flash nonfiction

Read Her Lips by Bryan Starchman

Read Her Lips | By Bryan Starchman

My mind was busy as I made a beeline for the bathroom in the back of the Chevron Minimart in Kayenta, Arizona. I was passing through the automatic sliding doors when I almost smacked into this scary looking son of a bitch. He was taller than me, probably six-foot-eight, but maybe even taller because he was hunched over. He was wearing a heavy black duster in the middle of June and his hair was greasy. Not from product, but from filth. It was long and stringy and I could see where it had stained the shoulders of his coat. But what struck me was the way he was holding onto their wrists. 

Two girls. Maybe seven or eight. I can’t be sure. It was just a moment but I’d say seven or eight. One looked like she could be his progeny. Skinny. Pale. Greasy hair. Tall for her age. But the other, the one he seemed scared of losing, she just didn’t make sense. Olive skin. Shoeless. A tattered sundress that was too big. And green eyes like I’ve never seen. 

I’ve met people who claim to have green eyes and really they’re hazel or mud-colored. But this little girl looked up at me with the greenest eyes. Forest green. If you could capture the essence of a pine tree and photoshop that into your sockets. There you go. I can’t shake it. 

And in that split second I was trying to deduce what the situation was…who was this man to these little girls…what was their relationship…why was he holding them so tight…why the too big dress and why the greasy hair?  All three had greasy hair, like they hadn’t showered in weeks. And where were her shoes? Even with a summer storm on the horizon, the pavement was blistering hot. In that split second, I looked into her green eyes and she mouthed something. “Could we please?”

Could we please what? Was it a silent plea to her unlikely dad to buy a bag of chips or an ice cream sandwich or a cheap pair of flip flops? Could we please visit our mom? Could we please stay at a hotel? Take a hot shower? Get cleaned up? Could we please buy me a dress that fits? 

And why was she looking at me as she asked him this question? 

The tall man sensed her hesitation and he sped up, dragging the girls away. I took a step or two into the minimart and by the time I turned around he was slamming them away behind the passenger door of a rusted El Camino. He climbed in, started the engine, and sped off. And I just stood there. Wondering if lip reading was a thing. 


I often get lost in that moment. Late at night. With my laptop open on the coffee table as I stare at the television but I’m not really watching. I’ll mute the TV to try to focus on my writing and I’ll look up and try to guess what the actors are saying. What the commercials are advertising. I’ll try to read their lips. Most of the time I get it wrong but some things I can figure out like “safe drivers save forty percent” or “Ford sales event.” But I can always turn up the volume and confirm my suspicions. And then I’ll remember what the green-eyed girl mouthed to me: “Could we please?” 

Was it “Could we please?” 

Or was she telling me to “Call the police”? 

About the Author:

BRYAN STARCHMAN is an author, published playwright, and educator living in San Francisco, California. His plays have been produced over 3000 times in all 50 states and 10 countries. In the past year his short fiction has been featured in The Saturday Evening Post and in the literary magazines After Dinner Conversation, In Parentheses, Scribble, Apracity, Avalon Literary Review and Litro. His non-fiction essays have been featured in the national print magazine ROVA and his latest book, United Scenes of America: Travel Essays in the time of COVID-19 and Other Wanderings, is now available at IG @Bryan.starchman