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       The Enemy, p.15

           Charlie Higson
 

  He stopped and pumped the handle. He pumped and pumped and pumped until he was sure he had a good charge, then flicked on the beam.

  It shone into the white faces of a group of grown-ups. They were packed into the foot tunnel, filling its width, standing there, waiting, their broken teeth showing yellow against their gray papery skin.

  Sam was nearly sick with shock. The blood drained out of his head and he swayed on his feet, struggling not to pass out. And then a mother made a move, darting at him, and he turned and bolted. Sprinted along the platform, his flashlight beam dancing madly ahead of him. Leaped down onto the tracks. Fell and hurt his leg. He was up in an instant, and he limped on. Behind him he could hear the grown-ups, jumping and slithering onto the tracks.

  He charged into the train tunnel, and something took hold of him from the side. He yelled and struggled, but a strong arm in a heavy overcoat was holding him still. A hand clamped over his mouth.

  “Don’t move,” said a soft voice.

  A kid? Grown-ups couldn’t speak.

  But the body connected to the arm felt huge and strong. Too big, surely, to be a kid.

  Sam was turned around so that he was facing the way he had come.

  “Shine your flashlight back that way,” the voice commanded, and he did as he was told.

  The grown-ups were hobbling and capering along the tracks.

  The big figure raised its other arm. Sam caught sight of a sawed-off shotgun, just like he’d seen in the movies.

  The shotgun blasted once, sending out a bright flash and harsh boom, then a second time.

  The front ranks of the grown-ups fell away. The rest turned and fled.

  “Come on,” said the voice. “Time we were leaving, kiddo.”

  The kids woke at first light. Those that had slept. Many had simply lain on the grass or sat huddled together, too scared to sleep. They had spent the night in a fenced-off public garden at the top of Portland Place. It was semicircular and surrounded by roads, like one half of a giant traffic circle. There was grass and shrubs and large trees, but nothing could get close without being seen because of the road. The fence was black iron with a spearhead at the tip of each post. The kids had figured that it would be a safe place to spend the night. They had been too tired and scared and demoralized to go any farther after escaping from the park. Who knew what fresh horrors awaited them in the dark? So they had climbed the fence, lit a fire, and posted guards. There were small buildings in the corners, little more than fancy huts but tall enough for the kids to climb on the roofs and keep lookout. It was the best they could do, and thankfully nothing else happened in the night.

  Now the sun was rising over London, painting the sky first purple then pink then gray. Soon it would be a vivid blue. It looked like it was going to be another sunny day. The kids stretched and yawned and hugged each other, glad to be alive.

  Maxie had taken first watch, then swapped with Ollie and settled down under a bush in her sleeping bag. Too numb to feel frightened. She had instantly fallen into a deep and dreamless sleep, as if she had been knocked cold.

  Now she felt sluggish and heavy, fighting to wake up properly. She hauled herself up into a seated position. Every muscle in her body was stiff. She ran her fingers through her short curly hair to try to untangle some knots, but it was a lost cause. She filled her lungs with clean fresh air. That was one small benefit from the disaster. No more cars pumping out poisonous fumes. No more factories and offices polluting the atmosphere. London couldn’t have smelled this pure for at least two hundred years.

  She saw Blue talking quietly to Jester by the remains of the fire. She stood up and went over to them, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

  “Hi.”

  “Morning,” said Jester. “Did you sleep?”

  “Think so,” said Maxie.

  “Good. Today should be a lot easier.”

  “We need to sort ourselves out,” said Maxie, looking around at the kids sprawled everywhere. In the chaos of the previous evening they had arrived at the enclosure in an unruly rabble. Maxie had no idea how many kids had made it.

  “Whitney’s taking our attendance,” said Blue.

  “I’ll find Josh,” said Maxie. “I expect he’s already done ours. He’s always first up.”

  “Maxie . . .”

  Maxie looked at Blue. He was trying to tell her something. But she was too tired and dazed to be able to work it out. Her brain wasn’t really awake yet.

