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       The Enemy, p.9

           Charlie Higson
 

  See you, losers!

  On he went. His legs like Jell-O. And each time he looked behind him, the grown-ups were farther away.

  He whooped.

  He screamed.

  He was Sam the hero again.

  By the time he hit Holloway Road he was alone. He had lost sight of the shambling idiots. Ah, they were probably still following him, but they’d take ages to get here—he had plenty of time to get inside.

  There it was. Waitrose. His home. The lookouts on the roof would have spotted him already. He waved, but couldn’t see anyone. Maybe they were already at the speaking tube, sending orders to the kids below.

  “You’ll never believe it! It’s Sam, riding a wonky bike like a crazy kid!”

  Maybe the doors would open up for him as he arrived.

  He cycled up to the front of the shop and jumped off his bike. He couldn’t hear anyone inside.

  “Hey!”

  He pulled the chain that rang a big bell above the shop floor. Pulling and pulling and pulling.

  “Open up!” he yelled. “It’s me, Sam. I’m back!”

  Nothing. What was taking them so long?

  “Hey! You lot. It’s me. Let me in. . . .”

  He stopped shouting and listened. He couldn’t hear anything. He pulled the chain again. Maybe it was broken? No. He was sure he could hear the bell ringing in the shop. So why was nobody coming?

  He stepped back and went over to the window to try to see inside, but all the shutters and barricades were up. He banged on the glass. Shouted again.

  He huffed. This wasn’t how he’d pictured it at all.

  Something caught his eye and he turned to look back the way he had come. Bodies walking. His heart lifted for a brief moment. It must be a scav party returning. They’d get him in.

  They were too big, though, too slow.

  And there were too many of them.

  Tears sprang back into his eyes Why had he lied to himself?

  It was the grown-ups who had chased him down Seven Sisters Road. They must have carried on, doggedly following his trail, and now they were shuffling nearer.

  He ran back to the door and tugged at the bellpull, screaming at the top of his voice.

  “Let me in let me in let me in!”

  The grown-ups heard him and broke into a lazy jog. They weren’t exactly hurrying, though. Why would they need to? They’d catch up with him in the end.

  Callum could hear someone outside. Ringing the bell, banging on the windows, shouting. He stayed in his chair, unmoving. If he sat here long enough they would go away. For the first time in a year he was alone. Properly alone. He truly believed that if he was careful, if he stayed hidden and kept quiet, the grown-ups would ignore the shop, leave him be. Arran had left him some food and water, without telling the others. That was a cool thing to do. But what Arran couldn’t have known was that Callum already had loads of stuff stashed away. He had been hoarding since they first came here. In secret places. Above loose ceiling panels, in the wall spaces behind cabinets, in forgotten storage areas. It had been obvious to him from the start—if he didn’t look after himself, he was going to wind up dead. Let the others share, let them ration everything, divide food into portions—when everything ran out they’d quickly start fighting over what was left.

  There was only one of him. This was his kingdom now. He was Arran, Achilleus, Freak, and Ollie all rolled into one.

  He hadn’t been making it up when he’d told Arran he thought that some other kids would want to stay, though. He’d half hoped they would, but after the initial surprise that nobody did, he’d soon discovered that it was much better this way.

  There was nobody to get on his nerves. Just him and his stash. Alone. Peaceful. Bliss. No more arguments. No more petty fights. No more needling or bullying. Most of the time, being here had felt like being in the Big Brother house. Everyone living on top of each other, with nothing to do except moan and bitch. Occasionally a scav party had brought back books they’d looted, or games and puzzles, anything to lift the boredom, but it had never been enough.

  Now there was nobody to tell him what to do. What was the point, if the adults had all died, of simply getting jumped-up kids to boss you about? Oh, sure, he liked Arran, but he didn’t ever remember voting that he should be in charge.

