Chris has written more than 300 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.
Jim thumbed through the pages of a magazine he had no interest in reading. The headlines about politics and wars, written to grab the reader’s attention, slid past with no resistance. He didn't see the photos of the rich and famous or the ads for new luxury apartments. What was on Jim’s mind was the possible course his life would be on in three more hours.
Seated across the table which held the magazines was an attractive young woman waiting for the same decision to be made for her.
First, they would be interviewed by a panel of sociologists, psychologists, experts in business and work placement. The goal of this session would be to discover if he or she was worth sustaining. Were their academic backgrounds exemplary? Were their leadership skills finely honed? Had they shown all positive signs of cooperation with superiors throughout their education and trial employment?
The second session would be with medical doctors and technicians. They would search his and her bodies from top to bottom, every organ, DNA, bone structure, blood analyses, brain scan, to find every flaw. The discovery of a tumor would end the session and Jim or the young woman would not graduate. In fact, there was a long list of conditions that would lead to the same end. Family history and hereditary medical conditions would also be taken into account.
Finally, the psychological analysis session would take place. Any sign of psychosis or other mental illness would bring the session to a screeching halt. Other psychological weaknesses would diminish their chances of graduating.
Not graduating meant they killed you, immediately, no appeal. Rumor was that the rejects became food for the graduates.
Jim recalled his evaluation of himself. He had set the bar low. If he couldn’t pass his own test, he certainly wouldn’t pass the official version. He had come out borderline. He might graduate, but he could fail just as easily. He caught the eye of the young lady.
“Will you graduate?” Jim tossed the magazine back onto the table.
“How do I know, and what business is it of yours?” The young lady removed her glasses and deposited them on the table beside the magazine.
“Reading glasses. Strike one,” said Jim.
“Stop it right now.” The young woman rose to her feet, fists clenched.
“Explosive temper. Strike two.”
“That’s enough.” She took a step in Jim’s direction.
“Hey, listen, I’ve got a mountain of black marks against me. I’m borderline. Frankly, I think you’re in about the same position as I am. You may survive, you may not.”
“What’s your point?”
“Let’s get out of here and join the opposition. At the very least, we die on our own terms, not theirs.” Jim pointed at the first of three doors they would pass through for their sessions.
“But I still might graduate. How could I give that up?” She wasn’t defensive anymore.
“You know what I ask myself about graduation? How could I accept it?” Jim moved toward the exit, then turned back. “Come with me.”
“I have too much to lose.”
“Don’t forget your reading glasses.” He retrieved the glasses from the table and handed them to the woman, then walked out the front door and held it open while he gave her one more chance.
The young woman looked at Jim and at the first session door. She stared at her feet for a moment, considering her chances, then at the reading glasses.
Jim stepped back and let the door close. He ran down the street past abandoned cars. He had heard that the opposition repaired some of these relics of an age when every household owned multiple cars. Now the privilege of owning a vehicle of any kind was reserved for the elite. Everyone else lived in miles long, layered high rises with public transportation, residences, workplaces, shopping, and recreation on different floors. Jim continued to run along the ground level of one of these structures.
His appointment time at the graduation center had come and gone. Surveillance cameras would pick him up every minute or two. Someone had already been assigned to catch him. The consequence of fleeing was an automatic rejection.
A scream from behind brought him to a skidding halt. He backtracked and peeked around the corner of a concrete piling. It was the young woman from the graduation center. She had fled behind him and been caught by her pursuer who was busy binding her hands behind her back. Her hair looked like a red tornado as she shook her head and screamed again.
Jim crept up behind her captor and sent a loose stone skittering across the pavement. The man, dressed in Chaser’s white, spun around just in time to catch an old tire iron across the forehead. As he slumped to the ground, Jim wondered where this guy had scored on the graduation scale.
He grabbed the woman’s hand, and they ran to the end of the extended highrise. Beyond that were the wilderness of ruined cities, devastated cropland, and empty water basins. They heard the rumble of a diesel engine, then a classic 2020 Dodge Ram sat perched atop the earth berm that surrounded the structure. Jim and the driver locked eyes, measuring, waiting.
“You two are runners, right?” The driver leaned out his window to shout.
“Yes, we just—”
“Then hop in, we’ve got some runnin’ to do.”
Jim and the young woman scrambled up the berm and slid into the cab beside a kid barely out of his teens.
A squad of unarmed Chasers rounded the end of the highrise. Behind them came the whine of an electric motor, no match for the old diesel. The driver of the truck mashed the accelerator to the floor and shot a rooster tail of gravel out behind as he sped down the berm steering toward the group of young, white-clad Chasers. He circled them slowly, window down, smiling. “Any of you want a ride? We accept graduates as well as runners. Hop in the back. I’m serious.”
The men backed away, shocked by the recklessness of the driver. No takers. The electrically powered vehicle rounded the corner of the building and stopped.
“Wave to our friends,” said the truck driver.
The young woman and Jim waved and were immediately set back in their seats when the driver accelerated again. There wasn’t much to the structure of the electric vehicle, but the Dodge was huge and as solid as a mountain. The driver didn’t hesitate or show any signs of fear. He ran the diesel into the front of the flimsy electric while the driver and passengers jumped clear. The driver of the truck wheeled around, roared up the berm and into the wilderness.
“That was crazy.” The young woman was still gripping Jim’s arm like a vice.
“Lady, there’s one thing you got to keep in mind. The establishment has cheapened life, not ours, but theirs and every person’s life who either graduates or fails. We bought and paid for our lives when we ran. We buy and pay for them every day we thumb our noses at the bastards who run the world. Our lives are not cheap. I just risked my own to rescue you. Don’t forget that.”
They drove for a couple of hours into the foothills of a range of mountains until they came to the top of one last rise, and the driver stopped the truck. “Here we are.”
There was nothing to see. Everywhere they looked was more devastation, dead trees, bushes that looked as if they had been the one Moses talked to. Boulders swung aside, and people emerged from dark, gaping holes.
“We aren’t called the underground for nothing.” The driver opened his door and got out.
That evening Jim and the young woman sat on a granite boulder watching the sunset.
“Did we do the right thing?” she asked.
“We chose life over death. Back there, either way was simply a different version of death.”
The woman wrestled a small pad of paper from her pocket with a pen pushed down into the spiral binding. She pulled her reading glasses from her breast pocket and balanced them on her freckled nose. “You’ve never asked my name. Come to think of it, I didn’t ask yours either.”
“I won’t ask for your name now,” he said. “Instead, I’ll ask this. In light of the new life we're beginning, what name would you choose for yourself?
After a moment pondering, the young woman spoke. “I’ll ask you the same. What name would you choose?”
Jim took the pad of paper from the young woman, wrote something and handed it back. She pressed the pen to paper and wrote beneath what he had written.
She picked up a canteen of water, filled two tin cups and handed one to Jim. “To new beginnings.” She held up her cup to meet his.
“To a new life.”
In the distance, the extended highrise dominated the landscape. Lights flickered on as dusk settled in. The man and woman considered where they might be at this moment had they not had the courage to run. They had no regrets.
© 2018 Chris Mills