  “What?”

  “Josh never made it.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “He was helping some little kids when four of them things, them apes, got him cornered. He went down fighting. He was a brave kid. Nothing scared him.”

  “No,” said Maxie, shaking her head. “You’re wrong. He’s here somewhere. I know he is.”

  “Sorry. He wasn’t the only one.”

  Maxie knew it was true. She slumped to the ground.

  “And when exactly were you going to tell me?” she said.

  “What you saying? I just did tell you.”

  “You didn’t think to tell me last night?”

  “Hey, cool it, girl,” said Blue. “I was gonna tell you when the time was right.”

  “And when was that going to be?”

  Blue looked exasperated. He rolled his eyes, then turned to Maxie with a sadder, more gentle look.

  “You was tired last night, Maxie,” he said. “I could see you was cut up over Arran and Joel. You was on your last legs. I thought it might break you if I told you about Josh right then. We lost some people as well. Okay? I liked Joel. He was a sweet kid. And there were two others from my crew. Both little ones.”

  “I’m sorry,” said Maxie.

  “Ain’t no problem.”

  Ollie came over with a scrap of paper. He had dark rings around his eyes, and his red hair was all over the place. He looked like he hadn’t slept at all.

  “I’ve counted heads,” he said to Maxie, “and made a list. You heard about Josh?”

  “Yes,” said Maxie. “Who else?”

  “Katey and Louise and Curly Sam.”

  “But I saw him rescued.”

  “They came back for him. Josh tried to help, but . . .”

  Maxie swore.

  “They’re not necessarily dead,” said Ollie. “We left in a hurry. We didn’t have time to check bodies.”

  “Then we should go back. We should look for them. We can’t leave them all alone out there.”

  “No,” said Jester, standing up. “We’re not going back. We’re lucky to have gotten this far.”

  “And who gave you a say in this?” Maxie jumped up and shoved Jester.

  “He’s right,” said Blue, pulling Maxie away. “We’ve discussed it. We go back we could be attacked again, lose more kids.”

  “So we just leave them? Is that what you’re saying?”

  “Yeah,” said Blue. “It is. We got to assume they’re dead.”

  “And what if they’re not? Put yourself in their position— wandering around out there. Lost and alone.”

  “Put yourself in the position of the other kids here,” said Jester. “The ones we know for sure are still alive. The ones sitting all around us. You think they want to go back?”

  “You can take a vote on it if you want,” said Blue. “But I guarantee most kids will want to push on.”

  “How can you be so cold?”

  “Cuz I want to survive, Maxie. Don’t you?”

  “At what cost?”

  “Whatever it takes.”

  Maxie looked to Ollie for support.

  “Blue’s right,” he said. “It’d be crazy to go back. It’s not that we don’t care, but there’s fifty-three of us in the group now. Those fifty-three are more important than one or two kids we left behind. Who are probably dead anyway.”

  Maxie didn’t know what to say, and was worried about bursting into tears in front of the boys, so she turned her back on the three of them and stalked off to a qu
iet corner. Ollie exchanged a look with Blue and Jester and walked over to join her.

  “Maxie . . .”

  “Go away. I want to be alone.”

  “I know you do, but I want you to listen to me.”

  “There’s nothing you can say.”

  “Isn’t there?”

  Maxie spun around. “Go away.”

  “How do you think this looks?” said Ollie calmly.

  “I don’t care how it looks.”

  “Well, you should care. You’re in charge now, Maxie. Now that Arran’s gone. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to take charge. Our kids are looking to you for leadership. They want you to tell them what to do. They need you.”

  “What do I tell them, Ollie? What’s the right thing to do?”

  Ollie sat down. “They all think the same as you,” he said. “They think the right thing to do, the good thing, would be to go back and check. See if we can find any of the others.”

