Wait for Me by J.M. McKenzie

In 2011, I started writing my first novel, The Ice Factory. Inspired by a personal childhood trauma, it was a difficult story to tell, and I didn’t feel able to do it justice at the time. And so, on the advice of some fellow writers, I decided to hone my novice writing skills on something “lighter”.

Something lighter turned into Wait for Me, the story of one ordinary woman’s extraordinary journey to get home to her partner after a bioterrorism attack triggers a Zombie Apocalypse in the UK! I know, its certainly not a lighter subject matter, but it was a much lighter story to tell and I’ve had a lot of fun with it!

Anyway, I started it in 2015, finished it in 2017, decided it could be better and decided to re-write it in 2018. I’m delighted to announce that it is finally finished and available to purchase on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback versions.

http://mybook.to/WaitforMe

I’d absolutely love it if you bought a copy and would welcome your reviews and feedback on my first novel!

Now, I need to decide whether to go back to The Ice Factory or write a sequel to Wait for Me!

Option 3.

Today I had some great news! My first ever smidgeon of success as a writer.

I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition this year and my Round 1 entry was 2nd in my category! This is my story:

Option 3.

Leo was tired. Tired of hiding. Tired of being constantly on the move. Tired of always having to be alert, watchful, ready. Tired of not having a place to settle, to call home, to rest for a while. Truly rest. Not just lie down for a few hours, fully clothed with one hand on his gun. That wasn’t rest. He couldn’t remember the last time he got undressed, got into bed and slept soundly, all night.

But, most of all, he suspected he was growing tired of killing.

He sat in a low deck chair on the roof of the narrow boat nursing a mug of hot, strong coffee. It was just after 4am. He’d been awake since 3. The full moon cast a rippling ribbon of light along the dark, smooth surface of the canal. The trees and bushes along its banks, dark silhouettes against the luminous night sky. A light breeze coaxed the water to lap gently against the side of the boat. The only other sounds were the occasional calls of night birds and the rustling of small creatures rooting in the undergrowth.

A blanket draped loosely around his head and shoulders. The folds of the fabric trapped the steam rising from the mug and bathed his face and hands with warm moisture. He sighed, relishing the tranquillity of the moment. He was unusually relaxed, his gun resting lightly on his lap under the blanket. But Leo was never completely relaxed, his senses always alert to anything out of place, the faintest sound, shadow, or small waft of air.

His mind kept drifting back to his last job. How close it had come to going wrong. Very, very wrong. He was good at what he did. Clinical. Always had been. That was why he was so much … in demand. It wasn’t like him. It troubled him. He was confused.

A trained and highly skilled mixed martial artist, he relied on his hands to do most of his dirty work. They were lethal, fast, silent and clean. Garottes were slow. Guns were noisy. Knives messy. Attracted too much attention. Created too many possibilities for being traced, tracked, followed.

The job had been in Addis Ababa. His mission had been to gather intel from an OC HQ. It had gone to plan until he’d encountered a meaty SG blocking his escape route. He shouldn’t have been there. Leo had done his recon. The guy was having a sneaky smoke away from his post. Leo was behind him. It should have been easy. A couple of taps to key pressure points and the guy went down. One twist to the neck and it would be over. But, Leo had hesitated. Only for a nanosecond. But it was enough. Enough for the guy to cry out, before Leo finished him. Enough to trigger raised voices and footsteps running in his direction. He only just got out.

Now, thinking back, he realised these feelings had been developing for a while now. Imperceptibly creeping up on him from a place he hadn’t known existed. Surprising him at the most inopportune moments. Causing him to think twice. To make mistakes.

