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       The Enemy, p.8

           Charlie Higson
 

  “We can’t just leave him here, though,” said Maxie. “He’ll die.”

  “So what?” said Achilleus. “Let’s get going.”

  Arran shouted them down. “Does anyone else want to stay?”

  No one.

  The kids stood in silence, shaking their heads.

  “You sure?” said Arran. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want. Who’d rather stay here with Callum?”

  Still no one.

  Arran closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. There was nothing for it: he would just have to persuade Callum to come. He strode back inside.

  Bernie turned to Ben. They looked very pale out here. Their black clothes accentuated the whiteness of their skin. They hardly ever went outside.

  “Shame to be leaving it all,” said Bernie. “Everything we built.”

  “We can build more,” said Ben. “If Jester’s telling the truth, we can make loads of cool stuff in the palace. We can rebuild the whole of London. We’ll be famous. They’ll put up statues of us.”

  “Yeah, but . . . the speaking tubes, the barriers, the stoves we rigged up in the canteen, the new signaling system we were working on. It took us ages.”

  “You want to stay?” said Ben.

  Bernie looked wistfully over toward the supermarket.

  “No,” she said. “I want to be a million miles from here. It reminds me too much of everything we’ve lost. All the friends who’ve died. All the bad times.”

  “It’s a fresh start,” said Ben. “We’ll build newer and better stuff.”

  “Yeah.” Bernie smiled and put an arm around Ben.

  Nearby, a group of little kids was clustered around one of the Morrisons crew. A tiny six-year-old called Joel, who had an even tinier puppy wrapped in an old jacket in his arms.

  “Oh, he’s so cute.”

  “Look at him, he’s licking my hand.”

  “What’s his name?”

  “Godzilla,” said Joel, and they all laughed.

  Maxie looked on and smiled. They’d kept dogs in Waitrose at first, as guard dogs and companions, but it had gotten too difficult to feed them, and they’d become semi wild. In the end they’d had to turn them loose. They were probably dead now, along with most of the other pets that had relied on humans.

  Maxie noticed a kid on the edge of the group, not joining in. He just stood there, wide-eyed, molding a big lump of Blu Tack putty in his hands. She went over to him and crouched down.

  “What’s your name?” she asked. The boy stared at her but didn’t speak. Instead he rolled the Blu Tack out into a long rope between his fingers.

  “He don’t speak,” said Blue, walking up. “Not since his mom and dad died.”

  “Poor little guy.”

  “He’s not deaf or nothing.”

  “No.”

  “We call him Blu-Tack Bill. He’s always playing with the stuff. Only thing that keeps him happy.”

  Maxie smiled at Bill and noticed that he had formed the Blu Tack into a letter B. B for Bill.

  “I suppose we’re all going to have to get to know each other,” Maxie said to Blue.

  “Guess so.”

  “I’m Maxie, by the way.”

  “S’all right, girl. I know who you are.”

  Maxie smiled awkwardly, not sure how to take this. Blue scared her slightly. He reminded her of boys from before, the ones that shouted at you in the street and laughed with their friends when you tried to ignore them.

  “Are you, like, Arran’s girlfriend?” Blue asked.

  “No,” said Maxie, a little too quickly and a little too indignantly. “Why would you think that?”

  “Dunno. You’re, like, his second in command.”

  “Is Whitney your girlfriend?”

  “Whitney? No way.” Blue laughed.

  Maxie made a face that said “Well, then.”

  Arran came out of the shop, a dark look on his face.

  Maxie went over to him. “No luck?” she asked.

  “He won’t budge.”

  “We could force him.”

  “What’s the point? If he doesn’t want to come, he doesn’t have to.”

  “We can’t leave him.”

  “I don’t think we’ve got any choice.”

  “Maybe I should speak to him,” said Maxie.

  “Waste of time.” Arran approached Blue. “Any of your lot want to stay?”

  “Nah. We’ve had enough of Holloway. We’re going to the palace.”

