Two offerings of flash fiction, one where revenge is a dish best served with childhood wonder, and another where a cosmic misunderstanding is earnestly pondered…
by: P.J. Powell
A Time To Play & A Time To Be Serious
The woods surrounded the girls’ small subdivision on three sides when Jenny was stroller-high. Florida woods, with scrub palms squatting low over sandy, flat expanses, punctuated by pine trunks shooting up at regular intervals, toothpick-thin and tufted with flashes of green needles basking.
By the time Jenny was old enough to play Barbies and write a short research paper on the probable existence of unicorns, developers had razed acres and acres of the woods. Houses sprawled all the way back to the ballpark and the Minute Market that Momma said would be too far to walk without her.
Jenny still had the woods behind Nora’s house, and Nora had a treehouse fastened between four of the remaining pines in the side yard. Plywood walls with a sturdy floor and a sloping roof formed a sanctuary for feral girls with asphalt battle scars and imaginations that spilled into past and future lives. The shaded stillness of the inside enveloped them like a hot cocoon, but the treehouse kept their secrets, and it was theirs.
Jenny and Nora spied on the neighborhood from that height, shouting at a passersby and hiding, watching the house next door to see if little Joyce would need plucking from her evil brothers’ clutches. Joyce was going on third grade. Her disgusting brothers, Nick and James, were in junior high. Several times, Nora stormed in and told off her brothers while Jenny grabbed Joyce by the hand and marched her back to the treehouse. Nora’s older brother had just moved out, and the girls refused to see Joyce endure the same kind of gleeful tyranny from her kin.
Sometime after Jenny’s eleventh birthday, the treehouse became more of a headquarters for a broader settlement operation that Nora and Jenny launched further back in the woods. Their first outpost was a clearing of golden, flat sand they called “The Snickerdoodle,” because it reminded them of those cookies from school. Even better, the location offered enough distance from Joyce’s house and her brothers’ fort that the girls felt confident in claiming it as their own.
The Snickerdoodle was a research outpost. Professors Nora and Jenny, and sometimes their assistant, Joyce, would scour the woods for specimens – leaves, bugs, lizards, toads, bird feathers, bones – and bring them back for cataloging and observation. They set up examination stations using items found on their expeditions: a small wire bathroom shelf, a lightweight end table, a beat-up dining room chair. Nora brought her all-in-one encyclopedia, and Jenny supplied magnifying glasses and a microscope. Bordering the Snickerdoodle, scrub palms provided a ring of shade and cubbies where they could stash their growing collection of curiosities.
They were well on their way, they felt, to cataloging most of the smaller species in the woods when they arrived one day to find The Snickerdoodle ransacked. Their specimens were gone, scattered or stolen, and little Joyce was hunkered on the ground drawing in the sand with a stick while the tear tracks dried on her cheeks. She had come to the outpost early with fresh treasures in hand to catalog, only to discover she had been followed.
They had done this. They would pay.
Jenny biked back home, two streets over, grabbed her tackle box out of the garage, and waved to her father, who was under his Buick tinkering. The whole way back to Nora’s, the Spooky-Dook beads chimed on the spokes of her wheels, like little church bells tolling for the dead. Meanwhile, Nora retrieved two shovels from her garage while Joyce scouted for sharp sticks.
There was a time to play, and a time to be serious. Soon, those woods would be booby-trapped.
“Everything happens for a reason,” people say. I guess it’s easier to believe we are dominos, organized neatly in rows, than Pick-up Sticks, spread out in haphazard piles.
In the May drizzle, I walk my new dogs, Piper and Chloe, wondering why I am here. I think of the various twists and turns that brought me from Florida to Philadelphia. My life thus far has been been unremarkable, one perhaps notable only in the details, or with skillful telling.
Piper’s black head is wet from the rain. She’ll start to care soon, I think, but for now she is content to snuffle the ground, her back shielded by an inexpensive, but quite attractive, chartreuse raincoat.
I have become a woman who dresses my dog. Who has a dogs, adopted on a whim. The brindle dog, Chloe, marches confident and naked through the rain, feels right to me since I have yearned for a brindle dog since the first time I saw one. But Piper, she is a surprise.
Piper is a black dog, a lab and beagle mix. I have nothing against black dogs but I never thought I’d have one. Piper was born in North Carolina almost ten years after I left. I wonder if I had I finished my law degree and stayed, would I have adopted her and Chloe down there before someone from a New Jersey rescue ferried them out?
When I think of black dogs, I think of the ghost stories I used to read. You see a black dog, a glimmering spectral sentinel with edges smudged by the drizzle and fog, and it means death is near.
Piper stops and wet-hacks to clear her throat, as though the only thing she wants to warn me about is the tree pollen we’re probably still ingesting with every breath, even in the rain.
Why Pennsylvania? Maybe I was meant to be here. I moved up because of my husband’s job, but my mother grew up five hours away in Pittsburg. Some New Age lore that resonates with me says our souls choose where and when to be born, and to whom. If I did decide to be born to my mother, did I anticipate a meandering return to her home state? Or was there some cosmic misunderstanding whereby I thought I would be born in Pittsburg, but instead found myself caught in the Florida sticks between DisneyWorld and Kennedy Space Center?
Chloe is pulling. I pull on her leash because pulling and jumping are the two things we correct. It works because someone before me who chose a brindle dog and a black one put the time into training them. Someone who is in a nursing home now. It’s not Piper’s fault she’s a death harbinger. Anything can be.
I’m guiding the dogs out of the sightline of a squirrel, cutting near the creek on the way into the park, when I see the pallid hand extending from a culvert, fingertips frozen but beckoning.
Piper doesn’t even notice.
P.J. Powell is a novelist and health care/business writer who sometimes tweets, especially about old episodes of “Murder, She Wrote.” Less occasionally, she adds to her blog, Creatorology. She is a staunch defender of the productivity-boosting benefits of short naps, long walks, and dance breaks. Proud supporter of geek culture for all ages and storytelling across all mediums. Has rhythm. Will sing in public.