National Essay Writing Competition 2014

Mark Mc Donnell won the Ulster section of this competition

UL Leaving Cert Essay Competition

Here we are in 2014 where Ireland’s senior cycle examinations in secondary schools prove two things. Firstly, how much you can remember in seven or eight broad subject courses that are taught over two years and secondly, being able to put it all down on paper in the space of two colourful weeks in June. I say colourful because it is, for a lot of Irish people the most stressful few weeks of their lives and also because almost every year the weather conveniently dries up and the sun starts splitting the rocks. In Ireland we call these examinations the Leaving Certificate, and it definitely perpetuates a system of learning that poorly prepares students for either the realities of third-level education or modern life in general.

 

Students usually take seven or eight subjects to study over the two year course. There are three mandatory subjects and the rest are optional. Maths is one of the mandatory subjects and has been redeveloped in recent years to add more practicality to the course. It is a step in the right direction, as the present maths curriculum has proved essential in gaining access to courses in third-level institutions due to its similarities and essentialness to some of the respective degrees.

 

 On the contrary, Irish, a subject feared by many, involves a lot of rote learning of sample answers for poetry and short stories for the majority of students studying the course. While some people are fluent in Irish and also possess the traits of enjoying Irish-language poetry and stories, many do not and suffer as a result. They often need to learn page after page of notes that they do not fully have a grasp for, due to lack of fluency or interest. In my opinion there should be a different way of teaching Irish. Split the subject into two subjects; ‘Irish language’ and ‘Irish language and culture’. The former would involve writing, understanding and being able to talk fluently in Irish about subjects other than what’s going on in a ‘sraithpictiuir’. The latter option would give students the opportunity to study the Irish language, plus the cultural literature of Irish such as poetry, short stories and novels. These courses could prove helpful in later life; the former in conversing with fellow Irish people at home and abroad, with the latter proving useful to gaining jobs in the Irish arts industry.

 

The final mandatory subject English should be left untouched since it is the native tongue of most people in this country. Students generally find it that bit easier than other languages to discuss poetry, drama and other literature in the subject. The course itself provides students with a concrete foundation in literacy and appreciating the works of novelists and poets. A good solid start in English really proves invaluable in later life due to its necessity in nearly all jobs in the western world and beyond.

 

The four or five remaining subjects examined in the Leaving Certificate are optional and while many people think that the subjects on offer are contemporary and modern, there is still a lot to be desired from them that reflect the changing trends in the world of employment. Subjects such as Chinese and computer programming would be a welcome addition to the ‘Big LC’ in line with their additions to the Junior Cycle course from September 2014 onwards.

 

While the new reforms of the Junior Certificate course will be welcomed by many, I feel that it is a pointless move should they go ahead, without also reforming the Leaving Certificate examinations. The folks in government are debating on how to implement continuous assessment into the Junior Cycle. The Leaving Cert should also have a form of continuous assessment, so that instead of having to engage in a scrum of all the Leaving Cert exams in two weeks of June, why not spread them out over 7 or 8 months depending on how many subjects one is taking. By beginning in November or December of Sixth Year and depending on the subject course length, students would sit one or two exam subject(s) per month right up until June. In this way students would have less stress and be able to specialise more in each subject since they would have a full month to study for it. A student would also more likely achieve better results in their Leaving Certificate rather than attempting to learn all 7 or 8 broad subjects in the space of a few draining months. On completion of earlier exams, that would be one more subject freed up in your timetable for each remaining month, giving teachers more time to complete the course in other subjects and also begin their revision a whole lot sooner. The timetable for the exams would be set by the length of each course.  Some subjects finish early whilst others need more time to complete. I believe that this approach to the Leaving Cert would be far less stressful and would leave students more focused in studying well for their exams.

 

Finally, most schools have career classes for senior cycle students. Along with explaining how the CAO system works and talking about various courses in third level, students should also be taught life lessons such as how to live independently and how to build up your confidence when trying to maturely converse with adults in the workplace and beyond. Pupils should be shown how to prepare for an interview for a job and take part in a mock interview with local employers. Finally and most important of all, educators should be developing an ethos amongst students that in life you must work hard towards achieving your goals and that you should pick a career that you will enjoy.

 

If the Leaving Certificate system was developed in any of the ways I have mentioned in this essay I believe it would gear our nation’s young people towards having good futures in their chosen paths of life.

 

Creative Writing 2014

 


 

 

Winter, 2002 

 

My retreat – the small, worn tidal bay, just a short walk from the beach. I sat on the small plateau, legs dangling over the sea, letting the soothing ocean spray massage the soles of my feet. The thick smell of salt water in the damp air, the sound of crashing waves against the rugged rocks and the contrasts between the deep marine blue and the overcast sky almost lets me forget about my life. 

Almost. 

 

I received the diagnoses two years ago, when I was just sixteen. Terminal cancer of the bone – slow moving, but terminal. It has become a bulldozer, slowly but surely demolishing my life.

 

My life wasn’t always like this, though. In the past, I was told that there were infinite possibilities for somebody like me – smart, god looking and sporty. Remembering these moments almost feels like dreaming – an impossible past filled with an impossible future, hope. Now all I have is a date that keeps clocking down, closer and closer. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. This, is what my life has become - monotonous cycle.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t fully accepted that my life - well, what’s left of it, - should be like this. That’s what I tell my mother at least, when she drops me off at the infamously depressing cancer support meetings. “Just try to enjoy yourself”, she says. I can hear the pain I’m causing in her voice, in a crackle or stutter during light conversation. I think she can hear the clock too. It’s not like the meetings are even helpful – in fact, they add to the misery, seeing faces come and go, knowing they won’t be seen or heard from again. Opinions, personality, beliefs – gone, thrown into the void we’re all destined for. By now, these deaths have become a run-of-the-mill thing, almost trivial.  

 

The darkness is setting now, dark red clouds on the horizon. I’m going to head home now, before mother gets worried. Who knows if I’ll be back? Maybe it’d just be best if I go home and lock myself up. Goodbye. 


Spring, 2003

 

Fitting, I suppose, that the snow still hasn’t thawed. These cliffs and the ocean are the same as ever, probably the only constant in my life. Not much has changed since I was last here, but some things are looking up, I guess. Like Tomo, the little three-legged dog we picked up at the pound. There’s Jenny too. She came to the first meeting of the year, after moving into town from somewhere far in the west – a recovering sufferer of leukaemia. 

 

She got off lucky, compared to the rest of us. Almost a full year in remission. I’m not too sure what I feel about her – she’s pretty, nice, and seems smart enough too, so by all means I should like her. But I’m conflicted. When I look at her, she reminds me of the life I could have had, and pure, unrestrained and unjustified jealousy burns my eyes. Why does she get to be different? Why was she chosen over me? I just don’t get it.  

 

Not a lot else has been going on lately – still taking six tablets four times a day, monthly visits to the hospital and the clock is still ticking down, like a bomb waiting to explode. Waiting to ruin the lives of those around it. I’ve been given one year to live, and seven months before I’m in a wheelchair… wonderful.

 

Summer, 2003

 

 
Summer has finally arrived – blistering days, dry crisp grass and an excuse to go down to my retreat. Things have definitely been going better lately – I’m on a new type of anti-depressant, which has a much weaker numbing effect. Alongside this, things have been going well with Jenny too, surprisingly. The raging jealousy has worn away with time, and we started dating officially just last week – nothing serious, obviously. It almost feels like being back in high-school… almost. I like living this close to normality, but I know it’s a bubble that will implode. Enjoy the moment, I guess.


It turns out that things for Jenny were not as rosy as I’d initially thought either. Her family had been forced to sell their house to pay for her treatment after the health insurance company denied the payment due to a typo on some ancient document. Following this, her family was forced to move in with the junky uncle who lives in a mobile-home at the edge of town, living stacked of eachother. Not exactly what I’d consider as “perfect”.  

 

They’re currently caught up in a legal battle with the colossus insurance company – the harsh reality of our justice system is that they probably won’t even win the case. I feel strangely relieved that she knows what it feels like to be the bulldozer, to be the bomb. Perhaps this is how why we can relate so well. It’s a comforting tragedy.

 

Thinking about this, I contemplate chance. Is there a pattern to this chaos, a reason these things are happening? Or is it just chance – a random choice made at the will of the universe. Chaos… She’s my opposite, my equal.



Autumn, 2003

 

It’s all falling apart – the whole thing. I’ve spent the last week in the hospital, broken, barely able to walk on my own two feet. I haven’t been alone though – Jenny has been with me. In fact, she’s the reason I’m here at all. Last week, she went in for a check-up after feeling a sharp pain in her knee – nothing serious they thought at first, but they were wrong. The cancer returned and has spread to the rest of her body – incurable but controllable, she could live a few more years with treatment. If her family could afford it, that is… and they can’t. Their lawsuit is scheduled for 6 months’ time, and it will be too late by then.

 

Faced with the reality of it, I now see that she matters to me much more than I thought. I can’t sleep or eat, and the morbid reality of death has set upon me. I’ll die, she’ll die, my parents will die, everybody will die. Does it really matter when? Does what we do even have meaning? These are the things that have been racing through my mind at night, thumping like a drum. Maybe this is just the drugs being pumped into my system, or maybe the grief has already set in. I mean, we’re both dead already, just lifeless shells relying on chemicals to add a day or a month to our consciousness out of fear, the unknown. Within a month I’ll be in a wheelchair, and who knows how long I truly have after that.


Winter, 2003 

 

There are seven billion, forty-six million people living on this planet, and most of us have the audacity to think we matter. – Watsky, Tiny Glowing Screens Pt. 2

 
  In truth, we don’t. The false movements of us ants on this earth simply help distract us from the trust – we are nothing compared to the scale of the universe, death doesn’t ultimately matter. I’ve taken myself off the medicine. I’m finished with this torture. My story won’t matter, but neither will anybody else’s. I think we’ve always known this truth, deep down. All you have to do to realise this is look at the stars.

 

I’m finished.

       

 

 Creative Writing Competition 2012

This year there was a great response to the Creative writing Competition. the following students received awards for their short story and poetry entries.

Junior: Oran Mc Elligott, Oisin Lavelle, Metthew Rice

Intermediate: Samuel Doyle, Joshua Taylor, Paul Peppard

Senior: Daniel Mc Carron, Shane Hannon

 
 
 
 
Lost At Sea
 
Oran Mc Elligott
 
The waves crashed menacingly against the side of Joey and Harry’s small wooden sail boat. They had been out at sea for hours and there was still no sign of the shore. Although they both knew they were lost and had no idea where the sweeping current would take them, they did their best to hide any sign of fear when they spoke to each other.
Darkness was closing in as the sun slowly made it’s way down. The torrential rain was slamming onto the deck and every now and then the boys ran out onto the deck, scooped up the water in small buckets and emptied them overboard.
As the small, rickety, worn- down sailboat became harder to control, the two boys began to worry. Should they have listened to their parents when they said there was a storm on it’s way? Should they have taken heed to the immensely strong winds and lashing rain? Should they have stayed at home and instead of making their way out to sea in these terrible conditions???All these questions were whizzing around their heads while they struggled to keep their dingy boat upright.
The main sail was starting to tear under the pressure of the wind and the huge waves were constantly lifting the boat up and dropping it down. Every time the boat fell, more and more water poured over the side and onto the deck.
The boys were freezing. Joey’s sallow skin was now completely white and his ears were as red as tomatoes. Harry’s dark brown hair was dripping with water and his lips were cracked from the cold. They had no idea what time it was, how long they had been out at sea or how long it was until the sun started to rise.
Thunder cracked in the distance followed by a streak of lightning which lightened up the sky momentarily. The wind howled around, sweeping everything, including the boys, to one side of the boat.
Suddenly a wave bigger than any other that they had witnessed in their lives, hammered into the side of the boat, leaving a gaping hole in which water instantly started to pour through. Harry grabbed an old piece of tough leather and tied it around the hole using a rope. It wouldn’t hold the water for long but it would give them enough time to think about what they could do.
‘What can we do???!!!’ Harry screamed across the boat as loud as he could so as to be heard by Joey. Joey swivelled round but it was too late……
“BOOM!!!!, CRASH!!!!, BANG!!!!” The whole side of the boat was torn to shreds by the waves. The two boys were hurtled overboard like ragdolls. They sank into the ice-cold water of the sea, struggling to swim to the surface.
Joey flapped his arms around helplessly like a bird, forgetting how to swim because of the mayhem. The water was dirty and although his eyes were stinging he thrived to keep them open. He eventually floated to the surface alongside the boat and not far from Harry. He tried to get across to Harry but he was swept away by the current. He could see Harry being dragged away from the boat by the immense waves and then……......darkness.
Joey felt his head spinning, swirling, as if he was going to throw up. But suddenly, something caught hold of his collar and he felt it pull and pull. At that moment he realised he was underwater! “C’mon” said a muffled voice that Joey recognised as Harry’s. Joey’s head was now above the water and he was struggling to breathe. Although his vision was blurred he could just make out the shape of Harry’s head and face. Joey’s whole body was now completely above the water. He slowly started to realise that he was not sitting on the golden sand on the beach at home, he was sitting on hard, coarse rock on a beach that he knew was a long way from home.
The people were clothed in long, colourful tunics with many designs. The tunics were fastened around the waist with ropes and they wore sandals on their feet.
There were people running in all directions screaming and shouting. Some women were crying, as they looked terrified out towards the sea. Harry followed their gaze and, to his horror, saw a ship, a massive    ship, with either end pointing to the sky, shaped as dragon heads. It was a Viking longship!!!
The two boys sat, stunned, not able to move. They looked at each other and then to the sea and at the very same time they leaped up, swivelled round, and ran.
They ran through the crowds of people. There were old people shuffling along holding golden chalices. Joey recognised them as, monks??!! A thought suddenly occurred to him. Was he back in the time of the Vikings?????
Just as he was thinking about this, he tripped over a rock and fell onto the hard ground. A searing pain shot through his leg and he glanced down at his knee. There was a massive wound just below his kneecap.
Meanwhile Harry had run on without noticing that Joey had fallen. He glanced sideways expecting to see him, but he wasn’t there. Harry had no idea how long it was since Joey had fallen, or where he had came from, therefore he would have to search everywhere to try and find him.
Joey had managed to drag himself into a corner. He was unable to move his leg and he felt as if he would pass out with the pain. Suddenly he heard people shouting in some foreign language. The noise got louder and louder. He shuffled further into the corner. Several men ran past with terrified looks on their faces, glancing back every few seconds. Then a metal spear shot past Joey and landed inches away from the fleeing men. Hurried footsteps gradually became louder. He could hear the clanging of metal. At that, twenty Viking warriors burst out from behind the wall. Some went running right, some left, but one warrior, obviously the leader stayed behind. Joey held his breath. If the warrior took one look to his left, he would see Joey cowering in the corner. But to Joey’s enormous relief he didn’t. He strolled on, but just as he was out of sight Joey moved his uninjured leg to the left and knocked over a clay pot.
The Viking warrior swung around and stared into the corner where Joey was sitting. There was no way out. The warrior walked quickly towards Joey. He picked him up, threw him over his shoulder and brought him to the other side of the town.
The warrior climbed up a rope-ladder with Joey dangling over his shoulder. When they got to the top, the Viking opened a small iron door and scrambled inside. He threw Joey into the corner and started pacing the room.
Twenty minutes later Joey heard a shout from the ground. The Viking ran to the door, swung it open and immediately started to climb down, leaving the door ajar. Joey scampered down the ladder and ran to the shore where he found an old boat just like his Dad’s. He climbed in and pushed out into the water. He sailed away not knowing where to go or how he would survive. He never saw Harry or his family again.
 
