Hey there! Today is the second Monday of February, which means today is the deadline for the Flash Fiction Draw challenge that Jeffrey Ricker drew a week ago. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can catch up here, but the short version is he used a deck of cards to randomly select three variables (in this case, a thriller, a sewer, and a suitcase) and anyone who wants to take part has a week to come up with a thousand-word flash fiction piece. This one is mine, it’s totally not a thousand words. It’s over by quite a bit, and I was trying to cut it down but I’ve had so many headaches this week I decided to allow myself to go over. Thrillers aren’t necessarily my go-to, so I had a bit of a sit-down and a think about it, and randomly bumped into some Greek mythology, and this happened:
William hugged the narrow brickway on either side of the tunnel. For a tall wide man, running in the rounded passageway—why dissemble, it’s a sewer—would be impossible.
William wasn’t tall. Or wide. He’d been small his entire life by most measures, with significant exceptions, not the least of which directly led to him in this tunnel, with this suitcase, running from—
“There he is!”
William knew better than to look back.
Looking back gave the people chasing you more power.
Mr. Yuen sat with him while they waited for his parents.
“Are you sure you won’t tell me what happened?”
Billy didn’t answer. He was thinking about their lesson. It had been with him all morning, even when the yelling and the pushing had started. He’d tried to run—he always tried—but he’d looked back and tripped and…
Mr. Yuen tried again. “I hope you know I’m on your side, Billy.”
“Hope is bad.”
“The box had all of the plagues of mankind, you said.”
To his credit, Mr. Yuen realized what Billy meant. Mr. Yuen often kept up with Billy’s toughts. Not many could.
“Billy, that was a myth. From a long time ago.”
“But why was hope in the jar with all the plagues of mankind?”
Despite their age, Toronto’s sewers were remarkably maintained. Access was a different issue. Wealth had been the key to the metaphorical—and literal—lock.
As so often.
William didn’t. He hadn’t created Jar Innovations by freezing. Nor had he mapped the human mind with hesitation. He ducked into the side corridor where he knew he had roughly five more minutes of running time before he would be caught. The futility of it was likely lost on the agents chasing him, of course, as they probably didn’t have a map, but five minutes was five minutes.
He skidded in a damp spot, overcompensated, hitting his head against ceiling. He allowed himself seconds to recover, no longer. He didn’t feel blood.
That was something.
“He went this way!”
Four minutes at most, now.
“Your parents are here.”
Mr. Yuen crouched. “Is everything okay at home?”
Billy looked up, his eye shockingly swollen. “They don’t answer my questions.”
“Can I let you in on a secret?”
Billy nodded. “Okay.”
“They don’t have the answers.” Mr. Yuen rose. “Your questions are tough.”
Billy got off the chair. As he reached the door, Mr. Yuen spoke again.
“It’s a bad translation.”
“Hope. The word used in the earliest translations of the myth is closer to ‘deceptive expectation’ in English.”
Billy considered. “A lie?”
Mr. Yuen shook his head. “More like… a wish. Something we’d like to see happen. Or not happen.”
At the end of the tunnel, William took a moment to gather himself. The grating was exactly where it was listed to be, and even if he’d had a way to open it, the passage beyond was too narrow even for him, an intersection with an older—and smaller—waterway that had been, in its time, a creek bed. The city had buried it when it had been befouled by human waste, though now the water running through it appeared clear enough.
He took a second with his clothes, which were fitted to his frame. The short jacket, lack of belt, and the high necklace he wore—a simple chain with the company logo on it—all tailored or chosen to add the perception of height to his five feet and three inches.
He’d never gone as far as including much of a heel. Deception was one thing.
A lie was another.
When the agents came clumping down the corridor and finally spotted him, he had a brief moment of amusement at how tall they both were, and how hunched they had to stand in the tight space.
“Nowhere left to run,” the first said. Weiss, he thought the man’s name was. He was from the United States.
“I’m not running,” William said. They were out of breath. He’d recovered.
“Put the suitcase down,” the other agent said. The Canadian one. It annoyed William that he couldn’t remember the man’s name. It felt overly typical that the American had taken up more of his consciousness.
When he raised the suitcase, both men took aim with their weapons.
It gave William a moment’s pause.
“Do you know the legend of Pandora’s Jar?” he said.
The logo of his company—Jar Innovations—sparkled at his throat, and was printed on the side of the suitcase as well.
“Hand over the suitcase,” the Canadian agent said.
Apparently, he didn’t care for mythology.
