The Chicken Run

              Tonight’s the night I have my test.

              The test to get into the gang.

              If I pass the test, I’ll be part of The Nostromos – the toughest tribe in the sector.

              If I don’t pass the test? I’ll be part of a much bigger club…but I don’t like to think about that.

              It’s October 31st – my 10th birthday. Back in the old days my sister Joanie used to tease me about the fact I was born on Halloween. She called me her ‘little monster’. I pretended I hated it, but really I used to find it quite funny. I liked the idea of being a monster. I don’t like the idea any more. And I don’t like to think about Joanie.

              It’s important to be in a gang. You’re safer. Since the plague happened it’s not good to be on your own. Especially when you’re little, like me. There’s kind of an agreement that the really little kids are off-limits. I’ve been under the protection of The Nostromos since they found me hiding under our old house. I think Brodie, the leader, liked me when they found me: the way I’d fought when they’d dug me out from the cellar. He called me a Tasmanian devil – like the thing in the cartoons with Bugs Bunny that was all hissing and spitting and whirling around in a mini tornado of energy. I’d been a bit like that when they’d found me in the dark, two of the other gang members had tried to drag me out and I’d scratched, hissing, punching and kicking as they pulled me into the light. I was relieved at first because when they’d come for me I thought they’d been the other things.

              I was lucky Brodie found me amusing – a lot of other gangs would have just left me. Others would have killed me. Maybe The Nostromos would have done if Brodie hadn’t been there. Who knows? Not me?

              I don’t know much.

              I don’t know why the plague happened – but then nobody does. One day everything was normal. Going to school, getting home, Mam and Dad getting home from work, me fighting with my sister over the dinner table until Dad would tell us that was enough. Normal stuff, you know? Playing my video games, watching TV. The things that you do when you’re eight years old. And then? Over night the adults started to get sick. At first it was just a bad cold, but it quickly got worse. My dad never got sick before then. The rest of us would get coughs and colds, but he never seemed to catch anything. But he caught The Yellow just like everyone else. He didn’t last any longer either. He died before my mother – but only by a few hours. Joanie and I tried to make them better: she was twelve, and for once I didn’t mind that she acted like she as all in charge when she took the wet towels, trying to stop their burning fever, giving them the medicine she could find in the house – able to get the childproof locks off and feeding aspirin and paracetamol down them. Rang the hospital when none of it was working. Of course, ringing the hospital didn’t do any good either – everyone there was just as sick as Mam and Dad were. Not much use having a doctor when he’s throwing up blood and clawing at his burning skin as it turns yellower and yellower until he drops down dead.

              It didn’t take long. Two days from the first coughing to the last dying rattle coming from their swollen, yellow throats.

              And it was everywhere, as far as we knew. It was hard to tell because there was no-one on television to tell us. All the stations went off pretty quickly. Right after that emergency news broadcast with the yellow-looking newsreader announcing that the end was near. That there wasn’t anything that could be done and no-one was safe. Then he’d thrown up a huge gusher of blood and who knew what else all over his news desk in front of him. Joanie had screamed then – she’d been taking a break from Mam and Dad’s fevered shouting upstairs, when he’d puked everywhere. She grabbed the remote off me and switched the television off. She tried to calm me down, but I could tell she didn’t believe her own words when she promised me everything was going to be okay.

              Our parents died three hours later.

              When Joanie, white faced and red-eyed from crying came downstairs to tell me, and put the television back on, looking for help from somewhere, there was nothing on but a screen saying ‘Broadcast Problem. Wait for Announcement’. We waited for a day. But there was no announcement. Our phones didn’t work either – no signal. We tried the computer. Nothing – the internet was down. We didn’t go outside. Not after we saw what was happening out there. Most people seemed to stay indoors, but some of them were out there. Lying dead in the middle of the road or in their gardens, their bodies all the same yellow, with the sores all over them. Joanie closed the curtains shortly after we’d seen Mr. Davids from next door shoot himself in his front garden. I don’t know where he’d got the gun from.

