Inescapable Questions (A Work of Flash Fiction)

It’s the first week of fifth grade, and Jessie is about to give a presentation to her class.

As part of an autobiography project, the students have been asked to bring in a photo of themselves as babies, toddlers, or preschoolers. Jessie picks one of her dad’s favorites. In the photo, she’s 3 and has no neck, because she’s hunched against the spray from a waterfall. She’s smiling, water spangling her short, silky black hair. She’s wearing black shorts and a yellow sweatshirt, like a little bee shivering in the water.

Back then, her hair was cropped around her ears. These days, it falls to the middle of her back, thick and coarse. She pushes it away from her face, strides to the front of the room, and displays the photo to the class.

They crane forward, and it’s Mike B. who says, “That was you?”

He sounds so surprised that Jessie glances at the photo to check. “Well, yeah.”

His mouth falls open for several seconds. Someone else giggles, but otherwise the class is silent. Jessie, feeling unsure for the first time, remembers to hand the photo to a girl in the front row so that the class can pass it around.

“You were so cute,” Mike B. says. Then he asks, “What happened?”

The way he says it isn’t mean. There’s no sly, malicious triumph in his eyes. He just sounds stunned, full of puzzled sorrow.

No one else says anything, not even the teacher. The 3-year-old in the photo continues to squirm in the water and smile, as one person after another glances between her and her older self at the front of the class.

Jessie’s cheeks burn. So do her eyes. She can’t bring herself to look at anything but the floor as she mumbles about her life. In the seven years since the photo was taken, she has started playing cello. She has read hundreds of books and has gotten a pet dog, Nelson, a miniature schnauzer. She was fitted for glasses in the third grade.

When she has shared everything she is required to share of herself, Jessie returns to her desk, where someone has tossed her photo on the chair. As another student stumps to the front of the room, Jessie folds the photo in two and tucks it into the front pocket of her yellow dress. A pressure has built up in her throat. She stares at her legs, encased in purple tights, and at her body, swelling and bulging under a bulky yellow dress. She looks monstrously swollen, every part of her bloated and disfigured. What has she become? What is she becoming?

On the bus ride home, alone at the front, she doesn’t look out the window for fear of seeing her face in the glass.

Graveside Closure (A Short Story)

The owner of the bed and breakfast had no skeletons in his closet, Linda hoped. But he did have a number of them buried close to his backyard. The B&B was right next to the Western Cemetery in Portland, Maine. 

At the moment, the cemetery was haunted by an androgynous teenager dressed in black. From her first-floor room, Linda peered at this specimen of adolescence, who reminded her of herself as a teenager, 14 years ago. Teen Linda had dressed like an honorary member of the Addams Family. She had thought of herself as a cynical witch, drawing black magic out of the wellspring of the world’s miseries. She had been so innocent then.

Adult Linda’s trip from Staten Island to Portland, Maine had no innocence. She hefted her suitcase onto the squealing four-poster bed and fished out a red silk tie belonging to her lover, who had recently died. She hadn’t killed him, though after his death she wished she had. To find out from an online article that he had been survived by a wife… that revelation had robbed Linda of peace.

Soon after his death, she had started to see the ghost of him all around Staten Island: by the fish tanks at the ferry terminal; at the beauty salon responsible for making her a blonde; at Alice Austen House, where, much as she liked the old photos, she liked even more to sit on the lawn, drink beer, and watch the ships pass under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. He had also popped up repeatedly at her home, a roach-friendly studio over a Chinese restaurant.

And damn it if she hadn’t cracked apart in tears at nearly every sighting of his ghost, her one-weekend-a-month lover (sometimes two weekends!), a businessman who was regularly on the road. Even now, she wore the pendant necklace he had given her one year into their two-year relationship, after she had landed her first gig as a part-time jazz oboist. The pendant was a gold treble clef with garnets.

She missed him. But she also wanted him to stop haunting her, the lying SOB. His ghost had never said a word, and she hadn’t figured out how to make him disappear. Not until her upstairs neighbor, a palmistry expert, recommended visiting his grave. “Bring something that belonged to him,” her neighbor recommended. “Leave it there as a parting act.” Apparently all a ghost and his betrayed lover would need was some graveside closure.

Continue reading “Graveside Closure (A Short Story)”

Dragonflies (A Short Story)

We’re sitting by a pond that looks like a half-formed handprint, fingers of water extending from a murky palm. The dragonflies are out. So many of them, skimming the water, swooping, flinging themselves around in tight circles.

With a cup of coffee held to your lips, you say, “I just remembered something from when we were kids. When we played together, we used to say, ‘Dragonfly, dragonfly.’”

