MONDAY: Nothing

BY HARRY POSNER

Copyright is held by the author.

YOU REACH into the crib to pick up your shrieking daughter, the telephone receiver still bobbing at the end of its black spiral cord. The principal’s tinny voice trickling out of the earpiece: … minivan… inexpressible shock… if we can help in any way…

On the muted television screen the afternoon movie: Zombies go Hawaiian.

You hold your daughter tight to your breast, covering her tiny ears against the frantic shouts of the crossing guard, the raving screech of the minivan’s brakes; shielding her eyes against the sight of the bloody shroud that is her sister Cara’s dress, the Nancy Drew lunchbox leaning at a drunk angle against the curb.

… Mrs. Dutton?… are you there?

You place your baby, now calm, back in her crib. You walk to the telephone, bend down to pick up the receiver, and hang it on its cradle.

There is a tuna sandwich waiting on the kitchen table, chunks of pineapple in a little bowl. In the adjoining room, the walls are covered with Cara’s Miley Cyrus posters, a collection of Barbies lined up on the bright yellow bureau. Sparkle-art pinned to the bulletin board.

You sit on the couch and stare at the TV. On the screen the living dead dance stiffly beside the ocean, their garish shirts patterned with starfish and seaweed.

There is a faint smell of tuna and pineapple in the air. At the moment you have no appetite. But soon the aromas will draw you into the kitchen, and, mildly surprised, you will find a sandwich on the table and some pineapple chunks in a little bowl. You will eat the sandwich and the pineapple chunks, and you will think about the zombies in your living room. How hungry they’ll be, after all that dancing.

24 comments
  1. What Harry has done here with few words is remarkable. He is a truly gifted writer.

  2. There is an essential flaw with this story, and it ruins the whole thing: It would never be the school principal who told the mother her child had been killed by a car, and it would never have been done on the phone. This kind of thing is done in person by the police, who would’ve been called in anyway because of the accident.

  3. what is not said can be the most powerful………the zombies will never go we know and days will come when the Mother will be one of them………….this piece will haunt me and make me hold my Grandaughter closer than ever. You have captured the unthinkable loss of a child in the brief description of details of smell, sound, a poster shroud and lunchbox………the accident sight told in one crafted paragraph the most and the fact that in the midst of the most horrible tragedy juxtaposed in what should have been a safe zone (my daughter was struck in a cross walk by a mini van by an off duty police woman who was distracted — my daughter survived) tragedy forces humans go on automatic pilot — they do become zombies going through the motions blocking any feeling. This piece is very exquisitely written. I see the dangling telephone and hear the voice of the principal as I write this.

  4. Random Writer: I took the conversation on the phone not as the conversation that broke the news of her child’s death to the mother, but a phone call offering sympathy to the bereaved a couple of days later.

  5. Okay, I am going off the reservation here, but lately I’ve noticed a trend toward ‘dead children’ stories, not only here but on other literary sites. Now I know this is a heartfelt subject, and one I know all too well, but it is also an easy subject matter to stir the emotions of a reader. So, what am I trying to say: “No stories with dead kids, or dying kids, or kids in danger”? No. Not at all. I believe the subject matter of the story is subservient to the telling of the story. I may be just in want of a new way to deal with the loss of a child. It would be an interesting challenge for writers and perhaps an interesting theme for an anthology… I hope I didn’t offend. I did enjoy the word treatment in the story ‘Nothing.’ I also agreed with Random Writer’s observation regarding the logistical flaw.

  6. Harry captures, in a few hundred words, how life can go from “sparkle-art” to horrific loss in the time it takes to make a sandwich.
    Perhaps ‘Random Writer’ should suspend his/her disbelief more.

  7. Frank, RW. Re: Logistical flaws….where to start, where to end:
    Did Alice really fall down that tiny hole?
    Was there really a land of Oz?
    Did Banquo’s ghost really put in an appearance at dinner?
    Do animals really sing and dance?
    …and where does that music come from when ‘the hills are alive…?
    If, following, your arguments, literature has to be ‘logistical’ …..we’re done for..!

  8. Sorry Harry, I’m with Frank and Random Writer on this one. Did the mother witness the accident or did she hear about it on the phone? You can read it either way, and for me that needless obscurity was distracting. Then there is the whole dead child thing…a bit too easy as a way to pull readers’ heartstrings. I can see it as part of a larger story that’s going somewhere, but to what purpose in a standalone 300 word sketch? And does anyone still have a phone with a spiral cord?

  9. Dear Jazz, with respect you are shooting at an Aunt Sally. There is a complete difference between imaginative fiction where the “willing suspension of disbelief” is expected and accepted, and simple holes in a storyline that don’t add up and distract the reader.

