Flash Memoir Winners 2019
It’s inspiring to read all the submissions and glance into the important moments of so many loves. You inspire me!
Several submitters commented on the fact that you appreciated hearing comments from a human. From time to time, I submit too, and I agree that getting feedback from experts is valuable. Please keep what’s useful and disregard the rest.
I could not have made these decisions without the help of last year’s winners. I respect all of you who put your work out there in the world. Keep doing it, and if the feedback triggers improvements, WTG!
By Ryan Stone
I glanced around the vet’s office. Minimal. Functional. Sterile. No windows. The only light flickered down from a strobe overhead. The neon globe emitted a low-register hum that battered against the tension already building near the base of my skull. If it was causing my head to ache, I figured it must sound even worse to the sensitive ears of Zeus, the German shepherd sitting on the tile floor beside me.
I lowered a hand to one of Zeus’s ears and began to stroke it. Zeus pushed into my leg in pleasure. “It’s alright, mate,” I said. Which was about as far from the truth as possible.
The single door to the small room opened and a woman in a white coat entered. Tall and athletic, her dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail. From behind expensive-looking glasses, she considered me for a moment before she spoke. “How is he with needles, Officer? Do you want a muzzle?”
I looked down at the six-year-old shepherd, seeing instead the eighteen-month-old pup Zeus had been when we were first partnered together. Those initial weeks before we’d established a bond had been hell. For all his size, Zeus had been terrified of the injections required of all new police dog recruits. Zeus had nipped and scratched and fought to avoid his inoculations—my hands still bore a few faded scars to prove it.
I’d worked hard to desensitise Zeus to the process. After some trial and error, I eventually stumbled across a fix in the unlikely form of a Bic ballpoint pen. I discovered that pressing a pen to Zeus’s neck, nib retracted, and then clicking the end button to extend the nib, resembled the needle experience. Zeus had a high tolerance to pain. It was more the sensation of force on his neck while he was restrained that frightened him.
Over months and years, it became a constant in our life together. Before he was allowed to play with his Kong, Zeus had to lie down and remain calm while I pressed the pen to his neck and clicked the pen nib out and in a couple of times. Zeus soon associated the experience with the promise of chewing his Kong, and the struggles and nips ceased.
“Officer? Would you like me to get a muzzle?” the vet repeated.
I snapped back to the present and looked down at Zeus. “No. Zeus doesn’t mind. Thank you.”
“Are you ready?”
I signalled for Zeus to drop, and went down onto a knee beside him. I wrapped an arm around his neck, conscious of the strong heartbeat pumping beneath thick fur. I nodded, not trusting my voice.
The vet took out a large syringe full of green liquid and expertly found a vein.
Zeus didn’t flinch. I looked into his brown eyes, recognised the implicit trust that existed, the knowledge that we’d done this together a thousand times before. That everything would be fine.
Only this time was different. Degenerative Myelopathy, a progressive disease of the spinal cord, was quickly eating its way through my courageous police dog. Any day now he could wake up paralysed. I wouldn’t let that happen.
Zeus turned his head briefly, looking for his Kong, and then closed his eyes. He rested his head on my hand, deciding he’d hunt for it after a
Ryan Stone writes after midnight in Melbourne, Australia. He lives beside the Dandenong Ranges National Park with his wife, two young sons, a German shepherd, and a rag doll cat. On daily walks through his forest surrounds, he often falls down rabbit holes.
By Sarah Russell
Every afternoon at 2:10, twenty-five kids—all elbows, knees and hormones—thundered into my classroom for what even they called “Dumdum English.” It was my first year of teaching, and I had just turned 21. They were 17 and 18. But the gulf between us was adult/child, warden/prisoner. They tested every day to make sure I was still in charge. My mother’s advice, after 30 years in the classroom: “Don’t smile until Thanksgiving. Smile again just before Christmas.”
Donny sat curled in his desk, shriveled into an old man’s protective shape. While the others flailed and groaned and periodically lashed out, Donny remained a silent, cocooned spirit. He smelled sour, and the others avoided sitting near him. He seemed only half aware in class, yet when I asked for volunteers to read parts in Julius Caesar, he raised his hand to be the Soothsayer and scrunched his voice into a wail for “Beware the Ides of March!” He pronounced it ID-EES, but no one corrected him.
I worried about this solitary, broken boy and looked into his record— failed fosters, group homes, abuse, locked in a cellar for days as a toddler. No wonder he shied when I passed him in the aisle. No wonder his assignments were often forgotten or half finished, with so many misspelled words and fragment sentences that I didn’t mark all of them for fear he would shut down completely.
Toward spring, Donny produced an essay of three laborious paragraphs—erased, smudged, rewritten. But there was logic in his argument, a sequence, only three misspelled words. I marked the dog-eared masterpiece an A.
The next day when I returned his paper, Donny stared at it unbelieving, and as I passed his desk, he reached out to pull at my sleeve. “Teacher, this is the first A I ever got,” he said. I told him he’d done a fine job and reached out to pat his shoulder, but he winced, then met my eyes and smiled an apology. For the rest of the hour, I saw his fingers tracing over the “A” with a kind of reverence.
The next fall, I learned Donny had left school to join the army, and just before Christmas he came back in uniform. His back was straight, his head high. When he visited my class, I asked what the ribbons on his uniform stood for. “This one means I got a promotion—Private First Class,” he said. “And this one means I can shoot a rifle good.” The kids were impressed, and a couple of girls flirted with him. “I’m shipping out for Nam right after Christmas,” he told us. “Gonna see the world.” After class when we said goodbye, there was an awkward moment when I knew he wanted to hug me, but he shook my hand instead. I wished him luck, and this time when I patted his shoulder, he grinned.
Toward spring I heard that Donny had been killed in action.
Years later when I visited the Vietnam Memorial, I found his name, and my fingers traced over it, just as his had in class that day.
Sarah Russell’spoetry and fiction have been published in Kentucky Review, Red River Review, Misfit Magazine, Rusty Truck, Third Wednesday, and many other journals and anthologies. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and her first collection of poetry will be published in May by Kelsay Press. She blogs at https://SarahRussellPoetry.net.
Third Place tie:
I Killed For Love
By Linda Laino
You leap out of the car as soon as we stop. Behind us is the long tree-lined driveway of the house I try to see as home. I begin to memorize the damp earth and pine smell that promises to greet us with its countrified air every morning. We haven’t moved in yet, but your father wanted to keep chickens, so he made a makeshift coop for the seven little chicks until we could give them a proper home. You and I have been checking on them daily. They provided a furry balm for your recently scarred heart.
I barely put the car in park when I hear you, “Mom! Hurry! A snake is eating the chickens!”
Like Joan of Arc, I always wanted to be ready to do battle for you. With my swift sword and brave words, I would slay any dragon in your path. In this moment, the snake represents everything in my life I can’t control: a recently lost baby, a teetering marriage, you on the brink of despair. The violence you witnessed earlier that summer lodged itself in some corner of your psyche eating your safe, ordered world like a cancer. You were nine and and wanted to end your life. I knew there would be more that I couldn’t protect you from: bullies and betrayal, bad decisions, friends that leave you in a lurch, a cop that just wants to fuck with you, feeling like life simply isn’t worth the pain, needing to believe in something. Feeling lost and vulnerable as a young chick. The stuff of every single life.
The snake is huge. Five feet long and five inches around except where his tiny meal creates a satisfactory bulge. The rest of the chicks are cowering in the corner, their yellow down twitching in collective fear. I wonder if your screaming is creating more, but expressing strong emotions is your calling card. You are like me, sensitive, but stubborn. You hold onto things loyally with a fervent grip, like the odd objects you insisted on sleeping with as a toddler: an old paintbrush, a package of coffee filters, a favorite rock. Have you heard the stories of mothers being able to lift the weight of a car off a child? We are capable of unimaginable things. Even capable of destroying what we want to protect. Six years from now I will leave you and your father, unable to deal with my accumulated demons. I think I was the one who felt in need of protection. From what, I didn’t know at the time. Maybe that snake put a pox on our house leaving a scaly slime trail I couldn’t wash away.
I grab a nearby shovel thinking I can slice the snake’s head off with one sharp blow. I wait until he slowly makes his way out of the barbed wire. My body is sweating and my heart is racing like an animal on the run, as I bring the shovel down with all the fear and anger in my being. Yes! I am suddenly angry at the snake. Angry that he showed up to feed his own life and take something away from mine in the process. Angry that I am now living in a house where big snakes are possible. Angry that I have to be the grown-up. Angry that I can’t find my happiness.
Despite the force of all that emotion, the snake is barely fazed. It turns out to be a difficult thing to relieve a large snake of its head. The scene turns Hitchcockian, as I repeatedly slam the shovel down hard attacking that wall of neck muscle and sinew and bone through blinding tears and horror. I am stunned by the rage, someone who traps spiders in the house to release outside. I don’t know anything in that moment except wanting you to feel safe.
