Read The Dead Online

Authors: Charlie Higson

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General

The Dead (6 page)

‘Monsieur Morel. He is a teacher here. He was looking after me. But yesterday he goes out. He is feeling sick, he goes for medicine, he does not come back. I wait for him. I wait all through the night. He does not come back.’

The girl stopped. She had finally noticed the panicked look on Ed’s face. She glanced over her shoulder and gasped as she saw the teachers, almost close enough to touch.

Jack snatched hold of her arm and dragged her along, forcing her to run at his side.

‘You’ve got to forget about your father,’ he said. ‘All the adults, everyone over the age of fourteen, gets sick. They die, all right? Or they turn into … one of them.’

‘Is he … Is he sick?’ said the girl, her voice high-pitched with tension. ‘Is he changed?’

‘No,’ said Ed as they ran out of the school gates. ‘No, he’s not.’

‘Have you seen him?’ asked the girl. ‘You must tell me.’

‘Yes.’ Jack exchanged a pained look with Ed. ‘We saw him. He’s dead. Sorry.’

‘I knew it …’ The girl choked out the words then wailed in despair. Jack shook his head at Ed. Best not to say any more. At least neither of them had lied.

Ed hadn’t left the school grounds for a few weeks. It hadn’t been safe. And it was strange seeing the main road with no traffic. Even on a Sunday there had always been cars going past at all times of the day and night. Now it was utterly still and calm. Birds were singing in the trees, oblivious to how the world had changed. Not caring about the humans and their problems.

How quickly everything had fallen apart.

In a strange clear-headed moment Ed realized that for a while the world was going to be a better place for the birds, for all animals. No more cars, no more pollution, no more factories, aeroplanes, oil wells, coalmines …

There was a very strong chance that soon there would be no more humans. What chance did children have of surviving? What was the point of going on? What was the point of crossing the road? Running, fighting, hiding …

He didn’t stop, though. Something inside made him keep on running, just as something had made him pick up the bat last night.

He looked back. They’d left the teachers behind. Nobody else had come through the school gates. Maybe they’d be safe for a while.

A little further down the high street on the other side of the road was the school chapel. It was only about two hundred years old but had been built to resemble a small medieval church, complete with bell tower and stained-glass windows. It was easy to see why Matt Palmer had thought it might be a safe place to hang out. There were battlements round the top of the tower that made it look like part of a castle.

Matt had come over here about ten days ago with some other boys. If he could be persuaded to join them and look for somewhere better to hole up, they’d have safety in numbers.

As Jack, Ed and the girl entered the gate and crossed the graveyard, they saw that the rest of the boys from the party were up ahead, huddled in the entranceway to the church. Why hadn’t they gone in as they’d arranged?

‘They won’t open the door,’ Johnno explained when Jack and Ed ran up. ‘They won’t even answer us.’ He stopped when he saw the girl, and frowned quizzically at Jack and Ed.

‘This is Monsieur Morel’s daughter.’ Jack gave a look to the boys that said ‘
keep your mouths shut
’. ‘Don’t know her name.’

The girl seemed to have retreated into herself. Her hair hung down either side of her face like curtains and she stared at the ground. Johnno went over to her. He was a good-looking lad and had always been confident and successful with girls. Not all the boys could say the same. Rowhurst was an all-boys school and many of them had had little female contact.

Johnno squatted down so that he could look up into the girl’s face.

‘What’s your name, love?’ he asked. The girl remained silent.

‘Come on, tell us your name. You’re safe now.’

‘Frédérique,’ the girl muttered, barely audible.

Johnno put a hand on her arm. ‘I’m Johnno,’ he said. The girl didn’t respond. Johnno looked round at his friends, eyebrows raised, not sure what to do next. They were pretty shocked by the morning’s events and if they hadn’t been trying to tough it out and not look weak in front of each other they might all have turned in on themselves like Frédérique.

Ed had been taking a look around. There was some evidence that teachers had been trying to get into the church, but the heavy oak doors looked almost indestructible and the windows were too high to reach and laced with metal. He slammed his fists against the door.

