I never thought I'd be burying my parents, but here I am, shovel in hand.
It's dark – the electricity powered down yesterday – but the three small moons shining above Plentiville light my parent's pale faces. They look like they could be sleeping.
But they're not sleeping.
They're all dead...
I grip the shovel tightly and, swallowing the lump that's formed in my throat, plunge it into the soil. I've gotta focus. I've gotta take it one step at a time.
Step one: bury my parents.
Mim's inside (with the torch on, of course). He won't come out to help so I gotta do it all by myself. Just like I had to care for them while they were puking their guts out. Just like I had to drag them by the ankles down the stairs and through the kitchen and across the garden. It's so completely typical of him to leave all the hard graft up to me. The little wimp.
I've found a nice enough patch in the garden, though. Right next to a load of – I dunno what they are – tulips or something, and under this apple tree that's in blossom; all innocent, like the world isn't ending or anything. I didn't want them too near the house. For Mim, you know. He's such a little wimp and I can't cope with him howling every time he catches sight of their graves.
'Spose I'm doing it for me, too, but don't tell Mim that.
It doesn't take long before I'm covered in mud and sweat and callouses. It's back-breaking stuff, 'specially for someone who's been cooped up on a space ship for the last ten years. You know, I thought I'd've been over-whelmed with joy to get off that piece of junk, but now I wish I was still on board. Now I wish we'd just flown straight past this stupid planet and settled on the next one. One where they didn't have some killer virus waiting to wipe out all the grown-ups.
But I mustn't think like that. Mim'd go to pieces if he heard me thinking like that. Bloody good thing he can't too, cos if he could it would sound like this, repeating over and over:
WHAT THE FRUG ARE WE GONNA DO?!?!
What the frug are we gonna do?
What are we going to do? What are we going to do?
What are we going to do...?
I push the thought away.
One step at a time.
Step one: bury my parents.
So it's Mim's howling from inside the house that tells me something ent quite right. A whole load of nasty thoughts flick through my mind and I drop my shovel.
I've not finished covering up my Dad's face yet and he stares up at me all glazed eyes like he knows something I don't.
I bolt through the back door and find Mim a blabbering wreck in the kitchen.
I grab him by the shoulders.
“What?” I scream in his face. You can probably tell I'm no good at all that sensitive stuff like Mum was.
“Th..th...th,” he stammers. He's not dumb or anything, he just doesn't get his words out so good, that's all. I guess he gets anxious, or something.
“Mim,” I say, shaking him. “What did you see?”
He just points a finger towards the window but there's nothing there. Just row after neat row of empty houses. Most the kids on our street took off earlier this week, but we stuck about because are parents were ...you know...the last.
“F...F...F...” he says.
But Mim just stands there shaking like the hopeless ten-year-old he is and his face is all screwed up and red and I could just hit him sometimes!
“Spit it out!”
There's a long silence, like all the noise has been sucked away.
“You saw them, Mim?” I say finally and he nods his head fast. I shove him and he staggers back all wide eyed. “You're not lying, are you?” My voice is all authoritative and I sound just like Dad.
Mim shakes his head so hard his messy brown hair flies all over his face and for some stupid reason I think that he could do with a hair cut.
“Jessie,” he says. “We... we... gotta... go now?”
“What do you think? There's Firsters here!”
I pace up and down, not knowing what to do. Look I'm not a hero or anything, I'm just a normal kid, OK? Give me a break.
“Frug!” I shout, slamming my muddy palm into my forehead. “Frugging Firsters! How'd they get out this far already?”
There's panic and anger in my voice and I let it all spurt out at Mim like this is his fault. He shys away from me, cowering like I'm gonna whack him. It makes me feel terrible.
What would Mum do? I think, and then I bend at the knees and look straight into his big, brown, pathetic eyes, all pleading and hopeless.
“Yes,” I say as softly as I can. “We gotta go.”
He nods in resolve and straightens up like he's ready for battle and for a flicker of a second I'm kinda proud of him. But don't tell anyone I said that.
There's two bags already packed by the door that my Mum made up for us on Monday just before she ... well... you know. But I didn't think for a second we'd have to use them, that we'd have to actually leave, that Mum and Dad would really, actually die. It's Wednesday. Just two days ago she packed these bags. And now she's dead, out there in the garden.
Shit! What's the plan? All I can think of is getting to Ada's house the other side of the City. She's a Firster, so maybe she can protect us, make these idiots realise it's not our fault all the grown-ups died. Plus, she lives in the country on this big bit of land because her mum, my aunt, keeps animals – I mean kept animals – and we might be able to be self-sufficient there.
I know, it's a crap plan, but you try coming up with something better while both your parents are dying!
I reach the door and hand Mim the smaller bag, since he's only small (though don't say that to his face). It has water and cans of food in and I think Mum put clean pairs of socks and pants in like we were going off on a camping trip. Then I take the bigger one. It's got a tent in, medical kit, torches, binoculars, rope, all that sort of stuff.
Mim watches me, waiting for my move, but I'm hesitating. Then, forgive me Dad, I've smashed the glass door to the cabinet with my elbow and I'm reaching inside for that very expensive antique knife he cherished and would never let me or Mim touch, and I've got it by its big ivory handle and it's heavier than I thought it'd be.
“We...need a knife?” Mim says.
I just nod and slip it in between my belt and jeans.
Then without so much as a parting word, without so much as a good bye to our dead parents lying in their shallow graves in the garden, I pull the door open.
And we come face to face with a Firster.
