It was almost dusk by the time Lily rounded the corner to Mary street and the street lights on the narrow road were flickering casting shadows over the dry, desolate shrubs in the front gardens of the once grand houses. She was closely followed by Noah, they had not spoken on the walk, in fact they hadn’t spoken much at all since Noah agreed to help them, she hoped she could trust him, but she knew at this stage she had very little choice. She pulled the door open and saw Ben sitting in his high chair by the table, he was bashing a wooden spoon against the table.
‘Hi Benny-boo, what are you doing with that spoon, are you a drummer?’ The toddler face split into a grin as he saw her.
Emily rushed in from the bedroom, ‘Lily, oh thank god! Where have you been, we have to leave in the next twenty minutes or...’ she stopped awkwardly, she hadn’t noticed Noah standing in the doorway, she looked at Lily, her face colouring.
‘Noah, meet Em, Em this is Noah.’ Lily waved her hand casually and relieved Ben from his high chair, settling him on her hip, he giggled and grabbed at her long dark hair.
‘Umm, yeah, we’ve met. Kind of,’ Emily sounded embarrassed, she was never very good at small talk, especially under these circumstances.
Noah said nothing and looked down at his shoes.
‘So, are we all ready to go then?’ She asked Emily.
Emily sighed, looking away from their apparent new member and nodded, ‘The backpacks are in the bedroom, everything is in there, unless there’s something specific you need to take.’
Lily flashed her a strange look, ‘Yeah just need to grab a few things before we head out.’ She disappeared into the bedroom with Ben.
‘So, uh, you’re coming with us?’
‘Looks, that way doesn’t it. Your sister can be quite persuasive.’ He smiled.
‘She certainly has a way of getting what she wants.’ She said darkly.
They stood for a few seconds, avoiding eye contact, until Lily returned wearing one of the backpacks. Ben was strapped to a harness on her chest, ‘Aren’t you ready Em? Get your bag, let’s go.’
Emily rolled her eyes in frustration but couldn’t muster up the energy to challenge her.
The red emblem for King’s Cross glowed ahead of them. The station was quiet, the travel restrictions and curfew made it difficult to leave the city. They had agreed to approach the gates in two groups, Lily, Noah and Ben would go ahead, posing as a couple with their child, going to visit their parents in Manchester. Emily would go through afterwards, in case she was stopped for any reason Noah had said she was to tell them she had been sent by the ministry for entertainment, didn’t take a genius to figure out what that was meant.
Emily watched as Lily and Noah bought their tickets and pushed passed the barriers, they were stopped by a guard and Emily’s heart leapt into her throat. Noah spoke with him for a short time and they continued towards the train.
Once Emily was sure they had made it she walked towards the ticket desk, ‘Where are you headed?’ The old man behind the desk barely glanced up at her, he was painfully thin, his wispy grey hair was plastered onto his skin and his eyes were dull.
‘Headed to Manchester, sir, a return ticket please.’ She tried to sound confident, but fear made her voice shake.
He looked up at her, ‘What business do you have up there?’
‘Ministry business, sir, uhm, entertainment.’ She flushed red and looked down.
The old man regarded her with his lifeless eyes, ‘I’ll need to see your pass. They’ve been issuing them since last month.’
Emily faltered, Noah hadn’t told her about this.
‘Please sir, I’ve lost it, if I don’t get on that train, I don’t know what they will do to me.’ She didn’t need to act scared as hot tears spilled out of her eyes.
‘Wait here,’ said the man, standing and leaving the box in which he sat. He walked towards the same guard who had stopped Lily and Noah and spoke to him, they were too far away for Emily to make anything out but he pointed at Emily and the guard looked her up and down, he licked his lips greedily and said something to the old man.
Emily glanced up at the clock, the train would leave in three minutes, it was the last one out of the city for the night. She watched the old man hobble back and slowly let himself back into the box, he sighed and looked at her sadly, ‘You look after yourself now.’ He passed her the ticket.
Emily walked as fast as she felt looked natural towards the train, the guard watched her pass, but said nothing. She could feel his eyes following her. The adrenaline filled her ears and her heart was racing, she stepped onto the train just before the doors shut.
Lily was sitting in an empty carriage with Ben on her lap, her eyes were wide, and her face was white with fear, ‘Jesus Em, I thought you weren’t gonna make it on. What happened?’
‘They needed some pass or something, Noah didn’t tell me about that. Where is he anyway? Can we really trust him Lily? We don’t know anything about him.’ The words tumbled out, the adrenaline was dissipating, leaving her weak.
‘I know enough, he went to scope out the rest of the train, he thinks it’s too quiet, there were definitely some leaks regarding the attacks, he expected there to be more people headed out of the city.’
Emily sat down opposite Lily, the dark city flashed past them, the skyscrapers lurking ominously, watching. She met her reflection in the glass, dark circles had formed under her eyes and her hair was slick with sweat, she looked away.
Ben was bouncing and gurgling on Lily’s lap, and Lily cooed at him, ‘Listen Em, we made it on, this is going to be a difficult journey, we need to stay calm. You should get some rest.’
‘I don’t need rest, I need this to be over. What if we don’t make it? Or worse, what if we do make it and it’s no better up there? You know there’s been no news out of Scotland for over a year, what if there’s no one left up there?’
‘We have to trust Chris Em, so far he’s been right. Whatever happens at least we are together, it’s what Mum would have wanted.’
Emily rolled her eyes, ‘And how is it that you know what Mum would have wanted? It’s not like she ever spoke to us, she was always in her office. I can barely even remember what she looked like.’
‘Jesus Em, Mum loved us OK, she did her best.’
