Wrinkling my nose, I crossed my arms and watched my nephew lick the dirt from his firetruck.
“Just take him to the park, okay? Is that so difficult?” Leslie asked.
“He seems to be getting enough of nature in your garden.” I matched her smoldering gaze. “Do you really need to go to that meeting?”
Leslie sunk into her plastic chair, seeming oblivious to the cascade of creaks that made it sound as if it would splinter into pieces right on the spot. “I don’t have to go, but what kind of example will I make for Michael if I ignore my own father? He says I need it.” Her eyes hardened. “When John comes back I want him to respect his father, no matter what people say.”
I shifted, my own chair sounding even more threatening in its groans and pops. “What on Earth are you talking about? John’s a hero.”
Leslie stared at her feet and pinched her skirts between her fingers. “Even heroes aren’t perfect.”
I rolled my eyes, knowing my brother to be better than me in every way. My parents had never outright admitted I was a mistake, or that I was the practice child, but I knew both were one hundred percent true.
“So, I’ll take him to the movies then. How about that?” I said.
Leslie brightened. “If you’re up to it. Children can be noisy in movies.”
I shrugged. “As long as it’s a kid’s movie then he’ll fit right in with the other mongrels, and I’ll have at least two hours out of the way. Plus,” I extended my index finger and leaned on my knee, “he can’t inhale new bacteria in the movies.”
Leslie scoffed. “Only if you don’t go to the one on fifth street.”
I laughed and nodded emphatically. “We’ll deal with the parking and go to Lakeford Plaza.” I pulled my phone from my jeans and scrolled through my apps. “Great, there’s a showing in twenty minutes. When will your meeting be over?”
Leslie rolled to her feet and brushed invisible dust from her legs. “Seven.” She swept to my side and took my hand in both of hers. “I can’t thank you enough.”
I jerked my fingers away. “Will you stop? I don’t mind taking my own nephew to the movies. I just don’t want you getting drilled into depression with that Military Wife—You’re Not Alone crap. This is his last service, and my brother wants nothing more than to come home and be with you and Michael. You don’t need a support group to tell you that.”
Leslie wouldn’t meet my gaze and hummed a noncommittal response.
Michael burst to my side with his firetruck clutched in one hand, and a wiggling worm in the other.
I smiled, cupping my palms to receive the tormented creature.
Michael beamed and Leslie balked. “You don’t have to accept his critter crawlies, Julie!”
I stepped over to the row of tulips and grooved out the dirt before placing the worm in it. “Every creature is special, even the ugly ones.”
Leslie laughed. “You must have been a monk in a past life. What’d you do to get stuck in Minnesota?”
I grinned. “I stopped believing in God.”
Our laughter dwindled when Michael tugged at my jeans. “Daddy believes in God.”
I screwed my face into a smile and knelt to meet him at eye-level. “Really? When did daddy tell you that?”
Michael pulled off a tire from his truck and tossed it on the ground.
I rested a hand on his shoulder, which was so tiny it nearly engulfed him. “Michael?”
He jerked away and puffed out his lower lip.
Leslie waved in the air, and I wasn’t sure if she was fighting mosquitos or trying to fend off Michael’s words from the air.
I slanted my eyes. “You knew?”
She shrugged. “Why do you think I’m going to this meeting?”
Michael whined and I pulled him up on my hip. He hugged my neck as I sighed.
I made sure to buy the biggest “Fun Box” Lakeford’s cinema had to offer. It rested on Michael’s lap, filled to the brim with brightly colored candy packages, a mountain of popcorn, and a plastic cup with a fat polar bear wearing a T-Shirt.
While the other children cried and swam under the seats like a sea of monkeys, Michael seemed content with his treasures, rearranging the skittles by their shape and color.
A pink flower danced across the screen and was instantly puffed into pieces by a cartoon wind with a frightening face. “What are they trying to say with kid’s movies these days? This is horrifying.”
Michael giggled, spilling a handful of skittles to the ground. “It’s just make-believe.”
I smiled and padded his cheek. “Of course.”
I waited to frown until his attention had drawn back to the film. How could he realize images on a screen weren’t real, but a supernatural creature you couldn’t even see wasn’t real either? What had his father said to him?
My brother’s voice made the hairs on my arms stand on end. I searched the audience, seeing nothing but exhausted parents and sugar-hyped children.
I waited, thinking it must have been a trick of the acoustics.
But then I heard him again.
Before it’s too late…
I sprung to my feet. “John? Where are you?”
An old couple sitting two rows behind us gave me annoyed hushes and pointed at the well-behaved child in-between them. I sighed, sitting back down.
Michael tugged at my sleeve. “Daddy says I’ll see him soon.”
I bit my lip, and before I could reply, a buzz in my pocket made me jump.
I rolled my eyes at my own nerves and pulled my phone from my pocket.
The screen lit up, showing one text from Leslie.
Come quick. I’ve gotten news that John’s been MIA since last night. Oh God. Julie, bring Michael. I feel like something terrible is going to happen.
I jerked to my feet as my heart fluttered. “I’m sorry Michael, we have to go.”
I’d expected a complaint, but to my surprise, Michael took the Fun Box with both hands, balanced it on the seat next to him, and then tucked his fingers into my back pocket.
I blinked the tears from my eyes and led us down the aisle.
Outside, I sped toward the parking lot. Why did I have to come to Lakefront? It was a good five minute walk to any reasonable parking, and I had to go through three crosswalks.
“You’re too fast!” Michael protested, tripping at my heels.
We reached the first crosswalk and waited for the light to turn green. Three lazy cars sloughed past like sloths with wheels.
Michael rubbed his eyes and leaned onto my leg.
I patted his back. “We’ll be home soon.”
The light turned green. I took his hand and we crossed the street.
At the second light, I started to feel nauseous. Just nerves, I told myself. John’s going to be fine. Get ahold of yourself.
The light changed and we skipped to the last obstacle.
At the third light, I jiggled my knee and waited for the blasted thing to turn green.
“Look!” my nephew cried out as he thrust his arms up at the sky and laughed.
I grabbed his flailing hand and pulled it to my hip, letting my eyes swerve back and forth on the empty road. “Let’s cross the street, Michael. There aren’t any cars.”
I followed the striped white lines halfway across the road before a crash exploded in my ears.
There was a scream, and I dove to the ground to cover Michael’s head. After a deafening moment, I realized the screams were my own.
My teeth chattered along with the earth’s vibration at my feet. I shot my gaze up, expecting to see a crashing airplane or a tornado ripping up the cinema.
There was nothing other than a single, puffy cloud drifting in an endless blue sky.
“You’re squeezing me!” Michael’s muffled voice found its way through my arms.
I loosened my grip. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”
He blinked, looking as if he wasn’t sure he should laugh or cry. He peered over my shoulder, seeming to search for his answer.
I followed his gaze back to the cloud, but couldn’t see anything that would have caused the crash, or the quake. What happened?
Michael started laughing, and when I turned to face him, nothing remained but his little clothes at my feet.
Thank you for reading!
This is a piece I’ve struggled with to say exactly what I want to say in less than 1,000 words, and I’ve sought out my writing critique group to help me with it. This piece is still too long, at 1,400 words I have a lot to cut! I have a revision planned for final publication. The general feedback was that for a flash piece, it starts out a bit slow. This is something I often struggle with in flash because I’m used to writing novel chapters and easing the reader into the world.
Secondly, the critiquers felt I used the wrong PoV (Point of View). They wanted me to be in the mom’s PoV, and that makes sense. It would be less distancing for the reader, have a stronger emotional impact and let us know what’s really going on in this woman’s marriage.
Feel free to leave comments and I hope you enjoyed this piece!
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