 
A Little Bit of Air 
 
 Samuel Doyle
 
Breezy is who I am, what I am and how I am, an amiable atom with an appetite for adventure. My molecular structure is attenuated, and I lack a muscular resolution which belies a deep inner potency. I have a light blue translucent skin that is transparent to alien perception, rather like others of my kind.
I, a simple oxygen atom, came to be in a sterile and pristine chamber, part of a massive complex of enclosing walls and concealing ceilings. My very first memory was coming into being with a little ‘pop’, the most pleasantly tingling sensation you could ever imagine. All around me, popping into existence, were millions of homogeneous beings. Together we forced back the pressurizing mass of transparent liquid in our glass tower, only to reveal that every single atom of us was stark naked! How embarrassing!
We must have been quite a sight. To be honest my inquisitive gaze did linger on the female specimens but when I became aware of the returning scrutiny, ions, my cyptoplasmic dye darkened dramatically. I must have broken the atmospheric record for the fastest time to wrap oneself in a steam blanket.
Just as I was covering my gender declarator I sensed a frailty within my structure. At first, thinking my nitro belt was too restrictive I hastened to adjust it, promptly causing my brand new argon jeans to billow in response to gravity. Mortified, I glanced around me only to notice a worryingly opaque grey hue emanating from my companions.
Looming above us, I saw the grotesque white colossus for the first time. It rapidly lowered a ridged lump of flesh from which protruding tentacles bore a wooden lance of a great size. Its end quickly combusting and crumbling to dust under a flame so bright and hot as the mighty star that warms the heavens.
Without warning, this deadly weapon was thrust through us with almighty force. It was Genocide, an assault with intent to annihilate our proud and noble race. As the ambush devoured all floating in its path, I made a dash for freedom and thank Corioli escaped. My posterior was singed in my flight to the extent that I can only seat myself on a carbon cushion. Sadly, others came off worse.
I made my initial apprehensive passage away from that heartless monstrosity towards freedom in an unpredictable atmosphere. It seemed to me that barely a moment had passed since my escape when all of a sudden my internals began to experience a rise in temperature. In no time I was overwhelmed by a fiery spirit coursing through my structure, turning my blue membrane a warm yellow pigmentation. My body filled with unadulterated joy till I was practically bursting with elation.
Just then I found myself floating half a rainbow length above terra firma. I found myself still rising but without trepidation. As I rose I sensed many others around me, all rising in unison. After a brief hibernation I was abruptly woken as my atomic structure was completely saturated with water, an unknown voice hollering into my sound receptors.
Hurriedly, I tried to discern whatever vile manner of creature had assaulted me, despite the fact that I was being constantly doused with a slightly acidic liquid. With a truly valiant effort, I peered through the cascading water before my eyes and lo and behold, came membrane to membrane with a humungouslyfat water molecule.
It was an unpleasant sight; his belly flopped down to the mere flabby stumps of mist that were his legs. His body, green as normal for a water molecule, was quite grotesque, but what seemed only to be fat was in places an illusion. His massive arms clung to me with leech-like tenacity, revealing resilient muscles hidden under the concealing mass of watery blubber.
 Unable to summon much courtesy I enquired of him, what in the heavens above was he doing? Very affronted, he bellowed back, right into my orifices, that I was an offensive and arrogant atom who was completely ignorant of how the atmosphere works. Flabbergasted, I listened with amazement as he pompously informed me of how I heat up when close to the earth and so amass water vapour. This was the cause of our felicitous union.
The damp squid droned on and whilst I indomitably restrained myself from instantly disintegrating the liquefied lump, I gradually felt an icy chill creep upon me. It began with a slight chill around my cauliflower shaped ears and I found myself longing for the latest craze of a sulphuric Siberian cap. As the chill advanced within me it stalled my agitated reverberations and my pulses sluggishly decelerated.
A sudden transformation came over my hitch-hiker as he evolved into a concealing mist of vapour and then condensed into a fluffy cumulus cloud. That was the last I saw of him. Then I found myself laboriously sinking back to the land below, every foot an icy terror, more so as I pondered the possibility of my own metamorphis.
My frozen eyelids cracked open for a second just in time to see the ground come rushing up to meet me. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh! Thud! The impact was so fierce it made one towering blade of grass flatten itself against the uneven surface that lay perpendicular to its stalk.
I was immediately assaulted by the wondrous vision of fluorescent flora and incandescent fauna. The vegetation ended in banks of rounded glistening pebbles covered in silky layers of scorching fine grained sand, a sublime utopia. Speechless I floated gently down, landing with a hiss on a frilly and flowery contraption. Starchy fake petals entrapped me in a crease in some firm yet pliable material. A jerky movement flung me clear only to come face to face with another awful monstrosity.
Its skin was a blistering red, a knobbly lump jutting out towards me was dripping gloopy mucus from two dark and hairy holes. A wire frame held together two elliptical reflective black discs which were suspended by two fleshy dangling lobes affixed to the sides of its head. Adrenaline coursed through me as I spun away in fear heading for the open seas.    
After a while I began to realise that I was being swept off course by some invisible force. Gradually this power grew stronger until it revealed itself as a howling wind spinning round and round at breakneck speed, such constant revolutions soon knocked me half senseless.
 As I drifted in and out of consciousness I recalled the horror stories of mighty gales that tore across the waters, depositing the unwary in places of death and torture. I truly feared that this unearthly wind was one of those airy vengent spirits leading me to my untimely demise.
Left behind for dead over an island of fog and floods, I was captured. A monster in white came for me, talon edged tubers grasping an orb in which I was sealed. Triumphantly paraded through crowded tunnels of cement, a war trophy at which unnumerable amounts of younger beasts did gawk with pincer filled bloody gaps in their gormless looking superior bodies.
Oh, Great Corioli of the Northern Winds save me.  

 
 
