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.

Short Story Of the Day, Dog-Bone by Bill Chance

If the Chicxulub asteroid hadn’t killed the dinosaurs then intelligent reptiles would be building rocket ships.

—-Bill Chance, Dog Bone

Mural, covered by “For Rent” sign
Deep Ellum
Dallas, Texas

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 (#19). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 

 


Dog-Bone

“After all this time, it is really going to happen.” John Random kept repeating this to himself over and over again. Ever since that layer of Iridium-enriched stuff was discovered on Earth back in the nineteen eighties; scientists, then artists, philosophers, and finally politicians talked about cosmic collisions. Now it was real.

Random kept reading about it. There on the ship, clunker though it was, he had access to all the information he needed. They were far from earth, so there was an irritating delay in conversation, (not that anyone wanted to talk anymore) but there was a constant flow of data. Before sleep period he would request books, journal articles, anything that struck his fancy and by the time he woke up, the information would be in the ship’s computer.

His partner, Zane Miller, didn’t read anything anymore. Two years ago, before the flight, Zane was selected as mission commander. He was the glamour-puss, in Random’s mind. The face of the mission. The first year, when they were still doing weekly news conferences, Zane did all the talking, John stayed in the background smiling and wearing his coveralls. Everyone knew Random was along to do the grunt work.

Well, it didn’t work out that way. As they looped back and forth through he solar system that first year, examining and mapping various objects detected from earth, the big lunar radar picked up the giant comet, the frozen, deadly snowball screaming in from beyond Neptune. It looked like it would be coming close so earth followed it and as that year went by the news became worse and worse.

Miller and Random’s mission was forgotten. First the news conferences stopped, then the mission support went away as earth’s entire focus shifted to the killer comet. It didn’t really affect them, their route was preprogrammed, too far from earth for any assistance, they were on their own. Still it started to get lonely. Random didn’t care so much, it was no mistake that someone of his temperament was selected on a multi-year space mission, but it drove Zane up the wall.

“Why complete the mission? it’s all going to be gone anyway!” Zane would rant on.

“Well, I don’t know,” Random would reply. “I guess mostly ’cause I can’t think of anything else to do.”

“Don’t you understand? It’s the end… we’re out here and earth is doomed. All dead! Gone!”

“I understand. But I don’t know what I’m going to do about it.”

They had the same simple argument a hundred times during that awful month. Then Random discovered Zane had pulled out the emergency medical kit and broken all the seals. All the drug packs were gone. After that time Zane was a lot calmer, though he completely stopped his share of the checklists, never helped with the observations. He spent all the time in his sleep chamber. Sometimes Random could hear him moaning.

Not that it mattered. Random could handle the duties of the mission alone with no problem. It kept him a little busier but still left him with enough time for his reading. Between the last object and the one they were looking at next they had to loop clear out around Jupiter and back in, It was the longest hiatus of the mission. He had done a lot of reading by then, about the comet and other cosmic impacts.

He read of the schools of thought that held that evolution was largely a function of vast swaths of time and avoiding extinction events. The random nature of these collisions meant that it was a crapshoot for any species to survive long enough to migrate into space. If the Chicxulub asteroid hadn’t killed the dinosaurs then intelligent reptiles would be building rocket ships.

That was the reason for their mission. To examine the large objects floating through the solar system, to help learn their compositions and then design ways to intercept and destroy them. If man could determine a way to protect that fragile blue ball from the ravages of space, then they could gain the time needed to reach for the stars.

It was too late, obviously. Not that the mission had revealed much, anyway. Hunks of rock, chunks of ice, nothing that the spectrographs and lunar radar hadn’t predicted.

Well, nothing surprising until this object, anyway.

They had decelerated down into this vicinity and when the fusion engines had cooled enough to allow them to see out, Random had pulled the telescope into position and started visual observations. Zane had been in his chamber for days, lost in the world of the medical kit drugs.

“Umm, you’d better come out and take a look at this,” Random barked into the intercom.

“Who gives a shit!” came the expected answer.

“Really, Zane, this is something different, really different.”

“You wake me up again and I’ll come out there, kick your ass, and knock you out into space, You Hear!”

Random didn’t have any answer for that so he shut down the intercom and looked back into the telescope.

The object wasn’t an ordinary hunk of space rock, that was for sure. It was much larger than they expected, maybe two miles in length. Jet-black and smooth. He glanced at the radio spectroscope and confirmed that it absorbed almost all the radiation that fell on it. That is why the radar underestimated its size. It was very regular in shape, elongated, with a double lobed swelling at each end. It looked like a giant dog-bone. Like a colossal stylized chew-toy.

Random knew it wasn’t natural. He also knew it hadn’t been made on earth.

For weeks, Random held position near the object, studying it. He tried to get the attention of mission control back on earth, but they weren’t even monitoring his broadcasts. Every ounce of effort, every minute of time was being spent back there preparing the interceptor rockets that would attempt to destroy the comet before it reached earth. They were working around the clock, even though they knew it was hopeless.

Random carefully recorded his observations. “This is the greatest discovery of all time”, he reminded himself. He tried not to think about the fact that there wouldn’t be an earth to return to and nobody to see his work.

