Bravery

Flash
Sarah Kelleher


Image of a white rose centered on black background. The bloom is fully open with stamens visible in the center and the petals folding back and beginning to wrinkle. A green stem with small thorns extends from the flower to the bottom of the photo. On one side of the stem is a single leaf, on the other, an offshoot with a smaller, unopened rose that is partially hidden behind the open rose. Light falls on the rose from the right. The background is completely in shadow.

Photo Credit: Veit Irtenkauf/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

It’s a bad rose. It sails fat-headed from my hand, skims glossy wood, vanishes without sound. The other roses lie on the coffin where they landed. Casual and elegant and yellow, they criss-cross the sun’s reflection, tight-lipped and pretty like little onions.

My rose’s stem was as long as my arm, too heavy. Why was I so childish? I waited until the end of the service so nobody saw me draw it from the colourful burst at the altar. I held my eyes on my three sisters—if I couldn’t see what I was doing, then neither could they—and they chatted and shoulder-touched like hostesses, incorporated in black, until I dragged the knobbled stem free, flicking cold drops on my blouse. It turned out I had grabbed a white one. It was dry-fluffy, open wide. Mum liked yellow. But stealing a flower at a funeral is a new low, especially when you were not invited, and I did not risk a second try.

Now everyone stands muted in the sun: sunglasses and flat mouths. A priest sing-speaks a verse about ashes and dust. It’s a movie. It’s the end of times. I hold a sticky tissue to my nose, lungs jolting pain into my throat, nerves burning with all these years of avoidance, of pride. I thought there would be more time. I thought she would live forever. No shoulders turn, no sunglasses glint in my direction. I sense pleasure. I bolster their goodness, their dedication.

Why was I brave? Why did I come?

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Sarah Kelleher lives in Auckland, New Zealand. To pay the bills she’s dabbled in freelance journalism and copywriting, but her real love is fiction, often getting up early to work at her laptop before her family wakes. She spends the rest of her time flying planes and caring for her son. Email: sarahkelleherwriter[at]gmail.com

I Don’t Want To Read Your Lips

Flash
Hugh Cartwright


Close-up image of a cedar branch weighed down by fresh snow. The snow is fluffy, like cotton balls, and the evergreen branch is bending toward the ground. The trees, bushes, and ground in the background are also covered in snow.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Cadwell/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I love your lips, but they do not tell me how you feel. Just a touch of your hand, or your smile from across the room, and I can see into your heart.

Evening. The sunlight is golden as we settle for dinner.

“I wonder…” You begin, then pause.

I smile as you tuck back a lock of greying hair and continue.

“…after all, it’s been a while.”

There’s no need to ask what is on your mind. “Not for a few weeks,” I say. “They are away at the cabin with the kids.”

The conversation, barely begun, lapses into agreeable silence.

I gaze past the cedars into the gathering dusk. Gold becomes yellow and purple. “You know, my love, it feels like…”

She interrupts and nods gently. “Yes, you are right. I can feel snow in the air too. We’ll be digging by tomorrow evening.”

But that night, as the snow carpets the trees, a virus will follow. Within weeks it will destroy my hearing forever.

I stare at your lips now and wonder what they say. After forty years of marriage our need for words has washed away. And yet now I ache for words: for the feel and touch of your voice, a gentle caress that will never reach me again.

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Formerly a University scientist, Hugh is now retired and living in the Pacific Northwest, where writing provides a diversion from his doomed attempts to grow Canadian oranges. His stories have appeared in Nature Futures, Foxglove Journal, Meniscus, The Drabble, and elsewhere. Email: hscart[at]telus.net

If We Hold Each Other Tight

Flash
Michael J. Brien


Image of the back of a porch swing. The photo is cropped so only one side of the swing is visible. The wooden slats are covered in faded white paint. The arm of the swing is threaded with plastic-covered chains that extend up toward the ceiling. In front of the swing is a railing with a black-painted rail and white-painted balusters. The railing is attached to support posts on the left and right of the photo. The swing looks out onto a lawn with shrubs and trees. The porch is in shadow and the light is fading over the lawn.

