Fiction Editor: 2 Flash Fiction Stories & Photos
Our fiction editor graces this issue with two, wonderfully written short stories and a very photogenic scene from her photography collection. Take a journey with Lucy as she revisits Christmas in “Christmas List” and enjoy the rhythm and pacing of “Secondhand Piano.” These short stories are sure to delight.
A week before Christmas, Lucy’s parents take her to get their tree. The snow on the ground is beginning to melt but it’s the good kind. When you pack it into snowballs it sticks. She is so bundled up that she looks like a red marshmallow in a hat. They bring a thermos of hot chocolate and pour it into little cups as carefully as they can on the tractor ride. Lucy burns her mouth on her first sip, but she doesn’t care. She runs circles around her parents, weaving in and out between the trees searching for the perfect one. She finds hers at dusk, when all the trees have filled with shadow. It’s not the most handsome tree, but there is a sad empty patch on one side and she feels sorry for it. It looks so lonely. Lucy inhales the cold, indigo night and dances excitedly around her father, who saws at the trunk.“Timber!” she yells, clapping her hands as the tree slowly falls into the snow with a whoosh of rustling of branches.
Lucy and her parents walk down the street to attend the neighborhood Christmas party. Four houses down, and one across. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and Lucy hopes for a guitar. The boy who lives in the house hosting the party is only one year older than Lucy. He brings his guitar down to show her. It’s a shiny, black acoustic. Lucy reaches out one finger and plucks a string, which fills the guitar with a deep, resonating hum. The boy, Jeremy, offers to teach her a few chords but Lucy suddenly pulls back her hand and shakes her head no.“All right then, suit yourself,” he says, shoving the guitar into the corner.Later that night, lying in bed, Lucy wishes she had said yes.
Lucy and Jeremy are sledding on Christmas day. Lucy’s grandmother gives her an old wooden sled for Christmas. The word “Flyer” is painted in red on the stained wood slats to match the painted metal runners. Jeremy has a simple plastic one but they take turns on Lucy’s, which goes faster. Maybe too fast. As Lucy whips down the hill, the bitter, cold air biting at her face, the sled gains so much speed that it seems to lift off the ground. It fills her with an exhilarating fear. Jeremy yells at her to slow down but she can’t hear him. She goes over a bump and flies into the air, the sled shooting on without her. She lands hard on the cold ground and lies there dazed for a few moments before she can feel the searing pain in her arm. Within what seem like fractions of seconds, Jeremy is standing over her, out of breath. He sees her twisted arm and winces.
“It’s all right,” he says, and reaches toward her.
School has just let out on the last day before Christmas vacation. A group of neighborhood kids, including Lucy and Jeremy, walk home together. Giddy with freedom, they all talk joyfully of holiday plans, kick piles of snow into the street, and playfully toss snowballs at one another. As they come upon the town’s Christmas tree lot, a full-fledged snowball fight breaks out. Eyes sparkling with laughter, Jeremy grabs Lucy’s hand and pulls her after him into the tree lot for cover. The group erupts in excited whoops and shrieks as they all follow. Snowballs fly through the air and disgruntled customers grumble about unruly kids. Lucy and Jeremy are separated for a few minutes until Lucy is abruptly shoved from behind and falls into the sumptuous arms of a pine. When she sees Jeremy laughing behind her, her mouth opens in speechless indignation. “You…” she begins, threateningly shaking her head as she struggles to untangle herself from the tree branches that prick her bare wrists and neck.“That tree looks good on you,” he taunts, still chuckling, “You should wear it all the time.” However, Jeremy’s teasing is cut short by a whizzing snowball that catches him just behind the ear and explodes in a spray of ice. His sudden look of disbelief sends Lucy into a fit of laughter.“That’s what you get!”“Yeah, yeah,” Jeremy says, scooping snow out of his collar. Grinning good-naturedly, he helps pull Lucy out of the tree and contritely brushes some pine needles from her hair. “Truce?” Lucy punches him hard in the shoulder.
