Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

Prompt: Start a story with the words “Envy is...”

What starts out as a philosophical discussion takes a sudden left turn into futurist gangster-land territory.

“Envy is unbecoming.”


“No what?”

“No, we’re not having this conversation again. It’s bullshit.”

“Look, all I’m saying—“

“Jake. Jake. I know what you’re saying. And all I’m saying is, you’re wrong. Envy is the thing that lifted us out of the Stone Age, you get it? Envy is the engine of civilization.”

“The engine—“

“Of civilization. Yeah. No envy, no civilization.”

Jake stopped in his tracks. He tilted his head sideways, as if considering the idea. “Not fire? Or tools? Or language?”

“Nope. Envy.”

“How you figure that, exactly?”

His companion set down the chain on the frozen ground and turned to face him. “Right. Listen. How do you think the first cave man—“

“There never were cave men.”


“Cave men!” Jake said. “They’re a myth. People never lived in caves. Caves are terrible places to live. And wild animals—“

“That’s not the point!” his companion said. “Point I’m trying to make is, how do you think he felt the first time his neighbor picked up a pointy stick and used it to kill a lion?”

“Well,” Jake said, “I imagine he felt pretty relieved he wasn’t eaten by a lion.”



“Envy! He felt envy! Envy that his neighbor had a fancy pointed stick and he didn’t! So you know what he did?”

Jake folded his arms. “I bet you’re going to tell me.”

“He decided to make a better pointed stick. Like, a fire-hardened pointed stick or something. He saw his neighbor’s stick—“

“Hur hur hur.”

“Grow up. He saw his neighbor’s stick and wanted to do better. Envy. And thus, civilization progressed.” He bent to pick up the chain again. Jake did the same.

They dragged the heavy tarp over the snow in silence for a time. Far ahead, a small, bright point of light rose from beneath the curve of the horizon, a white-hot needle stabbing at the sky on a trail of fire. The gray clouds glowed with its passage and then it was gone. Jake watched it thoughtfully.

“You see? Like that!” his companion said. “That’s civilization. You get into that thing in New York, you sit down, and before you have time to watch a movie, you’re in London. Bippity-boppity-boo. Envy. Some rich bloke sees people flying across the ocean, he says ‘hey, I can do better,’ he makes a rocket to fly across the ocean.”

Jake shook his head. “Pretty sure he made rockets to fly to Mars. Flying across the ocean was just a side benefit.”

“You ever been to London, Jake? Hobnob with all the aristocrats? Eat cheese on little sticks? Go to museums and stuff?”

“Cheese? I don’t think that’s a thing they do in London. That’s Paris you’re thinking about.”

“You ever been?”

“No. The fuck would I do in London?”

“Ah, but that’s not the real reason, is it?” His companion raised a finger as if making his crowning point. Fog condensed from his breath. “The real reason is, you can’t. London’s for rich people. People who can afford to sit on a giant rocket and fly across the ocean so they can eat cheese on sticks.”

“I really think that’s Paris, man.” Jake slung his chain over his shoulder and pulled. The tarp left a track in the thin dusting of snow behind it, obliterating their footprints.

“Point I’m trying to make is,” his companion went on, “there are two kinds of people in the world. People who can afford to ride rockets to London, and working-class stiffs like us. You know what keeps us working? Envy. We see those rich folks with their trophy wives and their rockets and we think, ‘man, I wanna do that.’ So we work harder. We hustle. And then, we get enough money to go fly across the ocean so we can eat cheese and say ‘my dear chap, would you like to sip tea and trade commodities futures?’ Civilization.” He took a bow as he finished his unassailable argument.

Jake frowned. “You have some weird ideas about London. And teaching pays me plenty to be happy.”

“Yeah? So why are you—you know, out here?” His companion waved his hand. “Why freeze your ass off dragging numb-nuts back there over the snow—“ he hooked his thumb back to the tarp wrapped in chains—“when you could be home sipping hot cocoa?”

“Because you said you needed a hand.” Jake shrugged. “We gonna get rid of this guy or are you gonna keep yapping about London cheese?”

The two men dragged their bundle for a time. Ahead of them, a small, run-down shack, little more than a handful of boards projecting like skeletal fingers from the earth, appeared. Jake panted with exertion. “Next time, find a place closer to the road.”

“Don’t be an idiot. We don’t want a place closer to the road.”

They dragged their bundle around what was left of the ancient shack and levered a huge slab of wood, gray with age, from a circle of rough stones. Jake peered down. “How deep you think this goes?”

“No idea. Help me get him over here.”

They dragged the bundle to the edge of the well. Jake unwrapped the chains. They each grabbed one end of the tarp and tilted the bundle into the hole. A few moments later, they heard a hard thud.

“And so ends the Russian Terror, enforcer for the Bratva. Sweet dreams, motherfucker!” Jake’s companion raised his middle finger. “Help me get this lid back on.”

“Don’t think envy did too good for him,” Jake said.


“If Dima hadn’t got it in his head he wanted to take over the south side, we wouldn’t be here in the cold and Dima’s friend there wouldn’t be at the bottom of a deep hole. Envy. Envy is unbecoming. It makes people want to rise above their station. See what happens? Come on, let’s get back.” He looped the chain over his shoulder. “It’s fucking cold out.”