Authors: Charlie Higson
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
‘Thanks, Wiki,’ said Bam, trying not to laugh. ‘What would we do without you?’
Wiki shrugged. Before he could say anything else there was an almighty bang from outside and all eyes in the room turned back to the door.
Ed looked around at the grubby faces of the boys, lit by the big candles they’d found in the school chapel. Some of these boys had been his friends before, some he’d barely known. They’d been living in this room together now for a week and he was growing sick of the sight of them.
There was Jack, sitting alone chewing his lip, the fingers of one hand running backwards and forwards over his birthmark. Bam with his four rugby mates, Johnno, Piers and the Sullivan brothers, Damien and Anthony, who had a reputation for being a bit thick and had done nothing to prove that they weren’t. Little Wiki and his friend Arthur, who almost never stopped talking. A group of six boys from Field House, over the road, who stuck together and didn’t say much. Kwanele Nkosi, tall, elegant, and somehow, despite everything, always immaculately dressed. Chris Marker, sitting by the window, reading a paperback book (that’s all he did now, read books, one after another; he never spoke) and ‘the three nerds’, who were all in Ed’s physics class.
Nineteen faces, all wearing the same expression: dull, staring, slack, slightly sad. Ed imagined this was what it must have been like in a trench in the First World War. Trying not to think about tomorrow, or yesterday, or anything.
Apart from the nineteen boys in this room, Ed was alone in the world. He had no illusions that his mum and dad might still be alive. About the only thing the scientists had been able to say for sure about the disease, before they, too, had got sick, was that it only affected anyone over the age of fourteen. His brother, Dan, was older than him, eighteen, so he’d probably be dead, too, or diseased, which was worse.
The last contact Ed had had with his family was a phone call from his mum about four weeks ago. She’d told him to stay where he was. She hadn’t sounded well.
There were probably other boys around the school, hiding in different places. He knew that Matt Palmer had taken a load over to the chapel, but basically Ed’s world had shrunk down to this room.
These nineteen faces.
It scared him to think about it. How shaky his future looked. He felt like a tiny dot at the centre of a vast, cold universe. He didn’t want to think about what was outside. The chaos in the world. How nothing was as it should be. It had been a relief when the television had finally shut down. No more news. He had to concentrate on himself now. On trying to stay alive. One day at a time. Hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second.
‘How many seconds in a lifetime, Wiki?’ he asked.
Wiki’s voice came back thin but sure. ‘Sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, twenty-four hours in a day, three hundred and sixty-five days in a year, actually three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter because of leap years, so let’s say the average life is about seventy-five years, that’s sixty, times sixty, times twenty-four, which is, er, eighty-six thousand four hundred seconds in a day. Then three hundred and sixty-five days times seventy-five makes, let me see, twenty-seven thousand three hundred and seventy-five days in seventy-five years. So we multiply those two numbers together …’
Wiki fell silent.
‘That’s a big sum,’ said his friend Arthur.
‘Never mind,’ said Ed. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘It’s a lot,’ Arthur added, trying to be helpful. ‘A lot of seconds.’
And too many of them had been spent in this bloody room. They’d dragged beds into here from all round the House, so that they didn’t get split up, but it meant it was crowded, stuffy and smelly. None of them could remember the last time he’d washed, except perhaps Kwanele. He had had his school suits specially made by a tailor in London and used to boast that his haircuts cost him fifty quid a shot. He was keeping himself clean somehow. He had standards to maintain.
The room was made even more cramped by a stack of cardboard boxes at the far end. They’d once contained all their food and bottled water, but there was virtually nothing left now. They had supplies for two more days, maybe three if they were careful. Jack was looking through the pile, chucking empty boxes aside.
There came an even bigger bang and the wardrobe appeared to shake slightly. They’d packed it with junk to make it heavier and it would need a pretty hefty shove from outside to knock it out of the way, but it wasn’t impossible.
‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ Jack muttered.
‘What?’ Ed frowned at him.
‘I said we’ve got to get out of here.’ This time Jack’s voice came through loud and clear and everyone listened. ‘It’s pointless staying. Completely pointless. Even if that lot out there back off in the morning, even if they crawl back to wherever it is they’re sleeping – which we don’t know for certain they will do – we’re gonna have to spend all day tomorrow going round trying to block up the doors and windows again. And then what? They’ll only come back tomorrow night and get back in. We can’t sleep, we can’t eat. Luckily none of us got hurt tonight, but … I mean, if the teachers don’t get us, we’ll basically just starve to death if we stay here.’
‘Yeah, I agree,’ said Bam. ‘I reckon we should bog off in the morning.’ Bam’s voice sounded very loud in the cramped dormitory. He had always had a tendency to shout rather than speak and before the disaster the other boys had found him quite irritating. He was large and loud and boisterous. Blundering around like a mini tornado, accidentally breaking things, making crap jokes, playing tricks on people, laughing too much. Now the others couldn’t imagine how they’d cope without him. He never seemed to get tired or moody; he was never mean, never sarcastic, and totally without fear.
‘We need to find somewhere that we can defend easier than this,’ Bam went on. ‘Somewhere near a source of food and water.’
‘The only source of food around here is us,’ said Jack.
‘They might go away,’ said Wiki’s friend Arthur. ‘They might all die in the night – lots of them are already dead. If we hold on long enough, they’ll all die, they’ll pop like popcorn. You see when Miss Jessop, the science teacher, died? She was lying on the grass in the sun, lying down dead and her skin started to pop like popcorn, the boils on her kept bursting, like little flowers all over her. You see like when flowers come out in a speeded-up film? Pop, pop, pop, and after a while there wasn’t anything left of her, she was just a black mess, and then a dog started to eat her and the dog died, too.’ Arthur stopped and blinked. ‘I think we should stay here until they all go away or pop like popcorn.’
