The Kicker

Why am I the kicker? I’m always the bloody kicker.

I sigh and contemplate the lock: pretty heavy duty, probably a security lock, definitely bump resistant. The wood around it is in good condition too, considering how long ago
it’d last been maintained. What I wouldn’t give for a Thor’s hammer about now. Not that they made entry any safer, but they did mean you had something heavy to hand if things went south.

Maybe I should’ve listened to Alburn and given this place a wide berth. The old man’s about as far from superstitious as you can get. After five years running security on the supply routes, he’s seen everything possibly imagined, but even I’d noticed his face pale when I’d outlined my plan.

‘Some places are best left unexplored,’ was all he’d said by way of an explanation.

I give the rifle a tug to check it’s secure and take a deep breath. My focus is on the door. Without turning my head, I nod to Alburn. He squeezes my shoulder in response.

The wooden frame splinters and breaks beneath the heel of my DM. The lock surround buckles and disengages with a disorientating crack. I’m already through before the door reaches the apex of its swing, rifle leading, heading right. I don’t need to look to know the old man’s at my heels.

I spot two of them, see sinewy muscles tighten under their paper-thin flesh as they coil to attack. They’re fast; the camouflage already causing them to flicker and fade from view. I put two rounds in each before I lose sight of them, before they have a chance to move. Alburn does the same on my left and I hear three fall to the concrete with wet thuds.

‘Clear,’ I shout, my voice echoes.

The room is vast, much bigger than I’d expected it to be, and it’s empty. The whole place has been cleared out. Even the ubiquitous ceiling-high, steel shelving units have been ripped from the floor, presumably salvaged in the early years of the crisis. The bent and twisted fixings which dot the concrete at regular intervals are the only evidence they ever existed. I curse under my breath. If they’re gone, any supplies would be too.

Alburn toes a creature’s body. ‘Clear,’ he confirms.

They’re already dissolving into congealed pools of rancid gore. I grimace, but can’t stop myself stooping low to watch them rot. Something about them seems off, more off than usual.

‘Do they look skinnier to you?’ I ask.

He hawks and spits on the nearest corpse.

‘They all look like shit to me,’ he says before adding, ‘fuckers probably got themselves locked in here, starved half to death.’

I shrug.

‘Come on,’ I say. ‘Let’s get this over with.’

We find another security door at the rear. The kind that’s made up of laminating steel sheets between wood panels. No chance of kicking this one down. Its surface is marred with deep gouges, claw marks. Some deep enough to scratch the metal beneath. Something must be inside and something the Shiners wanted pretty bad. At least, I hope there is. This was the last door: the cold store. That’s what the plans say. I wasn’t holding my breath.

I probably should have.

The smell hits me as soon as I walk through; a sinister, decaying atrocity that assaults my senses. A mixture of coppery blood, voided bowels and burning tyres. But, however bad the smell is, it’s nothing compared to the sight. It takes all I am not to rush outside and empty the contents of my stomach into the shrubs.

There are hundreds of them: men, women and children. Their broken bodies tossed and scattered around like toys. I take a step forward and feel my boot sink into an ichor that was once someone’s head. Bile touches the back of my throat once again.

‘Fuck me,’ Alburn says with a whistle. ‘Shiners did a number on these poor sods.’

I shake my head.

‘This isn’t Shiners,’ I trail my flashlight’s beam across the horrifying tableau. ‘Decomp varies. Some have been dead a lot longer than others.’ I highlight a few where white bone is showing through what’s left of their desiccated flesh and others who are…fresher. ‘No defensive wounds either.’

I notice a single cylindrical wound in the hairline of one the corpses. Its edges show a familiar dark charring. The same wound marks them all.

There’s a click and I feel the cold touch of a muzzle beneath my ear.

‘Alburn?’

‘Sorry kid,’ he says, his voice little more than a whisper. ‘Shit, I did say not to come here.’