              We sat on the big sofa – the one we’d shared with Mam and Dad so many evenings watching TV –fighting for space, kicking at each other until we were told to quit it. Now, Joanie hugged me, crying quietly. I didn’t try to stop her: suddenly I didn’t mind her hugging me the way I used to. It was late on that second night we heard the noise from upstairs. A low groan and the sound of someone getting out of bed: I knew the sound of my parents’ bed and the way it creaked on the floor when my dad got up in the morning to know what it was. Joanie held me at arm’s length and beamed a smile, “I got it wrong!” she cried, tears of joy, “I thought they were…but they’re going to be okay!” She hugged me again, and her smile looked as if it was going to split her face in two it was so big. I try to remember that smile.

              She jumped off the sofa, leaving me in her dust. I could hear her shouting with joy as she ran upstairs, “Dad! Mam! Dad!!! Mam!!! You’re okay…” but then her voice changed. There was silence for  a moment. Just a moment, and then she began to scream. She screamed really loud.

              “Run Izak!” she screamed from somewhere above me, “Run and hide, they’re…”

              And then her words just turned into another scream. And I could hear other noises – not screams exactly, more like an angry moan. A loud, angry moaning. And then there was ripping and tearing, noises I could hear even above my sister’s screams. And then she wasn’t screaming any more. But I could still hear the moaning, and wet, sloppy sounds that made me feel sick myself.

              So I did what Joanie told me to do in her last words. I ran.

              I’d been surviving on my own for almost a year when The Nostromos had found me. I’d learned to look after myself pretty good. There was only me of course, Joanie was long gone by then, but I’d done as best as I could. I’d been staying in a deserted house just a few streets over from where I’d grown up. It had a For Sale sign outside – my dad had been trying to sell it in his job as a real-estate agent, so I knew there was no-one inside. It was okay, but there was no food in there, and I got hungry pretty quickly. It should have been easy enough to get food – it wasn’t like there were any adults running the supermarkets anymore and I certainly didn’t need any money for anything I wanted. But everyone else was doing the same thing and the shelves didn’t stay full for long.

              The first time I’d seen other kids I’d waved and ran towards them. I quickly realised that was a bad idea. There had been a gang of about six of them – they were older than me,  maybe thirteen and fourteen. When they saw me heading towards them they’d nudged each other and picked up the sticks and knives they had with them. I ran, and they chased. I managed to outrun them and squeeze through a hole in a fence as they charged after me and I stayed hidden for hours until I was sure they’d gone and made my way back to my new house.

              After that I was careful. I stayed out of view and learned to be quiet. I took only what I could carry when I did find a shop with food left in it. It meant I had to go out more often, but I knew it meant I’d be quicker running if anyone did see me.

              The power went off after a few weeks. I guess whoever managed it had died along with everyone else. Except of course, it wasn’t everyone else who had died. It was just the grown-ups. I’d spied the gangs wandering the streets – fighting with each other, claiming their territories, and some of the fights had been horrible. Not like school ground fights. Real fights. With weapons and stuff. I saw them killing each other. But I made sure I stayed hidden. Watching. And the oldest kids I’d seen were probably around fifteen. Some of them big – as big as grown-ups, but you could still tell they weren’t that old.

 There weren’t any bodies lying around on the street anymore – not like in the first twenty four hours of the plague. Not the yellowed, oozing bodies I’d seen on the News and outside of our house in those early days. The only bodies out on the streets now were the victims from the fighting that had happened. The gangs seemed to take their fallen members away after a fight, but there were other kids – a lot of them no older than me. I guessed I could have been one of them if I hadn’t escaped that first gang I saw. But others of them lying there didn’t look as if they had died in a fight. Some looked as if they’d been attacked by the that were starting to get more and more vicious as they wandered the empty streets looking for anything to eat, others might have been the remains of those the plague victims had managed to catch. I wasn’t sure – there didn’t seem to be many of them around, and I didn’t like to think what that meant. In my happy thoughts I pretended it meant all the kids had managed to escape. But I knew that wasn’t likely. I remembered Joanie, and I thought it was more likely that anyone who had been caught had just been…taken away. For later.