On the day the earth was going to send its missiles toward the comet, Zane Miller emerged from his chamber. He looked awful, trembling, trying to shake off his months of drug induced haze.

“Today’s the day,” he said to Random, like nothing had happened.

“Yup,” was all he could think in reply.

“What the hell is that!” Zane screamed, pointing out the view-port.

“It’s the object… other than that, I have no idea.”

The dog-bone wasn’t jet-black any more. It was glowing red now.

“It’s heating up,” said Random. “It’s been gaining hundreds of degrees every day for a week now. It moving too. For weeks it held the same orientation but three days ago I came out here and it had rotated almost ninety degrees.”

Visibly shaken, Zane sat down across from Random and they tuned in the Earth broadcast. Every ear on the planet or off would be watching as the rockets streaked toward the comet, all life on earth hanging in the balance.

The rockets flew, the enormous bombs exploded on cue. But it was like throwing a pebble at a bullet. Everybody knew that it was hopeless, but watched breathlessly as the lunar radar tracked the comet. Slowly the announcer conveyed the inevitable, that the missiles hadn’t worked, that the comet had pierced the explosions unharmed, that the earth was doomed.

“Well, that’s it, Zane said,” glancing back to his chamber, thinking about the medication, thinking about what might be put together to form a fatal dose.

Random was suddenly startled by a bright light from the view-port.

“Jeez, look!”

The object was white hot. Glowing as bright as a small oblong sun. Suddenly, it visibly shuddered and threw off a bolt of incredible energy. For a split second the beam was visible and even though the view-port darkened automatically the light was so intense both men were blinded for minutes.

When their eyesight returned they peered out the view-port, then trained the telescope on the object to confirm what they saw. The dog-bone was dark and black again. Cold. Inert.

They looked at each other. Even before the announcement came in from earth they knew where the beam had gone.

“It is a miracle!” said the announcer. “The missiles must have weakened the comet to the point that once it neared the earth’s gravity, it fell apart. It has been completely destroyed, blown into a million pieces.”

For another week they continued to watch the object as earth reported amazing meteor showers and millions killed as the remains of the comet continued to pound the planet. Man, life itself, would survive, though.

Then they received a message from mission control, the first that had come through in months.

“Hello, how are you?”

“Fine,” replied Random.

“I guess you have heard the great news. What are you looking at now?”

The two men had known this question was coming and they had decided on an answer.

“Only another chunk of ice and rock.”

On the long trip back, Zane helped Random carefully erase all the records of the observations of the object. They spliced together bits of data from other observations and blurred the records, nobody would suspect the location of the dog-bone.

Then Zane retreated to his chamber and his medical kit. He knew he wouldn’t be able to survive without the drugs. It would be a decade before he found that fatal dose.

Random was in charge now. He monitored the mission, fixed the little things that came up, did the grunt work. He read some more, read about how man could protect itself, could continue on, could someday reach for the stars. He chuckled to himself when he thought about that. He thought about the time far in the future when people were able to venture out beyond.

He thought about the blinding light, about the dog-bone; and about what, and who, they would find on that day.

Short Story Of the Day, Pills by Donald Ray Pollock

While Frankie drove around the township in circles that night, I told him all the secrets in my house, every single rotten thing that my old man had ever done to us. And though, in a stupid way, I felt like a fucking rat the more I blabbed, by the time the sun came up the next morning, it seemed as if all the shame and fear I’d ever carried inside of me was burned away like a pile of dead leaves.

—-Donald Ray Pollock, Pills

 

Design District
Dallas, Texas

A long time ago, I came across a book of short stories called Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock and wrote a blog entry about it.  Not for the faint of heart – these technicolor portraits of misanthropy and hopelessness (a bad and volatile combination) – were quite the read. Now I discover he has, in the intervening decade, wrote two novels, The Heavenly Table and The Devil All the Time. Going to have to add these to my TO BE READ list which is growing ever so longer. So many books, so little time.

In the interim, to tide all of us over, here’s a bit of a disturbing tale available online, from Knockemstiff.

Read it here:

Pills by Donald Ray Pollock

from The Barcelona Review

Donald Ray Pollock website

Donald Ray Pollock’s pest control website (What the hell? I think this is actually put up by the author. Why? Or is there some pest control guy with the same name? I don’t think so) Fun fact from this site: Flies for one reason or another hate Vodka.

Short Story of the day, Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders

Afterward, our protestations of love poured forth simultaneously, linguistically complex and metaphorically rich: I daresay we had become poets. We were allowed to lie there, limbs intermingled, for nearly an hour. It was bliss. It was perfection. It was that impossible thing: happiness that does not wilt to reveal the thin shoots of some new desire rising from within it.

—-George Saunders, Escape from Spiderhead

Louise Bourgeois, Spider, New Orleans

Trying to get through the isolation by reading more. Another short story today – a very good, if more than a little harrowing.

Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders

from The New Yorker

This story is touted as a famous example of dystopian fiction. It’s a peculiar type of dystopia… a personal hell… maybe a penance, maybe deserved. Still, even under those circumstances the important thing is that some humanity and some sympathy for your fellow man remains. Still remains. Even if it doesn’t do anyone any good.

Excellent read. One plus – it’s definitely not safe for work.