27. Shrek 2

I had a plan. Wait until it gets late and Grayson and his boys go off to wherever they went to at night, then ransack the shed for every secret hidden behind the curtain and in the desk drawers. Excellent plan, I think we can all agree.

Unfortunately, the moment I put my head down to give my eyes a rest, I was out like a light. Whether my body was getting used to being in this place or I was just knackered, the next thing I knew, it was morning.

We were woken by Grayson banging a spoon on a dish (I knew the bastard had spoons hidden somewhere!).

“Good morning,” he boomed cheerfully. “Looks like it’s going to be another beautiful day. Sunshine and fresh air aplenty.”

We groggily got up, faces squishy and eyes glued shut. The fire was out and it looked like the last two days of constant fear and anxiety had wiped us all out.

“Now, I do want to remind those of you left, I and my men will be leaving today. You’ll need somewhere else to sleep, and you’ll have to take care of your other needs yourself from now on. However, we won’t set off until after dark, so if you do have anything you need to ask, you’ve got until then.”

I got the impression he would have liked to have left earlier, but he was delaying the departure to give us every opportunity to do… something. Ask a question, hand in a token, claim a prize—I didn’t know what it was we were supposed to do, I just knew we were supposed to do something which most likely the other groups had already done.

“Do you have anything you want to ask me now?” He looked at each of us in turn.

Nobody said anything. We were all still half asleep, but I’m not sure that was the problem. I could sense this was more or less our last chance, but my brain refused to offer up any ideas.

“Okay then. Good luck.” The way he said it made it sound like he knew we’d be needing it. He turned around and went back inside.

I felt pretty scuzzy. I hadn’t had a proper wash in days and my clothes needed cleaning. There was a hand pump in the corner of the courtyard that provided our water, but we didn’t have soap or towels, plus we were too shy to undress in front of each other. You also needed someone to work the pump for you so you could use both hands.

All stuff we should be able to work out between us, but hadn’t.

Not knowing when we’d be able to find a decent water supply again, I stripped down to my rank-smelling boxers and asked Maurice to pump the water for me. He agreed, of course, making it seem completely stupid I hadn’t just asked on day one.

The water was freezing cold. I got down on all fours and stuck my head under the spigot to wash my hair and as much of my body as I could. I wasn’t about to stick my hand down my shorts and give things a good scrub with all the people around (although God knows I needed to) but getting everything wet helped with the smell at least.

I operated the pump for Maurice, although he didn’t have anything on under his onesie, so he had to go nude. The girls had tactfully disappeared into the shed, making it less embarrassing, but we still took great care not to make eye contact, or any other kind of contact.

Yes, we were those guys. The ones who can’t handle communal showers and can’t piss at a urinal if someone’s standing next to us. I realise it’s retarded, but we’d each had a couple of decades of feeling shit about ourselves, we weren’t going to undo all of it overnight.

Dudley was the tallest and had the most difficulty getting low enough to wash properly, but he did the best he could by splashing water over himself. We used the blankets as makeshift towels and patted ourselves dry.

Once dressed, and only slightly damp, we went into the shed where the girls were eating the fruit provided us for breakfast. While we ate, the girls went off to wash themselves, a tacit understanding between us that we wouldn’t enter the courtyard until they were done.

Grayson was at his desk doing more paperwork, so I couldn’t have a look behind the curtain unless I rushed past him and yanked it open. Which I totally could have done—it wasn’t like he’d kill me for it—but I couldn’t make myself do it. I just stood there, sweaty with indecision.

After we’d washed and eaten, we put all our gear in the sacks which now had straps on them so you could carry them like backpacks. One had the blankets in it, the other had metal dishes and the homemade torches. It had taken us ages to get everything ready, the sewing being particularly difficult and painful. Flossie had done most of it, but I had stitched together a very poorly constructed sap and my fingers still stung from the effort. You really had to force the needle through the leather.

I wasn’t too impressed with the results, the YouTube video I had seen made the simple weapon seem much more impressive. But then, all I’d done was stuff  various bits of metal into a triangle of leather, sewn around the edges and sewn on a thin piece of leather as a strap. By looping the strap over your wrist and holding one end of the triangle, you could strike someone quite sharply while giving the impression you were just slapping them, which might work well as a surprise attack. But the metal needed to be heavier to have any real effect. Still, it would be more effective than a punch and less likely to break my knuckles.