Photo Credit: blgrssby/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

They walked along the short bricked path from the front porch to the dirt drive. Both of them remembering the fifth anniversary of the older man’s wife’s death from the kidney failure she had battled for nearly a year. The night held a lingering scent of pine that had been in the air since the day before when the electric company had come through and grubbed the acreage beneath the power lines.

The younger man, his only male progeny, cocked his head, listening to the small cracking sounds that the night insects made back in the trees.

When they reached the dirt, they looked at each other and turned to look back at the house. From inside the cabin, the dim light over the stove peered through the flimsy curtains that the older man’s wife, this progeny’s mother, had sewn on her Singer machine just as she had begun her dialysis treatments. A blue-veined harvest moon parted the tops of the pines and laid its bright white light at their feet. They walked in that moonlight back to the steps.

The old man stared down at the wide pine boards beneath his feet and spoke for the first time since supper. “In 1954 I became accountable. I got my degree, joined the US Army as a private first class bound for Korea, and your mom delivered me a fat red-faced baby boy.”

The younger man’s smile was hidden in shadow. He felt a slight breeze trace his face and arms. “Quite a year, Dad.” He held his father’s elbow as they stepped up onto the porch. Arm in arm, straddling the wide planks, they shuffled to the porch swing.

The older man lifted his eyes and held out his arms. They glistened like the sudden birth of two more stars in the expansive galaxy swirling above their heads.

The son stepped into their open gate and the old man drew him in, holding him tight.

The son’s arms came up and banded around his father’s small frame.

The moon rose higher and brighter, neither man letting go. The weight of each perfectly balanced against the other.

The old man moved his wet face into the soft flesh of his son’s neck and whispered, “I miss her something terrible.”

“You always will, Dad.”

The older man pulled his head away and motioned to the swing. “Let’s sit for a while and remember.”

“Sure, Dad,” the son heard his own voice soft as an owl’s silent flight in the night, swooping in under the porch roof, landing gently beside his father.

The older man sat down, the seat rocking back slightly. He took a deep breath, speaking sure as he did on the day he spoke his vows to his bride, “If we hold each other tight, we can keep each other warm.”

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Michael J. Brien is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of over 90 published children and adult short fiction, poetry, and non-fiction pieces, and is a recipient of grants from the Iowa, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire State Arts Councils. He is a member of the New Hampshire Writer’s Project, and an adjunct member of Southern New Hampshire University. His recent work has been published in Edify Fiction, Oyster River Pages, Amoskeag, Miranda, Epiphany and Flash Fiction literary magazines.
Email: writermusicman[at]icloud.com

Parked

Flash
Renée Perry


Photo Credit: Rick Cameron/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

You said, “There’s a new woman in my department. She just got to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. Just a couple of weeks and she’s nailed down a job and a place to live.”

“That’s pretty fast,” I said.

I passed the house once, twice, then again. Then I went back to work, putting replacement parts, small screws, wires, plastic clips, into the back of the vans that the telephone repairmen would drive the next day.

I asked you, “Your new coworker, she’s from the Midwest, you said?”

You said, “Yes, Michigan. She’s just moved to town. She has the cutest dog, so smart.”

The next night, I drove by once, just the one time, then turned around and went back on my route. So many small pieces, each with its specific place, its drawer, its cubbyhole, its rack.

You said, “She drove all the way here in a Honda Civic. You know, the ones that look like they put a car shell on a motorcycle. All those miles, can you imagine?”

The third night, I didn’t go off route at all. I finished my trucks, hung out with my coworkers at the barn, had a beer and came home where you were already in bed.

“All that way with a dog in the car and all her stuff. I don’t know if I would have done it,” you said. “When I moved to California, my sister was here already and I knew people. Coming out all that way and not knowing. It’s so brave don’t you think?

I said, “Yes, I guess.”

After a week, I drove to half a block away from our home. I turned off the lights, turned off the engine. I sat there, looking at the cars on the street. There was your car. And there was her car too.

When we had breakfast the next morning, I didn’t mention the cars. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was supposed to be on my route, driving from garage to garage. I had one route with no change, no deviation. I should have been miles away.

I said, “Your new coworker, she must be settling in now, right?”

You said, “Not really, she doesn’t know that many people here yet. Mainly our work group. You know how hard it is to make friends in San Francisco.”