As a young man he had studied many martial arts. Krav Maga in Israel, Vale Tudo in Brazil, and Kung Fu in China. However, increasingly, in the past few months, he kept thinking about his days in Japan where he trained in Aikido at the Aikikai Foundation in Tokyo with Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba, the great grandson of its founder, Morihei Ueshiba. He studied the teachings of Morihei and his religious mentor Onisaburo Deguchi. Their philosophies centred around universal peace and harmony, the attainment of a personal utopia, and love and compassion for those who seek to harm others. For Leo, it had taught him more about evasion and defence than any other discipline he had mastered. He hadn’t bought in to the peace-loving ideology, but recognised that his time there had been one of the most fulfilling periods of his life.

The words of his teacher, Moriteru, kept echoing in his head. Love your enemy. Do no harm.

***

Leo eased himself silently in through the window. He carefully released the line he had used to lower himself from the roof terrace and watched as it recoiled with a soft hiss. The large, opulent bathroom was bathed in the green glow of his night vision goggles. He was at the south end of the building. His target was in the master suite at the north end.
The house was silent. The bathroom smelt of vanilla and lemon. The door was ajar, as he had expected. He pushed it open and looked down the long hallway. He knew from his recon that, apart from the nanny, this floor was exclusively occupied by the family.
Seven doors. Three on his left, the boy’s room, the nanny’s room and a linen store. Three on his right, the girl’s room, another bathroom and a study. At the end, facing him was the door to the master suite. All doors except one, the boy’s room, were closed.
He moved silently down the corridor. He paused to look into the boy’s room. A child lay in the bed, his tousled mop of dark hair, stark against the pillow even with the night vision. His small features, relaxed in sleep, a mask of innocence.

Leo felt a pang of remorse for what he was about to do.

Love your enemy. Do no harm.

Not now, for chrissake! He shook his head. Get a grip man! Now unnerved and angry with himself, he carried on down the corridor. Outside the master suite he took a small cannister out of a loop on his belt and sprayed both door hinges. He eased the handle down and opened the door.
Two figures lay on the bed, their limbs intertwined. The woman stirred in her sleep and rolled away from the man to face Leo. The sheet fell away to reveal one small round breast. Leo noted that the nipple was dark, erect and perfectly positioned in the center of the breast. He looked away.
He moved around to the other side of the bed to where the man was lying on his back. This was going to be straightforward. A sharp knock to the pressure point on his temple to stun him, followed by bilateral pressure to the carotids would kill him in less than a minute. Lethal, fast, silent and clean. His trademark kill. He rapped a spot on the man’s temple with his knuckle. His jaw slackened and his breathing deepened. He was out. Leo positioned both hands over his carotids.

Love your enemy. Do no harm.

Shit! He was losing it!

His hands hovered over the man’s throat. His mind was racing. He couldn’t do it. An image of the sleeping boy flashed through his mind. The woman’s breast. In what felt like minutes, but was probably less than one, his brain whirred through his options.

Option 1. Kill him. Job done. Get out.

Not an option anymore. He couldn’t do it.

Option 2. Don’t kill him. Abort mission. Walk away.

But they’d just send someone else out to do what he couldn’t.
Then they’d come after him.
He could go off grid and lie low.
But they’d never stop looking for him.
And he’d be out in the cold.
Unprotected.
Eventually others would come too.
He’d be on the run, hiding, forever.

Option 3.

There was no Option 3.

He sensed another presence. Just a small rustle and change in air pressure. He looked up.
A tiny boy with a mop of dark, curly hair stood in the doorway.
The boy’s arms were outstretched. He was pointing a small gun at Leo. He gripped it with both hands to steady his aim. He seemed unafraid. His dark eyes were cold.

Leo instinctively went for his own weapon then stopped. He took a step away from the bed and raised a finger to his lips. The boy took a step forward and adjusted his aim. He knew what he was doing. He’d clearly been trained. Leo allowed himself a moment to reflect on the tragedy of this.

A small red light wavered over Leo’s left nipple. He looked down at it for a moment.

Then, in one rapid movement, he shifted back around the bed to stand face to face with the boy.

