Five Flash Fictions
About the Writer
Thomas Kearnes holds an MA in Screenwriting from The University of Texas at Austin. Last year, he won Cardinal Sins' inaugural fiction contest. His most recent work has appeared or will appear in Night Train, Word Riot, Existere, Gadfly, Johnny America, The Adroit Journal, Five Quarterly, Sundog Lit and elsewhere. This fall, he will begin his internship for a planned career in substance abuse counseling. He prides himself on how many "personal" rejections he's received from editors over the years. To date, he has published roughly 125 stories, flashes and essays. He runs like a girl.
The Music Swells
Things were almost over between us, but we didn't know that. It was a mild December. You needed help moving your belongings from the dorm to your parents' house for the holidays. We spent a whole half-hour sorting and discarding the minefield of your car. I followed you to Mount Pleasant. I took a quick nap before returning home. This was the bed in which you and I spent our first night together. I caught your faintly sweet scent on the pillowcase. You left the room. I drifted into a reverie not quite sleep, yet more peaceful than any waking moment. The music erupted from down the hall. Slide guitar, woofing bass beat, and a high, nasally voice. I remained still, hoping it would stop. You shuffled into the room, looking panicked, your eyes wide and searching. You absently rubbed your hands together, a nervous tic I adored. I'm sorry, you said. It's my father. Is he trying to force me from the house, I asked. You stared at me, broken, but finally nodded. Your father didn't like his son's lover sleeping in his son's bed, even if no one had joined me. I took your hand and told you I was fine. I still remember the song. Tanya Tucker warbled about another woman's husband. We left the room and crept down the hall. You had been humiliated, and you couldn't hide it. Now when a man looks at me like that, I turn away. How is your father?
A Reason to Live
Greg suggests we pool our money for a bottle of Mad Dog. He’s smiling, the left corner of his mouth hitched higher than the right. I’m a sucker for lopsided smiles. When I look through my cache of old photos, there’s the theme: a lopsided smile.
I visit him once a week, after I get out of typing class at the junior college. I’m just a few months older than Greg but still trying to pull my life together. My mother gives me fifty dollars a week, which is just enough for cigarettes. I have a few bucks left for the rest of the week. Greg’s parents left him a little cash as well, at their last visit. I have no idea what they think he’s going to do with it. He’s trapped in this room with its antiseptic smell and white lace curtains.
Greg’s parents are clever. They know what he’s been doing these past few years, all the drugs and hopping from flophouse to flophouse in Austin. They know what led him to the Glengrove Retirement Home, where he sits in bed every day watching “Law and Order” reruns on the television bolted high on the wall. This was the only place his insurance would cover. The doctors removed Greg’s right leg from the knee down last month. All the shit he mainlined into his veins left the tissue in his lower leg dead or diseased. He turns thirty-three in three weeks.
“I thought you were going to quit.”
“By the time we split it, it’ll barely be enough to get a buzz.”
“So it only counts if you get ripped. This is nothing.”
I slouch in my seat. Back when he was still my boyfriend, before he broke up with me last month via a series of text messages, I sat beside him on the bed. We used to hold hands. Now, in his eyes, there’s a desperation that makes my stomach sink.
“I don’t even know where they sell it,” I say.
“They’ve got it at the gas station just down High Street.”
“How do you know that?”
“One of the nurses told me.”
“The one who split a joint with you last week?”
Greg chuckles and nods. He can charm men into anything. I thought after we broke up that he wouldn’t want to see me as often. But it was he who called me at the start of that week, asking when I’d drop by. I try to push away the thought he only needs me for booze runs.
He opens the bedside drawer and scoops out a couple of wrinkled bills. He reaches over and tucks the money into my open hand. It’s the first time he’s touched me since our break-up except for when I arrived and he embraced me in greeting. I’m going to miss all those small and incidental touches.
I leave the retirement home and drive the half-mile to the gas station. I’ve never drunk Mad Dog before, and Greg wants the green apple flavor. I pay for the wine and leave the store. Per his instruction, I hide the bottle in my satchel as I walk the sterile white hall to his room. Inside, I pull out the bottle and ask if I bought the right one even though I know I did. He takes it and pours half into a large blue mug already filled with chipped ice.
“You’ve been waiting for this a long time,” I say.
“You have no idea.” He takes a long swig from the mug and hands it to me. I take a small sip. It tastes too sweet and my lips feel sticky after I’m done.
“Come sit next to me,” he says.
“On the bed?”
“Well, I sure as hell can’t come over there.” He laughs and lightly rubs my shoulder. I ask him to scoot over then I join him in the bed. His stump rests on a pillow, acres of gauze wrapping it. We pass the mug of wine back and forth. It isn’t long before he has to refill it with the rest of the bottle. On the television, the last half of a “Law and Order” episode plays. The characters are in a courtroom. It’s a tense cross-examination, and the witness starts to cry.
“I’m not sure how often you want me to come over now,” I say.
He cocks his head, gives me a perplexed look. “Why’d ya say that?”
“Well, we’re not really going out anymore and—“
“You’re still my best friend.”
