I stay completely still for a long time, staring up at my little brother like it's the first time I've ever really seen him. Then I pull myself to my feet and approach him cautiously.
He just stands there staring at the knife.
I wrap my hand around his; around the hand that's gripping the knife. It shakes but loosens at my touch.
“Here, let me.”
I take the knife from him and stow it back in the place between my belt and jeans. I want to say 'thank you' but it ent the right time for it.
“Come on,” I say softly, circling an arm round his waist.
“Let's help the girl,” he says almost robotically and that's when I remember the child, curled up and bloodied.
I turn and approach her. A tangle of black curls lies across her closed eyes. Her dark skin looks ashen. Her lips are parted and as I scoop her into my arms, I realise that no breath comes from between them. I don't tell Mim that but I think he knows.
She weighs hardly anything and she looks younger than Mim. Must've been born on the ship, must've spent her whole life cooped up in space and now... now... after just a brief taste of life, she's had it snatched away from her.
We turn back towards the house, picking our way across the litter strewn garden. I don't wanna think about what happened here, don't wanna believe that the Firsters could be this feral. To kill a child? For what?
That's when I see a figure in the upstairs window, striking the glass with her fists. She looks so similar to the girl in my arms it's freaky – she has the same dark skin and hair – but about my age or older. She locks her terror-filled eyes with mine and where her hands have struck the window, there are bloody prints.
She's been attacked.
Her eyes dart from the girl in my arms and back up at me.
Jessie, don't be a hero. I hear my Dad's voice as clear as anything. Don't be a hero.
My body's bruised from the struggle with the Firster, the last thing I wanna do is risk further injury rescuing another girl I don't even know.
I just want to get out, get away, get to safety.
But her stare penetrates me.
I can't get it outta my mind, don't think I ever will.
Then suddenly Mim stops. He's seen her, too.
“Jessie...Jessie,” he says, tugging on my sleeve.
“I know. I saw her. I know.” I say. “But we've gotta go. It's too late to save her. The fire's upstairs and it'll spread and the smoke'll choke us.”
Mim looks at me, horrified, his eyes brimming with anger.
“What's wrong with you?” he screams.
That's when I realise he has so much more riding on that girl living than I do. He just killed. He's a murderer. He'll never forgive himself if it was for nothing.
We stagger through the back door, through the kitchen, into the hallway, then pause at the bottom of the stairs. From above, black smoke collects on the ceiling like a storm cloud and a ring of fire engulfs the door frame of the master bedroom like it's the gateway to hell.
Mim gives me this look of determination.
“Don't go up there,” I say, feeling myself well up. (Shut up).
“I have to” he says, placing a foot on the bottom step. It's so hot his figure warbles before my eyes like a mirage and I think is this the last time I'll see my brother? Is this it?
Then I grab him by the collar of his shirt and yank him back down. I plonk the dead girl in his arms.
“Check the other rooms! Make sure no one's trapped. Get any one out you can, but keep outta sight.” Then I sling my bag off my back and dump it at his feet. “And take this.”
“You don't need it?”
I pat the knife at my waist. “Got everything I need right here.”
He looks up at me with his stupid doe eyes, all scared and worried and I rile with anger. He can't have it both ways! He can't pester me into playing a hero then look like a slapped fish when I do!
But then he smiles suddenly; a proper grin like I've just given him the best present in the world.
And I realise that's pride in his face –
Pride at me, at what I'm gonna do –
And I think I feel it a bit too –
Then, in a flash, he disappears down the corridor.
I look up the stairs. The fire from the bedroom's giving me enough light to see by but the heat that pours down with it stings my face and my throat.
I step up, my finger tips hovering beside the ivory hilt at my waist. Dunno when I might need it.
There's stuff littering the steps: broken photos, hair brushes, that sorta thing. Whoever ransacked the place mustn't've found anything worth stealing. So they killed a couple of kids and torched it? For what?
I seethe as I stomp up the stairs, coughing and spluttering.
Just because we're Newbies? It's so stupid. So mindless. So petty. So...immature! Yes, the adult's are dead. But that doesn't mean life has to descend into chaos. That doesn't mean we have to kill each other, doesn't mean we have to turn against each other in order to survive.
But then... I was gonna leave that girl upstairs. I was gonna leave her in whatever crummy situation she might've been in – to be murdered or left to burn or whatever –
Am I any better?
I reach the landing and the heat nearly knocks me backwards.
The girl's window was overlooking the garden which means it was at the back of the house. Which means her bedroom is beside mine. Which means the whole time I've lived in Plentiville only a single wall, a thin row of bricks and cement, has separated me from her.
And I dunno who she is. Never even wanted to.
I glance down the hall towards the room. There's only one way to get there without getting so close to the fire I risk the chance burning and that's by climbing across the banisters that border the stairs. But the fire is painfully hot and I can't get close enough.
“Hey!” I cry, forgetting myself for a moment, forgetting there could be a Firster in there with her.
But when a figure appears at the door, stooped over, it's her. She staggers forward and I see the deep gash across her forehead, with blood pumping from it and pouring down her face.
“You're hurt,” I say.
She looks dazed. “Firster.”
“Are they still there?”
She leans against the door frame for support. “We fought him. He's dead.”
“Me. My dog.”
The crackle of fire gets louder.
“You gotta come this way,” I shout. “I can't reach you, but if you climb on the banisters you could jump down.”
“No!” she cries. “He's hurt!”
“My dog!” She slaps a hand across her cheek in absolute despair but I almost laugh. Her sister's dead. Her parents must be too. Her house is on fire. She's been attacked. She's got blood pumping out her like there's no tomorrow... And she's worried about a dog?
I guess it's just the shock that makes me wanna laugh, right?
Just the shock.
“You've gotta leave it behind!” I say.
She gives me this look like I just told her she has to eat it or something. Then she staggers forward and crumples to her knees.
The fire from the main bedroom room swells forward with a roar, then there's a craaack above me and the ceiling plaster caves in. I fling my arms over my head to protect myself, stagger back down the steps, almost tripping.
A series of clatters and swooshes follow and when I open my eyes, I see it: a wooden ladder. It's dropped down on its runners from the hatch that leads into the attic. It's within reach. I can use it to pull myself to the girl.
I grip the bannisters and swing my legs up, crouching on the hand-rail, then carefully stretch myself up to standing. The fire is so hot it hurts but I reach for the ladder, grasp a rung and pull myself forward using all the strength I have in my body. My feet lift from the bannister and I swing my body round and collapse to the ground but my feet are just inches from the flames and I scrabble backwards and –
I made it.
The girl lies on the floor, looking up all wide-eyed, blinking.
“What happened?” she says, her voice slurring.
“You blacked out. You're bleeding and the smoke's making you weak. We've gotta get out.”
She grabs my hand and uses me to hoist herself up. “Pip,” she says, darting back through the corridor to her bedroom.
“Leave the frugging dog!” I cry, glancing back over my shoulder at the swelling flames.
When I reach her room, it looks just like mine but decorated differently, with floral wall paper and pictures of animals. On the floor is the Firster who must've attacked her, lying face down, covered in bloody bite marks. Beside him lies a rusty meat clever.
I feel sick.
Then I see the dog on the bed – a massive thing with a great big, pink tongue hanging out its mouth. There's so much blood pumping from a deep, blunt wound on his shoulder, his blonde fur's stained red.
“What happened?” I say.
“He was trying to protect me from the Firsters. They had that.” She gesture to the cleaver. “They cut him. Then me. I tried to get him up but then I saw the flames and I...I... panicked.”
I kneel beside the dog and lean my ear close to his mouth, feeling warm, soft breath on my ear. He's still alive.
I straighten up. “OK, this ent gonna be easy.”
The dog's big and meaty but I reckon I can bare the weight of him. Afterall, I dragged both my parents down the stairs earlier this evening. This evening? It already feels like a life time ago!
