First He Was A Gift

Postsecret flash fiction! I wrote the following over two days. Minor edits, no major revision yet.


First He Was A Gift

Every Father’s Day Chelsea emails me. For two years it’s been the only time I hear from her. The first Father’s Day, she sent a long email about our baby who wasn’t ours anymore. She picked a couple from West Bend to raise our son and we signed the papers because we thought it was best. The couple stayed in touch with both of us. They invited us to Matt’s baptism and first birthday. That first Father’s Day was a couple of weeks before our son turned one and Chelsea’s email was one long apology why she couldn’t see him again. I went to Matt’s birthday party alone and helped in the kitchen, clearing plates and pouring soda for all of Matt’s little cousins.

I get that Matt belongs to Teo and June. They’re great parents. Matt gets a regular life with a big lawn and family vacations. At his first birthday, June gave me a hug and started to cry. For the first few years, Teo and June sent me photos or called to say Matt’s first word was bird, which sounded more like “buh” but they knew he said bird. I saved their messages, showed Mom. At the end of my junior year, Teo met me for breakfast at a diner. They were moving back to California, near June’s parents.

“We’ll still call, be in touch,” Teo said, “We’ll fly you out if you like. You’re part of Matt’s life.”

I couldn’t swallow. I was afraid I’d choke on egg and biscuit. I took a drink of orange juice. That helped.

“I know this isn’t how you pictured it,” Teo said.

He doesn’t know how I pictured it. I was living in a house with five other guys who didn’t know I had a son. Chelsea didn’t answer my calls or texts anymore and only acknowledged Matt in Father’s Day ecards. Whenever I talked to Mom about Matt, she said I’d made the right decision. Teo and June seemed to be the only people who understood Matt is my son too. But he’s their son more.

Continue reading

Postsecret Flash Fiction

13.theyaretalkingaboutyouPart 1

In school I sit at the back of the classroom, except for Mrs. Perkins’s chemistry lab because her room is set up with tables and she teaches from a different one every day. I think she waits for me to drop my bag before she picks which table to stand at. I see Mrs. Perkins up close a lot. During lunch, I’m out the side door by the art room. We’d get suspended if we were ever caught, not because we’re smoking (well, maybe) but because just leaving a door open at our school is this huge security violation. We could let anyone in with a gun I guess. And after school, I’m even further away than I was during school.

At home I am in my room. My half of my room. I share with my baby brother Shane. He’s only two which means I have to watch my language when I’m mad. When he was first learning to talk he called me TaTas which just about killed me even if he was cute. Tally, I’d say.

Mom put Shane in my room when he was only one. I pointed out his crib took up half the room but Mom just leaned against the door and sighed. She had to get up early with her job. She didn’t want to wake Shane before the sitter came and I left for school. The sitter is Charlene from next door. She’s such a tiny woman, hunched over. I don’t think she should be picking up babies anymore but Mom says Charlene’s fine. She was my sitter when I was little, when Dad took Mom on a date to Country Kitchen. Now when I get home from school Charlene talks a waterfall of the whole day, starting with breakfast.

Charlene is the one who found the water bottle of vodka under my bed. She found it because Shane found it and was rolling the bottle back and forth. Charlene got a cup to pour Shane a little water but he dropped the cup and started crying on the first sip. Charlene took a drink and yelled when I came in the door. Tally Ann! You don’t drink! You’re too young! Hold it together, girl! She waved the bottle at me and unscrewed the cap, poured the twenty dollars I’d given Carl Atkins down the kitchen sink. I tried not to cry. Shane was in his crib when I went in my room. I picked him up and said sorry.

Sorry means change, was something Charlene said once to Mom, after Dad apologized (again) for running around on her. This happened a lot before Shane was born and then not at all after because Dad didn’t come back. Mom never said anything to me but Charlene would come over late at night and sit at the kitchen table outside my bedroom while Mom whispered the latest betrayal. Charlene’s whisper was anyone else’s regular talk, so I picked it up. That man is a cad, Charlene said. That was the only time I heard Mom speak loudly to Charlene, when she said, No he’s not.

Dad’s rum was the first I tried. I had it the weekend after he left. Only a little, as much as I’d ever seen him drink. It was enough, burning my mouth and warming my belly. Dad wasn’t a cad. He was nice. It’s just he was nice to a lot of other women too. I settled on that conclusion, feeling a loyalty to him and a solidarity with Mom. Even after Dad left and Mom had to go back to work with a baby and a teenager to raise, she didn’t say anything mean so I didn’t either.

Someday I’ll probably explode from all the not saying anything mean. It happens at school when Sara laughs at my outfit and says, Dumpster vintage. Or when Mr. Oliver thinks I’m not trying hard when I spent an entire weekend writing his stupid paper about the Roman guard. It even happens out the side door sometimes, when Wolf or Midget says you never know, we might be siblings. As a joke, but still.

