On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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There are rules, Farran thought. There are lots of rules.
Society was full of them. How to behave, and how not to. What to do, what to avoid, what to say and what to keep to yourself. What to tell yourself that you felt, and what to pretend you didn’t feel even though really you did.
He sat on the bench in the park for the first time, having walked right past it on an uncounted number of occasions previously. It was a nice bench. The kind of bench that people paid to have dedicated to a loved one who had died. Which brought Farran back to the principal matter of the day.
It had all began as it probably always did. Mysterious aches that became pains. Complaints about middle age. Then appointments with the doctor, and reassurance but without improvement, then further appointments to press the matter. And then eventually, grudgingly, the proper tests — and then more, too soon afterwards to be routine. Ultimately, a summons to see the latest doctor. Farran had known it couldn’t be good, but he had resolutely refused to believe that it could be particularly bad either. Denial was a powerful thing.
The meeting, as it had been called — as if they were discussing something substantially more mundane than Farran’s life itself — was half an hour ago, and had already began to blur in his memory. Words and phrases stood out, but as disconnected fragments that were too charged with energy and import to ever clump together into sentences.
Stage four. Metastasised. Aggressive. Inoperable.
There had been other words too. Many of them, delivered softly and earnestly as if about a dear relative rather than himself, but Farran could barely bring them to mind now. The gist was clear. He’d been obliviously losing a battle for quite some time, and was abruptly faced with a choice which boiled down to a rock and a hard place: die soon, after invasive and damaging and painful treatment whose only possible outcome was prolonging suffering while calling it life instead, or die very soon without doing anything at all.
The doctor had spoken as if the former option was the only one, and the grey-haired man had seemed surprised when Farran abruptly stood up and walked out of his office and indeed the building, without another word.
Because there are rules, even for situations like this, he thought, his gaze fastening onto what was quite likely the most beautiful robin he’d ever seen. Or perhaps the only robin he’d ever seen properly, with his full ability to perceive beauty.
He didn’t plan to accept treatment. He had already decided on that. And he knew that his family and friends wouldn’t understand. They would say that it was denial, or anger, or even selfishness. They would say that it was shock, and that he should and would reconsider, but that he must do so soon. But that would all just be their own shock and selfishness talking.
The young man passing by the bench must have been twenty-five years old at the most. He was dressed casually, phone blasting music without headphones or a care in the world, wilfully oblivious to the glares he was receiving from anyone who caught sight of him as the source of the noise pollution. There were rules for this, too, Farran knew. The rule of largely ignoring the impoliteness of others, or at least not making a scene about it, lest your own rudeness compound theirs, and the downfall of society would surely follow. There were rules.
“Not today,” Farran said, quietly but aloud, and with one last regretful glance at the robin still perched on the nearby branch, he stood up and quickly closed the distance between the bench and the inconsiderate young man. Farran said nothing at all, but he did take the phone and then lift it briefly over his head before hurling it with full force onto the concrete path. The sound it made, both an abrupt ceasing of the hateful music, and in the same instant a shattering and splintering as pieces of plastic, glass, and electronics were scattered across the path and onto the grassy verge, was satisfying.
The young man stared at Farran with a look of utter incomprehension on his face, and Farran knew exactly why.
“There are rules,” he said, drawing back his fist with a feeling very much like glee and exuberance for the first time in decades, “but I’m opting out.”
The young man dropped like a stone, unconscious before his head struck the ground, and Farran knew that his own knuckles and hand and wrist, and possibly elbow and shoulder, would make him suffer tomorrow.
But not today, he thought.
Today, as it turned out, wasn’t for fearing tomorrow or next week or next month. Certainly not for fearing next year, which he would never see. No, today was apparently for redressing the balance of things. He had played by all of the rules for all of his life, turning the other cheek, being courteous in the face of discourtesy, considerate in the face of inconsideration, and generally just propping the whole thing up. And what had it got him?
A diagnosis. And a quiet moment in the park, interrupted by rudeness and selfishness. So to hell with every one of them. To hell with every rule. They could do nothing to him anymore, not really. He had nothing to lose.
And in what little time he had left, by god, he was going to show them how to live.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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