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.

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.

Outage – A Short Story

Inspired by a recent outage in the City of Possibility.

When Joan woke up from her nap, the light she had left on in the bathroom was out. Time to replace the bulb, was her first assumption. But when she shuffled to the kitchen for some water, she noticed that the digital time display on the oven was blank. Several steps across her studio apartment and she was at her desk, where the dead smartphone she had plugged in before her nap hadn’t recharged.

A power outage. Whether it was just in her apartment, the whole building, or many blocks beyond she didn’t yet know. She raised the window shade to find the sun setting on a summer evening and not a single light in any neighboring building. She heaved the window open, letting in hot, stale air. Nine floors up, she expected to hear people or cars, but the street was silent, and what she could see of it was empty.

With a gusty sigh, she yanked down the shade. She hoped this power outage, unlike the one a month ago, wouldn’t last a full day and spoil the contents of her fridge. She pulled off her striped pajamas, which were pasted with sweat to her body, and eased herself into jeans and a baggy brown t-shirt.

Her movements were stiff. Right after that last power outage, she had gotten into a car accident. Stiffness, tiredness, and headaches had slowed her down most days since. On top of these lingering problems, she continued to struggle with legal issues. Because she had zipped out of the building’s parking lot on her way to the supermarket for milk, eggs, meat, and everything else she had lost to her temporarily impotent fridge, she was being held at fault for the accident.

“As if you could call what happened a tragedy,” she muttered. Sliding her keys into her pocket, she opened the front door. Out in the corridor, only the emergency lighting was on. Every other ceiling lamp was dark, leaving most of the corridor in shadow, with deep pockets of darkness at each end. She listened for several moments but heard nothing.

She locked the door behind her and padded towards the stairs. The light in the stairwell was on, a strong yellow-white glow. She pushed at the exit door. The door shivered, but stayed shut. Repeated pushing only made her shoulder sore.

Joan stepped back from the door, panting, and peered up and down the corridor.

At one end, on the edge of the pocket of darkness, a woman stood, short and hunched.

Frowning, Joan made her way towards the woman, who remained still.

When Joan was several feet away, there really was no mistaking who it was. The pinched mouth, the piggish eyes, the hair a dull gray. “Helen,” she gasped.

Helen had been Joan’s neighbor. For decades, they had nurtured a mutual hatred that had made them notorious on the ninth floor.

They stared at each other, before Joan shoved her hand into the front pocket of her jeans. Her apartment keys were gone.

“Not a power outage,” Helen said. Though she had died a month earlier under Joan’s car, she stepped spryly now. Her hand closed around Joan’s wrist, and she drew her old neighbor into the darkness.