I only wanted to hold Birthday Bear and sit quietly while the adults talked, but Aunty Maureen had asked me to show her my new toy. She took the Care Bear from my outstretched hands. “Be careful,” I said “he’s new.” But she didn’t hear me.
“Birthday Bear,” she sang, bouncing and jigging him around up close to her face like a baby. “Birthday Bear! Birthday Bear!”
"Be careful,” I said again, but quieter this time. More to myself: something was telling me not to let on that I cared. Aunty Maureen lifted Birthday Bear up, holding him firmly around his torso; her red painted finger nails pinching his stomach.
I grabbed the air, trying to reach for him back.
Then up towards the ceiling he suddenly flew. Twisting and curling skyward through the air, spinning back down into her hands again like a trapeze artist or tumbling gymnast.
My eyes stayed glued to the soaring yellow sun-ball. He flew high above our heads. And every time he landed, the knot in my stomach tightened and tightened.
Aunty Maureen caught Birthday Bear with one final big swoop and a dip, but instead of passing him back to me, she took ahold of the single piggy-tail curl—his hair—on the top of his head—and started spinning.
Around and around.
“Oh look,” she laughed. “Birthday Bear’s having fun!”
I wanted to laugh like the other adults in the room. Think the same things were funny.
Birthday Bear was suffering. Every time his face came around to the front, our eyes locked and I knew his smiling happy bear-face was calling Help!
Birthday Bear hung precariously in the air.
Faster and faster, she spun. I wanted to shout, Stop! Don’t do that. You’ll hurt him. But I feared Aunty Maureen's reply would be: “Oh Becky. You don’t think I’m hurting him—do you? He’s not alive you know!”
But he was alive. He was feeling everything. The same way I was feeling powerless to stop everything. The cruel joke.
“Oh Mum,” Mercedes said walking into the room carrying a tray of sandwiches. “For heaven’s sake—what on earth have you got there?”
Mercedes—Aunty Maureen’s daughter—was my favorite cousin. Even though she was older than me by fifteen years, and an adult, we were still friends.
“It’s a Care Bear,” Aunty Maureen jeered.
“Well, it’s not yours is it Mum?” Mercedes said winking at me. "Give it back to the birthday girl will you and stop teasing?”
Aunty Maureen lowered Birthday Bear.
“Oh goodness,” she mocked. “Don’t be silly. We were only having a bit of fun weren’t we Bec?”
But I didn’t reply.
I lifted Birthday Bear from her lap and pulled him in close to me. Everything’s okay now, I whispered under my breath, stroking his head.
And then later that evening, as I fell asleep, I vowed never to him out of my sight again. Care Bears have real feelings you know.
Just like people.
Becky Jeeves was born and raised in England and now resides in Massachusetts. Her writing has appeared in HerStry and The Write Launch and is forthcoming in Months to Years and Happiful Magazine. When she is not writing she is busy curating artwork, vintage collectables and Asian porcelain for her antiques booth. Find her on Instagram: @becky_jeeves
Drinking a toast to his bride in a reception hall when my mother appeared in the doorway, stomach round as a beach ball
Decorating a Christmas tree when the TV cut to a breaking story on the local news about a baby left in a bicycle basket outside the fire station, which reminded him of an ultimatum he got last spring, and so he does the math
Pushing his six-year-old twins on swings while scrolling through an email from a cousin asking didn’t he date a Sarah-What’s-Her-Name at Cane Ridge High? Well, the reason she left for Iowa early senior year…
Arguing with his eldest sister in a law office over their parents’ estate which included a bequest to some grandchild he’d never heard of
Fanning himself with a program while seated in midday heat at his grandson’s college commencement when a semi-familiar woman sidles up and introduces herself, points me out across the lawn
Shoshauna Shy resides in Madison, Wisconsin, a freelance copy editor and flash fiction author and poet whose stories have recently appeared in the public arena courtesy of Five on the Fifth, BigCityLit, 50 Give or Take, Brilliant Flash Fiction and Ariel Chart. One of her flash was included in the Best Microfiction 2021 series by Pelekinesis Press, and she was also one of the seven finalists for the 2021 Fish Flash Fiction Prize out of County Cork, Ireland. Learn more at: https://PoetryJumpsOfftheShelf.com
When she was little, she used the gazing ball like a funhouse mirror, watching her cheeks stretch as she danced around in circles, chanting incantations of made-up words. In college, it had only poked fun at her body dysmorphia, asking, Just how wide can we make those thighs?