The boy faltered. Fear flickered across his face. His hands shook. The red light moved around crazily. It jerked and spun around the room. The boy tightened his grip on the gun. He didn’t make a sound. His dark eyes never left Leo’s face.

Leo let him settle. Waited until the light hovered over his left nipple again.

He stepped forward.

The boy fired.

Leo felt the bullet hit his chest. There was heat and light, and he dropped to his knees. A coldness spread through his body from his chest to his abdomen, flowing out to his arms and legs, his fingers and toes. His head drooped on his chest.

He was vaguely aware of what was going on in the room. The woman, naked and screaming in the doorway with her arms around the boy, who was now crying. The man, also naked, fumbling to turn on the light. Pulling his own gun from the bedside cabinet.

A rough kick knocked Leo onto his back. The man stared down at him. His face contorted with rage.

Leo was tired. Tired of hiding. Tired of being constantly on the move. Tired of always having to be alert, watchful, ready. Tired of not having a place to settle, to call home, to rest for a while. Truly rest. Not just lie down for a few hours, fully clothed with one hand on his gun. That wasn’t rest. He couldn’t remember the last time he got undressed, got into bed and slept soundly, all night.

Leo closed his eyes.

A Better Place

There must have been thousands standing in the rain that day. We’d arrived just after dawn, thinking we’d be among the first, but the square was almost full when we got there. The queue was confined within a series of compact, orderly rows, by red rope barriers. Row after row of young men and women, waiting. The air hummed softly with their collective hope, but beneath that was a faint, but distinct, whine of despair.
We were three rows from the back. I’d counted seventy, as we made our way down, and there had to be at least a hundred people in each. But that was just the queue in the square. Beyond the end of the barriers, a line of people, three or four thick, snaked irregularly down, what had once been the main shopping street, as far as the eye could see.
I’d not seen so many people gathered in the in the city centre like this for years. Way back at the beginning, when the GCC had introduced some controversial new policy or something, I’d been to a few demonstrations. There had been thousands of people at some of these, but they were different to this. They were loud and vibrant. People waved flags and banners, blew horns and whistles, wore face-paint and bright, colourful clothing and carried backpacks crammed with spare clothes, food and drink. People were angry and indignant back then. We were still happy back then. We still believed in the future. A future.
Now, we were resigned, subdued, fearful. This gathering It was very quiet and orderly. People spoke very little and, when they did, it was in hushed, soft voices. No-one wanted to attract any unwanted attention, to jeopardise their chances of being selected. They just wanted to wait patiently in line until their turn came. There were no flags or banners, no horns or whistles, no backpacks. All we had with us were the clothes we were standing in, and these were dirty, dull and frayed. We’d been instructed specifically not to bring anything with us. If we were selected, everything we could possibly need in the new world would be provided.

I think the GCC officials were a bit taken aback by how many people had turned up. They hovered around the edges of the crowd, in their high visibility jackets, glancing at us but not making eye contact, frowning and talking in low voices on their walkie talkies. Occasionally, they looked towards the large grey building at the other side of the square, where the queue began. At the front of the building, was a large set of double doors, at the top of a wide flight of stairs. Despite the humidity, all the doors and windows were firmly closed but, I was sure I could see shadowy figures watching us from inside, lurking behind the net curtains. I was also pretty sure they had air conditioning. The net curtains fluttered slightly, as if caressed by a soft breeze. But there was no breeze. I clenched my jaw against their hypocrisy.

Next to me, Grace was shivering a little. It wasn’t cold, it was almost never cold anymore, but she was soaked through. I took off my jacket and wrapped it around her thin shoulders. She smiled up at me. Her skin was pale, almost translucent, making the dark shadows beneath her eyes look like bruises.
“Thanks.”
“Won’t be long now. The email said registration starts at nine.”
She looked at her watch. “Ten to.”
“See. Just a few more minutes and we’ll be moving.” I pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. She pressed her cheek against my chest. Her damp hair smelled like vanilla and coconut.

