Short Fiction ~ Claire Schön
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 15
A sharp slap across both cheeks. My mottled flesh draws tight as salty moisture descends along the crease of my nose before leaping with the wind to be carried to its sea-air counterpart. Air that has kept me alive all my life, now waning.
The seagulls guffaw, swoop and sail on each gust, either ignorant of what is about to pass or not accepting, as I was.
The ocean calls from the pier, tempting me to ride this out in the waves of my childhood. A crust of foam crashes against the warped and weathered wood. I could slip, sweep away, but my life is no longer my own to decide.
One small, black, metal box each: a door to close in this world and open in the next.
Sam selects quickly, placing his very first teddy bear next to the box. Silence. We don’t say that he could take many smaller items in place of this large one; we don’t ask him if he would prefer something to play with, something more his age – we don’t dare. None of us knows what the other is thinking anymore. But we know why he doesn’t place Mr Squeeze inside yet: he needs him more than ever, right up to the final day.
Emily chooses daily, then changes her mind. Her earnest little face pains me, but I worry about her the least: she has less to forget, less to compare.
Graham hasn’t mentioned his box. It’s probably filled with practical items. We’re grateful for his pragmatism: for his job, for our chance.
Graham frowns at my selection.
‘The Elite,’ he spits, and, for once, I feel his dislike is genuine and not just for my benefit, ‘took too much. They’re finding it hard to settle.’
I empty my box again.
What I will miss I cannot take with me: a child’s fresh, moist and earthy smell when they come in from outside, walks down my memory lanes of the seaside, other people like us. The Elite’s money hasn’t yet stretched to include everything nor everyone.
Emily closes her box; Sam hugs Mr Squeeze one last time. Graham’s box is already on site. I take mine, still empty, and place it in the boot with the lid open.
I carry Mog to old Mrs Jeffries, I haven't asked her yet, but she takes her from my arms before I have the chance to speak or give Mog one last stroke, probably for the best. I admire the fickleness of my feline companion of the last five years. I place a shopping bag full of cat food just inside Mrs Jeffries’ door. A gong-like tone resounds as the tins clang against Mog’s favourite metal bowl. Mrs Jeffries looks up from her newfound furry companion and squeezes my hand; her eyes smile with forgiveness. My temples throb, deep, heavy and full of blame.
We stare back at our house from the car as the Radley’s open their door. The children run to each other, chattering away like it’s any other day. Jill and Adam walk forward and pull us both close. We stand as one, for a moment, nothing and everything between us. When they let go, we can’t utter a word. What do you say when it is the last time, when it is unfair, when our children have a future, but their children won't? Who would have thought our career choices would weigh so heavily in our lives.
The throbbing eases as the tears stream down my face forming a pool under my chin and dropping at regular intervals, counting down. I hand Jill our key.
‘I’m sorry,’ I sob.
While Graham straps the children in, I open the boot. I grab handfuls of earth from our garden, from the grass verge outside, digging in repeatedly. My fingers burn, and I feel my nails break away from the tender connecting skin between. I kneel to dig deeper, wanting to bury myself here on this spot. I don’t stop until my box is full. I snap it shut. A smattering of earth falls from my hands onto the lid as I lower it down. We are born of the earth and should return to it when we die. Only we won’t.
Graham takes my filthy hands and leads me to the passenger seat. We both know they won’t let me keep the contents of my box. Graham says nothing, and I’m grateful.
I call my mum one last time from the car.
‘I love you, baby girl, kiss the small ones for me – every day.’
I hear her voice catch as she hangs up.
‘From Nanny,’ I say, turning and pecking each of their cheeks lightly, knowing that I cannot manage the big, wet smacker of a kiss my mum had intended.
‘Will we still all go to the same heaven, Mummy, with all of the people from here when we die?’
I answer that we will. I spend the rest of the journey praying to God, although I am no longer sure he is listening, that this may be true.
We enter the Dome: our home for the preparation stage until we embark on our one-way journey.
My dirty hands, tear-streaked, mud-smeared face, and grass-stained knees do not warrant a comment from the security staff. They don’t decline me. I am sure they have seen stranger – worse. I pick at the residual soil while we wait, smearing it in peaks resembling waves across the backs of my hands.
Emily sleeps, lightly snoring a soothing whooshing sound, and Sam cuddles into her, a surrogate for Mr Squeeze. I know, with a certainty that I’m deeply ashamed of, that I would not be going through with this were it not for them. I would take my last breath, my last everything, here for as long as possible.
Sanitised, we enter our compartment. The children explore.
I stare, bereft, at my washed hands.
Originally from the UK, Claire Schön now lives in Austria. She studied German and Spanish and is fluent in the former but useless in the latter. Claire started writing in her mother tongue in 2020 and has stories published or upcoming in a number of online and print anthologies including Reflex Fiction, Idle Ink, Funny Pearls, Fudoki Magazine, Blinkpot and Grindstone Literary. She won the Shooter Flash monthly competition at the start of 2022 and has been shortlisted and longlisted in various international competitions. Claire is currently working on her first novel. Claire tweets now and then @SchonClaire.