              So I’d managed to survive. Just. I didn’t leave the house much. At nights I could hear the sounds – of the gangs driving around the streets in cars they’d found. A lot of them seemed to crash into things: not surprising when they were all too young to have had any lessons. I heard the sounds of explosions – of things being blown up for who knew what reason? Of windows being smashed in the few shops that still hadn’t been completely emptied. But worst of all was the howling. And the moaning and groaning. Sometimes they seemed close, and I wondered if they could smell me. Smell my blood. Whether they’d be moaning fee-fi-fo-fum when they broke down the door and finally caught me.

              I only went out in the daytime – and even then only when I absolutely had to.

              I didn’t go out at night.

              They mostly come out at Night.

              Mostly.

              And then they’d found me. I must have let them see me when I’d been out scouting for food. I don’t day-dream anywhere near as much as Joanie used to laugh at me for, and my Mam and Dad used to get so annoyed about when they were trying to rush me into getting dressed to go out somewhere, but maybe I had been a little bit that day. Maybe it was just bad luck. But they must have seen me and followed me back. And dragged me out from the cellar.  

              At first, after I’d worn myself out trying to fight them all and they’d held me down, laughing between each other as I’d struggled uselessly beneath them, swearing and spitting with all my might, I thought they were just going to kill me and do whatever the gangs did with the little kids like me. But like I say, Brodie seemed to like me. Or at least think I was funny enough to keep around.

              Brodie was fourteen. I’d seen him hanging around town back before the plague. My sister had told me stories that she’d heard from her friends about him. He’d been expelled from school. He rode a motorbike – on the roads and without a helmet, even though he wasn’t old enough. The Police knew he was but they’d never managed to catch up to him. He’d stolen a car once, and put five kids who’d attacked him in hospital – or that was how the stories went. Maybe some of them weren’t true. Maybe some of them hadn’t happened exactly like the kids used to whisper about it. It didn’t really matter – that was all BP. (That’s what we call it in the gang – ‘Before Plague’). All I knew was that Brodie had stopped whatever might have happened to me from happening.

              The Nostromos were one of the toughest gangs around the city. There were 76 members in the gang, and I knew every one of them by name. I liked some of them more than others – some I was still careful around, making sure I was never on my own, but most of them were pretty cool with me. The gang HQ was the old Tyrell Tower block. BP it used to be a block of flats mostly made up of old people. PP (Post plague), it had been cleared out by the Nostromos. I didn’t know how or what they’d had to do. All I knew was that, by the time I was ‘taken in’ by the gang, it was all theirs – barricaded in and protected from any possible attacks, whether from other gangs or…the plague victims.

              They used me as a slave. I had to cook and clean up, and do anything I was told really. They called me ‘the little workhorse’. Brodie explained it to me: if I wanted protection, I had to give something back, and I was too small to do anything outside the flats, so I had to do my stuff inside. It would all change, he promised me, when I turned 10 and ‘proved myself’.

              It seemed to take forever for my tenth birthday to come around. I ticked the days of on a calendar I’d found as it got closer and closer. Scab, one of the older kids and Brodie’s second in command had laughed, “Blimey, I’ve never seen anyone so keen to go through what you’ve got ahead of you.”

              I hadn’t known what he meant and didn’t care. I just wanted to be out of doing the washing and the cleaning and all that rubbish.

              And so here we are tonight.

              My initiation test.

              “Not long until the big night…” – that was Hicks, a muscly kid of about thirteen, with half his hair missing and no front teeth. He didn’t talk about how either had come to be, but he was one of the toughest fighters in the gang, “Rather you than me, little buddy.” He says, ruffling my hair as he went past. If almost anyone else had tried to do that I’d have bitten their hand off, but with Hicks I take it and smile.

              “Hope you got your running shoes on, LW.” Dante grins – he was the one who had first called me ‘little workhorse’ and I don’t think he’ll ever stop, even if I make it through tonight.

              “Stay sharp out there tonight little man…”

               “Don’t you freeze…”

              “Put your pedal to the metal, you hear me?”

