Every night before I close my eyes, I say your name through the gap in the open window hoping it will reach you, but it never does. It slips off the wind and crashes into the trees as the owl laughs.
I picture your hands, chilled by winter, seeking heat from inside my sweater as it wicks its way up your unpainted fingernails along your arms. The fireplace at our feet helps the rest of the way, but I don’t know if you have one. I’ve never seen your place, only glimpses of what your laptop camera allows on our infrequent chats. Your living room is a sketch I color in as I pull the blanket over me.
I lean into the fire’s warmth. I’ve only felt warmth like this once, a long time ago, but the wood did not endure. It was sturdy, from a tree with abyssal roots that burned away, leaving behind the blackened, brittle charcoal of my futile attempts to make someone else happy.
Now, the kindling has taken hold. The flames flicker and grow, uneasy at first, until they realize there’s something to build on. It’s a fire I crave, yet I am terrified to stoke because I allowed it to consume me once. It peeled paint off the walls and melted pipes and left me a pile of ash to glue back together, flake by flake.
But I’m drawn toward its glow, its potential, knowing it will destroy me again. I embrace the blaze.
So I close my eyes and whisper your name and pray to a God I don’t believe in to let me see you just once, before I am ripped away by the violent blare of my alarm.
I tried closing the window, but it’s stuck.
Harry Marks is an author from New Jersey, with stories published in HelloHorror, Baronfig.com, and the Coil. He also writes for the podcasts Lore and Cabinet of Curiosities from Grim & Mild.
After his fortieth-year teaching, Mr. Crenshaw decided to win his school’s Teacher of the Year competition. He created an alias to nominate himself and then wrote a brief essay about why he deserved the title. Filled with flattering anecdotes about his prowess in the classroom, and one slightly exaggerated claim to have stopped world hunger—at least significantly lessened it, thanks to a past student named Maggie Smith who’d gone into agricultural science —the letter was a perfect exaggeration of the teacher he might’ve been.
Each morning, he’d check his email, waiting for the committee to congratulate him on being a finalist, but each morning he was disappointed. A few days before the deadline, he checked the paperwork and realized he needed a student to second the nomination. Mrs. Crenshaw had always been the one to read the fine print.
The next day, he posted an assignment requiring each student to write, in at least five hundred words, an essay about their favorite teacher. Once they submitted it online, he could do a find and replace, and voila, he’d have an enthusiastic endorsement of his teaching.
Reading the essays over dinner, a frozen pizza that remained stubbornly lukewarm, he was delighted to imagine his career extending into unknown territory, as he became a crew coach who likened life to a river, a math teacher who inspired a love of the Pythagorean Theorem, and a karate instructor who’d given Jake Willis the confidence to be himself. He wasn’t surprised that none were truly written about him; after all, he hadn’t created a new lesson in over a decade.
He finally settled on an essay written about a colleague named Mrs. Romano, focused on how she made learning fun by doing silly experiments, including the classic hydrogen five-gallon jug explosion, which Mr. Crenshaw had done for over twenty years until he’d abruptly stopped after a particularly difficult clean up. The fact that it could’ve come from one of his students—one of his past students, at least—gave him all the confidence he needed to forward the letter to the committee.
After two weeks of waiting, he received word that he was a finalist, and that for the committee to make their final selection they’d have to observe his class. That posed a problem as he’d been leaning a little too heavily on the textbook ever since Mrs. Crenshaw’s funeral. And for a little while before that too, if he was being honest with himself. If he was going to win, he’d need to get back in shape. That weekend, he planned a brand-new unit, complete with objectives, do-nows, group work, simulations, even an activity involving memes, which he’d learned about after some brief googling. On Sunday night, he collapsed in bed, rolled over, and reached out for Mrs. Crenshaw, only to find a set of carefully arranged pillows.
On the first day he began to once again teach, the students seemed surprised, uncertainly taking notes as Mr. Crenshaw scribbled on the board and talked passionately about ectoplasm. He hadn’t done his ectoplasm lesson in years, ever since finding a YouTube video on the subject. He liked the feeling of his old lessons returning, like an escaped pet that had wandered home, scrabbling at the door.
Later that week, he taught one of the most ambitious lessons of his career, with each group acting out one part of the photosynthesis process. As he listened to the laughter in his classroom, he found himself twirling his wedding ring.
On the day of the committee’s observation, he dressed in a suit—the very same suit he’d worn to Mrs. Crenshaw’s funeral—and had students participate in a simulation about FDA approval of a genetically modified fruit dubbed a “Margie,” appropriately named after Mrs. Crenshaw. The students debated, stayed on task, and asked follow-up questions posed to Commissioner Crenshaw, his alter ego for the day.
At the end of the lesson, the students might as well have cheered, and as Mr. Crenshaw waited at the door to bid each pupil goodbye, he could’ve sworn one of the committee members winked at him.
That night, he found himself tossing and turning, unable to get comfortable next to the row of pillows, a pale imitation of the late Mrs. Crenshaw. He’d spent so many years complaining about teaching. The long meetings, the disrespectful students, the acronyms, and the nosy administrators. But at least he’d had someone to complain to. To commiserate with. To work for. Without Mrs. Crenshaw, he felt adrift, untethered from the only thing he’d ever thought worth tethering.
On the night of the awards ceremony, Mr. Crenshaw once again dressed in his suit and tie. He could still smell Mrs. Crenshaw’s floral perfume on the jacket lapel. He breathed it in, immediately conjuring a lesson about smell and memory and the first cranial nerve. Walking toward the auditorium, he imagined Mrs. Crenshaw on his arm, reminding him to stand up straight.
To his surprise, just before reaching the door, he abruptly turned around. Shuffled through the crowds and stilted conversations to the exit. Climbed into his car. Peeled out of the parking lot. A few minutes later, he arrived home and rifled through his garage for the old five-liter water jug. He had work to do. Not just for Mrs. Crenshaw, but for his students. Even the ones who hated science. The ones who resented having to put their phones away. The ones who whispered behind his back and prayed for movie day. Especially them. They needed him. They needed to understand that knowledge could be a weapon, an armor, even an explosion. And even if they didn’t need him, he needed them.
Mr. Crenshaw was startled by the thought: not frightened, not even surprised, but startled that it had taken him so long to realize. After writing and rewriting Monday’s lesson, he crawled into bed, removed the stack of pillows from Mrs. Crenshaw’s side, and tucked in between the sheets.
* * *
Michael Belanger is an author and high school history teacher. His debut novel, The History of Jane Doe, was a finalist for the Connecticut Book Award and received a Kirkus starred review. More recently, his writing has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine and Pigeon Review. In addition to teaching and writing, he serves as a faculty advisor to Greenwitch, a high school literary magazine that has published talented young writers—including Truman Capote—for over a hundred years. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, son, and two wonderfully aloof cats.
My love is a statue on the cliff-top. She is stone grey and her anguish reflects the myriad of slate hues that envelop her. Her hair, like silvered snakes of medusa, is buffeted to dance with the wind and her screams are absorbed to cavernous silence by a vacuum of raging wind.
At dawn she is a sentinel, her eyes trained on the pencil-stroke horizon and pale toes in line with the crumbling edge of rock. Below her, angry ropes of marshmallow sea-foam thrash against the earth.
She waits for her loves, the man and boy who went out to fish forty years ago .
I met her when my dog escaped his leash to gain favor from the lady with sad eyes. She nuzzled him and shimmering teardrops soaked into his downy nape and as the pent up reserves of love poured into my pet, my heart was stripped from my chest and gifted to her.
I knew the tale of David and Sam, how they went out to fish and never returned. Only shards of hand painted wood from their little vessel came back, splintered and ravaged to sandcastle fodder for innocent hands in the summer.
They built the boat together, the family of three. They scavenged the wood over the Winter, then sanded and polished nature’s bounty into something beautiful. They painted it pale blue and adorned it with a yellow sail made from her scarf.
On the day they set out she’d packed a red metal lunchbox with ham sandwiches, slices of Victoria sponge lovingly baked and a flask of tea and milk to sate their thirst. Her last memory was the glittering excitement in her 7 year old’s eyes.
It is the only memory she holds close, any made since are in black and white. One memory, one moment of joy. Then she met me.