After Charlene yelled at me I begged her not to tell Mom, I won’t do it again. The next time I had twenty dollars (sorry, Mom), I went to Carl Atkins and asked what he had besides vodka and rum. Whiskey? he said so I tried whiskey. It wasn’t vodka, which meant I hadn’t lied.

That was a month ago. Sometimes I think I really am going to explode. I can’t because Shane is in the room. I think that was the point, like Shane is a goat in the horse’s stall. I can’t kick down doors if my baby brother is stretched out in his footie pajamas, arm’s length away. So I sit in my bed in the dark listening to Shane’s soft breathing, watching the passing headlights move across the wall behind his crib, and I take small sips from a jelly glass.

The next time I take twenty dollars (sorry, Mom) to Carl Atkins and ask for another water bottle of whiskey, he leans back and looks at me, head to toe. Not like when Sara finds a hole in my tee shirt or points out I’m wearing Mom’s old Reeboks. Carl assesses me fairly: quiet, pimply, a little doughy. He doesn’t take the bills I’m holding out. Instead, he asks if I’ve got any friends. I open my mouth and he holds up his hand and says, Please don’t say Wolf or Midget.

I was going to say Wolf and Midget. I think for a minute and say, I had a good friend, Jessica. Remember her? Red hair?

Carl looks up at the sky, thinking. Maybe, he says, Did she have an older brother?

Yeah. They moved last year.

Did you two drink together?

No, I say.

You’ve been drinking by yourself?

I look down at my shoes.

You’re kidding me.

I keep looking at my shoes.

Carl clicks his tongue, but not like a grandma. Shit, he says, You gotta stop. Lemme think. Carl looks back up at the sky. He says, Okay. You make a bottle like this last a month. You can’t be that bad. Are you that bad?

I shake my head.

Tell me how you do it.

I look at Carl. Really?


I take a breath and tell him about Charlene calling Dad a cad and how after he left for good I found his rum. I can’t drink rum anymore and I can’t drink vodka either because I told Charlene I wouldn’t. I drink like this, I say, and measure the bottom of a jelly glass, and tell him it’s only on the weekends after I know Mom is asleep and I just want to float a little.

Carl doesn’t laugh or snort. He doesn’t wrinkle his brow or roll his eyes. Is it fun? he asks.

It’s something, I say. I mean it that way. If Jessica were still here, we’d go to a basketball game and sit at one end of the bleachers, away from the girls wearing pastel sweaters and Uggs. We’d whisper what boys we thought were cute and do the wave even if we wouldn’t be in that gym when it was lit with twinkle lights for prom. I can’t sit at the end of the bleachers by myself. I think of Mrs. Perkins standing near me and looking up from her notes to catch my eye, a slight nod toward my pencil reminding me to take notes.

Carl sighs. You gotta find something better.

Like knitting? I don’t say it to be funny but it is and we both laugh. Charlene is always offering to teach me to knit.

Tell you what, he says, looking at the sky again, Let’s go fishing.

Part 2 tomorrow or the next day.

Flash Fiction From Old Postsecret

Here’s an old Postsecret I wrote down

I keep myself incomprehensibly busy so I never have time to feel unwanted.

I wrote around the line a few different times. Again, last week and this. What I ended up with is a piece that doesn’t feel directly tied to the secret but works okay on its own. Worth a later revision at least.

I run a nonprofit. I believe in the work. Promoting girls’ literacy in underdeveloped nations. I have spools of statistics and anecdotes in my mouth. I could go on and on. Anyone listening hears about these village girls prohibited from going to school, married at the age of thirteen or fourteen. Anyone listening hears the turn in the story –

Girls learned to read. That’s the short end of it. That’s what people like to hear, that their tax deductible money gives words to girls who read by candlelight after their old men husbands are sleeping. No one likes the old men husbands. Everyone thinks these girls would be brilliant if not for the old men husbands. That might be true.

The girls hide their literacy. It’s like secreted candy in the top cupboard or in a wooden box under the bed. Some girls never get to say what they know to anyone but the babies breaking open their hips. This wasn’t our plan but this is what’s happened. We aren’t sure what will come when the babies are thirteen or fourteen, if they’ll have more words than their mothers. Believing is more work now. A decade ago I thought it’d be a wildfire: words and poetry sweeping through villages. The women negotiating life with men, the men realizing the beauty of a wise woman. All this wisdom brought in crates of elementary readers, blank notebooks and weekly lessons.