Lucy stands at her kitchen counter holding a red mixing bowl steady while she stirs chocolate chips into cookie dough for Santa. She stopped believing in him long ago, but her parents insisted on upholding the milk and cookies tradition. Lucy would have probably kept doing it on her own anyway. There is some small part of her that can’t stop picturing the jolly face of the plump little crimson-clad man suddenly falling with disappointment when he finds nothing left for him. Jeremy reaches his hand into the bowl and Lucy swats it away with a reproachful glare. “Can’t I just have one chocolate chip?” he says, with mock offense.Lucy sighs in exasperation. “Fine.” Jeremy scoops out a large clump of cookie dough and smirks victoriously as he shoves it into his mouth. “You made this? It’s disgusting,” he says, his mouth full, and then tries to grab more.The two of them laugh as Lucy shields the bowl with her shoulder.
It’s Christmas Eve. Lucy sits close to Jeremy on the floor in front of the couch. The adults have just moved into the other room, leaving finished mugs of hot chocolate and empty dessert plates littering the coffee table. Lucy can hear their muted laughter. The fire flickers, the flames slowly dimming. Jeremy gently pulls her toward him and cautiously leans in to kiss her. Time slows. All of Lucy’s thoughts screech to a jolting halt, crashing into each other like cars in a pileup. Her mind is paralyzed by panic; she quickly hides her face in his chest as heat washes over her. She peers up at him but can’t read his serious expression and desperately hopes she hasn’t hurt his feelings. Lucy fills with an overwhelming sense that this moment is pivotal, that it is the sort of moment that will alter all those that come after it, and that she is ruining it. She knows she still has the chance to change her mind, to fix the moment, but she can’t summon the courage and eventually it passes by. Jeremy sighs as he slides back to a safe distance and smiles impishly at her as if to say, “Don’t worry, next time you won’t be able to resist me.” Her heart is pounding.Later that night, lying in bed, Lucy wishes she hadn’t turned away.And it’s a pity she did, because this is her last Christmas with Jeremy. The next morning he is killed in a car accident three miles from Lucy’s house. The roads are icy and the driver behind him was speeding. The truck came barreling down the road just when Jeremy’s car was violently rear-ended and propelled into the center of the intersection. He is already dead when the ambulances arrive. The car is nearly bent in two and blood oozes over the veins of the fractured window.
Christmas is unwanted this year. No longer a magical day of child-like innocence, evergreen nostalgia, and toasty-love crackling fires—it has been soured, poisoned by tragedy. Lucy takes solitary refuge in her bedroom and stares out the frosted windows at the blank, snowy lawn. The event this day has come to represent triggers a cold kind of grief that rises up and numbs her. Her mother calls her downstairs—the company has been there for a half an hour. Lucy forces herself to get up. She takes the stairs one step at a time and concentrates on molding her features into a mask of vacant composure. However, as she steps into the kitchen, the first people she sees are Jeremy’s mother and father sitting at her kitchen table, his arm around her. Their faces droop with regret. Lucy catches Jeremy’s mother quietly wipe a tear from her eye and her own mask cracks. She quickens her gait, doesn’t even pause in the kitchen, and is practically running by the time she gets to the front door.
“Lucy!” her mother calls out, worried.“Let her go,” says Jeremy’s.
Lucy does not acknowledge Christmas this year. She stays inside with the shades pulled down, protected from any sudden bursts of holiday cheer that would upset the precarious balance she maintains on her tightrope of denial.
Twenty-two years old, twenty-three years old, twenty-four years old, twenty-five years old, twenty-six years old, twenty-seven years old, twenty-eight years old.
Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.
Late Christmas Eve, Lucy goes for an aimless walk around the city where she lives. She eventually finds herself at a tree lot with only a few scraggly ones left.
“Can I help you?” a man in a red and black checked jacket asks her. “Oh… no. I’m just walking through.”
“We’ve got some nice wreaths over here.”
Lucy notices a small scrawny looking tree still waiting. She can see chunks missing on the lower trunk where the ax hit. “Wait—I think…I’ll take that one.”
“That one? Are you—“ he interrupts himself and clears his throat. “Where are you parked? I’ll help you tie it to your car.” “That’s okay, thank you. I’ll just carry it,” Lucy responds, still eyeing the pathetic tree.
The man stares at her bemusedly. Back in her apartment, Lucy sets the tree up in the corner of her living room but she doesn’t have any decorations. She sits in a chair with a cup of tea, just watching it. It stands there like an old friend, long absent, waiting for her to say something. Some needles flutter to the ground.
