I didn’t have much time for reading last night and so decided to tackle something short, and this piece by flash fiction maestro Bruce Holland Rogers is, as far as I can recall, the shortest story to ever appear in Black Static, with the possible exception of Maura McHugh’s “Water” from #21.
“The Reason for the Season” was also the first story in #7, and so opened the magazine’s second year of publication, and, appropriately enough, it appeared just in time for Halloween, Halloween being the season in question.
The story’s protagonist is the case book archetypal troubled teen, and as the story opens he’s being driven ‘home from a meeting with the assistant principal’ by his mother, who wants to know what the problem is, but of course it’s a question without an answer – ‘He would have liked to come up with something that he could say out loud. An explanation.’
Before the first paragraph ends we are given a common picture – divorced parents, neglectful father, new school, jocks who are jerks. And so on, and so forth.
As punishment for fighting, the boy is grounded for two weeks, and his mother puts him in charge of organising the Halloween festivities. The boy commits to this, buying decorations and chocolates to hand out to the trick or treaters, but is intent on giving it his own spin.
The Grim Reaper on the front porch is accompanied by a sign that says DEATH: THE REASON FOR THE SEASON, and to those trick or treaters he thinks will be the most receptive the boy whispers, ‘Remember, one day you will die.’
He also gives them special chocolate, larger bars than those handed out to the other kids, and of course we are free to speculate if these have been altered in some way, though Rogers gives us no reason to think that.
The boy sees no point to his life, and this translates into an abstract nihilism that colours everything for him and which he feels compelled to share.
It’s a story that unsettles precisely because nothing really dramatic happens. The angst ridden teenager doesn’t go postal at the local mall with a shotgun: that’s a sadly familiar story, and we could deal with it – our TV channels have taught us all the appropriate responses, the words to say and the gestures to make. Instead he simply hands out chocolate and whispers his memento mori in each receptive ear, and in its way this is even more insidious, not least because the story plants a similar shiver of unease in the reader, reminds us that we too are going to die.
With this subtle, understated story, Rogers pulls aside the veil for a moment and affords us a glimpse of what lurks behind the costumes we all wear and the masks we all put on. We celebrate Halloween, we make a game out of our deepest fears, but all the same the reason for the season is there in our collective subconscious, and ultimately death will not be mocked or trivialised.