THE HEAT AND DAMP have combined to make the world stink more than ever this morning-the relentless, choking, suffocating stench of decay combined with overflowing drains and Christ knows what else. Other than the noise of this tired old van, everything is generally quiet, but the fragile silence is frequently interrupted by sudden bursts of noise: the Unchanged military moving and attacking, distant fighting, a scream as someone is hunted down and killed, the smashing of glass and the crumbling of collapsed buildings, the pained howl of a starving animal searching for food... The constant, smothering noise of the engine is unexpectedly welcome. It drowns out everything else.
I'm traveling in the front with Keith now, giving him directions. I'm trying to concentrate, but I'm distracted by the fact that a pub I used to occasionally drink in has disappeared-there's now just an unexpected gap and a pile of blackened rubble on the street where it used to be-and for a second I don't realize the significance of where we are. Then it dawns on me.
"What's the problem?" he says, slowing down but not stopping.
"No problem. Take a left here."
He does as I say.
Carol leans forward from the back. "Trouble?"
"The kids' school," I explain. "They used to go to the school down here. My missus worked here, too."
"So if I was in Ellis's shoes and I couldn't go back home, school might be the next best option."
"Worth a look since we're here," Keith reluctantly agrees, "but if there's nothing here we move on quick, and so do you."
The school is tucked away behind a church and a row of stores and offices. In the morning light everything looks a little more familiar than it did yesterday, but a little more mutated and alien, too. Windows are smashed, doors hang open, and there's evidence of fighting almost everywhere I look. The road ahead is blocked by the rusting wreck of a car that has mounted the pavement and crashed into a bus shelter. Its heavily decayed Unchanged driver has been thrown-or dragged-through the shattered windshield. Looks like he was attacked as he tried to get away. His body is sprawled out over the crumpled hood of the car, his blue-tinged skin slashed and sliced by jagged shards of glass. His right shoulder is a gnarled stump of ripped flesh and protruding bone. The rest of his arm is missing. Keith mounts the curb and gently steers the van through a narrow gap, scraping against a wall with a vile, high-pitched grating noise. I look down as we drive over another, equally mutilated body. Whoever fought here was vicious. Probably more of those Brutes.
"Turn right down here. Down the alleyway next to the church."
He does as I say, driving the van slowly down the narrow track that leads into the school grounds. I glance over the low stone wall to my left and see that there are several more bodies in the church graveyard, none of them in one piece. Some are badly decayed, others relatively fresh. I hold my favored knife tight in my hand, ready to attack or defend myself if the need arises. Even though I'm certain whoever did this was on our side, the brutality and savagery of these kills is remarkable. Keith drives through the empty teachers' parking lot and stops outside the main school gate.
"Holy shit," Paul says from the back. "What happened here?"
He jumps out and walks over to the wire-mesh fence that surrounds the small rectangular playground. I follow him and immediately see that the violence so apparent out on the streets has spread closer to the school, too. The enclosed asphalt play area is completely covered with a virtual patchwork quilt of body parts. I press my face against the tall fence, which bizarrely makes the playground look like some kind of caged gladiatorial arena. I look down at the ground, and in the few clear spaces between the dead I can still see brightly painted markings: hopscotch, snakes and ladders, oversized letters and numbers... I look up again and remember this place as it used to be, filled with a couple of hundred kids in their identical school uniforms, laughing and playing and-
"Brutes?" Keith shouts from the van, derailing my train of thought.
"Doubt it," Paul answers quickly. "Why would they be here? More to the point, why would anyone still be here?"
"Unchanged hideout?" I suggest. "Think someone gate-crashed an evacuation?"
I crouch down to look closer at some of the nearest corpses. It's impossible to be sure because of the extreme level of mutilation and deterioration, but all the dead faces I see here seem to be Unchanged.
I push open the gate, and we start walking down toward the entrance to the school, leaving Carol and Keith guarding the van. The ground's much clearer here. In fact, it looks pretty much like it used to when we used to walk the kids down to class. Paul nudges me. I look up and see a sudden flash of frantic movement up ahead as a small figure darts along the side of the building, then jumps down off a low brick wall and disappears inside. I sprint down the path after it and shove the still swinging door open. I push my way inside, then stop suddenly, recoiling at the obnoxious stench that immediately hits me. I can smell human waste, rotting food, and other even worse odors.
