One Of Us Will Be Dead By Morning

ONE OF US WILL BE DEAD BY MORNING

Chapter One

 

The air here is filled with noise. The low, belly-shaking, rough-roaring engine grind clashes with the crashing of the waves. The freshness of the sea water salt tang is offset by the stench of diesel fumes. Rolling and tipping, listing this way then that, climbing the surf then crashing back down. It feels non-stop. Chaotic. Barely controlled. All-consuming.

And yet, over all of this, most of the kids are oblivious. The adults charged with looking after them struggle to make themselves heard: angry yells compete with excited, high-pitched screams and lose out every time. They’re desperately trying to find their sea legs while the kids they’re supposed to be looking after run rings around them. The patience of the adults is limited, already wearing thin. The energy of the kids, on the other hand, seems to know no bounds.

It’s too early for this, Joanne Hillman thinks. She never wanted to come on this stupid school trip anyway, but Dad had made her. It might have been bearable if Jackie hadn’t backed out last week (like she always does). And Louise has been acting weird all morning, keeping herself to herself and barely saying anything to anyone like the whole world’s against her. Dad said it would be good for Joanne to spend some time away from home, to force her out of her shell and make her mix with people, but she’s quite happy in her shell on her own, thank you very much, Dad.

She sits on the bench on the wooden deck and watches the churning waves, swinging her feet and pulling her waterproof jacket tight around her to keep out the cold and the spray. She should still be in bed. Normally she wouldn’t be up for hours yet. She’d just about got used to the idea of being away from home, but the collywobbles (as Mum calls them) set in last night, and right now she’d rather be anywhere but here. She feels sick: a combination of the constant rolling motion and her nervous belly. And this is just the beginning. She has a whole week to get through. Grasp the opportunity, Dad kept telling her yesterday. Make the most of it. You’ll be back before you know it. Dad really does talk a lot of crap sometimes, Joanne thinks. Trouble is, when you’re thirteen and a half, a week feels like forever.

She thinks about insignificant stuff to try to distract herself. If she wastes time thinking about nothing, she reckons, then the days should go by that much faster. She knows it’s an illusion because time never speeds up or slows down, but right now that illusion is just about the only thing she’s got left to hold on to. The week stretches out ahead of her like a prison sentence. Days and days away from home and her bedroom and the TV and the cat with no chance of early release. She’s already marking time like a convict. About a hundred and seventy-five hours before she gets back, she’s worked out. She puts in her headphones and cranks up the volume to drown everything out.

Too wrapped up in her music and her miserable, melancholy thoughts to care what’s happening elsewhere, Joanne’s blissfully oblivious of the chaos unfolding just meters away from where she’s sitting. She doesn’t hear the screams, she doesn’t sense the panic, and she doesn’t see the kid approaching. The kid who’s about to kill her.

The first she knows of the attack is a vicious swipe around the left side of her head. The weapon is actually a length of chain taken from the safety railings, but when it hits, it feels rigid like a length of lead pipe, and it burns like nothing she’s ever felt before. Joanne’s on all fours with her ear split and blood running into her eyes and mouth before she knows what’s happening. She gasps for breath, her mind in overload, struggling to work out what, who, how, and why? and at the same time trying to cope with the most horrific pain imaginable. It fills her whole body, hurting so much it steals her breath from her lungs. Her arms give way and she hits the deck and rolls over onto her back, looking up into the rain and spray. She’s numb and slow to move, and the chain lashes down again and again. She instinctively raises her hands to protect her face, but it does her no good. Busted fingers, split skin, broken teeth, more blood, and so much more pain that it almost stops hurting.

And the last three things she thinks before she loses consciousness are these: I’m really scared. I want Dad. Then: I know you . . . why are you hurting me? And then: Am I going to die now?

Joanne passes out and her killer loses interest. Job done.

As a hastily improvised weapon, the coiled chain-whip is devastatingly effective. Simple and brutal. A single lash cuts down two more unwitting victims. Bones snap like dry twigs. Lesions and lacerations. Blood everywhere. Indiscriminate. Unchecked. Unstoppable.

A boy cowering way over to the killer’s right tries to run for cover, but his way through is blocked by Joanne’s fallen body, and all that his frantic, scrambling movement achieves is to draw attention to the fact his being there. Might as well have painted a target on his back. The attack is fast and intense and he’s dead in seconds.

Belowdecks the engine grind muffles the noise. A sudden stampede from above is the first indication that something’s wrong: a flood of kids running for cover, tripping and falling over each other down slippery wet metal steps to get out of the way.

When Roger Freeman goes up to investigate, his first reaction is one of utter disbelief. The disbelief is immediately replaced by panic. It takes a couple of seconds for him to fully comprehend what he’s seeing because it’s so unexpected and so wrong. It’s a damn massacre. Death and violence everywhere. He forces himself to go out onto the deck—no plan, just a sense of duty and his instinct to protect driving him forward—but he’s held up by the mass of terrified kids still trying to go the other way.

