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At first when Bobs said he’d got me a gift, I was afraid. I thought he’d gone back to the Scrub and peeled up that rabbit while Eris wasn’t looking. But then he said it wasn’t that. It was a real present.
‘From a shop.’
I think I felt a bit emotional then. Bobs never got us presents unless it was apocalypse survival kit or a jumper that he’d knitted out of old string.
This was an old, chunky plastic game console with only one game, which he handed to me as solemnly as if it were gold.
Zombie Apocalypse: The Last Stand of Mankind.
‘You can play it when we get back from target practice,’ Bobs said. ‘You always said you wanted to use something more exciting than a pea-shooter. This one has got -’ He held the box up and squinted at it. ‘A very exciting choice of weaponry. Look,’ he said, pointing and smiling, ‘that’s a submachine gun. Can you believe someone was throwing this away?’
‘I thought you said it was from a shop?’
‘Did I say shop? I meant skip.’
He forced me to play for one hour the first night. Two hours the second. What was good was my aim started to get better. What was bad was the nightmares: skin like wet socks that wanted to wrap themselves round your face and try to peel it off, eyeballs like squeezed grapes, fingers, arms, hands, legs falling off as you shot at them, and still they kept coming after you, dropping body parts like breadcrumbs, so they could find their way back.
I didn’t tell Bobs about the nightmares. I didn’t want him to know I’d stopped taking the tablets. But I did tell him the game was freaking me out.
He said I’d better get used to it.
I found a few kids I could talk to about Zombie Apocalypse, but I got laughed at a lot because the version I had was ten years old. All of their high scores were even higher than mine because I only got one or two hours and they got five because they didn’t have to do real life target practice. I didn’t like the dying look they had in their eyes.
Once, I asked one of them – Josh Boyle, with the squashed nose and grease-flattened hair – if his dad made him play it too? Didn’t he ever wish he could read a book or just sit and think? Josh said no. Then he looked at me like I was weird.
So me and Eris walked to the bus stop together, talking about whether it was algae or fungus for lunch, bags weighed down with survival kits, respirators, weaponry, cloaks, clockwork torches, homework, or maybe no homework, and a mobile phone.
I was really excited about the mobile phone, briefly.
Bobs handed it over with a big smile as if he were giving us a lovely treat, like a cream bun. Really it was a hard-to-lift house brick with a numerical keypad and an antenna in the back, which means it could crack into life even in the event of nuclear war – and knock someone unconscious in an emergency. I think the mobile phone was meant to reassure us, but ever since Bobs gave it to us, I’d been feeling very worried indeed.
‘Come back through the Scrub,’ Bobs said, ‘if it starts while you’re at school. And put on the cloak.’
‘But the Scrub’s not even on the way back.’
‘Yes, but there are fewer people that way.’
The thing he handed me was sealed up, like a goldfish from a fair in a plastic bag. But without the goldfish. Or the water.
‘Don’t forget to put it on.’
I had no idea what he was talking about. The bag was completely empty.
‘How are we supposed to know if it’s started?’ Eris said.
‘Because I will ring you,’ Bobs said.
The first day we took in the mobile phone didn’t go too great. Although there was one good point, which was that before anyone had time to mock the phone, Ms Whitter confiscated it. Basically, this was because Bobs kept calling us to check it was working and there was no way to make it go silent other than sit on it, which set off the phone’s panic alarm.
When we got home, I mentioned what happened with the mobile phone to Bobs. Unfortunately, Bobs then decided to come into school with us the next day and have a conversation with Ms Whitter, who was the Deputy Head.
It seemed that Bobs ended up telling Ms Whitter that he personally would be delighted when she turned so he could catapult her into oblivion.
‘Of course, your brains will have melted by then so you won’t notice, but I shall notice, and I shall take great pleasure in it. Though how anyone would tell the difference –’
At this point, Mr Fairs overpowered him, so that was the end of that little chat. Bobs said that he thought I might be right, that Mr Fairs really was some kind of mutant ape.
So that was how we met Pam.
Pam had a face like a pudding and a long brown skirt and came from Social Services. She sat very straight, perched on the edge of the bright green sofa Bobs had hauled out of the Scrub. Pam had velcro sandals with skin-colour tights which wouldn’t have been such a big problem if Eris could stop staring at her toes.
When Pam asked to speak to us separately, Bobs looked like he was going to say no, except Pam was looking at him like ‘no’ wasn’t an allowed answer, so I guess he just went outside the door and stood, listening in. Right, I thought: this was my big opportunity.
‘He won’t let us eat meat,’ I said.
Eris elbowed me in the ribs.