  10. To me the story is more poetry than prose. At first I was confused by the narrative flow. The story presented more questions than answers, but then I was looking at it from a linear perspective. But, thinking it over, I realize that the story is a reflection of a tragedy — like a dream that contains both actual and abstract elements all mixed in together. Perhaps that is the only way we can handle tragedy.

  11. Dave, if you see no purpose in flash fiction why, then, do you or the rest of us willingly submit it?
    I don’t believe that Harry was trying to “pull readers’ heart strings” he was simply observing that life as we know it can turn on a dime.

  12. Georgia: I take your point — but that’s not how I read it, given that the principal mentions a minivan. It would take a pretty heartless/stupid/clueless person to mention the manner of death in a sympathy call.

    Jazz: I’ve heard it said — and I subscribe to this – that writers need to be careful of the things they write, so as not to kick their readers out of the “dream” of their story. When a story begins by kicking me out, I have a problem with it.

  13. Thank you, all, for your comments. Really, how often does a writer get to see the honest push/pull of readers’ responses to their work? I’m relatively new to the world of flash fiction, and so I’m still in learning mode. Thanks again for taking the time to respond to this story. It can only get better as a result.

  14. Random Writer: Writers don’t need to be careful of the things they write — they need to be careful of the way they write. It sounds like you’re confusing subject matter with craft — probably not your intention.

    Harry’s a good writer — read ‘A Slant of Sunshine’ on postcardshorts.com.

  15. Random Writer,
    I didn’t get kicked out of this story; I understood it from the very beginning. Having said that, let’s agree it’s all been a lively debate.
    Until next time.

  16. Regarding logistics and fantasy and speculative fiction: I believe logic applies more so in fantasy and speculative fiction. The more fantastic the setting, the more order required to keep the fantastic fictional world real in the reader’s mind. Otherwise, the fictional world becomes chaotic and without consequence. Even the universe that Rabbit Hole inhabits must have an internal structure and order.

  17. after thought ………….grief of the worst kind creates a surreal time …memories become distorted- knowing this allowed me to accept what might be perceived as logistical flaws………I have read this piece over and over and feel the same level of empathy each time — bravo

  18. Just looking through the comments, after reading the piece…. I think there’s no question the word use here is good, but frankly I agree with those who say there are logistical flaws, and I agree with Frank about needing a fresh take on “dead child” stories.

    If — God forbid! — our daughter had been killed a couple of days before, as is suggested by the comment that the principal was calling with condolences, I certainly wouldn’t be watching a zombie movie on TV — and I hope to Christ I wouldn’t be all alone with the baby. It’s pretty clear the principal is calling with the news, which truly wouldn’t happen. (For one thing, it’s not in their job description.)

    But I think the thing that made me most uncomfortable was the use of second-person narration. It put the story too close to the bone, logical inconsistencies and all. In that regard, it’s well done — but it doesn’t do anything for me apart from instil horror.
    If anyone wants to read a more positive take on a dead child — in this case, a dying one — I can recommend “Ways to Live Forever” by Sally Nicholls. Very touching and very sensitively rendered, told from the POV of an eleven-year-old who is dying of leukemia. At first I wasn’t sure I’d like it — but it won me over completely with its delicate introduction of secondary themes of hope and peace.

  19. This should be read as part of my above comment.There are logical inconsistencies and inaccuracies in this story that could have been cleared up by the author. I know from experience it better serves the writer’s ego if he or she catches them rather than the readers.
    For me, this is an example of an good idea not really being “thought through.” There’s a better story here somewhere.

  20. Charles: You are correct. ‘Slant of Sunshine’ is a fine story. One of the reasons is that in fewer than 250 words it told a story, had a beginning, middle and an end, and touched my heart, which is cased in a strong steel shell. The use of 2nd person can be quite effective — in small doses, like 250 words, no more.

  21. With regards to Harry’s story, and after 2O comments (a record, Nancy?) isn’t it just time as the the lyrics in the hit song from Disney’s movie “Frozen” to just….. “Let It Go”

  22. Damn, now I have “Let It Go” playing on a loop in my head….!
    In my travels around CommuterLit I saw a story with 16 comments — not too shabby — but then many were by the author, responding to comments by readers. I hope Jazz isn’t trying to shut down commentary? If there are still things people wish to say about a given story, surely they can go ahead and post ’em. What about people who read this story weeks or months — or even years! — from now? :o) The beauty of e-publishing.

  23. Random Writer
    It was never my intent to shut down commentary and I am in total agreement that good stories are worth revisiting.

  24. Wow, what a lively forum. Upon first reading, my first thought was WTF, then after re-reading (which I rarely do — it doesn’t grab the first time I don’t usually go back for more punishment) but the comments resonate with me — no more dead kids please and please writers check your work — the emotion is there but the details don’t ring true — the author messed with us.

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