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flash fiction

Ersatz Coffee by Ernie Sadashige

Ersatz Coffee | Ernie Sadashige

Nebraska, November 1943

Frank Niekamp stirred Postum into his hot water, his expression as sour as badly brewed coffee. The mix of roasted wheat and molasses filled the kitchen with a smell like soy sauce. 

“Wishing for the real thing?” I asked Frank.

“Maybe they’ll stop rationing next year,” he said. “The Russians took Kyiv, but our boys are nowhere near Rome.” 

I poured Pet evaporated milk into my Postum, my spoon stirring the ivory liquid into the cocoa-colored mix the way a paddle churns silt in a shallow creek.

“Newspaper’s late.” Frank looked out the window. 

Our fields were still black in the twilight, the gray sky hemmed by white fog, reminding me of the fur coat my sister envied in the Sears Christmas catalog.

“You shouldn’t wait for the paper.”

“Man’s gotta have a straight head to do a day’s work.”

We always started our day with the Crawford Tribune, checking the Nebraska dead. The Army made mistakes. The Meiers saw their son’s name before the soldiers came. 

“Here it comes, Freda,” Frank said, walking to the door.

“Morning Mister Niekamp.” The paperboy handed Frank our copy. “Didn’t mean to be late. Been at Fort Robinson. The Kraut prisoners are here!” The porchlight sparkled in his eyes. “You hiring any?”

“Don’t need or want ‘em, boy.”

#

“The government is rationing butter and milk.” 

Frank shook his head after reading the top story. I held him tight as he neared the obituaries. Erik Raus. I gasped. Rudi and Ida’s boy. We weren’t close. They lived at the other end of Dawes County. And they were Methodists. But they were part of our community. 

“Wasn’t Erik in Jakob’s unit?” I asked.

Frank pecked my forehead, a quick kiss before he looked out the window, the one facing away from Fort Robinson. “The Army would send a telegram or chaplain if Jakob….” Frank wore the sad face he showed when he came home drunk from the VFW lodge.

I looked out the other window. There was a light—too low, too slow, and too straight to be a shooting star. It split into two when it turned down our road. Headlights. Even in the dim dawn, I saw the car was green, not black. Army cars passed this way all the time. We were near the base, I reassured myself. But this one was slowing.

“Frank.” I squeezed his hand.

The car stopped. A flashlight pointed at our mailbox. The car rolled up our driveway. Footsteps clattered on the porch, then a hand knocked on our door.

We froze.

“Hello?”

We rose together. Frank opened the door.

“Mr. Niekamp? Lieutenant Holcomb of the Office of the Provost Marshal General.” The man wore a black armband: military police, not a chaplain.

Frank and I exhaled together.

“Sorry to come so early.” He held out a clipboard. “You haven’t contracted for POW labor. Forty-five cents an hour per man. Hard work will keep their minds off mischief.” 

He glanced to his right as dawn broke over the horizon. “Have you planted all your winter wheat? Most of your neighbors are behind with so many men off to war.”

“My son Jakob’s fightin’ in Italy,” Frank said, pulling me close. “And I saw enough Jerries in World War One. Don’t need ‘em digging trenches on my land.”

#

“We need help, Frank.” My husband sat stone-like, our last bottle of whiskey on the kitchen table. 

“Let me boil some water for Postum.”

We heard a rumble outside. “Deuce and a Half,” Frank said. A 10-wheeled Army cargo truck stopped just past the corner window. I rushed forward, pressing my nose against the glass. Frank went to our bedroom.

The rear gate dropped. Lieutenant Holcomb and another soldier jumped out, followed by six men in blue work shirts and jeans stenciled with ‘PW’. They looked so young. And happy. The group walked towards our neighbor’s barn across the road, emerging later with a plow hitched to horses.

Something bumped my leg. Frank was holding a war rifle. 

“What are you doing?”

“I’ll shoot anyone who comes on my property.”

“They’re boys.”

“They’re soldiers.”

“Not anymore,” I said as they began singing in German.

We watched them work. Hours passed. I asked Frank several times whether we should go. A crop needed harvesting. But his mind was elsewhere, watching ghosts from his war rise from their trenches and run across blasted fields.

The Germans finally stopped for lunch at about noon. They sat in a circle and ate sandwiches fattened with enough ham and cheese to cost us a month of ration stamps. They had nothing to drink. I went to the living room and took eight cups and saucers from the china cabinet. I boiled water in the kitchen and put the Postum and Pet milk on our big holiday serving tray. 

“I’m giving those boys a Cornhusker welcome.” 

Frank glared and opened the window. The rifle stayed behind the curtain.

I walked across the street. Holcomb met me. “Thought you boys might like something warm.”

“Much obliged, ma’am.”

“Freda.”

