Harlan found us in an abandoned foodbank.
My sallow reflection looked distorted in his cracked visor. My eyeballs looked piss-yellow, my beard resembled long-dead roadkill.
“Are you going to kill us, Mister?” I asked.
He crouched in front of me, his ventilator groaning, his expression inscrutable.
His words oozed out in a processed hiss.
“I’m gonna’ give you a job.”
I turned to look at Kathleen. She offered me a crimson-streaked smile, her lips bloodied from the jagged edge of the Bovril jar she was eating from.
It was the first time I had seen her smile since we left mother—left her alone with her oozy bed sores and her fat romance novels.
“Strangle me, you bastard,” mother hissed, as I kissed her on the cheek – her once-booming voice reduced to a desiccated whisper.
“Smother me. Crush my windpipe! Stove my skull in.”
I stood at the foot of her filthy single bed and shook my head sadly.
“Spineless – just like your fucking father. Mark my words, you’ll be dead by daybreak.”
I padlocked mother’s door behind me and re-joined society—or what remained of it.
When news of ‘The Surge’ leaked out, the government put imprisoned sex offenders to work in the Extermination Division. The chemicals they used on the rats hadn’t been properly tested, and they were reluctant to risk decimating the military with a hazardous, untried substance. Fourteen elderly rapists died within the first fortnight due to chemical exposure. They were burned in shallow pits, along with the rats.
At the end of the third week, a pair of middle-aged pedophiles overpowered the soldier escorting them across Dartmoor and shot him through the throat with his own pump-action shotgun. The government terminated the project with immediate effect and dispatched the entire UK sex offender population to the Isles of Scilly for government-endorsed ‘recalibration.’
Harlan told us there was an unofficial Extermination Division outpost based in Newton Abbot—based in the old Job Centre Plus building—which paid for dead rats on a corpse-by-corpse basis. He would take care of the killing. We would drag the carcass-sacks through the woods and haul them onto his jalopy.
He offered us each a ‘Jellymen Industries’ boiler suit. He had six in his rucksack, although one was too bloodstained to consider wearing. You used to see the familiar, wobbly logo on billboards and Transit vans—themselves obsolete signifiers of a brighter future. Jellymen Industries had been harvesting jellyfish in seaside towns for many years, but they made a killing after the rat farm crisis, with the board of directors positioning the company as the ‘ethical’ alternative.
As society crumbled, the company branched out into other sectors—healthcare, private security, telematics—and seemed like a force for good. For every backstreet surgeon practicing English voodoo in a shabby bed-sit, a Jellymen clinic offering subsidized healthcare. For every skin-popping junkie converting starter pistols into zip-guns in a drug-den there was a Jellymen armory, with full background checks. It didn’t last. Good things don’t seem to anymore. The lunatics didn’t just take over the asylum, they burned it to the fucking ground.
Senior government officials and leading captains of industry—including the former Jellymen CEO—have been based on the British Virgin Islands for the last two years. Every three months the Prime Minister addresses the UK public via satellite link. At the last event, the PM—chubby face reddened with rum cocktails and sunburn—leered down at us from his golf buggy, tie askew, and belched into the camera while his cronies cackled in the background. The first man to throw a beer bottle put a crack across his sweaty cheekbone. The second bottle made contact just above his eye. The screen was ripped down and stomped into the tarmac while braying, disembodied laughter echoed from the speakers.
Harlan was confident with firearms, but he wasn’t a soldier—that much was clear. My guess would have been a survivalist, but he lacked the familiar lunatic gleam in his eyes. There are supposedly more pockets of survivalists across the Westcountry than anywhere else in Britain, but no one really knows, as the country’s transport infrastructure has collapsed. People rarely leave their own towns, let alone their own counties.
Harlan was proud of his shotgun. Told us it was a Pardner Pump, imported from China, although he bought it at a swap-meet at Plymouth Indoor Market. He told us that it was a cheap rip-off of the Remington 870.
“What it lacks in after-market support it makes up for in stopping power,” he crowed.
“Mark my words, kids—the Chinese are our only hope. In 40 years, you’ll be speaking fucking Mandarin.”
“What about you?”
He cackled, louder than before.
“In 40 years? I’ll be fucking dead.”
Harlan always told us: before things get better, they must get much worse.
When we returned to the foodbank after depositing our ratbags, I caught him staring at Kathleen from the doorway. She was slipping out of the boiler suit, stripping down to her threadbare bra and panties.
“Perks of the job, right?” He winked.
I walked off, disgusted, into the belly of the building.
When I returned, Harlan had placed his Pardner Pump on top of his folded boiler suit. I picked up the gun and crept into the cavernous gloom. He was on top of Kathleen, grunting. His sweaty back was layered with crude, prison-looking tattoos, but there was a professionally inked angel of mercy stretched between his shoulder blades. I pressed the warm barrel of the Chinese shotgun up against the angel’s face and closed my eyes as I ruptured his spinal column.
It was only when I hauled his meaty body off Kathleen, I realized the hot lead had torn through his flesh and destroyed her jaw too. Harlan was flat on his back, gargling blood. I swiveled the shotgun and smashed his contorted face into the linoleum. I covered Kathleen with a tarpaulin and retrieved Harlan’s ventilator, affixing the rubbery mouthpiece over my cracked lips. Stale mucus and moustache hairs crudded it up, but it made me feel alive—for the first time in years. I walked out into the drizzle, hot tears trickling down my face, pooling at the bottom of the grimy visor.
‘Seize the future. Rewrite your own history,’ the Propaganda Division used to tell us.
I cradled the Chinese shotgun against my grubby boiler-suit.
Mother would have been proud.
Tom Leins is a crime writer from Paignton, UK. His books include Boneyard Dogs, Ten Pints of Blood, Meat Bubbles & Other Stories, Repetition Kills You, and The Good Book: Fairy Tales for Hard Men.