One textbook from my USF days was the 1992 edition of Flash Fiction, featuring 72 short stories under 1000 words. Although I didn’t give it much thought at the time, since I was only interested in writing novels, I have since found really short stories ideal for the attention-deficit, information-saturated internet age. And so let me introduce a new segment to the Writer’s Disease: FLASH FICTION, fiction under 1000 words, starting with The Protagonist.
John Carter Smith was running for his life. Nobody was chasing him, but there was an ever present, unnerving sense that someone, or something, was watching his every move.
He noticed it after coming home from an ordinary day. His tangle of keys clinked gently on the end table as the house alarm softly beeped. His fingers knew the numbers, and as he tapped away at the keypad, the lifeless living room dulled him with disappointment. The house was quiet with sleepers, so he would not smell the sweet saffron and cumin of his wife’s cooking or watch his daughters run toward him giddy with excitement. But that was not unusual, because John Carter Smith worked late filing taxes for big, nameless corporations. On schooldays, if he were lucky, he might find his wife stretched groggily across their suede blue sofa. She often waited for him, half-awake, half fantasizing about more fascinating people like Anderson Cooper. But tonight he’d dine on Multigrain Cheerios and flip through TV channels, alone.
It was during his rummaging through the fridge to find the last bottle of POM that he felt it. Anxiety welled up from his cerebral cortex and into his consciousness; invisible, incomprehensible eyes were studying him, waiting for him to do something important. He dropped in front of the kitchen table, startled, trying to convince himself of the power of stress. Despite his rising mortgage rate and maxed out Visa and American Express cards and a wife in need of a vacation to Europe he could never afford, he couldn’t let it drive him to insanity. After all, there was more to life than bills: there were tribes in the Amazon no one had yet discovered, and The Last Unicorn someone told him was worth the read, and that time he went skinny dipping with a red head from New Jersey. But an invisible dread was slowly overthrowing his reason and was not letting go. Was it a heart attack? A stroke brought on by the pipe in the grass leaking water from the pool? The phone sat across from him, waiting for a 911 call, but that wasn’t it—that wouldn’t change a thing. He’d just become another statistic, another boring newspaper commentary on the effects of the economic crisis. No. He’d have none of that. He had to get out of the house and quickly, if not to save himself, at least, his family. He rushed through the door, not bothering with his keys, and fled his life.
And that’s how he found himself, running through dim avenues, the intense humidity of the night sticking to his work clothes. Despite his best efforts, the carefully plotted trees lining the neighborhood began to dull into indistinct shades of green-gray. His muscles throbbed, his insides knotted with desperation. He should have done something years ago, decades ago—he should have made his life matter, but he wasted time, wasted their time. He could have been a hero, or a villain, or a tragic figure full of symbolism and meaning and consequence. Instead, he was just another set of blinking pixels, another cry for attention.
Just beyond the lurid street lamps, past the blinking stop light painting the world in ghastly crimson, he could see it. No matter which way he turned, it followed like the moon: the fourth wall. He had to be more interesting, he knew, or he’d simply disappear. And with a final, desperate stab at existence, he formulated a memory from childhood, remembering what it meant to stumble into the world, to wonder at every little thing, and he choked as hope started rising in his throat like a bubble. Yes, he could still do it— it was not too late for John Carter Smith! And then he–