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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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28 down

What're you doing tonight?

Jasper's bored in the coffee shop, running out of newspaper before the world runs out of rain, so he starts a game on his phone and waits for the last of the drizzle to end. His stool's facing into the street, but he can see outlines of the people behind him reflected in the window, and if he times it just right he can drop a block into place at the same time as a new customer sits down on a chair. A bit more practice and he can pay attention to the shop counter as well, so he adds another rule and only finishes a line when someone's collecting their order.

When he leaves, he keeps playing, sidestepping across the almost-empty footpaths whenever he needs to dodge. He's getting the hang of it now. At the pedestrian crossing he pretends the don't-walk beeps are a sound effect; if he doesn't reach twenty thousand points before they switch, he loses the game.

He manages it, then another thousand, and then the phone rings, an ominous tune of enemies nearby. Alan. He doesn't have to answer it if he can make another four lines before the lights change: one, two, and then a double, just in time.

He crosses another street. If he gets the new blocks into position quickly enough he can look up from the screen for a second or two while they fall. It's not long, but it's enough for him to check that the road's really safe, and to make sure he's not going to slip over on a damp catalogue or a milk carton. Bonus points if he can pick the rubbish up and drop it in a bin before taking another move, instead of just dodging.

He stops at the cash machine. One press of a button on the phone, then one on the machine. It takes a while, and some people come up behind him, but he's halfway there, he can't stop now. He makes another line, timed perfectly: the screen flashes momentarily in triumph, and his money slides out of the machine. Maybe he'll get extra cash if he can make another line quickly enough, but no, it's just a receipt.

At the next corner he turns left, complying with the blocks that are piling up high on the left side of the screen, and the phone rings again, a fanfare; Dylan. Jasper decides he's only allowed to answer it if he can make two more lines before it stops. He drops the next blocks into place quickly, and pauses the game to answer as soon as the second line flashes.

"Hello," he says, fitting in his earpiece and then unpausing the game. He reaches another corner; the blocks are higher on the right side of the screen this time, so right it is.

"Hi," Dylan says. "What're you doing tonight?"

Another corner up ahead, but he doesn't want to turn here. He tries to level out the blocks before he gets to the junction so he can go straight ahead. "Nothing much," he says.

"D'you want to come and see a movie? Yvonne's got some half-price voucher for... wait a minute." His voice fuzzes, and Jasper can hear him call out, Vonnie, what're we going to see again? He makes another line, then another. If he makes an even number before Dylan gets back, he'll go; if it's an odd number, he won't. Vonnie, he hears again.

"It's to see—" Dylan says, getting back.

Eight lines. "Sorry," Jasper says, "It turns out I can't."

He's startled by how easy it is, much easier than deciding whether the movie sounds any good. Another corner, and he's not sure whether to head home or stay in town, but the screen makes the decision for him, piled up high on the left and turning him left as well, back towards the city centre. He passes shops and restaurants, and dodges a man squatting on the footpath, looking for a lost coin or a contact lens. When he finally loses the game, five minutes later, he's standing outside a pizza shop, so he goes in and eats dinner while he plays again, one bite for each line he completes.

It's beginning to get dark when he leaves, but the phone glows up at him, and he's had enough practice now that he barely needs to glance at the footpath to keep going. He adds new rules: any time the blocks pile up past the mid-way point on his screen, he has to pause and reply to a message he's been putting off, or makes a phone call. No, I can't look after Adrian next week, he texts, after the next falling block decides it for him; an L-shape or a zig-zag is a yes, anything else is a no. Yeah, Tuesday sounds good. No, sorry, I don't have her number. He phones his grandmother and asks how her birthday went, and apologises for being late. He discovers that he doesn't really need next week's dentist appointment, so he deletes it from the calendar.

Back on the game screen he dies again, and restarts. There's a man in a doorway, wrapped in a blanket, just as Jasper passes ten thousand points, so he pauses to fish ten dollars out of his pocket and hands it over. He wonders for a moment whether that's cheating, whether it should be ten thousand dollars (ten thousand four hundred, by now)—he's got just enough for it in the bank—but there's no point in getting carried away.

The street-lamps start to come on. There are pubs and restaurants, a couple trying to get their car started (the game tells him not to help), a woman with a camera, a driver who swerves into a puddle and covers him in water while he shields the phone (it tells him not to shout after the car as it drives away). He answers more messages. There are only a few left now, and no more phone calls to make, except to Alan. He's fumbling with the keypad, and piling up the blocks faster than before, but it doesn't panic him: he's almost looking forward to it, a conversation where he doesn't have to think about his responses, with a supply of simple yes-or-no answers to all the questions about his birthday party and his cat and returning that DVD he borrowed.

He's down to one message when the battery runs out, but nothing's going to stop him now. There's a public phone around the next corner, and he calls anyway, watching the bricks in the footpath, searching for blocks shaped like the answers he wants to give.