Authors: Jane Higgins
‘I must have done something, sir. To not be picked.’
‘Not in my book. But, as I say, I can’t talk to you about that.’
‘Will I have to leave?’
He looked down and tapped a pen on his papers. My heart sank through my boots. He said, ‘I’m sorry, Nik. I really am. You don’t have anyone to go home to, do you?’
I shook my head.
‘My parents died in the uprising in ‘87.’
‘Do you remember them?’
‘My mother. A bit.’ I shrugged to show I was past that now and I didn’t need him coming over all sympathetic and nosy about it.
‘You were very young when you came here, weren’t you. I could look, if you like, to see if she left anything for you to have when you came to leave. Do you want me to?’
That floored me. It had never even crossed my mind. He smiled because I was standing there gaping at him, then he disappeared into his file room. He came back leafing through a folder but shaking his head. ‘I’m sorry. There’s just an enrollment application, and entry test results, which are …’ he peered at the page, ‘spectacular. No surprise there.’
I said, ‘Can I see the enrollment application?’
He closed the folder. ‘Why?’
‘I have this memory of a woman who brought me here when I first started; not my mother, but she must have known my mother, and maybe my father. I don’t know who she was, or anything about her except that her name was Frieda. I thought it might say, on the application, who she was. If I could find her, I might find out about my parents.’
‘Do you remember your mother’s name?’
‘And your father?’
I ducked my head.
‘Do you know your father’s name, Nik?’
Shook my head. I could feel him looking at me, thinking how pathetic is it to not even know your own father’s name? And maybe that means your mother didn’t know it either.
‘Nikolai, perhaps?’ he said.
The way he said it made me look up. He was watching me like he was thinking hard. This wasn’t the official version of Dr Williams anymore.
He tapped the folder on his desk, still thinking. ‘I can’t let you see school files, I’m afraid.’ He turned away towards the file room, but he stopped in the doorway and looked back at me.
‘Kelleran,’ he said. ‘Her name was Frieda Kelleran.’
When he came back from putting my file away, he was back to being his formal, teacherly self. He picked up the phone, called Security, said, ‘I wish you well. I really do. I’m sorry I can’t help,’ and directed me out of the infirmary when the security guy showed.
I walked back to my dorm, thinking. I had now run out of obvious reasons for ISIS to cross me off their list. If Dr Williams knew any less obvious reasons, he wasn’t telling me. But he had pointed me in a new direction.
Frieda Kelleran. Who was she and how hard could it be to find her?
When Tornmoor threw me out, I knew what I would do.
In the dark, a blast blew the bones of the building apart
The flash rammed light into closed eyes, punched glass from windows, broke beams and doorways like fingers.
The stomp of a giant boot shook skin from bone and eyes from sockets.
For a heartbeat, silence.
Someone was yelling, ‘GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!’ We fell out of bed and staggered about. Fires lit up broken windows and splintered glass; the voice kept shouting, ‘GET OUT! GET OUT!’ We grabbed jeans and sweatshirts and boots and stumbled towards the fire escape. ‘GET OUT! GET OUT!’
I was yelling too. I dropped from the last steps of the
fire escape shouting Lou’s name. People pushed past me, charging down the walkway between the dorm and the outside walls. No sign of Lou. We raced onto the lawn. Figures were weaving like drunks across the grass. The library was ablaze, flames roaring through its windows, but the dorm wing was still standing; people were struggling out of it, streams of people through the doors and down the fire escapes.
I left the chaos on the library lawn and went through the trees and across the driveway to the staff quarters. What I saw there stopped me dead.
The upper storey of the staff wing was gone. Huge chunks of masonry had crashed onto the lawns and lay half-buried, casting shadows in the firelight.
People weren’t milling about here. They were standing and staring.
And waiting. For sirens to come tearing up the driveway, for the paramedics and the police and the army. We waited for them to come.
But no one came.
No one came.
After I don’t know how long, I started to walk through the crowd gathered outside the staff wing. I was looking for Lou and Bella and Dash and Fyffe, but I reached the edge of the crowd without finding any of them. Then, because no one had come to say ‘do this, do that, go here, go there’
and no one was going to come from the staff quarters to say anything ever again, I picked my way through the rubble towards the infirmary garden where I’d been just a few hours before. Its walls lay smashed under pieces of fallen building.
