The darkness is always.
‘Always what?’ Mason asked. He was leaning over Violet’s shoulder, reading the pencilled words on her notepad. He could only just read the writing in the gloom of the London Victoria Station's waiting room.
The little girl elbowed him and shoved at his torso with her shoulder. He didn’t move. ‘It just always is,’ she said.
‘What’s that?’ Declan asked. His nose was buried deeply into a book, The Vampire’s Assistant, his eyes squinting to read the words in the darkness. He sat apart from the other two children on a sofa in the corner of the large waiting room. Rows of plastic, padded seats, their dirty, soot-stained red and orange fading into the darkness. Huge windows, the glass as black as the outside world, showed a filthy city only recognisable as such because of the buildings’ silhouettes just a street away, their details lost in the gloom. Declan’s sofa had its back to the view.
‘Vi says the darkness is always,’ Mason replied.
‘Always what?’ said Declan.
‘That’s what I said,’ said Mason.
‘It just always is!’ Violet returned.
‘Like the wobblers!’ Mason shouted with the flush of excitement sudden realisation can bring. ‘They always are!’
The other two children thought this over. Declan nodded. Not with any excitement, Mason thought. Declan wasn’t very nice.
Violet beamed. ‘Yes!’ she cried, and then bent to scribble in her book.
It is just like the wobblers always are, the darkness always is.
She sat back against the orange plastic of her seat and chewed her pencil in what she hoped was a thoughtful manner. She wanted to look thoughtful, clever. She wanted the other two to take her seriously. Nearly a whole year since the crash, nearly a whole year of darkness and sometimes she wondered if the boys only thought of her as something like a wobbler: always there but not to be taken too seriously.
Mason stared out of the window, past Declan’s head and into the darkness. Before they died and started to wobble, their mums had guessed that it was spring. Mason had lost count of the number of sleeps they’d had since but it was a lot, so it might be summer. It wasn't as cold as it had been. It wasn’t warm though.
Warmth had gone when the ships crashed. That had been the summer, the last time the sun had been clearly seen. For a year all they'd had was a hazy circle behind the constant cloud, like a fuzzy felt sun hidden in a jumble of a picture.
‘I’m hungry,’ said Violet. She allowed her voice to whine just a little, not so much that the boys would be upset with her but enough to let them know that she meant it.
Mason smiled down at her. ‘Then we’ll eat.’
Declan glanced up at the two of them. He frowned, disappointed, like he was always was, at how easily the other two spoke to each other. ‘More cold beans,’ he said. His voice was sulky and he knew it and he told himself that he didn’t care.
The other two scowled at him, worn as they were by his glumness. Mason suddenly smiled. ‘Just like the darkness always is, Dec always moans!’
Violet giggled, raising a hand to cover her mouth. She always felt sorry for Declan but he did moan a lot. He’d been like it even before their mums died. Secretly, she wondered if his mum looked down on him now and knew that she didn’t miss him. It was a horrible thought and her giggle turned into a sigh as she looked out of the window and into the darkness. Violet knew that if she was up there, she wouldn’t look down on to a place that was so unhappy.
The boys moved away and wandered through the waiting room. She hurried to catch up, not wanting to be alone. She never wanted that. Ever.
As they passed the frozen angel, standing statue still, the walls blackened, growing even darker than the gloom outside the windows. The fire had raged through the station, killing wobblers and grownups and had reached halfway before the dads and the angel had put it out. Violet’s, Declan’s and Mason’s mums had survived and Declan’s dad as well. Violet glanced at the gloomy boy, a flash of jealousy flickering through her. He had had more time with his parents and he still wasn’t happy.
They walked to the old sandwich bar, the only place in the whole station that still had power. The mums and dads had explained it: the solar panels on the roof of the station still worked but with the sun hidden they could only generate enough power for the sandwich bar. This was where they slept. This was where they had some heat. This was where they stored the tins. And there was one freezer that hummed to them as they entered.
‘Why don’t we have the ice cream?’ Declan asked. He looked to Mason and added, ‘Mace? Please?’
‘No,’ Mason replied, trying to make his voice firm like his dad had always done. Instead he just snapped at Declan and then grew annoyed because he felt the usual mix of anger and sympathy that swirled in his stomach whenever he spoke sternly to Declan.
‘We need to save it,’ said Violet.
‘But what for?’ said Declan.
‘For when we’re found,’ said Violet, her voice filled with the exasperation of having said the same thing a hundred times. In the last two weeks, or however long it had been, she had learned how her mum must have felt all those times she was asked for the same things. Especially after the crash.
‘That’s never going to happen and you know it,’ said Declan.
‘You shut up!’ Mason snapped. He stood closer to Violet, wanting to protect her from the words. He was the leader and to be a leader meant making sure that people felt safe as well as making sure they were safe.