‘Matt!’ he yelled. ‘Matthew! Open up! It’s us! Open the bloody doors.’ He stopped and listened, head bowed. Nothing. Not a sound.

‘Maybe they’re not in there,’ he said. ‘Maybe they’ve all gone.’

‘We need to get inside,’ said Arthur. He was staring back at the road. Three of the teachers were crossing towards them. Miss Warlock, the man with the twisted body and Mr Langston, an old history teacher. His grey hair was standing up like a crest on top of his head. He looked bewildered.

‘There’s a door at the side,’ said one of the Field House boys. ‘You can get in through the vestry. We use it for choir practice.’

‘Could we force it?’ Jack asked.

The choirboy shrugged.

‘Well, why mention it, then?’ Jack snapped viciously. ‘What use is that to us?’

‘There’s a key,’ the choirboy muttered. ‘Mr Lewis, the choirmaster, uses it sometimes. We’re not supposed to know about it, but we all do.’

‘Why didn’t you say that before? Show us.’

The choirboy led them round to where there was a lower, flat-roofed extension to the side of the chapel. A tiled overhang protected the door. The choirboy put his hand up under the beams and felt around until he found what he was looking for and brought down two keys on a ring. He quickly selected one, shoved it into the keyhole, twisted it and pushed the door open.

A rush of air was sucked through the doorway as if the church was breathing in, and the boys started to cough as they crept cautiously inside, their eyes stinging. There was the smell of smoke. A thin haze hung in the vestry and they found it difficult to fill their lungs. The vestry was filled with stuff for the church, prayer books and choristers’ robes and the chaplain’s bits and pieces.

‘There’s no oxygen,’ said Ed.

‘You don’t say, Einstein,’ Jack sneered.

Ed angrily turned on his friend and put a hand on his chest, holding him back as the others carried on through to the church. ‘Leave it out, Jack. For God’s sake. Stop giving everyone a hard time. What’s the matter with you? You never used to be like this.’

‘Yeah, I know, sorry.’ Jack cleared his throat and spat on the vestry floor, then he ran his fingers over the red birthmark on his face. ‘But
nothing
used to be like this, really, did it?’

Jack looked at Ed, defying him to argue.

‘Well, it’s the same for all of us,’ Ed croaked. ‘How does it help, you constantly having a go?’

‘I said sorry, didn’t I?’

‘Did you? It didn’t sound like much of an apology.’

‘What does it matter?’ said Jack, shrugging off Ed’s hand. ‘What does any of it matter? Hello, goodbye, please, thank you, sorry, I beg your pardon, can you pass the salt, please? What bloody difference does any of it make now? We’re up to our necks in crap.’

Ed couldn’t think of anything to say so simply shook his head and followed the others through to the chapel.

There was a metal dustbin in the middle of the aisle with some smouldering wood in it and a murky cloud of smoke clung to the roof beams. There were about fifteen boys in here. Some were lying in sleeping bags and under duvets on the floor, others were slumped on the pews.

‘Are they dead?’ asked Bam, scanning the lifeless bodies.

Ed didn’t know if it was the foul air in the church, his fear or simply exhaustion, but the blood felt tight in his head, which throbbed horribly. His lungs were burning. Without being conscious of it, he’d been holding his breath since his argument with Jack. He approached one of the boys on the floor and realized with a jolt that it was his friend Malik.

He reached out a hand. Malik looked like all the blood had been drained out of him. He was completely still. Ed touched his neck. It was damp and cool but not cold. He knelt down by his side and put his ear to his chest. There was the faintest heartbeat, barely a flutter, a tiny rise and fall of his chest.

‘No. They’re not dead.’ Ed stood up – too quickly. He felt instantly dizzy and swayed on his feet.

‘We need to get them out of here,’ said one of the nerds. ‘They need fresh air.’

