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Submit below through Submittable or Duosuma. E-mail submissions are not accepted. New stories are posted at the beginning of each month.
Mike and I had been thumbing for an hour when a decrepit car pulled over to the shoulder and ground to a shuddering halt. The driver was a clean-shaven, thirty-something man with mirrored sunglasses and an open-necked shirt. He looked harmless enough.
“I’m only going ninety miles. It’ll get you closer, anyway. There’s stuff in the back seat. Just toss it anywhere.”
Mike and I pushed an assortment of tools, boots, and newspapers to the floor. The car merged into traffic. Our driver gazed at the road with a thoughtful expression, like he was trying to figure out why we were hitchhiking on a Louisiana freeway during the hottest month of the year. Finally, he turned his head and smiled. “I’m Joe. Where are you two headed?”
“Illinois,” I said. “It’s a long story.”
“I’m a good listener.”
Lots of people claimed to be good listeners before shifting the conversation to themselves. I usually avoided self-disclosure, preferring to internalize my problems. Still, I felt an inexplicable urge to tell the driver everything. I’d never see him again. My words couldn’t possibly be used against me later. “Stepdad killed himself last month. My boyfriend and I are hitching to Mom’s house. She’s distraught and needs our help.”
Joe studied me in the rearview mirror. He raised both eyebrows and shook his head. “I’m sorry. That’s rough. She’s lucky to have you as her daughter.”
The engine emitted a sudden belch of steam. Joe swerved onto the shoulder and pulled a plastic jug from the passenger seat. He lunged from his car, popped the hood, and began pouring water into the radiator. I heard a furious hissing sound, like somebody had thrown grease on a broiler.
After the noise subsided, Joe returned. “Damn thing’s been leaking. I need to fill it every fifty miles or so. My apologies. Do the two of you live in New Orleans?”
“We’re from downstate Illinois,” Mike said. “Moved to New Orleans last year. Weird place. Lots of drinking. I think the heat makes people crazy. We’ve seen violent cops attacking innocent citizens. I was scared to hitchhike.”
“Police brutality is terrible.” Joe paused for effect. “Which is why I’m a cop. I want to change department policy. I can’t stand to watch folks suffer.”
I gaped at him with amazement. “Really? You don’t…”
“Fit the profile? That’s right. Bringing humanity to the force is a tough process. But I’m up for the challenge. It’s my life’s work.”
At nineteen, I was still learning how much I didn’t know. My devout Christian stepfather beat his kids and drank his liver into oblivion. Then he set himself on fire. Hardly a pious sort. People didn’t always adhere to stereotypes.
My mother wasn’t much better. She’d enabled her husband’s violence for years, egging him on when he removed his belt. Mom didn’t have the energy for discipline, so she delegated the task to my stepfather. He was more than happy to comply, often counting his strikes aloud until the victim had received enough punishment.
Still, when Mom phoned me in tears, asking for help, I didn’t hesitate. Why did I feel obligated to comfort her? I’d read somewhere that abused children felt responsible for their parents’ violence. They tried to do anything to avoid disapproval, even from a safe distance. I was afraid of my mother, even though she lived three states away.
I’d learned to tiptoe around authority figures. You could never tell what they might do. But Joe was easy to trust. He didn’t even seem like a cop. Why did he own such a shitty vehicle? Perhaps the NOPD didn’t pay their officers well. Or maybe he’d made up the entire story.
Mike and I stared out the rear windows, deep in thought. An hour later, Joe pulled over. “This is my exit.” His voice sounded apologetic. “Let me give you something.” He extracted two twenties from his pocket and thrust them into my hand. A silver police badge slid down the front of his shirt and tumbled into the passenger seat. “Officer 1840” was stamped on its surface in bold, no-nonsense font.
“Sorry I can’t offer more. Take care of your mother. I hope things work out for you.”
“Wow.” I slid the cash in my wallet. “Thanks so much.”
Mike and I couldn’t afford a motel, but we’d have something to eat. Perhaps we’d get continuous rides and avoid the need for shelter. My mother’s mattress was 600 miles away. Clouds of exhaust rose from the hot asphalt, stinging my eyeballs. Dirty beads of sweat coursed down my cheeks.
