(The following story is found in the If Walls Could Talk short story collection. Please click on the link for all available retailers. It is also featured on the Grim Worlds podcast, episode 2. Here is a link to the episode.)
“THE THINGS THEY COLLECTED”
A short story written by Mark S. R. Peterson
Tim can’t believe his luck. He steps off the subway and there, lying along the concrete wall amidst a thin film of dirt, is a broken wrench.
It’s a 3/8” open-end. He has another 3/8” back at his apartment—that one is a combination-style, unbroken of course. This one is broken right down the middle at a slight angle. If it’s a twin of the other or a true open-end, he isn’t able to tell.
He pockets the find and moves on through the weary, late evening crowd
“Evening, Mr. Scudder,” the proprietor of the magazine kiosk says. He tips his New England City Yankees baseball cap. “Got your new Time and People.” The kid who runs the kiosk—who isn’t really a kid, for he must be edging thirty—reaches under the counter, and ever-so gently lifts out a small stack of magazines. “As requested, two each, one wrapped in cellophane.”
Tim hands over his financial card, and thirty-two dollars and fifty-five cents are electronically transferred out of his bank account.
“You know,” the kid says, “if you ever want an e-reader, I can get you a deal on one. Then you wouldn’t have to carry around all these magazines.”
“No, I could never do that,” Tim says. Inside his coat are three newspapers. He slips the new magazines in next to them. “I know it’s the wave of the future and all, but I just like to hold the real thing. Besides, I wouldn’t want you to go out of business.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, Mr. Scudder,” the kid says. “I still get paid when I set up others on subscriptions. Awful nice of you to think of me though.” He motions to an enclosed case behind him. “If you ever change your mind, I have plenty to choose from.”
In the display are rows upon rows of e-readers, several smaller than the size of his hand. They also come in a variety of colors, from drab black and white to hot pink and shiny chrome.
“These can hold up to five hundred thousand books and magazines,” the kid says. “And they say in about a year or so, there’ll be ones that can hold over a million. Christ, no one can even read that many.”
Tim is about to walk away when he sees a magazine next to the readers. “What’s that?” he asks, pointing at it. The cover is all black with white striking letters near the top that read The End.
“Oh, that’s a new magazine that just came out,” the kid says. “The premiere issue. The e-version is available too, but everyone says you have to get the real thing. Got a box of fifty just a few hours ago and I have only three left.”
“Premiere issue, huh? Never had a premiere issue of anything before.” Tim rubs his chin. “You have three left?”
A lady wearing a purple shawl jogs up to the kiosk and asks for an issue of The End.
“Evening, Mrs. Williams, here you go.”
She shoves her financial card into the kid’s hand. Once he scans it, she scurries away, holding the magazine tight against her chest.
“Thanks, Mrs. Williams,” the kid says. He turns back to Tim. “Two, now.”
Tim adjusts his coat and thinks about his own collection. “I . . . I’ll have to think about it. You can’t save them for me, can you?”
This time, the kid’s smile fades. “Sorry, Mr. Scudder,” he says. “I can’t.”
* * *
Tim’s apartment is three blocks from the kiosk. He typically walks quite briskly when he has new pieces to add to his collection. This time, however, his pace is more reserved, for every other person he meets is reading a copy of The End.
Aside from the usual streetlight LEDs blazing the way, traffic overhead is unusually heavy. The screaming whine of fusion engines gnaws at his mind.
Trailing up behind him are three teens zooming back and forth on electric scooters. One hops onto a nearby polymer bench and rides along the back of it.
Once they pass by him, Tim steps up to his apartment complex. A datapad lights up to an iridescent blue.
Instead of placing his palm on it, he steps back, gazing in the direction of the magazine kiosk.
“No, I’ll make room.”
He comes off the step and freezes. Next to the building is a line of old bottles. But it’s not the bottles that draw his attention, it’s the deck of cards behind them.
Well, if today isn’t my lucky day.
A police cruiser zooms by directly overhead, red and blue strobes flashing madly. A spotlight shines down onto nearby rooftops.
Tim reaches down and plucks the deck out from behind the bottles. He thumbs through them. Fifty-two regulars and two jokers.
“Perfect for my collection.”
He walks back to the kiosk with such swiftness that the newspapers and magazines nearly bounce out of his pockets. But as he rounds the corner, he stops.
A FedEx postal cruiser hovers beside a nearby café, the driver chatting excitedly with the chef.
