“Is it clear?” I hissed urgently to Pete, who was crouched about ten feet away from me, in a similar patch of scrub to where I was waiting.
“Shhhh….be patient.” he mouthed to me, his eyes trained on the guard who patrolled the perimeter fence, waiting for him to turn and make his way back around the corner. We’d then have approximately five minutes in which to dart across the open space between where we waited and the scrub right by the perimeter fence where there was a gap to crawl through. We had to be quick. The guard would walk down to the next check point then turn on his heels and head back up to where he would certainly be able to see us. As he did every night. And every day. Not always him, but one like him. Always a guard. Always someone on duty, watching, patrolling, controlling us.
“Now.” Pete mouthed, without a sound. He’d already begun moving, low-down, silently, making his way to the gap in the fence. A shallow dip below the fence, like a trench running under it, probably made by animals in the first place. Foxes or badgers perhaps, digging and tunnelling their way under, hidden by the scrub on our side. Now made larger, just large enough to accommodate an adult. If they squeezed and slid their way under. As we do. As often as we can.
As soon as Pete has slid through the gap, on his belly, and pulled himself up on his elbows the other side, I dart across the space and do the same. He grabs my arms and hauls me through. Then we lie flat for a second, and glance back at the route the guard takes. We know we have only a minute or two, before he’s rounding the corner and he’ll be able to see us. He’s not there yet. We glance at each other then we’re up, on our feet and scrambling up as fast as we can and running, at full pelt, away, in a straight line towards to copse of trees that will hide us from view.
I’m not much of a runner. I’ll walk for miles, hours, days even. But not run. I can do long distance, at a steady pace. But I’m shit at running. I tire too quickly. And get a stitch within a minute or two. But for this short distance, which we make all the time, I run as fast as I can. As I always do. Wanting more than anything to be hidden in those trees. Hidden from view. Safe and out of site of the guard. We know we can make it. We always do. But still my heart pounds like it’s a beast trying to break free of my chest. And my mouth is parched and dry, and my lungs begin to gasp. Pete is at least twelve feet ahead of me, as he always is, he’s so much faster than me, and I’m sure he’s not running at full speed, because he knows I can’t. He’s carrying the almost empty bag, and as he reaches the safety of the trees he swings round behind a tree to watch my back, as I eventually make it to the first tree, and slink out of site behind its trunk.
“I’m sure you’re getting slower Abbey!” Pete jokes with a twinkle in his grey eyes, his gaze doesn’t meet mine. This is an old joke. I thump him, just hard enough on the arm, to knock the smile off his lips.
“Shut it speedy.” I hiss at him, as we set off at a more leisurely pace, now hidden from view and safe from prying eyes. I take a deep breath. I feel free, like a weight’s been lifted from my shoulders, I’m sure I’m walking taller. I feel like I’m spreading out, taking up more space, like a once caged animal, free and relishing the new found freedom. I almost feel my wings spreading out and testing the air. But I have no wings.
“It’s a nice night.” Pete remarks, at my side now, as we walk quickly in the direction which takes us away from the camp. The route we always take. This little copse of trees seems completely untouched, unchanged by events, it could be any wood, in any time, there’s no modern day trappings, no hint as to the date or time frame here. Just trees, leaves, bird song and wild flowers. And the sun slowly setting to our right, turning the sky pink, like a paint brush dipped in water. The pink spreading further and further out.
“Yeh, a lovely night for sneaking out….it’ll soon be dark though.” I replied, looking up to the trees, the branches already looking dark against the blushing sky.
“We’ll need the dark to sneak back in by.”
“I know.” We both knew, this was not the first time we’d snuck out, it was a regular occurrence. Whenever needs must. We dressed in our darkest clothes on purpose. Army combats dyed black, camo shirts, dark camo jackets – the darkest green available, and black army regulation boots. We looked like we were out on army manoeuvres.