Death and the Vegan
 
By Students of St Macartan’s College with Oisín McGann 

 
This place had once been a McDonald’s restaurant, back when there were still restaurants in Monaghan. Then it was a makeshift treatment centre. Back when there were still doctors and nurses around. Now, it was just a building. But Bamf had searched the rest of this bloody town in the hope of finding food, and he was getting desperate.
Truth be told, he’d been desperate for a while. It took a lot of effort to do anything these days, even the pain that scraped at his stomach seemed to giving up and going away. The pains in his joints were still there and his throat felt like he’d been drinking battery acid, but he wasn’t giving up. There had to be something here . . . something everybody else had missed . . .
The big walk-in fridge was empty, of course, and a search under all the cookers and stainless steel kitchen units turned up nothing – at least, nothing he’d risk eating. The door to the stairs that led up to the offices had been broken open, and he was about to start up the stairs when a voice made him spin round:
‘There’s nothing up there, we’ve already checked.’
He had his hunting knife drawn even as he turned, but there were two of them, both around his age, not even out of their teens, and the guy held a crossbow. It was the girl who had spoken; she was tall (though most people were taller than Bamf), a goth with the black hair, black clothes, the pale skin. Funny how a person who was starving to death could still get it together to coordinate a style. Hunger had added to the image, giving her attractive face a haggard look.
Bamf could relate to the little vanities – there might be something bizarre about a short, starving black man keeping his hair bleached blond, but it helped him feel . . . human. And contrary to what some people believed, it had nothing to do with him being gay.
The other guy looked fat, and he probably once had been, judging by his skin. Now he had the distended belly of a starving man; Bamf had seen it enough times before. It looked like a beer belly, but it was caused by fluid, not fat, and it was pretty painful. The guy’s liver could well be swollen too. His hair looked odd, now that Bamf thought about it. Almost like it was permed. But nobody’d go that far to stay sane, especially not a guy, would they?
‘We’ve found something downstairs,’ the girl said, an intense look in her eyes. ‘But we need help to get at it. You help us, and we share what’s there, okay?’
She was holding a crowbar, but it hung loosely from her fingers, down by her side. Looking at these two, Bamf was pretty confident he could take them if he could get the guy to point that crossbow in the wrong direction. In the end, his stomach made the decision for him.
‘Yeah, okay,’ he grunted, trying not to look too hopeful. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’
‘I’m Florence, this is Zach,’ she said, gesturing towards the guy with the belly.
‘Bamf,’ he muttered.
‘Nice hair,’ Zach said, his voice slightly slurred. ‘You do it yourself?’
‘You takin’ the piss?’ Bamf growled.
‘No, no, just wondering what products you use. If I wanted to take the piss, I’d call you a short-arse. Which you are.’
Bamf was about to cut him a new mouth when Florence spoke up.
‘You pair of lovebirds want to go see if we can dig out some food?’
What Florence and Zach had found was a chest freezer. It was huge, but it was empty. Bamf held up his knife, facing down one and then the other.
‘You messin’ with me?’ he demanded.
‘It’s not what’s in it – it’s what’s down the back,’ Zach pointed with the crossbow.
‘You want to lower that?’ Bamf nodded at the weapon.
The guy looked a little unsteady on his feet. Bamf wondered if he might be drunk, but found it hard to believe.
‘You want to put that knife away?’ Zach whined back.
Bamf hesitated. He didn’t trust them. And it wasn’t just because they were white – though that might have been reason enough – you just couldn’t trust anybody nowadays. Inch by inch, the two guys lowered their weapons, watching each other suspiciously.
‘Zach’s not very strong,’ Florence said, trying to break the tension. ‘But he was the one who found the stuff, and he came to me for help. There’s loads of packets of tomato sauce that have fallen down the back of the freezer. We can get them out if we can move it, but even for the two of us, it’s too heavy. Want to give it a try?’
If any of them had been in full health, they could probably have moved this thing no problem. But not now. Now it took all three of them, and even then, they only dragged it out a few inches. It was enough for Florence to reach her long thin arm in behind it and pull out the catering packs of tomato sauce.
As she stretched out, Bamf saw the needle-marks on her arm. They were old – she probably hadn’t had anything in weeks. It was amazing she was still alive, given that she’d probably have spent more time looking for drugs than food.
There was one burst plastic bag and two sealed ones, all stuffed with the little sachets of sauce. Florence started to divide out the loose sachets, but then Zach took over when it became clear she couldn’t count to save her life. They started tearing them open and sucking them dry before they’d finished sorting them. It was incredibly frustrating, there was so little in each one, but Bamf thought he’d never tasted anything so good in his whole life. He could feel his stomach coming back to life, and the cramps starting again. At least the tiny packets meant he couldn’t gorge himself as he wanted to. He’d just have thrown half of it back up again.
‘This is the food of the Gods!’ Florence gasped, as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and licked it off.
They tore open the other two bags and spilled the sachets out on the floor.
‘Have you got a place to go?’ Florence asked Bamf.
He shrugged. He’d been moving from place to place across town, but none of them were safe. The last place he’d called home had been ransacked by a gang who’d taken the last of his food. Then they’d taken his place.
‘We could both stay at Zach’s house,’ she suggested.
‘You what?’ Zach protested. ‘Says who?’
‘It’d be safer . . . y’know, if we were all together,’ Florence said. ‘Look what we’ve got! Everyone will want it.’
The other two knew she was right. If the three of them stuck together, there was less chance of someone taking the remaining tomato sauce off them.
‘All right,’ said Bamf. ‘But if either of you tries anything funny, I’ll kill you.’
They each gathered up their share of what was left, stuffed them into their bags, and headed for the stairs. Something occurred to Zach as they climbed back up to the ground floor:
‘If one of us tried something, but it wasn’t funny, would that be okay?’
* * * *
Zach’s place was safer than a lot other homes in Monaghan, but it was disgusting. His father had been a stockbroker – a really successful one, judging by the size of the house. But he’d disappeared a while back, without any warning. Bamf figured his cleaning lady must have either gone with him, starved to death or fled a long time ago. There was rubbish all over the floor. A lot of the rubbish consisted of vodka bottles.
Zach really only used the sitting-room, kitchen and downstairs bathroom now. The only thing that looked as if it was still functioning normally was a powerful PC with three screens and all sorts of other fancy kit sitting on or around a hardwood desk.
‘Electricity runs off a generator,’ Zach muttered, pulling a half-empty bottle from somewhere, unscrewing the top and taking a drink. ‘Don’t touch my computer.’
Apart from that, the place looked like a fancy bachelor pad a month after a stag party that had never been cleared up.
‘Should we put these in the fridge?’ Florence asked, holding up her tomato sauce sachets.
‘They’ve been stuffed down the back of a dead freezer for months,’ Bamf pointed out. ‘If they haven’t gone off by now, they’re probably not going to.’
‘Oh, right,’ she sniffed.
A pounding on the front door made them all jump. Nobody moved. The pounding stopped and several seconds passed. Then the door was kicked in, and a gang of men and women in military gear stormed in. They were all armed with guns, and they all looked hungry. They were rebels, one of the bands at war with the government, although they spent most of their time pushing the townspeople around.
‘What the hell’s this?’ Bamf snarled, but he left his knife where it was, tucked into his belt in the small of his back.
‘Random search,’ one of the rebels replied. ‘We’re collecting for the household charge. Got any food?’
The bags were lying out in full view on the wood and glass coffee table, and the rebels descended on them, tipping out the contents. There were cries of satisfaction as they sachets of tomato sauce were found. One of the men was about to rip open a sachet when a shot rang out, and he let out a scream. Dropping the sachet, he clutched his hand, trying to stem the blood gushing from the bullet hole in his palm.
‘You eat when we say you eat!’ a stern woman’s voice roared.
All eyes turned towards the door, where a tall, athletic woman with large breasts and a shaved head was striding through. Her face and scalp were scattered with tattoos, at least some of which had been picked in a women’s prison in Russia. Her name was Olga, and she was feared throughout the area for her fanatical beliefs and her expertise with any kind of gun.
‘Have you checked the ingredients?’ she asked the sergeant in charge of the men, as she pointed at the sachets spilled on the coffee table.
‘No ma’am,’ he muttered sourly.
‘Who gives a toss about ingredients?’ Bamf asked.
‘Ingredients are everything!’ Olga snapped at him. ‘Don’t you realize there could be animal products in these? It’s probably garbage like this that stunted your growth, little man. Don’t you care what you’re putting in your body?’
‘Go to hell,’ Bamf said.
‘I don’t care what I eat as long as it’s got calories,’ Florence replied softly.
At that moment, the temperature in the room seemed to drop. The soldiers moved back away from the doorway, forming two lines either side of the wiry man in the top hat who had just entered. This was the rebel leader, a sociopath named Moby, who enforced his vegan beliefs on his men and everybody else in the areas he controlled. He had a hook where his left hand should have been, and he tapped it against the button on his combats pocket as he stared at Bamf, Florence and Zach.
‘It was an animal virus that spread across our farms that started this famine,’ he said in a sad voice. ‘And it was the farming of animals in the first place that let that virus evolve. Eating meat has destroyed our world, my people. It has to stop.’
‘The sauce is free of animal products,’ Olga informed him, looking at the sachets.
‘Excellent, pack them up,’ Moby told her.
‘Get your hands off our food!’ Bamf shouted.
‘That’s ours!’ Florence cried. ‘You’ve got no right!’
‘All food must be gathered and distributed fairly,’ Moby told them. ‘It is for the greater good.’
‘Since when did you ever hand food out?’ Bamf growled, lunging at Moby.
He didn’t get even get close. Fists, feet and rifle butts battered him, knocking him to the ground. Several more blows later, he was unconscious.
* * * *
Bamf was amazed to discover that Zach’s fancy American-style fridge-freezer still dispensed ice. Nobody had ice any more. But then, hardly anybody had freezers.
‘Might as well use it for your face,’ Zach said, handing him the ice-cubes wrapped in a plastic bag. ‘It’s not safe to drink any more.’
Bamf nodded his thanks and pressed the ice-pack against his swollen face. His dark brown skin was starting to blossom in purple and black as the bruises formed.
‘I hate them,’ Florence rasped, clenching her thin hands into fists. ‘I hate them so much! God, I’m so hungry. This was going to be such a good day, and they just took it all off us.’
‘Everybody hates them,’ Bamf grunted, ‘but nobody does anything about it. This town is full of people who are all mouth and no trousers. Nobody in this place has any balls.’
‘And you do?’ Zach snorted. ‘What good are your balls, then Bamf? You just got your head kicked in for having balls. Oh yeah, you’re a real bad-ass. Wettin’ themselves they were.’
He turned away, making faces and talking under his breath. He wanted to continue the slagging, but he didn’t like the look Bamf was giving him.
‘I hate them,’ Florence said again.
Bamf was staring at the computer. There was a scanner and printer hooked into it. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a laminated card. He’d grabbed it off one of the men as they were beating him up. In his former life, he’d made a bit of money from doing up fake ID’s. These ones wouldn’t be hard to copy. Moby and Olga obviously assumed people had more to worry about these days than copying rebel ID cards.
‘How much fuel do you have for that generator?’ he asked Zach.
‘None of your business.’
‘Stop being a prat and answer him,’ Florence sighed. ‘How much?’
‘I dunno, about ten drums. Maybe enough for two months, the way I use it,’ Zach replied reluctantly.
‘I know a way we can get back at these gits and maybe get a whole load of food too,’ Bamf said. ‘But then we’d have to leave here for good. Are you up for it?’
‘I don’t have much worth staying for now,’ Florence responded. ‘Everybody I know is either dead or gone. I’d love to get back at the bastards.’
‘If it meant getting food,’ Zach mumbled, ‘I’d try anything.’
‘Okay,’ Bamf said. ‘We need a camera too. Do either of you know where we can get clothes that look like the stuff Moby’s lot wear?’
‘I think it’s just walking gear with a few extra belts and pouches added in,’ Florence said. ‘I could put something together. There’s an outdoors shop on the edge of town where they’ve loads of that crap.’
‘Right then,’ Bamf smiled. ‘Looks like we’re in business.’
* * * *
Moby had built his fortress into the remains of the courthouse in the centre of Monaghan. The place had been gutted in the riots that had first followed the food shortages. Moby had built back into it, and added a watch-tower on the roof above its Doric columns. Everyone but the chosen few had to enter by the heavy front doors, now reinforced with steel plates. All the windows were covered with similar plates with gun slits for firing out if the place was under attack. It was an ugly, but secure home for the rebel leader.
The food gathered by Moby and Olga’s forces was stockpiled inside in locked storage rooms, and kept under armed guard night and day. Anything with meat products in it was burned in bonfires in the middle of Church Square. People could often be seen combing the ashes for any surviving morsels, but would be sent running with shots fired over their heads if they were spotted by the guards.
It was nearly midnight when Bamf, Florence and Zach crossed the square, each carrying a drum of petrol on their shoulder. They were all dressed in the military-style gear the rebels wore, their heads covered by caps. Bamf was in the lead as he climbed the steps to the guards who stood by the doors.
‘Moby was lookin’ for fuel for his generators,’ Bamf said to them. ‘We found a few remaining up at Macartan’s. There was a bunch of teachers still holed up in there – they put up a fight, but the place is ours now. Moby said anything we got out of the place had to go into storage here.’
The two guards looked them over. They didn’t know every face in Moby’s army, but anybody sent on jobs like this was normally familiar.
‘ID’s?’ one man asked.
The three cards were handed over. The guard studied them and handed them back.
‘Fuel goes right in at the back, last door on your right. No smoking anywhere in the building.’
To get into the store-room they’d been directed to, they had to be checked by another guard, armed with an assault rifle. He watched them carefully as he unlocked the door and let them in. Bamf took the drum from Florence, who hovered by the door eyeing up the guard. He eyed her back.
‘You looking at something?’ she asked coyly.
‘Maybe I’m lookin’ at you,’ he replied in a cocky voice. ‘What time you off duty?’
Bamf appeared behind the guard, a wooden club in his hand.
‘Right now, actually,’ she chirped.
The club came down on the back of the man’s head, and he slumped to the floor with a groan. Bamf took his gun. Inside the store-room, Zach was pulling a long coil of rope from his pack. There was no food here, it was all hardware, fuel and other odds and ends. Florence searched the unconscious guard and found his keys. Unlocking another door, she had to stifle a cry of delight. There were shelves and shelves of tins, packages, boxes and containers. They each grabbed as much as they could carry in their bags and made their way back to the first store-room.
Zach cut a piece of rope several feet long, soaked it in petrol and dunked one end into the open petrol drum. Then he waved them out of the room and trailed the rope across the floor and out the door. Pulling a lighter from his pocket, he flicked it and held up the flame.
‘We need to get out of here,’ he said, and then he lit the end of the rope.
The flame caught, and swiftly ran down the petrol-soaked rope and into the store-room.
They were about to head for the front door, when they heard voices from outside. Moby and Olga were barking angrily at the guards. They were on their way in.
‘The stairs!’ Bamf hissed.
The three saboteurs had started up the stairs just as the flames reached the drum of petrol. Seconds later, the store-room was an inferno, fire bursting through the door and spreading across the ceiling. Moby and Olga slammed the front doors open to find their fortress was ablaze.
Moby saw Zach’s feet just turning the corner on the stairs. The rebel leader let out a roar, threw off his top hat, drew his automatic and charged up the steps after him, with Olga tight on his heels.
* * * *
Bamf’s strength began to fail him as he climbed the stairs. Past the first floor, then on towards the hatch that led up through the floor of the watch-tower. His knees and ankles ached, and he was out of breath before he reached the hatch. He had once been a fitness fanatic, but hunger had eaten away at his muscles, drained him of energy. Below them, he could hear footsteps clattering up towards them.
Florence and Zach had stopped behind him.
‘Come on!’ he bellowed at them, coughing from the effort.
He had the gun raised as he rose through the hatch. There was a man and a woman standing watch. Bamf, exhausted and scared, raised the assault rifle and fired before they could bring their guns to bear. The shots were wild as the gun bucked in his hand, but he hit both of the rebels, killing the man and putting two bullets through the woman’s side. He dragged himself up onto the floor of the watch-tower, avoiding the blood that was spilling across the floor. His stomach cramped up and he would have vomited if there was anything to throw up. Even in this harsh and desperate time, he’d never killed anyone before.
Florence and Zach came up behind him. Florence picked up one of the other guns and fired down through the hatch, screaming as she did so. Zach took the rope from his pack, but then noticed a rope-ladder bundled up in the corner. Grabbing that instead, he climbed out of the watch-tower, scrambling down to the roof of the court-house and starting for the back of the building.
A bullet took Florence through the shoulder, and she was spun around before falling to the floor. Smoke was rising up through the stairwell now, and from out of that smoke came Moby, the automatic in his hand. Bamf went to fire at him, but the gun clicked uselessly. Out of ammo. With a frustrated cry, Bamf threw himself at Moby.
They tumbled down into the heat and smoke down the stairs, straight into Olga, who dropped her sub-machine-gun as she fell under them. Bamf got in a couple punches to Moby’s jaw, then pulled the knife from his belt. He slashed at the rebel leader, cutting a hole in his jacket, but Moby caught the knife blade in his hook and yanked it from Bamf’s weak fingers. Bamf kicked out at him, but Moby knocked the foot aside.
Moby sneered. He was a hardened killer, well-fed, and pumped up on vitamin shots. This empty, starving man was no challenge for him. Coughing against the fumes, Moby glanced around for his gun. When he couldn’t find it, he shrugged and pressed the tip of his hook against Bamf’s throat.
Bamf was staring down at something in Moby’s pocket, visible through the tear in the man’s jacket. He reached out and wrenched at the tear. A small grease-stained paper package fell from the pocket and bounced down the steps. Moby froze, then looked back, just in time to see Olga pick it up, a frown on her face. She unwrapped it and gasped in shock, then dropped it in disgust, her unbelieving eyes raised to meet Moby’s.
‘A sausage roll!’ she blurted out.
‘It’s not mine!’ Moby protested.
‘It was in your pocket! It’s half-eaten!’
‘Darling, it’s not what you think . . .!
The anguish of betrayal was written all over Olga’s face. She looked up the stairs, then down into the flames that had reached the first floor, as if seeking some answer to this horror. But then a coldness settled over her.
‘Olga . . . my love,’ Moby began, letting go of Bamf and standing up straight.
Olga drew her revolver from its holster and without any further hesitation, put a bullet between Moby’s eyes. Bamf scrambled backwards up the steps, thinking he would be next, but then she threw the gun down the stairs, sat down and burst into tears.
‘Go,’ she said hoarsely, gagging in the smoke.
He didn’t need telling twice. Almost overcome by the smoke, he barely reached the hatch to the watch-tower, his stomach heaving and his head spinning. He wouldn’t have made it up out of the hatch if Florence hadn’t been there to help. She slumped back as once he was up, pressing a piece of rag against her wounded shoulder. They had intended to climb down from the roof using their rope, but Bamf and Florence could never manage that now. But Zach had found that rope-ladder, and had just finished tying it off at the roof at the back of the building. Parts of the roof were starting to cave in, collapsing into the fire below. With great difficulty, they climbed down those two storeys, Zach supporting Florence as best he could.
As they stumbled away from the burning building, the weight of the food in their packs was almost more than they could bear, but there was no way they were letting it go.
‘What now?’ Florence asked as they staggered on into the cool night.
‘Now?’ Bamf coughed and spat something from his throat. ‘Let’s see what we’ve go to eat.’
Zach was rooting through his bag.
‘Lentils, hummus . . . tofu. Damn. No meat. No cheese. Jesus, even some baked beans would have been nice. I’d kill for a sausage roll.’
‘Come to think of it,’ Bamf grunted, ‘I think I can wait until we get somewhere safer. And keep your voice down, there’s people out there with very strong feelings about sausages.’
They walked as best they could, disappearing into the darkness that shrouded the streets of Monaghan. Behind them, the flames consumed what remained of the old courthouse. The smell of burning food carried for miles.
 
