First line competition - Runner Up

Andrew French

Runner Up
They Weren't Like Me
First line competition


Andrew French was shortlisted for the 2019 Big Issue/Avon, HarperCollins crime-writing competition. He made the shortlist for Strands Publishers Water anthology and was shortlisted for Eyelands 7th International Short Story Contest. He has twice been a winner and three times a runner-up in Writing Magazine's competitions. When not writing or reading he rides a bike a lot.

They Weren't Like Me By Andrew French

They weren’t like me.
That’s why I had to leave.
It started with a bag over my shoulder. It was made of leather only slightly thicker than my face. I’d gotten old fast, my eyes streaming with water every time I stepped into this fake air. I called it fake, but it was all I’d known from thirty years as a colonist’s kid. I’d never forgiven my parents for leaving Earth and coming here, for having me here, and then giving me nothing to build a future on. I even blamed them for dying under that ten-tonne truck on my sixteenth birthday.
Not that their deaths bothered me in any emotional way, they’d been dead to me before I was born, but their demise when I was still below legal age meant I spent the next two years in the care of the State. And here I was, doing the best I could to stick it to the State, carrying this bag from an unknown person to an unknown place.
I didn’t need to see what was inside to know what it was. Many things were smuggled off and onto Raylan, but only one thing mattered to the State officials I now had to avoid: the gold from the mines which brought humanity here.
Raylan was too hot or too wet. The red sky burnt through pink clouds each day, the heat so oppressive even non-believers prayed for rain. But when the rain came, there was the potential for it to be so extreme and so long it would sweep away those flimsy dwellings stacked along the edges of every village, town, and city. Sometimes there would be a week’s worth of downpour where the water would wash through the streets and invade every building, flooding houses and businesses in equal measure. Whoever designed the original infrastructure and its inadequate drainage system must have never stepped foot on the planet.
It didn’t take me long to realise Raylan had drawn the short straw where the first colonists were concerned. Rumours abandoned that the first ships to land were full of convicts or were crashed cruisers carrying patients from Earth’s asylums. The history books told a different story, recording Raylan’s birth as being one of the first planets detected with an Earth-like atmosphere within a decade of the discovery of faster than light travel which wouldn’t liquefy the human body.
But if thousands of ships sailed through space from humanity’s home planet, Raylan must have been far down the list for receiving the best Earth could produce.
The people looked good from a distance, the red of Raylan’s atmosphere shining behind them like fluorescent halos, but once they got up close and they opened their mouths and all their tiny, petty grievances cascaded through their lips and flowed from them, I had to stop myself from burying my head in the planet’s dark soil.
The dark soil. Perfect for sustaining life, for growing and cultivating all which was needed for life to exist, but it must have been the bleakest landscape in the universe. Once it was placed with the scorched sky, it was reminiscent of a scene from Dante’s Inferno. I knew from an early age I had to get off this planet, but interplanetary travel was not for the likes of me, reserved as it was for the rich and privileged; and I would never be those things. It was only the images of Earth’s blue and green beauty which kept me going, those films and photos which motivated me to flee to a home I was taken from before I was born.
Sweat dripped from my head as I strode through the market, my legs moving slower than usual, and my eyes scanning everything around me. Fried chicken turned on a spit to my right, a pan of bubbling sauce spewing out tomato fumes opposite. I hadn’t eaten in two days, slept only ten hours from the last forty-eight. It was only the pills keeping me going; that and the promise of escape from this world: an undertaking to go to the planet I only knew from stories and vid clips and other people’s memories.
My first memory is of a leg. Not a human leg or even from the table I was under, but of the dog cocking its leg and pissing against me. The mutt was older than me; I must have been about three or four years old.
The next thing I remember is the noise and the lights in the sky. I thought the world would end. The dog had died a year before. It was only later when I realised the cacophony above my head was a celebration, a festival of the fiftieth anniversary since the planet was colonised. My mother and father were among the second wave, Scrappy Seconds they were called; I was a natural Raylan, born on the dirt named after the first human to set foot on this dump. I hated it and I hated being here. I hated my parents for coming here, for having me here.
They were never happy people, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. Right from those primary memories of mine, all I have of them are images and sounds on a constant repeat of shouting and screaming and fighting and hitting, argument after argument. Between that and their work in the mines, it’s no wonder they had no time for me. I was a mistake, that’s what my mother told me on my sixth birthday. I wasn’t sure what it meant then and I didn’t care now as I trudged over the dark soil with the treasure on my back.
