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       The Enemy, p.2

           Charlie Higson
slower 1  faster

  It was a warm and sunny spring day. There was a real sense that summer wasn’t far off. Normally Arran would have enjoyed the sunshine and warmth. In the past he had always loved seeing the first green leaves come out on the trees, as if the world were waking up. Now it just meant that the grown-ups were getting bolder. In the winter they’d been too cold and feeble to be much danger, but the change in the weather seemed to give them new courage and strength. Their attacks were becoming more frequent.

  They were hungrier than ever.

  The kids trudged up Holloway Road. It was full of memories for Arran—eating at McDonald’s, shopping with his mom, going to the movies. . . .

  He tried to shut the memories out. They only made him feel worse.

  When they came to Archway they moved more cautiously.

  There was a tube station here, a perfect hiding place for grown-ups.

  “Which way?” said Deke.

  “Highgate Road,” said Arran. “We’ll work our way toward the Whittington.”

  “Ain’t going in no hospital,” said Achilleus.

  “What’s the problem?”

  “There won’t be nothing in there,” said Achilleus.

  “Maybe drugs?” said Ollie. “Paracetamol and antibiotics and that.”

  “Doubt it,” said Deke. “When everything kicked off, it would have been the first place to be looted.”

  “We’ll take a look anyway,” said Arran. “Just in case. But let’s try the houses around here first.”

  “Ain’t going in no hospital,” Achilleus repeated.

  “What about the swimming pool, then?” said Freak.

  “What about it?” said Achilleus.

  “Worth a look, eh?”

  “Why?” said Achilleus. “You feel like taking a swim?”

  “Nah,” said Freak, “but there was always a vending machine in there.”

  “Never worked,” said Achilleus. “Always stole your money.”

  “Worth a look,” said Freak. “Think about it . . . Mars Bars, chips, chewing gum . . .”

  “Won’t be nothing in there,” said Achilleus. “Not after all this time.”

  “Listen,” Freak insisted. “Far as we know, us and the Morrisons crew are the only kids around. And they never come up here. All I’m saying is we should look. Okay? If we’re looking in the Whittington we should look in the pool as well. We search everywhere, in’t that right, Arran?”

  “Suppose so,” said Arran.

  “Waste of time,” said Ollie. “When have we ever found a vending machine with anything in it?”

  “You agree with me, don’t you, Deke?” said Freak.

  “He agrees with everything you say,” Achilleus scoffed.

  “Try me,” said Deke.

  “The world is flat,” said Freak.

  “Yes it is,” said Deke.

  “Penguins can fly,” said Freak.

  “Yes they can,” said Deke.

  “I am the greatest kid that ever walked the earth,” said Freak.

  “Yes you are,” said Deke.

  “Ha-ha, very funny,” said Achilleus.

  “Akkie is a jerk,” said Freak.

  “Yes he is,” said Deke.

  “I think you’ve made your point,” said Arran, trying not to smile. “We’ll take a look.”

  Ollie sighed. This was a waste of time. What they needed was proper food, not junk. But Arran had spoken, and he was their leader.

  Ollie shoved a hand into his jacket and rolled the heavy steel shot between his fingers. The cold hardness comforted him.

  He didn’t like the idea of exploring the swimming pool. He was always scared on these hunts, and going into the unknown like this just made his heart race faster.

  “Come on,” said Arran. “Let’s go.”

  “Searching the swimming pool is a genius idea,” said Freak.

  “Yes it is,” said Deke.

  The glass doors of the swimming pool were cracked and so covered with dust on the inside that it was impossible to see anything through them. Deke hefted his sledgehammer and took a swing, aiming for a spot next to the handles. The glass exploded with a bang and fell out of the frame in sparkling nuggets.

  “Cool,” said Freak.

  “Yes it is,” said Deke, who loved destroying things. In the early days, just after the disaster had happened, and before he understood the dangers, Deke had wandered the streets in delight—breaking, burning, smashing—hardly able to believe that there was nobody around to stop him, and that he could do whatever he wanted.

  That crazy, joyous freedom had been cut short when he’d discovered that not all the adults had died. And those who had survived would treat you far worse than any parent, teacher, or policeman, if they ever caught you. A parent might have grounded you, a teacher might have kept you in after school, and the police might have arrested you, but none of them would have tried to eat you, like the grown-ups who wandered the streets these days.

  He still got a kick out of destroying things, though, when he got the chance, which was why he often volunteered to join a scavenging party.

  He stood back from the shattered door to let Achilleus see inside.

  Achilleus leaned in and looked around.

  “We’ll need the flashlights.”

  They all carried hand-powered LED dynamo flashlights that didn’t need batteries. They quickly fired them up by pumping the triggers that spun the flywheels inside. After thirty seconds the flashlights were charged enough to give a good three minutes of light.

  They stepped into the entrance lobby and shone their beams across the dirty floor and walls. Ahead of them was the reception desk. To the right, past a turnstile and low barrier, was a small seating area that opened out on to the pool. A wide passage led the other way to the changing rooms.

  The reception desk was covered with cobwebs, and the faded, peeling posters on the walls were from a different world. They showed smiling, happy children and talked of health and fitness and community activities. There were a few animal trails in the dust, and debris on the floor, but no sign of any recent human activity.

  “Vending machines used to be through there,” said Freak, nodding toward the fixed tables and chairs in the seating area.

  “We’ll take a quick look,” said Arran, and without having to be told, Achilleus led the way. He climbed over the turnstile and dropped into a crouch on the other side, spear at the ready.

  “All clear.”

  One by one the others followed, Ollie bringing up the rear, flashlight in one hand, slingshot in the other.

  They walked cautiously forward. As they moved closer to the pool, they noticed a smell. The choking, rotten stink of stagnant water.

  “Aw, who farted?” said Deke, holding his nose. Freak sniggered, but nobody else laughed. The pair of them liked to joke around to keep the fear away, but the others had their own ways of dealing with their nerves.

  Achilleus was tensed and alert, ready for action, almost willing a grown-up to jump out at him. Arran tried to stand tall and appear unafraid, imagining he was casting a protective shield around his little group. Ollie kept glancing back over his shoulder. He was so used to watching the rear that he almost found it easier walking backward.

  “That is an evil smell,” said Freak.

  “Keep it down,” said Achilleus.

  “Come off it, Akkie,” said Deke. “If there was anyone here, I think they just might have heard that bloody big bang as I took out the door.”

  “Shut up so’s we can listen, Deke.”

  “Okay, okay.”

  They shone their flashlights around the seating area where the vending machines had once stood.

  Nothing. Empty.

  “They’re gone,” said Arran.

  “What a surprise,” said Achilleus.

  “Told you this was a waste of time,” said Ollie. “Now can we go?”

  Arran carried on toward the pool. A dim light was glowing green through the windows around the high ceiling. Th
e air felt hot and moist. He used to come here nearly every week in the summer. There was a waterslide that snaked out of the building and back again. It had always been noisy here, busy with kids. There had been a wave machine and all sorts of fountains, waterfalls, and jets. Now it was absolutely quiet and still and stank like a sewer. Stringy weeds hung from the waterslide that stood on rusting supports.

  Arran was aware of his heart thumping against his ribs. He didn’t like being here.

  “We should take a proper look around,” said Freak, joining him by the pool and shining his flashlight around the cavernous space.

  There was still water in the pool, but it was a soupy greenish-brown color. Clumps of algae and weed floated on the surface, and odd pieces of furniture had been dumped in it. Arran could see chairs and tables, a filing cabinet, and what looked like a treadmill, probably from the gym upstairs.

  More algae and mold made its way up the walls, covering the windows—this was what was turning the light that weird ghostly green.

  The others came through.

  “We should go,” said Ollie, nervously glancing back toward the entrance.

