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Flash Fiction 2022

A little imagination

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Every year, the Journal's 99-word Flash Fiction Contest gives us a peek into the imaginations of Humboldt writers. There are compact epics, comedies of error, mournful memories, budding (and withering) romances, existential dread, villains, heroes, crimes and spirits. Along with yours truly, our judges once again include retired children's librarian JoAnn Bauer, poet and College of the Redwoods faculty emeritus David Holper, Booklegger owner Jennifer McFadden and retired Booklegger co-owner Nancy Short. One story rose through the stack as our winner but all these finalists set our wheels turning. Read or listen here, and see where they take you.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

2022 Flash Fiction Contest Winner:

Breakfast

By Doug Ingold

Elaine's 13-year-old daughter carries a knife hidden in her clothing. Elaine knows this. She's been threatened with the tip of the quavering 6-inch blade pointed toward her throat, the handle wrapped in black plastic tape. Where will it be hidden this morning? Inside the boot against her daughter's left calf, flat across the small of her back, up the sleeve of the familiar denim jacket? But when Elaine turns from the stove to look, all she sees approaching the table is her child, skinny, scared, too young. "You want some bacon with your eggs, hon?"

A scary and heartbreaking story that shifts our perspective at the end. As evidenced by the eloquent description, the mother's vision of her daughter reveals a profound dichotomy. The troubled and potentially violent 13-year-old is also a frightened child. — Jennifer McFadden

This narrative delicately balances revelations with implications — we are privy to a mother cooking breakfast for her 13-year-old daughter who carries a hidden knife. This blade both threatens the mother and implies protection for her skinny, scared child, who is learning all too young that such protection is necessary for her survival. In this dysfunctional revelation, all the mother can offer is "bacon with your eggs, hon?" — David Holper

We don't learn what happened to make this girl feel she needs the knife or to point it at her mother, though it's sadly easy to imagine a thousand things. The story here is the helplessness of watching someone you love so hurt and afraid. That the mother responds with sympathy, food and gentle affection without taking away the knife that she clings to is an expression of love. — Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Finalists:

Untitled

By Elizabeth Lujan

After dad left, my older sister and I had to grocery shop. My sister hated the responsibility and wore a stern face. I was anxious and felt out of place. I thought we would be accused of stealing.

At the checkout counter, my heart thumped and my stomach turned. We had to use Mom's card. How embarrassing if it didn't work? What if Becca forgot Mom's pin? I looked down at my shoes during checkout.

I'm all grown and spend my own money, but yesterday, I saw two girls grocery shopping and my heart ached and filled with pride.

This is a simple story about how big a mundane task can feel when you're young but it gestures toward empathy for the million little ways kids have to grow up faster after losing a parent, all the grown-up stuff the narrator knows from experience. — Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Feathers

By Dave Reagan

The feathers scattered about the base of the tree would be the final image that remained. Years later, she would remember nothing more. Like a snapshot of a car crash, the crooked angle of a wrist still clutching the leather strap of a purse burst upon the pavement, car keys, lipstick, tampons and a half-eaten chocolate bar forever out of reach. A tragedy preserved. A macabre still-life.

But she saw the whole story, the stark, pointless devastation of it all, and has been trying to make sense of it ever since.

Unlike more conventional narratives, this piece relies wholly on metaphor to suggest the importance of the feathers scattered around the tree. In the end, after the series of detailed similes, all we know is that something that once flew flies no more. — David Holper

ILLUSTRATION BY RENÉE THOMPSON
  • Illustration by Renée Thompson

Fifty Ways to Read a Good Book

By Marley Goldman

Mark walked up to the little free library, looking through the books, pulling one out. His fingers ran down its spine and it seemed to respond to his touch. He flipped open the cover and read some of it. It seemed as if it were the best read in all his life. He flipped the book over and read the backside. The book quivered under his touch, wanting him to read her nether pages. "Flip to page 284, please," the book begged silently in her mind. Mark knew that it was meant for him. He sighed deeply, pocketing it.

