Short Story Of the Day (flash fiction), Backpack by Bill Chance

“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#44). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


 

The Backpack

 

For ten years, Ricardo Zenon rode the train to work every day. He knew every foot of that track like the inside of his eyelids.

The elevated tracks ran above a shady stretch of sad squalor and forlorn misery – rundown store strips and cracked asphalt. He would look out on that world like it was served up for his own amusement.

It was not unusual to see police lights or hear the faint echo of a siren through the thick train window glass, but one morning went beyond that. The grimy parking lot of a building housing a grimy Chinese Restaurant, a Cellphone store, and a place that sold discount cigarettes was filled with cop cars and an angry looking clump of police. They were all focused on a couple of scared looking teenagers being cuffed.

Zenon only had a quick look at this drama as the train sped by. He marked the details in his memory as best he could. He figured it was a drug bust. It must have been a big one to draw that many police and all those vehicles.

So if it was a drug bust, it didn’t look like the cops had what they wanted. Even in the split second he could see their faces, the police didn’t look happy, didn’t look satisfied, even though they had caught the two kids. They looked more frustrated than angry. They hadn’t found what they were after.

And there was something else. He had looked at that same scene for so long, even a tiny anomaly would stick out. There, on the roof, next to a dingy air conditioner, was a backpack. It was a standard backpack, black, up on the roof, not too far from the edge where the cops were cuffing the two scofflaws.

He was certain that it wasn’t there before.

Zenon started to tell the folks at work about the backpack, but he choked off his talk. He realized he was keeping it a secret because he wanted it to himself.

It was obvious, he thought. The bag had to be full of either drugs, cash… or probably both. The kids must have thrown it up there at the last second, when they realized the jig was up but before the police closed in. That’s why the cops had seemed so frustrated.

“But why haven’t the kids come back to get the bag?” Zenon asked himself in the evening when he was thinking about what to do.

“Because they are still in jail,” he replied to himself.

They won’t be there forever. They’ll make bail. If he wanted to get the thing, he had better do it soon.

He looked for some way to get up onto the roof. He spotted a utility pole, a fence, and a piece of conduit high up in the air that he could use. He could climb the fence, work over on the conduit, and fall down onto the roof.

He was so excited he couldn’t think of anything else. He could pull it off.  He planned, bought supplies, and that night, after the stores all closed, he was ready.

He knew it would be dark, but he hadn’t realized that it would be this dark… pitch dark. But he was prepared – he had brought light sticks. He gave one a twist and a shake and the green glow popped out. The fence looked ugly and intimidating up close – but he knew he would be able to climb it.

Now, with his eyes used to the darkness and the light stick illuminating the darker corners, Zenon moved over to where the fence ran between the building and the pole. His feet slipped on something and he looked down at a layer of cigar wrappers. People had been buying those cheap cigars at the tobacco store and unwrapping and pulling the tobacco out of them here and leaving the trash piled on the ground.

It disgusted him.

The fence looked rustier and dirtier up close than it did from the train. Again, he was prepared – he had put on a pair of tight-fitting leather gloves to protect his hands. He took a deep breath to bolster his courage, grabbed the wire firmly, and began to climb.

He began to climb slowly, trying to brace himself against the splintery wooden pole. He hadn’t climbed anything other than a mall escalator in thirty years and it was harder than he thought it would be.

His fingers, arms, and legs were screaming in pain and his lungs burning with effort and stress as he reached the conduit that ran from the pole onto a structure over the roof.

Wrapping one hand into the wire for strength, he pulled out two more light sticks. Cracking and shaking one, he threw it out onto the roof of the store, giving him a goal to shoot for. The second he threw harder and farther, hoping to illuminate the object he was going after. He was lucky, it fell right in the correct spot, and he was able to see the backpack.

And now there he was, in the darkness, holding on to the conduit, ready to shimmy his way across to the roof.

He could feel his heart pounding in his chest as he began to slowly work his way over to the roof, hanging from the rough steel conduit. It began to sag but despite a hideous creaking, it held his weight. Zenon was about halfway across when he felt a tug from the direction he had come like someone was trying to pull him back.

He let out a cry of panic. It was hard to see in the dark. Had someone caught and grabbed him? He tried to yank free, but the pull was strong and in his hysteria one of his hands slipped off the pipe.

Zenon thought he was going to fall. It was a long way down to the trash-strewn concrete behind the store. But his remaining hand clenched with a desperate unwavering grip and he stayed attached, swaying back and forth. When he thought he couldn’t stand any more he heard a sudden metallic sound like a spring rebounding, and he was free. He realized that a loose piece of the fence must have been stuck in his jacket, pulling him back. His swinging jarred it loose.

He regained some strength and moved without thought across the gap and then dropped down onto the roof. He collapsed into a quivering heap on the rough gravel, crying softly as he recovered, realizing that he was not going to fall onto the cruel concrete below.

Finally, he calmed down. He tested his legs and found he was able to walk. Slowly, he moved toward the fading green glow next to the backpack.

Zenon stood staring down at it. It looked different up close.

Finally, he took a deep breath and pulled the last light stick out. Kneeling, he carefully found the zipper, pulled it around, and started to remove the objects within.

There was a newspaper, old and moldy, but still in its flimsy plastic bag. A ziplock with what may have been a sandwich, but now was reduced to a formless lump. Three cans of beer. A ragged T shirt and a pair of wet socks.

And that was it.

He felt like the had been struck in the head. He began to shiver with a renewed panic on top of desperation. It had never crossed his mind that the backpack would not contain anything of value, but also, Zenon realized that in all his careful planning, he had left out one critical step.

He had never thought about how to get down off of the roof.

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