“Freda,” he bowed, then said something in German. I placed the tray in the center of the circle and knelt. I poured a cup of hot water and added Postum and Pet milk and handed it to the nearest POW. He sniffed and laughed.

“Muckefuck.”

“Hey,” Holcomb yelled, “you’re talking to a lady.” The prisoner spoke rapidly in German. Holcomb translated. 

Mocca faux. Klaus says it smells like their acorn coffee.”

“Sorry. We don’t have the real stuff.”

 Holcomb’s eyes widened. “Got plenty of coffee on base. They’re spoiled.”

“Prisoners get coffee?”

He nodded. “I’ll bring fresh ground beans tomorrow. Please join us for lunch. Bring the hot water.” 

He shouted at the prisoners. “Told ‘em to mind their manners and drink up.”

I sat with the crew until lunch was over. “Hope my husband will hire them when you’re done here.” 

I rose and turned to our house, then startled. Frank had hung the American flag on our porch, something we only did on holidays. I crossed the street and walked inside. He met my eyes. 

“We’re having real coffee tomorrow,” I said. “Join us.”

About the Author:

Ernie Sadashige, CPA, is a Philadelphia-based writer. He was a Gemini Magazine flash fiction honourable mention. Find his work there and at The Write Launch, The Yard: Crime Blog and End of the Bench Sports. Follow him at @ErnieJourneys.

Categories
flash fiction

Where by Rhea Bryce

Where | Rhea Bryce

I am telling you this fact that I know well and you nod at first but then interrupt with something different, so I argue my point and tell you that I’m right, right?

You say it’s cute when my face gets flushed with blood red belief and then I feel my cheeks tingle because I don’t know if you’re making fun of me or being serious so I look up and ask, really?

You smile and get closer and ask will you go out with me sometime? 

Where should we go?

I keep asking that question for months even when I know I want food from that Korean restaurant at the end of the block but you don’t like kimchi and I don’t have strong preferences so I ask again, where should we go? 

To Paris! you tell me, eventually, one day, which makes me smile and you whip up an itinerary while you cook pasta carbonara which you are making because I said I don’t like white sauce but I don’t have a good answer when you ask me, why? 

We’re moving.

I tell my friend while we sip drinks we ordered one minute before the end of happy hour and she asks, are you happy? and I tell her we’re happy and she asks again, but are you?

We move. 

Didn’t you hate them?

That girl’s weird, don’t you think?

Why do you hang out with her?

Why don’t we stay at home tonight?

Why do you need anyone else?

My friend wants to visit and I ask if it’s okay and you say just a day but don’t I know that you don’t like people staying over because of your anxiety and I do know so I agree to just one day and ask, where should we go?

The three of us sit in the square that you like and you go to the bathroom and my friend puts her hand on top of mine which makes me smile and she tells me she hates you and I pull away and she says she can’t stay quiet any more so I tell her that you are nonnegotiable and she says that she loves me but that she’s worried and then you come back and ask what we were talking about and I say nothing because I’m a bad liar so you assume it was about you and then you yell at me in the square which makes me cry in the middle of everything and then you push over a chair and she puts her arm around me and pulls me back and you yell and I let her guide me out and she tells me we can take public transit to her hotel room and for all that I tell you that I am sorry, I am so so sorry, will you forgive me?

You go to visit your family far away and I catch you on the way out the door and say don’t forget that you love me and kiss you and then you’re gone and then the next day you’re still gone and then the next day I start to realize that the door won’t ask questions or demand answers and maybe I could just walk through and maybe I want to. 

I call my friend because she said I always could. 

She holds four boxes and I hold five and I ask where we should go and she says wherever I want.

About the Author:

Rhea Bryce is a writer and adventure-lover living in Bend, Oregon. She graduated from Stanford University, where she studied Computer Science and Creative Writing. She is currently working on her novel which explores rock climbing in Yosemite.

Categories
flash fiction

Love, Dad by Alex Sese

Love, Dad | Alex Sese

I dread opening that letter in your desk. 

In fact, every time I even have to open the lowest drawer where I keep my extra office supplies, a low wave of acid reflux plagues me the rest of the day. There it is behind a box of staples, tucked in a neat business envelope, unsealed. 

Of course it would be a business envelope, Dad. Even on your deathbed, life was but a series of transactions and invoices that needed to be taken care of. Instead of imparting wisdom and regretful goodbyes, you delegated the funeral arrangements to me and instructed me to bring you all the hospital bills to take care of before you go, as if you were just going on a business trip again and you were leaving me in charge. You even read your will to me without so much as a tremble in your voice. I couldn’t hear you past my sobs, couldn’t answer your questions about what else I needed. I couldn’t even begin to understand the prospect of being orphaned, and there you were, reading it like the agenda of a meeting about sales projections. There wasn’t much to leave behind anyway. Bit of life insurance, mom’s jewelry, the desk. The conversation was longer than it needed to be and not long enough for what I wanted it to be.

