This month, it’s all about fairy tale retellings. First up, a retelling of … well, you can probably guess.
Tag Archives: flash fiction
Leaving March with a giant who’s as gentle as a lamb.
A wolf seduced her sister, and a witch wrapped her bony fingers around her brother’s heart, so when a giant came for her, she told him she wouldn’t go.
He plucked a rose petal from the bushes that grew around his castle, and that was her bed. When the day grew hot, he offered dewy raspberries to quench her thirst. When she refused, a single tear fell from his eye and splashed at her feet. The salt on her lips tasted like sorrow. She was drenched, but unmoved.
Only when he left his almanac out—quite by accident—did she creep from the threshold of her cottage. It took all her strength to turn the pages, but turn them she did. The letters were as tall as she was, but read them, she did.
He caught her reading. If he wanted, he could have slammed the book shut, trapped her—
or squashed her. He didn’t.
He looked to the book and then to her. “Will you come with me now?”
“I am not a pet.”
“Of course not.”
“Or a meal.”
He blew air through his lips, the force of it ruffling her hair. “You are much too small for that.”
“Then what am I?”
“I need someone to tend to the mice. They are ailing. And the butterflies. My fingers are too clumsy, and I cannot mend the rips in their wings.”
“So, you have work for me?”
“Good work, with good pay. You can keep your family well.”
“They would feed me to the wolves.”
“Then how am I any worse?”
How indeed? Did she trust this giant and his promises of mice and butterflies?
“Will you?” He extended a hand.
She stepped onto his palm, and he lifted her higher and higher—even with his mouth, his nose, his eyes. Then he placed her gently on his shoulder.
“What made you change your mind?” he asked.
“The almanac. Will you read to me sometimes?”
“Would you like that?”
“I shall read to you every night.”
Mice and butterflies filled her days. On the back of the Mouse King she rode, clutching the soft fur about his neck, racing through the castle to tend to mothers with large broods, crumbs and bits of cheese tucked in a canvas sack. With thread from a silkworm, she repaired butterfly wings, her stitches tiny and neat.
The giant peered at her handiwork through a glass that made his eye all that much larger. When he laughed his approval, the sound rolled through the countryside. And every night, when he reached for his almanac, she settled on his shoulder and marveled at how someone so colossal could speak words with so much tenderness.
Even when his bones grew old, and all he could do was move from bed to chair, he read to her. When his eyesight grew dim, he recited the words from memory, so strong was his desire to keep his promise. Until, at last, the day came when the stories stopped.
A thousand butterflies fluttered into his room. Mice came from fields and forest alike, led by the Mouse King. They bore the giant outside, where they laid him to rest beneath the rose bushes.
It was there she learned that all her tears combined could not rival the sorrow contained in a single giant teardrop.
A Measure of Sorrow first appeared in Luna Station Quarterly and subsequently in Evil Girlfriend Media.
Miss a story? Scroll through all the titles here.
Sometimes you get by with a little help from your (fr)enemy.
No one thinks about the empty note casings after the nightly revelry. Someone has to pick them up, right? That I spent four grueling years at the Acoustic Academy at Stormy Point for the privilege is something I try not to think about.
True, it takes only a breath or two to chase the notes into my sack. Still, patrolling the DMZ (Disharmonious Zone) feels anti-climactic. I didn’t sign up for this. But now, with the sun nearly cresting the horizon, I can’t say what I did sign up for.
I holster the piccolo and continue the patrol. When I first enlisted, I wanted something shiny, something big and brassy, a trumpet or a trombone, or—if I dared to dream—the saxophone. (Really, who doesn’t want the sax?) The supply sergeant gave me a once over and puttered around her inventory on grizzled wings.
“Here you go, sweetie,” she said, dropping a piccolo into my outstretched hands.
My own wings sputtered, and I sank to the ground in disbelief.
“None of that,” the supply sergeant barked. “Remember, everyone underestimates the girl with the piccolo. Don’t let them.”
