The Window Washer: Flash Fiction

Billie adjusts her harness and hoists the rake higher, aiming for the sheaf of ice that had accumulated on one of the skyscraper’s uppermost eaves. An occasional circus performer, she has no fear of heights. She doesn’t even mind most of the people in the building, who stare and point whenever she hauls the platform up the side to wash the windows or knock the icicles down. Sometimes she’ll put on a bit of a show for them, twirling away from the platform or doing a somersault.

Not today. It’s too damn cold, the ice too thick, and she doesn’t like the way the wind bangs the platform against the façade. Thank God for good support hardware. She knocks the rake against the eave and the ice cracks and falls, then she lowers herself to the next floor that needs her attention. A knot forms in her stomach.

It’s his floor.

She doesn’t know his name, but she’s seen him around. While she was getting her rigging together. When she’d taken a coffee break at the lobby café. He’s handsy with women, and they don’t like it, and when they try to dissuade him, he laughs. She’d caught one of them crying, one of those random comfort-a-stranger moments, and Billie shared her tissue and a shoulder. He’d threatened to fire the woman, in a veiled sort of way, and her complaints to Human Resources had been buried.

Even Billie is no stranger to his game. Yeah, there was always some guy who liked to play with the girl on the flying trapeze. Blow a kiss, give her a flirty smile, safe behind his window. This one… she could identify his privates at five paces. And she’d reported him, too. But his floor was high enough that those complaints also went missing.

Today he sees her, and grins slowly. Stepping closer, one hand finding his belt buckle. And she finds something with one hand, too. The lipstick in the pocket of her coveralls. Big and bold, she writes “SEX ABUSER” backwards on the glass, gives him a wave, and bashes the ice above his window. She knows she’ll get fired for this, but she doesn’t care.

She can always run away and join the circus.

Advertisements

Winter

She’d been writing articles about softball leagues and fishing gear and how to buy a barbecue grill, so when she looked up and saw the snow falling, the sight perplexed her. For a moment, she’d been lost in the promise of spring, and the dancing flakes and the chill in her feet felt like the ultimate betrayal. A joke on her, a slave to the almighty editorial calendar, always having to think three months ahead. If only real time could move like that. Fly past the difficult moments, the painful confrontations. The grief. The grief never moved. It sat like an uninvited guest who pawed every knickknack and drank your good scotch but would not take the hint to leave. Feeling leaden, she rose from her chair, stretched the creaks from long-suffering muscles and tendons, and put the kettle on. There, she felt grounded, realigned in time. But too fast, so fast she felt a bit lightheaded, and gripped the handle more tightly. He’d always been the one to put the kettle on. He saw to her comfort, poking his head into her room to see if she was too cold or too hot, wanted something from the store, or a cup of tea. She’d snapped at him, then. For taking her out of whatever she was writing, wrenching her out of the focus she’d needed to produce five hundred words on a myriad of topics, for which she was paid a ridiculously small sum. Articles that were easily forgotten; money that was quickly spent. Again she regretted each sharp look, each groan of frustration, each shouted “What?” when he’d tap-tap on the door, or peer in like a small child, hoping and not hoping to disturb her. Time she would never get back. Apologies she would never get to deliver. The snow had stolen him. Because she was living her editorial calendar life, she hadn’t responded to his whisper that he was going into town. She hadn’t answered the phone. Didn’t know he’d gotten stuck. And only learned about the accident when the police banged on her door. She slapped the kettle on the stove and, mouth frozen in anger, shoved her feet into his boots, always left by the laundry room, and stumbled out into the winter that also would not leave. She cursed the snow, the sky, the icicles hanging from the eaves like a Yeti’s fangs. She snapped the closest one she could reach and hurled it javelin style toward the trees, as if this was a monster she could stab. But it fell short and only landed with a muffled “ssshhh” halfway between the wellhead and the small red maple he had planted last spring. Crying tears of anger and frustration and loss, she shuffled toward the tree, stroked the bare branches with her bare hands, and sank to her knees in the snow. “I’m sorry.” She said it louder. Then she aimed it to the sky, and the only response was the fat, icy flakes that painted her face and sifted into her hair. When she could no longer feel her fingers, she went inside, and reheated the kettle, and began to write about winter. And snow. And icicles like monsters’ teeth. Spring would come, in time.

