Flash Fiction: A Crib for Jesus

Martin’s arm hung around Kate’s shoulders. “You need something to take your mind off it. Pull the decorations out and start decorating.”

“I don’t feel like decorating this year.” Kate brushed a tear from her eye and laid her head against the couch.

He rose from the floor where he’d been kneeling. “I’m gettibg the boxes down anyway; you might change your mind.”

“Whatever.”

Nothing could cure the emptiness she felt. Her body betrayed her, taking away the one thing she’d yearned for for so long. How could anyone recover from such a loss? Sinking lower into the cushions, she curled into a ball, sobs racked her body once again. Grabbing the blanket near her feet, she brought it up to her neck, clinging to it, praying for comfort to come. It didn’t. It couldn’t.

Four stacked tubs soon towered near the couch, and faint noises polluted the air from the corner. With eyes shut, Kate knew Martin worked to set up the tree. She always set up the tree, fluffing each branch. She clenched her eyes tighter and rubbed her belly.

“Which skirt thingy do you put around the bottom of the tree?”

“I don’t care.” She imagined Martin’s soft smile as he stood still, waiting. “The gold.”

“You sure you don’t want to help?”

“Positive.”

“You’ll like it better your way.”

She curled tighter. “I don’t care.”

The crinkling of plastic and newspaper announced the unwrapping of various hand-painted Santa Claus figurines, elves, reindeer, angels, and stars. Kate cracked an eye and watched as Martin placed them around the room. “You forgot the lights.”

“Lights? Where are they?”

“In the other tub. They go on the shelves and table.”

“I better get those.”

Slowly easing her way to a sitting position, Kate started to give her husband instructions for each decoration. Every time she did, his smile grew. When the room sparkled from top to bottom, he looked at her.

“There’re still two more bins.”

“Those go in the other room.”

Martin picked up the tubs and carried them into the front room.

“The other tree is in the closet upstairs,” Kate said.

As Martin walked up the stairs, Kate carefully opened one of the bins. She spread a cloth across the piano and set a few stuffed snowmen on the floor. Trembling, she sank to her knees, clutching an ornament in her hand that read First Christmas—a tiny baby in the arms of a mother worshipping a babe in a manger.

Setting down the smaller tree, Martin picked Kate up and carried her to the couch. “What happened?”

She handed him the ornament and peered at him as a single tear escaped his eye.

Years of wanting children, more of fertility treatments, and when they’d finally given up, news of her pregnancy came, lighting their lives. That night they’d gone to the store and purchased the crib she’d dreamed of since their wedding day. The next week they purchased a swing. The tradition continued through the five-month pregnancy, each week buying one item for their unborn baby. Tiny flutters joyfully interrupted one shopping trip. Kate and Martin celebrated with Orange Julius, hoping for a longer show. And after the big ultrasound, the couple purchased a beautiful, white suit for the son Kate carried.

Martin took her hand. “Help me. We can decorate together.”

“I can’t.”

“You can. What’s left?”

Kate scanned the room and her eyes fell on the remaining tub. Her chin trembled. “Nativities.”

“Your favorite.”

“Not this year.”

Martin sank to his knees next to the couch. “Why not?”

“God abandoned us, our baby.”

His brows furrowed, and except for the Christmas music, the room fell silent. Away in a Manger.

Martin disappeared, and Kate listened as noise echoed from the room she’d chosen for the baby. As the minutes passed her curiosity peaked. Easing to her feet, she stepped to the hall where Martin pushed the collapsed crib through the door and toward the living room.

“No. What are you doing?”

Martin never answered. Instead, he moved the table where Kate usually placed several nativities and pushed the crib into its place. Within a few minutes, the crib was whole again. He immediately picked up the table and retreated down the hall.

“Martin, stop.”

Ignoring Kate, he returned to the room carrying the gorgeous suit they’d purchased for their son and the soft blue blanket Kate found the week before. Soon the lamb-shaped lamp came out. Martin spread the blanket across the mattress and set the lamp in the corner. He held the suit out to Kate.

“What are you doing?” Tears ran down her face. “These are our baby’s.”

“We can’t give our baby a place to sleep, dress him, or keep him warm. We can’t light his room, but we can do that for another baby, one that never had those things.”

He shook the suit gently, urging Kate to take it in her hands. Shuffling forward, she allowed her fingers to skim across the soft silk. So many of the suits in the stores used rough synthesized fabrics. She refused them, searching longer and paying more for a soft natural fiber.

“He abandoned us, Martin.”

“Did He?”

“We’ll never hold our child, we won’t see him smile or laugh. He’ll never run or play or get in trouble. None of it, because he died. He died before he could live. A single breath. God took our baby and left me with nothing.”

Martin held Kate’s crumpled body in his arms, letting the tears sink into his shirt. Silence passed between them. Kate tried to avoid the truth, but it pricked at her heart, begging to be heard.

She turned away and reached into the last tub, removing the pieces of her favorite nativity set. One by one, she placed each piece. The shepherds. The wise men. The sheep and cattle. The last three pieces she clung to. Her pain lifted, if only for a moment, as she considered that family’s story. A loving man accepted the Son of God as his own. With no bed, a mother gave birth in a barn and laid her son in a manger. Years later, that same mother watched her son give his life for all of mankind.