‘There are no windows open,’ said Wiki, looking around. ‘If they’ve been burning wood, there’ll be carbon monoxide. It’s given off when there’s not enough oxygen left for organic matter to burn properly. It’s a deadly poison. It could poison us all.’

7

The Sullivan brothers managed to unbolt the main doors of the church and they threw them wide. Johnno and Piers, their friends from the rugby team, had picked up a comatose boy, but they hung back in the doorway.

They’d forgotten about the teachers.

The bigger of the two, Piers, looked back anxiously. ‘They’re still out there,’ he said.

Jack strode over to where Piers had put down his weapon and snatched it up without stopping. He continued on outside. Bam followed, a grim look on his face. Mr Langston the history teacher was trying to get the gate open, his swollen, mushy fingers unable to get a proper grip. Next to him Miss Warlock and the other teacher were shaking and moaning.

Jack carried on walking. Nothing was going to stop him. He went right up to Mr Langston and swung the bit of iron hard at the side of his head. Langston went down.

Bam vaulted the wall, knocking Miss Warlock over, and then took a swing at the third teacher. The blow jarred his head to a weird angle, but he stayed on his feet. Jack climbed over the wall and came up on the teacher from behind. There was a nasty wet crack as Jack hammered his club into the back of his skull.

None of the other boys could watch as Jack and Bam finished off the three teachers. But they could hear it. It sounded like men at work mending a road.

At last Jack came back over to the chapel.

‘Get them out of there,’ he snapped, flinging the bloody iron bar aside.

Those who were strong enough began feverishly dragging boys out into the air, carrying them by their hands and feet. As soon as they dumped one on the grass they went back for another. As the limp figures drew clean air into their lungs they started to stir and wake up. Some just lay there groaning. Others sat against the gravestones of long-dead masters and churchmen, groggy, pale and confused. One boy tried to stand, then collapsed to his knees and was sick on to the ground.

Having made sure Malik was OK, Ed went back to find Matt, the boy who had led them all into the church. He discovered him curled up beneath the altar, one arm stretched out stiffly as if reaching for something. Clutched in his other hand was a sheaf of half-charred pages that had been torn from a book, a Bible by the look of it.

Ed slapped his face gently. Matt didn’t respond, so he slipped his arms around his chest ready to lift him. As he did so Matt suddenly came awake. He gripped hold of Ed with claw-like hands and looked up into his eyes.

‘I’ve seen him,’ he said.

‘It’s all right, we’ve got you now,’ said Ed.

‘I’ve seen him.’

‘Who have you seen, mate?’

‘The Lamb. The Lamb is going to save us all.’

‘That’s good to know,’ said Ed, humouring him while still trying to get him on to his feet.

‘He came in a cloud of golden light, his shadow behind him. The Lamb. He’s going to save us all. We have to prepare for his coming.’

Bam came over to help and they propped Matt up under each armpit and walked him outside, Matt babbling all the way, none of it making any sense.

They lowered him on to a bench in the graveyard and checked to make sure no more teachers had turned up.

It looked like the aftermath of a battle, or a gas attack. The boys from the church lay among the gravestones, puking and moaning, clutching their sides in agony. At least they seemed to be recovering, though.

The Sullivan brothers were the last out, carrying a skinny young lad between them. They gently put him down away from the others and Anthony approached Ed and Bam.

‘I think you should come and look at this one,’ he said. ‘He won’t wake up.’

The little boy’s face was chalk white, his lips slightly blue. Ed listened to his chest and peeled back his eyelids, then tried mouth to mouth, but there was no response. He was dead.

‘His name was Jacob.’ Malik had revived enough to make his way over to where a group of boys were huddled with Ed round the dead kid.

‘He wasn’t well before,’ Malik went on. ‘He had asthma, and his inhaler had run out.’

‘Poor little guy,’ said Bam. ‘What are we going to do with him?’

‘We can’t leave him out here. He’ll be eaten,’ said Anthony matter-of-factly.

‘But if we take him inside he’ll start to … you know … smell …’ said Damien Sullivan, looking at his brother.

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