Disappearance | Flash Fiction

I don’t honestly understand why I said it. Only that one moment I had been standing sensibly, peaceably, unobtrusively in the corner of the room trying not to call attention to myself. The next I was yelling, “Shut up! Shut up!” at full volume.

Shut up they did. The full party came to a stop and the sensible, peaceable, unobtrusive girl standing in the corner of the room was suddenly the center of everyone’s attention. No one spoke for a long moment though the music kept playing, which was a weird feeling like the movie and the soundtrack splitting apart and realizing they hadn’t ever really gone together well.

My friend, Audrey, was first to speak. I say friend because she drove me there and, also, she could always be counted on to check in on my welfare. We were the same age but she was always playing mother to me, calling me after a bad episode to soothe my feelings, check to see if I needed anything. When she came over, she inventoried my dorm room cabinets to be certain I had food in them. If she ever saw a pill lying out on the counter, she was quick to ask if I was taking my medicines. All of my medicines.

Now my good friend Audrey was just looking at me, wearing the face that everyone else was wearing. The worried, fretful but slightly irritated that I had ruined the party, again, face.

“Are you okay, sweetie?”

She calls me sweetie when she knows I’m not okay.

Yes, I try to tell her but having been so inappropriately loud, now my voice won’t come out at all. So I just nod.

“She’s okay,” Audrey translates for the others, but I can see that she doesn’t really believe it. This is just a thing she says to get people talking again, put the soundtrack back into sync with the action on screen.

People resume talking and the party slides back into its groove and I slide out.

She is at my elbow now, holding me like some priceless heirloom, a tiresome thing she has inherited and feels responsibility for but secretly resents because of the burden of its value. Like an expensive vase in which you can not even place flowers. What use is it?

She doesn’t say any of this. That is too gauche. Audrey takes care and doesn’t complain. Complaining is gauche.

“Let’s get some air,” she says. “Okay?”

I nod.

It is colder outside than I expected. I left my sweater in the guest bedroom, mixed somewhere in the sexual heap of coats and jackets and sweaters. An orgy of winter wear. Such casual disregard.

Audrey is looking at me closely. I am looking at the driveway which is lined with cars. Audrey’s car is in the middle of that scrum. There’s no easy way for us to leave. The night is young. And so are we.

Ha!

I haven’t been young for some time.

Age is just a number, they try to tell you, but, actually, age is a tightening in your lower back, a spreading awareness of pain and exhaustion.

I had been losing my breath but now my breath is settling.

I can feel Audrey looking at me and tell myself not to look at her. But it is almost impossible not to look when someone is looking. You can’t just turn yourself invisible with your own mind. I’ve tried. You have to distract them.

“I’m sorry I lost it in there,” I tell her, hoping an apology will soften that gaze.

Audrey shrugged. “You didn’t lose it. You just caught people off guard.”

“I’m pretty sure catching people off guard like that is called losing it.”

“Well, you seem fine now.”

“I am.”

“Good.” Another long look. “Did you take all your medicines today?”

“You think I’m crazy,” I told her.

“We’re all crazy, sweetie. Some of us just have a name for it.”

Audrey has a way of saying things that make me feel better.

“I just got a little bit closed up is all.”

Truth: I erupted like a volcano. The lava was still flowing around.

“Is it better out here?” Audrey asked.

“Yes. A little. A lot. There were too many voices.”

So much talking. Conversations stacked on top of conversations. They were crowding me out until there was no place to stand.

“Would you like to go back inside?”

“In a minute,” I told her. “You can go.”

“You’ll be okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” I told her, smiling my brightest aw shucks smile. It was the payment she expected for services rendered. “Honest.”

“Okay, but if you aren’t back inside in five minutes, I’ll come looking for you.”

“You’ll find me right here,” I tell her.

Audrey nods and checks around the neighborhood. It is a nice night and I can’t help feeling that out here on the front porch is a better place to be. “See you in a few,” Audrey tells me.

“Okay.” And then, just before she reenters the house, I say, “Audrey. Thanks.”

She is glad for this small offering, and I am glad as well. I hate being the friend who can’t do parties. I hate being the friend  whose crazy has a name, but standing on the porch watching the moon sail slowly up the sky, I am grateful to have a friend like Audrey. A friend who comes immediately to the rescue when the party slips and the good times are no longer feeling good.