Does the reader choose a book or does the book choose the reader? It's often hard to pass by a little library without taking a look at the curated offerings. — JoAnn Bauer

ILLUSTRATION BY RENÉE THOMPSON
  • Illustration by Renée Thompson

Probably Our Final Date

By Neil Tarpey

After three weeks dating me, Rosie decided my two beagles should visit her house near the forest. The dogs explored the rooms and wagged their tails. I opened the door to the cedar-fenced back yard. Twilight. A striped skunk. The dogs charged. It sprayed Chester. As I leaned down to hold back Sophie, the skunk nailed us both. Burnt-rubber-and-rotten-eggs oil dripped from my left forearm. I felt nauseous and headed inside. The beagles followed. Chester vomited. Nervous Sophie shit on the floor. Rosie stepped in it, slipped, and fell into a laundry basket.

Probably our final date, I thought.

But, is it the end? Depending on Rosie's sense of humor, this might be a great story to tell the grandchildren. After all, pretty much the worst has already happened! — JoAnn Bauer

I love a cascading animal-related disaster story and the dominoes fall quickly in this one, set on a night to put your best foot forward. It's probably good to get something like this out of the way in the beginning of a relationship anyway. — Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Crushed

By Virginia Howard Mullan

At first, I thought the tragedy was when he backed over his own child with his truck, killing the boy. It wasn't until years later that I realized the real tragedy was when he told his other son, "I wish it had been you."

This narrative does deliver a crushing blow. In a truly economical 44 words, the story of a terrible accident, and the stunted character of a damaged, horrible father, is vividly revealed. The writer illustrates a whole universe of family dysfunction in two sentences. — Nancy Short

Probably one of the shortest pieces we've ever seen, this piece contrasts the accidental tragedy of a father who runs over his son with the far worse tragedy of how he mangles his relationship with his surviving son. — David Holper

Five

By Kirsten Sumner

They are five. She with a plump, pale forearm wipes away something from her cheek. His mischievous look says it might have been his spit. A petting zoo on an overcast afternoon, pink popcorn spilled on the picnic table, hands sticky, speckled with straw from feeding the goats. Their long shadows on the dusty ground point to a future unimaginable, a time impossible that they wouldn't be together, when they wouldn't be kids with plump forearms, not sunburned and weary like the woman by the pigs, dragging a whining toddler to find a bathroom.

The writer gives us a close-up of children who are experiencing life totally in the present. As if showing us a possible future, the story pulls back to a wider worldview and delivers a poignant snapshot of adult consciousness of time — present, past and future, and the loss of innocence inherent in growing up. — Nancy Short

Itchy Wool Socks

By Neil Tarpey

Louie stood outside my apartment door, holding a small paper bag. That Lothario seduced my former masseuse, Samantha, so I'd dumped him.

"What are you doing here?"

"Alison, I miss you. Can't we talk about starting over?"

"Look, Louie, I've moved on." I feigned ignorance. "What about Samantha?"

"That freaking diva ended it quickly."

Silence engulfed our awkwardness.

Louie offered the bag. "I'm returning your brown wool socks."

"Dude, those must belong to another sweetie. Wool makes my feet itch."

I locked the door and returned to bed. Samantha was still napping, pink cotton socks on her sexy feet.

This story of romance gone wrong — and right — made me laugh. Alison, the narrator, dismisses Louie, who has come back after betraying her. His offering: a bag containing socks that might belong to yet another woman. Louie leaves without realizing what is revealed to us. Alison has taken up with the woman Louie had left her for! A sweet revenge made even sweeter by Louie's cluelessness. — Nancy Short

This piece offers a delightful series of ironies: in this love triangle, a man shows up at his former lover's door, hoping she'll take him back, offering her what he believes are her wool socks. She sends him packing. Unbeknownst to him, in her bed is the same woman he left her for — and the narrative eye swings away from the itchy wool socks, which she suspiciously claims aren't hers, and hones in on the much more desirable "pink cotton socks on her sexy feet." Burn. — David Holper

The Crush

By Lynette Mullen

He's coming, she whispers, and we hide, though we don't really need to.

Silly habits are hard to break, even for the dead.

For weeks she's watched as he strolls at lunch — greeting strangers with comments about the weather and asking people on the sidewalk how they're doing. He gives them cookies and genuine smiles. Catches rain on his tongue. She has a crush on a live one — another silly habit.

She blows at his back and he catches his hat as it falls, as if pushed by a sudden wind. He laughs reflexively.

Isn't he amazing ...?

Sometimes it's the little things that open one's heart to another — even across the divide between life and death. — JoAnn Bauer

Closed on Sunday

By Jenny Lovewell

Dorothy was brewing her breakfast tea when Charles, her wanna-be drillmaster husband, harassed her about crumbs in the toaster drawer, then went out to the service station connected to their home. (The only real service experience he had.)

Who knew a little two-slice Black & Decker, when hurled with deadly intent, could release the lever on a car jack?

Dorothy patted the hood of the 3,000-pound Nissan, ignored a tablespoon of crumbs on the garage floor, returned the toaster to the kitchen, sipped her tea and, when she felt like it, made the call.

Murder shows up quite a bit in the annual Flash Fiction contest and it's rarely handled as deftly as it is here. The character is so fed up that she welcomes her husband's semi-accidental demise. That she savors a cup of tea before making the call gives us insight into Dorothy's marriage and her state of mind. — Jennifer McFadden

This quirky revenge tale offers us a nagging husband who harangues his wife about the crumbs in the toaster; however, he gets his just deserves when she uses that same toaster to do him in — then pats the hood of the car before making a call about the "accident" that did this stinker in. — David Holper

Meditation

By Garrett Snedaker

From my cushion, I saw a fissure, a crevice, between the baseboard and the floor. That's where I stuffed my rage and sorrow. They rippled, planks buckled, a dining chair tipped. They wrenched a barb from my guilt-ridden heart. They crawled up the wall, slithered across the sill and broke through the pane. I felt a ghostly draft, like wisps of nimbus had seeped into every pore. It was preventable, my father's suffering, his death. Though he never will, I must return to the breath.

Uninvited thoughts are familiar to anyone who has ever meditated. Our narrator's contemplative experience is haunted by thoughts of grief, guilt, and loss that enter "like a ghostly draft." The writer gracefully pairs the ephemeral with the painfully real. — Jennifer McFadden

ILLUSTRATION BY RENÉE THOMPSON
  • Illustration by Renée Thompson

Lemon-yellow Shoes

By Lauri Rose

Brenna gave me lemon-yellow shoes. Mom said the heels were too high for a girl my age. So, I hid them in the closet.

For prom I wore a pale yellow dress with a green chiffon belt. The shoes were a perfect match. I was beautiful. But John danced with Linda anyway. And I walked home alone.

A car full of guys pulled up beside me, trailed me down the street. Called me hot. My heart pounding, I kicked off the shoes and ran the rest of the way home. Mom never mentioned my bleeding feet.

This is both a mother/daughter story and a story about how difficult and dangerous the world can be for teenage girls. The narrator's mother is worried that the shoes are inappropriate for a girl her age, but the shoes aren't the problem. While attempting to keep her daughter safe she is missing the real issues that endanger the girl. The daughter's feeling of aloneness is most poignant in the last line. — Jennifer McFadden

Grizzly Crossing Over

By Martha Spencer

I knew it was love when he shoved me first into the spindly branches of a Sitka spruce.

The undulating brown fur was seared into my memory as the grizzly crossed the road behind us, picking up our scent and moving fast. We fled into the forest to find the largest tree to climb.

As I clung there, noticing his boots dangling a few feet off the ground, he whispered, "Can you climb a little higher, please?"

Not knowing where the sow entered the forest, we hung there, hoping these fragile branches could hold the weight of our future.

This story of budding romance, set in the midst of a dire situation, sums up the tenuous nature of sustaining early love in an uncaring, sometimes dangerous world, and entertains us in the bargain. The last line is perfect. The woods, the grizzly, are allegories for the dangers of becoming vulnerable to love. — Nancy Short

Choose someone who puts you first, especially if they're shoving you into a spruce and away from a bear. The polite request to scoot up the tree is a bonus. I feel like these crazy kids are going to make it ... if they make it out of that tree. — Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Blood Brothers

By Steve Pence

Darrell, drunk, was dying. He was sure Paul regretted shooting him. Now, bleeding out on the deer camp floor, Darrell heard the indifference of his friends.

"He's not going in my car. I'll never get the blood out. Let's throw him in the bed of your pickup," said Paul.

"Headlights don't work," replied Theo.

Darrell passed out.

He awoke in the hospital, a detective in his face.

"Your hunting buddies are brilliant, Darrell. Strapping you to the hood of a car on a freezing night slowed the bleeding. They saved your sorry ass."

"Now, Darrell, which genius shot you?"

"Blood Brothers" is a picaresque and ironic view of immature friendship and a succinct portrait of a doofus. Darrell, shot in a hunting accident, is "sure" his friends care about him, yet his companions are arguing about whether it is worth messing up their car to take him to the hospital. When he comes to, in the hospital, a detective points out his friends' callousness and reveals that their uncaring actions actually saved his life. We know Darrell well enough at this point to realize he isn't up to wrestling with the moral dilemma presented when the detective (another succinctly drawn character) asks him to name the shooter. — Nancy Short

This story has a great, economical opening line and grim humor to the end. It gives us a few characters and their dynamics in just a couple phrases, as well as the surprise of Darrell's survival. Who knew? Darrell needs to reevaluate his friendships, starting with Paul. — Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Fragment

By Doug Ingold

Item 39. Participant, having chosen to enroll in the immersion program entitled One Physical Life — Earth — Human (see Item 3 above with accompanying notes and illustrations), does hereby acknowledge that during the course of said immersion, participant will confuse role with self, forget origin and the making of this agreement, and will from time-to-time experience Existential Dread i.e., fear of nonexistence. The sensation will be particularly pronounced in relation to Exiting the Program. (Exiting the Program is described in detail below beginning with Item 40.)

 

How nice to finally have the answer to the age old question "What are we doing here?" — JoAnn Bauer

Weirdest. Home invasion. Ever.

By Garrett Snedaker

Who breaks into a house and takes the time to microwave popcorn? Surreal, am I right? While the kid's stuffing my PlayStation into his Spiderman backpack, the father's scolding me for being out of clean drinking glasses. I tell him he can use a mug or drink straight from the can and he looks at me like I'm crazy. The butt of that gun is the last thing I remember. When I came to, they were gone, I was still duct-taped to the chair and my place smelled like butter. And they had run the dishwasher.

The startling mix of humor and violence in the story reminded me of a Coen brothers movie. The bizarre demands of the home invaders are so strange you think: This has to be true, no one would make this up! — Jennifer McFadden

By Angela Acosta

Her friends told her it wasn't going to get any easier to separate herself from her work. The deeper she went into the mire of doctoral research, the more she transformed the authors she was studying from the clay loam of long-gone muses into living, breathing spirits working alongside her. Spanish women from bygone centuries whispered their lives and verses into her ear, punctuating the hours of solitary writing with moments of awe for the multitudes they contained. She reanimated them in each dissertation chapter, dutifully keeping forgotten women alive with every keystroke to rescue them from oblivion. 

This is an inspiring view of what many consider a very dry exercise. What a privilege to bring lost lives back into our time and allow their voices to be heard once again. — JoAnn Bauer

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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