I kick my way through the rubbish covering the floor of the small reception area. Directly in front of me is the door to the main assembly hall. To my left are what used to be the staff rooms and offices, and to my right a short flight of steps and a corridor that leads down to the classrooms. My eyes are slowly adjusting to the lack of light in here. What used to always be a bright place full of noise, energy, and life is now just as dark and dead as everywhere else, and it's a stark contrast to what I remember. There's a display on the wall with photographs of the teachers and kids, and I force myself not to look for Ellis's, Edward's, and Lizzie's faces.
"There," Paul whispers, pointing down toward the classrooms. There's another shadowy blur of fleeting movement as something dashes from one room to another. I race down toward a classroom and push the door open, but I'm immediately sent flying back as something hurls itself at me with unexpected force and lightning speed. I slide across the floor on my backside and struggle to fight off a fast-moving attacker that grabs hold of my neck and starts to squeeze. Can't tell if it's claws or teeth I feel digging into my flesh. I try to lift my knife and fight, but before I can even raise my arm another one of them dives on top of me and bites my hand until I drop the weapon. I feel the sharp pinprick of another blade being forced up under my chin, almost breaking skin, then feel more small but savage hands grabbing both of my feet and my other arm and holding me down and then... and then they stop. One by one, Paul pulls them off me. My heart pounding, I scramble back across the floor, stopping only when I reach the wall and can't go any farther back. I pick myself up and see there's a crowd of seven children of various sizes and ages standing in front of me. They stare back, immediately losing interest when they realize we're all on the same side. They slowly scatter and trudge back into the classroom. Paul and I follow them at a cautious distance.
"None of these your daughter?"
"Can't see her," I answer, still panting after the attack. I look around the room into a succession of pallid faces. Some of the children crawl away under desks, leaving only the biggest kids out in the open. They look like they've been here for some time, living in what used to be their classroom. Tables and chairs have been shoved to the sides of the room, the wood-tiled floor now covered in litter and discarded clothing. Random scraps of material have been used as bedding, and in the far corner wisps of smoke climb up from the ashes of a fire built from torn-up textbooks. The room is in a horrendous condition. It smells like a toilet and feels like a slum, but if I look past the dirt, the bruises, the blood, and the other stains and marks on the faces of these kids, they look completely fresh and alive. Their eyes are bright and full of life.
There's a boy who looks about the same age as my son Edward, squatting on top of what used to be the teacher's desk. If he came to this school they'd probably have been classmates, but I don't recognize him. He's digging into the wood with the tip of a fearsome-looking knife. I automatically go to tell him not to, but I stop myself-it doesn't matter, and he's not going to listen to me anyway. It's already clear that these kids do what they like, when they like. That's probably how they've managed to survive.
"I'm looking for my daughter."
He shrugs but doesn't say anything.
"Are there any other children here?"
Still no answer.
"This is a waste of time," Paul whispers. "We should just get these kids into the van and get out of here."
I'm not going anywhere until I've had some answers.
"Are there any adults here?"
The big kid sitting on the desk finally looks up. "There was."
"But not now?"
He shakes his head.
"So what happened to them?" Paul asks.
"You didn't go?"
"What about the war? The fighting?"
His answer surprises me. I take a step forward and accidentally kick an outstretched leg, which is immediately pulled back out of sight. I crouch down and see a small girl curled up under a desk on a bed of soiled cushions and pillows. She doesn't react, but she watches me. She remains perfectly still, her eyes following my every move. These children, I think to myself, must have a strangely blinkered view of what's left of the world. Like all kids, they're only interested in themselves. I know they'd kill any Unchanged stupid enough to get too close, but do they feel the same compulsion to go outside and hunt them down as the rest of us do? As long as they're warm and relatively comfortable and they've got a decent supply of food, what more could they want? They're nesting here.
"I'm going to check the rest of the place out," I tell Paul, eager to keep looking for Ellis. I leave the classroom and work my way back toward the main entrance, checking the other rooms as I pass them. They're all empty.
