Editor’s Note: The judges score independently. They don’t talk to each other. Why does this matter? If one qualified judge doesn’t like your piece, take heart and resubmit. Another one will. Just keep searching. Of course if you find things to fix in the meantime, do so. We hope you enjoy these three Flash Travel Stories.
Our next contest is Scintillating Starts. Share the opening (up to 1500 words) of any prose book. I’ll imagine I am a hungry agent and tell you what works and what doesn’t and why I might or might not be able to sell it. The deadline is December 1, 2018.
If you have a story about your writing or submission experiences that would fit on “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up,” go to that page and read the guidelines. You can submit there anytime.
By Melissa Kutsche
Photo Credit: K. Kutsche
The face of a wristwatch stares at me from its case, frozen at 8:15 a.m. Tattered backpacks, left behind by children on their way to school, wait for their owners to claim them from this post-apocalyptic lost-and-found. A tricycle, now rusted, joints stricken with gout, spent 40 years underground before it was resurrected for exhibition. It belonged to a boy named Shin, and grief gnaws at my stomach when I read that Shin’s father buried the tricycle with his three-year-old son in a backyard grave. These fragments lodge themselves into the recesses of my heart; they are shrapnel that will remain in me until I am also gone.
Outside of the exhibition hall, volunteers help us make origami cranes, a gesture of peace and goodwill. Perhaps this act of creation will be the balm for my melancholy today. My husband guides our daughter’s hands, helping her crease, turn, and tuck. Rose petal lips press gently against the bottom of the crane, little puffs of air breathing life into the paper form. Hand-in-hand with her daddy, my daughter carries the persimmon-colored bird toward the Children’s Monument. Gratitude and grief swirl and swell in my chest as I watch them walk together. What will we tell our children about Hiroshima?
My daughter places her creation onto a kaleidoscope fountain of cranes. Chains of thousands of cranes cascade around her, each paper sculpture a wish for peace, individually folded and pressed into shape with hope. The last remnants of cherry blossom season dance under our feet as we stroll along the Motoyasu River. Even as summer approaches, we lament the disappearance of the petals. We take a picture of our daughter ringing the Peace Bell; its timbre is low with atonement. As dusk approaches, the bell is silent, and the cranes are still made of paper.
Our pilgrimage to the Peace Park has left our hearts raw. We carry them across the city, hoping that an evening at the ballpark will heal. We follow a river of red Hiroshima Carp jerseys downstream to the stadium gates.
My children and I hike to our seats and wait for my husband to arrive with snacks from the concourse. We are standouts in the crowd, the only attendees in our section not donning a stitch of scarlet. My girl dances to the beat of taiko drums; her smile and wiggle catch the attention of the people next to her, who offer her their plastic baseball bats to clap together. She encourages the players with the clamor of plastic on plastic. When my husband arrives, the man next to our daughter is sharing his edamame with her as though they are old friends enjoying a picnic. Although we do not speak a common language, his generosity and her gratitude need no translation. Several innings later, a woman at the end of our row gives our daughter some candy. Our girl delights her sponsors all evening with smiles and laughter. At the end of the seventh inning, we wave goodbye, throwing in some thankful, very non-Japanese-looking bows for good measure.
As we ride a streetcar back to our rented apartment, I savor the warmth of drumbeats, smiles, and salted snacks. My heart is overwhelmed again, but the sadness has waned, yielding to joy and hope that wash over me in welcome waves. Surely, sharing seven innings with strangers under bright stadium lights is the most we’ve done all day to bring peace to the place we occupy in this world, more than any crane or bell could ever do. Smiles made gentle creases where there was pain. Shared snacks and noisemakers made folds in our hearts; gifts pressed and smoothed where there was any doubt of being welcome or belonging. The paper cranes left at the park are still made of paper, but this was origami of the heart.
I consider again what we will tell our children about this place, about Hiroshima, and this time I do not wonder. We will tell them that peace is sharing snacks, giving high fives and cheering for a team from a town you are only visiting. Peace is standing respectfully for an anthem in words you don’t understand and exchanging smiles when no words are needed. When despair creeps in and the bits of shrapnel brush the tissues of my heart, I will focus on the image of my girl next to her new friends, borrowed bats held high in the air, because peace is a baseball game.