              On and on it goes – and other than Jester, who tells me he’s looking forward to having my portion of dinner if I end up ‘not being around no more’, everyone seems on my side, trying to ease my mind and my shaking legs.

              I’m scared. More scared than I’ve ever been in my life. But I know why I have to do it.

               I have to prove myself. To prove I have what it takes. I know all of this, but still listen as Brodie walks me to the talk link fence, twelve feet high, padlock in place, half of the gang behind us – keeping their eyes peeled to make sure no other gang tries to jump us. The other half of the gang I can just about see in the dark, the flame from their torches a beacon for me to get to.

              “It’s only a quarter of a mile, LW.” Brodie tells me, looking me in the eye. “You’re a fast little dude. You can do it. Right?”

              I nod. My mouth is probably too dry to speak.

              He looks at me, “This is your last chance to back out. You understand? You can say no, and you stay down in the kitchens, slopping out and doing the crap that needs doing. But it’s your choice, you get me?”

              I nod again, and find the words, “I get you.”

              “So what’s it going to be?”

              “I’m ready.” I say, holding a hand against my leg to try to stop it shaking.

              Brodie nods, “You know what we’ve got to do, don’t you? We can’t make this easy for you. And we can’t help you. You remember what happened to Jay, don’t you?”

              I swallow and nod. I remember very well what happened to Jay. I still have nightmares about it sometimes.

              Brodie claps me on the shoulder. “Ok. Let’s do this. I’ll be in the car, and I’ll have driven around to the other side by the time you’re there…I’ll see you on the other side, okay?”

              If I make it to the other side, I think.

              The gang form a kind of aisle for me to walk down. All of them are holding sticks, baseball bats, metal rods; a few have trash can lids.

              Brodie is in the car now, the engine revving, is hand on the horn, ready to press it. He drives crazy. I know he’ll have spun that car round and be round the block to be there for me. Waiting at the other gate.

              If I make it.

              “You want a boost up?” Hicks asks me, “Nothing says you can’t. It’s only when you drop to the other side you’re on your own.”

              I nod. I’m trembling so much with adrenaline, I’m not sure I would be able to climb up the mesh fence.

              Hicks boosts me up easily, as though I’m light as a feather, and I grab hold of the top of the fence, pulling myself on top of it.

              “There’s nineteen of ‘em in there, LW…”

              I know this. All of us younger kids in the HQ know about it. It’s already legend. How Hicks and his scout team hunted them. One-by-one. Somehow getting them each back here and trapping them in this caged-in block of streets I’m looking down at now. Nineteen of them. It was supposed to be twenty but on that last run, when one of them had taken out the three scouters with Hicks, Brodie had said nineteen was enough, adding, “There’s about 30 million more of them out there, we can’t get ‘em all…”

              “…don’t try to engage with them. Just run. We’ll be there at the other side. Got it?”

              I nod one more time and then drop myself down, hitting the ground like a cat. I’ve been practising my smooth landing from my bunk bed for two months now. Spraining my ankle on landing would not be a good idea at this moment. The second I land I hear Brodie sounding the horn, blaring into the night, and then he’s roaring off, peeling around the corner. At the same moment the horn sounds, the gang around start banging the chain fence with their sticks, hammering the bin lids with the metal bars they’ve brought.

              I don’t hate them for it. It’s part of the rules.

              And then they’re all out of my mind. I’m thinking of one thing only as I sprint forward – not at full speed, not quite: I run at about three quarter so I’m able to see anything coming out from the side alleys, anything that might…and there’s one! An old woman, barely any skin left on her – rising from the pile of rubbish on my left hand side, struggling to get up on her skeletal legs. But I’m already twenty feet past her. She’s never going to catch me. I see something to my left- climbing from a recycling bin, stirred from its…whatever plague dead zombies do instead of sleep, by the noise and, no doubt my smell. It looks like it was once a man, and a man so fat he’s still got quite a lot of meat hanging off him. As I tear past him I slam the lid back down on him, not breaking stride. I’m sixty feet in now, and I can see the torches ahead of me – my goal line. I streak onwards.

