Here’s what I personally feel is the best flash fiction I’ve written for the current contest. It still didn’t win. Didn’t even rank in the top five. Well, fuck a duck.
The prompt required no dialogue whatsoever. So I went uber personal.
Still, I think I might try to shop this one. So it might not be up on the website for too long. Unless y’all hate it. Good news is I could tweak it to add some dialogue now. Although I don’t think I’d add much. If anybody has thoughts, leave me a comment.
The Cacophony of Memory
BEEP. BEEP. Breathe in. Breathe out. Circular pattern. BEEP. BEEP.
David remembers seven years ago. Cynthia wouldn’t remember. She was high as a kite on Demerol, rotely following dictated directions. Breathing, pushing, breathing, pushing. Circular pattern. David almost dropped a deuce himself, holding his breath and clinching his sphincter every time the OB instructed his wife. Sympathy pushing of some fecal matter, but fortunately nothing came out of the father.
What came out of the mother was perfectly healthy, just like babies had been doing for centuries. Mother and father gasped, wiped sweat from collective brows. Baby gasped like a normal one-minute old. His eyes opened and shut, looking left and right, seeing only light, but light was plenty to see after nine months, an entire existence, behind the uterine curtain. One member of the delivery room was ready to seize the world, the other two were ready to seize a bed.
But Bengie was a healthy baby boy. Cynthia was a healthy mother. The equipment and protocols of the delivery room stood as reminders that this was not always the case. The doctor and nurse performed their usual postpartum duties with a casual air. The critical stage of this particular operation had passed. This was down time, when they could concern themselves with cleaning and organizing, before being called into the next delivery room for the next critical stage.
Forty-eight hours later, a constipated David wheeled a tired Cynthia and a healthy Bengie out to the car and to their new world together. A world of opportunity.
BEEP. BEEP. Breathe in. Breathe out. Circular pattern. Through the tube. Assisted breathing. No motor functions. Just breathing. And BEEP. BEEP.
Cynthia remembers six years ago. Baby Bengie’s first step.
Not that there’s ever an official first step. There’s side stepping. Hands on a table or a couch or a wall, the baby maneuvers his wobbly little legs in a lateral motion. Once or twice, he pushes off from his support. He hovers, wavers, maybe even moves a leg to keep himself upright a skosh longer before plopping back down onto his diapered behind. Not really a step, moreso an early physics lesson. Widening one’s stance. A tripod keeps the camera steady.
Cynthia is not remembering these. She is remembering his first bona fide step. His first intentional movement forward, moments after his first free stand. They had been at a park. Wide open expanse of green as far as an undeveloped eye could see. No tables or couches or walls nearby, even the trees were too damned far for an eleven-month old to contemplate traversing on hand and knee. Mommy and Daddy were closer so, like the member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who took one look west of the Mississippi River and decided that St. Louis was a perfect place to stake a claim, Bengie’s internal combustion engine decided that this was the time to take a stand.
Cynthia watched in fascination as Bengie pushed himself up off of his knees. A wounded rhinoceros rearing back, preparing a lion’s roar in slow motion. The look on baby’s face switched from concentration to surprise, then to confusion as he looked at his parents and realized that they were still no closer after his Herculean feat. Sisyphus with the rock. He tottered one leg forward, wobbled his wounded rhino wobble, then right back down onto his diapered bottom.
But Cynthia saw the intent and the triumph on his face.
BEEP. BEEP. There is no triumph on Bengie’s face. There is no intent. No consciousness. Only breathing into a tube. And BEEP. BEEP.
David remembers five years ago. Another hospital. An emergency room that turned out to be no emergency at all.
The baby book doesn’t have a first hospital entry. David doesn’t wonder why. Bengie’s first hospital visit was after a tumble down the stairs. One look at his Daddy, then one step over the stair. Ass over tea kettle over ass again. Right in front of David’s horrified eyes, his treasure of a child somersaulted down into the distance. Left to right to left again, head hitting the wall on the left, arm wrapping around the banister on the right.