I went through the garden and stood outside what was left of the infirmary. I was breathing hard but trying not to because the air was thick with burning and it made me gag. In the firelight, I could see shapes tangled in the demolished walls. People. Three people. I clambered over the wreckage towards them. They were bloody, their clothes burned black into their skin. The burning smell was them.
Dr Lewis. Sprawled on his back, his left arm half blown off, bones sticking out of it, and his face bloody all over.
Dr Stapleton. Frowning. As if this was one more thing he disapproved of.
And Dr Williams.
They were dead.
I knelt beside Dr Williams and shook his shoulder, lightly, just in case. His head lolled towards me, one eye wide and staring. The other side of his face was burnt through to charred bone and his whole left side was a mess of blood and burnt cloth. I thought, stupidly, this is how they look, people who die in war. They look like this.
I knelt there and knelt there and couldn’t get up.
I don’t know how long for.
Somewhere, far off, hammer blows beat the earth. Someone was talking in my ear. Telling me to stand up and get out, pulling me away.
He hauled me to my feet and pushed me out into the smoking, noisy dark. He made me sit down, wiped the blood off my hands, and put his jacket round my shoulders.
Nearby, Jono was trying to stop Fyffe and Sol racing off to look for Lou. ‘He’ll find us. Don’t worry.’ He fished a flattened packet of cigarettes out of a pocket and handed them round, but I was shaking too much. Mace lit one for me. Sol sat down beside me, his face pale in the firelight. He looked at me with huge eyes and said, ‘Will they get us?’
Fyffe took his hands in hers. ‘Sol. They won’t get us. I’m here, and Nik’s here and Jono and Macey. And Lou will be here soon. We’re going to be all right. Aren’t we, Nik?’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Sure, we are.’ I put Mace’s jacket round Sol’s shoulders. Calming a terrified eight-year-old has its advantages: by the time Dash found us I’d almost stopped shaking.
‘It looks like a coordinated attack across the city,’ she said. ‘But it’s taken out communications, so we’re guessing at this stage.’ ISIS, she meant. She said ‘we’ like it was
second nature to her already. ‘Nik, they want to see you.’ She put a hand on my arm. A whole hand – not smashed up or burned black with bones sticking through. ‘Nik?’ She brushed the hair out of my eyes. ‘God, you’re freezing. The ISIS agents want you. Come with me.’
I started to hand Sol over to Fyffe and stand up, but Mace said, ‘Wait.’ He stubbed his cigarette out on the grass. ‘They say why?’
‘No,’ said Dash. ‘Of course not.’
Mace lit another cigarette and watched me through the smoke. ‘Did you wonder, maybe, why they didn’t want him the first time?’
‘Sure,’ said Dash. ‘But –’
‘Anybody lost tonight from your new recruits?’
Dash looked at Jono. ‘No. We were lucky.’ She glanced up towards the smoking ruin that was the staff wing. Inside, I thought, if you go inside … they’re all still there. The unlucky ones.
‘They don’t want him to make up numbers, then, do they,’ said Mace.
Jono said, ‘Say what you mean, Macey.’
‘It’s for Nik to say, not me. But I wouldn’t be taking him to ISIS just now if I were you. Try this. Go and tell them he’s lost, or gone or dead. See what they say.’
They all looked at me. I started to say, ‘What are you talking about?’ to Mace, but another explosion hammered the city down near the river and we all jumped. Sol leaned
on my arm, breathing in little gasps.
Dash said, ‘They must need extra recruits. That must be what it is.’ She hurried away. The rest of us sat in that firelit dark under the smoke and the stars, with the clamor rolling on around us. I put an arm around Sol and he went to sleep on my shoulder. I needed to ask Mace what he meant, but I didn’t want Jono listening in. At last Fyffe took him off to look for Lou, leaving Sol asleep with me.
I turned to Mace. ‘What the hell?’
‘Listen to me.’ He was talking fast. ‘You steer clear of ISIS. Don’t talk to them. Don’t let them find you.’
‘Why? Is this about you teaching me some Breken?’
‘Come and find me when all this is over –’
Dash was back.
Mace grabbed my shoulder and spoke in my ear. ‘Find me!’ Then he was gone.
Dash crouched in front of me. Her face was smoke-streaked. She took my free hand in hers. Her lips moved. ‘Bella,’ is what she said. Bella. She gripped my fingers hard. ‘And Lou.’