The pain of losing her child might always be there, but she wasn’t alone.

With stronger hands than she’d had in weeks, she placed the three remaining pieces of the nativity and hung her son’s suit on the back of the crib—a simple symbol of her love for the boy who lay in the manger and made it possible for her to see her son again. Anguish receding, she reached for her husband’s hand giving it a squeeze she hoped said I can do this.

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Flash Fiction: Mrs. Wilhelm’s Thanksgiving Gift

Mrs. Wilhelm's Thanksgiving Gift

The sun warmed Jon’s shoulders as he strolled through the frozen town to Mrs. Wilhelm’s home. Never before had he considered the difference a little sun could make. The wind whipping through his shack the previous night bit every inch of his skin, fulfilling its promise to keep him awake. It sure was different than he was used to. Still, moving to a colder climate had always been his dream. He figured nothing was worse than being raised on a desert ranch only to lay track in the middle of August. Not a thing.

That past summer, he’d finally saved enough money to move and landed in the north where he bought himself a little plot. The dilapidated shack he’d once intended to shore up and improve had become his permanent residence. The farm required too much refining and hoeing to find time to fix what was only partially broke.

Warm breath tickled his fingertips as he blew into his cupped hands. Better than the desert? Yeah, it was better. The frost and snow might numb his toes, but at least he couldn’t feel them.

He shyly tipped his hat at the oncoming passersby.

Aggie, covered in a warm shawl, giggled into her friend’s ear, then smiled at him, a gleam in her eye. “Why, Jon, aren’t you cold? You got nothin’ round your neck or coverin’ your arms.”

“It’s a mite chilly, I guess.”

His eyes followed the girl as she passed. Since their first meeting, he’d hoped to court her. Mrs. Wilhelm and her friends’ willingness to provide him with some additional winter work provided a means—if he could manage it all. Today, the women wanted their Thanksgiving turkeys slaughtered. Each slaughter promised a dollar, and if the women wanted their turkeys plucked and dressed, he’d get another dollar and a half per bird. It meant a long day’s work, but Aggie was worth it.

Entering Mrs. Wilhelm’s yard, Jon blew into his cupped hands again and rubbed at his arms. Perhaps he’d use one of those dollars and buy a coat. He’d never needed one in the desert, but he didn’t live there now. Mrs. Wilhelm swung her door wide, and Jon picked up his feet.

“Jon, those birds are drivin’ me crazy. Opal got herself a tom, and he’s been puffed and struttin’ all night.”
“I’ll hang him first for you, Mrs. Wilhelm. Don’t you worry.”

She patted him hard on the back. “I knew you would. They’s out back. I got one o’ those nice metal barrels out there on the fire heatin’ the water now.”

Jon grinned as he met the widow’s eyes. “How d’you manage that?”

She scowled at him. “I might be old, but that don’t make me useless. I can still haul water and build a fire.”

Jon’s eyes widened as he stared at the barrel of water that was surrounded by plenty of burning wood. “Yes ma’am, you can.” A small path was left for him to use when the time came to dunk the turkeys.

“Well, I’ll let you to it. I know you wanna earn that money, so you can court that pretty Miss Aggie.” She leaned in toward him “You gettin’ close?”

“You haven’t told no one, have you?”

“No,” she scoffed. “I can keep a secret.”

Jon sighed in relief. “I got a ways to go, but every bit helps.”

Once alone, Jon strung the ten turkeys on the wooden frame he’d built the day before. Kneeling down, he thanked God for giving the women turkeys and him work, then asked God for strength to finish the task. That done, he drew his knife.

The turkeys hung with their wings outstretched, not even the tom making noise. The eerie silence from the turkeys sent shivers up Jon’s spine. They never made noise after being strung. He took the tom’s head in his hand and tried to avoid looking at the single eye staring back. “It’ll only hurt a minute.”

The knife pushed raggedly through the neck, and Jon threw the head into the pig’s pen. As he worked the knife quickly through the other nine, the tips of his fingers warmed. Stepping away from the birds, he checked the water, which wasn’t quite boiling and went to wash at the pump.

“I heard you was here.”

A giggle sounded and Jon turned round, feeling a flush of warmth cross his neck—not the kind of warmth he wanted either. “A-Aggie.”

“Jon. Ma sent me to wait for our turkey.”

He nodded. “I just started. I can dunk it first if you tell me which one it is.”

“The one with the light tawny feathers.” She pointed.

“Might take some time.” He stepped to the barrel of water and added a few more pieces of wood. “Water takes a while to boil in the cold.”

She sat in a chair on the back porch and smiled, causing his heart to beat wildly in his chest.

“That’s okay,” she said, “gives us time to chat.”

Jon had spoken to Aggie one other time—a short conversation several months ago. He’d stumbled over his words then, and his tongue felt just as thick now. “You wanna talk while I slaughter turkeys?”

“Looks like the slaughterin’s done.” Her infectious laugh would‘ve brought a smile to his face had he not been so weak-kneed.

“Do you have plans for Thanksgiving?” He asked, then dropped his head and shook it. Had he really asked that?

“I’m here to pick up a turkey, remember?”

“Yeah. I just meant… Do you have o-other family comin’ or is it just you, your ma and pa?”

“Just us.”

“Well, that turkey’ll be plenty big for ya’ll.”

