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Strong Female Character Goes by Her Last Name Only

Story by Stephanie Yu (Read author interview) June 17, 2024

Art by Fellipe Ditadi

She calls herself by it when she thinks her resolve is slipping. Like when she struggles with a stubborn jar of pickles or when she studies the dead girl’s forensic report. “Get it together,” she grimaces as she points her gun into the dark. She breaches the basement lair, muttering her last name through clenched teeth.


In spite of her line of work, her preferred role-playing fantasy is “home invasion.” Her boyfriend breaks in through the front door while she is asleep. By the time he takes her mouth into his hands, their dog Marvin has escaped out the back to alert the authorities. After they finish, she imagines her co-workers discovering their bodies in a tangled heap. How they would stake out the strings and map out the scene. Set down the evidence markers. Make jokes about the size of her breasts.


Her co-workers are complaining about their wives. Their wives cook bad meals and nag about the dishes. Strong female character doesn’t engage. If she did, she would complain about the way her boyfriend closes his eyes when he’s flossing, like he’s taking pleasure from it. But she keeps that, like most things, to herself. When she covers each dead girl with a tarp, she does not banter. She is faraway. She is thinking of her co-workers’ wives at home scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing.


At the diner, they always know her order. Creamed chipped beef on wheat. Coffee black. They tell her that she’s welcome anytime, that there’s a seat with her name on it. Once, she showed up with some crime scene still on her. “Would you like a change of clothes?” whispered the waitress. Strong female character knows the waitress’s boss had put her up to the task. The girl looked so young in that apron they made her wear.

Turns out, there was no seat with her name on it. It was just a figure of speech.


Strong female character wakes up in the driver’s seat with the smell of coffee clinging to her nose. She can’t tell if she has pulled once more into the station, or the morgue, or the driveway of her own home. She is clutching a sweaty piece of paper. When she unravels it, she does not recognize the handwriting. There in slanted script: “Don’t forget to feed Marvin.”


She has a dream that one of the dead girls is sitting in front of her in a small theater. There is a red curtain obscuring the stage. The girl turns towards her and her head goes three clicks too far. The curtain falls from the ceiling, revealing the scene. Strong female character wakes up standing over her case files, clapping. The lights at the precinct have gone out. Her co-workers have all gone home to their wives.


On her desk: the samples from the lab, the photos from a cold case, a skein of red yarn unspooling in twenty different directions. Strong female character phones her boyfriend to see if there is any food left in the fridge. He calls her by the name she will never give up for his. “You left the door open again,” he says, “someone found Marvin digging through the trash.” She can tell by his voice that he is well fed. Like he is full of chipped beef. She can tell by his voice that he doesn’t think about the dead girls at all.


Strong female character returns home after a long day of false leads and cannot find Marvin. His leash is missing from its hook. His bowl is piled too high. The food has started to mold. “Marvin!” she shouts. There are mugs missing from the cabinet. In the bathroom, one toothbrush absent. In the sink, too many dishes. As hard as she tries, she cannot piece it together. Outside, the snow has started to fall, covering up the tracks.


When she was a child, strong female character still went by her first name. She kept her room tidy, ordering her stuffed animals by height every night before bed. One day, without warning, she split open the belly of her stuffed pony to see if there was a red cotton heart inside. She had heard from the news that the girls who worked at the sweatshops stuffed notes into the linings of toys and stitched pleas for help into the fur. It would have been her first clue, had she found it beating there.


“Strong Female Character Goes By Her Last Name Only” won third prize in The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2024. 

About the Author

Stephanie Yu was born and raised in New Jersey and currently resides in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in phoebe, swamp pink, and wigleaf, among other places. It has been recognized by the Wigleaf Top 50.

About the Artist

Fellipe Ditadi is a photographer from Rio de Janeiro.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

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