You were so adamant about the desk. For a moment, I was a senior again and you were dragging me to every college tour in the tri-state area like it was your job.

Then you died, and all I had left to worry about was grieving you. That was the job you left me. That’s also when I learned why the desk was so important. There’s a letter in it, handed to me like cash under the table. A secret transaction from a serious father to a carefree daughter who dropped out of college after all your efforts. My name was on the flap in a shaky script. Still yours, but without its straightness, its usual neatness, its no-nonsense, follow-these-instructions-to-the-letterness. Unlike the printed memos you sent me when I moved back in without a job or even a prospect of it, and you couldn’t even look me in the eye for weeks. I don’t know any other person who’s received memos from their father with announcements of upcoming family events, what I’m expected to bring, rent negotiations, advice on how to land a job, advice on how to find what I want to do, reminders of how to keep my new apartment safe, and a list of emergency contacts. Each memo tucked in a sealed envelope, left by my door, reminded me that parenting is a thankless job.

Not this time though, the envelope in your desk just had my name. No subject, no date. When I first held it, the flap came open and revealed several pages folded neatly inside. In the light, your handwriting in heavy black ink peeked through the paper. I put it back and shut the drawer. What else was there left to say between us? What last instructions would you leave behind? How else could I fail to meet your expectations now? I had to take an antacid after.

But sometimes when I’m feeling nostalgic and my work keeps me on your desk late at night, I take the envelope and hold it. I don’t dare open it. Its weight in my hands fuels memories of you before you took that job, before the business trips and missed soccer games, before conversations about futures and GPAs, degrees, and MBAs. You wrote, Dad. You sat on this desk and scribbled on notebooks and used a half-decent typewriter you and mom haggled for at the flea market. No matter how many deadlines loomed, and how many rejection letters littered your desk, you always found time to write me a bedtime story. Short ones, like the notes you left in my lunch. You remembered my tests at school and left me poems like a lucky spell. You wrote me little reminders when mom’s absence was all I could fill my mind with. You wrote about a path that the heart follows, the one that led you to mom and, eventually, to me. It was the last letter you had written that started with Dear Kit and ended with Love, Dad. The following year, you bought a suit for work and we moved from the apartment with the roaches to a house with a yard. You bought a car and traded the typewriter for a new laptop. 

It’s enough to make me want to unfold your letter, Dad, but I never do. If, for some reason, your old muse had returned to you in your last days and you wrote me goodbye and if, for every reason I can think of, it doesn’t offer the comfort you meant it to, how am I supposed to write you back?

About the Author:

Alex Sese is a full-time copyeditor in medical communications and a freelance fiction and nonfiction editor at Subtle Script Editing. Born and raised in Philippines, she now resides in Illinois where she gardens, reads, and goes to the occasional metalcore show. Her work was published in the microfiction horror anthology, 206 Word Stories (Bag of Bones Press). She’s on Twitter at @subtle_script.

Categories
flash fiction

Iphigenia Recounts the Sacrifice by Georgia White

Iphigenia Recounts the Sacrifice | Georgia White

It wasn’t so bad when it happened.

That’s what I’m supposed to say here, right? He was a good father, really. He loved me. He didn’t want to kill me. The story goes that I went to the temple smiling; they told me I was getting married; they told me I was going to a sacrifice; they would let me watch this time, even though they never let me watch; I didn’t understand until they asked me to lie down—

Or that I was gracious. I like that version more, I think. Martyrs always sound so pretty. Pretty white dresses that catch the breeze when you’re walking and pretty hair pooled out on the altar, and pretty words, too, they always get the best speeches. I got one. Well, Euripides wrote it, but I got to say it.

Hear me, mother, thinking upon what has entered my mind. I have determined to die and this I would fain do gloriously, I mean, by dismissing all ignoble thoughts.

Glorious. It was glorious, what I was doing, not just for me, but for Greece, and it would be beautiful. Heroic. Me, a war hero.

But I have this dream sometimes that I’m back in the temple. My father’s waiting for me. He had the best smile. You could see it all the way up to his eyes. And the incense is still too thick in the air, so much that I feel it clog my throat. It’s too sweet. I don’t like sweet. But he’s smiling at me, so I smile back, and he goes

sweetheart, lie down

and he points to the altar and I say

when’s he getting here

because you know I’m supposed to be getting married but there isn’t even a goat there for the sacrifice, but he just shakes his head and goes

it’ll be much quicker if you lie down

and then I look down. And he’s got the knife. Not his usual knife. It’s got a curved blade and a bone handle and it looks older than anything that I’ve ever seen and I’m like

is that for the sacrifice

and he nods. Doesn’t say anything.

