[This is a short story that developed over a long period of time. I wrote the opening lines spontaneously in the October of 2015, and then left it for a long time until I sat down in the summer of 2016 and wrote the rest. It’s an intentionally oblique piece, but over various edits I’ve tried to make the circumstances that we find the narrator in more clear to the reader. Properly formatted PDF version available at the bottom.]
Voted Most Likely to Succeed
Drawing near to the end now. I’m ready for it. I think. Been waiting for them to come for me for a while now. It’s a nice room – not too cold, not too warm. Full air conditioning, what a rarity – and it’s quiet for miles around. It’s not my room. It’s far too messy. It’s far too neat. I can’t stand this silence. So bored of it. So bored!
There’s this word I’ve been trying to think of for weeks now, and I want to achieve this one last thing before I go. Waiting for a word. Waiting for the start of something new. Stand up now. Pace the room. Sit down. Pace the room. Pace!
There has to be a way to link this word to the present. I was jumping on a trampoline, in a sports centre, after school. No, no – that’s not it.
I was sitting in school, at some desk or other.
Scratched onto the desk were phrases:
I was here.
Get me out.
I’m going to fail.
Please let me die.
Graham luvs Lucy.
It was during a test. Biology, or physics, or history, or geography. I did well. Sub-par for me, but I did well. Teacher walked past, checking to see if anybody had finished, even though they were supposed to put their hand up if they had. Maybe that was it, I don’t know. But Graham did love Lucy. They walked through the corridors together, perpetually, and probably still do. They made a fuss of each other on Valentine’s Day. It was actually pretty sweet. Florets, wrapped presents. Some kids thought they should just leave it for when they got home, but I thought it was sweet.
The wallpaper in here is disgusting. It’s not a colour I’d ever care to give a room in any house I owned. At least I don’t have to be here long. They’ll be here for me soon enough. The room is scattered with items: a stainless steel travel kettle, two lamps, a Bible, and for some reason an ashtray. There are ‘no smoking’ signs on the windows. I’m getting mixed signals. Good thing I quit smoking last week. I meant to do that earlier, and it’d have saved me all of this hassle if I had.
So last week I was driving home, a little faster than usual, when a homeless guy stumbled out into the road. There was a bit of a crunch, like I’d just hit a stack of extra-large boxes of cornflakes, and there’s this loud shout, so I got out of the car to see if he was alright. Turns out the crunch was just this big bag of luggage he carried around all over the place, people said he never took anything out or put anything in, but he always had it dangling off of his back. He didn’t sleep on it, or even rest his head on it – that’s what people told me. He wasn’t dead, but he looked a bit worse for wear. I apologised to him, and even though he was in a massively drunken state, he still muttered out:
“S’all right, yeah.”
He was a tough cookie, for sure. Nice guy. When my car collided with him, the first thought that went through my mind was that I had just killed someone. I can’t say I felt anything about it at first. When I discovered he was alive, I didn’t feel anything then, either. But when he brushed off the vehicular attack with such simple words, I felt grateful that I hadn’t killed him. Before then, I couldn’t have cared less, tell the truth.
None of this helps me remember this word, though. I haven’t got long, so I need to make sure I get this last little thing. I’m sure there’s some memory out there that’d just kick start my thoughts into a chain reaction that leads to this erstwhile piece of my lexicon.
Picking daisies in school. Best friends. Summer evenings, fields. Rolling fields. Grass so green it looked like it had the contrast turned up digitally. Bales of hay as blonde and scrappy as my old dumb dog, that lanky old thing that lived to twenty-one and never learned to sit on command. Burnt toast in the morning that my brother hated, but I just couldn’t get enough of.
Not to say school wasn’t hell, I just don’t have time for those memories. Why waste precious time on bad things that will be irrelevant in an hour or two? I even have time for a cup of tea, I think. I have my bag on the bed. I rifle through it, taking out a couple of things, placing one on the desk and the other by the door. Pacing the room again. Making the tea, drinking the tea. Tea grew on me after a while, but for years I couldn’t stand it. I suppose you just have to find a brand or strain that agrees with you. The Trents next door drank all of those crazy herbal teas, but they did all of that kind of stuff. Not in my house, I’d only buy straight teabags from the local shop. But then eventually I was left alone in my house, and had nobody to deny other varieties of tea.
I sit down on the grubby single bed. The walls are too bare. It should never be this way – a room needs a personality. I take out a little pocket knife and carve into the wall, around knee-height and quite small:
Holy motors make the world go ‘round.
Time stands still for a moment as I look at the words. If it’d stand still forever then I would never be unhappy again.
It was only after me and my brother found the body did things start going wrong. It seems so long ago, and in reality it is. Many years now. But I think I could have found that body at any age and just accepted it. Maybe not the best reaction, but it was the one I had. I guess that was the start.
My brother and I, down by the riverside. The body washed up, bloated. Somehow its eyes were still open. It was propped up on a rock, staring at us. Took us a while to realise the person was dead. I guess this isn’t proactive; that word I still haven’t remembered won’t be found there. I’m pretty sure it starts with an ‘R.’ Three syllables – it shouldn’t be this difficult to remember.
The worst thing right now is the car that’s been running in the courtyard for the past five minutes. They won’t turn the engine off. The sound reminds me of the car my spouse owned. That was before the crash. Before the driver of the other car had an argument with their family and drank a bottle of whiskey and started driving. Before our seatbelts jerked into place and bones were broken. Before the visits to the sterile rooms. Before the tubes, and the drips, and the sores. It was before the intermittent became the constant. I guess they thought that they’d get away with it. The courts certainly let them. Well, eventually, they didn’t. In the end, they finally found out what it was like to be on the receiving end of four holy wheels and the Devil’s engine.
But this isn’t helping. The last day of school: Antony charged up to the stage in the middle of the head teacher’s parting words. He made a fool of himself, gloriously so. It caused anarchy. Uniforms were burnt, schoolbooks added to the pyre. The police were called. There were no arrests at the scene; nobody knew what was going on. We weren’t violent, or violently treated. It was the last time that that many people I knew were that happy at the same time. You could feel it in the air: it crackled. It was our youth in full effect, and it was happening then, in that immediate moment. We had everything ahead of us, the whole world laid out in sweet chaos. Yes, I remember. I remember it all.
[PDF download link: voted-most-likely-to-succeed-by-aj-tarrant]