First Place | Flash Fiction Writing Contest XLIX


Lee Thomas of Los Angeles, California for “On the Origin of Species”

Thomas will receive $1,000, a plaque to mark the success, and publication online and in print.

On the Origin of Species

Lee Thomas

“But what about gnats?” asked the boy, kicking a rock down the sidewalk and holding back tears.

“A week,” said the mother.

“You mean born on Monday and gone by Friday?”

“Technically Sunday,” she said. She sought refuge in technicalities, which annoyed her child. If a hand doesn’t crush it Monday afternoon, she thought. She dared not mention mayflies.

“Does everything have to?”

“Every living thing.”

He stopped and kicked a tree. Quercus falcata. Southern red oak, 275 years. The rock, of course, would be worn down, too. ‘Things fall apart’ really did have a bleak elegance.

“Wait. What about Cookie?”

Cookie the family dog, age eleven, a dowager in dog years.

“I’m afraid so.” The circles were tightening, and the mother felt her throat constrict as his mind galloped headlong. They approached the school where noisy throngs of brightly dressed children ran across the blacktop, his friends, with whom she would soon leave him and his thoughts.

“How long do dogs live?” he practically sobbed.

“Oh, it varies. Some breeds fifteen, sixteen years.” Cookie was a Great Dane-Labrador mix, this optimistic spread did not include a dog the size of Cookie. The mother dissembled and hated herself for it. In her pocket her phone vibrated. A big marketing campaign would roll out in two days, and a dozen unopened emails awaited, four new voicemails had pinged her on the fifteen-minute walk to school.

“But I don’t want to! Do I have to?” He’d stopped walking altogether and flung himself back into the chain link fence at the side of the play yard. She flinched as she imagined his sandwich flattened, pinned in his backpack. He’d just turned six. It terrified her, how new everything still was to him.

“Oh, my love.” She went to hug him, but he held her off, wanting answers instead. Again, she hedged. “Way, way, way far in the future.” He cried into her coat, wiping tears and snot. She whispered soothing things. “I love you.” “Shhh, baby, shhh.” Even though the boy now knew her love, mother love, that most potent force in all of life, wouldn’t do a lick of good against mortality. She thought of Darwin, how deeply he’d pitied the lower creatures and their suffering. Oh, God! The holocaust whenever a salmon spawned or a damselfly laid her eggs, the butterflies that survived only one leg of a thousand-mile migration, leaving home never to return. The first bell rang, ordering both their thoughts.

He’d almost pulled himself together and wiped his nose with the sleeve of his jacket. She knelt down before him, parents and late children streaming toward the school yard gates.

“We’ll talk more after school. Don’t forget the permission slip and your library book in the outside pocket.” She tried to change the subject, but already he was too smart. Survival meant intelligence, too.

“I just don’t want to.”

“I know, darling.”

“But, Mom. Mom—wait a sec.” Was this how it was going to be for the rest of time? Pandora’s box opened and all the furies of hell unleashed? Could they just chuck the city and the gray snow and join a voyage to the Galapagos and study finches and tortoises and forget that eventually it would all really, truly end?

“Mom. Not you.” 

She nodded, then hugged him fiercely, far too tightly. The final bell sounded, and he peeled off her without looking back. Her phone rang again, and she stood to answer her client’s call. When she glanced back at the yard, he’d disappeared in a sea of children—a species hedging its bets.


Lee Thomas is a fiction writer in Los Angeles. She won the Peninsula Pulse’s 2019 Hal Prize. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Fiction Writers Review, The Hopkins Review, Third Street Writers, and The New Guard. She recently finished a collection of short stories.

On the Origin of Species © 2020 Lee Thomas
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14 thoughts on “”

  1. This Finalist was hoping he’d read LT’s story and silently smirk, thinking, “Mine’s more deserving,” but he couldn’t. At best, it was only equally deserving, so he’ll just have to be happy to have been selected as a Finalist, and to doff his hat, bow before the mastery embodied in Ms Thomas’s fine writing, and hope to be included among the Selected Finalists when the NMW Anthology is published.

    Conga Rats to all!

  2. This is poignant, nicely understated, and yet goes to the heart of the parent-child relationship. Thank you.

  3. Ann Ashcom Barker

    Very fitting. Very touching. Covers a vast theme while opening up to more in a small appropriate space.

  4. I love the shifts from the child’s need to the mother’s need at the end; the wish to save each other, the ache love, of the impossible. The fierceness of survival. So much captured here in a condensed piece.

  5. An enjoyable read. You make it easy to connect to the emotional state of both the mother and son. Your use of inner thought and the mother’s ‘feels’ kept my interest throughout the story. I want to read more.

  6. The story is superb–not only about a relationship between mother and child, and the child’s first awareness of death, but about universal mortality writ large. Excellently done.

  7. I needed this tonight–brava! The beautiful crescendo from the gnat to You, a child’s fortunate introduction to mortality in perhaps the kindest of ways, as he was carried away into the mass of like beings into his school. Well-done!

  8. A touching beautiful story, perfectly told. It stirs many things, Darwin’s empathy with creatures, the sliding scale of lifespans, and the alarm of a child not yet ready for death in any form. I waited for him to get around to his mom, the story would have seemed untruthful without that although it does take courage to ask that question. Thanks, Lee, for taking me there.

    1. Alexis Williams

      Sharon, I teared up reading your comment, just as I’ve teared up with every reading of Lee’s story. “the story would have seemed untruthful without that although it does take courage to ask that question” — bullseye! Be well, Sharon — thank you for reading and for this insightful compliment of Lee’s fine work.

  9. Mary Fitzpatrick

    This brought me back to the same conversation I had with my then-four-year-old, thirty years ago. The chest-crushing import of this realization for all….. Thank you, well done.

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