And I realize that I always kind of knew my father would kill me.

It’s not—he didn’t yell. Not like they said, he wasn’t…big, you know, more he just saw things like a game. The kind where you lift something or throw something and test your strength and then you move on. You just move on. It’s fun. He liked those games. He liked to know what he could do if he wanted to.

Sometimes in the dream I scream and fight and yell, but mostly I just—

He’s there and he’s smiling, and I trust him, I do, so I just go

oh. okay.

When it really happened there were all these people there. That made it worse. That I knew they were all seeing it and didn’t. You know. One of the acolytes tied my wrists when I lay back. Another did my ankles.

But in the dream it’s just us. And I’m lying back and I look at my hands and realize that nothing’s holding them. I could just get up if I wanted to. I can’t move them, though, not even my fingers. It’s just him. Just me. And he nods at me again, and he says,

are you ready?

I’m not. I never am. The air is so heavy around me and I feel like a lamb, but I’m not; I’m a person, I was a person, and he says it won’t hurt I promise and then the knife is in my chest and it’s not beautiful anymore it’s dark and sticky and my dress is all red and he’s just looking at me and it hurts it hurts and I remember how he only did what he had to do I was going to be heroic I was going to be brave I was going to be remembered.

I’m hardly even in the story.

They couldn’t be bothered to write me down.

About the Author:

Georgia White is a queer writer based in Berkeley, CA, who is inspired by maligned women. Her previous work has been published in The Nasiona, the Santa Ana River Review, and the Nassau Review.

Categories
flash fiction

Two Stories by Jiahui Wu

The Eternal Dead | Jiahui Wu

Frantically, the drowned man refuses to drown. Only snippets of spit from his mouth remain after the waves crash. One minute he rolls under and another he floats up as the sea recedes from the sand. Like plastic, the man gradually breaks into little bits, while his consciousness follows the unchangeable courses of the sun and moon. He does not lament and he does not moan, for he has become unable. The land close at hand is as unreachable to him as the seagulls, the stars, and the satellites. When sailors see him glistening in the foam, they exclaim, “what a pity he cannot kill himself!”

The Couple | Jiahui Wu

The table stood up and left the room. He went to the door and tilted to one side to edge his way out the door. The chair was left standing on her feet, her long legs wistful and lonely. She looked out the window and thought to herself, “we will see how you get down those stairs without breaking a leg or two.” Realizing his dilemma, the table could not advance or retreat. He was too proud to admit his fault before her, so he stood there, feeling more humiliated by the minute. Knowing what was going through his mind, the chair cat walked to the door and opened it. She went up to the table and sat down beside him. They sat like this for a long time without saying anything, the autumn breeze blowing through their empty spaces in their bellies, between their arms, their legs, their faces. In the end, they returned to their old positions inside the house and sat like that. When the day of moving came, the chair was left out by the side of the road because she was old and coming apart at the joints of the legs and they took the table with them because he was still sturdy and useful in more ways than one. As the moving truck drove away, a street urchin jumped on the chair for fun and, by accident, smashed her to pieces.

Categories
flash fiction

On Art, Authority, and Crows: A Modern Fable by Adam Graham

On Art, Authority, and Crows: A Modern Fable | Adam Graham

     Not long after painting his last portrait at Longview Castle, Harold Heckling moved to London, installing himself in a wee-swank neighborhood named for a stale aristocratic game of leisure where he began frequenting Canaletto’s Lashing Stick Booksellers.  Pondering away his afternoons in the backrooms of the old man’s dusty shop, Heckling eventually hit upon the inspiration for his Metapsychological Thrones, a revolutionary break from his previous painterly works into a variety of performance art, namely the construction of intricate tableau vivants utilizing the bodies of criminals who had been hanged for treason. 

     Thousands of naked, rotting corpses were established about the streets of London, induced to stand in various poses by an elaborate system of hidden metal frames and clamps inserted into the decomposing forms themselves, acting as their very bones and sinews.  The exposed cadavers were presented in the quotidian humdrum of everyday life: a decomposing woman chastising her rotting husband, a decaying man reading the evening edition in the shadows of an English Oak.  The resulting public exhibit was both grotesque and wonderful and, while a fascination with the exotic and bizarre was certainly widespread amongst the wealthy of the kingdom, Heckling’s work flustered the feathers and gall of the educated critics who branded it disgusting, unnecessary, and an unjustified and tangible attack upon the King and the People themselves.  

     The King was in concurrence with this opinion, and a swift justice was invoked.  Heckling was arrested on a dismal, though poetically rendered, rainy morning.  Tried that same wet afternoon, he was hung in the palace court at sunset.  

