Chuck Wendig’s latest flash fiction challenge: use ten random words of Chuck’s choosing in a 1000 word story.*
Half the willow’s branches were gone, burned away. The damage turned the delicate tree into something grotesque, like the otherwise perfect face of a beautiful woman disfigured by scarring. Fletcher wondered idly if a summer storm was to blame—bolts of merciless lightning pounding the tree, the tallest thing for miles. He heard a familiar whirring sound and stood, dusting off the ash that clung to his trousers. The packed clay beneath it showed evidence that a river once flowed, perhaps feeding the dead willow once upon a time. The dirigible floated effortlessly down several meters away. Fletcher broke into a trot along the dry riverbed, pulling the kerchief tighter over his mouth to keep too much of the ash from invading his lungs.
“Oy, ‘ad a nice day in the country?” a muffled voice greeted him as the door to the dirigible slid open.
“Top notch, Cal,” Fletcher said, digging an elbow into his friend’s side.
“Don’t know why we keep making these runs. There’s nothing to find,” Cal pulled the handkerchief away from his own face and adjusted his goggles as he twiddled some of the controls, sending the dirigible skyward again.
“At least you get to sit around in this oversized balloon while I scrape around in possibly radioactive dust,” Fletcher wiped the sweat off his brow on his sleeve and grimaced at the gray streak it left.
“The Gull is an innovative piece of aircraft, Fletcher McCready,” Cal said, wounded.
“And how many times have you had her up in Grafton’s getting tuned…this week?” Fletcher laughed and grabbed a canteen of water as he lounged back against his seat, glancing out the front windscreen.
“Bugger yourself,” Cal said.
Fletcher made a rude hand gesture in response that Cal couldn’t see and took a swig of water. It was lukewarm, but tasted heavenly after all the dust.
“What were you doing down there anyway?” Cal asked, piloting the dirigible with one hand as he swiveled to look back at Fletcher. “Looked like you were staring at that tree.”
Fletcher shrugged and gulped some more water, but Cal continued to look at him, eyebrows raised above his flying goggles.
“Do you remember the last time you saw a tree—a real one?” Fletcher asked.
“What do you mean, ‘real’? The trees we have in New Utopia aren’t good enough for Master McCready?” Cal adopted a refined accent, turning back to the front of the dirigible. “Perhaps the leaves aren’t quite green enough? Shall I lodge a complaint with the Council of Shrubbery?”
“Oh, sod it,” Fletcher glowered at Cal’s back. “I don’t care what the scientists say. Those things aren’t real; they’re fake, just like half the things in ‘topia.”
“Would you rather live down here? An hour out there and you smell like you’ve been using Eau de Sulfur and Brimstone,” Cal laughed.
“Yes, Calhoun Stuart. I would much rather live in a desert brimming with radioactive particles and under constant threat of atomic destruction,” he mimicked Cal’s tone. “That’s not a life, it’s a long funeral. Prat.”
Cal laughed and they lapsed into silence for the rest of the ride, Fletcher seething inwardly. He knew Cal liked to needle him, but for once, he’d like his best friend to actually listen. No one else noticed—or cared—about things like the trees. Things that captivated Fletcher. He remembered climbing trees outside his old home—the way the bark felt beneath his fingers, the smell of the damp wood when it rained. The trees glistened in New Utopia when it rained. But it wasn’t like the dripping, rain-bejeweled glitter he remembered. It was eerie, unnatural. He was lucky to live in ‘topia, he knew. Topside, people didn’t last long, even with protective masks and suits. After the Last Great War, the air itself turned toxic. Fletcher knew he should wear a mask when they went out on runs to the Waste, but it wasn’t too bad this close to New Utopia.
He picked moodily at a hole in his trousers until he felt the dirigible drop down into the canyon that led into New Utopia. They landed effortlessly and Fletcher had to admire Cal’s skill at the helm; he would crash the Gull in seconds. The heliport doors slid shut over them and it took Fletcher’s eyes a moment to adjust to the sudden darkness compared with the blazing light above. He tried not to grit his teeth as Cal locked down all the controls and they grabbed their knapsacks. He could smell the darkness—the cloying scent of rotting earth and the things that lived in it. The glow-lamps that dotted the passage out of the heliport were a poor substitute for sunlight. A shape moving in the dark in front of them made him reach for his knife before the figure tackled Cal with a clearly female laugh. He curled his lip and skirted his friend, hurrying up the stairs.
Honestly, he thought, you’d think they hadn’t seen each other in months and I know they were snogging before we left this morning.
“Fletch! OY, Fletch!” Cal caught up with him, holding Lilah’s hand.
“Hello, brov,” Lilah smirked.
“What’s the rush?” Cal asked, slightly out of breath.
“Excuse me if I don’t fancy sitting around watching my best mate snog my little sister,” Fletcher said, shifting his grip on his knapsack.
Lilah rolled her eyes, “It’s been bloody months, Fletch. Get over yourself.”
Fletcher shrugged in answer and lengthened his stride. He was taller than Lilah and Cal by several inches and it wasn’t difficult to escape. He had good reason to return home before anyone else—especially including Lilah.
Once back in the pod he and his family called home, he opened the flap of his knapsack. Nestled in the top was a small cutting in a glass jar. Taking something from Topside, especially something living was strictly forbidden. This level of deceit could get him exiled Topside, but Fletcher couldn’t help but smile.
*the ten words: FUNERAL, CAPTIVATE, DECEIT, BRIMSTONE, CANYON, BALLOON, CLAY, DISFIGURED, WILLOW, ATOMIC