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       The Enemy, p.6

           Charlie Higson
 

  “Thank you,” he said.

  “So, for all your clever talk, you don’t know what caused it, then?” Whitney asked. “The sickness.”

  Patchwork shook his head. “No one knows. How could we? We’re just kids. Adults used to tell us things, in newspapers, on TV, at school. But now there’s no adults left to tell us anything. And you can look at that as a good thing or a bad thing.”

  “It’s a disaster,” said Maxie.

  “Is it? This is our world now.”

  “It’s a crap world,” said Callum, and a few of the kids laughed.

  “Not where I’ve come from,” said Patchwork.

  “So where have you come from?” said Ollie.

  “Buckingham Palace.”

  There was a snort of laughter followed by a chorus of jeering and mocking from the assembled kids. Patchwork just smiled.

  “It’s true,” he said. “Why not? The Queen’s dead, all the people that looked after her, all the guards in their bearskin hats, the police, the tourists . . . No more adults telling us what to do. There’s just us kids. And we can do what we like.”

  You really trying to tell us you live in Buckingham Palace?” said Whitney, her deep brown eyes softening into a smile.

  “Yeah. It’s cool. It’s got a lake and a garden with a big wall around it with spikes on the top. It’s safe. We grow food in the garden, we drink water from the lake, we sleep in the Queen’s beds. Nobody can get in and there’s enough of us to keep the place secure. We got our own guards now. We’re making a fresh start.”

  “So what are you doing here, then?” said Ollie.

  “We figured there must be other kids like us out there,” said Patchwork. “Kids who survived. And the more of us we can get together, the better it’ll be. It’ll be safer. We can grow more food and work together to gradually rebuild the city. We can start to make London new again. Next to the palace is St. James’s Park; there’s enough space there to plant fields, if we’ve only got enough people. So I was sent to find other kids, tell them about what we’re doing, and bring them back.”

  “Yeah, well, we’ve got news for you,” said Callum. “We ain’t going. Why would we ever leave this place? We don’t need your Buckingham Palace, thank you very much. We got Waitrose.”

  “Shut up, Callum,” said Achilleus. “Let’s listen to the man.”

  “You’ve come all the way across town by yourself?” said Ollie, not convinced.

  Patchwork’s face clouded over.

  “There was five of us to start with,” he said. “We thought all of London would be like where we come from—organized. We didn’t realize how dangerous it was out here. How many Strangers there are.”

  “Why?” said Ella. “What’s it like where you come from?”

  “I told you. It’s safe. Most of the Strangers have disappeared from the center of town. We killed loads of them early on. Those that are left keep out of our way. They’re beaten. But it was mad getting here. We had to come through the badlands. They picked us off one by one. I lost Alfie just today. He was the last one. There’s only me left.”

  He swallowed hard. It was obvious he was trying not to cry. Nobody spoke for a while. In the end Ollie broke the silence. He squatted down and spoke gently to Patchwork.

  “How many other kids have you found on the way?” he said. “How many have you sent back?”

  Patchwork sniffed. “None. You’re the first. The original plan was to keep going around London recruiting all the kids that were left. But it’s too dangerous for that.” He smiled and looked up at Ollie. “You lot, though, you could really make a difference. Together we could get back easy. You know how to look after yourselves. You’re good fighters. The best I’ve ever seen. I can take you there. I can take you to safety.”

  “Let me ask you a question,” said Arran, his voice sounding hoarse and croaky. Everyone turned to him; it was the first thing he’d said since the meeting began.

  “What?”

  “Why should we go into the center of town? Why shouldn’t we just leave London? Go to the countryside? Surely we’ve got a better chance of surviving out there. That’s where all the grown-ups were trying to get to when they started dying.”