Now, she wonders what it would feel like to take it off its plaster pedestal and kick it down the street, what sound it would make when it broke. She splays her fingers and follows the curvature with her fingertips. The glass is cold from the March air, almost wet to the touch.
What would they think if she cracked it like an egg? If she picked it up and hurled it against the window? The nieces and nephews she barely recognizes anymore, the aunts and uncles, all huddled around her mother like she’s some kind of grieving campfire—would it shock them out of pretending like they understand what was lost?
She wipes her fingers on her pantleg. Stepping back, she watches as the early rosebuds take on their new shape in the curved glass, how the red and yellow petals transform under the suggestion of purple tint. In a few months, the yard will be empty of rose bushes. Without her father to tend them, they will become the charge of the church, orphans replanted in a prayer garden.
Closing her eyes, she grips the gazing ball in both hands and holds it over her head. She breathes in the smell of lingering dew on year-old mulch and looks up to see her own funhouse face staring back at her. Then, she lets it drop and it shatters on the concrete.
When her wife dies thirty years later, she tells the funeral director she doesn’t want to see a single rose at the service. She buys wilting bouquets of ranunculus from the grocery store and places them in empty gold-painted wine bottles. They look foolish, their heads turned every which way like they’ve never lost anything in their lives.
After the service ends, she stands at the back of the reception hall with a crumpled paper cup gripped in her hand. Coffee roils in her otherwise empty stomach and she walks to the bathroom to throw up.
Washing and drying her hands, she spots a soft touch of pink in the trashcan and finds a cluster of cut roses buried beneath a wad of paper towel. A gift from an unsuspecting guest, she supposes, someone from her wife’s side of the family. She wonders who tipped them off, the funeral director or her brother. She pushes aside the paper towels and pulls the bouquet from the trash, shaking loose the wispy backing of a menstrual pad clinging to a bruised petal.
That night, she falls asleep with both lamps and the overhead light on, the bouquet of roses tucked beneath the comforter on her wife’s side of the bed. Their fragile blooms rest against the pillowcase she can’t bring herself to wash.
In the morning, she awakens to find the roses battered and broken beneath the arm she must have extended in search of her wife’s sleeping form. She scoops the stems into her fist and carries them with her as she walks down the hallway and into the kitchen. She fills a vase with water for her defeated bouquet and pours herself a cup of day-old coffee. She pulls on a housecoat and steps into her slippers before carrying the vase out to the front walkway.
The neighbor across the street looks up from their lawnmower and waves. She waves back and lifts the vase over her head before letting it drop. The neighbor stares as she walks back into her empty home, leaving behind a mess of shattered glass and dying roses.
A boy, perhaps eight or nine, shifted under the weight of a sleeping baby on his back in a makeshift sling. Hands and face smudged with dust and dirt, he begged for money with vacant eyes and an outstretched hand, and he moved on when my friend said he had nothing to give.
“They do that to get sympathy, and more money,” my friend said as we walked further, “and if you give money to one, the rest see it and swarm you.”
My heart burst into a smile as I headed to the border town alone on a quiet, gray morning. “Maybe they’re not up this early,” I thought. I walked carefully to find anyone, everyone. In the distance, I saw him. Yes, he had the baby on his back. I rushed to him. He held out his hand, and I wondered if he recognized me from the day before. His monotonous motions told me no. He looked up at me with those same dusty eyes. I slung off my backpack and dove in for the goods. I handed him a package of raisin bread and beamed as I dug for milk.
He looked away then at me again. “No food. Money,” he said in English.
“No, I don’t have money, but you need to eat something. Here’s some milk for your sister.” I held the provisions out again.
“Money,” he said. Drained by the experience, he shuffled away, and some other brazen children plucked the snacks from my hand and ran off giggling. I stared at the boy and the baby until they drifted out of sight.
Karen Toralba is an American living in Bangkok, Thailand. She has worked in English education for 20 years, most of which have been overseas. This almost exotic lifestyle opens many doors to unique experiences which can transform into stories. She is embarking on her publishing journey with accepted pieces in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Fiction on the Web, The Fictional Café and Buddy lit zine.
