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Brother surprised himself with the speed of his reaction; kicking the base of the door as hard as he could.
The door slammed into the intruder, drawing a high-pitched cry.
Brother peered round and saw the lad he’d pushed down the stairs.
His face was swollen and bleeding from his crash landing. He cradled his arm and winced in pain.
‘You?’ Brother said, his brow furrowing.
‘I thought it was you I saw creeping around up here,’ he said. ‘I followed you cos I wanted to see what you’re up to. Not so fucking smart after all are you?’
Brother’s head pounded but he forced himself to think.
‘I’m going to make sure they find you,’ the lad said, a malicious look on his face. ‘There ain’t no outrunning them, you know.’
As Brother looked the lad up and down an idea hit him like a ton of bricks.
Brother would have done almost anything to get out of here in one piece and he was beginning to loathe the sight of the intruder.
Still, planning and orchestrating someone’s death seemed to be two entirely different matters.
Time seemed to become elastic.
The boy’s eyes widened to proportions that – under different circumstances – would have been hilarious.
As if he read Brother’s intentions, his hands raised in an amateurish boxing guard and he stepped forward.
Their eyes locked, and in his gaze Brother saw that the kid understood that this fight would be to the death.
Brother couldn’t believe he was about to do this, but this was the way the world was now.
It felt like his chest was being crushed. He couldn’t advance or retreat, it was as though his feet had been nailed to the floor.
In a way it was a relief when the boy’s bony knuckles dug into his cheek because it spurred him to action.
Brother shrugged off the blow and threw a wild haymaker. The impact was loud, likewise the scream his opponent uttered.
Brother shoved his hand over his mouth, desperate to contain the cry.
The terror on the boy’s face was obvious up close.
Shit, he feels how I felt when the cullsman came in, Brother thought.
The bloody ruin of his family’s fates flashed into his head, the effect like that of running headfirst into a brick wall.
He dragged the boy to the bath and hurled him headfirst in the reeking, green-tinged water.
Paused for a second, trying to decide if he was doing the right thing.
This world is a brutal place.
Go with the flow or get swept away.
He pulled the knife from his pocket, his hand moving as slowly as if it was wading through molasses.
Make it quick, painless, not like—
He shook his head to remove the unwanted image of his eldest sister’s slow, miserable death.
As he hesitated, the boy’s eyes snapped open. They seemed to do a lap of the room then fell upon him. As they focussed, the eyes bulged.
His lips worked soundlessly, as though the words he needed to beg for his life just wouldn’t come.
‘I’m sorry,’ Brother said and closed his eyes, gritted his teeth and thrust the knife at where he guessed the boy’s neck to be.
The boy let out a scream as the blade sunk into him with a wet thud.
Brother opened one eye tentatively. The boy was bent double, hands clasped to a nasty wound in his arm.
As pained and terrified as the boy was, something seemed to click in his head.
Before Brother could react, the mould-covered soap on a rope that hung from the underside of the shower system was in the boy’s hand and flying towards his head.
It hit Brother a glancing blow on the side of the head and made his view of the damp-stained bathroom distort a little. The knife flew from his hand and disappeared across the floor.
The lad was starting to sit up.
If he gets out of the bath I’m done for, Brother thought and lashed out.
He cursed as his wild swing missed and his hand collided with the side of the bath. The boy’s bony fist slammed into his nose, bringing a horrendous stinging pain.
Warm blood dripped down over his lips.
It’s him or me.
And I’m fucked if it’s going to be me.
Propelled by this thought, he thrust his fists out again and again, knocking the boy back under his assault.
He gripped his enemy’s lapels with a strength borne from terror. He knew that only one of them was going to walk away from this.
His arms locked out hard, thrusting the boy’s head beneath the filthy bathwater.
Bubbles burst from the surface as the boy tried to draw breath.
Brother lifted him out to slam his head against the side of the bath.
The boy let out a pained grunt that made Brother feel like an utter monster. His nose splattered clots of blood and snot against the sides.