“That’ll make my pa happy. He loves turkey. I think he’d eat it all year-round if he could.”

The water started spitting from the barrel and Jon hurried to the turkeys. Holding the feet of the light-tawny bird with one hand and dunking it in the barrel, he brushed at the condensed steam gathering on his forehead with the other. With the scalding done, he walked back toward Aggie.

“Ma wants it plucked and dressed too.”

“All right.”

Standing at a table, Jon pulled at the feathers as quick as he could, but there wasn’t much fast about plucking a turkey.

“You goin’ to the Christmas Ball?”

Aggie’s voice floated to his ears, and he turned, gazing at her a little longer than intended. His hand missed the turkey and grabbed at a pile of already plucked feathers.

She giggled. “Well, are you?”

He shrugged as he looked down at his work. “I hadn’t thought much on it.”

“I have, and I’ve turned down four boys.”

His head twisted in her direction again. “How come?”

“They’s not the one I wanna go with.” She dropped her head, a bright pink coloring the bridge of her nose.

He brushed the feathers onto the ground and examined the turkey. “I’ll have this dressed in a few.”

“Then what will you do?”

The question hung in the air as he drew his knife.

Aggie swayed back and forth, clutching at the sides of her dress. “Pa says I make real good pies. I plan on makin’ one for the ball. What’s your favorite pie, Jon?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I guess I like pumpkin pretty good.”

“Me too.”

Jon shook his hands and pushed the turkey mess away. Turning toward the pump, he almost forgot to take the bird with him. Luckily, he remembered while Aggie’s head was turned. The water ran cold over the plucked bird and his fingers, none of which helped quiet his pounding heart. The Christmas Ball? Did she want him to ask her?

Mrs. Wilhelm clamored down the stairs of the back porch and hurried over to him—a determined look on her face. “Ask her!”

Any warmth in his neck and face drained away. “What?”

“My house is gettin’ cold with that open window. Ask her already.”

Jon scrunched his face together as muddled thoughts ran through his head. Open window? Then he understood. “I don’t have enough money yet.”

“Money,” she grumbled. “You ain’t askin’ her to marry you, just to go to the dance.”

He studied the old woman’s face, unsure she was right. “I can’t do that, Mrs. Wilhelm. I-I…”

“O’ course you can! March up there and say, ‘Miss Aggie, will you accompany me to the Christmas Ball?’ She’ll say yes, and you hand her the turkey.”

He furrowed his brows.

“Go on. There’s brown paper for the bird on the table. Wrap it up good.”

Stumbling toward the porch, his muscles tightened over stiffened joints, and he tripped on a clump of dead field grass. The turkey jumbled into the air with him running to catch it, his clumsy feet barely underneath him. The bird landed in his arms and against his chest. He eyed the ground, all semblance of dignity now gone.

Wrapping the turkey in the brown paper, he handed it to Aggie.

“Thank you.” The smile at the corners of her eyes dropped as she turned to leave.

“A-Aggie?”

She stopped.

“W-would you like to go to the ball with me?” His hands tangled together as his foot dug into the frozen dirt. All his dreams hinged on her answer, and the wait dragged on forever.

Jumping toward him, she kissed his cheek. “Yes!”

“Yes? Really, yes?”

She nodded at him, a big smile across her face as she waved goodbye.

Running back to the turkeys, Jon grinned at Mrs. Wilhelm, who added more wood to the fire. He swung the dead tom into the barrel. “Give me all the work you got, Mrs. Wilhelm. I’m goin’ to the ball!”

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Flash Fiction: Nightmare Newlyweds

Flash Fiction: Newlywed Nightmare

“Wake up!” Karen rocked back and forth as she tried to wake up her new husband.

A cool breeze blew through the drafty cabin they’d rented for their honeymoon, and she screamed as the celebratory note from the owner fluttered to the floor.

“Karen?” Daniel reached out and rubbed her back.

She flung her body against his, tears spreading across his shoulder and toward his neck. “Nightmare.”

“You’re crying over a nightmare?”

She nodded. “I don’t know why I can’t get over it.” The tears had started several minutes before she amassed enough courage to wake him. The first night with Dan—he’d think she was crazy. “Can you check the cabin?”

Daniel sat up slowly. “Isn’t that how people die?”

He caught her hand as she swatted at him and tugged her against his chest. The fleeting comfort disappeared as quickly as it had come. “It was just a nightmare, but I need to see nothing’s there.”

“Now you want to come with me? You do have a death wish.”

“Sure make fun of me.”

He stood from the bed and helped her up, ensconcing her from behind. “I’d never make fun of you.”

“Yeah, never,” she scoffed.

“Come on, let’s get this over with. It’s a bit chilly.”

The bedroom door squeaked open with his grasp, and Karen’s shallow breathing rattled in her lungs. Most brides dreamed of their new husbands, didn’t they? Not her, she dreamed of a man with an ax circling their cabin. No surreal feeling accompanied the scenes in her mind. Was that why she couldn’t forget, why she’d woken Dan in the middle of the night, soaked his shoulder in tears, and made him traipse around the cold two-room cabin?

Daniel stared through the windows, examining the front and back yards before turning the lights on one by one. “Kar, I don’t see anyone. Can we go back to bed?”

Nodding, she climbed between the sheets and cuddled against his shoulder. Draping his arm around her, he combed his fingers through her long, blonde hair. “You okay?”

