BURDEN • by Peter Tupper

A burst of AK-47 rounds tore through the night air, as Mohammed moved his rook into position. “Check.”

His opponent took his last swig of straight vodka from the bottle, slurped the last bit of pork off his eightieth spare rib since the game started, and studied the board in the moonlight. “Hunh… hunh,” he said intermittently.

Mohammed heard the shriek-crack! of an RPG. The building shook, dislodging bits of aged plaster which fell onto the rickety card table and the chessboard.

“Getting close,” said his opponent. “Sure you don’t wanna concede and get out of here?”

“Quite sure, thank you,” Mohammed said. Sweat tickled the small of his back, but not because of the gunfire. “I believe it is your move.”

Outside, men shouted, screamed.

His opponent leaned back, held the vodka bottle in both hands and, with only slight effort, crushed it. He ground the glass into the consistency of granola and then ate it out of his hands. “Umm,” he said, gleaming shards embedded in his lips. “Well, it’s getting late, I got places to go, laws of physics to violate, so I’m gonna concede. Only “˜cuz I got a prior commitment, you understand.”

“Of course.” Mohammed felt no triumph, or even relief, at his victory. The real test was to come.

“So, what’s it going to be? Riches, power, immortality, true love?”

Mohammed had spent years preparing from this moment. Once he returned to the land he hadn’t seen since his family had emigrated, he spoke to every mullah and iman he could find, to dervishes, to rabbis, to sufis, kabalists, pundits, priests, ministers… An American mercenary who danced with snakes pointed him to this half-shattered building in a bullet-riddled town, where he played the hardest game of his life.

“I want peace in this land.”

His opponent picked a grape-sized hunk of half-chewed pork out of his teeth. “All right, I think I got something for you.” His opponent reached into the shapeless bag that had held the liquor bottle and the hot spare ribs and pulled out something. It sat in the middle of the card table, its weight threatening to collapse the rickety legs.
Mohammed stared at the… “Brick?”

“Yep. I pulled it out of the base of The Tower, at the beginning.” His opponent leaned back, as if daring Mohammed to disbelieve.

“Why did you do that?”

“You know what it’s like just watching something tick along in absolute perfect equilibrium for ten billion years? That’s why. It takes a long time for something that big to fall apart. Since then, things have been really, really interesting, and it still hasn’t finished.”

“‘Interesting’?” Mohammed asked.

More gunfire from outside. “That is interesting,” said his opponent. “I haven’t been bored in a long time. Still, I’ve been trying to get rid of this thing for a while. Gives me an itch.”

Was it Mohammed’s imagination, or were the chess pieces slowly creeping back to their starting positions on the board, next to the brick?

“I thought you would grant me wisdom, understanding–”

“I don’t think you get this, Mohammed. You won the game, so you get a boon. Whether you want it or not. And don’t think you can get rid of it either. It’s in this brane now, entangled with you. See you later.” His opponent stood, picked up his shapeless bag, turned around an invisible corner and vanished.

“Son of a dog,” Mohammed said to himself.

Not touching the brick, he quickly packed up the chess pieces and board, and tucked it into his tattered rucksack. Another shriek-crack made the building shake, and he picked up the brick by habit. Oddly warm, and heavier than it looked, it fit into his hand perfectly, the worn smooth edges comfortable.

He could just leave it here. But just leave it for someone else to find, who didn’t know anything about it? He’d take it with him, study it later, if one could study a brick.

The brick in his right hand, his rucksack over his left shoulder, he crept down the crumbling staircase, lit only by moonlight. Scattered shots, the familiar tempo of urban sniping. More men talking, shouting. Truck engines.

Mohammed turned the corner to the building’s lobby, hoping that he could escape notice and walk back to a relatively safe area.

Two men stood there, with a third slumped between them, his chest a bloody red mess. The one on the right pointed his weapon at Mohammed. His eyes showed he had lost all sense of life. A few pounds of pressure on the trigger and the bullets would tear Mohammed to pieces.

“Your friend is injured,” Mohammed told him, the brick pulling on his hand, his arm, pulling his entire body to one side. He shifted his grip, holding it in both hands, horizontally level with his waist. The weight settled into him, setting his shoulders straight, forcing his spine into alignment and his feet wide apart to bear it.

They looked at their bloodied comrade, as if noticing that for the first time.

“He needs help,” Mohammed continued.

They agreed, nodding slightly. They’d agree to anything, Mohammed realized. Help him, kill him, leave him to die with a live grenade under his body as a trap. Therefore, he had to tell them the right things.

The weight was balanced now, precariously, the massive load borne by one tiny point.

Peter Tupper is a journalist and freelance writer. This is his second flash piece published in Every Day Fiction.

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