A smile twists my lips, and before I can stop myself, I say it. “You need someone to buy your booze.”
“Aw, c’mon man, you know it’s more than that.”
“I still think about you. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.”
“Things will look better once they fit you with a prosthesis,” I say.
“That’s what everyone tells me.”
“You coming to see me next week?” he asks.
“There’s only one sip left,” I say. “Mind if I drink it?”
“Sure, but only when you answer my question.”
I lean over and peck his cheek. I have enough money for a second bottle. We could sit here all afternoon and drink. I could pretend he loves me. We could do anything.
The picture had taunted me the two weeks after the start of the fall semester. I'd shown it to all my new friends in the journalism department. They asked about its origin, but I had no answers for them. I didn't want to make waves, I said. I'd never had a roommate before, and I was determined that we'd become friends: get drunk, go to movies, eat together at the commons. But so far, Todd and I had done none of these things. The photograph remained a mystery, a frame of x-ray film for a patient I couldn't name.
“When are you going to ask him about it?” Bobby asked me.
“I never think about it when he's here,” I said.
“Such bullshit,” he said. “I bet it's all you think about.” Bobby liked to tease me, and I liked to let him.
“He never calls her. I listen to his calls, and no one I know speaks to his girlfriend that way.”
This was just a guess, of course. In high school, I never had a girlfriend. I was beginning to realize I never would.
“Maybe he likes to wait till he's alone,” Bobby said.
Bobby and I sat on my bunk and stared at the picture thumbtacked on the wall over Todd's bunk. In the photograph, a teenage girl embraced a donkey. She stood beside it bent slightly forward, her arms wrapped around its neck. She was not a pretty girl. The ends of her long white-blonde hair looked limp and fried, as if she were growing out a bad perm. Acne scars riddled her cheeks, and the thick rouge she used only made the indentions in her skin more prominent. Still, her wide sweet smile offered a certain appeal––it made others curious about her. She and the animal stood in a lush green field. Perhaps it was summer. A water tower loomed in the background, the name of Todd's tiny hometown painted upon it.
“At least ask her!” Bobby cried. “I have to know!”
“He's not very talkative.”
“You're the one who wants to be a reporter. Get the story.”
Laughing, I said, “All right, I will.”
“I have an idea.” He slapped the mattress. “Get your phone.”
I always went along with whatever notion seized Bobby. Let's cut class and go to Mundt's Music! Let's speak to the cafeteria ladies in French! Let's run from the room to the community showers naked! I pulled my iPhone from my backpack. He leapt from the bed. He bounced over to Todd's bunk and knelt atop the covers, pressed the side of his head against the wall. His nose brushed the edge of the photograph.
“Okay,” he said, “Take the picture when I count to three.”
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Get the focus as tight as you can. It won't be funny if you can't tell what's in the picture.”
Bobby counted to three. Immediately after, his tongue lurched from behind his lips and licked the photograph. My body jerked with the shock of laughter, but I held the camera steady. There was a dim blast of white.
“Did you get it?”
I clicked the tiny silver buttons on the camera until the image appeared in the display window. His long, glossy tongue ran over the girl's body. His mouth jackknifed upward in a lewd grin. His bright blue eyes shimmered as they always did at the onset of a new wicked prank.
He rose on top of Todd's bunk, excited. “Well?”
I decided to be coy. Even then, I'd begun to notice Bobby liked it when I put up a little resistance. He swept across the small room, his lumberjack's body making the move with just two steps, but I pulled the camera out of reach.
“Wait till I print it,” I said.
I printed the photograph of him licking the girl using an unattended computer in one of the journalism buildings, but I never got to show it to him. A week after I took the shot, we got drunk and looped on Xanax and had sex. I never saw him again after that. His voicemail was always full, and he never answered the phone. I knocked and knocked on his door across campus. That November, someone told me he had dropped out of school and gone back to San Antonio.
It was the only photo I had of Bobby. I couldn't hang it on my wall, or Todd would know what we'd done. So I kept it pressed flat in the pages of my notebook. I slipped it out during class, at lunch, on the bus. He was so beautiful, even with his comic tongue, I soon stopped noticing the girl with the donkey. That half of the picture simply vanished from my perception.
The next fall, I had a new roommate, a beak-nosed, bear-voiced kid from Houston. I finally felt safe enough to tack my photo of Bobby upon the wall over my bunk. It had been up for only a few moments before the kid started asking questions.
“Why is that guy licking a picture?” He looked closer. “And why is that ugly girl holding a donkey?”
I tried to explain.
Hard to Get
Avery did, believe it or not, hook up with other guys. A few weeks before at the club, I’d discovered him in the men’s room stall. He never hooked up with me, though. I made myself available in the only ways I knew: I strutted beside him while he took vodka shots at the bar, chatted with him online while using a more attractive man’s profile pic, coaxed his drunken ex to reveal what moves turned his crank. Zilch.
I went to an after party three years ago. I did bumps with a couple of friends, in the bathroom, while our host held court downstairs. After we were done, after one of these friends refused to suck me off, they headed downstairs without me. I tried doorknobs. The furthest room on the right swung open at my touch.