She shrugged as a raspy breath caught in her throat. “Just hold me.”

Though Daniel fell asleep quickly, Karen lay awake, staring at the moon until clouds covered the sky. Her body wrapped around his, pushing closer with each muffled crack and scratching sound she heard. Maybe she should have suggested Hawaii instead of a cabin in the mountains. But a glimpse of fall promised to awaken her senses after a hot summer in the desert—in theory.

A prickling sensation poked at Karen’s bladder. Sleep eluded her, what did discomfort matter? The prickling intensified. Maybe discomfort mattered. She glanced at her husband, waking Derek meant admitting she was human. Besides, peeing with the door open wasn’t a honeymoon experience she wanted to remember.

Slipping from under the covers, she lunged for the door and waddled toward the bathroom. The light flickered once and then refused to shine. Bound and determined to stay out of the loony-bin, she charged the toilet. As relief flooded through her, she glanced at the mirror hanging above the sink. Two yellow orbs glinted in its reflection. But…she glanced the opposite direction and screamed.

Karen dashed from the bathroom and jumped on the bed, shaking Daniel. “Wake up, wake up! Something’s out there, Dan.”

Daniel groaned and pulled Karen toward him. “No. We checked.”

“I saw its eyes, yellow ones, in the bathroom.” Warmth spread from her neck into her cheeks. Now he knew she was human.

Daniel gathered Karen in his arms again. “Stay here. I’ll check things out.”

Footsteps echoed through the cabin, and Karen stepped to the bedroom doorway, watching as Derek crept outside. A crackle of fallen leaves rustled, startling Karen, but then she recognized Daniel’s footfalls.

The door opened, and Karen ran into Daniel’s arms. “What was it?”

“Probably a cat.” He traced the side of her face, pushing a strand of hair behind her ear. “Have you slept at all?”

“How can I? I dream of ax-murderers and see glowing eyes when I…” She didn’t want to admit her human characteristics, even if Daniel knew about them.

“I promise, nothing’s there. Even if there was, I’d take care of you.” He hugged her and led her back to bed. “Try to sleep, okay?”

She nodded and curled her body next to his again.

The sun shined into the room and Karen startled awake, a light knock struck the cabin’s door. She followed a second or two behind Daniel, wondering at the disturbance. A police officer stood on the porch.

“Is everything okay here?” The officer asked.

They both nodded.

“Do either of you recognize this?” The officer jutted his chin toward the wall of the house.

Together, Daniel and Karen poked their heads through the doorway. An ax leaned against the wall of the cabin. Shallow breaths racked Karen’s body as tears formed in her eyes, and she fell back into the cabin, shaking her head.

“No,” Daniel said, his voice soft.

“Anything odd happen last night?”

“My wife had a nightmare.” Daniel shrugged.

The officer leaned inside the house. “Did you see or hear anything other than your nightmare, ma’am?”

“I s-saw yellow eyes in the b-bathroom window. Daniel checked outside.”

“There was nothing there, sir.” Daniel swallowed deeply. “I wondered if it was a cat.”

The officer removed his hat. “I don’t know how you avoided him, but you’re one lucky couple.”
Karen stared at the man. “What?”

“The previous owner of this cabin stopped renting to newlyweds. You are newlyweds, right?”

“Yes,” they both answered.

“She stopped renting to newlyweds during the month of October after someone murdered three different couples. One a year,” he glanced at the weapon outside, “with an ax. Once she stopped, the killings did, too. Her son took ownership a couple of months ago. Apparently, he didn’t know about the murders. I knocked when I saw the ax…gave me the shivers. You sure you don‘t know anything?”

Daniel stared at the ax, his brow raised in thought. “Not at all, but I think we’ll leave early.”

“Best if you do.”

Karen rushed to Daniel as the door closed.

He gathered her in his arms. “Let’s go pack.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” The softness of his shirt muffled the question.

“He scared you enough.”

“Who?”

“The owner, but he won’t come back.”

She glanced up and rubbed her finger across his lips.

“Careful, I bite.” A gleam raced across his eyes as he smiled, pulling her closer.

“I remember,” she said, pressing her lips against his.

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Flash Fiction: Broken Daisies

Flash Fiction: Broken Daisies
Photo by Albert Bridge

The worn welt curved around the edges of my suitcase, threatening to pop from the seams as the zipper stretched to accommodate the overflowing clothing. Muttered vengeful words never reached my ears, but I understood them. My lips spit them out. No matter what I tried, nothing changed. Old houses only got older, cars broke down, jobs disappeared, and bank accounts stayed empty. Just once I wanted to run my dishwasher without washing the dishes first or order a pizza because it sounded good. Instead, I mopped up kids’ barf and scrubbed bathrooms only to return home and do the same for my family. Rob slept through the night and most mornings. The rest of the time he slumped at the computer looking for work.

I stopped in the bathroom and gathered other necessities. Toothbrush, makeup, deodorant. Beard trimmings speckled the sink. How hard was it to get rid of beard trimmings? I reached over and turned on the leaky faucet, splashing water over the top of the stiff hairs. The drain gurgled as it worked to keep up with the flow. Questioning what I was doing, I shut the water off—as best as I could, anyway—and left my suitcase by the front door.

