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(A short story of 6125 words)

Little Big Show


by Kathy Flann

The footpath gallops ahead like a dumb dog, disappears around bends in the forest. This has been Alexander’s first real hike, a hard scrabble – scuttling along in a crouch at times as if he might find grips on the flat rocks. His assistant at work would have loved some photos.

Now that he’s made it – almost made it – this easy wide dirt path where he and his sister Marietta started hours ago, where families had pushed all-terrain strollers, seems embarrassing somehow. A bird chirps sweet, trilling notes. The watery quality of the sunlight suggests cocktail hour. Through gaps in the trees, the gravel lot materializes, but there’s no blotch of red. Marietta’s car should be visible. Shouldn’t it?

“Hold on,” he calls ahead to her. He spins around. “Is this where we started?” He knows it is, even with the trail deserted, other trekkers probably at home now firing up their grills for the Fourth of July like normal people.

“You did it, big guy!” she says, brings fluttery hands to her cheeks as if someone has proposed. He resents her surprise. His wife, his ex-wife, began to talk to him like that after they had stillborn twins last year. Like he was a little bit of an idiot.

Yet he hopes Marietta’s sunny affection is sincere, the desire a hum in his chest. Since Alexander’s divorce, his sister has stopped visiting him up in Baltimore.
Surely in another minute, that stupid Dodge Omni will flicker into existence between the trunks. Pulling ahead of Marietta, he breaks into a trot.

“You’re running!” she calls after him, and picks up her pace to a jog.

When he bursts from the forest, he stops short at the edge of the gravel clearing as if it’s a cliff. Empty. A gray sea of rocks. A spray of broken glass.
Marietta emerges beside him. Her smile drains away.

“Gone,” he says. He points to where the car had been, to the parking space she managed to grab hours earlier, when the lot had been full. The trees block the waning afternoon light like a leafy gang of thugs. “My briefcase,” he whimpers.

The proposal for the Jamieson account, a proposal he insisted on creating himself instead of letting his staff handle it, was on his laptop. Worked on it for three straight days and didn’t get around to backing it up. He’s been doing bone-headed things like that ever since this new woman, Nichole, materialized – she shares his table sometimes at Common Ground, an over-crowded coffee shop. It seems impossible that such a thing can happen after he drove his wife away with his drinking and insults, drove her right into the arms of Jimmy Yang, a hotshot systems specialist at a competing agency.

He walks the perimeter, as if he might find the car hiding behind a stump. His chest expands with air. Alexander blinks away the doctor’s thick fingers, the way they worked tubes up the twins’ noses. He thinks about the dangers of breath. What if his lungs bulge through the gaps between his ribs, press until the bones snap?...

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