Past the trees we continued heading North, knowing the copse would still block us from view as long as we continued heading straight, away from the camp. Out here, beyond the trees, the world was in a little more disarray, derelict buildings, burnt out cars, huge craters in the road. It was clear the world as we knew it was at war. The army were in the process of gleaning all they could from the areas directly outside the barracks. They were slowly making their way around, collecting scrap metal, fuel for vehicles, wood for fires, any remaining food or crops and redistributing them around the camp, or to neighbouring camps. They’d started in the East. And were still at it. This area to the North remained largely untouched, but we knew they’d move into it next, and we’d have to move further West to continue our scavenging.
Before long we came to the main stretch of road, littered with vehicles, some over-turned, some burnt out, some seemed like there was nothing wrong with them. All empty. Abandoned. We stopped by a hollow tree by the side of the road, and Pete reached in retrieving a huge rifle. We’d stowed it there last time we’d been out scavenging. We often found guns, usually spent, but this one was complete with ammo. And night vision capabilities too. Pete told me it was Peerless M14. He knew about guns. He liked to carry one for protection when we were out. He liked to practise firing one too. Improving his aim. Preparing for the inevitable.
We continued jogging down the road, stopping by various cars, peering into them until we found what we were looking for. It was an army jeep. Its front wheels had veered off the road and were stuck in the dip by the side of the road. Easy to access though, no roof and a bonnet that was easy to open. I climbed in and took the handbrake off and put it into reverse. Pete slung the bag into the jeep beside me and then made his way to the front of the vehicle and started to push with all his might, I steered the jeep, helping it make its way gradually out of the dip. It wasn’t too difficult. It was a fairly light-weight vehicle.
Once it was as far on the road as we could get it I jumped out and Pete opened the bonnet, wedging it open. I peered inside, checking it out, it would be ok. I shut the bonnet again and climbed in the driver’s side. Then Pete grabbed the bag and started to pass me tools. This was a well-rehearsed routine. I slipped on some gloves and jimmied the facing off the inside of the car around the steering wheel, I managed to open some of it up, then gave up and let Pete hack away a hole for me to work in. I located the wires behind the ignition, and Pete shone a torch in to help me see. I found the correct wires, stripped them and twisted them together, Pete passed me some black insulation tape and I wrapped them securely together. I found the brown ignition wire and stripped some of the casing back too, then connected it to the new twisted together red wires – pumping on the revs as I did so. There was a short spark of connection and the engine roared into life, then stalled again. I tutted and swore under my breath, and wiped the beads of perspiration from my forehead with the back of my hand, before trying it again. Another spark and this time a choking sound as the engine spluttered into life, I pumped on the revs more until the engine was running more smoothly and then Pete jumped in the passenger side, grinning at me from ear to ear.
“Magic.” he smiled, “Let’s go!”
“We need fire wood, candles and any food we can get.” I reminded him, as I switched the headlights on and pushed the car into gear and set off along the road, weaving in and out of abandoned vehicles, and holes in the road.
As the sun slowly sunk behind the hills in the West we made our way further and further North until we came to buildings. Some we’d been in, we carried on past those, until we reached buildings we’d not been in before. We never strayed too far from the main stretch of road. We knew it was dangerous. When we came to a small row of terraced houses by the side of the road, that we knew we’d not investigated before, we killed the lights but left the jeep running and slunk up to the nearest house. Pete peered into the windows along the side, all was dark and still. Some of the windows were smashed, it looked empty, abandoned, derelict. We slunk further down the side until we came to a door. Pete tried the handle. It was locked. He peered in through the windows on the door, pressing his nose against the glass. Squinting into the gloom. Then he raised the rifle and used the night vision to look inside. He seemed content that the coast was clear. I reached in the bag and passed him our crow-bar and he quickly cranked the door open. Kicking it as wide as it would go he peered in, behind the safety of the rifle, sweeping it round the room, taking in the contents. It was empty. And looked like it had been for quite some time. Every surface was covered in a thick layer of grey dust. Spiders webs hung from various corners. Dead flies littered the windowsills and parts of the floor. The bin was full and stank like landfill. But it was a welcome smell. A sign the house was empty. We were safe.