Silent Night: Flash Fiction

I did not want to be afraid. It was a beautiful evening, not so very cold, and the snow fell in tiny shimmering flakes, just like the first Christmas that Mama Svetlana and I lived in New York. She had taken a break from cooking in her restaurant and we saw the big tree in Rockefeller Center, all lit up and shining. But there was no tree this year. It was no longer allowed. By order of the government, there were to be no lights other than those that were absolutely necessary for public safety. Lights made for crowds which made for tempting targets, or this is what they claimed. So as I walked home, all I had was the snow. And a terrible feeling that I had been followed. I saw nothing, nobody out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was my imagination. Still, Mama Svetlana says that if I feel afraid, and she is out of town, to come to the restaurant and ask one of the men to walk me back to the apartment.

I knew all the men there. From the busboys to the waiters to the Russian businessmen who always took up the round table in the back corner and talked of things that I was not supposed to be hearing. But I happened to arrive when Alexey the dishwasher was due for a break, so he threw on his jacket and said, “I walk you, da?”

I nodded and followed him out. I felt comfortable around Alexey. Not just because he was big and could look intimidating. Or because he was good-looking with nice blue eyes but not so handsome as to make me nervous. But because he was only a few years older than me, and like me, his English was also not very good. So I did not feel the pressure to make conversation. He would always see me not just to the building but up to the apartment door and sometimes inside, to make sure it was safe. I thought that excessive, but gentlemanly, and I offered him tea or a snack, because that is what Mama Svetlana would have wanted me to do for a guest in our home. Usually he would decline, fumbling through enough English for me to feel reassured that it was because he had to get back to the restaurant, and not because I was a burden to him.

That evening, he accepted a cup of tea and some butter cookies that I had baked the night before. They were my favorite. And, it seemed, his too. Soon, though, he made his excuses, and when he reached for his coat, I saw the handle of a gun sticking out of the inside pocket.

I nearly dropped my teacup and pointed toward the firearm. “You need a gun to walk me home?”

“Is not safe,” he said, looking almost apologetic—for the political situation in New York, for the secret immigration police that pulled up in their black SUVs and took people away. Like our neighbor, Mrs. Gonzalez, and her three children.

“But I am legal,” I said. Mama Svetlana had adopted me in London, and we had the proper paperwork to live and work in the US. Even though she had not renounced her Russian citizenship and I… Well, I was not quite sure where I stood. My father was Austrian and my mother a Syrian refugee. But what more ideal kind of American than one who carried the genes of so many civilizations?

He cleared his throat, shifted his eyes left then right as if deciding what and how to tell me. “You are daughter of Russian woman with powerful friends,” he explained. “You make target.” That silenced me. My heart was doing circus tricks, along with my stomach. I thought I might throw up. Then he put his hand over mine. “I not say this to scare you, Anya. I say this so you pay attention.”

That made me angry, and I pulled my posture up straighter. “I don’t pay attention? I have been paying attention my entire life.” I told him what it had been like to grow up in a country in which it was not safe to be a Middle Eastern refugee. I told him about how my parents had died. How Mama Svetlana had adopted me as her own. I even told him what I heard at the restaurant, that some of Mama Svetlana’s friends—the Russian businessmen—have been talking about a plot to undermine the American government and one of them went on in quite some detail about how it could be done. Alexey listened to my barrage of English—very patiently—but when I talked about the Russian businessmen, his eyes iced over.

“You should not listen to these men,” he said. “They are fools with not much better to do with their time.”

I felt afraid again. Of the tone in Alexey’s voice. Of the men. Of the horrible things they had said. Even if they were fools.

Perhaps Alexey saw that on my face, and he pressed a warm hand to my cheek. “Do not let them scare you, Anya. Everything will be fine. Everything will be…as it should be.”

I wanted to bathe in his reassurances, but a shiver went through my body just the same.

We made a bargain that evening. While the lights were out and the snow came down and he ate the rest of my butter cookies. He said he would keep me safe. He said he would not tell Mama Svetlana I had been eavesdropping. For giving me all of this, what he asked for in return was my silence.

I nodded. What else could I have done?

“You are good girl,” he said. “There is no reason to be afraid.”

Then he kissed my forehead, transferred the gun to his front coat pocket, and left.

