He waited for an hour. In the rain. Without an umbrella. He tucked the school supplies he bought for his daughter Bessie in his windbreaker. The plastic bag was already wet and clung to the notebooks. Baxter Winkler knew he was giving his ex-wife yet another reason to think of him as a poor schlub who couldn’t get anything right.
He had made a promise to his boss Jerry, who was in the hospital with a bad heart, that he would meet some guy at the corner of Washington and Harold Streets at 4pm on Wednesday and pick up a package Jerry needed.
If it were anyone else, Baxter would have given it 15 minutes. Now 75 minutes had passed and the rain was steadily streaming off Baxter’s long, thin nose. He turned on his heels and started to walk the three blocks to his apartment when he heard gutter water splash and brakes squeal, and then, “Winkler. Over here.”
Baxter turned around and walked to the dark sedan. A man leaned across the passenger seat and waved him forward. “I got the thing for your boss.” He was older, gray-haired with silver glasses perched at the edge of his nose, cheeks sagging with age.
“How come you know my name but I don’t know yours?” Baxter asked, suspicious.
The old man shrugged. He handed Baxter what felt like a hefty book wrapped in brown paper. Baxter nodded and tucked it into his jacket. The old man waved and drove off.
What book would Jerry want? Baxter wondered. When the New Confederacy took control of the country, they began banning books. Each month, they distributed a list of approved books in newspapers. They held huge rallies to burn the remainders. For months during the first year, a smoky layer hung over towns and cities. All those words, lifted into the sky as embers, burning out like meteors. Millions of books. Trillions of words. Centuries of knowledge— theorized, tested, debated, analyzed—now became fodder for the black market, currency of the underground, or most often, ash.
As soon as he got to his apartment, Baxter pulled out the school supplies and placed them on his kitchen table, one by one. Notebook, lined paper, three pencils and a case, a narrow watercolor set, small box of crayons. He let them breathe, hoped they would make Bessie proud. School meant more to kids these days, now that enrollment was a lottery and only one-third of them were accepted. Once they were in, they were in through college if they kept up with their classes. The other children had to rely on parents to teach them at home and hope for a lottery child’s failure to open a spot in the school.
But Bessie was smart. She passed her first two years of school easily.
On Thursday morning, Baxter took the subway to Mercy Hospital, in the northern suburb of the city. He remembered how the houses were once middle class, arranged in sub-divisions named after trees: Aspen Circle, Walnut Way, Maple Meadows. Now half the homes were abandoned and the other half were occupied by squatters, the streets turned to crumbling blacktop, mailboxes tilted at 45-degree angles.
Jerry was awake when Baxter walked in the hospital room with the package inside his coat. “Where should I put it?” Baxter asked. Tubes knotted up Jerry’s arms.
“Under my legs,” Jerry said quietly.
“Really? Won’t the doctor find it?”
“It’s for the doctor. It’s my payment. He’s keeping me alive.”
“It’s a book, right? What is it?” Baxter looked at Jerry and wondered how much life one book could afford.
“The Origin of the Species. Darwin,” Jerry murmured. “One triple bypass is now on the menu and that’s what I’m ordering.”
“Survival of the fittest. Gotta love the irony,” Baxter laughed. Then he grew serious. “Hey, the guy who delivered the package? He knew my name. Makes me a little nervous.”
“Aw, don’t worry,” Jerry said, waving his hand. “Go on home.”
Riding the subway back to the city, Baxter felt a pair of eyes following him. As he made his way out of the station and down the alley to his apartment, he sensed it was more than a hunch and he found himself negotiating with God or whoever in his head. Please, just let me see Bessie.
Baxter felt the shot blaze through his chest. As he fell, he pictured the paper, pencils, crayons, aligned neatly, ready for brave words.
Thank you, Boyd! I appreciate the visit.
This is brilliant. Horrible, but brilliant.
Thanks, Helen! Hope you’re doing well.
This is great! It has a Suzanne Collins feel to it and I love it. Makes me want to read the before and after scenes, too!
Thanks, darlin’! I had to look up Suzanne Collins, because I’m culturally deficient, but saw that she wrote Hunger Games. I did see the movie!
I highly doubt you are culturally deficient. I wouldn’t have known either if I didn’t have a14 year old in the house. We read the series together before the movies came out. I was skeptical (after my daughter had made me read the Twilight series), but I really loved the books. We devoured them!! An instance where the movies were pretty good, but the books were better.
Hey lady…Happy Friday!
I love the dystopian background in this. You have just enough detail to make us realize the horror of it, but leave enough mystery to leave us wondering how it got that bad.
It’s funny because it didn’t start out dystopian in my head but by the time I got to the package, it became so. I’m glad it was just enough detail. Thanks for reading and commenting, Michael. (For some reason, I think your mutant otter should be named Gopher. No reason why.)
Well, you know how space otters are, they’re always wanting to fetch things for you. You know, go fer this, go fer that…. 😛
This was a gripping read. I was captivated. How sad he won’t be able to see his daughter’s happiness at the school supplies. Great story!
I’m so glad you liked it, Kathy. Thanks for reading and commenting!
That was INTENSE! Congrats!