I stand on the porch for a while, longer than five minutes for sure. Audrey has gotten herself into a conversation and has forgotten the time. Which is good. I am glad. It was just a weird, awkward moment. I didn’t ruin the party after all.

I wait outside until the bad feelings pass.

I watch the moon.

The moon watches me.

I wait long enough for the moon to become disinterested.

I wait just long enough to completely disappear.

Watching. Waiting. (Another Take) | Flash Fiction

Note: Last week I posted a quick piece called “Watching. Waiting.” I didn’t particularly like it at the time. I’m coming to actually hate it. A friend pointed out that the core element of an old man watching cable news to help loosen his connection to life was wrong-headed. It was also ungenerous and mean.

This is another take. I hope it is more generous and more kind.

 

Ronny Hulsing woke early. At his age, there was no luxury or prize for staying in bed until the sun came up. The days were short enough and any one of them could be his last.

He struggled to free his legs from the tangle of blanket, trying to ignore the ripe bloom of stink that came out when he lifted the covers. The indignities of old age, so much harder to bear than the myriad aches and pains that settled into every joint and fissure.

Getting himself moving took a bit of work but it had become his life’s work and he wasn’t going to give up yet.

In the far corner of his bedroom, the shadowy figure of a man stood waiting. Always waiting.

Ronny put on his glasses.

“Ah. You’re still there, then? Didn’t sneak off in the middle of the night? No place you’d rather be?”

The shape watched him, unsmiling, unsympathetic.

“Well, you might as well make yourself useful. Come give me a hand. I’m not moving as free and easy as I used to.”

The man-shaped shadow came to Ronny’s bedside, offering his hand.

Ronny batted the hand away. He knew better than to take that offered hand. He knew instinctively that he wanted no part of that icy grip.

“I can manage. I can manage,” Ronny grumbled. And he pushed himself out of bed with a good goddammit. “Gotta whiz. Then breakfast.”

Ronny shuffled to the bathroom door, gripping his walker tight for fear of tripping over his own mutinous feet. His heart was good. His mind clear. His vitals all in order. His mutinous feet were the problem. Always getting tangled up, threatening to topple him like an old growth tree.

Ronny entered the bathroom. The shadow followed. “A little privacy, please.”

The shadow waited outside the bathroom door.

The indignities multiply.

After managing his morning pee, Ronny makes the slow, shuffling trek to the kitchen. Making breakfast was the hardest chore of the day. His unsteady hands found it difficult to measure the proper amount of coffee grounds. Some nights the home health nurse filled the basket and tank before leaving so it would be ready for him just to switch on in the morning. Ashley, the last girl, had been good for that. And Kimberly, the girl before that. But now there was a new girl and she didn’t know the details of how he liked things done. Home health was brutal business. They never stayed long enough to get properly acquainted and properly trained.

Ronny’s hands shook bad today and he had to focus extra careful to get the grounds into the filter. He nearly spilled the whole thing dropping the filter into the basket. Ronny carried the carafe to the sink to fill it with water. He saw the shadow figure from the corner of his eye. Standing. Watching. Somehow mocking with his humorless stare.

“I see you there. You could help a man out. Make enough coffee for the both of us.”

The figure just stared with those patient, lidless, unblinking eyes.

Ronny sighed. “No? Okay. But you don’t get any coffee.”

Ronny filled the carafe, then shuffled to pour the water into the coffee maker to percolate.

“Toast neither,” Ronny told him. He pressed two slices of bread into the toaster and pressed to brown.

“Don’t you never say anything? Its very rude. Just standing in a man’s house like that, watching him do all the work. Just waiting for him to —“

Ronny didn’t finish the thought. He had the sudden memory of his wife, Abigail, standing in that very same spot in the kitchen, watching him make breakfast. Except she had been smiling. Her tired, worn cancer treatment smile. The smile she had worn to keep herself living on the outside while she was busy dying on the inside.

Ronny nearly lost his legs. He had ventured too far from his walker and had to catch himself against the sink. Breathing was hard work. A bit like mountain climbing. He felt weak from too much exertion and the air seemed unhelpfully thin.