              As I pass another alley on my right I see a trio of them and they’re running. When I was younger, Joanie showed me an old zombie movie on TV once. It scared me, I cried, Mam screamed, and Joanie got into trouble. Those zombies were slow. Those zombies were fake: movie go-slow zombies. The post-plague zombies aren’t like that. Those that still have working muscles: those that have managed to get some flesh since they died; they can be mucho fast. As fast as they were when they were alive. Luckily, the three down the alley don’t look as if they did too much exercise back when they were walking and talking – before they were puking out their own intestines, and I’m past the alley entrance before they’re anywhere near it.

              I’m halfway across by now, and I’m not even breathing hard. The adrenaline is working for me now, but I can hear more of them – I can hear their mewling, moaning cries. I’m fast, but I’m sweating – they can smell it. They can smell me, and I don’t know how many of them are in front of me and how many are behind…so I just keep running.

              I don’t know if they can see  in the dark. I don’t know if they can see at all…if they can think, or feel or taste. I’m pretty sure they can smell though.

              I’m about two hundred metres from the fence now, the torches like a finishing line. Two hundred metres isn’t much. I used to run it in PE. I can do that, I can…

              I’m spun off balance as an arm grasps out at my leg from what I thought was just an empty box lying on the ground, I stumble, almost fall, before I manage to right myself and keep going, but I’ve been slowed right down. I hear the gang gasp as they see what’s happened. I can hear them shouting encouragement at me, I’m about 160 metres from them, and I’ve got my balance back – enough so that when an old man, still wearing the tattered remains of his old postman’s uniform, lunges at me from a stairwell to the side, I’m able to duck and he goes sailing over my head, landing in a heap past me.  120 metres now, and I can hear footsteps behind me, but they’re far away. I’m too far ahead of them to catch up. 100 metres now. The footsteps are falling back, I’m out pacing him or her or it…

              80 metres. The gang are cheering me on.

              60 metres. Brodie is there – I can see him screeching to a stop in his car and jumping out, pushing to the front of the crowd.

              40 metres, and I glance to my left, checking the last alley way; determined not to get caught out when I think I’m safe the way Kim did.

              20 metres and I’m almost at the fence…and there’s one of them standing in front of me. Standing there as though he’s been waiting for me.

              He’s a man. He was a man. 41 years old. A purple t-shirt hanging around his sagging body – I can see it says “World’s #” but the rest of it is missing. His rotting, slipping skin is covered in boils, half of his left arm missing. His hair, or what’s left of it on the half skull he still has sticks out. His face is a mask of blood, his teeth bared as he lifts his one full arm out to try and grab me.            

              I feint and duck, and am passed him, and leap for the fence. I make it, and I’m climbing, the effort of the run catching up with me now, my arms struggling, my legs scrabbling at the chain fence, not getting a grip, slipping…and then the zombie has my leg. He’s got hold of it with his one arm, and he’s dragging me, pulling me, and I can feel my fingers slipping as his mouth, dripping with black gunge and rotted teeth, but still powerful enough to break my flesh reach out to bite, I stare down in horror as his teeth close in and…

              And then his head explodes in a thunderous blast and he’s thrown back and I’m free and I’m climbing and I’m over, falling, and Brodie catches me one armed – his other still holding the sawn off shot  gun he just blasted through the fence.

              I’m gasping for breath, as I pant, “What…what…about the rules…No help?”

              Brodie shrugs, a broad smile on his face, “I think we need to change the rules a bit, kid. It’s us against them. And we’re family…”

              And then they hoist me onto their shoulders, carrying me down the street, away from the Chicken Run alley.

              I reach into my shirt pocket while they’re carrying me and take out the photo. The last photo I have of my old family.             Me and Joanie in between my Mam and Dad on our sofa. It was taken on Father’s Day – a day before the plague struck. I take one last look at my mother in her hoodie and jeans, her hair tied back, and my father, smiling, in the purple t-shirt we’ve just given him for Father’s Day. The one that reads ‘World’s #1 Dad.’

              I drop the photo of my old family and it falls, trampled under the feet of the gang and they carry me back to the HQ.

              My new family.

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