We checked all cupboards and drawers, most were empty, but we found a tin of pineapple rings and a bag of salt, which we stowed safely in our bag. There was also a half empty bottle of cooking oil, which I wrapped in a plastic bag and packed away. After the kitchen we searched through the other rooms, there was coal in the fireplace. Not much, but all coal was precious. We shovelled it in a sack we had in the bag and searched the rest of the house. There wasn’t much else worth taking, apart from a new bar of soap we found upstairs and a couple of half used candles. We packed them all in the bag – which was now as full as it could be. Then we decided to head back. We couldn’t take too much, because we wouldn’t get it under the gap in the fence, and if we were too long, our absence might be noticed.
We left the house as much as we had found it as we could, sweeping the broken shards from the popped lock outside and out of sight, and pulling the door gently to. Pete secured the bag on his shoulders and we made our way back to the jeep. The engine had stalled again, so Pete held the torch so I could check the wires were connected again and pump the engine back into action.
It was dark now, only a slight smudge of pink still providing any light in the distance, we were eager to get back. Far, far off in the distance on the horizon fires could be seen burning. The towns and cities were ablaze again. Every night a fire burned somewhere, a sign of the continuing unrest. The distant crump of gun-fire could be heard, and sometimes the deep rumbling of an explosion. But it all felt far away. No immediate danger. But danger all the same.
“No fire wood this time – but coal, that’s a find, right? We should halve it.” Pete said, cradling the rifle on his lap.
“Yeh, coal’s better than wood, lasts longer, burns warmer too.” I replied. And, I liked the smell of burning coal. It reminded me of happier times, when we used to get a coal ration from the army every week. That had stopped years ago. Only scrap wood was delivered now.
Suddenly, lights appeared in the distance in front of us. Headlights. A car. More lights, two cars. Then I could hear the engines too.
“Shit!” I gasped, slamming my foot on the brakes, Pete uttered similar and we stared at each other in horror, eyes wide, panic cursing through my veins and making my stomach lurch and my hands begin to shake.
“Turn around, turn around!!” Pete yelped at me, grabbing the wheel and urging me to get going again. I swallowed hard then put the jeep in gear and turned us around as fast as I could and sped up quickly, working through the gears, and heading in the opposite direction away from the cars and lights. Away from home. Into darkness, back North.
“Shit! Shit! Pete! What the hell are we going to do now?” I shouted at him over the roaring engine, glancing over my shoulder. They were still heading this way. They must have seen us. We saw them. We had lights on too.
“Kill the lights!” Pete yelled at me, watching the other cars over his shoulder behind us, “and put your seatbelt on!” He fumbled over his shoulder and clunked his belt on clumsily. I did the same.
“Are you insane? We won’t be able to see. It’ll be pitch black. We’ll crash. We’ll die!” my voice was gradually getting higher and higher, as panic surged through me, I felt like it would cripple me, and leave me frozen and paralysed unable to move if I let it. I had to fight against it and push it down and work past it in order to keep driving.
“Kill the lights! I’ll guide us using the night vision of the rifle, you just need to listen to me, and trust me!” Pete spoke quickly but earnestly, he was much better in a disaster than me. So much calmer. Collected. A quick thinker. A life saver.
I switched off the lights and the sudden enveloping darkness was almost suffocating. I couldn’t see anything at all. I stifled a scream and strained my eyes, peering into the dark, but it was useless, my eyes couldn’t adjust, it was like I was blind. Fear gripped me, and I felt so sick, my hands shook, and the steering wheel wobbled in my hands.
“Just keep going straight, keep it straight, keep in this line, pull to the right a little, a little more, straighten it up, keep going……..straight….straight….keep it straight……there’s a bend coming up, to the right.” Pete gripped the wheel with his right hand and helped me guide the jeep blindly round the bend. And then another, and another, and then straight again. Avoiding cars, fallen trees, debris, craters in the road. More than once we clipped obstacles and bumped over things in the road and a small scream left my throat each time as we were jerked suddenly upwards in our seats.