  “Exactly,” said Patchwork. “And I reckon that’s where they all went. The center of London is empty, there’s none of them around, but the further out we got, the more of them we found. I reckon if you tried to get out of town you’d just come across more and more of them. It’s miles before you hit any proper countryside, but into town from here, how far is it? Five or six miles at the most. You could walk it in two hours if you didn’t have to fight any Strangers. Who knows what you’d find out there if you did manage to leave London. But in the center, where I’ve come from, I can tell you what it’s like—it’s safe.”

  “How do we know you’re not lying?” said Ollie.

  “What would I gain by that?”

  “Dunno. Don’t really know anything about you.”

  “Yeah,” said Blue. “What’s your name?”

  “Some people call me Jester, some call me Magic Man. . . .”

  “Some call him jerk,” said Achilleus, and there was a fresh round of laughter.

  Jester nodded. “Yeah, some might call me that. I’ve been called worse. You can laugh at me if you want, or you can listen.”

  “We’d need proof before we left this place and went marching off across London,” said Ollie.

  “I’ve got proof.”

  “Yeah?”

  “I’ve got pictures.”

  “What sort of pictures?”

  “From an old Polaroid camera. Photographs.”

  “Show us.”

  Jester took his satchel off his shoulder and opened it. He rummaged around, then produced a cardboard folder. From inside it he took out a handful of square, glossy photos. He passed them to Ollie, who flicked through them, a smile slowly spreading across his face. He brought them over to Arran, who had to lean forward into the light to see them properly.

  They weren’t faked. You couldn’t fake a Polaroid. It wasn’t like the old days when you could use a computer to do anything you liked. There was no Photoshop anymore, not without electricity to power the computers. Photoshop was just one more thing that had seemed really important at the time, but now was completely irrelevant. Useless.

  These pictures were the real thing. They showed Buckingham Palace and a group of happy, healthy-looking kids— posing at the front in the parade ground, inside eating lunch around a big grand table, working in the gardens, swimming in the lake, playing soccer. It looked like an impossible paradise. A glimpse into another world.

  Arran felt a lump in his throat. His hands were shaking. He gave the photos back to Ollie, who gave them in turn to Blue. Soon they were being passed from one excited kid to another, all grinning and shaking their heads and starting up a happy murmur of approval. The only one of them who scoffed was Callum. He looked at the pictures in disgust and sneered at the people in them.

  Arran’s eyes were misting up. What he had been shown was Unimaginable. It was hope. If what this guy was saying was true, then maybe things would be different in the future. Maybe he and Maxie would have a chance. Earlier it had seemed that there was no way out, that they would all slowly die here in this miserable empty supermarket. Picked off one by one, killed by disease, grown-ups or dogs, or each other.

  Was there really a way out?

  He barely listened as Ollie questioned Jester further, getting more details.

  He was remembering what life had been like before. In his parents’ big house in Dartmouth Park. Playing on the Heath with his mates. Going into Camden to walk around the market. Hanging out on the streets, chatting. Eating Sunday lunch with his mom and dad.

  His mom and dad ...

  He couldn’t picture exactly what his dad had looked like. He had been a busy man and was hardly ever at home. But Mom ...

  He could never forget her face.

  It was the fac
e he had seen at the pool.

  His mother.

  No.

  It wasn’t true. He’d imagined it. No way that—thing— could have been his mother. It was a trick of the light.

  He realized there were tears streaming down his face. He was glad that nobody could see him. He had turned into a little kid again and just wanted his mom to wrap her arms around him. Speak softly to him. Sing him to sleep.

  The thing at the pool, though, if it had been his mother, had tried to kill him.

  “Mwuh ...”

  He wiped his face, dried the tears. If his eyes looked red, they would assume it was because of his wound.

  “We’re going,” he said firmly, and everyone looked at him. “I don’t care if Jester is making it up. I don’t care if there’s nothing at the other end. We can’t stay here any longer. In the morning we pack up everything and we go.”

  “Wait a minute,” said Maeve. She wasn’t like the other kids. She wasn’t a Londoner. She’d been visiting friends in Camden when everything had kicked off, and had been stuck here ever since. “Shouldn’t we discuss this a bit more?”