A memory shivers like a creature in a mound of leaves. I’ve never forgotten that eerie sing-song. But I’m surprised you remember it.

Continue reading “Dragonflies (A Short Story)”

Lewis the Loyal Labrador Retriever (a Work of Flash Fiction)

When Clarissa adopted her lab, Lewis, she loved him so much that she knew she had to set up a YouTube page for him. Within months, thousands of people came to agree with her that Lewis was a fantastic doggo. They tuned in for short clips of him flinging himself into puddles in city parks, mauling new toys, and clambering onto his hoomans’ bed.

The humans were just Clarissa and her husband, Andrew, who lived in a two-bedroom apartment. Andrew worked in his home office (the second of the two bedrooms), while Clarissa worked from her laptop at the kitchen table or from a corner of the couch in the living room. Lewis preferred Andrew to her and often lay on the rug in the home office – unless Clarissa opened the fridge or a cupboard door, which made him materialize at her side. Clarissa wasn’t too upset about that; she reminded herself that he was an affectionate dog and loyal to both her and Andrew.

She had a great idea of how to demonstrate his loyalty to YouTube. A year after adopting Lewis, his owners – or parents, as YouTube called them – took him on a hiking trip out of the city. He responded well to a recall command, and they could trust him off leash.

The trail was hilly, the woods bare and dusted with snow. At first, Clarissa walked close to her dog and her husband. Then, with her phone recording, she slipped behind a tree and waited to see how long it would take them to notice that she had fallen behind. She expected her husband to remain oblivious, but she was sure that Lewis would soon pick up on the fact that he couldn’t hear her steps anymore or smell her around. “Lewis is going to return any moment now,” she whispered to her phone. “He’s going to come back for mama.”

Both dog and husband continued down the trail. Clarissa watched, with a deepening coldness in her stomach, as their figures grew smaller. When they followed a bend in the path, she emerged from behind the tree and scrambled after them.

“Wait,” she tried to shout, but the word got stuck in her throat. She slipped, landing with a cry on the thin coating of snow and half-frozen mud. Her ankle pulsed with pain, and her phone skittered out of her hand.

The following day, she rested in bed. Her ankle was propped up on a pillow, and her mind tiredly reviewed the way the hike had ended: husband and dog eventually backtracking, the hobbling trip back to the car (her eyes fixed to the ground, her ears ringing with her husband’s complaints), the wait in the emergency room.

Her husband was now in his office, taking a work break by playing a computer game with lots of gunfire. Lewis lay beside her on the bed, watching her expectantly. Clarissa gave him a wan smile and took out her phone. Yesterday’s footage was worthless, but here was an opportunity for new content.

“I have the best dog in the world,” she recorded herself saying, in a YouTube video that would later go viral. “I hurt my ankle the other day, and this snuggle monster won’t leave my side.” Off-camera, she produced another turkey treat and fed it to him. “Good boy,” she cooed, as he wiggled closer on the bed.

Five Dogs Named After Song Titles

Mr. Blue Sky

Mr. Blue Sky is a cream-colored golden retriever, four years old and mostly past his frenetic puppy stage. He lives with a first-time dog owner, a single woman who named him after the Electric Light Orchestra song. (Although the song is cheerful, it has hints of melancholy, because Mr. Blue Sky isn’t going to live forever.) He’s a force of cheer and minor chaos. His swishing tail knocks things off the coffee table, and he barrels into kitchen chairs and topples them. But all is forgiven. You look at him, and the words, “Good boy,” automatically spring to your lips. Also, as his owner likes to tell herself, “Mr. Blue Sky is living here today.” What a good day it is.

Jolene

Jolene is a brown French poodle, not a show dog but still pretty. At age 2, she came to live with a married couple. The wife wanted her badly, but the husband hated the idea of a dog, which led to quite a few fights about how they’d afford Jolene (a name the wife thought was pretty). After a short while, the husband did warm up to the dog, who liked to lie next to him on the couch when he watched football. The marital quarrels continued, and the wife accused her husband of enjoying the dog’s company more than hers. During the divorce proceedings, they arranged for shared custody of Jolene, who seems unruffled at the periodic switch in households, though she has a slight preference for the ex-husband, because his couch is more comfortable. 

Lovely Rita

Lovely Rita is a border collie introduced as a puppy to a household with four kids, one cat, and two parents (one a Beatles fan). From the beginning, she showed a love of order and a need to impose it on her surroundings. She’s trained to get the kids out of bed in the morning and gently herd them to bed in the evenings. (She has also attempted without success to keep the cat from ever leaving the kitchen.) More recently, she has extended her responsibilities to the parents – chivvying the dad off the couch when he’s been watching TV for too long and nudging the mom to bed at one in the morning. Someone’s got to keep the household healthy and functioning, and that’s clearly Lovely Rita’s job.

