1 Hard to Hide

AUDIO BOOK

We scraped through shadows, breath misted. I pulled my overcoat higher round my hoody which was pulled down till I could barely see out. In these narrow streets, the houses seemed to peer down, watching. We came there so often, I was getting nervous. Someone from school was bound to spot us. Bobs was practically luminous. It was as if he didn’t know how to blend in.

‘Do you have to wear that purple fur coat?’ Eris said.

‘It’s a nice change from what they used to make us wear in the City,’ Bobs said. ‘I think it’s cheerful.’

It wasn’t cheerful. It looked like he got dressed in the dark out of a skip. Bobs thought purple went great with orange and what would really finish off an outfit was bright blue earmuffs. This was why we used to tell people he was famous.

So Bobs was mine and Eris’ dad, though we didn’t admit it. Every day, mostly when we had to eat his cooking, I really wished we hadn’t lost mum. Mum wouldn’t have made us get up at half past six in the morning. Or let Bobs go out dressed like a mental patient.

We scuffed down the alley behind the church, squeezed between the bush and came to a rusted wire mesh fence. Somewhere here, was the gap into the Scrub, a tangly mess of shrubs and brambles. Eris pulled out her catapult and started pinging on the elastic. I wasn’t allowed a catapult, only a peashooter – allegedly because I would hurt myself, but really it was more because I would hurt someone else.

‘I thought we were trying to hurt people?’ I said.

‘Yes, but you’re supposed to hit them, not us,’ Bobs said. ‘Right now you’re more of a danger to your own team. Lift it up a bit – no not that much! Nice shot, Eris!’

I couldn’t figure out why he sounded so pleased. Eris always hit the target. Mostly I blew on my peashooter till my cheeks hurt then the pea dropped slowly to the ground, covered in my spit, and anyone who saw would laugh until they were sick in the dirt.

‘Why can’t we do this in the back garden,’ Eris said. ‘Someone might see us.’

‘It needs to be in a clear, wide space so no one can get hit.’

‘I don’t need any more practice. And Frank might as well practise in a toilet cubicle. He can’t land a pea more than ten centimetres.’

This was true but shameful and my face went pink. I tried again, squinting hard, face screwed up, arms and back as taut as my cheeks puffed out, closed my eyes, and –

‘Frank!’

I opened my eyes again.

‘You hit it!’ Bobs said, eyes shining with fatherly pride. He talked joyfully about how he used to shoot rabbits in the old days when he first escaped from the City.

I stared into the dirt.

Eris moved nearer, poking it with a stick. ‘You murdered an elderly rabbit.’

‘We could eat it for dinner,’ Bobs said, ‘as a treat.’

There was nothing about the grimacing, twisted, moulted pelt that would have made anyone want to touch it, let alone put it near their mouth. It looked like it had mange and probably died from a heart attack, not the dried up pea that I got it with by accident. And yet, I started drooling. We were never allowed meat.

‘Don’t be disgusting!’ Eris looked at Bobs like she wanted to snatch it from him but didn’t want to touch it. ‘We need to bury it.’

‘See how useful a peashooter is,’ Bobs said. ‘You neutralised a rabbit.’

‘You’re only saying that to make me feel better.’

‘Not at all,’ Bobs said. ‘When civilisation collapses and people are rampaging down our street, trying to get into our bunker and steal our supplies, you will be jolly glad of improving your aim.’

I shuddered. ‘Can’t we just give them food and tell them to go away?’

‘We can’t feed them all.’

‘We could feed some of them?’

‘How would you choose who to save?’ Bobs said. ‘Besides, there’s only room in the survival bunker for us. There are seven billion people in the world. It’s too much.’

‘I don’t think I can hit that many,’ I said.

‘Don’t be so negative,’ Bobs said. ‘All you need is more practice.’

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