     Upon awakening the following morning, the King took breakfast in bed and read the morning edition, wherein a marvelous and intriguing opinion piece regarding Metapsychological Thrones cast the whole work in a completely different light than the educated critics had established.  Canaletto’s writing thoroughly convinced the King.  He jettisoned his breakfasting accoutrements across his room, bounded out of bed, dressed in a finely tailored modern suit and, without a jot of hyperbole, sprinted to the Royal Decree Room in the West Library breathlessly dictating Proclamation Number 24,758 to his royal scribes. The proclamation was subsequently read aloud at City Square and declared that Heckling was a National Hero and Friend of the Crown and, in honor of the great artist, the body of Heckling would join his last and pinnacle masterwork, Metapsychological Thrones.     And thus the corpse of Heckling stands, naked, celebrated, privileged outside the Hall of Derby, his left hand shielding his dead eyes, his right hand extended out pointing to the Great Imperial West as the King’s best marksman stand about with raised and aimed rifles picking off the rapacious crows, ravenous for the decaying flesh of the thousands and thousands of dead.  

About the Author:

Adam Graham is a writer and artist based in Asheville, North Carolina. His work is rooted in the complexities and dynamics of relationships, exploring issues of social class, identity, and the role language plays as both a force of connectivity and a force of disintegration.

Categories
flash fiction

The Boundary of Fairyland by Heather Ballmer

The Boundary of Fairyland | Heather Ballmer

Her name was Helen.
Isn’t it always?

Best friends since second grade. Disney movies, sleepovers, imaginary worlds filled with magic and fairies, heroes and curses. Six years of friendship, a lifetime when you’re twelve.

It happened that awkward summer after seventh grade. We ran wild through the wide world as defined by how far our bikes were allowed to carry us. Still playing pretend while knowing the time for such childish games had passed. It was our last hurrah before we would be forced to assimilate into the 8th grade world of makeup, pretty bras, and french kissing.

We gossiped about a friend of a friend named Sarah who had french kissed a boy at the 8th grade dance. We were scandalized and intrigued while also being totally grossed out by the thought of another person’s tongue in our mouth. “Why? Why would anyone want to do that? Ewww.”

Sarah said it was gross, but also kind of nice. Mostly it just sounded gross.

Helen was better with people than me, better at belonging. She moved through the world with the confidence of a girl who never thought the universe would deny her anything. It made our ridiculous make-believe games seem almost real. She was, of course, always the Princess and I was whatever support character we needed for the game: the strict queen, the evil sorcerer, the valiant prince, the poor blind girl who gives the Princess a gift to aid her on her journey.

That summer had a feeling of urgency and finality. Already Helen was making more popular friends. She’d join the ranks of girls who are great at makeup, have boyfriends, and somehow effortlessly transition into high school and beyond. I couldn’t fit in with those friends. I might as well have been from a completely different country for how foreign their world seemed. Were they born understanding what color of lipstick to wear and how to paint their nails without getting it all over the cuticle? 

No, I would remain in the lower echelon with the smart, but not popular kids. Band geeks, theater geeks, choir geeks, math nerds, science nerds, basically any stripe of geek or nerd, those would be my people.

Helen and I were determined to make the best of our last summer as BFFs. We would play like we were still kids: run around, dig a giant hole under her back fence for no reason, swim in her pool, and make up all sorts of ridiculous things about local landmarks. 


“Oh! That’s the tree where they hanged a Seminole medicine woman! Now her spirit haunts these trees demanding a sacrifice from all who walk too close.”

“See these flowers? They bloom here because a prince cried over his lost princess on this very spot!” 

“Oh! Look at these mushrooms. It’s a fairy ring. If we step through the middle the fairies will kidnap us underhill and won’t release us for 100 years!”

I can still picture the exact moment it happened. 

In my mind I’m right there. 

We are running through the woods and around the pond; spinning a wild tale of witches, a curse, a hidden princess, a desperate prince.

The Florida summer is oppressive and suffocating. Sweat and dirt plaster my shirt to my chest. Sticky and hot, but having too much fun to head back to one of our houses for a/c, we slow down next to the lake.

I throw myself onto the grass, briefly squinting up at an impossibly blue sky, before watching Helen look for the next storytelling prop near the water.  

Our summer adventures had turned me bright red and peeling in places, my mom constantly yelling after me to bring sunscreen. But on Helen it had created a dusting of cinnamon colored freckles across her nose, the tops of her shoulders, sweeping across her collarbone, and even over the tops of her knees. We had played together many previous summers, but I’d never noticed the freckles before. Now I find myself staring at them. Trying to memorize their constellations in hopes of finding a familiar path back home. A way to both stay right here forever and be grown up already.

Suddenly Helen lunges at the water, soaking one tennis shoe as she sends up a triumphant shriek. Quick as anything she scoops up something.

The sunlight, blinding on the water of the lake, Helen’s hair flashes like copper as it tries to break free of its sloppy braid, her muddy hand grips a fat toad its legs dangling, lake water makes muddy tracks like tiny streams down her arms, her laughter shows a bottom tooth that slightly overlaps its neighbor. She is beautiful.

My heart squeezes and I can’t breathe. I realize.

No. 

I can’t. 

She won’t.

My entire life, destroyed and reordered by one red haired girl. 

She runs towards me yelling “The prince! Quick, kiss him! Kiss the froggy!”

Happily ever after is for fairy tales and sometimes love is a crueler curse than any witch could conceive.

Helen drops to her knees in front of me. “Come on. Don’t be shy. Kiss the froggy!” She makes kissy noises and holds the toad out towards me.

I close my eyes and make a wish. Summoning what is left of my childhood as an offering. A last chance to believe in magic and hope and possibility.

I lean down. 

I part my lips. 

And I swallow the toad.

About the Author:

Heather Ballmer is a queer writer living on Florida’s Gulf Coast with her very spoiled dog. When she’s not writing you’ll find her on the beach.

Categories
flash fiction

What the Cherub Saw by Derek Harmening

What the Cherub Saw | Derek Harmening

i. 

We spent five days in July repaving the Arrowhead Baptist Church parking lot. That summer found us approaching saintliness, all bronze and sinew, terracotta forms baked into the husks of our lime-green safety shirts. 

The pavement on which our town’s lavender-scented Buick Lucernes and Lincoln Town Cars settled each week was older than my parents. Decades of fickle weather, of ruthless freeze-thaw cycles, had left the once-sturdy ground riddled with alligator cracks. Potholes emerged like lanced boils. We were sent to tear it up, stabilize it, resurrect it. Each morning, the air cool on our necks, the clipped lawns still glinting with dew, we arrived, young and able-bodied, to desecrate that holy ground.

Bored mothers eyed us wantonly from the safety of the sidewalk. Filing into the church vestibule, they sighed as we pulverized asphalt, murmured as we spread tack oil. They brushed dry palms over poplin skirts, racking up a few blissful seconds of covetousness for which they’d soon be absolved.

ii. 

There were three of us: Hilliard, McTeague, and me. Fischer, the project manager, didn’t count. He was twenty years our senior, partially deaf, and spun dark theories about ancient symbols he claimed were hidden in the creases of sweat-damp dollar bills.

“Population control,” he’d shout from the throne of his asphalt roller, jabbing a calloused index finger at webs of contrails floating in the sky. “A toxic cocktail meant to snuff us out. Better believe it.” 

Hilliard was bookish. The ungodly hours he spent poring over Dostoevsky and Woolf, his wiry frame slouched against a heap of featherdown pillows, vision deteriorating in the oily half-light of a bedroom lamp, manifested by day in the bags beneath his eyes.

“Poetry’s for women,” McTeague spat, whenever Hilliard began to ruminate on some passage he’d been chewing over. 

“You what?” yelled Fischer, cupping hand to ear.

“Speaking of which,” McTeague said. “Ought to get yourself a girl, Hill. Then you can read to her every night. Stop yapping at us for a change.” 

McTeague’s rap sheet, a scarlet letter of assault and petty theft, clung to him like an unsightly mole. His own employment resulted from a lost bet. His father played euchre with Fischer and, at one such gathering, called in a favor.

“Forget it,” Fischer said, fanning his cards. “I work with heavy machinery.” 

“Let’s play for it,” said McTeague’s father.

A case of Schlitz and three tricks later, the old men shook hands, and McTeague had a job.

We never spoke of McTeague’s troubles. The gist was clear: he’d drift for a few months, burning through odd jobs, before invariably landing himself, bleary-eyed and shivering, in the Lynn County jail. Other stories we pieced together ourselves, a wet pulp of rumor and hearsay. Supposedly, McTeague’s cleft lip was a souvenir from a knife fight with a man whose wife he’d bedded. Once, when he thought he’d been hustled in a game of one-pocket, he broke a pool stick over his rival’s head.

We thrived on these details, consumed them like air.

iii.

“Hilliard, for Christ’s sake,” said Fischer, kneeling to survey the fresh parking stripes. “Did you sleep last night? Looks like someone with delirium tremens painted these.”

The sun glared down on Arrowhead Baptist Church. Hymns emanated from within. A small fiberglass cherub ornamented the front lawn. Around its polished neck hung a plasterboard sign reading: HOPE WILL ARISE.

Hilliard leaned over the Rust-Oleum line striper, shaking his head. “Tom Sawyer,” he said, “would have tricked you into doing this yourself.”

iv.

Lunch was our sacred time. We devoured bacon-topped pizzas, hard-boiled eggs, Italian beef sandwiches, loaded submarines. We broke cookies that tasted of vanilla cardboard, read each other’s fortunes over the greasy remains of our General Tso’s chicken.

