Wednesday, 30 December 2020

[Glory Brats Xmas Special] Not just for Christmas

 "There's lots of trees outside - why do we have to bring one inside?" Dee asked, helping to drag the felled pine through the snow.

"Just because." Sparrow answered shortly, out of breath from wielding the axe and now hauling the tree back to the house.

"It's tradition!" Tekla chirped, running alongside in her rubber boots, stumbling a little in the snow.

Dee tugged harder on the branches and followed in Sparrow's footsteps. He stamped his feet into the packed snow, but his toes still felt cold, despite the two pairs of socks. He curled them up inside his too-big shoes and thought of the hot food that would be waiting for them when they got back to the house.

"That's funny...." Sparrow dropped the trunk of the pine and pointed ahead. "There's no smoke from the chimney."

Dee's face fell. No smoke meant no fire, and no fire meant no hot food.

"I'll go see!" Tekla ran ahead before Sparrow could stop her. They hurried to catch up, but not before Tekla came running out of the house again. "There's no one there!"

They forced the tree in through the door and into the room with the fireplace. It was, as Tekla had said, empty. The remains of a fire smouldered in the grate, and their belongings were scattered around the room as they had been when they left to get the tree.

There was a noise at the door and shortly after, the other three came into the room. Bee was first, her staff tapping on the floor, then Zed, with as much firewood as he could carry with one arm. Rat was last, holding a struggling puppy in her arms, scratching and nipping with sharp baby teeth. Rat gently bit the puppy on the ear in retaliation. It squealed and wriggled to be set free, but she crouched down in the corner, still holding it tightly in her strong little arms. Tekla ran over to look.

Sparrow pointed at the fire. "You were supposed to be cooking!"

Zed hung his head. 

"Rat disappeared." Bee said. "We had to find her."

Zed hurried over to the fire and knelt down by it. "At least I brought back some firewood..."

"And what is that?" Sparrow's finger swung round to Rat and the puppy. 

"She won't let it go."

Tekla turned her face to Sparrow, "Can we keep it? Please? Please?"

But Sparrow was busy rummaging through the packs for food. She took her knife and started chopping potatoes and carrots on a plank of wood, scraping them into a metal pan as she did so. Zed poured in some water from the canister and set it at one side of the fire, nestled in the embers. Dee came back with more water from the pump and placed the bucket by the fireplace. Bee busied herself stuffing items back into the packs and generally tidying.

"Where's the bird?" Sparrow asked.

Zed pointed to a plastic bucket behind her and she reached in and pulled out the carcass of a turkey. A few feathers still stuck to the skin, and she plucked these off, grimacing as she did so. Although she was well used to eating meat now, the details of preparation still left her feeling a bit sick. She took her knife and messily cut into the flesh of the bird. She stripped as much of the meat as she could and put it in the frying pan which she then sat in the middle of the fire. "Keep an eye on that, Zed."

She went outside to wash her hands at the pump, and came back in ready to decorate the tree. They set it up in a corner of the room in a bucket filled with stones. Sparrow had found some red fabric and tore it into strips to drape around the branches. And in the kitchen Dee had found a roll of tinfoil. Sparrow took this and showed Tekla and Bee how to thread pieces of it onto string to make a garland. In a cupboard under the stairs they found a box of candles and they placed these on the floor around the tree so that the tinfoil glittered in a circle of light.

"It looks like stars..."Dee said to Bee.

Bee thought that Christmas smelt of pine needles and fire smoke. She felt the prickly branches of the tree and gently set the tinfoil garland swinging so that it made a sh-sh-sh sound as the pieces rubbed together.

"Now we need presents," Sparrow said.

"What's presents?" Dee asked.

"Things you give one another."

"Nice things..." Tekla added.

Dee thought a bit. He didn't have much but he did have a few collected things. He pulled out a handful from his pocket.

"Not now!" Sparrow said, "They have to be wrapped first. In secret." She produced a stack of old newspapers and put them in the middle of the floor. Everyone took a sheet and scurried away to odd corners of the house. Even Rat grabbed a crumpled bit of paper in her fist and took it away.

After the food was all eaten, Sparrow said it was time to do presents. Rat and Tekla sat in the corner, feeding the puppy strips of leftover turkey. Sparrow went first. She gave Bee one of her old school ribbons, one of the satin ones that felt so nice when you ran your finger over them. Dee gave Zed one of his precious bottle tops with pictures printed on. Tekla gave Rat a long coloured feather. Rat looked as though she was thinking very hard and then pushed the puppy into the middle of the circle, covered with the sheet of newspaper. The puppy whined and nosed at the paper. 

Sparrow lifted the paper off. "I suppose we're keeping the puppy then..."


Tuesday, 8 December 2020

[Glory Brats 15] Tag, you're It!

 After bread and honey for breakfast, they were all shooed outside into the sunshine.

"Go and find the other children, they'll be about somewhere..."

They wandered around the settlement in a scattered group, headed up by Sparrow and Tekla, with Zed, Dee and Rat in the middle, and Bee trailing behind. She wished the others wouldn't go on so quickly, but didn't want to ask them to slow down.

A few adults glanced at them strangely as they picked their way in and out of the turf houses and wooden buildings, but after a while they became aware that they were being watched by other eyes. Every time Sparrow thought she'd caught them out, they ducked out of sight or ran behind another house. They could hear smothered laughter too, and whisperings just before they turned a corner.

Someone darted out from a doorway and pushed Sparrow, "Tag, you're It!" They yelled as they sped away. Sparrow took off after them, leaving the others behind, somewhat confused.

"It's a game..." Tekla explained. "You gots to not be caught by the other person who's It. An' if you DO get caught, then YOU become It.

"Become what?" Dee asked

"IT..." Tekla stressed in frustration.

They stood around waiting for a while, hearing cries and whoops of laughter coming from all around them. Then a boy barrelled around the corner, looking over his shoulder, and charged straight into Dee, knocking him down onto the muddy grass. 

"Sorry," The boy said, and held out a hand to help him up. He stared a little at Dee's paler than usual skin, hair and eyes. "You're them kids from the forest?"

Dee looked around at the others for encouragement and nodded.

The boy backed away a little. "My sister says there's bad things in the forest..."

"There is!" agreed Dee. "We were chased by a... a thing with snapping teeth and it growled at us, like this..." he demonstrated to the boy.

The boy looked impressed. "Weren't you scared?"

Just then, a pack of children came around the corner, calling for Eli. They stopped when they saw him talking.

"Eli - you coming back to play?" One of them called out.

"Yes, but listen - they fought off a monster in the forest!"

"It was a dog, actually..." said Sparrow, from behind the group of new kids. "And it was just protecting its puppies."

One of the older kids spoke up, "Those wild dogs can be really dangerous." 

"Yeah, an' if they bite you, you go MAD..."

Eli looked over at Dee. "Anyway, you comin' to play?"

"The It game! Can my friends come too?"

"Sure."

"How's Bee going to play?" Zed asked as everyone was running off.

"I don't want to play." Bee said quickly.

"It looks like fun though..."

"You go then, Smartboy. I don't mind. I think I'm too old for games."

Zed chased after the others, catching up to Rat who was trotting to keep up. Bee walked along the side of the house, following the sound of the voices. At first they were in front of her, then they were all around. And then Zed's voice appeared right at her ear.

"They know a game you can play!"

"I don't want..."

"Please, Bee? I want you to play."

Bee sighed. "Just because it's you, Smartboy." She allowed herself to be positioned by Zed. 

"You need to listen out for people calling 'Here I am' and then try to find them. They're not allowed to move. Oh, and you have to call out 'Tell me where you are' before they say 'Here I am.'"

"This is stupid..." Bee muttered to herself before saying in an only slightly louder voice, "Tell me where you are."

***

Sparrow stood on the edge of the crowd. She watched Bee walking forward and listening for the replies.  She felt a tap on her shoulder. It was Rosa.

"Come with me a moment. We need to talk."

Away from the others, Sparrow felt the tension in her body return. It had vanished while they were playing for a while, but now she felt like every part of her was on edge. She followed Rosa up the steps to the stone tower in the middle of the enclosure. Inside the wall it was like a tunnel - a small dark passageway built into the thickness of the wall. They went up a stone staircase, curving with the wall, and emerged into the inner section. This was a platform, spanning half the inside circle, like a wooden house built into the side of the stone wall. The other half was open to the sky. Looking over the side, Sparrow could see people on the ground far below.

"So this is Sparrow Jones..."

Sparrow looked up to see a tall, dark-skinned woman crossing the floor towards them. Rosa pushed her forward, and Sparrow took the hand that was held out to her and shook it awkwardly.

"I'm Grace Norden, and I'm in charge of this place. I'm the one who's responsible for your father being here."

"Where is he now?" Sparrow asked, feeling like no one was telling her what she wanted to know.

Grace looked over at Rosa and nodded. Then she waved Sparrow over to the side of the room where there was  a wood-burning stove and some seats. Rosa left them alone.

"Your father is doing some important work for us on the railway line between Exchange and Central. But he will be back here at some point. We can look after you and your little sister until he does. And your friends too."

"But why is he working for you? He's meant to be working on the new railway."

"That's really something he'll need to tell you himself. For now just know that he's doing good work. And when he comes back he'll be really proud of you for keeping your little sister safe, won't he?"

"I suppose so..."

"He will be. Now, can you find your way out by yourself? I have another meeting soon."

Sparrow nodded, eager to get back to the others and tell them the good news that they could all stay.


Monday, 30 November 2020

[Glory Brats 14] Food and Rest

They left the horses at a stable by the gate. Rosa tried to take Rat away to get her hands seen to, but Rat struggled and ran back to Sparrow and the others. "I'll go with her," said Sparrow. "Sometimes she bites."

"And you others would like some food? Hana - take them to the kitchen and fix them up with something. You - come with me."

Sparrow and Rat followed Rosa through the muddle of houses and into a wooden building, painted white inside and out. It was set up like a hospital ward, with beds running along the walls. This reassured Sparrow. She hadn't been sure what Outsider medicine would be like, but it appeared to be similar to City clinics, if a little basic.

Rosa rang a bell just inside the door. There was a wooden bench underneath. She nodded her head at it, "Sit there and wait." 

Sparrow sat on the bench. Rat crawled underneath it. A man stalked across the ward floor to the entrance. "What can I help with?"

"Hey Doc. We found these kids in the woods," Rosa said. "They say the one underneath the bench has burnt her hands. I need to go report now, but I'll come back when I'm done."

The doctor knelt on the ground to get a look at Rat. He took in her bared teeth, sock-wrapped hands,  and her mud-encrusted clothes. He looked up at Sparrow.

"Can you tell me what happened?"

"She burnt her hands in the fire trying to get the dead bird back, and we poured water over but we didn't have enough so then we took her to the river and put her hands in the water, and then we covered them with socks so she wouldn't scratch. We used my socks." Sparrow stuck her legs out to show her bare feet inside her gym shoes.

"I can see that." The doctor risked another glance at Rat. "What's this one's name?"

"We call her Rat but her name is Em. It's on her wrist. Be careful, she bites."

The doctor went to a cupboard and came back with some thick gloves on. He knelt down again. "Hello Em.  I'm going to help make your hands better. Why don't you come out and I'll take a look?"

"She doesn't speak. She'll come out if you have some food."

Rat looked up at the mention of food. Standing up again, the doctor picked up a plate on the desk and brought it over. It had some bread on it. He held a piece out to Rat and she grasped at it clumsily with her sock-wrapped hands, stuffing it into her mouth.

"My name's Sparrow by the way."

"Hello Sparrow. Do you know why she's so scared?"

Rat by this point had crawled out from under the bench and was crouching by it, eyes focused on the plate with the bread. 

Sparrow picked the last bit of bread up and waved it in front of Rat's face. "You want this bit? Then you'll have to behave. No biting!" 