“Not yet, you bastard.” Ronny panted.

The toast leapt up but he wasn’t as much in the mood anymore.

He waited a while to catch his breath. Truth be told, his breath caught him.

Either way, Ronny settled down and his strength returned enough to attempt the morning coffee pour. He splashed a bit out of the mug but that couldn’t be helped. He was mostly just glad he hadn’t burned himself. Yet. He still had to make the trip from kitchen to the arm chair in the living room where he liked to take his coffee.

Ronny balanced one hand on his walker, balanced the coffee in the other and went on his way.

“Out of my way. No fair standing in the middle of the kitchen, trying to trip me up. Make me fall.”

The figure stepped out of Ronny’s way. Ronny walked by, trying not to notice the chill that bloomed in his bones as he passed. He would need the entire cup of coffee and maybe another to take that graveyard chill away.

Ronny found his chair, careful to set his coffee down on the side table before sitting himself.

“Busy day planned today?” Ronny laughed to himself. “Feel free to leave anytime you like. I’ll be right here for you when you get back. No rush. No worries.”

The absurdity pained Ronny but he tried to push it back with humor. “You never laugh,” Ronny observed. “You stand there, oh so serious. But its all actually quite funny.”

If the shadow figure agreed, it gave no sign.

“I miss my Abigail. Miss her so much it hurts. There’s a lot of me that’s ready to go be with her and yet there’s a lot that isn’t in any hurry at all.”

Ronny studied the figure. “That’s funny, right?”

The apparition shrugged.

Ronny took a long draught of his coffee. Enjoyed the warm spread of it filling his chest and stomach. He reached for the TV remote. Turned on the morning cable news show. His morning dose of calamity, political chicanery and general inhumanity. Interrupted occasionally by commercials for term life insurance, reverse mortgages and Metamucil.

“You may as well have a seat, friend. I’m telling you. I’m not going anywhere until I am good and ready.”

Watching. Waiting. | Flash Fiction

Death was taking its sweet, slow time finding Archie Wheeler. Archie waits, impatient, sitting his living room, his dinning room, his toilet, his porch, like a man sitting a bus stop bench waiting for a bus that is running hours, days, years too late. A man with somewhere else to be, anywhere other than wherever he was. A man forgotten by time and circumstance. A man who has stopped changing calendars or noticing the batteries in his clocks have all expired.

Ninety-eight was an indecent age to reach. As a younger man, Archie had imagined life to be a slippery, fleeting quicksilver moment like a fish you could never quite get your hands around. As a husband and father and employee and club member, he had felt the passage of time barreling fast.

But now he knew the filthy secret of life. Time isn’t short. Time excruciates.

His life has become a waiting room. He has read all the books on the shelves, all the magazines. He has seen all the shows he cares to see, the black and white oldies replay on mute. He doesn’t need the sound. He knows all the dialogue by memory. He has lost his enthusiasm for music, playing only the one opera on record player, letting it dig a deep, angry welt in the vinyl.

Doris died 30 years ago. At the time, it had felt too soon. She had passed too young. She had lived a good, happy life. She had been spared 30 years of cable news updates. She didn’t have to lose their daughter.

Helen was lost 14 years ago. Sixteen years after her mother. Sixteen years in which Helen had her father and her family, children of her own, to look after and help keep her grief at bay. But the grief gets us all, every one. Some call it depression. Some call it cancer. The name doesn’t matter. The malignancy catches us, each one, in the end.

Archie was impatient for his turn. And on occasion, he flips the channels, flipping past the Such and Such Headline News. The bloviating President. The forest fires. The stock market’s endless arrows. Zigzagging up in green. Zigzagging down in red. The panic. The turmoil. The same problems each year dressed in different clothes. He watches with detached interest, a fatal fascination. Each dispatch he imagines Death taking its step closer. So close, surely, Archie expects to see Death grinning out at him through the screen, asking to be invited into his home.

But no. And still he watches, to bear witness. His life with Doris and Helen has been his true life, not this shriveled, forgotten, useless thing. And if he were really honest with himself, he would say he watched the news as a way of letting go of his life. The world was burning. He was swimming out to sea.

