So, I finally decided to participate in Chuck Wendig‘s weekly flash fiction challenge, something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time but hadn’t quite gotten around to. The story’s first, because the challenge itself is kind of a spoiler. I’ve put the challenge in a block-quote at the bottom, and linked to the challenge itself there. I also ended up clocking in at *exactly* 1000 words. Someday I will learn to be more concise! Hope you enjoy the story. I certainly had fun writing it.
The leaves crunch beneath my feet as I wander through the forest. I let my eyes wander over the rich palette of oranges and browns and yellows. Leaves fall all around me, and I’m wading through them now as their sometimes-sharp tines are poking at my ankles through my socks.
I’ve been wandering these woods a while now. Comfortable place to be. Calm, quiet. No distractions. Just walking, resting, and eating a granola bar from my pocket now and then.
I trip over a buried root, falling in an explosion of orange. The smell of asphalt and rain fills my nose, and for a second I see slate grey sky. Then I’m up again, walking through my forest.
I’m alone here. For now. I think I see someone, now and then, but it’s just a shadow or a trick of the light. Sometimes the tricks call my name. Wind, I’m guessing. Sighing through the branches of this old place. Moss grows on some of the trees here. It’s orange, too, and falling to the ground in fluffy cotton-candy sheets. I wonder if the banana slugs like it. Maybe finding one of those is like a carnival to them. Get some candy moss and then go on the rides, boy howdy.
I run into him without seeing he’s there. I fall on my ass, and my mouth tastes like blood. I stagger back to my feet, my mouth tasting of fresh spring water. He’s a little taller than me, with a close-cropped salt and pepper beard. His face is deeply furrowed, a lifetime of laughter and an eternity of regret etched into the skin like someone went at soft clay with a straight razor.
“Hey,” I say. My voice is hoarse, quiet. I struggle to make the words come out.
“Hey,” he grunts back. “Nice seeing you again. You look good.”
“Better than the last time I saw you. More color in your face.”
I look him over. He’s wearing a black wool coat, almost unseasonably warm in the mid-fall crispness. Its faded in places, the elbows worn down to lacy thinness. I remember that the left breast pocket has a hole in it. He always used to drop his cigarettes.
Steve. His name is Steve. When did I see Steve last? A while ago, before I started my walk. I bet he’ll know. I’ll ask him.
“Steve? When was the last time you saw me?” I put my hand on my head. “I don’t quite remember.”
Steve chuckles. It sounds like a fork stuck in the garbage disposal. “You were pretty gone by the time I got there, buddy. I don’t blame you for not remembering.”
The forest feels chilly. I huddle up against the breeze.
“You had lost a lot of blood when your wife found you. She didn’t trust the cops, and she took too long calling the ambulance. She called me, though.” He punches me on the shoulder. I barely feel it. A light drizzle starts, but the sun’s still out. Some kitsune are getting married, I guess. “You went down fighting, man. Four of the six other guys all had holes in them. You were still holding your rifle when we got there. Only three shots fired. You always liked the tricky ones.”
That’s right, I own a gun. I feel the steel in my hand for a moment, the comforting weight in my arms as it nudges my shoulder with every shot. My vision is half-filled with the sights. Then Steve is there again, smiling his craggy smile. “Oh? I don’t remember.”
Steve taps his pocket and a cigarette falls out of the bottom. He catches it with his other hand and lights it, taking a long drag. The smoke joins the grey clouds. Where did those come from? “Man, really? I guess I’ll never get to close that case. Eh,” he blows out a long stream from his nostrils, like some yellow-fingered dragon, “I supposed I always knew the first one I couldn’t solve would be my last. Shame, really.” He drops the cigarette to the ground and stomps on it. A banana slug goes squish under his feet. “I try not to mix business and personal, you know? But Julia begged me, and I owed you two a favor, so I looked into it. Couldn’t find a single non-dead person to pin your shooting on. I tried, buddy, I really did.”
“Wait, what shooting?” My mouth feels dry, my tongue swollen. Asphalt again, but this time it’s pressed into my left side and I’m looking up at a flickering streetlamp. Steve again.
Steve furrows his brow. “What do you mean, buddy? Don’t you know?” A rumble of thunder tears through me, makes me feel like my organs are shaking.
“You’re deader than a dodo, Lenin, and William Henry Harrison combined. Sorry, man, I thought you knew.”
The rain pours now, and the forest is melting around me. Bright orange and red and yellow leaves all turning into mud and mush around our feet. I stand there with Steve, happy that the rain is masking the tears falling down my face. He looks around as the landscape fades away into a grey plane.
“Shit, man, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were still in the graceful exit stage of things. You thought you were just out for a walk, right? Through the forest? Like old times back where you grew up?”
I nod, my throat tight. I manage to choke out some words: “Yeah. Back before everything went crazy, when I could still get out to my little cabin near the homestead. Before that last job.”
Steve nods, his eyes warm and his expression melancholy. “Hey, man, it’s going to be okay. You can move on now. Go ‘upstairs.’ You and me, we’re going to get a beer and wait for Julia, okay?”
I nod. “Okay.”
And we fade away into the rain.
And here’s the original text of the challenge. The post can be found here.
What all this means is, today we’re talking about death.
The Big “D.”
Demise. Dirt-Nap. Stick a fork in me, I’m done.
You have 1000 words to write a short story that prominently features death. What that means is up to you, of course. And genre is also in your court.
But a death — or the concept of death, or an exploration of death — must be front and center.