“The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.”

“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”

Hilliard was snoring beneath an elm tree. When we prodded him awake, he said he’d been up ’til 3 a.m. with Jane Eyre.

McTeague ran a tongue over chapped lips. “She cute?”

The air boiled with the rank odor of bitumen. We’d begun resurfacing the final quadrant, a narrow, rutted plain shaded by leaves.

“A kid I knew died here,” said McTeague. “This exact spot.” His arms, covered wrist to shoulder in inked tapestries of rose blossoms and half-clad women, rippled as he worked a steel tamper over the hot-asphalt mix.

“Sure he did,” I said.

“Right hand to God. Freak accident. Same year that beauty pageant girl was strangled.” 

“Speak up,” barked Fischer.

It happened, said McTeague, to a first grader named Andrew. A blizzard dumped twenty inches on Lynn County. Buried sedans, collapsed roofs, nowhere left to pile it all. Snowplows filled whole parking lots, including Arrowhead’s, with icy mounds ten feet high. Andrew, bedecked in navy pants, red mittens, and a striped Peruvian hat, had arrived at the church and begun digging tunnels. He was burrowing away, hidden from view, when a snowplow rolled into the lot, delivered a fresh heap of snow, and trapped Andrew inside. He suffocated.

“How’d they find him?” Hilliard asked, wiping the rheum from his eyes.

“Warm spell,” McTeague said. “The choir ladies saw him first. His arm was poking out like a branch. His mittens were still on.”

The cherub watched from its spot on the lawn. A sprinkler coughed to life, draping it in mist. I imagined a child’s mitten reflected in its resin eye.

v.

We finished the next day. Loaded up, cleared out. From within the jungle-tropic sanctuaries of our home bathrooms, we convalesced. Applied frothy handfuls of Dove soap to burned, tar-blackened flesh. We winced with relief, pressed our faces into the hot spray as whorls of filth swirled down and away.

The three of us stayed on through fall, until the elms shed their robes and the gutters choked.

In October, McTeague was arrested for stealing hood ornaments.
That parking lot will outlive us all.

About the Author:

Derek Harmening’s work has appeared in Five on the Fifth, Newfound Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 Words, and Vita Brevis among others. His flash fiction story “Stitches” was the recipient of the 101 Words Editors’ Choice Award in February 2017. A Nebraska native, Derek now lives and writes in Chicago.

Categories
flash fiction

Where Did You Go, Ruby? by Karen Shoemaker

Where Did You Go, Ruby? | By Karen Gettert Shoemaker

We told ourselves that her bad habits explained how Ruby could disappear one day and not one of us noticed. She rushed in at least a half hour late for every meeting, if she came at all. She wasn’t exactly thoughtless and could hardly be accused of being disorganized; she simply operated on her own clock, lived in her own world. 

Weeks of her absence went by with only an occasional shrug of irritation from one or another of us when she missed an appointment or a longstanding date. That’s so Ruby, we’d say, some with fondness and some with a tinge of anger in our voices. We’re not going to lie, the angry ones among us would think, good. She didn’t show up, again. We can quit this charade of friendship. We never knew what she was talking about half the time anyway. Ruby’s tendency to leap from metaphoric peak to metaphoric peak could leave a listener’s head a spin, there’s no denying that. Those of us who taught literature felt at home in her flights, but those of us who work with our hands or on our feet all day or night often grew impatient; we just wanted her to touch ground now and then.

Okay, we’ll admit it, there’s also no denying her lateness, her personality even, could get tiresome. It’s not as if only her time mattered, after all. Friendships have rules, or they should. 

The fond ones among us though, those of us charmed by her flights into the uncharted stratosphere of the mind, we continued to wait for her even after she’d stood us up completely more than once. We grew accustomed to sitting alone in the corner booth of the coffee shop waiting longer even than Ruby’s clock required of us. We learned to make use of our waiting time; we took up new hobbies, learned new languages, had babies, or climbed mountains. We would continue to glance up with hope each time the door to the coffee shop opened or a car slowed down as if to pull into the parking lot. When we’d finally give up and head back to our own lives of errant teens and unpaid bills, we would often stand on the street a moment, waiting just a little longer. We felt her absence as a tear in the fabric of ourselves and we longed for the mending thread of her laughter, even when we had to wait and wait for her. We would recall her capacity to listen, like a compass. Without her to tell our deepest thoughts to we sometimes found ourselves uncertain about which way to turn. 

How long before we started to wonder where she had gone? When did one and then another of us ask around to see if anyone had seen her lately? Who among us was the last to see her? Did she tell any one of us she was leaving? How long before the niggles of our curiosity become bubblings of concern? 