More Thoughts on Chekhov as the Father of Flash Fiction

Yesterday, it seems I made too much of the difficulty of reading Anton Chekhov, too much of the opacity of his text, too much of his Russianess. I called him the father of flash fiction. That’s a statement worth explaining.

First, I should say that I love writing flash fiction but don’t alway love reading it. In the wrong hands, perhaps my own hands, flash fiction can feel lazy, an abbreviated form of story telling for the internet age where everything connects to everything and so nothing really ever stands entirely on its own. Flash fiction is often heavy on the flash and sparing on the fiction. There is a temptation to catch characters in the middle of doing something interesting without the need to define or understand how what they are doing affects or changes them. It is easy to introduce a quick character, punch the reader in the stomach with some powerful detail or twist and then take your leave. If the reader is aching from the well-placed punch, you must have told an impactful story.

Successful flash fiction should haunt a reader. The quickness of action, the spareness and specificity of detail should unsettle the reader and leave them wanting to glimpse a bit more. Successful flash fiction is like haiku. It should guide a reader through a specific, concrete physical reality, bring them to the edge of epiphany and then push them over with both hands. The reader of flash fiction, like the reader of haiku, tumbles headlong into a realization that is not contained or expressed in the story. It is a realization or understanding that does not belong to the writer.

This, it seems, is the mystery and wonder of Chekhov. I don’t understand most of his stories, but I don’t understand them in the way I don’t understand haiku or a zen koan. I know there’s something there. I just cannot always apprehend it. Most of this has to do with narrative choice. Chekhov explores moments that other writers tend to ignore. My favorite, and most accessible, of Chekhov’s stories is “The Lady with the Dog” in which he tells of an adulterous affair. At its center, a young married woman takes a vacation without her husband and meets an older, womanizing rake. His predatory nature draws him to the mysterious woman on the beach, the lady with the dog. He approaches her for conquest, but, quite accidentally, falls in love.

In other hands, the story would be a tawdry account of passions whetted and cooled, followed by the inevitable weighing of moral and ethical cost. Their impermissible love would set a trap and the story would be the trap closing, ensnaring them in its crushing, moral jaws. Instead, Chekhov offers the story of a man who wakes up to his own life and finds the simplest pleasures and joys offer complication and challenge. Their joy and sorry are not the price or reward. Their joy and sorry are just life. Nothing really special after all.

Spoiler alert. We leave the lovers with nothing resolved but a deep recognition that they will forever complicate one another’s lives. The last sentence: “And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most difficult part of it was only just beginning.” (337)

That’s it. The end. Do they escape their not unhappy lives and make a different life together? Are their families destroyed? Are they rewarded or punished? Do they live happily ever after?

Don’t know. Don’t care.

I am haunted. The story cannot resolve and so, in a weird way, the story becomes a thing that belongs to me. My insight. My understanding. It is a narrative leap, not toward a moral lesson, but an imagined next thing.

This is a thing Chekhov does remarkably well. I stand by my original thoughts that Chekhov is difficult, opaque and very Russian. I also stand by Francine Prose’s assertion that Chekhov is writer for writers to read.

Haiku. Zen koan. Flash fiction. You should probably read Chekov.

Source text: Chekhov, Anton. “The Essential Tales of Chekhov.” Richard Ford, ed. Constance Garnett, trans. Ecco Press: New Jersey. 1998. [Find it in a library]

Untitled Thing Inspired by If 6 Was 9

I’m not sure exactly what this piece is. The impulse came while driving home from the grocery listening to Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9”. I wanted to write a thing that moves like that song. Alternating bruising punch with psychedelic caress. This isn’t the thing but it has some of the shape of the thing.

***

That first night after her burial is the longest night of your life. You are meant to be putting the past behind you, placing things in their proper order, making room for the new normal. That first night becomes your entire life. It never actually ends, just stretches more and more thin until the shell of it finally cracks and morning rushes out in a bloody smear of light.

You don’t sleep. Every where you look is a place she isn’t, a place she is meant to be.

Evelyn snores in the next room, coiled cozily in oblivion. She is too young to need the help of sleeping pills but the doctor gave them anyway, pressed her gently into the soft, dreamless slumber beyond grief.

You don’t take the pills. You want to keep your wits or at least keep watch for them in hopes those wits might return. This night is the rest of your life.

You envy Evelyn, her youth, her future. She still has the illusion of a long, happy life ahead. Perhaps she has not yet sensed the thing you now know that life is short and brittle and brutally brief.

You looked through the pictures in the photo albums, the photos on your laptop and phone. How all those moments seemed enough to fill a endlessly long lifetime but now seem to have gone screaming by. What had seemed long years, decades now seem a mere piffle of days. There is nothing for it but to revisit. Each picture a moment gone, a memory you could visit but only as a guest knocking on the door of your neighbor’s house. The door opens. You are welcome to come inside but you can’t really get comfortable. You don’t really belong. This place is not your place even though it is close to where you live. The past, even your own happy past, is a friendly neighbor’s home. You are welcome to visit anytime but you cannot stay.

That first night is the longest night and you mark time by walking the floor. Checking the windows and the doors. Keeping all the lights turned on, wondering how to keep all that darkness outside from getting in. You do not check the clocks. The clocks are all liars. They measure it out in steady increments. The ticks. The tocks. The clocks pretend time is a constant, steady thing but now you know it is not. Time is capricious. The past moves quick. Now drags slowly by. The future is a mote of dust right in front of your face. Right in front of your face. A moment. Then another. Perhaps another. That’s all there is.

Last Smoke | Flash Fiction

“Hand me a cigarette, will ya?”

“I don’t smoke anymore,” he tells her, that inscrutable smile of his. Mocking her.

“Bullshit. Hand over.”

“For real. Not joking.” He turns away from the view to show her his serious, not-joking face. Cars and buses and bikes and people walking dogs bustle below. They stand alone at the rooftop, the roofline of the world, not drinking, not smoking. Contemplating the end of the world.

It wouldn’t be much more than one step to it all now. One committed step and the quick tug of gravity. Not smoking. Not drinking. Contemplating the end of the world.

“Since when did you give up smoking?”

“Since last year. Those things will kill you.”

It was a stupid thing to say but now it was said and he couldn’t keep the inscrutable smile from breaking into ironic parody. All of the TVs in the apartments beneath them tuned to the Fox News, the CNN, the MSNBC. All counting down the missile exchange with hysterical enthusiasm. It was the last day on earth but it would be the best ratings day ever. Everyone watching. No one able to look away. Except the two alone on the roof of the midtown apartment building surrounded by the midtown apartment buildings and banks and restaurants and coffee shops. The restaurants and coffee shops were full. It was, at last, to be the end of the world, but no one could be bothered to interrupt their meal, their last lingering cup of joe. The people below ate and drank and laughed with the languid leisure of another age. They did not belong to this time, this place. These people were already dead. They just did not know it. They couldn’t see. Or seeing, they could not care.

She nods. “Yeah. Those things will kill you. Not fast enough.”

He laughed. “Yeah. A slow motion execution. One puff at a time.”

“How much time you think we’ve got?”

He watches the far horizon. The city spreads in every direction. He cannot look and find a place that is not the city. Hard to imagine the fiery stitch of missile reaching in like fingers. But they were on their way.

“Minutes.”

She nods again. “Not even one cigarette?” she says, watching him with those steady, eager eyes. He had fallen in love with that look of hers before, that expression of naked need, that bald hunger. She catches his gaze and, for a moment, he can’t remember why they aren’t together anymore.

“Why did we break up?” he asks her.

“You said you needed space.”

“Ah yes. That’s right. Space,” he recalls.

“Was it worth it?”

He shrugs. Is anything really worth it? But instead he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a single, crooked cigarette. “My last,” he tells her, handing it over. “For emergencies.”

She takes the cigarette, pushes it between her lips. “I think this qualifies.”

She tries to light the cigarette with trembling hands but the flame is restless and will not catch.

“Me too,” he says, taking the lighter from her to steady her hands. The cigarette catches and releases its small bitter breath.

She drags a few and offers the rest to back to him. “One last time?” she asks.

He studies her face for a hint of mockery or shame or uncertainty. There’s only that look of need, that hunger which is life.

“I’d like that very much.”

