Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday: "Running To Stand Still"

[This week, the lightfingered Larrys and Lavernes at Flash Fiction Friday present us with the following prompt: take the first sentence from a book you DO NOT own on page 84, and begin a story about a robbery with that sentence. I am currently reading a library book about Deepwater Horizon called "Run To Failure," and the SECOND sentence on page 84 is too good to ignore. This story is called "Running To Stand Still"]

It was an oversized challenge. Erin sat back, crossed her legs and stared at the file cabinets. There were five of them, sitting there in institutional tan repose, mocking her. When she stood, they came up to her waist. They were deep, deep enough that you could imagine taking a nap on top of one. She was sitting now, having pushed a simple rolling chair into the file room. "Why stand when you can sit," her mother always advised, and when she started wearing heels to work every day, she suddenly saw the wisdom in that.

They had gathered everyone they could spare in a large conference room that morning. Everyone knew that the company had been all over the news, allegations being hurled, and opinion makers talking about jail terms and bankruptcy. What they needed, the regional director told them, was a memo written at some point in the last decade. They knew who wrote it, but the company had been bought and spun off and bought again so many times, the files were a mess. One regime filed by author, then the next would file by topic, then one would file by date, and nobody ever bothered to go back and refile the old papers according to the new scheme.

The home office wanted to find that memo, the boss told them, his Boston accent creeping out at the edges. They needed us to find it. It would prove their innocence, and refute the claims of the author's son, who was all over the news shows describing how his father had told him about the memo, saying he knew it was going to fail well before it did, and those idiots wouldn't listen. The boss assured them it wasn't so, that if they had known, they would have followed the experts' advice, but they had to find the proof that the memo didn't advise that.

Erin sighed. She could hear the shuffling of papers and the banging of drawers elsewhere in the room. When she looked around, she saw heads of colleagues popping up now and then, like a Whack A Mole game. Everyone else was working, so she may as well start. She started on the left, on the top drawer. When she sat in front of the cabinet, she could open the drawer and shuffle through the papers, easily scanning enough of the pages to read them.

She felt the first little wave of hunger as she worked her way through the top drawer. The company generated an astounding amount of paper- reports, memos, invoices, summaries of projects, proposals, bills of sale, letters, all manner of business done and undone, records of employees long dead explaining work that no one could remember. Her thoughts skipped idly as her eyes wandered, checking each page. Her stomach growled insistently.

She thought about a donut, picturing the open box that she saw in the break room that morning. She knew better than to touch them- she made herself picture an hour on the treadmill every time she saw one. As good as they tasted, she reminded herself, and she could imagine the soft, melting sugar on her lips, dissolving instantly in her mouth, as sinful and lovely as they were, they didn't taste so good that they were worth the effort to remove the fat from her thighs. She wasn't even 30, and she already felt herself sliding. All her workouts, all her running, and the scale never budged. She was running to stand still, no longer trying to lose, just trying not to gain.

If I write a memoir, Erin decided, that's what I'll call it. "Running To Stand Still". Not progressing, not growing, just fighting to stay where you are. Professionally, personally, with her family, in her life, just stuck in concrete. Her boyfriend Gregory was fine, her still single friends were OK, her apartment was nice, but she knew in her heart that her life was a series of compromises and deals, solidly middle of the pack. She flipped through a dozen similar sounding purchase orders, her mind flipping idly.

She nearly missed it. There was a company logo in the top left, the boss had said, and the memo was going to be called Forward Assessment of Risks and Benefits. She was trying to think of where she wanted to have lunch when part of her brain flashed that maybe she had actually seen it as she avidly flipped. She stopped, looked back through the last several sheets she had checked, and there it was. She looked around, and no one was looking her way, so she quickly devoured the text.

The key was right there, as plain as day. Under a stamp that read "Reviewed and Acknowledged," there were two paragraphs of boilerplate, then the truth of the matter. "I strongly recommend we reconsider," the author had noted in June 1999. "this course will not prove fruitful, and will indeed expose the company to liability and our clients to real danger." Erin read the words again, to make sure she hadn't misunderstood. She hadn't. They knew. And they lied about it.

Erin felt her heart pounding inside her chest. She sat up for a moment, the paper resting on top of the file. There still wasn't anyone looking. She could destroy it, and the company would go on. Could she live like that? But did she trust them to reveal it, either? Or would she hand it in only to have some vice president run it through the shredder, followed by a sudden layoff that for some reason only affected her?

She felt sweaty, although the file room was cool. "Just because you're paranoid," her mother once advised, "that doesn't mean they're not out to get you." Erin saw her hands folding the memo, quickly pressing it into a tiny square that she slid subtly into the heel of one shoe. She looked around the room again, but no one was paying her any mind. She didn't know what she was going to do with the paper, either mail it to the New York Times or tear it into tiny pieces and throw it into the river. She wasn't sure how to proceed, Erin thought as she bent to her task again, pretending to continue the search. But she wasn't standing still any more.


  1. This is really grand. There's so much more here than simply an employee looking for a memo. Digging through files resulted in a life-changing decision, although we have to guess what her final decision would be. Thing is though, she won't do 'nothing' this time, as she probably would have done yesterday. Today, no more 'running to stand still'. Terrific!

  2. I like the subtle shift from the boring memo search to her grumbling stomach and daydreams about her life. We know she's going to make a choice later, but not obvious which way she will go.

  3. A wonderful description of a rather mundane and routine task. The description of the sensual nature of the donuts on the lips was wonderful. Mother's admonitions were great touches.


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