Earlier this evening Mim and I weren't orphans.
Earlier this evening, Mim wasn't a murderer.
Earlier this evening I wouldn't ever have risked my life for a stupid dog!
I wedge my arms beneath his stomach and heave him against my chest. He's not as heavy as I was expecting and I wonder if that's from the effects of the adrenaline that's coursing through my body.
We make it into the corridor but the fire is bigger, closer, hotter.
And the bannisters are ablaze.
We can't go down.
We could go back, go out the window, but then we'd have to leave the dog and for some unknown reason I ent letting that happen. Not now. Not after everything.
I cower at the sound of another horrify crash from the master bedroom. The ceiling must've caved in some more.
And that's when I have my idea.
“The attic!” I say.
It's the only way. If we go up, we can go through the sky light onto the roof.
The girl stares at me, all big brown eyes and terror. “What?”
“Help me!” I say, ignoring her.
I've twisted round, trying to get the unconscious dog onto my back. The girl realises what I'm doing and with all the strength she must possess in her thin body, she helps drag the dog onto my back.
“Now go, I need you to pull.”
She scampers into the hall and up the ladder in a flash, crouching at the top, peering down. I stagger through the hallway then, with one hand securing the unconscious dog's forelegs over my shoulder, I use the other to pull the weight of us onto the first rung. Every muscle in my body screams
Inbetween each movement, a roar or a screech comes from between my teeth without me even meaning to. I sound like an animal.
Closer and closer while the flames lick at the base of the ladder like an orange ocean.
Then, I'm close enough for the girl to reach us and she leans down, clasps my hand in hers and pulls.
With a last groan, the unconscious dog and I burst through the hatch into the attic and tumble onto the floorboards.
I roll onto my side and get straight to my feet. The dark attic's lit by the fire light that pours through a massive hole in the floor where half of it has fallen away. Underneath I can see into the master bedroom, can see two charred and blackened bodies lying side by side surrounded by flame.
The Firsters set fire to their bodies.
“Get the skylight open,” I say through my gagging.
The girl scampers across the room and yanks the window with the full weight of her body. It swings down towards her and air rushes in –
But there's an enormous whompp noise –
And a plume of fire stretches up through the hatch towards us like an enormous, column of heat –
“Shit!” I cry, falling back from the jet and pulling the dog by his back legs.
The flames fan across the ceiling, rushing towards the oxygen it needs to burn.
“Shut the window!” I scream. “Shut the window!”
But it's too late. The girl leaps onto her tiptoes, pushing at the top bar of the window with her fingertips, but she hasn't got enough strength to propel it upwards. She turns to me, pleadingly, her eyes filled with despair.
There's thick smoke collecting above us so I crouch low and drag the dog behind me until I'm just below the window.
“Get out!” I say to the girl.
She pulls herself onto the ledge and squeezes through the gap onto the slanted roof top. Then, with difficulty, I get the dog back into my arms and shove him out after her. But he's big and his tummy wedges in the gap.
I push his rump with both arms.
“Sorry doggy, sorry, sorry,” I say, watching as the flames grow bigger, the smoke thicker, feeling my lungs struggling more and more to get enough oxygen.
I am not gonna die here. I refuse to die here.
I cover my face with my sleeve, coughing and retching –
My eyes sting and my throat burns and my skin pricks from the heat –
And I turn and shove that stupid frugging dog with my back, pushing my whole weight into him –
If I die because of this stupid dog, this stupid frugging dog –
If this is how I go –
I blink –
My eyes are wet with tears –
The fire roars –
My throat burns –
My skin hurts.
My skin, my skin –
It hurts –
And the flames get closer and –
This is it –
It's too late –
It's over –
It hurts –
Then suddenly the dog slides out and there's that space for me in the window and I pull my arms through and the girl grabs me and tugs and the fire's at my feet and I scream and I slither and I'm through – I'm through! – and I slam the window closed.
And I breath.