At least I was still alive. Which was more than I could say for my stepdad. Despite myself, I felt a tiny stab of pity. The poor man had been brutalized as a child, forced to listen to religious radio programs while sitting in a straight-backed chair. If he slumped involuntarily, his father threw him to the floor and kicked him.
I didn’t ever want to have children. How could I give love if my own parents had failed to offer it? I glanced over at Mike. He stood at my side, thumb in the air, eyes glued to the road. My boyfriend obviously loved me, or he wouldn’t have agreed to participate in such a bizarre excursion. Perhaps there was hope for me after all.
A school bus merged towards the shoulder and screeched to a halt. Someone had painted its surface with cheery hues of orange and turquoise. Bright red lettering emblazoned the side panels. “Our Blessed Church of Christ the Redeemer.” The characters looked shaky, like they’d been drawn by a child.
Our new driver blasted his horn. Mike stared at the bus and burst into laughter. “Unbelievable,” he said. “First a cop, then a bunch of Christians. You never know who is going to save your ass. C’mon, let’s go.” We scooped up our tattered backpacks and broke into a run.
* * *
Leah Mueller’s work appears in Rattle, NonBinary Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Citron Review, The Spectacle, New Flash Fiction Review, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, etc. She is a 2022 nominee for both Pushcart and Best of the Net. Leah’s flash piece, “Land of Eternal Thirst” appears in the 2022 edition of Best Small Fictions. Her two newest books are “The Failure of Photography” (Garden Party Press, 2023) and “Widow’s Fire” (Alien Buddha Press, 2023). Website: http://www.leahmueller.org.
We eat lunch in the bathroom. The one on the second floor next to the gym, because it’s the biggest and smells like pine instead of prepubescent bodies. We shuffle into the stalls and sit on hard ceramic seats. Our laps become picnic tables. We hear the crinkles of sandwich wrappers, the clicks and snaps of plastic boxes. We use toilet paper to wipe delicately at our lips, our cheeks, our noses. We speak to each other in carrot crunches, in juice slurps. It isn’t perfect, our language, but somehow we understand what our mouths can’t say. When someone comes in to pee, we clamp down on our tongues and play it cool. All anyone will be able to see is a row of feet in mismatched shoes. How long had we been there? Maybe we came in just a few minutes ago, clutching stomachs and clenching bladders. Blood drips and phantom pains. No one would know. The door shuts and we can breathe again. Then one day, Mrs. Marian steps inside, her heels clacking against dirty tiles, and we know it’s over. We scatter like marbles. We roll into the cafeteria; we hide underneath our bullies. We’ll find each other again. Maybe in the bathroom by the music room. The one that doesn’t smell at all. The one that sounds like heaven.
Elena Zhang is a freelance writer and mother living in Chicago. Her work appears or is forthcoming in HAD, JAKE, and Bending Genres. Find her on Twitter @ezhang77
The first thing children do when coming into the world is cry.Can anyone blame them?Consider the world today or in the past five or six days.So it was with Ralph after he exited the birth canal.Nine months of bliss, and then…
Dr. Franzblau, the obstetrician, pounded Ralph on the ass, as happens in the delivery room.One look at Ralph, and he knew he had to smack him.Some of the obstetrical nurses felt like getting in a few shots as well. His mother, Sylvia, after the epidural and pain medication, was not entirely with it.
“Here.”Dr. Franzblau handed Ralph to her.
“My God. Is that his head?”
“Sorry,” said the doctor.Talk about not knowing the difference between an ass and an elbow. In this case, it was a head.
“Are they always this red?”Sylvia was concerned as a new mother coming out of the fog.
“And how about shriveled?”
The obstetrician admitted that shriveled was another thing.
It was Ralph’s first moment in a lifetime of them.After 60 minutes, he was an hour old and kicking.
“He was a good kicker when he was in me,” Sylvia said.
In her drug-induced delirium, she imagined soccer on the rise, with the World Cup someday attracting universal attention.She hoped Ralph might be a professional player.It was either that or a kickboxer, another sport she fantasized.
Not everyone can be a professional athlete.Despite his promising start, Ralph ended up in tile and floor covering.Weekday-after-weekday, he sold–or tried to sell–carpet remnants and variegated floor tiles.It was a tough business, far tougher than soccer or a full contact combat sport. He could cry on coming into the world those years ago.Soccer players get to cry all the time.Kickboxers are red in the face and ass when they are kicked, as Ralph was so many years before in the delivery room.
