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       The Enemy, p.4

           Charlie Higson
 

  “Oh crap,” said Arran, and he ran off down the road, the rest of his group struggling to keep up.

  The Morrisons crew had been unusually friendly and helpful, Ollie thought. Which probably meant that they were getting scared. When it came down to it, the kids had to stick together.

  The grown-ups were the real enemy.

  They’re back!” Josh ran up to Maxie.

  Maxie’s heart thumped against her ribs. She had been desperate for Arran to get back, but she was also terrified of what he would think. He had left her in charge and she had mucked up.

  She didn’t want to show how she was feeling in front of everybody. She couldn’t lose it twice in one day.

  “Get the gates open,” she said, pleased that her voice sounded strong and clear. “Who’s on lookout now?”

  “Callum,” said Josh.

  “I didn’t really need to ask, did I?”

  “He practically lives up there.”

  “Get someone to ring the bell,” said Maxie.

  “I’ll do it.” Josh hurried off. In a moment Maxie heard the clang of the bell that told everyone to get ready to open the gate.

  Maxie went over to the speaking tube. She banged on it to alert Callum, then called into it.

  “Callum?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Can you still see Arran and the scavs?”

  “They’re nearly here.”

  “Is it safe to open the gates?”

  “Yeah.”

  There was a pause and then a shrill whistle.

  All clear.

  Soon afterward there came the sound of the steel shutter being cranked up. The shutter was the old security gate that blocked off the main entrance to the store. It was operated by turning a big wheel set into the wall.

  Maxie stood there, listening, but not daring to look. Trying to slow her breathing and take control of herself. Once the shutter was up the gate crew could move out into the mall and open the barricade.

  The barricade was a huge fortified gate that opened on to the street. It had been built by Bernie and Ben in the early days. Bernie and Ben were two emos who looked identical, even though Bernie was a girl. They had straight black hair and wore black combat trousers, black T-shirts, and black sweatshirts. Both of them were into robotics and used to watch programs like Scrapheap Challenge on TV. They had built loads of modifications around the shop, including the speaking tubes. They were also in charge of opening and closing the barricade.

  In a moment there was a flood of light and then the hubbub of voices from the street. Maxie tensed. The last two hours had been hell. An eternity of fear and apprehension. She had a horrible sick feeling in her gut.

  At last, there he was.

  She gasped, despite herself. He looked awful. There had been trouble. It wasn’t just the wound in his neck and the blood on his clothes—he was horribly pale, and there was a look in his eyes. A look of despair she had never seen before.

  It was a moment before she realized there were only three others with him.

  Oh no.

  She wanted to run to Arran and throw her arms around him. To comfort him, to comfort herself, to hold on to something.

  He would hate it, though. He had no idea how she felt about him. She mustn’t let him find out. She wasn’t one of the pretty ones. She had a plain, square face and mousy curly hair that tangled into knots so that she had to hack away at it with scissors. To Arran she was just his second in command. That was all. She was tough. There was nothing girly or pink about her. If he knew that she’d always fancied him, he’d run a mile.

  Fancy?

  What a stupid word that was. It was more than fancy. She loved him. Another stupid word. Love. What did it really mean? She knew how it felt. Good and bad at the same time. There was no one else. No mom and dad. No brothers or sisters. There was just Arran.

  But he was hurt.

  They both spoke at the same time. The same words— “What’s happened?”

  So he knew it, too. He could read it in her face. She had screwed up.

  Who was going to explain first?

  Arran sniffed and cleared his throat.

  “We lost Deke,” he said flatly.

  “Oh no ...”

  Arran shrugged. “There were too many of them.”

  Maxie didn’t know what to say. She was glad that Arran had told his news first. It didn’t make hers sound so bad. But it was bad.

  Arran looked at her. “We saw Blue and the Morrisons crew,” he said. “Told us there’d been trouble.”

  “Some grown-ups got over the wall at the back,” said Maxie.

  “How many?”

