His journey is filled with danger, suspense, and emotional challenges. Confronting those responsible is difficult and risky, and his reaction has far-reaching consequences.
LANDER REVIEWED THE items he’d spread out on his bed. It was the fourth or fifth time he’d checked them. There were: • His ID card: essential in case he was picked up by a patrol.
• Chocolate bars: also essential, but for a different reason.
• Maps: he knew where he was going but he intended to avoid main roads, so they would be important.
• A Bowie knife in a sheath: because you never knew.
• His favourite fleece: it was probably cold in Belarus, and in any case, summer was ending.
• A pair of binoculars: useful for spotting patrols, with luck before they saw you.
• A torch: electric power was becoming less reliable.
• A compass: he could usually find south during the day, but at night it might be different.
• A water bottle: obvious
• An envelope containing two hundred and seventy-four pounds in notes and coins: also obvious
Money was probably not much use any more, but having it was a comfort. Some of it was his savings, but most had come from the tin he’d found in the bottom of their Mam’s wardrobe. It was where she kept her cash. He felt bad helping himself, even though she wasn’t around to ask. He’d been scrupulous in taking no more than half, leaving the rest for his sister, Kerryl. Their Mam would have wanted that.
When he’d stowed all the items in his backpack there was one more thing left on the bed: a USB flash drive.
Lander tossed it in his hand. He was trying to decide what was the best thing to do with it. It had taken him a long time to compose the letter it contained. Writing was not his thing, that was more Kerryl’s scene, and putting it together had been hard work. Where should he leave it to be sure his sister wouldn’t miss it? Not downstairs; their Gran might clear it away before Kerryl saw it. He might put it under her bedroom door but she might miss it. Besides, he couldn’t be sure she was asleep and he didn’t want her to know about it until after he’d gone. It had to be somewhere she’d see it and want to investigate, so that she would read it and understand why he had left them all.
He took a reel of tape and stuck the USB drive to the notice board over his desk. He chose purple (her favourite colour) so it would catch her attention, and to make sure he pinned a sheet of A4 next to it and with a black marker wrote a big letter K, filling the paper. Then to be on the safe side he added an arrow pointing to the drive. There. He knew that she’d come into his room to look for him and there was no chance of her missing it when she did. He was assuming she’d be curious enough to put it in her computer right away.
Suddenly there was a sound on the stairs: his grandparents were coming to bed. Quickly he pushed the backpack under his bed, lay down, shut his eyes, and pulled the duvet up to his chin.
The loose board on the landing creaked. Then his bedroom door opened a crack and a shaft of light striped the bed. It was Gran. In the few days since the death of their Mam, she’d taken to looking in on him and his sister the last thing before she settled down herself. She didn’t do anything, didn’t come in to straighten their bedclothes or give them a goodnight kiss, she just stood in the doorway. He didn’t know why. Mam had stopped doing that when they went to secondary school, but Gran seemed to think it was a good idea. She closed his door gently and moved on to Kerryl’s room next door.
He lay still. He couldn’t risk leaving the house until he was sure his grandparents were asleep. They had been talking downstairs for so long that he wondered if they were ever going to bed. Their voices had been too muffled for him to hear what they were saying but he could guess. It would be about the Infection. That’s the only thing anybody ever talked about now. What else was there?
There was the usual coming and going to the bathroom. Teeth were cleaned, the lavatory flushed, and Granddad let go his nightly, world-class fart. Normally Lander would have thought that funny, but not tonight. He was about to leave everything he knew, so there was not much that could make him laugh tonight.
The door to his grandparents’ bedroom closed and there was silence. He’d been hot, lying fully clothed under the duvet, and he was glad to throw it off. It was nearly midnight. He told himself to wait for another quarter of an hour, just while everything settled down. The minute hand on his watch moved with glacial slowness. After a while he heard the rhythmic rasp of Gran’s snoring, but he knew better than to trust that. She was the lightest of sleepers. Granddad always said a mouse belching would wake her. Was Kerryl asleep? He’d heard nothing from her room for ages but he knew she often spent hours reading. Maybe she was doing that now.
At last the minute hand reached a quarter past the hour. He got up from his bed and took the spare pillows from the bottom of the wardrobe. He arranged them under the duvet to make a lumpy shape. It wouldn’t pass close inspection, but to a casual glance in the dark it might look as though he was sleeping.
He stood in the doorway and took a last look at his room. There were only a few things he’d miss. His laptop, of course. There was no point taking that. There was the match ball from the time he’d played for Yorkshire Colts. That had been a day. He’d taken 5 wickets for 16 against a Derbyshire Youth XI, and they’d given him the ball as a souvenir. They’d also offered him a place at the Yorkshire Cricket Academy. He’d been over the moon for a while, but he needed their Mam’s consent and she’d refused to give it. ‘You need to pass your GCSEs, get some qualifications behind you,’ she’d said. ‘Then you can think about playing games.’ They’d rowed about it for days but she wouldn’t budge. He’d given up on school after that. He’d done it to punish her, and it had only recently dawned on him that really the one who was being punished most was himself. That was particularly true now that Kerryl was all set to go to Cambridge. Not that he’d want to go there anyway. He’d better things to do than rub shoulders with a load of toffs. The ball was small enough to take and he was tempted to slip it into his pocket, but he told himself no. It was part of his old life, a life he was leaving behind; at least for now.
He slung his backpack over his shoulder, took his trainers, and tiptoed onto the landing. The squeaky board was right in the middle and he was careful to avoid it. He bent to look under Kerryl’s door. There was no chink of light, but that didn’t mean anything. She might be Snapchatting on her phone, or listening to music on her earbuds, or she might be reading by torchlight. He pressed his ear to the door, straining for any sound. At first he could hear nothing, but then he picked out the sound of steady breathing. She was asleep, all was clear.
