A free short story by M.P. Fitzgerald (RevFitz)
Atomic Death and Taxes
If he could read, which he can’t, he would see that the ancient can of food that he had opened was called Vienna Sausages. Oh, there was a picture of the meat on the can, he knew what he was getting into. But to appreciate the full effect of the false promise that was on the label was to at least have the semi-pretentious name of the product in mind when you opened it. The decades-old meat that he now looked at was not like the carefully cut pieces of hot-dog that lay delicately under the yellowed text of the label. No, what Spider was greeted with was a pink, uniform sludge. What he was about to eat was an affront to the word “food”.
Spider was hiding. Though most people in the United Wastes were hiding most of the time this particular detail was important because it meant that he could light no fires. The offensive, decades-old sludge in front of him could not be cooked. The smoke would be seen from miles away, the light of the fire would alert others to his presence. If his pursuers were not nearby, if he had actually escaped them for the last time, there was still the ever-present threat of slavers, raiders, and the high-octane fueled nightmares of land pirates. The unfortunate truth of the apocalypse was that everyone was out to get you. That, and that being a “foodie” was a terribly misaligned hobby.
He sighed deeply, feeling the dead dust of the abandoned bank that he was squatting in cake the inside of his nostrils. He had to let it go. Even if he could light a fire there was no amount of cooking, no amount of uplifting that would make the pink sludge any better. He pinched his nose, closed his eyes, and downed the can of “meat” like it was an especially hateful shot of whiskey. A vague, and menacing, taste of chicken and burnt tin assaulted his senses. He had been shot, stabbed, burnt, and beaten in his life. He had lost his ring finger to an especially salty ex, and he had once nearly bled out under an uncaring sun. Spider had been through some shit, but these Vienna Sausages were top of the list for unpleasant torture.
The can of food was surprisingly filling.
It had to be. It was his last.
With the deed, no, the sin complete, Spider leaned against the concrete wall and sat down. There was time to sleep, hell, there was always time to sleep in the post-nuclear holocaust of the United Wastes… but could he risk it? He had only a single bullet left. The Enforcer he had killed did not go down easy. He had emptied most of his revolver before the bastard finally went down. If his agent was still alive, if she was still out there, would one be enough? Did a single bullet matter if she got the jump on him while he slept? There were no good answers.
Spider was always in trouble. This did not make him special, but selling drugs in the United Wastes presented its own special kind of trouble. Deals went sour, junkies robbed him at gunpoint, and rival dealers were always trying to off him. These were troubles that he was at least used to. Now he was being pursued by the largest, most well-equipped gang in the land: the IRS.
He did not know how they found him, he did not know how they knew that he was “self-employed”, but it did not matter. They, just like all of the other rival gangs, wanted a cut of his business, and just like everyone else, they came armed.
He was able to escape them unharmed. Once the Enforcer was dead the Auditor fled. But there was no telling when she would come back, or who was going to be with her when she did. So Spider sought refuge. Spider hid. He holed up in the first ruined building in the irradiated city that he could find. If he knew how to read he would know that he had picked an old bank. He had no context for the paper money covered in dust that surrounded him. He had only ever used the stuff as toilet paper. In the United Wastes, you got paid with bullets or canned food, which meant that poor Spider was now dirt poor.
He fought off the creeping allure of slumber. Ignored the rest that his full belly demanded from him. Still, it was a losing battle, and the moment he decided to give in, she announced herself.
“Hello?!” she said before she saw him. “This is the IRS!”
Spider reached for his revolver.
The woman turned the corner leading her movements with her fallen Enforcer’s shotgun. Their eyes met. Neither moved.
She was not tall. She was not menacing. There was little about her that suggested that she had been living in the same apocalypse. While Spider was decked out in coyote leathers and armor made of car tires, while he was caked in dirt, dust, and dried blood, she was clean. Glasses lay unbroken on her sharp nose, and a collared shirt and tie reflected light off of its stark white surface. Spider, he wore mismatched boots and scavenged pants from a victim of the nuclear war. This woman wore black ironed slacks and flats. To Spider, the stark contrast of the dusty and mostly destroyed bank that surrounded them to her clean and professional appearance was not just unsettling, but bat-shit insane and terrifying. And though her narrow shoulders would not carry the kick of the massive shotgun well, the short distance between them meant that she would get a kill.
He kept his finger on the trigger and his eyes on her’s.
“We sent you several notices about your unpaid taxes,” the woman said, “you have had plenty of time to take care of them. How do you plan on paying them?” Business was not just how she dressed, apparently.
“W-what?” said Spider not eloquently.
The woman’s shoulders fell. She sighed audibly. “Your taxes. How are you paying them?”
“What notices? I ain’t met ya before today!”