  It would be different now. Callum could do whatever he wanted. He even had a portable CD player. He’d kept it hidden in his most secret stash, along with some CDs and, most important of all, batteries. Batteries were more precious than gold. They’d found stacks of them in the shop when they first arrived, and they’d thought that they would last forever. Callum had been the first to realize just how quickly they would run out, though, and had set about hoarding them. Now he didn’t have to hide them anymore.

  He was looking forward to putting on some music. He hadn’t listened to any music for about six months. A lot of the kids had had iPods and other MP3 players, but they were completely useless as there was no way to charge them. Deke had once found a solar charger in a shop, but it never worked properly and it eventually broke. And that was the end of that.

  Until now.

  Sweet.

  Callum was nicely set up.

  But now someone was trying to spoil it. Making a racket outside, drawing the attention of any grown-ups who happened to be in the area.

  Well, they could make as much noise as they wanted. He wasn’t about to let them in. This was his crib now. It was not for sharing.

  He closed his eyes. Soon, whoever was outside would go away, and he could have some more peace and quiet.

  The grown-ups hobbled down the road on bent legs.

  Some were dribbling. Some were clacking their teeth together and making a sort of humming, buzzing sound. Some scratched at their sores and rashes. Some were shaking all over and whipping their heads from side to side. One was missing a hand, and his forearm was green and gangrenous. All of them were hungry and crazy and in pain. The creature by the shop was food. They would catch it and rip it open and feed on it. That was all that mattered to them.

  Sam reckoned he had about thirty seconds before they got to him.

  He studied the barriers, his eyes darting about wildly. He knew they couldn’t be forced, but they were built to keep out grown-ups, and he was small—maybe he could find a way. . . ?

  He frowned. There was a small gap at the top. The barriers hadn’t been closed properly. If he could climb up he just might be able to squeeze through. He jumped up and grabbed hold of the top of a metal sheet. It bit into his hands, but he ignored the pain.

  He glanced down the road. The grown-ups were nearly upon him.

  His feet scrabbled on the metal, trying to get a grip. His sneakers squeaked. He found a little bump and his foot held fast. Now he pulled and wriggled and kicked, and then he was up. On his belly. He was right. He could just fit through the space at the top. It was tight, though, and he could hardly breathe as he forced his small body into the narrow gap, scraping his skin on the edges, his feet kicking out behind him like a mad frog.

  He could hear the grown-ups. They had finally gotten here. He felt hands trying to take hold of his ankles. He kicked harder, and with a mighty effort he wrenched his hips through and then slithered and tumbled down the other side into the covered mall.

  Outside, the grown-ups whined and moaned. He hoped they couldn’t get in. The barrier was usually bolted shut, but the bars weren’t in place and the chain was hanging loose. Why hadn’t it been done properly?

  Awful thoughts came into his head. What if there had been an attack while he was gone? What if everyone was dead?

  He ran over to the shutter. It hadn’t been wound down all the way. Again, a grown-up wouldn’t fit through. But he was Small Sam.

  He wormed his way under on his belly and stood up. Slowly he walked farther into the shop, fearful of what he might find.

  It all looked the same as ever—except that it was deserted.

  “Hello?”
<
br />   His voice sounded feeble and tiny.

  He walked deeper inside.

  Somebody was in an armchair. In the area at the back, where they had cleared a space and moved in some furniture. Just sitting there. Doing nothing. He wasn’t dead, though. He blinked.

  It was Callum.

  “Hello?” said Sam, walking closer. “Are you all right?”

  Callum nodded slowly, watchful. “How did you get in?” was all he asked. No surprise or joy at seeing Sam back from the dead.

  “The barriers weren’t properly shut.”

  “I must have not closed them right when they left.”

  “What do you mean?” said Sam. “When who left?”

  Callum told Sam everything that had happened. Sam slumped down on a sofa, exhausted.

  “They can’t have gone,” he said.

  “Well, they have. All of them.”

  “Except you.”

  “Except me.”

  “Why didn’t you go with them?”

  Callum shrugged. “I like it here.”

  “Didn’t you hear me, though?” said Sam. “When I was trying to get in? I rang the bell.”

  “I didn’t know it was you, did I? How could I? I thought it was one of them, a grown-up.”

  “It was me,” said Sam, and he started to cry. He was so tired. All he wanted to do was lie down on the sofa and go to sleep, but Callum was looking at him in an odd way. Sam was so confused. He wasn’t sure he trusted Callum. Wasn’t even sure that he was telling the truth. Had a raggedy boy really turned up and led everyone away?

  “My sister Ella,” he said quietly. “I promised to look after her, and now she’s gone.”

  “They didn’t leave that long ago,” said Callum. “You could catch up with them easy.”

  “I’d have to go back out there.”

  “Yeah.” Callum nodded his head slowly, watching Sam with glittering black eyes.

  Sam stood up. “Is there a bicycle pump here?” he said.

  Arran’s head was spinning. Walking in the hot sun was boiling his already feverish brain. He felt faint and found breathing difficult. He was trying hard not to show it, but every now and then he would sway and stumble sideways across the road. He took another sip of water. His hundredth since they’d left, it seemed like. At this rate he’d finish his supply before they even got to Camden.

  The truth was, he felt awful, and he knew it was serious. Germs had got in through his broken skin and they were breeding in his blood.

  He could have wept. If Jester had only showed up a few hours earlier, then Arran would never have gone up to the pool with the scav party. Deke would still be alive, and Small Sam too, probably. Then Arran wouldn’t have this bloody bite in his neck. It was typical to be shown a way out, to be offered a place of safety, to have hope dangled in front of you, only to have it snatched away like this.

  It just wasn’t fair. He might make it to the palace only to drop dead.

  Whatever happened, he was going to make sure that they all got there safely, though. His kids. Even if it was the last thing he did. He had to focus on that and not brood over anything else. He was responsible for this lot and he wasn’t going to let them down.

  He needed to take his mind off his injury. He saw Freak, trudging along, head down, staring at the ground, his hood pulled forward to cover as much of his face as possible.

  “You all right, mate?” he asked.

  Freak grunted. Could have been yes or no.

  “D’you mind leaving the shop?”

  Freak shrugged. Since he’d gone crazy in the battle last night he’d slipped back to being silent and moody.

  “There wasn’t anything more you could have done,” said Arran kindly. “Even if we had got Deke away from there. He had glass in his side. His lung was punctured.”

  “I know,” said Freak. “I just miss him, is all. He used to make me laugh. Nothing else did. He made me forget all this.”

  “If I knew any jokes I’d tell you one,” said Arran.

  “Don’t bother, mate. You’re terrible at telling jokes.”

  “Yeah, I know,” said Arran. “Always have been. Luckily I was good at soccer, so it didn’t matter. That’s what I’d really like to do, you know, play soccer again. First thing when we get there, I’m going to set up a game. You’ll play, won’t you?”

  “If we get there.”

  “We’ll get there,” said Arran.

  “I wish I had your confidence,” said Freak bitterly.

  Arran said nothing. He might have fooled Freak, but he wasn’t fooling himself. So far they’d seen no signs of any life at all, but he doubted it would stay that way. They’d definitely have to deal with grown-ups somewhere along the way. The image of the mother at the pool—his mother?—came unwanted into his head again.

  “It’s not my mother,” he said without meaning to.

  “You what?” Freak gave him a puzzled look.

  “Nothing,” said Arran, and he pressed a palm against his hot temple.

  “Listen, Freak,” he went on. “This might be tough, getting there and all, and we’re going to need all the help we can get. You walking along like that, looking like crap, it’s going to make the little kids scared. Be tough for them, yeah?”

  Freak raised his head and stared at Arran.

  “How did it end up like this?” he said. “We’re just kids ourselves.”

  “It just happened,” said Arran. “Let’s not try to figure it out, eh, Freak?”

  “I dunno.”

  Arran unslung his backpack and opened it.

  “Here,” he said. “I got something for you. I was waiting for the right moment. I guess this moment is as good as any.” He pulled out a can of spray paint. Freak’s eyes went wide.