Typically, when kiosks are packed up for the night, there’s at least some trace of them left behind, like a torn magazine page or even a placard stating BE BACK IN 12 HOURS. SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE. But in this case, there’s nothing. It’s completely disappeared.
A white-haired gentleman in a black fedora saunters on by, an issue of The End rolled up in his fists.
“Excuse me, sir,” Tim says. “Where did you get that?”
“Kiosk down the way,” the man says, cocking a finger behind him. “But he’s out. I got the last one.”
“Could I buy that from you? I’ll pay triple what you paid for it,” Tim says, despite his lack of knowledge as to the original price.
“No way!” the man exclaims, stuffing it inside his coat and hurrying away.
“I said no! Beat it!”
* * *
He hits up seven other people on his way back to the apartment. None are willing to give up their premiere issue of The End for any amount of money.
His neighbor, Stephanie, is waiting inside for the hyperlift, black metallic briefcase in hand.
“Any new additions to your collection, Tim?”
He pats the sides of his coat. “A new Time and People. I even found a deck of playing cards outside. With the jokers.”
Her eyes grow wide. “Oh, wow, you’re so lucky. I don’t care for Time myself but I did pick up my People and Reader’s Digest.” She glances around. “And I picked up these.” She opens her briefcase and shows him the very familiar black cover of The End. “Premiere issue. I got the last two.”
“Can I buy one?” asks Tim.
She slaps her briefcase shut, the sharp bang resonating throughout the hallway. The hyperlift doors open.
“Please,” he says, holding out his financial card. “I don’t care how much. Please.” His other hand is in an inside pocket, gripping the broken 3/8” wrench.
She clears the combination display on the briefcase, and tucks it under her arm.
He releases his grip on the wrench. There must be thousands upon thousands of combinations to choose from, so his chances of gaining possession of the magazines now, even by nefarious means, are nil.
“Sorry,” he says, stepping onto the hyperlift. He pushes the button for the eleventh floor. “Coming?”
She edges into the far corner, keeping the briefcase as far away from him as possible.
“Awful busy outside, huh?” he asks.
“Outside. Seems busier than usual.”
“You don’t know?”
He glances over at her. She grips the briefcase with both arms now. “Am I missing something?”
The doors soon open.
Stephanie bolts out down the hall. She fumbles with her keypad, and as soon as the apartment door slides open she slips inside.
Tim’s apartment is on the end—he actually rents two units in order to house his vast ever-growing collection. He enters his code on the keypad, and the door slides open a few inches then stalls, hypergears whirling, growing higher and higher in pitch. He gives it a hefty shove and it finally slides free, an avalanche of newspapers and magazines spilling out into the hallway.
A stale sulfuric odor wafts out. He breathes in and smiles.
* * *
Tim sits in his brown leather recliner, wedged amongst heaping mountains of newspapers and magazines. He cleans out his coat pockets, laying the new additions on his lap.
That’s when he spies something—a magazine with an ominous black cover—stuck between the two still wrapped in cellophane.
“What did that boy do?”
A note pasted on the front reads:
My compliments from years of business.
Tim tosses the new Time and People onto one of the mounds, the top now starting to teeter, and opens The End.
* * *
Butch Dice secures the breathing apparatus, completely engulfing his head.
“How long has he been in there?” his assistant Cheryl asks.
“The neighbor said she spoke to him about two weeks ago. Remember when that weird magazine came out? The End? That was when. He was asking about her copies of it, and looked to be real desperate.”
“Did you ever read it?”
“That magazine? No. My wife did. She said it was the biggest waste. All hype. Made some rich guy even richer, that’s for sure.” He points at the door. “Ready?”
He punches in the code given to them by the building manager. The door starts to slide, ever-so slowly, the hypergears groaning. When it finally opens, magazines and newspapers pour out into the hallway. Inside, along the wall to their right, are six tall tool chests. Stacked on top of these are several piles of playing cards, many touching the ceiling.
They wade through the mess to where the officers found Mr. Tim Scudder crushed to death beneath layers of magazines, The End clutched tightly in his hands.
“We’ll need eight dumpsters,” Butch says.
“But he had two living units.”
“Then we’ll need sixteen, just to be safe.”
As Cheryl starts cleaning debris away from the door, she spies a broken wrench. She picks it up.
It’s a broken 3/8” open-end. She pockets it.
“That’ll go great with my collection.”