DRAWING THE RIGHT CONCLUSION • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

“Mommy’s not gonna leave him, is she?”

“No,” I said.

Lina frowned, shifting the perfect geometry of her face.

Mark wasn’t even our stepfather. One word described what he was. He was acrid.

Lina’s sharp.

You don’t notice at first; she seems so cozy and quicksilvery, like a lovely little pet you want to squeeze.

I hated whenever Lina wasn’t happy. Mom never seemed to notice.

Mom used to smell like honey, but Mark’s nastiness seeped into her bit by bit. Like if the neighbor’s dog keeps pooping on your little patch of lawn. It’s ruined for you now.

Lina and I both knew Mom would never get us away from here.

***

Everyone starts with a real dad somewhere.

“He’s not in the picture,” Mom said, if anybody asked; “Mark treats my girls like his own.”

We lived in Mark’s house. It was really his parents’ house but they were dead. He sat in the den most of the day, fooling around on his laptop. He called himself a writer.

Mom thought he was brilliant.

He was, in a way. He used to be a teacher, but now he stayed home and did nothing and the government sent him money.

Mom acted like she’d done great for us. It was a big house with a nice yard, and we didn’t have to be on our own after school because Mark was there.

In the beginning he didn’t bother us much. We never had to go on family outings, or sit together for long, or tell him about our day.

Then Lina’s teacher called Mom in, to talk about Lina’s attitude.

Lina really didn’t care for the times table.

“They’ve got calculators for that,” said Lina.

“What if you don’t have one handy?” asked her teacher.

Lina said, “You think I’ll have arithmetic emergencies?”

The grownups decided kind generous Mark would give some of his valuable creative time to help Lina with her math.

You could see he’d been waiting for a moment like this, to make us miserable and Mom grateful for it.

Maybe he’d never need anything else after that private little enjoyment of keeping Lina stuck in her chair until he said she could go. But guys like that will always want more.

***

“Want to color with me?”

“Color what?”

“I’m putting Daddy back in the picture,” said Lina, “and taking Mark out.”

***

She kept making copies of the same drawing — the house and yard and all of us standing in front, sketched in pencil.

“You can color in everything else, but leave Mom and Mark to me.”

She started on another piece of paper.

***

“Why seven of them?”

“Seven’s a magic number,” said Lina. “One times seven is seven. The times table, just like they wanted.”

She was a good artist.

“What are the woods for?” I asked. She’d made it look like we lived near a forest.

“Camouflage for Daddy while he travels,” she said.

A dimly-penciled figure with gleaming yellow eyes stared out from between the trees.

“Why are his eyes like that?” They looked like headlights.

“So he can find us in the dark,” said Lina.

“He looks like a bear,” I said.

“Maybe Daddy is a bear,” said Lina. “A were-bear. And he misses his lost were-children.”

A shiver slid icily up my legs.

“What’s Daddy’s name?” I whispered.

“Bear Were-Daughtersfather,” said Lina.

“Growl growl,” I said.

“Snap!” said Lina.

***

“It’s go-time,” Lina said. “Hocus pocus presto change-o.” She erased Mark’s feet, rubbing slowly and carefully.

While I did my homework, Lina colored another drawing. Daddy was out of the woods now and at the edge of the yard, looking towards the house. His whole head was colored in, brown and shaggy.

“When will he get here?” I asked.

“In double-time,” said Lina.

***

Mark was gone all the way up to his waist. Daddy was starting to cross the yard. His shoulders and arms were all colored in.

“He’s waving to us now,” said Lina.

***

The real Mark didn’t look very well. Neither did Mom. She’d been throwing up.

Lina finished drawing number five. Daddy was halfway to the house. His mouth was open.

“He’s roaring for us,” said Lina, “to bake him a nice big cake.”

She erased the top of Mark’s head. His face was still there, and his neck and shoulders and arms. The rest of him was gone.

***

“I can’t write with all that noise!” Mark shouted from the den. Lina and I started laughing and he slammed his door and Mom shouted at us to go to our room. She tried to say something to Mark and he yelled at her, and we couldn’t stop ourselves from giggling as we went upstairs, thump thump thump.