Perhaps I have. Let them, that is. This might explain why that piccolo and I now do border patrol.
Through my viewfinder, I scan the tree line on the other side of the DMZ. I catch sight of my enemy counterpart. She is a brilliant pink, where I am midnight blue. Her wings drip with glitter. Mine sparkle with stardust. I wonder how she can breathe a single note through her piccolo with all that tinsel in the air.
Through the lens, I see her eyebrows furrow. When her viewfinder is level with mine, I stick out my tongue. This, sadly, is the highlight of my evening.
I near the border, my bag overflowing with spent notes. I swipe the residue from a tuba casing. The tubas are so wasteful. I can fuel my piccolo for a week on what they leave behind. Across the way, the pink fairy dips and swoops; I suspect she’s doing the same thing I am.
A shift in the air makes the fine hairs on my wings stand on end. I shoot skyward just as a full marching band crowds the path alongside the meadow. Stardust fills the air. I could reach out and pluck notes as they float past me. I might. Except. This particular band? Doesn’t include a piccolo player. Underestimated? Try forgotten. Typical. They can play on without me.
I turn to fly away when the stench of rotted nectar hits me. I blink back tears. The aroma clogs the back of my throat. The players are drunk, spoiling for battle, and a wing’s breadth away from the DMZ. From above, I watch the band weave along the path, each rousing measure inching them closer to treaty violation. I cast a look for the security forces. Certainly, someone is on the way.
Or not. I blow a few quick notes into my piccolo, an alert that may not reach its intended recipients, at least, not in time. Frantic, I peer through my viewfinder. The stricken face of my counterpart stares back at me, a hand on her own piccolo. A few breaths and she will bring in her own band—and they will not be drunk. They will be deadly, armed with wing-piercing notes. They will tear across the meadow, swoop into the DMZ, reigniting the Fairy Wars.
All on my watch.
I pull out my piccolo. Next, I take a quick peep through my viewfinder to make sure my pink counterpart is watching. She is. I mimic holding a baby, of rocking it to sleep in my arms. Certainly, this movement is universal. Pink fairies come from somewhere, yes? I peer through my viewfinder again. Nothing but a pair of pink fuzzy eyebrows, drawn into a frown.
I rock my imaginary baby again, then hold up my piccolo. I run my fingers across it while holding my breath—one false note will bring my plan crumbling down. I check my viewfinder again. One of those pink eyebrows is raised. In question? Understanding? This time, I waltz with my imaginary baby before checking the viewfinder.
I hope her smile means what I think it does. I hope this isn’t a ruse. Without her help, I will be tried for treason, assuming, of course, I survive the ensuing battle.
I hold up a hand for the countdown … three … two … one. Fairies have many lullabies, but only one in three-quarters time. When pitched just right, it soothes the most colicky baby, sends mortals into a deep sleep. As for drunken fairies …
Her piccolo plays counterpoint to mine. At first, my comrades show no sign of stopping their rampage. In fact, the tuba player bursts through the ranks, intent for the DMZ and the meadow beyond.
Before he can reach the DMZ, his pace flags. The tuba slips from his grip. His wings falter. By the time both are on the ground, he’s snoring. The rest of the band drops off, in twos and threes, notes scattered everywhere. My own notes, and those of the pink fairy, play in the sky, creating an iridescent lavender that prolongs the night.
At last, I need a breath—and so does she. I alight on the tuba. From this vantage point, I can peer across the meadow. Through my viewfinder, I study my enemy counterpart. How many times has she fogged my view with pink glitter? How many times have I stuck out my tongue? This time, before she can look away, I salute. Then, I shoot skyward. Someone else can clean up all these notes. After all this time, I realize what the supply sergeant meant.
Never underestimate the girl with the piccolo.
That goes for both of us.
For March, it’s all about strange and surprising connections, unexpected friendships and traditions.
