Chapter One – Grace

No matter where you sit in the Wyselaskie Hall, Mrs. Hunter’s piercing eyes are constantly scrutinising you, just waiting to catch you out when your eyes absently drift shut. In an instant she’ll materialise before you, pounce on you with not a scrap of remorse and admonish you in front of your pitying friends. You won’t even have time to spit out your gum and stick it on the seat in front of you as Amanda, in a fallible attempt to look cool, usually does.

When Mrs. Hunter’s away, the whole school seems to breathe a sigh of relief. Your classmates are at liberty to poke you throughout assembly and mutter weird things into your ear without the fear of being caught out and publicly scolded.

It also means I can fearlessly sleep through assembly. The voice of Mrs. Ward boasting about another year of great PLC achievements floated meaninglessly through my half-conscious mind, along with the sounds of Weiminn and Wei Yan excitedly comparing fishy hand movements. In the seats behind me, Susanne and Jess Wu were having some sort of poking fest. At least I hope that’s what it was.

Katrina elbowed me in the ribs and I started awake. “Hey,” I said unintelligently.

Her eyes slid to the teachers nearby, a silent warning. Amanda, who was on Katrina’s other side, snorted. “‘They can’t hear us.”

“Oh, okay,” Katrina conceded placidly, but she still looked nervous.

“Hey Grace,” Amanda said, leaning over. “Are you in my physics class? I’ve got Downey period one.”

I thought back to the timetable I’d received this morning. “Great, another class with Aman.” But I was smiling. I’d have some company in my first physics class. I assured myself that Year Eleven wouldn’t turn out to be as bad as I had expected.

Amanda tried to hit me, but missed by a mile as always, and Katrina and I guffawed. “Er, loser,” I said. One of the teachers shot us a warning glare and our conversation abated.

A million years later, Mrs. Elvins declared, “Please stand, girls,” and Mr. Ross pounded out the closing tune on the organ. The teachers flew towards the exits like there was a rhinoceros on their heels. The students followed at a more languid pace. I walked alone, looking around grinning at my friends and classmates happily chatting with one another. It was so nice to reunite after the summer holidays. Everyone looked older, taller and many looked manlier, if that is possible. Two classy couples, Megan and Kyla, and Jeena and Ainslie were parading down the corridor with effortless stylishness, with Jing Jing and Vanessa accompanying them in hip hop mien. Kristina and her fans were having an anime/Ragnarok reunion, which I unfortunately could not join in. Backing us up, Ainslie, Alice, Jess Yoong, Yaya, Shirley, Soso, Steph, Tina, Janine, Suz, and the rest of the gang looked like some mass Asian mob. Mel Au jumped at me from behind, mauling my face to bits before gladly greeting me. It seemed like a completely normal start to a completely normal year. At least, that was what I thought.

Somehow, I lasted through Physics and an equally tedious maths lesson by zoning out and happily decorating my new diary. Before long, it was recess and we piled into the unfamiliar Year Eleven corridor to share food and pig out. Megan was hanging a whole row of fresh new granny mothballs in her locker while everyone backed away, repelled. Katrina was sticking up posters of Seth Cohen/Adam Brody while Amanda watched and drooled, unabashed. Random snatches of conversation drifted towards me as I peeled the lid off my tub of Fruche and licked it.

“Ew, gross!” Wei Yan’s comment was directed towards my licking of the Fruche lid.

“I bashed another turkey into a teacher’s legs when she was wearing a white dress,” Ainslie was retelling to a group of avid listeners. “I hid my face in a pile of Elle Macpherson underwear.”

Jess Wu: “Ooh, my tummy is so squishy and cute!”

Sarah Jane paraded around doing her gay man flounce while Yasmin described her ‘no chips’ diet to Weiminn.

“You shouldn’t diet!” Weiminn howled, bashing her fist against her leg for emphasis.

Alice and Shirley were admiring Yaya’s cute new haircut, while Yaya blushed modestly.