My sneakers lifted from a sticky spot on the floor and squelched the rest of the way into the kitchen. I’d dropped the kids off at Mom’s earlier. Vacation. That’s what they called it. I hadn’t told them my plans yet. I hadn’t told Rob, but I was about to. The quiet of the house sent eerie tingles down my spine, reminding me how much I hated it.

As I walked past the corner of the counter, a crashing sound caught my attention. A broken glass covered in painted white daisies met my gaze. My elbow had knocked it off. Slowly squatting near the fragmented mess, the first tear traced the side of my cheek. The last glass—the others had broken years before. Somehow it seemed fitting that it would break today. Still, I cried.
I’d placed the glassware on our wedding registry ten years ago, hoping some kind soul would take pity on me and give something other than the standard clear Walmart specials sold for $8.99. Opening that wrapped package brought me almost as much joy as marrying Rob.

Picking up the largest shard, I gently rubbed my forefinger over the daisy design. I never thought daisies were pretty. Their basic petals and yellow centers dotted children’s drawings and their leaves reminded me of overgrown cilantro. So many times I’d dreamed of beautiful flowers with unique petals and vivid colors. Orchids, lilies, hibiscus, they all bloomed in so many varieties, but daisies invaded lawns. Then Rob gave me daisies when he proposed. Daisies—not roses—simple daisies. Suddenly my whole outlook had changed.

I clutched the shard to my chest and wept as I remembered his knit brows and how his lips had trembled. Down on one knee, his eyes glistened and his voice cracked when he eased the words will you marry me from his tongue. It was months later when he told me about the rock piercing his kneecap. All that time I thought he’d been trying not to cry.

A corner of my mouth threatened to turn up at the memory, but as I looked at the painted remnant in my hand, the tears returned, and I sank further to the floor. That day daisies had become my favorite flower. It wasn’t a distaste in cheap wares that caused me to register for the glasses. Not really.

Two kids and five years into our marriage, I screamed at Rob for his laziness. Why couldn’t he keep a job? Struggling as newlyweds was one thing, but we had two children. In my anger, I’d picked up the closest thing and threw it at the wall, intentionally missing him. The first glass. He held me in his arms as I realized what I’d thrown. Hair tickled my cheek as he brushed it away from my face, comforting me by pulling me closer. Promises of better jobs and a house with new carpeting filled my ears. My anger died when I saw what I’d thrown, but he didn’t need to know that.

A few years later, I told Rob why daisies were my favorite flower, including how I’d never liked them previously. Less than a week afterward, Rob purchased a bouquet of beautiful pink lollipop daisies and enlisted our daughter Emma’s help. The flowered glass slipped from her hands as she filled it with water. After cleaning up the mess, Rob filled the next one. I’d never seen such a beautiful sight as my smiling daughter standing next to her father as they presented me with the gift.

Though I tried to drop the shard to the floor and stand to tell Rob of my plans, my body refused. Tears spotted my blouse, and a small puddle formed on the floor, but only stains lined my cheeks now.

Warm hands rubbed at my shoulders, and I reached up, clutching one. “I broke the last one.”

“Are you sure about that?” His soft voice comforted me. But I had a plan…

“Yeah. I remember two others breaking, and the third disappeared years ago.”

“Disappeared where?”

I shrugged. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t remember. “I should have put this one up.”

“Wait here.”

Rob disappeared, and emptiness surrounded me as I stared at the glass, heaviness returning to my body. Shuffling noise echoed from the hallway, but nothing seemed important anymore.

“Christy?”

My eyes lifted as they fell on the item Rob held before me. “Where?”

He pulled me to my feet and held me in his arms. “I put one away for safekeeping.”

“You…?” My words faded.

“I know you love them.” He loosened his hold on me and glanced toward the door. “Are you going somewhere?”

“What? No. I-I thought I might, but I’ve changed my mind.”

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Flash Fiction: A Normal Day For Joy

 

Sometimes listening is better than reading. If you think so, enjoy this audio version.

 

Joy balanced Nate on her left hip, his legs resting at odd angles around her swollen belly as she rushed to her phone, answering it. The dial tone sounded in her ear. She placed Nate, sopping wet on the couch, his tears mixing with the water seeping into the stained cushion, then redialed her husband Connor.

“Hello.”

“Sorry, Nate plugged the tub and turned it on without me knowing. I was mopping up the hall.”

“The carpet?”

“Yeah, I’m gonna grab the fan out of the closet in a minute. What’s up?”

A tapping sound echoed over the phone line, and Joy waited for her husband to answer.

“How’s your day been?”

“Pretty normal. Nate knocked his cereal onto the floor again, ripped up a book I planned on reading, and flooded the house.”

“Yeah.” Joy listened as Connor drew air through his teeth. “Martin invited me to go to the game tonight.”

“Oh! And?”

“I’d like to go. I’ll make it up to you.”

“You will, huh? How?”

“What would you like?”

“A clean house and a flat belly,” she said as she walked down the hall to the linen closet.

“How about a foot rub? The belly thing will sort itself out soon. One more month.”

“A month. Don’t remind me.”

Silence.

“So, what do you think?”

“I think you should decide.”

“Well, I’d really like to go.”

“I got that.” She wrapped the towel she’d gotten from the closet around Nate, whose whimpers increased. “When will you be home?”