To get you ready for springing forward, I give you Keeping Time.
The mantel clock kept its own time. It was fussy, too, in the way old clocks sometimes are, refusing to work when wound in a way it found unacceptable. Because of this, in each generation, the task fell to either the youngest or oldest member of the household.
Maisey was five when her grandmother showed her how to wind the clock. She bounced on the balls of her feet, her fingers itching for their turn. She’d warm the brass key in her palm, the way her grandmother did. Every evening they’d clean the old clock with a soft cloth and lemon-scented polish.
“Pay attention,” her grandmother would say. “It will soon be your turn.”
“When, Grandma, when?”
Her grandmother chuckled. “Not soon enough for your father.”
But when Maisey’s turn finally came, her feet no longer bounced. After the funeral, she dragged a chair through the gathering, cutting off words about her grandmother—some soft, some less so—and clambered up to reach the clock on the mantel.
“Maisey!” Her mother’s voice cracked, its edges so sharp that, if it were a real thing, you could cut someone with it.
“I promised Grandma,” Maisey said.
In the middle of murmured condolences and her mother’s sobs, she pulled out the key and wound the clock.
When her father retired, Maisey offered the key to him. But he had too many golf games—and then, too many back problems—to bother with an old clock. Her mother spent so much time canning tomatoes (which no one ever ate) and volunteering (which gave her a headache) to remember the old timepiece gathering dust on the mantel.
So Maisey dug out a chain from her jewelry box and hung the key around her neck. The clock ticked on, grateful for the gentle touch of Maisey’s fingers. When she packed the car for college, she placed the clock in last, belting it into the front passenger seat.
She went through three roommates until the campus housing department found one who didn’t mind the faux mantelpiece taking up half their dorm room. After one too many broken hearts, Maisey let each perspective boyfriend wind the clock at least once. In the end, she picked the man with the lightest touch and most nimble fingers. She learned there were advantages to this well beyond winding clocks. When she graduated, she took him, the faux mantelpiece, and the clock.
Together, they built a life.
When at last her granddaughter was born, a girl whose eyes shined each time she heard the clock tick, Maisey knew her own time was drawing near. These days, she polished the clock more often, fussed over its placement on the mantel.
“We need to spruce you up,” she’d say. “Can’t have you looking your years—not like me.”
The wood casing gleamed in the light. When little Tessa pressed a finger against its side, she gave Maisey a delighted smile.
“Oh, Grandma! It’s warm.”
It always was, this old clock, warm and constant.
“You have always been my loyal companion,” she told it on the day she loosened the chain from around her neck.
Einstein once said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” But what if, for the briefest moment, she could defy that rule—and even Einstein himself—by passing on the key before passing on herself? When Tessa turned five, Maisey presented the key to her, chain and all, and hovered while the little girl wound the clock for the first time.
And yes, there it was, her life, all of it, from her own grandmother’s death, the scrape of the chair across the floor, sharp braces against her lips, the whisper of taffeta prom dresses, textbooks weighing down her arms. Timothy on bended knee, the mantel and clock behind her, as if peering over her shoulder. On it went, in one great wash through her blood—all of time, all her life, all at once.
“What now, Grandma?” Tessa asked.
“Keep it well, my dear,” Maisey said, “keep it well.”
That night, the clock stopped ticking.
The afternoon of her grandmother’s funeral, Tessa dragged a chair across the floor and scrambled up to the mantel. She turned the key once, twice. Tessa inhaled lemon-scented dust, then held her breath. Behind her, the air shook. She turned, saw her mother, whose body trembled with sobs. Tessa jumped from the chair and threw her arms around her mother.
From the mantel, something shifted inside the clock. A single tock shuddered through its wood casing. Then, once again, the old clock started keeping its own time.
It is seriously nice here for the start of March. Mind you, we could be getting a lot of snow at some point (it is March in Minnesota after all).