Having done the hard thing, I toss the bloody head aside and whisper a prayer: Don’t be loyal to this trauma. Don’t keep it close like a sadistic enemy. Forgive nature, forgive me. Remember that I killed for you today. I killed for love.
The circle of yellow feathers relaxes. They loosen their huddle, peep and prance, feeling the world is safe for now.
Linda Laino is an artist and writer who has been making art in one form or another for over 35 years. Holding an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, she enjoys playing with words as much as form and color. Finding beautiful things on the ground is a favorite pastime. www.lindalaino.comwordsandpictures.lindalaino.com
The illustration is by the artist.
Third Place tie:
By Bailey Powell Aldrich
“These are the things I don’t want said at my funeral,” Alex began. He cradled a rumpled pocket notepad in his lap as he readjusted his seat on a plastic tub and began to read aloud. A breeze bathed our shaded perch and people were seated or traipsing around us peacefully. The ruthless heat seemed to have set everything in slow motion.
“May I see that, please?” I asked. I’d been caught off guard and wanted to fully absorb what he was saying to me.
Alex handed me the little notebook and searched my face for something. He laced his fingers together to pop them violently. His erratic movements were an exorcism of nerves or drug-induced ticks, I couldn’t tell. I thumbed the page, so worn it felt like a piece of linen. In pencil, his neat scrawl read:
- He had so much potential
- He could have been a great father
- He had so many opportunities and threw everything away
- He had everything, literally
My brother has lived under a bridge for over two years, and I hadn’t seen him in just as long. When he realized the black dress descending the concrete slab was his little sister, he emitted a shriek. He stood up with a grin and began hopping toward me, his prosthetic leg abandoned in a container next to the bare mattress he’d claimed. Tall, thick hair, olive skin, straight teeth – Alex has always been the effortlessly attractive Powell child, and it seemed living in the elements hadn’t changed that. He hugged me hard with his wiry arms, engulfing me in a clean smell that surprised me. I sat down in his parked wheelchair next to a rumbling motorcycle and a bucket containing a pair of shoes dunked in water.
“I don’t know who’s those are,” he shrugged.
“You smell good. Can I see your teeth?” I asked.
Alex clenched his teeth into a grimace, his eyes squinting with effort. There was no hesitation, as if he’d expected me to ask for this dental presentation.
“They look good,” I said.
“I washed yesterday,” he replied, “and I have this!” He pulled a Lady Speed Stick out of his grubby backpack and laughed, then became quiet. His eyes cast down to the packed dirt his mattress rested on.
“Man, I am so lonely down here.”
Alex followed my gaze up into the overpass rafters. There were lofts made out of palettes, wooden havens hugging the underside of the road.
“I used to have one of those. It’s where I started. I gave it away to someone who needed it. They’ll all start to come out soon though. It’s too hot,” he said, as if the scrap-loft occupants were forest animals being smoked out of their habitat. The melodic bump-bump of cars driving above us and the train whistle crooning nearby served as the residential soundtrack on repeat, like a skipping record you’re unable to turn off.
The ecosystem under the bridge was a buffet of oddities, and, overwhelmed, I couldn’t decide what to look at first. I studied Alex’s face, the small scab on his nose. I looked back up the concrete slab to my dad sitting in his mammoth of a truck, a luxury commodity just 100 feet away from the smattering of garbage his son had piled together and claimed. I looked beyond Alex into another set-up, a picket fence surrounding a tent. The shirtless occupant relaxed in a lawn chair inside his barricade as if he were on a wraparound porch on a sunny day, taking in his lawn with a glass of lemonade. He had a short ponytail, but the rest of his head was shaved clean. I wondered how he maintained a haircut so specific.
A barefoot woman was sweeping trash and dirt around Alex when I’d walked up, but she’d since abandoned the pile and returned the broom to Ponytail. Discarded Styrofoam cups, plastic crates, and old bottles still decorated our vicinity. Alex inspected his cardboard shelves before a flash of anger overtook him and he shouted, chucking items out one by one in tune with his words.
“Who. The fuck. Put this. Shit. Here!” A few people looked up, uncaring about the ruckus, just curious about the source of noise. Alex quieted and took his seat again.
“I have nothing good in my life,” he said, looking toward an overgrown, forgotten field.
Bailey Powell Aldrich is working on her MFA in Creative Writing, Nonfiction at The New School. When she’s avoiding writing she’s posting about mental illness and cooking on her site Bummed Out Baker. She deeply values word impeccability, inclusion, mental health advocacy, and laughter. Bailey lives in New York City with her husband Rick.