Tuesday, 26 May 2020

[Glory Brats] An encounter in the ruins

Night arrived slowly in the woods, stretching fingers of mist between the trees. Sparrow could tell by the dampness in the air and the darkening of the sky through the branches that it wouldn't be long before it was impossible to make their way through the maze of trees and ditches. She looked back at the others dutifully following her and tried to keep the panic from her voice as she spoke.

"We need to make camp soon."

"How soon?" Tekla asked, dragging her broken spade handle behind her.

Sparrow craned her neck up to look at the patches of sky visible and hesitated. "'Nother five minutes or so..." She held back a shudder at the thought of making camp with nothing between them and the darkness all around. Better start looking for a good spot though. She scanned the ground on either side of their narrow track and peered into the gloom ahead. The track rose up and widened, as if flattened by many boots, and the trees skewed off to the side where their branches had been torn from the trunk.

"I think this is the way they came..." She attempted a run forward and stopped short at the edge of a large concrete basin, part-filled with branches and leaf litter. At the end of the basin the concrete rose up, and formed the side of a bunker half built into the ground. The others gathered round.

"I guess here is as good a place as any to make camp." Sparrow said, jumping onto the leaves and sliding down to the concrete. The branches piled up were snap dry, and would make a good fire easy to start. She set some of the others to gathering fallen wood and the rest to clearing space in the basin where they could sit. Bracken grew out of cracks in the structure, and she pulled handfuls of the tough, leafy fronds to spread under the blankets to ward off the cold seeping up from the concrete underneath. "Gotta create a layer..." she muttered to herself, then turned her attention to coaxing a spark from her flint and steel. As before, Zed watched with interest.

Soon, a small tendril of smoke spiralled up from their fire, and little tongues of flames licked eagerly at the sticks that Sparrow fed it.
***
Sparrow sat on the edge of the bunker, looking down at the glow of the fire and the others slumped around it. Tekla snuffled and shifted in her sleep. She shifted her gaze to the darkness pressing in all around her, and as her eyes adjusted , she could see the dim shapes of trees moving gently to and fro in the night breeze. But wait - something else was moving through the trees along the ground. Sparrow fumbled for her knife and gripped it tightly. The thing, whatever it was, was moving away from them, but as she glanced all around she could see bobbing lights and shapes coming from all directions, it seemed. She slid down into the bunker and looked anxiously at the fire. Hopefully the light from it would be hidden by the walls, or mistaken for one of the encircling torch flames.

She crouched ready to spring up if necessary, and listened for the crunch of leaves or the snap of twigs that would tell her if anyone or - she gulped- anything was approaching. A thought darted into her head that maybe it was her dad and the other workers, and all she'd have to do would be to stand up and call out, and everything would be okay again. He'd scoop her up and tell her how brave she'd been and how good for looking after Tekla and the others. Here her imagination faltered because she couldn't think of a normal world where the others would be welcomed.

But she squashed that thought right down, because she heard the crack of a branch from somewhere above her. Her hand hurt with clutching the knife and it felt slippy with sweat in her grasp. A low whistle that could have been a bird pierced through the night and the hairs on the back of her neck and arms pricked up.

One of the hunched shapes around the fire sat up and she mimed furiously to be quiet before realising that it was Bee. She crawled over the sleeping bodies as carefully as she could and placed a hand on Bee's shoulder.

"Wha..." Bee started to say, but Sparrow quickly shoved her hand over the older girl's mouth.

"Shhh..." she whispered in her ear, "There's something moving in the woods."

Bee shifted slightly, reaching around for the bit of metal pipe she had picked up in the hut earlier in the day. Both girls waited, listening, as the sounds of crunching leaves got closer and closer. Then all at once, a flaming torch appeared above them. People came into view, shouting. Sparrow stood up, holding the knife out in front of her. Bee got to her feet and waved the pipe above her head. The shouting turned to hesitant laughter.

"It's just some kids!"

Sparrow scowled. "Don't come any closer!"

The younger kids were waking up now, rubbing their eyes and sitting up.

The figure nearest ducked Bee's swinging pipe and backed away, "Okay girlie, we're just passing through now."

Another of the figures grabbed the pipe off Bee, "Hey, you could hurt someone with that."

"That's the idea..." Bee growled, trying to grab it back.

"Lay it off, Whin - give it back." The first figure moved the torch so they could see his face, and crouched down, "Best to keep the fire low in the forest at night, eh?"

Sparrow nodded, but didn't move the knife from its defensive position.

"C'mon Whin - let's get back to the others."

The woman called Whin dropped the pipe into the bunker, narrowly missing Zed. Bee heard the clang of it on the concrete and scrambled to pick it back up. Rat tried to shimmy up the side of the bunker and after them, but Sparrow hauled her back and wrestled her back into a sitting position. Tekla sat up, yawning, "Did I miss somefin'?"

Thursday, 30 April 2020

[Glory Brats] Into the woods

Sparrow stood at the edge of the ditch. Behind her lay the scar of the dug out area for the new train track, and ahead lay the untouched forest. Just a puddle of marshy water and some weeds stood between her and the unknown. She tightened her grip on the knife in her hand. Her first step took her slipping down into the hollow of the ditch, and mud splashed up her legs onto her shorts as she stood in the shallow water.

"Careful." She said, as she stood braced to help the others across. Zed took a running jump and only just cleared the ditch, landing in a sprawl on the leaves at the other side. Dee attempted to copy him, but fell short, and Sparrow had to push him up into Zed's waiting grasp. Bee, the tallest, was able to  cross without help, once Sparrow had told her to take as big a step as she could. Tekla allowed herself to be lifted across, squealing at the thought of the muddy water. Rat splashed through the water in her boots and scrambled up the other side, using both her newly acquired metal claw and her fingernails to get a grip on the shifting dirt.

