There was silence between them as they pulled on the cords. They were pulling their own weight and that was a task.
They were working in darkness with a shaft of vague light indicating their destination. They toiled knowing that every moment counted. Muscles ached and burned until, at last, they reached the hatch. Michael pushed with his remaining strength. To his surprise, it opened easily and they climbed out into the school kitchens. These were deserted. The staff, that had arrived for their morning’s work, had fled upon hearing the first salvo. Michael looked at his mother, palms were bleeding.
“Michael, does that hurt?”
Michael looked down at his hands and saw the blood for the first time. He was reminded of the boy he had killed.
“No, it’s fine. Let’s get going. Where have you parked the car?”
She was just able to tell him that it was on Thurston Road and they were off out of the kitchen fire exit and around the back of the building.
At roughly the same time, Mr Hunter was emerging in the grey morning with the first of his refugees. They had come out at the same place they had gone in, and, being some distance from the main building, that afforded them just enough of a chance to go undetected.
The bedraggled survivors were being led out into the open by their teachers.
“What now, Graham?” asked a dazed Mrs Sanderson, the PE teacher who he had always respected.
“I’m afraid that we must let the children make their own way home. We can’t take all of them can we?”
“What about St Stephen’s on Blythe Street? Why don’t we take the children there and then ferry them home?”
As more of the students were leaving the passages, Graham saw Chris. There was a look on his face that caused him immediate concern.
“What’s the matter, Chris?”
“I think they might have captured Michael.”
Some moments passed and then the deputy head emerged.
“Are you the last, Martin?”
“I’m afraid so. The boy told me to leave him and lock the door behind me. Which one is Chris?”
Chris stepped forward.
“Son, your brother was a hero. He told me to tell you that he would see you again and that that was a promise.”
Chris’s composure crumpled. Slumping to the ground, he buried his head in his hands and wept openly. Graham sat beside him with an arm around his shoulders and knew that he was close to tears, himself.
“I’m going back in for him. I can’t leave him on his own in there. He wouldn’t leave me all alone and I’m the one responsible for this.”
He tried to shrug the consoling arm away and found that it had become more than that.
“Chris, you’re not going to do anyone any good if you go back in there. Stay here. You heard his promise. He said you’d see him again didn’t he?”
“Get off me. Get off me!” He was fighting now like an animal caught in a snare. “You’re not my father. You’re not family. Get off…”
And that was when the school exploded.
Flowers had listened as the steps approached him and he had tried to trace their passage when they momentarily stopped. Then he heard a rush of feet coming up from the basement. There were cries of anguish and urgency. Something was wrong. Something had interfered with his plans.
“Sir, I think the timer’s been set off. Rawlins heard it ticking. It could blow any minute…”
Flowers took moments to digest what he was being told. He turned towards the place where he had last heard the solitary footfalls, but whatever had made them was now gone. For the briefest instant he discerned the outline of a figure leaving the building through the main doors that had been opened as if by a stiff breeze.
Yes, they had better move and quickly.
“Right! Everyone outside.”
It was as they reached the perimeter fence that the school went up. Not quite what he had planned, he thought, directing his camera phone towards the flames, but good enough.