 Rat reached out to take the piece but Sparrow shook her head. She stuck her arms out in front of her and indicated that Rat should do the same. The doctor took off his gloves and slowly began to peel away the sock from Rat's skin. Rat squirmed and opened her mouth showing her teeth, but Sparrow held up the bit of bread and she became still again.

'I don't know why she's like this." Sparrow said at last. "She just is."

***

Once Rat's hands were checked and bandaged up, Rosa took them to join the others. They were in one of the grass covered houses, sitting on benches at a long wooden table. Bowls of soup were in front of them, being hastily demolished. Inside the house it was dark but cosy, with lamps hanging from the ceiling and dotted around the place. Sparrow and Rat sat down at the table and each got some soup and bread. Rat tried to lift the bowl with her bandaged hands and dropped it. A bit of the soup slopped over the side onto the table. Rat bent her face down and licked it all up.

Sparrow sighed and lifted up Rat's spoon. She fed Rat a mouthful and then took some from her own bowl. Then she fed Rat again, who was waiting, mouth open like a baby bird.

"You kids certainly can eat!" Hana remarked as she cleared the table. "I'll show you where you can sleep tonight."

She took the others upstairs, leaving Sparrow and Rat to eat alone. Once they were finished, Sparrow stacked their bowls with the others next to the sink. Then she wandered up the stairs with Rat clambering behind.

Upstairs was a long room with a high, pointed roof and a window at the end. Beds lined the sides of the room, covered in colourful blankets made from scraps of different fabrics. Hana was lighting a lamp at the top of the stairs. It was made of metal and pierced all over with holes, casting striking shadows on the floor and walls. 

"I wasn't sure if you'd want a light or not."

"That's fine." Sparrow said politely.

"Sparrow - the beds are so soft! You sink right into them." Dee called out from one of the beds.

"Oho so you can speak..." Hana said, turning round, "I wasn't sure - you were all so quiet."

"Rat's the only one of us who doesn't speak." Bee said, stroking the soft fabric of the quilt. "Sometimes the others talk too much."

"You're not supposed to talk in front of the adults." Zed said quietly. "They don't like it."

"Well, talk as much as you like now. No one else is here so you've got the place to yourselves. People will be coming and going downstairs so give a shout if you need anything. Night, kids."

She placed the lamp on a hook on the wall. They heard her thumping down the stairs. Sparrow ran over and jumped on one of the free beds next to Tekla. Rat climbed onto the last bed and burrowed into the blankets.

***

Sparrow slept for a long time. Even so, she was still the first to wake up. Or so she thought. Then she noticed Bee sitting by the window at the end of the room. She was sitting in a shaft of sunlight and the wrap from around her eyes was lying on the floor. Sparrow swung her legs round to get out of bed and at the noise Bee's fingers flew to fix the wrap back in place.

"You don't have to wear it...."

"What do you know...City Girl?"

"City Girl yourself! And I bet you're just scared, scared of what people will say." Sparrow taunted.

Bee stood up. "So what if I am? People don't like my eyes."

"Well they'll never get a chance to like them if you don't let them see them."

"You want to see my eyes, Sparrow? Do you want to tell me you like my eyes?" Bee pulled the wrap off. Her eyes were whiter than Dee's eyes, and she had faded bruising around both eye sockets. It looked so different from anything she had ever seen that Sparrow wanted to be sick. Instead she stayed silent, wondering if they hurt.

"Thought not..." muttered Bee, and tied the wrap back over her eyes. She stalked across the floor and found the stair railing with her hands. "I'm going downstairs."


Wednesday, 25 November 2020

[Glory Brats 13] Outsiders

 Sparrow made Rat lie on the bank and dip her arms into the flowing water. Rat made grumbly noises and tried to roll over, but Sparrow sat on her until she lay still. Zed hovered nearby. 

"She's got blisters on her hands." Sparrow lay on her back and stared up at the trees. 

"We could put socks over them and tie them so she doesn't take them off?"

Sparrow sat up, "That's actually a good idea. If we keep them damp then they'd be cooling too." She untied her shoelaces and removed her socks. Rat did not want the socks over her hands but they eventually wrestled them into place and secured them with tape from the MediKit. Rat bashed her hands against her face and tried to bite through the ties. 

They were headed back along the path to the others when they heard noises from behind them. Sparrow pulled them all in to the side to hide in the undergrowth. They crouched down close to the ground and waited. 

Sparrow had only ever seen horses in books. In real life they were noisier than she expected. They clip clopped along the path at a fast trot, but pulled up sharply just in front of them. She held her breath.

"You might as well come out. We saw you dive in there."

They shuffled out onto the path. Four adults on horses looked down at them. The one in front dismounted when she saw they were only kids. She stepped forward and they retreated back towards the undergrowth, so she stopped.

"What's wrong with the little one's hands?"

"She burnt them in the fire." Sparrow called from the middle of a bush. "But we've put cold water on them and covered them so she can't scratch at them and we don't need any help thank you goodbye."

They heard hastily smothered laughter. Rat peeked her head out and was hauled back by Sparrow.

"What are you doing out here all alone? Is there anyone with you?"

Sparrow held up the slide rule, "We're looking for my dad. He's a railway engineer. Have you seen him?"

The woman leaned forward, "Can I see that?"

Sparrow slunk onto the path. She warily handed the slide rule over, "Be careful with it..."

The woman took a quick glance at it then handed it back over. "I think we might know where your father is."

"Do you really?" Sparrow's face lit up. "Where is he?"

"He came through here with us about a week ago. That's when he must have dropped it."

"But where is he?" Sparrow persisted.

The woman hesitated. "He's with friends. You should come with us, we can take care of your friend's burns so they don't get infected."

Sparrow looked down at Rat's bandaged hands. She knew that she couldn't do anything more for Rat, and maybe this would give them all a chance to sleep properly and get some more food. After all, they could always leave any time they liked.

"Okay, we'll come with you, but I'll need to get the others." Sparrow, Zed and Rat ran off towards where they'd left the others.

Bee, Dee and Tekla trooped along behind Sparrow and out onto the path. Dee's eyes widened when he saw the horses, but kept his mouth shut in the presence of the adults. 

"That all of you?"