She drifted over time into my home and my bed, where I convinced myself that her moans of pleasure were for me and not the images of 30 year old David, still hirsute with strong hewn muscle that played on the dark film screen within her closed eyelids.
To prove my worth, I toiled to provide sustenance and warm comfort in practical ways. I prayed she would value these efforts and her eyes would fill with the fervent emotion that spilled when thoughts of her husband swept through her mind.
Each morning I wait at home and light the fire, stoking the coal and turf to orange flamed warmth. I play music and bake scones until the air is filled to bursting with sweet scent and sound. Until the house vibrates with life to have her see that I am here and we are alive.
We don’t speak of David and Sam anymore, not since the day she refused my offer of marriage. The day I became the ghost to her ghosts.
I railed at her, wailed my inky discontent into the air surrounding her cockleshell ears. I begged her to see me, the man in flesh, now aged and doughy who dripped love for her though every pore.
I cursed the home that she still tended to, the floors she mopped and the picture frames polished, the pristine museum scented with beeswax and fresh flowers.A mausoleum of a life without me.
I screamed that they no longer existed, if they somehow survived the cruel waves of the sea, David would no longer be the man in her dreams and her boy would now be full man. But she sat like stone, eyes dipped from my wrath as if deaf to my voice. My anger peaked and she slumped, her life-force seeping like fog from her soul.
Apologies poured in relentless waves from my mouth as I gathered her into my arms. Guilt swarmed through me as I knew she suffered enough. Heart-broken, I carried her childlike frame to the bed.
So now as she slips out of the door each morning, I clench my eyes and my jaw to the hurt, I try not to become rock that could crumble to gravel, like the cliff edge worn from her feet.
Broken shards of stained glass, strung together like a madcap rosary, hung across the kitchen window. The late afternoon sun refracted into a jittered kaleidoscope, a mirage of colors, against the kitchen wall. The aqueous illusion invited, no, more tempted, that this world, the seemingly solid, dissembled. Beyond, on the other side of the shimmering surface, a land more real in its ambiguity offered refuge.
Below this sea of hues cast across the kitchen wall, a jigsaw puzzle of the open sea lay scattered, half the border assembled. The remaining pieces, unconnected, produced their own confused, yet beautiful, icon, as if a mad mosaicist flung fistful after fistful of tesserae across fresh plaster and set a faith in God that the image would, in the end, reflect the divine.
Beneath this beauty, blind to the potential of what is not, stooped, Madeline collected a tea plate, broken in pieces, like a eucharistic host readied for the tongue of the faithful. Next to her, a cat sat upon the tessellated tiles. Genuflected on her right knee, Madeline stacked the shards of pottery, one atop the other, to make a small cairn amid the open desert of the kitchen floor. She contemplated the remnants. Was she marking a grave, a boundary, a summit, a path to a beyond? She knew not what she had done.
How had the plate come to be broken upon the floor?
She knew the facts. She did not wonder at the wonder of physics. But why, the larger why? Why was she, out of the billions on the planet, the one to amass fragments of what had, just a moment before, been useful but now was debris to be discarded, then quickly forgotten.
Millie, the cat, smoothed its face against her upright leg.
“Watch,” Madeline said. “There are sharp edges that cut to the bone and bring blood.”
Millie fell to one side and began to knead the woman. White flecks of porcelain embedded in her fur.
Madeline rested her head on the palm of her left hand and observed the reflection of her face in the polished tiles of the floor. A reflection without features but outlines, blurred, uncertain, open to interpretation. In turn, the cat examined the woman, the cat with its reflective eyes behind which lurked reflecting desire. Though she could not tell one detail from another, Madeline frowned at the smeared image of her face on the tiles. She straightened a strand of hair, cocked her chin, just so, cleared her throat, and bore down with her eyes on the uneven double that stared back at her.
Millie’s purrs brought her back to fact.
Madeline put the last bit of plate on top of the first bit of plate she had stacked then took the cat in her arms and began to pick and brush the white flecks from the dusky fur.
“You have a night sky filled with stars on your back,” Madeline said. “Beautiful. And dumb.”
Millie purred as Madeline drug her fingertips across the cat’s back.
