Sunday, September 12, 2010

When it Mattered

My eyes opened in the pre-dawn darkness and I reached out, surprised that you weren’t there. Then I remembered.

I felt my way through the house to the back yard and lifted my face to the black sky. I started a deep breath but my throat refused the grit and miasma.

I closed my eyes and stretched my arms wide. I whispered, “I’m ready,” and stood motionless until my shoulders ached and my arms collapsed against my sides.

I went inside, washed with cold water, dressed by candle light, and left for the office.

I lingered in the driveway to watch the sunrise. The same dust that hid the stars now threw the morning’s first light across the horizon in blazing splashes of vibrant orange and red. When the last blush turned gray I hurried off to work. The few vehicles on the freeway were heading the opposite direction, out of the city.

The skyline wasn’t the one you knew. Many buildings were shattered, others stood untouched. Rubble and derelict cars littered the streets. The few people still downtown stared at, then through me, their blank faces and tattered clothes gray with dust.

My building was covered in dust and ash, but intact.

I drove down into the parking garage and felt my way through the dark to the stairwell. When I got to my office I was winded from the long climb. I averted my eyes from the silver frame on my desk to avoid your smile. My fingers glided over my desk and chair, absorbing warmth from the hand-rubbed mahogany, caressing the soft leather. As the familiar furnishings enveloped me, I reflexively touched the computer’s power switch. No hum, no light, no messages to read. But I knew that.

I pulled hard copies from the filing cabinets. I read reports, tallied invoices and cross checked spreadsheets; the company was thriving when the world died.

At 11:30 I took a bottle of water and a peanut butter sandwich from my briefcase and started back toward the stairs, past gray cubicles with black nameplates that stood in rows like headstones.

I descended, guided by the cool railing, until my footsteps echoed off the marble walls of the lobby.

The statue in the parkthe one you liked with the woman and the birdswas still there, but the horse and rider had fallen. I chewed the taste out of my bread, staring without interest at a pile of refuse on a bench until dark eyes peered out. I offered the remainder of my sandwich and water. Two boney hands stretched out, slowly, as if hoping that I would change my mind and take the food away. When I persisted, an irresolute grip enclosed the offering. I waited until muffled sounds of eating seeped out of the newspapers and gray-brown rags. No words expected, none given.

By the time my watch read 12:32 I was back at my desk, pulling hard-copies, reading reports, tallying invoices and cross-checking spreadsheets.

I worked until my vision blurred, then groped my way past the workstation-graveyard down the stairwell to the parking garage. I started my car and checked the fuel: enough to get me home and back for the rest of the week, or perhaps the rest of my life.

On my first day with the company I vowed that someday I would have a top floor office. Sixteen years, two months, and three weeks later I made CFO. Did you count the days too? I think you did, but for different reasons.

I wish I’d missed you when it mattered.

Back in our kitchen, I turned from the missing wall and listened to cereal crackle as water poured over it.

I imagined Rascal dancing on his hind legs. I could see him whirling, eyes sparkling, pink tongue flicking in and out with his happy panting. Then I remembered that his body was with yours somewhere in the rubble that used to be our bedroom.

I never believed that the meteor storms would come. I would have been home with you instead of working late the night our home was cut in half. I wanted the corner office with a view of the park.

I went outside and closed my eyes, stretched my arms wide, whispered, “I’m ready,” and stood motionless until my shoulders ached and my arms collapsed against my sides.

I’m ready.

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Jess Harris is a writer who is not quite ready to give up his day job as a US Army officer. He’s been published in, among others. He is a member of MinnSpec Writers’ Network, MN8 Novelists’ Retreat, founder of SoFriedSpecFic, and adjunct member (strap-hanger) of SA-based Adamaster Writer’s Guild.

He writes dark science fiction, urban fantasy alternate history, high fantasy with practically no magic, “literary crime fiction” (whatever that means) and humorous horror. His biggest challenge is usually deciding what genre a particular piece falls into.

Go figure.


  1. great story, beautiful descriptions, full of show...really enjoyed..can't help think that this would be even better if done in 3rd person POV

  2. Thanks Jane. One of the luxuries of writing very short fiction is that you get to experiment. I re-wrote this story in every type POV, and although the 3rd person story had an interesting feel, I settled on 1st person. Traditionally, you write in 1st person to get closer to the protagonist, and 3rd person or omni to keep distance. What I wanted to do here is maintain a feeling of distance while writing from first person, for the sheer joy of breaking the rules. However, I think it also underlines how lost and detached the character feels.

    Thanks again for your comments.