I have a soft spot in my heart for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, in part, because I published my very first piece of flash fiction in an anthology produced through this series. It was an honour to serve as an independent judge for the seventeenth award and, really, a joy to read for this. I’d like to say a special thank you to all the writers who entered this competition and trusted us with their stories.
Before discussing the selections, I would like to thank Jude Higgins and the wonderful team at BFFA for inviting me to participate—and for working so hard to whittle down the original roster of entries to a long list of fifty. It’s not an easy enterprise when there is so much good material, so many creative voices at work.
One of the things I like about the Bath Flash Fiction Award series is the opportunity which BFFA provides for many entrants from throughout the year to be published in the annual anthology. You don’t have to have one of the prize-winning entries to be published. After reading through the long list, I was reminded why the anthology is a gift to anyone who loves to read flash fiction.
Read in Full
Let Them Eat First
by Geeta Sanker
I’m in the short queue. The slow queue. The women’s queue. Along with the few remaining girls, and Noor to whom I cling as if she were my mother. Noor was a mother; she might still be one. For now, she has my trembling arms around her waist as a reminder. Four days ago creaking wheels heralded the arrival of stale crackers, vegetable oil, and date-filled bars like the ones Father used to buy us on Fridays. Not a morsel has passed our lips since. Not even a drop of water from the old well at the edge of the camp. But I am in no hurry to eat. I can wait until dusk for our queue to progress if it keeps me away from Kareem.
Kareem is in the long queue. The fast queue. The men’s queue. He is many metres ahead, and is instantly recognisable in Father’s coffee-coloured leather jacket from Dubai. It fits him; he has lost weight. After the third bombing, Kareem sifted through the rubble of our house and selected his loot. The most valuable remnants of our once great family. Heba, Nasrin, and Father’s jacket. I played dead beside the corpses of Mother, Father and Sameen. Perhaps Heba and Nasrin are lying still somewhere now, as flies suckle their blood.
I pray for the men’s queue to move faster and it does. They are served swiftly, for they must be strong and they must fight for us all.
“Because they are men.” Mother had often reminded me.
Let them eat first. As long as it keeps me away from Kareem.
Car Trouble, Spartanburg, August 2002
by K.S. Lokensgard
There on the asphalt, in the sweat-sticky shade of the car hood, cicadas grinding, I ask her to try it again. The engine trips over itself, struggling up and up before guttering out, and that was the last idea I had.
“Thea,” I say. Her name on my tongue: like a piece of candy. Thay-uh. Touching my teeth, soft, and then the air.
“It’s okay,” she says, coming to stand with me by the hood. The day hangs its last breath on the point where our shadows meet. There’s only the wit-wit-wit of a bird nearby and Thea’s braid, hanging over her shoulder like a rope. Her keys jangling in her hand, fingernails blush-pink. Her family’s squat, weedy house behind us, and mine five doors down.
“Let me try one more thing,” I say, no idea in my head except stay here with me a little longer.
I fiddle with the terminals. Again the engine fails.
Across the street, a screen door slaps and Mrs. Henry shuffles out to smoke. I shift behind the hood. There’s grease on my hands, on my nails painted Merlot Kiss, on the dangling end of my own braid. There are many things I shouldn’t touch.
“We tried,” Thea says, close again. Shoulder to bare shoulder. A breeze picks up, and then she’s pulling out a rag and taking my hands and wiping the grease off my palms, slow and easy. The kitten-tongue rasp of the towel squeezes and drags over each of my fingers, each of my heartbeats.
Behind us, another screen door slaps, and it’s the one that counts. But Thea has three fingers left and she finishes each one, squeezing and dragging. Slow, easy. My pulse a sweet and guilty stutter.
“There,” she says, the rag streaked dark in her hands.
Now You See Him
by Tim Craig
My father could slip through keyholes, and similar small openings.
Sure, other kids’ Dads could do some impressive things, like fix car engines, build sheds or start campfires with a piece of broken glass.
But none of them could disappear without trace from a room where an argument was brewing, like my Dad could.
It was a superpower which served him well through the long years he spent in our too-small house, with his two quarrelling kids and too-angry wife.
Awkward conversations were no match for this legendary escapologist; at the first sign of trouble, he would slide unnoticed between the pages of his hardback.
And as for difficult questions:
“Why does no-one speak to your brother anymore?”
(this was a favourite)
“What does ‘gay’ mean?”
(this was 1976)
“What would you say if Tina brought home a black boyfriend?”
(this was England in 1976)
“A gay black boyfriend?”
(this actually happened)
… he would suddenly remember something that needed to be done in the garage and teleport himself through the wall.
But even Houdini’s luck ran out one day.
As my father lay in the metal hospital bed, strapped down like Gulliver, we closed the windows and sealed the exits; for three weeks we bombarded him with small talk, just to keep him from slipping away.
Until the moment we told him we loved him when — in a single bound — he vanished up the coiled, sucking hose of the ventilator, leaving us waiting for the reply, still.
Always Down a Dirt Road, I’m Walking
by Sara Hills
my two daughters with me. There are trees to the right of us and a field on our left. The field is cropped, oven-crisped at midday. It’s hot. Bright.
Then it isn’t.
A car whizzes past in a pall of dust, and I pull my youngest daughter out of the road. She’s twelve—lanky, absent-minded, unafraid. The other one is quiet, pebble small.
Our dusty sandals slap the loose surface as we continue down the road. Other cars whiz past, but one doesn’t. It doesn’t.
It rolls to a stop. The window winds down—the sound and intention clear.
“What do we have here?”
In this version, I have daughters. In other versions, sons. In every version, a dirt road, a farm road. There are trees to the right and a field to the left. The trees are straggled juniper. The cropped field, brown and stubble sharp. Further in the distance is our destination—the main road. Blacktop.
The black car window winds down. The dusted door opens to silver-tipped boots, jeans, the smell of sun-baked leather. I pull my daughters close, but they drift apart. Sun flashes on metal. Trees sway. A wax of midday dust settles on my daughters, on me. The grit on my tongue, stubble sharp.
In one version my sons stand tall as trees, juniper jawed, while cars whiz past. My sons spit into the road, chew stalks until they’re shorn and soft. In another, my daughters grow straggly and sharp; they remain unafraid. In one version, I cannot hear my heartbeat. In one version, no one is screaming. In one version, we walk through the field. The blacktop before us, trees to our right, and the dark car whizzes past.
It doesn’t stop.
by Regan Puckett
When their silk skins shrivel and wither, the corn stalks are ready to be stripped, so you’re sent into the field with the metal bucket they bathed your brother in before your father stowed it in the barn and buried your brother in a hole in the yard, a barren spot of grass that you like to linger near but never walk over because you worry he might feel, but your sister tramples the grave, stomps on the presents your mother leaves atop it: slices of milkcake (which your brother never tried), knitted cloths (to keep him warm), dandelion heads (wasted wishes), and you’d make your sister stop if you could, but you worry she’ll leave too, and then you’ll be stuck here alone, like you are right now, in the cornfield that feels like a crime scene, where all the pretty green stalks have dried to a dead brown, and the soft chlorophyll silk has rotted and roughed, where you dissect death and pluck out the beautiful remains, yellow spotted ears that listen as well as your father does when your mother cries at night, but you can’t stop listening, watching, as everyone around you falls apart, so now you lift the knife you took from beneath your father’s pillow and you stab the corn to shreds, flail your arms like you’re fighting an army and this is the only way you’ll survive, and all the beautiful corn falls to pieces on the dirt like you will fall to your knees in prayer when your father sees what you’ve done to the harvest, but you let it fall, crumble, sink into the earth, and pray it floats to heaven.