Madeline stood. On the counter of quartz countertop, the tea steeped in the brown betty. Cream settled in its bell. Sugar mounded in its bowl. Cookies arrayed like flowers on a plate, itself decorated with stem, leaf, and bloom.
And still there was the mess on the floor at her feet.
Madeline knew, in her heart, as if she had been born with the knowledge, in essence, nothing is an accident.
There was a knock at the door. Millie leapt from arm to bar, to stool, to floor, then disappeared through the half-shut French doors that opened to a back sunroom now dark with pulled blinds.
Madeline stooped, lifted the bone china to the trash, then let it drop into the remnants of meals, mail, and motes of dust swept from corners. She then bent, again, swept the remaining small bits into her palm, dropped them after the plate, and finally washed her hands of the affair.
A third knock.
Madeline put on her mask to face the world.
* * *
Richard Stimac has published flash fiction in BarBar (2023 BarBe nominee), The Blue Mountain Review, Book of Matches, Bridge Eight, Drunk Monkeys, Flash Fiction Magazine, Half and One, New Feathers, Paperbark, Prometheus Dreaming, Proud to Be (SEMO Press), On the Run, Scribble, Talon Review, The Typescript, The Wild Word, and Transitions Sydney Hammond Memorial Short Story Anthology (Hawkeye Press), along with a full-lenght book of poetry Bricolage (Spartan Press).
She hated the way he parted his hair, a comb-over, who was he kidding; that he grunted putting on shoes; stole the covers at night. He cut his toenails without a care where they landed. She’d cringe as she spotted one, sliver moon sticking up out of the blue shag carpet. Worst was sharing dip. He submerged overloaded chips, licked his fingers, plunged back in to retrieve broken pieces.
She’d pledged for better or for worse, but she couldn’t take it anymore. It was the little things, she said. The big things, they weren’t so bad. Not bad at all.
* * *
Judith Shapiro spends half the year on the opposite coast, confused about which way is north and marveling at the sun that sets over the ocean instead of rising. When the novel she’s writing looks the other way, she secretly writes anything else. Her work appears in The Citron Review, Moss Piglet, The Sun and elsewhere. See more at PeaceInEveryLeaf.com.
I was standing in aisle 3 trying to decide between two brands of coffee when my phone rang. I didn’t even think when I answered, I was running on three hours of sleep after procrastinating my marketing report until the last minute.
My mother’s daughter, I guess.
“Hey Dad.” I said balancing my phone on my shoulder as I compared two different boxes. It was one of those un-monumental days that would fade into the background and be forgotten. It was supposed to be anyway. “I’m stocking up on coffee. Any preference?”
He said nothing.
His deep unsteady breaths echoed down the line.
“Dad.” My voice broke and I couldn’t help my lip quivering. Cold dread seeped into my bones and somewhere deep inside me I knew. I’d been waiting for this call for a year, but I still wasn’t ready. I hadn’t truly prepared for it.
Then my Dad, the man who always had a joke, who was never without a smile and who saw the world as a bright place, began to sob.
It was clear and loud through the phone.
I slid to the floor as tears poured from my eyes, my legs too weak to hold me upright. Everything was flashing in front of me as I sobbed. All the hospital visits, the tests, every new medication. Every time we thought things were changing and every time we ended up back where we started. We did it all and still it was ending like this. There was no happily ever after like in the movies, no conclusive end, no goodbye.
Instead, there was just a crushing weight of absence.
My hands were shaking now, and people were staring. I couldn’t care less though, none of it mattered. I wanted to stay on the floor here forever, trying to live in the few moments before I answered my phone.
I knew what waited for me when I walked out those doors and I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready to face a world without my Mum in it.
I wasn’t ready, not yet.
* * *
Rhiannon Bird is an Australian author who has had multiple short stories and poems published online and in anthologies. Generally she writes fantasy and science fiction, though dabbles in other genres at times as well. You can learn more over on her website: rhiannonbird.com
The three of them boarded together, then stumbled single file to the empty seats across from me. A girl followed by two guys. All three were dressed in old work clothes, white and gray t-shirts covered in splotches of teal and beige paints. The guys were different heights, the taller one a blond, who, trailing the other two, slipped as the train lurched away from Packard’s Corner. His hand landed on my shoulder.
