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.


The Outtake

PrintIn the first draft of The Call, I’d intended this scene to be the prologue. As I revised, and as some of my early readers gave me their thoughts, I realized that I needed to start a different way. Like a lot of writers, I’m loath to “kill my darlings,” but for the good of the novel, sometimes bits I love end up on the cutting room floor. Because I’m eternally optimistic that some scenes can either be used somewhere else or inspire a new story, I saved this chapter. I thought you might like to read it. 



Margie’s twin brother had a wicked fastball, sharp and clean, and it landed in her mitt with a good solid thwock. She winged the ball back and pounded her fist into the pocket. Tim stood so tall on their improvised pitching mound, not quite sixty feet from where Margie crouched, squinting into the late afternoon sun that picked up the gold in his hair.

It gave him a halo, as if he needed one.

He stared down his target, turning the ball around in his hand, and she knew he was feeling for the seams, positioning it just right. Taking his damned sweet time.

“Okay.” She threw down her mitt and sprang to her full height, exactly one inch less than his, a fact that in the moment increased her irritation with him. “You suck.”

He smirked, tossed the ball a few inches up and caught it on the back of his hand, letting it roll down his fingers before he snatched it in his palm. “Bite me,” he said with a smile and pointed her back to the imaginary plate. “Assume the position.”

“No. You suck. I have homework.” She spun toward the house.

“It’s Friday, Margie Bargie. Homework can wait.”

With a sigh, Margie returned and prepped her mitt. Thunk. She held the ball, digging her fingertips into the red seams, imitating the holds her father had shown her. Her father, who’d spent most of his baseball career in the bullpen. Her father, whose mitt she now possessed. “It’s not fair,” she said, and whipped the ball back as hard as she could. Tim caught it, cringing as if it really stung. “Sorry. But it’s not fair that you get a free ride on baseball. That you’ll probably get scouted by some major league team.”

His face fell. “You’re saying I’m not good enough?”

“No.” She sighed. “You’re good. You work hard and you’re good.”

“So. You’re good, too. Stick with softball.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Softball’s decent.” Tim set up to pitch again. “Hey, it’s an Olympic sport. You can play in college.”

“Not for full-ride money. Not for Nolan Ryan money. I get to play, and then what? Nothin’. I might as well be a cheerleader.”

Tim went into his windup. “You could ump.”

The pitch skipped off the edge of Margie’s mitt and rolled all the way to the swing set the two of them hadn’t used in years. She trotted after it.

“It’s not playing, I know,” he said when she returned. “But you’ve got a good eye. Nobody ever challenged you when you called my Little League games.”

“Cause I’m a girl,” Margie said. Although her father might have thought otherwise. “Who’s gonna yell at a girl?”

“Point made. Okay. I gotta practice my breaker.”

But as Margie set to catch the curve, she started thinking about the possibility. When she and her dad used to watch the games, she knew all the rules. She knew the infield fly, the dropped third strike, interference, even some a few of the professional umpires got wrong. Her mouth quirked. “They got scouts for that? Drafts, like the minors?”

“I could ask Coach.”

“You gotta yell at me.” Margie squeezed the ball hard before flicking it back.

He snapped it up in his glove. “I gotta do what?”

“Yell at me. If I’m gonna do this. Those umps in the majors, players get right up in their faces and yell, and they don’t even flinch. I’m guessing that takes some kind of training.”

“Probably. Mom doesn’t yell enough for you?”

“Please.” Their mother yelled a damn sight, but she was a pipsqueak of a thing. “It’s Mom.”


“Okay, let’s go.”

“What, now?” Tim looked around like she’d just asked him to steal a car.

Margie stood and pressed her fists into her hips. “I gotta see if I can take it.”


“Come on. Or are you scared?”

“I’m not scared. I just don’t wanna…you’re a girl.”

“Oh, please. I’m not a girl, I’m your sister. I’ve seen you puking your guts out. I’ve seen you comin’ out of the shower, like I don’t know what you’ve been doing in there.”

“Yeah. Not too embarrassing, Bargie.”

“Just yell at me already.”

Tim pressed his lips together and took two steps off the mound. “That was a strike!”