Christmas morning, Lucy goes out and buys a string of lights for her tree. She knows that it’s probably too late to be putting up decorations but she doesn’t really think about it. At home, as she gently wraps the tree with the lights, she begins to cry. The tears come slow at first –slipping down her cheeks one at a time—but soon, she is kneeling on the floor sobbing her heart out.
“Secondhand Piano”- Hayley Battaglia
Dust lazily filtered through the golden afternoon light in the tiny music shop. I let the door fly shut behind me and began to follow my usual route, weaving around shelves and the odd customer. Not much of a musician myself, I rarely made a purchase, though I found a kind of hushed peace in this place. I liked to flip through the pages of sheet music that I might someday be skilled enough to play. I rounded a corner into my favorite aisle, the one with the shiny black baby grand, where I would sometimes sit and tinker out the few simple songs I knew. But there was someone in my place. I stopped short and took a few steps back with the inexplicable understanding that I must not go crashing in on what seemed to be a fragile moment.
The someone was a man. His posture resembled that of a professional pianist–his back straight, shoulders elegantly squared, chin lifted high, and his right hand poised over the keys. I watched him remain frozen in this position for several minutes, all the while gazing somberly at the book of sheet music opened in front of him. His white shirtsleeve dangled dejectedly from his left shoulder, the empty cuff lying on the bench beside him.
At last, the man tentatively let his finger drop onto a black key, and a C sharp rang out, seeming to hang in the air above everybody’s heads. It hovered somewhere up by the ceiling, nestling amongst the hanging basses and guitars until it faded away. Several of the customers milling around the tiny shop looked up at this sound, craning their necks over the shelves of sheet music to find its source, but they soon returned to their own business. Curious, I continued to observe him from behind a rack of guitar picks. He flexed his fingers and began to play the first bar of his music.
The song was strange and haunting, and somehow seemed sadly incomplete. It was a sky with no earth beneath it, a balloon loosed from a child’s grasping hand, spilled salt blown from the table. The man, too, seemed to feel its lack of weight, for he stopped quite abruptly and a mournful, “Ach…” escaped from his lips. He looked up at the ceiling and lifted his one hand to it beseechingly before letting his chin fall onto his chest with a sigh.
Just then, the bell over the door tinkled, announcing the entrance of a new customer. The pianist remained slumped over on the piano bench and ran his hand over his face in defeat, but I automatically glanced at the door and—you might not believe me, though I swear it’s the truth—standing there was a one-armed girl. She had a good-natured face, with brown eyes so soft I felt I could grow something in them. Standing in the doorway, framed by sunlight, she looked a little bit like a one-armed angel. She surveyed the shop, taking in the warped wooden floors; the cobalt blue paint peeling from the walls; the guitars, basses, banjos, and ukuleles hanging on racks and from the ceiling; several drum sets; the giant harp in the corner; the shelves and shelves of sheet music; my stand of guitar picks; and finally–a man in a white button down shirt and black trousers with his head bowed despondently over a shiny black baby grand piano.
When she saw him, a wave of confusion passed over her face. Or maybe it was concern—I’m not quite sure. Either way, she noticed him, and then walked over to a shelf close to his piano and began to flip through some music. After a minute, her curiosity got the better of her and she glanced over her shoulder at the man. I watched her face as her eyes alighted on his empty sleeve and suddenly widened in astonishment. She cautiously approached him. The man seemed a little surprised when she plopped onto the bench next to him with a smile.
“Lacrimosa?” she asked, glancing at his music, “I’ve played this before.” She placed her left hand on the keys and waited.
Now it was the man’s turn to be astonished. He looked at the empty sleeve of her sweatshirt and then up at her and then back again. A mixture of disbelief and joy showed on his face.
“Go on,” the girl gently urged.
The man sat up tall and excitedly straightened his bow tie. Beaming, he placed his hand back in position and turned to the girl, who hit the first notes. The man jumped in immediately after and the sad tune he played earlier suddenly took on new life. The girl played the deep rumbling notes that it had been lacking and now, it sounded like two birds in a rising flight—swooping and diving and looping around each other in a never-ending dance that would take them higher and higher until they were swallowed by the sun. To this day, I tell you, it is the saddest and most beautiful duet I’ve ever heard. He closed his eyes and swayed with the music, his fingers emotionally striking each key.
Another customer entered the shop, bringing in a slight breeze that ruffled her right sleeve and his left as they dangled uselessly side by side and the music of Mozart filled the air.