I said, “Yes, yes I do.”

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Renée Perry lives and writes in the Central Valley of California. She has been a population ecologist and a nonprofit operations manager, though not at the same time. Twitter: @rroseperry Email: rroseperry[at]gmail.com

Basement Flat, Corner of Barons Court Road

Flash
Emma Pearl


Photo Credit: Julie Jablonski/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

An unlikely setting to barter for your heart’s desire—the back wall so close to the train tracks that the whole building rumbled constantly—but the address I’d been given, nonetheless. November wind cut like a knife, urging me down the steps when I might otherwise have walked on by or dithered on the pavement battling with my second thoughts.

A scrawny, unkempt woman opened the door and regarded me hungrily. Her corvid eyes were too small even for her narrow face. Inside, the flat smelt not of incense but of earth. Plant pots sat precariously on every surface, seedlings every shade of green leaching over edges, handwritten labels that made my breath stutter.

Liver Function. Sense of Smell. Friendship. Premonitions. Courage.

Fear rose in my throat and I fought the urge to run. I had to do this—every other avenue was already exhausted. The curse of infertility was scraping me inside out. I needed a child like air to breathe, no matter the cost.

My eyes kept flitting to the labels, desperately trying to predict what I would be sacrificing to this unwholesome woman who was, apparently, the answer to my prayers.

Curiosity. Singing voice. Childhood memories. Honesty.

The handwriting scrawled like spiders tiptoeing down my spine. Flies buzzed at the window pane—dead bodies piled on the sill—and the strip light in the hallway flickered like a curse, echoing the ragged hope in my heart.

How to play the violin. Left thumb. Remorse.

The woman held out her hand. I had been instructed to bring a personal item. It must be precious, small enough to fit in my palm and have been in my possession for at least five years. I passed her the only thing I could find that fit all those criteria—a brooch that had belonged to my grandmother. I wouldn’t miss it. Doubt plagued me sharp and sudden. Did that mean it wouldn’t work?

She studied it, threw it in the fire that blazed lazily in the hearth. The flames danced and glowed turquoise. The woman nodded. It was enough. She fished it out with a pair of tongs and placed it carefully in a pot, pushing it deep in the soil with her blackened fingernails. She set the pot beside the fly graveyard. What would she write on the label when I left?
Sense of humour. Faith. Confidence.

How could I know then that this trade would render everything pointless?

“Drink this,” she muttered, pouring a glass of dubious-coloured water from a jug. I gulped it down, anxious to leave now. The taste was bitter, and those crow eyes staring into my soul made it bitterer still.

I left, my heart skittering like a trapped fly. Too late for regret now.

A week later, a positive pregnancy test brought the joy I had hungered for. It had worked. But it wasn’t until after the baby was born that the label on my plant pot became clear to me.

Ability to love.

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Emma Pearl writes fiction for all ages and is represented by Sera Rivers at Martin Literary Management. Her debut picture book Mending the Moon (illustrated by Sara Ugolotti, Page Street Kids) will be published in November 2022, the sequel Saving the Sun in 2023. She is a WriteMentor picture book mentor. She grew up in the UK and now lives with her family in New Zealand. Twitter: @emmspearl Email: emmspearl[at]gmail.com

Circumlocutionist

Flash
Mike Hickman


Photo Credit: Paul A. Hernandez/Flickr (CC-by)

Right now, she can see three options. Over and over.

1) Linda stands silently on the porch as the officers circle the “why?” Because they need to know why, even with the “what” warm behind her and the “how” warmer still in her hand. “Drop the questions,” she tells them. “You can go back the way you came. You know I can’t.”

Or:

2) Linda has answered the questions so many times now. There is nothing they can ask that hasn’t already been asked. Of herself. All these very many nights out in the cold. So, as she stands there, as the officers approach, as she knows what they will have to ask, she determines she does not need to say another word. The weapon, after all, is still warm in her hand.

Or, with only the tiniest shift in emphasis:

3) Linda has answered the questions so many times now. So, as she stands there on the porch and the officers approach, she knows what they will have to ask. She determines not to say another word. The weapon, after all, is still warm in her hand.