“Ha. You sound like Charlie Brown.”

Then he charged her, got nose to nose, his pale eyebrows scrunched together. Margie nearly jumped back. But she made herself stay. Waiting for it.

“You’re crowdin’ my strike zone! You’re givin’ the other team the inside corner, what the hell? Do you need glasses, you fuckin’ asshole?”

Silence. Tim’s expression crumpled. “Oh, shit. Margie. Margie, I’m sorry.”

And then she laughed; she couldn’t help herself or stop it. She laughed so hard she could barely breathe. She dropped to her knees in the grass, clutching her belly, still chortling. “If… you… saw… your… face!”

“That’s not funny!”

Margie couldn’t grab in enough air to reply.

His cheeks had gone beet red. “I’m not gonna help you get in now. You think I’m gonna help you?”

The screen door slapped open and their pint-sized tank of a mother shoved her upper half outside. “Hey. You two. Knock it off. Dinner in ten. And leave the friggin’ muddy tennis shoes on the porch. I just cleaned in here.”

Margie rolled onto her back, stared into the dimming sunlight, catching her breath, then turned to his sputtered-out face. “I’m sorry, Timmy. You just…you’re funny when you swear. You’re like John-Boy Walton.”

Tim grumbled something to the effect of what she could do to herself. And John-Boy. But with his straw-blond hair and innocent eyes, the resemblance was ridiculously easy. It would be his ticket. It would be his downfall.

She apologized again and even offered to do his laundry for a month, but he wasn’t having it. “Forget it, then,” she said. “It would be a total waste of time, anyway. Playing ball, umping. Either way, they’re not gonna take a girl.”

Then Timmy was standing over her, reaching down a hand. She stood without taking it. “You’re not a girl,” he said. “You’re my sister.”

Flashback Fiction

Typewriter - Once upon a timeThe first one’s free. That’s the ticket. Then you’re hooked like a trout on JD Mader’s line. He’s a catch-and-release kinda guy, so you come back again for the tasty bait. And again. And again. Each two-minute (more or less) flash fiction freewrite you share on his Friday Unemployed Imagination blog feeds your hunger to try another. Maybe next week you’ll come by, test the waters, and settle in to see what swims by. Check out the alchemy a ton of awesome writers created this week on 2 Minutes. Go! Here are a few of my entries, lightly edited for your ingestion.



The cigar smoke stings your eyes and makes you want to puke, so you lie and tell your grandfather that you need to go to the bathroom. Of course he does not protest or go with you, and with his steel-sharp focus trained on the field of horses, he waves you off with a wrinkled hand. You remember your polite-young-lady lessons, smooth your dress, and excuse yourself into the aisle, counting the rows so you can find your way back through the women with hats and mothball-reeking men in plaid shirts, puffing away and yelling to each other in Yiddish. You pick out a few words, and they are not nice ones. As you’re looking for the little drawing of the stick figure in a skirt, a froggish-looking man with a piece of paper clamped in one hand cocks his head and gives you a smirk. “Hey, little girl,” he says. “What’s your favorite horsie?” You blink at him. The horses are pretty, and you liked the sound of their names, like music, as the announcer called them off. You remember Bluebird, because you once saw a bluebird on your window, and it reminded you of Disney movies and happiness. Because that’s what people say about bluebirds, and you want to be happy and not have to smell cigar smoke and mothballs anymore. You tell him. His smile crooks at one corner, and he scribbles something on his sheet of paper and hands you a piece of hard candy wrapped in cellophane. Polite-young-lady lessons demand a thank-you, and you do not disappoint him. But the candy wrapper is slick with sweat and also stinks of cigar. In the bathroom you flush it down the toilet, watching it swirl and wishing you could also disappear that easily.