Sparrow nodded, and the woman started to give out orders, "Right, you two bigger ones can sit behind me and Merrik, and the smaller ones can pair up with Hana and Kade. We'll be slow, but faster than walking."

After that there was a bit of fuss getting everybody where they were supposed to be. Dee broke his silence after discovering that they were actually to ride on the monsters. Sparrow sat behind Hana, with Rat in front. She didn't like the sensation of riding at first, it was too bumpy and she moved from side to side. Luckily their journey was along a fairly flat piece of ground - she didn't want to think what it would be like over rough ground. They rode through the trees for the first part, which thinned out to a scrubby wasteland area. Here they rode a little faster, as though they were worried about being seen on the open terrain. After a while they arrived at a place where they had to go through an old town, with empty houses and buildings on either side of the road. Doors and windows were boarded up, with an occasional one busted open where scavengers had entered to look for loot. 

They rode mostly in silence, although Rosa  -the woman in charge- occasionally called out to the other riders. Hana tried talking to Sparrow, but her attention was mostly taken up with keeping Rat on the horse. Rat did not like the horse, and she wriggled around and almost fell off until Sparrow told her to stop it. Rat didn't always do what Sparrow said, but this time she obeyed. 

"How long have you kids been on your own?" Hana asked.

Sparrow thought for a bit. "Well, my dad disappeared over a week ago. And so Tekla and me were alone, and then we met the others maybe...four days ago? I forget how long, I've not been counting."

"Had other things to think about." Hana suggested.

"Yeah." Sparrow agreed. "My dad...he's not where we're going, is he?"

Hana glanced at Rosa's back before she answered. "No. But he was there with us. You'll learn more when we get there. Not long now."

Sparrow looked down at the road before remembering that made her feel sick, and returned to staring at Hana's back. "Why was my dad with you? He was working on the railway when they all disappeared. Everyone said that the Outsiders took them away."

"Outsiders?"

"People who...oh." Sparrow stopped, swallowed once, then started again. "YOU were the Outsiders. You took my dad away."

Hana turned round to give her a sympathetic glance. "It wasn't like that. We had to speed up our plans. Your dad always meant to come with us. He just didn't mean for the others on his team to get involved."

Sparrow sat in silence. She had too many questions. Her dad and Outsiders? Why would he go with them? Why would he leave Tekla and her on their own? Could she even trust these people? She felt stupid for not realising before,  but everyone always spoke of Outsiders as half-savages, only skilled in fighting. Certainly not people who cared about the burnt hands of strange children.

 "Here we are," said Hana, and Sparrow looked up. They rode through a gate set into a high wooden fence. Someone shut the gate behind them. Beyond the fence were houses that looked half sunk into the earth, the corrugated metal fronts looking strange beside the grass-covered rooftops. The houses were built surrounding a huge stone tower, circular in shape, with a door high up in the wall that was reached by a wooden ramp.

Thursday, 19 November 2020

[Glory Brats 12] The Brats make a discovery

They followed the path through some trees which were as unlike the other forest as could be. The trees were not so close together, their trunks were smooth, and the canopy was open, letting light dapple through onto the ground below. Sparrow looked around at the others. Bee was walking slowly along the path. Zed yawned widely. Dee looked half asleep as he walked. Only Tekla and Rat seemed to have any energy, running ahead and darting in and out of the trees.

"We should stop and rest." Sparrow decided. "I'll build a fire too and we can dry off our wet socks. It won't be seen as easily during the daylight."

She soon got a fire going in a small clearing. Bee handed out the blankets from the packs, and everyone sat down on the ground around the fire. Dee curled up on his blanket and fell asleep. Zed stretched out as though he was going to do the same. Bee leant back against a tree stump and soon her head fell forward in sleep.  

"I guess I'll stay awake then." Sparrow said to herself. She watched as Tekla and Rat chased one another around the clearing. She felt her eyes closing and wondered if it would be so bad to fall asleep. She shook herself awake. Tekla and Rat couldn't look after themselves and even Dee had managed to stay awake all night to watch over them. 

"Don't go too far!" she called out, as Tekla hid behind a tree. "Stay where I can see you."

She settled herself down onto her blanket and watched the fire. Her eyes closed again, and this time she didn't shake herself awake. She could hear the two little girls running through the leaf litter on the forest floor. As long as she could hear them she could shut her eyes just for a little while. Soon she had drifted off into sleep.

Sparrow woke up with a start. She raised her head in panic and looked around the clearing. Tekla and Rat were nowhere to be seen. Getting to her feet, she ran to where she'd last seen Tekla darting behind a tree. She breathed a sigh of relief. The two girls were crouched down by a fallen tree, looking at something on the ground.

"Tekla!" She called out, angry now that her fear was gone.

Tekla turned around, her finger to her lips, "Shhhhh. Sparrow, come and see!"

Sparrow went over, intending to grab both girls by the arms and drag them back to the fire. But when she got there, she froze, looking down at what they had found.

In a moss-lined hollow lay a squirming mass of puppies. They had short, soft fur and velvety ears, and were wriggling and squealing as Tekla and Rat picked them up. She knelt down and stroked one that was trying to clamber out of the way of the others. Then she drew her hand back and stood up.

"Leave them alone - you don't know what diseases they might have. And the mother will be..." she broke off as she heard a low growling sound coming from behind her. She turned around to see the mother dog snarling and showing its teeth. Tekla screamed and ran away. The dog followed her, barking and snapping. Sparrow grabbed Rat and ran after them. 

Tekla ran into the clearing, still screaming, followed by the dog. The others around the campfire woke up with the noise. Sparrow bounded over to the fire, shoved Rat at Zed, and seized a burning branch from the fire. She advanced on the dog, and it backed off, still growling. She moved forward until the dog was out of the clearing, when it turned and ran back to the puppies. It stood there, barking. Sparrow kept the burning branch in front of her and backed slowly away.

She threw the branch back onto the fire. Then she rounded on Tekla and Rat.

"I told you to stay where I could see you!"