The woods spanned out in front of them, trees as far as they could see. Branches weighed down towards the ground, dripping greying lichen to meet miniature moss forests of bright green. Underfoot, the ground was soft with layers of pine needles and dry slippy leaves. Cobwebs brushed against their faces as they looked up at the criss-crossed layers of branches between them and the sky.

The trees were in rows, as if someone had planted them that way, and shallow ditches lay between some of the rows, the earth piled up to the sides and forming what looked like paths through the maze of endless trees. Sparrow took the nearest of these, pushing aside spindly branches and holding them back for the others to follow. She didn't know where she was going, but surely if her dad and the other track workers had gone through here then there would be some signs of them nearby. She swallowed back thoughts of bodies in the woods and moved steadily forward, holding the knife ready by her side. Rat trotted beside her, half-running to keep up, and Tekla was behind her, picking her way through the leaves and dirt. Bee followed after, with Zed and Dee at the back.

It was Bee who found the first one. Feeling her way with her feet, she tripped on a fallen branch and fell flat on the ground. Her hands grasped around  before the others helped her up. Looking to see what she'd tripped on, Zed pointed out the branch, bleached white by the weather. "Sorry, I didn't see that one."

Sparrow came up behind him and gasped. "Tha...that's not a branch..." she said, pointing at it. Bee picked it up and felt the smooth surface and the rounded ends. It was a long bone, maybe part of a leg or an arm, that had been sticking up out of the soil.

"But they were just supposed to be scary stories," Sparrow said, "Just the stories that everyone tells. I didn't think they were actually true!"

"What did you bring the knife for, then?" Bee asked.

Sparrow liked having the knife. It made her feel stronger, braver than she really felt inside. She didn't answer Bee, but took the bone from her and threw it into the undergrowth. "There. I don't know what all the fuss was about. It's just some dirty old bones."

Rat picked up a stick and threw it after the bone, then ran after Sparrow. The others followed.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

[Glory Brats] Through the fields

Gradually the houses thinned out, and increased in size. The path wound around them, planted up with trees and shrubs. Some of the trees had fruit on, and Sparrow stopped the cart so they could replenish their stash of apples, pears and plums. She let them eat the plums right away. "But not too many or else you'll be sick..."

Dee discovered he was good at climbing trees.

Tekla ran back and forth in excitement, "This is where we walk to school. Our house is just around the next bend." 

The path veered away to the right and continued on a small bridge over a stream. Tekla pointed out their house, although it looked just like all the others. Sparrow tugged at the cart impatiently, wanting to be past it quickly.

"Can we go in?" Dee asked, running up beside Sparrow. 

"No." She said shortly. "It's locked and I don't have the key."

"I...I could try and get it open..." Zed suggested, speaking up from the back.

Sparrow stopped. "Could you?" She looked over her shoulder at Zed.

He nodded. "I can try, anyway."

"He got the door open where we were before." Bee added, not liking the tone of disbelief in Sparrow's voice.

"Alright then, let's see you do it."

Tekla jumped up and down with excitement. She grasped Dee's hand and squeezed it. "Now you can see the seeds I planted all by myself."

Sparrow watched Zed as he fiddled about with his metal pick and the tweezers from the medi-kit. He tried not to show that he was bothered by her concentration.

"Now why couldn't you have done that earlier?" she said when he'd finished.

"You never asked." he said, and pushed the door open. Sparrow stepped into the hallway, and breathed in the comforting scent of her own home: the freshly laundered sheets that she'd helped dad fold and stack in the cupboard, the scent of the shampoo bar from the washroom, mixed with polish from the boots on the low shelf by the door.

The others clustered round and Tekla pulled them into the house past Sparrow, eager to show them everything. She could hear their voices out in the back garden as she walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table. A bunch of wilted garden flowers stood in the centre. Mum had put them there before she left for Central. Wearily, she got up and began to look around the kitchen for anything useful. She stacked some tins and packets on the table, and opened a drawer. She took out the big knife. It was the one dad used for chopping pumpkins and turnips, and Sparrow wasn't allowed to touch it. She wrapped it in a towel and shoved it at the bottom of her satchel. Just in case. After all, they were going to have to go through the woods.

Bee was sitting on the back steps. She shifted aside a little as Sparrow came outside. "Tekla's showing them how to plant seeds." she said.

"Why not you too?" Sparrow asked, then felt stupid, because of course Bee couldn't see how to plant seeds because her eyes were broken. "Sorry," she said, "Stupid." --meaning stupid of me, but Bee didn't know that.

Bee was silent for a while, but something boiled up inside her and she stood up. "Show me. If you're so clever then show me how to plant seeds."

"What's the point?" Sparrow countered, "We won't be here for them growing."

But Bee was stubborn, and the pair of them joined the others at the end of the garden. Sparrow took a seed from the packet that Tekla held and pressed it into Bee's hand. "Now you poke a hole in the earth with your finger and put the seed in, and cover it over. Then we water it."

"Then what?" said Dee, staring at the ground as if he expected something to happen at once.

"It takes a long time to grow." Tekla said.

"Longer than we have to hang around here." Sparrow finished. "Come on, you lot, up out of the dirt and let's get going."

They left the house behind and eventually they came to a chain-link fence, taller than Bee, with a gate set into it. Beyond lay fields, and buildings in the distance that glinted in the sun. Dee bounded forward. "It's not locked!" he exclaimed, pushing the gate open.

The path they followed was different now, thinner and dustier, and wound around fields of crops that lay limply in the late afternoon sun. As they got closer, the glinting buildings turned out to be greenhouses, full of plants that pushed green leaves against the glass as if they would burst out. Inside they felt warm all over, and the air smelt of soil, and damp and green things growing. They picked tomatoes and cucumbers, and even grapes, although not many of the grapes made it into the cart. When they came out, the air was cool on their faces. Sparrow marched them on past the greenhouses, and towards the other cluster of buildings by the fields. A big barn surrounded by grass loomed ahead of them, with birds perched along the roof. Another tall fence enclosed the grass, and set it apart from an area of wilderness that lay beyond, with trees beyond that. The tree-line stretched as far as they could see on either side.

