Flash Fiction by Jan Stinchcomb
Ours Were the Cool Parents
Maybe you were in their classes. They taught Honors English at the high school and were famous for staying slim and good looking after all the other adults had become disgusting. They held hands whenever they walked across campus. My sister and I were famous as well, for being overweight with bad skin, and to make things worse, we were bad at English.
“Were you adopted?” a leggy blond asked me in the girls’ restroom when I was a freshman, her hot cinnamon breath like a slap.
I blinked, considering her question before I realized what was going on, but by then she’d walked away. I’ll bet you love Keats, I thought as she disappeared. Be careful with that urn. Later I would share my delayed comeback with my sister, Charlotte. I went to the mirror to check my face, greasy with a spray of angry red bumps on the left side, but otherwise snow white. I ran my hands over my hips. They didn’t seem so bad to me, but this was back before curves were a thing.
At home that night my anemic sylph mother drifted through the kitchen as she listed natural acne remedies. She was always encouraging me to try a fast, but when I did, I became so dizzy I had to lie down. Charlotte would make a display of fanning me while neither of our parents laughed.
My sister interrupted me one Saturday night while I was staring at an Emily Dickinson poem about death. I was supposed to analyze it for English, but I couldn’t understand why. What could I possibly add when Dickinson had already said everything? There were people who made a life of this, like my parents. I envied the kids I saw, on campus and sometimes in our living room, who could sit and rave about poetry until they worked themselves into a state of rapture. They were like churchgoers, but sexy. I really enjoyed it when they fought, wielding opinions like swords as they revived the old words of the long dead.
Charlotte closed my book and took my chin in her hand. “I suppose you know about the baby?”
For a second I wondered if our mother was going to have another child. Then I looked at Charlotte: her breasts were huge and her skin was glowing. I panicked. “Does Mother know?”
“Why should she? She’ll only tell me to get rid of it.”
“What do you think she’s going to do? Wrap it up in black silk and pretend it’s hers?”
“Of course not. Give me a second.”
I tiptoed upstairs to our parents’ bedroom door. I wanted to break the news to them but I lost courage. Instead I peeked, gothic heroine-style, through the keyhole. The tyrant queen stood naked in front of her full-length mirror while our father gazed at her in adoration.
I knew I couldn’t make them into the parents we needed.
I ran back downstairs. “What are we going to do? Do you want to keep it?”
Charlotte put her hands on her belly. “I can’t stay here. A baby would steal the spotlight.” She mimicked our mother: “That simply won’t do.”
The thought of losing her terrified me. “How far along are you?” I asked, to buy time so I could think. “Was it that boy in Chess Club?”
“How can I help, Charley?”
“Expose them. Denounce them.”
I nodded. I waited.
“Monday,” she said. “At school. In the cafeteria.”
I didn’t sleep much that weekend. Sunday morning came, then Monday. Then lunch. I could barely hold my tray in the cafeteria. I now had circles under my eyes to go with my bad skin. I scanned the crowd to find Charlotte.
She had joined the table where my parents gloried before their acolytes. Poor Charlotte, invisible but newly significant, with her bitter face and growing belly. Everyone ignored her.
I approached their table. My mother glanced over at me. I stood there, my macaroni and cheese sliding as my tray tilted precariously to the left.
“Sit down, darling,” my mother said, though no one made room for me.
“Mother, Father,” Charlotte began, “Jane has an announcement.”
I spoke my only truth: “Charlotte is going to have a baby.” I singled out my mother: “You’re a grandmother now, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Nothing!”
In response my mother did the unthinkable. She lit a cigarette in the school cafeteria and sat there, smoking as she examined me. Her eyes never left my blemished face. My father leaned into her and whispered something in her ear. Everyone at the groupie table turned to stare at me. I held firm, fighting maternal power. I could feel the hot brand of judgment. I was in the wrong, condemned for publicly spoiling my parents’ glamour.
Charlotte burst into tears and ran out of the cafeteria. I was so hungry I took my tray and sat down at a table by myself, where I ate the whole meal without stopping.
Charlotte disappeared from our lives for several months. She went and stayed with relatives in another state while finishing high school. All the while stories circulated about her moving away to have a baby where nobody knew her. My parents did nothing to counter the gossip, letting it run its course until it was a thorny weed thriving right in the middle of our front yard.
Alone in the house, without my sister, I held my pillow over my ears to drown out the sounds of two people happy to be alone in their own little world. The three of us limited ourselves to conversations that were safe, empty and unfailingly polite. At meals my parents looked right through me.
My letters to Charlotte went unanswered until the day a photograph arrived, for my eyes only. It was a girl, exactly like our mother, but plump and benevolent.
I packed my bags.
Jan Stinchcomb is the author of The Kelping (Unnerving), The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Find the Girl(Main Street Rag). Her stories have recently appeared in Atticus Review, Ligeia Magazine and Fractured Lit. A Pushcart nominee, she is featured in Best Microfiction 2020 and The Best Small Fictions 2018. She lives in Southern California with her family. Find her at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela.