Authors: Michael Robertson
When Lola put a finger to her lips and pointed up, Michael listened. The vehicles had stopped above them.
Doors opened and he heard a man’s voice.
“How long do you think it’ll take for these bodies to rot and fall into the river?”
A cold chill ran through Michael.
The man may have worn a bag over his head in the warehouse, but he’d recognize that voice anywhere. It was the voice that called for the boys to come and see Julius. When they didn’t come, it was the voice that grew heated and threatened to beat them. It was the voice that laughed as he dragged them away against their will.
The voice didn’t have to listen to the boys afterward though; the screams that accompanied the night terrors. The whimpering sobs as they rocked in a cold and dark corner for days. The cries that not even the biggest of boys could hold back…
When Lola nudged him, Michael snapped out of it and looked at her. She pointed up at the bridge above them. “They’ve moved. You ready to go?”
Nodding, Michael put pressure on his ankle and regretted it instantly as splinters of agony streaked up his leg.
Lola put his arm around her shoulders again and lifted him to his feet.
Panting from the effort, Michael hobbled toward the stairs on the side of the bridge.
When they got to the edge, Lola stopped.
“What is it?” Michael said.
Shuffling back a pace, dragging Michael with her, Lola pulled them into the shadows.
Before she could speak, the two vehicles passed overhead again.
The pair stood in silence and listened.
When the vehicles turned around and parked directly above them, Lola sighed. “We ain’t going anywhere for a while.”
She helped Michael sit again and dropped down next to him. “It looks like we’d best get comfy.”
The cold pavement had turned Michael’s arse numb. He’d been sitting on it for hours. When he rolled from side to side, it did nothing for the dead pain, and the movement only made his ankle hurt more.
The vehicle’s engines started above them, and he looked up. A few seconds later, they drove off. Tiredness added a croak to his voice. “Do you think they’ve gone now?”
With puffy bags sitting beneath her eyes, Lola also looked up and shrugged. “Dunno. I thought they’d gone when they drove off in the middle of the night, but they keep
coming back. That must be what, the fourth time now?”
Michael looked across the river to the other side, his eyes stinging. A thick mist hung above the water, but the early morning light helped him see the dark shapes of the two vehicles as they drove away. “Do they ever sleep? Surely they must feel the need to go home to bed at some point.”
“I know, right?”
“So what do you reckon; we give it twenty minutes and then we leave?”
Lola looked down at his ankle. “Are you up for moving?”
Michael winced as he lifted his leg. The throb sat deep in the joint. When he eased it back down, he flinched as it touched the ground. “Not really, but do I have a choice? It’s not like we can wait here.”
A worried frown crushed Lola’s face as she continued staring at Michael’s ankle.
What could he tell her? She didn’t need the stress of his injuries on top of everything else. “Honestly, the pain’s easing a little. I think I’ll be all right.” His mum always said some lies were okay.
Although she wore the same worried frown, Lola directed it across the river to where the cars had disappeared. “Okay, let’s give it twenty minutes. If they haven’t returned by then, I think we should go.”
After about fifteen minutes, Michael rolled his trouser leg up and his sock down. Not even the hazy dawn could hide the purple bruising and swelling. “It’s nowhere near as bad as I thought. I was expecting it to be black.”
Lola looked at it but didn’t reply; her brow creased with concern.
“It looks terrible.”
It did look terrible and felt even worse. “What can we do? We need to get out of here and that involves me walking unless you’ve got a wheelchair.”
Lola didn’t respond.
The corpses became clearer with the morning light, and Michael watched them swing beneath the bridge. A blond woman hung close to them. “I can’t believe Mum killed herself and Matilda.”
“Maybe your sister wanted to die too. Life ain’t pretty for a woman in this world. It was pretty fucking bad before, but now, it’s insane.”
Instead of replying, Michael said, “There aren’t any children hanging up.”
He watched Lola look all the way down one side of the bridge and then back up the other. “You’re right.”