  “Where’d you get that?” he said.

  “I found it when I was clearing out Waitrose, getting ready to leave. It was packed away in the back of a cupboard. Dunno who put it there.”

  “You got any more?”

  “I got five, mate. Black, white, red, yellow, and silver.” He passed one to Freak, who rattled it.

  “Still half full.”

  Arran handed over the other four cans, and Freak stashed them in his own backpack.

  “Maybe if you can spray your tag somewhere—FreakyDeaky—it’ll sort of keep Deke alive. Write in big letters ‘Deke lives,’ or something. Don’t let them win. The grown-ups.”

  Freak pushed his hood back off his head and walked straighter and taller. “Arran?”

  “Yeah?”

  “Don’t worry.” Freak put a hand on Arran’s shoulder. “I’m with you all the way, man.”

  “Thanks.”

  Jester came over, his big mouth stretched into a tooth-filled grin.

  “This is going to be so much easier than getting to Waitrose,” he said.

  “I hope so,” said Arran.

  “It will be, you’ll see. You guys know how to look after yourselves.”

  Arran’s stomach clenched and he felt suddenly sick. He couldn’t speak for a moment, but Jester filled the silence.

  “Something I want to know,” he said. “How come you all ended up living in Waitrose?”

  “It just sort of happened,” said Arran. “I don’t know who got there first. But we all turned up looking for food.”

  “And was there any?”

  “Some. Amazingly. I think they’d stored up emergency supplies. There was stuff out of the way in freezers and upstairs in the storerooms. We had to break some locks, but we got to it all in the end. Same thing happened in Morrisons.

  There was nothing fresh, of course, no fruit or vegetables or fresh meat, but there was canned stuff, and other useful things like candles and string and knives and batteries and I don’t know. . . .”

  “No soap,” said Jester.

  “Yeah, there was soap.”

  “Shame you didn’t use any of it.”

  Arran looked at Jester; his smile was even wider than before.

 
; “What are you saying?”

  “No offense and all,” said Jester, “but you lot stink. You probably don’t notice it, living there all the time, but I’m telling you, it’s a relief to get out of that shop.” He held his nose theatrically and screwed up his face.

  “We wash when we can,” said Arran. “There were bathrooms there. Ben and Bernie rigged up a way to heat rainwater, but we weren’t going to waste too much of the stuff on washing. And, I mean, you’re right—after a while you don’t notice the smell.”

  “What about your clothes?”

  “We wash them now and then if we have to, but mostly we find new stuff in the shops. It’s easier.”

  “You had it all worked out, didn’t you?” said Jester appreciatively. “That place looked like a fortress.”

  “Yeah, we made it safe,” said Arran. “And once we were there, well, where else could we go? We’ve been living on what we could find in the houses around here, but it was getting harder and harder. We’d have starved soon enough if you hadn’t shown up.”

  “You’re going to make a real difference,” said Jester. “We can properly start getting ourselves sorted out at the palace.”

  “It’s in Babylon,” said Arran.

  “What is?” said Jester. “What do you mean?”

  Arran laughed. “Sorry. I was thinking about something else. The words just came out.”

  “You sure you’re feeling okay?” said Jester. “You look kind of hot and sweaty.”

  “It’s nothing,” Arran lied. “I’m just reacting to this bite. It’s not serious.”

  “We got medical books at the palace,” said Jester, “and lots of drugs. A girl called Rose looks after us. She knows her stuff. We’ll fix you up. We’ve even got antibiotics.”

  “I think that’s what I need.”

  “Yeah.”

  Arran took some more water, felt it trickling down his throat. He pictured it like a stream of mercury. It hit his stomach, and another wave of sickness came over him. The sun seemed very bright all of a sudden, sparking off the cars and breaking up into fierce colored shards. He closed his eyes and instantly snapped them back open.

  That face. Every time. His mother’s face. He couldn’t get rid of it.

 
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