Short Fiction ~ Steve Wade
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Prize - 5
Seven months spent in a correctional facility, Martin Daly had been released that morning. His crime – an accumulation of social misdemeanours ranging from language misuse to anti-social behaviour. He had dared to flout the law by having the temerity to put together sentences of his own instead of sticking to the utterances programmed into his brain. But the aberration which really convinced the presiding judge of his delinquency was Daly’s perverted need for the attention of young women his own age.
When he stepped inside the café, its interior set alight a fire in his cheeks. Daly closed his eyes. On the inside of his eyelids, he scrolled down through the latest news.
As usual, most of the headlines concentrated on the deteriorating health of the aging US president, Leonardo DiCaprio. On a double term in office, the media lamented the possibility that he wouldn’t see out his second term. Journalists engaged in their obsession with what his possible successor Yolanda Renee King would bring to office.
Martin Daly opened his eyes and massaged his temples with his fingertips. An old woman dressed in obligatory retirement clothes was leaving a table. The table the old woman had left was full of café detritus. A roboserf appeared and cleared it away. It then asked Daly for his order.
“A rejuvenator,” he said. “With pollen concentrate.”
“Any solids?” it said.
“No,” he said.
It served him. He took a generous gulp.
Stimulated, with the boost from his drink running through him, Daly sat back and went over some of the lessons he’d been given during rehabilitation classes in the correctional facility. Getting himself to a place of temptation was the first step. The next was to look at the women, ensuring he kept to the two-second glance permissible under law.
Martin Daly lifted his mug to his lips, tilted back his head, and drained the dregs of his drink. Now he was ready. Without moving his head, he swept his eyes over the women seated at the tables. He paused, before retracing the arc like a sweeping searchlight. He’d noticed a particular woman. He looked at her, looked away, and again allowed the legally-allocated time to examine her closer. Something clutched at his chest from inside. In the dim light, together with his myopia, he couldn’t be sure. But when he readjusted his eyesight through the controls in his palm, he saw that he was right. This woman was staring at him.
Panic and excitement churned about in his stomach. That’s when he saw across her pretty face break a smile. A smile at him. For him. A wave of dizziness sloshed about behind his eyes. No woman, apart from his surrogate carer as he was growing up, had ever smiled at him.
What to do? Where to look? He raised his hand to his forehead and peered through the mesh of his splayed fingers. Now the woman, while still looking his way, had one of her fingers to her lips, the fingernail of it between her clenched teeth.
As though something outside his own control were pushing him, he found himself getting up and working his way around the tables to her. He watched the tip of a pink tongue slip from her mouth and brush across her upper lip.
“Hey,” Daly said. “There you are.”
“Hi. I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, playing right along.
Using the gesture reserved for breeding couples only, he put his hand on her right shoulder and squeezed. A gesture familiar to every citizen but used by the select few. Next she was on her feet, her hand slipping into his and holding tight. Through his hand and shooting up his arm and into his head, he felt a bolt of lightning.
So this was what it felt like to touch mutually someone of the opposite gender. No wonder the government had long since outlawed such contact as a way of ensuring the world population remained at a sustainable level. Together they made their way towards the exit and out into the street.
The artificially cooled air played about his face, which made him realise it also caressed this woman’s face. It felt strange to consider the effects of the world about him on another. And with her hand clenched in his, the feeling more than a thought came to him about where his body ended and hers began. He didn’t know.
Only now did he understand and fully appreciate the feeling of liberty. Of what it meant to be free. Until this moment, it mattered not whether he spent his days beneath the roof of the correctional facility or plodded through the streets, toing and froing on the mindless journey of drudgery between home and work.
Never had he appreciated the way the simulated evening sunshine gilded the buildings in gold. Nor had he ever really heard the song of the blackbird the way he did the one perched on an overhead shuttle cable. Its full-throated warbling, with its yellow beak open and head pointing at the sky, as stunning a sight as he had ever seen through the streaming in his head.
But reality hadn’t been something anybody could keep away for too long over the past couple of generations. The blackbird’s singing was cut off as though a button had been tapped. The falcon, which had seized the bird in its talons, righted its kill with its beak and toes before lifting off into the sky. A few feathers fluttered about and sailed softly to the ground.
That’s when Martin Daly felt a jolt of electricity rushing through his system. This caused his arms to clamp together at the wrists. Overhead the whirring of a police drone.
“You’re under arrest,” the woman from the café said, and read him his rights. “For attempting to solicit for social engagement someone of the opposite sex.”
Martin Daly clenched his teeth, a sense of relief and dread played about inside his head.
Steve Wade’s award winning short fiction has been widely published and anthologised. He has had stories shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story Competition and for the Hennessy Award. His stories have appeared in over fifty print publications, including Strands Publishing, Fjords, Boyne Berries, Crannog, Bridge House Publishing, New Fables, and Aesthetica Creative Works Annual. He has won First Prize in the Delvin Garradrimna Short Story Competition on four occasions. Winner of the Short Story category in the Write by the Sea writing competition 2019. He was a prize nominee for the PEN/O’Henry Award, and a prize nominee for the Pushcart Prize. www.stephenwade.ie