He takes the cigarette. Pulls a few drags. Coughs a little. It is a vice his body has almost forgotten but quickly remembers.

He surveys the city one last time. It is mid afternoon but in his mind the sun is already sinking low.

He smokes it down, hands it back to her. She takes the last drag, flicks the butt off the roof. They don’t watch it fall.

“Let’s go inside,” he says and takes her hand.

“One last time.” She smiles and lets herself be guided to the stairs.

They walk unhurried though there is so little time to waste. So little time for their bodies to remember all those things they thought had been forgotten.

 

Inspired by Daily Prompt: Talisman

It Is What It Is | Flash Fiction

Aubrey. I’m dead. It is what it is.

It sucks.

I raised you to live your life with no regrets but I’m realizing too late that any thinking person who gives a damn is going to have his regrets. We make choices. Some of them hard. Forget what I said about no regrets. People who care are going to have regrets. I have them, too.

I am trying to imagine how you must feel, watching this message. Me on a screen telling you things I could have easily told you in person. We talked every night. Sometimes I called you. Most times you called me. I need you to know how good it felt to get those calls or the texts and emails. It felt good to know you were thinking of me, making room for me in your life even when you lived so far away. That room was my world. It was everything.

But now, I’m dead and you are wondering why I didn’t tell you I was dying. It isn’t easy to explain. I wanted you to know, but I didn’t want to bring that into our special space. I just wanted to be what I was for as long as I could be.

And I had work to do. Important work that I couldn’t share. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust you. I just didn’t want it to swallow your life until it had too.

When your mother died, I promised I would raise you to be brave and strong and curious. I raised you to be kind. To take care of others. And I am so proud of the person you are. It is my sweetest reward.

I always told you not to worry yourself with whether or not there is a God. A God who needs you to believe so much without seeing isn’t a God worth knowing.

I was wrong. There is a God. He just doesn’t like us all that much.

Sorry. I’m rambling. Its the medication. They’ve got me on these pills that mix my head up, make it hard to think. Everything I used to do easy comes much harder now.

When you see this, I’m already dead. But I want to tell you things about my life I never took the time to tell you. I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy. Its bullshit, mostly. But useful bullshit. It puts your life in perspective. It teaches you to think about yourself realistically. Most people walk around clutching their religion to help themselves feel important or they spend their lives angrily pushing it away to help themselves feel important.

We aren’t important. But we have importance. We can do important things.

This isn’t what I want to tell you. I’m getting tired and I’m afraid I’ll leave something out. Something you will need to know. You’re so smart. You’ll figure it out.

None of them are alike. Each of them has a different story, a different need. Treat them individually. Get to know them. They won’t always tell you what they need. They won’t usually know. Take the time to figure it out.

Every one of them has fallen such a long way. Every one of them has been marked by that fall. Just be the kind person you already are. The rest will be okay.

I’m getting tired. I need to rest. I’ve written a lot of notes to help you figure it out. It is powerful, terrifying work. It is necessary.

I wish I could see you. Tell you these things.

How we used to sit on the porch and watch the night sky. All those shooting stars you tried to wish magic out of. So many times you wanted them to be ghost angel of your mother. I told you they weren’t actually stars or your mother but leftover bits of iron from the leftover universe, which was something even better than magic. We were both wrong.

Regrets.

Now I’m dead, and it is what it is. I just need to say it again.

Every day you made a special place for me and I made a special place for you. Keep carrying me there. But don’t stop with me. Open yourself up. Break yourself open.

It doesn’t matter if there’s a God. There are miracles. I know there are. Let them come in. Feed them. Clothe them. Set them on their way.

Okay. That’s all kiddo. Time to go now.

It is what it is.

High School Zombie Story | Flash Fiction

The zombie apocalypse started on a Tuesday morning between fourth period and lunch, which surprised everybody. We had seen all the old movies and believed when the undead armies awakened it would happen late on a weekend evening during some kick ass party.

It happened fast when it happened. A bunch of kids called out sick that morning and more left through first and second periods. By third period more seats were empty than full.

Nobody was feeling right, and everybody was jumpy as hell. The air felt wrong and the whole school stank a little worse than usual.

Fourth period was a joke. Mr. Warner tried to lecture but he kept getting distracted by all the empty chairs. People’s phones had been going off all morning with the heavy traffic of text messages and the teachers had finally given up trying to tell people to put away their phones. Mr. Warner halfway tried to talk about covalent bonds and the mysterious forces of atomic attraction, which usually got him all hot and excited, but today he couldn’t stop checking his own phone every time it made even the slightest noise. Nobody knew why they were checking their phones every few minutes, sending and receiving messages. The text messages were just everybody randomly checking in with their friends, their family to make sure they were okay for no specific reason.

U ok?

Yup. U?

Yup.

or

feel like sht. just pked mi guts out in locker. omg.

Everybody was randomly opening, closing and refreshing their web browsers in between texts, summoning explanatory breaking news headlines that would not come.

I guess that we knew without knowing. Some of us. Or suspected.

But nobody was for real sure until Ainslie Marsden staggered into the cafeteria during lunch, all sweaty and slack faced, stabbed Couch Jones in the neck with a butter knife and proceeded to open his skull with her bare hands, pulling his face open from the eye sockets and nostrils and then hungrily devouring his brains.

Ainslie Marsden was one of the hot girls and seeing her pull Coach’s brains out with both hands through his face was a bit too much.

A few kids puked. I pissed myself.

“I thought Ainslie was bulemic,” Jimmy Napolitano said in a shocked whisper, which was an asshole thing to say but Jimmy could be an asshole that way.

“No. She’s vegan,” I explained. I can be an asshole, too.

We stood there, a cafeteria of us, watching Ainslie go to work on her hideous meal.

We all started making our way to the exits.

But then other slack face kids we knew came staggering in the double doors with that low, plaintive guttural growl that meant we were probably going to need to fight to keep our brains inside our heads.

They circled us. It was Sloppy Joe day in the cafeteria so we threw our plates of Sloppy Joe at them for distraction and lifted our cafeteria trays as makeshift shields to press our way through the advancing wall of newly necrotic flesh.

We knew it was for real when we heard a scream behind us and turned to see little Charlie Helton working his teeth into our English teacher, Mrs. Walsh. Mrs. Walsh was one of those well-intentioned teachers who enjoyed ruining something perfectly cool like The Walking Dead by explaining how the recent popular fascination with zombie apocalypse represented a deep, nihilistic dread corroding our culture. She said stuff like, “Nihilism is what’s left when a culture has lost all its beliefs but doesn’t yet have new beliefs sufficient to replace them.”

Heavy stuff. Except when a zombie’s munching on your teacher’s face, nihilism is what’s left during the time while your teacher’s face is getting chewed but you’ve still got your own.

Trays up. Circle around. The zombie apocalypse had begun.

Eyes Front | Flash Fiction

There is nothing you can do. No time. When Daddy says get in the car, you get in the car. You don’t make him wait. You don’t talk back. You don’t ask questions. You sit in your seat, eyes front, buckle your seat belt and be ready for the ride.

You won’t know where the two of you are going. It does not matter. Where Daddy goes, you go.

Sometimes it is scary because it happens so quick. One minute you are eating Cheerios together in the living room, watching late night TV and you are laughing together about the stupid things people tell Johnny Carson and everything is great and happy and fun and then, with exactly no warning, Daddy goes all still, listening for something you cannot hear. And he leans forward in his chair, suddenly tense and ready to spring, like he is waiting for something to happen and then he is yelling and grabbing for his keys. Pulling at your arm, telling you to hurry. Yelling for you to be quiet. And there is urgency in him. There is precision. And you reach for your favorite toys because there is no telling where you will be going this time, for how long. You manage to grab Dolly which is good because Dolly is the only important doll anyway. She’s the one your momma gave you when you were too young to remember. And it would be awful to leave Dolly behind since you don’t really remember your momma except for a few pictures but you like to think that Dolly remembers her and leaving Dolly would be the same as forgetting, except forgetting forever, which would be another kind of dying for your momma who is dead already. At least that it what Daddy says but you can’t be sure because sometimes you look behind you to try and find the person driving the car that is following you in the abysmal dark and it is a woman so you think it might be your momma but you don’t dare ask your Daddy about that because he just tells you to shut up about that and keep eyes front.

