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Flash Fiction
752 words
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Don’t Let Yourself Drown

by John Estes

Byrn wouldn’t have it any other way, which always strikes people as odd, considering that he is (usually) referring to having only one eye. No surprise that his difficult childhood sounds like the stuff of fairy tales: there’s an evil stepmother, a weak and absentee father, a confederate sibling, a lake with a legendary resident beast, and quite possibly a talking cat. There were abuses, an attempted cover-up, and the ingenuity of children to solve a riddle, not to mention the missing eye. Except most fairy tales don’t end with Protective Services being called by extended family, with the step-mother (Charlene in this story) convicted of assault and battery and child endangerment for burning, beating, and all-out terrorizing the children. They don’t end with a sorrowful father allowing his children to pass into foster care, deemed unfit anyway unless he ceased traveling so much for his work (pipeline engineering), which he refused to do. He did, however, faithfully visit Charlene in prison, and once she’d served her time they started a new family.

The foster parents, the Richmonds, who became the adoptive parents, were excruciatingly kind, and every neglect and evil visited upon Byrn and his sister Melba they countered with patience, care, and love. Thanks to years of therapy, rehab, and a string of churches she chewed through before settling down as a Unitarian, Melba ended up well-adjusted enough, a bit OCD with doors and windows but capable of sustaining a longterm relationship and a relatively stable day-to-day life.

She does have her own quirky charms, however. As a child she had a hawk she called her friend, which she credited on several occasions for guiding her home when lost. And she believes in monsters, which everyone thinks a joke or metaphor but isn’t really. She routinely purchases supermarket tabloids, and fears that lycans and succubi walk among us. Having grown up beside a forest, she has no trouble believing in Sasquatch. As children, she and her brother had each spotted the leviathan surfacing not far off shore of the small but deep reservoir a mile by trail from their house. Along the eastern edge of the water, Byrn had built a lean-to from an abandoned hunter’s stand, a place they would together or separately retreat to whenever they could, or were forced to, because of household stress (Charlene said wet the bed one more time and I’ll duct tape you shut) or abandonment (even Charlene would disappear for a day or two).

Don’t worry, their fairy tale didn’t involve, as many of them do, even a hint of incest, although each depends entirely upon the other, possessing the kind of mystical bond you might expect: they text at all hours, sense disturbances or pain from afar, show up at events in same-color shirts. So traumatized by their step-mother’s shamings and violence, neither have overcome an instinctive revulsion at the body and its functioning. Melba will only undress or make love to her husband (she does try to like it, for his sake) in the dark, but more than anything she can’t wait to be alone again. Byrn remains a virgin at 29—and not for lack of opportunity, as the eye patch proves a conversation-starter and a turn-on—and is so fastidious and private, three friends and coworkers have accused him of never defecating.

These apprehensions and apperceptions, however, are so normal to Byrn and Melba that to diagnose or treat them clinically would be like trying to reverse the congenital; it’s best to focus on work-arounds and fixes, and both are, maybe more so than many of us, self-aware adults, so let us praise the system and their resilience for that, and their good luck. They miss their father of course, but long ago decided to respect the Richmonds and not ask about him or the half-siblings they knew existed somewhere; and they were not that curious anyway.

No one believes Byrn when he tells them that his cat is twenty-two years old, as he seems spry enough, but Trinket’s longevity, his ability to keep their secrets, is just one of those things they take for granted, part of the compensatory magic that grows up around abused children—like Melba’s impervious kingdom of peace by the lake, like the supersonic hearing in Byrn’s left ear, like the angels who wandered the house and stood idly by as Charlene made the children drink her piss or else, and then stubbed out her cigarette on them anyway.


SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

John Estes

directs the creative writing program at Malone University in Canton, Ohio and is on the faculty of Ashland University’s Low-Residency MFA. He is the author of a collection of poems, Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011), and two chapbooks: Breakfast with Blake at the Laocoön (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve, which won a 2008 National Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America.

Recent work has appeared in Tin House, Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, Crazyhorse, AGNI, and other places.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury