by Rajiv Moté (Flash fantasy, 500 words)
Palms slide on palms, knuckles bump. Tail lights turn the corner. The stereo’s thump fades into the city. Bayard stands at the mouth of the dark alley. His smile dies.
The English accented voiceover says the gazelles know there are lions nearby. See how they keep watch. Tense.
Predators hunt here. Shapeshifters: Adze. But after a night of swagger, your friends don’t walk you to your door. “You can’t live in fear,” they say. But they do. Every damn day. The mayor wants more police, but police can’t tell Adze from human beings. Everyone’s a predator. Everyone’s prey.
The gazelles don’t run. The lions would follow until the gazelles exhausted themselves. Instead they conserve energy, watch, and wait.
The alley to his back gate is a football field’s distance. Bayard trains to run these lengths. He was recruited for it. It’s his way out, if he walks the straight and narrow and stays lucky. Dad’ll be awake, watching nature shows. Waiting for Bayard to come home.
The Englishman reassures that this is Nature’s way, strengthening the herd by preserving a predator-prey ratio allowing all to thrive.
Dad lost his legs in Afghanistan. Mom’s boyfriend helped with the V.A. paperwork. Mom and Grandma Alice still check in. They mind Jackson sometimes because he’s Bayard’s little brother. Bayard tied a whole family together by being born. Like every family he knows. Community isn’t strengthened by killings. Each death is an ever-bleeding wound.
Prey far outnumbers predators. If gazelles understood the power of numbers, would they tolerate lions? Perhaps they evolved an innate fatalism, muting the horror of becoming prey.
A bottle rolls across broken pavement. Bayard listens for the wind that could have rolled it. Our survival instincts evolved in Africa, where humanity was born. Someday he’d like to go. Not to the murder plains in Dad’s shows, but to the cities where engineers devise ways for people to flourish despite scarcity. He dreams of becoming one of those engineers.
Two lionesses hide in the high grass while a third charges the edge of the herd. Gazelles scatter, and she pursues the one fleeing toward the trap.
Bayard’s classmate was found ripped open, his heart and liver eaten. Dreams reduced to meat. The minister quoted Psalm 23:4, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” Make your faith bigger than your fear. Ain’t nobody’s faith that big.
The second lioness rears up. The gazelle pivots and runs straight toward the last one’s waiting jaws.
He could call Dad. Get him into his wheelchair to turn on the porch light and wait for Bayard to sprint home. Unless he’d send Jackson. Instead, he texts “I love you Dad.”
The gazelle senses its mistake. But evolution made terror a source of renewed speed, not despair. Sometimes it’s enough.
Bayard’s Nikes crunch the gravel of the broken pavement, defying instinct. Sometimes you have to try. Where every day you survive is a miracle, that’s faith.
This was an entry in Pseudopod‘s 2021 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by readers. It advanced to the second round, but lost the good fight there.
Writing a piece for a horror podcast, I tried to dig into the most horrifying thing I could think of. And at that time, there was one horror that loomed large enough to eclipse everything else in my brain. Reading this from a distance, I can see that the rage and despair it was written in don’t really make it onto the page. That’s probably for the best. Though its inspiration hit close to home, it’s not my story to tell. Suffice to say, this is a real horror on any given warm-weather day in Chicago. And the detached, documentary-style commentary and social analysis we hear on the news doesn’t prepare us for when it becomes real for someone we know. It boggles the conscience that we can’t prevent our children from becoming victims in their own communities.