Flash Fiction by JEFF FRIEDMAN
Living with a Monster
“I’m a monster,” Wilhemina says, standing in the glare of the kitchen lights. She has claws that resemble small paring knives and wings that surround her like a luxuriant fur coat. She may be a monster, but she is very beautiful, her face hard like a mirror, her eyelashes long and lush, and her dark hair falling to her knees. “It is possible,” I reply, “that everyone is a monster.” She raises her claw and slashes the air. “Not everyone rips apart their lovers,” she says. “Not everyone eats them.” “I’m still here,” I counter. “You haven’t devoured me.” She smiles and touches my cheek with her claw lovingly, though she draws a little blood. “It’s only a small cut,” I say. I wash my cheek with warm soapy water, blot it dry with a paper towel and then I press a cotton pad against the cut. “It’s dangerous living with me,” she says. “I’ll take my chances,” I answer. “You seem very sure of yourself,” she says. “Perhaps you are a monster.” She searches my face, considering this possibility. “But you don’t look like one.” She brushes past me to open the refrigerator door. Peering inside, she is not happy with what she sees. “What’s for dinner?” I ask. “You,” she answers and shuts the refrigerator, her face radiantly pale, ravenous.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
You say, “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” but what if there is no end? We’ve been in it for days, weeks, months. Perhaps even a year has passed since we entered. “There was a light that led us into the tunnel,” I answer. “How do you know that the light at the end of the tunnel won’t lead us someplace worse?” We’re on foot, having run out of gas a long time ago—our car abandoned like so many others. We still walk at a brisk pace, but we both have begun to tire. “Shh,” you say. “Listen.” I listen for footsteps and the sound of breath. There are others in the tunnel, but we avoid each other as much as we can in the dark, though occasionally we bump into someone or someone bumps into us. No one stops to talk. We all just keep going. When you lead, I put my hand on your shoulder, and when I lead, you do the same. This way, we’ve stayed together. I imagine the sun on our faces, and birds flying into the trees. I imagine lying in the soft grass and sleeping with you next to me. “If we keep walking, we’ll come to the end of the tunnel,” you say, but now I can’t even remember entering a tunnel. For all I know, we’re walking under collapsed stars and the darkest moon in the universe.
A mother weeps for her daughter, who has suffered more than she can take; and the daughter weeps for her daughter not yet educated in pain; and the granddaughter weeps for her doll, the hair ripped and shredded, the body broken into pieces, the pieces collected like mementos. A little boy cups dirt in his hands, weeping for his dog, whose ashes have been scattered in the yard. His sister weeps for the damaged wing inside her chest, barely lifting. And a husband weeps for his wife, who won’t recover; and the wife weeps for her husband, who lives with a hole in his heart; and the hole swallows love and sorrow, weeping as it feeds itself.
She began slipping away from me—first an eyelash, then a strand of hair, first a word or phrase, then a plethora of sentences left unsaid, first a thought, then an island floating in the eye. Her silhouette evaded me like a forgotten name. “What’s wrong,” I asked. “Nothing,” she answered, but my fingertip lost the curves of her body and then her body lost its curves. There were drawers left open, and clothes folded neatly that I had not folded. The traces of her scent vanished from the sheets and pillows, from the chairs and couches, from the clothing that hung in the closet. The ghosts of orchids hung their heads from the frozen pots. I heard her walking toward me. As shadows emptied into shadows, she returned to fix her hair in her mirror or smooth her face with cream. “I’m still here,” she said, “can’t you see?” But her breath faded from the mirror, and soon even that was gone.
My Sister’s Gift
We’re in the living room when my sister coughs up another fish. “Get that fish,” my mother orders, “and throw it in the ice box.” The fish flips and flops and slips out of my grasp, but eventually I trap it with a small metal wastebasket. I dump the fish in the freezer with the other fish my sister has coughed up. In the living room, my mother is reading the same book she is always reading, and my sister lies on the couch, perhaps fatigued from letting out another fish. “What’s the matter with her?” I ask. “Nothing,” my mother answers. “She just occasionally coughs up a fish.” My sister pops up with a pillow in her hand. “Mother says I’m gifted.” She giggles, proud of herself. “Don’t you think we should do something about this,” I ask my mother. She inserts her bookmark and places the book on the stand and then removes her black cat-eye glasses. “Why,” she says, “the fish are pretty good, dinner-sized and tasty. Your sister is saving us money on our grocery bill with her gift.” “What if she coughs up a fish at school,” I ask. “Everyone will ridicule her mercilessly.” My sister punches me on the arm softly. “No, they won’t. You should see some of the things they cough up.” My mother tells me to mind my own business and that it wouldn’t hurt me to contribute something to the family budget. Then I feel a tickling in my throat and a cough trying to leap out, so I keep my mouth shut for the rest of the morning.
JEFF FRIEDMAN’s tenth book, Ashes in Paradise, will be published by Madhat Press in Spring 2023. Friedman’s poems, mini stories and translations have appeared in American Poetry Review, Poetry, Poetry International, New England, Review, Flash Fiction Funny, American Journal of Poetry, Cast-Iron Aeroplanes That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 American Poets on their Prose Poetry, Flash Fiction Funny, Flash Nonfiction Funny, Hotel Amerika, Best Microfiction 2021 and 2022, and The New Republic. He has received an NEA Literature Translation Fellowship and numerous other awards. Meg Pokrass and Friedman’s co-written collection of fabulist microfiction, The House of Grana Padano, has recently been published by Pelekinesis.
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela