Authors: Michael Robertson
If he went back to the road, he could be a few streets away in no time. No one would find him then; London was a big place. Besides, there might be some food out there.
Michael got to his feet and stretched the aches from his tired body, his bones popping as he reached to the sky.
Despite the combination of tiredness and the fierce wind stinging his eyes, Michael kept them open as he walked. If he blinked, he might miss something. If he missed something, he could be back in the warehouse before he knew it.
Surrounded by shadows, and with the moon too dark to reveal the details of each shrouded form, Michael continued scanning around in case any of them moved. As he walked, the long grass brushed against his legs. It felt like slim fingers grabbing at his ankles.
When he got to the edge of the park, Michael looked down at the packet of unopened cookies. A loud gurgle rolled through his stomach, and his mouth watered. He could almost taste the sugar on his tongue.
He heard the footsteps too late. Before he had time to look up, someone crashed into his side, the sting of the impact exploding through his right shoulder.
The cookies slipped from Michael’s hand as he fell. Pain shot through his left side when he landed on the ground, and the weight of the person who’d run into him fell hard on top of him.
Michael’s world went dark.
A diet of sugar and fizzy pop had left Michael with a permanent headache. It was at its worst when he woke. When he opened one of his eyes, a sharp pain stung his eyeball like he had a metal spike wedged into it.
The first signs of morning lightened the dark sky. Disorientated and freezing, Michael stared up and tried to find his bearings.
When he looked to his right, he saw a girl standing next to him. His entire body snapped tight. Suddenly, the night before came flooding back—the truck, the cookies, the person crashing into him…
Weeks had passed since he’d last seen a girl. Julius didn’t have any at the warehouse. She looked about eighteen years old, but she had her back to him so he couldn’t be sure. A long, brown ponytail rested between her shoulder blades, and she seemed anxious as she watched the road. If he got up now, could he get away from her?
The pain of keeping both eyes open was too much, so Michael closed one. It eased his headache but his heart beat a staccato as he looked up at the tall girl.
The girl brushed her hair back from her forehead and held it there. She turned far enough around for Michael to see her side profile. She was chewing the inside of her mouth.
When she turned to face him, Michael snapped his eyes shut. He pressed them closed so tightly, it had to be obvious he wasn’t still passed out.
The coldness of the ground gripped him and he couldn’t suppress the shiver that forced his breath out with a shudder. When Michael opened his eyes again, he found the girl staring down at him.
The side of her mouth had lifted in a sneer. “I thought you were awake, you little fucker. Nice try though.”
Everything he’d been holding back rushed forward and he shook violently; his voice wavered as he whispered, “Please don’t hurt me. Please.”
The sneer turned into a broad grin, her eyes sparkling as she looked at him. She then lifted her leg up and pressed her foot against his throat. The grit on her boot tread stung his cold skin.
After another quick look around, she returned her attention to him and the smile slid from her face. “A boy like you, out all alone in the city, could fetch me a pretty penny; don’t you know?”
Michael looked up the girl’s long leg to her face then focused on her standing foot.
“I reckon if I found the right people, you could earn me a fortune. The world’s a very different place now, boy. If I were to guess, I’d say I could trade a month’s worth of food for you. I’ve seen the men in their trucks; you’re fresh meat to them.”
Michael shook his head and the dirt on the bottom of her boot scratched like sandpaper on his skin. He looked at her standing leg again.
The girl laughed without smiling. “You were so easy to catch too. You’re the best meal ticket I’ve found in months.”
In one fluid movement, Michael caught the ankle of her standing leg and yanked hard. The pressure lifted from his throat, and she shrieked as she fell backward, hitting the ground with a wheeze.
When Michael scooted away and tried to jump up, his foot slipped on the frozen grass, and he fell to the ground again.
She grabbed his foot in a tight grip. Her face was red, and she grimaced as she kept ahold of him. Kicking out did nothing. If anything, it enraged her further, and she squeezed harder.