Dr. Franzblau had smacked Ralph.It was one of his perquisites.For nine months back there, it had been so pleasant in the amniotic fluid.Since then–and now–it was dog-eat-dog.It was the tile and floor covering business.He couldn’t kick the customers who constantly haggled for lower prices and bargains.That is a major difference from kickboxing and soccer.And, if Ralph kicked the tiles or carpet remnants when he was alone, that only made matters worse.Then his face shriveled, and he cried out in pain.
* * *
David Sydney is a physician. He has had pieces in Little Old Lady Comedy, 101 Words, Microfiction Monday, 50 Give or Take, Friday Flash Fiction, Entropy Squared, and Grey Sparrow Journal.
Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.
Without it we are nothing.
Winter was over. It was time for new spring plantings around and in front of Sam’s house. In the past, this was one of the many tasks his wife took upon herself. Now she was gone, and it was another obligation he had been forced to assume.
In front of the house were two large clay pots that were to be filled with annuals that would bloom continuously well into November. Those flowers added a splash of color that made Sam’s house, a conventional brick colonial, more inviting to visitors and added to the home’s curb appeal. He needed to take care of those pots as soon as possible: he was putting the house on the market in a matter of weeks.
Sam was planning to order the plants from a catalog, since he was not in the mood for going to one of the garden centers that he and Edith used to visit each spring. He decided to fill the pots with the same flowers his wife planted every year, for they were heat and drought resistant and came in several colors, though they had always bought the intense scarlet variety that contrasted well with the brick of the house walls. They grew low and spread out throughout the pot nicely; best of all, they required little care. He was going to get them.
Now, what were they called? He had owned these plants for years, but at this time he was unable to recall their names. No problem, he told himself. I’ll flip through the catalog and I’ll find them. He opened a printed catalog he kept for reference and, to his surprise, found nothing that resembled the plants he used to see in his driveway year in and year out. He went online, and searched through articles on annual flowers, seed catalogs, garden supply vendor sites, and other sources. Nothing: the plants he recalled were not shown anywhere.
He went to sleep, mystified. After a restless night, he woke up, still thinking of the flowers that had disappeared from the face of the earth. And then, trying to extend his mind around the mystery, he made a new discovery: he could not remember at all what the plants he had kept in the pots by the entrance of his home looked like.
He tried to reconstruct last day’s search for the evanescent flowering plants and focused on sightings during his European vacations. He seemed to recall there was one country in which the plants he sought were often found, displayed on balconies, stone urns, doorways, any place were flower pots could be placed. It was a small country next to Italy, with a coastline right on the Adriatic Sea. What was its name?
Sam realized he had no idea, and started to panic. Forgetting a plant was one thing; losing track of an entire country was something else. He rushed to the world globe he had kept since high school. Sure enough, the Italian boot was there, immediately recognizable. However, across the Adriatic there was a large indentation he had not noticed before: opposite Italy there was a wide gap, with the Adriatic extending to Slovenia, Hungary, Bosnia and Serbia. How could that be? Was his mind playing tricks on him?
Not only that. After a while, Sam could no longer remember ever having been to that place teeming with flowering houseplants.
Sam then recalled that he and his wife had met another American couple at their hotel in Vienna and enjoyed their company so much that he and Edith decided to travel with the other couple into the Balkans. Surely, those people would remember where they had gone on their joint vacation. What was the fellow’s name? Sam did not at the moment remember, but was sure he would find it on the directory of friends and family he kept on his laptop.
He went through every entry in his directory three times, and then through all his saved e-mails, and could not find any messages to or from the elusive couple. Worse yet, after hours of searching, he realized he no longer knew who he was searching for or why. And he became very scared.
Sam could no longer consult his wife, who had been dead for over a year. He decided to confide in his best friend Janos, who knew as much about Sam’s comings and goings as any person alive. He placed a call: “Janos, I need to talk to you urgently. Can you have a beer with me as soon as possible?”
“I can come right after work. Is that soon enough?”
“Yes. Usual place? I’m buying.”
“See you then.”