‘They’re not going to go away,’ said Jack, going over to the window where Chris was still reading his book, his eyes fixed on the pages. There was a bright moon tonight, and it threw a little light into the room, but Jack doubted if it was enough to see the words properly. Not that that stopped Chris. Nothing could stop him now.
Jack looked down into the street. There were two teachers down there and an older teenager, maybe seventeen or eighteen. They were hobbling along, walking as if every step hurt their feet.
‘Some of them die from the disease and some don’t,’ he said. ‘Who knows why?’ He turned back from the window to point towards the door where one of their attackers was rattling the handle. ‘And who knows how long that lot out there are going to take to die? Could be weeks, and in the meantime they know we’re here and they won’t give up until they’ve got us. They’re going to keep on attacking, every night, soon as it’s dark, every bloody night. Most of the other boys left ages ago. Us lot, we stayed in case anyone turned up to rescue us. Ha, good one. Nobody
turned up, and, let’s face it, nobody will.’
‘Two billion three hundred and sixty-five million and two hundred thousand seconds …’ said Wiki quietly. ‘Roughly. In a lifetime. If you’re lucky …’
It took four of them to shift the wardrobe aside in the morning. Aware that they were moving it for the last time.
Once the door was clear Bam put his ear to it. He looked at Jack. Jack licked his lips, tense.
Bam shook his head. ‘Can’t hear anything.’
‘Go on then.’
Bam grasped the handle, turned. It clicked and the door popped open a fraction. He checked that everyone was ready. A row of boys stood waiting. They’d pulled the metal bed frames apart to make weapons out of the struts and heavy springs, and they’d packed up whatever supplies and belongings they had left into backpacks or bundles made out of sheets.
The boys nodded. Bam took a deep breath and tugged the door open.
A pale, sickly light washing in from the small windows showed that the area outside was empty.
The teachers had gone.
One by one the boys filed out on to the landing, wary and alert. They were shivering. Their combined body heat had kept them reasonably warm in the dormitory, but it was early March and the air out here was noticeably colder.
‘Look at that.’ Johnno nodded towards the door. The outside of it looked like it had been savaged by a pack of wild animals. There were gouges and great dents, long gashes, as if from claws. It was worst round the handle. The teachers had almost managed to scrape right through the wood. The walls were similarly scarred, with chunks missing and a pattern of bloody handprints.
‘Looks like we only just made it out in time,’ said Bam. ‘One more night and they’d have been on us.’
It stank on the landing. There was evidence that at least one of the teachers had used the carpet for a toilet. There was torn wallpaper down the stairs and a fresh splash of blood up one wall. Maybe they’d been fighting among themselves.
‘Come on.’ Bam led the way down. Behind him came Johnno and his other mates from the rugby team, carrying vicious metal lengths of bed frame, with ripped-up sheets wrapped tightly round the ends to protect their fingers. Next came Jack and Ed, Jack with the cricket bat, Ed with a hockey stick. Behind them were Arthur and Wiki, chatting away to each other, wobbling bedsprings up and down in their hands. Then Chris Marker, still reading a book as he walked, a makeshift pack slung over his back crammed with yet more books. Then the three nerds, carrying wooden clubs made from chair legs. After them came Kwanele, immaculate as ever in his suit and tie, lugging an expensive suitcase and suit bag, filled with his favourite outfits. Finally the six boys from Field House, watching their rear and armed with an odd assortment of garden tools.
At the bottom of the stairs the carpet was black and sticky, as if a tub of treacle had been poured into it. The boys’ trainers stuck to the floor and squelched as they lifted their feet. It smelt worse down here, a foul brew of blood and dead flesh and unwashed bodies. Sweet and sour and putrid.
The main way in and out of the building was through two big double doors. The first thing Mr Hewitt had organized when they’d decided to secure the House was nailing the doors shut with planks of wood. They’d been using an alternative exit through the back of the kitchen as a way in and out, because it was quicker to open and close and easier to lock. They had keys for the back door as well as the kitchen door, so had an extra line of defence. It had turned out to be a complete waste of time, though, as the sick teachers soon found other ways to get into the House.
Bam put a hand over his mouth to block the stink.
‘This way,’ he said, leading the group down the corridor that led towards the kitchen.
It was dark in the corridor and they walked quickly. All the boys wanted to get outside as fast as possible. They soon arrived at the kitchen door, which had a small, reinforced-glass window set in the centre, crisscrossed with a wire mesh.
Bam strode up to it, as eager as the others to be out of here. He took a big bunch of keys from his pocket, selected the right one and slotted it into the lock. He was just about to turn it when Jack pulled him back.
‘Wait a minute.’
Bam stopped. A flash of irritation. Then a little laugh.
Jack sighed. ‘Come on, Bam, you could at least check it before you open it.’
‘Sorry, old mate, brain not in gear. Never did work at a hundred per cent, to tell you the truth, turned to mush now. Still asleep, I think.’ He knocked the side of his head with his fist. ‘Wakey, wakey!’
Jack stuck his nose to the little window and peered into the kitchen. It was dark; the sun rose on the other side of the building and its light hadn’t reached this far yet. He could see no movement in the gloom. Then he spotted that the back door was half open. Someone had definitely been in there during the night.
‘What do you reckon?’ Bam asked. ‘Is it safe?’
‘Hang on a minute. Can’t tell.’
Jack’s eyes were slowly growing used to the light. He was picking out more details in the kitchen. There was a scarlet smear of blood on the window over the sinks. And there, on the table, what looked like a slab of meat. He realized there was an arm still attached to it. He swallowed, trying not to retch.
‘I’m not sure we should go this way,’ he said.