Sadness and Wonder

He walked into the reception room and sat in one of the many chairs arranged in a semicircle. They were early because they were family, but Zach was uncomfortable in the stiff shirt and tie his mother had made him wear. The suit coat was itchy but he had been warned of taking it off for any reason. He sat in the chair, his feet barely meeting the floor, and waited while his parents spoke with a group of people Zach had never seen before. The room was quiet and filled with the perfume of old people. That dusty, masking smell that permeates buildings and all who enter until a feeling of nostalgia sets in for a time they never knew. Zach felt as if he had entered the past just by remaining still and looking at ancient design in the carpet.

Twenty minutes passed before people began arriving. To Zach it felt like two hours had passed. Though he was grateful to no longer be the only one sitting in the waiting area, he was a little sad that no one who came neared his own age. The closest was a man in his early thirties with a large beard and wrinkled suit that looked as if it had been dug out of the back of a closet. Zach doubted anyone was less than twenty years older than him, so he sat quietly and avoided eye contact. Even with those who offered their condolences to him. He didn’t know the word, but he knew the meaning behind it considering their tone and the reason for their being here.

The reception room filled quickly and it soon regained its purpose. Everyone was waiting for things to begin. Zach didn’t know it was customary for visitors to wait around and offer their sympathy and support to the family. He just wanted to go home and play his Nintendo.

Then, through the din of conversations, Zach heard a woman begin a story about his grandpa. He didn’t realize they were talking about his grandpa at first, but he quickly realized it had to be about him.

“I remember one time,” the woman said, “when Gus had to come pull us out of the mud. Do you remember that, Brad? We had just started dating at the time and were out near Hawk’s Ridge when it started raining. We were….a little preoccupied at the time to care…”

Laughs circled the room and Zach offered a chuckle so as not to feel left out, even though he had no idea why everyone laughed.

“…but it poured down. Brad started the truck to go home because we were cutting it close to my curfew. Within seconds the wheels had buried themselves. Brad ran into town and knocked on Gus’s door asking for help since he knew Gus had a truck big enough to tow, and of course Gus was happy to lend a hand. He always was. So he came out and started pulling us out of the mud. He even dug out our back wheels in the rain to put the boards under them. He had us out in under two minutes and we made it back just in time.”

“I don’t know if your dad would have let me take you on a second date if we broke your curfew,” the man next to her said. He was holding her hand. Zach noticed the woman was pregnant because it looked like she was hiding a basketball under her shirt.

“I remember when Gus took that truck and plowed the high school parking lot and all the bus routes so the kids wouldn’t miss a day of school.” A man sitting across the semicircle from Zach said. He was probably older than his grandpa had been. He held a cane in his hands even though he was sitting and a goofy, toothless smile now spread across his face. “The next morning, the superintendent decided not to call off school because all the roads were cleared. Those kids were mad as hell.”

Zach could imagine his grandpa plowing snow. He was allowed to join him one time when he was only six. His grandpa had brought a big thermos of hot chocolate for the both of them to share. His grandma had packed a lunchbox of cookies too. Zach had sat in the passenger seat, thrilled to be out well beyond his bedtime, and out working with his grandpa even though the only work he did was eat the cookies and drink the hot chocolate and eventually fall asleep in the passenger seat only to be carried in the house by his grandpa at three in the morning.

He could imagine those kids being mad at having to go to school on an expected snow day. For some reason, he had a hard time realizing the man named Gus in the stories was his grandpa, and that his grandpa had been anything but the white-haired old man who came to his house a few times each year and was always smiling.

“Did you know that Gus once worked at the hotel where they filmed a Marilyn Monroe movie?” It was an older woman who said this. “I remember him always telling this story when we were at dinner parties. I think it was Some Like It Hot, or maybe it was Love Nest. I can’t remember. Anyway, he worked there the summer they filmed the movie and actually got to meet her.”

“I remember that,” another old woman chimed in, “Nancy hated when he told that story. She would always get flushed and hide her face, but we would all laugh when he said he missed his chance with Marilyn and settled for Nancy.”

