The black van came out of nowhere. Ellie cried out, and I glanced at her behind me. Difficult when you’re riding a rickety little bike that’s far too small for a fifteen-year-old teenage boy. Thorny shrubs grabbed at my ankles and still I pedalled. The van’s engine roared behind me and thick engine fumes cut through the freezing night air. One window rolled down and a black-gloved hand thrust towards my twin sister. I’m not sure how she stayed in her saddle while holding a torch. Above the ruckus of the car’s engine, I heard a muffled grunt. Ellie hit the hand over and over with her torch until it finally retreated inside the van. The driver reared the engine up a gear and the front bumper collided with one of Ellie’s pedals. My sister, being the athlete in the family, clamped her thighs around the bike’s frame and lifted it clean off the ground. Like a ninja, she defied gravity, did a ninety-degree turn, and then narrowly avoided being crushed by the car. Like an apparition, one second she was there and then she wasn’t.
‘Arthur,’ she screamed, ‘this way.’
Her voice came from the thicket next to the path. I didn’t try any daring manoeuvres and I braked hard instead. I jumped off my bike. My calf collided with a pedal.
The van passed me. Thick fumes engulfed me and for a split second I couldn’t breathe. I sprinted towards Ellie, my bike in tow. She aimed for the woods, but would it be enough to hide us? The van was halfway through a full turn. Filthy earth splintered into the black of night and the engine howled. Already running, I jumped back into the saddle. Ellie’s red hoodie flashed through the dark ahead of me and I pedalled like a maniac.
‘I think we lost them,’ I grunted a few minutes later. My thighs burned from exertion, but I carried on. I had to. We’d been cycling all day and through half the night to escape from the camp. The idea of returning home hit me like a flock of wayward birds. When we still had birds. I was so tired my brain hurt. All I could think about was sleep. Great-aunt Hortense tucking us in. Making us hot chocolate. Home.
A crashing sound behind me lit a fire under my bum. I cycled faster again. How did they make it through the undergrowth? All my joints screamed from the cold and again I couldn’t breathe. I glimpsed a steel bumper with, I guessed, 1000 horsepower under a black, polished bonnet. Did the privileged, clueless citizens of Londrum know MIDPOL spent their taxes on chasing innocent teenagers? Well, maybe not entirely innocent. We set fire to that linen basket in the dorm they’d forced us to share with dozens of others. It’s degrading to sleep amongst 5-year-olds when you’re fifteen, even though you get used to the stench after they wet their bed for the tenth time. The fire was more of a protest against the so-called Mothers, for never changing the sheets and beating the children.
Mothers! What a joke! We didn’t remember ours. Or our father.
It turned out that the fire was only the beginning. Soon afterwards, during the Architect’s memorial service, a gang of teenage outlaws on motorbikes had exploded into the camp and created the diversion we needed to finally get away. But I’m getting ahead of myself again. I often do that.
‘Come on!’ Ellie said. ‘We can’t be far now.’
The stinging on my hands came out of nowhere. I’d felt it before, but still I hoped I was wrong. I looked up into the murky sky, black and green, like soiled sheets hanging on an intergalactic washing line. My nostrils flared. I tasted acid at the back of my throat.
‘Ellie,’ I shouted, past caring who heard me. ‘Look.’ I pointed skywards. When the first drops fell, she understood. I pulled my sweatshirt down over my arms and as far over my hands as it would go, hoping it would prevent my skin from blistering. The Red War did more than kill two-thirds of the world’s population. It messed with nature, and the poisonous rain that fell melted holes into rooftops, never mind a teenager’s skin. I pinched my nose to stop the stench of death and decomposition ingrained in each drop that fell. It was like inhaling everyone who’d ever died. Breathing through my mouth made me light-headed. Bile rose at into the back of my burning throat. The occasional drop brushed my cheek, like sandpaper remodelling my face. I swallowed hard, and I picked up speed again. I skewed up my eyes to see in the dark, willing myself to recognise something. Anything. Where was the gigantic tree into which Grandpa built our hideaway? Where was the sea? The foul stench around me was normal for anywhere outside Londrum, yet it didn’t have that extra toxic bite you got from the dead ocean. I was sure we’d been cycling in the right direction, but nothing looked even vaguely familiar. We were nowhere near our house. The only reason we’d escaped. Grandpa and his sister, great-aunt Hortense. The one-in-a-million hope they were still alive.
‘Fat chance,’ was Ellie’s view. I wanted to prove her wrong. My sense of direction was supposed to take us towards sweet freedom. Instead, here we were. Totally lost. We met no one along the way, which, if you believe tales of missing children, was lucky for us. Not one person tried to abduct, enslave or-
My stomach growled. You get the gist. Except for the MIDPOL van, we met no one. All dead or missing, like much of the population of this once Great Britain. Not so great now.