Melissa Kutsche is a former educator who now stays busy at home with her two young children. Her work has appeared in Mothers Always Write, Walloon Writers Review, and The Sunlight Press. Melissa enjoys reading, traveling, and a good nap. A Michigander at heart, she currently lives in Virginia.
By L J Hippler
Shot from Bagram Airbase around the time the author was there.
How did I end up here? Never ask yourself that question.
May melded into June and June into July. The realization hit me that last night in July, when I woke up and walked out to the porta-potty. It was there, of all places, with the Afghan moonlight coming through the tiny air vents at the top of the enclosure that I knew I wasn’t going to make it. Ninety-four days into a one-year war zone assignment and I’m very near to complete burnout. Thirteen, fourteen, sometimes fifteen hours – seven days a week. Then Travis insisted I do an all-nighter. The work is intense, network problems, personality conflicts, weekly reports, time sheet problems and an estimate for the base at Salerno – a whole base from nothing.
It’s different this time. I can’t get enough sleep to regroup for the next day. Be at the HQ building at 05:30, ready to start. Leave there at 19:00. Eat. Decide whether it’s worth it to stand in line for a shower. Shave. I don’t want to admit, even to myself, that I’m losing it.
Sunrise seems to be my best time of day, walking back from the mess hall with quarts of coffee in me. The soldiers are singing those same old ditties as they do their running. I trudge by the side of the road, hands in pockets. Maybe I can soak up a bit of that youthful energy by osmosis as they pass.
“My grammah is 92. She does pushups better than you.”
Bagram Air Base is big, not like Al-Udeid, the size of a city. It’s not massive the way the news anchors describe it when someone like Rumsfeld comes to visit. But it is damned big. The only stretch of flat, blacktop road on the base is here, Disney Way. So, when the sun comes up all the units are running, going in both directions, on the same stretch of road at the same time. Each company has a different song; they each try to outdo and out loud each other when they pass in the street.
“My grammah is 93. She does pushups on TV.”
American kids like these kicked the Taliban out of here in 2001. Before the Taliban, the Russians were here for ten years. A hundred and fifty years ago the British were here. Hell, from what I’ve heard, Alexander the Great had an encampment here, three hundred years before Christ. I wonder if those soldiers ran in the morning like this. I wonder if they sang when they ran. I’m betting they did. I’m betting they sang stupid, silly songs about their grandmothers back in Macedonia doing pushups.
“My grammah is 94. She does pushups on the floor.”
In reality, their grammahs are probably about my age. For some reason, floor sticks in my brain and I picture the quarry tile floor I’d put in my kitchen way back when. I’d worked for weeks on that floor, but it was flawless. A different universe then. I was maybe 37. We had canisters in the kitchen – canisters, for Christ’s sake. Bright red ones, lined up from biggest to smallest, each with different stuff in them.
I was stressed then too, but it was different. I was determined. Eyes on the prize! I wanted to get my degree and go to work up on the 6th floor. I didn’t know just what I’d be doing up there. But I knew that, like all the Finance guys, I’d be wearing a gray suit, white shirt and those ox-blood loafers. Funny, when I think of that time, I only picture the kitchen. It’s summer. And the leaves of the oak trees are casting mottled shadows through the skylight. Those canisters are all in order, glowing on my new butcher-block countertop.
I ask myself where it all went, the canisters, the house, the wife, the dog, dreams of gray pinstriped suits and ox-blood loafers. Intellectually, I know what happened to all of it. But I still ask myself the question, How did I . . . The soldiers, like a singing, human river, rush past me, their words underpinned by the stamp of a thousand desert boots on asphalt.
I can’t think those thoughts now. I don’t have that luxury now.
“My grammah is 95. Why in the hell is she still alive?”
“Sound off. One two.”
“Sound off. Three four.”
“Bring it on down.”
“One two three four. One two. THREE FOUR!”
