“The virus lurks, undetectable without a swab.” ~~Jill Witty
2020 Flash Prose Contest: The New Normal
Thanks to those of you who submitted to Writer Advice’s Flash Prose Contest. There are many e-zines seeking pieces about COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, John Lewis, RBG, Presidential Debates, and the other ongoing stories of 2020. If we’re not publishing you here, we hope you’ll use the suggestions (or not—it’s your writing) and keep submitting.
We hope you’ll enjoy the winners we chose. If you have comments for any authors, send them through the Contact button and I will happily forward them.
NOTE: Information about our annual Scintillating Starts Contest, which is really a chance to get feedback on the opening of any prose book, is on our Latest Contest page. We’d love to have you share your work before you send it to agents and editors.
By Jill Witty
I watch Katrin grip the swab with both hands.
Her left hand fingers curl protectively around the base, while her right hand grasps the shaft tightly, preparing to aim the swab squarely toward the back of her throat. She is like a child soldier, forced against her will to fight, the swab her blunt weapon.
She has set her mask aside. You can’t take a throat culture while wearing a mask. Black with white elastic bands, the mask is as grim as a skeleton. I offered her flowers, stars, a flag. She chose black, a void.
She watches herself in the mirror, as the doctors advised.
Her brown curls are mussed, her pale skin offset by rosy cheeks. She has the flush of youth, of unencumbered adolescence. The law says she is too young to vote, too young to drive, but not too young to test herself for a deadly disease. I want to find the people who made this law, ram swabs down their throats.
If she tests positive, I will remain calm. I will not think about the possibility that she could die, the likelihood that she could infect one or more of our family, that her Oma may have already become infected, that Oma is unlikely to survive such a virus. I will not think about how, given the choice between saving Katrin and saving Oma, I would choose Katrin, for even though Oma gave birth to me, and I have loved her longer, it is Katrin who straps on her backpack every day, shouldering the world’s hopes. I will not think that she could die.
What emotion pulls her mouth slightly down on the right? Is it nervousness or excitement? After all, a diagnosis is an answer, something to deliver us from the vicissitudes of uncertainty. There is no turning back from this moment, once she is tested.
Her grey jacket is not warm enough, does not insulate her from the cold. They set up the testing table in the schoolyard, in front of a vibrant green hedge. Wartime healthcare is makeshift by design.
Her hands tremble as she awaits the signal. Her mouth is clamped tightly, resolute. The other students wait in line behind her, each standing at a distance of six feet from the others. When one of the others tests positive, I will try not to think, “Thank God it wasn’t Katrin.”
The doctor nods, and Katrin opens her mouth. She plunges the swab deep into her throat and gags, as instructed. Then she places the swab in a vial, seals it, and labels it with her name and identification number.
We will receive the results in an email during the night. She will be negative, and we will rejoice. She will wear a green sticker to school. She will not die, not yet. I will breathe a moment’s gladness before my heart clenches more tightly around my husband, my son, my mother. The virus lurks, undetectable without a swab. We know there won’t be enough green stickers for everyone.
Jill Witty left start-ups after 20 years to write her first novel. Originally from Virginia, she currently lives in Florence, Italy with her husband, three children and rescue dog. Connect with her on Twitter @jwitty.
By Samantha Schoech
It was a joke at first. Throw it to me, she said. And he did, standing in the street and heaving the white package up into an arc through the air. She surprised herself by catching it. She was surprise again by its heft, like a baby. It was so solid in her hands, so actually there. Five pounds of chuck roast wrapped in white butcher paper. But more than that, a gift, a delivery from her friend who she could not touch, could not properly thank. We didn’t use to do this, offer up chunks of meat as symbols of friendship or help. Never before had a cut of beef been so kind. She cradled it as he stood on the sidewalk next to his idling car. He had been out in the world, contaminated and scary, but solid and smiling, a real human. She took a Ziploc bag of oatmeal cookies, the ones her husband and daughter had baked from that southern cookbook with the hipsters on the cover, the one with the sweetest, most indulgent recipes, and flung it into the air in an arc. And he caught it and thanked her. A chuck roast for eight cookies. A barter. A symbol of friendship and of how much they wanted to be able to hug each other and laugh, even if they never knew before that these were the things they wanted.
She would put the roast in the fridge and scrub her hands thoroughly in case that pristine white butcher paper was contaminated. And maybe at home he would feed the cookies to his family, or maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he would throw them away, also fearing contamination.
Samantha Schoech has an MA in Creative Writing from UC Davis and am the founding director of Independent Bookstore Day and a friend to bookstores everywhere.Stories in the collection have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Glimmer Train, Seventeen, and other publications.
Tied for Third Place (in alphabetical order):
Music on the Street
By Suzette Blom
It was the sweetest of summer nights in the midst of a pandemic. Strains of a melody drifted over the neighborhood as I walked down the street. My friend had gathered his band to play in his front yard. The audience was almost an after thought for those who live to play. The pandemic has starved them of their life blood. Playing for zoom is like empty calories. Every musician needs to feel the pulse of the audience quicken. Music is a living thing and the audience feeds the creative juices. It is a gift that has to be shared.
I came late and took my seat on a faded folding chair my heart pumping wildly with anticipation. A precious moment that the pandemic could not steal.