Still, it’s 41 degrees, we’re forgetting to wear our coats, and someone just jogged by wearing shorts.
In writing news, this week, I worked on some new short stories, started an outline for an article, and took a second look at the stories for April.
It wouldn’t be February without a pair of star-crossed lovers.
Everyone knew that pixies were cruel. Those teeth. Their words.
A conversation with one was like dying from a thousand tiny cuts. You might think: one or two scornful remarks won’t matter. But they added up, faster than you could count.
That was why Renate kept her distance. That, and because she was a goblin. And not one of those flashy lime green ones, or one a delicate shade of violet. She was brown, like the bark on the trees of the forest she called home.
Practical, but dull.
But the pixie? Oh, he would dazzle you—lithe, sultry. His talent was the piccolo, as Renata soon learned, but he could sing and dance and execute all manner of acrobatics. His wings were a glittery sapphire while his skin was the icy hue of a January sky.
He was so beautiful, his features elegant and lovely, even those razor-like teeth. Renata felt a bit chagrined for her admiration. It was shallow, wasn’t it? It made her shallow, didn’t it? She didn’t even know his name. Pixies seldom confessed such things, not even to a lover.
If you knew a pixie’s name, the saying went, then you knew their entire heart.
But never, in all the annals of history, had there ever been a goblin-pixie pairing. So Renata dreamed her unattainable dreams safe in the knowledge they were only that.
Until the day the pixie fluttered down from the sky and landed on the forest floor in front of her.
His feet barely whispered against the carpet of fallen leaves. His wings hummed, and the sound was warm and soothing, like a lullaby.
“Why do you stare at me all day long,” he asked.
Renata knew she didn’t have quick wit—if this were a conversational trap, then she would walk right into it. So she saw no reason to be dishonest.
“Because you are the most beautiful being I have ever seen.”
With those words, heat burned her cheeks, her skin so hot she might set the forest aflame.
The pixie tilted his head. “Do you like how I play the piccolo?”
“I do, very much.”
He twirled, a perfect pirouette, and landed gracefully. “And my acrobatics? What do you think of them?”
“They are lovely.”
For a long moment, he scrutinized her. Then, he nodded once and took flight.
Odd things happened after that. Sweet music—that of a piccolo—accompanied her trek through the forest. The tune changed depending on what she was doing. Slow and thoughtful for rooting out mushrooms. Lively and quick for picking berries.
When she was helping a doe birth twins on a slushy spring morning, a warm buzzing sounded above her, shielding her and the doe from rain. Renata glanced up, but all she could see was the furious beating of pixie wings.
On clear nights, when she peered into the sky, her name would sparkle among the stars.
She searched for hidden cruelty and found only kindness.
The next time the pixie landed before her, stepping lightly across daisies and buttercups, Renata could do little more than clutch her hands beneath her chin.
“Why do you always brighten my day?” she asked.
“Because you brighten mine.”
“Me?” This she could not fathom. “How?”
“You know which of the forest’s bounty is edible, and which is not.”
“Don’t pixies know this?”
He flushed, a delicate pink spreading through his entire body. “It’s a good thing pixies have strong constitutions. I only know what to eat from watching you.”
“I can teach you.” Such boldness! Renata almost swallowed back the words.
But he inclined his head and continued. “You care for the forest creatures. You care for our home when the rest of us enjoy it, use it, but far too often disregard it.”
“I love the forest and everything in it.” It was as close as she dared come to confessing her feelings for him.
He took one step closer. “And you have the eyes of a doe and the skin the color of a wise oak tree. You are beautiful.”
She was about to protest or shake her head when he took another step forward.
“I am Simon.”
“You know I’m Renata.”
“I do. May I kiss you, Renata?”
She didn’t think twice, although perhaps she should have. She knew of the teeth, of the cuts, of the pain. Kissing a pixie was something a steadfast, ordinary goblin like herself should never do.
Renata stepped forward.
She closed her eyes.
The kiss was warm, steeped in magic and honey. When the quicksilver taste filled her mouth and blood ran down her chin, Renata gasped. She felt no pain, had no cuts.
It wasn’t her blood.
It was his.
Simon had sliced through his own lips as to not injure her.
But a steadfast little goblin such as herself had a salve for that. She tended to his wounds, and by nightfall, he was healed enough to play the piccolo.
It took until winter, with the snow piled high around Renata’s little cottage, until they discovered a way to kiss without incident.
Neither one minded.
The Goblin and the Pixie was written especially for the (Love) Stories of 2020 project.
Miss a story? Check out the titles here.
Poppy fell the moment Carlos showed her his feet. She’d never met a man—or rather, a civilian man—with feet uglier than her own. But ballet slippers weren’t any kinder to toes than combat boots were.
Before she saw him, she’d planned on making a tactical retreat from the reception. It’d been a mistake to take leave for this wedding, an even bigger one to wear her dress uniform. Coming home never worked. Hadn’t she learned that by now? Too many awkward questions, too many thank yous.
What made her pause at the ballroom’s entrance, Poppy couldn’t say. She didn’t see the groom twirling his bride or the bridesmaids in clouds of chiffon floating across the parquet.
With uncommon grace, he crossed the room. He navigated the maze of chairs, tables, and guests like a man intimately familiar with each muscle of his body. When he landed in front of her, he didn’t speak but merely held out his hand.
“I don’t dance,” she said.
“Not me. I march.”
He tipped his head back and laughed. “I can dance well enough for both of us.”
And yes, he could. Demanding to see his feet came several glasses of champagne later.
“Stay,” he whispered the next morning. “Spend the week with me. You can come to rehearsal. I’m dancing the role of the steadfast tin soldier.”
She laughed at the audacity of it, of burning a week’s worth of leave in New York City, with this beautiful man whose world was so different from her own.
“Do you know anything about being a soldier?” she asked.
“That’s why I need you. You can be my technical advisor.”
“No one will believe that.”
Everyone did. Or, rather, they indulged their principal dancer. She taught Carlos how to drill with a wooden rifle. During breaks, he taught her how to hold herself so he could lift and spin her around.
With Carlos, she could dance. With Carlos, she was weightless.
At the airport, he tucked a necklace into the palm of her hand, the pendant an exquisitely engraved poppy.
“We both have demanding mistresses.” His words were so soft she barely heard them above the clamor of traffic and travelers. “You don’t need to come home to me. Just come home.”
She wore the necklace every day in Afghanistan. Poppy no longer regretted attending the wedding, or even wearing her uniform. Her only regret was never seeing Carlos dance on stage.
They wrote letters, the old-fashioned kind, hers torn from a notebook, the paper encrusted with sand and dotted with dirty fingerprints, his on the back of paper placemats, or cleverly crafted in the margins of playbills.
Then her world erupted in fire. When the burn subsided to mere embers, it was too late and Walter Reed a world away from New York City. Still, Poppy vowed: she would see Carlos dance.
Sleeping Beauty gave her the chance.
She had flowers delivered to his dressing room—white roses laced with red poppies. That way he’d know. That way, if he didn’t want to see her, he could hide until she abandoned her vigil at the stage door.
Poppy waited there, her head still buzzing from his performance, her weight sagging into the crutches, her foot heavy in its cast.
Her cheeks flamed when she caught sight of him emerging from the door, her skin hot against the December air. He scanned the alleyway behind the theater. The moment his gaze met hers, he froze.
“Bet my feet are uglier than yours now,” she said.
He exhaled and laughed. It was only then she saw the poppy tucked in his lapel. He took in her crutches, her foot in its cumbersome cast. His eyes grew somber.
“My steadfast soldier.”
“I’m home,” she said.
He moved close, fluid and graceful, and cupped her cheek with his palm. “So am I.”
All at once she was weightless.
Steadfast was first published at Flash Fiction Online (and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well). It was my attempt to retell Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier.
So I did, with a gender flip and an unapologetic happy ending. And if you like, you can also read a review of the story here.
All in all, how could I not share this story on Valentine’s Day.
Miss a story? Check the titles here.
It’s February, so it’s all about love this month–romantic love, star-crossed love, a bit of unrequited love. Speaking of which …
“You won’t tell anyone this.”
I don’t remind Magnus that I can’t. Besides, his is a knee-jerk sort of question, the one he always asks at the start of a counseling session.
“You’re the only one I can talk to,” he says.
I nod, doodling on a piece of paper, its edges so charred that the smoky scent reaches me. It contains a list of names that, depending on whose fingers clutch the paper, could be almost anything—a death warrant, a hit list, a who’s who of the most recent rebellion.
But since a Sage last held it, I’ve taken to desecrating it with doodles—mostly hearts and flowers—and mostly adorning Magnus’s name. No, I shouldn’t have a crush, but then I shouldn’t be dispensing advice without a license, either.
Such are the times we live in.
“I need to fire my second,” he says.
I crook an eyebrow at this. True, I am a rebel confidant, for lack of a better term, but I normally deal with Oedipus or Electra complexes, abandonment issues, and learned helplessness. (You’d be surprised how many revolutionaries aren’t quite sure what to do after the coup.) But firing one’s second in command? Purely an operational decision.
“He’s a good friend,” Magnus says.
Ah, the crux of the problem. I give a single nod, one that means: Go ahead.
“But I fear his loyalties may lie elsewhere.” Magnus stares at me, his gaze holds both pleading and defiance. Has his second, Orlando, confessed to me? Magnus wants me to confirm. He wants me to deny. He wants something I can’t give him. I can no more tell Magnus this than voice his doubts to Orlando.
Magnus strokes his chin. “It worries me.”
Now I nod. It should and greatly.
“Do you think I should consult the Sages?”
I tilt my head to one side and give a little shrug—the maximum consideration the Sages deserve.
Magnus laughs, a big boom that fills the room and warms my heart. Still, I swallow the bitter anxiety that floods my mouth. He is strong, I tell myself. This strength will be his salvation, not his downfall.
“Yes,” he says, still laughing. “I know you’ve never set much store in their advice.”
I have my own reasons for disregarding the Sages. That they dispense worthless advice is secondary.
“Of course…” A slyness crosses his face, the look both playful and seductive. “They led me to you.”
Well, there’s that.
He taps his fingers against a pillow as if counting off options. My office is rudimentary, at best. A scavenged door for a desk, propped up on crumbling cinderblock. Crates double as chairs. A fire in the hearth makes it warm enough for year-round use. But the pillow? Velvet with silky fringe in a deep emerald green. It harkens back to long-ago days. Most of my clients can’t help but fondle it. When they do, their fears pour from them.
“It’s the betrayal,” Magnus says, his fingers entwined in the fringe, which might double as strands of hair by the way he strokes it.
I stare at his hands until the heat in my face forces me to glance away.
“We expect it. Don’t we? We always look for the betrayal.”
I turn back to him.
“But it’s never easy.”
I blink rapidly, in a way that I hope conveys understanding, not flirting.
“You would caution me against haste,” he says.
I give an emphatic nod.
Yes, those too. I can’t help but smile. Are all client relationships destined to be so intimate? Or is it only that one client, the one you end up needing more than he needs you?
Magnus closes his eyes. His lashes are childlike and startling against the scarred terrain of his cheekbones.
“Just saying it out loud.” He exhales, the force of his breath ruffling the pillow’s fringe. “You can’t imagine what a relief that is.”
No. I can’t.
He opens one eye and peers at me. I’ve always envied those who can do that. I need both eyes to see the world, and even then, I doubt I see it clearly—or at least not like I should. But it’s this gesture that decides things—his absolute trust in me. My world is a complicated tapestry with so many threads. But tug Magnus from the weave?
My whole existence would unravel.
I glance down at the list of names. The Sages may dispense worthless advice, but their sources are impeccable. I start to tear my scribbling from the rest of the page, but there’s no hope for it. I’ve entwined myself so thoroughly with Magnus, at least in doodles. I shove the charred and adorned sheet at him before I can change my mind.
Perhaps devotion can soften betrayal.
Even as his mouth turns grim, his eyes remain soft, dart toward the top of the page, then toward me.
“I know you’ll never tell,” he says.
I won’t. I can’t. Long ago, on my fifth day—as the tradition goes—the Sages sliced the tongue from my mouth.
He carries the paper to the hearth and lets it drop into the flames. Evidence of betrayal—of devotion—evaporates into smoke. I join him on the walk from my office. At the threshold, he presses a finger against my lips and kisses my forehead. I dare to yearn for more—that kiss traveling my cheek, brushing my mouth, lingering there.
But there’s no hope for it. Already the warmth of his lips is a memory.
“Ah,” he says. “My perfect confidant.”
Yes, it’s true. I am the perfect confidant.
When he leaves without a backward glance, I know this:
That’s all I’ll ever be.
This odd little tale of post-apocalyptic unrequited love first appeared in Fantasy Scroll Magazine. Sadly Fantasy Scroll is no longer publishing, but you can still read the archives online.
Miss a 2020 story? Check the titles here.
Sometimes love means saying goodbye.
She stands in the center of the apartment, waiting for the landlord and the final walkthrough. She blinks as if she’s not used to seeing the space so empty. I’m not used to it either.
She is moving out today, and I tell myself that this is for the best, that I couldn’t be prouder.
The walls feel bare and vulnerable, mottled with shadows from where she hung her art. At first, she only painted tiny pictures, full of sickly greens and mustard yellows and dank purples. They were bruises, these paintings.
I was so glad when she replaced them with her recent work—that of cupped hands, upturned faces, and hope.
I will miss the paintings.
The landlord enters with a clipboard. He is small-hearted. He loves neither his tenants nor the spaces they occupy. He only wants to cheat her out of the security deposit. I’ve seen this all before.
He wrinkles his nose, his face scrunched in a poorly disguised mask of disappointment at the scents that swirl in the air. Lemon. Pine. Murphy’s Oil Soap, which has always been my favorite. The space is pristine.
True, for the first two months, she barely unpacked. She slept in the closet, hidden beneath a pile of blankets. In the kitchenette, she boiled water for ramen and spread peanut butter over bread. This was subsistence living, and I ached for her.
But that was before.
In these last few months? The aroma of curry and chocolate filled every pocket of space. She decorated earnest, braiding rag rugs that warmed the tile in the kitchenette and the bathroom. I’m always surprised at how little it takes to turn beige walls and gray linoleum into a home.
The landlord halts, fingers exploring a depression in the drywall. He snakes his hand back and forth—always finding fault, this one.
“What happened here?” he asks. His gruff voice is tinged with a hint of triumph.
She presses her lips together and shakes her head.
“Almost looks like someone got thrown into the wall.”
The landlord marks something on his clipboard.
That was the beginning of after, the last time she unlocked the deadbolt.
The pounding on the door continued, of course. Daily at first. Then every other day. Then once a week. Then, all at once, the pounding stopped completely.
I think we both exhaled.
Soon after, fresh colors crept into her paintings. She started taping brochures to the bathroom mirror—of students with backpacks, lounging by fountains or gazing studiously from their seats in a lecture hall.
“I’m going to have to charge you a hundred for the wall,” the landlord says now.
She glances toward the ceiling, rolls her eyes. We both know he isn’t going to repair the wall.
I so want to hold onto a memory of her. The landlord won’t let her leave the braided rugs. This is all I have, this dent in the wall. The memory of her strength. I’m glad he won’t be fixing it.
