Three. Two. One.

Postscript’s short fiction contest: Second place

Mitch Crouse is the second place winner of Postscript's short fiction contest.
Image by: Joshua Chan
Mitch Crouse is the second place winner of Postscript's short fiction contest.


You’d be amazed what you can remember in a few seconds. How many different thoughts can flow simultaneously through your constant comedown brain. How many years can stretch themselves over your trembling body in three seconds. Paths forking in all directions like tree branches are suddenly clear-cut. Choices disappear. Things that seem appalling and abhorrent can suddenly seem justifiable, excusable, even honourable.

Just as the complicated becomes simple, the simple stretches out, fragmented, becomes twisted. A straight line becomes the scattered powdery residue of an old-school junkie’s latest dose. The constant pain in your gut, the feeling of something stuck in your throat, becomes more than that. You can feel everything you’ve eaten in the past couple days, all the pills turning over in the pit of your stomach. The steely taste of blood becomes the whole world. Everything that ever happened is hidden in the molecules of the metallic blood in your mouth. Big bangs in every drop of blood slowly caking to your dyed hair.

And then you’re found asking yourself that hard question: Why? Why do we dye our hair, what do we hope to accomplish by colouring a cluster of follicles on our head? Why do we poke holes in our flesh, dangling bits of steel that glitter and glow in the flashing lights of the underground, in the subculture? Trying to define ourselves with aesthetics. With implants. With acidic dyes and dirty needles. With sex. With ink tattooed to our skin. With clothing. With fashion. In a nanosecond, in the time it takes your brain to fire one synapse, you can realize it doesn’t matter. None of that matters.

All of these thoughts hit you at once, tying your hands tightly behind your back and bludgeoning you until you bleed. That steely taste in your mouth.


It’s funny how many memories you can remember in a second. As the universe is being born and dying. It’s funny how many intimate moments you remember. Little moments from your life. Other people’s lives. It’s funny what you remember.

I was nine. We were at my grandma’s house. Back then, memories were your own. Everywhere, little white specks of frost clung to street signs, to the side of the house, to car windows. The bushes in her front yard were all bare, gnarled and twisted. The car was on, warming up. My breath appeared in front of me like little clouds of smoke from the chimney of my throat, reaching out of the home of my lungs. I would blow hard and then watch the little clouds dissipate, snaking away ghost-like until the air was clear and cold again. It was cold; my cheeks were burning. My jacket was blue and puffy; I remember the feel of the nylon-derived outer layer and the shuffling sound it made when I brushed up against something.

The car was breathing a giant cloud of smoke. I blew hard at the cloud, my breath absorbed into the larger cloud of the car’s exhaust. I began to play in the car’s breath. Jumping at the smoky cloud and watching the tendrils wrap around my blue jacket. I begin to dance in the car’s breath, breathing in its strange-smelling fumes. As I danced in the exhaust I forgot where I was, running through the thick grey cloud, jumping through it. Waving my blue-draped arms through it. Watching it wrap around my legs and run from my khakis as I kicked at it.

My father was back at the car then, staring at me for a few moments. Then he was yelling. What the hell was I doing? Did I want to get myself killed? Dancing in poisonous gas like that. What was I thinking? For a smart kid …

Memories were your own, back then. Real, fleshy memories were separate from digital memories. You couldn’t remember someone else’s life for them. You could try. They could say, “Hey, remember this number” and you could try to remember it, but there was never any guarantee that you would. But now, now I remember that little girl as my whole life flashes past me like television static, like the crackling of old dial-up Internet. So does hers.

She, too, is nine years old. She’s wearing a green dress with white socks and little black shoes made from that shiny fake leather that was popular in the 20th century. Her shoes have big silver buckles on them. Scrubbed clean and gleaming with the reflections of the bare room around her. She is looking up quizzically, her face still round with baby fat. Her hair is tied in two ponytails with little green ribbons that match her dress. The deep green of her dress reminds me of what Christmas used to be like when we could still afford a tree. She hesitantly wanders the room, exploring its crevices and fixings like children do. She stoops to examine the thick dark hardwood floors and her ponytails fall in front of her face. She brushes them away with a pale white hand as she stands back up.

I remember the thick oak bookcases, empty save for the lowest shelves that a child could reach. The lower shelves were filled with a rainbow of colours and titles, which the girl examined for a few moments before growing bored and crossing to the bed, which along with a loveseat, was the only furniture in the room. She flopped onto the bed, began bouncing playfully on it. I remember the number on the neutrally painted door and the address of the building. And the city and country. I even know how to get there from the airport. I remember how the fear in her family’s eyes reminded me of myself, when I was caught dancing in exhaust.


I’d named my price and they’d paid it. But when he’d shown up everything seemed wrong. His black suit was wrong. The gun already out of its holster was wrong. The way he asked for the information. How the money came from three different accounts. It was all wrong. I didn’t know why he wanted to know where the girl was being held, but I could tell it wasn’t for a good reason. I couldn’t shake the fear in her family’s eyes when they’d asked me to store the data in my brain. The family had paid me and they’d paid for the operation, a small microchip had been fastened to my brain, feeding the limited memories stored there into mine. I said I couldn’t tell them, said I’d give their money back. I knew it wouldn’t work, but I’d tried.

And then I was on my knees on the floor of my flat, my hands bound tightly behind my back. Blood streamed from my head. The universe, my life, her life, all flashed before my eyes with the barrel of a gun in my mouth. I was shaky and sweating. I was nervous. I don’t know how often you’ve had a gun shoved down your throat, but it’s a nerve-racking experience. Maybe I should just tell them? If they’re that determined to know where she is they’ll find her some other way. Surely … they’ll find her another way.

I heard the shuffle of other footsteps in the hallway. He had not come alone. His voice was calm and cool as he told me that after he’d killed me they’d extract the chip and lift the data from it, so why didn’t I just tell them? “It’s wired to my brain,” I thought. “It needs oxygen to function. If you kill me the chip will malfunction and the data will be wiped.” I don’t say that, of course. He might torture me. If he did, I know I’d talk. I just stared up at him, trying to stop shaking so God-damned much. Trying to conceal the fear I knew was in my eyes.

Maybe this will redeem me for some of the things I’ve done. It’s true that I haven’t exactly been a boy scout.

All my memories began to converge. As I stared into his eyes all I could think about were bright shoe buckles, the fear in those eyes, cars breathing exhaust. He slowly glanced at his watch, an old-fashioned digital watch with a silver band. He told me I had three seconds to tell him where the girl was, then he began counting down.

And I was amazed at how much could change in three seconds.

The universe unfolded before me. I saw the foolishness of so much that we do. I danced in car exhaust, saw a little girl walking around a bare room, remembered the fear in her family’s eyes. Had a gun in my mouth and hands tied behind my back. Had blood dripping down my head.

It’s the last second now. I don’t find God. The world doesn’t reveal all its mysteries to me, no electronic puzzle pieces slide into place. There’s no tunnel and there’s no light. I don’t feel sorry, I don’t beg; I don’t regret. I do shake. I do sweat and my knees still hurt like hell. But I don’t cry. Don’t even think about telling him what he wants to know. There are no more choices. All the paths have disappeared. I don’t pray. All I want is a cigarette or a beer. All I can see is my head exploding into a cloud of red car exhaust.


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