All geared up and ready to face the day, we set off for our regular hunting ground. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was missing something and that Grayson was giving us one last chance to figure it out. We had the rest of the day to think about it, but after that he’d be gone for good and we’d be on our own.

We headed for the wheatfields, practicing with our slings and talking about rabbit hunting strategies. No matter how uncertain I felt on the inside, I couldn’t show it. If the others lost confidence, in themselves or me, we wouldn’t stand a chance. So far things had gone alright, but it would only take one bad experience to wreck us.

I mentioned my thoughts on Grayson waiting for us to ask him something and the others agreed it seemed like that. But when I asked them if they could think of any questions there was the usual deafening silence.

“We’ve got the rest of the day to come up with something,” I said. “Try to think about it. We should try to get as much info out of him as we can before he leaves.”

They all nodded and made thoughtful faces, but I didn’t hold out much hope. If I was going to figure out what Grayson wanted from us, I was probably going to have to do it alone.

“Also, I’ve been thinking, we need to make plans for particular eventualities.” They looked at me like I was talking a foreign language. Apart from Dudley, who looked straight up as usual. “For example, if we run into trouble that we can’t handle and you hear someone shout ‘Run!’, then we need to have sorted out where we run to, beforehand.”

Plenty of nods, no comments.

“If something happens today—” nervous looks zig-zagged around me “—I’m not saying it will, just if, then our meeting point will be back in town. But only shout it if you mean it. No joking around with this sort of thing. You hear ‘Run!’ and you peg it. Don’t wait to find out what’s going on. No questions. Grab what you can and start running.”

“Shouldn’t we leave everything?” asked Claire. “If it’s dangerous, it’ll only slow us down.”

“No. We have fuck all as it is, we can’t afford to lose any of it. I mean, don’t stop to pack things up and put them away. But if it’s within reach, take it. And generally keep things within reach and assume you may have to run at any moment.”

It’s probably great when a team’s been together awhile, with their own shorthand way of communicating and an innate understanding of their roles in any given scenario. But when you’ve known each other for three days, you have to have conversations where you state the blindingly obvious.

“And when you run, really run. Don’t stop. Don’t go back. If someone’s in trouble, getting yourself in trouble too won’t help.”

There was some grumbling at that.

“Look, if you want to go back and help someone who’s fallen and can’t get up, that’s your choice. I can’t stop you. What I’m saying, though, is if you’re the person who’s fallen, don’t automatically assume we’re coming back for you. You need to save yourself. That’s the mindset you need. Fireman Sam will not be coming to the rescue, and the rest of us may have our own problems to contend with.”

They seemed to see the value of what I was saying, although how much they’d remember when the shit hit the fan, I had no way of knowing.

We made it around the wheatfield and headed up the slope. With no shade, the sun bore down on us as we climbed to the top. Already out of breath, we were met by a gentle breeze and the sight of an ogre.

It was sitting in the middle of our meadow, crouched down on its haunches. It was about the same size as the one in the woods we’d encountered on our first day, but it had lighter coloured hair. It also gave off a completely different vibe just sitting there. It was still terrifying, but without the roaring and thrashing about, it didn’t make you want to scream yourself hoarse. It made you want to keep very quiet and hope it didn’t notice you.

What was really strange, though, was how the rabbits were reacting. They had gathered around the ogre in a circle, pushing each other out of the way to get closer.

The ogre reached down and placed the back of its hand on the grass. The rabbits immediately swarmed onto its palm. The ogre  lifted the mass of squirming fur to its mouth and shovelled them in like popcorn. You’d think this might upset a few of the rabbits below. They couldn’t have not noticed. But they actually tried even harder to get closer. “Me next!” they seemed to be saying. The ogre obliged.

We all watched, transfixed, as more rabbits eagerly jumped onto the proffered hand and disappeared down its gullet. We were far enough away that we weren’t in immediate danger, but if it saw us and decided to attack were we really ready to deal with it?

No. Not even close.

“Hey,” I whispered to get the others’ attention. “Run.” I turned and ran, not waiting to see if my earlier comments had sunk in.

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