Avery snored softly atop a twin bed with a floral bedspread and hot pink canopy. He was gorgeous, lithe, pouty-lipped, long-limbed. He reminded me of a guy I knew, during junior high, who lathered himself more slowly whenever I stared. Standing at the side of bed, I watched his eyeballs twitter beneath their lids.
It wasn’t done consciously, but my trembling hand passed over this chest, pressing more firmly as it traveled toward his crotch. Avery snorted and rolled over, his back now to me.
I should go, I told myself. Instead, I crawled beside him, moving too delicately to disturb the bedsprings, and then laid on my side, facing him. I kissed him, keeping my lips closed. He tasted like peppermint. He mumbled for me to stop but never fully woke. He rolled over onto his back, grunting, and I maneuvered my thin body on top of his. No one denies Jared Glidewell! I kissed him harder and rubbed my hips against his. He snapped awake. Gross, he cried, roughly wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. I retreated to the other side of the bed. He swung his legs off the bed to stand, but his feet betrayed him. His face smacked the edge of the nightstand, his body hitting the floor.
My breath solidified inside my lungs. Avery sprawled, again unconscious, on the floor. A gash on his forehead wept blood. I dashed downstairs, relieved no one noticed. Two weeks later, I learned that he survived. I’d left him, though, with a humbling scar. I watched him, stringing along the buffest guy in the club, slip into a men’s room stall.
Round and Round
The door to Louis’ bedroom is ajar. I place my ear at the opening, puzzled to hear scratching against metal. The door flies open, Louis standing before me. He looks pale and emptied, like a milk jug drained of its last drop. His eyelids flutter as he takes me in. I tried to imagine how he used to look at Doug, the ex we had in common.
“I called from the road,” I say. “You didn’t answer.”
“Sorry, I got busy with Peppermint.”
“Who’s Peppermint?” I think I know the answer.
He smiles and ushers me in, the whole room filling with rattles and squeaks. Stacked atop one another in the corners, on shelves, and even under his bed, are hamster cages. The rodents run in their wheels. A few suck at their eyedropper-sized water bottles. His bedroom hums with the futile energy of a top spinning beyond a child’s reach. So goddamn many of them…
“I didn’t know you liked animals.”
“Not all animals. Just these.” He opens the sock drawer and plucks a bag of crystals from inside. “They don’t live very long, you know.” He pulverizes a couple of crystals beneath his driver’s license. “I’ll have to bury every last one. It’s bittersweet.”
I nod and ease myself onto the bed. Louis wears only a sagging pair of gym shorts and a Nike T-shirt. He’s barefoot. His feet thump against the cement floor as he moves about the room. I don’t know if we’ll have sex after I drove here from Tyler. There are so many variables. All I want to know now, though, is why there’s no carpet in his bedroom.
“The hamsters kept wetting it. After a while, I couldn’t get rid of the stink.”
“But they’re in cages?”
“I like to let them roam.”
“Can you cut me a line of that?”
I’ve seen his small and dingy world, and unless I’m willing to dash back to my car right now, I need something to blunt the acuity of this revelation. I kiss him, gently, lips staying closed. In fables, the princess wakes and marries whatever dude kissed her, out of gratitude. After I kiss Louis, he hands me a clipped section from a straw. The dope jets inside my nostril, the bitterness budding at the back of my throat. After that line, I return to the bed, wanting to be alone with my high. I recall why I stopped this shit: none of the men I met in the party scene eased the loneliness.
Sprawled on the bed, I don’t notice how much dope he does or how quickly it disappears. I catch a glimpse of him, though, returning the empty Baggie to his sock drawer. Tweaked, the scratching against the cages sounds like children eating popcorn. He asks if I want a Playgirl, but muscle magazines are so cut-and-paste cheap, at least compared to the girlie magazines. I want to cry, high or sober, when I open one.
Louis lies on his front, propped up on his elbows, leafing through the pictures of oiled, leering studs. It takes a moment before I notice his hips are moving to the same metronome rhythm he employs when we fuck. One of his hands is tucked beneath his abdomen, presumably yanking on his cock. The precision with which his hips and hands are timed perversely impresses me. Surely, though, the cold concrete floor is complicating things. His bare ass, gym shorts tugged to his upper thighs, bobs up and down. I don’t have a magazine and I’ve resisted pawing at my crotch, but I’m still getting hard. I want to violate Louis in front of his hamster harem. I wonder if his agonized cries would spur the rodents to run faster in their wheels.
Louis hasn’t looked at me once since taking to the floor. I tell him I have to piss. Once his bedroom door shuts, I dash toward the front door. I could’ve raped him. He likes it, and I might like it, too. After we were done, though, what next? Our business would be finished. I’ve landed all but one of Doug’s exes, and the last is sadly too far away to pursue.
If I ever rape Louis, I want Doug to know.
In the driveway, I start the car and turn to look over the seat. On the trunk’s lid, a beige-striped hamster licks its paws clean. In a crazed moment, I consider taking him home. I kill the engine, trying to think. My erection betrays me, my sad delusion that I’m a decent man. Fuck the restraining order. I call Doug. He answers on the second ring.