                                                                                                                                                              
 
 
 
The Institute

My life was changed in the space of a week. I was getting tested, as everyone must at thirteen. The day started the same as any other. The sun broke through the windows. The shower hummed from across the hall. Life was simple; life was easy, if only I know how long it would last.
My mother called from downstairs. “GET UP!”She yelled. “It’s time for school, Alex, today is an important day for you Alex, so HURRY UP!” I groaned. Today was my testing, all my friends have been tested and they all got through fine, which sucks for me, on average one in ten teens will show signs at thirteen and today I turned thirteen. Unless someone in your immediate family has “the Gene” then they won’t test you until you turn thirteen. I pulled the covers off and sat at the edge of the bed and thought. The two people from my school to be taken was six years ago. No one knows what happens when they take you, some come back after a few years usually when their nineteen or twenty some come out sooner but other’s don’t come out at all.
My stomach tightened at the thought of what happened to them. I stood up and walked over to the bathroom as the bolt was slide back. My older sister Katelyn walked out wrapped in a bath robe. She was eighteen and had been tested like me at thirteen she hadn’t passed, thank god, she knew what I was thinking about the testing. She slipped past me, she was a few inches taller than me, her long blond hair still wet from the shower. She rested her hand on my shoulder and squeezed lightly.” It’ll be okay if I got through then so will you.”She whispered. As she moved towards her room I thought about something one of the testers had told us, “it is unlikely for one child to not develop a gift if the one previous has no gift.” That always makes me feel better. She had no gift so chances of me having one as almost nil. I slid the bolt and got showered.
Twenty minutes later I joined my family at breakfast. Katelyn was there in her smart grey suit that she always wears to work. She works for a doctor in some clinic out of town, I don’t know where and she won’t tell us. My mother stood by the stove her brown hair was tied back in a ponytail almost touching the base of her spin. She turned away from the stove, a big plate of sausages and bacon, black and white pudding and a big fried egg. Her grey eyes twinkled with a small film of tears. She doesn’t say anything and I’m thankful for that because it would have meant me crying and I did not want to do that doing into school. My dad sat at the head of the table he looked at me with dry but worried brown eyes. Nobody said anything they all looked at their food or at the floor. I looked at them all, praying this won’t be my last time to see them all.
I eat my breakfast as slowly as I could hope something would change, maybe they made a mistake, but I knew that nothing would change. At exactly ten to eight the sound of the school bus roaring down the road came to us. Its breaks squealed to a halt. The doors hissed open and walked to the bus slowly the gravel crunching under foot sounded loud in my ears, five steps away from the bus my mother, Katelyn and my dad raced up the gravel path it crunched for them as me but quieter, they surrounded me and hugged me. I hugged back, they whispered, “It’ll be fine, nothing’s going to happen” it sounded more like they were trying to reassure themselves than me.
I Turned away quickly and got on the bus. My mind raced as the driver eased out of our drive and joined the endless stream of traffic. I looked around the almost full bus and fourteen pairs of eyes gazed back at me. Some worried some pleading as if I had any answers and one or two with looks of humour as they were laughing at me. They were the ones that didn’t know about the testing’s, about never seeing your family again, about never being seen again. I sat down next to Sammy, my friend it was his thirteenth two weeks ago. He looked at me sadly. No one how had been tested ever mentioned what happened only that they survived and had not been taken. So I wasn’t surprised when he said, “Don’t worry Alex, you’ll survive. I know you will. Just remember what they said you’ll be fine.”
There were no more stops after my house. We pulled up to the school. Thirty kids from my year waited. I knew what was coming, the oldest ritual for those to be tested. As I got off the bus everyone turned to face me. They raised their right hands to the sky, palms extended. It was a sign taken up by all schools, everywhere. It was a sign that meant, we stand beside you, and we acknowledge you and we wish you well in your tests. No one moved for almost a minute. I looked into the gathered and saw the faces of friends and enemies, the bell rang and reminded me of a funeral bell. Everyone moved off to the huge double doors being opened. I stood where I was as three of my friends joined me and Sammy. Each had already had their test and failed. They knew what I was thinking even then at that late stage. They each in turn grasped my shoulder firmly. Then they walked off through the doors. They were closed behind them. I stood alone in the cold February day as a breeze swept across the desolate play ground. I was alone as all tests started. My friends and family would know what will happen from now but they were forbidden to tell me. It would affect the test too much. Fear was needed. That much everyone knew.
I waited and waited, the seconds turned to minutes, the minutes turned to hours. The sun was high in the sky before the doors were reopened. A man stepped out towards me. His brown hair shown in the high noon sun. He wore a scientists coat over a blue sweater and dark jeans. He was on his twenties no older than Katelyn, as he got closer I could see a clipboard in his hands. He reached me and he held out his hand. I accepted it. He was about a foot taller than me. His slightly tanned skin was kind of funny because he looked like the last person you’d invite to a beach. He had blue eyes and they seemed to be all knowing or maybe had seen it all before. The traffic was light on the road behind us, no windows looked from the school. No one else came out. It was just him and me. The cold wind blew from the mountains far in the distance.
He spoke with a voice that was well used to saying this sentence, “Hello my name is Jason, and I will be your test instructor today. As you know fear is required so you will be advised to wear this heart rate monitor at all times. You will follow me now and do exactly as I say from this moment on, is that understood?” He handed a watch like thing. I strapped it on to my arm, the watch beeped once and three figures appeared on the small screen. The scientist Jason looked at the numbers and wrote them down as he explained what they were about. “The figures on the bottom are your heart rate, the other two measure your blood pressure.” He sounded so monotonous that it was hard not to say “You don’t say” but I didn’t.
He motioned for me to follow and I did. We walked down the hallway he had just walked up. I noticed the heart rate numbers rising slowly. We walked for what felt like an age down the plain grey walled corridor. After a few turns we came to a set of double doors, they were normal sized but as they creaked open I noticed the doors were twice as thick as any I had ever seen. They were sound proofed this made my heart rate jump from eighty to one hundred and fifteen. As the doors closed Jason looked again at my watch and nodded while he scribbled down the new figures. “The test will start in five minutes it is advisable for you to rest and to try to calm down.” The way he said it made me realise he had said this so many times before he tested everyone before me and would probably test a lot of people after me as well. He moved back to the doors we had come through. They opened for him and he walked out. I was alone in the room. Looking around I realised it was circular there was nowhere to hide. A pair of doors at the far end of the room as well as behind me was all that was in the room. Rap around glass viewing decks were at least five stories up. They were tinted so I couldn’t see anyone up there but I knew they were up there. I steadied my breathing and waited. The numbers on my watch dropped back to normal.
Lights winked out of existence one at a time until there was only a spot light over my head left on. I heard the doors at the end open a loud creaking filled the air. Then footsteps, that was what I heard but nothing stepped into the light. The darkness provided the perfect cover, I could see nothing with the spotlight overhead. As if they could read my thoughts the light went out. I couldn’t see the watch but I could feel my heart hammering against my rib cage. The thing or whatever it was moved again. The slap of bear feet on granite filled the room, it echoed all around the room. It could have been anywhere but I knew it was circling me, I could feel its eyes on my back, willing me to turn around, but I stood fast. The circling stopped right in front of my face.
My heavy breathing filled the vast spacious room. An almost silent step and then another. It was right in front of me. All I could see were pitch black eyes, a long snoot and the sharpest teeth I have ever seen. Then something happened I was not expecting, something that froze me to the bone, it spoke. The wolf, that’s what it most resembled, spoke in a voice that was neither male nor female, but something in between. “Youngling, you are in my realm now, scream none will hear, die none will know how. You will feel fear like nothing you have ever known. None have bested me in six years, you have no hope. You cannot surrender, you can only fight, if you don’t you will die. Is that understood boy, fight or die that is your choice.”
The voice stopped and I was pleased with that. The wolf thing stood in front of me. Slowly, ever so slowly I raised my hand. The wolf didn’t move it just stared I could feel my heart pounding hard on my chest. The sound of blood filled my ears. Still the wolf didn’t move it didn’t even blink. My hand finally touched the wolf. She blinked then and I shuddered and then it pasted. I stared into the black soulless eyes of someone who had changed physically for this but not against her will. She could change shape I didn’t know how I could know something like that. She moved in the blink of an eye, one minute she was in front of me the next she was behind me her hand clamped around my neck and she grasped my arm and pulled it behind me with a vicious snap. It seemed to me that she expected me to be so much stronger. She pushed me hard in the back and then kicked me in the knee. I collapsed into the floor she moved her hand in fast and a searing pain exploded across my back as if a nail had been driven into my back. The hold on my arm was released as fast as it had been clasped.
She stepped back into the darkness the spotlight still glared down on me she was lost in the darkness. Slowly I turned over the light blinded me. I sat up the wolf girl stopped moving. I stood up proper and the spotlight blinked out. I stared into the darkness. Fear gripped me completely. My heart rate monitor bleeped, I didn’t know what caused it but the wolf girl did. She struck me hard in the gut. Then a fist connected with my temple. Her words echoed in my mind. “Fight or die that is your choice.”I stood as she moved in for another swing. I stepped aside and she continued forward right past me. I stuck out my foot and she collapsed. Then I choose my moment and pounced. I kicked for all my worth, it connected and I heard a crunching sound that made me sick. The girl gasped and began to cry. She pulled herself up to the wall still clutching her side.
The lights came back on. I closed my eyes. They burned in the brightness. When I finally looked down the wolf girl was just a normal girl with long black hair and grey eyes. She gasped and sobbed a little. She clutched her side and I kneeled down beside her. She looked up and it wasn’t anger in her face it was calmness as if she had been injured but saved someone. Jason came in through the doors behind me I wasn’t sure if they were the same as the ones I had entered through earlier. He walked over happy and a little disappointed too. “Well he said, I am glad to say that you failed the test Alex, you displayed no powers and only inflicted minor damage to the test unit.”His voice was calm and indeed a little happy. Jason grabbed my shoulder and the pain in my back flared up again. I bellowed in pain and fell forward as the strength left my limbs.
*******
I awoke I was in a bed in what looked like a hospital. The walls gleamed white, the smell of disinfectant wafted from the floors, the bed and the air vent humming high above my head. My neck was stiff that was the only thing that told me I had been here a long time. The bed clothes pressed me to the mattress. Slowly I swivelled my head left and Jason sat there he seemed to be reading something. He looked up and smiled kindly. His dirty white teeth were glimpsed. He closed the folder and set it down. “How do you feel?” He asked. I opened my mouth and went to speak but my tongue was dry. I croaked. “Drink, please” he nodded and grabbed the tumbler off the drawer beside me and poured in some water from the jug sitting beside it. He pulled something from his pocket and put in the tumbler. A straw I thought. He put it next my mouth. The only sound for a few moments was the sound of gulping by a very thirsty person. He put the tumbler down and asked, “Better?” I nodded. He looked down at me his brown eyes were soft and his expression was kind. “Do you remember what happened during the test?” He asked and instantly memories flooded back darkness, a wolf and pain. I looked up at him and said, “Not much just bits and pieces” He nodded slowly and then he handed me the folder he had been reading. It had about a dozen pages, but it was my picture in the top right hand corner that told me all I needed to know. It was my report, the information on my test, my family and their tests, my life up until my test and whole bunch of numbers that made no sense to me.
I looked up and he nodded at me. “That” he said, “ is everything that makes you, you, your life, test scores, aptitude test scores and family history that goes back to your great grandparents when the first the tests became necessary. It’s yours now, you have completed your test and failed, thank god, but I must tell you that you can never reveal what happened during your test as others cannot tell you, if you do so then you will be terminated, all record of your existence will be wiped out.” He reached for my hand and I accepted it. He held it firmly, then he released it and walked down the corridor.
The rest of the day past incredibly quick Nurses and doctors checked my back and decided I was fit to leave as soon as my parents collected me. I spent the day reading the report. It detailed so much of my life there were things in it I didn’t know. I had been diagnosed with meningitis at the age of sixteen weeks old. It had been successfully eradicated with no brain damage. My left eye was slightly weaker than my right. There is so much info my head almost exploded. At four thirty my mother appeared and I was discharged from the hospital. An hour later I was showered, fed and trying to get to sleep. Something kept nagging me about the test, something didn’t feel quite right.
That weekend I and the lads went out to the cinema to celebrate as we did when the others had failed their tests. I don’t remember the name of the film but I do remember the laughter. I was happy for the first time in many weeks when I could see the tests in my future. If only I knew how wrong I was. One wrong turn that is all it takes to change a life for better or for worse. That night the bus was running late and my friends had all walked off into the town, towards home. I waited, the night was calm a soft cold breeze blew up the main road. The orange lights glowed illuminating the road and the few cars that whizzed by without a second glance at a lonely boy sitting at the bus stop. They came out of nowhere four guys about fifteen or sixteen. They all wore grey hoodies, blue jeans and white runners. They walked with a confident swagger. The four guys made a loose circle around me. I prayed that the bus would hurry up. It didn’t hear me. The thug on my right turned around, he pulled a knife from his pocket and held it to my face. “Alright kid hand over all your things and no one gets hurt.” His voice was threatening and the knife emphasised that. I didn’t move which was a big mistake. The leader smiled viciously and signalled to the guy behind me. With no wronging a fist landed on my check the force knocked me to the ground. Someone kicked me in the stomach. The leader laughed coldly, “ Looks like we got a tough guy here lads, lets teach something they don’t teach in schools.” The thugs all laughed as there launched kick after kick into my stomach. I heard a loud crack and they stopped. The pain found me then. It was agonising, it blotted out their laughs, their jibs and their hands emptying my pockets. The leader held up his knife. He looked me in the eye his cruel black eyes were the last thing a lot of people had seen. “Sorry kid but you gotta disappear permanently” he shoved the knife into my guts and hot blood began to pour out. He pulled the knife out and got up to walk away.
I couldn’t believe this was the end. Just failed the most important test of my life and now I’m going to die. I couldn’t let that happen and then something stirred in me. Something I had never experienced before, something that, even then, I knew would change my life. A tearing noise was heard and then new strength filled me, Sharper sight, hearing and smell. There was still the blood leaking from my body but it seemed insignificant now. The thugs all turned, I could hear their heart beats increase, and I could smell their fear. They turned and ran I pounced my legs far stronger than theirs. The first thug fell easily, he got knocked out by the curb. The other three ran off into the night and I followed. The leader ran off leaving his two mates to feel my wrath. I jumped for all my worth. They crumpled underneath me. They were still breathing, that I could tell, just very unconscious. The last guy was crashing through the trees far away. I turned fast and thundered after him. The muscles in my legs were working harder than ever, he came into sight long before anyone should have been able to see. Not a sound came as closed on him. I was several bounds away when he broke through the trees and into a part of town I didn’t recognise he ran for the doors about a hundred feet ahead, He screamed, “He’s following me! HELP! For the love of god, HELP!”I crashed through the trees and sprinted like a horse after him. The doors burst open and a dozen people emerged. I jumped on top of the guy and he fell to the ground I was on his back. He screamed as my claws dug into his jacket. There was a bang and something slammed into my shoulder. I was thrown free of the thug. As I struggled to get up the newfound strength fled as a second bang was heard it missed me by about five centimetres. I collapsed in a heap as the people ran over to the now unconscious thug as the blood began to flow again. Someone else jogged over to me I was already starting to lose the fight with the darkness. He gasped at the gaping hole in my badly bruised stomach. He turned and yelled to another person,“ get the stretcher over here he’s losing too much blood. My vision started to go dark as he knelt down beside me. He pulled of the helmet I hadn’t noticed him wearing. Brown hair fell around troubled blue eyes. They were the last things I saw before the darkness surrounded me. One thing was certain, I knew the man who owned those eyes and I didn’t know what had happened but Jason was going to have quite a few questions to answer.
