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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Five Words

A new piece of flash fiction, about a guy with a secret.

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I should have known better, I suppose.  All of those years of caution, and then in one moment I said one sentence, spoken out of the sheer exhaustion of always having to hide.  Afterwards I stood there, mouth hanging open a little, breathing hard, looking at their appalled faces.  And I imagined sounds -- the sound of a boulder crashing downhill, the noise of walls collapsing, of a stone edifice sliding into ruin.

It began in high school.  Everything about me was a practiced game.  I was a strong guy, on the wrestling team, and made my way through classes by flashing a handsome smile, being polite, and always asking for help.  I found out a profound truth; no one wants to fail a really nice guy.  I played that card every day, and in four years I was wearing the blue robes and the funny hat, shaking hands with the principal as he handed me the piece of paper that said that the high school had done the best they could with me.

I never really planned on college, but my wrestling coach pushed for it.  Pushed hard.  I just smiled and hoped he'd forget about it.  He didn't, and a scout he'd invited saw me at a match.  I had a wrestling scholarship before it really registered with me what had happened.

I was afraid, but I shouldn't have been.  The state college I attended wasn't so much different than my high school experience, and I found that a friendly smile went just as far there.  I got a succession of Cs and Ds -- passing, enough to keep me moving through the ranks just as I had in high school.  I declared a business major, graduated again, and within three weeks had gotten a job as a junior manager in a marketing firm.

You push a heavy weight up a hill, knowing that at some point it will get too steep, the weight will turn beneath your hands and begin to bounce back downward, very likely crushing you in the process.  But you keep pushing because it's what you've always done.  Or maybe that's not the right image; it's like walls, walls that have been built to fit whatever people believe you to be.  It may well be that the strongest force in the world is the force of other people's expectations.  It builds a structure around you, people add stones and joists and bricks, as they think they've figured out who you are, what you are, where you're going.  The longer you let it go on, the more difficult it is to alter it, and eventually the only way to alter it is to destroy it completely.

I rose through the ranks, still smiling, shaking hands, warm, friendly, the model of the honest, hard-working guy who always did what was needed.  But the secret -- it was still that boulder ahead of me, threatening to go out of control; still the flaw in the foundation that would bring the entire building down.

I made senior manager today.

At the celebration there was cake, punch, gifts.  The president of the company was there.  I was presented with a book of business wisdom -- that's what the president told me, as he handed it to me, saying with a grin that I hardly needed it.  But then he turned to the crowd, all holding their plates of cake and punch cups, and said, "I think no better description of your contribution to the company could be stated than the passage I've marked on page 79.  Would you do us the honor of reading it to us?"

And I stood there.  A moment passed, and stretched out to the breaking point.  I looked at the bright expectation in their faces, and the weight of it all became insupportable.  At that moment I knew that the boulder had slipped loose, the walls had begun to crumble.

And I turned to the crowd, and I said, "I can't.  I can't read."

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