“You gotta go faster Abbey, they’re gaining on us!” Pete had glanced over his shoulder, and he was right, I could still see them in the distance in my rear view mirror, they weren’t giving up. “Shit, right, right, right!” he yelled suddenly, as a sharp bend appeared in front of us. I spun the wheel sharply and we nearly left the road, bumping off the curb, losing our left wing-mirror on some unseen obstacle.
“It’s no good Pete. They are either gonna catch us up, or we’re going to die trying to get away from them.” I couldn’t keep this up much longer.
“I know…..I’m going to ditch the ammo, so they’ll have less of an issue with us, and I’ll ditch the gun if we can.” he started emptying the ammo and throwing it out the side of the jeep, all of it, the ones in the gun, in his pockets, on the floor of the jeep. But gradually, one at a time so as not to be noticed. He kept shouting out directions and instructions, but we nearly lost it more than once. Then they were there, right behind us, full headlights blazing. A radio announcer crackled into life and a gruff voice shouted over it.
“PULL OVER! PULL OVER NOW! OR WE WILL SHOOT! STOP THE CAR, NOW!” the voice commanded, but we kept driving, dodging obstacles at the last second and almost losing control again and again.
Then we heard it. The sound of guns firing. I flashed a terrified look at Pete, who flashed me a grin and flung the rifle out of the car. There was a deafening bang and hiss and the car jolted and then zig-zagged wildly, as I tried to control it, side to side, side to side, I slammed on the brakes as a wall appeared from no-where out of the darkness, lit by the lights of the jeeps behind us, our jeep bumped up and down, wheels left the road, I knew they’d shot a tyre out, and I was sure we were going to over-turn and roll. But eventually the jeep came to a screeching, whining halt and we were jerked forward in our seats.
In what seemed like only seconds, men were surrounding us, guns pointing at our faces. Rough hands grabbed us, yanked the seat-belts off and hauled us from the car, almost head first, I flung my arms out to stop myself landing face-first on the tarmac, but the arms grabbed us just before impact and yanked us up. We threw our hands up in surrender and blinked into the harsh glare from the flash-lights they shone at our faces.
“It’s kids, sergeant.” a voice said as they looked us up and down. My eyes gradually adjusted and I looked at them. They were army, I recognised the badges on their uniforms. They were from our barracks. But I didn’t know any of their faces, or names.
“What are your names?” Another voice demanded.
“Abbie Pattinson.” I said, as clearly as I could, though my mouth was dry and my heart still beating at what felt like a million miles an hour.
“And you?” I saw one soldier jab Pete with the barrel of his gun in his impatience.
“Peter Jarvis, sir.” Pete said, sounding calm, collected and confident. How did he do that?
“I recognise you. You’re from our barracks aren’t you Jarvis?”
“Yes sir.” Pete replied, eyes forward, already like a recruit.
“They’ve hotwired the car, sir.” Another voice suddenly said, from inside the car, he sounded almost shocked.
“Impressive.” The sergeant’s voice muttered. “So, which one of you is the mechanic?” he looked from me, to Pete, and back again.
We shot a quick glance at each other. We knew someone who could hotwire a car would be wanted by the army, it was a useful skill to possess. And neither of us wanted the other to be snapped up by the army just yet.
“I am.” we both said in unison, “sir.” added Pete.
The sergeant looked from me, to Pete, and back again, a glimmer of a smile twitching at the sides of his mouth. He took a deep breath and I saw the muscles in the side of his neck tense and then relax again.
“Age, Pattinson?” he demanded.
“19.” I replied. I considered adding ‘sir’ to the end, but decided not to. I didn’t want to sound like a soldier.
“Age, Jarvis?” he demanded again, returning his piercing gaze to Pete.
“19, sir.” Pete said, staring straight ahead.
We both knew what was coming next. They would want to know why we weren’t recruits yet. One of the other soldiers took an electrical device from his pocket, it looked like a large handheld computer with a rubbery, tyre-like casing around it, to protect it. The soldier typed something into the device, our names and ages I guessed. To find out our notes and history.
“What’s Pattinson’s history then?” the sergeant asked the man with the handheld device.