“Fuck you Spider. We sent them by priority mail through the postal service months ago. Stop playing dumb. How are you going to pay your taxes?”
Spider blinked. Hard. He did what no one in the United Wastes should, he took his eyes off of his enemy and looked around him. Half of the bank was in rubble. There were more irradiated skeletons on the earth than living people to meet. The world had ended, and what replaced it was savage, brutal, and dying.
“What the fuck is the postal service?” Spider asked.
“A place that has seriously dropped the ball,” the woman replied. “Now, how the fuck are you paying your debts?” she continued with extra vinegar in her voice while she scratched the tip of her nose with her middle finger. The foul gesture was one he had only seen one other woman do before…
“Susan?!” said Spider as phantom pain ran down his missing finger. “Holy shit! Is that you?”
“You’re kidding,” the tax woman replied. “Did you seriously not recognize me?!”
He stared at the clean, professional, and beautiful woman in front of him. “Absolutely not,” he said.
Susan lowered her shotgun by a few degrees, a courtesy that Spider did not mirror, especially now that he knew that she was his ex. She shifted her weight and rolled her eyes. “We spent three years selling drugs together in these wastes!” she said with a cocked eyebrow.
“Yeah,” Spider replied with no charm, “but you looked like shit then.”
Her shotgun was raised and pointed in an instant. “I’ll take that as some sort of backwards compliment,” she said.
“You still look like shit,” he lied.
She cocked a slug into her chamber.
Dust motes settled in the cruel light as the silence stretched thin as taffy.
Spider had taste, he could cook, if he had the right tools he could wizard a dead raccoon into pâté. But he was no educated man, and beyond cursing his wit was as dull as a religious pot-luck. Some things just took him longer.
“You sold me out to the IRS!” he screamed, taffy silence broken.
“No shit, Spider.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have!”
“You left me at the alter—”
“You still mad ‘bout that?”
She did not answer immediately. Her eyes still spoke of pain. He hated those eyes. “No,” she said, her eyes disagreed. “I’m better off that you did. I want you to know that, Spider, I’m a better person without you and the IRS is the best thing that has happened to me.”
“They got running water, good food, and people are decent there, Spider, something you know nothing about being.” She gave him her half smirk, just another taunt in her bottomless arsenal against him. He did not challenge her on that last point, however. She was right. She adjusted her glasses with her middle finger, sure to let it linger just so that he saw the gesture. “I didn’t even know I needed these glasses until the IRS,” she said, “I’m even seeing better since I left you Spider.”
“Since I left you,” Spider corrected. He instantly regretted doing so. Those damn eyes again. He left their gaze, better to look at her trigger finger anyway.
“They really did not have to offer me much to sell you out,” she said.
“Oh? Running water, good food, and dorky glasses was enough to sell your soul huh?”
She laughed, a sound once sonorous to his heart was now like broken glass in a blender. “You are worth so much less than the luxury of running water Spider,” she said, half smirk wild. “They only had to offer me a job, said I could have it if I got a ‘small business owner’ like yourself to pay your dues.”
“You’re a bitch.”
“Your cooking sucks.”
Daggers! His trigger finger itched like a swarm of pissed off bed bugs.
“Now,” she said, “how are you paying your goddamn taxes?”
He never wanted to give her the satisfaction even when they were lovesick puppies selling crystal to cannibals. Now she was an ex that had gone the extra mile and betrayed him to the biggest gang in the modern Armageddon. He absolutely did not want to admit any of his shortcomings. But Susan had always been smarter than him. Truth be told: she kept an eye on the numbers and inventory when he made a deal. She was not just a business partner then, she was the business. She could read and understood math beyond her fingers and toes. He would never admit it aloud, but her mind scared him more than an irradiated bear on fire. And now that mind held a shotgun and was motivated by a heart that was not merely bruised but shattered. What choice did he have?
“What uh…” he stumbled, “what exactly is taxes?”
“You’re an idiot.”
“You gonna tell me or taunt me?”
She rolled her eyes. “See all this money?” She asked pointing at what he thought was toilet paper. “Used to be that people got paid in this stuff, traded for food, drugs, you name it. Every time they made money they would give a portion of that to the government which would build things like roads.” She shifted her weight once more. She knew that he wasn’t getting it. “Give the IRS some of your stuff so that everyone gets nice stuff too.”
“Why the fuck would I do that?!” Spider asked in earnest.
“Because it benefits others, Spider.”
“Who cares? It benefits me not to benefits others. I earned my stuff.”
“Look,” Susan said, “running water, good food, I know you like good food Spider, these are things we can all have after the IRS rebuilds society. They can’t do that if everyone is a selfish self-aggrandizing ass like you.”
