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       The Roar, p.5

           Emma Clayton
 

  ‘If you want me to.’

  ‘Fire away,’ she said enthusiastically, ‘I like a good horror story.’

  He finished his biscuit and she offered him another, he took it, but held it in his lap.

  ‘Are the nightmares all the same, or different?’ she asked.

  ‘The same,’ he said.

  ‘How do they start?’

  Mika pictured the beginning of his nightmare and wasn’t sure whether he wanted to tell her. He could feel the sickening dread that was still with him the next morning – the dark cloud in his peripheral vision that accompanied him while he walked to school.

  ‘Have you changed your mind about telling me?’ Helen said, watching him fiddle with his biscuit. ‘It doesn’t matter. We could talk about something else if you want, or play poker.’

  ‘No, I want to tell you,’ he decided, turning to her. ‘It’s just horrible, that’s all.’

  ‘Come on, I’m intrigued.’

  ‘OK,’ said Mika. He took a deep breath. ‘It starts with me lying on a bed and it’s like the time when I went to hospital because I was choking. I wake up and there’s a green curtain around me and I realize they’ve taken my clothes off and that I’m wearing one of those long white gowns that doesn’t cover your bum.’

  ‘Oh, I hate those,’ Helen said. ‘Most undignified – but appropriate wear for a nightmare. Sorry, this is good, carry on.’

  ‘The curtain around me starts to move as if someone is about to open it, but not just in one place, all around me, the curtain’s sort of shuddering and I can see the shapes of people pressing against it. Then all of a sudden it’s gone, as if I’m in a theatre and the curtain’s been lifted, and I find myself surrounded by these horrible people, crowding round the bed, pushing against each other and moving their heads from side to side so they can all see me.’

  Helen nodded. ‘What don’t you like about them?’ she asked.

  ‘Their heads,’ Mika replied, beginning to feel anxious. ‘It’s going to sound stupid.’

  ‘Try me.’

  ‘Well, instead of normal heads they have old television sets, the type that look like square boxes with a glass screen on the front, really big and heavy. They look too heavy for their shoulders.’

  ‘I had one of those when I was kid,’ Helen said. ‘It was my bedroom telly. The picture was dreadful.’

  ‘Chrise, you must be really old,’ Mika said, then immediately regretted it. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean that.’

  She laughed. ‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘I am really old. So, have these people got faces?’

  ‘Yes,’ Mika replied. ‘They’re on the television screens. They’re gruesome. They scare me. They look like skeletons with eyes, their skin stretched and kind of papery and dry with hardly any hair like Egyptian mummies with their bandages taken off. They start talking, discussing how they want to eat me, as if I can’t hear them, and they’re arguing because some of them want roast beef and some of them want enchiladas. And at the end of the bed is the Knife Sharpener, he doesn’t speak at all, he just scrapes his long knife on a stone and stares at me – and I’m really scared because I’m lying there, trying to move, but I can’t. I’m paralysed. And suddenly it’s dark around the bed and all I can see are their faces flickering on the screens. They stop talking and just stare at me, licking their dry lips with wrinkly tongues.’

  ‘Do you recognize any of them?’ Helen asked. ‘Are they teachers from school or the policemen who came when Ellie disappeared?’

  ‘No,’ Mika replied, shuddering. ‘They look as if they should be dead.’

  ‘They sound like the type who take Everlife pills,’ Helen said, in a disapproving manner. ‘I wish those pills had never been invented. They do something strange to the people who take them. It’s as if their bodies are clinging to life but their souls and all the goodness in them have given up and gone. Humans will try anything to escape death. Thousands of years ago, they tried magic and when that didn’t work, they turned to God, that’s why people still say, ‘thank odd,’ when something good happens in their lives. But when God didn’t save them, they gave up on him and turned to science. But I can’t be doing with this staying alive for ever business; paying a fortune for pills so you can walk around looking like a skeleton with eyes. All the worst people got the most important jobs in the Northern Government after the plague and now they never get replaced because they stay alive for so long. It’s not natural and it’s not worth it. I think people should die with dignity when their time comes. I wouldn’t say that in public, mind you, it’s not a popular point of view, so keep it to yourself.’ She looked at him mischievously over the rim of her teacup.

