This piece of flash fiction was written for Writer’s Digest’s 2021 February Flash Fiction Challenge Day 6. Two and a half hours were spent on this piece; this is the third draft of the story. The prompt: “Write something absurdist.” As Jess Zafarris explains in her 2017 WD article, absurdism relies on “the notion that humans perpetually and futilely strive to find meaning and sense in an existence that is meaningless and nonsensical.”
Every morning at around eight fifteen, Jenet Shenefield drove to work in her gray Toyota Corolla on the same stretch of freeway, entering near Exit 27 and getting off on Exit 17. No matter the weather or day, traffic always slowed to a crawl between Exits 23 and 22, giving Jenet plenty of time to read the board of glowing letters overhanging the freeway.
Most mornings it declared: CLICK IT OR TICKET or BE RESPONSIBLE, DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE or BLINDSPOTS AREN’T A MYTH.
Some mornings the sign said: HAPPY HOLIDAY or ROAD CONSTRUCTION AHEAD or CAUTION! TRAFFIC ACCIDENT AHEAD. EXPECT 20 MINUTE DELAY.
Jenet always took a moment to read the orange words as she drove under them. What else was there to do in traffic?
Reading the message also served to distract Jenet from thinking about her job as a project manager for a small software company. For a few blissful seconds she wasn’t worrying about the fires she’d have to put out that day, the programmers that needed herding, stoking egos of executives, and stakeholders requiring reassuring pats on the back that said fires weren’t that bad. It was a career path she fell into by accident, pulled to it by convenience and the promise of a consistent paycheck. It had never turned into more than that.
Today, the sign reminded people that littering was frowned upon and monetarily inconvenient. However, there was also an orange glow in the bottom right corner of the board where usually there was nothing.
Jenet squinted. She managed to make out the letter T before passing under the sign. She sat back, frowning.
“T?” she asked. The NPR hosts on the radio ignored her.
Probably an oversight. She shrugged and continued onto Exit 17. The day ended up being as uninspiring as she expected.
However, the following day, as she passed beneath the overhanging roadway sign, the letter E now populated the bottom right corner.
Those two oversights turned into five by the end of the week. Each day a different letter.
As the weeks, a letter kept appearing at the bottom right corner of the board every day. Sometimes letters repeated; other times the corner was blank, though a letter always appeared the following day—Jenet interpreted these missed days as spaces between words. She kept track of every letter and space in her phone.
She had no idea what these seemingly random letters meant. Their groups were nonsensical, forming no words she recognized. She started plugging the words into Google to see if they had any non-English or fictional translations. They never did.
As sad as it was to admit, driving under the sign each morning, documenting the latest character, and trying to decipher the words they formed had become the best part of Jenet’s day. She’d even started driving to the sign on weekends just to collect the letters.
It wasn’t long before the mystery took over her life. Trying to solve the puzzle was a fantastic distraction from the fires, programmers, executives, and stakeholders. Slowly, the mystery became an obsession. Her gray days and black nights turn into a kaleidoscopic existence of swirling orange letters and possibilities.
She devoted entire weekends learning about languages, how they formed and how to construct them. Were these letters and the words they formed a new language? After three months, she decided she wasn’t reading a new language. It was all too random.
Over the course of six months, she became an amateur cryptologist. She learned about pattern theory and secret codes, how to encrypt and decrypt messages. Day after day was spent on running the random letters through various ciphers: caesar ciphers, block ciphers, stream ciphers, poly alphabetic substitution ciphers, and many, many more. She tried them all against the letters. The walls of her office at home looked like something you might find in the bowels of the CIA back during the Cold War. She also learned how to write computer programs to perform the decryption for her on the large scale. Though, she found no decryption that revealed the meaning of the letters.
This went on for an entire year. She cared less and less about work, about the projects, about the stakeholders, and about her coworkers. No, she drew meaning, purpose, delight, from the mystery now.
But, even after a year, she found no pattern, no meaning, no truth. There had to be one though, there just had to be. It was too consistent, too intentional for it not to mean something.
Eventually, Jenet refocused her energy on discovering who was in charge of the messages displayed on the board.
After three weeks, eight emails, and a dozen phone calls, she finally got in touch with the cog in the municipal machine responsible for keying in the messages displayed on the hanging freeway sign.
When she got the young man, Jerome, on the phone, she explained the existence of the letters in the bottom right corner of the board. She asked what they meant.
“Oh, those?” Jerome said. “Yeah, those aren’t anything.”
Jenet had been hit multiple times in the gut by fast flying softballs in highschool. This felt just like that. Though the sense of troubling despair was a new component to the sensation.
“What-what do you mean?” Jenet asked, her throat dry and voice crackly.
“The letters are nothing. Yeah, that board has some mechanical or electrical issue going on with it—I’m not really sure what exactly the issue is. Anyway, the engineers discovered a software fix for the issue. I guess by randomly populating that last field with a letter, the issue magically gets solved. It was cheaper than getting a crew to go out to fix or replace the sign.”
That . . . didn’t make sense. The letters had to mean something. Otherwise . . . otherwise what was the point of the last thirteen months? What had she been working towards?
“What about when a letter doesn’t appear?” Maybe that is the key to solving this mys—
“Huh? Oh, yeah, I guess the issue only happens when the main message is less than a certain number of characters long. I can’t remember what they said that length was.”
“Oh . . .”
Jenet collapsed into her office chair, her arm with the phone falling to her side. She peered at the sticky note covered walls, each multicolored post-it marked in black with a different letter. It all meant nothing.
“Uh, ma’am? You still the—”
Jenet hung up. Then she called her boss and gave her two weeks’ notice.