‘But…?’ My brain refuses to focus and I can’t get the words out. My mind screams at me: he’s your number two, the one who has your back no matter what. I open my mouth to say this but the best I manage is: ‘What the fu—?’

His finger tightens on the trigger.

I don’t register the shot.

The Offer

I’m dead. I’ll not bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that it wasn’t a good death, it wasn’t a natural death. There was nothing I did to provoke it, nor anything I could do to prevent it. Why am I telling you this? I want to get this all out of the way early so as not to detract from what I am about to tell you.

You, I’m sorry to say, are also dead and, like mine, it was neither good, nor natural. Don’t worry if you can’t remember anything now; the details will come to you in time, if you let them. But, unlike me, you have a choice. I can send you back. I can give you another chance. Sure, I have my reasons and, of course, my price, but let’s not dwell on that right now.

Why you? Well, my boy, you are somewhat unique in these parts. You have a…certain something, think of it as an opportunity. You possess an, as yet, unsevered link between this world and the world you just came from. There have been only a handful like you in all the centuries I’ve dwelt here and, fewer still, with a link as tangible as yours. All of them have returned, after all, it’s not every day that you get a second chance at life.

But, I digress. What do you think of my offer? I notice that some of your memories are returning now; I see the link growing fainter. Have you come to terms with your demise? Did you leave the world with all your business in order? Nothing left undone? I thought not. I see rage in your eyes, in the way you set your jaw. Don’t you wish for a chance to get even with those responsible? For the opportunity to take your revenge? I’m sure you would and I can make it happen…for only a small favour.

Alas, no. Like I said, you’ve been bestowed a unique gift. This place is not the hereafter. It helps to think of it more as a holding space between the living world and the paradise beyond the veil. Your girlfriend is beyond even my reach. She’d already accepted her fate and made peace with it. For her, there is no return. That’s not to say you’ll not see her again. Life (and death) has many ways of unfolding and who knows what the fates have in store for you both. But, if seeing her again is what you want, this is not the place to be. This is a place for brooders, the tormented, the lost. It is for those who lament their passing but haven’t the strength to change it. We are trapped here searching for a way to recover some of our dignity, something of what we once were. For me there is no escape, not without a guide.

That, my boy, is where you come in. I have the ability and the power to save you from the same fate. I can send you back to live your life as you wish, but I can’t allow you to go alone. I’ve suffered here too long to pass up an opportunity such as this. If you return, I am coming with you. While you claw your way out through the hole I make for you, I’ll dig my fingers deep into the fabric of your soul and I will not, ever, let go. We will be bound, you and I, until such a time as we return to the beyond and onward into paradise. Those are my terms and they are non-negotiable.

Think of your sweetheart. Her broken body there on that road. Don’t you want to make them pay for her pain? For yours? I can make it happen. I can give you the strength and the tools to make them suffer in ways you can only imagine. I’ll give you their lives, if you want them. A fair trade, don’t you think?

I’ll let you mull it over, but keep in mind that the clock is ticking. I wouldn’t want you to miss your chance.

Me? Just think of me as a passenger, a guide, you’ll be the one in the…ahem…driving seat.

Do you accept? You do? Excellent! I’m certain you won’t regret it.

Now, hold very still, this may hurt a little.

Sun-Ripened

Sun-Ripened

Image credit: © Marisabel2005 | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

The first time I heard a tomato talk was in the summer afternoon over lunch. It had been such a lovely morning that I’d decided to eschew the cramped, stifling confines of the office and eat outside in the park.

Whilst picking through the contents of a pre-packed salad, I became aware of a quiet voice. A casual glance at the neighbouring tables didn’t reveal the source; everyone was absorbed in conversations of their own and paid me no attention.

Puzzled, I turned back to my lunch.

It came again, louder this time and with more urgency. I was certain it was coming from beneath the table, but a quick peek, again, revealed nothing.

‘Psst…down here!’

I stared at the plastic container. Sitting on a wilted rocket leaf was a lone cherry tomato.