I knew what was coming next, and I knew it was going to hurt. So I braced myself, like you do if you know someone’s going to hit you, or hurt you. Only this hurt wouldn’t be a physical one, it would be mental. Memories, thoughts, painful reminders of things that had happened. Things I preferred not to think about. My hands, now by my side, were clenched in fists and I dug my nails into my palms, waiting to hear what I knew they were going to say.
“Father was a corporal sir. In command of tanks. Corporal Ares Pattinson. Died during a rebel attack in the suburbs 15 years ago. He was a good soldier sir. Highly regarded.” more furious tapping into the handheld device, I dug my nails in deeper, refusing to feel the pain these memories caused me. I could feel Pete’s eyes on me. I glanced over at him, he eyes were wide, frightened for me, his face soft, his hands twitching, like he wanted to reach out to me.
“Mother’s a doctor. Mary Pattinson. Works in the infirmary on the barracks. Has done for over 20 years.” more furious tapping. “There’s an older sibling – a brother, Poseidon Pattinson, 21, recruited at 18, missing in action sir. Been missing for two years.”
I realised I’d been holding my breath. And I was starting to feel light-headed. I let all the retained air out from my lungs, through my nose slowly, carefully. My throat felt tight, like talking would hurt. But I had no intension of talking. My eyes felt overly moist, tears blurring my vision. But I refused to let them fall. I wouldn’t cry in front of these soldiers. I breathed through it, refusing to blink until the feeling past.
The sergeant grunted. As if acknowledging that this was a valid excuse. “Jarvis?” he moved the inquisition on. More furious typing.
“Mother is a teacher. Sarah Jarvis. Teaches 12 – 16 year olds. Father is a helicopter pilot, works off barracks, was recruited into the RAF division 20 miles east of here. Solomon Jarvis. There’s also an older brother. Augustus Jarvis. 25. Recruited at 18. He’s a lieutenant, sir. In charge of training new recruits at present.”
“I see.” The sergeant replied. This was obviously not what he wanted to hear. He must have been hoping we were avoiding being recruited. In the beginning, when the war and civil unrest first broke out across the country, and the continent and the world, everyone aged 16 and over, if deemed healthy enough and not doing a vital job, was automatically recruited to fight for their army. Years later, the age was raised to 18. And now, first-born children are required to sign up at 18, unless deemed more suitable for another vital job on or around barracks, and any younger siblings do not have to sign up until 21. As long as they have an older sibling who is in the army. At 21, unless Pete and I have realised we are amazing at some other vital job like medic, teacher, cook or are born to be in industry, building new weaponry and vehicles, we will have to sign up to basic training. And if we pass basic training we will be recruited into various sections of the army, just like our fathers, and older brothers.
“Any previous record?” the sergeant asked, still scratching around, trying to catch us out on something. More furious tapping.
“Nothing on Pattinson, sir. Jarvis has received two previous warnings, one for fighting, one previous for looting, sir.” The soldier passed the hand-held device to the sergeant, who seemed to scroll through, reading the information very carefully on the screen. No-one moved or spoke while this took place.
“Two previous warnings Jarvis. Looting is a serious rule break. What’s in the bag?” he passed the hand-held device back to the other soldier, and moved his attention back to the men by the jeep, with our bag. One unfastened it and tipped out the contents on the road, shining the flash-lights onto it so the contents could be assessed. The soldier prodded it with his rifle, separating out the contents, the sack of coal, the candles, the soap, the tin of food. Oh how I wished we’d just eaten those pineapple rings when we found them. We were never going to get to taste them now. Another soldier collected the things up and put them into one of their jeeps. We’d never see those things again.
“No weapons?” asked the sergeant, looking surprised.
“No sir. None in the bag, or in the jeep, or on the kids.” replied the solider. I wish they’d stop calling us kids, we were 19 for God’s sake, some of the recruits around us weren’t much older.
“Strange, I could’ve sworn they had a rifle when we were following them.” the sergeant’s eyes narrowed as he approached Pete and stood right in front of him, only inches away. “Looting while armed is a serious offence Jarvis. Not to mention stealing army weaponry.”
