Authors: Charlie Higson
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
‘We’re in a graveyard, aren’t we?’ said Jack. ‘We’ll bury him.’
‘The Lamb has taken him.’
Everyone turned round. Matt was standing there, wrapped in a blanket, a strange drunken smile on his face.
‘Taken him for his army,’ Matt went on. ‘Don’t feel sad for him. The Lamb is going to save us all!’
‘It was cold in there at night. We couldn’t get warm, so we broke up a couple of the pews and used the wood for a fire.’ Ed’s friend Malik was sitting on a bench drinking from a plastic bottle of water. His eyes were weepy and bloodshot and his hand was shaking. Ed was standing nearby, keeping watch for any teachers.
‘I guess the smoke and fumes must have built up without us realizing,’ Malik went on, his voice hoarse.
‘You’re lucky you’re not all dead.’ Ed relaxed and sat down next to Malik. ‘Carbon monoxide will kill you.’
like death.’ Malik offered Ed a sickly grin. ‘I think my head’s going to explode. And you want to watch out – I might spew at any second. Just don’t ask me to stand up for at least three days. I’m dizzy enough just sitting here.’
‘You might have to stand, Malik.’ Ed was still scanning the road. ‘We’re all right at the moment, but it’s only a matter of time before more of the teachers work out where we are and come sniffing around.’
‘I guess if it’s a matter of life and death I’ll make it inside.’ Malik groaned, and he sank his head down between his knees, supported by his shaking hands. ‘Do you know if carbon monoxide can give you any permanent damage?’
‘No idea,’ said Ed. ‘Wiki’s the one to ask.’
Malik made a face. ‘I don’t want, like, brain damage or something.’
Ed punched him lightly in the shoulder. ‘Wouldn’t notice the difference,’ he said. ‘But, seriously, what’s happened to Matt? Talk about brain damage. He’s still coming out with totally random stuff.’
Malik let out his breath slowly and noisily then laughed through his nose.
‘I think he’s found God,’ he said.
‘In a big way.’ Ed laughed as well now. ‘Was he a religious nut before?’
‘Not that I know of,’ said Malik. ‘But stuck in there …’ He nodded back over his shoulder to the chapel. ‘All we had to read was Bibles and prayer books. You know Archie Bishop?’
‘Well, one night he said we should all pray.’
‘He always was a bit like that,’ Ed interrupted. ‘His dad was a vicar or something, I think.’
‘Well, I’m a Muslim, as you know,’ said Malik. ‘So I pray every day anyway, at least I’m supposed to. So there we all were inside. I prayed to my God and they prayed to theirs. Even those kids who didn’t believe in anything much before got in on it. It sort of held us all together in a funny way. And Matt seemed to really get into it. Started reading out bits of the Bible from the, you know, like, the pulpit thing. I didn’t understand most of it and I don’t think he did either.’
‘What’s all this stuff about the Lamb?’ Ed asked. ‘Where did that come from?’
‘Well, the thing was, as I say, it got really cold in there,’ said Malik, ‘and we’d started making these, like, fires, using anything we could find, pages from the prayer books and old Bibles and whatever to get it going. Then last night Matt, like, totally freaked out, said we shouldn’t burn any more of the books, and he rescued a lot of pages from the burner we’d made, found us some charcoal instead. Bad idea. By the time we realized we were all being poisoned by the fumes it was too late – we were all passing out.’
‘Lucky we came over when we did.’
‘Too right,’ said Malik. ‘I was heading into the light, halfway to paradise. When you woke me up I thought you were God!’
Ed laughed, then Malik went on more seriously. ‘I reckon Matt’s flipped,’ he said. ‘Can’t blame him. It’s been tough on all of us. Our food ran out three days ago, though we still had some water. I reckon we’ve all been seeing things, and Matt … Well, Matt seems to think he’s some kind of prophet or something now.’
‘Let’s hope he doesn’t freak any of the other kids out,’ said Ed.
‘Too late for that,’ said Malik, rubbing his temples. ‘He’s already got the younger kids following him around. We call them his acolytes. And Archie Bishop’s become his, like, second in command.’
Ed hauled himself up off the bench. ‘I’m going to go and see if he’s all right.’
Matt was sitting by himself away from the other kids. He was a tall boy of Ed’s age with very little flesh on his bones. He was all angles and lumps, knobbly knees and elbows, sharp shoulders, pointy chin and big nose. His usually very tidy hair was starting to grow wild. His skin looked grey. His eyes, sunk deep in purple sockets above high cheekbones, were bleary and unfocused.
Ed flopped down next to him.
‘How you doing?’
‘Better than ever.’ Matt smiled that weird spooky smile of his again. Maybe he thought he looked angelic; to Ed he just looked creepy.
‘That’s good. Listen, the reason we came over to the chapel to find you is we don’t think we can stay here any longer. We need to find somewhere where there’s food and water and we, you know, we figured we should all stick together.’
‘Yes,’ said Matt, and his face broke into a huge radiant smile. ‘You’ve seen it too?’
Ed shook his head. ‘I haven’t seen any visions, Matt.’
Matt clutched Ed’s arm, his fingers digging into the soft flesh. ‘I saw it. I saw it really clearly.’
‘A big church in London, bigger than any real church, as big as the whole city, with thousands and thousands of children inside it. Like an ants’ nest. It was shining, the dome of the church was shining, and the Lamb was there. We have to be there to meet him.’