  “Scared, are you?” said Deke.

  “’Course I’m scared,” said Ollie simply. “I’m always scared when we go somewhere we’ve never been before. It’s good to be scared. Keeps you alive.”

  “Check this out,” Freak hissed, interrupting them. He was shining his flashlight across the pool.

  A vending machine stood there, half submerged in the water, but they could see that it was still stocked with chocolate bars and candy and chips.

  “We’ve struck the jackpot,” Deke whispered.

  They moved closer to the water’s edge, marveling at the treasure trove in the stagnant pool. The side of the pool sloped gradually into the water, giving the effect of a beach. The smell was appalling, and the floor was slippery beneath their feet.

  “What’s it doing in the water?” said Achilleus.

  “Who cares?” Freak and Deke said in unison.

  Arran shone his flashlight on a sign; it was still just about readable beneath the fungal growth on its surface. no running. no diving.

  “See that?” he said. “No diving.”

  The others sniggered. The thought of diving into the dark, stinking water was disgusting, but nevertheless somebody was going to have to wade in if they wanted to get to the vending machine.

  “I don’t like it,” said Ollie. “It’s not right.”

  Once again he glanced back toward the entrance, making sure that their way out was clear.

  “There’s nothing here, man,” said Deke. “No one. The place is deserted. Look at all that crap in the water. The vending machine must have been dumped there ages ago, and forgotten about.”

  “Come on,” said Ollie. “I’m leaving.”

  He jumped as Freak suddenly shouted, his voice startlingly loud. “HELLO? ANYBODY HOME?”

  The sound echoed off the hard walls.

  “See? Nothing.”

  “You’re an idiot,” said Achilleus.

  “Yeah? And who are you, then—Brainiac, the world’s brainiest kid?”

  “Don’t start arguing,” said Arran wearily.

  “Look,” said Deke, “we’ve been here long enough. If anything was going to happen it would’ve happened by now. This place is dead, like the rest of London. Like the rest of the world, for all we know. Dead.”

  “We’re not dead,” said Arran, “and I want to keep it that way.”

  “Then let’s get the stuff from the machine,” said Deke. “Food, yeah? To eat? You remember food, don’t you?”

  “I’m not sure about this.”

  “Oh, for God’s sake, this is a waste of time.” Freak walked to the water’s edge, holding his nose. Deke groaned as he watched his friend wade in. Soon the slime was up to Freak’s knees, then his thighs. He kept going until he reached the machine. Turned to wave, then peered inside.

  “Sick!” he said, grinning. “You should see this.”

  “Freak! No!” Deke screamed.

  The whole surface of the water around Freak had come alive, as if some huge beast were rising from the depths.

  Deke splashed into the pool, yelling.

  “Idiot,” said Achilleus.

  There were shapes emerging everywhere now, seemingly made from the same green slime as the water itself. They pushed up out of the bubbling pool.

  People. Men and women. Blanket weed hanging off them and tangled between their outstretched fingers like webs.

  “GROWN-UPS!” Arran shouted.

  Ollie grabbed a steel ball, slipped it into the pouch of his slingshot, and pulled back the rubber band. . . .

  There were too many of them. In his panic he wasn’t sure where to aim.

  Freak was swinging his ax around wildly at the weed-covered grown-ups nearest to him. He got one in the forearm, shattering it, and on his return swing took another in the side of the head, but their numbers quickly overwhelmed him, and as the grown-ups closed in on him, there was no longer room to use his weapon effectively. On his next strike the ax head sunk deep into a big father’s ribs and stuck there. The father twisted and writhed, churning the water and tearing the ax from Freak’s grasp. Freak was defenseless. Wet, slimy hands closed around his neck. He struggled to throw them off, swearing at the grown-ups.

  Ollie couldn’t risk a shot that might hit Freak, so instead he aimed at one of the grown-ups on the edge of the attacking group. A mother. He loosed a shot and struck her in the temple. She toppled over and was swallowed by the water. Then a noise made Ollie turn—more grown-ups had moved into the seating area to block their exit.