I woke up as before in a bed, Jason was sitting in a chair beside me, he looked worried. I moved a little and his head snapped up. In that moment I knew my life was forever changed. He spoke slowly as if unsure of how to proceed. “Alex I’m afraid that your test didn’t end in the arena, it has continued for the last week, all aspects of your life have been examined and because of what happened three days ago you have passed the test. You will be unable to leave this compound from this moment forth without the director’s permission. Do you understand?” My head felt like it wanted to explode, my ears kept ringing, “you have passed” I tried to sit up but my stomach roared in protest. My vision blanked and all strength left me. The last thing I heard was Jason saying, “I am truly sorry Alex, I am” I fell into a depressed sleep and my dreams were angry.
The next time I woke up I was in a room a smallish room, just the bed I was in, a door, a small fridge, a cabinet with a telephone right next to the bed, a desk with a laptop, another door that I guessed would lead to a bathroom. I sat up tentatively and was met with only slight pain like someone had punched me rather than stabbed me. The phone rang then and I reached for it. I put the phone next to my ear and a voice spoke clearly. “Ah, good your awake Alex I need to see you in my office sometime today, someone will be around shortly to show you around until then.” The line went dead and at the same moment there was a knock on the door. I scrambled out of the bed was relieved to find I still had under wear on, a pair of jeans sat on the chair next to me. I pulled them on and a red t-shirt with some weird design on it. Then I answered the door.
A girl who looked really familiar stood in front of me. She was wearing a pair of jeans similar to the ones I was now wearing, a green t-shirt with a big crest that looked like an eagle flying above an up turned sword, it looked like the one I was wearing when I looked down, but I wasn’t sure because it was covered in mud. Her black hair was tied back with twigs and leaves poking out. Her grey eyes were shining with excitement. I couldn’t shake the fact that I knew her I just couldn’t for the life of me place the face. She was definitely cute far better looking than any girl at school. “Hi”, she said, “I’m Tanya, it’s nice to meet you.” She held out her hand to me and I accepted it gingerly. “I’m Alex,” I say I felt all hot and clammy like I had just a mouthful of my mum’s salsa dip. Her eyes were really familiar. I then realised I was still holding her hand and dropped it suddenly. She dropped her head and smiled shyly, I returned it with a nervous smile. “So you’re the new meat then” she said, I stared bewildered I had no I idea what she was going on about. It must have shown on my face because she laughed a bit and it made smile confidently back at her. “It’s okay I’m not going to bite you know, come on, the director asked me to show you about and introduce you some friendly faces.” She held out her hand and I grasped it again in mine this time with less hesitation.
She led me down a corridor to a set of doors, it wasn’t until I heard the ping that I realised it was an elevator. She stepped inside and pulled me in after. Then she started talking. “The institute was set up about a hundred years ago and has had over three hundred people stay here since then. It was designed to accommodate the growing numbers of kids developing powers and teach them to control them. Right now there are only fifty of us living here right now.” The doors “pinged” again, I hadn’t even noticed that we had moved. We stepped out on to a ground floor room. There were about twenty kids in there of varying ages but one thing I noticed was that not one was younger than thirteen. They all turned to look at me when the lift had landed and I found it disturbing that so many people were looking at me. I could feel power emanating from each one. It wasn’t the power that worried me it was the fact that I could sense it. Tanya pulled me along and I realised she was speaking. “Sorry, what?” I said, she let out an exasperated sigh and started again. “As I was saying”, She said which made feel bad, but she smiled anyway, “There are an assortment of buildings that vary from training facilities and state-of-the-art simulator rooms to classrooms and a cinema.
The admin building is that one there”, she was pointing to a grey stone one storey building straight in front of us. It looked a sorry sight the faded paint was flaking. I looked around and saw about five buildings arranged in a circle each looked old, like they had stood there for a very long time. She pointed at each one individually and said what each one was. The one on my immediate left was the infirmary, the one beside it was the school building it had a dozen classrooms and a lab for science. There was a building a little bit back from it that was the training arena where we were expected to go three times a week for training, group exercises and solo training. The building on my right was the extracurricular activities building, the building was easily as old as the others but it felt cold to me standing twenty feet from it. When I asked Tanya she became very awkward as if I had opened up something best left unspoken about. She continued to tell me that the building we had just come from was where all the kids stayed.
 She led me into the school building and showed me some of the classrooms most had five or six kids working at their desks and teachers who looked like they enjoyed their work which is completely opposite the teachers I was used to at my old school. We were just leaving the school, the bell rang and simultaneously the doors all swung open and the corridor was filled with about two dozen kids all heading our way. Most looked at me as they past but didn’t think twice about it. As the last filed out, Tanya and I were left on our own. At that moment my stomach growled loudly. Tanya laughed a little, I realised that her eyes twinkled different colours when she laughed. “Come on,” She said, “Lets get you something to eat, OK?” She led me off to the accommodation building. The kids I had seen sitting, in the common area Tanya called it, had all left when we got back. She led me down a few corridors that I hadn’t noticed before and through a set of double doors. Even before she opened the doors I could feel the energy on the other side, it felt like the whole door should have been blasted off its hinges. She pushed the door and I went weak at the knees. The energy felt like a physical force trying to push me back. Tanya was still beside me, I felt time slow down, I doubled over I could sense all the powers in that room I could see how they worked and knew in an instant that, if I wanted to, I could reach out and take any of the powers I wanted. Then, just as quickly as it had started, the sensation stopped I was sill doubled over I could tell everyone was watching me. Tanya put her hand on my arm, suddenly I could tell she could change shape into anything, I could feel the animal instinct in her vying to be released on those around her. My hearing cleared and slowly I stood up straight. I released the breath I didn’t even know I had been holding. I forced my hand to relax. Everyone was watching me curiously they knew more was at play, that it was something to do with my power, but they don’t know what that power is and neither do I.
I step into the room and most people go back to eating but some of the older ones all look at me enviously, I don’t know why until Tanya puts her hand on my back the guys gives e the evilest eye anyone has ever given me. Tanya directs me to the counter and I see food that has been expertly prepared far well than anything I am used to. I collect my tray and turn around Tanya walks ahead of me and I follow her. She sits at a table with this nineteen year old guy that must be her brother. They have the same hair; he is sitting next this really hot twenty year old. They look up as we approach, Tanya greets the guy, “Hey, Ryan how are things?” The guy smirks, “About as good as things can be in here,” He notices me standing behind Tanya, his smiles properly this time, “and who is your little friend here?” He asks Tanya stays quiet and it takes me a little while to figure out he’s asking me. “Oh,” I say, which isn’t very clever of me, but the guy intimidates me, I don’t know why. “I’m Alex,” I say, “Alex Smith.” His eyes widen a little and Tanya twirls around to face me. There is a frown on her face, but a thoughtful one. “Hey kid do you have a sister called Katelyn by any chance?” I reply timidly that I did he smiled a bit more though I don’t know if that’s possible. He turned to the girl beside him and said, “See I’d know that hair colour anywhere, Bridget, I told you.” The girl beside him rolled her eyes which only made him laugh, that was when I recognised the voice, “Ryan Carter,” I stumbled out, he turned around eyes wide with glee, “Yes that’s me, how is life out there, Alex the last time I saw you, you were barely knee high to me.” He jumped up and held out his hand to me. I grabbed it and felt like I was grabbing a part of my old life before I was tested. He held on to my hand tightly, then let go, there was a fraction of a second when he frowned but I guess I imagined it because he just smiled again. Tanya had already sat down and the girl, Bridget was pulling on Ryan’s jacket, pulling him down, it was only then I realised that everyone was staring at us. I slid in beside Tanya and we ate in silence, until everyone else had turned around.
When the centre of attention had shifted back to food Ryan started to ask questions about Katelyn. I answered them as best as I could. A bell rang from somewhere in the cafeteria everyone jumped and started to move as one. I followed Tanya and returned my tray. She led me out to the administrative building she left me sitting on a bench in the hallway opposite a heavy set oak door. “That’s the director’s office”, she said and I stared at the door her footsteps receded down the corridor, I turned to follow her out the door. Just before she went out she turned back and smiled encouragingly, she spun round and walked into the dropping sunlight. Then I was alone. I waited and waited. Finally sitting got too much and I got up and looked at some of the pictures on the wall. They all showed men in their thirties and forties looking seriously down the lens of a camera shaking the hands of all the men were other men, I recognised some of them as the old heads of state from the European Union before the great change of the second great depression. Underneath the newest one was an inscription. “Michael Jameson, the director of the institute is appointed by The EU leader Darius Stone-Grace on the sixteenth of January 2087.” I nodded slowly that most be the Director, I wasn’t expecting him to be as young. “That was quite a day, if only I had known what I was letting myself in for.” I jumped nearly a foot in the air. I spin round so quick I almost fell over, there staring me in the face was a slightly older face than the man in the photo. He pointed to the door and I walked in even though I had only just arrived I felt as if I were in big trouble. He closed the door with a slight push and it closed into place with a light thud. He sat down behind a desk and pulled out a file. He put it on the table and I recognised the face on the front cover, it was mine.
He opened the file and then spoke clearly this basically all you grades, reports, medical appointments and physical diagnostics for the last thirteen years of your life Alex. It tells anyone who has access more about you than anyone other than you has any right to know.” He paused and looked at me, “This place is designed to allow people with dangerous powers to develop and to control them even when unconscious. We try to identify a person’s power before they are sent for. That’s the reason for the second test, with you we needed it to find out what your power was. The first failed to produce the desired effect, you didn’t respond to the android as we had hoped, but it scared you sufficiently for us to find out you had a power, we just didn’t know what it was. This is called the further testing period, you stay here for a month during which time we drill you to us your powers so we can find out if you need to stay here.” My ears perked up, “I thought that you got here you never left?” The Director shook his head, “No, we say that to people so they will want to fight in the test, so we get a more accurate test of that person. It is very complicated trying to keep all of this a secret. We aspire to teach the students as best as we can. So Alex you are the new one so I’ll keep this brief, you’re here until we can determine the extent of your powers then you either stay or leave depending on the severity of your powers.” My eyebrows scrunched a bit, “I can leave?” I ask my voice shaking with hope. “It depends on how strong you are maybe but we will see, this really is a further testing period and if you fail this one then you can leave, but you can’t tell anyone about the facility.” I nodded I really had been expecting a catch like that, but hopefully I’ll be leaving in a few days.
 There was a light knock on the door, “Enter” called the Director, the door opened in briskly and a man, taller than me, came in he had dark brown hair almost black, half moon glasses magnified his green eyes and a black tablet computer in his hands. His white jacket was spotless, but he looked like a man who could handle himself in any situation. “Ah, doctor, I’m glad you could make it. This is Alex Smith he is in need of testing.”The doctor smiled, it was a warm smile and it reminded me of Katelyn, I missed her then. The doctor held out his hand, I took it. It felt strong and callused beneath my fingers. He was a man used to tough fights and who took care with his work. “I am Doctor Grey, the resident physician, I look at all knew recruits and tend to all the students. Now, if you will follow me we’ll see what makes you tick.
We walked down the same corridor and into the medical building. A minute later I’m lying on a table and Dr. Grey is examining my eyes. He moves methodically, he looks at everything. He records my height, my weight and even takes some blood samples. He then goes about determining my fitness, this included, running on a treadmill with enough wires attached to me to make a robot, lifting weights and going flexibility tests like we used to do in school. By the time I’m finished the classes have ended and all the kids have moved from the education block to the resident building. I’m covered in sweat and can hardly move. My stomach growls like a cornered tiger. Dr. Grey let me use his private bathroom which also contains a shower, thank god. When I emerge ten minutes later, my wet hair touching the collar of my t-shirt, Tanya is sitting on a chair opposite Grey they seem to be having a conversation but go quiet when I enter. They are both frowning deeply, which makes me nervous, but still I ask, “What?” Doctor Grey points to the chair next to Tanya, “Take a seat Alex, we need to talk.”
 I sit and Tanya grasps my hand, under normal circumstances I would be embarrassed, but today has been far from normal. “Now, there are something’s you need to understand, first it is incredible rare for someone like you, how has a sibling with no power, to develop one but usually it means you’re skill is abnormal. Now I am the only person in the world to have successfully decoded the genome that is responsible for abilities, but there are different genomes for different powers, like Ryan whom you meet earlier can negate another’s power, and Tanya here can change her shape. Now in your case when the second test happened we were able to get some clear footage,” He pressed a button and a screen descended from the roof, it was a huge forty inch screen. It showed a grainy image of a boy waiting on a bus, four thugs came on screen. They turned on the kid said something that came across crackly on the speakers, “Alright kid hand over all your things and no one gets hurt” It came back in a flash the knife, the heat, the strength, everything. The screen confirmed what I had thought, The boy changed shape a fast progression, one moment he was normal lying on the ground with a knife in his stomach and then hair began to spot from his face, the thugs smiled a little until the boys face elongated into a snot, his hands became shagged, claws burst forth, his legs grew into a wolfs, his cloths ripped clean off, the thugs took this as there queue to leave, then the wolf pounced and was gone but we could still, hear the horrible crunch of bones as I landed on the first thug. The screen raised and the lights flickered on again, I hadn’t even noticed them going off. The doctor looks at me and I glance at Tanya she has a tear in her eye but it is quickly wiped away.
 “Now, I looked at your genome and you shouldn’t have been able to do that.” My head whips round, Tanya stares at the ground, “You say what now?” I almost explode, the doctor seems taken aback. “Your genome is completely different from any other shifter I have ever decoded, you are different Alex stronger, is my guess, but something I read in your report from the first test,” He pulled out a sheet of paper from a draw and read it aloud, “The subjects heartbeat increased as usual but at reduced from normal back down to near start beat as the test continued, this coincided with him making contact with Tanya, reason is as yet unknown but I would strongly suggest a second test to include anger not fear.” I look at Tanya. She is crying but it seems more joy than anything. “So what,” I say, “I stole her ability, that’s impossible, isn’t it?” The desperation in my voice is painstakingly obvious. “It should be but I think you copied her power, you master Alex can copy another’s power.” Then I know something for certain, but I ask any way, “I’m going to have to stay aren’t I” Doctor. Grey looks at me, the sadness in his eyes, makes me feel worse, “Maybe not for long but for a while anyway,” I can tell he is being nice. Then I go into shock and faint, the world recedes into darkness, but my sorrow follows me.
The next day I wake up, I still feel bad, like a huge part of my life has been ripped out. There is a knock on the door and Tanya walks in she is dressed in battered jeans, black runners and a similar green t-shirt. “Hey,” she said, her voice laden with pity, it makes me angry that she tries to share my sorrow. “What?” I ask none to friendly, but I don’t feel friendly today. She looked hurt and hands me a t-shirt it’s like hers except black. “Come on,” she says, “Breakfast is about to start” She holds out her hand and I follow her, my mood lightened a bit. We walked down the corridor that I had walked down on my first day. It was still silent and that made me wonder if there was even anyone else on this floor. We got into the lift and I asked Tanya something that had been playing on my mind for a while. “Why were you crying yesterday in Dr. Grey’s office?”
She smiled weakly, “I’m the only one ever to develop the ability to change shape, and it wasn’t until Ryan was sent here that my powers were allowed to develop. The reason I cried was because you know my pain now don’t you, I tried to explain it to the Psychiatrist, but they don’t know what it’s like but you do, don’t you?” I thought for a moment and searched myself and there at the back of my mind beneath the memories long forgotten, hidden behind fears yet to be realised, was an anger, a rage from an animal that was now as much a part of me as the blood in my veins. I smile a little not of humour but of something my sister once told me years ago, “There’s a monster in you” “Yes” I say, “I do know Tanya, I do know.”The doors open and once again there is not a soul to be seen. We walk down the corridor by the lift and to the double doors of the cafeteria. Again I can sense strength beyond the doors, but this time I can see individual strands, like rope unwinding. There was a pain behind my eyes and a ringing in my ears like someone was hitting an anvil right beside my head. Tanya went to open the door but looked back at me. I must have been in worse shape than I felt because she grabbed the arm, she lead me down the hall, the further away we got the better I felt. We reached the lift and I pulled back my arm. Tanya turns around, her face was a mix of grief and pity, “Are you okay?” I felt queasy, I slowly slid down the wall, and I felt the world spinning. She took one look and knew I wasn’t okay. My vision started flickering, I was going to pass out, “Tanya, get Doctor Grey,” I whisper I hear feet slapping on the marble floor. I lose the fight for consciousness as the bell sounds for class. The door to the cafeteria opens, but I no longer have the sense to care what they think of me. Some will snigger, some will be concerned and some will just not care. I no longer care.