“She got flushed because she didn’t believe us when we told her he was lucky to have her. Even though he knew she was the one who settled. That’s why he spoiled her so much.” The two women continued their story but it faded into the background as Zach turned his attention to a man in a military uniform who was talking about how his grandpa, referred to as Zip in the story, had saved a man’s life during their time in the army. Zach listened in wonder at all of the stories everyone was telling of the man they had come to say goodbye to.

He no longer felt the stiff, itching of his clothes. He no longer felt bored and even didn’t want to go home. He was in awe learning about his grandpa from the strangers surrounding him. He wished he would have known all of these stories before today so he could ask questions about them, but he was soon ushered into the chapel nave where the open casket waited. Zach could only wonder at what else the man who was his grandpa had done as people went up to the podium and spoke for the next hour. He realized he wasn’t sad anymore. Instead his imagination was filled with wondering who his grandpa had been before he had white hair and thin, speckled skin. He wondered what kind of person his grandpa was as a kid. He imagined an entire life for the man he only knew as grandpa.

Pay the Paradox

The little boy ran into the room to where his grandpa was reclined in a chair snoring. Bright sunlight shone through the window and warmed the room as a gentle breeze blew through the screen door. His parents were still unbuckling their seat-belts as the boy jumped onto his grandpa’s large belly.

“Ooooooooohhhhh,” Grandpa moaned and sat up suddenly. He looked down to find his grandson hugging him, and he couldn’t help but smile while the pain slowly receded.

“Jack, my boy,” he said, “You need to be more gentle with me. If you get any bigger, you’ll break me next time.”

“You can’t break Grandpa. You’re too big to break.”

“Maybe,” Grandpa sighed and rubbed his abdomen. He silently promised to cut down on the snacks but knew it was his mind making the promise and not his heart.

Geoff and Marie walked through the door with their bags and an extra small one that belonged to Jack.

“Dad,” Geoff nodded before taking the bags to the back room. Marie gave him a hug.

“I think Kate could use your help in the kitchen.”

“I’m here less than ten seconds and you want to put me to work?” She asked in mock offense.

“She’s making cinnamon cake.”

Marie’s eyes narrowed at him. “Mmmhmm.”

“Grandpa, show me the trick.” Jack was grabbing at his shirt.

“Serious,” Grandpa said. He remained wide-eyed and as convincing as possible until she wandered toward the kitchen. He heard her greet his wife, then heard her ask if that was indeed the cinnamon coffee cake. He smiled and turned his attention back to Jack, who kept pulling at his shirt and asking to see his trick.

He picked the little boy up and they wandered into the basement where he had a little workshop. He sat on the stool at the workbench and hoisted the boy onto his lap. In front of them sat a little cube. It was the same cube as last time. A metal frame with small, intricate machinery inside.

“This is the last time,” Grandpa said before they started.

“Awwww,” the boy whined and looked up at the wrinkled face of his grandfather.

“I’m sorry Jack, but this is the last time we can do it.” He looked down at the pouty-face his grandson made and quickly gave in. “We can do it twice this time okay. But no more afterwards.” The pouty-lips turned to a smile and the boy focused on the cube in front of him. His little hands gripped the edge of the workbench as he tried to get his face closer.

Grandpa picked up the cube and turned it to the side with three small dials. He checked his watch then set the dials accordingly before placing the cube on the workbench again. He crouched until his face was next to Jack’s and they stared at the cube.

A second passed. Then the inner parts began to whir and spin. The cube began to rattle on the flat surface. Neither pair of eyes dared to blink. Grandpa glanced at Jack to see the wonder on his face. The same wonder he had when he first saw the cube. The wonder he kept until he learned its inner workings. He turned his attention back to the cube just before it vanished.

“Whoa…” The boy stared at the spot where the cube had been.

“Yeah. Whoa.”

“When will it come back?”

Grandpa checked his watch. “In about ten seconds. Keep your eyes glued.”

They waited in silence as seconds ticked by. Jack’s breathing was steady but shallow. A whisper escaped him, “Two……one…..” The cube appeared exactly where it had been moments before.

“How does it work?” the boy asked.