"Where do we go now?" Zed asked, as Sparrow had stopped for some time, just looking at the woods.

"We follow the fence," she said at last. So they followed the fence around the fields and the wilderness until they came to a point where the fence stopped suddenly. Barriers had been set up to block the way, but they were useless without guards to stop them going any further. Part of the ground beyond had been torn up by machines and dug away at, heading through the wilderness towards the woods. In the other direction, a rail line sped off towards the city, although parts of the track lay by the side, waiting to be lifted into place. Temporary buildings had sprung up alongside the track and down in the cutting.

"This is where my dad was working," Sparrow said, "Before he disappeared."

"...what happened to him?" Bee asked.

"That's what I'm going to find out," Sparrow replied, as she stepped onto the slope of the cutting and skidded down to the bottom.

They picked their way amongst piles of earth and stones dug out from the ground. They travelled in silence, mostly, apart from when the cart had to be lifted over obstacles in their path. As they travelled further into the cutting, tree roots stretched their long tendrils out of the sides, except where they were cut off abruptly to force a way through.

Sparrow kept an eye on the trees, even to the point of stumbling as she tripped over stones and roots. The trees now arched over their path, branches reaching out to one another, enclosing them in a never ending circle of dry roots and green leaves. She shuddered, and looked back at the others, walking blissfully unaware into the gaping maw of the woods.

"Stop, " she said, halting the progress of the cart. "The woods are dangerous."

Zed looked around at the carpet of moss that lay before them, draping itself over fallen branches and softening the edges of forest pools, dimpling where the earth hollowed out between the roots of the trees. Sunlight dappled the forest floor, piercing the canopy of branches above. It looked peaceful. Beautiful. Anything but dangerous.

Sparrow glanced around and saw a cabin with sides of corrugated metal. She pulled the others into it and sat them down. "What I'm about to tell you is true. Well, almost certainly true. Well, it really happened to Fern's older sister's friend, and she told me about it last year."

They turned blank faces towards her, so she began anyway, hurriedly, to get the words out before the fear stole them from her. "It was when a group of kids were camping in the grass near to the fields, like we all do with school. And this group were the closest to the woods, just next to the fence. And anyway, they were all daring each other to get close to the fence, to touch it, which is against the rules. And this one boy, he was dared to go at night, when everyone was supposed to be asleep. He left the tent, and they never saw him again. But in the morning they found a place where the fence was broken, and the grass beyond looked like something had been dragged through it to the woods..."

Eyes wide, the others sat in silence, so Sparrow continued, relishing the audience, "They say the trees in there are alive, and trap you with their branches and roots until you can't move, and eventually there's nothing left of you but bones. Sometimes the bones are found almost swallowed up by the bark. They say you can see skeletons hanging from trees or just lying under the moss from where people have wandered in and not been able to get out. The plants in there are poisonous and some can kill you just by touching. And wild animals roam the woods just waiting to get anyone that enters. So you have to be careful. Call out if you see anything. You should probably get a weapon too, just in case something attacks us." She brought out the kitchen knife she had packed away earlier and unwrapped it.

"I'll go first, because I've got this." She looked around the inside of the cabin and saw a stack of tools in the corner. "There. Go and see if you can lift any of those."

A few minutes later, they all trooped out of the cabin, the others bearing an odd assortment of dirty spades and broken wooden handles. Sparrow inspected them all and nodded her approval. Even Rat was carrying something that looked like a metal claw.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

[Glory Brats] Glad rags and new shoes

Zed woke up first. The sun was out, but in the shadow of the walkway it was cool. He pulled the blanket around his shoulders and stepped out into the sunshine. The heat from the ground warmed his feet, and he could feel the sun touching every part of his skin. He heard the others waking up behind him and turned to see Sparrow stirring the cold embers of last night's fire with a twig. She looked around at the band of children rubbing their eyes and stretching their limbs after a cramped, cold night. "Next time I'll not put as much wood on all at once."

"It was good though," Dee said, wriggling his toes. "I like fire."

Sparrow picked up her satchel, looking through it, "Where did the biscuits go?"

Rat burrowed deeper into her blanket. Tekla spotted the crumbs though and pointed them out.

"Em!" Sparrow scolded, pulling the blanket off. Rat rolled away from her grasp and sat some distance off.

"Ugh, never mind." Sparrow said, reaching into one of her storage niches. She brought out a pillowcase filled with small red apples and handed them round, "These will have to do."

Bee, Zed and Dee didn't know what to do with them until they saw Tekla bite into hers and nibble away at it down to the core. Rat devoured her apple, pips and all.

After they'd eaten, Sparrow set everyone to work. The handcart was brought forward and filled with the rest of the food supplies. The blankets were folded and also placed in the cart. Mixed in with one of the blankets was a small soft toy bird that fell out as they shook the blankets. Tekla seized it and stuffed it in her pocket. Rat watched with interest.

Eventually the only evidence that they had been there was a few scattered apple cores and the embers of the fire. They set off along the path, taking it in turns to push and pull the cart. "The mission today," Sparrow said as they walked along, "Is to get you all shoes. And more clothes. It's warm now cos it's Summer but it's going to get colder."

The path they were walking along was lined with trees, which gradually thinned out to reveal smallish buildings on either side of the path. Each had a raised wooden box by the door, some filled with flowers and others filled with climbing plants. Sparrow went over to one of the climbers and picked pods off it, showing the others. "These are good to eat." she said, splitting the pod open. "Peas are the best just like this."

Zed shook his head, "Peas come in cans, don't they Bee?"

Sparrow laughed. "They grow like this first. There's lots of food in the gardens, we just need to pick it. Like the apples you had earlier."

They went along the row of houses, picking the pea pods and other things that Sparrow showed them. At every house, Sparrow rattled the door handle to see if it was locked. Sometimes she went round the back of the house too. Once she came back carrying a pair of black rubber boots. She eyed up the feet of the others then handed them to Bee. "Put these on."

Over the course of the morning, they managed to find a pair of canvas gym shoes for Dee, slightly-big sandals for Zed, and another pair of rubber boots for Rat. She wouldn't wear them, and screamed when Sparrow tried to put them on her. Sparrow put them in the cart with the rest of the stuff.

Dee tried one of the doors, "This one is open!"

They all came over and crowded round the open door. Sparrow stepped inside and the others followed. A large entry way led to a kitchen on the left hand side and a washroom on the right. A set of stairs led up to the bedrooms.

"Zed - you, Tekla and Dee search the kitchen for food. I'll take Rat and Bee and look for clothes upstairs."

The cupboards in the bedrooms and the hall upstairs yielded fresh finds - another canvas rucksack, a school satchel, and plenty of clothes. Sparrow tried to persuade Rat into wearing some shorts and a jumper, but Rat just shook her head and bared her teeth. She dug into the pile of clothes and dragged out a brightly coloured baggy t-shirt. Sparrow held it out for her to wriggle into, and she paraded round the room looking down at herself in satisfaction. It came down to her knees like a dress, and covered the grey tunic. After that, Sparrow laid out  the clothes on the bed and let Rat choose what she wanted. What Rat wanted was a pair of large dungarees with big pockets and brass fasteners that clicked into place enticingly. Sparrow helped Rat into the dungarees, tucking the t-shirt in at the sides, and pulled the straps to the tightest they went.

Everything in the room was too small for Bee, so they tried the next room. Rat followed them and discovered the mirror. She head-butted her reflection, then tried to bite the glass. When that didn't work she squished her nose against the glass like she had done with the door in the hospital, trying to peer through. Sparrow opened the cupboard to see clothes hanging on a rail inside. Bee trailed her hands along the fabrics until she reached one she liked and tugged it down. It was a soft long-sleeved cardigan, that tied around the middle. She pulled it on and rubbed her chin against the soft bit at her shoulder. "This is nice," she said shortly.

"Good." Sparrow said. "That's you both got proper clothes. Now for the boys' turn." She grabbed the new bags and filled them with jumpers and socks, and headed downstairs, yelling for the others to come out into the hall. Zed, Dee and Tekla turned up, hands full of packets and cans. "Great. Now you can go upstairs and get some clothes to go on top of those grey ones....Not you, Tekla, you've already got clothes."

The two boys ran upstairs and they could hear the sounds of cupboard doors and drawers being flung open, and a whoop of excitement as they discovered the mirror. Sparrow led the others into the kitchen and packed the new food supplies into the already bulging bags. The back door led out into a vegetable garden where they found carrots and beetroots and potatoes. They were quite small still, but Sparrow took them anyway. She gave them to Bee to hold while she checked for more.

The boys came back down the stairs. Dee was wearing shorts and a green jumper, and Zed had half- tucked his checked shirt into a pair of trousers with the bottoms rolled up and held around his waist with a striped tie.

Sparrow nodded, satisfied. "I've got extra jumpers and socks for everyone." Rat was persuaded to put her rubber boots on with the addition of bright yellow socks and the bribe of some crackers, and cheese found in the fridge - with the furry bits cut off. Another round of apples completed the lunch, and the now colourful band closed the front door behind them and set off on the path again.



Monday, 6 April 2020

[Glory Brats] Bonfire

"I'm cold..." Tekla whined. She was shivering in her damp clothes despite the warmth of the sun. Sparrow noticed the others were looking cold too, although they were too busy taking in their surroundings to care.

"We should keep moving." She said, "and look for wood to make a fire with. It'll get colder when the sun goes down."

Sparrow led the way through the clinic grounds, Rat trotting at her heels. Zed was at the back, and let Bee know if there was anything she might trip over. The trees planted throughout the grounds were young, and didn't have any old fallen branches that would be good for burning, but Sparrow picked up a few spindly twigs and rolls of bark that the wind had blown down, "Birch," she said. "Good for starting a fire."

She was making her way to the Depot where everyone used to get their supplies from. The supplies were transported on wooden pallets that were stacked in the yard for pick-up. There would be plenty of wood for burning there.

They trudged through the abandoned city streets, the blank eyes of the windows watching them. Most places were safely shut up, ready for their owners to return, but in some cases a window was left open, or an unlocked door banged in the breeze, the noise echoing along the street.

Sparrow stopped. Rat bumped into her and her knees buckled and she sat down on the ground suddenly, looking up as if wondering how she got there.

"What is it?" Zed asked.

"Why have we stopped?" Bee complained. She didn't like being outside and wanted to get wherever they were going quickly.

"Stay here." Sparrow ordered. "I'm going to check this out."

She darted up the steps of the nearest building and slipped in through the open door. Inside it was dark, and cool away from the sunshine of the street. Office desks filled the room, mostly tidy but a few with bundles of paper left lying. Sparrow picked up a few sheets from the nearest desk and shoved them in her satchel. Birch bark was good for lighting fires but paper was better. She grabbed a cardboard folder too, for good measure. In the small kitchen at the back of the building there was a tiny refrigerator. She opened it and stepped back, wrinkling her nose. The sour smell of off-milk filled the room. The cupboards had nothing apart from some stale biscuits and tea leaves. She left the tea but took the biscuits, cramming one in her mouth as she wandered back out through the office.

The others were sitting on the ground when she came out. "Find anythin'?" Tekla asked. By way of reply, Sparrow chucked her a biscuit, and handed the rest out to the others. By now, their damp clothes were starting to dry in the warm breeze that picked the dust up from the road and blew it around their feet.

"Let's get going again." Sparrow said, heading off along the road, "We're almost there..." The Depot was by the transport hub at the checkpoint between the industrial sector and the city centre. Sparrow used to go there with mum or dad to get things like her satchel for the new school term, or when her shoes got too small for her. Warden Smith was in charge of the Depot for Sector 3. He was nice - used to let her punch in the numbers for their allocation history, but since she got older she let Tekla do that instead. On sunny days like this one, he would sit outside the warehouse on an old folding chair that he'd brought from home and wait for people to come along.

They turned into the yard and Sparrow almost expected to see Warden sitting there waiting for them, but the door to his little hut was closed and his chair was sitting there empty. As she had thought, there were piles of wooden pallets stacked neatly against the wall. Towards the back there was an untidy pile of broken ones. Sparrow pointed to the pile, "We need to be able to carry that wood with us. Any one see any rope?"

"Why can't we just stay here?" Bee asked.

Sparrow sighed. "Because there's nowhere to sleep, silly."

Zed and the younger kids looked around the yard. At first sight there was nothing that would help them, but a closer inspection revealed that the hut door was not locked, only jammed. Zed wriggled the handle and Dee gave a few kicks for good measure. Tekla and Rat joined in. Sparrow left Bee sitting on Warden's chair and sauntered over. "What's wrong?"

Zed shooed the younger ones away, "That's ENOUGH. You're not helping now. There..."

The door opened, squeaking at the hinges. Inside there was an old checked shirt hanging on a peg, a rough wooden table with a tin mug, and a sheaf of papers pinned to the wall with a rusty nail. Sparrow took the shirt and gave it a shake. She handed it to Zed. On second thoughts she took the mug too and passed this to Tekla. Under the table was a small cart with a long metal handle folded back on itself. She ordered everyone else out of the hut so she could roll the cart free. On exiting the hut, she noticed that Zed was wearing the shirt. "It's a bit big." she said to him, "It'd fit Bee better."

"I helped find it though."

She nodded, "Fair enough."

They filled the cart with the broken bits of wood until it was almost too heavy to move. But if Sparrow pulled and the others pushed then they could manage at a crawl. "What do we need all this for, again?" Zed asked.

"We're going to have a bonfire." Sparrow's eyes lit up as she explained. "A big one. Bigger than they let us build at camp."

"What's a bonfire?"

"Fire burny. Mustn't touch." Tekla said, waving the tin mug in Zed's face.

***

Later, Zed agreed that fire was indeed not to be touched. Sparrow had scrunched up the paper and the birch bark, and made a thin framework of the twigs over that. She took out a tool that made sparks when she scraped the two bits together. The sparks fell on the paper and it flared up, flames licking around the twigs.

"How does that work?" Zed asked.

Sparrow hesitated. She liked being able to show-off how much more she knew, but didn't want to give up the secret of fire so easily. "Oh, it's very difficult to do." She said airily, feeding the fire with torn up bits of the cardboard file. The flames got bigger and she placed a few of the smaller bits of wood around the edges. The others watched as she knelt down and blew on the fire at just the right place so that it didn't blow out, but instead got stronger, needing more wood. While Sparrow was busy doing this, Zed took a bit of wood from the pile and went to add it to the steadily growing flames. Unfortunately, he did this at the same time as Sparrow was blowing on the embers. He dropped the wood and drew his hand back quickly, crying out.

Sparrow looked up angrily, "I'm the only one that's allowed to touch the fire just now! All of you will only get hurt if you try."

Zed nodded and retreated to where the others sat. "That wasn't very clever, Smartboy." Bee remarked. She could feel the heat from the fire now, and hear the crack and snap as the flames ate through the wood hungrily. Dee huddled next to her, a blanket draped over his shoulders. Tekla was next, watching her sister tend to the fire. Rat sat alone, half fascinated, half fearful, creeping ever forward until Sparrow told her to "Get back, Em." Amazingly, Rat obeyed.

The space Sparrow had chosen for the bonfire was underneath one of the walkways that crossed over parts of the city centre. The supports for the bridge had little child-sized nooks built into them, and here Sparrow and Tekla had stored blankets and food collected from around the city. Even though they had found some houses that were unlocked, Sparrow didn't like sleeping in other people's empty houses, feeling that the former residents were watching her. She much preferred to be outside, pretending this was all just one long camping trip, like they had done last summer with the school.

"Can I put some more wood on, Sparrow!" Dee pleaded, sticking his toes closer to the fire. His feet, like all of them apart from Sparrow and Tekla, were dirty and grazed from walking around the city barefoot. Sparrow shook her head. "No, I'm in charge. I'm the only one who can put wood on the fire."

"Who made you in charge?" Bee challenged. Although Sparrow was confident, she sounded like she was younger than Bee.

Sparrow put her hands on her hips. "I know how to make the fire, and none of you know where you are going, so of course I'm in charge."

"Where are we going?" asked Zed.

"Me and Tekla are going to find our dad," Sparrow said, adding another armful of wood to the fire, so that the flames leapt higher than ever. "You lot are just coming along because you won't survive without me."

There was silence as they all thought about this. Bee was thinking that as the eldest she should be in charge, but she admitted to herself that she would have no idea about where to go. Zed was quite happy that Sparrow should be in charge, although he liked to think that he'd have been able to figure things out eventually. Dee also, accepted that Sparrow was the leader. Tekla knew that Sparrow was in charge; that's what older sisters were for. Rat was hungry. She was always hungry. She crept closer to Tekla's plump little arm and gave it a gentle bite.

Tekla howled and snatched her arm away. "She bit me!"

Sparrow stopped in the process of adding more wood to the fire. "Em, NO. Bad Em."

Zed inspected Tekla's arm. "It looks alright."

Rat was confused. She'd wanted food and tried to let them know she was hungry, but all she got was noise and angry voices. She pointed to Sparrow's bag where the biscuits were but no one was looking at her any more. They were all gazing at the fire, which was blazing up so high that the flames almost touched the underside of the walkway. Sparrow grinned. "Now that's what I call a bonfire." Even Rat forgot being hungry for a moment as she felt the heat and watched the flames.

