It seems a little ironic that I would inaugurate this science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction blog with a rather mundane piece. The following very short fiction is intended as an entry in NPR’s regular “Three Minute Fiction” contest and the deadline is the end of tomorrow. I wanted to do a complete story, with a beginning, middle and end and a protagonist worth caring about. Packing all that into 600 words is quite a challenge. You can tell me whether I succeeded.
Every aisle seemed to be a shrine to Tommy. Aisle six, his favorite cereal. Aisle nine, his favorite cheap plastic toys. Aisle seven, where he had his first honest to goodness public temper tantrum.
Tom kept his head down as much as he could, to hide his welling eyes from his neighbors and to avoid their pity and morbid wonder. It had been like this for thirty seven days. People he did not know but recognized from the intersections in the lives of parents saw him and they knew him. Some turned away swiftly. Some stared. Most, though, regarded him briefly, smiled weakly and walked away.
As Tom reached up to pull cans of soup from the shelf, he saw Tommy dart between the aisles, waving some desired treat. He clenched his jaw. No. Not Tommy. Just another blond boy about the right height.
Tom finished shopping. He spared the girl at the checkout and used the self service lane.
The exit doors slid open and the warm, wet air of late May blasted Tom. His car was adrift in the sea of suburban vehicles. As he crossed the asphalt he saw a little blond head bob up and down between cars. It disappeared and reappeared an Tom’s gut knotted. He scanned the lot. No one else was close by, so he went toward where he had last seen the child.
It was a young boy. His lip trembled and his eyes were wide with fear. He had Tommy’s beautiful blond hair and wore the same brand of light up sneakers. Tom stared at the boy and the boy stared back. Finally, Tom asked,“Are you okay?”
“I don’t know where my mom is,” said the boy in the angelic soprano of a six year old.
Tom transferred his grocery bags to one hand and approached the boy. “I’ll help you,” he said and put out his free hand. He could see his fingers trembling and his heart raced. Hesitantly, the boy took Tom’s hand.
Tiny fingers slipped between Tom’s own and his thundering heart seemed to stop suddenly. For a brief and endless moment, he could smell the stench of burning plastic and bone and the black smoke blinded him again. But instead of screaming Tommy’s name from behind the line of police and firefighters, he was watching it with him, holding his hand while someone else’s son was consumed by fire.
“Come on,” Tom said as calmly as he could. He gave the boy’s hand a comforting squeeze and a steering tug.The boy followed in short, uncertain steps.
Tom stopped and set the grocery bags down. He fished his keys out and pushed the button on the keychain. Two aisles over, his car lights flashed. “This way,” he said and picked up the bags.
Tommy’s booster was still in the back seat. Tom opened the door. “Come on,” he urged. The boy stared at him, trembling. Tom knelt down and gently gripped the boy’s shoulders. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m going to take you home.”
The boy smiled and elation filled Tom. Then a woman’s sudden voice shook him. She half scolded, half pleaded, “Jack!” A stern, masculine, “Sir?” followed quickly.
Tom stood and turned. Jack was already at his mother, hugging her legs. Next to the woman was a uniformed officer, his hand hovering near his sidearm. Tom began to stammer an explanation but stopped when he saw he pity and morbid wonder overcome them. The woman muttered something like a condolence. The officer grimaced and nodded.
After they were gone, Tom sat a long time in his car, sobbing.