  He grinned, and Arran couldn’t help grinning back.

  It was hard to believe. They really were going to Buckingham Palace.

  One of Blue’s deputies ambled over in a loose shuffle. He was tall and bony with a messy Afro and a sleepy look about him. He scratched an armpit.

  “You ready?” he drawled.

  “Yeah.” Blue nodded to Maxie. “Lewis, this is Maxie. Maxie—Lewis. He looks dopey, but don’t be fooled for a moment. He’s a killer. He’ll be protecting the left-hand side.”

  Lewis smiled sleepily and lifted a hand in greeting to Maxie.

  “Okay,” said Maxie. “I guess if Callum’s not coming, then we’re ready to go.”

  Blue, Arran, and Jester had spent the morning working out a plan of action. As usual they would stick to main roads and stay in the middle, keeping well away from the buildings on either side. Arran and Blue were to lead the group along with Jester and the best fighters from each crew. Maxie was taking the right flank with a smaller gang, Lewis the left. Ollie was in charge of bringing up the rear with a motley crew of skirmishers. The remaining older kids would be in the middle, surrounding the little kids, who were being looked after by Whitney, Maeve, and some of the more responsible girls. Two of the kids had been assigned to take attendance, one for each crew. Josh was keeping it for Waitrose, and Whitney for Morrisons. It was their job to keep track of everyone, so that nobody got left behind. Josh took out his list and carefully drew a line through Callum’s name. He felt a bit bad about it. He had spent a lot of time with Callum up on the roof. They were friends. But Callum had been weird lately and, in a way, Josh was glad to be rid of him.

  He was itching to be off.

  Ella was in tears. She pushed her way through the big kids to Arran.

  “I want to stay,” she said.

  “What? You can’t, Ella.” Arran got down on his haunches so that he was at her level.

  “I have to.”

  “Why? What’s the matter, darling?”

  “It’s Sam,” Ella sobbed. “What if he comes back and I’m not here?”

  Arran put his arms around the little girl and gave her a hug.

  “Oh, Ella,” he said. “He won’t be coming back, I’m afraid. He’s gone forever. You have to accept that.”

  “No!” said Ella angrily. “He’s not dead. He’ll come back to me. He’s my brother, and I just know it.”

  “Ella, if I thought for one moment that Sam was coming back, I’d wait here for him. We’d all wait. You know that. But he’s gone. Like all the other kids we’ve lost. We have to think about ourselves now. Think about the future. Sam would want you to be happy, wouldn’t he?”

  “Yes.”

  “He’d want you to be safe?”

  “Yes.”

  “So, for his sake we have to go. All right?”

  Ella sniffed and nodded. “You’ll look after me, won’t you?” she said.

  “’Course I will. Tonight you’ll be safe in the palace, like a princess.”

  Arran stood up, then closed his eyes as a fresh knot of sickness worked its way through his guts. He had wanted to get away hours ago. They had planned to leave early. But getting the kids organized had been a nightmare. He felt like a dad getting his kids ready to go on vacation: dealing with squabbles and complaints and questions, nagging at them to get packed, shouting at them when they forgot things. And then there had been the holdup with Callum.

  Now it looked like they were at last ready to get moving.

  The
y were going to follow the main road down to Camden, cut through Regent’s Park to the Marylebone Road, and then cross over to Portland Place. Portland Place would take them to Oxford Circus, from where they would head down Regent’s Street to Piccadilly Circus and cut through to St. James’s Park. From there it was a straight run along the Mall to the palace. Walking fast they could do it in two hours. But the little kids would slow them down, and if they came across any grown-ups, which they were bound to do, that would slow them down further. They should still make it before the end of the day, though. So there was no panic. It had taken Jester and his friends much longer to get up here, as they had made the mistake of taking back roads and side streets, assuming they would be safer. They had wasted a great deal of time dodging grown-ups, running, hiding, and fighting.

  Arran hoped that the sheer force of their numbers today would deter any grown-ups from attacking. And if they did attack, well then—they were ready for them.