Jess Wu: “Ooh, my fingers are so long and elegant.”

Tina and Steph considerately paused to examine her fingers and compliment them. Meanwhile, Nessa and Jo found a CD player and stuck a CD in. Everyone started chanting for Yoong to breakdance. It was like a war cry, the desperate shouts echoing down the corridor. Jess Yoong ran into the classroom to hide.

I offered some chips to Wei Yan who offered me a spoonful of delicious fried rice in return. Wolfing down food like a victim of a famine, I was totally unprepared for what happened next.

The PA system crackled into life, spitting out a series of deafening shrieks. Everyone moaned and various inappropriate words were shouted out. It was Mrs. Supple speaking, and she sounded odder than usual. “Girls…” There was some loud, brash muttering, a man with a strong accent. When she spoke again she sounded terrified. “Girls, please remain calm while I deliver some ghastly news.” Her words started running together in a frenzied panic. “There are people in our school…they’re threatening to blow us up.”

This is a joke. I couldn’t react. Was it April Fools’ Day? The fried rice and Fruche slipped out of my trembling fingers.

There was a loud thump, and someone screamed. Gasping, Mrs. Supple blurted out, “Please, run for your lives, run! They’re going to kill us all!” Immediately, there was a deafening explosion and the speakers were cut off. At first I thought the explosion was a gunshot, but I felt the ground shake and I realised it was a bomb that had gone off.

The corridors erupted into screams. More bombs racked the earth, and the walls creaked dangerously. Dizzily I staggered to my feet, sensing everyone else jump up in a hurry, frightened witless. Katrina grabbed my arm to support herself, desperately trying to steady her breathing. She looked like she was about to faint.

“What do we do?” someone yelled. I think it was Amanda but I wasn’t sure.

Suddenly, the linoleum seemed to tear itself off the ground and we were tossed several metres down the corridor with excruciating force. The sound of an explosion ripped past my ears, shaking me to the bone. I felt a throbbing ache in my skull where it had slammed against a metal locker, but I wasn’t as unlucky as Weiminn and Alice, who had ended up half-stuck in the rubbish bin. I thought I saw blood on the floor but my eyes couldn’t focus. The force of the explosion had knocked the breath out of me.

Heavy footsteps pounded from somewhere close by. There were people coming up the stairs. “Run,” I gasped, clambering to my feet and grabbing the arm of whoever was next to me. The whole crowd of us took off down the corridor, sprinting in desperation from the bombs and the gunshots. I forced myself to look back. Two black-clad figures were shooting at us from the end of the corridor!

“Dive down,” somebody cried. I dropped to my knees in a flash and painfully scrambled along the ground. Swimming before my eyes were the faces of my friends, pale and scared. Suddenly we were at the staircase and Jess Yoong and Megan led the way up, almost on their hands and feet. The gunfire ceased, and I felt relief wash over me. No one had been seriously injured.

On the top floor several teachers screamed at us to get out of the school, pointing towards the art rooms and the exit beyond. But we’d just been down there, and the men had already taken that area. “This way,” I said, turning towards the computer rooms. I tried the handle on Room 16. It was locked. Yaya managed to open Room 17, and we charged inside, locking it firmly behind us. Katrina and Wei Yan helped me move one of the desks to bar the door, and Kristina and Yasmin put another desk on top of it.

We stood still, aloof, in the darkness of the computer lab, breathing heavily from our escapade. I didn’t dare to tear my eyes away from the door and the piled-up desks. No one managed to speak or move. Mel was counting up the faces. “I think everyone’s here,” she murmured.

What about the other Year Elevens? I thought. What about the other students, not to mention the teachers? Were they going to die? It was too terrifying to contemplate. This was not real. It couldn’t be.

We all listened as a bunch of shrieking girls ran past, their shoes hammering the floor. Again a bomb exploded, who knew how near, and the walls shook. “Who would attack PLC?” a random voice asked softly. No one replied, because no one had an answer.

Suddenly I heard a noise that made me tremble. Voices, from the lab next to us. Low, male voices with a thick accent. I heard objects being smashed, most likely computers. Several of my friends backed away from the door, crouching behind tables and against walls. Most of us froze, unable to react. Did they know we were in here?

Without warning the most dynamic explosion went off in the next room, and I knew everything had been ripped to shreds. The ceiling of our room shuddered and fine chunks of plaster rained down onto our hair. Something rammed against the door of the room we were in!

One of the men was shouting, just outside. “Here, here!”

Again he rammed against the door, so hard that it quivered and the pile of desks we had constructed toppled. Gasping, I ran forward and helped to stack it back up, clumsily. Janine and Soso were pushing aside the computers and bringing over a third table in a desperate attempt to block the entrance.

Pow! A bullet drove into the door. It didn’t penetrate but created a bump on our side, and all of us panicked. Ainslie tried to quieten everyone as more bullets stabbed into the door. The handle jiggled. Pow! Pow!

We had to get out. My eyes roved across the computers, to the windows. Racking my brain for ideas, I ran to the window and wound it open. It was a narrow fit, just wide enough for a PLC girl, and a three storey drop. I pictured our guts splattered on the concrete pavement below. There had to be a better way.

I turned back to the computer room. Half of my friends were using their weight to bar the desks, unafraid of the bullet sounds. The other half were cowering to one side, clinging to each other. Maybe, magically, a piece of rope would appear out of nowhere, like in the movies, and we could all whisk ourselves out the window.

I had a flash of inspiration.

I dived for the nearest computer, found the back plug where the wire fed out and yanked it. It was firmly fixed through the table and into the floor, but I managed to sever a clutch of wires about a metre long. I grabbed at the next computer and detached another metre of wires. Hurriedly, I knotted them together at one end, in a reef knot — the only knot I remembered from sailing camp.

Kristina saw what I was doing and immediately grabbed the wire from the next computer. Already we had a three metre long rope and it was growing. Wei Yan, Katrina, Amanda, Megan and Vanessa pitched in while the others held the door.

Jess Wu screamed. “They’ve blown off the handle!”

To my horror, the door creaked open an inch, and someone fired several random gunshots into the room. One of the attackers swore as everyone heaved at the desks with all their might. The door fell back into place. Petrified, I glanced at the wall where the bullets had embedded themselves.

“Hurry!” Megan said, handing another length of wire to me.

I jumped up. “Okay, let’s go!” I snatched up the entire makeshift rope and thrust one end out the open window. It hung to about two metres off the ground, but there was no time to add more. I tied the end I was holding around the poles that they have in the computer room and hung onto it for good measure. “Someone go!” I yelled.

“I’ll go!” Vanessa said bravely. She slipped between the windowsill and the window-frame with the ease of a skinny person, clung to the wire rope and made her way down, hand over hand. She made it look almost easy. At the end of the rope she dangled her legs down, and dropped to the concrete. “It worked!”

Jess Wu went down next, then Megan right after her. Yaya and Shirley went down at the same time. The room was emptying of people. Who would hold the door, or the rope? “Not everyone can get out,” I realised, my heart sinking. What a dodgy plan. I felt like beating myself up. Before long, only Ainslie, Susanne and Weiminn were left holding the door, and Wei Yan and I were the only ones holding the rope.

Amanda was halfway out the window, but she hesitated, looking at us anxiously. “Guys, what are you going to do?” She sounded so worried and scared, and even started climbing back in. Wei Yan and I pushed her out the window again.

“Go, get out of here!” Wei Yan said.

I looked down, where everyone else was still standing on the ground like losers, watching and waiting. “Tell those stupid guys to run!” I said to Amanda. “Run before you all die.”

With one final push Amanda reluctantly descended the wire rope.

I turned to Wei Yan. “Your turn,” we both said.

But we didn’t have to decide, because with a huge crash the door burst open and the desks tumbled down, almost crushing Ainslie, Susanne and Weiminn. I released the rope and pitched onto the floor behind the computers, curled up. We were going to die. They were going to shoot all five of us, then go after our friends. This was the end.