The fire soon died down though and the dark crept around them. There was no more wood left so Sparrow handed out blankets and they each crawled into one of the little nooks under the bridge and tried to sleep. Rat munched on a biscuit, and fell asleep surrounded by crumbs.

Friday, 3 April 2020

[Glory Brats] the brats cook up a storm

Sparrow let her eyes adjust to the low light in the store room. She could just make out the rows of shelves and boxes. Everything was stacked in orderly piles, apart from in the far corner where Rat crouched in a muddle of dirty blankets, crumbs, torn cardboard boxes and empty packets of food.

When Sparrow had jolted awake in the morning sunlight coming in through the window, she noticed that Rat had disappeared from beside Tekla. Then Zed had appeared at the glass door. He went straight over to the window and looked outside, his eyes wide. "What is...all that?"

Sparrow joined him at the window. She looked. "That? That's just ornamental planting. It helps relax the doctors and patients and removes pollution from the air."

"It looks nice."

Sparrow shrugged. "I suppose. Teacher says it's not as useful as a vegetable garden though. That can look pretty, and help the air, and feed people. Speaking of feeding - where's your food?"

Zed tore his eyes away from the wonderful flurry of colours and shapes outside and turned reluctantly back to the hard glass of the doors and the grey metal of the ventilation shaft.
Tekla had enjoyed the crawl through the ventilation but was happy to be left with Dee while Zed showed Sparrow the supplies. Bee was by herself in the room by the locked door to the facility.

Rat glared at them both and settled further into her nest. She crunched down on a biscuit, showing her small, sharp teeth.

"I can start at the other end of the room." Sparrow decided. She reached up for the first box  and set it on the floor. Zed opened it and began to set out the contents. "This is rice," Sparrow explained. "You need to cook it before you can eat it."

"You can have some of this then - we can't cook it."

"Yes you can," Sparrow said, "I'll show you. It's easy once you know how. Dad showed me."

The next box had dried broth mix in it, and the box after that had tins of chopped tomatoes. Sparrow gathered two piles of ingredients - one slightly bigger than the other. Rat watched them make their way through the boxes, creeping ever closer to see what they were up to. They both carefully pretended not to notice. While Sparrow started packing the bigger pile into an empty box, Rat peered round the end of the shelf, one of the grubby blankets draped over her shoulders.

"Where's the kitchen?" Sparrow asked.

"The what?"

"Where can I cook this lot?"

"I can show you all the rooms..." Zed offered.

Zed showed Sparrow through the different corridors. She carefully read the labels on all the doors until they came to one that said 'Kitchen'. "In here." She said, and pushed the door open with her foot, her arms full of the box of food supplies.

Rat scuttled in behind them. Sparrow set the ingredients out on the counter. "We're going to have soup and crackers to start, then vegetables with rice, and then biscuit cake and hot custard for pudding."

Zed watched as she pulled pots and pans out of cupboards, emptied tins and mixed things from packets and jars into a pot that looked big enough to fit Rat or Tekla in. Rat sat on the tiles by the door, making sure to keep a clear escape route.

"Can I help?" Zed asked. It looked like good fun, adding a bit of this and a bit of that, although the flames looked scary. Sparrow didn't seem to mind them though. She looked him up and down critically, then offered him a wooden spoon. "You can stir the soup. Make sure it doesn't burn on the bottom of the pan." He reached over and took the spoon with his right hand. Used his left arm to steady the handle of the pan. The soup was thick, and already beginning to catch a little on the base. He scraped and stirred until it felt smooth again, while Sparrow darted from the pot next to him on the stove, to the counter and back again. Rat sniffed the air and stood up. She moved a little closer, just a little.

"You want to help too, Em?" Sparrow asked, holding out another spoon as protection. But this was too much for Rat and she darted out of the room, letting the door bang shut behind her. Sparrow shrugged and turned back to the stove. Next she bashed up some biscuits in a bowl and added powders and various syrupy things before stirring it all up and letting it gloopily drop into a big flat tin.

Zed kept stirring. Dee, Tekla, and even Bee drifted in to see how the cooking was going, but Sparrow chased them out of the kitchen when they started to want food straight away. "It's not ready yet - you'll just have to wait."

He was pleased that Sparrow didn't chase him out too. He watched as she put the finishing touches of the meal together and then got him to march up and down outside the door banging an empty pot with a clean wooden spoon. "That's what we do to let everyone know the food is ready."

The others came running at the sudden noise. In the time that he'd been outside, Sparrow had spread a clean blanket on the floor and filled cups with water from the tap. She'd stacked bowls and spoons on the counter by the soup pot and got everyone to line up in order of height.

"Smallest first." Because at school camp it had always been 'tallest first' and Sparrow was the smallest in her class so she had always been last and hated it. She eyed up Tekla and Rat before handing the first bowl of soup and a spoon to Rat. "Here you go Em, careful, it's HOT."

Rat flung the spoon on the floor where it clattered under the counter base. She raised the bowl to her mouth and took a big gulp. Her eyes widened. She dropped the bowl on Sparrow's foot and yelled something unintelligible. Sparrow hopped around the kitchen while Zed rushed to get one of the cups of water and tried to get Rat to drink some of it. She pushed him away and ran out the door. Bee demanded to know what was going on.

"Is your foot hurt?" Zed asked.

Sparrow examined her foot critically. "No. Not really. There's just soup all over my boots."

"Can we eat now, then?" Bee asked.

Sparrow filled Tekla and Dee's bowls and gave them their spoons. When it was Zed's turn she handed him the bowl then stopped, confused, with his spoon in her hand. After some thought she put the spoon in the bowl for him. He sat down on the ground and used his good hand to balance the bowl between his left arm and his chest. Bee sat down on the ground where she was and started to eat. Sparrow filled a bowl for herself and sat down on the blanket. Everyone was silent apart from the sounds of slurping soup and clinking spoons.