Screams. Intense screams like the incessant beeping of a heart monitor. David was convinced that Bengie’s baby body was wracked. There would be broken bones, bruises, and contusions. Probably a slew of CPS paperwork, because Daddy had been three steps away. Only six feet, and a chasm of responsibility, between father and son. The government would never believe that a two-year old can toddle an amazing distance in the time it takes a very cognizant and responsible father to react.
Except that Bengie had been fine. No broken bones, no bruises, no contusions. No CPS paperwork. No beep, beep, beeping. Toddlers toddle down stairs sometimes. Toddler bodies are made to compensate for toddler actions.
BEEP. BEEP. Bengie’s not a toddler anymore. A seven-year body doesn’t have as much cushion. The doctors rush in and out, not the leisure of the maternity ward, nor the focus of the emergency room. This is ordered chaos. David thinks the doctors should be talking. Maybe they are, but it is hard to hear them over the steady sound of the breathing tube, and the clamor of the din. And the BEEP, BEEP.
Nothing to hear over the cacophony of silence. The cacophony of memory.
David and Cynthia should be talking, too. But there is nothing to say. And talking requires breath.
Cynthia remembers four years ago. The new house, the new life for the family of three, with an extra bedroom in case a fourth family member came on its way. Bengie had been sleeping in his own bed for six months before the move. His old crib sat expectantly in the shed.
Potty training had been a bit brutal, as it often is for a boy. The sprinkler effect was bad enough, but the lack of sphincter control was far worse for parents. From an adult’s perspective, a bowel movement comes with longer lead time. For a child, it is quite the opposite. Bengie had mastered the art of holding in his number one, usually quite literally with his hand clamping down on his penis just long enough to pee-pee dance his way to the potty. The bowel movement was always sneakier and there was no body part to hold onto.
Cynthia thought about potty training while she painted Bengie’s room in the new house yellow. Very fitting. Yellow was a gender-neutral color, because the bedroom might belong to a brother or a sister in the next few years. She also had brown on her mind during the potty training time, but she refused to paint a child’s room brown, no matter how gender neutral the color might be. Paint a child’s room brown and that child is doomed to have a lava lamp as a teenager.
BEEP. BEEP. This room is not yellow. Nor brown. It is white. Everything about it is white. White for cleanliness and sterility. And white for heaven in the clouds and angels with their wings. But not at this moment. At this moment, it is just silent breathing. The silence of a continuous sound. BEEP. BEEP.
Bengie isn’t able to remember anything. But when he was able to remember, he remembered three years ago. A family camping trip. His earliest memory.
Most people’s earliest memories are tragedies. Tumult hits the save button. A burnt hand, a broken arm, a fight with a friend. But not Bengie. Happiness triggered his personal recorder.
The whole family had gone out on the lake in a kayak. That was what Bengie remembered the most. The feeling of floating on top of water under a perfectly blue sky, a smattering of soft clouds floating above, like the marshmallows that they hovered over the campfire later that night.
A day of riding his bicycle around on a road that was equal parts pavement and gravel. Training wheels popping in and out of potholes that might as well be craters on the moon.
And the stars. So many stars. Stars in a number and brightness and ubiquity that a four-year old mind could not comprehend, but not for lack of observation.
Bengie usually remembered it all. And much more since. Kindergarten. Disneyland. Family dinners around the kitchen table.
But right now, Bengie isn’t remembering anything. He can’t hear the BEEP, BEEP, nor can he see the flurry of activity going on around him. Activity focused on him. On trying to maintain a pulse. On trying to supplement the oxygen that he is not processing on his own. On keeping the steady rhythm of BEEP. BEEP.
Cynthia and David feel like they should talk to fill the void. But talking requires breath. And what would they talk about?
They both remember two years ago. Bengie’s fifth birthday. They remember it for different reasons.
For David, it was the year of “Paw Patrol.” It marked the culmination of an entire year during which Bengie was obsessed with the civil service canines. A blue centerpiece featuring the police dog, Chase, clashed with the yellow streamers for the construction bulldog, Rubble-on-the-Double. Every inch of the house had special meaning to Bengie that day.
