Flash fiction by Ashley McCurry
WELCOME TO EXIT TWELVE
I remembered to bring flowers this time. Our car creeps through the café drive-thru, and we’ll probably be told they’re out of oat milk, again. We always stop for a coffee run on the way back to my hometown.
“Can’t they just walk over to that grocery store and get some?” you always ask. I suggest we bring our own milk substitute and hand it to them at the window, next time.
We spend an extra twenty minutes at exit twelve, which I welcome with glee. I prepared myself for the trip by watching my favorite psychotherapist’s YouTube channel; apparently, malignant narcissists are just like the normal ones, but way worse.
My friend, whom I’ve only met online for some reason, is in Santa Fe watching a live performance of Welcome to Night Vale with her partner.
Relax. It’s Sunday! Never mind that looming electrical storm in the distance. You’ve earned this weekend, sister.
I run into the restroom while we wait for this guy to get his fourth drink through the window. His children are in the backseat, arms hanging from the windows, flapping haphazardly to make the car fly. They point and laugh at me as I pass by, a solitary middle-aged woman with wild humidity-infused hair, sprinting through the drizzle.
You say I’m such a good daughter for planning a visit today. But I don’t tell you about the time I argued that altruism is inherently selfish, in a college philosophy class. I won’t tell you because you think I “have the biggest heart,” but the truth is no one wants to find their chest infested with guilt and crawling with regrets while scrolling through social media at 3:00 am.
I dig through my purse to find the card and start to write a message at an empty table:
I’m the person I am today because of you.
Happy Mother’s Day.
One of those flying car kids comes in, and I duck out of the café in a panic. “They were out of oat milk again,” you say. “The guy at the window said it’ll kill you anyway because of the pesticides.”
Sheets of rain begin to pummel the car, and a bolt of lightning tears through the steel cloud cover. A woman shrieks in the vehicle beside us.
I sip my drink before we resume our journey. I think of mother’s milk and the corn syrup in my infant formula and baby calves torn from their mothers at factory farms. I think of how much Californian water was used to give me almonds today instead of oats.
PLEASE DO NOT STEP ON THE ANTS
Last night, I expected our evening walk to be as ordinary and mundane as usual. As we passed along our driveway toward the main road, we noticed an enormous anthill constructed over a thick crack in the pavement, alive with the bustle of streamlined, productive activity. The colony of ants marched with a clear sense of purpose that has always seemed to be lacking in my own life. I stared for a moment at the collective, communal work for the greater good, in awe that none of the ants questioned their lot in life or their integral role in the bigger picture. They paraded in tight linear formation, tiny pieces of bread and other starches in their mouths, oblivious to the giant gods looming above, surveying their domain.
I wondered how heavy those microscopic crumbs felt to them. Was it similar to when I had to carry multiple boxes of textbooks from my apartment, into your house, when we moved in together? My biceps and back ached for days.
You suddenly broke my concentration when I saw your leg rear back and, in one deft and unexpected motion, kick the anthill, collapsing the structure and sending frantic ants scurrying in every direction. I swear I heard their shrill screams hovering in the air. I felt like retching.
“Why the hell did you do that?” My scream joined the discord of insect wails on the sidewalk. The ants continued to swarm, disoriented and directionless, around their flattened colony.
“Why are you yelling at me like that?” you responded. “I didn’t know if it was still active. I just wanted to check. We don’t need this thing so close to the house anyway.”
“You just caused an apocalyptic event for these ants and don’t even seem to care. Your foot was an atomic bomb to them.”
You said I needed to calm down. That I was hysterical.
We stood there, staring at each other for a few moments, and eventually continued to walk toward the road, silence weighing heavily amid the space between us.
I once visited a Buddhist temple in a southern region of Brazil, and there were wooden signs along the footpaths that read: Por favor, não pise nas formigas. Those signs remained in the back of my mind for years and prompted me to try to save every stray moth, beetle, and stinkbug that happened to make its way into our home.
Until the time I found a spider in our mailbox a few years ago. I was too afraid to reach into the box to retrieve the mail, and in a panicked haze, I ran to the kitchen and found a bottle of insect spray. I marched back to the mailbox, armed with efficient weaponry, fiercely protective of my own safety. I braced myself for the next move with the ultimate rationalization: We can’t have dangerous creatures living in our personal spaces. It shouldn’t be here.
Without hesitation, I sprayed the spider with the toxic stream and instantly realized that it was a harmless jumping spider. It was, however, too late to retrace my steps and place the insecticide back under the sink. The damage had been done.
Horror blanketed us both as he paused there, stunned. Jumping spiders have humanoid faces with sad little mouths. This one had a particularly expressive face and almost appeared to sport a tiny bowler hat and shaggy beard. He looked directly into my eyes, stoic and pensive until the neurotoxins set in. He then began to jump violently in the confined space, overcome with the instinctual urge for survival. As the darkness at last approached, he lay still in that once safe, vast cavern that was not someone’s mailbox, to the spider.
When we returned from our walk last night, I went into the bedroom, locked the door, and searched, “What happens when an ant colony is disturbed?” on my phone. I learned that not only do ants have memories that last for decades, but they also experience loneliness after the loss of other colony members, resulting in a physiological stress response not unlike human heartbreak.
I went to visit the ruins along our driveway this morning, and one solitary ant made its way across the flattened hill. Tears filled the fissure in the concrete like a tributary.
I am broken. We are, perhaps, broken.
Ashley McCurry (she/her) is a speech-language pathologist and MFA student, currently residing in the Southeastern United States with her husband and three rescue dogs. Her work has appeared or is slated for publication in Bright Flash Literary Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Six Sentences, Microfiction Monday Magazine, FlashFlood Journal, The Dillydoun Review, Shirley Magazine, Pigeon Review, and others.
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela