USA, November 2020
America, My Child by Kari Nguyen
America spins in place before telling me, breathless, there’s no singing in music class. I laugh and say what do you mean, of course there’s singing in music class, what else is music class for? And then I remember the times, the dangers, and America starts humming. Can you guess it, mama? Guess this song. And it’s just a reverberation of something I once knew, perhaps, but can no longer recognize. And so America tries again.
America is up in the closet again, screaming, not letting me come close. She feels safe enough there, I pray, but it’s temporary, right? What child can stay hidden and screaming? How much can mothers bear, hearing their children cry out? And how much more to bear when we cannot be there to hear?
I make America eggs. I fix her juice. I brush her teeth and her hair and tie her shoelaces. I wash her clothes and her dishes and her tear-stained cheeks, the scrapes on her skin. I am background, but without me everything falls apart. She is so lucky! Does she even know?
Dear America, four years ago I wrote you a letter about rejection and it was a letter of hope and love but I couldn’t give it to you then. I can give it to you now. We can save it for when you are older, but not too much older. Fascism is a steady beast, it seems.
You’d rather talk about dragons, America, and I don’t blame you. You bring me tiny dragons, and gigantic dragons, red dragons and blue dragons and green and yellow and orange too. There is a way to make steam from one of them but we’ve lost the part, and it will take time to find. Maybe you’ll forget eventually about the steam, that possibility. Maybe it will fade with time but even as I am thinking this I’m remembering a different dragon, an imaginary friend from my childhood, the one who was by my side until I was far too old. What must I have felt then, letting him go? The overwhelming sadness I feel now? It can’t be possible, or I never would have said goodbye.
A 1000 Year Old Fakir’s Dream by Annie Q. Syed
I want to draw a timeline (in sand of course) to show you how far back we go:
I was a young girl from Rub’al Khali desert who had cracked eternity like a walnut.
You were a star afraid of wishes; I wished anyway.
You looked at me like a photo you had taken.
How could you have? I was an even younger child than you back then.
I want a photo of my eyes when I first saved you from yourself: awe.
You sketched Time to bring yourself back to me. But you had never left.
Yet we wouldn’t mind if one of us left now(vaguely, of course),
Knowing neither can nor would.
Why do we have to trace how many times we have been here before?
I want to bend time zones (gently, of course) so your sleepless nights are no longer my days.
My dreams are small flat pieces
separated from a whole,
grated memories which only you can recall (because we were both once there, of course).
Is it easier to live with a dream than a memory?
To the rest of the world we are just a universal longing.
We are demi-gods when we make love: geranium leaf and bergamot rind.
Not just in my dreams.
But we are here because we can’t recall and Fear breathes maestro dust on discernment.
Why do we doubt that which we are experiencing right now?
Psychics and priests tell me the same:
This is our last incarnation if we are ready.
I wish we didn’t have to keep going back to go forward.
The soul in our feet is tired of traversing this earth.
We are a fog whispering stories to trees; trees already know.
I am as tired as you, love; let’s go home.
Courtesy Call by Nancy Stohlman
Good afternoon Water World guests. We have an important call waiting for a guest by the name of – and she says my name – Please come to any guest services.
The kiosk is staffed by teenagers. I have a message?
The kid hands me the receiver of an actual red phone:
Congratulations! You’ve just been chosen to star on our Water World reality show, Escape from Water World! The way the game works is you have 60 minutes to find the key to your locker and leave the park. If you don’t find the key in time, the contents of your locker will be forfeited.
But my purse and my Diamond card and keys are in there.
Yes! And you have 60 minutes to find them and – here a studio audience chimes in – Escape! From! Water! World! Cheering in the background. Are you ready for your first clue?
I don’t want to play this game, actually –
Don’t hang up – we’re already filming.
The guest services kid gives me a thumbs-up.
Your first clue is: The woman in the pink has gotten too much sun. Find her and find Clue #1. And…begin! 60 minutes on the clock starting now!
This is ridiculous! I yell but he’s already gone. I hang up and walk straight to my locker, where the wristband that should open it no longer works, buzzing angry with each failed try.
The teenager in the raft rental booth yells, “You can do it!”
There are probably 5,000 people at Water World. There is absolutely no way I’m going to play this stupid game. I need to find an adult employee, any adult at all. There’s an old man sweeping up around the picnic areas.
Excuse me, can you help me?
He smiles knowingly. If you want a clue to the pink woman, she might be on the Ancient Journey to the Pharaohs ride?
That’s not the kind of help I wanted!
The concrete is atomic hot as I hop from patch of shade to patch of shade. People on beach loungers grin or whisper and give me the thumbs up, past the Dip-n-Dots and the deep-fried Twinkie sundae funnel cake booth, past the wave pool in motion, where a kid on a raft yells, “I believe in you!” and onto the AstroTurf beach towards the Pharaohs ride.
Now I’m in line with all the wet people and their bad tattoos – the US Constitution inked across a chest, a portrait of Matthew McConoughey distorted into cleavage, actual “guns” tattooed on both biceps – and at the front of the line I’m put into a raft with a family who needs a single rider.
The ride heads into the pyramid. The mom asks: Any luck?
You know she winks. She has a terrible sunburn all over her body. The family all looks like they are about to burst.
Are you the “pink” lady?