I wake up in a bed in a room full of other beds; my head is foggy like I’m still asleep. It takes a moment for me to remember where I am. I sat up but my head protests. The door opens and a familiar person steps in. I realise then I can’t see very well. There seems to be a cloud in my way. The person spins round and yells out the door. “He’s awake, where is Dr. Grey?” The voice is so familiar it makes me cry but I can’t remember why. The darkness returns and with it comes sleep. The next time I wake up someone has propped me up on pillows the sun tells me it’s at least midday, though is it the same day? I don’t know. The door opened, it creaked loudly. Three figures entered. My vision was still poor so I only noticed Doctor Grey when he sat down beside me on the bed. “Now Alex,” One of the figures made a startled noise, “How do you feel?” I opened my mouth to reply but I forgot my words. I frowned and concentrated this time, “Feel funny,” I slurred, “Can’t see well” Grey nodded and one of the others scribbled down something’s. He looked at my eyes, then he got me to open my mouth, finally he sighed in frustration. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, Alex that’s always the worst thing about being the first you never know what’s going to happen. As far as I can tell there’s nothing wrong with your vitals seem normal, you seem to be responding to external stimulants as you should but there is something wrong.” He got up off the bed and one of the others followed but the other didn’t. They stayed a moment. They left something on the cabinet by my bed, and then they ran after Grey. I reached for the thing on the cabinet. I had to concentrate hard to make my arm obey. It felt like my body was fighting me at every step. Finally after what felt like an eternity my hand closed around a piece of paper. I lifted it to my face, right in front of my eyes, to read. It said “I’m sorry I lied, I had to they made me, forgive me, Alex please, forgive me.” The hand writing looked familiar but I couldn’t say who it belonged to, my brain was so fried. The exertion wiped me out; it would seem that I expelled a lot of strength on nothing. The paper slipped out of my hand and darkness swept over me like a tidal wave I had held at bay for so long.
Finally I woke up the sun was still in the sky, I could see again. I searched for the note, but it was gone, troubled I looked at the digital display on the opposite wall. It was the same day, only six hours after I had woke up that morning. The doors opened and Grey walked in accompanied by a nurse, she was carrying a clipboard. Doctor Grey approached, “Do you remember anything from the last time we spoke.” My mind was still a bit fuzzy but pieces started to float back. The cafeteria, the cloudiness, the power that I felt and a note, something about a note. “Bits,” I say my throat dry and weak. I take a drink from a tumbler on the cabinet besides my bed “But, not much just pieces.” He nodded and held out his hand, the assistant handed him the clipboard, he looked at it for a minute and hummed, like he was thinking. He looked at me a moment and the twinkle in his eye made me think he could play a convincing mad doctor. “Okay, I have a theory that maybe the cause of your collapse, but something else your vitals were almost perfect, your responses were slightly slower than normal but still not too bad. What is real cause for alarm is that you displayed no change from your first test results, your heart rate is over a hundred.” I thought for a moment, which is still quite hard to do, “how is that possible, it should have returned to normal. Shouldn’t it?” “Yes, it should have, but it didn’t Alex there is nothing really wrong with you so I’m just going to get you to wear a heart monitor for a few days.” He handed me a similar watch to the one I wore during my test. I put it on and then Doctor Grey spoke again, “I want you to come to each morning and evening to check in, okay, Alex?” I blink for a moment the fuzzy feeling is lifting all the time. “Yeah that’s fine doc” I say. “Good, now of to class, we need to asses you as quickly as possible. You’re in the education block, the first building on your right. I’ll see you later.” He walks off and before the door closes behind him, I’m out of the bed getting changed. My first day of class, I felt strangely excited.
Two minutes later I’m standing outside a class room that contains about ten students. The teacher approached the door. She had bright red hair in a ponytail. She opened the door and ushered me in. There were eleven people in the class. I spotted Tanya near the back, there was a spare table next her. When I want in she looked up and smiled at me. I moved to sit down, I noticed another girl in the room. She looked like a movie star. Her hair was perfectly straight, her eyes were the purest green I’d ever seen and her face would have been beautiful but for the deep seated scowl on it. I sat next to Tanya and got a good look at all the others in my class. They all seemed to be about thirteen; it was only when I sat down that I felt the hammering of my heart, the air felt as if there was a permanent ting to it. I couldn’t place my finger on it but something felt strange around me. The class passed by without much trouble. It was on some maths we had been doing just before I left. The bell rang for end of class and we all got up and left. The schedule I got yesterday said I had training now. I went out to the Training building. There were five other kids there as well. They stood in the middle of a dome big enough to park about five cars bumper to bumper.  
“Hello, you must be Alex, I’m Scotty I’m in charge of the training here, today were going to assess your capability. These guys have offered to test you. The one on the left is Simon Hunt, then there is Rue Jones she’s probably more dangerous than any of the others, Ryan Carter, Brigit Loris and Brian Holmes. They know, roughly, what your power is but this is a test to see how strong you could be. The arena is designed to absorb excess energy so we can gauge full strength. The test will start when you say so, it will end when you have either lost too much energy or when you have defeated all your opponents. Understand?” I nod meekly “Good, I’ll be here monitoring your progress, the watch on your wrist will transmit every moment of the fight to me, so just make your way to the centre of the arena. Do you have any questions?” I think and one pop to my head. “Do I fight them individually or at once?” He smirks a little, “Whichever you want.”
I walk to the centre and he pulls two have doors closed, they are like the rest of the walls grey. I stand in the centre and calm myself down. I can smell old battles, like musk in the air. I stand there and take in the five people before me. There is only one thing to do so I reach for the only thing I can. I reach for Tanya’s power. The wolf is like a caged animal, waiting to lash out and kill. Now I know why Tanya was crying when I changed I understand the blood lust she fights with everyday. I go for the wolf but then I remember about Ryan’s power. He can negate another’s power. I think, how did I do it? How did I take Tanya’s power? I close my eyes, a dangerous thing I know but, they won’t do anything, at least not yet anyway. The test! The first time I met Tanya. It all came rushing back, the fight, the taunt, the wolf kid and the touch.
I snap my eyes open; they all look disconcerted with the look of confidence spreading through my body. I know I had shaken Ryan’s hand, I can block there power’s. I laugh, manically and reach inside, back to the wolf and there by the cage in my head a small ball of light, I reach out to it with my mind and a warm feeling spreads over me. I know I can’t beat them as I am. I reach out to the wolf. I don’t hear it, the ripping. The whole arena was filled with the sound of tearing cloth. I was told after that it looked like I had spontaneously grown fur and then the ear splitting cracks came. They put more fear in the others than the four foot tall, two hundred pound snarling hound from hell. I charged at Ryan as he tried to negate the change. The realisation hit him just before I sent him flying into the wall eight feet away. The whole arena shook with the force of his collision. The other four all reached the same conclusion at the same moment. “We can’t stop him, run.” They all ran in different directions, trying to outmanoeuvre me, but the wolf would not be denied. He lashed out a huge claw at Brian as he tried to run by, he hit the wall and crumpled. Out cold. Rue and Brigit tried to go around my back. I used my tale to knock them down and turned, a boy of fifteen stood between me and them. I went to head-butt him but he was gone. He stood by the girls. I let loose a snarl so terrifying the boy snapped his head up and froze. Then I felt it the pull on my on my energy. It felt like a lead wait on me. I felt like I was extremely tired. The doors burst open just as I was about to pounce on them. A dozen people stormed the room I stopped their powers but I felt even more tried.
I released that power as another wolf bounded into the room. She stopped six feet away and barred her teeth; I barred mine in return and growled at her. I was unaware of the other’s moving to help the others. All I was aware of was the she wolf I was circling slowly. She jumped and so did I. We clashed in mid air. She sank her teeth into my side and I slashed her on the back. We broke off; my side was on fire she seemed to be as a shape her fir was matted in blood. I heard a dull thud as the doors closed. I turned back and the she wolf was charging again, though there was a limp in her run. We clashed again, more furiously this time, she tried to dig her claws into my but I batted her head; she roared angrily and bit me neck. I clawed and slashed her back and legs. We both bleed extensively pools filled at our feet and still the attacks came, the growls and roars rattled the doors and walls. Neither of us gave up.
 We broke off again and the doors opened, we both turned and roared angrily, we didn’t want to quit, the man how came in was the only one who could stop us. Ryan. He stood at the door as we both circled to him, me on the right and her on the left. He started to look really worried. He focused on us; the look of concentration on his face was more intense than any I had ever seen. I could feel the force emanating from him as he tried to change us back to our normal selves. Tanya changed back first but I was far harder.  He focused on me completely; the force coming from him should have been enough to physically push me back. The arena was filling with people. In the corner of my eye I could see Tanya trying to stand she was bleeding badly, huge gashes littered her body. To the astonishment of everyone, I summoned all the will I could and took a step towards her. Ryan redoubled his efforts. Everyone in the room felt it. He cancelled their powers, but still I stepped to her. I was one step away and she looked up at me. The fear in her eyes startled so much; she looked at me as if I were the grim reaper come to take her soul.
I could feel the pressure mounting; the force of his power was beginning to weigh me down. I took one last step and collapsed in front of her. I let in Ryan’s power and changed back. I reached out with my hand and grabbed hers. I could feel the blood gushing from my own wounds. Then all I was aware of was a whole lot of murmuring, screaming and movement. The world took on a weird grey ting like all the colour had been sucked out. Then my eyesight went black, I grabbed Tanya’s hand tighter and she mine. I knew there was a real chance we both could die. I realised but so long as I didn’t go alone I would be okay. They brought in gurneys and lifted us on to them. The medics tried to break our hands apart, but they were like iron. So they piled us on to the same gurney as my hearing faded into nothing. I was so scared but I could still feel Tanya there next to me. I felt the cold air as we went from the arena to the hospital. A warm feeling spread from my feet up my legs, around my stomach, chest and up to head. That was when I lost all feeling except in my hand clasping hold of Tanya.
We were lost to the world, we were only aware of the other. Then I lost consciousness but my hand never lost grip with Tanya’s. We were in this together.
I could feel the change, even in a place beyond hurt, fear or influence. One minute I was aware of nothing, and then it was as if a light had been thrown in my head. I hurtled towards reality that I thought I was break out of my body. I became aware of voices, familiar ones, I could see light and I hurtled to it at break neck speed. Then I was there in the room, people all around looking like they were waiting on someone to die. Everyone has bowed heads. I look right and left. Tanya is nowhere to be seen. I try to rise but the bed clothes are too restricting, then Tanya steps forward and comes up to put flowers next to me. I then realise that I can’t move anything. They all look up once Tanya steps away, she has red eyes and more tears falling by the minute. Four people step forward and raise the sides of the bed. No not a bed, a coffin! My mind races there is nothing I can do. Before they put the lid on Tanya screams out, “Wait,” the urgency in her voice makes me think that she could see me. She steps forward and kisses me on the lips. It was a sweet and tender kiss. Then she whispers, “I will always love, and I will miss you until the day I day.” Another tender kiss on my forehead and the lid is lowered for eternity.
I woke with a start; the room was familiar to me. “I am back in the hospital.” I thought. I lay in silence thinking about that weird and very unsettling dream. Then I became aware of someone breathing next to me. I turned a stiff neck and there was Tanya right where we left off. She was gripping my hand. I leaned back into the bed and just sat there listening to the constant breathing of the girl next to me. After a while the door opened and four people walked in. Doctor Grey pulled out two charts. He looked a bit wild eyed and wary. He had a good read of the charts and then looked up at me. His eyebrow’s scrunched together as he thought for a moment. “Do you remember anything of what happened in the arena?” He asked his voice was cautious and troubled. I had to think for a moment. “Yes I do remember, the fight, Tanya, the pain and the weakness.” I said the quietness in my voice was distressing. Tanya stirred in my arms and sat up when she saw all the people around her. Ryan leaned in hugged her fiercely. His eyes were red from crying and he looked like he hadn’t slept in a long time. I looked at the others in the crowd around us. There was the Director looking with extreme fascination and of course Brigit was behind Ryan looking like she had been crying and also not slept in a while.
Ryan finally stepped away from his sister and smiled uneasily his tiredness was getting the better of him. The Doc saw this and told him and Brigit to go get some sleep. That left us alone with the Doc and the Director. As the Doctor went about his business, the Director started talking. “The arena, as you know, measures energy output and a multitude of other things. We know that Tanya has some decent control over her powers and Alex the capacity you displayed in the arena tells us that you are incredibly strong willed. We want to try to test you and compare your control with Tanya’s. We all need to know the limits of your control, more so we need to assess how easily you can copy powers.” He seemed a bit on edge as he pulled out a small tablet. He showed it to me. “The green is Tanya’s power level, the red line is yours.”The numbers on the side went up in five’s, the green bar stopped at six hundred and forty five. The red bar kept climbing to nearly nine hundred and ninety. Tanya stared at it wide eyed. She understood what it meant, I had no idea. “Is this accurate?” She asked a little wary. “Yes”, came the uneasy reply, “accurate to with ten greys as you well know.” She turned to me. She looked very worried as if this wasn’t possible.
There is one thing I don’t understand and it’s kind of important. “What is a grey?” Doctor Grey answered with great patience. “A grey is the unit of measurement for all power types. You see there are different variations to powers. Tanya here is not the first person to develop the ability to change her appearance but she is the first to be able to change into another physical form. You see Alex while no two powers are the same but they can be similar to others. Yours is probably going to be incredibly rare and not seen for another fifty or sixty years.” I let that sink in for a moment. Tanya got up unsteadily and wandered off to the bathroom. She almost fell twice but the director caught her and led her to the bathroom door. He came back and sat down next to the bed. “Now Alex you must understand the average grey value is only about four to five hundred, it is extremely rare to find someone as powerful as you or Tanya. It does happen but not often and they are never over six hundred, the watch on your wrist transmitted every moment of your battle. The Grey value is due to the release of a certain chemical in the body that stimulates your power it’s released in small amounts but has a big effect. The physical powers produce the highest amount of this chemical.” I tried to make sense of all this new information, but felt overwhelmed, everything span around in my head but one thing kept coming back. “Why is that grey thing so high in me?” Mr. Jameson looked at the Doc and he looked at me. “Honestly I have no idea, it could be due to the fact that you copy powers in the touch or that you need that much to copy the powers perfectly, we just don’t know.”
Tanya came back in to find me alone and changing. She blushed a little bit but came in anyway. I never heard her stepping up behind me. She wrapped my arms around my waist and hugged. “How do you feel?” she asked her head resting on my shoulder. I smiled a bit and felt better than ever really calm. “I feel good a bit tired but well.” Our stomachs growled in unison. We both laughed at that she had changed out of the hospital clothes into a pair of jeans, a green t-shirt and a pair of half decent runners. She untangles herself from me and I pull on my red t-shirt. We walk back, hand in hand, to the cafeteria for some lunch. I can feel the nervousness rising in me as we get nearer. The background hum began when we came in through the door into the dorm building. It felt like a constant buzzing in my ears, but I persisted, it felt weaker as if I was getting stronger by day. We were in the hallway to the cafeteria now. Tanya looked at me and said, “We don’t have to go in there you know. We can get something to eat back in our rooms.” I looked at her and she slid her hand in mine. We walked to the door. I placed my hand on it. Again I could sense the individual powers, the matter movers, the manipulators, the changers and those who could control your very emotions. I looked at her then and said; “I can do this Tanya, trust me” She looked me in the eye and said, “I do.” She then slides her hand into mine and we walked into the cafeteria. Her hand was cool in mine and it gave me the strength to go through that door and into a new life.
 