“You’ll learn when you’re a bit older.” When you are fifteen and back in this basement looking at my old stuff without me, he thought. “Remember, this is the last time.” He picked up the cube and calibrated it. Then he sat it back down on the workbench. “Watch closely this time.”

The boy’s face shaped into a serious expression that he had to restrain himself from laughing at. Together they watched the cube. The seconds passed until it vanished again, except this time it didn’t reappear. Jack stared at the empty space waiting.

“It’s not coming back this time champ.”

“Why not?”

“It just won’t. Now let’s go get some food, huh?” He paused as he finished his question, suddenly realizing the futility of it and the implications of what he had done.

He knew Jack was going to stick to the workbench with a vice-like grip, looking at the empty tabletop for the next two hours, only to finally be persuaded by his mom to go eat dinner. He knew it because he remembered it, just as he remembered an older Jack coming back to his workbench to see the cube reappear next to a journal. The journal he was going to purposely leave out after his grandson left in two days. It would collect dust for a decade only to be opened and read by Jack. When he read the journal himself, he had learned who he really was and who his own grandfather had been, and it will be the exact same for his grandson and himself. The journal held the secrets of the cube, and the designs for the machine that were too tempting for the curious mind.

He had always believed that the cube was the catalyst. It led to the journal and kept the mystery alive until it became an obsession. Now, at the end of his life, he saw the cube was the cause. The journal was the catalyst. The cube was now lost to time. Set to reappear in exactly ten years on June 5th where it will cause the innocent boy in front of him to recreate the same machine he did, and use it in the same way. The thoughts consumed him.

He did nothing for the next two days but think about how to undo what he had done. He wasn’t sure he could, or wanted to, considering what may happen. He could very well undo himself. His wife worried about him on that second day. Enough to call their son.

She was looking at him while she talked to their son, but it wasn’t until she said the phrase “I’m worried” did he get the uneasy feeling of nostalgia. He remembered that phrase the heaviness it sat his own father. His father who stood at the counter on the phone with his grandfather while they both were putting a puzzle together. He remembered those words “I’m worried” and realizing it was his grandmother.

Now he heard the words from the other side of the call and knew what came next. A calmness filled him moments before his coronary artery clogged and pain radiated through his chest and down his left arm.

No More Weekly Stories

I know, I know. I feel like I’ve just been spouting bad news about the changes I’m planning for my blog/writing, but I promise they are all for very good reasons. Just as I will no longer be writing weekly book recommendations, I am also ceasing the weekly flash stories as well.

“But Ryan, will you be posting anything on your blog?”

Yes. I will. I promise. I will just be posting less frequently. I will be changing gears and writing less flash fiction and more short stories, which I plan to submit to literary journals for publication. I currently have one story officially published. I hope to get at least five stories published in 2019 and write several more that may be published in subsequent years. This is all an effort to progress toward my goal of publishing my first book. It is all meant to help improve my writing as well.

This change is also not going into effect until 2019, so the weekly stories will continue through the end of the year. I feel as though my table of contents has grown to a suitable size to entertain you and new visitors should you ever look through the list. The same goes for recommendations. I’m not stopping completely, so I will continue to add more. I’ll still post random micro-fiction from time to time too.

I do actually plan to expand on several of my flash stories I’ve posted here and turn them into short stories. Many of my flash stories were concepts that I think deserve more attention. I know which ones I like the most, but I am definitely open to suggestions. If you liked one of my stories and want to see more of it, leave a comment with the story title.

Scoreboard

Jennifer remembered when the site was first discovered. No one knew who created it or how it worked. Several top agencies from countries around the world looked for those running the page, but nothing was ever discovered. The site continued as if on its own. No one could access the algorithm it ran or figure out how it gathered the data it used to make its judgments. Many claimed the data was freely available online, but that theory quickly vanished after infants were found on the site before their birth certificates were signed.

It was a ranking system. It had every iota of information about every single person on the planet. You could find your name with a quick search. If your name was Jimmy Smith, you could narrow it down by address, phone number, parents’ names, date of birth, education, job, age, or whatever you can think of. The site had every detail.

Jennifer had been fifteen years old when it consumed the world. It permeated every aspect of life. Social media lost its appeal rather quickly when people realized they could get any information they wanted from the site aptly called http://www.verity.com. The world changed within a few years to what it was now. Jennifer was young enough to adapt quickly to the change but old enough to remember what it was like before.