  “Then why did you—”

  Ollie cut her off. “That’s what they think would be the right thing to do,” he said. “But deep down, secretly, they would all much rather get out of here and put the park behind them. They’d rather not take any more risks. And as the leader you can make that harsh decision for them. You can order them not to go back. Then they won’t feel so bad about it all.”

  “You mean I need to show them I’m tough?”

  “Of course. Yeah. There are two types of leader in this world, Maxie. Wartime leaders and peacetime leaders. And they’re totally different. They need different skills. A wartime leader needs to show no weakness. A wartime leader’s got to show that one or two individuals don’t really matter. What matters is the survival of the group. What matters is winning by whatever means, yeah? It doesn’t matter how we do this, how we get to the palace, how we win this, just so long as we do. That’s all that matters.”

  “What if I don’t want to be in charge?”

  “Who’d be better at it than you?”

  “You, maybe, Ollie. You’re smart enough. The kids listen to you. Arran listened to you.”

  “Yeah,” said Ollie. “They listen to me, but they don’t look up to me. I ain’t a star. They look up to you.”

  “Do they? What do they think of me? Really?” said Maxie.

  “Make them think what you want them to think,” said Ollie. “You got what it takes. You’re the best person for the job.”

  “But I don’t know if I am.”

  “Listen,” said Ollie, leaning closer and lowering his voice, “Blue and Jester are getting a bit too close for my liking. They could cut you out. And if they cut you out, they cut all us Waitrose kids out. We’ll be second-class citizens. We need to stick up for ourselves. And I know you can do it, Maxie. Arran had faith in you. So I have faith in you.”

  “All right.”

  Listen up, everyone,” Maxie shouted. “We had a bad time of it last night, but it’s not going to happen again. Right? We’re going to push on. We’re going to get to the palace this morning. From here on in it’ll be safe. Okay?”

  “But we’re not all here.”

  “Yes we are. Some kids didn’t make it last night. They’re dead. There’s no point in going back to look for them.”

  “But Katey was my friend.”

  “And Arran was my friend. He’s dead. We burned him. I’m in charge now. And I’m telling you. Not asking. We move on. Anyone thinks different, they’re welcome to go back and search for bodies. But you’ll be doing it alone. There are fifty-three of us left, and we’re going to the palace. Now let’s move out!”

  They left the semicircle and marched down Portland Place. Maxie at the front with Blue and Jester.

  A few minutes later they arrived at Oxford Circus, the heart of the West End; once the busiest part of all London, now deserted and derelict. How quickly everything had fallen apart. How quiet it was now.

  They stopped here, in the middle of the junction where Oxford Street met Regent Street, and looked down the long, empty roads.

  “I used to come shopping here on Saturdays,” said Blue.

  “Me too,” said Jester.

  “Topshop,” said Maxie.

  “The Apple Store,” said Jester. “HMV.”

  “Niketown,” said Blue.

  Many of the storefronts had been smashed, but some still had their windows intact, and in one or two there were still a few items.

  “It’s not all gone,” said Whitney, grinning. “Think of it, yeah, if we scavenge around here, the things we’ll find. And look—there’s no grown-ups.”

  “I told you,” said Jester. “It’s peaceful here. There are still some Strangers lurking about the place, but it’s nothing like it is out your way.”

  Whitney began to laugh. “We should go shopping,” she said.

  Now Maxie laughed.

  “I’m serious, yeah,” said Whitney. “Look at these rags we’re wearing.”

  Maxie looked at Whitney. She looked immaculate as ever in her gleaming white tracksuit. Somehow she always managed to keep it clean.

  “We’re like a bunch of bums,” Whitney went on. “Before everything kicked off I used to care about how I looked. We’re arriving at Buckingham Palace, we deserve to turn up in clean

  clothes and new sneakers and stuff.”

  “We’re not going to see the Queen,” said Maxie.

  “We’re starting a new life,” said Whitney. “I want to make a good impression.”

  “I can’t argue with that,” said Jester. “You guys are a mess.”

  “So we couldn’t go back to look for lost friends,” said Maxie, “but we have time to go shopping?”