He was too jittery for beer, so he had a quick scotch, neat. And then another. And still another. Sam had just ordered the fourth one when Janos squeezed his shoulder. “Come on, Sam. Get hold of yourself. What seems to be the problem?”
“I think I am losing my mind. Do you remember how we always keep two large clay pots on the driveway of our home, a few steps from the front door?”
“I guess so.”
“Well, yesterday I could not recall what plants we placed there, and the ones that for a moment I thought we had used don’t show up anywhere on the internet.”
“That’s odd, but not too alarming, I think.”
“Well, it gets better. I seem to recall seeing those plants everywhere in one country in the Balkans, on the trip Edith and I took to Europe seven years ago. Do you remember that trip?”
“Sure, you brought me a nice set of glasses from Prague as a souvenir from that trip.”
“Well, I can’t find the country where I thought I had seen those plants. It doesn’t show up on any maps or articles on the Balkans.”
“Now, that’s impossible. Where was that country that you can no longer find?”
“Across from Italy, bordering on the Adriatic. It has some nice coastal cities, and borders Bosnia and Serbia, and Hungary as well.”
“My friend, I have not been to that part of Europe, so I can’t be sure, but I don’t think that such a place exists.”
The fourth glass of scotch was then delivered. Sam downed it in three gulps, placed a fifty-dollar bill on the table, and ran away without saying goodbye.
Sam woke up bearing all the signs of a punishing hangover. His stomach ached as if he had eaten coals, he had trouble keeping his eyes focused, and a terrible headache was mounting by the moment. What had he done the night before to cause all this discomfort?
He must have been drinking. Alone? He seldom got drunk at home, out of respect for Edith. He must have gone out with one of his friends. His fuzzy mind started focusing. Yes, he had been at a lounge with someone, but who?
A stream of ice cursed through his veins as a thought came to him. Yes, he had been drinking with a friend, a very close one whom he had known for many years, but he could not pinpoint his name or conjure up his appearance.
Sam dragged himself to the bathroom, and threw up interminably.This made things a little better – good enough at least to walk into the kitchen and pour himself a glass of tomato juice, a popular cure for hangovers.He despised tomato juice.
He sat at the kitchen counter, dutifully downing one gulp after another of some revolting liquid.As he did so, Sam ran through his mind the names and faces of all his friends, close and casual, even acquaintances. One by one, they were considered and rejected. “That’s not him… not him … not her, either…” As each person was brought up and discarded, he or she disappeared from his consciousness, and did not return.
And the horrible truth finally revealed itself: he was running out of memories. He just had to think of something or somebody and an image of the subject would flash before his eyes, then vanish. Everything that his brain had accumulated over sixty-odd years of existence was fleeing, leaving him as empty as an eaten-up corn husk.
“No, no, no!”Sam cried to himself. “Edith, please help me!” Invoking his dead wife immediately brought before his eyes a still beautiful woman, her face contorted by sorrow and pain. In a moment, the image flickered and disappeared with a woosh, leaving Sam with a feeling of overwhelming, unbearable emptiness.
Sam returned to the bathroom and reached for the bottle of sleeping pills that someone in his household kept to fight insomnia. He downed all the remaining pills and washed them with a glass of water.
He shuffled semi-consciously to the bedroom and lay down. He wondered who he was and why he felt so tired.As his eyes closed, a single word dropped, half-formed, from his lips: “Edith…”
And then there was silence.
* * *
Born in Cuba, Matias Travieso-Diaz migrated to the United States as a young man. He became an engineer and lawyer and practiced for nearly fifty years. After retirement, he took up creative writing. Over eighty of his short stories have been published or accepted for publication in anthologies and paying magazines, blogs, audio books and podcasts. Some of his unpublished works have also received “honorable mentions” from a number of paying publications. A first collection of his stories, “The Satchel and Other Terrors,” was released in February 2023 and is available through Amazon and other retailers.
“Aunt Lynn wants to see you.” That’s what my father says to me, but the way he says it implies there’s something else being said that I don’t understand. I am knee-high to the adults crowded inside Aunt Lynn’s house. I’ve never been to Aunt Lynn’s house before, or even to Tennessee. All the aunts and uncles are here, but everyone is serious and no one sits down. The adults seem taller today, their heads huddled in a cloud I can’t reach. I don’t see Aunt Lynn anywhere.