“Sorry bro,” he said. I waved, as if that meant, all is well, and felt every blood cell in my body barrel to my forehead. His other hand fumbled for the railing next to the girl, where he was able to pull himself together. She was a brunette. The other, shorter guy also had dark hair with a day or so’s scruff reaching along his jawline.
“That’s fine,” blondie said into his cell phone. Clearly, they were painters or landscapers or something. Their accents were pronounced, R-less, and clipped. “Where you think? We had to tear up the carpet.”
“Tell him the sheetrock needs doing too,” scruff said.
Only the working class in Boston carried the accent. Police officers, T-drivers, certain older waiters and waitresses.
“We’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“Where does he want to meet?”
The girl would lean towards whichever guy was speaking, but how she kept track of what they said, I would never know. From the way she sat next to scruff, close but not touching, I assumed she was with blondie.
“The destination of this train is Boston College,” droned the automated voice of the T. At Harvard Ave, we were stopped by traffic lights.
Blondie was still on the phone, suggesting potential meeting places like McDonald’s or Dunkin’. Scruff nudged the girl with his elbow, said to blondie, “and tell him if Miss Slow Pour hadn’t bent over so far to refill the paint, I would’ve been done a lot sooner,” then laughed hard, as if someone he really liked had told the joke.
A few seconds later, tires screeched, followed by a heavy thud, then a scream.
Scruff jumped from his seat and hurried through the still open doors. The girl followed right away. Blondie reluctantly ended the call and went after her. Someone was hit. The body, wrapped snugly in a woolen overcoat, black scarf trailing from his neck, lay flat in the middle of the road. The white Honda that hit him reversed and sped down Comm Ave.
“Damn,” said someone in the train.
With two fingers on the man’s neck, scruff hollered for blondie to call an ambulance. When blondie hesitated, I unlocked my phone. There was a new message, from her, asking about my plans for the weekend, telling me the day she’d be back from the honeymoon.
By the time I swiped it away, blondie had already called. The body still did not move, except for the firm touches from scruff on his face and chest.
The lights changed, and our train moved towards Boston College, as if nothing had happened. My stop was the next one, but I missed it, trying to decide whether I should reply to her text or throw my phone into the Charles. A few stops later, I disembarked at Chiswick, and by the time I walked back near Harvard Ave where the man had been hit, all four of them had vanished. No police cars or ambulances. No glass or blood on the asphalt, as far as I could tell. The man must have been fine. I looked at the tracks to see if the three young people were waiting for the next train, but no, I’d lost them, too.
Lukas Tallent lives in New York City. His work has recently appeared in Stirring, MaudlinHouse, Bridge Eight, and many other places. He is one of the founders of Wrong Turn Lit. You can find more of him at lukas-tallent.com.
I’m sitting on a futon, sober, trying not to touch the jackets strewn across the back. Stereo music pulsates, shredded and staticky. Someone near me is yelling a back-and-forth drink order to their friend in the kitchen. A ping pong ball knocks into plastic cups.
My roommate Rachel dances on a table. The tie on her blouse is undone, shaken loose by recent movement.
An instant later, Rachel stands by the kitchen bar, blouse tied.
Her expression reads what the fuck. Around the party, people exclaim. A thing happened, but I don’t know what it was.
Someone behind the bar shouts, “The alcohol restocked!”
People refill their drinks. Two sit beside me. The futon shifts, leaning me toward their weight. My whole body tenses.
“Atime jump?” one asks. “You don’t think it was a mass displacement?”
“Why would all the vodka suddenly reappear in a mass displacement?”
Someone backs into another person who bumps into the side of the futon and apologizes to me or the space around me. I sort of shake my head and my hand kind of flickers.
The futon abruptly unshifts, and the two people are gone, somewhere else. Rachel is by the bar again. Someone rips open the cabinet and thrusts into the air two full bottles of vodka. A person behind me whoops and hits the back of the futon. Startled, I duck. The laughter around me, in celebration of the reoccurring alcohol, feels heavy.
I want to go home.
