“Progress” is a piece of flash fiction from my collection The Sentiments. It’s dark.
He sat in his house alone, pulling up floorboards. All around him, steam coursed through pipes; computers and televisions kept detailed time. The man was preoccupied. There was gold and oil under those floorboards — he knew it with the very denial and desperation that kept him moving. Tasteless coffee, bland and mildly warm, dripped from an IV into his arm. A network cable had been some time ago plugged into the top of his skull. The man’s glasses were filthy; his fingernails, hands, and forearms were flecked with blood. He hummed along to a lunatic jingle that was being pumped directly into his ears by wires that led into a pocket of his slacks.
He was a self-sufficient man. But time had recently turned against him.
In the room behind him, the floor had been systematically destroyed: peeled back, hammered, drilled with industrial machines. What once was the floor had become an excavated pit, dug at places to thousands of feet. In a corner, a bit of coal burned, providing warmth. Beyond the small glow, the land fell away and was filled with the specters of felled trees, dead trees, broken chain saws, thousands upon thousands of animal carcasses and rent bones, and the ubiquitous plastic and styrofoam containers that had once contained progress.
Ah, progress. But progress had choked, faltered, gone south, spoiled, was wintering somewhere, never to be seen again, leaving only this sour, seeping, steaming pit.
The man never looks back, continuing to dig now with his bare hands and hope, a grim and senile smile placed concretely on his skull, eyes wide, intent, searching the unfolding pits: It must be here, God. Progress, plastic–why have you forsaken me?
His body is only temporarily racked by sobs. Another man appears, as if from the sky, slaps him back into insensitivity. There is work to be done. The man sitting seems to sober, his eyes open and tearlessly clear. He resumes digging. That other man, the one who flashed in from the sky, was never here. The man in search of progress soldiers on.
Digging, he uncovers a corpse. It is unfamiliar, just a former person, burned beyond recognition and rotting. The man is buoyant and drags the corpse out of the pit.
Taking the smoldering coals, the man lights the burnt and disfigured corpse on fire. It burns quickly, flaring powerfully, releasing mighty smoke. The man’s smile becomes keener, more cunning, and he hooks a hose just so to catch the burning smoke, to harness the fire. He busies himself with several more hoses and soon a whole system of hoses and pipes oxygenate and consume the flaring, flaming energy of the expendable body. The trapped potential energy of the corpse is vacuumed into the bowels of the house, filling the ribs of pipes, which hiss and swell, chortle, percolate, and sweat steam. The televisions brighten; ones that had gone to static now broadcast news footage: attractive anchors with whitened teeth and skin, talking comforting lullabies in sing-song voices, singing reassuring hymns about stocks and progress.
For a moment, all is well, all is normal.
The floor is all but gone and the pipes are rumbling. The corpse snuffs out as the technology powers up and up. The house digests the energy of progress, and then sighs. There is an anti-climax of collapsing expectations, of technology powering down.
Computer screens dim, televisions flicker cold.