From Flame | Flash Fiction

She wakes up on the couch, the sour mash of regret in her mouth. It takes a while for her eyes to adjust. Everything is at a distance. Bleary. Far away. The clock on the far living room wall. She can see the shape of it there, marking time but she cannot find the hands.

It is daytime. The bright judgment of afternoon sunlight angling through the blinds. Late for work again. She groans, reaching for the pack of cigarettes somewhere on the coffee table, finding empty bottles instead. She prowls blindly through the maze of empties, sets them tumbling, rolling to the floor.

Leaning forward, she finds the cigarette pack. Empty but for one crushed cigarette in the bottom corner. She shakes it out, lights it. Breathes deep the stale perfume of her life’s disappointment.

This is too much. Observe without judgment. This is her therapist’s voice. She hasn’t been in several months. When something you are doing isn’t working, try doing something different. Also her therapist’s voice. Also good advice. She stopped going to therapy.

A few drags on the cigarette settles her into the day. The little light on her answering machine flashes. One, two, three messages. It is one thirty in the afternoon. It is probably Thursday though, if pressed, she couldn’t swear to it.

The place was a wreck but she had seen it much worse. Things out of place. Wrappers, bottles and food containers not yet thrown away. Piles of unsorted mail and catalogs. Things not dealt with.

She could deal with those things later. She knew she should call work, but five hours late. What could she possibly say? What was the point? They already knew. She already knew. She’d need to find another job, which was getting harder and harder as her list of people willing to vouch for her grew shorter and shorter.

Tell us the reason for leaving your last job. That was always the hardest interview question. “I didn’t leave my last job. It left me.” Things you could not say.

The light on the answering machine still blinking. One, two, three. It would be her mother. Her mother was the only person who still bothered calling. Her mother who would press in on her from every side, making sure she could not escape the fact of her profound, ongoing disappointment.

Her mother loved her and surely deserved much better. But her mind would not let her dwell here.

She put out the cigarette. The taste of smoke, as ever, too much with her.

She starts to think about that night so many years ago. The bright walls of flame screaming at her from all sides and the sound of her mother’s voice also screaming but from just one direction and she turns every which way but cannot find her mother anywhere. And her older brother, also screaming. He seems close, very close, but she cannot see him.

Alarms and sirens. Furniture, carpet and curtains burning. The entire world is screaming.

And through the noise and confusion, their mother’s voice calling both their names, bright with panic.

And then, through the chaos, their mother’s arms find her, wraps around her and lifts her out. They stumble together through the crush of smoke until they stagger together through the front door and fall to the ground. It is the feeling of being born twice, this falling out into fresh air. There’s the choking, the rasping, the agony of scorched lungs. And then the feeling that you are drowning in fresh air.

Enough of this. Push all of this back down where it belongs.

Get up. Do something productive. Push the answering machine button and listen to mother’s tired disappointment and worry. Listen to her wondering if she pulled the right child out of the flame.

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