The boy enters the McDonald’s. It is a relief to escape the cloying heat and its undercurrents of summer drains and tourist sweat. He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, shrugs the bag off his shoulder, and looks around. He counts fifteen people queuing at the tills, most of them teenagers — clutching backpacks and squinting at iPhones. To his left, nearly all the tables are full — more students and a cluster of Japanese tourists. He takes in a few young families, kids no more than four or five. Panic is stirring in his gut, turning it liquid. He tastes acid on his tongue and wants to retch. He swallows, tries to take a breath.
To his right, the place is a little emptier — only four of the tables are occupied. His eyes settle on a group of schoolgirls in uniform, their checked skirts too short, their laughter too loud. Behind the girls is a dishevelled old man, probably a vagrant. He’s tearing the wrapper from a meagre burger, his eyes darting furtively as if he’s afraid someone will swipe it.
The boy feels sweat running down the back of his neck; he notices a tremor in his leg. He turns and sees his three companions standing in the doorway. Just the sight of them makes his heart hammer. He swallows again: his throat dry, his tongue bulky. He wishes he’d taken something like they’d suggested.
He waves them forward, his arm a little shaky. Dafiq frowns. The boy doesn’t understand why. When the others are level with him, he closes his eyes and tries to slow his racing thoughts. He counts to five, then gives them the sign. The air shifts, and he knows they’re reaching for their guns now. He nods, and the AKs emerge quietly from beneath their coats.
The firing starts before even he expects it. His ears are humming, and the sweat is now slick between his shoulderblades. He coughs — the air is already dense with cordite. People are running, screaming, falling. Food is tumbling, being trampled into the floor tiles, where it mixes with blood. Someone slips on a patch of mayonnaise and rams their hip into a rubbish bin. A baby cries, a woman sobs. The boy closes his eyes and raises his weapon.
‘Allahu Akbar,’ he whispers as he pulls the trigger.
‘Who wants to show me what they’re drawing?’ asks the young teacher.
A little boy thrusts up an arm. ‘Me! Me!’
‘OK, Simo.’ She walks over and picks up the piece of paper in front of him.
‘Is it an elephant?’
‘A dinosaur …’ He looks disappointed, but bites his lip, takes back the paper, and carries on drawing.
‘Excellent. Who’s next …?’
There’s a commotion at the back of the room. Four men are running through the door, screaming something in a language the teacher doesn’t recognise. They’re dressed in black, and their faces are obscured by balaclavas. But even though she can’t follow what they’re saying, she knows immediately who they are.
‘Gather close. Don’t worry, it’s just a game!’ she shouts, pulling the toddlers to her, trying not to succumb to her terror. Rita, the classroom assistant, has run over, and she, too, is grabbing as many children as she can, shakily trying to wedge herself between them and the men.
The leader of the group is just a couple of metres away, and the teacher notices that he has young unlined eyes beneath his balaclava. She looks for a suicide vest, but can’t see one — just rifles: at least three or four strung across his chest and back. He’s now so close that she can smell the nicotine on his breath and the fear beneath it. His hand is on his gun; his fingers are hovering above the trigger. She looks up into his haunted eyes and reads uncertainty. There might be hope, she thinks. They might still have a chance.