Looking back, it’s hard to say what the time frame was for when we started asking until we started forgetting. Long enough, we now know, for the city to have built a park on the land where her home once stood. Time enough for trees to grow to full height, for perennial beds to bloom and thrive – always a bit behind the season, some noticed. 

Some of us, the angry ones I mean, sometimes go there, to the park where she used to live, to wait for her, though we tell ourselves we’re just looking for fresh air. But we know, the honest ones among us, that something magic slipped out of our lives a long time ago and we don’t know how to get it back. Some of us claim to have seen her, not clearly, only in that sacred space in the corner of our eyes. We always turn to greet her, but of course we’re always too late to catch her. 

About the Author:

Karen Gettert Shoemaker writes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, book reviews, journal entries, and endless lists. Her most recent work, a reflection on the role of ordinary people during a pandemic, was published in the New York Times in 2020. Her novel, The Meaning of Names, was selected for the One Book One Nebraska statewide reading program in 2016 and the Omaha Reads community reading program in 2014. It was republished in China in 2020. Her award-winning short story collection, Night Sounds and Other Stories, was published in the US in 2002, and republished in the United Kingdom in 2006. Her work has been published in the London Times, Prairie Schooner, South Dakota Review, and included in a variety of anthologies of poetry and fiction.

She is the founder and director of Larksong Writers’ Place, a nonprofit organization offering independent writing workshops, manuscript consulting, and community-building for aspiring writers.  She is also a writing mentor with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s MFA in Writing Program.

Categories
flash fiction

What I Lost in September by Autumn Bettinger

What I Lost in September | By Autumn Bettinger

The night was cold and wet. The streetlights blurred, like oil in water, hazy and indistinct against the Seattle rain. The coat I wore was dark purple, the color of queens you said. Underneath was a soft, summer dress, white and pink and fully out of place. 

I wore it because it was my birthday dress from so many years ago. The one you said made me look like a bouquet of unattainable delight. The one that matched the drink you bought me. The one that caught the sunlight just so and caused half the bar to turn and watch us, thick as thieves, fingers close but not touching, eyes connected but not with the film of lovers, with the sparkle of something deeper, untouched by lust but rooted in the dust of souls.

As I stepped into the bar, shed my coat and hung it, I looked around. I didn’t recognize anyone. Funny, isn’t it? When we came here, we knew everyone. We knew which seats creaked and which bar stools always held tourists. We ate late night bruschetta and had one too many martinis in the rosy glow of old lamps. 

I sat myself at the table in a corner, our old table. The one that was just a little deeper in. The one slightly apart from all the others. The one where I laughed so hard, I knocked over my glass of wine and turned your white shirt red. I told you it looked like you had been murdered. 

I order a Gibson, old raj. I order one for you too. I tell the bartender that my friend will be coming, and I’d like to have it ready for him when he arrives. I sit in that pink light, in a dress that doesn’t belong, sipping and staring at the big windows where rain drops bursts apart.

I think about the time I told you I was heartbroken. I think about the time you told me I was worth more than anyone I had ever touched. I watch the rain and order bruschetta and think about the pasta we made and the stories we wrote, the long hikes and the late-night gas station chicken with ketchup. 

I wonder about how it ended. I wonder if things would have been different if we had met up that night. This night, so many years ago. If I hadn’t moved to Portland. If a night cap would have kept you off that street. That street where you were walking with your girlfriend, laughing about something. I like to think you were laughing. 

I wonder if it looked like wine; when it soaked through that linen in little beads like rubies and I was horrified but you just grinned and grabbed your napkin and ordered me another glass. I ran through the details so many times, like a spin cycle in my mind, washing the same old clothes, the blood never quite coming out.

I sipped the cold gin, looking at your untouched drink, wondering about the conversation we would be having now. How I’d talk about my kids instead of new books and new dresses on late summer nights. How despite all the change, we’d fall into old conversations, the best kinds of conversations, the ones that hang like hammocks between people who’ve known each other through lifetimes. 

I leave money on the table, and I leave your drink untouched, your chair untouched, your hand untouched. I don’t try to beat you to the check or check my makeup in the back of the silverware while you pretend not to notice. You don’t offer to get my coat or walk with me to the light rail. I stand outside, looking at the rain, watching it blow sideways and coat the street. 

I miss you more in this moment than in the seven years you’ve been gone. This moment where we say we’ll see each other tomorrow. This moment where we hug and laugh and share a slender cigar. This moment where we say I love you and know it to be true, like tomatoes and basil, like gin and onions, like spilled wine.

About the Author:

Autumn is a stay at home mom who lives in Portland Oregon with her husband and two young children. She graduated from Portland State after moving to Oregon from Seattle. Her parents are both from the midwest, and growing up she spent many summers at Lake Otsego in Michigan. When not parenting, Autumn is squeaking out a little writing here and there amid the laundry and the diaper changes.