“They’re too valuable to them. You say it isn’t a good world for women, but it’s a pretty shit world for children too. They don’t get hanged because they end up in places like the warehouse.”
Lola frowned at Michael. “What happened to you?”
Michael looked away. The vehicles hadn’t returned. “That’s got to be twenty minutes now; we should go.”
Although Michael could feel the intense scrutiny from Lola, she didn’t question him any further.
With the wall as a support, Michael got to his feet. Once he was upright, he tested his bad ankle and nearly fell to the ground again.
“How is it?”
“I can’t walk on it, but it’s getting better. I think it’ll be okay in a day or two.”
Lola held her arm out for support and, taking them one at a time, led him down the stairs.
Both of them watched the other side of the river as they moved. If the men returned, they needed to see them early—a quick getaway was virtually impossible.
With the bridge far behind them, Michael leaned on Lola, and they hobbled down another deserted street. “I’m sorry.”
“Will you stop
apologizing? If we hadn’t jumped off the bridge, we’d be in the back of their truck right now.”
Grinding his jaw against the biting wind, Michael scanned the empty street. Litter rode the strong currents. The terraced houses all seemed to be empty, although he couldn’t be sure because an impenetrable darkness sat just beyond the windows. Michael’s skin turned to gooseflesh; anyone could be watching them right now. They could see the vulnerable pair and decide to jump them at any point.
A particularly grimy house stood on their right. The paint on the front door peeled away in flakes, and the grass in the garden had grown to waist height. The place had, without a doubt, been abandoned a long time ago, long before London fell into ruin.
Distracted by the house, Michael didn’t see it coming.
But he sure as hell felt it when the plastic smothered his face and cut off his breathing.
For a few heart-hammering moments, Michael couldn’t see a thing. He flapped and batted at his face until he’d finally pulled the plastic bag off. As he watched it fly down the road, he released a heavy sigh.
Lola smirked. “Bit jumpy?”
“Whatever,” Michael said. On his next step, his ankle turned over and sent searing pain up his shin. He cried out.
Lola watched him with her hands on her hips. She then turned her back to him and hunched over as if to show him her bottom.
Michael didn’t move.
“Jesus, Nearly Eleven, I’m not standing like this for my own fucking good. Get on my back; I’m sick of your moaning.”
She didn’t need to tell him twice.
Lola struggled and grunted as she carried Michael. It left little room for conversation.
The houses were as abandoned on this street as on the last. Empty windows stared out at them, watching them pass and concealing the lurkers within.
Pain continued to pulse through his ankle, but it helped to not walk on it. “It’s getting better, you know. I think I’ll be able to walk on it in a day or two.”
“Good. I don’t want to have to carry you for weeks.”
“Fucking hell, Nearly Eleven, I’m only playing with ya. I’ll help you for as long as you need me to. Jesus, you need to be less sensitive, dude.”
It was a good thing Lola couldn’t see his face because his eyes had started to water. She’d been so good to him—he was lucky to have found her. Maybe he should trust her more; she needed to understand where he’d been. He cleared his throat. “I recognized the voices of the men on the bridge, Lola. They were the men from the warehouse. They’re bad men. I hear their voices in my head every time I go to sleep.” Tears ran down his cheeks. “They did awful
things to the boys. I was one of the lucky ones that managed to escape before anything horrible happened to me. I feel terrible for those I left behind. Everyone had a turn. That was how it worked, but I missed my turn…”
Michael could tell she was listening by the way she tilted her head in his direction, but Lola didn’t reply.
Clearing the lump in his throat, he spoke in barely a whisper. “I got away.”
At a guess, Michael would have said they’d been walking for an hour or so. They made slow progress with Lola carrying him, but it sure beat walking. A jagged ache still ran from his ankle all the way up his leg, although he kept quiet about that. After carrying him for so long, Lola didn’t need to hear him complain.
Lola stopped for the third time in what must have been the past ten minutes. “This is killing my back. I think we’re far enough away from the bridge now. What do you say we find somewhere to hide for the day?”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Michael said as he scanned the horizon. “It won’t be long before morning and I think with some more rest, I’ll be moving more freely.”
Lola nodded across the road. “There?”
Michael looked at the huge building and shivered. “Are you sure that’s where you want to stay?”
“Do you think they’ll come looking for us in there?”
After a deep gulp, Michael shook his head. “I don’t think anyone will go in there.”
“Exactly. Come on.”
When Lola twisted the huge metal handle, the front door swung open with little effort.
Michael slid from Lola’s back and hobbled in behind her. He looked up as he walked; the height of the building made his head spin.
The poor light didn’t stretch all the way to the ceiling. Anything could be up there. Most probably bats. A series of windows ran down either side of the building. About ten feet tall, all of them had stained glass at the tip.
As they walked down the carpeted aisles and passed bookshelves on either side, Michael scanned the room. “It doesn’t look like anyone’s been in here since the world collapsed.”
“Sad, isn’t it?” Lola said. “Everything goes to shit, and the first thing to be abandoned is literature. Libraries were a dying resource before the crash, so I suppose it’s naïve to expect them to be anything but now. Who wants books when your basic human needs aren’t being met?”
Michael used the bookshelves to lean on as he walked; his palms still stung from the rope burns. Every time he shifted his hand along, dust kicked up into the air.
As Lola walked, she looked at the spines of each book, her lips moving as she read the titles.
Michael nearly bumped into her when she suddenly stopped and pulled one of the books out. “Sweet,
by Cormac McCarthy; a hardcover too!” She waved it in Michael’s direction. “Have you read it?”
Michael shook his head as he looked at the green book cover with no pictures on it. “What’s it about?”
“A dad and his boy trying to survive in a world full of rapists and murderers. Quite a lot like what we’re trying to live through at the moment.”
Although Lola smiled, her eyes didn’t.
When they reached the end of the library, they found a colorful area full of children’s books and bright cushions. Michael recognized the titles on these shelves. He didn’t tell Lola that. She’d hardly want to talk Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter; even if the last few Harry Potters were really long like proper books.
Lola set about arranging the cushions into a bed. “This is as good a place as any to get some rest. Make yourself comfortable, Nearly Eleven; we’re going to be here for a few hours.”
The weight of the cushions made them hard to drag across the floor, especially with the pain in his ankle. While gritting his teeth, Michael pushed through it.
When he’d finally positioned them next to Lola, he lay down and closed his eyes.
The second he blocked the world out, he saw his dad’s death and heard the screams of the boys from the warehouse. He fought to keep his eyes shut, clamping them so hard it almost hurt. He kept them shut even when he started to see the images of skinny and dirty boys with hollow cheeks and bags beneath their eyes. Even when he smelled the acidic tang of piss and shit from the corner of the room they stayed in. Even when he tasted the blood in his mouth from the beating they gave him when he was first dragged in there. Opening his eyes would banish all of the memories, but he needed to rest.
Michael turned his back on Lola and lay on his side. The warm trickle of tears ran over the bridge of his nose and across his right temple.
When Michael opened his eyes and rolled over, Lola had gone. He sat bolt upright and searched the library. Darkness surrounded him. He called out with a trembling voice, “Lola?”
Then he saw her by one of the windows and his heart lifted.
When he stood up, the pain in his ankle had lost its bite and a dull ache had replaced the sharp sting. He hobbled over to her and said, “I thought you’d left me.”
When he got close enough to see her, he froze. She glared at him with her finger pressed to her lips.
Something had happened outside. Once again, Michael’s heart took on an irregular tempo. When he heard the scraping of chains over concrete, nausea boiled in his stomach. They’d been tied to his ankles just a few weeks ago. He limped over to Lola’s side and shook in anticipation of what he was about to see.