It’s a dirty job.
But someone’s got to do it.
Of course, this isn’t the first job where my lunch break constitutes a quick sandwich between tasks, or sneaky banana at 3:00 P.M. And it isn’t the first job where my working conditions could easily be compared to the decrypted boiler-room of an 18th Century slave ship. And it certainly isn’t the first job where my boss is a sadistic, power-hungry Nazi, content with making everyone’s lives as unbearable as possible.
Oh, no, I’ve been here before. I’ve seen it all; got the t-shirt.
But for me, in spite of everything, life at Romero and Son Limited is complete and utter bliss.
Yes the long, unsociable working hours are a pain. And yes, being on-call constantly is a major inconvenience—especially with a wife and young boy at home. But waking up every day, safe in the knowledge that you’re making a difference in the world—that no one else has the fortitude or backbone to do it—feels pretty damn good. And for that reason alone, I count myself one of the luckiest men alive.
I just wish it paid a little better.
Another day. Another dollar.
However fulfilling a job might be, nothing feels quite like finishing after a twelve-hour day.
I punch the six-digit code into the panel, and the steel door closes behind me, letting out a face-scrunching squeaking sound as it locks into place.
The late shifts are a killer, especially in the winter. There’s something very depressing and wrong about starting and finishing work in complete darkness. But it’s not like I have much of a choice in the matter. Money is tight all ‘round. Vegas is just three short weeks away and I still haven’t saved a penny. And worse still, Tommy is on my back to settle up the flight costs with him.
Walking towards the security guard (whose name I can never remember. Three years is definitely too long a time to ask someone’s name), I notice the walls in the front hall. Grey. What idiot thought of painting them such a bland, depressing colour? Especially in a place like this. Have they always been that colour? Jesus.
I pass the guard, giving him an awkward nod goodbye, trying not to make too much eye contact, and leave the building.
“You're home late, Rob,” Anna points out as I enter the kitchen. “How was work?”
I fling my jacket over the back of the dining chair, and then walk up to her. “It was fine. Usual stuff. Just a bit tired. Trying to get some overtime in. This Vegas trip is gonna be expensive.”
I place my arms around Anna’s waist and pull her body close to kiss her. She then pulls away and chuckles. “I think you need a shower, Hun,” she tells me. “You stink.”
“Yeah I know. Long day. You’d stink too.”
“Yeah, yeah, we know.” Anna turns away and goes back to washing the dishes. “Just get washed up otherwise there’ll definitely be no action for you tonight.”
I smile as I leave the kitchen. “Well maybe I don't want any sex anyway.”
“Yeah right,” Anna says under her breath. But oddly enough, and probably for the first time in years, I really don’t care either way. I feel shattered—from my throbbing head down to my blistered feet. But I’m not exactly going to turn down sex, no matter how exhausted I feel.
I am lying in bed, waiting for Anna. She is still in the bathroom—vomiting loudly. And she has been for at least twenty minutes. I try to block out the horrid retching noises by turning the TV up ever so slightly.
After another few minutes I hear the noise of rushing water as Anna flushes the toilet. She then returns to the bedroom.
She looks terrible. Reddened eyes; sweat dripping down her forehead; skin like The Incredible Hulk. She’s most certainly seen better days—which is a slight relief seeing as sex is now completely off the table.
“Must be that bug going ‘round,” she says, as she crawls into bed, sinking deep into the mattress and groaning. “I hope Sammy doesn’t get it. Do you think you should sleep in the spare room tonight? Just in case?”
I shake my head. “Don't be silly. I’ll be fine. Just don't breathe on me when we’re having sex tonight.”
“Very funny,” Anna groggily replies. “At least I haven’t got work tomorrow. And if I’m still rough maybe your mother can watch Sammy for a few hours.”
“Yeah. Just give her a ring. I’ll be home ‘til one anyway.” I turn to face the other way to go to sleep. “Good night babe.”
As I lie there, too exhausted even to sleep, all I can think about, all that races through my overworked mind is: Please don't be pregnant. Please don't be pregnant. Please don't pregnant…
The toast pops just as a third text comes through from my boss, Stuart.
I mean what’s the rush? The delivery isn’t exactly going anywhere.
“Hi Hun,” I say, as Anna enters the kitchen, holding Sam in her arms. She sits him down in his highchair.
“How you feeling?” I ask her; kissing the top of Sam’s velvet-like forehead. “Still feel sick?”
“I’m fine. Just a bit tired.”
“That’s good. Are you going to be okay looking after Sam this morning?”
“Why?” She replies. “Thought you were off ‘til one?”
I pull out the two slices of toast and start to butter them. “Had a text this morning to come in early. There’s been another problem in Swindon.”
“Another? Jesus. Isn’t that like the third this year? I thought they’d sorted it.”
I shrug. “Obviously not. And now I’ve got to go in ‘cause Rich is still off with stress.
Anna clips a bib around Sam’s neck then pulls out a carton of milk from the fridge. “Well, that’s what you get for working in a place like that.”
I take a big bite of toast, leave the other one on the counter, and grab my jacket from the back of the chair.
Stress. Some people don't know the meaning of the word.
Slipping the apron over my head, I catch a glimpse of Stuart through the window. I slip on my elbow-high gloves as he enters the room; that smug look on his face; those eyes way too close together, almost becoming one like a Cyclops. He is followed closely behind by two delivery men, pushing a trolley.
“There’s another fourteen outside,” Stuart tells me. “So shouldn’t take you too long.”
“Any details about the inventory, Stu? I mean, any idea how this happened? Again?”
“Sorry, Robert, you know I know as much as you do. We get the call and then we deal with it.” He makes his way towards the exit. “I’ll see you later. Be careful now. We don't want another incident.” And then he’s gone.
I spend the next forty-five minutes helping the men offload the remaining trolleys from the truck.
Fifteen trolleys. Not too bad.
The truck pulls away.
Returning to the room, I lock the door. I then approach the first trolley, unclip the steel lid, exposing the thick rubber bag inside. I grab a pair of safety-goggles from the shelf and slip them over my eyes, then cover my mouth and nose with a plastic mask. I gingerly unzip the rubber bag a few inches down to see its contents.
It’s another child.
My stomach turns as I pull the zip down a little further to confirm.
It is. The third this month. No more than seven-years old. Easily.
Any death is sad—no matter what age. But children. Never children. Children should be out playing on their bikes, not crammed in a God-damn body-bag!
I walk up to the computer panel, turn the dial up to green, then flip the main switch. There’s a loud rumble as the furnace ignites. Instantly, I can feel the heat radiate from the sides of the heavy furnace door. The noise circles the room causing the metal trolleys to roll and rattle into each other.
Time to go to work.
Before I wheel the body over to the furnace, I stop to take another look. One last look before someone’s child is reduced to nothing more than cinders. I can’t help but think of Sam back at home. I try not to. God knows I try. But how could I not think of him? I’m a dad. That’s what dads do.
I zip the bag up quickly and start to wheel the trolley over to the furnace door. Opening the heavy door, a gust of eyebrow-singeing heat hits me in the face. I drag the body-bag off the trolley and slide it onto the furnace platform. Closing the door forces the rest of the bag inside. I turn the handle and the door locks tight. I press the large red button and the furnace comes alive with fire, burning the body-bag and its contents in a matter of seconds.
One down. Fourteen to go.
The next body-bag seems a lot more filled-out, which fills me with a quiet relief. I unzip the bag and see the face of a middle-aged man, with blonde, slightly receding hair. I’m not really supposed to open the bags. It’s not my job to know—or care for that matter. But something in me always tells me to. I'm not really sure why. Perhaps it’s out of respect. Or maybe just honest-to-God nosey-ness. Either way I have to look. Anna thinks I’m mad. She says that my job would be a lot easier if I just treated the inventory like inventory—and not human beings.
I stare at the man’s pale complexion, his red, swollen eyelids, and wonder what he did for a living, when he was…living. Was he a doctor? No, he didn’t seem the type. Maybe a vet? Possibly. Or perhaps he was just a bum like the other twenty percent of the country.
Suddenly his eyes spring open.
I flinch. And then zip up the bag.
I wheel the trolley over to the furnace, ignoring the muffled cries through the thick rubber, and drag him inside. The intense heat hits me again as I prod him with the door until his entire body is safely inside. Pushing the large red button once again, I hear the muffled cries become a crackling sound as the body-bag ignites.
Two down. Thirteen to go.
I see that the next bag has started moving already. I pause for a moment and contemplate skipping the face-check.
But I can’t resist.
Unzipping the bag, I see the face of another man, this time he’s a lot older, maybe sixty, and he’s completely bald. His grey, deadened eyes are wide open and I can hear faint growls behind the muzzle wrapped around his mouth. I wonder what he’s thinking. If at all he does think. I think he does. If that’s a positive thing, the jury’s still out, but either way, after all these years I still think of them as people. I can’t help it. I know it would make my job a hell of a lot easier but that’s just me. I’m an optimist. Even when the first outbreak happened in Swansea, I believed that these people could somehow be cured; that they were still people underneath all the decay and God-awful stench of rotting flesh.
But they’re dead. I know that now. It’s taken me a while but I do.
And the dead must be burnt.