There was a sudden snort from his grandparents’ room. He froze in case it was a prelude to other nocturnal activity, but everything stayed quiet. It was a timely nudge, though; stop messing about and get moving.
He could have gone down the stairs with his eyes shut, but faint moonlight through the landing window made it easier. He knew that the third and seventh treads creaked, and he was careful to avoid those.
Buster looked up as Lander entered the kitchen and gave a welcoming whimper. He rose from his basket and stretched. Lander bent and fondled the dog’s ears and tried to still his tail, which was beating a noisy tattoo on the cupboard door. Clearly, Buster had high hopes for what this nocturnal visit might mean. A walk? An early breakfast? Both? His tail wagged even more vigorously and Lander heaved the animal’s swaying rump aside.
‘Sh. You’ll wake the whole house,’ he murmured.
Buster was Lander’s dog and a good friend. He would miss him. He’d thought about taking him but decided that although he could imagine him being useful, the upheaval wouldn’t be fair on the old dog. Besides, it would be harder for him to hide from the authorities with a big sloppy Labrador in tow. And he would be another mouth to feed.
Lander squatted. ‘No, mate, you’ve got to stay here,’ he said.
Buster looked disappointed. Lander opened a tin of Dog Star beef and jelly, his favourite, and filled his bowl. That would keep him busy while he slipped out of the house.
‘See you, boy,’ he whispered, patting him. ‘Look after everybody. Kerryl will see to you, and I’ll come back. I promise.’
He crept out of the kitchen.
For as long as Lander could remember the door to the yard had not been locked at night. Grandad said there was no point. ‘Who’s going to bother coming all the way up here to thieve from us? Anyway, we’ve got nowt worth pinching.’
That had changed. The Infection had made everybody cautious, and for the last few weeks Gran had insisted on it being secured. ‘You never know. There’s all sorts of strange folk about now,’ she’d said.
He took the key from its hook, slid it into the lock and turned it gently. He wouldn’t be able to lock the door behind him but that didn’t matter. By the time the others noticed he’d be well on his way.
The air was chilly and he shuddered. Summer it may be, but over a thousand feet up in the hills the nights could be sharp.
He tiptoed quickly and quietly across the yard and let himself into the barn. He took out his phone and turned on the torch, shielding the beam with his hand to avoid the light spilling outside. Their three cows watched him lazily as he went to the far corner, where there was a heap of sweet-smelling hay. He knelt and rummaged. He’d hidden his two motorbike panniers there. He’d packed them three days ago. In one were clothes – a spare pair of jeans, socks and underwear, three or four T-shirts and a couple of sweatshirts. Was that right? Would it be enough? It was difficult to pack for a trip to another country, one that you’d barely heard of let alone located on a map. Anyway, if he was short of anything he could probably find it somewhere. There was plenty of stuff in abandoned stores. And of course, he had money to buy things, if that still worked.
He turned to the other pannier. In that were his waterproof jacket, his sleeping bag, a groundsheet, his washbag, and a spare pair of trainers. The rest was taken up with food. For the past week he’d been sneaking tins and packets from the store in the pantry. He’d felt a bit guilty about this, but their Mam always used to say that Gran kept enough food to feed an army, and he was sure the rest of the family wouldn’t need the little he’d taken. He’d probably be able to get plenty of food on the way too, but it was best to have something put by in case there was a problem.
The cows studied him with mild curiosity. How was it that cows managed to look as though they understood everything that was going on, when in fact they were as thick as gateposts?
He was satisfied, and pleased with himself. Had he forgotten anything? He told himself that if he knew that it wouldn’t be forgotten, would it? He smiled at his joke. One of his school reports said that he needed to pay more attention to planning. Well, take a look at this lot for planning, Mr Teacher.
He took a pannier in each hand and went out to the yard. He was careful to be very quiet as he passed Joey’s stable. Horses don’t sleep much, and the last thing he wanted was for Joey to whinny. He was Kerryl’s horse and she could hear him from a mile away. If he did sound off she’d be sure to wake up.
Beyond the stable was the shed where he kept his motorbike. It was a 125cc Yamaha that he’d got almost a year ago, soon after his seventeenth birthday. He loved that machine. At least once a week, sometimes more, he gave it a good clean and polish and the chrome shone in the torchlight. He took out his knife and cut off the L-plates. He was a superb rider, he just hadn’t taken his test yet. Having to show the plates was demeaning in normal times, and these weren’t normal. If he ran into the law the lack of plates would be the least of his problems. He was glad to be rid of them.
He clipped the panniers to the bike, rocked it off its stand, and wheeled it out of the shed. The moon was higher now and brighter, and Lander kept in the shadows. He was well aware that his Granddad never got through a night without getting up several times for a pee. If he were to do that at this moment and look out of the landing window there was a good chance he’d see his grandson in the yard, so her needed to move.
At the edge of the farmyard he got astride the bike but he didn’t start the engine. Instead, he pushed with his legs and scooted towards the top of the track down to the valley, where he stopped and looked back towards the house. There were no lights on and the building was a dark shape against the sky. All clear. Phase one complete. He’d got away without anyone noticing.
He was sad, but he was also excited. He’d lived on Paradise Farm all his life and he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. He felt a choke in his throat and he was tempted to turn back, but he knew he couldn’t. It was for their good, Kerryl’s and his grandparents’, that he was going. He owed it to them to get away as quickly as he could. He’d explained why in the letter on the USB stick. He hoped they’d understand. Would he ever know?