The following is a flash length story that has been living on my laptop for a year or two. It may spread its wing and find a longer format, but she’s short and sweet for the moment. Please feel free to drop any thoughts or suggestions in the comments.
The first minutes after a four year-old boy goes missing in a department store are surprisingly ordinary. After the escalation to panic, however, a missing boy stills the makeup brushes and mutes the soft electronic beeps of the cash registers. Even the voice calling for Calvin to meet his family at the information desk was dull in Kelly’s ears. Her mother’s grip was tight on her right arm and Doug’s hand was sweaty in hers, but her concentration isolated her from even those discomforts. Kelly stared straight ahead and counted the dizzying seconds she held her breath.
“Kelly,” Doug said. His small voice broke her concentration.
Doug raised their clasped hands and Kelly followed his pointing finger to her mother’s rigid face. She lost count, but she didn’t take a breath.
“Answer the policeman, Kelly,” her mother said. The blood was pounding in Kelly’s ears and iridescent pearls blurred her vision. Her mother’s renewed grip twisted Kelly’s shoulder into a shrug, although she hadn’t even heard the question.
The policeman asked again where she had last seen her brother. Kelly finally took a breath to answer. She didn’t think she’d gotten past 40 seconds.
At seven years old, Kelly was the oldest sibling and frequent champion of games of her own devising. She squinted against the sun reflecting off the above-ground pool’s surface, surveying the potential contestants. Doug, only a year younger and her stiffest competition, was just learning to swim and hated pool games. “Okay, you guys,” Kelly said, “we’re gonna have a competition.”
Calvin was treading water with assistance from the edge of the pool. “Yeah,” he said, undeterred by his dismal competition record and deficiencies in water sports.
Kelly turned to Doug, hand on her hip though submerged to her shoulders. “The competition,” she said, “is who can hold their breath the longest.”
Shaking his head, Doug pulled himself up onto the pool ladder. Kelly rolled her eyes and turned back to Calvin. “Ready?” she asked.
Calvin nodded, waved to their mother through the kitchen window, and dipped below the water level as he released the wall. He bobbed back to the surface, laughing. “Wait! Kel, what do we get if we win?” he asked.
They usually played for choosing the Saturday morning cartoon, but Kelly upped the ante. “You can win one wish,” she said. Doug started to protest, but Kelly cut him off. “It’s just like a birthday wish, so it comes true as long as you don’t tell it.”
Kelly deputized an unwilling Doug to keep count and dropped underwater. She kept her own count and opened her eyes when she got to 60, expecting her victory to be clear. Calvin was flailing, eyes squeezed tight, suspended just below the surface.
A few more seconds passed before Kelly, startled but still counting, moved toward Calvin. She stopped as Doug splashed into the pool to drag Calvin to the edge.
Finally, Kelly surfaced to fill her lungs. “Seventy-four seconds,” she said. She calculated as she swam over to Calvin, who was coughing as snot and chlorinated water streamed out of his nose. “That’s one minute and twenty- I mean, one minute and fourteen seconds.”
Calvin, perched on the ladder, nodded and patted Kelly’s cheek.
Kelly sat next to Doug on a stool at the perfume counter, watching her mother pace as she talked on the phone. Kelly knew Grandma was probably on the other end of the line, but her stomach tightened into a knot.
“I hope it’s not Dad,” she said. Her voice was a whisper, but Doug turned to her.
“Don’t you want Dad to come home?” he asked.
Releasing Calvin’s hand to fold her arms across her stomach, Kelly scowled. “Dad’s never coming home, Doug.” When Calvin reached his hand back toward her, she shrugged him off.
Their mother squatted next to the pool, roughly toweling the already dry Calvin. “Are you ok?” she asked. Calvin nodded, but their mother was already looking at Kelly. “You’re supposed to look after your brother,” she said.
Doug nodded, Calvin’s small purple fingerprints starting to show on his arms. Kelly folded her arms across her stomach.
“Grandma can’t be here all the time, and we can’t afford- It’s just the four of us now. You have to help me out,” her mother said.
Kelly looked at Calvin. “He’s ok,” she said. “We were just playing.”
“We have to take better care of each other,” her mother said. She picked Calvin up and carried him inside.
Following them with her eyes, Kelly placed her hands on her hips. “He’s almost five,” she said.
Doug and Kelly pulled the ladder out of the pool and stretched the cover over the top. After putting the inflatable toys away, they went inside to discover that Calvin, seemingly recovered from his dunk, had chosen the dessert for the night.
Kelly didn’t get in trouble, but the doting attention her mother paid Calvin left her cold. Doug received the hero’s honor of choosing a video to watch after dinner. Kelly refused the ice cream for dessert and went to bed early, pretending to sleep through the bedtime story.
Looking around the room after the lights were out, Kelly, the clear winner of the game, made her wish. They were her own rules and she knew it wouldn’t come true, but she couldn’t help how she felt. I wish Dad came back, she thought. I wish it was me and Doug and Mom and Dad.
Kelly closed her eyes, counting breathless seconds. Even with a fast count, she couldn’t make it to seventy-four seconds. Kelly squeezed her eyes tighter and, armed crossed over her stomach, clutched fistfuls of her shirt. She could only hear the thudding of blood in her ears as she approached her record. Doug, once again, drew her back to the surface.
He tugged her arm and she looked up to see her mother running down the center aisle. Calvin was being carried toward her by a second police officer.
Calvin chose ice cream again that night, and Kelly let him choose the bedtime story as well. He seemed so unaffected, so ordinary, though, as did the sad woman whose dead battery had prevented her from getting Calvin out of the mall parking lot. Kelly wondered why no one appreciated the extraordinary effort to look after him. He shouldn’t have wandered off. He was almost five.