This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “What Was Left Standing.”
The inspiration for this story came from driving past a road construction site late in the day, where I saw just one worker standing guard over a series of small fires as they burned away the last of the trees where a road would go one day. That image stuck with me, so I used it with the characters of Ellie and Chris from “After the Storm.” “What Was Left Standing” was first published at The Pedestal Magazine, August 2001.
UPDATE — this story and the three other connected stories that I ran at my site are now available as an ebook entitled What Was Left Standing: 4 Stories for just $2.99. You can download the ebook from Amazon or Smashwords and read the stories on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks. Enjoy!
What Was Left Standing
We started the fires at dusk. Jockey pushed the loose trees together with the bulldozer’s blade, and the downed trees in a pile looked like broken bones. Our foreman soaked the first pile with gas, and when he lit a match his hand was surrounded for half a second by fire. It must have been the fumes in the air. Half an hour later, the sixteen piles were burning and everyone else had left but me.
My throat ached from the smoke, so I shut off the dozer and got down in the mud. Cars flashed past on the old two-lane highway next to the site and were gone. We had the trees about cleared out for the new interstate, and I hoped there was more work waiting for us. I turned away from the fires for a second, thinking about little Jen. She was the one my mind always came back to, with her little hands and her red face. Some nights, though, when Jen was screaming her lungs out, I’d leave her with Ellie’s mother and go driving, just to get away. I once drove two hours into another state before turning back. It had been Ellie’s idea for us to move in with her mother.
I walked back to the dozer, the mud pulling at my worn-out boots, and climbed onto the cold seat. My legs felt heavy all of a sudden. When I looked at my watch, it was already 9:30. Jockey told me I could leave around one, when the fires had about burned themselves out. Just as I was letting up on the clutch and giving it gas in front of a pile of burning logs, my left boot slipped. The dozer jumped forward and my head snapped back. By the time I got my boot back on the clutch, I was sitting in the middle of the fire. I grabbed the gear stick and jammed it into what I thought was reverse. My right foot felt like it was on fire. This was a stupid way to die. I hit the gas pedal and nearly fell off the seat when the dozer’s wheels jerked in the mud and stalled. I pulled the gearshift again and restarted the engine. I backed up twenty feet before stopping, and the dozer rocked in the mud, backfired, and stalled.
Coughing and spitting, I looked down at my right boot. The hole I had worn into it last month was black and smoking. I probably had a good burn on my foot, but I couldn’t feel it yet. My heart was beating too fast for me to feel anything. I’d have to cover the hole with some duct tape when I got home. Ellie never let me forget how much everything cost, no matter if I needed something or not. “Think about the baby,” she’d always say, and that would be the end of the discussion.
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