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No Mercy for the Executioner

Review of Australian Fiction Volume 11 Issue 6, Matthew Lamb ed., September 2014
Reprinted in The Year’s Best YA 2014, Twelfth Planet Press 2015

When the world ends, it’s the Jewish guy who brings the saké.

By now there’s only five of us left. Five executioners, that is, not Jewish guys. Not necessarily saké fans, though I guess we’re all saké fans by now. Necessity more than anything. Efran, Hubert, Angelman (who only ever responds to Angelman and claims to have no first name), Naoki and me, Soon-ei.

When Efran arrives, saké under his arm, the rest of us are already sitting on the floor in the space we call the hole. The hole is new and well-stocked. We’re tucking into the canned goods like there’s no tomorrow. Which, frankly, there probably isn’t. We’re mixing up tinned peaches with tinned franks. Angelman is waxing lyrical about the balance of sweet and savoury, softness and bite. Naoki has even found a packet of flavoured icing and is testing which bean mix works best with Vanilla Swirl. He’s developed a kind of studious mania.

“Cannellini bean and Vanilla Swirl is pretty good,” Naoki observes. “Chunky bean soup and Vanilla Swirl, not so good.”

“Are you surprised?” I ask him.

“Rarely, little girl. Rarely,” Naoki replies. He pulls out a short-bladed knife and starts tapping it on his shoe.

I start to correct him. I’m not that little. But Hubert cuts in.

“Hand over the soup, man,” he says. “Don’t waste it.”

Hubert holds out tinned pineapple as a trade, but Naoki won’t have it. He licks icing from his fingers while Hubert glares. Red beans and white icing have made Naoki’s lips pink. Like bad clown make-up.

“Think the eatings will be this good where we’re going?” Efran asks.

“Hell, yeah!” Angelman replies. “Only the best for the last.”

Angelman means us. We’re the last humans on the planet.

By now we’re connoisseurs of all the world’s finest leftovers, preferably sealed to keep out the dirty air. We’ve grown to depend on underground stores, but they’re getting harder to find. The hole is good. It’s untouched. It used to be underground storage for a supermarket.

After the garbage we’ve been eating top-side, we’re due for a rest and a good meal.

I reach for the saké and take a swig. “Whoa! Paint thinner!”

“Philistine,” Efran comments.

He drinks it straight from the bottle and makes an expression that’s part-gag, part-grin.

“Isn’t saké from the same place you are, Soon?” Hubert says.

“Saké is Japanese, idiot,” I correct him.

Hubert just looks more confused. He doesn’t understand that I’m not Japanese and it’s getting too late in the game to explain it.

“And that saké sucks,” Naoki adds, before they can ask him.

Efran takes another gag-inducing swallow. Then he announces that the saké is lifting the soul from his body. He must like the sensation of losing his soul, because he takes another swig before passing it to Hubert.

Anything bottled is fine, that’s what we’ve learned. Tinned goods carry a higher risk. Sometimes the radiation levels are through the roof, but the tins this far underground are still good.

Efran’s saké hasn’t been a hit, so we switch to the other liquors. I claim the cognac fast, despite Naoki’s grumbles. The bottle’s nearly empty. I sniff at its sweet, rich scent before downing the last mouthful. It warms my ears. Angelman sits drinking scotch and looking at the rest of us with a kind of brooding expression on his face.

“Why’d they want to kill us, anyhow?” Angelman asks us at last.

Angelman must be feeling sentimental. This is always the first question he asks when nostalgia hits.

“They’re done wanting to kill us, remember?” Naoki says. “Now they want us to kill each other.”

“But why?” Angelman persists.

“They’re psychos,” I mutter.

“And why use teenagers?” Angelman goes on, like he hasn’t heard me. “I mean, why us?”

“Because we’re cheap,” Efran replies. It’s his standard reply. “We work for booze and Vanilla Swirl.”

We used to laugh at the logic, but we’ve been doing this job too long. It’s begun to wear us down.

Naoki says something then, something he’s never said before. “Because teenagers make better psychopaths.”

It’s cold in the underground store. It’s always cold, but I really notice it then.

… Continued in Review of Australian Fiction, Volume 11 Issue 6.

And for an entirely unrelated excerpt which is about a different kind of executioner entirely (I had an execution thing that year), here’s an excerpt of my earlier RAF story.