Cold. So cold the breath stopped in my mouth, and the blood in my body. Dash’s face blurred. She spoke again but my heart roared and I couldn’t hear. I tried to say, ‘Are you sure?’ but no sound came out. I cleared my throat and tried again and she said, ‘Yes. I’m sure.’
Sol’s sleeping weight was heavy against my shoulder.
I said, ‘Hey, buddy, wake up.’ He opened groggy eyes and frowned at me. ‘We have to move,’ I said. ‘We have to find Fyffe.’
Dash took him gently under the arms. ‘Come on, kiddo, up you get.’
I climbed to my feet. Seemed to take forever to get there. ‘Where?’ I asked.
‘I’ll show you,’ she said.
Someone had laid Lou and Bella together
. Which was right. On the grass at the far end of the library lawn, away from the building itself because the wall where the bay windows looked out on the lawn was blown out and part of the upper storey had collapsed. The wind from the flames blew bits of paper and ash into the darkness.
Fyffe was there, sobs wrenching her body. She reached out and enfolded Sol.
I looked down at Lou and Bella, still hoping there was some mistake. They were bloody and broken. Clothes burnt and shredded, hair matted with blood, faces … It was them, though. No way to pretend it wasn’t.
I sat down beside Lou. ‘Careful,’ said Dash. ‘There’s glass everywhere.’
We stayed there. We didn’t know what to do, who to go to for help. Nobody moved us on. Nobody noticed
us. A security jeep arrived and parked in the driveway, orange lights flashing. And with it, two ambulances. Not enough, though. Not nearly enough. The line of people who were dead or injured stretched down the driveway, bleeding into the grass. People bent over them, wailing.
After I don’t know how long – a long time maybe – someone touched my shoulder. Dash. ‘I … I need to tell you …’ She wiped her face with her sleeve, smearing tears and ash. ‘When Macey sent me to tell the agents about you – before I saw Lou and Bella,’ she reached out and touched Lou’s hand like she was apologizing for not attending to him, ‘I told the agents I’d found you, that you were looking after Sol. They got angry and said to go and bring you back to them. And do it straight away.
, they said.’ She sniffed back tears and cleared her throat. ‘I don’t know why. It makes no sense. Do you know why?’
Mace knew. Dr Williams knew – had known. I had to find Mace and quiz him about ISIS. I had to find that woman, Frieda, and ask her about my parents. But for now, all that could wait. I looked back to where I needed to be looking, which was at Lou and Bella.
Jono stirred. ‘There must be something. Something you’ve done, something you know.’
‘Christ, Jono,’ I said. ‘Like it matters now?’
Time passed. The ground shook – more explosions somewhere away west. Dash stood up. ‘We have to get Sol and Fy home. I’m going to ask permission to take them.’ She put a hand on my head. ‘Back soon.’
Fyffe had exhausted her weeping and knelt beside me, with her arm around Sol, now and then reaching out to touch Lou. Tears came and went.
I stayed. Like standing guard. In case Lou suddenly sat up, winked at Fy and said,
Ha! Joke’s over
. It’s his kind of thing. Scare the hell out of you and come out laughing at the end of it:
Your face! Shoulda seen your face!
To which the standard response was
Jesus, Lou. Grow up
‘Mr Stais.’ I looked up. The ISIS woman. The one who’d been training the recruits. ‘Friends of yours?’ she asked.
‘I’m so sorry. It’s a terrible thing.’ She put a hand on my shoulder and I shivered. ‘Can I talk with you, please.’ Not a question.
I nodded again.
‘Now,’ she said.
I touched Lou’s arm and whispered, ‘Gotta go.’
She took me down the driveway, away from the chaos. Two soldiers stood guard at the school gates, guns slung over their shoulders. The woman knocked on the door of
the gatehouse. It opened and a fierce white light spilled out. ‘Stais,’ she said to the man inside – her ISIS partner. She pushed me through the door.
The man said, ‘Turn out your pockets,’ and he searched me. He found a few coins, an ID card, a phone – not working now – all of which he pocketed, but no guns, knives, grenades or anything else that he might have been looking for. He pointed me into a chair and I sat, staring at the floor, feeling sick in the too-bright glare.
‘You’re Nikolai Stais.’ Calm, flat, like he was ticking off the school roll.