She was trying to remember what her parents were like before the change when her name was called.

“Jennifer?” an older voice repeated in the waiting room.

Jennifer rose and let the little old woman guide her back to a conference room where two men and a woman, all in suits, sat at a table typing into a tablet. They stopped talking when the old voice announced her.

“Welcome, have a seat,” the woman said. Jennifer promptly obeyed and sat quietly as they finished their notes from the previous interview. Then, without warning, the first question broke the silence.

“Why do you want to work for this company, Ms. Whitley?”

“I believe this company is a place where my talents can excel and mutual growth can be expected.” She’d rehearsed several hundred answers to the basic questions.

The three interviewers never looked up from their screens except for an occasional glance. These happened periodically and only when they were either asking a question or receiving her answer. They never stopped typing. She began to wonder if she was wasting her time, but she answered every question in turn. It wasn’t until the end when they asked the question that was expected but never easy to answer.

“What is your ranking, Jennifer?”

She checked her watch and quickly answered. “Three point five point eight three two eight.” She had the Verity app installed on her phone so it displayed on her smartwatch. Just above the time, her current rank was displayed. Right now she was ranked 3,504,896,328 out of 9,742,531,082. Ranks changed at any time. No one knew why. Even after decades of research there was no apparent reason as to why ranks changed. No one knew what they were being judged for or who was judging. They just knew their rank and desired to climb higher.

“Top 35%. Not bad.” The man in the middle shrugged. He hadn’t bothered to look at her but kept his eyes glued to his tablet as he continued to type.

“Thank you,” was all she could think to answer. She was used to a follow-up such as What have to you done recently to try to increase your rank? or When was the last time your rank fell more than one hundred levels? but just asking for her number was apparently their final question. She thought it strange since she was sure they had her number pulled up on the tablets in front of them.

“You will hear from us soon.”

Jennifer rose and thanked them for the opportunity. She kept an eye on her number as she left the building to see if it would drop. She felt the interview had not gone well and expected a drop in ranking to be proof that she wouldn’t get the job, but her number remained the same as she made her way through the city park toward her apartment.

“You know, it’s not good to be tied that thing twenty-four seven.”

The comment didn’t register until she had almost passed the one who said it. She paused and looked up to see an older man, maybe mid-sixties, sitting on a bench. He was looking at her over the rim of his glasses. He had lowered the book he was reading.

She smiled and slowly placed her phone in her purse. “Thanks for the reminder. It’s just…I just had an interview and was hoping to hear something.”

“How long ago was your interview?”

“About ten minutes ago.”

“You think it went poorly?” He placed a marker in his book and closed it.

“I don’t know. My ranking hasn’t changed.”

“Ah,” the old man smiled. “You think any changes will be the result of how the interview went. That’s a little superstitious don’t you think?”

“Is it?”

“Perhaps not. No one really knows how that thing works, which is why I gave up on it long ago. Expecting a job offer only ten minutes after an interview is a little much though.”

“Yeah,” she admitted, “You stopped looking at your rank?”

“You will never find happiness comparing yourself to others.”

Jennifer glanced at her watch. Not to look at the time, but to check her rank. It was more habit than intention and she caught herself realizing how much her number influenced her decisions and even her daily routines. The old man was smiling at her when she looked back up.

He offered her a seat with an open palm. “Give yourself a break from the numbers. If only for a few minutes.”

She hesitated but accepted and sat down next to him. She glanced at her watch again but quickly covered it with her other hand.

“So you never look at your number?”

“Never,” he said.

“How? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”

“The curiosity fades the longer you go without. The numbers don’t really matter because they don’t do anything productive. They just allow everyone to believe themselves better or inferior than others. We all formed our own opinions about that before that website came along. The numbers just made it seem like there is validity to our place in the world. We don’t have to make our own judgments anymore. They are made for us and we can just accept our place. A little sad, don’t you think?”

“What’s your name?”

He looked at her over the rim of his glasses again. “So you can look up my number?” He took off his glasses and set them down with his book. She smiled ruefully.