‘Well, maybe her best wasn’t good enough,’ Emily spat back.
Lily was working up to retort when the carriage door slid open and Noah walked in, he stopped when he saw the looks on the two girls faces, ‘Err, everything checks out. There are a few other passengers towards the back of the train, no one seems particularly on edge. You two okay?’
‘Yes, fine,’ said Lily briskly, we need to plan the next leg of the trip, this was the easy bit. When we get to Manchester, we have to go off grid.’
Noah sat next to Lily and looked at Ben, he had yet to acknowledge the fact that there was a child present, never mind look at him directly.
‘So, what’s the deal with the kid? I haven’t seen one that young in years, I didn’t know they were still issuing permits.’
Lily and Emily exchanged glances and Emily gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head, ‘He’s our brother,’ said Lily and turned towards the window, shielding Ben from Noah’s gaze and ending the conversation.
Emily prised open the tiny window above them, air rushed through the slit into the carriage, giving the illusion of coolness.
‘So, Lily told me you’re part of the guard?’ Emily addressed Noah, not looking directly at him but instead watching him through the reflection of the glass.
‘She said that did she?’ Noah smirked, turning to Lily, ‘Well, then it must be true.’
Lily shook her head but could barely repress a grin.
‘Why are you helping us?’ She turned to look directly at him, her gaze was sharp, and Noah was taken aback by the intensity of it, ‘We’re nothing to you, you barely know us.’
Lily interrupted her, ‘Em, stop prying, I think the less we all know about each other at this stage the better, let's just try to make it through all of this alive.’
Emily huffed and crossed her arms over her chest.
Noah busied himself with his backpack, he pulled out a small parcel. Sowly he peeled back the layers, revealing a handful of shiny dark spheres, both girls gasped.
‘Oh my God, is that chocolate?’ Lily lent forward, destabilising Ben and nearly sending him tumbling to the ground.
‘Yeah, I was saving it for a special occasion.’ He popped one in his mouth before holding out his hand and offering them to the girls.
Lily grabbed one and tipped it straight into her mouth, leaning back in pleasure as the sweet cocoa melted in her mouth, ‘It must be ten years since I last ate chocolate, I’ve forgotten how amazing it is,’ her eyes were closed, savouring the moment.
Ben was reaching for Noah’s hand and he withdrew it, Emily was about to say something but instead of denying the child chocolate Noah picked one out and handed it to Ben, he took it, looking to Emily for what to do next, ‘You can eat it Ben, here look,’ she took one of the chocolates and popped it into her mouth, Ben copied her cautiously probing the chocolate with his tongue, after a few moments his face lit up and he bubbled with laughter. Lily and Noah both laughed but Emily was silent.
The following hour and a half passed mostly uneventfully, Ben fell asleep quickly, his head resting on Lily’s lap, her eyes closed too. Noah sat in the row opposite, observing the dark, barren countryside as they passed. Emily hadn’t slept, instead she continued to watch Noah through the reflection in the window. She didn’t trust him. Her stomach cramped, not used to the richness of the chocolate, she hoped Ben wouldn’t have the same reaction. She was acutely aware that the child had never tasted chocolate before, the anger that she had never been able to fully provide for him burnt in the pit of her stomach. Her body was used to the bland staples that arrived bi-weekly on their doorstep. It had been over three years since rationing had started. She remembered the first package that arrived, it was January. They had opened the small the box to reveal a bag of rice, three litres of water and five small, wrinkled potatoes. They had stared at the package in abject horror, how were they meant to survive on that? Although meant to last two weeks, they had devoured it within the first five days. It was then that they had learnt what hunger really meant, the dull ache, the fatigue, the dehydration, they both maintained that if it had not rained that week they would have died. As time passed that first box seemed like a feast. The parcels grew ever smaller, and water became more valuable than money.
Despite the growing cautions from scientists, who had been warning them for years that food supply was short, and the sudden change in weather conditions would create dire consequences all over the world, they had no other provisions set aside. She had trusted, as everyone else had, the government when they said that everything was under control. She guessed now that it was a tactic to prevent a rebellion, if people had truly understood how bad things would get, there would have been outrage. Instead the reality had snuck up on them. Each year, hotter than the last, reported with giddy optimism. By the time the worst had come to pass, there was nothing that could be done, and people resigned themselves to surviving on the rapidly deteriorating planet that had once been their oasis.
The train slowed and the lights of the cabin dimmed, snapping Emily out of her daze.
Noah sat forward, ‘Somethings wrong.’
The train stopped abruptly, Lily’s eyes shot open and she grabbed Ben to stop him from falling. For a moment everything was silent, Emily looked out the window, she could see nothing apart from her own face reflected in the dark. Without warning the entire carriage jerked violently, Emily tried to stand but was thrown off of her feet, her head cracked violently against a metal arm rail. Lily clutched Ben tight to her chest, curling into a ball enfolding the child, whose eyes were wide with terror. Then there was the noise. A sea of sound engulfed them, the intensity of it was overwhelming, in that moment silence had never existed. Lily tried in vain to cover both her and Ben’s ears to shield them from the noise, but it was no use, the thundering swell swept through them. Lily screamed, but it hardly pierced the wave of sound.
Then, as suddenly as it started, it was over.
‘What the fuck was that?’ Lily’s voice was pitched, and her ears ached in the void left by the noise, she could just make out the form of Emily on the floor in the darkness that encased the carriage.
Emily pulled herself up gingerly, hot red blood covered her hand where she had clutched her head, ‘Is Ben OK?’ Her head pounded and she clutched desperately at consciousness, ‘Lily, tell me Ben i