‘No one’s ever coming. There’s no one left.’
Even as Declan said it, the knocking of the last mum came at the wall of the sandwich bar.
The three children had been alone for more than a month. Before the London Victoria Station, they had just two things in common: on the night of the crash they had all been at home and their parents’ cars had been in the garage. Failed MOTs had meant that they couldn’t run from the city like all of the other families in the street.
There was a third thing. When the People's first ship crashed they’d all been watching the Games. Wembley Stadium, the lights, the commentators and the noise of 110,000 people. And Stella Reeve. The Killer.
Mason still thought of the Cynosure but he never spoke about her. Whenever he had a decision to make he tried to think what she would do in the Games ring. He never told the other two because he wanted them to think he came up with ideas on his own. That was what proper leaders did.
Right now, Mason was wondering what the Cynosure would do with the mum. Somewhere deep inside his mind he knew exactly what the Killer would do; she would kill it.
Mason tried to ignore the thought and looked at the other two. The three of them sat in the sandwich bar, an opened tin in each of their laps, spooning their own beans and listening to the mum knock at the door that led to the tiny kitchen.
Violet reached around to a tin of ham, opened it, spooned a third into her tin of beans and passed it on to Declan.
They ate in silence, the only sound the rummaging of their spoons in their tins. And Declan’s sniffling.
Finally, Mason snapped, ‘Stop sniffing!’
‘I can’t help it. I’ve got a cold.’
‘You’re crying,’ Mason pointed out, his tone cruel.
Violet shrank into herself, the half empty tin of beans, lump of ham untouched, held out before her. She knew where this was heading.
‘I’m not!’ Declan shouted.
‘You always cry when you hear it. Every day you cry and you sniff and you pretend you’re not but you want us to know so that we feel sorry for you.’ Mason put his tin down with exaggerated care, just like he thought the Cynosure would if she were a cowboy in a bar getting ready to fight the bad guy. He stood up and stalked to Declan, his elbows crooked, his fist clenched. The other boy drew his knees to his chest and shrank back against the wall. Mason deliberately loomed over him. ‘Stop crying!’ He pointed at Violet. ‘She doesn’t cry and she’s a girl.’
Declan shuddered as he tried to hold in his tears, but he was scared of Mason. Had been since the crash and the days straight after when the mums and dads were still alive and Mason had taken his sweets and shared them with Violet. He quivered now as the other boy stood over him, ducking his head, not looking at him and trying to see Violet, trying to get her attention so that he could beg her with his eyes. Mason listened to her. If she told him to stop, he would. But she had shut down in that way she did when she was scared. He knew that her eyes, even hidden as they were, would be wide and blank.
He was alone.
Finally the sobs broke free, bursting from his chest, into his throat and out through his mouth and nose. Tears wetted his eyes and snot bubbled from his nose. He blubbed and as the shame of the sounds overtook him and he choked on the sobs, he was forced to give in and let the tears flow freely.
Mason stared down at him, disgusted. All other sounds ceased, not even the mum’s tapping and scraping, just Declan’s pathetic sobs. Mason kicked out at the boy on the ground, kicking into his shins, making him yelp and try to cover his legs with his arms. Mason kicked him again and again, harder each time as his anger took hold of him. ‘Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!’
Declan rolled to his side and curled into himself, wrapping is arms over his head. Mason kicked and kicked the legs and arms of this thing on the floor, this animal that couldn’t protect itself, couldn’t help itself. His breathing grew louder till he snorted through his nose like an angry beast. He lifted his foot, ready to stamp.
A hand on his shoulder, a whispered shush in his ear, the hand creeping around his neck to his other shoulder and another hand on the first. Two hands gently pulling him away, dragging him into an embrace. The sound of the mum had intensified, her hands slapping and thumping against the wall, the thuds reverberating around the room, into the children’s ears.
Mason turned to Violet’s tear-streaked face and fell into her, draping his arms around her back, his grip loose at first and quickly tight, desperate. He hid in her embrace and held his breath till he thought he would burst.
Declan stared up through his arms at the other two, his tears not stopping but burning now and blurring the other two. It was always the other two. He squeezed his eyes closed to block them out, scraped his arms to the sides of his head to cover his ears, breathed loudly though his nose, hummed in his throat. Alone on the floor, Declan rocked himself to oblivion.
There had been four of them in the weeks and months straight after the crash. Four families with one child. Four only children. The mums had joked about the end of the world finally forcing their kids to share.
But it was the jokes that were forced; the children had reached out greedily, grabbing at each other’s flesh like wobblers who didn’t bite.
Apart from Toby. He was a biter. He was the youngest and his dead body had looked so small lying on the pavement outside London Victoria station.
His mum had cried so much she had wailed. She wouldn't leave her son. The dads had dragged her away from Toby’s body and into the station but she hadn’t stopped. The wobblers heard and they came in their hundreds. The dads had barred the entrance with piping from a scaffold. They had carried it for three streets, from building works on a tall white house in Eccleston Place.
