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For Want of a Nail – SF Flash Fiction

For Want of a Nail - short story

For Want of a Nail - short storyIt is a nail. It’s stuck in a wall, but it’s not my wall.

I work on it, but I can’t figure it out. So I call Abraham Hershlow.

We grew up together, did advanced physics and honors math together, but then Abe got a scholarship and I got to work at a hardware store. Still, Abe’s a good guy. He fixed me up with the job at the university, and I’d rather be a janitor at the U than a manager at Warshaw’s Tools.

“George,” Abe says, “I’d love to help but there’s this review and…”

“Just come look,” I say. “Five minutes.”

“I can’t, George, I really can’t.”

I call him again. And the next day, and the next. Finally he comes down to my box-room in the basement.

“It’s a nail,” he says.

“But look, it’s sticking out of the wall. Out, Abe.”

Abe shrugs. He’s not impressed.

“There’s nothing on the other side of that wall, Abe,” I say. “I checked. The foundation’s solid.”

“George,” he says, tiredly.

“It’s the exact spot where Tuan had his particle accelerator for that military displacement project.”

“You’re not supposed to talk about that,” Abe says. “Besides, it failed.”

“What if it didn’t fail? What if Tuan misaligned it? Look, on the Planck scale–,” I begin, shoving my battered copy of The Feynman Lectures at him, but Abe cuts me off.

“Let it be, George,” he says, and pats my shoulder on his way out.

I’d take it to Dean Smith but the dean doesn’t like me. He’s proud of Abe though. Professor Hershlow has had a glorious career; George Slivatski, not so much. At least I got a job at the U, even if it’s menial. I walk up to the wall and stare at the nail.

It’s a tiny nail, just part of a shank really, sticking out from my pastel-mint green wall. The shank is blackish iron, forged in a coal-fired kiln the spectroscopy guys tell me, and it’s got tiny slivers of wood stuck to it. The basement walls are concrete. Maybe I should have told Abe that.

Tuan studied under Everett. That’s where he got his ideas and how he managed to convince the generals that there was a practical application to the Many-Worlds theory. Where did the damn nail come from?

I stare at it, as if I could will it to reveal its secrets. It’s a nail. It conducts electricity but isn’t charged. It’s magnetic but not magnetized. Its hardness is about 4.5 on the Mohs scale. It’s got an unusually high carbon content for wrought iron. I wonder what’s on the other side of the wall.

The thought yanks me from my musings.

What if Tuan wasn’t wrong? What if he was right but in the wrong way?

It’s seven thirty. McMillan Hall is almost deserted. I have all the keys.

The high power lab is quiet, the equipment prepared for tomorrow’s lectures. Looks like it’s going to be photo-acoustic spectroscopy, the way the carbon laser is set up. I grab it, cart and all, and start pushing.

It’s hell getting it down to the basement. It won’t fit in the elevator so I have to rig a pulley system on the stairs. By the time I get it down I’m sweating so badly I leave palm prints on the cart. Doesn’t matter. I can wipe them later.

I position the laser by the nail. It doesn’t quite reach so I angle the entire cart, shoving my Oxford Encyclopedia of Physics beneath the front wheels. I try a short pulse and burn a small, black mark by the nail. Good enough. I put on the protective goggles and flip the switch.

Of course I blow a fuse.

I fumble my way through the dark and hit something. There is a big crash and I’m thrown to the ground, hitting my head. The cart smashes my leg. I can feel stickiness on my face.

I pull, I curse, and finally manage to get my leg free and crawl to the door. There’s an emergency light on in the corridor and by the time I reach it I can almost stand. One look in the bathroom mirror tells me that I need to go to the hospital; I’ve got blood all over my face.

Abe is waiting outside McMillan’s main doors the next day.

“What did you do?” he says.

My head hurts. I had to get stitches. Abe is blurry around the edges.

“Jesus, George,” Abe says, “Maybring’s on the warpath. You destroyed his lecture. He went to Smith and the dean’s threatening to call the police. You’ll lose your job.”

I focus on him, my throat constricting. Lose my job?

“I’ve got to clean up,” I say and stumble into a run.

The laser’s gone from my room. There are slivers of glass on the floor. A trail of my blood leads up to the bathroom.

I’m going to get fired because of a nail. I stare at it and suddenly hate the thing. I want to smash it, break it. It isn’t physics, it’s an ugly, small, insignificant piece of metal.

There’s a hammer in my toolbox and it feels great in my hand. I stomp up to the nail. It looks so tiny and defenseless. Well, now it’s going to be gone.

I hit it once, hard.

The nail vanishes.

Where it stuck out there’s a tiny hole, letting in a slim ray of sunlight. I put my eye to it. There’s a beach. I see sand, and reflections from the ocean. A grin twists my mouth.

They’re going to fire me anyway, and there’s a sledgehammer in the closet.


I discovered the Quantum Shorts competition about two months ago and, well, I’d been reading a bit about the history of quantum physics and the different interpretations of quantum mechanics. So I really couldn’t resist. I wrote the story and it didn’t work. Then rewrote it, using the advice from Mary Robinette Kowal about conflict and the MICE quotient. And lo, a working, interesting (if I may say so myself) story.

Unfortunately it didn’t get shortlisted, so no go on the contest. And in my rush to submit I didn’t consider that the contest is based on giving away your entries under the Creative Commons 4.0 license, meaning that there isn’t a market in the world who’d buy it. But, my loss, your win as you get to read the story in its entirety here.

Let me know what you think of it 🙂

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  • That fool! There may be a beach, but what else lies beyond it? Man eating Coconut People?
    I think I’d consider more carefully what’d be behind the wall before I knocked a hole into our world.
    Also, who put the nail there?

  • Dennis Lee

    English is a second language for me, so when you write “It’s a nail. It’s stuck on wall, but it’s not my wall. . . . ,” the default image that comes to mind is still a nail that’s been hammered to the wall on your side of it (not the quantum side), with its head facing you. It’s only when I get to the part that says “There’s nothing on the other side of that wall. . . . ,” that I get the idea that it’s the end of the nail that’s sticking out of the wall, not the head. If you’d written “There’s a nail sticking out of my wall, pointed end (pointy end?) facing me (mocking me?),” or words to that effect, I’d have gotten the idea very quickly. So my unsolicited suggestion as a long-time reader of fiction is to rewrite the first two sentences of your story, and maybe change the title to the more appropriate “The Nail on the Wall.” (This is not Gospel truth, so you can do whatever you want with it.) But the rest of the story is professionally written and the ending is topnotch.

    • Filip Wiltgren

      Thanks, I’ll think about how to re-forumlate it.

  • Deaymon

    The story was interesting and funny. Couldn’t help but smile at the end and wonder what would happen next. 🙂

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