Two Flash Pieces
by Azlan Smith
If I were my son, sleeping restless in the back seat, the cool night air would swirl through my dreams. I remember the click of seatbelts, the uncomfortable ease of leaning my head against the vibrating window. I remember shifting my knees, still half asleep, on the back of my father’s seat. The growl of the engine giving way to the roll of the tires, the rush of the wind. I remember the streetlights’ quiet lightning no matter how tightly I tucked a sweatshirt over my eyes. The darkness I made for myself after my dad said, Shh, honey, go back to sleep.
Hours later I’d wake up warm, muscles stiff and somehow easy in their ache. I’d see sunlight. I’d blink and rub my eyes and squint so the sky could pour into me. Its cliffs of cloud. The swaying green of the forest. The mountains where we’d hike and pitch our tent. I remember sleeping on the way there and knowing I was safe. If I were him I might have that story, that movement of now-reaching-out-toward-somewhere, or at least the dream. Of waking up someplace beautiful and clean.
But I’m his father. My wife is driving. I have a flashlight in my teeth, maps in my hands, miles and covid hotspots swirling in my head.
“Which way?” she asks me.
It’s our boy who answers. “Mom?”
“Shh,” she says. “Honey, go back to sleep.”
Listen. If this is a story, then reach back to that little kid who is or was you, the one who tastes licorice and blood on the skin of the world, and feel the flicker as your fingers go through the kid’s forehead. You can’t touch memories. If this is a story, before you go back to sleep, recreate the ritual from when you were seventeen. Press your forehead against the window, repeat the scattered words you used to mumble. A kind of prayer, maybe, a kind that felt safe because no one could hear. You heard: at seventeen, mumbling, and now as you remember.
Reach back and be the little kid. Let them look over at you. Snot bubbling, nails chewed, this kid might think you’re a ghost as you try to brush back their hair. Not that they mind. Why not ghosts? Reach back to the teenager, shirtless in bed, staring at a nail in the wall. They say you won’t understand. They don’t understand. Neither, to be fair, do you. All this sliding through time isn’t meant to be an answer. Maybe this isn’t a story. But listen: when that teenager went outside after realizing, really realizing, for the first time, that someone made their home with a hammer and a ladder, that the wood came from a tree who caught sunlight and drank soil, that the sun drew together from dust and gas in a solar nebula like dew gathering in a garden, when you taste the world as it was when a kid licked decaying leaves and shoes and their mother’s hair, when you hear their prayer, and not just as the ghost of the vision—when—well, what can I promise you?
The wind catching at your coat as you carry another cardboard box inside the apartment complex. The way the cloth snaps, bounces back, alive. You were twenty-two and you’d just moved.
Red berries floating in the lake. You tossed them there, one by one, listening to the plop—hear it—of the water. It was cold and your hands were numb and you blew on them. Thirty-seven. You held your breath in your hands.
A candle. The last one you’ll ever see. I won’t name an age for that. You didn’t comment on it, didn’t know, of course, it was the last, in your neighbor’s window as your son brought you to the hospital. Ask yourself if the window might be a beach. If the air might be an ocean, the candle a sun. If this might be a sunset. This candle that is the last you’ll ever see.
Grass. Is grass enough? The smell of it? The taste, which you hold in your splayed fingers, which you hold on your tongue like a secret I love you to a lover long after you’ve lost touch? The tangle of fresh green threading through last year’s brown, and the darker ground beneath it, dark with last night’s rains.
Azlan Smith is a queer writer, educator, arts facilitator, and researcher based at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign where they're doing a PhD in Writing Studies. Before graduate school they taught high school for nine years. Their research interests center on storytelling's participation in culture, genre fiction as modern mythology, and Public Humanities projects that use narrative for community building and activism. They love flash because it's like one moment of dance, and a novel because it's time enough to make new friends. Over the last eight years they've also developed Voices, a collaborative project that builds a stage for participants' stories, offering communities another way to see, share, and support themselves.