I slip out the back door. I am reassured by the sight of our brand new 1959 Ford, but everything else is strange. Aunt Lynn’s backyard is pine trees, no grass. I’ve never seen a backyard with no grass. I wonder if all the houses in Cleveland, Tennessee are like this. The ground is carpeted with brown pine needles. I slip under the shade of the pine trees and kick pine cones on the ground. I pick them up and compare them, choose the best ones, drop them on the ground.
I look for sticks. There are hardly any good ones. Most of them are old and brittle. I break them unless they are too thick to break. I find one that’s still green. I whip it against a tree. Then I drop the stick on the ground because it’s not fun. I wonder what to do. It almost feels wrong to be doing anything, but I don’ know why.
An older cousin joins me in the pines. Then another. They walk around without any real purpose. But their faces are different, as if they are looking at something far away. If my cousins know what’s going on, they’re not telling me. The back door opens, and I see my Dad’s face. He looks serious.
“Aunt Lynn wants to see you.”
I run to the back door and follow him inside. But he rejoins the adults who are still talking. Even though he is ignoring me, I understand I’m not free to go back outside. I stand around beneath the adults like a random toy someone forgot to put away. Then my dad looks down at me. “Let’s go see Aunt Lynn.”
Dad puts his hand on my back and guides me out of the room to a dark, narrow hallway. We stop in front of a closed door and stand there. After a moment, the door opens, and my cousin Bette comes out. Bette is almost the same age as me, just a little older. She’s wearing a red dress. I’ve never seen her in a dress before. She passes by without speaking. Dad pushes me into the room. I see a wide bed with a shiny white bedspread.
“Come on in, Mike.”
It’s Aunt Lynn’s voice. I look at my dad. He nods. I walk into Aunt Lynn’s bedroom and hear the door click shut behind me.
“Mike, come over here.”
I walk to the bed and stand beside her. Her hair seems especially black against the white pillow and sheets. She reaches for my hand and takes hold of it. Her hand is soft and her grip is strong.
“Mike you are such a good boy. I’m so glad you came to visit me!”
I feel her pushing her words into my body through her hand that is holding mine, like water pushing through a garden hose. Her face is yellowish and there is dried stuff around the edges of her lips, like boogers, crusty.
“I want you to visit again. Did you know we can go the swimming pool? And they have ice cream at the pool. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“We’ll go the pool and have ice cream, the next time you come, okay?”
She talks more about how much fun we will have when I visit. She describes the swimming pool. It’s hard for me to hear everything she says because I keep looking at her face, at the crusty white things around her lips, at her eyes that are lively and her skin that is sallow.
Finally, she thanks me again for coming. I can tell it’s time to go. She gives my hand a squeeze and then pulls hers away. The light goes out of her eyes. Her head sinks into the pillow like a thimble dropped into a jar of cotton balls.
“Goodbye,” I hear her say, not much louder than a whisper. I say goodbye back. My goodbye sounds different than hers.
I quickly walk to the door, open it, close it behind me. I feel safer now that I’m out of Aunt Lynn’s bedroom. No one is in the hall, but I find my way back to the living room. Adults are still talking, but not as many. My dad sees me, pats me on the back, says something I understand means that I did something good. Then he turns back to the adults.
I slip out the back door and return to the pines. I don’t do anything, just walk around and feel the space between the trees. I don’t know what I was supposed to have done with Aunt Lynn. I think not knowing means I probably didn’t do it right.
* * *
Mike Wilson’s work has appeared in magazines including The Pettigru Review, Fiction Southeast, Mud Season Review, The Saturday Evening Post, Deep South Magazine, Still: The Journal, Barely South Review, and Anthology of Appalachian Writers Vol. X. He’s author of Arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic (Rabbit House Press, 2020), political poetry for a post-truth world, and resides in Lexington, Kentucky.
The snail crawls into the room, it crawls, until the snail stops, curls inside the shell and stays still.
Mom says I’ve been spending time in movies, says I should go out and live, only I don’t want to, I’d rather watch movies, safe in my room. Therapist says I’m too self-centered, he says I should get out of myself, he makes me choose an action film, asks me to focus on a mission, and I watch Star Wars but too much action is tiring, exhausting, and Luke Skywalker kicks me out of the movie, because I remain still, the plot is demanding, not made out for people like me.
The snail remains still, remains still for long, inside the shell, closes the door, a thing called epiphragm, trails dry up and years pass by without a move.
Therapist shrugs, like I’m a lost case, I tell him snails sleep for up to three years, he suggests I channel my imagination and create something. Like what? I ask. Like a story. My therapist is not happy when I say life is like writing a story, anything can happen, anything I want to. He says life is like writing a story, but only the first draft.
The snail awakens, it crawls, crawls, takes home along, moves slowly, slowly, like snails do.
It takes me a while but I create the perfect story, a story in which nothing happens, and I don’t care if people will read it, as long as the snail is happy, the snail crawls and crawls and crawls, until I run out of pages, it lives happily ever after, and life flows, it flows, as life should. Something must happen, my therapist says, and I shrug, because he’s wrong. It may have taken me a lifetime, but I know now, why fairy tales end with happily ever after, and nobody cares, or remembers what happens next. Every time something happens, it hurts. In movies, in stories, in life.
The snail crawls,
* * *
Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist, from Athens, Greece and the author of “We Fade With Time” by Alien Buddha Press. A Pushcart, Best of the Net, Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions nominated writer, her work can be found in many journals, such as the Chestnut Review, New World Writing, trampset, the Bureau Dispatch, and others.
Mother sat in the rocking chair on the wide porch in front of the combination solarium and laundry room. She paid 60 grand for the addition, which included knotty cedar paneling on the walls and floor. Her daughter and granddaughter were allergic to the wood, but Mother didn’t have the kind of mind most others had.
Many found her eccentric and certainly passive-aggressive, especially since she blasted Berlioz’s Deus Irae from the sound system installed in the house while taking time off to read her will. Outside, her daughter and granddaughter were loading boxes into the back of an SUV, each pausing to sneeze.
Yet, Mother did not go for the flowing robe and turban look of a crazy lady living on the corner; she dressed most of the time professionally. Around the house, she preferred a T-shirt and jeans with flip-flops, switching to cowboy boots to wander in her ill-attended garden. Mother was expert at outwardly passing for normal until something made her twitch or when she opened her mouth to speak inappropriately at the worst time.
Mother glanced to the yard to watch her girls while turning the pages, wondering why both were sneezing. She hoped they didn’t have something she could catch and perhaps die drowning in her phlegm like Daddy when he caught pneumonia.
She was terrified of drowning, so she never learned to swim. Ever since she was a girl, Mother stayed away from the water except to dip her toe in creeks, kiddie pools, and blessedly hot baths with her delightful plastic pillows and smell-pretty bath bombs.
Mother could not recall why she was so afraid of the water. Decades ago, the therapist she saw then suggested it was a traumatic neonatal experience. That made sense to Mother. Her parents never had a pool at the spacious mid-century modern where she grew up in Houston, and they never vacationed at a beach. Maybe it was that. Perhaps they were afraid of the water and passed the fear on to her.
Children pick up on their parents’ behaviors. They glance at a sour or fearful expression. A vision of a face twisted in rage—and she responded by curling up like an armadillo.
She lowered the will and watched her daughter and grandchild slide the final boxes into the SUV. Grandchild pressed the button above, and the hood slowly dropped to latch. Why isn’t my precious grand kitty all grown up, Mother thought, her eyes watering, feeling a little sad.
Grand kitty’s hair is rust red, with bangs falling to her shoulders, like Mother’s before she stopped dyeing it.
Unlike Mother, the daughter and child are water creatures. They took to the water like they owned all the seas. They make plans for road trips, bought a house together, and remodeled it for temporary stays. A bed and breakfast, they say.
They’re not afraid of anything—no fears that Mother was aware of. This subject never came up in conversation.
Mother murmured, “Why are they not afraid of the water?”
As they walked to the porch and open the door, Mother placed the will aside and lowered the volume on the stereo.
* * *
Mike Lee is a writer and editor at a trade union in New York City. His work appears in or is forthcoming in Bright Flash Literary Review, Roi Faineant, Fictionette, Press Pause, Brilliant Flash Fiction, BULL, Drunk Monkeys, and many others. His story collection, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon.
Honest to God, I thought this other piano mom was hitting on me.