Your last clue is this she says, cutting me off: The man with the gospel on his back will show you where the key is at!
This is so fucked up I yell as the kids blush, and as soon as the ride is over I stomp across hot concrete back to the guest services kiosk and yell at the kid – who’s a different kid now:
Look. I don’t want to play this game! Just open my locker!
He looks sympathetic and hands me the phone again:
Ooh! A buzzer sounds loudly in my ear. Darn! says the voice.
You didn’t beat the clock. Well, you’re still going home with some nice parting gifts. Jonny: can you tell us what they are?
I hang up. The kid hands me a red bag with Escape from Water World written on the side. In the bag are tubes of sunscreen, a bright green sun visor and a sippy bottle with the Water World logo.
You also have salmonella, he says, handing me the bag.
I walk back to my towel and see my locker door standing open, locker empty.
Walnuts by Jenna Heller
Not long after we agreed to separate and you’d already packed up half your things, we found ourselves stuck because of the lockdown. Remember that? Remember how the wind howled for two days straight and blew all the walnuts from the trees? How we heard them pelting the fence, pummeling the lawn, cracking on the deck? How we spent the better part of a whole day collecting the stone fruit from the wet lawn and autumn leaves? It took so much longer than we expected. But what else did we have to do?
Secretly, I revelled in the time outdoors, the time to achieve something, the time to do something in concert with you. It felt so different from being cooped up inside where all we seemed to do was sigh and move into separate rooms.
So there we were, the two of us stooped over, sweeping the yard like spoonbills sweep the estuary. Back and forth, filling our hands before filling our buckets. And while our backs were killing us, our hands got a sort of massage from the wrinkled shells swirling in our palms.
After we’d picked them all up, we sat on the deck and each held a couple, moved them around like Chinese medicine balls. Feeling familiar and warm. The rhythm comforting. And we saw each other again. I mean, we really saw each other. For the first time in months. Like when we were young and we could look into each other’s eyes forever without saying a word.
Then you grabbed the mallet and smashed one. Broke the spell. Offered me half.
Best Friends by Jenna Heller – winner of Aotearoa New Zealand’s 2020 National Flash Fiction Day Competition
We rode with the wind at our backs. Cut across Mr Sandbird’s yard even as he yelled at us to get off his property. Gave him the finger and laughed and laughed. Then hurried down the dirt track that led straight into the heart of the wetlands. We humped our bikes through the ripe cattails, deep into a world of punks until our tires sunk into the muck. Then we ditched them, let our sneakers squelch in the swamp water as we made a game of pulling at the cotton fluff exploding from the brown spikes. We busted all we could see, picking at the delicate seedlings, spraying them on the breeze. We chased each other through the marsh, the reeds slicing our arms and legs until we stumbled onto several silk caterpillar tents. We poked them with sticks and watched as the fisted larvae untangled and crawled into the sunlight, stood back as some dropped to the ground, squatted to see them squirm and slowly sink into the mire. We captured grasshoppers, as many as we could fit into our cupped hands. Felt their wings beat against our palms and shook them like dice before casting them as far as we could. We found a water snake and took turns holding it by its tail, swinging it round and round above our heads. But when we found a bird’s nest full of delicate eggs, the air between us turned sour. And when you grabbed one and squeezed it until the gooey guts of a baby bird spilled out, we fought until you had a black eye and I had a bloody nose. And then you grabbed the rest of the eggs in both of your fists, looked me right in the eye, and squeezed until you’d crushed them all.
Jamie Berry is an artist who believes that art in all of its expressions is what lives, unspeakable, in the space between the words. His work is in private collections from U.S. to Zimbabwe and he has had his images published in Norway and the U.K. He is currently working out of New Mexico where his family has resided for over a hundred years. www.jamieberry.com
Jenna Heller is an American-New Zealander living in Ōtautahi Christchurch. In 2020, she won the NZ National Flash Fiction Day competition, landed a couple of poems on two different poetry competition shortlists, and was a featured poet in the Canterbury Poets’ Collective ‘poetry in performance’ spring series. She teaches and learns from the next generation of poets at WRITE ON School for Young Writers and has a piece appearing in Best Small Fictions 2020.
Kari Nguyen lives in New England with her husband, daughter, and twin sons. Her writing appears in seven anthologies, including Best Microfiction 2020, America’s Emerging Literary Fiction Writers: Northeast Region and Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology. She is the former nonfiction editor for Stymie Magazine. She can be found at karinguyen.wordpress.com and @knguyenwrites.
Nancy Stohlman has been writing, publishing, and teaching flash fiction for more than a decade, and her latest book, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2020) is her treatise on the form. Other books include The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, The Monster Opera and Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, a finalist for a 2019 Colorado Book Award. Her work has been anthologized widely, appearing in the W.W. Norton New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, Macmillan’s The Practice of Fiction and Best Small Fictions 2019, as well as adapted for the stage. She teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder and around the world. You can find Nancy this month reflecting on COVID-19 at her blog and curating FlashNano.
Annie Q. Syed is a reader and writer who teaches full time. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Zeno Press, The Common Breath, The Fiddlehead, Fictive Dream, Burning House Press, Tahoma Literary Review, Menacing Hedge, Ellipses Zine, Afreada and Bath Flash Fiction and Reflex Fiction anthologies. You can find more of her writings and thoughts at http://www.anniesyed.com