“Tell you what. I’ll give you my name if you promise not to tell me what my number is.”

“Deal.”

“…and you have to go twenty minutes without looking at any screens. You’ll sit here and have a conversation with me.”

“Deal,” she said, amused.

“My name is David Wilburrough. Age sixty-four. I think I’m still the only Wilburrough this old,” he chuckled.

She pulled out her phone, popped open the app, and quickly found one sixty-four-year-old David Willburrough. His rank was 533,267. She stared at him wide-eyed. The phone remained in her hand.

“No,” he caught her before she could say anything. “A promise is a promise. Now put that away and tell me about your interview.”

She put her phone away and, to keep her word, put her smartwatch in her purse as well. “You aren’t the least bit curious?”

He smiled. “If I gave into any curiosity now, I’d be caught back up in the game in no time. I’m fine how I am. Now, about that interview.”

“They didn’t seem much interested to be honest.”

“No one seems interested in anything when their eyes are glued to the screens in front of them.”

“How’d you know they were using tablets?”

“I didn’t. I just assumed. It seems everyone uses them nowadays. If I were you, I’d just wait for the decision to be made before torturing yourself with the possibilities of what they think. You can’t read minds, and worry won’t change a thing.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Usually is. I find reading helps.” He lifted the book as he said it. “Helps keep your mind away from the worry without adding to it. Do you read?”

She had to seriously think about the last time she read a book. “I used to,” she finally answered.

“Never too late to pick it back up.”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“You can begin with this.” He offered her his book.

“I couldn’t.”

“You can. I’ve read it several times already, and I have another copy at home. It’s one of my favorites. Take it. You might find something useful in it.”

She reluctantly took the well-worn book and offered her thanks.

“I know it’s only been about ten minutes, but I actually need to be on my way. My granddaughter’s birthday party is this afternoon and I can’t be late. How about you start that book to keep yourself from checking your phone for the rest of your promised time?”

She smiled. “A promise is a promise. It was nice meeting you Michael.”

“The pleasure was mine…um…” he smiled in a poor attempt to hide his embarrassment.

“Jennifer,” she offered, “Jennifer Whitley.”

He nodded to her and tried again. “It was a pleasure to meet you Ms. Whitley. Enjoy the book.” With those words he scampered off.

“Have fun at the birthday party,” she called after him.

She was alone again and had to resist from checking her phone. She opened the book and flipped through the pages until she found Chapter 1.

She read for a long time before she was interrupted by a ringing from her purse. She pulled her phone out to see it was her sister calling. Jennifer assumed she would ask about the interview and didn’t want to talk about it just yet, so she silenced the ringer and returned to the book. She found couldn’t focus on the pages anymore and quickly gave up. She put the book in her purse.

She checked her phone again. Her own number hadn’t changed, but she was more curious about the rank of sixty-four-year-old Michael Willburrough. She quickly found him again and noticed his rank had shot up by over two thousand. She wanted to go find him and tell him the good news. Then she remembered he didn’t know his rank and didn’t want to. He would never know that he was in the top one-thousandth percent in the entire world. She was sad for him but also inspired. He lived his life exactly as he wanted to. He probably never believed himself to be better than anyone. Perhaps that was what made him better than everyone.

Jennifer rose from the park bench and started her walk back to her apartment. She called her sister on the way to fill her in on the interview. She never checked her watch as she spoke with her sister. She didn’t check her rank after she got home and made dinner or even afterwards when she started reading instead of watching TV. All the while, her rank slowly increased as time ticked by.

Confined Freedom

“Reynolds, Ethan,” a guard called through a speaker.

Ethan approached the counter to receive his personal items taken at the time of his incarceration.

“Sign here.”

He signed the hologram that emitted before him and a container lowered onto the counter. It was a high-security prison. He couldn’t even see who was on the other side of the dark-tinted everglass. If there was anyone. He wouldn’t be surprised if it were run remotely or if this whole interaction was automated. All he knew was it was an actual person. No droids allowed in this prison except the semi-sentient variety that were deemed just sentient enough not to be destroyed. He opened the container and reviewed the items inside: a handful of silver coins, a holosphere he quickly pocketed, and a small comm unit he took and inserted into his ear.