“Probably by nine. I love you.”

“Love you, too. Have fun.”

Slumping next to Nate, Joy pulled him onto her disappearing lap. “If Daddy’s going to a football game, we can ignore cooking a real dinner. How about macaroni and cheese?”

Wisps of dried blond hair glided into the air and gently fell back to Nate’s head as he turned around and smiled at her. “Cheese,” he said with a smile.

“Yup, cheese.”

Sliding out from under her son, Joy waddled back to the flooded hall. She laid another towel on the wet carpet and knelt down, applying pressure to it as hard as she could. The idea of stepping on the towels seemed great until her sciatic nerve acted up. Kneeling was better. As the towel absorbed the last bit of puddling from the floor, Joy prepared to stand up. One foot worked its way underneath her, and she used it along with the wall to try and stand.

Sudden tremors took over her body as piercing pain tangled the muscles from her back to her feet. Rolling to her side and then to her back, Joy lay on the damp floor, until the pain subsided. How on earth would she get up now? She scooted her body to the bathroom threshold as the nerve screamed at her again. A twist to the left, and Joy no longer wondered how whales beached themselves. Seconds later, knees bent underneath her supporting her belly as she rested, before placing her hands on the molding of the doorway.

With both hands in place, she lifted herself from the floor, but before she recovered, a startling sound from the kitchen knocked her back down to her knees. Her time now limited by the unknown actions of her misera…terribl…active toddler, she pushed herself through the jolting pain. Each foot moved an inch at a time as she leaned against the wall, shuffling toward the kitchen. The pain slowly receded.

A deep breath led Joy around the corner, her eyes settled on the open fridge and her son’s wet backside. “Nathan, what are you doing?” He turned and stared at her, a wide smile across his face. A glob of deep yellow and clear goop landing on the floor. “No, no, no, no, no, no, not the eggs. Nate, not the eggs!”

Her beach ball-sized belly beat the rest of her to the latest destruction. Egg splattered the shelf, oozed into the drawer, and down to the floor, a dozen cracked eggshells floating lazily down a yellow-splotched river. “Oh, Nate.”

Knowing she should take a picture to laugh at later, she stood frozen, then decided a mental picture was enough. She brushed the hair off her forehead and forgot to smile as Nate reached his arms up to greet her. “This is not good, little man.” He protested as she strapped him into the high chair and washed the egg off him with wipes. The prospect of going near the bathtub…shivers ran down her spine.

“Football game, he had to go to the football game,” she muttered the words under her breath as she studied the mess, determining the best way to deal with it. “Ugh. Nate, buddy, next time go for the bread, or a banana, okay?”

Her thoughts returned to her latest dilemma. If she removed the shelf, she could reach everything else a little easier. Condiments found their way to other shelves, and she mopped up most of the egg from the shelf before removing it and placing it in the sink. Next, the drawer and the floor received a new shine as Joy scrubbed at the egg. Pushing the hair off her forehead again, she carefully gripped the fridge, ready to stand. It moved. Of course, it moved. Why wouldn’t it move? She shuffled her body over to the counter and heaved herself up from the floor, then waited for the rise and fall of her breathing to slow before stepping to the sink to clean the shelf.

Moments later, the shelf sparkled. Joy carried it, sliding one foot an inch across the tile, then the other. Her body jolted into the shelf, which crashed to the floor. Pebbled safety glass covered the kitchen. Groaning, she turned to the broom closet only to hear a loud explosion. Soda, from an unretrieved can, glued the glass to the floor and the food in the freezer to the shelves.

Her phone beeped. A text message.

I forgot my soda in the freezer this morning.

The broom fell to the floor. She pulled Nate out of the high chair. “Let’s go get dinner and play on the toys at McDonald’s.” Smiling at her son, she contemplated the situation out loud. “I think nine-thirty will be an excellent bedtime tonight.”

Before leaving, she texted Connor: You like explosions, right?

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Flash Fiction: Hope

As I considered what to write for this week’s blog post, I decided to write a piece that shows what it is like to deal with anxiety and school avoidance for both parent and child. Having experienced such crises firsthand, the story, though fictional, lives in reality.

Hope

Flash Fiction: Hope

The alarm rang, and I wanted nothing more than to ignore the blasted beeping. How could I face another painful day of watching my child suffer at the hands of the educational system? That’s how I felt, anyway. I rolled out of bed and shuffled to the bathroom where I took my time. Hanna needed as much time in bed as possible before I ripped her from safety and forced her into raging discomfort yet again. I’d stretch the time longer but the ongoing fight required all the time I had left.

Shuffling my bare feet down the cold, hard tile, I opened Hanna’s door. “Come on, baby, time to get ready for school.” The blanket flipped over her head as she clutched it closer. “I know it’s hard, sweetheart, but if you don’t go to school we both get in trouble. Come on, time to get up.”
Grabbing the blanket, I removed it from her body. Her small frame lay too tiny for so much angst and too big for me to dress. I always stopped short as I smothered my own frustrations. “Get dressed Hanna, now.”

Tears streamed down her face, her body shaking uncontrollably. Blue eyes pleaded with me to let her stay home—pleaded for me to protect her from the terrors she faced. “Get dressed and come downstairs. Start with that. Can you do that?”