I reach the tenth trolley and look at the time. 4:34 P.M. Not bad. With a bit of luck I’ll be home in time for dinner. And I’m starving to death. No lunch break again. Typical. It would be nice if once, just once, Stuart would cover me for even ten-lousy-minutes for a quick bite. But no. He’s tucked away in his nice cosy office, far from the trenches, sipping his herbal tea with a dash of cinnamon.
The tenth body is a woman, mid-twenties wearing next to nothing. Was she asleep when she was bitten, or was she in fact a stripper, in the middle of giving some lucky guy a lap dance? I mean, she’s got the body for it. And if you look past the muzzle, grey eyes, and bloody gouge on her shoulder, she’s not that bad to look at.
This one seems a lot livelier than the others. As I reach to zip the bag back up I hear a snap. Suddenly I feel a cold hand grab my wrist firmly. Trying not to panic, I carefully begin to prise her grip from my wrist one finger at a time. Then another hand reaches for me. I leap back in fright, inadvertently pulling the semi-naked woman half-out of the body-bag. She is slumped out the side of the trolley. I manage to break free from her grasp but now she is trying to wriggle out of the bag. I race to the furnace, open the door, then bolt back to the woman who is now almost off the trolley completely. I run to the back of the trolley and push it towards the furnace. The blistering heat is sucking out the air in the room as I ram the trolley into the open door. The force throws the woman into fire. Slamming the door shut, I hear the beating of fists on the furnace walls. I push the large red button and the woman is no more.
I walk over to the stool and sit; exhausted and shaken up.
Time for a coffee I think.
As I finish up the remaining five bodies, I daydream about Vegas. The lights, the booze, and…That’s about it really. Not much of a gambler. Never have been. More of a watcher. I’ll probably have a flutter though, just to say I have.
I slide the fifteenth body into the furnace and push the large red button. A sense of satisfaction washes over me as the blaze inside obliterates the old man.
I begin to remove my apron. Just as I’m about to hang it up on the wall-hook, I hear the bleeping sound of the code being entered outside. The door opens and in walks Stuart. “We’ve got another four trolleys for you,” he tells me.
“Yes. It shouldn’t take you long.” He then leaves the room.
Sighing, I look outside at the truck, then at the time. 6:07 P.M. There goes another early finish.
When the four are safely inside, I lock the door. Slipping my apron back over my head, I think of Vegas again, and start to count the days in my head. I can almost taste the first beer in the hotel lobby. I lift the lid from the trolley and notice that the body-bag is large. I feel relieved as I unzip the bag. It’s a woman, no older than twenty five, and she’s chubby. Probably bullied in school. Battled with various quick-fix diets. Had a string of failed relationships. Classic fatty. She stares deep into my eyes; her eyes seem sad. I zip up the bag and burn her in the furnace.
The second body-bag is small—not child-small though. This one seems another lively one. I contemplate avoiding the face-check but can’t resist; ignoring my earlier near-miss. I slowly unzip the bag, then stop to make sure there is a muzzle strapped on. There is. Thank God. I continue to pull the zip down to chest height.
It’s a woman.
My heart almost stops as I stumble backwards.
Please God, not you, Anna.
Choking on my own breath, I creep forward. Please let it be a mistake. I pull down my mask and throw off the safety-goggles.
It’s not a mistake.
Anna snarls behind the muzzle someone has stuffed into her mouth.
I pull the zip down almost all the way.
She squirms and twists; trying to break free of the restraints someone has fastened to her limbs.
I can barely stand. My knees almost buckle but I grab hold of the trolley.
Anna is now writhing so much that her trolley has begun to move away from the wall. As I walk over to her, I think of her vomiting last night. How could I have been so stupid; so naive? Why didn’t I give her the anti-viral shot—just to be sure? Was I too tired to think straight? Was I too preoccupied by a stupid Vegas trip? Jesus Christ.
I unbuckle the muzzle and listen to her teeth clack together. The sound goes through me as I consider putting the muzzle back on.
But how could I? I love her. So much. More than anything in the world. And she gave me Sammy: the single greatest achievement of my life.
I walk over to the stool and sit. My stomach is in knots as I listen to her cries of pain and anger. I can’t look anymore. It hurts too much to see her like that; a shadow of her beautiful self—her tender, placid self.
It’s not you, Anna. It can’t be.
It’s someone else.
Please let it be someone else…
I push the large red button and the furnace ignites. I feel the heat even more so without my mask and goggles. Pushing the trolleys against each other, I listen to the inferno behind me start to die down. I hang up my apron, pull off my elbow-high gloves, then flip the light switch as I leave the room. I punch the six-digit code into the panel, and the steel door closes behind me, letting out a face-scrunching squeaking sound as it locks into place.
Another day. Another dollar.
It’s a dirty job.
But someone’s got to do it.