‘Hi!’ its fleshy, red skin parted and I saw a tiny, perfectly formed, mouth. The corners twitched and turned up into a smile.

I said hello in a hushed voice, not wanting the couple at the next table to think I was mad. At least until I knew for certain myself.

‘It’s about time. You noticed me then?’ it asked. ‘I’ve been shouting a while now. D’you know how many times you nearly stuck me with that fork?’

I apologised; it seemed appropriate in the circumstances.

It occurred to me that someone could have slipped something into my drink. I scrutinised the bottle of water. No evidence of tampering (had I broken the seal? I can’t remember. Surely, I would have noticed if I had. Wouldn’t I?). It just seemed like regular water.

‘What are you doing?’ the tomato chided. I frowned in response. ‘You’re being very rude,’ it continued, ‘here I am trying to have a conversation and you’re staring at your drink like a lunatic.’

I was now certain I’d gone completely insane. None-the-less, I was still a little put out by a piece of fruit calling attention to it. I told it so in no uncertain terms.

‘I’m sorry. I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot,’ it hopped up onto the plastic rim and introduced itself as: ‘Garry, with two r’s.’

Garry explained that there he’d not found much in the way of conversation from the rest of the salad, ‘especially the cucumbers,’ and was glad of the relief from the boredom. He didn’t seem to mind when I told him that I was only on my lunch break and would be expected back shortly.

I introduced myself.

‘Sorry if I seemed rude,’ I said, ‘I was a little startled. It’s the first time I’ve ever spoken to a tomato.’

He told me it was quite alright – an understandable reaction, if he was being honest. He suggested that the reason I’d probably never spoken to one before was that most tomatoes are very shy and prone to blushing when addressed. They never initiate conversation either.

I remarked that he didn’t come across as all that shy, which made him smile.

‘Oh, I’ve always spoken to people. Me and my family regularly chatted with the farmer and his wife when we were growing up. My dad was the worst of all. He’d keep going day and night, if you let him. I suppose I just got used to it.’

I told him that I’d a problem with shyness and confessed this to be one of the longest conversations I’d ever had in a social context. He was sympathetic: his brother was just the same. We talked about family for a while. He came from a large one; over a thousand of them crammed onto a single vine.

‘Not much room to yourself,’ he muttered. And then there were the ladybirds as well.

I tried to empathise, but I only have one sister and my parents hadn’t allowed us to keep pets. I avoided his questions about a significant other, still a particularly sore subject.

‘There was a girl back on the farm,’ he recalled when I turned the interrogation around, ‘she left a long time ago and I haven’t seen her since. I heard she was modelling though. Not sure if there’s any truth in that.’ He told me his mother claimed to have seen her on an advert for a large sandwich chain “showing more flesh than was appropriate”. Apparently, his mother had disapproved of their relationship.

We continued to make small talk on the usual subjects: work (I confessed to being in advertising, but hadn’t crossed paths with his childhood sweetheart); Hobbies (he had a passion for singing and insisted on serenading me with the latest hit – it wasn’t bad); even plans for the future (he wants to travel when he’s made enough money for the trip – somewhere hot).

‘I read an article somewhere about how tomatoes give natural protection against the sun and can even protect against some forms of skin cancer, is that true?’

‘I’m not sure,’ he said, ‘but I’ve never seen one with a tan so there might be something to it.’ That made me laugh.

I sat with him, enjoying the sun. A young girl raced by trying to get lift to a red kite, despite the lack of any discernible breeze, and we marvelled on the innocence of youth. He said that he wished he’d learned how to fly a kite. Now that I think about it, so do I.

By the time my lunch break was over, I was beginning to regret having to return to work, but as they say, all good things must come to an end. We said our goodbyes and I wished him luck with his travels. I made him promise to dedicate his first platinum record to me and in return, I would pass on his well wishes to the girl he lost, if we ever worked together.

I left him there in the sun to enjoy the kites and the energy of the park, and made my way back to my office.

Next time, I thought, I’ll just get a soup.