  “Not sure. Four or five . . .”

  “They get anyone?”

  Maxie nodded.

  Arran looked around, trying to see who was missing.

  “It was Sam,” said Maxie. “Small Sam.”

  “Poor little bugger,” said Arran. “This hasn’t been a good day.”

  “No. There’s been grown-ups hanging around since you left. I keep expecting them to attack again.”

  “They won’t attack Waitrose,” said Arran, taking his club over to the rack where they kept their weapons. “They never have.”

  “They might,” said Achilleus, who was already at the rack with Freak and Ollie. “They’re changing. It’s getting tough, man.”

  “It’s all over for us,” said Freak, looking utterly miserable and defeated.

  Achilleus grabbed him and slammed him into the rack, spilling weapons onto the floor.

  “That was your bright idea, Freak,” he snarled. “None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for you. Don’t never forget that. Deke’s blood is on your hands, man.”

  Arran pulled him off.

  “Don’t be an ass, Akkie,” he said.

  Achilleus turned away and let his breath out in a dismissive huff, before sinking into sullen blankness.

  “We’re not going to start blaming each other,” said Arran. “It won’t get us anywhere. We’re all in this together. If we start fighting among ourselves it really is all over. Okay?”

  “Yeah, whatever.” Achilleus wandered off.

  Arran put a hand on Freak’s shoulder.

  “You all right?”

  Freak looked at his hands. Stained red. He wiped them on his shirt and shrugged.

  Ollie took the dead dog off Arran, who seemed to have forgotten he was still carrying it.

  “Come on, Freak,” he said. “Let’s see what we can do with this.”

  In a moment Maxie was alone with Arran. She was desperate to explain herself.

  “They came into the parking lot,” she said. “We’d told the little kids not to go out there.”

  “Not your fault,” said Arran.

  “I thought you were going to be so mad at me,” said Maxie quietly.

  “Not your fault,” Arran repeated.

  “I know, but ...”

  “In case you hadn’t noticed, Maxie, I didn’t do so good either.”

  Maxie almost burst into tears.

  “We can’t go on like this, Arran.”

  “Yeah?” Arran stared at her, that bleak look still in his eyes. “So what are we supposed to do, then?”

  “I don’t know, do I?” said Maxie, trying to control her voice.

  Arran sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s been a tough day. I’m the leader. I’m supposed to know what to do, aren’t I?”

  “You can’t know everything. You can’t always be expected to know the best way to . . .” Maxie stopped herself. It wasn’t helping. “We should call a meeting. Talk about it.”

  “Later,” said Arran. “I’m tired.” He closed his eyes for a moment. Maxie took the opportunity to study his wound. It looked nasty, a row of weeping black holes surrounded by yellow and purple bruising. She touched him gently with her fingertips.

  “Does that hurt?”

  Arran winced, then nodded.

  “You nee
d to have it looked at,” said Maxie. “Come on.”

  They went upstairs. The floor above the shop was mostly a storage area, but there were offices here, the canteen, and access to the roof terrace. One of the offices had been turned into a sick bay, and they kept a basic medical kit there. Antiseptic, painkillers, and bandages. They found Maeve sitting at a desk, staring out of the window. Maeve acted as nurse and doctor. Her parents had both been doctors and she’d picked up bits and pieces from them. She knew more than any of the other kids, so in their world she was an expert.

  Arran showed her the damage and she went to work.

  She cleaned the cuts, put on some disinfectant, and taped a bandage over it, then gave him something for the pain. She said nothing. They all three knew that it was serious. There would be an anxious wait to see whether the wound got infected. Three kids had died from infections since they’d been holed up here. To lose Arran in the same way would be a catastrophe.

  Maxie didn’t know what she’d do without him.

  That evening the kids held a meeting in the courtyard on the roof. They had made the area as civilized as they could manage, adding to what was already here with stuff they’d scrounged from nearby buildings. There were plants in raised beds and pots, garden furniture to sit on, some tables, and two big barbecues where they did most of their cooking.

