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       The Enemy, p.7

           Charlie Higson
 

  He looked around without moving his head. At first it was too dark to see anything properly. He could just make out that he was in a long room with windows all down one side. There was a pale stripe of bluish gray against the black.

  He waited, unmoving, as his eyes got used to the light, and gradually bits and pieces of the room came into view.

  He could see six grown-ups nearby. The mother and the others who had captured him, as well as two others—a fat old father with a bald head, and a younger one with a straggly beard. They were all fast asleep and snoring and snuffling.

  The room was filthy. There were broken bones on the floor. There were a few greasy chairs, a pile of old rags in the middle, and in one corner was the grown-ups’ toilet. They had done their business on the carpet and there were flies buzzing around it.

  He retched. He wanted to use a swearword. He thought of the worst thing he knew and said it loudly in his head.

  Bastards.

  They didn’t know better than to poop on the floor.

  The dirty bastards.

  Back at Waitrose they had a system. They used buckets as toilets, and every day they took turns to empty them into the drains outside.

  Not this lot.

  He hated them.

  The nearest one, a father, let off a long slow fart and rolled over in his sleep. A shaft of moonlight fell across his face. Sam looked at him. He had never seen a diseased grown-up so close before. He had only seen them lumbering past in the street from a safe distance.

  This father was dirty and very ugly. His hair was all stuck together and it didn’t really look like hair. His skin was orangey-yellow and hanging loose in flaps, covered in sores and blisters and boils. It had cracked open in places, showing a gooey blackness underneath. He yawned and Sam saw that there was a big hole in his cheek. Through it he could see broken rotten teeth.

  Sam got into a crouch and backed away from him.

  His heels dug into something soft. He hadn’t noticed a seventh grown-up curled against the wall. It shuddered in its sleep and shifted restlessly. Sam held his breath. It was a mother. She wrapped her arms around one of his legs, nuzzled against him, and relaxed.

  She was younger than the other mother, with a tangle of black hair. There was a silver butterfly pin stuck in it. Sam thought it might be a good weapon. He carefully slid it out and held on to it tightly. It was like a long needle, with the silly, jeweled insect perched at one end. If any of these filthy bastards came near him he would stick it in. Yes he would. Just you watch him. He would stick it in good.

  Dirty bastards.

  Bastards, bastards, bastards . . .

  It felt good to swear. Even if it was only in his mind.

  He tried to pull his leg free, but the mother had too strong a grip on it. If he tugged too hard she might wake up. He studied her. She looked quite nice, quite pretty. Then she turned her head and he saw the other side of her face: it was a nest of boils. Great round lumps covered the whole of her cheek, her neck, her ear, even her eyelid. The skin was stretched tight, and it looked like the lumps might burst at any moment.

  Sam had a terrible urge to pop one with the butterfly pin. Instead he leaned over and used the tip of it to tickle her skin. Soon she started to twitch and then let go of his leg to scratch the spot. With a sigh of relief he managed to step clear.

  He would have to be much more careful. The more he took in of his surroundings, the more he realized that there were grown-ups everywhere. The floor was covered in them. If he took one wrong step he would tread on one. He remembered when his dad had taken him to the zoo in Regent’s Park. In the reptile house they tried to spot lizards or snakes in their glass cages. When you first looked you couldn’t see any, but if you were patient, you spotted them. Lying in clumps, on top of each other, under rocks, half buried, lazy and bloated.

  He had to get out of here.

  He moved cautiously to the window. To try to get some idea of where he was.

  To begin with, he could make no sense of what he saw. It was a huge alien space. Not inside but not outside. It reminded him of something.

  Yes. The amphitheater in a gladiator film.

  Of course.

  It was the Arsenal soccer stadium. He was in a hospitality box, looking across the rows and rows of red seats toward the field. There were grown-ups out there, some sleeping in the seats, some lying on the floor, some wandering aimlessly about.

