He didn’t want to open his eyes. As long as they remained shut he could remember the good times: the times before. It felt like they’d been running for a lifetime, sheltering in hollows under trees, sometimes in corners by walls. None of them had eaten for four days now, and his cousins were getting weak. Even his mother, for so long the rock keeping them going, had begun showing signs of breaking under the strain. They wouldn’t make it much further without food.
She had suggested going foraging for mushrooms, but Pete knew it wouldn’t be enough. He shivered, but for a change it wasn’t from the cold. Back to the Garden.
His father had managed to get food enough to keep them going for two weeks, but he’d either got sloppy or unlucky. No one would ever likely find out which, but one day he just hadn’t come back. They didn’t speak about what would have happened to him. It was best not to think about it. And Pete was now trying his hardest not to think that of the fate that could befall him. It had to be done, though. The hunger was going now, and Pete knew that was a sign that his body was turning in on itself, eating its own flesh to keep going.
His cousins looked into his eyes as he prepared to leave. None of them said anything as he turned and walked out.
His mother followed him a short way, and asked him if he wanted to come with her instead, to forage for mushrooms or berries. She always added the “or berries”, not that there had been any in months. He shook his head, wondering if he would see them again, and headed towards the Garden.
It wasn’t far to the section of the wall he knew had a half-dug tunnel under it, but it took a long time to get there. His feet seemed to know where they were going, and rebelled. The wall slowly appeared through the dead trees, and he saw the domed roof of the Garden stretching upwards. The place looked enormous. It had to be to feed the number of people it did, of course, but still – they could surely spare some food? He knew the answer to that, and what would happen to him if he was caught.
The tunnel needed little effort to clear enough so he could get inside, and as he pulled himself upwards he looked round and felt like he was being assaulted by colours and smells, the like of which the outside world had simply forgotten. It was intoxicating. He reached up and picked what looked like an apple. It tasted sour, but utterly wonderful after so long without food. He grabbed another and wolfed it down, then turned and saw vegetables ahead of him. Parsnips, carrots, potatoes. He grabbed a couple and ate them raw, walking forwards as he did so, completely wrapped up in the sensations in his mouth and stomach.
He saw the Gardener almost too late as he rounded a bend in a hedge. If the Gardener had left his gun-strap unfastened Pete would have been dead there and then, but the extra second was all he needed. He turned and ran, ducking down a side-path with some cover, not stopping to see where the Gardener was behind him.
Pete turned another corner, and stopped for a second panting for breath. He realised with horror that he’d forgotten which direction was which, and there were enough trellises up now that he couldn’t see to get his bearings. He listened for a second, only to hear the Gardener’s footsteps getting closer. He could have hidden, but if the Gardener turned the wrong way, that was it, so he took his moment and ran again, legs already heavy with the effort.
A building appeared in front of him, with several doors. One door was opened, and led to a staircase down into a dark cellar. Pete almost leapt down the stairs and hid out of sight at the bottom, knowing he was trapping himself but hoping he was far enough ahead that he wouldn’t have been spotted.
He was wrong.
The laughter at the top of the stairs cut him like a knife, and he felt himself starting to cry. The door shut, and a loud click made him screw his eyes up. He began hearing scratching noises, and then after a door was banged heard some voices. Pitiful voices. The other doors had been already locked, and Pete began to realise where he was. He had hidden himself in a larder. He couldn’t stop himself crying now, and sank to his knees, looking around the room for any possible hope. There was a window, but it was way too high to reach, although its bars looked wide enough for someone his size to get through if somehow he could get up there. There was a distant sound of someone begging, pleading. Pete looked down at the floor, in utter despair.
It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes when a pebble landed by him. Pete looked up and saw a small boy squatting at the window, holding a finger to his lips.
The boy began waving his hands at his own body, and then pointing at Pete, and then indicated one of the bars. Pete took a while to understand, but eventually realised and removed his trousers and shirt, tied them together, and threw one end up. The boy tied it to the central bar, and promptly disappeared. Pete hauled himself upwards, wrapping the clothing around his hands so he could take a break now and again. It took so long, and his arms were just jelly by the time he collapsed down on the dirty path outside the window. He slithered his legs through the bars and looked along to the next windows. He should try to help them, he knew, but before he could consider that he saw a man sitting at the end of the path, facing away from him, but tapping a rifle on his hand. If he turned, Pete would be seen. Any more noise…
Pete untied the knot holding his trousers to the bar, but as he tried to detach the clothes his numb fingers missed their grip, and they fell back into the cellar. Pete edged away, hoping not to see any of the faces of the poor prisoners in the next rooms, and suddenly aware of how cold he was. That couldn’t be helped now, he thought, as the rifleman half-turned. Pete disappeared into a line of corn.
He trudged along, unable to formulate any kind of coherent thought, wondering where the boy had got to. He saw some footprints which he followed to a tiny hole, but even at first glance he knew that if the boy had escaped that way, Pete was way too big to follow. He began to feel tears again, and the shivering he felt only made it worse.
As he came to the end of the corn he stopped, seeing the Gardener in the distance, looking like he was patrolling and searching for something. Probably him.
Beyond that, though, Pete suddenly recognised a tree. It was the apple tree. Just there would be the hole, and safety, if only he could reach it. He stopped and took some deep breaths, telling his legs what they had to do.
As the Gardener turned Pete began running. The Gardener heard, and turned as well, but it was too late. Pete was past him, and threw himself head-first down the tunnel, up the other side, and ran, unthinking, all the way back to the tree where his mother would be waiting.
When he got there he collapsed and passed out.
He didn’t see that his mother had come back with a good haul of mushrooms, and had even somehow magicked up a few berries, from what had to be the last anywhere outside the Garden. She saved some for him, and wrapped their only blanket round him, wondering what had become of his clothes, and fearing that he would become sick with such cold.