Chimera – Chapter 2
A scream shattered the silence. Jon broke into a run, the pounding of his boots echoing off the unadorned walls. At the only door not obstructed by wooden panels he halted, uncertain. The lesson was not yet over and parents were not allowed in. Sticky-taped to the door a government poster portrayed an insane hag brandishing shrivelled plants. He shook his head. The caption read: Alternative medicine is deadly! Someone had crossed out ‘alternative medicine’ and scrawled ‘synthetic food’. Jon couldn’t help glancing to see if anyone was watching.
Hearing a groan within, he pushed open the door. To his horror, Sam lay on the floor, his eyes rolled up in his head, his fists clenched and bloody. A short distance away sat the teacher, her back propped against the wall, her right arm cradled in her left. Her black hair, always so tidy in a knot behind her head, was loose and dishevelled. Her face was pinched in pain and her left eye swollen. She glanced up and their eyes met. In that brief moment he caught a glimpse of pain and despair and fear, but also tenderness and longing. Her expression was so intense, he had to look away.
Books were scattered across the floor and chairs upturned. Several children lay groaning as they grasped heads or legs or hands. The rest huddled in a corner, some crying softly, but most cringing wide-eyed. Jon shuddered. Each of these children would tell their parents and their parents would whisper to their neighbours and someone, somewhere would do their duty and inform the police. The last thing he needed was trouble with the authorities.
He kneeled next to the teacher and, out of some distant reflex, moved to place a reassuring hand on her shoulder, only to stop short.
“What happened?” he asked pulling back.
She dragged a hand across her forehead that was creased with worry. “Sam went wild and hit out.” Her voice was raw with emotion. It unsettled him.
Sam had his difficulties, but never had he been violent. The authorities knew about him, of course they did, especially after the trouble with his mother during the Disaster, but, for some reason, they did not intervene. When word of this violence reached them, they wouldn’t hesitate. Sam would be carted off to what people politely called a ‘special school’ and never seen again.
“Give me a hand,” the teacher said.
Her out-stretched hand startled him. He shied away. Like everyone else, he avoided physical contact for fear he might catch the Disaster. Had it not killed so many? She looked at him, her hand quivering but her eyes challenging and, despite himself, he grasped it, pulling her to her feet. Her fingers were moist as if she had a fever. At the thought of the millions who had died, he released her hand and wiped his fingers on his trousers, hoping she wouldn’t notice.
She looked around, her eyes settling on Sam. “You should take him home. I will try to sort out this mess.”
“You won’t …” He couldn’t finish the sentence. Of course she would. If she didn’t report this she would probably forfeit her job. Work was not easy to come by, especially not in one of the last private schools in town.
“I will do what I can,” she said, shuffling towards one of the children lying on the floor.
Without another word, he scooped up Sam’s limp body and headed for the door. Alone in the corridor and out of earshot, he leant against the wall and stared at Sam. The boy’s eyes were closed, as if he were asleep. His long neck and oval face reminded Jon of his late wife, Jane. She had had the same thick-set eyebrows, the same long, dark lashes. It had been twelve years; twelve years during which he had managed to keep Sam from the predatory grasp of the authorities.
“Oh Sam. What have you done?” The boy’s unmoving form offered no response. Jon pushed off the wall and headed for the exit.
Outside the air was dull and lifeless, almost grey. The wreak of chemicals invaded everything. You’d think you’d get used to it after so much time. But it was subtly changing, as if the chemists knew blood hounds were on to them and were set on throwing them off the scent.
He stepped from the porch and moved cautiously away from the school. Sam was heavy and the pavement was cracked and uneven, but at least no grass grew between the paving stones to trip him up. He could thank the Food Police and their herbicides for that.
The buildings that flanked the walkway leaned away as if afraid of him. Shutters hung from their hinges at odd angles, windows were boarded up and scraps of paper had collected around entrances and piled up in dark corners. He peered into the shadows each time he passed a narrow alley. Someone might be lurking there. Caution had got him thus far. This afternoon no monsters surged out to greet them.
His building was not so different from the others. He had bought it shortly before the Disaster when he still had money, thanks to a major concert tour. Fissures were forming in the walls and paint on the shutters and window frames was peeling, but at least it was cleaner than neighbouring buildings and no windows were boarded up. Even if he still had the means to repair it and the materials could be found, it would not do to have it stand out. Flaunting wealth, however paltry, was asking for trouble.
A shout wrenched him from his thoughts. A man in tatters burst from a nearby alley and dashed in Jon’s direction. Sam stirred but did not wake. Close on the tramp’s heels thundered a pair of guards, all muscles bulging, their truncheons raised, panting like dogs with their tongues hanging out. Jon struggled to reach the key in his pocket, balancing Sam on one knee. He almost dropped the boy several times, but dared not put him down. With clumsy fingers he fumbled the key into the lock. The fugitive was closing fast. Finally, the door swung open and Jon hurried inside. Laying Sam on the floor, he slammed the glass door and flipped the lock once, twice. Hunched over Sam, his breath coming hard, he watched.
The man was barely feet away when he was overtaken. The guards thrust him to the ground, setting about him with truncheons, raining blows on his shoulders, his back, his head. Blood flowed thickly over his face. His eyes locked momentarily with Jon’s, beseeching, then rolled up leaving only the whites in view.
The guards knew no restraint. They laboured the man like a vengeful storm. Curled up in a ball, the tramp made no move to resist. Maybe he was already dead.
Enough. Jon might have been glad to pay guards to patrol their quarter, but to see the violence close up was sickening. He turned his back, picked up Sam and headed for the stairs. Climbing the four flights, he was forced to stop several times as the boy began to slip from his aching arms.
Once inside, he lay Sam on the sofa, hurried to the window and peered out. No tramp or guards were in sight. Returning to the sofa, he sat next to his son, closed his eyes and let out a shuddery sigh.