It had started to rain about an hour after we arrived. It’s always raining these days. I always imagined that global warming would bring endless hot, dry days, but it appears that the opposite is true … for now at least. Something to do with warmer air holding more water vapour. I say “for now at least” because the GCC tell us that one day soon the rain will stop and, when it does, we’ll really be in trouble. As if we’re not already.

I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, as a sudden wave of nausea hit me. What was I thinking? What was I doing to Grace? To us? I couldn’t trust these people. They had lied to us time and time again. Imposed one crazy policy after another, and yet carried on living their own lives as if nothing had changed. I don’t even really know what we’re applying for. A new programme, a new world for young healthy young people. A chance to live, a chance to have children, a chance for a future. But where, how? It was very vague, very non-specific. But that was the point, they said. They wanted young, brave, healthy people. People who were prepared to take a risk for the future, for the human race, for the planet.

I had seen the first poster a month before. I’d been cycling back from the allotment with a basket of gnarled potatoes and a bunch of skinny carrots. It resonated with me right away. Something about the images stayed with me, smiling families, children, pets, bowls of fresh fruit, shiny white furniture. I thought about it all the way home. The seed was sown. By the time the leaflets, emails and notifications started to come through, asking for volunteers to attend an initial screening programme, it had taken root. I was convinced that this was what I had to do. What we had to do. Grace and me.

Our parents were devastated. When we told them, my mother wept, and my father just sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands.
“Mum, please?” I’d said. “Try to see it from our perspective? You and Dad have had a life. You’ve had jobs, kids, you’ve travelled, everything!”
“Son, we love you.” Dad looked up. His eyes were red. “Of course, we want all that for you, and more, but it just isn’t possible anymore. Times have changed. Just think about it. It doesn’t make sense. If something seems too good to be true, it almost always is.”
“It can’t be any worse than this! No meat, no fresh fruit and veg, except what we can grow ourselves, no power, except what we can generate ourselves, constant rain but not enough water, no cars, no new clothes, no jobs, no kids, no fucking money …”
“Ian, Ian.” Dad interrupted.
“Look, Dad, I know you don’t trust them because of everything they’ve done, but they’re trying. It’s hard. It’s really hard. We’ve gotta do something! Try something! We’re dying. The FUCKIN’ WORLD IS ENDING!”
“Ian!” Mum stopped crying. She was angry now. “That’s enough.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Look, we’re going to give it a try and that’s it. If it doesn’t work out, we can come back.”
“Are you sure?” Mum asked.
“Yes, I read it. It’s not compulsory. It’s not a prison.”
Grace’s eyes met mine. I looked away.

Now, standing in the registration queue, something didn’t feel right. Considering that we were all headed for some bright new future, there was a distinct lack of excitement. The invitations and information briefings had been upbeat and enthusiastic. Now, that we were actually here, the atmosphere was tense and apprehensive. Sure, it was a bit scary, stepping into the unknown like this, and the rain and the shifty GCC officials didn’t help, but there was something else. Something nagging at me. Something ominous, menacing.

I remembered an article about the GCC I had read the previous summer. It was on a subversive website that had popped up on my social media feed. It talked about corruption and elitism in the GCC and their belief that the single causal factor in global warming was overpopulation. It described their policies as Malthusian and suggested that their ultimate aim was extreme population control. It talked about eugenics and genocide and compared them to far right and fascist regimes of the past. It was fake news, of course it was. The conspiracy theorists had gone berserk over the past few years. Understandably so. But they were all nutters. Of course, they were. But what if … ? What if … ?

“Grace … ” I started. “I’m not … ”

My words were left hanging as the cathedral clock chimed nine. The crowd murmured. There was a scuffle of activity ahead of us. The GCC officials straightened their backs, poised and ready to officiate. The double doors at the top of the steps opened with a series of heavy clunks and a grating of metal on stone. Grace took my hand and stepped forward. I didn’t move. She took another couple of steps then turned back to look at me. Our arms were outstretched. She tugged my hand. Her eyes pleading. Still, I didn’t move.