***

Zed crept into the store room after they'd all finished eating the soup. In her nest right at the back, Rat lay curled up, thumb in mouth. Tears had left tracks down her grubby face. He placed the cup on the floor near her and backed away. She sat up. He mimed putting the cup to his lips and she shook her head and pointed to her mouth, scowling at him.

"It's not hot now," he said, putting his finger in the cup to show her. Slowly, she reached out and took the cup from the floor. She stuck her tongue into the cup warily. Once she realised it wasn't going to burn her again, she tipped the cup up and drained the contents.

"Come and have some more." As Zed moved towards the door, she got up and followed him back through to where the others were. Bee looked over at the sound of the door opening, "Did you bring back trouble?"

This time Sparrow knew to give Rat her soup in a cup. She drained another cupful and held out the mug for more. Sparrow sat a bowl of rice and vegetables in front of her instead. Not waiting for a spoon, Rat scooped the sticky mess up with her hand and stuffed it in her mouth. Tekla and Dee watched in delight. Sparrow waved a spoon at Tekla, "Don't you copy her now, Tekla..."

Tekla reluctantly picked up her spoon. Sparrow filled everyone's bowls with the hot spicy rice and vegetables and once again there was silence as everyone ate.

"That was so good." Dee sighed as he sat his bowl back on the floor. Sparrow brought out clean bowls and dug into the tray she had prepared earlier. Everyone got a chunk of the biscuit cake and a ladle full of hot custard. Rat grabbed the cake with her hand and licked the custard out of the bowl, ending up with custard on her nose and cheeks. Sparrow sighed. "Does she not have any table manners?"

"We're not at a table..." Dee said through a mouthful of cake and custard.

"She's wild." Bee said.

After they'd all finished, Sparrow made everyone help tidy up. They piled the dishes in the sink and covered them with hot soapy water. "We let them soak for a bit," she said. Rat tried to slink away as Sparrow descended upon her with a damp towel. Rat scratched and snapped her teeth but Sparrow persisted, and her hands and face were eventually wiped clean. She broke free and ran out of the kitchen.

***

Sparrow sorted and packed the few items of food that she could carry into her camp rucksack and school satchel, while Rat sulked at the back of the room. As she adjusted the straps, an alarm went off, and she rushed out into the hall to see what was the matter. Thick black smoke came pouring out of the kitchen door. Covering her face with her sleeve, she pushed open the door and went inside, to find the smoke coming from a pan on top of the stove. Grabbing the damp towel from earlier, Sparrow advanced on the smoking pan and dropped the towel over it. This allowed her to turn the hob off. The alarm was increasing in noise and tempo, and to top it all off, the sprinkler system activated, and immediately the kitchen was covered in a fine spray of water. Sparrow cried out in frustration and dashed from the room but the sprinklers were also on out there.

The others came running up, covering their ears. "How do we make that thing stop!" Bee yelled over the noise.

"I don't know!" Sparrow shouted back.

"Everyone is getting a good clean..." Dee cupped his hands to collect the water and splashed it over his head. Tekla thought this was great fun and copied him, screwing up her eyes as the water ran down her face.

"The alarm will stop if the power to it is cut but I don't know how we do that." Zed said.

"We have to get out of here." Sparrow ran into the store room and discovered it was dry. She grabbed her bags and flung them over her shoulders, then joined the others again. They headed out through the  ventilation tunnels and back into the small corridor section where they had first met. No sprinklers were on here, but the alarm was still blaring.

"This way." Sparrow said, and led them out through a maze of corridors and empty rooms until they reached a locked door. Sparrow pulled out a ring of keys from around her neck. The door was heavy, and she needed both hands to pull it open. As she did so, a shaft of sunlight fell onto the group, and they all shut their eyes in the sudden bright glow, all apart from Bee, who nevertheless felt the warmth of the sun on her face and wondered at the change.

"Where's that bright light coming from?" Dee asked, shading his eyes and squinting.

"Light? That's the sun." Sparrow laughed, then she stopped. "Haven't you ever seen the sun before?"

"It's so big..." Zed marvelled, looking around.

"What is?"

"Everything."











Thursday, 2 April 2020

[Glory Brats] the brats finally get together for the first time

"And one of you must be Zed." Sparrow reached out and helped one of the figures climb out from the broken vent in the wall. Three others followed, of various shapes and sizes. They stared at Sparrow without saying a word. There was a tall girl with dark skin and hair. A strip of fabric covered her eyes.There was a fair-haired boy who held his left arm against his side in an awkward manner; another, smaller boy was strangely pale, with white hair and milky eyes. Finally, there was a child about Tekla's size, with tousled brown hair and a wild look in her eyes. All were barefoot and dressed in the same loose grey tunics and trousers.

 Sparrow took a step backwards, then another, bumping into Tekla, who was halfway through the door.

Sparrow yelled, "I told you to stay through there!"

Tekla scrunched up her face in a frown, "Everyone else is here..."

Sparrow pointed to the other kids. "Stay back from them. They might be infectious."

"What's feck-shuss?"

"Dirty. Germs that might harm you."

Tekla's eyes opened wide and she stared back at the strange children. She slid back through the door and watched from there, hands and nose pressed up against the glass.

Sparrow turned to face the potential threat, hands clenched at her sides. "How did you get here?"

"I was brought here." The tall girl was the first to speak. "I was at another facility but they transferred me here last year."

Encouraged, the boy with fair hair spoke up. "I...I'm Zed. I think I've always been here. I don't remember anywhere else."

Sparrow noticed a mark on the inside of his wrist. "What's that? Hold it up so I can see..."

The boy looked at his wrist and held it up. "We all have them. They all look different though."

"Let me see," Sparrow commanded. The boy gently nudged the tall girl's hand and she turned it to show the mark. The younger boy held his up, and tried to get the wild child to show hers, but she shut her eyes and shook her head violently. He gave up.