Brother dunked him again.
Still the boy struggled, trying to get his head out of the water.
Brother pulled him up again and the boy’s relief was palpable as he drew in a desperate breath.
Brother slammed his head against the side a few more times, widening the slick of blood on the mould-encrusted acrylic. It dripped down to leave little red clouds in the water.
The bubbles were tinged blood red now as the boy’s efforts weakened.
Brother plunged him down, feeling the boy’s back hit the bottom of the bath now.
He held him there, not daring to relax his grip until the boy’s last breath had bubbled up through the filthy water.
Then he went and barricaded the door to the apartment with the kitchen table.
Though it sickened him, Brother returned to the bathroom to carry out the next part of his plan.
As soon as his eyes clapped upon the partially-submerged corpse, it was like a switch had been flicked in his stomach.
His abdomen contracted hard, sending his meagre last meal flying up his throat to spatter the bare floorboards at his feet.
The last mouthful or so landed in the toilet, frothing as his startled eyes stared dumbly at it, searching for inspiration on what to do next.
You’ve got to do this.
Don’t let their deaths be for nothing.
He spat foul-tasting sputum into the toilet bowl, wiped it from his chin with the toilet roll.
As he stood, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror.
Sunken, glazed eyes.
He looked like a killer.
You are a killer.
The thought saddened him.
But he drove it from his mind.
This was how the world was now, through no fault of his own.
Adapt or perish.
That was the new commandment.
He stood, his legs threatening to dump him on the bare floorboards. His head spun and he felt certain he was going to faint, but his white-knuckled hand gripped the sink and prevented him from falling.
He sucked in air and closed his eyes, trying his best to get a grip on himself.
Despite his positive mindset, he was terrified and repulsed by the events that had unfolded.
Things got even worse when he looked back at the corpse.
The eyes bulged from the skull as though being forced out from inside.
Thick gore stained his lips like badly applied lipstick. His face was contorted as though he had died in agony.
Tears again filled Brother’s eyes. The boy was not much older than him. Twelve at the very oldest.
This, no doubt, was not how he had thought his last evening on earth would play out; drowned by a fugitive in a filthy bathtub.
‘I’m sorry,’ Brother sobbed, his view of the dead kid mercifully distorted by the veil of tears.
Before his clarity of vision returned, he reached into the bathtub.
The kid’s trousers were wet and slimy.
He gulped hard and moved his hand into the lad’s trouser pocket. Sludge flooded out over his wrist as he forced it in deeper.
He smiled grimly as he pulled out the wallet and found what he had hoped to find; the dead kid’s ID card.
The realisation that he didn’t even know this poor bastard’s name hit him suddenly, making him feel strangely ashamed.
The kid looked enough like him to pass a quick flash of the ID.
Sustained scrutiny may turn out to be a problem, but he hoped to not be in the city much longer.
The downside to this was that looking at the dead kid’s face was like seeing his own corpse. Like a glimpse into the future, a sneaky peek at the hand fate had dealt him.
What it did in fact was the opposite of what he’d thought; it made him even more determined to not end up like this kid.
To the point where he even committed the dead kid’s face to memory.
Whenever his resolve weakened, he decided he would conjure up this mental image and say, ‘That will not be me.’
He put a bed sheet down on the floor and set about trying to lift the boy’s body out of the bathtub.
This was easier said than done; the boy was a dead weight now that life had deserted him.
Brother wrapped the sheet around the boy and dragged him to the garbage chute in the kitchen wall.
He pulled out his own ID from where he’d hidden it in his backpack.
His eyes were glued to it for a good time, taking in every detail of it, from his name and date of birth, to the different fonts and italics used on the different categories, to the photo that had been taken of him a few months ago, in a jubilant mood, only weeks away from meeting his baby sister.
He shook his head to distract him from the thought.
Then he sighed deeply, and kissed himself goodbye.
