Authors: Charlie Higson
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
Ed had nothing left. He was alone. Exhausted. Terrified. He was sick of the sight of blood. His ears were filled with the sound of screaming. He fell to his knees, looked up at the sky and opened his mouth wide, but his throat had closed, his vocal cords had gone tight and all that came out was a long hopeless, silent shout of despair.
And then the screams of the other boys were drowned out by a rumble and a roar. Something huge was approaching down the road, looming out of the misty rain like a breaching whale. There was the blast of a horn.
Two of the teenagers let go of Bam and turned to stare, dumbly. They were flattened with a bone-breaking crunch.
Ed’s lungs had stopped working altogether. His chest was gripped by bars of iron. It felt like his heart had stopped as well. He couldn’t move or make sense of what was happening as the hulking leviathan headed straight for him where he knelt in the middle of the road.
With a final mighty hiss and a screech of metal scraping against metal the thing stopped, centimetres from Ed.
It was a bus. A bloody coach. A monster of a thing, two and a half metres wide and twice as high. White, with smoked windows. Ed could feel the heat coming off it.
It seemed so out of place here. A thing from the past. Ed wouldn’t have been more surprised if a dragon had just landed snorting fire and smoke. He scrambled round to the side, half crawling, half running, and the passenger door opened with a sigh.
There was a man in the driver’s seat. Stocky and round-faced with a big head and close-cropped fair hair. Thirty-five, maybe forty – Ed was never very good at judging. The thing was, though – he was a man. An adult. The enemy.
‘Get in!’ he barked at Ed.
Was this a rescue or a trap? The man didn’t look diseased, but that didn’t mean anything. You couldn’t trust any adults at all. And yet he was driving a coach. None of the other adults, whose brains had been rotted by the disease, could drive a coach. Most of them could hardly even walk.
‘Get in, or I’m going.’
Before Ed could do or say anything Wiki and Arthur pushed past him and scurried up the steps, Chris Marker and Kwanele, still lugging his designer suitcase, followed hard on their heels.
Ed turned back to where the last survivors were still fighting.
‘Get on the coach!’ he screamed. ‘Come on, quickly!’
He saw Frédérique and grabbed her again, almost throwing her up the steps. Then he got hold of Justin, the nerd who had fallen on him earlier, and dragged him away from three vicious-looking teenage girls. Four boys from the chapel pushed past, then Bam came barrelling over with his arm round one of his rugby players. It was Piers, his red hair soaked with blood. Ed helped them on to the coach, but as he climbed on board himself he felt a hand close round his left ankle and tug him backwards. He fell painfully on the steps.
‘Stay down!’ the coach driver shouted, and Ed did as he was told.
There was a flash and a bang. Ed felt something skim over his head, brushing his hair, and whoever had hold of him let go. He looked up to see the driver pointing a shotgun out of the door, smoke rising from the end of its double barrels. Ed crawled up the rest of the way, the doors closing behind him, and the coach started to move.
He hauled himself to his feet and slumped into one of the front seats, too shattered to take another step. Every part of him felt bruised and battered.
‘That’s not everyone,’ he croaked. ‘There must be more?’
‘I couldn’t wait any longer, pal. Too risky by half,’ said the driver. ‘You’d better say goodbye to whoever you left behind.’
‘We have to check. We have to make sure.’
‘No, we don’t. We have to get away from here.’
Ed felt the coach speed up. Heard the thump of bodies being hit.
‘You’re not safe yet, sunbeam,’ said the driver, grimacing as he wrenched the wheel round, and the whole coach jolted and juddered as its wheels ran over something – or someone. ‘Not till we’ve put this lot behind us.’
Ed twisted round in his seat and looked along the length of the coach – how many of them were missing? Half? More?
‘Look out!’ the driver yelled, and Ed turned back just in time to see a teenage girl squashed against the windscreen like a giant bug. The driver turned a switch and the wipers sped up, smearing pus and blood over the smoked glass.
‘That’s the last of them, I reckon. Looks like a clear run ahead.’
Ed was shivering. He pulled his knees up and huddled in a ball on the seat, trying to shut the world out. He looked at the man driving the coach. He had a thick slab of a body, with skinny legs and fat, muscled arms. He seemed fit and healthy. Ed should have been curious. Who was he? Where had he come from? Why was he not sick like all the others? But he couldn’t care less. The man might as well have been someone in a film. A boring film about a coach driver.
There was a boy sitting quietly behind him. He looked like a smaller version of the driver – slightly fat, with a big round head and close-cropped hair. The only real difference, apart from the size, was that the boy wore a pair of wire-framed glasses.
The driver must be his dad.
Who cares? Who bloody cares?
The boy noticed Ed and gave him a shy smile.
Ed ignored him.
He closed his eyes. And the boy’s smile was replaced by Malik’s smiling face. Malik had one of those faces that always seemed to be smiling.
Terrible thoughts crowded in on him and he couldn’t keep them out. He’d left Malik behind. He’d abandoned his friend because he was scared. He was a coward. There was no other word for it. He was a stinking, useless coward. He slapped his hand against his forehead.
