Crash III: There's No Place Like Home (8 page)

A line of boys walked down the road in the fading light. Each one’s ankles were chained to the boy’s in front of him. They moved to the rhythm that each and every one of them called out. “One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.”

A loud thump rang out as the boy at the back of the line fell over. He looked exhausted. As Michael continued to watch, his stomach tensed and dread sank through him.
 

The man at the back walked up behind the boy and kicked his arse. “Get up, you little piece of shit. If you think this walk is hard, wait until you see what we have in store for you. Wait until you meet Julius.”
 

The name turned Michael’s blood cold.

Instead of standing back up, the boy curled in a ball and sobbed. The rest of the line continued walking. When the chains in front of him snapped taut, his legs stretched out until the line dragged him across the pavement behind them.
 

The man who’d told him to get up leaned over him, walking at the same pace that the boy was being dragged at. “Get up, now, you piece of shit. Don’t make me tell you again.”

The boy stayed down. He cried and shook his head.
 

The man shouted at the line, “Halt!”
 

The line stopped.
 

The boy snapped himself back into a ball and rocked on the pavement. “No, no, no, no, no.”

Everyone had turned to the man at the back. While the boys watched him with wide eyes, the other guards watched him with wide grins.
 

“Yes, you fucking little cunt. Yes,” the guard said to him.
 

Some of the other guards laughed as the man pulled his leg back. They laughed even louder when he drove it into the skinny boy’s curled form.

The boy yelped as the hollow sound of the boot connected with him.

“Get up, boy.”

Winded and writhing in pain, the boy stayed down.

The man kicked him again and the cracking sound of breaking bones echoed in the air.

Michael turned away from the window, but he still listened.

Another heavy thud.
 

Another dry crack.
 

Another yelp from the boy.
 

Michael cringed.

Another heavy thud.

Another dry crack.
 

Another yelp from the boy.
 

He still didn’t look but the sounds told him everything.

Another heavy thud.
 

Another dry crack.
 

Another heavy thud.
 

Another heavy thud.
 

Another heavy thud.
 

Silence.

A single tear rolled down Michael’s cheek.

“Well, he’s no fucking good to us now, is he?” It was another one of the men. “Cut the little cunt loose.”

The chains rattled, and then the guard at the back shouted, “March, you little fuckers, unless you want some of what that stupid cunt got.”

Chains dragged across the pavement again, and Michael counted with the boys. “One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.”

Moving On

Long after the sound of the chains had vanished, Michael got to his feet and peered out of the window. The body of the boy remained on the pavement, still curled defensively as if, even in death, he feared the men’s wrath.
 

After watching him for a few more seconds, willing some movement from the limp form, he turned to Lola. “We need to get out of this city.”

Lola looked out of the window too and her eyes settled on the boy. For a few seconds, she said nothing. Then she said, “How do you know it’s not just as bad outside of London? Maybe the entire country’s gone to shit. Maybe the entire world.”

Had she not just seen what had happened to the boy outside?
“Well, it
can’t be any
worse. Is it not worth looking at least? There must be somewhere safe out there.”

When Lola turned on him, Michael flinched. Fire burned both in her green eyes and her cheeks. “When will you accept that nowhere is safe? Safe doesn’t exist. Even if you do end up feeling safe for a while, it’ll go. It always does. You fall in love with people, and they leave you or die. You have a home, and it gets burned down. You get a job, and then society collapses.” Her face contorted when she pointed at her own temple. “You need to get that childish fantasy out of your thick head. You need to live in the moment more. Right now, everything’s fine. All we can do is take pigeon steps and hope that each one is as comfortable as the last. To wish for anything more is naïve.”

It didn’t help that his bottom lip started to tremble. It made him look like even more of a child.
“Why do you have to take my hope away?”

“Because hope is for fools. Hope left when society collapsed.”

Unable to reply, Michael stared at the angry girl.
 

Lola turned away from both Michael and the window. “Look, I’ll walk you to the edge of the city, and then you’re on your own, okay?”

“But why, Lola? Why don’t you just come with me? What’s here for you?”

“London’s my home; it’s where I belong.”

Michael looked outside again at the dead boy. “How can you call
this
your home? London’s a home for child abuse, rape, and murder. You’re better than this, Lola.”
 

Lola rolled her eyes. “What am I supposed to do in the country, eh? Get a cottage and grow my own vegetables in the back garden?”

“Why not?”

“And then we could live happily ever after, right? Get a grip, Nearly Eleven.” She pointed to the ground. “
This
is where I belong.”

Despite the angry lines gripping her tense face, Michael held eye contact with her. “What’s the real reason?”

“What?”

“London’s horrible now; so what’s the real reason for you wanting to stay here?”

She rushed forward, stopping just inches from him. “Fuck off.”

While wiping her spittle from his face, Michael said, “Why are you saying that?”

“You’re ten—nearly eleven. When did you get all fucking insightful?”

Michael remained quiet.

The anger left Lola, and she looked at her feet, her voice softening. “I’ve already told you, I want to find my dad. Anyway, what’s with all the questions?”

Michael wanted to ask her why she was allowed to hope to find her dad, while he had to accept his hope was for fools? He stared at her and didn’t say anything.

“I know he never visited me after him and Mum split up.”

“So why try and find him now?” Michael asked.

“What are you trying to say? He didn’t give a shit about me then, so why should he give a shit about me now?”

“No, that’s not what I mean.”

“Look, Nearly Eleven, this heart-to-heart has been nice and everything, but I don’t know what you want from me.”

“I want you to come with me. We can survive this together.”

“All I have left in this world is my dad—or at least the possibility that my dad is still alive. I need to try and find him.”

“You have me now. We have each other.”

“No offense, but I don’t want to be babysitting for the rest of my life.”

Although her derision hit him like a gut punch, something outside caught Michael’s eye. He pushed down on Lola’s shoulder and dropped beneath the window next to her.

When she looked at him, he pressed a finger across his lips and pointed a thumb at the wall.

While staring at Lola, he listened. The windows may have been thick, but he could still hear people walking across the pavement. One of them spoke. A boy; his voice was deeper than Michael’s, but not quite a man yet. “What the fuck? How do you think this boy got here, Archie?”

Another, deeper voice replied, “He was probably killed like every other dead body we’ve come across.”
 

Although one voice was deeper than the other, they sounded exactly the same. They must be brothers.

The deeper voice spoke again. “Come on now; let’s keep moving.”

Even with the thick wall and window, Michael held his breath as he listened to the boys.

“Wait,” the younger one said.

Looking into Lola’s wide eyes, Michael heard the footsteps outside getting closer. He pushed himself flat against the cold, stone wall beneath the window and pulled Lola in next to him.

A shadow pressed up against the window above him, so Michael pushed farther into the hard wall. A nauseating throb ran through his ankle, but he couldn’t move. The boys could be working for Julius.

“It’s a library, Archie. It looks empty. Why don’t we rest up for the night?”

The younger boy’s breath steamed up the window above as he kept his face pressed to it. When the other one called to him, he moved away. “We’ve got to keep moving. Why the fuck would we want to camp out in a library?”

“Because it’ll be safe.”

“Getting out of this city will be safe. Come on, let’s go.”

The shadow of the boy stepped back from the window, his footsteps moving away from them as he crossed the pavement. When it sounded like they were far enough away, Michael leaned close to Lola. “You don’t need to babysit me. You need me around. If it wasn’t for me, they would have just found us then. I’m a help.”

Rolling her eyes, Lola shook her head and started to crawl away from the window. “Come on, Nearly Eleven, let’s go.”

Disposal

As they left the library, Michael looked toward the boy on the pavement. “It feels wrong to leave him here.”

After looking at the dead kid, Lola searched their surroundings and threw a flippant shrug at him. “What do you suppose we do? Dig a hole in the pavement for him?”

Her cruelty stung, but she was right.
 

They moved on without another word, Michael giving the corpse such a wide berth he walked down the center of the road on the other side of the white line.
 

Lola shook her head at him and stepped over the boy.

Although he continued to glance back over his shoulder at the dead boy, Michael fell back into line with Lola.

After he checked behind for what must have been the fifth or sixth time, Lola said, “Are you waiting for him to get up and walk away or something?”

“I dunno; it’s just… that boy could have been me. I was captured and led to the warehouse like him. I could be the one left dead on the pavement. I just feel guilty, that's all.”

Lola stopped walking and stared at him.
 

“What?” Michael asked.

But she didn’t reply. Instead, she groaned, turned around, and headed back toward the boy.

“What are you doing?” Michael called, but she didn’t respond. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he hobbled after her. “Lola, what are you going to do?”

Lola stopped next to the body and Michael caught up with her. When she bent down and grabbed the boy’s ankles, Michael gasped. “What are you doing?”

The boy’s head bounced against the hard pavement as she dragged him toward the library’s entrance.
 

“Be careful with him.”

Lola stopped still, kept a hold of the boy, and stared at Michael. Ice hung off every word. “He’s dead. I’m sure he doesn’t care about being dragged. If you keep complaining, I’m going to leave him here for the crows. Is that what you want?”

Michael shook his head.

After watching him for a few more seconds as if daring him to say something else, Lola resumed with dragging the boy toward the library.
 

Hobbling ahead of her, Michael pulled the huge wooden door open. The old hinges creaked, echoing through the high-ceilinged building.

After Lola had dragged him through, Michael let the door fall closed and watched her drag him to one of the aisles.
 

Her scowl said, “Back the fuck off,” but Michael couldn’t. “You’re going to leave him there?”

She cocked an eyebrow and tilted her head to one side.
 

Michael didn’t ask her anything else.
 

When she pulled a book from the shelf and a lighter from her pocket, Michael gasped again.
 

“Do you need a fucking inhaler or something?” Lola asked.

Before he could say anything, she struck the lighter, opened the book slightly, and held the flame to the pages. It went up almost instantly. She put the lighter back in her pocket and pulled another book from a shelf. Using the first book, she lit the second.
 

After setting fire to several more books, she placed them individually on the shelves surrounding the dead boy and pulled more books onto each one.

Before long, flames had spread along the lines of books, and smoke filled the air. The brightness and heat increased with each passing second.
 

“You wanted a proper send-off,” Lola said. “What better way than a cremation that will light up the entire city?”

The plastic taste of smoke snaked into Michael’s throat, and he had to swallow to get his words out. “But won’t everyone see this?”

“Yes, and we’ll be nowhere near it when they do; as long as we leave now, that is. It’s perfect; it’ll distract the bad men while we make our escape.”

Michael turned back to the flames, the heat tingling against his skin as he stood hypnotized by the orange glow. Fatigue stung his eyes, and he lost focus.
 

When he looked around a few seconds later, Lola had gone. After another glance at the dead boy on the floor, he left too.

Stay With Me

Michael clenched his jaw against the biting cold as he walked down the street with Lola. They hadn’t spoken since leaving the library.

The only light came from the moon in the cloudless sky. Michael looked back in the direction they’d come from. “It won’t be long before the library’s lighting up the whole of London. That many books are going to make one hell of a bonfire.”

Michael stumbled to the side when Lola suddenly shoved him. “Hey, what was that for?”

She nodded at his feet. “Your ankle’s better then?”

“Yeah, it seems a lot better. It still hurts a little, but it can take my weight now.”

Her eyes narrowed and her tone sharpened. “So I carried you all that way for nothing?” She tutted at him. “You were acting like it was broken.”

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