The prompt from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter:
Write five mini-stories (limit: 200 words each) to account for a single event of circumstances, such as a man and woman standing on a city sidewalk, hailing a cab. Each story should be different – in characters, plot, and theme – from the others.
My modification: come in under 500 words each.
This is one of my favorite flash-fiction exercises. It scratches the itch. It allows for quick, messy experimentation. I like to revise and re-order the five parts to read as one work. That said, what follows are very light edits and no re-ordering. The situation I chose is: A student is late to class. In the order I wrote:
Sophomore Chem Lab Partner
Krissy is a senior. She is always late to first period. I think it is because she smokes. She looks like she might. I think that most of first quarter until she shows me a picture on her phone of baby with dark hair. I ask if that’s her niece. She laughs and says it’s her baby, Lake. That’s a nice name, I say. Maybe she’ll have a brother named Tree one day. Krissy looks at me like I’m crazy and I think she might never talk to me again but she does, the next day, when she shows me a picture from Lake’s first birthday party.
It was fun, Krissy said. Later she takes her phone up to Mrs. Schwartz and shows her Lake’s birthday party pictures too. Mrs. Schwartz gives Krissy a giant mom hug.
We usually finish our labs before the rest of the class and take out our phones. I have a driving game. Krissy scrolls through pictures of Lake. Sometimes she leans over and shows me: Lake tasting orange for the first time, Lake in a pile of leaves, Lake dressed like a pumpkin. I think Krissy must be a good mom and tell her that. She gets real quiet. Then she says, I used to be good at a lot of things. If I get this right.
She doesn’t say anything else.
The Color Of Hope
Do you know how many tardies you have? Ms. Jacobs answers her own question. Twenty-nine. You have twenty-nine tardies in this class, this quarter. Do you know how many days are in this quarter? She answers herself again. Forty-three.
She puts her hands on her hips. I don’t know what to do. You’re serving detentions?
I nod. She doesn’t know where. I serve with Mr. Thayer. I have his class before hers too. I’m working on this oil painting the size of a door and it takes a lot of time. Mr. Thayer tells us to clean brushes five minutes before class ends but I work up to the bell and a little into passing period. It’s on you, he said in September when he quit writing me passes to math.
This painting is supposed to be about hope. I keep getting the color wrong. Last year I had two watercolors in a student art display in Milwaukee. One was chosen for a show in Chicago.
Ms. Jacobs sighs. Her face gets quieter. She says she saw my painting in Mr. Thayer’s room. It’s amazing.
I look down at my hands. My cuticles are rimmed violet. Ms. Jacobs touches my shoulder and I look up. You have to pass this class, she says. You need a C for your GPA. Talk to Mr. Thayer. Talk to Mrs. Rutledge. You need to show up. I want to you get into art school.
I almost don’t believe her. But she looks tired.
The halls smell like rock salt and wet down. Janitors wait for first bell so they can mop the melted snow brought in on boots, shaken from hats. Everyone complains it should have been a snow day, all the other districts have the day off. There’s five inches on the ground already. They’re gonna have to do an early release. Home by lunch.
During second passing period a freshman named Annabelle slips while crossing the foyer. Her books fly in the air like a cartoon. Her arms pinwheel and she lands on her back. A few upperclassmen nearby laugh. Annabelle isn’t moving. Travis is a trained lifeguard and kneels down, shouts. Can you hear me? Are you okay? She doesn’t flinch.
Oh shit, says one of the boys and runs to the gym to get Coach.
The principal comes. Travis is leaning close to feel for Annabelle’s breath. He knows her from his street. He’s never seen her this close though. Her lids are dusted with silver. She has tiny gold stars in her ears. The bell rings and the principal tells the kids get to class. An ambulance is on its way. Travis backs away and his place is taken by Coach who places two fingers at Annabelle’s neck.
Is she okay? Travis asks.
Go to class, the principal says. Now.
Coach leans over Annabelle, tilts her head back, places his mouth on hers. Travis can’t move. She can’t die like this, can she, from a slip?
Travis, the principal says, Go to class. You don’t need to see this.
But that was all he saw, sitting in the back row of biology. Annabelle’s silver eyeshadow and gold star earrings. The ambulance came and went. Everyone’s phones were vibrating and dinging with messages about Annabelle. By eleven, school was called for the day. Eight inches on the ground, another five to seven on the way.
Yousef leaves through the side gate. He’s tall for his age, and graceful. Last summer he spent six weeks in Paris not speaking a word of French but sensing the assumption of those around him, that he belonged there anyway. Since that revelation, that people take his height and ease as age and purpose, Yousef quit worrying about getting in trouble. He smokes in front of the security guards at the Avenues, cuts the line at the bank, snaps his fingers at waiters, speaks without making eye contact. His grace is wearing into arrogance but he’s never behaved like this before and it’s too fun to quit.
He doesn’t talk to the gate guard when he leaves and doesn’t say a word to the man in the tiny bakala. Yousef buys chips and Red Bull. He’s ten minutes late for history but Mr. Gartner doesn’t pause the lecture. Instead, he looks past Yousef.
For the next week, Mr. Gartner looks at the air above Yousef’s head. He won’t say hi to Yousef in the hall. He doesn’t take any of Yousef’s questions. Yousef boils, cuts an entire class. Then one morning, Mr. Gartner dismisses class but asks Yousef to stay.
I liked you better last year, Mr. Gartner says. Yousef can’t think what to say. Mr. Gartner shrugs. That’s all. Go.
From One End To The Other
You can’t stop. Stay to the middle of the hall, keep your head down. They get you anyway. A kick to your shin, a thump on your arm, a yank of your backpack. Sing a song in your head. Chant a rap. Find a chorus to loop. Avoid the bathrooms in the senior wing. If you have to go, ask for a pass next period.
Sometimes they make a barricade in the hall. Twenty of them with classes two feet away stop up the hall. The bell rings and one of them says fuckers and laughs. They run into class and you’re left in the middle of the hall with five or six others just like you, scrawny or fat with bad hair. You all have to run down the hall. You’re all late.
You can’t say what happens. There’s cameras. The office could look if they want. Teachers see sometimes. But you can’t say. You close the door quietly and have your book out of your bag before you sit. You smell your fear. You feel your heart. It’s like a nature show, the gazelle that keeps up with the pack. But every year, one of you runs too wide. Every year one of you doesn’t make it from one end to the other.