THREE STORIES by MICHAEL CHIN
The following are three linked flash fiction pieces.
One camping trip, far from home, somewhere in the desert, Mom blew up my and Charles’s air mattress early so we could play on it—so we could jump on it, and so we could do sit ups and laugh at the way it sank unevenly beneath our butts.
Dad said if we broke the mattress, we were sleeping on the ground the whole weekend, and Charles slowed down, so I slowed down, too, and we sat and played Go Fish while Mom and Dad finished unloading the car.
It started to rain. At first, just a drop or two, then drizzle, then great big fat, ice cold drops. Then sheets. Too many too steady too hard to tell one from another.
Dad jammed in the tent poles and hammered in stakes with a malice. Like he was angry with them or the ground for being in cahoots with the sky.
Mom stretched her arms out. Let herself soak through. We were all soaking anyway.
Dad yelled at her. “Deflate the Goddamn mattress enough for us to get it inside.”
She did. Pulled out the valve to let air go and had me and Charles roll over it to press out air beneath the weight of our bodies. Dad glared at us. As if having fun made the process a game and not work at all.
Later on, Charles and I sat cross-legged in our tent, playing Go Fish with damp, soft cards that threatened to tear. Everything smelled like mud and dirty, wet feet. And though rain still poured against the walls of the tent, we could still hear our parents, especially Dad, because he was always louder, particularly when he was mad. He told Mom, “All you ever do is make more work for other people.” Then, after a flash of lightning out somewhere far away, and after the crash of thunder a few second later, he finished, “And most of the time that’s me.”
Charles was angry, too. Pursed his lips and breathed heavy through his nose. This had happened more often lately. When Dad would yell at Mom or me and Charles would get angry on our behalf.
Sometimes Dad would let up when Charles intervened. Sometimes he’d yell at Charles, too, and Charles would yell back until he was tearful and ran off, often as not calling Dad some curse word on the way.
It wouldn’t do any good to follow the pattern out here, when Dad would yell back out of sheer irritation, where Charles would have nowhere to go but the soaking woods.
“Got any sevens?” I asked.
He was distracted, but nonetheless picked up his cards and looked through them. “Go fish.” He edged toward the zipper to open our tent and welcome in a wave of rain drops.
“Got any tens?” I asked.
It took a few seconds, but he scooted himself to his cards, looked through hand threw me two—a ten of diamonds that landed face up, what turned out to be a ten of spades face down.
“Got any twos?” I asked.
“It’s not your turn.” He went from crouching to sitting again and the air shifted beneath me in the mattress. Everything off balance for a second, then stable. He asked me for jacks.
We didn’t hear Mom and Dad anymore. Maybe this was one of the times she cried and he realized he was being a bully and said he was sorry and held her. Maybe this was one of the times she turned from him, in the tent, rolled over and faced away and rested, maybe even fell asleep.
But all we heard was the rain and each of us with our questions, asking for cards long after we were bored out of our gourds, until we could barely see the card anymore, after we’d eaten the chocolate chip and peanut butter granola bars from the wet cardboard box Dad left us before we went inside. The foil wrappers kept the bars dry. Crisp.
As my eyelids sagged, as I drifted, just before I went to sleep, Charles said, “I hate camping.”
FRIENDS OF SHARED GEOGRAPHY
My favorite babysitter was a girl named Irene. Skinny with the palest skin I’d ever seen. She
seemed very tall then, but the last time I saw her, I was nine, and my perspective has changed
I liked her because she had answers to my questions about why some clouds rained and
others didn’t, and why squirrels could climb trees with such efficacy while it was hard for me. I
liked her because she never once said to get my head out of a book or that we should play outside or play a board game or make up a song together. She brought books with her, and the two of us read together on opposite ends of the couch, sometimes the whole afternoon.
Irene left for college. I asked if we could exchange letters and she told me she didn’t think so. That we were friends of shared geography.
I didn’t know what that meant and puzzled it out for days—
Maybe we were friends of geography itself, but we’d never talked about geography, not to mention that I never particularly liked studying it, so that seemed unlikely.
Maybe it was a club name—the Friends of Shared Geography, not unlike the Friends of
Public Radio name plastered on the tote bag my mother carried groceries in sometimes. But if we
were in such a group, wouldn’t it give us more, not less reason to see one another again?
I wished I’d just asked what she meant. She’d offered answers willingly so many times before, but as she stood at full arm’s length and reached her hand to mine, and as I shook it, I was overwhelmed with tears and snot and a sharp pain in my gut that I couldn’t form any words at all. I knew she didn’t like hugging, but she didn’t say anything when I burrowed my face in her abdomen and clung so tightly that no geography might tear us apart.
I had a family photo album out because my father left it with me in a box of things he thought I might want, along with a pair of my mother’s glovers, a cutting board, a rolling pin, five trashy
romance novels and a necklace with a squirrel charm.
Mom’s things. Things no longer wanted in the house since my stepmother moved in, since she cleared closet space and cupboards and drawers to rid the house of redundancies and reminders.
And a number of photos did have my mother in them. My mother with short hair. My mother with long hair. My mother with a suntan and bare shoulders streaked white with sunscreen. My mother with a winter hat and glasses on, a background of snow on tree branches, skin pale, cheeks rosy.
But there were more than pictures of my mother. There were the pictures of me and my brother. Of my father. Some with her, some she probably took. Pictures of me wearing a participation medal from youth soccer, from my elementary school graduation. It stung a little that Dad didn’t want these pictures anymore, that he’d let them go without a fight. Maybe he thought I’d keep them for sure, unlike the rolling pin I threw in the trash. Maybe he knew he was getting them out of the house where they may start a fight, in favor of putting them into a safe home where he knew they’d still exist if he ever wanted to look back. But Dad hardly ever wanted to look back at anything, I’d found. Souvenirs and mementos were junk, and what mattered was stability and financial security and having space for new things you might buy.
It kind of hurt to look at the photos. Not just in the nostalgic sense, but in the sense of
something that was and would never be again.
But Ethan started looking at them. He ran his finger over the clear plastic covering over photo pages and pointed at pictures in which I was wearing my favorite pink sweatshirt with Mickey Mouse’s face emblazoned on the center, or the one in which my brother and I smiled big, yellow-toothed, gummy grins behind our concoction of six different kinds of sodas, the two- liter bottles lined up beside us. Ethan elbowed by upper arm when he got to the first photo after I’d developed breasts. I told him I was twelve then, and he was perv.
He got to the shot of me and my mom on Mother’s Day, it must have been my junior or
senior year of high school. He stopped and framed the photo between his thumbs and forefingers, to center us better than the photographer had to capture us at a restaurant with a bouquet of orange and purple flowers in my mother’s arms. I didn’t remember the restaurant, but I remembered the sweet scent of the flowers before my nose clogged. I was allergic to them or
whatever else was floating in the air that day and stopped blowing my nose long enough for that
picture, before I went back to alternating between blowing it and sucking back snot while Dad
glared at me because the sounds of things coming and going through my nostrils annoyed him
so, since I was a sick child, straight through adult allergies.
“This is a perfect shot,” Ethan said.
Maybe he was right. This shot, before Mom left, before I left for college and before I moved back and moved out again.
A long time before I met Ethan.
I was sad about that last part, that Ethan never got to meet my mother, but I liked the idea, peeled back the plastic, and took the photo out.
I trimmed it down with scissors and affixed it to the fridge with a fire department magnet. Out of a box of unwanted things. Up where I could see it and remember what I wanted everyday.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and his hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press. He won Bayou Magazine's Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.