Once again, our readers are the writers in the annual contest of narrative brevity judged by a team of story lovers: Booklegger owners Jennifer McFadden and Nancy Short, retired children’s librarian JoAnn Bauer, Eureka Poet Laureate and College of the Redwoods professor David Holper, and myself. The influence of the pandemic is visible here and there in the haul of entries, including our winner. But isolation and a storm of real-life drama hasn’t stifled entrants’ imaginations. In 99 words or fewer, they’re wrestling with heartbreak, parenthood, jealousy, magic, the pitfalls of time travel and how to tell a story.
Read or listen to them here:
A Perfect Stranger
The frost thawed in sunbeams as Julie walked the blacktop. The past two Fridays, a runner had cut through her path at 8:30, glancing a steamy gaze. She’d never seen him before — except the previous weeks, but felt a kinship at their shared routine.
She blinked into her mask today as he ran through another lingering look. “Hey, wait, aren’t you Julie?”
He stepped closer; did she know him?
“I know you from Zoom, right?”
He picked her out on a street while she was wearing a mask ...? His eyes danced.
Julie stepped back, “Um, can we stay distanced?”
— Heather Quarles, Bayside
I appreciate the artful way the writer describes a brief encounter which the protagonist is unsure about. While she does feel a kinship with the runner, his advance is too much for her. The reference to masking lands the story firmly in our current COVID era. And the impulse to ‘stay distanced’ neatly sums up the woman’s hesitation as well as our larger dilemma. — Nancy Short
A story about intersection, connection, and the distance the present moment requires. Elegantly done. — Jennifer McFadden
This is a great example of how flash fiction as a medium serves the little dramas of our daily lives, like a woman negotiating friendliness and safety — both in terms of a man’s attention and the pandemic. It’s familiar, funny and scary at once, like so many everyday moments. — Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
They all knew he was a good storyteller (many times of untruths). To his mind, the longer the story the better and the more plot twists, the better. He tried repeatedly to teach the art to his granddaughter who insisted her brain didn't work that way. Months after her unexpected, unaccepted passing, he found the handwritten scraps in a folder labeled Grampa. She'd captured glimpses of the hidden him in thin little poems that flashed over paper like swift silver greyhounds, and for the first time in his life, he cried for real.
— Jenny Lovewell, Eureka
I think we've all known characters like the grandfather in this story, who hides behind his skill as a raconteur. His granddaughter resists his desire that she emulate him. I was impressed by the deft way the author shows this man disarmed and touched by his discovery, after she has died, of his granddaughter's talent not only as a writer, but also as an observer of his own character. — Nancy Short
Using the idea of how a good story should play upon our emotions, this piece reflects that lesson back to the storyteller in his discovery. — David Holper
This one spoke to me for its narrative and emotion, but also for being about storytelling and the impact of short, perceptive observations, not only in a story (99 words or fewer, for example) but feeling seen and understood as people, even when we resist it. — Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
The Catfish Conversation
I cornered Henri on the back porch while his cousin Clete prepared to grill catfish.
Clete leered at my breasts. I glared back.
"Henri, why does she keep calling?" I asked.
"She wants ... it's complicated, sugar."
"Don't 'sugar' me, Henri!"
Clete smirked, wiping an iron skillet.
"Aw, Monique, you're the fresh mint in my julep," said Henri.
I grabbed Clete's skillet and conked Henri, knocking him out cold onto the wicker couch. I waved the skillet at a gobsmacked Clete, who backed away.
Henri's phone rang. I answered.
"No, it's Monique. Henri's out at the moment."
— Neil Tarpey
"This creates three vivid characters, and depicts a passionate disagreement which, for once, does not result in "casual murder," as you referred to it. It displays wit without sacrificing the story's development, or killing off anyone. That's an accomplishment!" — Nancy Short
Born November 8th 1958, passport issued December 9th 2019, no stamps, passed quietly June 10th 2020, 6:02 a.m. — someday, someday.
— Josue Valdez, Arcata
Everything that could be left out has been, yet this story is perfectly intact. So brief. This story got to me. — Nancy Short
"No Rush" seems to be an homage to the famous six-word story "Baby Shoes," often attributed to Ernest Hemingway. An extremely economical use of words manages to convey a story, and delivers a message about not wasting opportunities. The date of death might hint at a COVID death but the message is always timely. None of us know how much time we have. — Jennifer McFadden
Reminiscent of "Baby Shoes," the writer strips this story down to the facts. — David Holper
He heard her get out of bed and he smiled sleepily. She would be suiting up as she always ran first thing in the morning. His body relaxed as he thought of how her steady presence so helped him over the years to feel peaceful. She, the guiding force for his sanctuary. What would he have done without her? He was so grateful they built this life together. He didn't know about the suitcase hidden in the closet. As she closed the front door he wasn't disturbed as he fell back to sleep and faintly heard a car starting.
— Lynn Kerman, Eureka
There's more than one way to be asleep. The drowsy character in bed is living a different reality than his partner, whose morning run takes a different form at the moment the story describes. The bliss of his ignorance is about to end. — Jennifer McFadden
Chain of Command
There was no going forward, no retreat. Their commanding officer was dead. The corporal was in charge. He looked glazed-eyed and pale. The yellow air wafted in, in lethal sheets as one man looked to the other. It having dawned on all there was no staying put, either. A plane sounded. A rocket fell. Sassoon felt a poem coming on but couldn't find nor imagine the last line. He'd grown circumspect each line could be his last. The corporal popped up momentarily. A waiting sniper took his shot. The corporal fell back. Sassoon found the line — it scanned.
— Larry Crist, Trinidad
I took this story as an extreme example of how, when there 'is no going forward, no retreat,' literature (reading or writing) can help us survive. — Nancy Short
A Need to Spread Wings
I peeked over the edge and my stomach sank. Four stories to concrete. I turned back to the service entrance and thought about my couch, the TV, video games and shuddered. Nine months inside with no end in sight. I finally understood how Bromden felt after McMurphy's lobotomy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The world got a lobotomy and I needed to fly. I took off my shirt and folded it and stepped on to the ledge this time. Wings sprouted from my tingling shoulders. I'd be like Bromden, I'd spread my wings and fly from this.
— Jesse Gordon, Eureka
The narrator identifies so strongly with a character from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' that they bring that story into their own. 'Nine months inside' is a reality we can all understand at this point. Let's hope we spread our wings in ways that see us safely to the other side. — Jennifer McFadden
- Illustration by Caitlin Fowler
Her fingers skitter across the table, miniature sprinters on their way to the finish line of an amusingly aimless race. He smiles and takes another sip of coffee, noting the rays of morning sun as they linger lazily over the open blinds and spill onto the table, coagulating the last remnants of egg yolk on their plates. She announces the winner as he takes another sip. The dishes can wait, there's a victory to celebrate.
— Josue Valdez, Arcata
I love all the imagery in this little vignette. I can taste the coffee and feel the sun coming in the window. It's such a peaceful scene and the relationship seems very loving. Finding joy in small moments is no small thing these days. — JoAnn Bauer
A Beer a Page
In the military, he wrote letters for the loved ones of his fellow servicemen, who admired his style and paid him a quarter a page.
Discharged and dismayed, he settled in a city with many self-imposed exiles.
His typewriter on the bar, a sheaf of white paper in his bag, he'd note the points his client wanted him to make, and begin typing.
If anyone spoke to him then, others would shush them.
He'd read the finished letter aloud. Accepted, he'd fold it, place it in a blank envelope, hand it to the happy employer, and collect his beer.
— Peter Mehren, Pacific Grove
I can't decide if this is the saddest end for a talented writer I've ever heard or if the writer just offers his service as a kindness and still has a life of his own elsewhere. I hope for the latter, but either way, I find this a touching slice of life. — JoAnn Bauer
My Little Bit of COVID-19
A small bit of dust circles the sky, calls the water to it, which falls as rain onto the land. The land, hardened by long years of drought, lets the rain roll down to the creek where it tumbles along until it joins the river who sweeps the little drop out to sea. Lost in the ocean, caressed by the sun, she returns at last to the Sky.
Or rolls down my cheeks.
There is no saying goodbye today. There is only standing at the window and watching the nurse disconnect the tubes.
— Lauri Rose, Dinsmore
The writer of "My Little Bit of COVID-19" poignantly captures for us what separation means when it comes to COVID-19. — David Holper
The Sorrowful Stallion
I'm tightening the barbwire pasture fence as two other cowboys push a beef steer up a plank onto the butcher's truck. The other steers munch hay, but a stallion paws the ground and charges the truck. He rears up, stomps his hooves on the hood, then jumps down and jerks his head. He neighs and the steer bellows in reply.
When the butcher drives away, the stallion gallops along the fence line, halting near me. Dew drops like tears from the barbwire. Warm breath steams from his nostrils. His eyes stare at mine. I suddenly miss my dead father.
— Neil Tarpey, Eureka
Very much like a haiku, this piece sets up the emotional issue of loss between the stallion and the steer — and then takes a leap to where the narrator suddenly connects to their own difficult loss. — David Holper
The sudden shift from the dramatic description of the animals to the speaker's loss is very like the way grief comes on, sometimes out of nowhere and following its own logic. — Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
I used to like that portrait. It wasn't the frame, I still liked that. Aged barnwood with a handmade wire hanger. It hung there on that same spot on the wall for as long as I can remember. But it had not aged well, and was looking old and grubby, and was infusing the room with a melancholy air of hopelessness. It was time for a change, but the change had to come from me, not it. It's not fair to blame the mirror.
— Rudy Breuning, Burnt Ranch
I could see the frame so clearly from the description — it was a real surprise to discover what it contained. I guess I also could identify with the writer's dismay at what the mirror revealed after this long and trying year! — JoAnn Bauer
Taking the Leap
"But I don't want to!" she lamented as I tried to buckle her into the car seat. A child to whom any restraint is an affront to her freedom to open the door of a moving car and take the leap.
No one told me that motherhood also meant being a cop. It goes against my whole being, but I really do want this child to live to adulthood. Or at least until we get to our destination and start a new life, wherever that leads.
I guess we are taking that crazed leap into the unknown together.
— Dottie Simmons, Bridgeville
The wrestling of a child into restraints is so immediate and physical that it pulled me up short when this became a metaphor for a much larger issue. One is left wondering where this car ride is headed and what the passengers are leaving behind. — JoAnn Bauer
They stood in line for ages to get one in a little paper cup. Mom said if enough kids ate them, they could go to the pool again.
At the hospital children's ward, where her dad worked, she'd seen kids on limp spaghetti legs trying to walk. There was a boy's head at the end of a huge tube, like Flash Gordon's rocket.
"Does it hurt?" she'd asked him.
But she could tell he was scared.
The cube smelled like the hospital, but it crunched and was sweet. She didn't want to live in an iron lung.
— Carolyn Lehman, Arcata
As COVID-19 vaccines make their way to us, this story from the perspective of a child taking the polio vaccine, which was distributed on sugar cubes, resonates. — Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Pronghorns leaped over him. Beyond, a stampeding herd of bison bore straight down on him.
On the heaving, burning ship's deck, a peg-legged man thrust his broadsword through a screaming man's guts, then turned toward him.
Part ape, part human, one tribe member turned, offering him a steaming chunk of raw meat.
Ahead, troops advanced with bayonets ready. Above, tank treads rolled over the rise he lay under.
Bloody drool splashed on his leg. He wasn't sure which was larger, the dinosaur's eyes or teeth.
"Damn! I've got to get this thing recalibrated."
— Stephen Sottong, Eureka
At first reading, I found this confusing – I thought the clicks were a cameral shutter, then I realized it was a time travel device. I was impressed with the powerful (and terrifying) descriptions of each scene and, of course, concerned about the final leap into the unknown. — JoAnn Bauer
- Illustration by Caitlin Fowler
I Remember You
"I remember you," she silently crooned, an imagined green satin gown reaching the forest floor and beyond. Her long fingers were slipped into velvet gloves the color of moss under young Douglas fir. In her grasp a kingfisher, a curved hook's barb torn through his beak and small drops of blood stained her gloves.
She covered his face with silk, cut from the bolt her grandmother had left her, and which she used sparingly and only for cases of extremity.
The kingfisher flexed his wings anxiously.
A dome of vine maples made her theater. She carried the kingfisher inside.
— Monte Merrick, Manila
What's the Flash Fiction Issue without a little magic? This moment of a dreamy forest witch and an injured bird hints at a whole world and endless strange stories. — Jennifer Fumiko Cahill