  They were an army.

  He watched the kids as they got into formation. There was an excited, slightly dizzy atmosphere, like at the start of a school trip. The little kids in particular were in very high spirits. They hated being cooped up indoors all day and were happily getting to know each other. The older kids were a little more wary. Some of them had fought each other in the past. Arran and Blue had been working hard to make sure nobody started fighting again. A shared goal and a shared enemy were helping, and the mood was positive for the time being, but Arran knew that if anything went wrong it would quickly lead to arguments and infighting.

  “Come on, then,” he said, throwing one last quick glance back toward Waitrose. “Let’s go.”

  He raised an arm, held it above his head until he was sure that everyone had seen it, and then let it drop toward the center of town.

  A cheer went up. Arran started walking. The rest of the kids fell in behind him.

  They were marching to a new life.

  Small Sam was curled up in a ball. He had made himself as teeny as he could. He was inside an empty water tank in the attic of a house somewhere near Finsbury Park. He was sharing the space with several dead and rotting pigeons. They gave off a choking smell that caught in his throat and made his eyes sting, but he hoped the smell would hide his own smell. Hoped it would keep the grown-ups away. So far it was working. He had been here all night. Waiting. Listening. It was almost like being back in the sack again.

  The last few hours had been a blur, and he was exhausted. He’d been chased down the stairs at the stadium by three grown-ups. Two of them had been on fire. They hadn’t made it to the bottom of the stairs, and Sam had managed to lose the third one in the maze of concrete corridors and walkways behind the stands. But he had also got lost himself. At one point he found himself running across the field, with several bewildered grown-ups watching from the seats.

  Eventually, though, he had found a way out, and as he ran off he’d looked back to see the whole of the top of the stadium on fire. A tower of flames reached up into the night sky.

  He wondered how many of the grown-ups would burn, and it made him happy. His happiness had been short-lived, however, because he realized that he didn’t really know where he was or how to get back to Holloway Road. He had wandered the streets for ages and had somehow ended up in Finsbury Park. He had heard the older kids talking about Finsbury Park. They never came up this way. It was too dangerous. There were too many grown-ups, and lots of the buildings had been damaged by fire. He had an idea that the Seven Sisters Road would take him back to Holloway, but he wasn’t sure which way he should go.

  While he had been standing there, trying to decide, he’d been ambushed by another bunch of grown-ups. Luckily he heard them coming as they stumbled about clumsily in the dark, and he’d gotten away, ducking and scurrying and crawling through derelict gardens. At one point one of them grabbed hold of him in the dark, but he stabbed the butterfly pin hard into its hand, and it dropped him like a burning coal. In the end, tired of running, he had broken into a house and made his way up into the attic, where he had found the empty water tank.

  As he lay there through the long hours of darkness, he cheered himself up by imagining what the others would say when he got back to Waitrose.

  “Sam, you’re alive!”

  “Nobody’s ever done that before.”

  “You’re a hero!”

  “Tell us all about it!”

  “How many did you kill?”

  He pictured them all crowded around him, asking questions, patting him on the back, smiling. The kids at the supermarket were his new family now. The biggest family a boy could hope for. Maybe they would even break out some of the candy they kept for emergencies, as a special treat. Sam loved candy. It was the thing he missed most in the whole world.

  So he had drifted in and out of sleep and in and out of dreams, curled up in the bottom of the water tank, surrounded by dead pigeons.

  It was light now. It had been light for some time. He had watched the bright sun wake up and peep through the cracks in the roof where the tiles were missing or broken. Somewhere nearby a live pigeon was cooing, and he found the sound comforting.

  But he was hungry and he was thirsty and he longed to be safely back at Waitrose.

  He uncurled himself and shifted into a crouch, his leg muscles shaking and weak. His knees and back stiff.

  He peered over the edge of the tank, not knowing what he might see.

  Just an attic. Full of dust and cobwebs and a few sagging cardboard boxes.

  No grown-ups.

  It was safe to leave. He would have to check every step of the way from now on, though. He couldn’t afford to make any more mistakes. He’d been lucky to get away twice. He doubted that his luck would hold much longer. And it was easier at night. There would be more grown-ups about now that it was daytime.

  He told himself that it was just a game. He’d always been good at hiding. Hide-and-seek had been one of his favorite things to play. It had been scary when he’d played with his dad. His dad was big and would make monster noises.

  These grown-ups were just the same. They were like his dad. All he had to do was keep out of their way.

  He went to the opening in the attic floor that he had climbed up through earlier, lay down on his belly and lowered his head until he could properly see the landing below.

  It was all quiet.

  He slid down the ladder and crept along the landing to the window at the end. It led out onto a small flat roof. The street looked empty. He opened the window and crawled out, keeping low, keeping small.

  He had a pretty good view of the street from here. He looked to left and right. There was no movement at all. No wind in the trees, no birds flying, no animals moving about.

  No grown-ups.

  He climbed down off the roof.

  It was then that he saw the bicycle. Leaning against a row of trash cans in the front garden. It looked undamaged. He knelt down and checked it out. The chain was still in one piece, but the tires were nearly flat.

  There was just enough air in them, though, to be able to ride it. It would get him as far as Waitrose at least.

  He pushed it out of the garden and into the road. There was still nobody around. He climbed onto the seat and started to pedal. It was hard work. The bike seemed to be stuck in a high gear. It was moving, though. He pedaled harder, building up speed. The bike creaked and groaned and complained, but he kept at it, wobbling along like he was drunk.

  He’d been confused last night, but finding the bike had given him fresh confidence. All he had to do was follow the road signs to Holloway and he’d be all right.

  He turned left into the Seven Sisters Road and cycled on. The squashy tires made the bike unsteady and difficult to steer, but he was still going much faster than he would be if he was walking.

  For the first time in twenty-four hours he smiled. It was a sunny day. The streets were clear, he was zooming along on his new bike. Well, not quite zooming. More wobbling, perhap
s. But it didn’t matter. He was going home.

  Once again he imagined the look of amazement on the faces of his friends.

  “A bike, Sam? You found a bike!”

  “Well done—you’re the coolest.”

  “King of the streets!”

  Then he heard footsteps behind him.

  He looked back. There was a grown-up following him. A lone father. Loping along on stiff legs, panting with the effort. As Sam watched, another grown-up joined him, a mother this time, her hair tied up in a big untidy knot on top of her head.

  Then another and another. They were coming out of the streets on either side. Sam had to keep glancing back and then looking ahead to make sure he didn’t hit something. There were cars abandoned all over the roads, and you had to be careful or you would crash into one.

  More and more grown-ups were pouring into the road, half running, half walking. Sam skidded around a van and saw two ugly fathers coming at him from the front, one on either side, in a pincer movement. He sped up even more and just managed to squeeze between them as they made a lunge for him. He careened all over the road, out of control, then stood up on the pedals and pumped them as hard as he could. It was about as fast as the bike would go on these junk tires, and he was scared it wasn’t fast enough.

  He had never cycled so hard in his life: his lungs were on fire, his heart trying to punch its way out through his rib cage. Before, he had thought that he was flying along, but now he seemed to be moving in slow motion.

  Come on. Come on.

  He realized there were tears streaming down his face.

  His happy dream of being welcomed home as a hero was in tatters. Nobody would ever know what he had gone through last night. Nobody would know about the battle at the stadium. The giant’s beard on fire. His escape across the field. Hiding in the water tank. It had all been for nothing.

  Nothing . . .

  No. Damn them. He wasn’t going to let them catch him. He was Sam the Giant Slayer. He was going to escape.

  Then, as if in answer to an unspoken prayer, the road began to slope gently downward, and he picked up speed, still pedaling furiously. When he next looked back, the grown-ups had fallen behind. Yes. He was getting away.

 
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