“Just keep running,” Michael panted, casting his words over his shaking shoulders at the gaggle of children following close behind. Mostly close, some were falling back further and further, just visible as a bobbing head between the trees. Easily said, but not easily done. The little crowd had been jogging through the woods for nearly an hour, with a handful of very short breaks to allow the slowest to catch up. The slow kids had the least time to recover, since they had to reach the paused group first before they all set off again. They were going to keep falling behind unless Michael could find them somewhere to rest properly. Summoning another burst of energy from somewhere deep inside, he led them past a huge old oak then over the tiny stream. There were lots of nice flat stones to hop across, but he stopped to help the smaller children cross. Falling in and getting wet would make everything even worse.
While he waited for the stragglers to reach the stream, he strained for a better view of what they were running from. Smoke was still visible rising over the trees, and the occasional sharp spark of light, like someone had thrown one of those glass balls filled with lightning up in the air. They were beyond the sound now, at least, though it had been a terrific motivator in getting the children moving and in keeping them moving. Michael wiped sweat from his face off on the sleeves of his school shirt. The whole thing was sodden with sweat and smelled of fear. As the last of the slow kids caught up he held the little boy’s hand as he slipped across the stones. All the children had stopped for a breather after they crossed the stream, and all were watching Michael, in various states of puffing, panting and wheezing. He made his way through them, with one last glance backwards, and started off again.
They were definitely getting slower, and really since they were almost just walking quickly, perhaps that’s what they should do. But running, or trying to run really felt like doing something. Anything to put more distance between them and the chaos that had erupted at the school. Michael was just barely eleven, almost the oldest in the final year group of primary school. The troupe following him ranged from six to ten. He was impressed with the smallest of them, there had hardly been any complaining, especially since they had no water, no snacks, and no time to sit down. As far as he knew, they were the only kids to have escaped. It still wasn’t clear what had happened, but it had all gotten very bad very quickly.
Michael had been late getting back to class from morning break. He’d been playing too long and hadn’t realised he’d needed to go to the loo until after the classes had lined back up to go inside. But he’d been allowed to go – no running in the corridor – and had just made it back to class when everyone’s mobile phone started ringing. Not everyone had one, but almost everyone did, and even though they were supposed to be on silent, the children all looked at them, and so did Mrs Abbott. Michael’s phone was in his desk, but he’d only just walked in the door. When the phone screens flashed on, or unlocked or however you had your phone set up, there came an awful ear-piercing shriek, like ancient computers did when they connected to the internet. And then everyone had frozen, even Mrs Abbott, just staring at their phones. Something rose up out of the screens, a crackling blue and white shape that flickered so it sometimes looked like a person, and then was suddenly an animal or something else. It was too fast to see properly. But it rose up towards the person looking down at it, and it sort of sparkled into their eyes. Michael was still standing by the door, and the other kids who either didn’t have phones or hadn’t answered them were just staring around them, no idea what was going on. Then it all changed. Michael was watching Mrs Abbott when her head snapped back and she opened her eyes and the blue crackle was in them. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the other kids doing the same. It was really freaky, and Michael started to back away without even knowing he was doing it. That only attracted attention though, and a couple of kids were on their feet immediately, scrambling over the table towards him. They weren’t the only ones in motion though, and the last thing Michael saw before he slammed the door shut were kids with sparkling blue-white eyes pouncing on those other children without phones.
It didn’t seem real, but as Michael ran off down the corridor – no running in the corridor – past the other classrooms the same thing was happening there. Shrieks and cries rang out, doors burst open and kids ran out, some knocked down straight away by their classmates clawing over them, others faster and running the same way he was. The school was in an annoying L shape and Michael’s classroom was furthest from the main entrance, so he had further to run to get out. If he’d stopped outside his classroom and turned the other way, maybe he could have used the fire escape, but there was no way he was turning back. He swept up a small crowd of terrified children as he ran, his normal brown eyes assuring them that he was OK. They crashed out through the main door, which Michael held open so as many of them could get through as possible. There wasn’t much he could do about the doors – they opened inwards, so even trying to move the benches outside was pointless. They weren’t being immediately followed though. There must have been plenty of kids and staff without phones handy when that weird call came through, and for now they were being left alone. Michael cast a glance across the fields, wondering what to do. The secondary school was about a mile away, up the grassy hill. But all the older kids had phones. There would be no help there. The primary school was on the edge of the village, with houses and streets on one side. Even from there Michael could hear shouting and the sounds of cars crunching into things. There was only one real option: the woods that backed onto the school. You could get to the secondary school indirectly, but they also extended back and away from everything that had people in it. Michael wasn’t entirely sure where they ended, but he’d definitely been on family trips that went around the other side. Somewhere in the middle was a little forest school which they got to go to sometimes.
But now Michael was lost. He’d remembered the stream and he was almost certain that the forest school and its little chalet buildings must be somewhere near. Just a little further. They had slowed to a walk by then, and it was better, even though his heart was banging in his chest from all the exercise and he was dreadfully thirsty. The trees were thinning out, and maybe it was the clearing where the forest school was sited. But even as he drew nearer, Michael knew it wasn’t. He’d led them the wrong way, led them in a long curve rather than a straight line. This was the secondary school. The side of the school building was scorched, and fire still licked out of the first floor windows. There were bodies lying in grass and on the gravel outside. He pulled up short, but not all of the exhausted little kids were so quick to stop, too used to stumbling on. And they attracted attention. Faces appeared in the ground floor window, bright blue-white eyes scanning the woods. All the children were still by now, finally following Michael’s lead. It was too late. With a shriek, the faces of the older children in the window did something and the glass exploded outward, swiftly followed by two girls and a boy, all much older than Michael. They moved jerkily, and their gaze never left Michael. He was frozen – what could he do? He’d tried to get them all away, but here they were and something bad was about to happen to them all.
Then a huge old estate car (like the one that Michael’s dad had finally swapped for an SVU) roared up from nowhere and struck the three kids jerking towards them. It made a bad crunching sound, and the trio were flung backwards and into the air. They didn’t get back up. The passenger door swung open and there was a lady inside screaming at Michael to get inside. It was a squeeze, but they got all fourteen of the kids jammed in the car, and the lady threw the car into reverse and raced out of the school grounds. They were safe, for now.