  “It wasn’t safe back there in the park,” said Blue. “This is different.”

  “How do you know? Just because we can’t see any grown-ups doesn’t mean there aren’t any around.”

  “These streets are generally quiet,” said Jester.

  “And how often have you come up here, exactly?” asked Maxie.

  “Once or twice.”

  “Once or twice?”

  “Listen,” said Blue. “It’s no big deal. We’ll just go a little way along Oxford Street. It’s not out of our way none. We can come down to the palace from the north just as easy as coming in from the east. We can change our route.”

  “Arran worked out the best route,” said Maxie.

  “Arran’s dead.”

  “Thanks for reminding me.”

  “If you’re in charge,” said Blue, “then you can change the route if you want. You don’t need to stick to Arran’s plan.”

  “It’ll be okay,” said Jester. “Going this way won’t make any real difference. We can cut down via Bond Street or Grosvenor Square. If we see anything in the shops and there are no grown-ups around, we can grab some of it. Oxford Street’s nice and wide, and I’ve learned from you lot that wide streets are good.”

  “Come on,” said Blue, smiling at Maxie. “What harm can it do? It might lift everyone’s spirits. And you know you’d like some clean clothes. Brand new. Fresh out of the box.”

  “All right,” said Maxie. “But any sign of trouble and we get out.”

  “Cool,” said Blue, and they walked on down Oxford Street, heading west toward Marble Arch.

  Maxie felt okay. She had given in to Blue and Jester, but at least they had listened to her and discussed it sensibly. She felt sure that if she’d flatly refused they’d have respected her decision. Ollie had been right. She had to stand up for herself, and for the Waitrose crew.

  And also ...

  She dearly wanted a change of clothes.

  After a couple of minutes, Freak joined her on the flank.

  “I don’t like this,” he said.

  “We don’t want to turn up at the palace like a bunch of dirt balls.”

  “We should keep going,” said Freak. “This reminds me too much of the other day. When we went to the pool. We got greedy.”

  “Face it, Freak,” said Maxie. “W
e could just as easily get attacked going the other way. The truth is we just don’t know where the next danger’s coming from. Besides,” she added, sniffing the air and wrinkling her nose, “you stink.”

  “So do you,” said Freak, and he smiled at her.

  Some shops had been looted, some burned, some were just empty, as if the stock had been taken away to a safe place before the collapse. They found a shoe shop that had racks and racks of shoes on display, but they were all singles—the other halves of the pairs were in a dark back room somewhere, and nobody wanted to go and look.

  They found a discount store with a few T-shirts and tracksuits hanging on racks, and they fought over who should get what. Blue picked up a New Era cap from a tourist shop, but on the whole the pickings were slim.

  After a while they came to Selfridges, once London’s biggest department store. Miraculously it was still standing and looked almost untouched. The front doors had been busted open, however, and the window displays were empty.

  “What do you think?” asked Blue, with a certain amount of awe. “You can get anything in Selfridges. We should look inside.”

  “Wait,” said Maxie. “First we send in a scouting party. If it’s safe and if it’s worth it, then we can all go in. But we check it out first.”

  “I’ll go,” said Lewis, and he was soon joined by Achilleus, Sophie, and Big Mick, the Morrisons fighter who looked like he was about eighteen.

  “Be back here in ten minutes,” said Maxie. “Don’t mess around—even if you see something you want, leave it for now. Just make sure it’s safe in there, that’s all that’s important.”

  “See you in ten minutes,” said Achilleus with a smirk, and the four of them went into the gloom.

  Everyone else stood in the road, gawking at the massive building.

  Maxie went over to Ollie.

  “Go with them,” she said. “I need someone levelheaded in there.”

  “Sure.” Ollie followed the others inside as Maxie clapped her hands and started shouting, moving among the kids.

  “Okay. Let’s not get soft. We should be in battle formation. Small kids in the middle, larger ones form a ring. Blue, you take the west side. I’ll take the east. Come on, move it!”

 
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