flash fiction (wc 1100) | setting : modern realist | form : relationship/psychological fiction
[originally published under the nom de plume John Avalréadd in the WVSC Kanawha Review literary magazine, 1993. Also published in the Milk & Ink online literary journal, 2010]
Amanda goose-stepped down the empty street, beady strings of water tracing each swing of her slick, white boots. She marched with a steady drumming, grinding twigs and bits of shingle into the wet·blackened concrete with each return stomp. Her dark raincoat flapped back and forth — now left, now right — first revealing the white shock of a boot then swallowing it again.
She’d see a full shingle torn from its rooftop slot, or a branch lying splay-end-up, and she’d slowly angle her march in that direction: moving in deliberately, mechanically, and gauging her step so she could send the debris spinning out of the street without missing her next step.
And, if she were lucky, a corner of shingle or a starved brown leaf would fall away just so in her path and she would grind it into the street, stomp! The crunch would break through the soft dripping, right in its place, right in the moment that kept steady the industrial rhythm of her boots.
There were patches of diamonds on the lawns, wet grass glistening where the light could reach it. The sun sifted through the clouds, brightening part of the world but leaving the rest dark and uncomfortable. Amanda forced a smile as she thought, it’s all water, bright and dark, but all the same.
She had once spilled lemonade on the page of a book and was shocked to find the same wet spot that seemed so dark sitting there in that old book, when she tore the page out (and before she could crush it into a ball) she saw light from her mother’s lamp shining through: that same spot was lighter than the rest of the page!
That’s water, she thought, and tried to laugh the way her father laughed when something was going on that she didn’t understand.
She watched the sunlight roll around in the slick folds of her black raincoat as she kicked, draining away down the creases as they swished back and forth, a wash of white reflection swirling around in her lap. That’s a wet raincoat, she thought. Black and white and all the same.
She kicked a silver door the wind had yanked from some mailbox and it grumbled and squealed across the concrete until, with a metallic pop, it came still in the gutter. She did not look at it, did not stop in her stomp-stomp clearing of the street. Instead, she searched for the next piece of garbage to boot out of the way.
Shingles and branches and mailbox doors, all garbage now. There was nothing in the gutter to look at anyway, nothing on the side of the streets at all really. Just empty lawns, mowed in secret, and windows with pretty yellow curtains and big solid doors. No one was outside but her. Rain or shine, day or night, all the same.
No dogs to complain at her stomping. No birds to remind her that the storm was over. No cats to kill the birds for their singing. No cats, she was sure.
She thought, maybe the birds all got blown away in the storm. Her mother said, it’s not safe for animals out in the storm, but she never believed anything her mother said, because her father would say, oh, that’s where animals are supposed to be, outside, don’t lie to the girl.
Cats in the house are always under your feet, always in the way. Of course, he was wrong too. It wasn’t safe for animals outside, she knew. Mothers and fathers, and all the same.
She wondered if the storm could have blown them both off into the sky like the birds, high up, up into the thundering darkness, only to fall, soaked and broken into the street. Kick! She booted a bicycle reflector, and it shimmered as it raced along, then vanished into the dark, churning hum of a storm drain.
Almost done, almost done, here was the house she knew had a door that opened, she knew what hid behind those pretty yellow curtains, even though they were taken down now so her father could block the gaping window with cardboard.
Each step up the sidewalk crunched glass and wood, but she did not kick it aside. She didn’t feel like cleaning anymore. Her legs were tired and the world was still a mess, with limbs and leaves and little silent pieces of those big silent houses where nothing mattered.
It was all the same.
She walked past her father, who was stapling cardboard to the window with a steady thump, thump, thump. Water seeped into the cardboard from the edges and through the staple holes, darkness crawling slowly into the pale brown. Her father moved around to staple the other side without looking up, softly whispering to the window and holding the staple gun delicately in both hands. Nothing was under his feet, nothing was in the way.
Below the window, all the garbage had been swept aside.
Amanda slipped through the open door and carefully raised the black raincoat over her head. The water dripped on her clothes as she lifted tho coat to its proper hook, and she watched the sky blue cloth turn black with wetness as she stepped out of her boots. All the same.
In the kitchen, her mother was washing something, her shoulder and arm spinning like a machine. A cake pan.
The cake sat, a dark lump on a plate, waiting to be iced over, but Amanda didn’t see the frosting anywhere. She didn’t look. She waited, watching the steady motion of her mother’s shoulder and listening to the swishing cycle of her hand in the pan. There was a sudden metallic rattle as her mother rinsed out the pan, then silence again as the faucet squeaked off.
“Hi, honey,” her mother wiped her hands dry on her jeans, “Mommy’s got to run to the store real quick for some icing. I’ll be right back, then you can have some cake.”
In a storm of snatching — a kiss on Amanda’s cheek, her keys, her purse, her grey jacket — she was gone. The kitchen was empty with only the quiet dripping of the faucet and the steady solemn hum of the refrigerator.
She didn’t even ask, Amanda thought. She sent me out looking for him and she didn’t even ask.
The refrigerator grumbled and began a deeper hum.
I should have dragged him here right back out of the gutter, all sticky and twisted, she thought, and dug her fingers into the cake’s dark flesh, digging a wound her mother could never ice over.