I need the busyness. I might believe in that more than the girls now. The girls aren’t saving me. The busyness is. I have three smartphones, a tablet and a laptop with me. Something is always dinging or buzzing. When I was a kid I played office with a JC Penney catalog, filling in the order form stuck in the middle, flagging pages with post-its, answering a dead phone with authority. I wore my mom’s heels and clicked across the floor. Striding through an airport I get the same high. My staccato heel strike, phone at my ear. At the airport bar, one glass of wine and a fan of devices in front of me. I’m doing good work.

I am doing good work. I miss Christmas. I forget my mom’s birthday. I don’t date anymore. Shortly after I joined the nonprofit, I loved explaining the cause to men. I felt hot, forgoing self for these girls living in countries that had just sent a wave of terrorists to our city. We were all looking for a reason. Something. I found these girls and wouldn’t let go.

I started off low. Standing at a folding table, passing out brochures with our periwinkle logo. Cold calling for donations. I might have quit after a year, except I took a plane to Afghanistan and spent a week in a bare apartment where girls came to read and write. We weren’t in villages then. But that week was my conversion. I gave my body to the cause. I went back again and again.

The busyness is killing me. I don’t know who I am. I can’t say that over a glass of wine. All I talk about are the girls. I win commendation for my dedication. I’m on NPR, talking about these girls. The nonprofit is huge. Our outreach includes elders. Some fathers and brothers are allowing the girls to learn in daylight. I hear occasional news of a delayed marriage because a girl wants to finish school. I used to cry when I heard things like that.

I get my hair highlighted on stopovers in Paris. You need something if you’re in this work. Booze, women, an expensive pair of shoes, God. I have highlights.

A decade ago we were all hot for each other. All of us doing good work, earnest. We wavered, resolved. We missed Christmas together, made crude paper chains and toasted each other in a cold apartment. I can’t get a date anymore. I can’t find someone who believes as much as I do. Sometimes I’m in the middle of talking about the girls and literacy rates and I go out of body. It’s like a near death experience except that instead of looking down at a surgery and tubes, I look down at the clicker in my hand, the nodding heads in the conference room. I keep talking, floating.

At some point I have to get out of this. There’s this woman named Marcy who’s been doing this kind of work her whole life. We may as well be nuns, she said once, and at least get heaven. We were all together a few months ago, Marcy and me and a few others. We forget what the other side feels like. We all have old friends, siblings with mortgages and children. We go home and see nieces and nephews with more toys than whole villages. If we wanted that, we should have left sooner. Getting any of that now would kill us.

We wouldn’t stay dead. We’d like making box mac and cheese for our seven-year old. We’d like complaining that was all she’d eat.

I don’t know if anyone wants me anymore. No one tries. Sometimes we fall against one another and have a warm week. But I’m beginning to think I’ll never be always warm. I’m not sure what I’m doing this for. I’m doing this for the girls.

I Love You I Never Stopped, Take 2

Yesterday I scrolled through my blog archive to find a few unfinished prompts or exercises. Remember this? I’m not reposting the PostSecret postcard because when I sat down to write around

I love you
I never stopped
Call me
Lets make
a crazy
life together

I kept the note in mind, but dismissed the picture. Also, when I imagine my narrator writing this note, she has different penmanship and puts the apostrophe in “let’s.” Perhaps if I were true to the postcard, I’d write a narrator who prints and doesn’t think about punctuation. I’m not promising I’ll write this postcard prompt again, but maybe…

We were supposed to save everything for marriage. I remember Mom walking down the basement steps and seeing you and me snuggled on the couch. After you left, she asked if we’d kissed. I looked at my feet. “Hana,” she said, “You only get one honeymoon.” The next time you pulled me close, I wondered if that was too far. I was inches from everything, sitting next to you and watching a PBS documentary about Rwanda. Your hand burned a print on my thigh. You said we should go do something to help.

After dates, Mom asked how my honeymoon was. “Still there,” I’d say.

Once, you asked to listen to my heart and pressed your head against my left breast. I couldn’t breathe. I felt our restraint.

“Do you think we’ll get married one day?” I asked.

“Yes,” you said. I inched my sweater up so you could look at my belly and bra. You saw this when we swam in the summer, but this was winter. A little noise came out your mouth. I heard a creak upstairs and pulled my sweater down. Our youth group leader said a long kiss was hard to stop.

When we kissed, I was always thinking is this too far?

We had to let our universities know. We both cried. I hadn’t been accepted at Marquette. Every weekend, we promised. I missed you too much. At winter break you took me out for dinner and we both knew we couldn’t do another semester of texting, driving home every weekend.

I loved you more, after, when you still emailed me and called. I typed and deleted messages back. I replayed your voice, but never called. I didn’t go home that spring and when I saw you over the summer, you gave me a hug. I loved you more then, for your kindness.

I loved you more when the first boy I dated my sophomore year unhooked my bra with one hand and grinned. “Practice,” he said.

