Hi there, remember me? Yeah, I know, it’s been a while. I’ve been a bit distracted lately with other things, but I’m back (I think) and plan on starting to post more often again (although as I recall I’ve said similar things in the past, and look how that went).
Anyway, I should get to the point of this post. A little while ago I submitted a short story to the most recent round of NPR’s Three Minute Fiction Contest. The rules of the contest are that the story must be based on the contest prompt (in this case, all stories must be about a US president, real of fictional), and all stories must be under 600 words.
When I sat down to write, the story I ended up with was about 850 words long, meaning I had to cut 250. 250 words might not sound like a lot under normal circumstances, but in this case it meant cutting and simplifying a significant portion of the story. I think the final version turned out well, but I did miss those extra words, so I thought I’d post the original, uncut version here.
So, without further ado, The Button.
The president held his hand above the button, poised to strike. A drop of sweat inched its way down his cheek; his fingers twitched to the rhythm of his pulse. To his right a massive clock beeped with each passing second. He stared sightlessly down at the panel as disjointed images flashed across his paralyzed brain.
He remembered where it all had begun. Was it really only six years since the first election? The memories that had once been so clear now felt stale and far away. Like a postcard from the past a fragment of recollection fell into his hands; an arena—he couldn’t remember the name or the place—filled to capacity with his supporters, all cheering and chanting his name. At the time it had filled him with hope and elation. Now, though, it sounded like the universe taunting him.
The mess had started four months after his swearing in; the attacks, the fear, the disbelief that such a thing could happen, right here, to us, right in our own backyard and oh god what was the world coming to anyway. All his grand plans had gone down the drain as more pressing issues made themselves heard. Troops were mobilized, the draft was reinstated, and the nation held its breath as the world went mad.
For a moment, for a fleeting instant, it seemed that disaster might be averted. But humanity, once riled up, is not easy to contain. Wars broke out along old fault lines, thousands were slaughtered, and great nations began to come apart at the seams.
His popularity, which had once soared to unprecedented levels, crashed down like an avalanche. He lost weight, his hair turned gray, and he aged a decade in four years. When the time came once again for his battered country to choose their leader his rivals screamed for blood. His character was attacked and his leadership questioned as everything came tumbling down around him.
Somehow, despite an endless campaign of slander and abuse, he was reelected. In the end all his competition just fell away, probably realizing it would be easier for the historians if they only had one person to blame for the collapse of civilization.
It made him sick sometimes, to think about everything that had been lost while he was at the helm. But it wasn’t his fault; he hadn’t started the war, he’d tried to stop it! He’d done everything right and still it had all come tumbling down. And if he was honest with himself, that was what really hurt. Not the casualties, not the famine, not the hopeless, endless war. No, what really pissed him off was that it had happened to him, during his tenure. He’d wanted to change the world, to fix the nation and usher in a new golden age of wealth and prosperity for his people. This couldn’t all have waited eight years? If the world had to end, it couldn’t at least have the decency to wait until his presidency had ended?
He knew it was selfish, but he really didn’t care. He could have been a hero, the last great American president. Now, though, he would be remembered as the captain who’d gone down with his ship. The poor sap who had to sit their and watch it all burn.
At least before he’d been able to console himself with the fact that wars like this had happened before, that history was littered with fallen empires and periods of unrest. Then the first nuke went off, and in an instant the world was a few million people emptier.
Three hours later and the surface world was a memory as the government fled below ground to the safety of their bunkers, while above the unlucky masses boiled in fear.
“Mr. President.” The voice hit him like a bucket of ice water, dragging him back to the present. “Sir, we have two minutes left.”
His mouth was a desert; he struggled to swallow the lump in his throat, to open his mouth, to speak.
“You…” He cleared his throat and continued, his voice like sandpaper. “You’re sure my husband made it to the bunker?”
There was silence, an exchanging of glances, then one of the suits that crowded the room nodded.
The president glanced down at the button. It was small and slate gray, flanked on either side by a key, turned and waiting in its slot.
“Sir, the window’s closing!” A uniform this time, a general. He should have known their faces, their names, but that part of his brain had deserted him. They might as well have been mannequins for all he cared. “Sir, please! You have to do it now!”
The president looked back at the button, An alarm went off as a screen counted down from sixty. He could barely hear it above the thundering of his pulse. He sucked in a deep breath and held it, thinking of Erik and hoping he really was safe.
With a sigh the president pushed the button, and the world blew up.