‘Meet the Lamb?’
‘Yes. He’ll look after us, and watch over us, as long as we follow him and follow what he’s shown me, in the vision …’
‘You had a vision of a lamb telling you to go to London?’
‘Yes. It was so clear, and it’s all written here.’ Matt held up the torn and charred pages he’d been clutching when Ed had rescued him. Thrust them right into Ed’s face. Ed tried to get up, but Matt still held on to him with his other hand.
‘Listen,’ he said, and began to read. ‘
The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever.
Don’t you understand? He’s left us a message, a new message. It was hidden in the pages of the old Bible, in the words, but this is a new message.’
Ed tried not to laugh. ‘I don’t get it,’ he said, frowning at the grubby sheaf of papers. ‘What sort of message?’
‘I don’t understand it all,’ said Matt, and he finally let go of Ed so that he could sort through the pages. ‘Not yet, but I’m working on it. I need to study the pages. Look, you see, the meaning has changed … I need to get them in order. Some of the words have been burned away …’
He waved a page at Ed.
‘See this one here …
First begotten of the dead. Keeper of the keys of hell and death
… no, that’s not the bit I meant, here, yes …
Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.” The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly and painful sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshipped his image.
Do you see? It’s all in here. The disease, everything. It was all meant to be.’ Matt squinted at the lines of print and read out another passage. ‘
Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done
‘Yeah, look, Matt, I don’t really get all this stuff. I’m not even sure I know what repenting is.’
‘The dead will rise again, Ed, but only the Lamb can save us.’
‘So you’re saying Jesus will look after us?’
‘No … Not Jesus, the Lamb.’
‘I thought the Lamb was Jesus.’
‘No … The Lamb is something new, a new kind of prophet, or a new God.’
‘You sound a bit confused about this, Matt.’
‘No. I saw him. I saw him clearly.’
‘Yeah? What did he look like, then, this Lamb?’
‘He was one of us … a boy, a child, even younger. With golden hair. A child who isn’t a child. In the vision I saw, he was walking out of the darkness, and all around him was light, and in his shadow walked a demon.’
‘Yes, yes … I think so, but he was in darkness.’
‘What sort of demon?’
‘He was in the form of a child as well, but dark-faced where the Lamb was alight. He was in shadow. They’re like two sides of the same coin, heads and tails, yin and yang.’
‘Batman and Robin.’ Ed stood up and brushed his jeans clean.
‘Don’t make a joke of it, Ed, don’t take the piss.’
‘Matt, I can’t take any of this seriously. How can I? People don’t have visions.’
Now Matt stood, confronting Ed, standing too close. ‘We know hardly anything about the world, Ed. Isn’t that clear? Isn’t that really bloody clear now? Six months ago if someone had said to you that everyone over the age of fourteen would either die or turn into a zombie you’d have laughed at them. Wouldn’t you?’
‘Yeah, but …’
‘These are strange new times,’ said Matt. ‘But it was all there, in the pages of the Bible. We just had to be shown it properly. We have to prepare. First there’s the plague, then the fire, then the river of blood, and then –’
‘All right. All right.’ Ed put up his hands in surrender. ‘I won’t laugh at you, Matt. Just’, maybe, keep this to yourself, though, yeah?’
‘No, Ed, no!’ In his excitement Matt was spitting. ‘You have to listen to me. Everyone has to listen to me. We have to go to London! If you aren’t there to welcome the Lamb, you’ll be struck down like the other sinners.’
‘Maybe we don’t all want to go to London!’
‘I’m going to London.’ While they’d been arguing Jack had come over and had been listening in on their conversation. Now he stepped in between the two of them, keeping them apart.
‘I’ll go with you, Matt, at least as far as south London.’
‘Jack, we all need to stick together.’ Ed was trying to keep the emotion out of his voice. ‘It’d be crazy to go to London. There’ll be more food and water in the countryside.’
Jack shrugged. ‘I just want to go home.’
‘But there’ll be nothing there, Jack.’
‘I don’t care. I want to see my own home, my old bedroom. Get some of my old things, family photos; all my memories are there. I can’t just let it all go.’
‘Jack, I thought we’d all decided last night,’ Ed pleaded. ‘We have to have a plan. And our plan was to go into the countryside. We have to stick together and we have to have a plan.’
‘I have got a plan,’ said Jack. ‘I’m going home.’
Chris Marker opened his book to the page with the corner he’d folded back. He found that he could stop anywhere in a chapter and start up again at the exact same point without ever having to go back and check anything. He never had to remind himself what was going on. It was as if there’d been no break between when he stopped reading and when he started again. In a funny way the story he was reading became the real world for him, more alive than the world he found himself in when he lifted his eyes from the page, blinking and lost. Real life was nothing more than a tiny interruption to his reading.
The kids were all assembled in the church and they were talking, talking, talking. A repeat of last night in the dormitory … ‘
we have to stick together, we need to find food and water, we should go to London, we should go into the countryside, we should go to the moon, blah blah blah
Just so much talk. What difference did any of it make?
He heard a sniffle and a sob and looked along the pew. The French girl, Frédérique, was sitting there with Johnno the rugby player, her cat-carrying box held tight in her lap. She hadn’t spoken since they’d arrived at the chapel, but seemed happy for Johnno to look after her.