Short Fiction ~ Peter Wallace
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 13
He did it with swift grace, almost politely, so I wouldn’t be disturbed. My backpack levitated, and I felt the straps jiggle my hands on its way off my body. As I turned, looking down so I could pick the backpack off the sidewalk, I saw him running already, my pack flying in one hand. I felt myself falling towards him, reaching out, and that started the run.
I yelled, “Stop him!” Just like in the movies. Him crashing into people, me chasing, scarcely avoiding people as they careened out of the way. He was shapeless, jeans, faded red hoodie, small, quick in his bright white shoes. Already the scattered people on lower 7th Avenue were sucked back into his wake like dust after a truck speeds through, turning to see what had happened.
He couldn’t take that backpack, I pleaded. Please, no.
The light at the corner was against him. He ran out fast, his body curving to dodge a maroon Toyota, but the car caught him and snapped his shinbone. His cry was high-pitched. Immediately a circle widened around him like he was a stone plopped into a pond. He was on his side facing under the car when I got to him, my pack just beyond his reach on the asphalt. A young woman came out of the car, trembling with tears, unable to speak or even breathe. She saw my culprit move and she choked a sob, still having visions of death in her head.
The perpetrator turned over with a moan and a sharp intake of breath. I breathed in, too.
It was a girl, maybe 13 years old.
Her long dark hair was shoved out the side of the hood. Her dark eyes were full of water. Her lip had a small smear of blood. She tried to turn her grimace into a smile as she saw me.
“Don’t tell them,” she whispered. “Ayee!” Her shin was at an angle in the middle, and she could barely breathe with the pain.
“Don’t move,” I said, reaching to support her shoulder.
She flinched at my touch but gestured me closer. “What’s so valuable?” she whispered.
“What do you mean?”
“In the backpack. What did I almost get?”
I was mystified. “Nothing.”
“But in Starbuck’s you said it was going to last the rest of your life.” She was pleading. “You said.”
I suddenly knew what she was talking about. I’d been sitting with Roger in Starbuck’s. He was listening again as I tried to figure out again what I was going to do. I had Kaliope’s pages with me, the ones she’d worked so hard on the last few months, that she’d finished just before the accident. They hadn’t been out of my possession for more than a shower for weeks, weeks that rang more hollow with every added hour.
“You misunderstood.” I sat on the pavement and pulled the backpack to me.
A woman in a white blouse and costume jewelry caught my eye and pointed down the sidewalk, mouthing an advisory: Police.
I looked at the girl. “I said treasure, you idiot. I said it was my life’s treasure.”
The girl tried to sit. “So what was it?”
“Like a Harry Potter book?”
“Yeah,” I scoffed. “Exactly.”
I got to my feet and felt a policeman’s hand on my elbow. I began to pull away, and it tightened.
The girl pointed at me, shouting. “He shoved me in front of a God damned car, broke my fucking leg.”
“You stole my backpack, little girl. So just—”
The cop turned me around but the girl kept talking to my back.
“There’s nothing in your backpack. You just told me.”
“I just told you – ”
“Why would I steal nothing?” She at last was able to sit up and lean against the shiny bumper of the maroon car. She seemed so small and young. “Broke my fucking leg.”
Another cop came up, his ham-shaped hand clasping the top of my pack. “Is this yours, sir?”
“Yes, you can see – ”
The wiry piano-playing hand on my elbow stopped me from reaching.
The ham-handed cop opened the backpack. “What’s in here?” he asked, as though already sure it contained contraband.
“It’s none of your — She stole—”
He pulled out the manuscript. “What is this?”
I held out my hand. “Give it to me.”
The cop read. “Is your name Kaliope?”
“Bob — ” said the cop who held me.
“Give me that!” I screamed. I leapt at him, yanking my arm away from the policeman who held me. The cop in front of me let go of Kaliope’s pages to grab my arm, twisting it until my elbow popped, dull and loud. Tears came. It was almost a relief.
The cop spread me over the hood of the maroon car. The young woman driver called out something in Korean, her hand covering her mouth. I could see an ambulance just pulling up as the girl in the red hoodie lay back on the pavement and closed her eyes. A young man had his cell phone out and was videoing, saying loudly, “You wouldn’t do this if he was white.”
When the cop not-Bob cuffed me, he said as he turned me around, “Sorry, man. I got to.”
I saw all the pages fluttering down the avenue. They caught the wind, a few going in jerking curls up towards the buildings. Her book was as dismembered as her body in the crash. The faint flicker of the sheets of paper on the street was whispering the same promises as a lifetime scattered into a careless breeze. All my faith scattered. All my memory scattered. All my hope that this wasn’t real — scattered. I would never be able to track down those words.
My knees started to fold. I leaned against the cop, who held me up like he was a different person. He was the one who kept me from falling.
Peter Wallace’s first novel, Speaker, was published in 2020. He has received a number of fellowships, and got his MFA at Yale School of Drama. He has directed and taught extensively, including a stint as Chair of Theater at Eugene Lang College at New School University. Through Bard College, he taught writing practices in Myanmar, Turkey, and Russia, and is also on the Language and Thinking faculty there. He has been a fisherman, a motorcycle bum, an interfaith minister, a sculptor and a bodywork therapist. He lives in Oregon, where he teaches playwriting, and answers the phone at the suicide hotline.