  ‘OK,’ Mika said, smiling.

  ‘What else can you tell me about the Telly Heads?’ she asked.

  ‘They’re mostly men, though I remember two women. At the end of the dream the Knife Sharpener raises his knife and it glints in the light of their faces.’

  ‘So how do you end up?’ Helen asked. ‘Roast beef or enchiladas?’

  ‘I don’t know. I wake up making this horrible groaning noise. It scares my mum.’

  ‘I’m not surprised,’ Helen said.

  5

  A NEW GAME

  It wasn’t easy living in a fold-down apartment in the new town, Barford North. The only green the refugees of the Animal Plague saw from their windows was the mould on their neigh-bours’ curtains. Most had travelled thousands of miles, leaving the sun and their homes behind them, and it was as if all the people of the world had been mixed up in a big bowl and poured out again into concrete boxes. In Mika’s tower lived people from every country; there was even a man from Mongolia who had grown up in a tent and a woman from Peru who was born on a llama farm. Now everyone lived in identical fold-down apartments four metres square, and living this way had taught them to be patient. There was no point having a tantrum in a fold-down apartment because they had to fold one thing away before they could use another, and if they did it in a hurry, it all went wrong and they’d end up with the washing line wrapped round their head instead of a sandwich in their hand. They had to fold the bed away to use the kitchen, then fold a bit of the kitchen away to use the shower. The shower creaked and sank when they got in it, the vacuumbot often ground to a halt with depressed wisps of smoke leaking out of its eyes, the handles fell off the kitchen cupboards if anyone sneezed and the walls were so thin they could hear their neighbours belch and fart. The only item of furniture they owned was the sofa in front of the television.

  But there was no point complaining about how horrible their lives were, because nothing could be done. No one was going to wave a magic wand and make the world beautiful again. Nobody could bring back the forests and the fields that had been destroyed because of the Animal Plague, and as time went on, they got used to living behind The Wall in a concrete hell. And in some ways life was better; if they had an argument there was nowhere to go (unless you fancied standing in a gloomy hallway), so people made more of an effort to be nice to each other. Mika’s family hadn’t had a proper argument until the day he decided the school was trying to poison him.

  Mika’s school looked just like all the other buildings in the new towns that had been built following the Animal Plague. It was a square lump of concrete, rust-streaked, damp and cold, supported on four algae-stained legs that looked too skinny to hold up all those children above the floodwater. The playground was a slice of cold, dark air beneath the main building. The dimly lit hallways smelled of stale breath and the classrooms had unpainted walls and concrete floors. There were no real windows in Mika’s classroom; on one wall there was a row of scratched screens showing views of a playing field that hadn’t existed for forty-three years and on the other wall was a row of history posters, most showing holopics of animals with the plague, their eyes bloodshot and foam flecking their mouths. There were also two pictures of Earth, one showing it before the Animal Plague, with patches of green indicating the locations of rain forests an
d grassy plains, and one showing Earth after the plague, which was grey at the top above The Wall to represent all the concrete towers, and yellow at the bottom, below The Wall to show that everything was dead and covered in poisoned dust. There was nothing cheery to look at if you were born a refugee child. They didn’t even have real teachers; they had cartoon teachers who taught them from the screens that slid up from the backs of their desks. Their tutor, Mrs Fowler, sat at the front, but the only thing she was paid to teach them was how to shut up and get on with their work.

  In winter it was so cold in the classroom they wore their coats buttoned up to the necks, and Mrs Fowler put a blanket over her knees and wore fingerless mittens and a bobble hat. Heating was too expensive for a refugee school. You had to go to a private school for heating, teachers and windows. So Mika was extremely surprised when he entered his classroom one Monday morning to find balloons stuck to the grey walls and coloured streamers bobbing on the ceiling. The lurid colours burned his eyes and he stood in the doorway blinking for a few seconds, wondering if he’d walked into the wrong school by mistake. Then he saw Mrs Fowler at the front of the class, blowing up balloons. She had streamers tied to the buttons on her baggy old cardigan. Mika walked to his place along the front row and sat down. On his desk lay a cake on a small plastic plate and he looked at it suspiciously as he dumped his bag on the floor and unzipped his wet jacket. Around him his classmates were talking excitedly, awoken from their coma of boredom by the party decor.