Linda watches the moths skimming and rippling across the refracted porch light. Playing at freedom, the light recaptures them every time.

The other questions usually start around now. The questions that had first prompted her circumlocution. Set it in motion. Impelled her towards the porch light this night and every night.

Until they stop.

“What you doing out there? Where’s that beer you were gettin’?”

There are only so many ways it will turn out, Linda tells herself, as she turns back towards the house. Every time, every night, she finds herself standing out here, replaying what is yet to happen in all its potential eventualities. She cannot do this for much longer. So she allows Harold to call her back in. Just this once more.

At least until tomorrow.

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Sometimes Doctor, always writer, Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including a 2018 play about Groucho Marx and Erin Fleming. Since 2020 he has been published in Agapanthus (Best of the Net nominated), EllipsisZine, the Bitchin’ Kitsch, the Cabinet of Heed, Sledgehammer, and Red Fez. Email: sirhenryatrawlinsonend[at]outlook.com

Influenza

Flash
Hibah Shabkhez


Photo Credit: Sue Thompson/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Nelui painted the three men simultaneously, one feature at a time, which was perhaps why, despite being of different ages and races, they seemed like triplets. All of the heads had the same bestial quirk of the jaw, the same distressing pinch of nostril, and the hair-tufts seemed to bore into their half-skulls like grotesque trepanation commercials. Their leering right irises were ghastly in thick-browed almond-shaped sacks when set beside the closed eye-rims sunk deep into their left cheeks.

I cleared my throat. ‘Look, I think it’s amazing. But… I don’t think it’s a good idea to… most people won’t understand it, you know. And—they—do you know what they could do to you?’

‘Thank you for the lie—and for the truth,’ she added a final dab of paint to their noses, bulbous jutting things hooked more like cliff-tops than falcon-beaks. ‘And yes, I know exactly what they could do to me.’

I pretended to try again, though I had already yielded before her fury and her resolve, too suppressed and concrete to be born of anything other than a pain lived and remembered. ‘Maybe you could call this something else, something abstract or surreal, and paint another official portrait of them?’

Nelui smiled and went on painting.

I did not have the courage to attend the unveiling, so I sent a card with a flu-excuse and spent the next week reading the reviews—in the incognito window, and through a vpn. Of the art jargon I understood nothing, but I could see one thing: either it was either hailed or execrated—there was no middle ground. And the triplets, as the whole world was calling them now, remained silent. If they had sued Nelui, or railed against her in the press, I would have been reassured. But they did nothing. Nothing at all.

It was not they who threw stones at her studio and set fire to the canvases, screaming of blasphemy and profanity. It was not they who carried the guns, not they who fired them, not they who faced trial for murder—though nothing was proven against anyone in the end, so that did not matter anyway. Of course they did none of those things. No, they mourned her, that bright talent lost so early to the cancer of fanaticism, and founded a generous memorial trust for young artists in her name.

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Hibah Shabkhez is a writer of the half-yo literary tradition, an erratic language-learning enthusiast, and a happily eccentric blogger from Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has previously appeared in Plainsongs, Microverses, Sylvia Magazine, Better Than Starbucks, Post, Wine Cellar Press, and a number of other literary magazines. Studying life, languages, and literature from a comparative perspective across linguistic and cultural boundaries holds a particular fascination for her. Linktree. Email: shabkhezhibah[at]gmail.com

Permission

Flash
Natalie Schriefer


Photo Credit: Michael Muccioli/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

I didn’t mind, at first. Answering phones. Making copies. The silence between semesters, the students on break, the professors’ doors closed. I was five dollars above minimum wage, after all. I could walk to the beach during lunch, search for sea glass, ships.

I drowned my doubts in TV. In Futurama reruns.

Eleven days after my grandfather died, I reached the bureaucrat episode. We are who are, Hermes sang, and he was a bureaucrat. I wasn’t. Fresh off bereavement leave, I knew I wasn’t a secretary, a receptionist, an administrator. I was an editor. I wanted my own business. I wanted clients and retainers and contracts. I wanted my grandfather back.

That night I lay awake, cocooned in a rainbow of blankets. Moonlight arced along the curve of the blinds. My neck ached from hunching over my desk, and in the quiet, massaging the base of my skull, I couldn’t avoid what Futurama hadn’t meant to ask: What was I waiting for?

