Keri Miller | Flash Fiction
Giulia had things I wanted but was not allowed: a pool with a diving board, a dock on the canal, a Noni from Italy, rainbow bread from Wal-Mart, a dwarf hamster, a half-brother, pierced ears, and a two-story house.
The story goes that I helped open presents at Giulia’s baby shower, my little paws ripping at pink paper, while Giulia floated in amniotic ecstasy. In the tub, I met Giulia’s secret freckles and moles. She showed me where she painted abstract swirls with nail polish on the back wall of her closet. I made her watch Labyrinth, though David Bowie frightened and entranced us. One afternoon we found a naked baby bird on the ground and named it Anastasia. We put it in a shoebox. We fed it flour mixed with water from a syringe. Our moms drank merlot in the kitchen.
Giulia’s older brother used to catch tiny lizards and hold them to his earlobes until they bit down with their dull mouths, dangled like earrings. I was in love with him. He had friends with buzzed hair and baggy jeans whose moms were always at work, so the boys would drop into the kitchen and steal attention from ours. Smile with abandoned teeth and tell sad things about their fathers. Our moms would nod to their beats, help them with quadratic equations, feed them double-stuffed Oreos.
There came a time when I stopped taking bubble baths with Giulia and befriended the girl next door. Lauren Fishkin was in my grade and had braces and new hairs in new places, like me. Her house was too tidy, but her mom baked fudge brownies and her dad was gone most of the time working on a ship. In his absence, Lauren built up legends around him of which we knew this much to be true: 1.) Mr. Fishkin shaved his legs for cycling—his road bike hung in anticipation of his return in their meticulous garage; and 2.) Mr. Fishkin shot squirrels down from the trees in his yard. We’d hear the pops, press our noses to Giulia’s bedroom window in scowling disapproval.
In response we wrote a manifesto on a Word template—”Save the Animals Club” monthly newsletter—which we mailed to Lauren, Noni, and one of my girl cousins. On the front and only page was an article about how we shouldn’t shoot squirrels even if they got into our attics. The next month we forgot to write the next issue and the months forever after that.
One evening our moms were drinking merlot in the kitchen, and Giulia and I were playing outside. From the dock on the canal, we could see straight through Lauren’s backyard and into her bedroom window. We watched her lamp go off, and we snickered at her early bedtime. Giulia and I were alive and adrift and unchaperoned in the prelude of night. We had her brother’s gator-shining light. The ideas were usually mine because I was older and liked to flirt with danger. We flicked the light on and off, aimed the strobe at Lauren’s window. We made up Morse code, spelling out U-S-U-C-K. We saw Lauren’s lamp pop back on. We saw her nightgowned figure rush out of the room, her long gossamer hair floating like a corpse bride. Then we saw Mr. Fishkin—we’d forgotten he was home—march through the Florida room with his shotgun. We scurried behind a large terracotta planter, with a neglected prickly palm inside, and covered our mouths with our hands. I peeked at Mr. Fishkin poised for attack on the pool deck, shotgun on shoulder, legs moonlight white and lean—a figure of legends. Maybe he thought we were the buzzed-hair boys. Maybe he thought we were little squirrel girls with daughter-cutting teeth. Giulia squinched up her eyes at me like a furious kitten. We were more afraid of getting in trouble, I think, than of getting shot. But when Mr. Fishkin went back inside, Giulia ran across the dock so fast a splinter slid into her doughy pinky-toe.
Giulia had things, however, that I did not want: a difficult name to spell, rosacea on her cheeks, a new stepmom every couple of years, a hard time distinguishing left from right, a quiet voice people didn’t always hear, and cavities. One time, Giulia went on a week cruise to the Bahamas with her stepmom Patty, and at first I was jealous, but on day one Patty dropped the news that Giulia’s dad had asked for a divorce. Giulia came back with tight braids and colorful beads, a new invisible void, and a giftshop sea biscuit for me.
Twenty-something years later, Giulia’s mom will die from not being able to stop drinking. I’ll talk to Giulia on the phone for an hour, listen to the murmurs of her newborn at her breast. I’ll say empty things I’ve learned to say about release from pain and a mother’s imperfect love, though I’ll secretly think mine did pretty good. I’ll remember the time we buried Anastasia in the shoebox turned coffin, and the time her brother insisted on cuddling with the new kitten and smothered it to death in his sleep, and the time their Pomeranian ripped into the road, slamming its skull against a speeding hubcap, and blood smeared on the asphalt in front of our roller blades. I’m sorry, Giulia, I’ll say into the receiver, staring at the stucco swirls on my ceiling, states away. I’ll think of all the names her mom has had from birth to death, first and last. I’ll remember the evening Giulia and I hid behind the terracotta planter, our crouched legs, our fading summer tans, our baby hairs quivering. I’m sorry, I’ll say again. My throat will croak like the alligator hatchlings in the canal. You’ll do better. And either Giulia is crying so quietly I cannot hear her, or she never will.
Keri Miller received her MFA in creative writing from Florida State University and is pursuing her PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi. She was a finalist for the 2023 Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival Fiction Prize. She is working on a collection of short stories and a novel.