I’m told that in flash fiction what the writer leaves unsaid is as important as what is said.
A couple years ago, the facilitator in my writers group gave us a writing exercise: select one of the sentences she provided as a first sentence, and write a piece of flash. I was intrigued by the idea of not only writing from the perspective of a five-year-old child, but a girl child as well. The challenge was to reveal to the reader, through Tina’s eyes, what she is far too young to understand: that parents lie to their children, keep secrets, and that they are not nearly as perfect as we, as five-year-olds, often think.
Mommies Do Too Lie
Tina was not yet quite five years old, but she knew Mr. Binkley was up to no good when she saw him in her backyard at three o’clock in the morning.
Tina was not what her mommy would call a light sleeper, but she awoke with a start when she thought she heard Mommy cry out. After a few moments, when she heard nothing more than the crickets outside her bedroom window, Tina convinced herself that she’d been only dreaming and rolled over onto her other side, where she found Lucretia staring back at her with black button eyes.
“What should we name her?” Tina recalled asking Daddy the day he’d brought her home. “How about Lucretia?” he suggested. “That’s a good name for a teddy bear, don’t you think? We can call her ‘Lucy’ for short.”
“Lucretia.” Tina liked the sound of the name, and enjoyed how it made her mouth feel when she said it. So she giggled and promptly affixed the name to her new best friend, and loved her daddy all the more—not only for bringing Lucretia home, but also for naming her.
Tina clutched Lucy and tried to fall back asleep; but the harder she tried, the more difficult it became.
Tina had just recently learned to tell time; the clock in her bedroom had no big and little hands, like the clock in her kindergarten classroom. The clock in her bedroom had numbers only—numbers that changed every minute. When she first awoke, the numbers showed 2:45. Now they showed 3:00. She knew that was fifteen minutes, but even though a minute can be only a minute—sixty seconds can no more take seventy seconds to elapse than it can take fifty seconds—from the perspective of a five-year-old (and, as Tina would learn many years later, insomniacs unable to sleep through their disorder), time passes much more slowly.
Eventually she heard Mommy’s voice whispering from down the hall, and then she heard footsteps followed by the creak of the third riser from the top of the stairs. She wondered why it creaked twice.
Tina set Lucy on her pillow and told her, “I’ll be right back.”
Then she hopped out of her bed, pushed both feet into her pink slippers, and slipped on her just as pink robe. Was there a color prettier than pink? Tina didn’t think so.
It was then, as she passed her bedroom window, that she saw Mr. Binkley walking quickly past her swing set toward the fence at the back of the yard. It seemed he had come from the back of her house.
He must be up to no good, Tina thought, recalling that her daddy once told her that people out after midnight are likely up to no good.
Curious, Tina went to find her mommy.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” Mommy was startled to see Tina standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for her.
Tina yawned and rubbed her eye with a fist before sitting on the top step. A moment later her mommy sat down beside her.
“I woke up and heard you talking to someone,” Tina said.
“Me? Talking to someone? Are you sure you weren’t just dreaming?”
“Well,” Mommy said, “I couldn’t sleep either, so I went downstairs for a glass of milk. Come to think of it, I was talking to myself, trying to remind myself to add a couple things to the grocery list for when I go shopping later.”
“Oh.” And then, “What was Mr. Binkley doing in our yard?”
“You saw Mr. Binkley in our yard?”
“Uh-huh. And I wasn’t dreaming.” Tina was adamant about that.
“I … I don’t know, honey, what he was doing in our yard.”
“I think he was up to no good,” Tina said knowingly, not knowing how she knew, only that if her daddy said that people out after midnight were up to no good, then it must be so.
Tina was suddenly very tired again, so she rested her head in her mommy’s lap, the mystery of the third riser on the stair creaking twice a forgotten curiosity. Mommy said nothing, so Tina asked, “When’s Daddy coming home?”
“Honey, I told you. He’ll be home in time for Christmas.”
Tina sighed. It was early September. Christmas seemed a lifetime away.
“Why did he have to go away to A … Af—”
“Afghanistan. Daddy is a marine, honey. He had to go fight to protect the Afghans.”
Tina knew what an afghan was. Grandma had one that she covered her lap with when it got cold outside and she sat in her rocking chair rocking and reading her bible. So Tina surmised her grandma’s afghan had come from Afghanistan, a place she knew was very far away. What she couldn’t quite grasp was why they needed her daddy to fight for them.
“I miss Daddy,” Tina said, and yawned.
“I know you do, sweetheart. So do I.”
And Tina believed her mommy, because her mommy had always been truthful with her. And because her mommy had always been truthful with her, Tina knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Mommy was truthful, too, to Daddy. If Mommy said she missed Daddy, it was true.
It would be a few years before Tina uncovered some of the untruths her mommy had told her when she was a child. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy—those are untruths many parents tell their children. But there would be other untruths Tina would uncover that would rock her small world—like how missing someone doesn’t necessarily equate to remaining true to them.
But on this night, Tina believed her mommy, because she was five years old and a good girl, and that’s what good girls did—put their trust and belief in their mommy. After all, why would her mommy lie to her?
In time, she would come to understand that, too.