  “What’s to discuss?” said Arran.

  “Well, I just think it’s crazy,” said Maeve.

  “Maybe,” said Arran. “But I’m not staying here.”

  “What you said before. About going to the countryside. Surely, if we’re going anywhere, that’s what we should do. The city’s crawling with grown-ups. The only food we can find is cans and dried packets and the half-rotten crap we find in abandoned houses. This is no kind of life.”

  “I told you,” said Jester, sounding exasperated. “We’re growing food at the palace. It’s all organized. You go anywhere else, you’re going into the unknown.”

  “I grew up in the country,” said Maeve. “I know it. We need to get away from the city and go where we can properly farm things and keep animals. We need space and clean air. We need to get out of London.”

  “One day, maybe,” said Arran. “But we have to take it one step at a time. If Jester’s right, and it’s safe in the center, if we can make camp at the palace and get strong, then we can prepare. I don’t know—send out scouts, like Jester, only better armed—find the best route. . . .”

  “Why wait?” said Maeve. “If we head into the center of London we’re going the wrong way. Can’t you see that?”

  “It’s what we’re doing,” said Arran, who felt exhausted and had had enough talking for one night.

  “Maeve’s got a point, though,” said Maxie. “If we link up with the Morrisons crew we’ll be strong. We’d have a good chance of getting out. It might be our only chance. To properly start a new life.”

  “We should vote on it,” said Maeve.

  “Okay, okay,” said Arran, who just wanted to go to sleep. “But these are city kids, Maeve. All they know is London. Some of them have never even been out of the city.”

  “Well I have,” said Maeve, “and take it from me, London’s not the center of the world. Our only chance for a decent future is to get out. I’ve been arguing for this since we set up camp here. Now’s our chance to do it properly. If we head north up the A1 and then follow the M1, in two or three days we’d be clear of the city.”

  “All right,” said Arran. “You’ve made your point. All those in favor of going to the palace with Jester, put up your hands.”

  Ollie carefully counted the show of hands.

  “And anyone in favor of Maeve’s plan, put your hands up.”

  Arran was surprised at the number of hands going up in support of Maeve. Once again Ollie counted. But it wasn’t enough. The vote had gone Arran’s way.

  “That’s it, then,” he said. “It’s decided.” He hauled himself up out of his chair and walked over to Blue.

  “What do you reckon?” he asked. “You coming with us, or do you need to take a vote as well?”

  “We don’t need no vote. We ain’t no democracy, man. I’m in charge. End of story.”

  “And?”

  Blue stood up and looked Arran in the eye.

  “We’re coming.”

  They gripped each other’s hands. It felt good to be doing something for themselves. Then Blue turned to Jester and the light went out of his eyes.

  “If you are lying to us, though, Magic Man, you are dead.”

  Small Sam wasn’t dead. That thought was firmly lodged in the back of his mind. He wasn’t dead. When they’d put him in the sack he’d thought that that was it. All over. He’d fainted, and when he’d woken up he was being jostled along on one of the grown-ups’ shoulders. The grown-up stank, but the sack smelled worse. Of grease and rotting meat and poop. Sam didn’t like it in the sack. He couldn’t see anything. He’d wet himself.

  They’d brought him to this place and dumped him on the floor. He had no idea where it was. He was still in the sack. It had taken them about ten minutes to get here. They’d carried him up stairs. Lots of stairs. They must be somewhere high.

  At first, whenever he moved, one of the grown-ups would kick him, and if he whimpered they’d kick him again. Then someone had sat on him for a while, but once he’d stopped struggling, they got off him. He’d lain very still after that, as still as if he’d been dead, and they finally left him alone.

  So he was still alive. For now. He knew, though, that unless he was very lucky he probably wouldn’t make it through the night. He had no doubt at all that the grown-ups were planning to eat him. That’s what they did to the kids they captured. The only reason they hadn’t already eaten him was that they were too full.

