

  “No. It wasn’t a big kid.”

  “Maybe a rabbit, then, or a cat.”

  “Like a lion?”

  “Look,” said Ben, trying not to lose his patience, “there’s nothing there. Nothing’s going to eat you. We won the battle, didn’t we? We’re strong. Nothing can get to us.”

  “We’re safe, aren’t we?” said Joel.

  “Yeah,” said Ben. “We’ve got Godzilla to look after us.”

  Joel hugged the puppy tighter. “Godzilla can’t fight,” he said. “He’s too young.”

  “I was only joking,” said Ben. “I just can’t win with you lot, can I?”

  They had come on to The Broad Walk, a much wider path that ran down the center of the park beneath rows of tall trees. There was enough room here for them to spread out a little. Bernie called Lewis over. He shambled up, scratching his untidy Afro.

  “Did you see anything?” she asked.

  “What you mean?” said Lewis.

  “In the grass?”

  “Nope.”

  “Did you hear anything?”

  “There’s nothing in the grass; we’d have seen any grown-ups.”

  “It’s too dark to see anything properly.”

  “We’ve got flashlights.”

  “We heard something,” said Ella. “Maybe a lion.”

  Josh came back from the front and looked at the frightened bunch of kids.

  “Can’t you keep them quiet?” he said. “They’re getting spooked.”

  “They can’t help it,” said Bernie. “They’re small. They’ve got overactive imaginations.”

  “I saw something again!” said Ella.

  “No you didn’t,” Bernie snapped.

  There came a rustle in the leaf canopy above their heads, and everyone stopped walking and fell silent.

  A twig snapped.

  Something was moving through the trees.

  “What is it?”

  “Grown-ups, maybe.”

  “They can’t climb trees,” said Lewis.

  “How do you know?” said Josh. “Our problem is—we’ve been stuck inside those stupid supermarkets too long, and we’ve thought we knew what was going on in the world. I used to sit on that roof with Callum and thought I could see everything there was to see. Well, I couldn’t see nothing. Except that tiny little bit of Holloway. For all we know there are grown-ups that’ve sprouted wings and learned to fly.”

  “They can’t fly, can they?” asked a fearful Ella.

  “Stop it, Josh,” said Bernie. “You come back here and tell us not to spook the kids, and now you’re terrifying them. It’s bad enough as it is without having to worry about flying grown-ups.”

  “They can’t fly, can they?” Ella repeated.

  “Of course they can’t fly,” Bernie almost shouted. “Most of them can hardly walk.”

  “There’s definitely something in the trees, though,” said Lewis, looking up.

  “Probably squirrels.”

  “Too big for a squirrel,” said Maxie, who had also heard something and had come over to consult with Lewis.

  “Well, I ain’t climbing up there to find out,” said Lewis.

  “Look out, we’re getting split up,” said Ben, pointing to the front of the column where the fighters were walking on.

  Maxie swore and ran after them, shouting to Blue to stop.

  “What is it?”

  “Wait for the others to catch up.”

  “Why have they stopped?”

  “The little kids are getting scared. There’s something in the trees.”

  “Yeah, we heard it. We reckon it’s best to push on.”

  “Can you see anything up there?”

  “Too many leaves. Whatever it is, it’s good at hiding.”

  “Shouldn’t we at least warn everyone to be careful?”

  “We start shouting orders, the kids’ll get even more scared,” said Blue. “You go around and tell them. And get the others to hurry up.”

  Achilleus came over. “Why ain’t we moving?”

  “We need to look up, Akkie,” said Maxie quietly. “There’s something in the trees.”

  “I hate to say it, but there’s something in the grass too,” said Achilleus, peering into the darkness.

  “What?”

  “Something’s crawling about in there. Not big enough to be grown-ups.”

  “What is it, then? Could it be other kids?”

  “Dunno,” said Achilleus, and before Maxie could stop him, he put a hand to his mouth and shouted, “Hey! Who’s there? Show yourself.”

  Nothing. The grass was absolutely still.

  “We need to press on,” said Blue, and he started walking again.

  “Wait,” said Maxie, but it was no use.

  Her heart was thumping as she made her way back to the huddled mass of smaller kids.

  “You have to hurry up,” she said, glad, in a way, to be doing something to take her mind off Arran.

  “I don’t like it under the
trees,” said Ella.

  “Don’t go in the grass,” said Maxie. “Don’t you dare go in the grass.”

  “Why not?”

  “Just don’t.”

  “Why? Is there something there? Is there something in the grass?”

  “No. We just need to stick together, is all.” Maxie sensed a mounting panic among the smaller kids.

  Whitney had sensed it too, and was going around telling them not to be scared. Maxie looked to the front. Blue and Jester and the others were getting farther away. She felt like she was slowly losing control.

  “Get going,” she said, hustling kids forward.

  Half the small kids walked on, the rest milled around fearfully. Some were even heading back the way they had come.

  “Hold still!” Maxie shouted, but at that moment something dropped from the trees and landed with the effect of a bomb going off among the children. In an instant they were running, screaming, in all directions.

  Before Maxie could do anything, something else dropped from the trees. Then another. Gray blurs that shrieked as they came down. She gripped Arran’s club.

  It seemed that they were going to have to fight every step of the way into town.

  It was chaos. The kids were running in all directions while more and more of the things—whatever they were— dropped down onto them from above. It was impossible in the dark to make out exactly what they looked like. They were just gray blurs as they plummeted, yelping and shrieking, through the air. They had to be animals of some sort. Too small to be grown-ups. Maxie shoved her way through the panicked crowd to where she saw one land. A girl was facedown on the ground with one of the things on her back. It was hairless, with mottled pinkish-gray skin studded with sores and boils. It had long arms and stumpy misshapen legs. Maxie ran to it and whacked it in the back with her club. It barely moved. It was a powerful, solid lump.

  It let out a hideous high-pitched scream and lurched toward Maxie.

 
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