She's got big, bushy auburn hair, and by the look on her face, she wasn't expecting the door to open. She was expecting to have to bash it down, to fight her way in. Yet here I am with it wide open, practically asking to be burgled.
I go to slam it shut but she wedges her foot there and all I can do is swipe the chain across.
I grab Mim by the wrist and try dragging him back into the kitchen, but he's dug his heels in like my dog Jack used to do before... before... well never mind about before.
“Mim, you drive me crazy,” I say, yanking on his little arm so hard I swear it's gonna pop out the socket. “What are you doing? We have to go!”
“Firsters, I know! Come on.”
I spin and see the burning newspaper on the welcome mat, see the curtains catch and with a whommp they're ablaze. Then there's the sound of smashing glass coming from the living room; the Firster's found an easier way in.
This time Mim moves, fast. We bolt through the kitchen and out the back door into the streets.
There's smoke everywhere. Not just our house, but the neighbours too, and, across the street, doors hang open off their hinges as Firsters rush through looting them. There's a lot of soot-streaked kids wandering about looking dazed and I realise that I don't know any of them. There was meant to be a community in Plentiville! That was supposed to be the point of it! But we're just like all the kids we left behind on Earth; too scared to leave our homes, too mistrusting of every other human being. At least we're prepared for it. We've been through Armageddon. We can do it again.
Mim tugs me from my thoughts. His hand's tight on my sleeve as we pass our neighbour's house, acrid smoke pouring through the front bedroom window. There's yelling coming from inside, a dog barking, the high-pitched screams of a girl.
I know what Mim's going to say before he says it.
“No time,” I say.
Step Two: Don't dwell.
“No!” An image flashes through my mind, of my Dad lying in bed, glistening with sweat, whispering four words over and over again. “Don't be a hero!”
Jessie, don't be a hero...
Mim looks all flustered. “I.. don't know what that means.”
“It means don't do anything stupid to get yourself killed. Like standing in the street arguing when there's Firsters around or, you know, running into a burning building!”
“I...want to... help.”
“No. It's you and me against the world now, Mim.”
I know it's a stupid thing to say to a kid who's scared of his own shadow but it just slips out in the heat of the moment, pardon the pun.
But then, before I know it, his hand's slipped out of my grip, and the little weasel's darting off. I can see his backpack bobbing about through all the grey and I want to shout for him but who knows how many Firsters are in ear shot? I can't draw attention to ourselves.
I've got no choice. I've got to go after him.
Step Three: Keep each other alive no matter what.
I dart up the neighbour's front path and through the once perfectly manicured front garden that's turned to crap since whoever lives here lost their parents.
The front door's been kicked to splinters. The last thing I want to do is go inside, but Mim's in there and I can't lose all my family in one day.
I dive in after him.
The house is a mirror image of ours. It's a bit like walking into a parallel universe.
There's an ear-splitting scream from the garden and I run out there still half expecting to see my parents smiling at me, sat beneath the apple tree with freshly made lemonade.
But when I make it to the garden, I don't see that.
I don't see that at all.
I see a kid in the grass, curled in a ball and covered in red.
And I see Mim, lifted clean of the ground and kicking his little legs as he struggles for breath.
Then I see the Firster.
And then I see the knife.
Step Four: kill if you have to.
Now, I'm not exactly a violent person. Sure, I pick on Mim but he's my little brother and that's what big sisters do, isn't it? And I used to be able to hold my own on the ship with the other kids but not in an extraordinary way, if you know what I mean. Point is, there's nothing 'specially violent about me. I tend to keep my head down and get on with things.
So when my hand flies to the ivory hilt of the knife and whips it out from my belt, I'm kinda pleased with myself. The Firster looks terrified too, which helps.
“Put him down,” I say through my teeth.
The Firster looks at me with this kind of evil glint in his eye, like he was too busy looking at the knife to notice I was a girl and now I've spoken and given away the game he's thinking no big deal. He's obviously forgotten that us “Newbies” grew up tough. I'm as strong as he is. And I'm smarter, too.
I take a big stride forward waving the knife in front of me. Mim makes some kind of horrible noise like he's throwing up but I don't look at him because my eyes are locked with the Firster's.
“The news said you lot were tough,” I say. “Which makes me wonder what you're doing killing weedy little kids.” If Mim weren't being strangled right now he'd get all angry about me calling him weedy, but, you know, it's not the right time for it.
The Firster watches me and cocks his head to the side and says, “Think you're tough girly? Think you can take on a boy and win?” And he kinda turns to me now, letting Mim down to his feet but still holding him hard by the neck. “We do things properly on this planet. And we don't like you Newbies – thinking you can come over here and change things. So we're going to teach you how it's going to be. And on this planet boys are men and girls are good for one thing.”
It shouldn't shock me but it does and I slacken my grip on the knife and before I've even blinked, the Firster's on me and I'm falling to the floor. We land with a thud and nearby I hear Mim take a massive gasp only now I'm the one who can't breath cos the Firster's got my arms pinned down and his knee's in my throat.
“Not feeling so big now, are you girly?” He says as I thrash about beneath him.
I wriggle my fingers, trying to reach out to where the knife has landed but I can't quite make it and then all of a sudden the Firster's face goes all grey and his eyes go all wide and he slumps forward, right on top of me. He weighs a tonne but he doesn't move and I guess that's a good thing.
I shove him off and look up to where Mim is standing over me, the knife clasped in his hand. It's all red at the tip.
“Kill if if... if you have to,” he says.
I guess he's not so much of a wimp after all.