Tekla's bottom lip quivered like she was about to cry. Rat frowned and bared her teeth like the dog had, and wriggled free of Zed's grasp. She crouched some distance away, watching as Tekla ran forward to clasp Sparrow around the waist. "I'm so...orry, Sparrow!"

Sparrow hugged her back. She looked over at Rat and waved for her to come over too, but Rat turned away, her body hunched over. Sparrow shrugged. Tekla sat down on a blanket and pulled a soft toy bird out of her pack. She hugged it to her chest and sniffed. 

Once everyone was quiet, Rat crept closer to the fire. She found a space between Tekla and Bee and pulled something out of her pocket. She started stroking it gently.

"Ugh, what is that smell?" Bee asked, wrinkling her nose.

At first Sparrow couldn't smell anything, then it drifted across the campfire and she wanted to be sick. She looked over at Rat, but Rat was hiding whatever it was with her hands, trying to shove it back into her pocket.

"Em, what is that?" Sparrow scrambled over to where Rat was sitting and grabbed at the object. It was squishy in her hand and she dropped it back into Rat's lap in disgust. Rat scooped it up and ran off with it. Sparrow followed, tackling her to the ground, and the thing fell out of Rat's grasp. Dee picked it up by one wing, holding it as far as possible from himself. The dead bird flopped down. Rat squirmed out from underneath Sparrow and wrenched it from Dee. She clutched it to her chest and glared at them all.

Sparrow looked from Rat to Tekla and back again. She stood over Rat. "It's not a toy, Em. It's dead. It needs to be thrown away."

Rat shook her head and tightened her grip on the dead bird. Sparrow sighed in frustration. "Tekla, give me your bird."

"Nu uh!" 

"Not for keeps, I just want to show her it..."

Tekla reluctantly handed over the toy bird. Sparrow held it up in front of Rat. "See? It's not a real bird."

Rat reached one hand out to the toy, still gripping her bird with the other. She looked warily at Sparrow, who nodded in encouragement. Rat poked it, then darted away. Sparrow frowned and threw the soft toy back to Tekla. "Ugh, why won't she throw it away?" 

She watched as Rat ran up to Tekla and shoved the bird in her face. Tekla squealed and ran away, chased by Rat flapping the wings of the dead bird up and down.

"Right, that's enough!" Sparrow marched over to Rat and seized the bird, fighting down her own disgust. Rat clung on to her arm, biting and scratching, but Sparrow held the bird up too high for her to reach. "This thing needs to go."

She chucked the dead bird onto the fire. Rat let go of Sparrow's arm and reached into the flames before anyone could stop her. She yelped in pain and tumbled backwards, tears starting in her eyes. Zed knelt down by her and pulled her away from the fire. 

"Bee, get the MediKit!" 

Bee started to search in her pack, but Sparrow pulled a metal bottle out of her rucksack, "It's water that you put on burns." She knelt on the other side of Rat and unscrewed the top of the bottle. Holding Rat's arm out, she poured the water over the burns on her hands and wrists. Rat rolled from side to side and gave a little whimper. As Sparrow poured the last of the water out, Dee handed her his water bottle.

"We're gonna need more..." Sparrow said. "We'll have to go back to the river." 

Sunday, 15 November 2020

[Glory Brats 11] Brats on the run

 They found themselves in a lane running between two rows of buildings. It was dark, and for the first time in ages, Sparrow felt as if eyes were watching her from all around.

"Keep close to the wall," she warned the others. Bee put one hand out to find the wall. They ran as quietly as possible until they came to the end of the lane. Sparrow peeked around the corner to see if anyone was about. At first she thought the road was empty, but then she noticed a figure leaning against a wall over near the bonfire. She ducked back behind the wall. 

"We'll have to be careful. There maybe more scouts about. We need to get back to the gap in the fence, but we'll have to go a roundabout way to get there." She took another quick look around the corner, scanning the area for possible hiding spots. "I'll go first, then you two follow. Zed, we'll run alongside that building opposite until we get to that barrier on the road. Then run to hide behind that, one at a time, before heading to the building across the road. Got that, Bee?"

Sparrow took a last look at the figure in the distance before setting off. She ran in the shadow of the building, feeling every minute that someone was going to call out and she'd be caught again. The barrier was just a large block of concrete, but was big enough to hide her if she crouched down. When she reached the safety of the final building she looked back to check on the others.

She could barely see them, deep in the shadows. Good. That meant they were well hidden from any searching eyes. She checked on the scout, but they were looking in the other direction. "Go, go now!" she said in to herself. As if in response, Bee and Zed darted out across the road. Bee stumbled a little bit as she ran, and fell onto her hands and knees on the road. Zed, already hidden behind the barrier, froze as the scout looked over in their direction. Bee lay very still. 

The scout came closer but was distracted by a shout from the square behind. In that moment, Zed scrambled to his feet and half-dragged Bee behind the concrete block. Sparrow realised that she'd been holding her breath. They all waited while the scout walked closer towards them. It was the woman that had caught Sparrow, with the rifle on her back. She scanned the road but stopped just short of the concrete. As she turned away, Sparrow gestured to Zed to stay put. Only when she got further away did Sparrow beckon them towards her. They carefully walked across the final gap.

"Whew that was close," Sparrow said. Bee said nothing, angry and ashamed that she'd almost got them caught again. Zed patted her shoulder stiffly. "It could have been any of us..."

"Not me!" Sparrow said, "I look where I'm go....oh."

They crept back to the fence in an awkward silence, constantly looking around to check they weren't being followed. They found the pile of rocks that Sparrow had left as a marker and slipped back under the fence and into the woods.

They found Dee sitting by the dying embers of the fire, clutching Sparrow's knife. He scrambled to his feet as they approached. "They fell asleep but I didn't. I looked after them." He held the knife out to Sparrow, "I took it from your bag. I'm sorry. I was scared when you didn't come back."

Sparrow took the knife and shoved it in her bag, "Always give a knife back by the handle, Dee. You don't go pointing knives at friends."

"What's friends?"

Sparrow paused. She'd meant it as a throwaway comment - 'friends' as in 'not enemies'. Because these kids weren't her friends, were they? Not real friends like Minnow or Fiony. She sighed. "People that you like, Dee. Friends are people that you like and that like you."

"Oh," said Dee happily. "Like all of us."

"Yeah..." said Bee. "That's what we are. Friends."

Sparrow ignored her and knelt down to shake Tekla and Rat awake. "C'mon, wake up - we need to go."

Tekla sleepily rubbed at her eyes,"But....it's still night?"

Rat rolled over and sprung to her feet, eyes flickering warily from side to side. Zed picked up the blankets and shoved them in the cart, while Sparrow scattered the embers from the fire. She turned to Zed, "Put the blankets in the packs - we're going to have to leave the cart. It'll slow us down." 

Zed tucked the blankets in the packs belonging to Rat, Dee and Tekla, and then helped Sparrow and Bee store the cans and other food in their own packs. Once they'd filled the rucksacks and satchels with as much as they could carry, Sparrow took the cart to the top of the ridge and sent it trundling downwards. 

They set off towards the fence, but stayed hidden in the trees. They passed the spot where they had burrowed under the fence and could see the fire still burning, and people still milling around it, although not as many as before. 

"We can't go through that way," said Sparrow. "It's too dangerous. We'll have to keep the fence in sight and find another spot to cross over."

They walked in silence. The only sound was the crunch of their feet on the forest floor. The sky began to get lighter, and the birds began to wake up above their heads. Sparrow increased her pace. She wanted to be on the other side of the fence before the sun came up, but the fence stretched ahead endlessly. She squinted into the distance, straining her eyes in the dim light. It looked as though the fence was bulging inwards towards the trees. 

They came to the spot that Sparrow had seen and looked at it from the safety of the tree-line. Someone had cut the wire of the fence and pushed their way through. By now, the sun was just coming up, and they could see further beyond the fence. Sparrow glanced to either side. She couldn't see anyone, and there were no buildings nearby for anyone to be hiding in. Beckoning the other kids forward, she stepped through the gap in the fence.

The warm light of the rising sun touched their faces. They stood clustered together, looking at out the view before them. The dusty road became a track with hedges on either side, and fields full of gently waving grass filled the horizon. A river rippled along the edges of the fields, the water glinting in the sunlight. 

"What's that?" Dee asked, pointing along the road to the left of them. 

Sparrow looked. It was a truck, and it was heading right for them. "Run!" she shouted at the others, grabbing Bee's hand and heading down the track between the hedges. They jumped into the ditch at the side of the track and crouched down, letting the bushes hide them. The truck couldn't make it down the track so they would have to stop at the top and follow on foot. The sound of the truck came closer, but Sparrow couldn't hear any signs of it slowing down. It drove right past the turn off for the track. 

After waiting for a few minutes to be sure they weren't coming back, Sparrow clambered out of the ditch. The others followed, except for Rat, who remained crouched under the hedge long after the truck had passed.

"What was that?" Bee asked.

"I think it belonged to the soldiers," Sparrow said. "It's a truck - like the cart, only bigger, and faster, and  you sit in it to steer it. They must have stolen it from the City. C'mon Em, out you get, it's gone now." 

Rat crawled out from under the hedge, stuffing something deep into the pocket of her dirty dungarees. They walked down the track to where the river crossed the path, with a ford of river stones just underneath the water. The banks were soft and trampled, and soon they were up to their ankles in the smooth, cool mud. Rat left a rubber boot behind her, and Sparrow had to go back and get it. As she was splashing back through the water, she noticed something lying on the stones and picked it up. It was a metal slide rule. Turning it over in her hands, she noticed the engraved marks at the end, and smiled suddenly. She waved it in the air at the others. "This was my dad's. He must have gone this way too."


Tuesday, 10 November 2020

[Glory Brats 10] The brats attempt an escape

"Are you a City kid?"

 Sparrow nodded slowly. This appeared to please the captain, who sat down on a chair and leaned in. "Have they abandoned the city?"

"They all left in the evacuation," said Sparrow. "We're the only ones left behind."

"How many of you are there?"

Sparrow told him. The captain seemed surprised at so many children alone, but was relieved to find out that the others were younger.

"Where are they? We should bring them here, don't you think?"

Sparrow hesitated. 

"We could look after them properly, make sure you all get some food..."

Sparrow thought about this. Their meagre store of food was already running low, and the kids were always hungry. It would be nice to be sure of a good meal. But she didn't like the way they'd all been grabbed and hauled about, and she didn't like the thought of that happening to Tekla and the others. She shook her head firmly.

The captain's expression didn't change, but he stood up and walked away a short distance to confer with another of the adults. The three children looked round at one another, and held each other's hands tightly. After some time, the captain came back over.

"Put them in one of the houses for now. We can always find the others later." 

They were dragged to their feet again and taken away to one of the semi ruined buildings. A hole in the wall served as a doorway, and the floor inside was strewn with rubble and bits of rubbish that they had to pick their way through. A flickering lamp cast jumping shadows across the room. There was no furniture, apart from a table with one leg propped up by a brick. Sparrow took all this in with one glance, before they were marched through a corridor open to the sky to a small dark room. They were shoved inside and the door shut and locked behind them. Sparrow banged her fists on the door in frustration. 

"What do we do now?" Zed asked. 

"There's a draught coming from over here." Bee said. Sparrow fumbled around in the darkness until she bumped into Bee. The older girl flinched away. "Over there, behind me."

Sparrow shut her eyes and counted to forty under her breath. When she opened her eyes again, she could see a faint light coming from the corner of the room. She went over to investigate. Near the top of the wall there was a small hole leading to outside. Some bricks and rubble lay on the floor underneath where they had fallen in. Sparrow tried to reach the hole but she was too short, and she just scraped her fingers on the rough wall.

"Bee! Come over here, will you?" Sparrow pulled a reluctant Bee over to the corner. "Reach up with your hands and I can see if you are tall enough."

Bee felt her way up the wall but her hands still fell short of the hole. 

"What about standing on the bricks?" Zed suggested.