  Maybe they’d come back here because it was familiar; it meant something to them. There was certainly not going to be any more soccer played here for a long time. Far below, the grass on the field had grown high. A father was standing there, very still, like a statue. Grass up to his knees. He was fat and, like a lot of grown-ups, looked completely bald. He wore a white vest with a red cross of Saint George on it. Sam had the unnerving feeling that he was looking straight at him.

  Sam felt sad. Dad had brought him here once. He remembered how full of life and sound and color it had been. He’d been scared at first, all those people shouting and singing and swearing and jumping up and down. But he’d gotten into it and had ended up shouting along with them, even though he wasn’t really a soccer fan.

  Now look at it....

  There were sliding glass doors here that opened onto the terraces, but even if they weren’t locked, the noise of trying to open them would most likely wake the sleeping grown-ups. Besides, there were more grown-ups out there. If they spotted him it would be impossible to get away from them in such a wide-open space. No. There had to be another way out, a back way. There must be some stairs down behind the stands.

  He crept across the carpet. The room was very big; it opened up at the back into a sort of dining area with broken tables and chairs in it. There were still more grown-ups sleeping here, and Sam had to look away as he glimpsed a half-eaten body lying under one of the tables.

  Don’t look. Don’t look. Don’t look.

  He tried to pretend that he was in a film. He’d always had a good imagination; he could lose himself in a game for hours and hours. The film was The Lord of the Rings, and he was a hobbit in an orc castle. His dad had been reading him the book at night before he got sick, but it had been a bit old for him. He preferred the movies.

  He wasn’t just any old hobbit. He was Sam. Samwise Gamgee, the bravest of them all, and the butterfly pin in his hand was an elf sword.

  That’s right, keep thinking about something else.

  It was darker back here away from the windows, and the smell was even worse. He remembered the time he lost his lunch box. He thought he’d left it at school. It turned up weeks later under a seat in the car. When Sam opened it, it was full of stale air and rotting food and horrible green fungus that sent up a cloud of spores when it was disturbed. He actually had been sick then, the smell had been so bad.

  This was worse. His eyes were stinging.

  Dirty bastards . . .

  He edged his way forward, scanning the floor for any sleeping bodies, feeling gently with his toes, holding his nose with his fingers and breathing through his mouth. This place must be full of germs. Was it bad to breathe them in?

  He spotted what looked like a door, on the far side of the room, past a bar. He headed for it, speeding up slightly. Halfway there a figure loomed up in front of him, and his heart caught in his ribs.

  One of the grown-ups had woken.

  Sam dropped to the floor and flattened himself against the sticky carpet, pressing his face down so that he would be hard to spot. Sometimes it was good to be small.

  The grown-up shuffled past a few inches from where Sam was lying. As soon as he had gone, Sam scuttled over to the bar and crouched down behind it.

  He could sense that the grown-up had heard something, though. It made a strangled sound and began to move about in the dark.

  Sam was still clutching the butterfly pin. It wasn’t enough. He needed to find something else he could use as a weapon. With his other hand he felt around on the shelves behind the bar. The
re must be something. A corkscrew maybe, or even a knife. His hands closed over a hard plastic object. He ran his fingers over it, trying to work out what it was.

  A cigarette lighter.

  Better than nothing. It might help him to see where he was going, if he ever got out of here. He slipped it into his pocket and kept on searching.

  He found nothing else and eventually the grown-up stopped moving about. Sam left it as long as he could—he was so close to getting out he couldn’t stand waiting here any longer.

  He peered around the end of the bar. Nothing. No movement. Only those dark shapes on the floor. He tiptoed to the door, passing through a wet patch. He didn’t like to think what it might be, but it made his feet suck and squelch.

  It sounded horribly loud to him, but he couldn’t stop.

  Keep moving, Sam. Just get out of here.

  He was at the door. It was open.

  Thank God.

  He’d made it.

  So long, you dirty bastards.