“What’s the matter?”
“I’m just not … feeling it.”
“What d’you mean?”
“I’m …”
“Ian, come on. It’s time. Don’t do this.”
“Sorry.”

The queue was moving steadily now. I could see people ahead, ascending the steps and entering the building. People behind us looked at me questioningly, jostled me, started moving past us. What was wrong with me? I wanted this. Of course I did … Anyway, what choice did we have? What was the worst that could happen? I was getting paranoid. Been reading too much fake news. They weren’t going to murder us! I was losing my mind. I was just having a little panic. It’s a big deal after all.

I smiled at Grace and moved towards her.

“Sorry.” I kissed her forehead when I reached her. “Just a little wobble. I’m fine now. Let’s go.”

We turned and walked hand in hand towards the building.

Deja Vu

Since the world gave up the fight, and finally started to die in earnest, it takes longer to get to work in the morning.

 

The consequences of dietary deficiencies are time consuming. Muscle wasting and anaemia cause such extreme fatigue and shortness of breath, that the time and effort needed to shower and dress, becomes equivalent to that required to run a marathon. Creams and dressings must be applied to rashes and sores, and teeth and hair must be brushed slowly and carefully to minimise gum bleeding and hair loss.

 

Chronic exposure to toxic air pollution exacerbates breathlessness and throws in occasional prolonged and disabling coughing fits, especially in the mornings.
Breakfast is protracted and complex. Filtering, sterilising and heating water on a Calor Gas stove, to reconstitute dried milk for porridge, takes considerably longer than pouring milk from a carton in the fridge, and heating it in the microwave. Eating and drinking is slow and painful, due to mouth and throat ulcers.

 

The walk to work is mercifully short since Colin and I set up in his building two blocks away. We relocated there when the museum closed six months ago, and we were the only two left. Most of our colleagues had moved or died, and the rest simply stopped coming to work.

 

A lot of people did that. Simply stopped going out. It is as if they have come out in sympathy with Mother Earth. Given up the fight. They sit about in their bathrobes. They don’t get dressed. They smoke and drink like there is no tomorrow, which of course there isn’t. Not really.

 

Giving up was never an option for us. We are getting close and we are running out of time. Of course, we are dying, everyone is, but it is worse than that. If the long, slow decline towards a “natural” death isn’t enough, governments are threatening to hasten the end by blowing everything to bits as they squabble about the allocation of the remaining natural resources.

 

For many, the prospect of a quick and painless end holds a certain attraction, but for us it only serves to increase our urgency. Where we had previously been looking at months for the end stages of the project, we are now talking weeks, maybe days. We have taken to working in shifts. Colin works at night and I do the days.

 

It has been a seven-year project. At the time of the discovery, the whole world was talking about what we had found and what it might mean for humanity. At the start, the funding came flooding in and, at its peak, there were thirty people in the team. But the work was laborious and painstaking. We made slow progress and the world soon lost interest.

 

I pull my hood down over my face, adjust my goggles and make sure my bandana is snug around my nose and mouth, before I open the front door. Tall, grey buildings tower over the deserted street on both sides. A thousand vacant windows gaze mournfully down on cracked and uneven sidewalks, that are lined with the withered skeletons of long dead planetrees. Rusted vehicles have become one with crumbling tarmac. It is cold. Only I, hear the forlorn moan of the lonesome north-easterly as it passes through the city.

 

I walk as quickly as I can. Head bowed against the cold and the wind. Concentrating on my breathing and conserving my limited energy. When I reach Colin’s building, I am surprised. He is looking out of the window. A pale, gaunt face with hollow cheeks and dark eyes. He is waiting for me. When he sees me, his features break into an uncharacteristic smile and he motions at me to hurry. My heart quickens.

