Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"Daily Dozen"

a short story
by Myna Chang

May 15, 2024
1,996 Words
Genre(s):

1918

William Burelle knew death was only moments away. The flu had settled into his lungs, his heart. He barely had enough strength to reach across the bed for his wife’s hand, seeking the comfort of her warmth. Meredith’s stiff fingers did not respond. He would have sobbed aloud, but he didn’t have the breath for it.

Across the room, his three-year-old son, Billy, slept on a little cot. The boy stirred, cheeks pink with health. It seemed a miracle the flu had only given the boy a sniffle. But what would happen to him after both parents died? William had heard stories of the harsh Chicago orphanage, the dreadful fate that often awaited those fatherless children: neglect, freezing cold, starvation. Or worse.

“Please,” William mouthed, lips moving soundlessly. “Let me. . . see my boy safe.”

As his vision dimmed, a soothing voice came to him. “William Burelle, your allotted breath is at its end. It is time to release your burdens.”

William struggled to open his aching eyes, desperate to see his little boy one last time. “Not yet,” he whispered.

The voice modulated into a crystalline vibration that thrummed William’s bones, chimed deep into the roots of his teeth.

“You may extend your time. But the sacrifice will be difficult for a good man.”

The voice reminded William of shattered soda glass as each word seemed to grate into the cusps of his fingernails.

“How?” he whispered.

“You will receive twelve names every morning. You must choose one to take your place. One to die, so you can live another day.”

William’s stomach clenched. “No! I’d never choose another man’s death.”

The exclamation triggered a wave of wracking coughs. Blood-tinged spit stained William’s lips and he gasped, lungs spasming uselessly. Little Billy woke at the ugly sound and tiptoed across the room. He placed his tiny hand on top of William’s. “Please get better, Papa,” he said in the soft little-boy voice that William loved so dearly.

The child leaned toward his mother’s body. “Mama, wake up.”

William wanted to hold the boy, protect him from the truth of his mother’s fate. What kind of man would choose to abandon his child? Weakly, he nodded assent. “Just a few days. Until I find someone to care for Billy.”

“Of course,” the voice cut. “You may end the bargain at any time by choosing your own name.”

A parchment covered in names came into William’s hand. He squinted to see them more clearly, recognizing only the last name on the list. His own. He returned to the top. Nauseous shame swelled as he pronounced the first name there: Toby Hill.

His next breath flowed clear, lungs pumping smoothly. The suddenness of it robbed him of other thoughts. Breath in. Breath out. No rattling, no pain. No phlegm threatening to drown him. Another breath, deeper this time. Sweet and clean. The sandpaper grit in his eyes eased.

He blinked, seeing clearly for the first time in days. Better than clear; he hadn’t seen this well since childhood. The colors took on a new vibrance, as if fresh new life flooded everything under his gaze. The faded red of the blanket surged, now a deeply textured hue. The tattered threads of the curtain’s lace stood white and crisp against the window pane. His son’s hair tumbled in shades of rich chestnut.

William flexed his fingers. No longer swollen, the joints moved with delightful precision. He sat up and stretched. It felt good to move his muscles again. “Come here,” he said to Billy, thrilled at the renewed strength in his voice.

He rocked his son back to sleep and tucked him into the cot, warm and snug. Looking past the corpse of his beloved wife, he smiled.

Later, after he’d made arrangements for Meredith’s body and purchased fresh bread to accompany the canned beans he intended to heat for dinner, he glanced through the afternoon newspaper. Among reports of the flu epidemic, he saw a mention of a young boy who had fallen from a third-story tenement window early that morning. According to the devastated father, little Toby Hill had inexplicably lost his balance and toppled to his death.

William froze as the name clicked into place. A child. That’s why his vision had improved so drastically; he was seeing through the eyes of a child—one he himself had chosen for sacrifice. He stuffed the newspaper in the trash and strode to the bathroom mirror. His brown eyes now held a hint of green in their depths. William shuddered and looked away.

The next morning, he awoke to another list. He shoved it aside, refusing to look at it, thinking instead of green-eyed Toby Hill. Imagining that other father’s grief.