It felt weird after not wearing it for the past decade, but he knew he would get used to it by the end of the day. The cold faded from the unit as it siphoned his body heat and a voice chimed in his ear. Unable to retrieve messages at this time.

“Figures,” he said. He gathered the coins and dropped them in his jacket pocket. The container closed and shot back up the wall after he grabbed the last item. A handle popped out from the wall in front of him.

“Grip the handle, please.” The voice called through the speaker.

“Definitely automated,” Ethan sighed and gripped the handle. As soon as he did, two mechanical arms popped out from each side of the handle and fastened a bracelet on his wrist. The handle quickly retreated.

“Thank you for you stay Mr. Reynolds. You are free to go,” the voice said before a door behind him slid open.

“Hey,” Ethan called, “What is this?”

His words died against he walls and the only response given was the repetition that he was free to go. He left through the door and found himself in a small room with only a chair to furnish it. He sat down and strapped in. The door closed and a green light flickered. Inertia forced him further into his seat and one minute later the door opened again to the view of the prison he’d just left.

It was built inside the center of a large asteroid. Ethan stepped out of the pod that had transported him to one of the small asteroids connected to the prison by a zero-gravity, single unit elevator. Sixteen such elevators webbed from the central asteroid and each one connected to a smaller asteroid making the entire complex look like a model of a mutated virus ready to infect the universe. The elevators were the only way in or out of the prison. They were designed to be easily broken, shooting any contents into the void of space should anyone somehow gain access without permission.

Ethan stared as the entire facility slowly rotated through the dense field of rock that shielded and contained it. He was free and there was only one place he wanted to go. If it still existed.

“Mr. Reynolds,” a voice called.

Ethan turned to see a thin, well-groomed man in an outdated business suit not meant for travel. This was a man who was overconfident he would never be in danger, which made him even more out of place than he already seemed.

“Mr. Reynolds,” the man continued after he had Ethan’s attention, “I am here on behalf of Mr. Dwyer to present you with an opportunity to settle your debt.”

“Debt?”

“Please. Follow me.” The outdated suit spun on one heel and briskly entered a personal transport larger than most public shuttles.

Ethan surveyed the small landing pad. It was vacant with the exception of the personal transport and a station to summon a public transport. He didn’t like the feeling that began to settle into the pit of his stomach. The man had mentioned a debt. He’d settled his debt only hours earlier and it had cost him a decade of his life. He looked at station, the transport, and the band on his wrist.

The inside of the private transport was elaborately decorated. What normally would have held six dozen passengers was a common room surrounded by five suites. The suit was seated on a lounger patiently waiting for him. Ethan sat opposite him feeling like a dung beetle on the newly fabricated cushions.

“Six years ago they decided time served was enough to recondition the criminals of this sector, but the citizens didn’t believe they should pay for this reconditioning. Therefore, each inmate is given the bracelet you now wear as a symbol of the debt you owe.”

Ethan rubbed at the band on his wrist as if to understand the concept as much as to suppress the anger building up inside that the freedom he thought he’d just redeemed was still at risk.

“You currently owe eight million gead. Mr. Dwyer is offering you an opportunity to settle this debt now instead of working the next many years in whatever job you can find to repay the money so you can finally leave this sector behind you.”

“You’re saying I’m restricted to this sector until this debt, which I owe because of my forced incarceration, is repaid?”

“Correct.”

“And you think this bracelet can prevent me from simply disappearing?”

“Many have tried, Mr. Reynolds, and they all end up right back in their cell. Losing more time while adding to their debt. Mr. Dwyer knows very well how skilled you are at disappearing, which is why he is offering you this opportunity to wipe away your debt with one job.”

Ethan stood and wandered to the view port. He looked at the prison that filled it then pulled the holosphere from his pocket and pinched it between his fingers. An image filled the air before him. A woman holding a baby. They were both smiling as the woman strolled through the verdant landscape of their homeworld. His homeworld. A planet Ethan hadn’t seen in nearly fifteen years.

He pocketed the sphere and turned his back on the prison beyond the view port. “What’s this job?”