There were young couples out for their evening walks. Their children in their strollers, fingers sticky with the ice cream used to bribe them to be quiet. A cyclist leaning against his bike, his bike shirt drenched in sweat mesmerized by the vocalist cranking out a jazz standard. The staid gentleman at the front of the expectant crowd who had once been a fugitive sixties radical who fled to Canada, swayed back and forth, rocking on his unsteady feet, his mask in place covering the bliss on his face.
After a long hot day ladies who chat over fences and mind each other’s cats, cotton shirts ballooning over spandex shorts, sat on their front steps sipping wine with wistful smiles on their faces. Their husbands milled around the crowd whispering jokes now and again to their friend’s quiet chuckles. Two young women, their hair in matching pony tails, joggers shorts and short cropped tops crouched down and took their seats on the curb, the music not to be missed. The evening run could wait.
The music picked up its tempo. The beat quickened the pulse. It was like water to a man dying of thirst. Late summer heat rose off the pavement. The children licked their ice cream and let it dribble down their faces. For a moment the pandemic was stymied. The joys of summer superseded all the loss. Warmth and laughter simmered in the air. Thoughts of the back deck, or the front stoop a, cold glass of wine in hand, the heat of the day fading gently. Memories of small crowded bars with sweaty musicians blessing the crowd with their sound. Memories of friend’s laughter. Life was normal, whatever normal is.
A smile crept across my face. I felt a delight like a big long exhale. It was joy. Joy writ large in the craft of the musicians who electrified the air by coming to life after a long imposed dormant sleep. Joy in the body of the woman hugging herself in disbelief, joy in the bitter taste of the cold wine washing over my palate. Joy I had not felt in a long time.
The song ended. The band leader thanked the crowd, announcing that the summer was ending and this would be their last front yard concert. A large sigh of disappointment swept the crowd. Then one woman, her frizzy head of grey hair tinged blue at the ends, her loose summer dress slipping off her sagging shoulder stood firm on her slippered feet, demanded adamantly, “Your not going until you play Tears in Heaven!”
“But the sun is setting and our bass player has been at it for hours!” The exhausted musician retorted.
“No, no. Play Tears in Heaven.” She lowered herself to her knees in front of the crowd, hands in prayer position.
Who could resist. The music started. The words of tears in Heaven boomed out.
And there were tears on the street.
Suzette Blom has had careers in law and academics and has published six short stories in the last year. She lives in Toronto, which constantly inspires her.
Also Third Place:
My Life as Origami
By Johanna Skelly
9:00 A.M. I wake, grateful to have a purpose today.
Today I must mail a birthday card.
Stranded as I am on the sandbar of Covid, this small task gives shape to my day. It feels important, this having something to do. Anything to do.
10:00 A.M. I begin my search for the card itself – bought weeks ago – misplaced since. I rummage for it in my bag, rifle through the stacks of reading material on the bedside table, flip pages in a book where I may have used it as a bookmark, and even grid-search the urban sprawl of my desk. It is found in none of these places
10:30 A.M. Both my address book, and fountain pen come easily to hand, but the stamps – so rarely used – lie somewhere, I believe, in the far reaches of my shallow, catch-all desk drawer.
10:45 A.M. To find the stamps, I must first unearth a whimsical clutter of unrelated flotsam; a skull key chain, a spool of cloth ribbon, a green marble, buttons, batteries, a zippered coin purse, a
dented mosaic mirror, missing several mosaic shards, a small plastic pumpkin, and two Christmas-tree ornaments.
To name a few.
11:00 A.M. My fingertips examine, and sort this random collection, touch-reminiscing each object as if reading braille. The objects bear no relation to each other, yet the entirety of it all speaks of life’s disjointedness, life’s randomness, which I find pleasing. Even consoling.
11:20 A.M. The search for stamps takes much too long, but still I reserve several minutes to consider which stamp best suits the sendee; Gardenias or Leonard Cohens? Zodiac or Diwali? For someone who rarely writes letters, I love stamps, and am moved to buy them just for their beauty.
11:25 A.M. Once this important decision is made, I write the address on the bright green envelope, then affix the stamp in its proper firmament, upper right-hand corner.
11: 40 A.M. The day is oppressively hot when I set out to mail the card. I do not plan to walk the short distance to the mailbox right at the end of my street (its pick-up deadline long past), but to the two red mailboxes outside the post office six blocks away. I walk slowly, card in hand, marveling at the sky, where a tumult of clouds, some smudged a deep graphite grey, some porcelain white, mound in implausible, free-form towers above the heat-dense city streets.
NOON On arriving at the mailboxes, I note that the day is half spent.
12:02 P.M. When I slide the slice of card into the tight-lipped mail slot, the flap clangs open, the flap clangs shut.
12:04 P.M. My task complete, I now retrace my steps, which seem to keep pace with the clouds, as they hastily drift, wind-tossed, and luxurious, like enormous sheep trailing contentedly in my wake.
12:24 P.M. Returned home, I reflect on how empty I find the days to be,
How little claim anyone makes on my heart,
How unmoored my life has become amid the rising tide of solitude that is COVID.
But most of all, I reflect on just how origami-small my life has become,
Folded down to the act of mailing a single card.
Johanna Skelly is a Toronto-based painter, writer, and poet. A copy editor, she is a recovering nomad, after eighteen cross-Canada moves. Today, she is happily discovering the art of putting down roots. Her recently completed memoir is titled The Tree I See: Accidental Reflections of an Artist.