Sparrow pointed at Zed. "Your mark is the letter Zed." She pointed at the girl, and pronounced,"Bee." She pointed at the pale boy and said, "Your mark is the letter Dee." Finally she pointed to the youngest and said, "But what's her mark?"

Rat looked up. She narrowed her eyes at Sparrow's outstretched arm. Lunging forward, she sunk her small teeth into Sparrow's hand, then retreated into the corner between the glass door and the wall.

"That's Rat." Dee said. "She bites."

Sparrow flapped her hand in panic. She tried to remember what to do if you came into contact with an infected person, but they hadn't finished studying bites yet in Medical. She noticed Zed coming towards her and she shook her head, "Don't...don't come any closer!"

Zed stopped. "I was only going to check it." He held up his right hand again and she noticed the MediTape covering part of his palm. She took a deep breath through her nose and pressed against the bite. There wasn't any blood. She gave a sigh of relief. "There's a MediCase in one of the cupboards through there. I saw it when I was looking for the keys." Even though it wasn't bleeding, she still wanted to clean the bite mark with a wipe. It would sting, but at least she'd be safe.

Bee stepped forward. "You should let Zed look at it for you. He's good with bites."

Zed looked up at her in surprise.

Dee nodded, "He has to be, around Rat. She's always biting. He even managed to fix her bite with his bad arm."

"She's trouble." said Bee, scowling.

A tap tap tap on the glass caused them all to turn around. Rat and Tekla were both on the other side of the door, faces squished against the glass. Sparrow forgot all about the bite on her hand. It was bad enough that she should get bitten but now Tekla could be infected too. She shook her head in despair. "I might as well let you help now, Zed. If you are all sick then we are now too."

Zed frowned. "We're not sick."

"Well you don't look normal." Sparrow retorted, thinking of Bee's hidden eyes, the funny way Zed held his left arm, Dee's strange paleness and...whatever it was that was wrong with Rat. "There's something wrong with all of you, and that's not allowed."

"We can't help it." Bee said fiercely.

"I suppose not," Sparrow agreed. It wasn't their fault they were broken and too stupid to know it.

***
Eventually Rat and Tekla fell asleep, curled up together under one of the desks. Sparrow carefully unfolded Rat's arm and found the mark on the wiry little wrist. She crept back to the others. "Em." she said quietly, "Her mark is an Em."

"I prefer Rat." said Bee, to no one in particular.

"So..." Sparrow began, sitting down in the rough circle they had created in the middle of the room. "We came here to get the food from the store."

"It's ours." Bee said. "You can't have it."

Zed looked uncomfortable. "We've eaten lots of it..."

"They can't have it." Bee repeated.

Sparrow looked stubborn. "We're not leaving without food."

Dee looked from one to the other, "Why can't we give them some?"

Bee sighed. "Does anyone listen to me?"

"Look," Sparrow said, "All I want is enough for Tekla and me to reach the next supply store. She's small, she doesn't need much."

"Next supply store..." Zed echoed. "You mean there's more food?"

"We don't need more food." Bee argued, "We have all we need right here."

"It's not going to last forever though. It's got to run out eventually. And then we'll have to leave here. And we don't know what's out there or where we're going."

Everyone was silent after Zed's outburst. Bee realised that what Zed said was true - they would have to leave the facility at some point. But she'd be happy to put that off for as long as possible. Leaving would mean going somewhere strange and unfamiliar, where she didn't know where anything was and couldn't find her way about by herself. She liked being in the facility where she could do what she wanted and go where she wanted. Alone. Although she reluctantly admitted that Zed was useful to have around, Dee was a nuisance though, and Rat/Em was bad news.

"I'm not taking you with me!" Sparrow hissed. "I've got enough trouble looking out for Tekla; I don't need you lot tagging along too."

"We don't want to go with you anyway." Bee said

"I don't know, Bee. It'd be nice to have something other than cold peas and peach slices." Dee was always thinking about food.

Sparrow tilted her head. "What was that? Have you just been eating cold food out of cans all this while?"

Dee nodded. "And biscuits too. There's other stuff but it isn't good to eat just as it is. I know, I tried and it made my stomach hurt."

Sparrow stretched her arms and cracked her fingers before the group. "Right, here's what we'll do. You guys will let me have some of your food stash and I...I will cook you a meal like you've never had before."

"That does sound good." Zed admitted. They could always give Sparrow the things they couldn't eat without preparing. She seemed like she would know what to do.

"Do you mean we can have hot food again?" Dee's favourite time of day before had been whenever his food tray contained steaming hot broth, mouth-scalding mashed potatoes or warm custard over fruit.

"Why should we help them?" Bee asked. "It's not like they helped us at all..."

"But remember how nice hot food is, Bee?" Dee pleaded.

Bee thought about it. She liked being on her own. Or with people she knew. Zed was safe - he hadn't asked about her eyes after that first time, and Dee didn't seem to care. Rat wasn't safe to be around, not with her habit of biting anything that moved, but at least Bee knew about that and could plan around it. She didn't know anything about Sparrow and Tekla; what they would do or what they would say. If they were given food, they would leave. And it would be back to just the four of them.

"Fine." She said, "Do what you want, I don't care."

Dee grinned. Even Zed managed a shy smile although he reached out to touch Bee on the shoulder. She shrugged his hand away. "I'm tired. We should all get some sleep."

"We'll take you to the food after." Zed said as he stood up to leave.

"Wait, you're not leaving Em here with me, are you?"

"Well she's sleeping. She'll bite us if we try to wake her up."

"And I'm not carrying her," Bee added.

"We'll be back to show you the way soon." Zed promised.

Sparrow brought her legs up to her chest and clasped her arms around her knees, "Well I won't get a wink of sleep that's for sure..." she muttered to herself as the others disappeared through the glass door and into the wall again.