Here’s my entry for the November Flash Fiction Draw Challenge (the post for the original November draw is here). In case you didn’t know about this challenge, there’s a video here explaining (and showing the monthly draw), but the quick version is this: I use three suits from a deck of cards to randomly put together a genre (in this case: action/adventure), a location (in this case: a bridge) and an object (in this case: a sandbag) and challenge anyone who wants to play to write something over the next week, with a maximum of 1,000 words.
This was harder than usual. I don’t think I quite tipped over into “Action/Adventure” but maybe I got “Suspense.” If I’d had more words, I’d maybe have tried to include a few more bam-bam-bam moments, but instead I went for a singular countdown. The setting is more-or-less taken from an island I used to love in British Columbia, offset from a small town where I lived for a while. That bridge man. That bridge.
“Mr. Coleman? A soldier.” Armin’s voice over the walkie-talkie was strained. “Just one. I think he’s hurt.” There was a pause. “Do I shoot?”
Vincent brought the walkie-talkie up to his mouth. “No. I’ll be right there.” He eyed the group, who stared at him, afraid. “Jana, keep an eye, okay? I’ll be right back.”
Jana, who was so much more mature than her fourteen years, nodded. Not for the first time, Vincent was grateful to have her.
He left at a jog. Seconds later, he was running. He used to avoid cardio, preferring nominal gym time, just enough to maybe stave off the effects of a mostly sedentary lifestyle teaching kids chemistry.
Then again, governmental collapse changed lots of things.
Armin waited at the lookout behind the sign, handing him the binoculars. Sure enough, a soldier made his way across the bridge. He lowered the binoculars. Armin handed him their weapon.
Vincent exhaled. Sandbags they’d placed at both ends of the bridge hadn’t stopped the soldier—who definitely limped—from crawling or climbing over at the far end. He was at their side now. Either they stopped him, or…
Stopped. Vincent frowned. Euphemism. He was no killer. He was a fucking chemistry teacher.
“I’ll talk to him,” Vincent said.
Armin sucked in a breath. “What if…?” He didn’t finish. Jana was mature, Armin was tough. But tough only went so far in a teenager.
“I’ll be okay.” It was confidence he didn’t feel.
“Hands in the air!” Vincent said, once the soldier was past him. “Right now!”
To his surprise, the soldier obeyed. He kept the weapon aimed low to the ground while he approached the man. When he got close enough to see his uniform, he blinked in surprise.
“You’re Canadian,” Vincent said.
“Yes,” the soldier turned. Dirty, and bloody below his left knee, his face was a mess, but the uniform was definitely Canadian. The nametag read Calipano.
“Six-pack of Uncle Sams are maybe an hour behind me,” the soldier said. “Chasing my unit down. It’s just me, now…” He swayed.
“Come on, let’s get you inside.” Vincent lowered the weapon.
Beneath the dirt, blood, and soot was a handsome man. An adult, too, though Vincent guessed Calipano was younger than him by half a decade. Why couldn’t someone older come along? Take over?
He dealt with Calipano’s leg first, cutting away the material and cleaning it as best he could with the meagre first-aid supplies they’d gathered during their initial run and two forays into the town since.
“It’s just you and nine kids?” Calipano said.
“Students,” Vincent said. “I’m their chemistry teacher. I was chaperoning a trip to the island here. Culture day. Same day was the first attack. The bus driver and my co-worker wanted to go back right away, I thought it smarter to stay put…” He sighed.
“You were right.”
“We snuck back into town. Twice. For things we needed. Mostly raided some empty houses on the outskirts, once we saw how bad things were. Soldier patrols.” Vincent swallowed. “Bodies.”
“You’re close to the former border here.”
“You said they were after you?” Vincent said.
Calipano nodded, grim. “I crossed the river after they hit my unit, then doubled back. I’m sure they’re still looking for me. I hit one. I don’t suppose you’ve got a cache of ammo or anything?”
“No ammo,” Vincent said. “Just a flare gun.”
The soldier blinked. “You held me up with a flare gun?”
“That’s why I came at you from behind.”
The soldier chuckled. “I never had any teachers like you.”
“So what is this place?”
Vincent wasn’t sure if Calipano was interested, or trying to relax him.
“Artist retreat. The cabins got turned into a museum, and there are great nature trails. The footbridge is the only way over the river other than through, but you can see…” He gestured down the steep drop. A lot of people hated the suspended footbridge. It was barely wide enough for two, not a whole lot above a very long fall.
“Free love hippie types,” Vincent said. “To be honest, I was mostly here to wrangle the students. But the staff never came.”
Calipano tensed. Vincent raised his binoculars.
“Shit,” he said.
The Americans were there, on the other side. One looked at the ground, then pointed. Then they all looked over the bridge.
“What if they don’t all come?” Vincent said, ducking back behind the sign.
“They will,” Calipano said. “See how there’s five?”
“There were six. They’re pissed at me. And they don’t seem to be following any of the rules about prisoners of war.”
“You’re sure?” Calipano said.
Vincent took a shaky breath. “Dude. I’m a chemistry teacher.”
The soldiers started crossing. They seemed alert and aware of how vulnerable they’d be, but it was obvious they were pissed. Guns sweeping back and forth as they crossed the narrow suspension bridge, Vincent watched the soldier in the rear scan the woods on the other side with binoculars.
“We need them past the half-way point,” Calipano said. “For the fall to count.”
Count. Another euphemism. But Vincent eyed them and thought of the destruction he’d seen in town. The ruined school bus. It would count.
“Almost,” Vincent said, binoculars up.
Calipano shifted his position slightly.
The flare gun fired. The soldiers sent off a short spray off bullets their way—neither of them were hit, but the sign rattled ominously—and then the flare hit the sandbags at their end of the bridge.
The explosion bellowed, angry and far more violent than Vincent had expected. He wondered if the nails accounted for the sound or not. He stayed low for a few full seconds before he risked peeking again.
The bridge, and soldiers, were gone.
“Yeah, I definitely had no teachers like you,” Calipano said.
“If you’d like, I can teach you,” Vincent said. “It’s basic grade ten chemistry.”