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Brother had been aware of the risk of the Cull Crews visiting his home. He knew there was a high chance they’d be coming soon, as it had been a while since his district had had a visit.
Also, although his family had done their best to keep his sister’s birth a secret, he knew it was likely his neighbours would have heard her cries.
After all, a screaming baby was hardly the most concealable of things, was it?
So he’d prepared.
He’d read every piece of information – not many admittedly, as the Cull Crews (Government-sanctioned hit squads with a fancy name) were extremely secretive.
Most of what he’d read was urban legend, as the vast majority of the time there were no survivors from their rampaging visits.
Entire families became extinct within minutes.
But still, it seemed they wore thick body armour. Bulletproof helmets. Shooting and stabbing them was unlikely to work.
So he wasn’t going to waste his time.
He was a fast runner, had spent the majority of his free time training, knowing that one day it could potentially save his life.
He got the impression that the cullsmen – or Cullers or Cully men, or any of the other dozens of names given to this generation’s Bogey men – were highly-trained, fast, powerful but he reckoned he had the jump on them in terms of intellect.
Also, he’d reasoned that they would be heavily muscled, a belief confirmed by the brick shithouse of a man he’d seen.
So when he had heard that the apartment next door to them had become vacant, he had climbed up through the engineer’s access hatch and into the crawlspace which housed the pipes and wires for the dwellings on the floor above. He’d crawled through the small tunnel to next door’s access hatch.
Part of this was just boyish exploration; he loved climbing and imagining and adventure.
As a trial run, he’d timed how long it took him to get up into the crawlspace, pull the ladder back into place and crawl through the small – certainly not large enough to admit the bulky cullsman anyway – tunnel into next door.
From there, he’d climbed down, positioning a chest of drawers to facilitate his exit and re-entry to the crawlspace, and explored the apartment.
Their windows were on the same side as his, facing the main thoroughfare, so he knew that going out of the window was no use, even though he had no fear of falling from the thirteenth floor.
He knew he’d be spotted by either the CCTV or the other cullsmen waiting for escapees.
It would be suicide going out there.
His mind had gone over and over it, an obsession he couldn’t leave alone.
He studied the few reports of the survivors, saw what they’d done to get away (however temporarily) and tried to emulate them, but without aping them entirely as the Cull Crews would no doubt have learnt from their mistakes by now.
Indeed, rumour had it that they often cleared an apartment block to practice finding every little nook and cranny.
Still, he’d spent hour after hour playing hide and seek in here with his friends.
Every few days he ran each of his escape routes at least once, his job as a paper boy helping him to do this without arousing suspicion.
He’d even told his friends false escape routes, in case the unthinkable happened and the Cull Crews came here. In case they got interrogated and revealed where he’d gone.
And, it almost goes without saying that every night he had slept with a sheet of body armour under his nightshirt.
The bag of blood he’d stolen from his dad’s emergency medical supplies had been icing on the cake.
Yes, it’s safe to say he’d thought of every conceivable angle.
So when the time came, he calmly crawled into the crawlspace, pulling the ladder up – it didn’t squeal as it was oiled at least twice a week; this shit was a matter of life and death so of course he was on top of it.
He shifted across the crawlspace, moving with the surefooted grace of a mountain goat. He could’ve crossed this route blindfolded without putting a foot wrong or even making a sound, so often had he done it, but still his eyes were glued to the floor.
A mistake could mean his end.
He was just getting through the gap in the wall into next door’s section of the tunnel when he heard muffled curses from below. He kept the smug grin off his face; now was definitely not the time for complacency.
The skin from his left elbow was scraped away on a ragged piece of brick. It was a stark reminder of what awaited him – thousandfold – if he fucked up his escape.
He took heart in the fact that it would take the cullsman a while to figure out where he had gone. He was confident his movements were quiet, but still the breath was torn from his lungs as his blood raced through his chest.
Next door’s access hatch greeted him, the sight as welcoming as the one time he’d ever been on a beach holiday – in the days before all of this government-sanctioned bullshit kicked in.
He lifted the hatch as fast and carefully as he had his own and was soon climbing down into next door’s apartment.
He uttered a silent prayer that the cullsman wasn’t waiting in the darkness below, the twin barrels of his shotgun gaping like the cavernous eyes of the reaper himself.
The apartment seemed to be empty, but Brother refused to let himself relax until he was safely out of here.
Without making too much noise, he moved through the apartment, picking up the backpack he’d left behind the tattered sofa on a previous visit.
He pulled a can of spray-paint from the backpack and carefully inched the door open, leaving the chain on in case the cullsman was in the corridor.
The coast seemed clear so he pulled the door open, left and carefully closed it behind him.
From here, he turned sharp right and sprayed the black spray paint all over the camera on the wall. He’d taken time to memorise the location of each of the CCTV cameras in the building to minimise his risk of detection.
After a quick look around him, he walked to the staircase. He sprayed the camera in the far left corner, then went down a floor and sprayed the camera there.
His intention was to make it look like he was hiding out on floor twelve.
After this, he went back up to the thirteenth floor, ducked into the janitor’s cupboard and put on the disguise he’d packed in the backpack.
