Friday, April 15, 2016

Tracks - The Return of Flash Fiction Friday!

Let's re-start Flash Fiction Friday with a brief sketch of life in suburbia.



by Leonard C Suskin

What the child liked best about the house is that there are places you can't go. No forbidden rooms, no hidden stairs, but small spaces encompassing tiny mysteries. The child had wished for a hidden room since the father had recounted the tale of Blackbeard the pirate one bedtime (and what a row that had lead to when the child refused to sleep for nights after, coming to the bedroom. The mother scolded the father for sowing nightmare seeds, but that wasn't quite it; the child awoke each night searching the tiny two-bedroom apartment for a hidden door, and was always brought to tears when none was found), but really knew that a forbidden door and a hidden room was a grown-up secret. The child was far enough from the threshold of adulthood to find joy in tiny child-size secrets. The space behind the boiler. The rusty metal floorplate in the basement closet which the mother said lead to a trap - not just a mouse-trap, but a house-trap. The child wondered if what was inside was somehow what had captured this house, anchored it hear.

The point, of course, isn't mouse-traps or house-traps (which you know is just plumbing because you traded away mystery for knowledge), isn't what's really in the spaces behind the walls or under the floor. The point is that there are hidden spaces and forbidden spaces. The point is that while the mother and father sanded and painted and carpented and plumbed the child could stand at the very edge of a mystery, the child-brain a radio searching for the frequency of whatever broadcast came from beyond the walls. Or a whatever the modern metaphor for "radio" would be now that everyone streams music over wi-fi and radio is just a lumbering RF dinosaur clogging a part of the spectrum. But I digress. Where were we?

Yes. The child.

The stair is wooden with those little square of carpet to keep one from slipping, dark-brown paint stained dusted with thick layers of plaster dust (remember, the mother and father are renovating). It was in this dusty corner that the child first saw the tracks. Tiny things, the sort a mouse would make, or perhaps an undersized rat. Tiny whispers in dust which, seconds ago, the child was sure had been pristine. The tracks started at that little carpetsquare in the center of the stair tread and ended... at the wall. The child marvelled at this, wondering where the creature which made them could have come from, where it had gone.

When the electric sander upstairs fell silent, the child wiped the tiny tracks away with a carelessly dirty sleeve, gathering both the dust and the empty spaces within. Even a child knows that an adult, seeing mousetracks in the new house, would hunt and kill, would lay mousetraps and not housetraps and whatever mysterious housemate they had would be gone.

The next day the child returned to the stair when the coast was clear. Again the skitchskitchskitch sound of sandpaper (not the electric one today). Again, a white dusting on darkwood stair. And again a track, but this one was different.

One print, right where the last had been. One print, midway up the stairs. Nothing below, nothing beneath. No mouse-tracks, this one. Even a child reared in the city knew this for what it is: a single cat's paw print.

The family did now own a cat.

Was it a stray? But how did it get in, and why no more prints? Where was it?

Do mice grow to be cats out here in the suburbs? The child wondered if some different logic was at work than there had been in the city.

We've already said that the best thing about the house is forbidden corners. The other best thing is the space, the empty parts of the day when the father and mother were sanding, were painting, were (though the child wouldn't have thought of this word) nesting. It made the whole world a secret corner, one in which a gentle-hearted child could steal a saucer from the kitchen, spill some milk into it, and hide it in that little cobwebby spot behind the boiler. The child did this quickly, eagerly, a touch frantically for fear that whichever cutecat (because in the child's mind the cat was never anything but cute) had left its mark was hungry, perhaps even starving.

Maybe a saucer of stolen milk (still three days before the expiration date!) would be enough.


The next day was a Monday. The child went to school, the parents to work.

The schoolbuilding was all shinynew, walls meeting neatly at sharp corners, no secrets, nothing hidden.

The child is usually the first to awaken, has a hidden moment for the cooldark of the basement.

The saucer is empty, sticky. No more milk. The child hopes the cutecat is happy. But then on the stair...

..a dog print. You saw it coming, didn't you? The child didn't. Just the one footprint.

A long time pondering, in the halflight spilling to the stairway from the old incandescent bulb in the kitchen. A trickle of light, a warm dusty light. Not the antiseptic fluorescent which makes everything too real, but the kind of old spilled half-light in which a monster can still hide.

The child pads to the kitchen on quietmorning feet, as the rest of the house sleeps. A tiny scrap of meat from last night's dinner, nobody would miss it. Right? Onto the secret saucer with it. Maybe it would make the ghostdog happy and it would leave the cutecat alone. Maybe the ghostdog IS the cat, grown up again.

Whatever it is, whyever its there, it is.

An invisible pet.

Or a parade of invisible pets. It doesn't much matter.

In what is already become ritual, the child dutifully gathers up the footprint onto a sleeve.

And leaves the secretshadows behind as the parents stir to wakefulness,

Through the day, the child carries the mystery, wondering what shape I'll show tomorrow.

The picture was mine, and kickstarted this story. How did you picture the child? As a boy or a girl? How old? Much in this sketch is left intentionally vague, some ambiguous. There's a touch of an influence from Terry Bisson's "Billy" stories, but just a touch.

I'll be flexing the flash-fiction muscle more over the coming months, perhaps striving to return to at least one per week. If you have images, themes, or anything else you think would make an interesting story inspiration, feel free to share. Perhaps I'll see what I can do with it.

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