Bad enough that the wind, roaring for three days straight, fuzzled up her thinking. But now she had to make the list. She dreaded it, put it off until the last minute, until the supermarket crowds were so thick and intimidating she contemplated calling the whole thing done and ordering takeout for Thanksgiving. Yet onward she trudged, feeling the weight of guilt from generations of women before her, from her late husband’s family, from miscellaneous siblings, cousins, great aunts and such who depended on coming to her house for dinner. She hadn’t yet found the strength to tell them no more, that someone else would have to take the mantle next year. She sighed, made more coffee, and sat down to scratch through the items she would need. Butter, because there was never enough. Canned cranberries, for that one cousin’s boyfriend who refused to eat sauce he couldn’t slice. Brussels sprouts. She stared at the two words, feeling her eyes burn and a catch in her throat. He was the only one who ate them, yet she couldn’t bear not making them or even writing them on the list. With a long, deep sigh, she called the task complete and grabbed her purse and coat.

Halfway to her car, the wind kicked up harder, and before she realized it, the list slipped from her fingers and skated off on the breeze. No, she thought, starting after it. “No!” As if her voice alone could stop nature. But up it floated, lodging between the branches of a tree. And she stared, feeling helpless, feeling the bite of the cold air against the open collar of her coat. She would never remember everything. She’d forget the flour, the butter, the canned cranberry sauce…the Brussels sprouts.

“Can I help with something?” a man’s voice said. A small yip confirmed that this was the man who’d moved in down the block a few months ago and often passed by her house with his handsome spaniel, the two carrying on a private conversation.

She gestured with a gloved hand as if that could explain it all, from the effort it had taken to write everything out to the phone calls coordinating who was bringing what to the emptiness of the house she’d shared with one man for seventeen years.

“Brussels sprouts,” she said on a sigh, unable to tear her gaze from the bare branches that held fast to her slip of pink notepaper.

“Oh, you’re out?” he said. “You should come by our house. My sister makes enough of those for an army. I’m sure she could spare a few dozen.”

She turned then, and smiled at him. “I might just do that.” She thought of the throng of people who would be ringing her doorbell in a few days. And realized that no, definitely no, she did not want them there. She’d have to suck down some pride, but that would be better than putting up with the memories.

“Hey,” he said, as the spaniel brushed against her leg. “Are you all right?”

She shook her head at the same time she attempted to force a smile, and his eyes were so kind. “Apparently not.”

He seemed to take her in for a long moment before he said, “Tell you what? Grab hold of Daisy’s leash for a sec, and I’ll see about getting that thing out of those branches.”

“Thanks, but no. The tree can keep it.”



Even from across the field she can see that the dog is happier now, with land to roam and children to herd. There’s a jaunt to his step, joy radiating from ear to tail, and she smiles, but she can still feel the ache in the pit of her stomach for the reason she had to let him go. She couldn’t give him the life he deserved, and she was too selfish and broken to realize that at the time. To think she expected him to save her from loneliness and a man who did not love her. That’s simply too much pressure to heap on an Australian shepherd, even a hardy one. The woman who owns the farm whistles and calls him by his new name, one that suits him better, and he comes running. He pulls up short in front of her. Sniffing at the legs of her jeans, her battered sneakers. He looks up. A sweet whimper escapes his throat, eyes so big and brown as he presses his body against her calf. Like he remembers her. Like he remembers that it was not her fault and feels badly that despite the chunk he attempted to take out of the man’s leg, he was not enough to run him off. “Can I visit for a while?” she asks the woman as she kneels to scratch behind his left ear. And the woman pats his head and tells her to take all the time she wants.

Flash-Fried Fiction

IMG_2749LeavesWe didn’t didn’t completely break JD Mader’s blog this week, but we did succeed at bending it at an uncomfortable angle. Maybe next time. Here are four of my entries. It’s good to stretch a little. Even if the end result doesn’t turn out the way you intended. As usual, only lightly edited for your protection.


The prime directive cannot be disobeyed. I must not interfere. Even though the tiny creature feeds golden thread with pinprick feet toward the twitching whiskers and tail, it is not in my purview to stop it. I can distract for only so long with ear scratches and gentle murmurs, but the instinct must be honored, the shiny object glittering in the sun as it spins toward oblivion must be hunted. Physics does its work; gravity and tensile strength meet the swipe of a claw, shredding hours of labor. Pinprick feet scurry away; the work must be recreated, the silk spooled out, the dance begun again. Continue reading