I peeked through the blinds and watched him disappear into the snowy night. Despite what he had said, I felt more afraid than ever. This time, for all of us.

Hartford: Flash Fiction

The hamster could be dead for all she knew. She longed to unzip her coat and check the coffee can for signs of life, because it was cold as hell in Hartford with an icy mix of snow and sleet peppering her face and neck and finding the gaps between her sneakers and socks. But she was afraid that if she stopped to look, either she’d find a dead hamster or a very live one that might escape and die from exposure. Or she’d end up murdered by some vagrant in the switching yards at two in the morning. Even before she’d had this thought of the hamster he’d given her—who gives someone a rodent for Christmas without even asking?—her boyfriend had been a good twenty yards ahead of her, head down, hands in his pockets, loping along like he went for long walks through the snow every night. Now he was even farther, a dark blur in the distance. She hurried to catch up, called his name but he didn’t answer. He was angry, and that’s what he did when he was angry. As if it were her fault he’d read the bus schedule wrong and there were no connections to Boston on holidays. As if it were her fault the only hotel in reasonable walking distance didn’t have any vacancies and the less-reasonable one was two miles from the bus station and the cab company didn’t answer their phone. As if the fate of the hamster were her fault, too. Again, she called his name. He stopped. Turned.

“You’re slow, woman.” He sounded like his father.

“It’s cold,” she said.

Even his grin looked like his father’s. Mean around the edges. “Then walk faster.”

He started telling her a story. No apologies for his silence, for ignoring her. The stories always had dragons in them, and princesses, and he pulled them out of his pocket to pass the time while they waited for buses, or during the long stretches when they were hitchhiking and no cars would come along. This was one she’d heard before, about a princess who ends up rescuing the dragon, and he’d told it to her the night they’d first met. It charmed her, then. But it was cold and late and while the charm was wearing thin, she didn’t have the courage to face the silence. He stretched the story out for the rest of the walk, disappeared while she laid her credit card down for the room, began a new tale in the creaky elevator ride up to their floor.

Her Christmas present was still alive. But something inside her wasn’t. The right words never seemed to come when he shone his blue eyes and stories on her. Only while he slept was there room for her. In repose his mouth turned into a scowl, exactly like his father’s. When he fell asleep that night, in a hotel room she couldn’t afford, she started what would be a series of notes, first to herself and finally to him, in which the princess rescues herself. And the hamster.

Day of the Dead: Flash Fiction

A visit to a neighbor’s house and an offering in the dark inspired this piece, which I wrote for this week’s 2-Minutes-Go. There’s some lovely writing going on. Maybe you’ll want to visit…read, comment, write. However the spirit moves you.

—–

The night is dark and cold, the full moon hidden behind a bank of clouds, and the glow in the distance calls to you. You are so weary, and the warm light is a beacon for your sorrow, a balm for your loss, a sleepwalker’s companion. Pinpricks of dancing candle flames form the arms of the cross extending to the walls of the shrine. You are late to the offerings; the shelter is quite full. You remember coming here before, and what you brought. You lit a candle for her, called her name, set down a small token that reminded you of her. Almost by rote you left your house on the first night of the Day of the Dead with something of hers in your pocket. A dried blossom, a poem, a picture she would have found amusing. Tonight you have nothing, because everything of her is now gone. You think of what you could have brought. The romance novel she urged you to read, every time you visited. The nail polish bottles she insisted you take, although you never wore it. All gone now. The house isn’t even there anymore. But this shrine is. It’s quiet; too late for visitors. You’ve always come late, to have your privacy, to say the things you never had the courage to before. A different thought is on your lips this night as you approach. “You want to know why I left him.” Silence. The candles flicker. There are no answers. At least, there are no good answers. No undoing what has been done. You can now only hope for forgiveness, and that he might find something good enough about life to continue. Maybe he too felt the tug to return to this place, and you scan the offerings for remembrances he may have brought. There are photos of people you don’t recognize. Tiny Bibles and teddy bears and… You bring a hand to your neck. The strand of pink-tinted fake pearls you once adored lay among some drawings you remember giving him, the copy of The Velveteen Rabbit you loved until it was nearly falling apart and…a wedding ring. Yours. The anguish scares you backward, out of the sheltering walls, and you wail into the night.

Olga

Growing up in a tiny village on the Russian steppes, where sometimes not even the wheat would grow, left Olga little to feel hopeful for, but when the odd, small airplane fell from the sky, its cargo still intact owing to some engineering genius, she felt like the God she had not been allowed to believe in had smiled upon her.

She looked left, then right, then up into the partly cloudy afternoon. The only witnesses to what had just happened were the hawks that circled overhead, hoping to swoop down for a rodent tempted by the scatter of wheat gone to seed. She snuck up on the wreck, knelt before it, breath held as if some alien being would burst out and consume her.

But it made no noise. There were some markings on the broken craft that she didn’t understand, some crooked letters that didn’t look like the Cyrillic her uncle had taught her. Similar markings were duplicated on the padded carton attached to the device. Curiosity overwhelmed her caution, and she used the end of her scythe to remove the packaging first from the metal framework and then to open the box itself.

She sat back on her heels, unsure of what to make of the second box fitted into a crumpled nest of paper. There was a picture on the box—pretty people staring at a screen and looking happy, and she didn’t know what to make of that either. It was nothing like their old television set. But somehow an instinct told her that one, this thing that had dropped from the sky was something magical; and two, it was something she wanted to run inside and show her uncle.

He was fixing a window in the living room, and in the background droned the one channel they could receive on their tiny old television. His eyebrows rose at the sight of her bursting into the house, for she was normally a quiet girl who did not slam doors. Breathlessly she pushed the box toward him and told him what had happened, and after a moment he relieved her of her burden and set it on the table.

But he didn’t look happy.

“Uncle, what is it?” He had been in the army before settling down to farm, before her mother took sick and sent her to live with him, and he knew far more about the world than she did. “And why did it crash in the field?”

“You left it out there?” He stood up suddenly, frowning. Before she could answer he was on his feet and heading for the door. “Then you will help me,” he said over his shoulder. “And we will tell no one about this. No one, do you hear me?”

Her throat constricted, so she could only nod as she followed him out.

They made quick, silent work of carrying the mangled plane into the shed, of breaking it into pieces. She was afraid to ask why they were doing this, afraid of his tight mouth and narrowed eyes. He sent her to her room when they returned, and when she was called down for supper, the small, magic box was nowhere to be seen.

“I got rid of it,” he said finally. “It’s for the best. Beware of these new devices, Olga. You are a very special girl, and we don’t want them to find you.”

The Council: Flash Fiction

The five men entered the exclusive club through the back door and did not need to be introduced nor shown the way to their private room. Each man’s drink of choice arrived moments after he sat down. One Diet Coke, one frosty draft, one sweet tea, one decaf, one vodka martini. The greetings were more somber, the smiles slower. Prior meetings had been, if not happier, at least more convivial occasions. The men would compare experiences and gray hairs, ask after each other’s families, show off pictures of grandchildren, suggest ways they could help raise money for disaster relief in poor countries. But this was not one of those meetings. This was a problem that the Council had tackled only once in their long and storied history, but these members had never faced it before.

Each lifted his glass in a silent toast. The first sip a kind of ceremony. Slow, calculating, bracing. When all the beverages were back on the table, the eldest—by only four months—spoke, his quiet crackle of a voice and decades of experience commanding the room, making them lean closer to hear.

“Thank you for coming. Assume you’ve received and read your briefing packages.”

The men nodded.

“Knew you would have, just wanted to confirm. Based on that, our prior conversations between and among, and the grave situation we are facing, thought it might be prudent for us to sit down and get on the same page.”

The men nodded.

“And want to add first, you two”—he waved a wizened, liver-spotted hand toward the draft of beer and the sweet tea—“excellent job speaking out. Know it’s not everyone’s wheelhouse to even whisper publicly about the new guy, but appreciate that you did. Kind of softens the target.”

The man behind the draft beer looked especially pained.

“Yes, Forty-four. Is there something you’d like to say?”

The tall, elegantly dressed man cleared his throat. “I’m as concerned as all of you,” he said. “And maybe for a few reasons, I have more call to be—with the exception of Forty-two, I can imagine.”

Forty-two, the ruddy man behind the Diet Coke, waved a hand. “No worries, brother. I wasn’t crazy about being back in that fishbowl again, know what I mean?”

