Here’s my second entry to the 2017 Flash Fiction Challenge. This time my prompts were Historical Fiction, A Machine Shop, and A Turtle. Now, Historical Fiction is a genre I really enjoy and I certainly enjoy history. Normally it would be a challenge just to decide on what era to set the story, what with 6000 years of written history to draw upon, but the prompt kind of took care of that for me by reducing the range down to the last 150 years (although gears and mechanics were in use much earlier than 1850, the place manufacturing them would more likely be termed a forge, smithy, factory, refinery, or just “workshop” rather than a “machine shop”). I knew I didn’t want to do a ‘modern’ setting, and after some brainstorming I settled on a very specific time & place. I hope you enjoy it!
The Right Thing to Do
Charlie leaned over the box next to his table. Inside was a turtle. At present, the two of them were alone in Stoddard Manufacturing Company’s machine shop, and Charlie had mustard greens. He handed a bit down to the turtle, whose slow munching, and the buzzing of their new electric lamps were the only sounds in the shop. Charlie watched the turtle eat under the artificial light, happy that Stoddard Manufacturing decided to mark the turn of the century by installing them in their little bicycle machining department.
“It’s gonna be a slow one tonight, Watson,” Charlie said to the turtle. “Just you, me, and Fred. He should be here soon with our work.” Fred was the foreman and Charlie’s boss, but it was hard to not feel like partners when they worked on building bicycles all day together. More than that, they were good friends almost as soon as Charlie was hired by Stoddard.
Across the shop, a door opened and slammed.
“Charlie, I got it,” a man called. “They actually gave it to me!”
“Speak of the devil,” Charlie said. He dropped the rest of the greens into Watson’s box and got up. “What’s that, Fred?”
Fred walked into the office briskly, carrying a large roll of paper under his arm. His face beamed brightly, like a boy who’s just shot his first squirrel. He threw down the roll of paper and started to take off his jacket.
“You shoulda seen me, Charlie,” he said. “I went into that little shop of theirs and I said to ‘em, ‘look, the past three years you ask me to make these gears and parts for you, and it’s always the same pieces but with slightly different ratios and measurements, yeah? You’re obviously tryin’ to build something, and it obviously ain’t a bicycle, and you can’t get it right. Let me know what you’re buildin’ and maybe I can help you out.’ And I didn’t think they would, but they did.”
“Did what?” Charlie didn’t like drawn out stories. Fred did.
“Tell me what they’re buildin’,” he said excitedly. “In fact they did more than that, they gave me this.”
Fred pushed away Charlie’s few things to make space on the table, and rolled out the paper. They stared at it in silence.
“Good Lord Almighty, that’s what they’ve been working on?” Charlie looked down at the paper. “And we’re going to help them?”
“No, Charlie, we’re not,” Fred said quietly. “We’re going to build it ourselves. You and me.”
“What?” Charlie laughed. “We can’t do that.” He paused, waiting for Fred to agree. He just stared back.
“We have a machine shop. It’s better than theirs,” Fred said. “Of course we can make this.”
“No. They’ll catch us,” Charlie continued. “There’s no way we could build that whole thing without them finding out. Why, they’ll show up in a week for the first batch of parts and they’ll know something’s up when we haven’t got’m!”
Fred shrugged. “So we’ll make them their parts. But make them wrong, just a little, so they won’t notice unless they check real well. And then we’ll make our own parts for us. We’ll be done by the time they sort it out, and by then we’ll have it! Think of it! We could make history!”
Charlie shook his head. “I won’t do it,” he said. He started rolling up the paper. “This is wrong, Fred. I thought I knew you better.”
“Get your hands off that!” Fred pushed Charlie away. “I thought I knew you better,” he shouted, pointing a finger. “I thought you wanted to make something of yourself.”
“Yes, but by myself! I’m no thief!”
As soon as he said it, he realized the implication of his words: Fred, his friend, was a thief. Not a petty thief, either. This was theft on a grander scale than mere possessions. Fred wanted to steal a spot in history. Charlie could share that spot, if he wanted. He could keep his friendship with Fred. It was tempting.
They stood quietly, silently daring each other to say the next thing. Fred wanted to punch him, and Charlie would’ve gladly punched back. Fred inhaled slowly, steeling himself to break the silence.
“You’re fired,” he said. “Take your damn turtle and get out.” He grabbed the half-rolled paper from the table and turned towards the door of their office.
“Don’t do this,” Charlie plead.
“Get out!” Fred yelled so loud the electric lamps vibrated with this voice. “And if you tell anyone about this,” he held up the paper, “You’ll regret it. I’ll make sure of that.”
Charlie waited for a moment after Fred was through the door, hoping that he would come back out. Hoping he would come to his senses. Apologize. The quiet moment dragged out, and Charlie knew there was nothing more he could do here. He looked down in the box beside the table where Watson was still eating. He picked up the turtle, and left.
An hour later, Charlie walked through the night towards the building owned by his uncle-in-law. The lights of the bicycle shop were on despite the late hour, so Charlie knocked on the door. After a moment, it opened and light poured out, making him blink. He cradled Watson under his arm and spoke as evenly as he could.
“Mr. Orville, Mr. Wilbur, I’m Charlie Taylor from Stoddard. I have something very important I must tell you, right away.”