I only scavenge at the Hole after dark. I take no risks, not with my baby brother waiting for me.
Tonight, the Hole is quiet when I arrive. Only two other Sweepers have dirty, canvas bags slung over their shoulders and are picking through rubbish in search of a tin of creamed corn or string beans. The air is ripe with rotting fruit and mouldy cheese—promises of a good haul—which is why it should be busier here. My taut muscles scream that something’s wrong, but the thought of facing my starving brother in the morning forces me on.
I readjust my filthy, knit cap, make sure my hair is tucked in, then stick an aluminium micro light between my teeth. Sweeping used to twist my guts with anxiety, and while it’s still not something I look forward to, after two years I’m at least proficient. And hey, I’m still alive.
I bend over and dig into the freshest-looking trash pile. A plug-in lamp, complete with an intact bulb, I shove aside in favor of a flashlight missing its glass. You can never have enough of these coveted, battery-operated lights in Isolon. Electricity is a past luxury. The trick is to find enough usable batteries to trade and keep.
Two dented cans of peas and a mystery jar of something orange I shove in my bag then take two steps to the left to begin again. Every few seconds I stop and glance around; a self-protection habit I learned the hard way.
The humid, night air coats my skin and has what I call ‘air-disturbance.’ New, pungent smells that mean Avalon—the sky city directly above us—had dumped their refuse earlier in the day which makes evenings like this the best for sweeping before everything becomes picked over or rotten. But few venture out at night to sweep because it could cost you your life. For me and others like me, sweeping with less competition means I have a better chance at finding the unopened tins of food that sympathetic Avalonites threw into the trash for us down here.
A few feet to my right I spot the fuzzy brown ear of a stuffed animal with both its eyes intact. In less than a minute I unearth it, shake it free of most of the dirt and crap sticking to it, and push it in my bag for Lake. Maybe he’ll give up his tattered old bear.
Nearby, the two other Sweepers are joined by someone else. I can tell who it is by the limp and intimidating voice. It’s Slate. I don’t like him.
Slate isn’t technically a Sweeper, although I suppose he gets his food and supplies from the Hole too. He’s the leader of the Nights, an underground community who think it’s their business to protect the Hole from the rest of Isolon. Despite my apprehension, I focus on scavenging for at least one more meal and something to trade before I let myself go home to my little brother. I thumb the scar above my right eyebrow, then put my head down and keep picking. If you mind your own business at the Hole you’re more likely to go home with all your limbs attached.
Sounds of an argument erupt from the little group, which isn’t uncommon at the Hole, but I can tell they aren’t arguing about food or grunge to trade. I catch the words ‘contest’ and ‘Avalon’ and I know they’re talking about the competition Avalon puts on every five years where the prize is a new life in the beautiful sky city. But then I hear the word ‘culling,’ and I almost run home. I dig faster and unearth a plate with a small chip I can trade. Another tin of veggies or two and I can be on my way.
I’m toeing the dirt off something metallic, when I notice an eerie silence. In a fraction of a second, I drop my bag, grab the dagger I keep strapped to my thigh and swing around. Slate’s hair shines silvery in the beam of my micro light.
“Well, who do we have here.” He picks his way through the rubble with more grace than a spider, and I marvel at his silence, especially with a bad leg.
My jaw aches from holding the micro light in my mouth but I keep the beam trained on him, knowing he’s unable to see me. If only I had been more aware. I’d stupidly allowed my attention to wander, a mistake I almost paid for with my life once before.
“What’s your name, boy?” Slate shields his eyes and squints. I keep my eyes on his other hand, the one twitching at his side like he might grab a weapon any second. “Shadows got your tongue?” He steps closer but I wave my dagger at him. I know how to use it, even if I still want to hurl at the sight of blood.