‘I need meat,’ I said. ‘It’s my human right.’
Pam smiled kindly. ‘Is there anything else?’
‘He makes us do jobs.’
‘He makes you have a job?’ Now she looked worried and I started to get a good feeling.
‘Chores,’ Eris said.
Pam looked disappointed. ‘Such as -?’
Cutting and catapulting, and collecting mushrooms, and putting a slug in a hole in the wall, and always eating algae, and Zombie Apocalypse. He was forcing us to survive.
I wanted to tell her but I didn’t want to and it wasn’t like anyone stopped me, not Bobs, not Eris. I stopped myself.
‘Boring chores like housework,’ Eris said.
So when Pam left I was cross with myself for losing the opportunity to get meat but also relieved because if civilisation did collapse, I didn’t want to be stuck in a children’s home somewhere outside the Limit.
Eris did a small, thin smile.
‘They’d probably split us up too, you know.’
So now it was our guilty secret. Like a bad taste in my mouth I couldn’t get rid of.
What was worse was that the next day, everyone at school seemed to know Social Services had called round. Eris said she was pretty sure she’d seen a boy in a luminous yellow jacket jogging past the house. I thought she was imagining it.
I wish she’d been imagining it.
Next morning we were out cutting, winding our way through the pale blue air, through empty streets.
‘You two look like grim reapers in those overcoats,’ Bobs said. ‘Especially with the garden clippers.’
‘No we don’t, the grim reaper is a skeleton with a big knife on a stick,’ Eris said, because she is a smart arse. ‘Garden clippers are more like scissors.’
Luminous yellow flashed between dark green leaves.
I nudged Eris. ‘Did you see?’
‘It’s just your imagination, Frank.’
I pulled my overcoat up to my chin and shuffled into the shadows. At the gate, Bobs stopped abruptly and I almost walked straight into him.
‘What must you remember?’ he said.
‘Cut it. Don’t pull it up by the roots.’
‘That’s right.’ Bobs handed us each a blue plastic sack. Eris looked like she wanted to be sick into hers. I just wanted to get inside, quick. It was bad enough we had to do these jobs. What if someone saw?
In the shadow of the spire and the dark yew that groaned, we threaded through the old headstones, chipped and grey, blotted with lichen. There was a special kind of damp there, rising from the ground. Eris crouched and I bent next to her, taking care not to touch the dirt. The graves tilted towards us, the church door opened, ready to gobble us up, which was not imaginary but real.
‘It’s not real,’ Bobs said. ‘There’s nothing there.’
It felt real.
‘What are you waiting for?’ Bobs grinned, snapping on his big blue goggles. ‘Chop chop!’
Skeletons begged us to come with them into the dirt. The church licked its lips. Angels wept. I worked faster with my clippers. Each cut made it worse, like cutting onions, but this wasn’t tears you couldn’t stop; it was terror.
It looked like nothing, spindly grey stalks and soft blue papery petals. It was called plaecivia and it gave you nightmares even when you were awake. Eris said she thought it was some kind of biological weapon.
‘Like a biohazard?’
‘Biohazards eat all the flesh off your face.’
‘No, this stuff just makes you think your face got eaten.’
We crouched together, swearing all the bad words we knew. I’d forgotten my gloves.
‘Someone’s going to see us,’ I said.
Just as the words came out of my mouth, Tom Hoad popped over the wall, water bottle in one fist, barely broken into a sweat. When I saw the yellow jacket, I almost clipped my fingers off. Eris hid behind a headstone. I thought, if I wished hard enough, could I go invisible? Or maybe I was just hallucinating.
Bobs stood up. ‘I think someone’s shouting you, Frank.’
I pulled my hoody down over my nose.
‘Oi Freak!’ Toad yelled. ‘Why you picking flowers?’
‘Just ignore him,’ Eris said.
‘Why should we ignore him?’ Bobs asked in his crispest, loudest voice. He’d prised his goggles off, printed purple round his eyes. His fur coat gleamed, sequin-scarf sparkling in the first amber of the morning light as he brandished a fist full of flowers. ‘Come on, Frank. You ought to say – oh. He’s gone.’
A Toad-shaped hole opened like an eye socket eaten out by worms.
It felt like the end but really it was the beginning. It was bad enough everyone kept calling us freaks for no reason. Now that Toad had seen us cutting, it would be a nightmare. Now he’d got evidence.
I wondered then, standing in the dead air, how long it would take.
‘Before the end of the second lesson,’ Eris said.
We’re twins. But it still creeps me out when she seems to know what I’m thinking.