  He went through. It was pitch-black out here; he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. He told himself that it was all right. Nothing would jump out at him, because nothing could see him.

  It didn’t help.

  He was petrified. If he hadn’t peed himself earlier, he would have done it now. His heart was beating so hard he could feel his whole body shaking, and in the dead silence the blood surging in his ears was deafening. He’d always been scared of the dark. His mom had told him not to worry.

  “If you can’t see the monsters, they can’t see you.”

  Back then there had been no monsters. Not real ones. Only imaginary.

  Now ...

  He held his breath and inched forward, his hands stretched out in front of him, feeling the floor with his feet.

  He came to a step.

  Stairs.

  Good. They would take him down, away from this awful place.

  One step ... two steps ...

  It would be a long climb, but maybe there would be windows soon.

  Step followed step followed step. He started to move quicker as he grew more confident. Finding a rhythm.

  He came to a wall and was confused for a moment until he realized that the stairs turned a corner. He reached out his hands, groping in the darkness.

  They touched something warm and soft.

  What was it?

  It moved.

  No ...

  He turned around. He had to get away. There was only one thing it could be—a grown-up.

  He started to cry. He couldn’t run, not in the dark. He fell to his hands and knees and crawled like a dog. His eyes screwed shut. The grown-up was coming after him; he could hear its feet scraping, its breath rasping.

  Sam felt strong hands grip his ankle. He kicked out. Got away. Sped up.

  But where could he go? Upstairs there were only more grown-ups.

  If he moved to the side and kept still, maybe this one would go past him. He tried it. But the grown-up was already there, on the step next to him.

  Sam shouted in panic and scurried up the steps as fast as he could. He was back at the door to the directors’ box. There was movement on the other side. The grown-ups were waking up.

  It was all over. He should never have shouted.

  He blundered into the room, the weak light seeming suddenly bright after the inky blackness of the stairwell.

  There was a wet slurp behind him. He turned. The grown-up was filling the whole doorway. He was huge, a tall father, well over six feet. He was wearing a long, soiled overcoat and had a huge black beard and no teeth. He opened his mouth in a silent howl and grabbed Sam, clutching him to his chest.

  Another father blundered across the room and tried to snatch Sam back. The giant swatted him away.

  More grown-ups came on now, with hunched backs and bent legs too feeble to hold their weight.

  The giant must be an intruder, come to steal food. The group in the directors’ box didn’t like it. They swarmed around him, their strength in numbers, as he pushed them away and lashed out at them. Sam was being crushed against his hot damp chest. The mother who had first snatched him got hold of an arm and tugged. Sam felt like he was going to be torn in half.

  “Get off me! Get off!” he shouted, but the sound of his voice only seemed to send the grown-ups into a frenzy. Sam was surrounded by a stinking, fetid mass of bodies, hands clawing at him, faces looming close. But nothing could make the giant let go.

  Sam’s hand holding the butterfly pin was clamped in the fold of the giant’s arm. Then he remembered the lighter. With his free hand he groped in his pocket until he found it. He prayed that it would work.

  He pressed the button. Nothing. He pressed again. Still nothing.

  Again ... Click-click-click ...

  A spark.

  Come on. Come on.

  There were spots dancing in front of Sam’s eyes. His ears were singing. He couldn’t breathe. Any moment now he was going to pass out.

  Again he pressed, and this time a small orange flame sprang into life.

  He raised his hand and put the flame to the giant’s beard.

  The effect was spectacular. There was a blinding, scorching flare as the beard crackled and sizzled. The giant yelped and dropped Sam, batting at the flames and sparks with his huge, grubby hands.

  Sam was in danger of being trampled underfoot. The giant was hopping and dancing around. Sam flinched clear as hands reached out for him. He realized he still had the lighter clutched in his hand, with the flame lit. He held tight to the bottom of the giant’s coat and put the flame to it. In a few seconds it was alight.