Fascinating. Brilliant. I want more!
Aww, thanks so much! I’m really glad you liked it.
I’ll steal Michael’s word (only cos he got here first) and say I am a sucker for near-future, dystopian background stories. I really love the purposeful irony of Darwin’s book being the rich old bird’s payment for heart surgery. Really well written, I enjoyed this one very much.
Very grateful for your kind and thoughtful read and comments, Shannon. Glad you enjoyed it!
Wow, you are a gifted writer. I hope you have a book in the works somewhere. Great take on the prompt.
Thanks so much, Patricia. I really love your work.
Oh, so perfectly, intriguingly dark! I love it. The end is brutal but that final line is so good. I also really liked “All those words, lifted into the sky as embers, burning out like meteors” and your description of the wasted neighbourhoods. Amazing writing as always, Meg!
You’re too kind, Silver Leaf. Many thanks for your generous comments. I really liked your David and Josef story this week. Not sure my comments communicated that adequately — I was in a rush.
And such is the way of the world.
Nice job Meg.
Indeed. Or at least, a dystopian world. Thanks, Thom!
Totally didn’t expect it to get futuristic – it reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984 in tone. I like all the little details you add, especially character development wise) as it all goes towards painting a great sense of place and time. Good job!
Yeah, I didn’t expect it either, GD! Funny how that keeps happening. I’m kinda fascinated by average people in unusual circumstances. Thank you very much for your kind comments!
A dark but very well written tale. Well done.
Thank you, LHN. You are kind.
I love how you have this whole world in your pocket–so that you only need to give us what we need for this one little person’s little story. That is Master Writing Class. And now I am wondering but afraid to ask which books they allow in those little schools, or what they might be teaching without any books…
Wow, what a super nice thing to say, Jennifer. Made my day. They definitely keep the Bible (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And probably copies of *Field and Stream.* Ronald Reagan biographies. 😉
Hi Meg, I’ve missed reading you during my self-imposed break! As always this one is another great tale, well told. You have a gift. Really.
I’ve missed you, SE! Thanks so much for your kind words.
The setting came as a surprise, but was painted in so well, so quickly, I adjusted to it. I loved the idea of letting the school supplies breathe. Poor Baxter, apparently he couldn’t do anything right. Was Jerry in on the murder? Was it a personal vendetta? Gah!
Thanks for reading, Nate! Sorry for my tardy response. Yeah, Jerry had him killed. He wanted to remove all trace of the book’s delivery. Or something like that. 😉
I love how you eased us into your bleak future. And as much I hate the idea of a society that bans (and burns!) books, I like the way you turned them into black market items. Worth killing for. Beautifully written, Meg. And such a tragic ending for poor Jerry.
I know, poor Jerry! Just a lesson for us all: when the book-burning starts, build up a secret library! Thanks for your kind comments, Suzanne. <3
Meg, you just have a knack for fiction. I’m envious of your skill! I loved this piece. It flowed right through; I never had to stop to re-read or try and figure out what was happening. Great story and great writing, as always. –G
Awww, what a nice thing to say! Back at ya, Genna. As SilverLeaf noted below, the three of us Silver Loungers took up some yardage in the top row. Love that.
This reminds me a bit of a brilliant old film (with an Orwellian touch to it) in a world where books are banned and burned and the main character is a fireman, in this world firemen start the fires: they burn secret stashes of books piled up on the streets or entire houses and libraries… I wish I knew what it was called though; I watched it in class and I’m not sure anyone told us the name of the film…
*Fahrenheit 451* — a book by Ray Bradbury made into film. It was a great movie. Haven’t seen it in years but loved it.
Yes that was it! “The temperature at which books burn” (so I did know what it was called, I just forgot). Thank you! I didn’t know it started off as a book (kind of paradoxical really)…
Your story was like a mix of that and hunger games (but with a positive reaping?) and it was very well written 🙂
Thank you so much for this. Really glad you enjoyed it.
A hint of Ray Bradbury here, perhaps? For me, the fact that the prose flows so effortlessly, is so naturalistic, is what makes the impact of the dystopian elements so great – everything feels so everyday and mundane, up to a point…
One thing – in the last couple of paragraphs Baxter becomes “Jerry”, which, unless it was a sudden allusion to switched identities, is probably just a pesky typo 🙂
Ack!! Yes, definitely a typo. Thanks for that — just corrected it. D’oh!
ALSO…meant to thank you for your thoughtful read. I am fascinated by the mundane side of dystopias. (Why does WordPress think dystopia is spelled wrong?!) It’s fun to explore.
Yes, me too. Lot’s of the stories I like blend mundanity with either dystopian or supernatural elements – I think it throws up an interesting dynamic.
And WordPress is always telling me that I’ve misspelled words, erroneously. But what can you expect from people who spell their name “WordPress”? Tut.
So glad I found your blog. You’re an amazing writer. I don’t think I’m going to get much work done today…
What a wonderful comment to receive. Thanks so much. I’m glad you enjoy my blog and hope you come back for more!
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Hey, congrats! Did you notice, our silver lounge was out in force?!
It was a trifecta! Congrats, Silverleaf. Well earned, my friend.