June 24 was National Flash Fiction Day in the U.K. Although the festival is over, we at SmokeLong Quarterly would like to party one more day. In celebration, we asked several amazing writers of flash fiction to share a top ten list of flash favorites on a topic of their choice. On our final day of celebration, SmokeLong’s Kathy Fish Fellow, Allison Pinkerton, shares her top ten flashes exploring the distance between children and adults.
by Allison Pinkerton
In my previous life, I taught high school. It was an adventure—a struggle between trying to hit educational benchmarks and trying to be interesting enough that they wouldn’t watch eyebrow-tweezing tutorials on YouTube.
I started thinking about unknowability — about the deep, dark chasm between children and adults. There were moments when I felt like I had dropped down onto an alien planet for eight hours, a planet inhabited by people who spoke only in hashtags.
To celebrate Flash Fiction Day, here’s a list of flash that explores the psyches of children, and the often detrimental (and sometimes disquieting) distance between children and adults.
“Out There,” Lindsey Hunter. Published by The Nervous Breakdown
Hunter describes two young girls and their trip to the desert—a place where people abandon their dogs and burn their cars. Their father tells the girls burning a car is a rite of passage: “If you make it you will be men. If you don’t I’ll lickety-split a prayer for each of you come Sunday.” Hunter captures the confusion of the girls (“Lily said, Don’t he know we’re girls? How are we supposed to become men then?”), and the threat of the desert at night, when abandoned dogs howl and scratch.
“The Solidarity of Fat Girls,” Courtney Sender. Published by American Short Fiction
There’s a line in “The Solidarity of Fat Girls” that guts me: a former fat girl is unhappy that she’s thin due to sickness. She says, “I’ve lost the layer between me and the world.” The vulnerability feels so true to the teenage experience.
“When the Children Return,” Cathy Ulrich. Published by Jellyfish Review
In this story, aliens take all the children in town except one—David Schmidt. David takes the place of all the children—he celebrates all the birthdays, he sits on all the Santa laps. I love the way Ulrich ruminates on the function of a child in a community. She writes, “David Schmidt is passed from house to house until nobody can remember whose child he is, really.”
“The Town of Milk Carton Kids,” Ali Rachel Pearl. Published by Redivider
Pearl’s story feels almost like a spiritual cousin to Ulrich’s. Whereas Ulrich wrote about the one child left behind by the aliens, Pearl explores the town where all the missing kids go after their faces have appeared on milk cartons. I love the imagery in this story, especially: “In the town of Milkcarton kids, the girl who loves a girl sits on a rooftop and feels the rough sandpaper of the tiles under her legs, and she says to herself that the girl she loves has skin like the roof, but she isn’t sure if this is true.”
“Responsible Fear,” Alex McElroy. Published by Passages North
Here, we get a story about a group of children from an adult perspective. A man runs a class in a strip mall to teach children to be afraid (and thus, prepared) for cataclysmic events. My favorite lines: “My service confirms what the parents cannot admit to themselves: they brought children into a dangerous world. They hate me for reminding them what they have done.”
“America,” Erin McGraw. Published by American Short Fiction
McGraw writes a story about a high school girl who discovers herself during a West Side Story dance rehearsal—“West Side Story is a chute I slide down, and every day I’m a little more Marisol, working in a west-side dress shop and kissing Pepe on the fire escape.” I loved the confidence of the narrator, which showcases the duality of teenage-hood—sometimes you’re vulnerable and sometimes you’re invincible. Sometimes, you just want to dance.
“New Hampshire Girl, 11, Vanishes,” William Reichard. Published by Conium Review
Stories about people that have vanished fascinate me. Reichard’s story takes a fanciful look at the case of a missing girl, bringing in a magician’s disappearing act. He writes, “Because energy never ceases to exist, she must be someplace, another world, an alternate plane, a space of which we don’t yet possess an adequate understanding. The New Hampshire girl’s family lives in willful disbelief.” It’s a look at grief and longing, and the way both can shimmer.
“A Guide to Fooling Yourself,” Lauren Schenkman. Lauren Groff’s pick for Selected Short’s 2017 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize Published by Electric Literature
Schenkman tells the story of a couple, a marriage, and their child. The point of view creates a distance—Schenkman uses second person; “If all else fails, let the kid become an asshole, yell at them, insult them, pull away, move to Japan. They’ll hold each other, in the dark, saying if only, and think the problem is the kid.” Including the reader creates an intimate complicity, while at the same time reminding me of the distance we feel between us and the people we love the most. Heartbreaking.
“Going North,” Andrew Mitchell. 2016 Barthleme Prize Winner Published by Gulf Coast
Mitchell explores the disorienting side of parenting. In one paragraph, he takes the reader from a mother’s anxious mind to an image of a child playing with trains. He writes,
“Behind the steering wheel is my husband and on his lap is Collin, and because I’m so happy it takes me a moment to realize the red truck isn’t actually a red truck, no, it’s our kitchen table, and on this table Collin maneuvers a toy truck through the streets of a miniature town he’s built from cans of soup and boxed pasta—Cupboardville! he calls it—and to my father I say, I love you, and he says, A-vo-ca-do, and in the backseat of the red truck my husband sits alone, except he’s old now, hardly recognizable, and he says, There I go, as our Buick lurches into the road and speeds away, and I say, I’m here, right here, and climb into the red truck, shift into gear, and drive north as fast as I can, until at last the road is full of pumpkins and we have no choice but to abandon the red truck and walk together the rest of the long, long way.”
The story begs the question: “Do we ever really understand the inner lives of our loved ones?” and “How much does parenting change the people you think you know best?”
“Intruders in Ms. Hansen-Knudsen’s Class,” Maddy Raskulinecz. Published by Tin House Flash Fridays
Raskulinecz captures the adoration with which children worship their teachers, and the ways they turn on each other to gain favor. I really enjoy the voice here—rooted in the territorial second-grade mob mind, but with hints of adult prescience: for example, eggs hatch in class—two chicks and a duckling. Raskulinecz writes of the duckling, “It had the most harmless, charming webbed orange feet, whereas the chicks’ talons implied the spiky horrors they would grow into.”
Flash fiction about children provides us with a way to examine ourselves as adults. Without the anxiety-producing pressures of adult life (what we should do, what we could do, our obligations to ourselves and to each other) we are free to connect with our younger selves.
By examining stories about children that are written for adults, we can empathize and sympathize—we can seek to understand, to try to bridge the gap. Especially in the short form, the drama and intensity of childhood seeks to illuminate the mysteries of the human condition. What are your favorite pieces of flash about the sometimes unnavigable distance between children and adults? Let us know on social media!
Allison Pinkerton is the 2017 Kathy Fish fellow at SmokeLong Quarterly. Her work is forthcoming in Image, and has been published online at Monkeybicycle, The Pinch, and elsewhere.