The girl flipped him over onto his back and jumped on top of him.
She landed on his chest; the force cut his breath off completely and Michael’s headache returned with a vengeance. The thick throbbing pulse made it feel like his skull would pop.
The weight of her on top of him also drove pain through his shoulder blades. What little energy he had in his body vanished as he tried to buck and writhe to throw her off. “I’m not going back. I’m not,” he cried out.
The girl tilted her head and cocked an eyebrow. “Feisty little fucker, ain’t ya?” Fury replaced her sarcasm. “Although clearly not feisty enough.”
His view of the girl above him blurred as he screamed through clenched teeth. “I’m not going back. No way!”
The girl scoffed and shook her head. “What’s wrong with you, boy? You need to toughen up. There ain’t no room for tears in this life.”
Powerless to his buckling lip, Michael’s voice cracked. “I’m not crying.”
When she got off his chest, he wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand.
Throwing the packet of cookies down at him, she said, “Here’s your share.”
The red, shiny packet rustled as he held it. His eyes continued watering. “Share? They’re all mine.”
“What the fuck? You’re lucky I saved any for you.”
Laughing, the girl sighed. “You find that approach works often, do you? I should sell you to a gang of nonces, you know.”
When Michael didn’t reply, she laughed again. “Besides, you’re too young to swear.”
Looking him up and down, she shrugged. “What are you, eight or something?”
“No, I’m ten. Nearly eleven.”
“Woo, check you out.”
Michael sat up and ground his jaw. “Look, I don’t know who you are or what you want, but I don’t trust or like you. You just robbed me, so I don’t care what you think.”
When he turned and saw a coat rolled up on the ground, some of his rage subsided. “Is… um… Is that yours?”
A dark scowl sat on her face as she leaned down and snatched the coat away. “Listen to me, Nearly Eleven—”
After rolling her eyes, she continued. “Listen to me, Nearly Eleven, I was hot, that’s why I gave you my coat.”
Michael noticed the gooseflesh on her exposed arms and the steam that came from her mouth, so he didn’t respond. She couldn’t possibly be hot in this weather.
“Okay?” she snapped.
Michael nodded. His stomach rumbled and he looked down at the cookies in his hand. When he slid the black, plastic tray out, he said, “There’s only two left in here.”
“That’s your half.”
Another check of the wrapper and he looked up at her. “But there were six in the packet to start with.”
“You’re lucky you got anything, Nearly Eleven. You should consider yourself fortunate. I could have taken everything and left you for dead.”
“But why don’t I have three?”
“You dropped one.”
After a quick look around, Michael looked back up at the girl. “So where’s the dropped one?”
“I ate it.”
“So you had four? You’re a fucking arsehole.”
The girl gripped the front of his coat and tugged. His head snapped back. The sweet smell of cookies rode her breath when she leaned into his face. “Listen, Nearly Eleven, I’m much nicer than a lot of people out here. You keep giving me shit, and I’m going to leave you on your own again.”
“I was fine on my own.”
While pointing at the park, the girl laughed. “Hiding in the fucking bush? Walking down the middle of the road?”
“How long have you been following me?”
“Long enough to know you ain’t fine on your own; you’re a fucking liability, in fact.”
“I was only walking down the road because there was nowhere else to go.”
“Because you didn’t
anywhere else to go; I’m surprised you’re not dead already.”
Michael didn’t reply.
“What are you, a rich kid or something?”
A hot flush spread over Michael’s cheeks, and he looked in the other direction.
Not this again
. The posh jokes had grown tiresome at school—especially when things turned nasty.
Watching him through narrowed eyes, the girl smiled again. “Oh you are, aren’t you? This world must be hard for you then.”
The burn of tears stung his eyes again, and a lump swelled his throat. “I’ve lost my mum, dad, and sister; that would be hard for anyone.”
“Jesus, Bambi, parents die. Get over it.”
Hot grief rushed down his cheeks and his jaw fell loose. “I can’t believe you just said that. I’ve lost my entire family. I went to my auntie’s house and she was gone too… I’ve got no one.”
