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Collective Responsibility

Yesterday I wrote up quick piece for another flash fiction contest and I was going to post about it and share the last piece of flash I wrote. That’s when I realized that my last piece of flash, Collective Responsibility, wasn’t on my website. I guess it got lost when I ported the domain, so I decided to reshare it here.

I don’t write much flash because I prefer depth and it’s hard to get depth in flash. One thousand words is just me warming up, plunging the reader into the depths of character and milieu. Most of the scenes I write are more than a thousand words, but when flash does work, it looks like this. Like a lot of my work, it was inspired by actual events. Get a hanky ready.

Collective Responsibility won the Writer’s Guild of Texas Flash Fiction Contest in 2015 (OMG, I’m coming up on a decade as a writer). It is presented in its entirety below. Photo by zibik on Unsplash

This was the place. Police cars. Crowd held back by yellow tape and a few uniforms who looked like they didn’t want to be here — yeah, guys, me too. Reporters trying to push their way past the tape, earning scathing rebukes. Such language! I was envious. As a professional specializing in children, I’m not allowed to use such words. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to. Right now, I really want to.

In the two minutes it takes me to verify that I’m in the right place, the crowd has doubled and the media vans have managed to block off the fire lane. For the vultures, all that’s missing is a red carpet — the buffet has been set and they are ravenous. Those poor badges. Thankless job. 

Time to go inside, do my duty. It’s an upscale place, brand new by the look of it, but my gown and tiara are still completely out of place. Stupid wardrobe department! A fireman’s costume would have at least fit in, or maybe a superhero costume — a cape and a cowl are more my style.

I joined the gathering inside. Beautiful decor, an elegant setting ready to be enjoyed. I drifted past the crystal chandelier, the baby grand piano. Snags and snippets of conversation, some shouted, some whispered, some choked out between varying jags of emotion, trail behind me.

“I’m telling you, that’s not how it happened! Look…” A responsible, pillar-of-the-community type of gentleman.

“We were playing just a few minutes ago…” Nice teenager, the kind you know is going on twenty-one in spite of just having turned thirteen.

“She was just here! I saw her!” 

“I thought you were…” 

“…Right there. In the front. That was the last place I …” 

“But it was your turn…”

“…No, no, it couldn’t happen. We were all watching.”

Commotion in the backyard caught my attention. I slipped through the glass door, somehow managing not to snag the dress. Tulle! Who wears tulle anymore? Really! As if the stupid tiara wasn’t bad enough.

Rain was the norm here, even this late in the year and everything was still wet from the last storm. At least my shoes wouldn’t be ruined — glass slippers, it turns out. I found Sarah sitting alone, past the boundary of just-laid sod, sitting, humming to herself. She was the reason I was here, dressed like a fairy princess. We made quite a pair. A leotard christened with cookie dough and icing, a tulle skirt that had seen better days, a pillowcase drafted into service as a cape, hair in adorable little pig-tails drowning in mismatched gossamer ribbons, red patent leather booties of the most fashionable kind worn on the wrong foot of course — a formal ensemble that only a three-year-old could get away with.

I joined her, sitting cross-legged on the freshly turned ground. Mud squelched out from under me with an audible squirt. It occurred to me that this was excellent use for tulle. Sarah was humming the alphabet song, and I was tempted to join in, it — along with a number of songs made famous by a variety of princesses and cartoon dogs — being part of my repertoire.  

“You cold?” I asked.

She shook her head, still humming, legs kicking back and forth, dangling over the edge. It wasn’t very deep. I guessed the neighbors were splurging on a basement — an expensive indulgence in this part of the country. 

That odd sound, more felt than heard: a generator kicking in. It was time. Floodlights came on, illuminating the yard, casting unnatural shadows. 

“Time to go sweetheart.” I held out my arms.

“Can I say goodbye to Mommy?”

“Of course you can.” 

We stood and her fingers wrapped around mine. 

“Who’s been taking care of you, Sarah?”

She shrugged. “Everyone.” 

I lifted Sarah into my arms, carried her back inside, parting the crowd that had gathered by sheer force of will.  

Mommy was seated on the couch inside, staring with unseeing eyes, numb, surrounded by loved ones, utterly and completely alone, her hands clutching a stuffed animal because her daughter’s body was lying cold and lifeless at the bottom of a water-filled trench.

“We were all watching her. It wasn’t your fault.” The words fell on deaf ears. I don’t know who spoke them. I didn’t care because it didn’t matter. The only piece of comfort that would ever matter to this woman was in my arms and once my work here was done, Sarah would no longer be part of this imperfect world, where everyone and no one mean the same thing.

Sarah leaned forward, kissed her mother’s head. “I love you, Mommy.” 

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