"There's no one else here," a quiet voice says when I reach the top of the stairs. I turn around quickly, but I can't see anyone. A little girl cautiously steps out of the shadows and looks up at me with huge, saucer-shaped eyes. I try to estimate her age, but it's difficult. She appears completely innocent but at the same time strangely switched-on and knowing. She's a pitiful sight-desperately thin, pale white skin, dirty and bedraggled with long, knotted hair. She's wearing pajamas and has bare, muddy feet. Her clothing is bloodstained, and instinctively I'm about to ask her if she's hurt herself. But then I realize the blood is more than likely from someone else, someone she more than likely killed. I don't know what I'm supposed to say. We both stand there awkwardly, staring at each other in silence, until something I see just over her shoulder catches my eye. It's a line of metal coat hooks, hung on a long wooden rail about a yard and a half off the ground. The name on the peg directly behind her is Edward McCoyne. The girl suddenly becomes invisible as I reach out and lift a small cloth bag off my son's peg.
"That's just old stuff," she says. "My bag's down there. Want to see it?"
"No, it's okay..."
I open the bag and take out Edward's soccer shirt. His name's on the label inside the collar, written in pen in Lizzie's handwriting. I remember when we bought this for him. Christ, he nagged at us for months to get it because all the other kids had one like it. The team changed part of their uniform a couple of weeks later and the little shit stopped wearing it, complaining that he didn't have the right one anymore and... and what the hell am I doing? Got to stop thinking like this and get a grip. That life is gone now.
The girl brushes past me and leans against the assembly hall door.
"What's in there?" I ask, glad of the distraction.
"More stuff," she answers nonchalantly, shrugging her shoulders. She pushes the door open, and I follow her inside. I stop immediately, rooted to the spot. The entire floor of the large, rectangular school hall is covered with bodies. Some of them are piled up, almost as if they're being stored here. There are bloody handprints on the walls, some of them too big to have been made by kids. The girl tiptoes through the carnage without a care and disappears out through a gaping hole in the outside wall where a fire exit used to be. I follow at a distance, stepping over dismembered cadavers and swatting away buzzing flies. I'm distracted by an Unchanged woman's half-naked corpse at my feet, only a few days dead. She's facedown with her arms stretched out and fingers clawing the ground as if she died trying to get away. There are chunks missing out of the back of her naked thighs. Are those bite marks?
The overpowering stench in here is unbearable, and it's making me gag. I follow the girl outside, desperate to get some fresher air. I find her at the edge of a murky, weed-filled pool. I don't know whether it's a deliberately dug pond or the crater left by a small explosion or other impact. Whatever, she's lying on her belly in the mud, thirstily lapping up the dirty green water.
It's a struggle to get the children rounded up and into the van. There were eight of them, but three managed to get away. Generally it's the older kids who understand what we're trying to do and why we want them to leave here. The promise of fighting and food is enough to persuade them to go.
"Good result," Keith says. "Job done. We'll get this bunch back to the others. Preston can't complain about a catch like this."
I knew that was coming. For the last half hour they've been making noises about getting back to the people we left at the slaughterhouse. As far as they're concerned, it's mission accomplished. I know I should go with them, but I can't. Ellis is still out there somewhere...
"I'm not going."
"You soft bastard," Carol snaps angrily. "Don't be so goddamn stupid."
"We've got a van full of kids," Keith argues.
"Yes, but we haven't got my kid."
"We don't need your kid."
"You don't. All you need is-"
"I'll find her and bring her back to the rest of you," I shout over my shoulder as I start to walk away. "I won't be far behind. Few hours at the most."
I can hear them arguing, but it makes no difference.
"McCoyne, wait," Paul shouts. I take a few more steps before, against my better judgment, stopping again and turning around. "He's right," I hear him say to Carol and Keith. "We've been told to find as many people to fight with us as we can, haven't we? It makes sense to split up. You deliver this bunch, we'll keep looking for more. Okay?"
Keith thinks for a minute and eventually nods his head. "Fair enough. Makes no difference to me."
I start walking again, my backpack on my back and my axe held ready in my hand.
"I'll go with him," I hear Paul say. "Julia told me to keep an eye on him."
I speed up, more determined than ever to find Ellis. Seeing the kids in the school has made me feel more confident that she's survived, but at what cost? What condition is she in? If I don't find her and look after her, will she end up like the children we've found here?
"Hold on," Paul shouts, but I just keep walking. I don't need him. I don't need any of them.