The black, shoulder-length wig that his sister had used in a talent show – again before the world had gone to hell in a handbasket – the silver, glittery sunglasses, the dress and the pink sneakers.
Everyone would be looking for a young boy, so it made sense to dress up as a girl.
He quickly swapped his bag for the girl’s backpack he’d hidden in the corner behind the janitor’s metal shelving unit.
He shrugged it over his shoulder and, after a quick look through the keyhole to ensure the coast was clear, moved upstairs.
It seemed the obvious thing for a terrified kid to do would be to go downstairs, so his plan was to go up the building.
In his disguise, he felt there was no need to spray any more cameras, besides if he did it would give them a trail of blacked out screens to follow.
Doing floor twelve would hopefully serve to divert their attention there while he made his way to the top.
He did his best not to look shifty, trying to use his peripheral vision rather than looking around everywhere.
He saw very few people on his travels. Apparently the word had already spread that the Cull Crew were in the building and everyone wanted to keep their noses out.
His plan was going without a hitch until he saw one of the young lads from the building playing on the stairs. The marbles he rolled clinked against the stairs with a noise that seemed much louder than it ought to have been.
‘You new round here?’ the lad said, giving Brother an appraising glance that made his gorge rise a little.
He didn’t know what to say; if he spoke, it would be obvious that he was not a girl.
No need; the lad had already recognised him. He reacted as if slapped.
‘What the hell are you doing dressed up like that?’
Brother didn’t know what to say.
The neighbour’s face had changed from shocked to amused now. ‘I always knew there was something weird about you,’ he laughed.
He moved in and thrust his arm forward, slightly too fast for Brother to stop. The action made his wig fall from the side of his head.
The neighbour turned to the staircase, and Brother’s heart dropped as he shouted, ‘Hey, what’s this kid got to hide?’
Brother panicked a little; this was the one thing he hadn’t accounted for.
The lad’s cry had echoed around the staircase, and it would only be a matter of time before one of the cullsmen heard it.
Being caught by the cullsmen out here would be fatal.
Every second he spent here was one wasted.
The lad lunged for him, arms out, ready to grab him.
Brother thought fast, shoving the lad hard. He pitched backwards, a comical look of dismay on his face, and tumbled down the stairs.
Any mirth to be derived from the situation evaporated when he heard booted feet slamming the stairs below.
He glanced down and saw two cullsmen on their way up the staircase.
The closest one was maybe five floors below him, his legs pumping like pistons.
Brother realised that the incident meant he would need to take out the CCTV network to cover his tracks. The closest security office was only two floors up.
From his paper round, Brother knew that Watson, the security man, was fat and lazy. Any time he came by, Watson was dozing in front of the monitors, rolls of flab dangling over the back of his chair.
With luck on his side, he’d be able to sneak in and put the CCTV out of action without Watson even blinking an eye.
He chanced another look over the edge of the stairwell, saw three cullsmen on their way up. The nearest one was now only three floors below.
He fought the urge to flee, screaming, and forced himself to think.
Be quiet. Or they’ll find you.
He moved up the stairs as slowly as he dared.
His legs blazed with the exertion, but he forced himself to keep grimly on.
He placed his feet carefully, trying his damnedest not to make any noise.
As he reached the next floor, he chanced a look over the rail again.
The cullsman was closer still, and again Brother’s survival instinct told him to leg it, but he forced this down.
There’s still time.
He reached the floor he needed and, his heart knocking against his ribs, pulled the door open.
The door creaked a little, but he thought fast; spitting on his hand and rubbing it into the hinges. It quieted the hinges nicely.
He edged the door shut and quickly ducked inside the open door of the security office.
The monitors showed the cullsmen running straight past the doorway and continuing up the stairs.
Brother breathed a sigh of relief, especially when he noticed that Watson, as he’d hoped, was sleeping in his chair, snoring loud enough to rattle some of the picture frames on the walls.
The place stunk of body odour and stale fast food. A half-eaten burger sat on Watson’s lap, cradled in like a newborn.
As Brother edged the door shut, he looked around the office, trying to figure out where the CCTV link was. He’d discovered this when dropping off Watson’s paper on previous visits, but it seemed the security office had had an overhaul in the short time since he’d last been here.
He cursed under his breath.
There were three laptops on the desk.
The one on the right showed a couple of naked women doing things that Brother had heard his friends talk about but never actually witnessed with his own eyes.
Had he not been in such dire straits he’d have taken time to satisfy his curiosity. Instead, he turned to the other computers.
As he stepped forwards to get a closer look, the floor creaked beneath him.
Watson murmured in his sleep, his head turning a little towards where Brother stood.
Brother’s heart sank, but Watson didn’t stir.
He let a small sigh of relief.
Then realised with a groan that he was going to have to reach past Watson to access the computer.
Brother’s knees popped as he knelt, but still Watson didn’t wake.
He managed to squeeze himself under the desk, rubbing only slightly against Watson’s bare leg. Varicose veins like swollen worms poked through the fat man’s skin.
Brother grimaced at the sight but put it out of his mind.
He saw the flashing green LEDs of the computer and smiled as he began to pull the wires out of the back of it.
But the joke was on him when a shrill alarm began to blare.
Next chapter is here