“Do you want to go somewhere?” she said, cocking her head in a way that made her curls droop like browned lilacs, her dark eyes catch the light in a way that struck me—despite the context—as flirtatious.
It was the 2010s, not the 1970s, and we were at a children’s piano recital—about the farthest thing from a Swinger’s Party. We’d just sat for two hours in metal folding chairs in the multipurpose room of a Unitarian church, grimacing in pride and agony at the sight and sound of our offspring adorably abusing a grand piano. The children, in post-concert relief, had broken into games of tag and Zombie on the carpet. Our husbands stood nearby, talking of finance or soccer. It was, however, almost 9:30 on a Friday night, which struck me as inherently suggestive.
I got a flash of us dry-humping on the dance floor. The piano mom’s mischievous pink smile made me think, for a moment, that the two spouses and five small children between us might not prevent this. Maybe her husband was some singular blend of family man and libertine who’d be happy to watch the kids—mine included—while his wife and I partied. Or maybe they could afford a live-in nanny. I knew many families here were better off than ours. Not that fancy clothes or cars meant much—anybody could get that stuff on credit. You usually could tell real wealth, though, by which moms worked (like me), and which didn’t (like the one I was talking to). We were hardly destitute, but my husband, who’d never had things like birthday parties or book fair money, didn’t think our children should, either. He said holidays were commercial scams. Piano lessons were an intangible investment, but the joy of Christmas morning (apparently) wasn’t. My children, comparing my Goodwill-sourced gifts to those of their classmates, had figured out long ago that Santa Claus—unless he hated them—couldn’t exist.
“But where would we go this late?” I asked the piano mom.
I wanted to cry into her soft-looking hair. To confess that I’d thought—no, hoped—she was making the kind of all-expenses-paid indecent proposal that my bargain-obsessed husband would never refuse. I glanced at him, laughing with her husband, miming a corner kick. Fifteen years ago, I’d believed that he loved me; ten years ago, that he’d make a good father. I knew now that he was more likely to rent out his wife to a rich bisexual—and/or her well-connected spouse—than to foot a dinner bill.
“Would you excuse me a moment?” I said, and drifted off through the clumps of conversing parents toward the bathroom. I closed the stall and sat on the toilet until I heard the front doors start creaking open and shut, engines rumbling in the parking lot, children’s voices ebbing out into the night, wishing I could go somewhere—anywhere. Anywhere at all.
* * *
Francesca Leader is a self-taught, Pushcart-nominated writer originally from Western Montana. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Wigleaf, HAD, Fictive Dream, Barren, Leon Literary, JMWW, Mom Egg Review, Literary Mama, Bending Genres, Drunk Monkeys, Door Is a Jar, and elsewhere. Learn more about her work at inabucketthemoon.wordpress.com.)
Kenny settled on the park bench and fussed with the bouquet for Hannah. His palms were sweaty but he was sure she wouldn’t mind. He had done everything Hannah requested: worn his thick-rimmed glasses, donned a crisp button-up shirt with a bow tie, and slicked his hair to the side. His reflection in the morning mirror screamed nerd, but Hannah had said she liked smart boys. Kenny had all the qualities she was looking for in a boyfriend.
“No way!” Jason approached, holding his phone up in front of his face. Tyler and Casey flanked him like lesser apes.
Kenny frowned at them. “Go away.” Whatever trouble the boys were up to, he wanted no part in it. Today was about meeting Hannah, who was sure to be the love of his life.
“He got the pink tulips and everything!” Jason continued recording.
Kenny tensed and his eyes widened.
“You’re so pathetic. Hannah isn’t real!” Jason stood back to film the scene.
Tyler pulled a glossy catfish out from behind Casey. With a grunt, he heaved the fish corpse toward Kenny and it landed at his feet with a wet slap to the cement.
Kenny’s spirit faded with the laughter of his peers as they left him on the park bench with the stinking fish and the tulips he would now use for mourning what never was.
* * *
Tinamarie Cox lives in Arizona with her husband and two children. She writes and creates visual art to escape her mind and explore the universe. Her work has appeared in several publications, and she is also the author of Self-Destruction in Small Doses (Bottlecap Press). You can find more of her work at: tinamariethinkstoomuch.weebly.com