She turns over the keys, but in the hallway, she pauses.
“I think I left something in the medicine cabinet.”
She dashes inside and stands in the center of the room, arms spread wide. She spins in a slow circle, taking in the kitchenette, the tiny balcony, the dining alcove.
On her way out, she lets her fingers linger over the deadbolt, taps it once, twice, three times.
She has never slammed my door and doesn’t now. The sound of her footsteps fades down the hall one final time. I exhale into the empty space, my ventilation system rattling as if I could tell her goodbye.
I’m so very proud of her.
I’ve always wanted to write a flash fiction story from the perspective of an inanimate object. Moving Day turned out to be that story.
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It’s spy vs. spy. Or a cautionary tale of “workplace” romance.
Berlin, May 2005
I knew he stood behind me before I caught his reflection in the window of a passing Mercedes. That sensation started at the base of my skull. The skin of my throat tightened. My heart thrummed—like it hadn’t in years.
I’d come back to Berlin to stare at the spot where Checkpoint Charlie once divided a city, a country, a world. Just me and all the other tourists, many of them so young they confused Berlin’s wall with Pink Floyd’s.
You are now leaving the American sector.
“So,” he said, at last. “Do you miss it?”
“The cold war.”
Of course. Why not ask Persephone if, during spring, she missed Hades?
“Do you?” I asked.
“It was easier to tell who the good guys were.”
Peace through superior firepower.
Only then did I turn to look at him. “Do you think so?”
I didn’t know what to think. What did you say to a man who looked like Cary Grant and spoke Russian with all the poetry of Pushkin?
“I knew the world was changing,” he said, “when I woke on January first, 1990 with the most amazing hangover.”
I knew months before The Wall crumbled that my world had shot off-kilter. A missed phone call. A missed meeting. A missed drop. Patterns. We were taught to look for them, piece them together, create a whole from a few lone indicators.
In those days, it was never a matter of who would betray whom, but when you played that card. I’d always wondered if I played mine too soon. Seeing as I wasn’t part of that amazing hangover, I knew. I’d been too late—a spy who didn’t know to come in from the cold.
Welcome to the new world order.
I found, after years, a cold sort of comfort in the old myths, about Persephone, about Orpheus and Eurydice. Clearly, there were rules for visiting Hades:
- If you find yourself caught there, don’t eat the food.
- If you’re leading someone out, don’t look back.
I did both.
On any given day, Vienna, or Prague, or Berlin could look a lot like Hades. And Persephone’s pomegranates were always in season.
“So,” he said. “Do you miss it?”
“Then will you have a drink, for old time’s sake?”
“You drink?” I asked. Amazing hangovers notwithstanding, he’d long ago lost his taste for alcohol. I still had my sources. And that much I knew.
“Occasionally,” he said. “I’ve always had a fondness for White Russians.”
A blush curdled beneath my jaw and spread across my cheeks. It’d been a long time since I’d seen twenty-five, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he looked at me—a look that worked on a thousand women, myself included.
“And do you still drink?” he asked.
“Occasionally,” I echoed. “Cosmopolitans, mostly.”
“All things American.” He laughed. “I’m not even sure what’s in one of those.”
“Oh, of course,” he said. “American with a twist.”
“And cranberry or pomegranate juice,” I added, just to be perverse.
“Which do you prefer?”
I thought for a moment. “Pomegranate.”
He offered his arm, a gesture reminiscent of Vienna, Prague, and even Berlin.
Gentlemen, we have détente.
I’d always believed that Persephone, like Eve, chose to taste the fruit. Now I wondered. Perhaps the fruit chose her.
I took his arm. We turned from Checkpoint Charlie, left it behind us.
This time, I didn’t look back.
Rules for Visiting Hades first appeared in the Flash for Big Cash Contest Anthology, March 2007. Hades placed third, and I won $50. So I guess you could say I flashed for moderate cash.
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