While Toby's mum wailed the dads secured the doors while the mums had tried to calm and the children had cried and cried. And the screaming still didn't stop. Violet had watched her own dad hit Toby’s mum and then fight Toby’s dad. Mason’s and Declan’s parents had joined in. The grownups had shouted and screamed and torn at each other. It had felt like forever until Toby's parents stopped moving.
They were so quiet about it afterwards. Occasionally one of them would suddenly sob and they would try to help each other by saying that they were only doing what had to be done, that they had tried to stop the fighting, to calm Toby’s parents.
So much blood. Head wounds bleed a lot, Violet’s mum had told her. She wouldn’t have felt it. It just looked bad because head wounds always had so much blood.
And at least she won’t wobble, Violet had said, trying to be brave for her mum. Her mum had smiled and nodded. And then they had turned to Toby’s dad lying on the floor. He would wobble.
The mums had talked about wobblers from the very beginning. Stay away from the wobblers, they had said. Keep away and they can’t hurt you.
But the wobblers never wanted to keep away.
Toby’s dad didn’t wobble for two days. They all hoped that he wouldn’t, that this would all be over. If Toby’s dad stayed down, then this would all blow over and the angels would come and they would all go home and there would be hotdogs for tea in front of the telly on Saturday night.
But he’d wobbled. It was Mason’s dad who had put him down.
Now, as he laid on the floor, shaking with fear and frustration at Mason's assault, Declan remembered Toby, his small body curled on the pavement.
He had killed the other boy. Toby had bitten and pinched Declan right from the first day they had grouped together. Even as the clouds had rolled over the sun and plunged them into the forever darkness, that little boy had targeted Declan. Just like the other boys and girls at school had targeted him. Declan had wished himself to sleep every school night. He had wished for them all to die. And they all had. And then he had wished for Toby to die. And he had.
He squeezed his eyes even tighter and tried not to wish Mason dead. Don’t die. Don’t die. Don’t die… The silent mantra filled his thoughts which just made him think about Mason dying. The pain in his legs and arms, the blossoming bruises where Mason had kicked him did nothing to help Declan to wish the other boy to live.
Don’t die. Don’t die. Don’t die. Die…
His body turned rigid on the floor as a new thought slid into his mind: the ice cream! If he took the ice cream, two thirds of it, his and Mason’s share, then that would be fair and he didn’t need to die. Declan let the thought of the ice cream fill his head and chase away the pictures of Mason wobbling at him and Violet. The picture of Declan smashing Mason’s skull with a cricket bat again and again. That picture faded, faded, disappeared.
Slowly his sobbing subsided and as Mason and Violet finally detangled he began to uncurl his body. His mouth twisted to a smile as he looked up to Mason.
The other boy looked down at him, mistook the smile for weakness and his own mouth curled in distaste. They would not survive this world with boys like Declan. Boys like Declan would never win anything. Boys like Declan would never be the Cynosure.
Mason looked to Violet. He had to tilt his head slightly to look up at her. When had she grown so tall?
Declan stared into the freezer. He licked his lips and wiped his sleeve along his chin. They had three flavours: vanilla, strawberry and mint-choc-chip. He’d eaten some of them all but there was still a lot left in each tub. Holding up the strawberry tub, he tried to gauge how much he had taken. About a third, he guessed. He would need to eat as much again to make sure both his and Mason’s share was gone.
He felt sick at the thought.
The mum bumped softly against the wall. Leaning his back against the metal partition, he could feel the vibrations of the hands, shoulders and hips as they knocked and rubbed against the wall. He had been as quiet as he could be but she still knew he was here. At least that’s what he thought. The mum’s face was just a few centimetres from the back of his head. Close enough to touch his hair. Imagined fingers ran over his scalp, their touch soft, loving. He closed his eyes and sighed as he melted into the memory of her fingers.
‘What are you doing?’
His eyes shot open to see Violet standing over him. She looked upset.
‘Well?’ she said, trying to sound like a mum. It was nicer than Mason always trying to sound like a dad.
Declan looked around her to see if Mason was with her. He wasn’t. ‘Want some?’ he said.
‘Mason wanted to be on his own,’ she said, trying to ignore the ice cream. But it was no use. Violet stared at the tubs, her eyes drawn to the mint-choc-chip. The black dots swam in the green ice cream. She licked her lips, just like she remembered children doing in supermarket adverts on the television. She knew that she was going to give in but she wanted to make some kind of show of resisting. Once Declan pushed the mint-choc-chip towards she fell to her knees beside him and grabbed greedily at the tub and the spoon.
When Mason found them both, he was furious but tried not to show it. ‘What do I care about ice cream?’ he said, trying to sound like a dad.