I shook violently.

Only one man entered the room. He paced forward several steps, with considerable calmness. He tossed a glance at the three girls lying under the mound of desks, and snorted. Then he peered towards where Wei Yan and I were hiding. I saw the glint of a weapon in his hand. Roughly, he pulled Susanne to her feet. “Come out of there,” he growled towards me. He did not have the strong accent that I’d heard before.

Both Wei Yan and I stood. My hands were cold and clammy and I jammed them against the skirt of my dress. The man was fair-haired, with a bristly beard. He wore a helmet but no mask, an expensive black suit, which was now dusty, and dress shoes. Ainslie and Weiminn also struggled out of the mass of desks and stood up, their backs against the walls. This was surreal. Maybe we could all feign shock and muteness and he would dismiss us as idiots.

“What do you want here?” Susanne demanded fearlessly. “This is a school.”

So much for silence.

The blonde bearded man’s mouth spread into a dangerous line which was supposed to be a smile but looked like more of a leer. “I’m not stupid.” He raised his bulky pistol and I heard a click which was undoubtedly the cocking of his gun. “And you might want to remember that I’m the one who asks the questions here.”

You think you’re so cool, killing innocent students and teachers and blowing up a school. I gave him a spiteful stare as he examined each one of us with a smug expression. Deciding who to kill first. I wondered how much it would hurt.

Then, Blonde Beard straightened up, passing his stone-cold eyes over us. “Follow,” he ordered simply, pointing his weapon towards the door. Confused, we walked out of the room silently. To my consternation I realised that a biting wind was blowing through the corridor outside the computer labs. Where Room 16 used to be, there was now only a gaping hole raggedly edged with bricks and broken wires. The breeze blustered freely into the building. I stared, horrified, at the view of the Junior School.

Blonde Beard cuffed me over the back of my head and marched us towards the Year 10 area, brandishing his weapon. As soon as we turned a corner, a whole row of darkly-dressed men trained their rifles on us. Blonde Beard laughed coarsely. “These ones aren’t for killing.”

We’re not?

One of the rifle men must have seen the confusion on my face because he chuckled wickedly. “Oh, I almost forgot we needed hostages.”

Ainslie stared at me in alarm. We were their hostages! What other evil plans did they have? Before I could contemplate any further, a man and a woman grabbed me by the arms, muttering some insulting remarks about me, and dragged me down the corridor. My knees chafed the carpet and I wrestled my handlers, but they had an iron grip on me. We passed Room X, W, U and V — places so familiar to me, now swarming with the invaders. I heard my friends screaming and struggling.

A sharp left took us onto the Year 12 balcony. I felt cool concrete beneath me and fought the urge to pass out. I’d never fainted before, but this seemed like an appropriate time to learn.

Something clipped around my right wrist and fixed it to the railing of the balcony. I looked up. A few metres away on my left, Weiminn was also handcuffed to the balcony. Susanne was a distance to my right. I felt trapped and doomed. How long were they going to keep us here? Until we starved to death? At that moment I wished that I had jumped out the computer room window. Being splattered on the concrete was better than this.

Blonde Beard and his associates departed, locking the balcony doors firmly and giving us a smug goodbye wave. As soon as they were gone, all of us started talking, panicking. Every sentence I heard was littered with desperate swearing. Finally we calmed down slightly.

“They’re going to kill us!” Susanne moaned.

“What do they want here?” Wei Yan said.

I twisted around until I could stand up, one hand locked to the blue railing with a bit of plastic. “This looks flimsy,” I said, tugging on it. It dug into my skin promptly. “Ouch!”

“Great, they have gay plastic handcuffs now,” Ainslie said wearily.

“Better than metal ones, I suppose?” Weiminn ventured.

I glanced over the balustrade. The quadrangle looked so…normal. Even the giant chess pieces were in place on the chess board. I stared a bit harder. Then I saw; the blood stains on the grass, the battered marks on one of the benches, and the crumbling walls of Lab 7 — evidence of a bomb explosion. Where had they taken the rest of the PLC girls?

There was a long silence, which was broken by Weiminn. “I’m hungry.”

I agreed. “I don’t think we’ll be getting a proper meal anytime soon.” I glanced at my watch. It was twenty minutes past eleven o’clock. The second hand ticked on, a million times slower than usual. The day edged into the afternoon, and I closed my eyes, wondering how much longer we were going to be held hostage in our own school. Hours? Days? Weeks? Months? Perhaps they weren’t even going to let us go in the end — they’d probably shoot us dead when we were half-starved. Where were the police? I willed them to burst in and rescue us, but the school was silent. Even the bad guys had retreated somewhere secret, probably to discuss their next plan of action.

What were these strange men and women doing here anyway? Half of them seemed like foreigners, the other half just looked like angry rich men with guns. Surely there wasn’t anything of value at PLC, and none of the students were worth holding for ransom.

There was the sound of tyres screeching loudly. The five of us peered curiously over the balcony. I was dismayed to see a whole series of vehicles swerve through the breezeway and skid to a stop in the Quad. There was a white Rolls Royce, a Ferrari and a black Mercedes limousine.

“Rich!” Weiminn breathed.

“All evil guys are rich,” Ainslie said dryly.

Finally, two black cargo trucks chugged into the Quad, throwing up jets of dirt and grass and spouting black smoke. They halted, crushing the giant chess pieces. I watched fearfully as figures holding long rifles filed out of the cars and trucks, leaving their loads untouched. A brown-haired man in a white suit was escorted out of the limousine. He sipped from a cocktail, then threw the glass onto the ground and neatly crushed it under the toe of his snakeskin shoe. Adjusting his jacket coolly, he stepped aside to allow a second passenger out of the limousine. It was a woman. I couldn’t tell how old she was because she wore a brimmed hat that shadowed her face. She was clad in a fitting jaguar-print jacket and leather pants, and pointy boots.

“They’ve all got guns,” Susanne said, rather unnecessarily.

The limousine man and woman conferred with the rest of the men, then all of them moved towards Wyselaskie Hall, clutching briefcases. Two men were left to guard the cars. They held their rifles lazily, and only laughed when they saw us peeking over the balcony.

“Looks like Mr. Head Guy and his mistress have just arrived,” I said.

They didn’t emerge from the assembly hall for quite a while, and I guessed that they were having a meeting.

“I wonder what’s in those trucks,” Wei Yan mused. I glanced around at my friends. They looked stressed and the signs of fright showed on their weary, drawn faces. Suddenly I felt deeply grateful that I was not alone in this — I had my friends with me. Together, maybe we had a chance of getting through it all.

Somehow, Susanne and Wei Yan managed to nap for a couple of hours, but I couldn’t fall asleep at all. I felt like all my nerves were on fire and my mind was pounding. I had to keep standing up to stop my arm from going numb because it was fixed to the railing. I ached and my knees bled where they had been chafed.

As the afternoon wore on with no sign of Mr. Snakeskin, Mrs. Leather Pants or Blonde Beard, my mind drifted to my family and what they were doing. It was past school time now and they’d be coming to pick me up. What would they do when they saw the school surrounded by police and infiltrated by bad guys? I willed them to stay out of harms way, and wished there was some means of letting them know I was safe and well — for now at least. I forced myself not to think anymore. It was too painful. I have to stay alive — for them.

“Someone’s coming,” Weiminn hissed, and Wei Yan and Susanne jerked awake. Someone was coming — a whole mob of people, to be exact. One of them was Blonde Beard, who wore the same dusty black suit. A second one I presumed was a scientist or doctor of some sort, from the silver metal case he carried and the round spectacles perching on the crook of his nose. The rest of them were men in black clothes, carrying rifles. Less significant ones. Nevertheless, I tried to study them all, to memorise their faces.