It was still hot in the classroom from the lesson before, condensation dripping down the windows, that stale, thick fug. The sky outside the window looked like someone deleted it: perfect flat not-quite-white nothing.
Mrs Hale paced the room, a fat ship in full sail.
‘Can anybody remember any of the important Victorian inventions we were talking about last lesson?’ she said.
‘Light bulbs and paperclips,’ I said.
‘Er, yes. Eris?’
‘Please Miss, Henry Bessemer patented the Bessemer process for the mass production of steel in 1855, although it was also independently discovered by William Kelly in 1851.’
More silence. Then sniggering. Someone started saying how could two people invent the same thing at once and Mrs Hale said that it happened all the time. Then Umar who is going to be a doctor started explaining about anaesthetic and how before that patients had to get drunk and bite on a stick and something hit me on the back of the head.
‘Be quiet, Frank!’ Mrs Hale snapped.
A screwed up ball of paper rolled under Olly Winter’s chair, like an extra big mushroom ‘meatball’ that knows, that at some point, you’re going to have to eat it.
‘This yours?’ Olly said.
I shook my head. He dropped it on my desk anyway, with an evil smile. Umar was still talking and I tried to pay attention, but it was hard with that ball of paper looking up at me.
Unwrap me! Don’t you want to know what’s written inside?
I knew there was something written inside because I could feel eyes boiling a hole in the back of my head, like Bobs when he’d beaten up some algae ‘surprise’ and was waiting for you to gag on the first delicious mouthful of beetroot paste.
I should have put the ball of paper in the bin, or burned it, or done a dive roll out the window and run screaming with it into the Scrub. Instead, slowly, carefully, I prised it open. Inside the scrumpled up paper, in swirly blue writing that looked like a squished spider, was written one word.
I didn’t need to read it. Toad mouthed it at me as I looked up. They were all grinning: Olly, Jack Francis, the other clingers-on.
Eris must have noticed something was happening because she was looking at me crossly, shaking her head, saying something about the Unit. I could lip read that one really well since Eris told me I’d end up in the Unit about once per lesson, and twice when we got home. The Unit was where the Special kids went, doing worksheets on ‘feelings’ with big crayons and blunt scissors – so they couldn’t hurt themselves. Or each other.
You need to blend in, Eris always said. What she never said was if we didn’t blend in, someone would notice we really were freaks and Pam would come back. So I tried to blend in. I tried to concentrate on what Mrs Hale was saying, even though it was boring. I tried to ignore Toad, even though he was telling everyone about me stealing flowers from the graveyard. I decided to take deep breaths and figure out what I’d done with my pen. Or steal a pen from the girl sitting next to me when she wasn’t looking.
‘Miss!’ Toad’s hand shot up.
‘What is it?’
‘Freak just swore at me.’
He said it like Frank, but it was definitely freak because some of the other kids started laughing. I waited for Mrs Hale to tell him off. Instead, she turned on me like an angry flower-pattern death planet with laser beam eyes, as if it were my fault they were giggling.
‘He just called me Freak!’ I said. My voice was nearly flat under the noise.
‘But that’s your name,’ Mrs Hale said crossly.
She didn’t hear me properly. But the class did. The room exploded with laughter. Jack Francis and Olly Winter looked like they were going to choke. Some of the less stable ones fell off their chairs.
I’m not quite sure how the next thing happened. It was like whatever had been winding up in me all week suddenly got out, and when it did, it was a monster.
This monster did not want to blend in.
It stood up very straight, very tall and pointed its finger at Toad.
‘Frank! Sit down!’
The monster did not want to sit down.
‘Say sorry!’ the monster said.
Toad’s mouth opened like a weird fish. In fact, most of the kids’ mouths were open like weird fish. It was like I’d put a spell on them.
‘Frank, sit down this minute! Frank!’ Mrs Hale’s voice bounced harmlessly off the back of my head.
‘Say sorry!’ I said.
Toad frowned. The kids who’d been watching stunned now got a different look on their face. Like they were willing me on, Umar especially and Quiet Dan, even Matthew Who is Autistic. They were giving me all the power they had through their eyes.
I levelled my finger at Toad like he was a very bad dog.
‘Sit down this minute, Frank, sit down!’
But I wasn’t the dog. Toad was. I kept on pointing.
‘Frank, I’m warning you, sit down this minute!’
That was when I made my bad mistake. I looked at Eris. She was furious: you were supposed to blend in.
It was like someone brought kryptonite and it stole my superpower and you could see it in the other kids’ faces too: like someone gave them magic but it turned out it was only plastic.
Mrs Hale glared me down.
That night, I had the first big nightmare.