  While he’d been lying there in the sack, quiet as a mouse, still as a corpse, he’d heard them eating. They must have caught another kid before him.

  The grown-ups moaned with delight as they fed. Chewing loudly, slurping and belching. Sometimes there was a crunch, or one of them would spit. Once there had been some sort of fight.

  Sam was glad that they had something else to eat, but felt awful that it was another kid.

  And he was glad, so glad, that he couldn’t see anything. The smell of blood was bad enough. It made him want to throw up.

  It was quiet now. He could almost imagine that he was alone.

  He’d been so scared, more scared than he’d ever been before in his life, and although his life had so far been quite short, there had been a lot of scary moments in it. Like when his mom and dad had left him. It had happened one night. His mom had come into the room he shared with his little sister, Ella. Mom had looked bad. Tired and sweaty and ill, with yellow skin and big black rings under her eyes. Gray lumps around her nose. Zits like a teenager. She had been shaking, her teeth chattering so loudly he could hear them, rattle, rattle, rattle. She’d woken him up and hugged him, and he’d felt her tears on his neck. She’d told him that she and Dad were going away. She said there was nothing she could do to help him and his sister, and if she stayed it would be dangerous for them.

  Mom had told him to look after Ella, and he had tried. He had really tried. But he was only small. And now he’d left Ella all alone. She would be sad without him there. He hoped his mom and dad would understand. The thing was, though, he was too small to look after anyone, really. He was only nine.

  At least he hadn’t seen his mom and dad die. Sometimes, when he felt sad and lonely, he would picture them alive. Happy. He saw them on a sunny island, like when they’d gone to the Canary Islands. He told himself that they’d just gone away on a long holiday to somewhere where the disease hadn’t happened. They were on a beach in their swimsuits and sunglasses, drinking cocktails with umbrellas in them. That always cheered him up, imagining they were safe somewhere and that they were maybe thinking about him and Ella. They were probably planning to come back and rescue them.

  Deep down, though, he knew that really they would never be coming back. They must have died just like all the other grown-ups. Because if they hadn’t died . . .

  They’d be like the others.

  These grown-ups, the ones who had captured
him, weren’t people anymore. They couldn’t speak, only grunt and hiss at each other. They were mad things. All they thought about was food.

  Oh, Mom, I wish you were here now. . . .

  He wasn’t really scared anymore. At first it had been almost too much to bear. He had gone stiff with terror. But it was tiring being scared, and it had slowly worn off, so that now he felt numb. And he was bored.

  How long had he been lying here? A tiny bit of light could get in through holes in the sack, and he could see enough to know that it was dark now. Grown-ups were too stupid to light fires or use solar lamps or even flashlights. They had forgotten everything.

  He hoped that they were asleep, because then maybe he could try to get away. He wasn’t tied up or anything. All he had to do was slip the sack off and make a run for it.

  Once he had gone on a school trip to a farm. He had seen sheep and cows and pigs and chickens and he had wondered why they didn’t try to escape. It looked easy. But the thing was, back then the animals were stupid and the humans were clever.

  This was different. These grown-ups were stupid and he was clever. Yes, he was only small, but he was cleverer than they were.

  He smiled.

  He was going to escape.

  He would wait a bit longer, though, until he was really sure it was safe.

  He started to count, not too fast and not too slow. He reckoned that when he got to a thousand, if he hadn’t heard any movement, he would take the sack off and have a look.

  One, two, three, four, five . . .

  Twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty . . .

  Counting to a thousand was taking much longer than he had thought; it seemed to go on forever. He got fed up at 420 and stopped.

  It had been ages since the grown-ups had made any noise. They must be asleep. Or maybe they had gone out hunting again and left him alone?

  Slowly, ever so slowly, he started to wriggle out of the sack, trying to make tiny movements. Every few seconds he would stop and listen, and once he was sure it was okay, he would go on.

  Little by little the sack came off, until it cleared his head. Now he was lying on his side on a sticky, stinking carpet.

 
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