The rain came down in sheets, the grey dampening a once crisp sky and dulling the buzz I had spent too much time and money cultivating. To say I was disappointed was to not understand how much I needed to stop the chaos or at least slow it down, how much I ached to escape your mother’s shame when she found us entwined and unabashed in the rooftop garden. It wasn’t the softness of my skin or the flatter bulge of my vulva that shocked her; she had always suspected your taste ran sapphic, it was my social standing and disregard for yours, or really hers as she saw what your neighbors most certainly did from their windows. You paused only a moment before running to soothe her seethe, while I stayed outside, slowly picking up lust-tossed clothes, folding yours, meticulously adjusting my shirt and pants and hair. I would not let her humiliate me, despite in many ways, having humiliated her. I see that now, and I know it is petty. Forgive me. I was not brought up in shame or guilt. I did not understand how you must have felt. I did not know that this, my inability to respond quickly, was would be what would break us apart. When you brought your sweets to the roof, offered me a plate of colored desserts, I had wanted just one bite of the yellow, unaware I should have savored them all.
Heather Bourbeau’s work has appeared in 100 Word Story, Alaska Quarterly Review, The MacGuffin, Meridian, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and SWWIM. She is the winner of La Piccioletta Barca’s inaugural competition and the Chapman Magazine Flash Fiction winner, and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has worked with various UN agencies, including the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia and UNICEF Somalia.
I had seven dreams about my grandmother dying. Cancer was the first; hairless, wrinkled, reaching out a hand to my father, her only son. Next came the car accident. She was always a reckless driver, I remember holding onto the door handle as she sped through lights and hollered at jaywalkers. They just kept coming, night after night: house fire, hit by a bus, choked on her favorite steak dinner. Tripped at the grocery store. Went to bed after a Dateline special and simply never woke up.
I didn’t know who to tell. I didn’t know if I was even supposed to say anything. I was a kid who snuck downstairs after bed to watch CSI from behind the couch, I had bad dreams all the time. Nights where I showed up to school naked, or accidentally locked Remy, our German Shepherd, in the basement. Even a hauntingly specific one of being attacked by those talking rats from some Disney cartoon. These dreams didn’t feel too different at the time.
The morning after the last one, my dad got a call at the breakfast table. It was brief, he said a few words, then went and locked himself in his office on the third floor. Not even my mom was allowed in. The funeral was two weeks later, a rainy Sunday spent wondering why I alone had been warned about this.
I never had another dream like that. Never even had a single nightmare after that week, as luck would have it. If I dreamt at all it was fairly tame - visiting Disney World, lost in IKEA, an especially memorable one where I married my favorite Starbucks barista. Three decades of good dreams nearly put that week from my mind, erasing whatever precognitive abilities I’d dared to assume I had.
My sister called this past Friday morning. She usually phones on Sunday so we can straighten out dad’s care schedule for the week, figure out who’s going to take him to the hospital when. It’s usually all very straight forward. Kara doesn’t beat around the bush; too many kids to wrangle, too little of her youth left.
“You know,” she started, taking a slurping drink of coffee, drowning out the background noise of the kids playing. “Elsie told me she had a dream about you.”
Meredith Sullivan is an actress and writer from Baltimore, currently living in Philadelphia. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a B.A in fiction writing in 2017, and is still trying to put that to use somehow. Recently, she has been published in fresh.ink and Prometheus Dreaming.
The first thing out of the doctor’s mouth was “how is your summer going?” and I felt like slapping her but I stayed in my chair, recalling ultrasounds with heartbeats and ultrasounds without, hexagonal pills and searing pain and a bag labelled “biohazard,” and I remembered the mockery of the sun on my face as I carried the bag on the bus in my purse and delivered it to the hospital where a nurse removed the container from inside the bag, held it up to the light and chirped, “You got the right thing!” and took it away to be tested since this was number four and four wasn’t normal, especially when you’re 29, and she called me a month later to tell me it was a “genetically normal baby girl” and had no other words since the usual comforts didn’t apply, and it occurred to me that I had no other memories of the summer except for the cloud that became the world so that even in the mirror there was only fog, and then the doctor said, “We can’t find the cause and there’s nothing else we can do, except maybe IVF but I doubt it would work,” and she went to fetch some papers while the med student beside her whom I’d barely noticed before, squeezed her hands excitedly and took the opportunity to say, “I find this all so fascinating!” and I found it all so strange that as a light goes out in one person, it ignites in another, and it seemed I had contributed to the circle of life.
Andrea Lynn Koohi is a writer and editor from Toronto, Canada. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Maine Review, Pithead Chapel, Idle Ink, Streetlight Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal and others.
I need to make myself smaller. I need to not take up so much room. I suck the oxygen out of the house, this family. I’m busy shrinking myself when she comes into the only room in the house with empty hinges.
