Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday: "Don't Tell"

Flash Fiction Friday this week involves the keeping of secrets, and I call my story "Don't Tell".

I didn't know where to stand. I never knew where to stand. I had to be here, but I wasn't really a part of what was going on. I hardly knew anyone here. The house was full of people in dark clothes, murmuring. I walked into the kitchen, where I could see her brother talking to a thin, pretty girl with long legs in the opposite corner. My shoes made sounds on the hardwood, which made me tiptoe.

"If she had told us...," Kathryn's mother was saying in the other room. Her voice was ragged, like she had been screaming. She probably had been.

"I know, honey," my mother said. She had that soothing tone she used when she was talking to a kid. I couldn't see her, but I could picture her face. Ever since she had gotten the news, she had the same expression, all the time. It was a smile, but a thin, tight one, like she would pop if you stuck her with a pin.

"Is it true what they said?," the thin girl asked Kathryn's brother, her voice high and soft. "That she was..."

"Yeah," he said gruffly. "She was."

"Wow," the thin girl said, suddenly noticing me standing there. She sounded a little too excited, with an edge of "thank God it wasn't me."

"I'm going to go outside," she said quickly, exiting onto the porch. I watched her light a cigarette in the cold air. I didn't know how to stand, shifting my weight first one way, then another. I saw people looking at me, then looking away quickly. They didn't know what to say, which was OK, because I didn't know what to say either.

I guess I was "Kathryn's friend", but that was stretching it a little. I have moved more times than I can count, so I was used to being the new kid, but it felt like hitting the jackpot when we moved in to Edgewater Estates and found out that three doors down was a girl who was going into the same grade I was, and was also new in town. Kathryn and I found ourselves together more often than not by the end of the summer, making common cause in our mutual boredom and outcast status. Then I was a little hurt, but not exactly shocked, when school started and Kathryn started running in slightly different circles. It was okay, really, because we had been so close that a little distance was actually welcome, allowing me to try and branch out.

Two weeks ago, she had called as soon as I set foot inside my door. She told me I had to come over to her house that instant, and she couldn't tell me why. I made my way up to her bedroom, where she was sitting on her bed, cross legged. She didn't say anything, just held out a tan rectangle towards me. It looked like a thick pen, or maybe a thermometer, but when I got closer, I saw what it was, and when I took it from her and looked at the little window with the two lines on it, I nearly dropped it.

She made me swear not to tell anyone. I had heard the old lecture that there are some secrets you don't keep, that if someone is in danger, you tell, and risk the friendship to save the friend. I don't know why I didn't tell my mom immediately, except that it's always easier not to talk than to say something. I didn't want to lose my only ally, and Kathryn swore she was going to tell, she was just going to tell it her way. And it was her news to tell. I felt like she had a right to tell who she wanted, when she wanted. And I had to admit that I liked being in the know. When you're the new kid, you never know anything, and it was nice to finally be on the inside.

It happened so fast after that. First Kathryn said she was going to tell, and then she suddenly wasn't in school. Rumors flew around the school like angry wasps. Then her picture was on the news, the pretty woman with the tight dress and big hair telling us that anyone with any information should call the police. I was trapped. Any decision to tell would be followed by "why didn't you tell us before?", so I didn't, and then came my mother, shaking, picking me up after school, the plastic smile on her face. She sat with me on our rented couch and told me Kathryn was gone, and some boy named Dean was down at the police station, and then my mother crying like I had never heard her before, not the wine induced tears after she thought I was asleep, but more deep, wracking spasms of tears that coursed out of her like she might not ever stop. She wound up with her head in my lap, her snot and drool soaking into my jeans, wailing into the afternoon and way past dinner.

I looked at the food, pasta and sandwiches and casseroles no one was eating. Kathryn's brother went outside where the girl was. A little kid came into the room. He looked enough like Kathryn I figured he had to be related. He went up to the table and reached for a cookie. He looked me over, up and down, his hand near the platter. I guess I checked out OK, because he took it, taking an enormous bite. He chewed, still looking at me.

"Don't tell," he said seriously.

"I won't," I told him.


  1. Wow. I really like the way this ended. You really captured the awkwardness of the outsider. Well done!

  2. The little boy wasn't telling Kathryn's friend not to tell he had taken a cookie, was he? He was saying 'don't tell' that he was Kathryn's son, and her brother was his father...

    Heart-wrenching tale, made even more so by the certain knowledge that there are thousands, literally, of 'Kathryn's' out there.

    A powerful story, Michael. Thank you for joining us this week.

  3. Now, I have a personal affinity (obviously, considering my prompt) for “inaction” stories, find them so gloriously weighty and the simpler the “quiet” is, the better.

    This one goes right to the actual, contained in the prompt, little philosophical rift, actually brings the question of “tell or not
    tell” directly into the narrative, but then (the best thing to do when the question is made direct) it moves away from it and the story becomes the (however he only slightly tries to justify it) amorality of the character/narrator.

    This piece doesn’t try to excuse, because there is more power in not trying to that. The various “appropriate, human” reactions are nicely, subtly put on display—from the Wow to the mother hysterically crying, even to the news report and the “if you have information”—so that, really, by having the narrator’s focus remain not even so much on himself (there’s the slight worry of being asked “why didn’t you tell” but even that so hauntingly blah) but on an almost newspaper article
    description of everything else, the void of his voice takes on the most frightening tone.

    As I say, I dig it. Because isn’t that the horror? Isn’t that the tested impulse all the time?—You hear a scream in a house…you don’t go see “Is someone being murdered” it would be insane to do so, but then you flip it to “Christ, what if that was the only sound someone had time to get out…and you just assumed it was nothing”? Ghastly enough. But in this story, here, it’s interesting that the character is entirely correct, logically, every step of the way, but the logic takes on the perverse dimensions only logic can. The story is in “It’s her news to tell” (correct, not a heartless decision not to tell) and in the worry he would be
    asked “why didn’t you tell?” (correct that this, logically, is an unfair question).

    So he emotionally goes no further. And that’s rough.

    And then the little riff on the ending (again, dodging being a punch-line quite nicely) just hammers that nail of “detachment”
    in all the more because…well, it’s a first person narrative that contains all of what it contains and this is where the voice decides to stop—like it’s
    halfway moralizing or having a chuckle, like it just has to point out “Oh, isn’t it interesting in a funny way that her brother asked me to keep a secret, too”
    but the voice doesn’t understand how…wrong headed that is. Creepy.


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