  The giant stumbled across the room as the flames spread up his coat. Some of the other grown-ups kept a fearful distance, others jumped on his back. Soon a full-scale battle was raging, the remaining bits of furniture were being smashed to pieces and set alight. A fat mother seemed to actually explode as if her clothing had been trapping flammable gases.

  Flaming bodies ran in panic. The giant was a living fireball. The room was lit up bright as day, and Sam could see the full horror of it. The blood and filth and bits of dead bodies.

  It was like a vision of hell.

  He didn’t stay to watch.

  “Die, you dirty bastards!” he yelled, and in a moment he was back on the stairs, holding his lighter up to see where he was going. Its feeble light slowly dimmed as the last of the fuel ran out, but he was hurrying down, three steps at a time.

  There was a shriek behind him. He looked around. Flames were leaping down the stairwell, and burning grown-ups were coming after him.

  Run, Sam, run. . . .

  I’m not coming.”

  “What do you mean you’re not coming?”

  “I’m not leaving this place, Arran. It’s home. It’s safe. I like it here. I’m not leaving and you can’t make me.”

  “Callum, you can’t stay here by yourself.”

  “I won’t be by myself. Others will want to stay, just you see. I won’t be alone. Not everyone wants to go.”

  “But they’re all outside, waiting. It’s arranged.”

  “Ask them,” said Callum. “Ask them if they really want to go, or if they’d rather stay here with me.”

  “We took a vote on it,” said Arran wearily.

  “No we didn’t. We voted on whether to go into the center of town or into the countryside. You never asked them if they’d all rather just stay here. So ask them.”

  “You ask them,” said Arran.

  “No,” said Callum. “I’m not going out there. I’m happy here.” He sat down and folded his arms.

  “Well, what if one or two did want to stay?” said Arran. “How would you survive, Callum? It’s crazy.”

  “I’ll tell you what’s crazy,” said Callum angrily. “You lot, going off out there, just because some weird kid in a patchwork suit turns up. It’s like that fairy story The Pied Piper of Hamelin, where he takes the kids away and, I don’t know, eats them, or something.”
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  “That’s not what happens.”

  “Yeah, well, whatever, it hasn’t got a happy ending. Why did you listen to that idiot? Hmm? Why did you believe him? He’s obviously lying.”

  Arran looked around the supermarket, where he had spent the last year of his life. They were on the shop floor, surrounded by row upon row of empty shelving. He was sick of the sight of the place.

  “Callum,” he said steadily, “anything’s better than staying here and dying one by one.”

  “It doesn’t have to be like that. You do what you want, Arran, but I’m staying.”

  “You can’t.”

  “Why not?”

  “Why not?” The thought of getting out of here filled Arran with a light, airy feeling. He’d had a bad night. The pain in his neck had steadily grown worse. He didn’t know if he’d slept at all. Now his head was throbbing, his eyes were dry and sore, and he was sweating heavily. The last thing he wanted to do was hang around here worrying about himself.

  He looked at Callum, sitting stubbornly in an old armchair, as if nothing in the world could shift him.

  “What if the grown-ups get in?” he said.

  “They won’t try and get in if they think there’s no one here.”

  “They’re bound to try, though, and I mean . . . Jesus, Callum, come on, what will you eat?”

  “I can scavenge just like you did. If there’s less of us, there’s less mouths to feed. It’ll be easier, actually.”

  “Yes, and what if it’s just you? What then?”

  “It won’t be. Loads of other kids will want to stay. You’re forcing us out and we don’t like it.”

  Arran sighed.

  “All right. I’ll ask them,” he said.

  He walked outside into the sunshine. All the Waitrose kids and the Morrisons crew were assembled there—fiftyseven of them in all. Carrying sleeping bags and backpacks, food, water, and weapons.

  “Callum says he’s not coming,” Arran announced. There were groans from the kids.

  “Typical.”

  “He only ever thinks about himself.”

  “Leave him. He’s not a fighter. We can live without him.”

 
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