 

When I arrive at his apartment the door is already open. He is standing in the entrance grinning, a small tumbler of amber liquid in each hand.
“I’ve done it! I mean, we’ve done it! We’ve broken the code!” He giggles. I have never heard him laugh.
For a moment I am confused. Stunned. “When? How?” My voice is breathy.
“About two hours ago. Here.” He thrusts one of the glasses at me. “We’re celebrating!”
I look stupidly at the glass and then at him, before logic kicks in. “Have you…”
“Translated? No. Of course not. I was waiting for you.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t quite believe it. I just wasn’t expecting…so soon…”

I should be exulted, but a terrible sadness sweeps over me.
It is almost over. We have reached the end. I want to cry.
“I knew you’d be like this. It’s a shock. Don’t worry. Look, just drink the Bourbon and then we’ll do it together.”
I drink the Bourbon and we do it together.
We translate.

 

I am a linguist and Colin is an archaeologist. In 2025 we were part of a team that discovered some inscriptions in a cave in southern Italy, after volcanic activity opened some new fissures. The inscriptions are thought to be the oldest ever discovered. Estimates suggest that they are over 2.5 million years old, and predate the development of the human race, as we know it.

 

When we are done, we look at each other and at the translation. Colin drains his glass and a single tear rolls down his cheek. I read the translation aloud.

 

We are the last survivors of humanity. We are dying. Our planet is dying.
We have destroyed the world through greed and selfish desire. We knew what we were doing but we did not stop. We ignored the warning signs. We paid no heed to the pleas of our wise women and scientists. We closed our ears and eyes to the inevitable until it was too late.
Don’t be like us.
Cherish your planet. Respect your environment. Protect all life forms. Celebrate biodiversity. Conserve natural resources. Embrace the power and beauty of the natural world.
Learn from our mistakes. Do not do what we have done.

Vera

The steady drone of the Lancaster’s four engines drowned out all other sound. Not that there was anything else to hear. The crew were unusually tense and quiet in the dark cockpit. The end of this trip would mark our 30th operation and the end of our first tour. Only two other squadrons had made it this far and one of these never returned from their last raid. The other was back at base tonight, ready to fly the following evening.

There were seven of us in total. As rear-gunner, I was at the back in the most exposed part of the aircraft. I could never tell if it was the cold or the fear that caused my teeth to chatter. Above and behind me, Rog, our mid-upper gunner, was humming tunelessly under his breath. I wanted to tell him to shut-up but I knew it was his way of dealing with his nerves. Will, our navigator, worked in a curtained off compartment so that his light would not reveal our position to the enemy. Charlie, our pilot and squadron leader, and Bob, our flight engineer, sat up front. Beneath them Norm, at twenty-four the old man of the group, and our front gunner and bomb-aimer, lay on his stomach, waiting to guide our cargo home.

We were a tightknit crew. Our approach was simple. We each knew what we had to do and we did it. All of our lives depended on it. We were a brotherhood. We worked and played together. We worked hard and played harder.
“Bogey on your right, John!” Rog’s voice broke the silence.
“Christ, where’d he come from?” I saw the bursts of white light and heard the rattle of gunfire at exactly the same time as Rog spoke.
We were hit before I could even return fire.
There was a searing blast of simultaneous light, heat and pain and then I was floating in a vast, black space. The last thing I heard was the high pitched whine of a falling aircraft intensifying into a metallic scream just before everything was covered with a blanket of silence.

***

I am flying. Soaring above myself. Leaving my lifeless body floating face down in the water. The cold, cold water. Six pale faces watch me go. Pale, haunted faces with dark, pleading eyes, bobbing in the cold, cold water. Watching me soar and fly. Dark eyes willing me up and onward.

I am small. I am light. I am weightless.
Home, I must get home.
Fly, I must fly.
To fly home is all I know and all I am.
Water beneath. Sky above. Home ahead.

