Flash Fiction

Papercuts

(Trigger warning: self-harm)

If I were a doctor, a surgeon, and a patient came in with a gunshot wound, I think I would know what to do. Where to focus my concern. If a patient came in with shrapnel, tiny bits of metal embedded throughout her body, my path might not be so clear. Which piece was embedded the deepest? Which piece was causing the most damage? Which was safest to remove, and which would have to be left in place to minimize further risk?

And then there’s torture.

Waterboarding was big in the news not too long ago. Simulated drowning. Or something like that. It sounded horrific. A rush of water, the feel of impending death. Easy to understand the fear. Maybe a little harder to understand that other water torture. The ancient one with the steady, continuous, relentless drip. Drip by drip. Falling on your forehead. Drip by drip. Forever.

These are the thoughts I have as I sit alone, in a dim room, at 2am. On a school night. These are the images that float through my mind while everyone else sleeps.

I could do something. Get up. Move. Watch TV. Read a book. Go to sleep. But the thoughts are compelling. The thoughts feel important. And my body feels like lead. Disconnected from my direction.

There are other thoughts as well. Shadow thoughts. Shadow images. Hiding just out of reach but influencing those thoughts of damaged flesh and water-drenched torture. I can’t see them, so my mind turns over the thoughts I can see. The drips of water, the running blood.

I want to move, but I can’t.

My arms do not respond. My legs do not respond.

I feel nothing in my body. There are only the thoughts. Thoughts and a vague sense of short, shallow breath. Breath that speeds. Breath that rasps.

Time passes and there is a paring knife in my hand.

I can’t see the shrapnel under my skin, but I know it is there. The breath is fast. The room is dizzy. The pain is not physical. The pain is deeper. The pain overwhelms. The shadow images crowd in, pressing, crushing, even when I cannot see past their darkness.

The tip of the knife pricks my thigh. High up. Just below the hem of my shorts. It prods, searching, but there is no sensation. There is nothing beneath my skin. No feeling as the blood rises to the surface. But there are small marks now. Bright red.

The lack of pain, of any physical sensation, is unsettling. Unreal. My eyelids blink against confusion as the pieces begin to fit together.

I am holding a knife.

My leg is bleeding.

I drop the knife and I sink to the floor.

Coffee for Two

Kyle and Lisa sat on the weathered bench, paper coffee cups in hand, looking out over the small lake. They were silent and it wasn’t a comfortable silence. It was the kind of brittle quiet that strains the air until it threatens to crack like glass.

It was bad, this quiet. As Lisa had known it would be.

She had known from the moment Kyle entered the café. She had known from his thin smile and from the way his eyes looked no higher than her cheekbones. She had known from the way he said they should get their coffee to go.

He had wanted to keep this short and be on his way, now that they’d met in person.

That’s the way it goes, Lisa told herself, as she gripped the coffee she didn’t want. He’d expected someone prettier, or thinner, or taller.

But here they were, in silence, the coffee burning through its cardboard sleeve and their conversation stalled before it had begun. She lifted the cup to her lips, then quickly lowered it, not wanting to be burned.

A pair of ducks drifted into view from around the bend in the lake, soon followed by three more. Lisa watched the odd duck out, a female without a mate, and frowned at her steaming coffee.

“Ducks,” Kyle said into the quiet, before awkwardly clearing his throat.

“Yes,” Lisa replied, thinking back over their earlier texts. The sarcastic jokes and witty banter.

“Sorry about this,” Kyle suddenly said, making Lisa’s hand tighten on her paper cup. “About leaving the café like that.”

“It’s okay,” Lisa sighed, ready to drop her coffee in the nearest trash bin and go their separate ways.

“It was just so crowded in there,” Kyle added in a softer voice. “I don’t do well in crowds.”

“Oh,” Lisa hesitated, chancing a sideways glance to see that he was still looking straight across the lake.

“Or in person, I guess.”

Lisa saw his face flush, then turned her gaze back to the ducks, giving him space.

“That’s okay.” She felt her shoulders soften, along with the melting air. “I like watching the ducks.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Lisa leaned lightly back and brought her arm down to her leg, letting the heat of the coffee cup seep into her jean-covered thigh. She watched the ducks gliding across the lake and waited for her coffee to cool.

The Season of Giving

Stella sat on the floor, her back propped against the leather couch and a sea of color spread before her. Rolls of wrapping paper stacked to her left, scissors and tape to her right. Papery department store bags stood tall, their curved handles defying gravity, while glossy plastic bags slumped by their sides in slippery piles.

Stella’s gaze roved slowly over the array of colorful bags, trying to remember what item—what carefully chosen gift—was inside each one. Carols played through the phone by her side, muffling the sound of snoring coming from the bedroom down the hall.

There was an open space in front of Stella. An expanse of tan carpet waiting for her to get to work. It called to her. It whispered wordless invitation that made her reach out one hand and then the other. She pressed her palms into the carpet, spreading her fingers wide. She folded forward, over her crossed legs, to drop her forearms into the soft pile.

As she breathed into the stretch, her lower back lengthened, finding release. Her vision blurred into the tan fibers. The music brought her back to the holidays of her childhood, but without solid memory. It was all a jumble of pine and tinsel, lights and garland, frosted cookies, and mugs of hot chocolate.

And then, there was was the hug.

It came to Stella in a rush. The warmth of her cheek against a soft breast, the strength of arms wrapped tight around her slim body, the scent of her mother’s delicate perfume. There was no age to the memory. No location or context. There was only the feel, the substance, of being back in her mother’s arm.

She tried to hold on to the sensation. She tried to will it back when the moment had passed. But it was gone.

Stella pressed her forehead into the carpet, filled her lungs, and released her breath. She sat up, slowly, and blinked at the bags around her. At the wrapping paper and the waiting workspace.

After a few minutes, Stella shut off the music. She rested her hands on her still flat stomach, wondering when it would begin to round. Wondering when others would see what she already felt deep inside.

Stella smiled at the sound of snoring coming from down the hall. She got to her feet and padded softly toward the bedroom.

The wrapping could wait.