By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: Write about a person with a strange collection. Maybe it’s flawed stamps produced between 1949 and 1959, or abandoned left shoes, or – gulp – body parts. What is this character’s collection? How did it get started? What makes it so important to the character?
As the sun began its gentle descent, Arthur trudged across the sidewalk and into the heart of the construction site. He didn’t bother to look at the neighbors’ homes. After driving through the community every evening for the past two weeks, he knew that the people who lived in this cul-de-sac wouldn’t come home for another hour.
He stopped moving for a moment and surveyed the progress on the house.
Glad the rain finally let up, he thought.
He peered into the cavernous hole created by the digging trucks and admired the way the gargantuan machines had packed the sides of the hole. Who knew that such bulky machines could create such neat squares in the ground? If the homeowners came to visit, they’d have no problem seeing the start of the basement that they would have seen only on paper up to this point.
The thought of the homeowners made Arthur check over his shoulder.
Come on, Artie, no sense in dilly-dallying. You don’t want to have to explain to people what you’re doing out here.
He nodded to himself as if in reprimand and moved back from the basement area then turned to the mound of dirt sitting in what would eventually be the home’s back yard, fished a small glass vial out of his pocket, and scooped some dirt into it. Taking a moment to brush the dirt off the vial, he pressed a cork stopper into the vial and tucked it into his pocket. Then he studied the site again.
This was always the hardest part: getting ready to leave. After doing this as long as he had, after all the vials he’d collected, a body would think it easy to just walk away. Instead, Arthur stopped to look. He always stopped to look, and he always had to convince himself to leave.
For once he wished he could climb into the basement hole and just lie there. Just enjoy the feel of the earth around him, its coolness crumbling over his fingers and face. Just breathe in the scent of nature without the smell of smoke.
That’s enough, Artie. No thoughts about smoke today. You need to leave.
He sighed long and deep and hung his head, ashamed that his conscience had to remind him not to look back. There wasn’t any point. He couldn’t change what happened. He could only move ahead.
Arthur trudged back across the sidewalk and down the street. He turned left at the corner and kept walking. Then he pulled out his smartphone and called for an Uber.
Of all the modern marvels in the world, the smartphone still made his insides tingle with awe. The computer had done that for a while—made him feel like his entire body was vibrating with stardust about to burst outward—but the smartphone took the cake. An entire computer in his palm. The internet; information, readily available. Information about foreign countries and how to prevent simple fires.
Arthur shook his head and deleted his browsing history, even though no one would check the phone. He had no one left to do so. Everyone else was long gone.
The beeping of the Uber made him look up, and with a little struggle he opened the back door of the small sedan. The bored teenage girl glanced at him once in the rearview mirror to make sure he’d settled in then didn’t bother looking at him again for the rest of the ride. Not even when he thanked her for dropping him right outside his condo. She shrugged in response, and Arthur tried to remember to swing the door of the car hard enough to shut.
He was still intrigued by cars too.
“Afternoon, Mr. Jones,” a voice called.
Arthur raised a hand to Jonathan, the young professor who lived in the condo next to his. With little swabs of white peeking from his ears, Jon just grinned at Arthur and waved back. He checked the street once or twice before beginning his evening jog. Arthur watched him for a minute.
Wonder what it would be like to be young in this decade.
He shook his head at his foolishness. Why would he want to be young when he had something better? Never mind that no one else knew about it. Never mind that he had no idea how long he’d have this…gift. If he could call it that. He had it and no one else did.
He took off his shoes on the small boot tray just inside the door and wiggled his toes in their socks then crossed the small living space and went down the short hallway to the second bedroom. Arthur only needed the one bedroom for himself, so he used the second one for his collection. He reached into his pocket, closed his fingers around the vial, and entered the room where he stored the others.
The room itself was a basic one. About twelve feet by ten feet, it would have been the perfect size for a child’s room. Arthur had no children, though. Not anymore, anyway. They’d all died from old age, and after burying them and his three wives Arthur decided he was better off alone.
He was also tired of explaining his collection to family.
He shuffled across the room to the wooden case on the left wall. He had to think of it like that now. The left wall. Earlier, when the collection was smaller, he just used suitcases. Then, as the years and then the decades passed, and everyone he loved started dying, and Arthur spent more time expanding his collection.
A small puff of pride him stretch his chest for just a moment. He had vials from all over. A few decades earlier, before he hit his hundredth birthday, he’d gone around the globe a few times and visited construction sites all over. Collected dirt. Brought back the vials. Put them in the cases.
Because somewhere along the way, he’d moved to this small Midwestern town, found this condo, and had cases custom-built to hang on the walls. Each case held…he forgot now how many. A lot. A lot of vials. A lot of vials and a lot of homes and schools and office towers and grocery stores being built.
I bet Willie couldn’t have collected this many, he thought of his old childhood friend.
The memories came back then, like they always did when he added to the collection, and his shoulders rounded as he went to the left wall and added the latest vial.
The dare. The cigarette, ignited then thrown into the darkness of the barn when they all thought Willie’s pa was coming. The spark. The flames that started in the hay strewn across the ground, dry from weeks of no rain.
The flames that crossed the prairie and burned into the memories of people’s hearts and minds as they lost family, businesses.
Somehow Arthur had survived all that. Survived the guilt that followed him across the country. That night Willie had shoved him into a run, and Arthur ran. He never looked back, never stopped to find out whether Willie got into trouble, took the blame, even lived.
As a 15-year-old, scarred by the memories and the fire, Arthur made his way to California. Most of the gold rush was over by then, but there had been talk of it in Alaska. Arthur never made it that far. Instead, he joined up at a construction site and started building houses. The swing of the hammer and the rasping of the saw were the only things that kept the guilt at bay.
When he got too old to build houses, he managed the company that did. And he started keeping dirt from all the homes he oversaw. He still didn’t know what did it—maybe his commitment to right that awful wrong—but he lived. Longer than his kids, his wives, than the excitement at Kitty Hawk and the rescue of Dunkirk, longer than the protests on Vietnam to now.
Arthur sighed again, left the room, and shut the door on the vials and his memories.