By Eric Ralph
I decided to take Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge for this week, which was to take one of the finalists from his last challenge as the first line of a short story of no more than 1,000 words. I chose Cat York’s opening line: I never trusted that statue in the garden behind the house.
I chose the line because I thought it lent itself to being funny, but as with many of my short stories, it ended up not funny at all. I’m not sure why it is easier for me to write funny long fiction than funny short fiction, but there it is. You now know my deep, dark secret.
As I was nearing the end of the story, I debated whether or not I should end it where I did, or add one more line. As written, it is exactly 1,000 words. So that answered that. Ultimately I think it ended in the right spot regardless. Here it is.
I never trusted that statue in the garden behind the house. Not because it had ever lied to me, but because it had not once told me the truth. The golden statue sat smiling a cherubic grin beneath soft eyes that themselves laughed at all they witnessed. A single hand raised in the air, as if to say ‘Stop. I’ve heard that one before.’ His right hand sat in his lap as he sat cross-legged among the hydrangeas. Tarnish marked the years he had sat there. One Who Waits was nothing if not patient.
We had periodic staring contests, during which I would focus all my energy on my eyes, keeping them even and open as One Who Waits stared back at me, ever laughing. I never won one of these contests. I practiced in the mirror. I stared into my own eyes until I could no longer stand it. I improved a little each day.
I had nearly beaten One Who Waits once. I must have stared straight ahead for hours. I had gone outside directly after lunch and the contest ended in darkness with my mother shouting to me from the porch to come inside. I continued to stare for another moment, to make sure One Who Waits knew he hadn’t beaten me. My victory had simply been interrupted. I couldn’t be sure, it may have been a trick of the light, but I thought I saw a bead of sweat on One Who Waits’s forehead. I smiled inwardly as I hoofed it up the stairs and into the house for dinner. He was worried.
The next morning I went outside to sit facing One Who Waits yet again. His smile did not sway my confidence. I sat with my knees on the ground, straddling a large rock I had positioned there for our competitions. I greeted One Who Waits with a wave and a slight, knowing smile.
“This is it,” I said. “This is the day.”
One Who Waits grinned and said nothing. I took a deep breath and exhaled as I brought my hands to my lap and my eyes met his. The contest had begun. The seconds passed into minutes then into hours. As the sun rose high in the sky, I started to sweat. The sweat accumulated on my eyebrows and threatened to drip into my eyes, which of course would mean I would lose yet again. I carefully reached up with my hand and dabbed my eyebrows with my handkerchief without ever breaking my gaze.
A bird fluttered by, then lit upon the head of One Who Waits. He didn’t flinch, nor did I allow my gaze to flit to the robin perched upon my adversary. One Who Waits continued to smile and stare into my eyes. His tarnish-stained eyes seemed to have no end, just dropping ever deeper as I stared into the abyss. The robin flapped away, returning to the sky.
“You’re good,” I said. “I admit that. I don’t know that I would have been able to continue if the bird had landed on my head. But it doesn’t matter. Today is my day to win. You will not defeat me this time.”
The sun struck One Who Waits and a gleam seemed to appear in those bottomless eyes. I nearly lost my grip on his eyes. My spine strained to keep my neck straight, my head aligned yet to my opponent. My discomfort ended up a great benefit, for if my concentration had been fully on One Who Waits I may not have been able to control my reaction to what happened next.
“I have no intention of defeating you,” said One Who Waits.
His voice was as steady and even as his gaze. It had an earthy quality, thick and low. I detected no movement of his lips nor any rise-and-fall of his chest. He was ever still. From where his voice emerged I do not know.
“I did not know we were opposed,” One Who Waits continued. “I was just enjoying the sight of you sitting there.”
I concentrated on maintaining my gaze. The temptation to shout out for my mother was intense, but I would not lose my goal. I gulped and cleared my throat before speaking.
“Why else would I be here, day after day?” I said. “If not for the competition?”
One Who Waits did not move at all, but his voice suggested a shrug.
“I sit here, day after day,” he said. “Along with the grass, the hydrangeas. They do not compete with me.”
A laugh entered his voice, lightening it without reducing its depth.
“Or perhaps they do,” said One Who Waits. “And I do not know it. Either way, I do not compete with them, nor with you.”
I swallowed as my conviction began to wane. I dropped my shoulders and my jaw slackened, but my eyes refused to leave their counterparts.
“If that’s true,” I said. “Look away. Allow me my victory.”
“I would if I could,” said One Who Waits. “But I can do only what I can do.”
I sighed and blinked my eyes. Pins of pain coursed through my legs as I moved them, trying to get the blood to circulate again. The sounds of the robins chirping reached my ears and I glanced up at the sky. White clouds meandered across the sky as the sun continued to shine down on me, One Who Waits, and the hydrangeas. I blinked back a tear as I looked back at One Who Waits.
“Then what shall I do now?” I asked. “Today was my day to win.”
“Simply do only what you can do,” he said.
I nodded absently and looked back at the sky.
“Is it OK if I stay here with you awhile?”
One Who Waits said nothing, but only smiled, his right hand in his lap and his left hand up as if to say, ‘Stop. I’ve heard that one before.’