‘I see a light,’ Ellie said. She flinched as more drops of rain, getting heavier now, hit her face. I lifted my head and narrowly avoided a tree branch destined for my eye. She was right. There was a light ahead.
Friend or foe?
We came to the end of the dead forest, and through decimated branches we saw a clearing ahead. I squinted up into the night sky, and even through murky clouds I could see a million stars. Something I hadn’t seen in over five years. The camp was close enough to Londrum for it to never get dark. A milky purple glow across the sky was a constant reminder of what happened to our world. The Red War. It amazed me that out here, even after all the destruction, nature still broke through. Ellie was ahead of me still and she jumped off her bike. She tore a thick branch off a toppled tree. With one swift move, she scraped away small twigs and leaves. She waved her latest weapon at me.
‘Just in case,’ she explained.
‘Right,’ I snorted, ‘sticks and stones.’ I searched for a stick of my own, but decided she would protect me, as she always did.
The wave of air laced with burning and decay took us by surprise. The outline of the vaguely familiar steeple loomed ahead. My ears suddenly felt hot. I knew where we were now.
I hadn’t been here for at least five years, but I recognised the Norman church we used to visit with Grandpa, before it all went wrong. We were only about ten miles from the house which made me giddy, but the sight before me was depressing. That awful smell again. It was more than just burning. Rotten meat. Something died. Animal. No. Human? I clamped a hand over my mouth and nose. Ellie didn’t seem to notice.
’How did we end up here?’ she glared at me. ‘We’re at least two hours from the house. You promised you remembered the way.’
Did I mention I wasn’t great at directions?
‘You’re hopeless!’ she cried, just as I heard the engine again. Some distance away but getting closer. Ellie turned and ran, and I followed. When I saw the burnt-out structure before us, what little hope I had vanished.
‘That lovely church. They burnt it down,’ I said. Just like they destroyed everything else. Buckingham Palace. York Minster. Stonehenge. The list went on. I tried to remember long gone trips here on endless summer days. The sun beating down on meadows thigh high with cornflowers and weeds. Picnics on scratchy blankets. Lukewarm lemonade and limp sandwiches. Now, Ellie used her stick to clear dried-up bushes and weeds that had grown aimlessly as we approached the decayed entrance to the once imposing twelfth century structure. A rustling behind me. I froze, but it was only an owl. Wide-eyed and fluffy, it cried mournfully before fluttering off into the night. How had it survived for so long?
‘Look!’ Ellie pointed towards the back of the ruin, where a feeble light moved amongst wonky gravestones. We picked up speed. ‘Please, wait,’ she cried out to the unknown phantom.
‘Are you crazy?’ I hissed, ‘what if it’s one of the men from MIDPOL?’
She craned her neck. Listened. The engine was definitely closing in. She shook her head and took off. Dragging her bike behind her, she ran fast across rubble. Again, she called out, ‘you! Wait for us.’
The light stopped moving and then; instant darkness.
‘Great. What now?’ I whispered.
‘They didn’t just disappear, did they?’
The rancid smell was back, and stronger than before. Like curtains of dead meat, it brushed over me. Ellie pulled some branches off a dried, thorny shrub. She used it to hide her bike, and I did the same to mine. Just then the MIDPOL van crashed through the nearby thicket. We ran towards where we’d last seen the light. I sniffed the air. We were moving away from the church. Why then was the stench getting worse? When we finally caught up with the stranger, I thought I was dreaming. The woman before us was at least eighty years old. Sodden clothes hung on her emaciated body, like rotten sheets on a long-forgotten washing line in the rain. The last time I had seen an old person was when Grandpa dragged me from the arms of great-aunt Hortense, five years earlier. Just before the men from MIDPOL drove us to the camp.
‘Why are you following me?’ she croaked. Her frizzy white hair glowed like a beacon in the dark. I wondered how high a reward the men from MIDPOL would pay her when she turned us in. I noticed her wrinkly right hand, which repeatedly fingered a worn, red leather holster, strapped around her rags. To call them clothes would have been an exaggeration. I wondered if she had a gun in there. She saw me looking, but she said nothing.
‘Do you have a place where we can hide?’ Ellie asked. The old woman kept looking back towards where we’d come from. The revving of the van’s engine made her narrow her hooded eyes, and her hands moved inside a pocket of her rags.
‘Who are you?’ she asked us. She enunciated her words oddly, stretching every syllable and drawing it out.