  ‘Don’t eat your cakes yet!’ Mrs Fowler shouted, sticking another balloon on the wall. ‘Wait until everyone has arrived!’

  Mika looked at his cake. It had the letters YDF written on it in blue icing. He pushed it away from him to the back of his desk and closed his eyes, fighting off the wave of depression he always felt when he arrived at school without Ellie. School had been the hardest thing since she had gone. For a few days after her disappearance, his classmates were kind and told him how sorry they were, but it soon became clear they thought she was dead. Ellie’s friends went to the school memorial, cried like babies, then two weeks later were behaving as if she’d never existed.

  Mrs Fowler was more considerate, although Mika found her attention embarrassing; she asked him all the time how he was feeling, and nodded like a priest at a funeral while he lied and said he was OK. He started avoiding her and in the end she gave up and left him alone, which suited Mika fine.

  Then the mockery began. There was a boy in Mika’s class called Ruben Snaith. He was a pale shrew of a boy who looked as if he had milk for blood and a nose sharp enough to peck holes through doors. Ruben was popular with the other kids, but only because it was better to be his friend than his enemy – he picked up and dumped people like a change of T-shirt, and he was cruel, always bullying the mutants.

  When a body was found in the floodwater beneath the school and the police announced it was Ellie, instead of being sympathetic, Ruben taunted Mika. He gathered round with his friends, their eyes glittering, and tried to make Mika look stupid because he wouldn’t accept the evidence that his sister was dead. To them it was just twisted entertainment, something to alleviate the boredom of the school day, but to Mika it was agony. The playground became a snake pit, the classroom, a lion’s den, he couldn’t concentrate on his work and he felt so unhappy, all he wanted to do was go home and sleep. But even in sleep there was no respite for Mika, because the moment he closed his eyes, he had the Telly Heads for company. He didn’t think things could get any worse, but he was wrong, because a monster from his nightmares was about to join him in reality.

  ‘Right, everyone!’ Mrs Fowler said, her huge bosom heaving as if she’d been inflating that by mistake while she was blowing up the balloons. ‘Quiet now! As you can probably tell, we’ve got some surprises in store for you today! A lady from the Youth Development Foundation is coming to talk to you in a few minutes about a wonderful new project to make you all . . . what was it, ah yes, it’s written here, Fit For Life!’ she read from the tablet in her hand. ‘There are going to be free sandwiches at lunchtime and I think music too, yes, music at lunchtime while you eat your free sandwiches, and she’s going to be telling you all about vitamins and exercise and a new game you can play after school. That sounds fun, doesn’t it, everyone? You can eat your cake now while you wait for her to arrive!’

  Mrs Fowler hurried out of the classroom looking flustered, the streamers tied to her cardigan buttons bouncing in her wake, and the class began to eat their YDF cakes and talk loudly.

  Mika sat on Freak Row, where all the misfits, mutants and miscreants ended up, right in front of Mrs Fowler, so she could keep an eye on them. Other Freak Row residents included Roland, the Spelling Bee Champion, who used words like ‘indicate’ in normal conversation, Lara whose mutant teeth made her look like she had a mouthful of giant sweetcorn, and Carlos, who picked his nose and wiped it on his hair. Mika had been put at the front because his work was bad and it was supposed to be a punishment, but he preferred it to the place he’d sat before with Ellie’s empty desk next to him. Now he sat next to the new boy, Kobi Nenko, who had moved to Barford North from The Shadows. Kobi looked like a bundle of rags dumped in his chair, and his long, straggly black hair completely covered his face. He scared the girls, but Mika liked him because he was quiet. The last thing he felt like doing was babysitting a new boy; his head was such a dark place he felt as if he burned holes in everything he looked at. But he was curious about Kobi. He felt drawn to him, aware that behind that tangled, black curtain of hair, a lot of thinking was going on. Thoughts that were about to break out from three weeks of silence.