“No, I can’t do it,” he said out loud. “I won’t choose.”

A familiar ache slammed into his body, and his lungs rasped, ragged and wet. Exhaustion weighed heavy with each slowing beat of his heart. William panicked at the return of searing fever, the terror of drowning in his own fluids.

Little Billy’s blanket rustled as the boy turned, peacefully asleep. William keened, the whine of a miserable animal. Refusing to choose was the same as choosing himself, and William quaked in the face of death. The list trembled as he held it in his hand. Twelve names awaited him. All unfamiliar, except his name at the bottom.

His finger hovered, then pointed to the stranger’s name at the top. He hoped it did not belong to another child.

His breath stuttered, then returned, steady and pure.

1930

William seethed as fifteen-year-old Billy described the incident with his boss. Jeb Yeardley owned the grocery store where Billy stocked shelves after school. The month’s wages should have been enough for a new pair of shoes. Yeardley had skimped on the payment, giving Billy only half of what he was owed.

“These rich people think they can get away with murder,” William ranted. “While good people like us barely scrape by.”

Billy slumped into his mother’s worn old chair. “I’ll find another job, Papa. Right after school tomorrow.”

William sighed. “I’m sorry, Billy.”

The next morning, William woke with a stone in his heart. He hated for his son to walk to school another day in those worn-out oxfords. Frowning, he grabbed the daily list and scanned the names, recognizing several from the news: a bigshot actor, a couple of government officials. William stopped when he saw Jeb Yeardley on the list. What kind of man cheats a hard-working boy? William had never before chosen someone he knew personally. He smiled as he selected the greedy grocery store owner for the day’s sacrifice.

The wave of energy that hit him was stronger than usual, leaving him not only invigorated, but also satisfied. Instead of the pang of guilt that often accompanied his choice, this time, William swelled with pride. He’d made the world a better place—a safer place—for good boys like his Billy.

He chuckled as he dressed, then sobered when he saw his son’s ratty shoes in a heap by the door. He sighed and bent down to retrieve the emergency savings he kept in an old cigar box under his bed. William savored the lingering aroma of tobacco as he opened the lid, expecting to find ten dollars in spare change. He stared at the contents of the box, then let out a jubilant whoop as he counted out three hundred dollars in neatly folded bills.

This little bite of Yeardley’s grocery fortune convinced William that he had, indeed, made the right choice.

The next morning, on the line above William’s name, Billy Burelle appeared on the list.

1944

As always, William scanned the list for people that would give him a sense of righteousness when he condemned them. Maybe a thief. A doctor accused of malpractice. That hussy who worked nights at the diner. What kind of woman would leave her children alone at night? Sometimes the names were foreign-sounding. He didn’t hesitate to choose those. Who knew what kind of godless people they might be?

But some days, there would be a celebrity on this list. Someone known for their wealth, their grace and charm. Their youth. Some trait that William wanted to claim for his own. He perused the list, hoping to find something well suited for the special day ahead. Ah, there. That new singer from the supper club. Such a resonant voice.

William sang a half-remembered hymn as he showered, appreciating the enhanced timbre of his voice in the steamy bathroom. When the hot water began to cool, he stepped out of the shower and pulled on a thick bath robe. He examined his face in the mirror, noting the rich color in his beard; his customary brown, infused with a deep chocolate-red. The hair was thick and soft to the touch, and William frowned as he reached for the peroxide. It was a shame to diminish his lush good looks, but he couldn’t continue to appear so young in public, especially now that his first grandson had arrived.

He hummed a lullaby as he headed out the door, eager to hold little William Burelle III.

1962

William admired his new bedroom, sparkling with California sunshine. Of course, he’d have to get used to the new name. William Allson. The change grated, but the new identity allowed him to shake off the burden of pretending to be elderly.

His heart had almost cracked as he’d watched Billy and the grandchildren weeping at his funeral. But it also gratified him. He’d sacrificed so much for their well-being over these long years. It was good to know they appreciated him.