  “We’re surrounded!” he shouted, swinging his slingshot around toward them.

  Arran could do nothing to help. Grown-ups were swarming to the edge of the pool and slithering onto the tiles. He gripped his pickax handle and lashed out at them two-handed. A fat little father with useless legs hobbled out in a crouch, like some horrible, ungainly frog. Arran caught him under his chin with an uppercut, and he somersaulted backward into the water.

  Deke had been trying to get to his friend, but the water was thick with wallowing grown-ups. He was forcing his way onward, using the tip of the sledgehammer’s handle as a butt. Driving it into anybody that got too close.

  Achilleus was waiting on the edge. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to fight effectively in the water. He darted backward and forward, picking off stray grown-ups and watching Deke’s progress.

  “Go on!” he urged him.

  It looked like Deke was going to make it to Freak, but just before he got there, three big grown-ups pulled Freak over, and he sank beneath the surface.

  “Hold on, Freak!”

  Deke powered the last few feet and dived in after his friend.

  “Idiot,” Achilleus said again. There was nothing for it. He was going to have to go and help. He gave a war cry and surged in, high-stepping, spear flashing in quick hard thrusts, teeth bared.

  The grown-ups seemed to sense that he was dangerous, and fell back. There was no sign of Freak and Deke, though.

  Over by the seating area, Ollie was ducked down onto one knee to steady his aim, and was launching a barrage of shots toward the grown-ups blocking the way out. He couldn’t take his eyes off them for even a split second, so he had no idea what was going on behind him. He prayed that the others would join him soon, because he couldn’t keep the grown-ups at bay forever.

  “Help me, someone!”

  Arran looked over and saw what was happening.

  “Achilleus!” he shouted. “You get Freak and Deke. I need to help Ollie.”

  He had no idea if Achilleus had heard him, and he couldn’t wait to make sure. A group of grown-ups was rushing Ollie, who couldn’t reload fast enough to hold them back. Arran raced over and plowed in, his club flying. The wood cracked against a father’s skull. He howled and toppled sideways. Arran was finding it difficult to fight with the dog slung across his should
ers, but he swung again, this time aiming for a grown-up’s knee. There was a snap of breaking bone, and the grown-up was out of action.

  “Got to push them back!” he yelled, and surged forward, driving the grown-ups over the seats and tables.

  Achilleus reached the vending machine. Oblivious to the stink and the slime, he plunged a hand under the water roughly where he had last seen Deke. He grabbed hold of sodden material and tugged hard. It was a grown-up. He stuck his spear into it, twisted, and pulled it out. The next moment the water boiled and erupted as Deke broke the surface, bringing Freak up with him. Freak looked confused and limp.

  “Got him,” Deke spluttered. His face was glowing white in the gloom so that it looked almost luminous.

  “Come on,” said Achilleus. “Let’s go.”

  But the attack wasn’t over. An enraged father bundled into them, knocking Deke hard into the vending machine and smashing the glass. Deke grunted, winded.

  Achilleus dealt swiftly with the father, striking him in the mouth, and with that the remaining grown-ups gave up. They fell back as Achilleus and the other two waded toward the edge. Achilleus started taunting them, cursing and swearing and calling them all the names he could think of, daring them to attack.

  “Come on, you lazy sods! Attack me, you cowards, come on!”

  But the grown-ups were melting away, slipping back under the murky surface of the pool. Achilleus felt a surge of relief; his bravado had been all show. He was exhausted, Freak and Deke had lost their weapons, and if the grown-ups did mount a full-scale attack, the boys would stand little chance. He looked back. The other two were still stumbling through the water. Deke looked like he was on his last legs. Achilleus went to him, grabbed hold of Freak around the waist, and pulled the two of them along until, spluttering and slipping and stumbling, they staggered to the poolside.

 
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