  ‘Why are they giving us cake?’ Kobi muttered through his hair, and hearing the mysterious boy talk for the first time, Mika felt as if the sun had popped out of the clouds for a second.

  ‘I don’t know,’ Mika replied, looking at his cake. ‘They don’t usually give us anything, except homework.’

  ‘Don’t you want yours?’ the girl sitting behind Kobi asked hopefully. She was so thin, her arms looked like twigs and her eyes too big for her face. Kobi passed her the plate and watched sympathetically through his hair as she stuffed the cake whole into her mouth, hardly chewing before she swallowed. Mika gave her his, too, and she did the same thing, gobbling it down with crumbs flying out of her mouth. Mika was glad the cake was gone. He felt as if he had disposed of something unpleasant.

  There was a sudden hush at the back of the classroom as someone walked in. Her feet clip-clopped smartly on the concrete floor as she walked through the rows of desks to Mrs Fowler’s at the front. She was wearing a white dress with a blue belt and smart black shoes, and her black hair was coiled neatly on the top of her head. She was carrying a large black bag and she put it on the desk. Mika was reminded of Mary Poppins – until she turned and he saw her face: her eyes were faded as if she took them out at night and soaked them in bleach; her skin was pulled tight over her skull like paper soaked in tea and her lips were dry and hard. She unpacked her bag and put a pile of cups on the desk and a name plate that said, ‘Briony Slater – Fit For Life Nurse – Youth Development Foundation’, and as Mika watched, he felt as if the lights in the classroom dimmed and he was on his own in a dreamlike place, a place with no walls but only a bed and darkness beyond. Her faded eyes, her bony lips flickered on the screen of an old-fashioned television set and by the time her bag was unpacked, he could see her leaning over him as he lay paralysed on the bed. His heart began to stampede in his chest. There was a Telly Head in his classroom. A Telly Head right here in front of him, while he was awake, during the day.

  ‘Good morning, everyone!’ she shouted, her smile stretching her papery face. ‘My name is Briony Slater and I’m your Fit For Life Nurse!’

  She was greeted by silence.

  She smoothed down her dress with claw-like hands.

  Stop being stupid, Mika thought. People in your nightmares don’t exist – she can’t be a Telly Head, it’s not possible.

 
‘You’re probably wondering why I’m here!’ the nurse cried, clasping her hands together and smiling as if she was about to perform magic tricks for their entertainment. ‘I’m here on behalf of a new organization called the Youth Development Foundation. The Youth Development Foundation has been set up to make you all FIT FOR LIFE!’

  ‘Lucky us,’ someone muttered at the back of the class, followed by a flurry of sniggers.

  She ignored the comment, and Mika watched her faded yellow eyes drift over them with disdain.

  She doesn’t like us, Mika thought, she thinks we’re scum.

  ‘We’re going to be doing lots of exciting things today!’ she enthused. ‘At lunchtime you will all be given free sandwiches!’

  ‘More free food?’ Kobi whispered. ‘Are we being fattened up for something?’

  Mika looked at Kobi in alarm. With a Telly Head in the classroom, jokes about being fattened up were not funny. He felt frozen, unable to speak and he was barely able to control the waves of panic washing over him.

  ‘The Fit For Life project will make you all fitter and cleverer!’ the nurse continued, as if they should be weeping for joy at the prospect. ‘And it’s going to be lots of fun! Later on I’ll be telling you about an exciting new game! But first, I’m going to tell you about Fit Mix.’

  There was a pause while she rooted around in her bag and produced a small white sachet like a rabbit out of a hat. She held it above her head and moved from side to side so everyone could see it.

  ‘This is Fit Mix,’ she said. ‘You will be drinking it every morning. When you arrive at school, you will find a plastic cup like this on your desk.’ She held one up in her other hand just in case they didn’t know what a plastic cup looked like. ‘The cup will be half full of water. Next to the cup you will find a sachet of Fit Mix and a stirrer. You tear the top off the sachet like this . . . and you pour the contents of the sachet into the cup of water and mix it with the stirrer. Then you drink it.’

 
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