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 List

This bit popped into my head when I sat down to write something for JD Mader’s Two-Minutes-Go. Maybe one Friday you’ll join us.

The List

In the back of your desk drawer, folded in half, then quarters, then eighths, then tucked between the unread pages of your Tiny Orange Book, is your list. Of all the things you’ll do when you’re allowed to leave your house again. On damp, melancholy days, fog rising from the ground in small, accusatory fingers, you make hot tea and retrieve the list. After you were released from prison with antidepressants in one hand and the Tiny Orange Book in the other, a neighbor who had been a psychologist in the old days wrote the list for you as a form of therapy. She said that it might be too overwhelming to look at all the items in one gulp, but on bad days, like this one, when the electronic anklet felt as heavy as a battleship anchor, it could help to choose an item at random and just daydream about it for a while.

She said it could give you hope.

You close your eyes and run a finger down the page. Stop. Open your eyes. You’ve chosen “make someone laugh.” Your stomach sinks toward your shoes. You’ve lost the will to laugh yourself; how are you supposed to make someone else do it?

But somewhere in your mostly-functioning moral compass, you know it would be cheating to choose something else. You close your eyes and think of things that used to be funny. One by one you reject them, because they’ve all been outlawed. Satire on television, political cartoons, stand-up comedy. You have vague memories of being on a stage, saying things, hearing the sound of laughter. But after the treatments in prison, you forgot what you used to say. For some reason, you do remember that it used to make you feel good. It made you feel like you were lifting troubles off other people’s backs. People applauded, and when you got off the stage you got money and an invitation to do it again another night, or someplace else.

As the fragments of memory spark around, you get angry. You start to recognize the emotion as heat rushing into your face, your shoulder muscles tightening, a churning in your gut. In prison they gave you a chart that shows different emotions and a how-to guide for letting them go.

But this one sticks. It sticks in your brain like Velcro. You remember loving this thing you did on stage and are angry that you can no longer do it.

The anger fuels you. You storm around the house, finding as many small objects as you can—salt and pepper shakers, candlestick holders, coffee mugs—and line them up on the fireplace mantel. If the anger had come back to you, maybe the brambles of that emotion could rummage through what’s left of your memory and eventually the words that were funny would stick to that, too.

You pace in front of your “audience” and spew out random words. It’s all nonsense, like “Candlewax bumblebee went to the circus can you hear me now making America great again we’re winning so bigly now I got the best generals, just the most amazingly best, yadda, yadda, yadda…”

You go for another few minutes, remembering that was called a “set” back then, and something strange is happening to your face. You’re smiling. The muscles feel tight and strained, and you pat a hand to your cheek, then rush to the mirror and see that yes. Yes. You are smiling. And just the fact of that, followed by the memory of what you now recognize had once been called a joke, makes you laugh. A tiny chuckle. Then bigger.

It was only an itch at your ankle at first. Then a jolt. Then you collapse to the floor, twitching and writhing. Your smile freezes into a grimace of pain. Then so does your body. As the light at the edges of your vision begin to dim, these words fly through your mind: “A priest, a rabbi, and Donald Trump walk into a bar…”