Sergeant Pepper

Recently adopted by an elderly bachelor, Sergeant Pepper is a 6-year-old pug who struts around like a retired military officer with tons of stories about his glory days. He also emits peppery farts that flavor the air of his owner’s one-room apartment. The dog’s snores and snorts are preferable to the lonely silence of before, and although Sergeant Pepper pretends to be aloof sometimes (especially when denied a snack), really what he likes best is to cuddle on the couch and nap intensely at his owner’s side.

Mack the Knife

This five-year-old American akita was adopted by a married couple who silently switched his name from Mack to Mack the Knife because they find him a tad disturbing. Sleek and unreadable, he’s responsible for the uptick in dead squirrels and rabbits on his owners’ one-acre property. Recently, he’s expanded the scope of his activities to cats. A couple of strays at first (no one would miss them), but last week it was Ginger Snap, the neighbor’s tabby, who turned up in the hedge a bloody mess. Mack’s owners quietly disposed of the cat, and they won’t meet their neighbor’s eyes as he hands out flyers with Ginger Snap’s photo under the word MISSING. He suspects them, but there’s no proof, and really, why did he let his cat roam outdoors?   

The Tutor Who Wasn’t the First to Give Up (A Short Story)

Adam starts volunteering as a tutor because it will look good on college applications. As a high school junior, he doesn’t yet know which colleges he wants to apply to, but he figures that showing an interest in students from disadvantaged backgrounds will appeal to admissions officers.

The community center assigns him a girl who’s currently in seventh grade. Adam is worried at first that he’ll have to waste time gently fending off a crush; his younger sister’s friends seem to adore him. But it turns out he doesn’t have to worry about Tasha.

She’s a large, expressionless girl in a neon pink hoodie. She doesn’t look at him or register any emotion at his presence. When the tutoring program director introduces her, she keeps her mouth in a flat line and says nothing. 

Adam adopts the friendly big brother tone he uses on kids who aren’t his little sister (his sister is too familiar and annoying for such a pleasant voice). When he asks her how she’s doing, Tasha continues to look past his shoulder. When he suggests they find a place to sit in the community center rec room, she shrugs.

The rec room has several shelves of donated books, and a row of laptops chained to tables. Adam picks a table with a laptop, figuring that a seventh grader may need to use it for research or for typing something up.

“So… what do you want to start with?” he asks.

She stares at the wall. Her backpack remains unopened beside her.

“Um…” he tries. “Do you have any reading to do?”

For several seconds, he thinks she’s going to remain unresponsive. But after another shrug, she hoists her backpack onto her lap and extracts a heavy binder from it, along with a copy of The Giver by Lois Lowry.

“Hey, I remember reading that,” Adam says. “Do you think Jonas and Gabriel die at the end or not?”

“We haven’t gotten to the end,” Tasha says.

Adam flushes, but he’s also pleased that he got her to speak. Surely, that’s proof that he can tutor.

She slaps the binder open to a page with three questions on it in bold type. Under each there’s space for a handwritten paragraph. The first question is: What is the definition of a dystopia?

Without looking at him, Tasha hunches over the page and begins to write. Adam tries to squint past her arm, but her neon pink sleeve is all he sees. He doesn’t have to wait for long, though, before she finishes, and her one-sentence answer comes into view: A bad place.

“Is that all?” he says. “Maybe you need to… It’s true, a dystopia is a bad place…” He pauses and runs a hand through his hair. “Maybe you need a more well-developed answer?”

For several seconds, she stares at the wall again. “Like what?” she finally says.

“Uh…” As he flounders, she presses on to the next question. What are Jonas’s pills for?

“Like, maybe at least write in a complete sentence,” he says.

She keeps writing. When she’s done with the second question (Dreams is her answer), he tries again. “I really think you should write in full sentences.”

It’s as if he’s a bird at her window or a fly circling her head. She moves on to the third question. Do you think other people should decide what job you should have? Why or why not? 

Sure, she writes and closes the binder.

“Wait, you need to say ‘why,’” Adam insists. “Why is it ok if someone tells you what you should be when you grow up? Would you really want that?”

She shrugs. “I need to do math.”

“Won’t your teacher take points off if you don’t answer the questions?”

“I did answer them.”

“I mean, more completely.”

“He won’t care,” Tasha says, with a sigh. She flips to a different section of her binder, to a page of basic algebra exercises.

But Adam can’t let it go. “He’ll be fine with what you wrote? Really?”

“He just checks off that we handed it in,” she says, and taps her pen against the math worksheet.

“If he took the trouble to come up with questions, he probably wants full answers,” Adam says quickly. He can’t stand how he sounds like a whining old teacher himself, but his duty as a tutor compels him.

“He takes the questions from some website. Most of the kids just copy the answers off the internet,” Tasha says, hunching over her math.

She solves problems inconsistently, getting some right and missing others. Sometimes, she balances an equation. Other times, she forgets to. Sometimes, she observes the rules of PEMDAS. Other times, she’ll seem not to notice a parenthesis or a multiplication sign. He wants to keep jumping in to correct her, but maybe it would be best to wait until she’s done plowing through everything? He isn’t sure.

He scans the room for the tutoring program director, but he doesn’t spot her. He studies the other tutor-student pairs. All of them appear to be in a state of cooperation, leaning together towards a book, a homework sheet, or a laptop screen.

Beside him, he feels the weight of Tasha’s silence and hears the jab of her pen. He wonders if she should be working in pencil, to better erase her mistakes.

She gets about halfway through the exercises before he can’t resist jumping in. “Let’s fix some of these,” he says, and her hand immediately stills. “You’re getting some questions right, but you’re making careless mistakes on some of the others.”

She finishes the problem she’s working on and – he notices with some amazement – uses her fingers to count when performing a simple subtraction.

Steeling himself for resistance, he reaches over and tugs the binder over to him. She lets it go and starts to tap her pen against the table.

“Ok, so with this problem, you forgot to do the same thing on one side of the equation that you did on the other, see?”

Tap, tap, tap goes her pen.

“Tasha, look. See?”

She glances at the page and nods once. He shifts the binder back to her, and she immediately starts on a new problem.

“No, wait,” he says. “Fix that one. The one we just talked about.”

She releases a sigh. “What do I have to do again?”

He shows her, more slowly this time, but he isn’t sure if she’s staring at the wall or glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. After his demonstration, she repeats what he does and immediately settles into finishing the worksheet. 

As she plows through the remaining algebra exercises, she curls her arm around the page. With a sigh, Adam sits back and checks his phone.

“Everything ok here?”

He startles, almost dropping his phone. The program director is standing behind him with an expectant look. He flashes her a smile and says, “We’re just working on math now.” A glance at Tasha shows him that she’s still solidly hiding her homework. “We worked on something together, now she needs to see if she can do it on her own.”

The director nods slowly and looks like she’s about to say something else, when she spots another tutor waving her over. “Keep up the good work,” she says and strides off.

It takes Tasha a while to complete the rest of her math homework. Adam isn’t sure whether she’s having trouble focusing or whether the exercises are getting harder towards the bottom of the page. “You know you can ask me questions,” he says. “And I’ll check your work when you’re done.”

Time crawls on, and Adam keeps glancing at his phone. When it seems like Tasha is on the final problem, he tenses, like a bird of prey poised to descend with grasping claws. As her pen leaves the page, he snatches the binder from her and reviews her answers.

On and off, on and off, right and wrong… and she’s made the same mistake he pointed out earlier, failing to balance the equation. “We should go over this. Do you have any scrap paper?”

After several seconds, Tasha leans over and roots around her backpack. Then she pulls the binder away from him and flips through it at a leisurely pace.

“No,” she says at last.

“Listen, it’s simple,” Adam begins. “This is why the problem’s wrong.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she says.

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter.” She flips the binder shut. “All we have to do is hand it in and our teacher checks it off.”

“But… what about tests?”

Tasha shrugs. “I get enough right to pass.”

Adam feels like his mind has gone blank, as if it’s caved in and become a pile of dust.

“Look,” he begins, sounding uncertain even to himself. “Even if your teacher doesn’t care, another teacher may care in the future. And you’ll be using what you learn now in other classes.”

“I’ve heard that before.” Her mouth settles into a firm, unyielding line. “It doesn’t matter.”

From her backpack, she extracts a science workbook. After a pause to yawn, she stares at the beakers filled with purple fluid on the cover. “I’m going to get water.” She pushes away from the table and lumbers off.

Adam scans the room again for the program director, who seems to have a knack for disappearing when he’s ready to talk. He could go looking for her, but he feels tired, not just physically. Playing with his phone is about all he’s motivated to do.

Tasha takes her time with the water. Adam vaguely recalls a drinking fountain in the hallway, but he wonders if she went in search of water farther afield – on a different floor, or in a different building. When she returns, she doesn’t respond to his nod of greeting. She huddles around the science workbook, blocking it with her arm and shoulder.

It’s only when she’s been working for several minutes that it occurs to him to ask, “If none of this matters, why are you here?”