I built a website the next day. I printed fliers. Sent emails. Set rates.

Two weeks later, I gave my notice. A month later, I was free.

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Natalie Schriefer received her MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. She started working as a freelance writer and editor in 2016, and has yet to look back. You can find her on Twitter @schriefern1. Email: schriefern[at]gmail.com

Passing on the Parcel

Flash
Terri Mullholland


Photo Credit: Flood G./Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The parcel will be the last thing he gives her. He’s been carrying it around all day in a red canvas bag and she wonders if he’ll hand it over, or whether his nerve will desert him at the last minute and he’ll decide to keep it.

She never asks for the parcels. That isn’t how it works. They must give them up of their own free will. They must choose to part with them.

She’s had clients who arrive with enormous bundles, far bigger than they can comfortably lift, who will pick them up and walk out with them at the end of the session. Sometimes they say they genuinely forgot they were carrying them.

She is already guessing about the parcel in Jonathan’s red canvas bag. She knows it will be neatly wrapped. She imagines he is a brown paper and string man. She had one client, a young woman, who had given her the most exquisitely wrapped box. Shiny gold paper, silk ribbon, Japanese washi tape to seal the ends. Often the more painful the contents, the more beautiful the wrapping.

Not always though. Some people boxed up their unwanted feelings in the bits and pieces they had by the bin ready to go out for recycling. No care was taken at all, ten years of an abusive relationship crammed into an old cereal packet. That client had sealed it well though: reams and reams of brown parcel tape. Those feelings weren’t getting out again.

She has a special confidential incinerator to burn them. She throws in the whole package, then watches as fear, shame, sadness, and every other unwanted emotion is reduced to nothing.

Sometimes they’ve been badly wrapped and she doesn’t get them to the incinerator in time. She can end up chasing angry thoughts around the house like a swarm of wasps. Once a wave of someone’s unwanted grief had leaked out of the milk carton in which it had been stored and left her crying for weeks.

Jonathan hands over the parcel at the end of their session. It is neat and tidy, as she expected. Apart from one flap that looks as if it has been lifted one too many times and now won’t quite seal. Sometimes clients do that, take one last peek at the feelings that have been part of them for so long. Say a final goodbye.

‘Is this everything?’ she asks.

Jonathan nods.

The parcel is heavier than she had expected. Even as she is showing Jonathan out of the door and watching him walk away with a new buoyancy in his step, she can feel it. The heaviness of what he has left. It is seeping out of that loose flap of brown paper, filling the room.

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Terri Mullholland is a writer and researcher living in London, UK. She has a PhD from the University of Oxford, where she has taught English Literature and Critical Theory. Her flash fiction has appeared in Litro, Flash Fiction Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Full House, Severine, and Six Sentences. Twitter: @Lesley_Cat Email: terri.mullholland[at]gmail.com

Persimony

Flash
Laura Gavin


Photo Credit: Alexandria Brooke/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Persimony liked to joke that I’d do anything for her, because I was programmed to. And of course, she was right.

I’d been programmed to clear up the children’s toys, to sweep the kitchen floor every night, to haul the damp bundle of towels into the washing machine. I couldn’t have stopped myself from trundling out to the shed every Saturday to extract the lawnmower from its tangled bodyguard of rusted hedge-clippers and old bent rakes.

But there were other things I had no algorithm for. The slant of her neck as she towelled her hair dry, not bothering to close the bedroom door. The tender way she set a mug of tea down in front of her elderly father when she fetched him round to see his grandchildren. The snatches of light dancing in her eyes from the window, that in one ridiculous moment, I imagined were for me.

Then she’d pat me on the arm and tell me not to look so serious, I was meant to be a Cheery Home Companion, it said so on my box.

I didn’t know what the label on my box had said. I only knew how I felt.

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Laura Gavin is based in Nottingham, UK. She works in charity communications by day and writes stories by night. She has a MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and once performed a short story at Edinburgh International Book Festival. Her (unpublished) novel was shortlisted for the Flash 500 Novel Opening competition in 2020. Email: lauradgavin[at]gmail.com