Remember we were going to Africa, to be what the church is supposed to be. We were going to take care of widows and orphans, feed the hungry. Remember we were going to learn Spanish and go to Ecuador and teach sustainable farming. Remember we were going to go to college together and spend junior year in France. Remember you were going to propose to me there and we’d get married after graduation and take my nursing degree and your teaching degree to jungles and deserts and mountains.

We knew all of this, sitting too close on the couch. We said it. We felt something as close to the Spirit as I’ve ever felt.

I’m a nurse. I emailed Doctors Without Borders. I’m going.

Come with me.

Sit too close. I have a little honeymoon left. I think of us, seventeen or eighteen, and how careful we were. It was too far to kiss long, but we were ready to fly to a country cut open by genocide.

I love you. I never stopped.

I Love You I Never Stopped: PostSecret Prompt


I tried. I tried to write a flash fiction piece from this Sunday Secret. I tried four or five times this week. It was like – I can’t think of a simile. It was like that. I couldn’t think of anything past first paragraphs. I tried a thirty-something narrator and then a teenage narrator. I wrote backstory. I jumped in the middle. I tried dialogue.

Keep writing, I wrote.

One more page, I wrote.

My one more page veered from the prompt.

I want this to work.

I will try again.

Mr. O’Grady’s End Of The Year Speech

I like Postsecret. Sometimes the secrets posted prompt a story start. For the sake of a go-to prompt, I may make Sunday Secrets one of my WP exercises. Here is the postcard and my story start:


I like Mr. O’Grady. He doesn’t try too hard. He probably doesn’t try hard enough. I’ve had him two years in a row for history class because I flunked sophomore year almost entirely. The only class I passed last year was Small Engines because I built one for a final project, to show I’d learned something. I didn’t really learn anything except that all the adults in your life go batshit crazy when you quit trying. Mom put me in counseling and I kept a journal and when junior year started, every teacher pulled me aside within the first month to say they believed in me, except Mr. O’Grady. He asked me how my summer was and when I didn’t say anything, he said, “Yeah, me too.”

By mid year I had a C average and Mom was trying to negotiate credit recovery so I could graduate on time. Everyone was really sensitive about how I’d feel if I had to stay in high school for a fifth year, even though I said forty million times I didn’t care if I had to stay for a fifth year.

“You say that now,” Mom said.

“I mean it,” I said.

“Okay, well at least meet with Mrs. Kubicek.”

Mrs. Kubicek is the junior-senior counselor, though I’m technically a sophomore until next week when the report cards come out. I did meet with her and said I’d rather stay an extra year than spend every weekend and all of summer doing online classes. She sighed and asked if there was a teacher I would enjoy working with, someone who might oversee my credit recovery. I said Mr. O’Grady and she pecked that onto her tablet. Later that week Mr. O’Grady asked me to stay after class.

“You want to work on some credit recovery?”

“Not really.”

He rocked back on his heels. Two years ago he’d gotten divorced and grown his hair out, but it didn’t look good. He was always putting his hair in a ponytail and then taking it out, smoothing it down again. “Then tell Mrs. Kubicek no. No sense doing this for them if you’re not into it.”

That’s what I thought. So I said no and Mom, who’d been meeting with her own counselor and must have been advised to let me choose my path, didn’t argue. She drank two glasses of wine and went to bed, but she didn’t say I had to graduate on time. I know it bothers her. My cousins are overachievers. We get emails with pictures of Troy at the state track meet or Tina playing first violin. One time I told Mom to take a picture of me sleeping on the couch and we laughed.

Today is my last final exam, in Mr. O’Grady’s class. I studied until midnight and then ate breakfast before coming to school. Eating breakfast is supposed to help you concentrate. I feel good. I have three sharpened pencils and a bottle of water. I’m surprised by how much I know. The multiple choice is easy. The short answer is easy. The essay is a bitch. But I finish five minutes before bell and turn the test in, face down. I sit in my desk and wait for bell.

Mr. O’Grady walks to the front of the room and clears his throat. “I wanted to say something to you,” he says. There are three minutes left between us and summer break. “You guys have been great this year. I think you should know that. Seventh period has made my day.” He takes his ponytail out and runs a hand through his hair. “Sometimes I hate coming in to school. A few of you know what I mean.” A couple of us laugh. “But I’d get to seventh period and think I’d made it and you’d come in and humor me for fifty minutes and we’d all get to go home after. I guess I want you to know that if I can get to seventh period every day, you can too.” The bell rings then and a few girls get up. Mr. O’Grady holds up his hand and says, “Wait. I also want you to know something I wish I’d figured out when I was your age.” The girls sit down again. “You matter more than you think.” We wait for minute but he doesn’t say anything else. The class starts to leave. A few kids say thanks to Mr. O’Grady. I’m on my way out when he says, “Kevin,” and I turn. “You do,” he says.