Sparrow grabbed a couple of bricks from around the room and stacked them one on top of another. She tried to guide Bee's foot onto the top brick, but Bee shook her off, "Get out of the way - I can do it myself."

Bee wobbled on top of the bricks, but used the wall to steady herself. She stretched up as far as she could reach, and her fingers felt the rough edges of the hole. "These stones feel like I could take some away and make the hole a bit bigger..."

"Pass them down to us then, or they'll make too much noise." Sparrow and Zed stood by, ready to take the stones that Bee worked out of the wall. They placed them carefully on the floor. 

"That's enough," Sparrow said, "It looks big enough now."

"How are we going to get out of here through there? It's too high up for the two of you to get to, and I can't climb up there myself..." Bee protested.

"If I help Zed climb onto your shoulders, he can get up there, and I'll go after. Then you pile the bricks up and stand on top of them, and we help pull you up."

"No! The two of you alone won't be able to pull me up. You two should help me get up there, and then Zed can get on your shoulders and I'll help him up, and then Zed and me can help you up." 

Sparrow folded her arms and frowned. She realised that Bee's was the better idea, but didn't want to admit it. Bee took her silence for acceptance, and started to clamber up the wall, jamming her hands into the gap and hauling herself up. Zed instinctively moved forward to help. "What do you want me to do?"

"Give me a punt up." 

Zed looked over at Sparrow, "I'll need your help too."

She stepped up to the pile of rubble and stood next to Zed. The two of them made a cradle for Bee's foot with their hands. Bee stepped into it and they lifted her up as far as they could. There was a muffled cry from Bee as she banged her head on the top of the hole. "Ugh, it's hard to get through."

"At least if you can get through, then we know Zed and me will too." Sparrow said, looking up at the hole critically. "You need to bend your head down a little more, and tilt your right shoulder down."

Bee made the adjustments and disappeared from sight. Her arms soon reappeared, followed by her head,  "Quick, Zed - I can't tell if there's anyone around up here."

"I told you one of us should have gone first," Sparrow said.

Zed stepped up on top of the bricks and rubble and reached up for Bee's hands. Sparrow pushed him from below. Bee grabbed hold of Zed's arms and hauled him up through the hole. Sparrow was next, and soon all three of them were outside again. 

Friday, 6 November 2020

[Glory Brats 9 ] The Brats get caught.

 "I thought you said they were just dirty old bones" Bee said, after Sparrow's screams had subsided.

Rat held up a leg bone and waved it in the air. Sparrow shuddered and fought her for it, throwing it back down the hill. "Em, NO. These were people once..."

Rat bit her on the hand and tumbled down the hill after the bone. Sparrow waved her hand about in pain. "Will somebody...do something...about her...please!"

Zed obediently trotted down the hill. Tekla started to cry.

Sparrow sighed. "Not now, Tickles..."

"s'getting dark..." Tekla said through her sobs, "an' there's scary bones and..."

Dee slipped his hand into Tekla's,"Don't worry. Sparrow's here. She'll look after us."

Sparrow gulped in a big breath of air. The others were depending on her. She had to take charge. "Yes, there's bones, Tekla, but they can't hurt us. We'll find a place to camp soon, I promise."

Zed must have persuaded Rat to leave the bones alone because he came back up the hill to join them, followed at a short pace by the little girl. Sparrow grabbed the handle of the cart and began to tug it up over the crest of the hill. The others wearily pushed from behind.

Eventually Sparrow stopped the cart. The ground was flat and relatively stone free, and everyone was tired. "We'll stop here," she said.

Dee flopped dramatically onto the ground. Sparrow nudged him with her foot, "Oi, help us set up camp first..."

"Will we have a fire tonight?" Bee asked as she shook dust and crumbs out of the blankets from the cart.

"Yeah," said Sparrow, "But we'll keep it small."

Zed, Dee and Tekla began to pick up kindling and sticks for the fire. Sparrow knelt on the ground, scraped a shallow hole and began to coax sparks from the flint and steel onto a piece of cotton fluff from her pack. Rat crouched some distance away, hands stuffed in the deep pockets of her dungarees. 

Zed came up past the cart carrying an armful of twigs, "There's a light in the distance over there." 

Bee paused her unloading. "I can smell smoke."

"I've just lit the fire, genius." Sparrow called out.

"No, this is different. It smells different from the woodsmoke."

Sparrow left the fire and came over. "Don't be silly. And stop frightening the little ones, you two."

"But I saw a big light like a fire, Sparrow, over there past that fallen tree."

Bee drew herself up to her full height. "My sense of smell is better than yours."

Sparrow glared at her, then stopped as Bee's blind eyes stared back impassively. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to check it out..." she muttered. 

Dee, Rat and Tekla were sat around the fire with blankets, biscuits, and strict instructions not to touch anything. They happily crunched into the biscuits and barely even noticed the older three slipping out of the firelight towards the fallen tree.

Following Bee's nose, they made their way round the roots of the tree where Zed had seen the light. The smell of smoke was stronger now, and even Sparrow agreed that it wasn't just coming from their small fire. The land sloped slowly downwards and levelled out at a chain link fence. 

"It's the edge of the woods." Sparrow hissed, holding the other two back.

"Don't you want to find out where the smoke is coming from?" Zed asked.

"Yeah...but carefully..." 

They slid from tree to tree, until they were inches from the fence. Weeds and lank grasses grew up on either side. Beyond it lay a dusty, rubble-strewn road, and beyond that was a large, open space surrounded on three sides by ruined buildings. In the middle of the space was a huge bonfire. They could see people grouped around it, shouting, and throwing things onto it. Others dragged broken furniture out of the ruins and heaved it into the flames. 

"Told you it wasn't just woodsmoke," Bee said.

"Alright, alright, you and your clever nose." Sparrow whispered.

"I saw the light first," said Zed.

"Do you think there's grown ups there?" Sparrow asked, looking at the distant figures surrounding the fire.

"Don't know." 

"Don't care," said Bee.