David was fascinated by his son’s own fascination. That he could become so enmeshed in a pasttime, that the fictional world could be so real to a child. Bengie fixated on every detail, most of which were completely superfluous to David’s untrained, adult eye. The child hovered over every individual facial expression on a gift bag, even Skye, the girl pup, trying to pinpoint which episode or which season this gift bag represented. The debate went on for hours. David spent a good portion of that day wondering if five was a good time to get his son into “Star Wars.” Time to share his own fictional fascination with his progeny.
For Cynthia, the fifth birthday had a different connotation. Her oldest child was leaving the nest. Maybe not moving off to some faraway university yet, but kindergarten was merely a gateway drug to the dangerous world of education that might someday pry her precious prize away from her.
And so fresh on the heels of the miscarriage, her oldest was likely to morph into her only. And all the “Paw Patrols” of the world wouldn’t change the fact that he wouldn’t be watching “Paw Patrol” much longer. Even if he wanted to, school meant hours away from the home every day. School meant homework. School meant growing up.
She had at least been comforted during that transition by the knowledge that high school was still nine years away, and there was still plenty of time to enjoy some time with her oldest, her only, child.
BEEP. BEEP. Time is running out. There is no time left. The beeping, the oxygen mask, the whirlpool of white smocks. They are bringing out the defibrillators. The defibrillators are just a precaution, because BEEP, BEEP. The sound is both a blessing and a curse. Each beep means that Bengie is still with us, but each beep also means not safe, not out of the woods of a camping trip yet.
Everybody remembers one hour ago. Not just David. Not just Cynthia. Not just Bengie, if he is able to remember anything at all.
Everybody who was at the pool remembers one hour ago. The lifeguard definitely remembers. But so do the bystanders who, mouths agape at the spectacle, didn’t bother to dial 911 until vital minutes had passed. Psychiatrists disagree whether it should be called bystander apathy or bystander inhibition. Whatever it is, nobody sprang into action to save a seven-year old’s life.
Except for the lifeguard. At least he did his job when the life of a seven-year old boy was floating on the top of a blood-soaked pool.
The day started out so well. Bengie (or Benjamin, as he now wanted to be called, but his parents were not quite ready to start calling him) was looking forward to a rare day outside, one of the first sunny days of the season. He had been a swimmer for as long as he could remember, although David and Cynthia knew the proper number would be ten months old. Each summer, Bengie became a little bit stronger of a swimmer. When he was three, he could float on his back and get himself back to the side of the pool without help. At four, he was able to swim up the increasing distances between his parents as each one continued to take one step back.
Last year, the pool became one of Bengie’s favorite spots. By the end of the summer, David and Cynthia could stay outside the pool, looking on in comfort and in pride as their only child graduated from Crab to Alligator. The first moment a parent can turn their back on their child in water is a milestone that rivals any discarded diaper pail. One hour ago, David and Cynthia were facing forward, diving into the pool with adrenaline and horror.
What excited Bengie today was the diving board. He asked about it in the past, but everyone felt that seven would be a good time to try it. The first jump, an awkward, forward tumble that was destined to become a belly-flop before Bengie’s instincts dropped his landing gear for splashdown. The second attempt was more graceful, a plunge that coalesced into a downward arc, breaching the surface with a splash that implied the Olympics were still a long way away.
Then came the third attempt. A step forward, then another step toward the end of the board. Then the third step of the third dive. Bengie planted his heel instead of his toes. His momentum faced the wrong direction. Gravity pulled backward, not forward. The seven-year old frame tried to pivot in mid-air, like a video game character lining up above a pipe. His body successfully missed the board. His head did not.
A thud. A watermelon splitting open. A crack. A neck snapping forward. It was the last sound Cynthia or David had heard. A sound they were still hearing now. A sound they would continue to hear for the rest of their lives.
Their baby floating in the pool. The water pinkening, an oil-slick of scarlet emanating out from a limp form. Two parents in shock. A crowd in wonder. A lifeguard doing his best.
Their baby lying in a hospital bed. The doctors in chaos. The defibrillators out. Charge, rub together, clear. CHUNK. And again.
A chance. Hope. Vitals to check.
But no breath. No circular motion. All in stasis, waiting for another sound.