  They had a few solar-powered lamps, and candles in jars, and they had lit a fire in the barrel from inside a washing machine that Ben and Bernie had turned into a brazier.

  Small Sam’s sister, Ella, was sobbing quietly in a corner. Maeve had an arm around her, but most of the others just ignored her. They had all lost someone. They didn’t want to be reminded.

  Maxie tried hard. Tried not to glance over at the little girl. Tried not to think about how awful she must be feeling. And it wasn’t only Ella. Freak was lurking in the shadows in another corner. He hadn’t said a word since they’d got back.

  “As you all know, we lost two kids today,” said Arran. “It’s getting bad. I don’t know how much longer we can hold on

  here.”

  Instantly there was a chorus of distressed voices.

  “But where would we go. . . ?”

  “We’re safe here. . . .”

  “We can’t go out there. . . .”

  “We’ll be all right. You’ll find food.”

  “You’ll kill all the grown-ups.”

  “I won’t!” Arran shouted, his voice breaking. This shocked everyone into silence. They weren’t used to seeing Arran lose his temper.

  “I can’t,” he went on. “There’s too many of them. I can’t kill them all. We can’t go on like this. We’re getting weaker every day.”

  There was a long silence. The little kids looked terrified. They couldn’t handle this. None of them wanted to face up to the reality of their situation.

  A fair-haired kid with a wide mouth they’d nicknamed Monkey Boy, because he loved to climb things, broke the silence.

  “We’re doing all right, Arran. We’re not starving or nothing. You brought us back the dog today.”

  “Yeah, right,” Arran said bitterly. “And how long can we go on like this? Eating dogs? Being taken by the grown-ups? One by one. Huh? How long? We bumped into Blue and the Morrisons crew before. They agree. They reckon the grown-ups are getting worse. They’re wearing us down.”

  Callum stood up and stepped into the flickering light of the fire.

  “Listen, Arran,” he said. “You’re scaring the little ones.

  We know it was tough today. We know you got hurt and you lost Deke and all that. We know why you’re angry, but . . . well, go easy, yeah?”

  “Yeah, sorry,” said Arran, and he wiped sweat from his forehead.

  Callum stayed standing.

  “Can I say something else?”

  Arran nodded.

  “We mustn’t ever leave here.”

  “Didn’t you listen to anything I said?” asked Arran.

  “This is our home now,” Callum went on. “It was bad luck today. That’s all. We’ll just have to be more careful, yeah? We’ve made this place safe. We’re learning all the time. We’ve survived this far. Why shouldn’t we carry on? I been on the roof nearly all day, and I can tell you, I seen it out there. It’s not safe, yeah? Not safe at all. . . .”

  Almost as if to illustrate Callum’s point, there was a crash and a yell from the street below, followed by a hideous scream.

  Josh scuttled over the roof from the crow’s nest and shouted down to them.

  “There’s something out there!”

  Arran could see the fear in the faces of the smaller kids.

  Callum was right. All he had succeeded in doing was to frighten them. He should have been more careful about what he said in the meeting. Should have kept his temper. The kids looked up to him. They expected him to never show any doubt.

  But he felt rotten and he couldn’t pretend anymore. He was scared too. He was scared twenty-four hours a day, and he was sick of having to spend all his time feeling tense and fearful, like a wild animal.

  And now it had happened. The thing he had feared most. He was wounded. Already he could feel a twitching, scratchy heat clawing at his neck. He put his hand to the bandage. His head was swimming, like he had a bad cold.

  It wasn’t the wound that had changed him, though. It was the grown-up back at the pool. The mother. He had looked into her eyes and he had recognized something.

  He shook his head. He had imagined it. It couldn’t be.

  Someone was shouting.

  He shook his head again.

  “Arran, what’s going on?” It was Callum. He looked panicked. “Are they attacking us?”

