First Place | Flash Fiction Writing Contest
50th New Millennium Award for Flash Fiction
Robyn Carter of San Francisco, California for “Excelsior”
Carter will receive $1,000, an award plaque, and publication both online and in print.
As you climb the stairs, the cocky squeak of a Sharpie grabs your ears, pulls your eyes to the back where blades of inky felt skate across the ceiling in lawless loops. Up front, someone’s grandma muttering at invisible demons in a language you don’t speak. Still, because of her surgical mask and nitrile gloves, you can tell she is a healer. The old woman drags her trash bag down the aisle and it crinkles with sour-smelling promise, settles into the spot for wheelchairs.
When the woman lowers her tiny frame onto a seat, you picture frozen twigs snapping, but when she positions her tongs so they make a less-than symbol on her lap, you do that thing where you repeat a word over and over until it’s no longer language or even sound. Only motion, in this case the tip of your tongue tapping the spot where your front teeth anchor themselves to the roof of your mouth—tongs, tongs, tongs, tongs—and you don’t picture anything but the equation in front of you: the tool’s open handles reaching for the crumpled empties, its point aimed at the wailing toddler who stands on the next seat. He yanks the cord you pull when you want to get off and pounds a fist into a kiss of Royal Crown a long-departed passenger left on the window, wrinkling the world outside so that other lives look like weather.
The crying makes your nipples buzz and your breasts turn to rocks. There is a primordial rhythm to the child’s sobs, so thick and gristly you could pluck them from the air and keep them in the same box as the keen and caw of the creatures that blackened the sky here before their sacrifice in rituals that painted the horizon the color of flat, watery Coke, a summons for conjuring plastic-skinned miracles that talk and move but don’t listen or feel. Toys, explosives, spacecraft interiors. The headphones that cushion the boy’s mother’s ears. The synthy beat leaking into this capsule of noise and fluorescent stillness hurtling you into the gullet of night. When the girl hums her eyes closed and strokes her boy’s curls—his mouth still a loud, quivering ring— the beat and the hum and the child’s crystalline wail melt into one bald sound that drains into the throb of your tits, a wondrous pulsating you clock at the molecular level: a network of ducts pumping sustenance meant for human infants into the spent elastic weave of your bra, clotting in the metal hooks and eyes of its front clasp. Sometimes the mechanics of a thing are all you can bear, other times they’re more heartbreaking than the thing itself. This time they’re both.
While your arms busy themselves crossing and uncrossing over your damp t-shirt, the bus splits the city’s face and you watch the same shell game play out over and over with different losers. A tourist in a cable car sweatshirt. Some white guy who needs to prove he’s not racist. The man with a face like toasted sourdough who got on at Bonita Footwear loses because he’s drunk. When he stumbles off toward the El Farolito between France and Russia, the baby stops crying to seize the late-night tucked between his mother’s fingers. As he licks away its last hour, the old woman with the tongs takes her place at the end of the redemption line and you feel your way through a new day’s fog. Your outstretched hands fin through the air in front of you until the sticky pull at your rib cage draws them to your heart. The milky membrane there has dried into a crinkle of floury scabs that glue your shirt to your skin. The next step is to brush them into the gossamer dawn and fold yourself into the socket of time when the street beneath your emptied body is a raised palm and the shrouded moon is an albuminous eye.
When you find it, make yourself as small as possible and picture your resurrection, the leftover suturing thread knotting itself around your limbs with the chipper drudgery of marionette strings and a voice that tells you to surrender to its sloppy tug until your nerves are stuffed with polyester batting and your blood is made of asbestos and the only part of your mind that’s left is the pebble in its shoe: a shadowy Polaroid of the second-grade you in Toughskin floods and messy ponytails, a dented Ponch & Jon lunch box in your fist, snapped the day you said something without raising your hand and waiting to be called on. The teacher tore a strip of masking tape from the roll around her wrist and stuck it to your desk. Next time, Mrs. Dill said, it goes over your mouth.
But like a lot of pebbles, this one is actually more of a dirt clod. It splits in half when you try to crush it, and now there are two, the second, block-shaped and wooden: Mrs. Dill’s desk, its surface dotted in blue and yellow containers of scissors for small, naughty hands, clustered around a mechanical ballerina who performed beneath a dome of glass. Think about the future the only way you know how: with the lurching grace of that nylon-haired automaton. In the swell of panic that comes when you sense each near-crash of her plastic toe into the transparent wall of her prison, you are soothed by the glitch in her spin and the uncracked sky of her world, and now you know it’s time to learn the trembling secret of her dance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robyn Carter’s writing has appeared in Prime Number, Conjunctions, Ninth Letter, West Branch, Colorado Review, NanoFiction, and other journals. She serves as a San Francisco WritersCorps Teaching Artist in Residence at a public school in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood.
Excelsior © 2020 Robyn Carter