Mr. Yuen looked younger than William had expected, but then, he’d been a brand new teacher when they’d first met, and to a child, all adults seemed impossibly old. In truth, there was, what, a decade between them? Fourteen years? Something like that.
“Yes?” Mr. Yuen said, a slight frown on his face as he met William’s eyes.
William waited, a tiny smile in the corner of his mouth.
“Billy?” Mr. Yuen said, stunned. “I’m sorry. I mean, William.” He opened the door wider. “What..? I mean, come in, come in.”
William said. “I can’t stay long, but I was in Toronto, and I wanted to stop by. To thank you.”
Mr. Yuen laughed. “Thank me?” He shook his head. “The CEO of Jar Innovations wants to thank me. The man who mapped the mind?”
“You were formative.”
Mr. Yuen’s eyes grew a little wet. “I… Well. That’s incredible. Thank you. Or, you’re welcome, I suppose.”
William held out his hand. After a second, Mr. Yuen shook it. When he pulled it back, he turned the palm up.
“Sorry,” William said. “It’s wet out there.” He handed the man a handkerchief.
“It’s fine,” Mr. Yuen said. “Did you want a coffee? Or… I probably have something else I can offer, but I’m honestly a little star-struck.”
“No. I have somewhere to be.” William lifted his suitcase. “But believe it or not, my latest project began with you.”
William handed the suitcase over. The Canadian agent nodded to Weiss, and Weiss kept his gun aimed while he carefully opened the case. It wasn’t locked.
“It’s empty,” the Canadian said.
“What?” Weiss snapped.
“I imagine you were expecting vials?” William said to the two men.
They both looked at him. The Canadian glanced down. “The sewers?”
William shook his head. “I did consider it. Which is why we’re all here. It seemed important to give you both the idea that there was… hope.”
Weiss swallowed, but his gun didn’t waver. “What did you do?”
“I deceived your expectations,” William said. “You believe I’ve released a toxin, no?”
Weiss and the Canadian agent shared another glance, clearly unnerved.
“Agent Weiss, you’re not going to shoot me,” William said. “I shook hands with your personal trainer two months ago. Nice man.”
“What?” Weiss said.
“You and he often touch each other—” William raised a hand. “I know, I know, your masculinity probably requires me to make sure I qualify that as ‘friendly’ touches, which is ridiculous, but I’ll pander to your need.”
“What are you talking about?” Weiss said, clearly angry now. But not furious.
“Try to shoot me, Agent Weiss,” William said.
“What?” Weiss scowled.
The Canadian agent glanced back and forth between the two of them. “Don’t.”
“I’m not going to shoot him,” Weiss said.
“Technically, post-transmission, Pandora only needs fifteen days on the average to take effect, but it has taken as much as thirty for some. No one has taken two months, though.” William started to walk toward the agents.
Both men aimed their weapons again, the suitcase forgotten.
“Let’s make this even clearer,” William said, and reached into his jacket.
Both agents reacted, yelling, telling him to keep his hands down, but…
…neither shot him.
William smiled. “Are you getting it now?” He pulled the pen out from his inner suit pocket.
Weiss stared at the gun in his hand. “I… I can’t.”
“Don’t worry,” William said. “It’s not just you.”
In the car, Billy’s parents were predictable. His mother told him to just ignore the bullies—that particular method had already proven completely ineffective. His father remained stonily silent. He believed Billy needed to throw a punch back, but he’d only say so in private.
Alas, that method had also proven ineffective.
“If you leave them alone,” his mother said again. “They won’t want to hurt you.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Billy said. “I think they do want to hurt me.”
His father’s hands tightened on the steering wheel, and Billy thought that, perhaps, his father might want to hurt him as well, in some small way. Or the other kids. The ones that kept hurting him. It wasn’t clear.
“It won’t be forever,” his mother said. That was another tired refrain.
It seemed to Billy that wasn’t true either. In fact, it seemed to him that was a perfect example of the kind of hope Mr. Yuen was talking about today in class. Deceptive expectation.
People hurt other people. You’d have to change people completely if you wanted to make that untrue.
“Where is…” Billy paused, seeking words. It happened a lot. Often, he didn’t know the words he wanted, and had to spend time with the dictionary and thesaurus to find them. “Anger?” It wasn’t the right word.
“I don’t understand, honey,” his mother said. Boy, was that something he heard a lot.
“Inside,” Billy tried again. “Where does anger come from?”
“Everything’s in the brain,” his father said. “It’s all the brain.” He said it in the tone he used to close a conversation, so Billy knew he’d have to live with that for now.
What part of the brain, though?