‘We used to come here as children-’
‘I’m no-ot interested in your life’s sto-ory,’ she interrupted me. It hit me then. She was American. They made us believe that America recalled all of its citizens and closed its borders just before the big incident, as had Australia, New Zealand and other nations. Somehow, she had slipped through the cracks.
‘Mmh-mmh,’ she growled, and again she fingered the leather holster around her waist. It would take some practice to get used to that strange accent. At the camp we learned how before segregation people from all over the world moved across our island, but MIDPOL had soon put a stop to that. Deportation or death. How had she remained here? And survived?
Ellie rolled her eyes. ‘We don’t live far from here, but-’
Just then the rain really started. The woman chewed her gums and she grunted something. Scabs and dirt covered her skin, so she probably couldn’t feel the poisonous drops that pelted us.
‘Could we get a move on here?’ Ellie snapped. I stared at her, wide-eyed.
‘Shut up!’ I hissed, but she just shrugged her shoulders. Diplomacy was never my twin sister’s thing. The woman probed behind a flaky ear and scratched some dry skin away. She collected a wad of saliva, which she spat up high, and right over Ellie’s head. Some of it ended up short.
‘You know, I could just leave you here.’
’Nice,’ Ellie groaned, while wiping spit off her sleeve.
‘Glad you think so.’
By now I realised that the stench of decay I’d been inhaling only partially came from the burnt-out church. The old woman scratched herself in unmentionable places. I could only imagine what else loomed underneath her clothes. A crashing sound, and the MIDPOL van catapulted out from the undergrowth next to us. Head lights were blinding me, and all four doors flew open. The men were wearing protective capes. Acid rain wouldn’t slow them down. The old woman finally nodded and motioned for us to follow her. Her hands rummaged through her leather holster again, and this time I really expected a gun to glint in the dark. I was wrong. She produced a cast iron key.
‘Let’s go,’ she barked.
‘What about our bikes?’ I asked Ellie. She just shook her head.
‘No time,’ she said. We followed her deeper into a dilapidated graveyard. For someone of her age, she moved fast. We had trouble keeping up. We darted between the raindrops, but I knew we didn’t have long. I’d seen people’s skin blister after a downpour, and I knew my hoodie wouldn’t protect me much longer. Several sets of footsteps squelched in the mud behind us. I turned around and, in the van’s now distant headlights, I saw glints of metal in the men’s hands. I knew they weren’t Christmas lights. They were almost upon us, and I thought I saw two of them smiling. They knew they caught us, and they were already counting their reward. The eyes of one of them widened. When I followed his gaze, I gasped. I heard a clicking sound and then my sister threw away the metal pin she’d pulled from a fir-cone shaped grenade. I remembered us stopping at a peddler’s stall next to the ruins of Big Ben that morning. She traded some stuff she stole at the camp for two bicycles, food and other bits and pieces. I even saw her pocket some chewing gum, something we had loved when we were much younger; now valued higher than gold. Had they caught her stealing it, she would have lost a hand, just as the law demanded. Now I saw that her shopping list had also included hand grenades. I wondered what else lay hidden in her backpack. Hopefully, none of the dead rats hanging off one of the peddler’s racks. It was enough to turn you into a vegetarian.
The veins on Ellie’s forearms bulged as she gripped the grenade. How many seconds since she pulled that pin?
‘What are you doing?’ I screamed, ‘get rid of it!’
Still, she held it. I counted down and I knew she did the same. The men resumed running towards us, just as she threw the grenade towards them. It hit one of them in the chest, and then the world around me turned white. The explosion blasted me sideways and I tasted stomach acid. Had I eaten in the past twenty-four hours, the food would have ejected from my body, and I’m not sure at which end. Light and sound smashed into me, like a thousand angry wasps. I’d never fainted before, but this had to be what it felt like. I couldn’t turn my head to look for Ellie. Grit and dust pasted all over my face. Through my blocked nose I just about smelled burnt flesh. I rubbed my eyes, and the dirt on my hands blinded me even more. The whistling in my ears took a while to disappear, and then I heard the old woman’s muffled voice.
‘Are you stupid? What did ya do a thing like that for?’
As the dust cleared around us, I saw that what was left of the church steeple was now blown to pieces. A single black boot, probably a man-size twelve, lay smouldering beside me. Was there a piece of foot still inside? I didn’t check. No MIDPOL agents anywhere. Maybe they were all dead. I could only hope.
‘This is my home,’ she complained in her sing-song accent, ‘you can’t just-’
‘Oh, give it a rest,’ Ellie groaned. ‘A thank you would be nice.’
The woman stared at her. ‘For what?’