Forty-four nodded, with a wry half-smile, and continued, gesturing toward the packet in front of him. “But pulling this trigger—literally, pulling this trigger–seems a little extreme. I was hoping we could achieve a more tenable outcome if we work at it from the inside. We still have connections in high places. Operation Twenty-five looked like a viable option. I do believe that our founding fathers, in their foresight and wisdom, would have thought that amendment to be a necessary failsafe, in the event. And I do think, and I think we are all in agreement, that this is, without a doubt, an event.”

“Yes, we can definitely agree about the importance of action,” Thirty-nine said, his voice a mere wisp with a Southern accent. “But I fear the damage he could do in the time it would take to invoke the twenty-fifth.” He tapped the folder. “And we are all running out of time. So it is my reluctant but necessary call that we go forward.”

Forty-three gave Forty-one the side eye. “And that injector gizmo in the Oval Office chair…it really will look like a heart attack?”

Forty-one raised a brow at his son. “That’s what J. Edgar Hoover told me.”

Silence fell over the table, and one by one, the men nodded.

Off the Grid: Flash Fiction

My work boots crunch over the trail, navigating exposed roots and rocks and branches. The crickets and cicadas sing alternating choruses, joined by birdsong and the rush of the swollen creek and the everpresent background duet of chainsaws and helicopters. I hear that sound in my dreams, an earworm I can’t shake—whine, chop-chop; whine, chop-chop—as I eat my cold breakfasts and grimace at over-sweetened cups of instant coffee and sponge myself semi-clean with a rationed bit of water and a stiff, old washcloth. Chainsaws. Everywhere. Cutting apart the trees that toppled over in the last storm—blocking roads, ripping down power lines, crushing cars and roofs and whatever unfortunate things happened to be in their paths.

I fear my uncle might be one of those unfortunate things. I walk faster.

He knew this was coming. The crazy weather, the longer and longer stretches we’d have to go without electricity. “One day,” he said, pouring me warmed brandy while we sat in front of a fire on a frosty evening, when I was not old enough to legally drink. “One day all that”—he waved in the general direction of the nearest town and beyond it the city where I lived with my nuclear family—“will be gone. Collapsed under its own hubris, terrorist target, whatever. We’ll all be living like this, off the grid. No texting. No cell phones. No goddamn twenty-four-seven-everything-you-want. Someone’s gotta be the wise old fool that teaches you kids how to get on with it.”

Like he’d shown me—where to find clean water, how long to boil it if it isn’t, what plants you can eat and which can be used medicinally. The last time I saw him—over a weekend when I told my parents I’d be hiking with a girlfriend and her family—he took me hunting. He prefers a bow. It takes more skill, makes less noise, and won’t poison the groundwater with lead. He took down a small buck and showed me how to dress it. He made me promise not to tell my mother; certainly if she knew that I’d not only lied to her about where I was going but helped kill a deer, she would never permit me to leave the house again. At home, she pretends my uncle doesn’t exist. There is no talk of her younger brother; any mention of her childhood includes him only peripherally and with a quick change to another subject. Like he’s been committed to life in prison or did something equally mortifying.

I’ll never dare tell her of my visits. Or that he taught me how to shoot that bow and also how to skin a woodchuck. I can’t help a smile at the memory. He was proud of me for not being “all squeamish like a girly-girl.”

I walk faster. The chainsaws and helicopters whine-chop off into the distance.

To get to him on a normal weekend, I have to ride the subway to the end of the line, hop a bus, then hike three miles from the road up to his place. But the storm has rendered many of the roads impassable; the train tracks also have to be cleared of trees and debris, so it’s taking some effort and detours and waiting to even get to the foot of his driveway.

Now I’m half-drenched with sweat and feeling a little lightheaded despite the stale granola and two small bottles of water I swiped from the pantry.

I stop to listen. A chainsaw—the new state bird, my father joked—buzzed from the right. Not from his house.

I walk faster. I try to trick myself into believing he’s okay. That eventually I’ll smell woodsmoke and breakfast cooking. That he’ll greet me with his big easy tobacco-stained smile and hook one flannel-wrapped arm around my neck and ask about my folks and what lie I told them this time.

This time? I told them nothing. Dad was fiddling with the generator and Mom had gone out trolling for supplies.

I figured they’d never miss me, and if they did, I’d say I was helping the neighbors.