“Free them.” Blonde Beard nodded towards the rifle men, who swiftly unbound our wrists with a strange key. I stood up eagerly before realising that he did not mean to let us go. He peered at me, almost amused, and thrust a piece of paper into my hands. I nearly dropped it. With trembling hands I smoothed it out. The typed words seemed foreign to me.

25kg sack of rice. 10kg pasta. 30 dozen eggs. 20 bread loaves, Helga’s. 5kg bacon strips, no fat. 10 bottles of milk. 15 bottles bolognaise pasta sauce. “A shopping list?” I said incredulously.

“Even the members of Shadowblade need to eat,” Blonde Beard snarled.

Shadowblade? What kind of gang name is that?

“You guys will shop for us. We cannot leave the premises because of the police guarding the perimeter. But they will let you go.”

We won’t come back, I thought triumphantly. He was an idiot to think we would. My friends looked equally hopeful.

Blonde Beard marched over to Susanne and hauled her to her feet. “The noisy one will stay with us. For safekeeping.” His lips spread into a sneer. “Bring everything back to us within one hour, or…” He gestured, and the scientist flipped open his briefcase to reveal a variety of tools designed to torture.

I felt sick to the stomach.

“No way,” Ainslie cried. “Not Susanne.”

“Fine,” Blonde Beard smiled crookedly. “You too.” Before anyone could move, he cuffed them both against the railing again, then turned to me, Wei Yan and Weiminn. He thrust a stack of hundred dollar bills at Wei Yan. “Take the tram line to Safeway. Buy everything on the list, and be back by eight o’clock. Make sure you don’t dropanything on the way.” He laughed to himself, evilly. “If you displease us…” His gaze slid to Ainslie and Susanne, threatening.

Terrified, I swallowed thickly.

The scientist shuffled forward and clipped something to the collar of my dress, then did the same to the other two. “We’ll be listening to every word you say,” he said stonily. “Mention anything that doesn’t concern the groceries, and we kill your friends. Try to take those transmitters off, and we kill your friends.”

“Clear?” Blonde Beard tipped his head questioningly until we nodded. He wiggled a finger over his shoulder, and immediately the rest of the men pointed their rifles at us. “Then let’s go.” He said it so pleasantly, as if we were going on a sunny afternoon stroll.

Stiffly, I walked towards the other end of the balcony, between Wei Yan and Weiminn. This was impossible. How could we bring back so much food in one hour, let alone carry it out of the supermarket? It was almost seven o’clock now.

The butt of a rifle prodded my back and, terrified, I quickened my pace. We descended the stairs into the front foyer of the school where I had waited after school so many times. The front wall was completely demolished and bits of glass were strewn across the carpet. The car park was full of cars but deserted of people. Once again I wondered where the teachers were.

The driveway took us to the Burwood Highway exit and now I could see the police cars and the anxious family members, pressing their faces to the fence and wondering whether their daughters were alive. When they saw us approaching, the policemen surged towards the gate, but stopped short when they caught sight of the rifled men surrounding us, dragging Susanne and Ainslie. Let us go, I wanted to scream. Would the police do something?

One of the rifled men behind me spoke up in a loud, accented voice so that the police could hear. “The three girls are to be allowed out, but no one is to go near them. No one can move.” I could picture him in my mind’s eye, holding our friends roughly. “Or else we kill the hostages.”

The police backed away and the crowds of parents murmured fearfully. I knew my family was standing there, somewhere, watching me. I had a sudden mad urge to jump up and down and wave. So I did.

“I’m alive! Mum, Dad! Peter! I’m alive!” I swung my arms madly above my head, flapping the shopping list.

“Get going,” one of the Shadowblade men growled maliciously.

Wei Yan and Weiminn took off, and I followed. We ran out the gate, past the police cars and the worried crowds, across the road and onto the seven o’clock tram. We had no coins so we paid for our tickets with a hundred dollar bill. The ticket machine spilled out a river of coins in exchange. Instead of picking them up, we simply stared at the money piled on the floor. We were too shocked to do anything, too frightened to speak because Blonde Beard could hear every word we said. The other passengers barely tossed us more than a glance, dismissing our dirty uniforms and bedraggled appearances.