Her pen stills, and she doesn’t reply at first. “Wasn’t my idea to be here,” she says at last.

He nods, and his mouth cracks open on a yawn. “Fair point.”

The tutoring session ends shortly after. Adam feels relief leap up in him, as he stands and stretches. Tasha crams her workbook and binder back in her bag. Although she doesn’t hurry, she also doesn’t make any slow ponderous pauses or drag her feet.

The program director hurries over to them before they can part ways.

“So, how did your first session go?” she asks.

For once, Adam and Tasha are on the same wavelength: uncertain silence. “Good,” Adam finally says, just as Tasha mumbles, “I need to catch my bus.”

“Of course!” The program director pats the girl on the shoulder. “See you next week.” She returns her attention to Adam. “What did you think?”

Adam’s mouth shapes a few words before he settles for, “Ok. Tough sometimes.”

“It can take time for students to open up,” the director reassures him. “Some of them aren’t used to personal attention like this, people really caring about their education.” She thrusts a paper towards him. “Don’t forget to fill out your tutor log before you go.”

Adam reins in a sigh and sits back down with the sheet, which asks him to list what he and Tasha did today, what skills they worked on. Reading, writing, math, science, he writes.

The next question asks him to report what needs to improve. Some of the math, some of the writing.

Finally, a question asking if he felt like they had a productive session, with two boxes to check (yes or no) and an optional follow up where he can explain why he chose one over the other.

Adam checks the box next to yes, leaves the follow up blank, and turns in the form. He shakes off the stale book smell of the rec room as he heads outdoors, texting his friends that he’ll meet them up for pizza.

16 Types of Internet Commenters

By no means a comprehensive list:

The Patroller

Takes pleasure in telling you that you’re awful. What you read, watch, write, eat… awful. Stays up-to-date on the latest jargon of whatever political or ideological movement they subscribe to. Checks to see that you’re expressing the correct opinions and tastes. Attacks you if you aren’t. (Has been known to end a Twitter thread with *mic drop* but now uses clapping emojis.)

The “Look Over There”

Keeps asking you why you aren’t talking about something else. There are always other things you could or should be talking about. If you aren’t talking about those other things, it means you don’t think they’re important, which means you’re a terrible person.

The Gnat in the Swarm

Loves a good pile-on. Joins in, just for a nibble. May not even truly know (or care) about what’s going on, but enjoys that little taste of blood.

The Downer

“Just chiming in to remind you that things are horrible and the world is ending. K thx bye.”

The Great Rationalizer

Bends over backwards to excuse or explain away anything. (Especially anything that doesn’t affect them personally.) May assume their position is objective, completely dispassionate.

The Sock Puppeteer

How many accounts can one person create for a single site? Watch them as they cheer themselves on, generate noise and confusion, and evade moderators.

The One Issue to Rule Them All

“Do you have a headache? Stop eating GMO products. About to commute through a snowstorm? Cheer yourself up by not eating GMO products. Favorite TV show got canceled? Console yourself with a non-GMO dessert.”

The Scorpion of Malice

Emerges to make venomous remarks before scuttling back into the dark… from which they’ll emerge again.

The Brooder at the Tower Window

“Ah, you fools.” (Pauses to swirl brandy in a crystal-cut goblet.) “What do you know of the world, mired as you are in your petty concerns? Alas, only I can see it all. Only I can grasp the truth.”

The One Who Dies on Hills

Won’t admit they’re wrong. Even if it’s a little throwaway fact that’s easy to check. (“Thomas Jefferson wasn’t born on that day.” “Yes he was, if you go by a different calendar.”)

The Great Decay

There’s something putrid about this person. They bring a stench of corruption to any comment thread. You could be discussing something innocuous, like recipes for blueberry muffins, and they’ll ooze in with a protruding tongue like Jabba the Hutt, and everything will feel tainted.

The Flying Monkey

Eager to attack at another person’s bidding. *claps hands excitedly*

Me, Me, Me!!!

“Does what you’re talking about affect me? What’s the point of talking about anything that isn’t relevant to me? If it’s not relevant to me, it isn’t important. In fact, I’m starting to feel excluded! Now you’ve done it, you’ve offended me…”

The One-Sided Conversation

It doesn’t matter what you say. They’ve already filled in your end of the conversation. Enjoy front row seats to their interaction with an imaginary version of you.

The Mature and Reasonable One

Makes sincere efforts to understand and evaluate another person’s point-of-view. Argues without resorting to malicious remarks. Knows when to step away to cool down.

Spam

Their new telecommuting job earns them $105.11 an hour! Isn’t that amazing?!!