His lip print was still fading from the laminated surface of the ID when he placed it into the dead kid’s wallet and pushed it into his pocket.
Then he sent him skidding down the garbage chute.
He stripped and flung his old clothes down the chute after the dead kid.
From this moment on he was no longer his old self, he was Davey Knight.
The first thing the newly-christened Davey Knight did was spend some time under the shower spray, periodically checking that the water wasn’t finding its way onto the floor and blowing his cover.
It felt as though every speck of blood had been removed from his person but he gave himself another few washes just in case.
When he climbed out and towelled himself dry, he felt stupid for spending so long under the spray – after all, the Cull Crew could have barging the door down only to find him butt naked.
But damn if it hadn’t been worth the risk.
He dressed in a fresh set of clothes from his backpack.
Now that he felt safe, his energy deserted him.
His head swam with images of what had – not even an hour ago – happened to his family (and what he had just done to the annoying but innocent boy) and his legs buckled.
He fell hard, sobbing and panting for breath.
Davey awoke with a panicked cry. He looked around, wondering where the hell he was.
Tears rose, unbidden, in his eyes as a memory of cradling his baby sister for the first time popped into his head.
He remembered the way she’d felt, the strange smell she’d had, the sticky mixture of blood and creamy stuff that had covered her forehead.
He’d been the first one to hold her, as Dad hadn’t been able to get the day off work and Mam was still asleep from the painkillers.
Thoughts hit him like punches from a heavyweight boxer: I’ve failed.
I should’ve saved her.
I could’ve done more to stop him.
He curled in a ball, tears racking his small frame. He tried to picture her the way she’d been, rather than the way she’d ended up, but failed.
She had been perfect, innocent, frail. She should have had so much more to look forward to.
He looked at the twin pools of tears on the floor. The taste of salt was strong in his airwaves.
He struggled to breath, as though his sorrow was crushing the life from him.
Forcing himself to be calm, he pulled himself to his knees.
You knew this was coming.
Deal with it.
If you can’t come to terms with it, then you may as well take that knife in the corner and…
He sniffed hard, again backhanded tears from his eyes.
You’re dead if you can’t think straight, so get it out of your head.
He closed his eyes, feeling already how dry and swollen and sore they were.
He inhaled deeply.
Let it out.
In his head, a flash of the cullsman wiping his sister’s mangled skull off his boot.
He gritted his teeth, grunted, forced the image out of his mind.
He refused to let this break him.
It took a huge effort of will to calm himself, but he managed it.
His mind was clear.
He needed to think like them; cold, logical.
They’d be expecting him to leave the building right about now.
He’d packed a tin opener and enough tinned food to last for a week, all stashed up here on previous visits.
But his plans were disrupted when he again heard footsteps outside the door.
Shit, he thought. Why the fuck did I let my guard down?
This time he felt certain that the cullsmen had found their way to his door.
He glanced around, in utter panic. There were no obvious places he could hide.
The door to the room jolted as a fist struck it.
His heart did a somersault in his chest. He tried to force himself to think.
‘Open this fucking door,’ an authoritative voice barked, confirming to Davey that it was no kid this time.
Finally, inspiration struck him and he moved across the room to the garbage chute.
He climbed inside, carefully shutting the hatch mere seconds before the door to the room flew open for the second time in as many hours.
He clung desperately to the metal lip around the edges of the hatch.
Through a sliver of a gap on the right side of the frame, he saw that it was indeed a cullsman looking for him.
The footsteps moved all around the apartment, accompanied by muffled threats and curses.
Davey felt like his breathing was far too loud in the enclosed chute, so he carefully gripped the edges of the metal slide and slid himself down so he was away from the opening.
He was struggling to keep his grip, his fingers and biceps blazing with the effort.
Panic filled his mind when he heard the footsteps approaching the opening of the chute.
But as the hatch opened, revealing the sinister cullsman’s helmet in the opening, his grip gave out for good, sending him flying down the garbage chute.
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