It is now believed that the explosion at the London Eye was a terrorist attack. Following the explosion, a toxic agent has been released into the atmosphere. Deaths have been reported in Westminster, Chelsea, Bayswater, Mayfair, and West Kensington. Security Services are closing off large tracts of south and west London, and residents are advised to remain indoors, close all windows and doors, and await further instructions. Please do not attempt to leave the city. More soon.
— BBC News Website, 5:15 p.m. GMT, July 28, 2019
Next morning, Jack and his sister Emily headed for Camp Truth. Rucksacks over their shoulders, they were walking into the sunrise and beginning a journey leading somewhere Jack had dreamed of for two years.
He felt that rush of youthful anticipation-part wonder, part fear-that had been absent for so long. But above that even now hung the crushing weight of his responsibility. He had Emily to look after and look out for, a young girl who sometimes had trouble remembering her parents’ faces when she was tired, crying and needing them most. Jack was always there for her, offering a hug and trying to hold back his own tears because he was the grown-up now. He was the one who played with Emily and told her off, washed her clothes and helped with her school work, prepared her meals and looked after the house. He sobbed with her sometimes, but other times he had to scold her if she misbehaved. He’d tried to tell himself that not tidying her room when he asked was too insignificant to worry about, but the gravity of Doomsday sometimes seemed to exaggerate the smallest of things.
Emily skipped on ahead, her rucksack bouncing on her back. She held her digital camera in one hand, fully charged the previous evening, strap wrapped around her wrist three times. Mum had bought it for her, and she’d treasured it ever since. Jack had lost count of the number of DVDs Emily had filled with random still and moving images, all of them seemingly meaningless but meaning the world to her.
They reached the edge of the village, and as they passed by the dilapidated old scout hut Jack felt nothing. He’d grown up in Tall Stennington, had many good times there-making mud pies at the village pond with his cousin when he was six; playing baseball on the green as his parents sat outside the pub; seen his first naked breast at twelve when Billy White smuggled him into his older sister’s bedroom closet-but the bad far outweighed the good. Crossing the field towards the woods, he felt as if he was truly leaving his childhood behind.
“Don’t run, you’ll trip!” he called to Emily, and he laughed at the foolishness of his statement. They were heading for London, the Toxic City, where millions had died and the government claimed that monsters now lived. And he was worried about a grazed knee.
“What’s wrong?” Emily called back.
Jack could only laugh and splutter some more.
“You sound like a hyena.”
He ran after his sister, yapping and barking. She squealed and hurried on, and they were both sprinting as they entered the shadow of the woods, keen to leave the past in the cleansing sunlight.
They took a circuitous route around the edge of the woods, following a path popular with dog walkers and strolling lovers. Jack sometimes walked this way with Lucy-Anne, and a few times they’d gone deeper into the woods, spread a blanket and messed around. But recently there had always been a reason for their messing to end; wood ants on her naked legs, a noise from the bushes, a feeling that they were being watched. And not all the reasons had come from her. Jack tried to put it down to being scared, but it wasn’t that, not really. He felt as if he had turned from Lucy-Anne’s lover into her best friend, but he was not certain she thought that way. One day they’d have to talk about things, but she was such a strange girl; sometimes she scared him.
And sometimes, he knew, he just thought about things too damn much.
When they came close to the burned-down mansion, they paused. Emily had been here a few times, but usually Jack didn’t like bringing her to Camp Truth, afraid that the responsibility of keeping the place secret would weigh too heavily on her young shoulders.
Sparky came crashing through the undergrowth. He was red in the face, sweating, and he carried a small rucksack over one shoulder, barely big enough to hold a spare tee shirt and jeans.
“Rosemary’s still there,” Sparky said.
“Never thought she wouldn’t be,” Jack replied. “The others here yet?”
“Jenna’s just gone down to talk to her. Lucy-Anne’s checking the drops on the way in.”
Jack watched Emily dash off between the trees towards the ruined house, happy now he knew Jenna was already down in Camp Truth.
“You okay?” he asked his friend.
“’Spose,” Sparky said.
“We’ll be all right.”
“Yeah. Feels like we’re doing something at last.”
They stood silently for a moment, neither catching the other’s eye, each finding something interesting to look at in the woods.
“We could disappear,” Jack said quietly. “Have you and your parents…? You know.”
“Made peace? Nah. Sod ‘em. They never forgave Stephen, even after Doomsday.”
“Perhaps they think he doesn’t need forgiving if he’s dead.”
Sparky’s face dropped, innocent and honest. “That’s just stupid.”
Jack nodded. “You’ll be fine.”
“Thanks, mate. And yeah, I need this. I really do. Otherwise I’ve got you lot, and the Capri, and…”
“It’s not inevitable.”
“That I’d end up doing what Steve did? Drink, drugs, nicking cars? Nah, not inevitable.” But he looked away between the trees, and Jack wondered how close Sparky had already come.
“Has the car started yet?”
“Honestly? I think it’s been ready for weeks. I’ve taken it apart, cleaned it, replaced what I can and put it back together. All the work I’m doing on it now is cosmetic, really. Fixing rust, repainting. But I’m afraid to try. Even yesterday evening, knowing where we’re goin’.
“Hey, you guys!” Lucy-Anne said. She approached along a narrow path from deeper in the woods, skirting around a pile of rubble from the old house. She seemed excited and breathless. “You’ll never guess what I found in one of the drops!”
“A lump of squirrel shit?” Sparky asked.
Lucy-Anne didn’t even look at him. Instead she turned and dashed towards the hidden entrance to Camp Truth. “Come on!” she said over her shoulder. Her eyes sparkled, her hair was freshly spiked, and Jack wished that they could have kept things between them stronger.
As Lucy-Anne descended into Camp Truth, she saw Rosemary.
Rosemary smiled at her, then looked past her shoulder. “Good morning, Jack.”
“Sleep okay?” Jack asked.
She nodded, flexing her shoulder slowly. “Old bones, that’s all. I’ve met your little sister. She’s wonderful!”
Emily was sitting on one of the tatty chairs they’d brought down here a few months ago, panning slowly around the room with her camera, eyes fixed on the display screen on its back. Lucy-Anne waved and poked her tongue out, and Emily giggled.
“Did you put that there?” Sparky asked the old woman.
Rosemary shook her head.
Lucy-Anne held up the photograph. “Here, you can see a ruined building behind this woman, a burnt out car, and some things…” She shivered, a deep, cold feeling, and she knew what her mum would have said:
The light in Camp Truth was not the best, and the photograph was small. They all leaned in closer, and Lucy-Anne felt the heat and pressure of her friends at her back.
“Got something around her neck…” Jenna muttered.
Jack gasped. He tried to speak, but his voice came out as a groan.
Lucy-Anne turned in time to see Sparky throw an arm around their friend, holding Jack up when his legs seemed to fail him.
“What is it, mate?” Sparky asked.
Jack held out his hand, and Lucy-Anne gave him the photograph. He moved carefully away from Sparky, showed Emily, and the little girl burst into tears. Then he held up the photo for them all to see again, and Lucy-Anne scolded herself for not realising before.
“Mum,” Jack said. “That’s my mum.”