Mom has those eyes, and I know she’s about to say again (and again, and again) “Did you take your meds?”
Yes. It’s always yes. I swallow the pills every morning, round like a buoy. I do what I’m supposed to do even though nothing keeps me afloat.
Those eyes walk away, but they’ve rent my skin, and I seep, the blood rising. I try to unfurl my wings to fly away because the window still works, but my wings are sticky, and I can’t rise. A single feather falls. More will follow unless I’m very still, so I fold in on myself and try not to look up.
I need to make myself smaller. I need to not take up so much room. There’s not enough space, enough air for me in this house, in this family. Mom walks through the doorway to the open portal to where I live, the only room without a door.
Her eyes swallow me, and she digests me at a glance; I’m getting better at being small.
“Did you take your meds?” she asks. I nod because I need to take away the sadness, a darkness over the hope and the love. If I’m smaller, I won’t cast a shadow.
Besides, it’s always yes. I swallow the pills every morning, but I’m still the heaviest thing in the house, in the world. I will sink us all, and Mom’s eyes say she knows that, but she will always reach out her hand and let me drown her.
Mom’s eyes walk away, and I look at my window. I will be able to fly away, far, far, far, and Mom’s eyes won’t see me. I imagine I have wings, but I’m not a bird. I’m an anchor. My only view is the bottom, and I will sink down, down, down.
I need to make myself smaller. I need to not take up so much room. I am a vacuum that takes every breath meant for others. Mom pauses where my door used to be.
They all stop when they pass, but Mom is the one whose eyes hurt. She asks me in the only language we now speak, “Did you take your meds?”
Yes. It’s always yes. The pills are round like a seashell, but I can’t hear my own voice no matter what I press my ear to.
Mom walks away, and I’m tired. So, so tired. I think of sun. The beach. A single gull that circles the sky. I want to find that child who collected shells, holding them out to her mother who put them in a bucket like treasure. It’s too far away to see clearly, but I keep looking out the window.
By the time we reached his room, he had returned to life, and so we stepped back from the wobbly bridge and waited. I wanted to ask him, “What was it like to be dead?” but I didn’t. Perhaps he wouldn’t have known because those brief moments of lifelessness had been a rehearsal.
He was moved to ICU where my mother, my sister and I sat stoically waiting for the few minutes twice a day when we could visit him. I suppose we could have done something else taken a walk, taken a break—but we stayed in place, planted there like the spring flowers blooming in the yards outside, but without their colors. I missed him already. He was my hero, my cheerleader, my confidante. I pictured the breakfast room table with an empty chair where he always sat. What would I do without my Daddy?
My mind flashed back to my childhood on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I was ten years old. It was late morning, time for the Yizkor service, when Jews remember the dead. My mother looked around nervously and shooed me out. Children did not attend Yizkor services. I scurried out of the sanctuary and hurried downstairs where other kids and adults who had not lost family members were gathered.
I wondered about the mysterious ritual going on upstairs. I could easily have found out because the service was in the prayer book, but I never looked, even at the first line. I didn’t really want to know. Knowing might have been bad luck. My friends and I went outside until it was safe to go back upstairs.
Visitation time for ICU patients came and I tucked my childhood memory out of my mind and followed my mother and sister into Daddy’s cubicle. “Where have you all been?” he asked. Those were the last words I heard him say.
The next day Mother left to get her hair done. So she could escape? Or so she would look nice for the funeral? Who knew?
On day three the doctor said my father’s kidneys were failing. “We can move him out of ICU so you can be with him.”
My mother shook her head no. He died alone.
It happened that night.
I went in to see him for the last time. I don’t know where Mother was but I know she wasn’t with me when I whispered my goodbye.
My sister had gone home to rest. I called and told her he was gone and then I waited in the hallway for her to appear. When she rounded the corner and walked toward me, I watched her take her first steps on the bridge I had already crossed. Together we would grieve, and together we would help our mother maneuver the rocky road she would have to travel without our dad.
That year, 1987, on the day of Yom Kippur, my sister and I said Yizkor for the first time. Afterward, we visited our father’s grave. In accordance with Jewish custom, we each left a rock on top of the stone to show that we had been there and that, for us, his memory was a blessing.
Thelma Zirkelbach has published micro essays, prose poetry, personal essays, memoir and romantic suspense. She enjoys writing short pieces that reflect her life. A native Texan, she lives in Houston.
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