“Yes sir. We’re not armed. We found the supplies abandoned by the side of the road. Sir.” Pete was a good liar, but it was still obviously a lie.
“Bollocks.” spat the sergeant, he wasn’t fooled. “We’ll be contacting your father once back at the barracks Jarvis, see what he has to say about your rule breaking and third warning. I’m sure he’ll be really proud.”
I cast a warning look at Pete, I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist responding to that, which was almost a threat. But before he could react and speak, a message crackled over the radio, and the sergeant stepped away to respond to the voice crackling over the air-waves. Shortly after, another army jeep pulled up. The sergeant went over to talk to the driver. Pete and I looked at each other, what on earth was going on? More messages crackled over the radio, and it sounded like orders were being given. I peered over to the other jeep. There was someone in the back. A civilian like us I was sure. He looked like he was passed out, blood had stained his clothes, his nose looked broken, his eyes dark like the shadows of bruises were forming, and a gash on his head red with blood. He was a mess. I squinted into the dark, only the light from the soldier’s flashlights, and some lights from the jeep headlights reached the other jeep. I was sure I recognised him. He went to college with us, I was sure of it.
The sergeant turned back to us and the other jeep turned and sped off before I could figure out who the lad was. The sergeant spoke quickly to the other soldiers who leapt back in their jeeps, one grabbed my arm, and I saw another grab Pete’s arm and they pushed us forward. “In the jeep.” each one said, making us climb up into the back of one of the jeeps. We sat opposite each other, facing in, behind the front seats, and the soldiers climbed in after. As soon as everyone was in, the jeeps turned and sped off, back towards the barracks. Back home.
No-one spoke on the way back, but messages crackled over the radio – none of which I could hear. The roar of the engine, and air rushing past us was too loud. I held on to the metal bar behind the front seats, Pete held on too. He reached a little further forward, until the tips of his fingers reached my hand. I looked up to meet his gaze. I was worried. What were they going to do with Pete now? What would his dad say? What would his dad do? Pete’s eyes narrowed slightly, and his brow furrowed into a frown. Then he smiled slightly, in a reassuring way. We stayed like that until we made it back to the barracks. I could see the other jeep outside the infirmary, probably where they’d taken that other lad. I wondered if he’d been out scavenging too. Pete followed my gaze, then looked at me questioningly, eye-brows raised. I shook my head slightly. That could wait.
The jeeps came to a halt by the offices of the army general and commander. The soldiers all piled out and motioned for us to get out too. Pete jumped out first, then held out his hand for me to grab on to so I could jump out. Most of the soldiers marched off almost straight away, leaving the sergeant and two men with rifles.
“Pattinson.” the sergeant addressed me, “consider this your first warning. It will remain on your permanent record, and your movements will be monitored. Return to your quarters immediately and report to my office tomorrow at 8am so that a report can be written on your actions. Consider too, choosing your friends more carefully. I’m sure you do not wish your name to be dragged down with others.” he turned then, effectively dismissing me and addressed Pete. I was dying to wait, and talk to Pete and see what would happen, but one of the soldiers began to escort me back towards the quarters I shared with my mother.
“Jarvis, come with me, now.” I heard the sergeant say, and they disappeared into the night, towards the office buildings.
As soon as I was inside and had shut and locked the door, I turned and looked through the window. The soldier was already marching off, back to his duties. I was desperate to run back out and go and find Pete. But I knew it was useless.
The first chapter of a novel I’m working on – about Abbie and her best friend Pete, who live under the ‘protection’ of the army in a barracks – as do most of the rest of society. They sneak out regularly to supplement their rations but dream of a better existence. At 21 they have to become recruits themselves and take part in basic training before going out to fight the outlaws and rebels who have taken control of the cities. Abbie’s father died fighting the same cause, and her brother went missing 2 years ago. But all is not as it seems….Pete is sent away and Abbie forms a risky allaince with the handsome but dangerous Lucas. Can she discover the truth about what happened to he brother? Can she escape from the barracks and find a better life else where?
I’ve another 10,000 words of this written….if anyone wants to read more!