‘For saving your behind.’ Ellie picked up the boot and waved it in her face.
The woman rubbed her eyes and then turned to look for the men. They were gone. For now.
’I don’t think it’s my behind they were after, sugar. MIDPOL never come to these parts. They must’a been lookin’ for you!’
I used scraps of paper I found on the ground to wipe blood from my mouth and shirt. By the time I realised it was toilet paper, I didn’t care if it had come from a fresh roll or not.
The woman chewed her gums some more. I could almost hear the wheels turning inside her head. ‘Come on then,’ she barked. ’There might be more of ‘em.’
So many questions, but now was not the time. Ellie was ahead of me and I had trouble keeping up again. Instead of running back towards what was left of the church - very little - we ran a circle around it, which led us further into the graveyard.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t-’ I began, but Ellie grabbed my hand and dragged me along.
‘We have no choice,’ Ellie snapped. ‘Come on.’
Waves hit the shore behind the desolated forest nearby, as we ran past gravestones of long-forgotten souls. The moon and stars above us created eerie shadows. No one had been buried here for a while, of this I was certain; just rows of stone slabs and crosses which leaned in every direction. All we needed was ghostly music. To my horror, the old woman moved towards a small mausoleum, shaped like a hexagon. Before she reached it, I knew what was coming. She thrust the cast iron key into a padlock, and I swallowed hard. No, I couldn’t. Ellie looked at me and she, too, froze. She knew. My phobia of tight spaces. Sleeping in a huge dorm amongst countless others had been great for me, but a small mausoleum full of dusty old bones? Not so good.
‘Arthur,’ Ellie urged, and she grabbed my arm in support. ‘You can do this. I know you can. I’ll be right there with you.’ She smiled at me, and for a moment my love for my twin sister was so strong it smothered me until my chest almost burst. I was supposed to be the one protecting her, but as usual our roles were reversed. I heard a loud clank. Heavy chains fell to the ground.
‘Quick. Not much time,’ the old woman spat.
‘Calm down, Grandma,’ Ellie countered, ‘we’re coming.’
Just before we followed her into the small death-chamber, she blocked our way. Hands on skinny hips, her odour hid me like the extractor fan from the toilet of our abandoned camp.
‘Phoar!’ I groaned.
’You know, I don’t have to take you along,’ she snapped.
‘I think you do,’ Ellie countered. ‘If not, we’ll just show the officers from MIDPOL the way to your delightful abode.’
The old woman moved towards Ellie and grabbed her hoodie. Ellie countered by grabbing hold of our host’s frizzy white hair.
‘Please,’ I said. Quiet at first and then again, but louder, ‘please! This is what they want. Us at each other’s throats. It’s how they came to power.’
The old woman looked at me. Then at Ellie. She let go of the Hoodie, just as my sister relinquished her hair. I noticed some silver strands sticking to Ellie’s palm.
I gave my twin the look. I tilted my head, something I only did in extreme cases. She got the message.
‘I’m sorry,’ Ellie mumbled.
‘What was that? I’m just so old and I don’t hear too good no-more.’
‘I’m. Very. Sorry,’ Ellie said through clenched teeth, just as I heard another car getting closer in the distance. The old woman heard it too, and she beckoned us inside. The clammy feeling of being trapped and doomed to eternal suffocation was instant. It made the putrid smell less noticeable, but even in the darkness I saw a pile of something in the corner. Were those decomposing bodies? Had they fled their coffins to roam free? She must have read my mind.
‘I needed the wood,’ she snapped, as she moved towards the back wall of the death chamber.
She needed the wood?
‘Of course, you did,’ said Ellie.
I stepped into something mushy, with a subtle crunch at the end. Nice. Nothing like a rotten corpse to lighten the mood. It was pitch black all around me and as if on cue a flame snapped to life, illuminating the old woman’s toothless grin. She waved a silver lighter from side to side. I remembered these. Zippo. Distant memories of Grandpa, who had a sizeable collection to accompany his selection of wooden pipes.
My jaw tightened until my teeth hurt.
‘I think you should put that out, or the men will see us,’ I mumbled.
‘Never mind the men,’ she said, ’shuffle up.’
I wasn’t sure where she wanted us to go, but we squeezed in behind her. She moved alongside an enormous stone sarcophagus, which took up much of the space. The lid was crafted into the shape of a medieval lady, her face serene but weary. She looked alive in the flickering light from the lighter and I shivered. The old woman’s fingers slid across the back of the coffin lid. What was she doing? If she thought we would get inside that thing, then she’d better think again!
’Click!’ The heavy stone lid swung aside, and a waft of dank air from deep below hit me square between the eyes.