My keys and wallet are in my jacket pocket. When I arrived, there weren’t many people, so I draped my jacket over a stool next to the bar. Since then, a young woman has sat on the stool, on my jacket.
The space between me and her is eight feet, through a corridor of people. She eats chips, talks to a friend.
Her friend stands to refill the chips. Their conversation pauses. I dig my grip into my legs, trying to unparalyze them.
Just ask her for the jacket, I urge myself. It’s easy.
The young woman flicks through her phone. She crosses her legs. My jacket sleeve sways.
You can do it, I try to urge again. Just do it, just stand up, and go ask for the jacket. No one is watching. No one is looking at you.
Logic is a useless tool.
I push my knuckles into my sternum and try to tell myself what to say, but every constructed dialogue twists into something else. I’m sorry, but would you mind, considering, um, my jacket? sounds like Get off my jacket or I’m a stupid idiot who put my jacket where people want to sit or Everyone is watching me talk to you or I’m suffocating.
She instructs her friend where the chips are from afar, and the impossibility of approaching her weighs on me so heavily that I consider leaving without my jacket, walking home to a locked apartment, sitting on the stoop, burying my head in my hands, and hating myself alone.
For my sixth birthday, my mom got a pinata. The bat was red plastic. It carried me forward and I spun, missing. Try again, my mom said. It’s easy. All the kids stood around me and I spun, missing. I tried to leave the circle, but she turned me around.
That was one of my first anxiety attacks.
I had another when I tried to get food at a buffet at my cousin’s wedding because I wasn’t sure where the plates were; another waiting for a clerk at a shoe store to bring me another size because there was nowhere to sit; another when I was supposed to meet my parents at a restaurant because I didn’t know which door to go in.
People bring in a cake from outside and shout “Infinite cake!” Rachel gets on the bar, pops a cork, and cheers. In that chaos and through my self–loathing desperation, I unhinge my legs. My vision narrows and I feel like I need to run but I have nowhere to go and the longer I don’t move, the more noticed I feel, so I try to go to the bathroom but someone’s in there so I walk along the wall trying to seem like I’m going somewhere but then time blips and I’m on the futon in the center of the room again and my brain throws papers in front of an industrial fan and I’m breathing through cheese cloth.
Rachel notices the young woman. “Oh, I think that’s my friend’s jacket!”
“Oh! I thought it was just, like, someone who lived here.”
“No problem! I’ll give it back.” Rachel takes my jacket. She brings it to me. It’s warm from being sat on. I hold it to my chest and just when I realize that I can’t figure out how to say I’m leaving, Rachel tells me she’ll see me when she gets home and to feed Muffin if she’s late.
Outside, time breathes again. My car rumbles. The steering wheel is cold from waiting.
You couldn’t do it, I tell myself, but it’s been done. That’s what’s important. So it’s completely fine that you couldn’t do it because you can’t do anything.
I cry for ten minutes before I flick my headlights on.
I don’t process the drive.
At home, Muffin mews desperately. The cabinet is open. Her food has all been knocked to the ground. She weaves between my legs, whining. I open a can and scoop the food into her bowl.
I tell her, “I’ve done it for you. It’s okay.”
Then, I spend the next few hours lying and staring at the ceiling. Muffin curls heavily on my chest. I breathe beneath her.
Jean Strickland received her BA in Writing from Loyola University Maryland, and her fiction has appeared in Literary Orphans and Strangelet Journal. She enjoys watching anime and convincing people to play games with her. Find her on her website or twitter @b4heroes.
The first time I saw the box, I was cleaning out closets, packing away woolens, encasingsweaters, skirts, jackets, and coats in moth balls, giving them a proper burial for the summer season. The box was far back on a top shelf, almost as if it had been forgotten, neglected behind mounds of winter caps and mismatched mittens. I took it out and placed it on the bed. It was a small box, about six inches square, and was wrapped in a heavy gold foil paper. The paper seemed old, almost Victorian. It was not worn, but it was dusty, and had a mustiness about it that suggested many years of storage in a dry-cellar, kept wedged between pickled beets and canned tomatoes. There were no seams in the paper, no opening of any kind. I ran my hand along the top smoothing away dust, and felt bumps, like raised braille letters, on my fingertips. I brought the box to the window, and looked at it closely in the sunshine. It was textured, embossed, with hexagons, large and small, all connecting with each other forming an intertwining array of benzene rings. The doorbell rang, and I put the box down on the bed and went to answer it. When I came back, the box was gone.