He sniffed and brushed a tear from his damp cheek. He was in the grip of a dark shadow; it seemed to wrap around him like a physical thing. A black cloud of misery and despair. This was a new feeling for him. He’d always been a cheerful boy, untroubled by anything. His life had run very smoothly. He’d passed every exam, won every cricket match, got texts from every pretty girl, sailed along without a care, not really thinking about anyone other than himself. He’d been happy because there had been nothing to make him unhappy. There had been no upsets.
He had no way of dealing with being unhappy. He felt helpless and broken. With Jack and Malik gone he didn’t even have anyone to talk to, to share his problems with.
He slumped down in the seat, staring ahead as the wipers went left-right-left-right across the rain-flecked windscreen, clomp-squeak-clomp-squeak-clomp-squeak … gradually removing all traces of blood.
The coach trundled on, back the way they’d just come. Past the common. Past Tesco. Past the dentist and the empty silent houses, the doctor’s surgery, the Hop Sack, the little row of shops.
There was the school now, and a knot of teachers wandering in the road. Ed barely noticed as the coach ploughed through them, knocking them aside.
‘Where are we going?’ he said, surprised by the low droning sound of his voice. He had only meant to think the question, not ask it out loud.
‘London,’ said the driver. ‘The big smoke.’
Ed gave a short, bitter laugh. So much for his dreams of the country life. The sunny commune packed with wenches, milking cows, fattening pigs, collecting eggs, making babies, building a bright new future with Malik and his other friends. All gone now. All gone.
They drove along the high street. The driver had to slow down to manoeuvre the coach through a jumble of cars that had been left in the middle of the road. Once they were through the obstacle they sped up again and were soon passing the railway station and leaving town on the long straight road that led to the M25. There were buildings nearly all the way along here. The little villages that had once been distinct and separate had joined together into one continuous ugly strip of housing, garages, shops and offices.
There were people up ahead. Walking down the road. Grey shapes in the rain. More crazies probably. Ed gripped the armrests of his seat, ready for the jolt as they were knocked aside.
As the coach drew nearer, the walkers must have heard it. They turned round, their faces white streaks.
‘Wait!’ Ed shouted, leaning forward, craning to get a better look.
‘What’s the matter?’ the driver barked. ‘Sit down.’
‘Stop the coach. You have to stop. It’s Jack!’
‘What’s going on?’
The boys came warily up the steps. They looked wet and confused, but unharmed. Archie Bishop and Matt came first, with their younger followers. Then finally Jack. He looked at Ed, frowning.
‘What is this?’
‘We were attacked.’ Ed said it with a hint of shame in his voice, as if it had been his fault.
‘Attacked? Who by?’
‘Older kids. Teenagers, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. There were too many of them for us. The coach came …’
Now Jack looked properly at the driver for the first time, then back to Ed.
‘Who is he?’ he said with a hint of accusation.
‘My name’s Greg,’ said the driver. ‘Greg Thorne. And if you want to come to London get off them steps and go sit down.’
Jack still looked at Ed. ‘He’s an adult.’
‘Oi!’ Greg shouted. ‘You can talk to my face, sunshine, or you can get off my bus.’
‘I don’t mean to be rude,’ said Jack.
‘Then don’t be,’ Greg snapped. ‘I’ve saved your mates’ sorry arses here. I think a thank-you would be in order, don’t you?’
‘It’s just …’ Jack looked uncomfortable, hovering halfway up the steps. ‘Everything that’s happened … You must admit it’s hard for us to trust anyone older than we are.’
‘The door’s still open,’ said Greg, nodding towards the outside world, where the rain was falling more heavily now. ‘You want to take your chances out there, that’s fine by me. But make up your mind – you’re letting all the heat out.’
Jack came up one step and looked along the coach. Matt and his gang had already made their way to where the survivors from the chapel group were sitting, urgently catching up with what had happened.
‘Do I look like I’m diseased?’ Greg said, jutting out his jaw in a challenge. ‘Do I
like I’m diseased? Can any of those dozy sods out there drive one of these things? They can’t even speak no more, let alone master a three-point turn. So I’m your best hope, pal. Your
bleeding hope. An adult with a clean bill of health and a bloody big bus.’
Jack came up the last couple of steps.
‘Thanks, Mr Thorne,’ he said stiffly.
‘Don’t bother with the Mr Thorne crap. You can just call me Greg – everyone else does.’
Jack sat down next to Ed.
‘Did you see anyone else?’ Ed asked. ‘Did you have any trouble?’
‘No. The only trouble was being stuck with Matt and Archie and having to listen to their bollocks. So what happened to you then?’
Jack said it as if Ed had had some minor upset. How could he have known what it had really been like? For him the last half-hour had been nothing more than a boring walk through the rain.
‘Did anyone get hurt?’
Ed stared out of the window, unable to catch Jack’s eye. ‘Yes,’ he said quietly.
Ed couldn’t hold it in any longer. All the bottled-up fear and frustration and rage came pouring out.
‘Look around you, Jack, look who’s here,’ he shouted. ‘Can’t you see?’
‘You lost people?’
‘I don’t know, I haven’t checked. I can’t face it, Jack.’
‘How many?’ Jack jumped up and started to make his way down the length of the coach.
Ed followed him. ‘What difference does it make?’
, Jack, they’re dead.’ Ed grabbed Jack’s shoulder and pulled him back. ‘There was nothing we could do, OK? If Greg hadn’t come along, we’d