Creative Writing Residency

 

In association with Poetry Ireland, Oisin Mc Gann, who is a published author conducted a series of creative writing workshops with Transition Year students during April. The students produced a short story called Death and the Vegan and found the experience very enjoyable.

 

‘Death and the Vegan’

By Students of St Macartan’s College with Oisín McGann

 

This place had once been a McDonald’s restaurant, back when there were still restaurants in Monaghan. Then it was a makeshift treatment centre. Back when there were still doctors and nurses around. Now, it was just a building. But Bamf had searched the rest of this bloody town in the hope of finding food, and he was getting desperate.

Truth be told, he’d been desperate for a while. It took a lot of effort to do anything these days, even the pain that scraped at his stomach seemed to giving up and going away. The pains in his joints were still there and his throat felt like he’d been drinking battery acid, but he wasn’t giving up. There had to be something here . . . something everybody else had missed . . .

The big walk-in fridge was empty, of course, and a search under all the cookers and stainless steel kitchen units turned up nothing – at least, nothing he’d risk eating. The door to the stairs that led up to the offices had been broken open, and he was about to start up the stairs when a voice made him spin round:

‘There’s nothing up there, we’ve already checked.’

He had his hunting knife drawn even as he turned, but there were two of them, both around his age, not even out of their teens, and the guy held a crossbow. It was the girl who had spoken; she was tall (though most people were taller than Bamf), a goth with the black hair, black clothes, the pale skin. Funny how a person who was starving to death could still get it together to coordinate a style. Hunger had added to the image, giving her attractive face a haggard look.

Bamf could relate to the little vanities – there might be something bizarre about a short, starving black man keeping his hair bleached blond, but it helped him feel . . . human. And contrary to what some people believed, it had nothing to do with him being gay.

The other guy looked fat, and he probably once had been, judging by his skin. Now he had the distended belly of a starving man; Bamf had seen it enough times before. It looked like a beer belly, but it was caused by fluid, not fat, and it was pretty painful. The guy’s liver could well be swollen too. His hair looked odd, now that Bamf thought about it. Almost like it was permed. But nobody’d go that far to stay sane, especially not a guy, would they?

‘We’ve found something downstairs,’ the girl said, an intense look in her eyes. ‘But we need help to get at it. You help us, and we share what’s there, okay?’

She was holding a crowbar, but it hung loosely from her fingers, down by her side. Looking at these two, Bamf was pretty confident he could take them if he could get the guy to point that crossbow in the wrong direction. In the end, his stomach made the decision for him.

‘Yeah, okay,’ he grunted, trying not to look too hopeful. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’

‘I’m Florence, this is Zach,’ she said, gesturing towards the guy with the belly.

‘Bamf,’ he muttered.

‘Nice hair,’ Zach said, his voice slightly slurred. ‘You do it yourself?’

‘You takin’ the piss?’ Bamf growled.

‘No, no, just wondering what products you use. If I wanted to take the piss, I’d call you a short-arse. Which you are.’

Bamf was about to cut him a new mouth when Florence spoke up.

‘You pair of lovebirds want to go see if we can dig out some food?’

What Florence and Zach had found was a chest freezer. It was huge, but it was empty. Bamf held up his knife, facing down one and then the other.

‘You messin’ with me?’ he demanded.

‘It’s not what’s in it – it’s what’s down the back,’ Zach pointed with the crossbow.

‘You want to lower that?’ Bamf nodded at the weapon.

The guy looked a little unsteady on his feet. Bamf wondered if he might be drunk, but found it hard to believe.

‘You want to put that knife away?’ Zach whined back.

Bamf hesitated. He didn’t trust them. And it wasn’t just because they were white – though that might have been reason enough – you just couldn’t trust anybody nowadays. Inch by inch, the two guys lowered their weapons, watching each other suspiciously.

‘Zach’s not very strong,’ Florence said, trying to break the tension. ‘But he was the one who found the stuff, and he came to me for help. There’s loads of packets of tomato sauce that have fallen down the back of the freezer. We can get them out if we can move it, but even for the two of us, it’s too heavy. Want to give it a try?’

If any of them had been in full health, they could probably have moved this thing no problem. But not now. Now it took all three of them, and even then, they only dragged it out a few inches. It was enough for Florence to reach her long thin arm in behind it and pull out the catering packs of tomato sauce.

As she stretched out, Bamf saw the needle-marks on her arm. They were old – she probably hadn’t had anything in weeks. It was amazing she was still alive, given that she’d probably have spent more time looking for drugs than food.

There was one burst plastic bag and two sealed ones, all stuffed with the little sachets of sauce. Florence started to divide out the loose sachets, but then Zach took over when it became clear she couldn’t count to save her life. They started tearing them open and sucking them dry before they’d finished sorting them. It was incredibly frustrating, there was so little in each one, but Bamf thought he’d never tasted anything so good in his whole life. He could feel his stomach coming back to life, and the cramps starting again. At least the tiny packets meant he couldn’t gorge himself as he wanted to. He’d just have thrown half of it back up again.

‘This is the food of the Gods!’ Florence gasped, as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and licked it off.

They tore open the other two bags and spilled the sachets out on the floor.

‘Have you got a place to go?’ Florence asked Bamf.

He shrugged. He’d been moving from place to place across town, but none of them were safe. The last place he’d called home had been ransacked by a gang who’d taken the last of his food. Then they’d taken his place.

‘We could both stay at Zach’s house,’ she suggested.

‘You what?’ Zach protested. ‘Says who?’

‘It’d be safer . . . y’know, if we were all together,’ Florence said. ‘Look what we’ve got! Everyone will want it.’

The other two knew she was right. If the three of them stuck together, there was less chance of someone taking the remaining tomato sauce off them.

‘All right,’ said Bamf. ‘But if either of you tries anything funny, I’ll kill you.’

They each gathered up their share of what was left, stuffed them into their bags, and headed for the stairs. Something occurred to Zach as they climbed back up to the ground floor:

‘If one of us tried something, but it wasn’t funny, would that be okay?’

* * * *

Zach’s place was safer than a lot other homes in Monaghan, but it was disgusting. His father had been a stockbroker – a really successful one, judging by the size of the house. But he’d disappeared a while back, without any warning. Bamf figured his cleaning lady must have either gone with him, starved to death or fled a long time ago. There was rubbish all over the floor. A lot of the rubbish consisted of vodka bottles.

Zach really only used the sitting-room, kitchen and downstairs bathroom now. The only thing that looked as if it was still functioning normally was a powerful PC with three screens and all sorts of other fancy kit sitting on or around a hardwood desk.

‘Electricity runs off a generator,’ Zach muttered, pulling a half-empty bottle from somewhere, unscrewing the top and taking a drink. ‘Don’t touch my computer.’