L J Hippler is originally from Baltimore, Maryland. He worked as a Cost and Budget analyst until retiring in 2005 to write full time. Hippler is the author of two novels: Cathedral Street and The New Road. Currently he lives and writes in Charlotte, North Carolina.
By Mackenzie Lowry
Train where the incident took place
My flight from Melbourne to Sydney landed late Tuesday night, but I still had to get from the airport to my brother’s school in Wollongong.
After once miserably trying to navigate late night trains in Japan, I should’ve learned my lesson. Yet, here I found myself, in a foreign country at 10:30 on a Tuesday night, shivering in the cold and dragging along my giant suitcase in the train station. Luckily, this time, everyone spoke my language. Navigation from Sydney airport to North Wollongong wasn’t exactly simple. North Wollongong was outside any of the posted maps, and the stations don’t have digital boards showing all the stops like New York does. The airport station worker told me to “change in Central” but didn’t explain where to. There were still friendly strangers around to help me find my way, but in the confusion, I barely made the last train to North Wollongong.
I dashed into the second car, dragging my suitcase behind me, and plopped down on a bench, face-to-face with a homeless man setting up his makeshift bed on the bench across from mine. He made a face at me and shook his head. I looked down and realized I had sat on his friend’s bed.
“Sorry, sorry,” I hopped up to carry my suitcase upstairs, but the man stopped me. He didn’t want me to have to lug it upstairs. Instead, he helped me to a seat in the next car over, carefully directing me away from a mysterious liquid on the floor.
I was only alone for a minute or so before a third homeless man sat down across from me and struck up a conversation.
I found out his name was David. His head rocked around as he spoke, as if some screws in his neck were loose. He was wrinkled, but not gray, as if something other than years had aged him. David wore a Vans hat and an old heavy jacket, and the entire time we spoke he was folding and unfolding an extra t-shirt.
He told me about his heroin addiction and muttered some story about how his great-grandfather was Rupert Murdoch’s great-grandfather’s brother and that he was ripped off. I could really only understand bits of what he was saying, partially because of the accent, partially because he spoke quietly, and maybe partially because I don’t think he knew what he was talking about either.
The man who helped me with my suitcase saw David sitting with me and pressed the button to open the doors between the two cars. He stuck his tongue at me and waved. I waved back.
“Who opened that door? I didn’t open that door,” David exclaimed.
“It was him,” I pointed. David threw his t-shirt at the now-closed door. I wondered if they knew each other just from sleeping on the same trains every night.
I didn’t want to be rude and move just because this man was talking to me, but after 30 or 40 minutes I said I was going downstairs to read. I told David he could take the whole bench. “Lie down and nap,” I said, “You still have a long way to go.”
He tried to give me his hat, but I declined. “It looks much better on you.”
David looked up at me as I started down the steps.
He said, “I hope someone looks after you.”
I didn’t read. I stared at the window and thought about how I would get to Wollongong and tell my brother this story or text my cousins about it and we would laugh at my accidentally sitting in the man’s “bed” on the train bench – like in that 80’s movie, Adventures in Babysitting, when the man claims the phone booth is his home. But right then, in reality, it wasn’t funny.
I know very little about these men. I don’t know where they came for or what they had before this, but they have nothing now. David’s current life is taking a train out of the city at 11:30 on a Tuesday night to pick up drugs and mumbling his life story to a foreign stranger who just happened to sit nearby. He had a sandwich in his hand today, but he might not tomorrow. Whatever his life was before, it’s whittled down to one set of clothes and that extra t-shirt. I wondered if he would sleep on this train tonight. I wondered if there was ever someone looking after him.
Mackenzie Lowry is a Brooklyn-based traveler, greeting card maker, and writer. Her work has appeared in NOMADS Magazine, The New York Post, All-That-Is-Interesting, and The Fire Island Chronicle, among others. https://www.macklo.net/articles
Tunisia: Terrorism in a Post-Terrorist World
By Kelsey Allagood
This story also had excellent material. It was a tough decision. I am very grateful to judges Bill Buschel and Kathy Joyce for their input!