He luxuriated in the slide of his supple skin on silk sheets as he considered the daily list. In addition to his and Billy’s names, he saw the names of his three oldest grandchildren. He scowled at the inclusion of William Burelle III. He skimmed past his family, choosing instead the uppity secretary from the Beverly Hills motor vehicle office. She had given him such a hard time over the discrepancy on his birth certificate.

He could almost taste the surge of energy, alighting his tongue like a fine sparkling wine.

1979

The scent of sizzling bacon wafted from the open balcony doors. His young wife was an excellent cook. He quickly made his selection from the daily dozen list, and hurried down to breakfast on the verandah. He kissed her cheek and sat while she served his coffee.

A newspaper waited, open to the obituary page. William never looked at the obits anymore; it was more pleasant to avoid the names of people he had known—and the people he had doomed.

“Did you put this here?” he asked his new Meredith.

“No,” she answered. “I assumed you did.”

He glanced at the page and his heart squeezed. Billy Burelle, deceased.

William slumped, remembering the soft texture of his baby’s hair, hearing again the sweet lilt of his voice. His precious little boy, dead and gone.

How had he not noticed the absence of Billy’s name on the daily list? William stared into the crystal sky, wondering when he’d lost track of his son, musing that, perhaps, it was time to stop. Time to release his burdens and join his beloved Billy in the afterlife.

Meredith joined him at the table, interrupting his thoughts. “Sweetheart, I have something to tell you,” she said with a shy smile. “How do you feel about becoming a father?”

William’s forehead wrinkled in surprise. Then he laughed. What kind of man would abandon his wife and unborn child? He hugged her tight.

The next morning, for the first time ever, William’s name was not on the list. But he knew the name of every other person there. His grandchildren. The great-grandkids, too. Each one bore the Burelle name, except one: William Allson, Junior topped the list.

William’s finger hovered, quivering as he considered his daily choice.

Support

Enjoy this story? Consider supporting our magazine with a small donation.

All donations will go towards paying authors for new stories, or website upkeep to ensure our stories remain free to read.

About the Author

Myna Chang (she/her) is the author of The Potential of Radio and Rain (CutBank Books, 2023). Her writing has been selected for the Locus Recommended Reading List, W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction America, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfiction. She has won the Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the New Millennium Award in Flash Fiction. She hosts the Electric Sheep speculative fiction reading series.

mynachang.com

Copyright ©2024 by Myna Chang.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

Latest News
May 15, 2024
Our debut anthology, OBSOLESCENCE, was named a Finalist today in the Best New Horror category at the 2024 Next Generation Indie Book Awards…
May 9, 2024
We are very excited to announce Ai Jiang‘s novelette, I AM AI, which we published last June, is a finalist for the Locus Award! This is the third major award…
May 2, 2024
Today we’re excited to reveal the cover for David Niall Wilson’s When You Leave I Disappear, a new novella coming this August from Shortwave…
Support

We believe in paying writers professional rates. We also believe in not hiding stories behind paywalls. These two beliefs are, unfortunately, at odds with each other. However, your support today could help us continue our mission.

Newsletter

Book News. Author Updates. And a 20% off coupon code.

We respect your privacy. We will never sell your information. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Read More
The family tree of literature, especially speculative fiction, is a vast and many-branched one. With this interview series, I hope to speak with some of the top names—both established and upcoming—in the speculative fiction genres about the authors who have made an impact on them, whether as readers, writers, or both…
What if the end of the world happened years ago, decades even, but we missed it because we’d stopped paying attention? If any lifeform on Earth was stubborn enough to persist and persevere in the face of oblivion, I’d put my money on humankind. Sorry, cockroaches and tardigrades!
While you sleep I will take one. Did she hear those words, or did she think them? Olivia wasn’t sure…
More News
April 11, 2024
Today, our friends over at FearForAll are revealing the cover for Joshua Millican’s Teleportasm, the third novella in our popular Killer VHS Series…
March 29, 2024
We are very excited to announce Ai Jiang‘s novelette, I AM AI, which we published last June, is a finalist for the Hugo Award…
March 28, 2024
We sold our 10,000th book last night! Thank you to all our authors, readers, reviewers, and friends for your early support…