She nodded. That was more than yesterday. I stepped outside the room and down the stairs to make her lunch, wondering if she would eat at home again. Five minutes later, I called Hanna, reminding her to hurry. The doctor called it anxiety with panic disorder. I’d seen nothing like it. Similar to some teachers, I had assumed she wanted to stay home—or come home. Isn’t that what kids do? Not according to the doctor. “Consequences without pressure require walking a fine line,” he said. “You must balance the two.”

How do you balance consequences without applying pressure?

Teachers complained about Hanna curling into a ball on her chair and crying silently. She occasionally lashed out if they pressured her without recognizing the signs of an oncoming attack. Her bedtime was always questioned. Every one of them showed surprise when I said she went to bed by 8:00 PM. They hadn’t seen anxiety like this either.

“Hanna, come downstairs, now.”

The creak of her bedroom door told me she’d gotten dressed—or not. Standing at the top of the stairs, Hanna’s shoulders dropped, her head hanging lower.

“We have to go, Hanna. Where are your clothes?”

Tears poured down her cheeks, puddling on the hard floor beneath her feet, and she crumpled into a ball. I stepped up the stairs and pulled her into my arms. “What’s hard today?” Hanna shrugged. “Don’t you want to see your friends?”

“I have no friends!” The words sounded angry, but hurt was the real emotion.

“What about Sam? Or Leah? Or Danni?”

She hid her head further between her knees. “They won’t talk to me.”

“Do you talk to them?”

Now her eyes filled with agony. “I try, but they just talk to each other.”

I rubbed her back. What could I say to that? “Baby, I need you to get dressed, okay? If you can make it to school, we can have warm chocolate chip cookies when you get home.” I paused, hoping she would stand. Nothing. “If you need to come home you can call, but you need to try.”

Resigned, Hanna rose and reentered her room. A minute later, she came out dressed in jeans and a striped top. I handed her a breakfast sandwich and her shoes as we rushed out the door.

I tried not to talk too much on the way there, but unlike Hanna, I talk when nervous. “The other day I read about a girl who wanted a hairless cat…”

“I want to be homeschooled.”

I shook my head. “The doctor says attending in a classroom with other students is better for you. Besides, I don’t know how to teach, and you’ve seen me try to write an email. I don’t know a noun from a verb.”

“I want to be homeschooled.”

My heart lurched into my throat. I couldn’t homeschool. I squirmed like a trapped squirrel. “So, if you could have any animal you wanted, what would you choose?”

Silence.

We pulled into the school parking lot late enough that I ignored the loading zone sign. Besides, technically I was unloading my daughter. I hoped. I opened the door for Hanna, who tucked her head into her knees, hiding her face. “We can’t do this Hanna, you need to go in.”
I had fought to get her on campus for months. At first, she attended every day, regardless of long fights in the morning. A couple of weeks ago that number diminished significantly as most days she either checked in late or came home early. Consequences changed nothing. This week, she’d already missed four days. I wanted to bang my head against the steering wheel, drive her home, wrap my arms around her, and tell her she didn’t have to go to school ever again. But I knew better. Life without school meant heartache as an adult. Besides, legally she had to attend.

Sometimes I hated laws, even when they made sense.

“Come on.” I reached my hand around her and undid the seatbelt. She fought me, trying to grab at the buckle. “Please Hanna. If I need to, I’ll stay with you, but you have to go to school.”

She lifted her head and met my eyes with hers—red, hurt, scared. I offered my hand, and she took it. Together we walked into the office where I checked her in. We’d spent twenty minutes in the parking lot. She was late. As she trudged toward her classroom, a tear ran down my cheek.

“I think I need to set an appointment to discuss Hanna’s anxiety,” I said to the receptionist, adding, “She’s seeing a doctor, but it’s taking too long.”

“I can set an appointment for you with Mrs. Langley. She handles the 504 plans and the IEPs for kiddos with needs.”

“I really just need to discuss her absences.”

The receptionist looked at me, a wan smile spreading across her lips. “She may need more, and that’s why we have these documents—to help kiddos like Hanna.” She touched my hand. “Last week when Hanna came up here to calm down during history, she couldn’t speak. I knew she needed you, but when I asked her if she wanted to go home she couldn’t answer me. Kids who want to go home usually speak up. Hanna has anxiety—the real kind—not like what the rest of us get. Keep taking her to the doctor, but let the school help, too.”

“What can the school do?” A scoffing tone escaped with my words.

“More than people let on. They can set her up with books and helps at home for the days she misses, absences can be excused, different environments are available on campus if she needs them. We can take care of her. Mrs. Langley, she’s good at it, and she knows all this stuff.”

My heart slowed. I nodded my head and forced the words thank you from my mouth. She squeezed my hand. “Next Tuesday. 9:00 AM.”

One more nod as I walked out the door, hope slowly easing its way back into my heart. “Thank you,” I whispered.

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Flash Fiction: YouTube Escape

The pace of the car matched the pace of Kara’s racing heart. How did she get into this mess? With another jolting shake of her head, a bobby pin fell to the floor. Now to find it. With arms handcuffed behind her, she twisted her body, and her head curved deeper into the trunk. The phrase ‘needle in a haystack’ entered her mind. Her finger brushed against the edge of the bobby pin, and it slid further away. Dang-it. Willing herself to search more gently, she patted the floor.

Minutes.