“You need to toughen up, kid.”
Michael’s bottom lip trembled. “I’m just so scared.”
The girl sighed, dropped down, and gave him a hug.
The unexpected warmth of her embrace made Michael cry harder than ever. He missed his mum.
After a few seconds, she pulled away and cleared her throat. “You need to toughen up. Now isn’t the time to be grieving for what’s lost. We have too much to do to dwell on the past. You need to keep your wits about you in this world.”
“But… I saw my dad die… I watched someone kill him.”
A confused frown crushed her face. “I’ve got enough of my own shit. I don’t need yours too, okay?”
Michael wiped his running nose and said nothing.
“We need to think about what’s ahead of us.” She then offered him her hand. “My name’s Lola. Lola Jackson.”
“Michael. Michael Power.”
Snorting a laugh, Lola raised an eyebrow. “Mike Power? You sound like a porn star.” She shook her head. “I can’t call you that. I’ll have to stick with Nearly Eleven. That okay with you?”
Did he have a choice?
“So, Nearly Eleven, where are you headed?”
“Anywhere. I just want to find somewhere safe… somewhere to call home.”
Although she looked like she wanted to laugh at him again, she refrained. “The illusion of safety has well and truly gone now. We never had safety before; it was a fear of punishment that kept society in check. Now that’s gone and we have nothing.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t worry about it; you just need to let go of the idea that you’ll find safety. No place is home, and if you settle for too long anywhere in this new world, you die.”
Before he could reply, Lola looked up at the sky and said, “Anyway, the best time to travel is at night. It’s getting light, so we need to find somewhere to hide for the day.”
Michael, still soaked from lying on the grass, followed Lola as the sky grew lighter. The blue tinge of morning permeated the darkness. He had only eaten one of the cookies and held tightly to the packet containing the other one. It made sense to save it for later, but his body seemed to have other ideas. His stomach pulled toward his spine as if it would start eating itself if he didn’t hand over the goods.
As he slid the plastic tray from the wrapper, a loud rustling sounded out.
When Lola spun around and glared at him, Michael froze.
Without saying a word, she turned and moved off again. Michael followed, sliding the cookie tray out some more.
She stopped again, raised her eyebrows, and planted her hands firmly on her hips. “Can you make any more fucking noise?”
As he stood with the tray half out of the empty packet, Michael said, “Sorry.”
Lola didn’t reply. Instead, she spun around and set off again.
This time, Michael upended the packet and let the cookie slide down out of the tray. He put it into his mouth whole and bit down. The anticipated crunch never came. The cookie was as stale as the first one.
When Michael dropped the packet onto the pavement, the wind caught it and dragged it along the ground with a skittering sound.
Turning on him yet again, Lola threw her arms wide. “What are you doing, you idiot?”
Despite opening and closing his mouth several times, Michael couldn’t find the words.
Lola pointed down at the rubbish on the ground. “Why are you dropping that there?”
Michael shrugged. “There’s rubbish everywhere. What does it matter?”
Lola stormed over to him and picked the wrapper up. “‘
What does it matter’?
First, you make so much fucking noise that anyone within a square mile can hear us, and then you drop the wrapper in the middle of the street. Look at the rubbish around us.”
After doing as instructed, Michael looked back at her.
“It looks like it's been there for months, right?”
Time had bleached the colors on the older packets. “I suppose so.”
Lola held the empty packet of cookies up. “And does this?”
Instead of replying, Michael sighed and looked at the ground.
“Exactly!” Lola said. “This tells anyone who’s looking that there are people around and they have food.” Lola pointed at a bench on the side of the road. “You might as well go and sit over there and wait for someone to come along and murder you… or worse!”
The warehouse dominated his thoughts—the other boys, the smell, the cries. When he regained his focus, Michael watched Lola march to the overflowing bin next to the bench and stuff the wrapper into it. Without another look at him, she marched off again.