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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

The Good Die Young?
by John Sims

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I'm watching the nodding dog in the back of the Rover ahead. It's hypnotic. It's a Dalmatian type. I haven't seen one of those for years. I hate it.

I feel the vibrations as my car drifts to the left, over the rumble strip and onto the hard shoulder. I hate the M5 too.

Wake up, Jim! That was close. I must have nodded off. I smile at my pun. Bloody dogs!

There's an exit coming up. I'll pull off there and find somewhere to stay for the night, no point risking it for the sake of a few extra miles.

I don't know this place. I've driven this road a thousand times, up and down, selling bad shoes to the posh emporia of England, but I've never noticed this town before. Betwixt, 1M. Sounds quaint. Probably all thatched roofs and thick accents.

The Gate House looks fine. No thatch. Probably an old coaching inn, judging by the name. Just the place for a good meal and a sleep. I pull off the road. It's getting dark already; seems to get dark fast around here.

"Good evening, sir," says the smiling barmaid as she watches me try to enter. I smile back, despite being jammed in the doorway by my cases.

"Hello," I say politely. "Any chance of a meal and a room?"

"Of course. Is it just for yourself?"

Unless you fancy some mad, screaming sex tonight, I think. "Yes," I say. "One night only." I hand her my credit card, wondering if I can get frequent sleeper miles on it. I must have slept in every town in England. I'm very well-travelled flea food.

I'm still thinking about beds when she gives my card back.

I'm still waiting for my dinner when the kitchen explodes. Everyone is rushing about. There are flashing lights, smoke and alarms going off all over the building. I can see the hallway to the kitchen from my seat. The smoke has already cut off the stairs. I'm glad I wasn't in bed when this happened; it's going to be hard for anyone up there.

The manager's in a flap. If he waves his arms about much more he'll take off. He's herding us outside. Most of my fellow diners don't need any encouragement; they left at the first bang and they weren't moving slowly. It's every man for himself. There's someone at the top of the stairs now. I can see him trying to come down a few steps.

He's an old man, and the smoke frightens him. He was probably asleep and is confused. I push past the manager and go to the doorway, shouting up to him that it's still okay to come down, the fire's still inside the kitchen, but he's run back up the stairs. You daft old bugger, what did you do that for?

"Don't go in there," the manager's shouting behind me as he's heading for the exit. "You'll be killed."

I have time. That's a solid fire door to the kitchen. I hope it is, anyway. "Hey," I shout. "Come down. It's still safe." But he's gone out of sight. The smoke's getting thicker. The heat's building up. I'll have to be quick. I pull my jacket over my head. I don't know why, but they always do that in films.

"Hey, you. Mister. Come down," I'm shouting as I put my foot on the first stair to go up to him. Now the kitchen door bursts open and the flames rush out, engulfing me. Lucky I put my jacket over my head or I'd be cooked already. The heat's unbearable. I'm holding my breath but I'm getting weaker as I turn and try to get out.

Someone's calling my name now. "James! James!"

I wish they'd stop calling; I can't answer. If I breathe now I'm dead for sure. But they keep calling. I fall.


I open my eyes. I'm confused. I'm not burning.

"Welcome back," says a man in green, leaning over me. He's a paramedic, that much I can tell. "I thought I'd lost you for a minute there; you stopped breathing," he's saying.

I can see behind him now; there are cars all over the motorway, some burning. I must have fallen asleep and driven into their crash.

"You're going to be all right," he's saying. "We'll have you out of here in a few minutes."

"A bloody miracle," I hear someone say. "The only survivor. How do you account for that sort of luck?"

"Maybe only the good die young," says someone else, quietly.

I hate that saying.

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