Three Flash Fictions
She told her they would keep the water on their left, and Cassidy said, "Your left or my left?" And Victoria explained they were the same left, as long as they walked side by side in the same direction. “Are you sure?” Cassidy asked.
The sun was staring to get low in the sky and it gave the clouds colors they didn't have at lunchtime. The glowing pink and orange wisps spread over the increasingly blue sky. Victoria squinted into the distance and wondered where they were headed. Their feet were bare and their arms and noses were burnt red and they were tired. When Cassidy started dragging her toes in the sand, Victoria snapped at her and Cassidy cried a little, but then she listened to her big sister and walked, with the water to the left, as the shore turned away from the setting sun.
Cassidy wanted to leave the shoreline and take a dirt path that opened like a snake’s mouth onto the beach, turning from a mix of sticks and rocks and sand and dirt into pure white sand, eventually, at the water’s edge, where it was licked periodically like cat’s fur under a rough tongue. Victoria peered as far down the path as she could see. The sun behind her lit the dense foliage for a few yards so that the greenery oozed in Technicolor emerald. She could see small insects flitting, dancing an intricate jig, and a chipmunk scurried across the path with its tail held aloft like it was stiffened by a wire. It was tempting, she admitted to herself, but Victoria worried that the woods would grow cold soon and lose their sense of magic. She had read The Wizard of Oz recently and knew that, different from the movie, the Emerald City was an illusion maintained by eyeglasses with green lenses.
Victoria saw that beyond the green entry, the woods were black and deep. When she turned to look along the shoreline, she saw cliffs ahead that jutted straight out of the waves, and she wondered how they would manage to get atop them and keep the water on their left. Cassidy had sat down on the ground and was running sand through her fingers and yawning. Her hair was tangled with sand and salt and it sparkled in the sun that hung precariously low in the sky. Victoria looked over the water and it looked back with an empty gaze. She knew they needed water to drink and something to eat and a place to sleep. It was almost Cassidy’s bedtime. Just last night Victoria had read to her about the owl and the pussycat and they had giggled as they cuddled under the white sheet with the lace that tickled next to your face.
Victoria put her hand out to Cassidy and pulled her into a standing position facing the woods. She said, “Okay. Let’s take the path.” She looked to the left and saw a flock of seagulls careening around the cliffs. She looked to the right and saw the paths their two pairs of feet had made in the sand, Cassidy’s squiggly like the lines she drew in crayon when she made family portraits for the refrigerator door. The sun was sliding below the horizon now, but when she turned back to face the cliffs, Victoria could now see, after she blinked the sand out of her eyes, a pinpoint of light in the distance, flashing. She bit her lip and blinked again, hard.
“What’s that flashing?” Cassidy said. “Is it an airplane landing?”
“I don’t think so,” Victoria said, slowly. “It’s not moving. Maybe it’s a lighthouse.” But she kept squinting and the flashing didn't seem to be regular, and she didn’t think it looked like the light was all that close to the water, though she couldn’t be sure, from this angle, so far away. As they watched, the light started to blink very quickly, like a stutter, and it seemed to grow brighter bit by bit, until Victoria almost thought a giant circle of light was going to reach them where they were standing, and someone, watching the spread of the light from a high-up window, would see them, two small girls, on the shoreline alone. The sun had slipped below the level of the sea and the waves had calmed somewhat. The twilight drew the fireflies out of the woods, and Victoria knew that black, velvety darkness would arrive any minute. The entrance to the woods already seemed black as the dead of night, and Victoria hoped Cassidy didn’t want to venture into them anymore. She knew she didn’t, but she also didn't want to admit she was scared to her little sister.
“Let’s walk towards the light,” Cassidy said, pulling at Victoria’s hand. “I’m getting cold. Maybe the light people are cooking dinner and will give us some.”
The light was still stuttering and growing incrementally, in a pattern: st-st-st-st-stutter biggest brightest light, then darkness for a brief moment, then from a slightly brighter beginning point, st-st-st-st-stutter biggest brightest light, then darkness. Victoria couldn’t see the circle of light growing from above like a spotlight, of course, not like the friendly white-haired lady who smelled like cookies that she now imagined in that high-up place, but the light shone through tree branches and onto the waves, casting strange momentary shadows that she’d only just get a glimpse of before the dark interval came again.
In the interval, she looked up and there were only a few persistent, extra bright stars and no moon. She could see the wispy clouds blow in front of the stars and other, dim pinpricks of light layered underneath. Her father had taught her something about the stars a few nights ago, when they were out on the boat after dark, but she couldn’t remember anything except the names, and that they all sat in relation to each other. She couldn’t find Orion’s Belt without the Little Dipper. It was like looking for herself in a picture from a family reunion: when she found her parents, she could find Cassidy, and having found Cassidy, she could find herself.
But now she was working backwards. She had Cassidy by the hand, and, with the darkness blanketing them from above, the hollow-eyed gaze of the sea on one side, and the rustling leaves and jungle on the other, Victoria could only go forward, toward the stuttering light that swept out in growing circles and then receded incrementally, leaving white spots in her eyes where the light had been, like the mark on the sand after the tide went out.
Before we walked in the woods behind her house, she gave me a pair of rubber boots to put on, and I wondered if they were her husband’s. We had no common word for them, and she pointed at them, then put her hand on my shoulder to guide me to the rough wooden bench next to the galvanized sink by the door. She knelt in front of me and pulled my wingtips off without even untying the laces. The toe of my left sock was darned in red wool, and I saw her smile, although she didn’t look up. She placed the boots in front of me and I stood up in them, my slacks bunching around my knees and my toes wiggling freely in the rubbery envelope.
In a gesture impossibly chic, she tied a scarf around her neck, then slipped on her own wellies and called for the dog—a hulking, furry, gentle giant missing only the cask of eau-de-vie around his neck—and we tumbled out the back door and down the stairs into the muddy yard. She pointed vaguely, but I couldn’t follow her gesture; my eyes never left her face. She looked at me only in brief glances, from under a puff of dark hair and a fringe of eyelashes.
Her profile was that of a girl, although I knew from her husband that they had two young children and had married after university. Her cheeks grew pink in the breeze that stirred the leaves and whistled through the trees. When she had met me at the door, she was reaching behind her to untie her apron and the remains of soap suds stuck to the heel of her hand. She wiped them off before presenting her hand to me and inviting me in.
Now, we had moved far beyond my abilities in French, but she continued to speak, pointing at trees and scurrying animals and dun-colored birds, presumably identifying them for me. I repeated the words after her, badly, though I wasn't paying any attention to where she was pointing, only to the exquisite whiteness of her hands and the blunt, rough edges of her squared fingernails. My attempts at parroting her lesson amused her, and she threw her head back and laughed, exposing her neck, a long expanse of unmarred, bare skin. I mispronounced with greater urgency, and she laughed harder.
The trail narrowed and the dog went ahead, its nose muddied. I watched the heels of her boots sink, then slip out of the mud, and imagined her foot rising and falling inside the boot, displaced then resettled, over and over again. The backs of her knees were spattered with mud and, because I wasn’t looking at my feet, I tripped into a puddle and a light shower landed on the back of her leg. I watched it drip down into her boot, and I apologized. I knew how to do that in French, anyway.
Finally, the trail opened into a clearing and she pointed. I followed her outstretched arm this time, and saw two swings—two rough planks of wood, tied with thick sailor’s rope to the branch of an enormous tree. She told me what kind of tree, and I watched her mouth closely and attempted to repeat the words, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what the word was. She raised her eyebrows at me, playful, and hurried over to grab a swing. She immediately started pumping her legs, the wind blowing her hair back, and she continued to laugh. As she rose in the air, she leaned back, dropped her head, and looked at me, upside-down. I imagined myself, in a suit and tie, wearing galoshes that were too big for me, in the middle of the woods in Normandy, knowing my suit was hopelessly American and un-chic, now spattered with mud, and I rushed to grab the other swing. I pumped my legs and pushed myself off the ground as I passed it, to urge myself higher. I watched her as I pumped, but she would only look at me out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t stop giggling, not once. We swung, suspended from this ancient tree, and for a time, our arcs were in sync, and then she let herself slow so we would stay in sync and her giggling stopped and she closed her eyes and we let the momentum die, bit by bit by bit. The dog circled the tree and lifted his leg, and then I let my feet drag on the ground until I stopped.
We sat for a moment, arms hugging the ropes on our swings, gazing at our feet. I could hear her breathing next to me. Then, a voice called, from what seemed like a great distance: Anne-Marie? Richard? And, at last, she turned her eyes on me, and they were deep and brown and surrounded by the lushest forest of lashes I had ever seen, like a reflecting pool circled by reeds and cattails, and she said something, quiet, I don’t know what, but I nodded and we stood up and walked, slowly, to meet her husband.
Johnny saw the flowers in Lily’s hands, how the pollen dusted her fingers and puffed as she beat the bouquet against her homespun dress, and he wanted them. He grabbed at the heads and off they popped, one by one, falling into the long grass at his feet. Lily shrugged her shoulders and dropped the decapitated stems, but Johnny bent down and spread the grass with his hands. A blade poked him in the eye and he felt tears coming. He blinked, hard, and rubbed his eye with his fist.
Emily squatted down next to him, talking low and close. A fuzzy black cat was nestled in her arms, on its back, paws held limply in the air. Look at my baby, Johnny. Isn’t she adorable? Emily made kissing noises next to Johnny’s ear, and he batted them away like they were buzzing mosquitoes.
Can I hold her? Johnny said, never taking his eyes from the cat, running a single finger along its chest where a white streak zigzagged along the breastbone.
No, Emily said. She’s my baby. And she twisted her body away from him and stood up fast.
Johnny reached with both hands but he was both too slow and too short to reach the cat. His heart was starting to pound in his chest and he could feel his cheeks turning red. The girls’ voices above him melted into one humming noise and he again heard buzzing in his ears. He looked above their heads, where the sun was hidden behind a cloud and, as he watched, it peeked out, little by little, bit by bit, highlighting the edges of the cloud, winking through a gap, then emerging, white-hot and circular. When he looked down, his vision was blocked by a black circle.
He blinked three or four times in succession, and when the spot cleared somewhat, he saw the backs of the girls, far away. They were walking towards the barn. It looked like a toy house on a train set, like the one Harold had. Johnny started running after the girls. He ran for a bit, then tripped on a rock hiding in the grass. Then he ran some more, but the girls were getting farther and farther away. He stopped and turned in a circle, but it was like he was standing in a hole or a valley and the girls were on the other side. Didn’t they know they left him behind? Didn't they care? He didn’t even want their stupid flowers or cat-baby anyway.
Johnny sat down on a rock that was warm from the sun. The grass was tall all around him and he saw grasshoppers and butterflies and dragonflies. When he looked up—away from the sun this time—he saw crows and heard them calling to one another. Johnny cawed like a crow, as loud as he could, and a crow cawed back. Johnny smiled.
Johnny picked a long stalk of grass with a tassel at the end and stuck it in his mouth, like he’d seen Uncle Joe do when he ran out of tobacco and was squatting against the weathered sides of the horse barn. He thought about the tiny people he heard about from the storybook Ma read to him at night and wondered whether, if he was quiet enough, still enough, some would appear. He could make friends with them, let them crawl up his arm and into his shirt pocket. And he wouldn’t even let the girls know about his secret, and he wouldn’t have to share. That was the difference—if they knew he had something good, they could make him share, but not the other way around. It just wasn’t fair.
Johnny wondered if the girls had noticed he was missing yet, or if they cared. He sat now with his head down, propped on his hands, elbows on his knees. He was watching the ground for little people, but he was also thinking. He thought about Dad kicking the cat across the room on Christmas Day and the dead flowers that still sat on the kitchen table where Ma had put them in the Mason jar the day before she died. He thought about his little brother at home, in his crib, alone and probably crying, and he wanted those little people to appear more than ever. They would have a miniature jalopy and a picnic basket with a checkered blanket, and the little boy would be wearing overalls just like his only so much tinier. And they would have a dog, and even though it was a German shepherd, it would be tiny and its bark would sound tinny and high like a terrier’s. The mother would be beautiful and curls would escape the bun at the back of her head and in front of her ears. The father would wear a suit with a vest and a gold watch chain would stretch across his belly and he would give the children piggyback rides, even though they messed his hair up. Johnny waited for the little people and kept his head down and heard his sisters calling his name in the distance, and the crows answered them. Johnny sat quiet, looking into the grass.