I studied my watch. To my alarm it took us five minutes to reach Safeway.

We leapt off the tram and ran for the shops. I wished I had time to savour the feeling of being free — the dusky sky stretched out above our heads, the sweet, crisp breeze, the sound of traffic on the highway. But we weren’t free at all, and I didn’t know if we were going to ever be again. I should have enjoyed my freedom more when I had it.

“We split up,” Wei Yan said breathlessly, doubled over from running.

“Okay, we’ll get three trolleys and find everything, then meet at the check out,” Weiminn agreed. I admired how they could curb their fear and shock and simply focus on what needed to be done.

I tore the shopping list into three pieces, handed one each to my friends, then snatched a trolley and swerved into Aisle 1. It took only a few seconds to find the bread loaves. Frantically I seized a whole rack of them, shoving them into the trolley, then counted to make sure there were twenty. Then I rushed to the deli area, almost ramming into an elderly couple. They glared disapprovingly at me, but by now I didn’t care anymore. All I could think about were Susanne and Ainslie, trapped in the vices of the enemy, inches away from…I didn’t even want to consider it.

“5kg of bacon strips please,” I demanded to the slab faced woman behind the counter. “And I’m in a great hurry — rush. My friends are going to die. Sorry, I mean…just hurry, please.” I was babbling like a madman, and the woman gave me a funny look before pounding a heap of bacon onto the back table and wrapping it up with her porky arms.

It was 7:15pm, and I began to think that maybe we could make it after all. It would take a while to lug everything up to the trams, but we had a chance. Veering away from the deli, my mind flashed back to the helpless policemen and the anguished parents waiting outside PLC for some clue to what was going on.

I had another spontaneous idea. I drove the trolley with all my might, dodging shoppers, into the stationery aisle. I’d never shoplifted before, but what I was planning now was close. I grabbed the first pen I could find; a packet of Bic biros, and ripped it apart. Pens spilled onto the floor at my feet. Kneeling, I picked up the first one with clumsy fingers. I scanned the shelves and spotted what I was searching for — a pad of paper.

If Blonde Beard wasn’t going to let us speak, then I’d use another way of communicating. My hand was shaking uncontrollably but I managed to scrawl out a brief note saying that we were from PLC, and the school had been taken over by a gang called Shadowblade. Most of the students and teachers had been killed from what I knew, but a small few were still alive, probably hiding somewhere in the grounds, and five of us had been taken hostage by the criminals.

It sounded completely crazy, but it was true. The news of PLC being taken over would be all over Melbourne and Australia in days, and if I managed to give this note to someone, at least the police would receive some sort of information.

I signed the note, then shoved the rest of the pens under the shelf to hide the evidence of what I’d done. Glancing about me furtively, I pushed the trolley to the check-out counter.

Wei Yan and Weiminn were already there, and we lined up together, ascertaining whether we had all our groceries. The guy at the counter had a pointy nose and a bad case of acne. He scratched his chin every time he passed an item through the scanner, and I could see skin peeling off. I winced.

Weiminn checked her watch. “It’s seven nineteen,” she informed us tersely.

“You guys in a rush?” Checkout Guy asked casually.

We looked at each other, not daring to reply. I could almost sense Blonde Beard listening to us through the transmitters, and the hand in which I held the forbidden note began to sweat profusely. What if the Shadowbladers discovered the note I’d written? I’d be killed in an instant.

There was no time to debate about it. Wei Yan handed over a stack of hundred dollar bills to the guy, giving him a level stare. “You forgot to check the bar-code on the sack of rice,” I announced, which was true. We hadn’t even lifted it out of the trolley because it was so heavy.

“Oh.” He leant over and I pulled the sack upright so he could scan it. As he leant back, I shoved the note into his hand, glancing at him urgently. He looked like he was about to ask me something, but I said loudly, “Thank you very much.”

He smoothed out the paper and read.

“Let’s go,” I said to my friends. “If we don’t get back in time…they’ll kill the others.”

Their eyes went from the note to me, then to the note again, realising what I’d done. We grabbed the three trolleys and fled the shopping centre, leaving the Checkout Guy befuddled. Would he believe the note or would he just throw it out? It didn’t matter anyway because the news of PLC’s takeover would be on the news soon, and then he would realise who we were and why we’d given him the note.

We sprinted through the automatic door, each pushing a trolley ahead of us. Weiminn was most unlucky — she had the rice, the pasta and the eggs. It was only when we reached the roadside that we realised there was no way we could carry this stuff to the trams, let alone all the way back to school.

I felt completely drained, and sank to the kerb, pressing my palms to my forehead. “We can’t even lift it out of the trolley.” Only a bodybuilder could have managed to carry 25kg of rice and 10kg of pasta, not to mention the rest of the food.

“What time is it?” Wei Yan said, keeping her voice even and calm.

“Seven twenty two,” Weiminn replied.

I stood up weakly, and Wei Yan glanced at me, then curled her hands around the handle of the trolley firmly. “Well, let’s take the trolleys to the trams.”

Brilliant! The idea hadn’t even occurred to me. I glanced up the slope to the intersection where the tram stopped. “Let’s go, quickly!” I mustered all my strength and ran. My arms screamed at me in agony but I locked them in place and kept going.

The tram driver wouldn’t let us on.

The trolleys couldn’t fit through the door. We couldn’t get the food out of the trolleys. We begged and demanded, but he only scowled at us, hissed something about a nuisance and ignored us. The traffic lights turned green, he sealed the door shut in our faces and the tram slipped past us. I felt its breeze brush my cheeks — a breeze of doom and despair. The three of us were left standing in the middle of Burwood Highway, lugging trolleys. Tears of hopelessness stung the backs of my eyes, but I braced myself. “We can’t give up guys. For our friends.”

Weiminn nodded. “We have to run.” Without warning she spun her trolley and jogged off at a steady pace, and Wei Yan and I followed in disbelief.

“All the way back to school?” Wei Yan gaped.

“We can do it,” Weiminn insisted, breathing raggedly, swerving onto the sidewalk. “We’ve got more than half an hour. We can make it.”

I listened to her words, and tightened my grip on the trolley. I fixed my eyes on the lumpy grey path stretching before me, steeled my arms and ran. Almost immediately I was exhausted, but I didn’t think about anything other than striding, striding. Putting one foot in front of the other and watching the distance being covered.

By the time we neared PLC, I was collapsing with every second step, and my friends were equally exhausted. I hung on to the trolley like it was a lifeline.

“Think of Ainslie and Susanne,” Weiminn said faintly from behind me. I pictured their faces before my eyes and for the last few stretches they were all I saw. I blocked out the pain from my limbs and fought the exhaustion into a corner of my mind. Suddenly, the PLC gates loomed before me, and distantly I heard the police and parents talking. But they stayed clear of us, knowing that they could do nothing without endangering our lives.

We made it back to school, and I came close to completely blacking out every few steps. Breathing hurt, but it was worth it to see all four of my friends before me, alive. I let go of the trolley and keeled over at Blonde Beard’s feet — not very impressive. But I couldn’t move.

“It’s eight twenty-five,” his smug voice came from somewhere above me. “But we’ll let you off this time. Just this once.”

I don’t care anymore.

Hands grabbed at my shoulders and legs and I was carried to somewhere dark and unfamiliar. I felt myself being dropped, and I rolled onto carpet. I sensed my friends around me. A door was shut and locked, leaving me in pitch blackness. Right now, the grubby, itchy carpet felt like the softest mattress I’d ever lain on, and I closed my eyes.

Just before I tumbled into a restless sleep, one last thought flitted through my mind:

What had happened to all the rest of my friends?

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