My eyes flick from his twitchy hand to his feet. The shift of his weight from his bad leg to his good one is slight but I see it, and brace myself. Quick as a silverfish, his arm swings up. His solid forearm hits my wrist in an attempt to knock the dagger out of my hand. But my grip is iron. With my other hand, I grab a two inch blade from its sheath on my wrist and slash downwards. I feel the blade connect with soft tissue. He cries out and stumbles back. I grab my bag and run. No one cuts Slate and lives.
After several minutes of panicked running, weaving between crumbling apartment buildings and jumping over broken fences, I duck into an alley. I sheath my blades, cut the light, then pull off my cap and let my hair loose. No one expects a girl to be sweeping, especially at night when the Shadows are out stalking their next victims. But it’s not the Shadows I fear, it’s the Cullers. Population control cops who arrive in Isolon every morning and return to Avalon before dark when they’ve filled their quota. They’re the reason my little brother Lake and I are surviving alone.
I exit the alley and keep my pace at a brisk walk, eager to make it home before Slate discovers who I really am.
I arrive at Summer’s house; a simple one storey structure that used to have flower gardens and a wooden porch-swing on the front verandah. Or so Summer told me. All I care is that it has a roof and four walls. It’s in better condition than my own house, with its one usable room and thin sheets of plastic where the windows used to be.
I rap my knuckles three times in quick succession on Summer’s door to signal that it’s me and that I’m alone. I hear a deadbolt sliding, then the rattling of some chains before the door opens three inches and one of Summer’s rheumy brown eyes peers out.
“Hurry,” I hiss and, in a flash, Summer yanks open the door then tugs me inside. While she’s busy securing the door again, I glance around for my brother and see him curled up on a stained mattress. His mop of dark hair and thin shoulders protrude from a bright blue, knit blanket.
“How long has he been asleep?”
“Since you dropped him off.” Summer rubs a knuckle in one eye and yawns. Her long grey hair is braided and hangs over one shoulder. She’s wearing her standard ratty pink housecoat over a thin cotton nightgown. Her feet are bare and I glance away from her twisted-up toes.
“You don’t have to go home you know. Just stay here and let him sleep.” She says this all the time and I always decline, preferring to go back to the house Lake and I have lived in since I can remember. She knows the real reason why I can’t leave our house, but we never talk about it.
“I’m not putting a target on your back by staying here.” I cross the tiny room and gather Lake into my arms. He wakes long enough to wrap his arms around my neck. He’s warm and smells a bit like raspberry jam.
“Oh pish posh” Summer says. “What can the Shadows possibly want with an old woman like me? They don’t know you come here.”
“I think I was followed tonight.” This brings a reaction from Summer, however slight. She frowns and sucks her teeth.
“Not by the Shadows though.”
“Cullers then? That’s highly unlikely at this hour—”
Summer mutters something, then grabs Old Bear from the mattress and tucks him under Lake’s arm. The familiar scent of our house—musty wood—wafts up from its shaggy fur and I briefly think maybe the new bear in my bag isn’t such a good idea. Lake will never part with the stuffed toy he’s had since he was a baby. It’s the only thing he has left from our mom and dad.
My back and shoulder muscles are screaming from the weight of both Lake and my bag. I dip my head at Summer who moves to the door and starts the process of unlocking it all over again.
“Don’t let Slate get to you,” Summer whispers as I slide out through the door.
“He nearly killed me!”
Summer shrugs. “That was years ago, Stixx. And to be fair, he didn’t know you’re a girl.”
“He wouldn’t care. He probably—” I stop because Lake’s big blue eyes are wide open and he’s staring up at me. I don’t want to freak him out with this kind of talk so I say instead, “Summer, in my bag, there’s a jar of carrots for you.”
Summer fishes the jar out of my bag then pats my arm. “Peaches.”
“They’re peaches, not carrots.”
“Okay.” I hoist Lake up higher and turn to walk down her broken sidewalk to the rear alley that runs between her place and mine. “Say goodbye, Lake.”
“Goodbye Lake!” He says and grins, which makes Summer chuckle.
“Straight home now.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say then call over my shoulder, “don’t eat all those peaches at once if you don’t want the runs!”