My heart pounds as I get close enough to see what happened. There is no woodsmoke. No breakfast cooking. All I can smell is pine. Fresh and sharp, like the tree—and his house—never saw it coming. I sprint the rest of the way, calling his name. No answer. Calling again. No answer. Then I hear it. A small, repetitive rasp that chews on my already tweaked nerves. And something like…whistling.

I nearly faint when I find him in the shed out back. Where we dressed the deer, the woodchuck. He is sitting at his workbench, sharpening the blade of his axe with a file. Whistling something that sounds like “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” He squints up at me and grins.

“Had a look at that tree, did you?”

I can only nod.

“Well, stick around and we’ll show it what for.”

Is This Thing On?

Happy Friday! I wanted to share a bit I wrote for Two Minutes Go. We’re still open, if you want to play. Or just stop by for a read. Excellent writing going on.

——

After a few months of house arrest, the shock frequency diminished, and Henry began to see his ankle cuff differently. He painted the silver finish dull with one of his daughter’s apocalyptically named nail polish colors—Irony or Acid Rain or Corporate Greed or something. Wore his shirt unbuttoned and pretended he was one of those old-time cartoon prisoners in Alcatraz, with their raggedy striped pants and a link or two dragging off their old, rusted leg irons. He let his beard grow and limped around the house talking to imaginary pigeons.

His daughter rolled her eyes and started making more coffee. “Dad. Stop it. They’ll just shock you again if you try to do anything funny, if that even qualifies.”

His shoulders slumped as he dropped his character. “Everyone’s a critic.”

“She’s right, dear.” His wife had walked in, began fussing around with breakfast things.

“You know”—he snatched a piece of bread before she could toast it—“I don’t think they’re even listening anymore. Maybe the guy in charge of that department quit again. Last night I recited about a dozen dirty limericks. Turns out a lot of things rhyme with ‘Trump.’ And…nothing.” He addressed his ankle. “You hear me? Nothing. Hello? Is this thing on?”

It just sat there. He’d missed a few spots with the nail polish, a shade of grayish-black somewhere between a gangrenous limb and mold, and they glinted in the kitchen lights.

“You owe me for that nail polish,” his daughter said. “That stuff costs, like, ten dollars a bottle.”

“I’ll take it out of your college fund,” he said. “Or here’s an idea. Try to help your old man through this.”

“Through what?” his daughter said. “You sleep half the day, then watch old movies, order pizza and go back to sleep. Throw in some beers and porn and that’s, like, a dream life for half the guys I know.”

“You’re fourteen. What kind of guys you know drink beer?”

But she just smiled and left the room, waggling her fingers goodbye over her shoulder. He spun to face his wife.

“You think they’d let me watch porn?”

Her eyes flattened. “Are you kidding? From what I’ve seen of him, after Fox News, it’s probably the most popular channel in the White House.”

He grinned and pointed a finger at her. “Ooh, you’re gonna get it. They’ll be coming after you next. Then you’ll be wearing one of these. Maybe we can get a matching pair.” He addressed it again. “Hello? Is this thing on? There once was a man from New York, who boasted of girls he could—”

“Henry!”

“What? Nobody’s listening. I could call him every name Jon Stewart ever dreamed up for him and nobody would notice. I could do twenty minutes on his weird bromance with Vladimir Putin. Hell, I could probably grab the Saws-All and cut this thing off and fling it into the dumpster across the street.”

He’d never seen her so pale. “Henry. Don’t you dare. Just because it might not be monitored twenty-four-seven doesn’t mean it might not have some kind of built-in—”

“You worry too much.” He headed for the basement. “It’ll give you wrinkles.”

Downstairs he rummaged through his tools. Several projects decorated his workbench, and he sighed at their varied states of abandonment. In the beginning of his house arrest, after an initial period of mourning, he’d thrown his energy toward creating things. A birdhouse, a set of bookshelves, a knife rack for his wife. But all inspired his comedy, became a stage for new routines. He imagined birds gathering, the cardinals scolding the finches, the crows telling dirty jokes. Each earned him a shock, so he’d stopped.

Maybe he was finally free now. Emboldened, he grabbed the saw and hacked away. No shock. Not even a vibration.

He took the severed anklet upstairs to show his wife. Alarm spread across her face. He half expected it to explode, or that any second now, he might hear sirens and the men in black would show up at his door. Like the first time. But no such thing happened that morning.