Spider squinted at the woman he had scorned. There was more going on here than just her hurt eyes. She believed in what she was saying.
“You drank their kool-aid!” he said, his voice frayed in anger.
“Yeah, I did, they got grape and cherry flavor there Spider, It’s awesome.”
“They got real kool-aid in the bunker.”
“I thought kool-aid was just a thing people said for like cults and stuff,” he said. He had honestly never considered that it was an actual thing that you could drink.
Susan shook her head. “Spider, help the IRS by doing your duty and kool-aid can be a thing again.”
They swallowed their breaths in arrested silence. It was dumb, but she was serious. She had every reason to kill him where he sat, but she would let him walk away alive for the slight chance of a civilized world.
“Fine,” he said deflating his shoulders and lowering his revolver. “The IRS wants money, take all the money here,” he said motioning toward the scattered bills that lay on the dusty floor of the bank. “They can have it all.”
“What do you mean no?!” he cried in bafflement.
“You are missing the point. The money has to come from what you have earned, Spider. This only works if we pitch in our own stuff.”
“That’s bullshit!” he said, revolver back up. “You always been high on your horse with morsels!”
“Morals,” Susan corrected. “Morals not morsels! God! You’re such an idiot Spider!”
“Whatever! I ain’t got no money anyways and you know it!”
“I know what you got,” Susan said half smirk ablaze. “The IRS, see, they’re smart Spider. They know that things have changed. You think I have nice glasses and bitchin’ kool-aid because people pay in money? These things were the payments. They know we barter in calories and bullets. They wouldn’t hire me if you were some deadbeat target Spider. I told them about our canned wienie stash.”
She ignored the jab. “I’m not even here for my share of our profits, Spider. How’s that for some high horse morals? You pay up a portion of those wienies for a better future for all and I let you walk. We never have to see each other again.”
He lowered his revolver to his hip. He’d be hard pressed to admit that he ever wanted to see her again before now, but somehow the prospect of this being their last meeting still hurt. He hated her. But he also hated that she hated him. Hated himself for making her. Spider never believed in anything but the bite of his bullets. He didn’t think that she had either. But here she was, preaching the very basic cornerstone of society to a man who wore coyote leathers and car tires. He could not give her what she wanted. But then again, he never could in the past either.
“I can’t give you the canned food,” he said, his voice peppered with guilt.
The shotgun erupted violence over her head. This was no warning shot, it was an exclamation to her rage, to her frustration. “HAND OVER THE FUCKING CANNED WIENIES!” she screamed. Her hands trembled. Plaster fell from the ceiling in chunks, joining the dust on the ground. She cocked the shotgun once more and pointed it at Spider’s head. “Pay your goddamn taxes, Spider.”
Spider kept his revolver at his hips. They both knew that he could make the shot from his position, but he did not want to anger her anymore by raising it. “I said I can’t, not that I won’t,” he said. “I ate the last one just before you came in. They’re gone. All of them. There are no more wienies from our stash.”
She laughed. The action was twice as jarring as it was the first time. “I’m actually surprised,” she said and continued to laugh. “Do you know that? Shit Spider! I did not think that you could possibly disappoint me anymore. You are such an asshole.”
He dared not to move. She met his eyes. “Fine, it’s fine,” she said. “You don’t have to pay in wienies. They’ll take bullets too. Give me your ammo and I’ll be on my way.”
“That’s a death sentence,” Spider said simply, betraying the hurt in his heart.
“I don’t care,” she replied.
Their eyes locked. He once found them so comforting. So beautiful. Now, all he saw was his own sins. Now he just saw the pain that he had inflicted on the one woman he never wanted to inflict harm on.
That hurt was there even before he left her at the altar. He did not know exactly when they were filled with hurt, but it at least a year before she stopped looking at him with excitement. But they didn’t part. He hated her for it. Hated that she was a coward for never breaking it off even when they both knew that it was not working. He hated her forcing his hand. She made him the bad guy. And Spider? Well, he could play a pretty good bad guy if he had to. In fact, it came naturally to him.
Once, she would have risked her life for his and vice versa. Now, she did not even have the decency to shoot him herself. She would rather leave him defenseless in a cruel world and never think about him again. A coward, like always. Fine. What was that last part of their vows? Till death… fucking irony. He could play the bad guy.
She wanted his bullet? Well, he was prepared to give it to her.
He pulled the trigger. She was faster than he remembered.
…And Spider paid his taxes.
Enjoyed the short story? You’ll love Memos from the Wasteland! Set in same world it is a collection of short stories that paint a brutal picture of a post-apocalypse that still has to deal with line queues. And it is exclusive and free when you sign up for my Bunker Dispatches! Get your post-apocalyptic tax return today!