Apart from that, the place looked like a fancy bachelor pad a month after a stag party that had never been cleared up.

‘Should we put these in the fridge?’ Florence asked, holding up her tomato sauce sachets.

‘They’ve been stuffed down the back of a dead freezer for months,’ Bamf pointed out. ‘If they haven’t gone off by now, they’re probably not going to.’

‘Oh, right,’ she sniffed.

A pounding on the front door made them all jump. Nobody moved. The pounding stopped and several seconds passed. Then the door was kicked in, and a gang of men and women in military gear stormed in. They were all armed with guns, and they all looked hungry. They were rebels, one of the bands at war with the government, although they spent most of their time pushing the townspeople around.

‘What the hell’s this?’ Bamf snarled, but he left his knife where it was, tucked into his belt in the small of his back.

‘Random search,’ one of the rebels replied. ‘We’re collecting for the household charge. Got any food?’

The bags were lying out in full view on the wood and glass coffee table, and the rebels descended on them, tipping out the contents. There were cries of satisfaction as they sachets of tomato sauce were found. One of the men was about to rip open a sachet when a shot rang out, and he let out a scream. Dropping the sachet, he clutched his hand, trying to stem the blood gushing from the bullet hole in his palm.

‘You eat when we say you eat!’ a stern woman’s voice roared.

All eyes turned towards the door, where a tall, athletic woman with large breasts and a shaved head was striding through. Her face and scalp were scattered with tattoos, at least some of which had been picked in a women’s prison in Russia. Her name was Olga, and she was feared throughout the area for her fanatical beliefs and her expertise with any kind of gun.

‘Have you checked the ingredients?’ she asked the sergeant in charge of the men, as she pointed at the sachets spilled on the coffee table.

‘No ma’am,’ he muttered sourly.

‘Who gives a toss about ingredients?’ Bamf asked.

‘Ingredients are everything!’ Olga snapped at him. ‘Don’t you realize there could be animal products in these? It’s probably garbage like this that stunted your growth, little man. Don’t you care what you’re putting in your body?’

‘Go to hell,’ Bamf said.

‘I don’t care what I eat as long as it’s got calories,’ Florence replied softly.

At that moment, the temperature in the room seemed to drop. The soldiers moved back away from the doorway, forming two lines either side of the wiry man in the top hat who had just entered. This was the rebel leader, a sociopath named Moby, who enforced his vegan beliefs on his men and everybody else in the areas he controlled. He had a hook where his left hand should have been, and he tapped it against the button on his combats pocket as he stared at Bamf, Florence and Zach.

‘It was an animal virus that spread across our farms that started this famine,’ he said in a sad voice. ‘And it was the farming of animals in the first place that let that virus evolve. Eating meat has destroyed our world, my people. It has to stop.’

‘The sauce is free of animal products,’ Olga informed him, looking at the sachets.

‘Excellent, pack them up,’ Moby told her.

‘Get your hands off our food!’ Bamf shouted.

‘That’s ours!’ Florence cried. ‘You’ve got no right!’

‘All food must be gathered and distributed fairly,’ Moby told them. ‘It is for the greater good.’

‘Since when did you ever hand food out?’ Bamf growled, lunging at Moby.

He didn’t get even get close. Fists, feet and rifle butts battered him, knocking him to the ground. Several more blows later, he was unconscious.

* * * *

Bamf was amazed to discover that Zach’s fancy American-style fridge-freezer still dispensed ice. Nobody had ice any more. But then, hardly anybody had freezers.

‘Might as well use it for your face,’ Zach said, handing him the ice-cubes wrapped in a plastic bag. ‘It’s not safe to drink any more.’

Bamf nodded his thanks and pressed the ice-pack against his swollen face. His dark brown skin was starting to blossom in purple and black as the bruises formed.

‘I hate them,’ Florence rasped, clenching her thin hands into fists. ‘I hate them so much! God, I’m so hungry. This was going to be such a good day, and they just took it all off us.’

‘Everybody hates them,’ Bamf grunted, ‘but nobody does anything about it. This town is full of people who are all mouth and no trousers. Nobody in this place has any balls.’

‘And you do?’ Zach snorted. ‘What good are your balls, then Bamf? You just got your head kicked in for having balls. Oh yeah, you’re a real bad-ass. Wettin’ themselves they were.’

He turned away, making faces and talking under his breath. He wanted to continue the slagging, but he didn’t like the look Bamf was giving him.

‘I hate them,’ Florence said again.

Bamf was staring at the computer. There was a scanner and printer hooked into it. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a laminated card. He’d grabbed it off one of the men as they were beating him up. In his former life, he’d made a bit of money from doing up fake ID’s. These ones wouldn’t be hard to copy. Moby and Olga obviously assumed people had more to worry about these days than copying rebel ID cards.

‘How much fuel do you have for that generator?’ he asked Zach.

‘None of your business.’

‘Stop being a prat and answer him,’ Florence sighed. ‘How much?’

‘I dunno, about ten drums. Maybe enough for two months, the way I use it,’ Zach replied reluctantly.

‘I know a way we can get back at these gits and maybe get a whole load of food too,’ Bamf said. ‘But then we’d have to leave here for good. Are you up for it?’

‘I don’t have much worth staying for now,’ Florence responded. ‘Everybody I know is either dead or gone. I’d love to get back at the bastards.’

‘If it meant getting food,’ Zach mumbled, ‘I’d try anything.’

‘Okay,’ Bamf said. ‘We need a camera too. Do either of you know where we can get clothes that look like the stuff Moby’s lot wear?’

‘I think it’s just walking gear with a few extra belts and pouches added in,’ Florence said. ‘I could put something together. There’s an outdoors shop on the edge of town where they’ve loads of that crap.’

‘Right then,’ Bamf smiled. ‘Looks like we’re in business.’

* * * *

Moby had built his fortress into the remains of the courthouse in the centre of Monaghan. The place had been gutted in the riots that had first followed the food shortages. Moby had built back into it, and added a watch-tower on the roof above its Doric columns. Everyone but the chosen few had to enter by the heavy front doors, now reinforced with steel plates. All the windows were covered with similar plates with gun slits for firing out if the place was under attack. It was an ugly, but secure home for the rebel leader.

The food gathered by Moby and Olga’s forces was stockpiled inside in locked storage rooms, and kept under armed guard night and day. Anything with meat products in it was burned in bonfires in the middle of Church Square. People could often be seen combing the ashes for any surviving morsels, but would be sent running with shots fired over their heads if they were spotted by the guards.

It was nearly midnight when Bamf, Florence and Zach crossed the square, each carrying a drum of petrol on their shoulder. They were all dressed in the military-style gear the rebels wore, their heads covered by caps. Bamf was in the lead as he climbed the steps to the guards who stood by the doors.

‘Moby was lookin’ for fuel for his generators,’ Bamf said to them. ‘We found a few remaining up at Macartan’s. There was a bunch of teachers still holed up in there – they put up a fight, but the place is ours now. Moby said anything we got out of the place had to go into storage here.’

The two guards looked them over. They didn’t know every face in Moby’s army, but anybody sent on jobs like this was normally familiar.

‘ID’s?’ one man asked.

The three cards were handed over. The guard studied them and handed them back.

‘Fuel goes right in at the back, last door on your right. No smoking anywhere in the building.’

To get into the store-room they’d been directed to, they had to be checked by another guard, armed with an assault rifle. He watched them carefully as he unlocked the door and let them in. Bamf took the drum from Florence, who hovered by the door eyeing up the guard. He eyed her back.

‘You looking at something?’ she asked coyly.

‘Maybe I’m lookin’ at you,’ he replied in a cocky voice. ‘What time you off duty?’

Bamf appeared behind the guard, a wooden club in his hand.

‘Right now, actually,’ she chirped.

The club came down on the back of the man’s head, and he slumped to the floor with a groan. Bamf took his gun. Inside the store-room, Zach was pulling a long coil of rope from his pack. There was no food here, it was all hardware, fuel and other odds and ends. Florence searched the unconscious guard and found his keys. Unlocking another door, she had to stifle a cry of delight. There were shelves and shelves of tins, packages, boxes and containers. They each grabbed as much as they could carry in their bags and made their way back to the first store-room.

Zach cut a piece of rope several feet long, soaked it in petrol and dunked one end into the open petrol drum. Then he waved them out of the room and trailed the rope across the floor and out the door. Pulling a lighter from his pocket, he flicked it and held up the flame.

‘We need to get out of here,’ he said, and then he lit the end of the rope.

The flame caught, and swiftly ran down the petrol-soaked rope and into the store-room.

They were about to head for the front door, when they heard voices from outside. Moby and Olga were barking angrily at the guards. They were on their way in.

‘The stairs!’ Bamf hissed.

The three saboteurs had started up the stairs just as the flames reached the drum of petrol. Seconds later, the store-room was an inferno, fire bursting through the door and spreading across the ceiling. Moby and Olga slammed the front doors open to find their fortress was ablaze.

Moby saw Zach’s feet just turning the corner on the stairs. The rebel leader let out a roar, threw off his top hat, drew his automatic and charged up the steps after him, with Olga tight on his heels.

* * * *

Bamf’s strength began to fail him as he climbed the stairs. Past the first floor, then on towards the hatch that led up through the floor of the watch-tower. His knees and ankles ached, and he was out of breath before he reached the hatch. He had once been a fitness fanatic, but hunger had eaten away at his muscles, drained him of energy. Below them, he could hear footsteps clattering up towards them.

Florence and Zach had stopped behind him.

‘Come on!’ he bellowed at them, coughing from the effort.

He had the gun raised as he rose through the hatch. There was a man and a woman standing watch. Bamf, exhausted and scared, raised the assault rifle and fired before they could bring their guns to bear. The shots were wild as the gun bucked in his hand, but he hit both of the rebels, killing the man and putting two bullets through the woman’s side. He dragged himself up onto the floor of the watch-tower, avoiding the blood that was spilling across the floor. His stomach cramped up and he would have vomited if there was anything to throw up. Even in this harsh and desperate time, he’d never killed anyone before.

Florence and Zach came up behind him. Florence picked up one of the other guns and fired down through the hatch, screaming as she did so. Zach took the rope from his pack, but then noticed a rope-ladder bundled up in the corner. Grabbing that instead, he climbed out of the watch-tower, scrambling down to the roof of the court-house and starting for the back of the building.

A bullet took Florence through the shoulder, and she was spun around before falling to the floor. Smoke was rising up through the stairwell now, and from out of that smoke came Moby, the automatic in his hand. Bamf went to fire at him, but the gun clicked uselessly. Out of ammo. With a frustrated cry, Bamf threw himself at Moby.

They tumbled down into the heat and smoke down the stairs, straight into Olga, who dropped her sub-machine-gun as she fell under them. Bamf got in a couple punches to Moby’s jaw, then pulled the knife from his belt. He slashed at the rebel leader, cutting a hole in his jacket, but Moby caught the knife blade in his hook and yanked it from Bamf’s weak fingers. Bamf kicked out at him, but Moby knocked the foot aside.

Moby sneered. He was a hardened killer, well-fed, and pumped up on vitamin shots. This empty, starving man was no challenge for him. Coughing against the fumes, Moby glanced around for his gun. When he couldn’t find it, he shrugged and pressed the tip of his hook against Bamf’s throat.

Bamf was staring down at something in Moby’s pocket, visible through the tear in the man’s jacket. He reached out and wrenched at the tear. A small grease-stained paper package fell from the pocket and bounced down the steps. Moby froze, then looked back, just in time to see Olga pick it up, a frown on her face. She unwrapped it and gasped in shock, then dropped it in disgust, her unbelieving eyes raised to meet Moby’s.

‘A sausage roll!’ she blurted out.

‘It’s not mine!’ Moby protested.

‘It was in your pocket! It’s half-eaten!’

‘Darling, it’s not what you think . . .!

The anguish of betrayal was written all over Olga’s face. She looked up the stairs, then down into the flames that had reached the first floor, as if seeking some answer to this horror. But then a coldness settled over her.

‘Olga . . . my love,’ Moby began, letting go of Bamf and standing up straight.

Olga drew her revolver from its holster and without any further hesitation, put a bullet between Moby’s eyes. Bamf scrambled backwards up the steps, thinking he would be next, but then she threw the gun down the stairs, sat down and burst into tears.

‘Go,’ she said hoarsely, gagging in the smoke.

He didn’t need telling twice. Almost overcome by the smoke, he barely reached the hatch to the watch-tower, his stomach heaving and his head spinning. He wouldn’t have made it up out of the hatch if Florence hadn’t been there to help. She slumped back as once he was up, pressing a piece of rag against her wounded shoulder. They had intended to climb down from the roof using their rope, but Bamf and Florence could never manage that now. But Zach had found that rope-ladder, and had just finished tying it off at the roof at the back of the building. Parts of the roof were starting to cave in, collapsing into the fire below. With great difficulty, they climbed down those two storeys, Zach supporting Florence as best he could.

As they stumbled away from the burning building, the weight of the food in their packs was almost more than they could bear, but there was no way they were letting it go.

‘What now?’ Florence asked as they staggered on into the cool night.

‘Now?’ Bamf coughed and spat something from his throat. ‘Let’s see what we’ve go to eat.’

Zach was rooting through his bag.

‘Lentils, hummus . . . tofu. Damn. No meat. No cheese. Jesus, even some baked beans would have been nice. I’d kill for a sausage roll.’

‘Come to think of it,’ Bamf grunted, ‘I think I can wait until we get somewhere safer. And keep your voice down, there’s people out there with very strong feelings about sausages.’

They walked as best they could, disappearing into the darkness that shrouded the streets of Monaghan. Behind them, the flames consumed what remained of the old courthouse. The smell of burning food carried for miles.

 

                                                                                                                                                                The End