How was I supposed to know what an axolotl was? When mum and dad asked if I wanted one for my birthday, I said “Oh yeah, that’d be excellent” because I thought it was some kind of deadly Viking battle-axe that I could play with in the backyard. But on the morning of my birthday, they didn’t give me a deadly Viking axe: instead they gave me a small fish tank with nothing inside but some water, a plastic sea-plant, and behind the sea-plant, a small white strange smiling cucumber. With four legs. They told me it was a Mexican walking fish and all I had to do was feed it a tiny bit of meat once a day – it needed meat to stay alive, so I couldn’t forget. Then they left me alone in my room with the Mexican walking fish: it didn’t seem to do any walking, didn’t do any Mexican dancing, didn’t even stroll around its tank and explore its plastic sea-plant. It just sat there, staring back with its stupid smiling cucumber face, as if to say “I am Axel the Axolotl. I have legs and I can climb out of this tank and breathe out of water for several minutes. So don’t forget my meat, friendo, or I will have to climb out and find my own...”
It had been 260 days since the world ended in the Flash. Even now, no one knew exactly what the Flash was, or why it had turned all electronic devices to slush. And no one knew why most of the adults who’d seen it had either died…or become something else. Petey said it was some kind of attack by aliens from outer space, but I wasn’t so sure about that. Petey thought everything was to do with aliens from outer space. Someone sounded the alarm, a screeching blast of a trumpet that echoed through the underground bunker that was home for me and about a hundred other kids. Kira couldn’t actually play the trumpet, but she was excellent at making a noise. I rolled off my bed, grabbing for the crossbow that I always kept beside me and running for the trapdoor that led outside. Probably just a false alarm. We’d already had three this week. But when I scrambled through the trapdoor and into the open air, I saw it – the telltale cloud in the distance, caused by thousands of clawed feet kicking up the dirt as they ran. The Screamers were coming
Even though I hadn’t seen Pooh for a couple of years, I recognised him straight away. I sidled up to where he was neatly stacking books into his new locker.
“Hi, Pooh,” I said. “Remember me?”
He glanced at me. “Oh, hi. Yeah, of course I remember you. And they don’t call me that any more. Now it’s Damien. Or Damo. But not Pooh.”
“Are you back for good now?”
He nodded. “Dad’s contract is finished.”
“Happy to be back?”
He shrugged. “It’s fine, I guess. I made a lot of friends in Portugal. I’ll miss them.”
“Portugal,” I sighed. “Sounds so exotic.”
He frowned at the cover of his chemistry textbook, before sliding it into place between a couple of other books. “It’s exotic for the first month or so. Then it’s just home. You know how it is. Oh, wait – sorry. Home… Where are you living now? With Mum? Dad? Aunty? Other mum? Strangers?”
“Your new accent,” I said, leaning closer. “It’s so mysterious. Makes me feel like doing something bad.”
He stopped what he was doing and stared at the back of his locker, his lips pursed. I could almost hear the cogs ticking.
Finally he turned and looked at me, his jaw tight. “I’m only going to say this once,” he snarled.