When We Return

by Steve Blackman. Shortlistee of the Best Novel Opening for Children or Young Adults competition 2021


Three things happen at the same time. I smash the emergency glass with the heel of my hand; the guy with the blue suit and the gun bursts into the room; and the electric scream of an alarm rips through me.

I shoulder the door open and run through. The fire escapes and exit routes are a clear map in my head: hard right then left and down the emergency stairs. Eighteen floors, thirty six flights. That’ll be okay, I’m fast, but I have no idea what’s waiting for me at the bottom. Or if I’ll get shot before I get there.

The stairs are different to those at home: deeper treads, and twelve stairs per flight, not eight. But in seconds I’ve adapted, using the handrail to fling myself around the corners. Blue Suit’s not as fast as me, and his steps fall further behind.

His shouts echo over and over, like an American soldier in a movie. ‘Come in, come in. Does anyone copy?’

After the sterility of the lab, there are too many odours competing to fill the stairway: the concrete of the steps and walls, some kind of acrid chemical, the dusty electric smell of the purple cables that run in parallel rows above my head.

On the third floor a new smell emerges. It’s coming from below; there must be a door. The smell intensifies on the second floor. Cinnamon – of course – the Christmas market. That’s good, it should be busier now, and the crowd will provide cover.

Okay, first floor; get out of the building, get far away. There’s light on the ground floor – a corridor and, at its end, a service door propped open with a fire extinguisher.

I’m going to make it.