An emaciated mongrel dog stuck to my shadow. There was no meat on the beast, its ribs poking through the tufts of hair barely hanging onto its flesh. It was bloodied and beaten, a victim of humans more animalistic than it could ever be. It sniffed around my feet for more than a mile, its sad, watery eyes staring at me every step of the way. As I approached the spaceport, I stopped and peered at it; if it followed me inside the gates, the security wouldn’t hesitate to shoot it on sight. There would be no risk taken on their part with an animal which might be diseased, rabid, or feral.
I bent down and reached out my hand, a gesture of friendliness rarely offered to any of my species. The dog backed away and whimpered. His mouth trembled a little, exposing the gaps between his lips; what teeth it had left were cracked and stained.
‘You’ve had a hard life, boy.’
It crept towards me, finding enough strength to wag its tail. Then he jumped at me. We tumbled together outside the fence, with people strolling around as if we weren’t there. The dog could have been about to rip my throat out, but they didn’t care. The hound slavered over my face, its paws pressed into my chest as it licked at my cheeks, nose, ears and mouth. Its fragile body weighed nothing at all, its panting heart barely contained by the skin and bones it had become.
I reached into my jacket and removed the last of my food, half a sandwich purchased from the market earlier in the day. I unwrapped it and dropped the contents onto the floor. The mutt was on it in a heartbeat, and I got up.
‘You enjoy it, friend. I don’t need it where I’m going.’ My body was about to be pumped with liquid nutrients for the next twelve months while I slumbered in hypersleep. I walked towards the entrance, turning to stare at the dog. ‘If you don’t get any proper nourishment, you won’t have the strength to survive.’
It ignored me and devoured the sandwich. I turned to the guards and saw the tallest one glaring at me with his hand out.
I handed them to him; he scanned the details as if they were the Ten Commandments before returning them. The Captain of the ship approached me. He was both fat and skinny, a rolled pot belly hanging over his belt while his arms and legs resembled drain pipes; all his life had vacated to his gut while the rest of him wasted away. I hoped it wasn’t an effect of space travel. He nodded at the bag over my shoulder.
‘Is that it?’
I pointed to the ship. ‘You’ve got a place for me on there as we agreed?’
He grinned at me, his cheeks and empty eyes reminiscent of a hollowed-out skull.
‘You still want dropping off on Earth?’
‘That’s right.’
He turned to his side and waved at someone I couldn’t see. Two human skyscrapers strode over and took the bag from me.
‘I’ve saved you the best cabin,’ the Captain said. Then all three of them stepped away and headed towards the ship, laughing at a joke I wasn’t privy to.
I trailed them inside, the two concrete goons disappearing with the sack down a long passageway while the Captain addressed me.
‘Do you dream in colour?’
I shrugged my shoulders. ‘I never remember.’
‘Well, you’ll be asleep for a year, so I hope you don’t suffer from nightmares.’
I followed him along the corridor, watching the door close and knowing I’d put my nightmare behind me.
The Captain stared at the prize as the passengers were lowered into their hypersleep chambers. The First Mate approached as the ship took off.
‘We’re dropping one of the natives on Earth?’
‘That’s right.’ The touch of the gold sent a tingle through his flesh.
‘Doesn’t he know there’s hardly anything left alive there, just yellowed skies, scorched land and poisoned seas?’
The Captain shrugged his shoulders and laughed.
‘He’s not like us.’

Judges Comments

Andrew French has taken the first line requirement for this competition as the title of his piece, and amplified it so that the 'they' the narrator is at odds with are the inhabitants of an entire planet.

It's an exit narrative that hinges on the creation of the narrator, and Andrew has succeeded in constructing an intriguingly layered character: angry, sensitive, craving the reallness he associates with Earth even though he's never been there. He's increasingly at odds with life on Raylan, the planet where he was born after his parents left Earth, and determined to leave. He hates the 'fake' air that is all he's ever known, the climate, the horrible reality behind the image of an inhabitable planet. He is flawed and angry but he craves authenticity – the leather bag – and possesses kindness towards his fellow creatures, giving the famished dog not just his sandwich, but company and empathy. He is idealistic, prepared to leave everything behind to follow a dream. He makes the reader care about why he's not like 'them'.

Andrew paints a convincingly bleak portrait of his dystopia: it's easy for the reader to understand why the narrator wants to leave, even though the place where he's going, Earth, is, in this spec-fic story, a destroyed planet that is no improvement on the one he's leaving behind. The twist in the tale is the way the final line, after the story has shifted from a first-person account of a misfit to a third person point of view of the Raylan officials, effectively echoes the first one to show why he would not thrive on Raylan: He's not like us.