He set the mangled, streaky device on the mantel. A trophy to his survival. Even if he could be arrested again for doing his act in public, he’d write jokes for that broken ankle cuff; he’d perform for it. After all, after everything, the show must go on.

A couple weeks later, he finished a set, grabbed a beer, and was about to watch Bird Man of Alcatraz for the twenty-third time when he heard an odd noise coming from the cuff—long then slow beeps, like Morse code. He inched over to it. Touched it. Nothing. Then a voice: “Are you still there?” It was female. Tentative, with a thick accent.

What the hell. “Yep. Still here. Paying my debt to society.”

“Please do not stop. It is making me laugh and I need this so desperately.”

Wow. He had a fan. “I didn’t think the administration hired anyone with a sense of humor.”

After a long pause, she said, “I am not exactly hired. I… I feel like a prisoner here.”

You and me both, sister. “All right, then. For you, I’ll keep the act going.”

“I am grateful,” she sighed. “I just have a question. How did you get your ankle thing off? Mine itches like I cannot believe.”

The Last Image: Flash Fiction

When you heard the news, you had an idea. Recreate the picture. Get the team together one last time, toast Cassini goodbye in the same place you celebrated her successful launch. How many times have you pulled out that photo, stared moony-eyed at the third girl from the left. It was your first job, and how it thrilled you just to walk into that room in the morning and see scientists you’d idolized since you built a spaceship out of Lego and zoomed it up to an imaginary moon. You mumbled at your shoes for the first three days. Then you settled in, and found each other, in that way young people find each other in offices. In coffee rooms, at the copier, lingering after the staff meeting so you’d both be leaving at the same time, “helping her” bring back lunch. Staying late to pitch in. You teased her about her thick glasses; she ragged on your Star Trek socks. And you were the last one to know how she felt about you. By that time she’d been reassigned. Or at least that’s what she said.

You brought the picture with you. You distract yourself with comparing the faces that walk through the door with the ones in the photo. People laugh. The tall, sharp-eyed guy who made origami swans for everyone at the Christmas party—stooped over a bit, a little blurry around the edges. The round-shouldered dude who wore sweaters his mother made him. Still rocking them now, but in a grandfatherly way. You wonder what they might be thinking about you. If you ever got married. If she had… You dread the moment you know is coming, where someone will say: “You made such a cute couple, why didn’t you ever—”

And then you start to think this had been a really bad idea. You slink away to the bar with the excuse of ordering another round. The television monitor shows the last images Cassini will ever transmit. Your eyes mist over, remembering when the first ones came in. You thought of her then, too, and thought for sure she was out there, somewhere, remembering you, wondering if she’d made a mistake. Or counting her blessings that she’d moved on. Then you sense someone on your left. Myrna, the office “mother”—who made the birthday cakes and hugged them all so very tightly when their part of the mission was done.

She gives you a sweet smile, and her hand, a little smaller, a little more wizened, lands on your arm. You think of things to ask her but aren’t sure you want the answers. Is her husband still alive? Do her children appreciate her, do they come to visit?

She points up at the screen. “It was beautiful, you know. Being a part of that. Like we’re all out there.”

You nod, want to make some joke about all of you together plunging into Saturn, but you don’t trust your voice.

For a long moment, you’re silent, and the commentator jabbers something about the project he probably just read off of Wikipedia, and with a deepening hole in your stomach, you realize that he’s probably the same age you were when you started working on it.

“I called her,” Myrna said. “She said she’d try to make it. You know. For the picture.”

For the picture. Your fingers dig into the sticky varnished wood of the bar. The part of your mind that makes words has turned to jelly. Cassini’s time is done, and perhaps it’s time for you to move on, too. You put some cash on the bar and ready the least jerky goodbye you know how. You mumble something to Myrna as you head for the back door. You try not to think about the birthday cake she made you, in the shape of a rocket.

You’re in your car, about to turn the key in the ignition when your phone trills with a text. You don’t know the number but you know it’s her.

She’s written: “At least we didn’t crash and burn like Cassini.”

He grins, then replies, feeling brave behind his words. “Maybe if we’d gotten off the launch pad we could have.”

He imagines how she would smile, maybe giggle a little. Tease him for the corny joke. But her words blip slowly onto his screen.

“Ten… nine… eight… seven…”

On six you take a deep breath, open your car door, and eject yourself into space.