I walk away but hear her mutter “pish posh” before she shuts the door.
I put Lake down once we reach the alley, and he runs ahead to our house. I see him reach our weather-beaten door, his small frame just a shadow in the ghostly moonlight.
Just before I reach my yard I hear the gravel crunch behind me. For the second time tonight, I whirl around, dagger in hand, and see Slate.
A bright light blinds me and I squint so hard my eyes water. Even though I can’t see his expression, I hear him make a rude sound.
“You’re a girl?”
“What do you want, Slate.” I hope Lake is in the house and has locked the door like I taught him.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You asked me what I want. I want you.” His voice is deep which makes him sound menacing, but it’s his height that’s more intimidating. I’m barely 5’3” and he towers over me.
“Too bad, I don’t want you.” I don’t want to turn my back on him, so I take a step away, still holding my dagger out.
“Cut it out, Stone. I’ve seen what you can do with that blade. And with your fists.” He switches the light off and I hear him shifting his feet. I don’t like that I suddenly can’t see him and I blink until the spots in my eyes disappear.
He runs a hand down the side of his face. I know he has a scar there because I gave it to him two years ago. Three days after my parents were culled, Lake and I ran out of food and I was forced to leave my brother with Summer for the first time so I could scavenge at the Hole. Slate was there with a group of Nights, and we both went after the same jar of beets. He grabbed my arm and I was so scared I went for my blade. I didn’t really know how to use it, I just instinctively slashed the air with it. When it made contact with some fleshy part of him, he knocked me to the ground. Two of his guys jumped on me and I went home bruised and bleeding. I’d managed to keep my knit cap on though, which is why Slate is surprised to see me now without it.
I sense, more than see, that he’s not going to fight me so I drop my hand to my side, still clutching the dagger. Just in case.
“Join the Nights. We could use someone like you.”
“No, thanks.” I start to walk away but he steps in front of me. There’s a large, dark stain on his left sleeve. It’s spreading. It must be where I cut him.
“Avalon’s competition is coming up again. You could win it, Stone.”
“I don’t care.” I try to side-step him, but he blocks me. Heat rises to my face and my free hand curls into a fist. “Move.”
I see something move in the shadows over Slate’s shoulder. Someone’s near my house. And judging by their height, it isn’t Lake.
I shove Slate. He’s immovable. His hand flashes out and grabs my wrist. All I can think of is what happened last time he grabbed me like this. I glance at my house again. There’s more than one shadow moving toward the door now.
I try to shake my arm free of Slate to go after whoever is at my house, but Slate somehow spins me around. My back slams against his chest. My dagger is knocked from my hand and clatters in the gravel. Slate’s hand covers my mouth, crushing my lips against my teeth. He smells of dirt, oil and sweat.
“Shut up,” he hisses in my ear. Moist heat from his breath makes me shiver. Tension hums in me like a live wire. “Listen, Stone. Chasing after you tonight hurt my pride. Especially since you cut me. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t need you, so just shut up and listen. ’Kay?”
I nod and the pressure on my mouth lessens but he keeps his hand there.
“The Nights voted on who should be the one to win Avalon’s shit contest. And it was unanimous. They picked you, Stone. We need you to win. Then, once you’re in Avalon, you’re going to kill the Commander.”
He lets go of me then, and I spin around, spit near his boot, then wipe my mouth on my sleeve. “Is there something wrong with your head? No way I’m doing that!” Behind him, the clouds shift and moonlight throws an eerie light on my house. Whoever was there has gone. At least, I don’t see anyone moving around anymore.
“If you don’t, then you can kiss your brother goodbye.”
In a flash, I slip my wrist knife out of its sheath and press it against Slate’s throat. “Do. Not. Threaten. Me.”
“Hey,” he says quietly, and the apple in his throat bobs beneath my blade. “It’s not me who’s threatening you. It’s Avalon. I hear they’re looking for you. Maybe you’re the next to be culled.”
I go still. I don’t even breathe when I hear that word.