The hatchet man

This post is fiction. My objective was to bring together three story elements in 500-1000 words.

Harald didn’t recognize the bartenders. He hadn’t been to Newark Airport in over a year but he remembered this bar having long-timers. That might have been too much to hope for in a place full of fungible employees selling disposable distractions to captive audiences most of whom will never return.

Tourists obstructed the place like arterial plaque. He picked a quick path to an empty stool. Down the center of a high countertop for laptops, a philodendron wound between the spindles of a decorative railing. It was real. Somebody must have been working here long enough to keep this plant alive, he thought, unless travelers have been pouring unfinished Guinnesses into its pot.

The low railing provided a symbolic separation from the person across from you, but it wasn’t enough for privacy. It was there to keep a self-entitled road warrior from pushing his laptop straight back into somebody’s fries. Across from Harald, a birdlike man in purple divided his attention between a small spiral notebook, a wrap sandwich, and the contents of his pockets, darting from one to the next without any apparent plan or smoothness of practice but without tension.

“Joe? Joe Calcioni?” Harald tilted his head with the question. When the man’s face came up, Harald was sure, and he extended his hand. “Wow ... Harry ... I haven’t seen you since high school,” he said. A little blood drained from Harald’s face at that. Joe had been a friend of a friend, and that friend had snapped, as males between the ages of 18 and 20 are prone to psychosis. He hadn’t used guns like some action movie revenge fantasy. He had killed like an animal, rabid, with the superhuman strength of rage and an axe from a fire extinguisher kit. Harald had seen his friend that day, through the windows between the office and the hallway, but their eyes had not locked.

There had been a lot of funerals. And no reunions.

Blinking hard, Harald released Joe’s hand. “So, what brings you to Newark? Are you coming or going or just on your way through?” “Going. I live in Philadelphia but I was in New York for work.” “Me too, Trenton. Environmental consulting for the state government. I live in Chicago now.” Harald took a sip of beer and the great purple bird nodded, the heavy contents of his breastpocket swaying from his shoulder like a sling. Joe had always loved baggy clothes. He’d wanted to look like that singer Bryan Adams but lacked the swagger. “A lot of us moved away. I kept track of a few people and they all went to college out of state and never looked back.”

Harald considered that. “My first year in college is pretty hazy. I was, ah, living in a state not conducive to memory. But I met a girl, kind of a modern hippie, a big environmentalist. I like numbers so I went into engineering. You would not believe some of the post-industrial wasteland this state has to heal.” Harald shook his head, and Joe said, “You ever work with Vertical Power?” “Yeah! They had a big layoff last year though, no big new jobs.” Joe pursed his lips and touched each of his pockets. “What?” said Harald. “How do you know Vertical?”

Joe cleared his throat, looking down. “That was my gig. The layoff. I’m with a human resources services firm. Outplacement.” Harald straightened, his eyes widening. “You’re a hatchet man!” He had practically yelled it. “Hey. I come in to patch things up after the cutting’s already been done. My job is triage.”

The two regarded each other. Cuts echoed forwards from the bodies of their friends through the economy and the Earth.

“Maybe we should plan a reunion.”


  1. This is my approach to "flash fiction". My objective was to incorporate three elements of a setup into a story not much more than 500 words long. This story is 618 words and was written in two hours and ten minutes.

    The setup was: the protagonist is in an airport; they meet someone from their hometown; something disturbing happens. I bent the rules and put the disturbing event in the past. I'm thinking of doing more of these, with different setups.

  2. where did you get the requirements for the story idea? used to write shorts ages ago for a class and a number of times the instructor used a plot point or a prop to get ideas churning.

  3. I made up the setup myself. I basically created choices: the protagonist is in a (a) airport (b) strange city (c) new job. They meet someone (a) they used to know (b) from their hometown (b) who dated one of their exes. Something happens that is (a) dangerous or disturbing (b) surprising (c) happy. I made up those lists beforehand, and I chose from them according to my whim when I sat down to write.

    The idea is basically to take me outside my usual contexts and create some narrative tension.