Next Level

A short story by David Oliver Kasdan

eredith looked in the mirror. She was older, but could not really find anything about her face that marked this day. She had been promoted to the next level, but it did not feel real or even different at this point. So be it.

She put on her under layers: compression thermals interwoven with carbon fiber filaments that would hold her together in case of a laceration. They fit tightly and were a struggle to put on, but felt quite amazing once she flexed and stretched in them a bit, no more uncomfortable than a mild sunburn. Meredith admired the sleekness in the mirror, then abruptly stopped posing when her eye caught the picture of Zane stuck in the corner of the frame.

Her brother had been killed last year. There was no warning, no reasonable expectation that there would be danger. He was always so light-hearted. It was a completely normal day until it wasn’t. She had stayed home for three months, grieving and missing him and blaming the authorities for their abject failure to prevent the tragedy, then getting angry for the next two months when nothing changed and everybody seemed to forget.

She shook herself out of the memory and continued dressing. She could hear banging in the kitchen and checked the clock. Time to get on with it.

She pulled a hooded shirt over her head and yanked on a pair of black pants. The pants had ten outer pockets sewn in: front and back of the lower and upper leg, as well as one on each side of the seat. She inserted the contoured Kevlar panels into each, wiggled about for a moment, then realized that she had reversed the shin guards left to right and had put the panel covering her left hamstring in upside down. This was a new ensemble for her and it would take some practice. She made a mental note to mark the pieces with fluorescent pen when she got back. The matching top for the pants already had the panels in place from when she had tried it on the first time. It was strange to wear it nonetheless; none of her regular clothes made clacking noises when she pulled them on. Again, she stopped to assess her outfit; it was certainly impressive. She wrapped a scarf made of a similar fabric as her under layers around her neck and gave it a few tugs and fluffs until it looked fashionable.

Her pack was sitting by the door of her room. It was made of thick ballistic nylon and quite imposing. There was the frame itself, made of titanium tubes that could be slid out of hidden sleeves and used in a variety of ways. She thoroughly studied the manual when she got it. The tubes were strong and light, with swaged ends to fit together. She had practiced making a leg splint, a defensive shaft, a crutch, and even a half-litter for dragging a person clear (using the pack’s main compartment as the “basket” and the plethora of straps to secure a body). There was armor plating, of course, as well as a number of other useful built-in features. She had spent the better part of an hour packing and repacking it last night, even practicing with the lights out, until she could locate all the items and extract them in order quickly.

· Two smoke grenades, white and blue

· One emergency medical kit

· One safety blanket

· One walkie-talkie

· Two survival meals

· One liter of water in aluminum canteen

· One emergency beacon with klaxon and strobe

· Two canisters of pressurized pepper spray

· Four ½” thick zip-ties

· A small sack of twenty chromed ball bearings

· A hand-crank generator to power and recharge electronic devices

She took one more look at the picture of Zane and then a quick glance at herself. The get-up was so serious that it bordered on ridiculous. So be it.

She walked past the kitchen and paused by the door. She shifted the pack on her shoulders and bounced on her toes a little, feeling the weight of the outfit. She could hear a news report coming from the TV, it sounded like another shooting has taken place this morning.

She took a big breath and called out, “I’m going now.”

“Oh my. You look pretty tough.”

“Thanks, I guess?”

“Are you nervous? First day and all?”

“A little.”

A downshifting diesel engine and the exhalation of brakes announced the arrival of the Newtown Middle School bus.

“Have a good day, sweetie.”

“OK, Mom.”

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Stories and articles from “The Nonconformist’s” contributors; writing about books, without compromise: www.nonconformist-mag.com

The Nonconformist Magazine

The sharpest stories and perspectives around. We write about books, without compromise. For nonconformists only.

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