  He was surrounded by them, all these kids who depended on him. They needed him to tell them what to do. Even if he was wrong, he had to look like he was in control. His feelings didn’t matter right now.

  “No,” he said, standing up. “They’ve never attacked before.”

  “But you said they were changing. . . .”

  “They can’t change that fast.”

  He moved in through the sliding glass doors to the canteen, which was off to one side of the terrace. There was another thud from below. A scraping sound as if something was trying to get in. Would the grown-ups really attack Waitrose?

  The canteen was in the corner of the building, directly below the dome. Windows looked out onto balconies that ran the length of the two outer walls. From there you had a perfect view of Holloway Road at the front and Tollington Road at the side. Arran opened a door and went out onto the front balcony.

  The sky was clouded, so no moon or stars shone down. And the streetlamps hadn’t worked in over a year. Arran could just make out figures moving below.

  “Get some light!” he shouted.

  “What is it?” said a voice from inside. “What’s happening out there?”

  “Keep quiet.”

  Monkey Boy brought him a dynamo flashlight. A bigger, more powerful version of the one he carried. It was already charged. He switched it on and moved the beam around until he saw something.

  A father with a purple bloated face, his eyes weeping pus. He looked up at Arran and bared his broken teeth in a snarl.

  “Grown-ups.”

  “But you said—”

  “It doesn’t matter what I said,” Arran snapped.

  As Arran raked the beam across the ground, another figure appeared. It was a boy of about sixteen, dressed in a patchwork of colorful rags and mismatched cloth, with an old leather satchel over one shoulder.

  “Let me in!”

  “Don’t let him in! Don’t let him in!”

  A group of grown-ups ran at the boy, and he disappeared from view. Arran desperately tried to catch him in the beam.

  More kids were crowding on to the balcony, trying to see what was happening. Panicked. Shouting and screaming.

  “Arran, what do we do?”

  “Who is he?”

  “Are they attacking us?


  “Can you see anything?”

  Arran couldn’t think straight. They had fallen into a trap earlier. He wasn’t going to let it happen again. He had to make the right decision. But his head was throbbing and the noise in his ears ...

  “Shut up!” he roared. “All of you be quiet!”

  There was silence.

  Arran gave the flashlight to Maeve, who had pushed through the jostling kids to be at his side.

  “Keep this aimed at the road,” he said.

  “What are you ...?”

  But Arran was already going.

  He found Callum inside the canteen.

  “Get on the roof,” he said, giving orders on the move. “I need some decent light out there, throw down some burning torches. And stay up where you can see what’s happening. I need you to be my eyes!”

  They could just hear a thin pitiful scream from outside.

  The ragged boy.

  “Please. Help me!”

  “Let him in,” Maxie yelled, running over to Arran. “He’s a kid.”

  “No, no, it’s not safe!” shouted Callum. “We don’t let anyone in. This is our place.”

  “He’ll be killed—he’s just a kid.”

  A wave of sickness hit Arran. He held his head in his hands, closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. He kept seeing that other face—the mother from the pool. He rubbed his temples.

  “Arran . . . ?” It was Callum, tugging at his elbow.

  Arran exploded.

  “I thought I told you to get up on the roof!”

  “Yes, but—”

  “Get up there now! I’m going out. If it gets bad, use a bomb.”

  “A bomb? They’re for emergencies.”

  “And what does this look like to you?”

  “Okay, okay.”

  Callum turned and ran off.

  “Ollie?” Arran called out. “Where’s Ollie?”

  “Here.”

  “Clear the balcony and get out there with your sling— take anyone else who’s a halfway decent shot. I need covering fire.”

  “Okay.”

  “Achilleus?”

  “Here.”

  “Get a war party together—our five best fighters—and get some weapons. Maxie, I need a back-up team. Anyone else who can fight. Bernie and Ben on the doors.”

  “No way, Arran,” said Ben. “You can’t open them. You don’t know how many grown-ups are on the street. If they get inside . . .”

 
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