I was having tea with my neighbor, the next time the box appeared. It sat on top of the breadbox, next to a plate of white powdered doughnuts. Sugar and doughnut crumbs had fallen all over the side of the box, causing the hexagons to shine out in relief, giving them a harder, sharper edge than they had had when I looked at them shining in the afternoon sunshine. I was shocked to see it there, and choked on my hot tea, spilling some on the clean white, linen table cloth, scalding my hand. I gave a little cry and watched my skin redden. My friend ran to get some ice, and when I looked again, the box had vanished.
I saw the box several more times that week, each time was as mysterious and unpredictable as the last. It was in the collection basket at church, half-buried under coins and commitment envelopes, being passed along from row to row, each additional contribution covering it a bit more. It was there in the grocery store, settled in the produce department, surrounded by thick leafy heads of romaine, chicory and iceberg, keeping cool on bits of shaved ice. I saw its reflection in the mirror that was angled above the row of vegetables, the gold glinting in the fluorescent lights, surrounded by deepening shades of green.
I started to get used to seeing it in odd places. It was comforting, seeing it there, in the garden, between the rows of marigolds and zucchini, or at the library, neatly stacked, appearing in Adult Fiction between works by Andrea Golden and Samuel Goldstein. And I didn’t feel a bit surprised when I saw it there in the laundromat, resting on top of a vending machine that carried laundry detergent, Tide, Clorox and All, squeezed in between a massive Coke machine and an old ugly brown coin changer.
I started to look for the box during the day, hoping to catch a glimpse of it in the big round mirror that hung from the roof at the self-serve gas station, or at the mall, nestled in among the fake palms, and miniature fountains.
One day, I did not see the box at all. And the next day was the same, and the next. I started to search for the box, anxiously peering around every corner, nervously contemplating its whereabouts. I became hyper-vigilant, sensitive to every noise, every shift of light, every alteration of sensation.
Finally I gave up. I felt cheated, depressed, as if I had been given a gift and had had it snatched away again. Life took on a dull, monotonous routine, and I shuffled through the days, watching one take the other, all flowing together into a small tributary that moved slowly, bound with silt which sifted down from its bank’s eroding edges.
After what seemed to be a very long time, the box reappeared again. Not fully disclosed, glaring in the sunlight, but out of the corner of my eye, a peripheral vision, a half-felt presence. When I turned my head and looked, it was gone. I tried to trick it, by turning quickly, or glancing sideways into a nearby mirror, but it seemed to know my thoughts, and would not allow itself to be revealed. After a while, I gave up trying to catch it, and settled for feeling it near, warming to the glow of the gold, acknowledging it’s presence as an independent spirit. Little by little the vision faded, appearing only as a hazy dim glow, a fistful of gold dust someone threw up against a black background, a dull smudge in the corner of my eye. But sometimes when I look in the mirror, I can see it there, softly glowing, the edges of the hexagons creating a solid lattice, a flexible chain of resilience, coiling around, coming in tight, right in the center of my eye.
* * *
Norma Zimmermann worked in health care for many years, and this is her first flash fiction story. She lives with her husband of 47 years in Massachusetts.
Diana was getting a headache and hoped it wasn’t a migraine. Sometimes, it helped to stare straight ahead through the windshield. Less nausea that way. When she had these, her hand would suddenly look big and then tiny. Sometimes she lost track of time. Her neurologist called this Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome.
She and Ben had started out before dawn to get to the house upstate. She’d napped until they’d gotten on the thruway. That was when the headache started.
Suddenly, she realized that he was slowing down. Was there an accident ahead? She looked for the usual red and blue lights, but there weren’t any. Some of the other cars were passing them, so it wouldn’t be that.
“Why are you slowing down?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, “you’ve told me you’re uncomfortable when I speed. I thought about what you said, and I’ve decided to slow down. No reason to go over sixty-five.”
Ben had never done or said anything like this. In the mirror, she caught a glimpse of herself raising an eyebrow but said nothing. He rarely listened to her, and certainly not about his driving. Usually, he was passing most of the other cars and giving the finger to those whose bumper stickers disagreed with his political views.
There was a sign for a rest area up ahead. “Want to stop for breakfast?” Ben asked.
“Sure.” It was still the crack of dawn, and she hadn’t gotten enough sleep. But food would be welcome.
In the parking lot, he pulled up close to a diner. “Rock star parking,” he said, stepping out. He always said this. But the other behavior was totally unusual. He wasn’t losing his mind, and neither was she, although from his driving and his comments it was starting to seem that way.
He was sturdy like an oak as he walked next to her. Maybe his changed behavior meant he was becoming grounded, maturing even as a middle-aged adult. Maybe he was spending time outdoors with trees and flowers. Could he be seeing a therapist? That wasn’t something he’d ever do, but sometimes, people surprised you. Maybe he’d even started taking yoga.
Inside the diner, they grabbed a booth. The server, a lithe man in his twenties with round glasses, poured them both coffee.
Ben picked up the menu. He’d want to split something, no doubt. She’d learned to be wary before agreeing. The dish would have to be something she liked.
“I’m going to have two eggs over easy with rye toast,” he said, and stopped there, glancing at her.
The server stopped writing and glanced at both of them.
No advice for what she should be eating? She didn’t want to bicker with him the way she usually did, though sometimes it seemed inevitable. He said nothing. This is what would happen in an ideal world.
“I’ll have the oatmeal,” she said, glancing down at her oversized hand. “And a small glass of orange juice.”
The server took down the rest of the order and left.
Now Ben was going to say how squishy and dismal all hot cereals were. Like baby food. After he’d said that once, she’d never ordered oatmeal again.
She waited. He only smiled and offered her the book review section of his Times and took the business section for himself. Finally, he’d offered her a section that she actually liked. He’d never given her this one before. They read quietly until the food arrived. He didn’t interrupt with rants about the news. Bliss. Whatever had brought this on?
As she ate her oatmeal, he made no comments. Her headache was gone, but she still had a strange, dreamy feeling.
“Food’s pretty good here.” He smiled.
“Yes, it certainly is.” At least he still wasn’t saying anything about the oatmeal.
“Think of a movie you want to see tonight. I’ll give you the listings when we get to the house.”
All of this was too good to be true. He chose the movies.
He paid the check and they stepped into the parking lot. As soon as he started the car, would he be back driving eighty? Could they at least avoid being stopped by a state trooper?
They got in and he pulled out slowly. She couldn’t believe her good luck.
“You seem so calm,” she said, not being able to think of another word for it. “Have you been meditating?”
“I started. Someone from work suggested it. I worked up to twenty minutes.” He brushed the hair out of his eyes and continued at a steady pace toward the Thruway.
“I’m glad you’ve given up speeding,” she commented.
He smiled mysteriously, like the Cheshire Cat.
She closed her eyes. Even with the coffee, she felt totally relaxed, though her hand looked awfully small.
When she looked, they were tearing up the highway. They were passing other cars. Yes, he was going eighty.
“Ben, I thought you weren’t going to drive like this anymore,” she said, looking down at her hands, which were now normal sized.
“What?”He turned toward her.
“Keep your eyes on the road!”
“I am!” he said, turning his head toward the windshield.
“You said you weren’t going to speed!”
“When did I ever say that?”
“Earlier,” she ventured, cautiously. “Before we got to the restaurant.”
“I never said that!”
“Yes, you did!”
“You must have dreamt it,” he said.
Anything was possible. Trees sped by outside the window, departing rapidly. A solid ribbon of road stretched out ahead.
It had just been so beautiful when he had seemed more level-headed and kinder. Dream or reality, she loved those moments, even if it meant going down the rabbit hole.
Elizabeth Morse’s work has been published in literary magazines such as South Shore Review, The Raven’s Perch, and Bright Flash Literary Review. Her poetry chapbook “The Color Between the Hours,” is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in late 2023. She has her MFA from Brooklyn College and supports her writing with a job in information technology.