Amber felt stones and flint digging through her jeans and into her knees.
Her hair was slick with sweat; she could smell the rancid scent of her body beneath her clothes. She trembled; her head a fog of disjointed memories. Her vision was blurred. Figures loomed around her. Voices blared through bad static.
Where was she? How had this happened? She could taste blood in her mouth, her hands were numb from the plastic bindings that tied them. She tried to remember where this had all begun... it had started with icecream... and something... something...
She had been scared.
But even that feeling was so buried beneath weariness and pain that it no longer seemed to matter.
In the distance she heard a jumble of click-clack noises. Her heart sped up, and she groped her mind for clarity.
A cacophony of shots.
Her shoulder exploded with white heat. Her body jerked back. Warmth spread through her and she welcomed it.
She felt herself hit the ground in a distracted way. The solidness beneath her head was comforting. She could fall no further.
There was a dizzying brightness above her. The warmth was leaving. Seeping out onto the gravel. She would have smiled, but her mouth could no longer do that. So she closed her eyes and drew in the blackness and was thankful for peace.
It had started with icecream. Josie sitting on the wall outside the cafe kicking her heels against the peeling paintwork. She was wearing a dark hoody, combat trousers, and grey plimsolls. Her bronze hair was pulled back into a high ponytail, strands straggling down her face like snakes. Her lipstick was smeared; a plummy streak across her cheek mingled with chocolate sauce.
‘Why do we always meet here?’ she grumbled. ‘We’re too old to be seen hanging out outside the icecream shop.’
‘You don’t seem to mind that much,’ Amber muttered. She handed Josie a napkin. ‘You eat like a baby.’
Josie scowled at her as she took the cloth. ‘I’m trying to blend in,’ she said, ‘we’d look even more stupid if we just sat here not eating icecream.’
Amber said nothing. She dug her hands into her pockets and scanned the street. A few government officials stalked the pavements, their rifles slung over their shoulders, but mostly it was empty. Shops were boarded up, old posters and fliers fluttering in the slight breeze that carried in from the slate coloured sea. Amber felt the hem of her pleated skirt lifting slightly and she flattened it back down over the jeans.
The iceceam shop was the only place still open. Dusk was closing in and there were a few kids loitering in the neon lit cafe. She glanced back at Josie who was biting her nails and looking grumpy. The napkin was on the ground beneath her feet, balled up and scratching along the pavement with the breeze.
‘He’s not coming,’ Amber said, ‘again.’
Josie rolled her eyes and jumped down from the wall.
‘Of course not,’ she said, keeping her voice low, ‘did you really expect him? It’s been days since he last made contact. He’s been caught.’
Amber felt a lump wedge itself in her throat. She swallowed it down and swiped at her fringe.
‘He said he’d always come,’ she whispered.
Josie took her arm and began tugging her away, leading her down the high street past the guards. She was chattering, her voice high and girly. Talking about boys, about clothes, about make up.
They turned off into a smaller alley, alone.
‘He can’t,’ Josie said, mid sentence, dropping her voice, ‘not if they’ve got him. You know he can’t. He’ll hardly have a choice, will he? They won’t be offering him time out or breaks.’
Amber pulled Josie’s arm tighter to herself. Please, please don’t let him be caught. Not that. Not that.
‘And you know what?’ Josie halted them at the exit to the alley, ‘if he’s caught they’ll be after us next. It won’t take them long to get information out of him. Three days already. Think about it. Three days.’
They stared at each other for a moment. Josie’s eyes were blanked by the glaring brightness of the streetlight as it flickered on. A guard paused at the entrance to the alley and turned to look at them.
Josie plastered a wide smile onto her face and pulled Amber out into the open.
‘So I said, what’s the point in buying go-go skirts at this time of year, it’s bloody freezing, but she said, look at Amber, she just wears them over jeans...’
The guard stepped out of their way as they passed, but his gaze lingered on them. Amber heard his footsteps echoing up the street behind him. A gust of wind lifted the hem of her skirt again, she held it down with her free hand.
The footsteps behind them paused for a moment, and then they started again. More purposeful, quicker, coming closer.
Josie kept up her relentless chatter until Amber’s head swam. She could feel the tension running through Josie’s arms, heard the strain in her voice as she struggled to keep her voice light and carefree. Amber risked a glance behind, but Josie pulled her on.
‘Girls,’ the guard’s voice was young. It didn’t have the heaviness of authority behind it, but it was enough to make them both flinch. Josie swore under her breath. ‘Turn around.’
They glanced at each other. For a split second the crazy idea of running entered Amber’s mind, but it disappeared again almost at once. That was suicide. Josie took a deep breath and turned round.
‘Yes?’ she asked pleasantly.
The guard struck her, sending her staggering back, releasing Amber as she did so. Amber let out a cry of shock and moved towards her but the guard shook his head, hefting the rifle slightly. Amber stepped back, stared at her scuffed trainers.
‘Recognise this?’ the guard asked.
Amber lifted her gaze a little. He held out his hand and uncurled his fingers to reveal a small golden badge resting on his palm.
Amber felt her blood turn cold. She stared at the badge. Stared and stared. Her hand strayed down to the hem of her skirt. She wore it pinned to the inside.
It was no longer there.
No, because it was in the palm of the guard who stood in front of her.
She turned wordlessly to Josie whose face was pale apart from the red smack mark.
The guard moved closer.
‘Recognise it?’ he repeated, his voice lined with fury.
Josie found her voice.
‘We’re for it now,’ she whispered at Amber. ‘We’re going to have to kill him.’