"My dad could be there!" Sparrow said. "We need to get closer to check it out." She crouched down next to the fence and pushed the weeds and grass to the side. She took a stick and scratched away at the surface  of the ground until she'd made a small gap. Wriggling under the base of the fence, she held it up for the other two. "Bee, you'll need to lie right down."

Sparrow then took some rubble from the road and made it into a small pile near where they'd gone under the fence. "So we can find it when we come back."

Under cover of darkness, they ran across the open space and scuttled behind a wall belonging to one of the ruined buildings. The light from the bonfire meant that very little could be seen in the areas of real dark beyond its reach.They sat with their backs to the wall for a bit, listening to the scraps of conversation they could hear.

"...to be abandoned..."

"...cleared out the..."

"...should try a day run. What's the..."

The words were dotted with the smashing of glass and pops from the fire as tyres burst. Sparrow started to feel that maybe her dad wasn't going to be there. She turned around and cautiously raised her head to look over the wall. The figures mostly looked like older teenagers, with a few adults. None of the adults were her dad. All of them were dressed in some kind of rough uniform, and carried knives on their belts. She felt for her knife and remembered she'd left it back at the camp. Ducking down behind the wall again, she slid back to a sitting position, "I think we'd better get back to the others now," she whispered.

They got to their feet, though crouching still, ready to run. Sparrow took off first, and ran straight into a woman with a rifle slung over her shoulder. The woman gripped Sparrow's shoulder and looked around. Spotting the other two figures by the wall, she gave a shout, and several figures from the bonfire came running over. Zed tried to duck away from them, but they grabbed his arm firmly. Bee was caught too, and the three of them were dragged into the light of the bonfire.

A ripple of laughter went round the crowd, with a few jeers and whistles. "What's that you've caught now, Emer - a kid?" someone shouted out. One of the adults stepped forward. His uniform was slightly smarter than the others, and he had a gun at his belt. Sparrow, Bee and Zed were pulled over to one side and shoved down to a sitting position on the ground.

"What are you doing here?"

"They probably saw the fire and came looking for food, Captain," the woman said, poking at Zed with her foot, "They all look kinda skinny."

"They can answer for themselves, Emer." He crouched down so his face was level with them. He noted the wrap across Bee's eyes and Zed's crumpled hand. "What's wrong with you, then?" He said to Sparrow.

"Nothing!" she said fiercely, and the captain laughed. "So you can talk. Right. Why are you here?"

"I'm looking for my dad."

"Just lost, are you? And you just happened to bump into us?"

Sparrow nodded vigorously. 

Someone came running up from the groups around the fire. "Captain, Sir - we...Whin and I...we ran into them in the forest last night. There's more of them too, I think."

The captain stood up "And you didn't report it?"

The young man shrugged, "They're just kids..."

The captain sighed and dismissed him with a gesture. He frowned down at Sparrow. "You a City kid?"

Sparrow didn't know what to do. She wished she had her knife. It made her feel braver. 


Friday, 30 October 2020

[Glory Brats 8] remnants of the past

 Sparrow dumped some damp leaves on top of the fire, sending smoke stinging into everyone's eyes. The comforting glow from the fire disappeared. Bee sat alert, head cocked to one side, clutching her metal pipe with both hands. 

"Why did you do that?" Tekla asked. Sparrow ignored her.

"I think they're gone now."

Bee loosened her grip slightly and let her shoulders relax, "Yes. I can't hear them any more."

"Who's gone? What is it? Why will nobody tell me?" Tekla's blanket fell off her shoulders and she shivered, "I want the fire back...."

"We can't have the fire." Sparrow snapped, "Go back to sleep."

"I'm co...old..." Tekla whined.

Sparrow took the blanket from around her own shoulders and shoved it at Tekla. "Take mine. Now will you go to sleep?"

Tekla sniffed and wrapped the extra blanket around herself, "...don't have to be so mean about it..."

Zed sat up suddenly, pulling the blanket away from Dee as he did so. Dee grumbled in his sleep and turned over, but didn't wake up. 

"Why's the fire..."

"Shush!" Sparrow and Bee spoke at the same time. The only sound was the breeze moving the tops of the trees. Zed carefully draped the blanket back over Dee and leant back against the concrete. Rat burrowed into the blankets next to Tekla.

"Maybe this wasn't a good place to camp." Sparrow said into the dark.

"We had to stop." Zed said. "It was dark."

"Ha." Bee placed her metal pipe on the ground, keeping it close though. 

"Tomorrow we'll be out of the forest." Sparrow said, more to herself than anyone else. "Tomorrow I'll find a better place to camp.

***

But tomorrow did not see them out of the forest. The trees closed in around them, getting thicker and closer together. Clumps of moss and lichen hung off the branches, and fallen trees barred their way. They had to push through the tangle of branches and tripped on hidden roots, as the sky above them in the narrow gap of the tree tops got darker and darker, and the sounds of the birds faded away into the evening.

Sparrow's tumble took her down a steep hill and into a pit at the base of a fallen tree. The others paused at the top of the slope, before carefully making their way down. Sparrow, dazed, having hit her head on a hard knot of the roots, lay where she fell for a bit, before clambering groggily to her feet. She came face to face with a skull. 

It was twisted in the roots of the tree, stained with dirt, and cracked in places where the tree roots had tightened. She turned around, slipped, and fell back into the pit, right on top of a jumbled pile of bones. She screamed. The others reached her and stopped short.

"What is it?" Bee asked, but Sparrow could only gape wordlessly as she tried to grasp her way out.

 Zed reached down to help her up, but his gaze was elsewhere. 

The hollow was filled with bones, sticking out of the ground where the trees had blown over, the roots not anchored in the shallow, stony, ground. Some still had scraps of fabric clinging to them, bleached by the sun and tattered by the wind. Every step they took revealed a new skeleton, half buried in the slippery leaf mould. Sparrow swallowed down her desire to be sick and scrambled back onto the safety of the hill. 

"Will someone tell me what's going on?" Bee said.

"Bones..." Sparrow gasped. "Lots of them, just like they said."


Tuesday, 26 May 2020

[Glory Brats 7] 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 6] 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 5] 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 4] 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 3] 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 2 ] 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."