Eyes front is the family rule. Look ahead. Be ready to move. Go when Daddy says go.

And you are in the car and you are trying to be brave even though you are really scared, which is not the same thing, Daddy sometimes tells you when you are safe and quiet at the hotel or truck stop or wherever the two of you will be sleeping tonight. Even when you are scared, you can always be brave. Actually, when you are scared is the only time you can be brave. And it is good to see him smile when he tells you this but it isn’t his good smile. It is his eyes front smile. The smile that isn’t happy or glad about anything. The smile that doesn’t want questions.

It would be nice not to have to be brave so much all the time. But even that doesn’t matter after a few hours on the road when Daddy is playing the radio and singing along and he isn’t driving the car so fast and there’s time to watch the night time world pass by. The way the world seems to emerge into the headlights. Like the trees are stretching out to touch you. And the yellow dashy lines from the narrow, country highway strobe in the dark. There are no gas stations out here and Daddy is keeping his eye on the gas needle and also an eye on the speed needle but mostly he is practicing what he has told you. Eyes front. Looking forward.

He drives until you fall asleep. You wake up in a strange, different place. Dolly is with you so maybe momma is with you too. You don’t tell Daddy this. It would just stress him out. He looks sweet and peaceful, sleeping in the hotel room lounge chair. He needs to shave. He needs to brush his hair.

You should brush your teeth but you can’t because you left too fast and didn’t bring your toothbrush. You lay on the bed in the dark room and look up at the hotel ceiling, an unfamiliar sky. There’s nothing to see there. You look anyway. Eyes front.

After a while you will be sleeping and then there will be the dreams. Momma and daddy and kiddo. All one happy, smiling family.

Prompt: “No Daddy No” by Pretty & Twisted.

Snippet | Flash Fiction

He wakes up in the litter of last night’s bender. His head pounding, eyes swimming in and out of focus. Sheaves of crumpled paper. Too many empty bottles.

There is something he is trying to remember.

The bed sheets are all twisted up on her side of the bed.

He scratches himself impolitely, listening for sounds of her elsewhere in the apartment. It would be like her to wake up early to get in her morning yoga. Or to be in the kitchen, brewing coffee and buttering their morning toast.

He listens. The apartment is silent. There is something he is trying to remember.

Morning garbage truck passes outside, malevolent, insensitive.

He calls her name and listens patiently. Expectant.

He sits up, calls her name again. Impatiently.

The spreading emptiness of the apartment swallows him. She is gone.

He gets out of bed. Puts on wrinkled pants and shirt from the floor.

He stands there in the middle of his disheveled bedroom, trying not to notice the sight of himself in the dresser mirror. Paunchy. Unkempt. The morning after look he has adopted now for weeks or months.

He stumbles to the bathroom for a long, heavy piss. Interrupting every time he hears a sound at the front door. Imagined. He finishes his business, which takes more concentration than it probably should.

There is something he is trying to remember. Standing at the bathroom sink, staring at his morning breath face, wondering what she ever saw in him in the first place. He was disgusting. His apartment was disgusting. His whole miserable life was disgusting.

He brushes his teeth, having squeezed the last life from the toothpaste tube. It doesn’t help. He has morning breath face. He is a morning breath man living a morning breath life.

And there is something he is trying to remember. Something she told him last night. Something she wanted him to write down. But he didn’t. He never did. He couldn’t be bothered. Always trusting that she would be there the morning after to wake him with sweet kisses, to caress him back to life, to remind him.

But she was gone now. He had known it would happen. Still, it hurt and surprised. He hadn’t heard her go. She hadn’t even said goodbye.

He tried to remember the details of their last night together but even that was fading now. Even that was becoming far away.

In the bedroom, the piles of pages scratched out and empty. False starts and hesitations. His laptop still open on the desk but the screen dark. The battery died. A post-it note on the screen, written in her neat, efficient hand. Goodbye. I tried. With a fancy, little heart at the end.

He held the note. Pondered its meaning. The familiar fear seeping up. The silent apartment wrapping him. Even the garbage truck taking its leave.

There was something he was trying to remember but she was gone.

A writer’s life.

 

via Daily Prompt: Snippet