But behind, what is behind? Black billowing smoke. Fear, pain and cold.
Light, heat, pain. Vast, black space.
Death. Death is behind.

Home is ahead. I must get home.
This time it is more important than ever. Dark eyes, pale faces.

Day and night I fly. My feathers are slick and heavy with oil. I am buffeted by wind and rain. I swerve, soar and dive to escape hawks, falcons and gunfire. Day and night I fly.

I am over land now. I have lost track of time and space. I am exhausted. I must get home.

The coop ahead! I am home. I glide gently inside. I lower my head and preen. I rest.

There is a bustle of activity. Running about. Raised voices. Gentle hands remove me from the coop. Examine me. Tend my wounds. Remove my tag. I am home. My job is done.

***

Charles sat in the rescue plane, wrapped in blankets and looked at the faces of his crew. They were all alive. Cold, shocked, battered, bruised and dehydrated but alive. All alive except John, that was. He had taken a direct hit and was dead before they hit the water. He had never stood a chance. Charles looked at the cold still figure under the blanket at the back of the plane.
“How did you find us?” he asked one of the rescue team.
“The pigeon, mate. The bloody pigeon!”
Charles shook his head. “I can’t believe it. We only released her in desperation when there seemed to be nothing else we could do. Never honestly thought…”
“Her owner rang it in the minute she got home. Base worked out your position from the time the plane ditched and her arrival, taking into account wind speed and direction and her likely flight speed, given her injuries and the oil on her feathers. Took the rescue team just fifteen minutes to find you.”
“Bloody hell.”
“Even still, no-one knows how she made it, poor little thing. Half-dead she was. Somethin’ powerful was driving her. Somethin’ I doubt anyone will ever understand.”
“You’re probably right, we’ll never know how she did it, but thank god she did.”

***

It was as if my life had just begun that night in the cold and dark over the North Sea. I couldn’t remember a single thing from before my ordeal. I was long since recovered now of course, enjoying an extended period of rest in the coop. Until today that was. Right now I had no idea what was going on. George, my owner had bathed me this morning and now he was standing outside the coop with a group of strangers. They were all staring at me. Reaching in to pat me and stroke me. It was slightly annoying. I flapped my wings and ruffled my feathers, pecking at their fingers.
“Steady on! Steady on!” one of the men laughed. I recognised his voice, his laugh. Come to think of it, they were all very familiar. I had seen them all somewhere before. Heard their voices, their laughter, somewhere before. A memory came to me. A memory of six pale faces with dark eyes staring up at me, getting smaller and smaller as I flew higher and higher. That was it. But no, it was something else, the reason that I knew them. Something more, something much, much more…

The Parting Shot

burger-cheese-dinner-161674 (1)It was close to seven on Friday night when Nick told Dan to set up the outside board, to promote their special weekend offer for the Angus Burger. Dan scowled, as Nick handed him a crumpled print-out of the copy for the promotion. This was really not cool. His shift finished at seven and the job would take him at least half an hour. He had places to go, things to do, people to see. More importantly, Stu had scored some righteous weed and was waiting for him under the bridge down by the canal.
He muttered under his breath, just loud enough that Nick knew he was pissed off, but quiet enough to make sure he wouldn’t get into trouble again. Nick stared at him and pointed outside towards the sign in the car park. He wasn’t actually smiling but there was a distinct hint of smugness lurking around his mouth and eyes. He knew what he was doing. There was no way he hadn’t noticed the time and Dan’s excitement about getting off. This was pure spite. Prick!
Dan shrugged and turned away. He slouched over to the store cupboard and pulled out the ladder and the plastic box of letters. In normal circumstances this was a job that he would spin out for as long as possible, anything to get out of that stinking kitchen and Nick’s beady-eyed gaze. He would usually take two leisurely trips to carry the ladder and then the letters outside. Tonight though, time was of the essence and it was amazing what you could do when you had to. Aware that he might be setting himself up for more grief in the future when Nick saw that he could do it in one trip, but prepared to take the risk anyway, he dragged the ladder along the floor with one hand and juggled the box of letters in the crook of his free arm.
The ladder made a disturbingly loud metallic clatter that set even his own teeth on edge. A few startled customers turned to look as he passed through the restaurant and Nick shot him a warning glance. In a half-hearted gesture of concession, he hoisted the ladder up under his arm as best he could but continued with his mission to get both items outside in one trip.
It was a warm, still evening. When he stepped out of the air-conditioned building, a wave of humidity washed over him; perfect weather for chilling, for getting stoned. What the hell was he doing here, flipping burgers and kow-towing to that bastard, Nick? Letting the ladder drop again, Dan dragged it across the car park and positioned it against the frame that the promo sign was mounted on. He climbed up until he could reach the letter board and balanced the box of letters between his knees and the top rung.
The pegging system reminded him of the picture boards he had played with as a child. His thoughts drifted to the many happy hours he had spent rummaging in the box of coloured pegs to construct detailed images of cars and trucks on the little white plastic mesh boards. The best part was evoking the pleasing “Oohs” and “Aahs” from Mum and Dad when he showed them each of his masterpieces in turn.
Dan snapped his fingers and shook himself. No time for daydreaming today! He was on a strict timeline. For once, he needed to focus on the job in hand. It was already five past seven!
He looked at the note Nick had given him. It was covered in greasy fingerprints. That geezer was totes disgusting. His job was to replace Double Cheeseburgers, Two for £5.99 with Angus Burger, Weekend Deal, Only £2.99 plus Soft Drink. For Christ’s sake! Who even wrote this? Why use one word when two hundred would do? He was going to have to remove all the old letters one by one and replace them with the new ones. There were going to be no shortcuts on this occasion. The new wording was completely different. Damn Nick to hell! He had done this on purpose. This was going to take forever! Fuck him!
Dan looked at his watch. It was now ten past seven and he hadn’t even started yet. He looked back over to the restaurant. Through the big windows he could see right through to the counter where Nick had his back to him. He was now picking on Gina, the new girl taking the Drive-Through orders. She was watching the supervisor with a wounded expression as he aggressively shook his finger at her and looked as though she was on the verge of tears. Bastard!
Dan looked at board and then at the box of letters between his knees. He looked back at Nick and Gina, then again at the board and then back to the letters. He took one final glance back toward the restaurant. It was the sight of Gina’s pink, tear-stained face that was the final trigger. He would show him! In a sudden burst of energy, he began to pluck the existing letters from the board.
When he had finished, he descended the ladder and, after taking a moment to admire his handiwork, hurried back inside. It was twenty-five past seven when he finally shoved the ladder back into the cupboard. He tossed the box of letters onto the shelf, slammed the door and, with a nod to Nick, who had lost interest in him now that he had had his fun, grabbed his bag and left.
Later, he and Stu shared their last spliff in the bus shelter across the road from the restaurant, giggling uncontrollably as they read the words on the board out loud, over and over again and again, each time using a different voice, mimicking different imaginary character’s reactions as they read the sign. A high-pitched woman’s voice was full of surprise that turned into disgust, a deep male drawl lingered in bawdy amusement on the offending word and a child’s confusion was followed by innocent questioning.
The next day when his alarm went off Dan silenced it then turned over and went back to sleep. An hour later, it was his mum who took the call from Nick telling him he was fired and not to bother going in. He smiled to himself under the covers as his mum stood in his bedroom door, lecturing him about losing yet another job. He waited for her to finish and go back downstairs before he got out of bed and pulled the curtains. It was another glorious day and it was all his. He had places to go, things to do, people to see. Why, he might even call into the restaurant and grab an Anus Burger…