(NYCMidnight Flash Fiction Short Story contest, thriller, pocket knife, picket line)
“Hey Hey Ho Ho, Malcor greed has got to go!” Kendra mouths the chant so nobody notices her lack of shouting. Her feet are hot in her boots and ache from walking endless circles. The picket sign makes her bra straps dig in. She rubs one weary shoulder; it isn’t even lunchtime. Despite the fatigue, Kendra appreciates the solidarity on the picket line; it’s new and rousing, if overly loud.
Cars line up waiting to enter the plant. They open the barricade every half hour; the drivers honk and shake angry fists while waiting. Marching bodies around her spit out the word “scabs” like a curse but it’s actually only been management and press. Still, Kendra nods in vague agreement.
A lot needs to change at Malcorp. Kendra doesn’t fully understand what, but she could use a pay raise and for her asthma inhalers to be covered.
The asthma began about nine months after she started at Malcorp – occupational asthma the diagnosis. She coughs just thinking about it and pulls her puffer from her pocket, giving it the required vigorous shake. Nearby, Brad pulls out his own inhaler and raises it toward her. “Cheers,” he says, smiling. She returns the gesture, smiles shyly and looks away. She turns slightly to take her puff. Brad has smiled at her before.
Flushed from this exchange, Kendra slips into the rest area for a break. She grabs a donated muffin and cuts it with her pocket knife, saving half for later.
Lisa and Kelly, two women from her line, are also taking breaks. They exchange companionable nods. There’s no use trying to speak – the chants of ‘Hey hey, ho ho. Malcorp greed has got to go” would just drown them out. She doesn’t talk much in the cafeteria at work either, preferring to quietly read. She likes these co-workers though. She does actually like her job – or at least not hate it.
Anxious to rest her feet, she takes a seat and idly checks Twitter, scrolling the protest hashtags. Reports of increased asthma have bolstered support from the public. Kendra coughs, and checks email. Messages from the Union, messages from Malcorp – she swipes away each tedious email when one subject catches here eye – “Let’s break them today”
It’s to Kendra.Macpherson – she’s Kendra.McPherson. This happened once before – figuring it was someone in management, Kendra had been too nervous to report it and had discreetly deleted that message. This one though – maybe this one she should read.
“Let’s break them today.”
“Actors set. N and P to break down barricade. Security to jam cell reception. Actors instructed to cross picket. Security has pepper spray ready.”
Pepper spray? Are they expecting a riot? Kendra is filled with dread as she realizes they’re inciting a riot, just to shut it down. Her lungs can’t stand up to pepper spray. Brad can’t survive breathing in pepper spray – nor can an alleged 38% of her co-workers.
The crowd is now rallying by the platform “Hey Hey Ho Ho, Malcor greed has got to go!” How can she warn them? Should she forward the misdirected email to the union leader? Should she tweet a warning, #important #danger? She opens Twitter but there’s no service. She notices Brad look at his phone and shake it; Lisa holds hers up. There’s no reception. They’ve jammed the phones. It’s starting.
She rereads the message to see what’s next. The barricade breaking down. Actors posing as scabs. Riot. Pepper spray.
Kendra wants to shout but everyone is shouting and she was never very good at shouting. She eyes the platform with the microphone and steels herself to wade through the crowd.
With a terrifying crash a car smashes through the barricade, a piece of which slams into a worker. He falls within the frightened mass. Another car blasts through while Kendra fights against the surge of angered mob. She reaches the stage just as the “scabs” appear and she’s still the only one who knows they’re just actors. The platform is only three feet high but it might as well be fifty. Kendra shuts her eyes for a moment, fighting off hysteria, then climbs onto the stage. She waves her phone yelling “You need to read this! It’s important!” but no one hears. They brush her away, knocking the phone out of her hand.
The picketters and fake scabs shove each other and yell. Kendra sees the factory bay door open and can almost feel peppery death breathing down on her. In desperation she pulls out her pocket knife and screams. The rally leaders stop hollering to stare at her breathlessly wielding her little knife. Gravely she holds the knife to her neck and says “Give me that microphone.”
Attention to her action, like a silent ripple travelling through the crowd, washes over picketers and actors alike. A wave of faces turn toward her, riveted on the spectacle of their shy coworker holding a microphone in one hand and a knife to her own neck with the other.
Her vision blurring, her heart racing, her hands shaking – she breathes deeply and speaks into the microphone. “These are actors, not scabs! The only enemy is Malcorp Security! They’re coming right now, with pepper spray!” The listening crowd emits a collective gasp. “That’s right. They gave us asthma and now they’ll use it against us! There can be no riot!”
The rapt attention of the crowd might have bolstered another speaker but for Kendra it was too much. Stepping back, she finishes with a shaky “So just, yeah, stop…” and gently puts the microphone down.
Brad holds out his hand to assist Kendra’s descent from the platform. She makes herself look him right in the eyes and says, “Thank you, Brad.” Amazed by her newfound brazenness, she stumbles to the overturned barrier, takes a seat and eats the second half of her muffin.