Roger’s in clear space now, and as he walks out onto the deck, the killer strides towards him with a vicious intent way beyond her years. She’s growing in confidence with every attack, beginning to understand what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. A small boy gets in the way at the exact wrong moment, and, finding himself within range of her unforgiving chain-weapon, he bears the brunt of the savage strike meant for Roger. All Roger wants is to run, but adrenaline keeps him focused. He does what he can to try to halt the inexplicable massacre, acting without thinking because he’s responsible for these kids and he knows that every second he delays, more of them will die.

The weapon lashes down across another young face, spraying blood and spit and teeth. The end of it flails and wraps around a handrail, and Roger lunges and grabs it before she can uncoil it and whip it back. He grips even tighter as the chain is almost yanked from his grasp, then he uses it to reel in the killer.

Roger’s acutely aware of the risk he’s taking and the danger he’s now facing. But it doesn’t feel like danger. There’s confusion more than anything else because he’s struggling to understand how and why things have changed, and what the kid in front of him has become. Earlier this morning the two of them sat and chatted at the harbour while they waited to leave, talking in-depth about nothing in particular as the sun rose over the town. Roger was reassuring and supportive as ever, offering whatever advice he could. The kids all like Roger. They trust him. She trusted him.

But now he can’t understand the look in his soon-to-be-murderer’s eyes. This morning there was an innocence was there, an unspoken vulnerability. Typical early-teenage cockiness, the first inkling of maturity tempered with an undeniable childlike fragility bubbling just below the surface. She was telling him about the boy bands she likes, and he was teasing her about their pretty-boy looks and how all bands sound the same to him these days, and how music was real music when he was a lad with proper instruments and lyrics that meant something. She took it all in good spirits and they laughed and joked about the gulf between their likes and dislikes until it was time to get on the boat.

All gone now.

Nothing left but the Hate.

Roger tries to fight back as best he can, but it’s difficult when you don’t want to hurt the person who’s trying to kill you. Holding the chain in one hand like a dog’s leash, he swings a reluctant punch, which misses its mark. Off-balance now, he struggles to keep track of his assailant, who, lightning fast, driven by an intense ferocity he himself clearly lacks, slips around and behind him and reverses their positions. She climbs up onto a wooden bench, wraps the chain around his neck, then pulls harder and harder until Roger’s eyes bulge wide. As he starts to choke, she bites down and takes a zombie-like chunk out of the side of his neck. But there’s no horror-movie flesh-eating here, just unadulterated and uncontained aggression, an insatiable desire to kill. She yanks her head back, teeth still clamped down hard, and tears away a ragged ribbon of skin.

Utter mayhem is everywhere now. Hysteria. Bodies strewn across the deck. Everyone’s aware of what’s happening, but on the boat there’s no possibility of escape and they all know it. Some jump overboard in desperation, figuring that even the slightest sliver of possible salvation in the ice-cold water is better than no chance at all. Others run from the diminutive killer en masse, doing whatever they can to put maximum distance between themselves and their inevitable deaths. They fight with each other to get away. Friendships are forgotten, relationships betrayed. In the blink of an eye, everything has been reset. All that matters now is self-preservation. Fuck everyone and everything else.

Following the lead of others they’ve seen, even more of them jump now, succeeding only in assuring themselves of a different kind of death, maybe even bringing the end of their lives forward by a few minutes. But then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing? Perhaps still having a choice counts for something as your final minutes and seconds tick away? When faced with almost certain annihilation, is there something to be said for going out on your own terms, or is it better just to resign yourself and let it happen? The quicker and more violent the end, perhaps, the less it will hurt overall.

Or maybe there’s no thought to any of this, no reasoning. Just instinct. Panic and dread.

The killer is becoming increasingly assured, feeding off the cumulative fear of her victims. She had a few anxious seconds before her first kill (hard to believe it was just a matter of minutes ago) when the nerves were hard to handle and the deed was hard to do. But the longer she’s been in the grip of the Hate, the easier it has become. It’s not a case of wanting to kill, it’s about having to do it. And like the few remaining Unchanged, who herd away like frightened sheep from a hungry wolf, the killer is equally concerned with self-preservation. The only way to ensure she stays alive is to eliminate the enemy. Every last fucking one of them.

The Unchanged are no match for the unbridled ferocity of a Hater. They cannot compete with the girl’s instinctive aggression. There’s an unspoken clarity and certainty to this Hater’s bloodlust, and there’s only one way this is going to end.

The Hate is here, and there is no escape.

ONE OF US WILL BE DEAD BY MORNING will be published on 5 December by Thomas Dunne Books

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