Minutes had passed, and Kara had no idea where they were taking her. Not far. Maybe far. The farming community lay only miles away from the city, that’s why smugglers liked it. She knew better than to explore their hideaway, but she couldn’t help herself. There was no question that they’d see the smoke from the fire she’d started. If she were a guy, she’d be dead. Best guess now, she’d be sold.

Her middle finger tightened around the bobby pin. Shallow breaths calmed her shaky hand, ensuring she wouldn’t drop it. Stripping the plastic from the tips with her teeth, she straightened the pin, trying to remember the training she’d received via YouTube. As she worked to place the bobby pin in the latch at the end of the handcuff, the shaking returned, and she fought harder to control her gelatinous fingers. The pain emanating from her head didn’t help.

The bobby pin slid into the opening. Kara pulled. Nothing happened. Don’t hyperventilate. Breathe. She sifted through the muddled thoughts in her mind. Wrong method—that way used a snap barrette. Reaching toward the cuffs with the bobby pin again, she pushed it into the keyhole, the pin telling her when it was on top of the button. She pushed, and the cuff popped open. Kara gasped as she removed the duct tape from her lips.

Scooting toward the trunk door, she searched for the glowing emergency latch. Nothing. Think. Think! Kara rolled to her belly and dug her fingernails into the seam of the carpeting. Where is it? Where is it? Her heart throbbed within her chest, echoing in her ears.

A cable ran under her fingers, and tears cascaded down her cheeks. Please, God. Kara wrapped her hands around the cable and yanked it as hard as she could toward the front of the car. The trunk popped open, and she flung herself toward it, hoping to keep it from getting caught by a gust of wind. Too late.

The trunk flew open, and Kara faced the cold, hard truth. No other cars drove on the road. No immediate rescuer waited outside the trunk. No one would help her.
The car slowed. Kara’s heart rate doubled. ‘Jump. Jump before they stop. Jump.’ Her mind willed her body to move, but her body refused. ‘Jump,’ her mind whispered again.

I can’t.

‘JUMP!’

Kara threw herself from the trunk and forced herself into a roll. She crashed onto the rough pavement, her shoulder and hip crying in agony. Get up! She scrambled to the edge of the road and to her feet.

Run.

Her legs carried her swifter than a roadrunner escaping a coyote. The sound of a bullet, then another, cracked behind her. Run. Zig. Now Zag. Would they follow her? No way to know. Darkness engulfed her, and piercing pain erupted over her body as she stumbled. Cactus. Her motion slowed but never stopped. Ducking around the cholla, she tried to run again.

Needles dug deeper into her skin, but she didn’t dare touch any of the oversized burrs. That would only make it worse. Did Mike call the police yet? Was Mike still alive? Tears streamed down her dirt-coated cheeks as blood spotted her face, and screams burst from her lips. Why did she start that fire? What enticed her to explore that hideaway? Only some kind of stupid would call it an adventure.

Specs of light lit the distant horizon. A road? A house? Kara didn’t know, but she ran faster—screamed louder.

“Help me!”

Nothing.

“Please, help me!”

Silence.

A house. Kara flung her sweat-soaked back against the door, screaming for help. Raising her bloodied hands to the door, she pounded her tender palms against the wood. A coyote howled.

“Someone there?” An older woman’s voice called from beyond the door, colored by a heavy accent.

“P-please help me.”

The door cracked open, and a woman’s heavily wrinkled face shone with concern as she gasped and flung the door wider, leading Kara inside. “Let me get a comb. We’ll get those spines out of you. What’re you doing in the desert at night?”
Kara stumbled into the house. “Escaping … kidnapped.” Her breathing burned her lungs as she blew dust back into the air. “Call the police.”

“Police? Here? You don’t want the police. You want the embassy; this is Mexico.”

“But you’re speaking English.”

“So are you.”

Kara’s shoulders slumped as her head dropped warily toward her swollen hands, only for her to realize they hurt too much to cradle her face. Instead, tears escaped her eyelids freely, eroding the dirt from her cheeks. “Where is it?”

“Not far.”

“Take me now, please.”

“Tomorrow.”

Tremors racked Kara’s body, and she jerked her head back and forth. “Now.”

“Tomorrow will be better.”

“Please, now. I don’t belong here. I want to go home. Please.”

The old woman sighed, “Let’s remove the cactus first.”

Kara nodded, and the old woman eased a comb under each bulbous cactus burr. Blood, from several welts under the burrs, pooled on her skin as the spiny balls lifted from her body one by one.

With the cactus removed and the bleeding stopped, Kara shuffled toward the gate of the Embassy. The old woman had dropped her off and driven away without notice. Guards stood at the gate, their hands sliding toward weapons as they studied her. She stopped. “Please. I’m American. I was kidnapped.”

They peered closer at her. “Name?”

“Kara Matthews.”

“ID?” Their arms stayed at the ready.

She shook her head.

One of the guards disappeared.

Moments later, Kara was ushered into a room and offered a hard plastic chair.

“We need to verify your identity. It shouldn’t take long; someone reported a Kara Matthews missing. How did you get here?”

Stress and agony relaxed as her heart began to slow for the first time in hours. “A YouTube education followed by a prickly situation.”

Never get too close to cholla. It will jump at you before you ever get a chance to touch it.

 

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