“Double time divided by no time,” said Lina.

Mom came into our room. She looked like everything was falling apart around her and she didn’t know why.

“You rotten kids,” she said, her voice low and shaking.

“Error in the calculation,” said Lina. All the color went out of Mom’s face and she ran to the bathroom, and we heard her throwing up again.

***

Lina had finished picture number six.

Mark’s eyes were gone. His hands were scrabbling in his empty head. His mouth was a perfect circle.

“Zero times zero,” I said, “will always be zero.”

Our two little crayoned figures were jumping up and down. Daddy’s hands were colored in. One more giant step and he’d reach us.

***

“Want to do this together?” asked Lina. She was working on picture number seven.

“Sure,” I said.

Daddy’s foot had touched the ground. It just needed to be colored in.

Mark was gone. Mom’s outline was still just pencil.

Lina tapped it.

“Crayon or eraser?”

“Eraser, please,” I said.

She handed it to me and took a crayon for herself.

“Show-time,” she said.


Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — have appeared on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)


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 average 3.9 stars • 53 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • JAZZ

    Sarah:
    I thoroughly enjoyed your story…well done.

  • Carl Steiger

    Eek, I’m not sure I want to know what happens next. But Lina’s a highly competent little witch despite the occasional error in the calculation, so I’ll hope for the best and trust she knows what she’s doing.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      One of my favorite classic stories ever is “The Mezzotint”…

      • Carl Steiger

        According to Wikipedia, “The Mezzotint is the third story in the first collection of ghost stories published by M. R. James, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.” Synopsis looks delightfully creepy; I’m going looking for it.

        • Paul A. Freeman

          A complete collection of M.R. James’ ghost stories sits on my bedside table. I read a story or two every time I’m preparing to start on a ghost story, just to get in the mood.

          Strangely, most Americans have never heard of M.R. James, just as most British folk have not heard of the American writer O. Henry (one of my favourite short story writers), or ‘O’Henry’ as one of our writers’ magazines refers to him.

      • Carl Steiger

        Update: I have bought and devoured Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Thanks for that recommendation!

        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

          Glad you enjoyed it, Carl!

  • Walter Giersbach

    The sense of progression here is excellent, and a great way to reveal the family dynamics, but then I’ve always liked interpreting the world through the tiny eyes of children. Well done. Would it have hurt to tell us Lina’s age or that of the MC so we can more quickly define them?

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      In earlier drafts Lina was having trouble with “third-grade math.” But the times table was an essential element here in its specificity, so I felt “didn’t have to be on our own after school” would suggest that the elder sister might not be more than 11 or so. A child older than that by more than a year would be less likely to enter so quickly and believingly into Lina’s project. And Lina has a strong sense of irony…

  • Michael Stang

    The editor me took a hike after the second “like”. Like I was being bad but could not help it; enjoying the show. Then this Pink Floyd concept comes into play and the magic begins. Fabulous.
    “Showtime” was a bit out of context but did not detract a five star ending.
    You, my dear lady, are smokin’.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      I was trying to balance the demands of good writing with the authentic immediacy of a child’s voice. I knew there was some awkwardness in the sentence with that second “like,” but I felt a real kid would tend to repeat a word–uh–like that in speech. I wanted these kids’ intelligence and awareness to be unmistakeable while capturing the way kids think and speak.

      And–thank you, Michael.

      • Michael Stang

        I am such a child of my generation. Only thing I thought of when I read “show-time” was the famous line in the movie Beetlejuice.
        My bad 🙂

  • The story is well written and especially the character of Lina is well-defined. The other characters less so. It’s possible I’ve missed something but I’m trying to understand whether Mark is actually horrible in some way, or doing something bad, or if it’s just two girls missing their father that’s driving the story. Similarly, the mother is vague and I was left trying to figure out why was she throwing up: pregnant? stomach flu? emotional distress because her daughters are trying to sabotage her marriage? I’m not sure what the point of the story is, other than a portrait of a sad little girl who is smart enough to try and shake up the status quo.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      I’m a strong believer in the writer’s obligation to provide essential information to the reader…

      …and in the Prime Directive of Flash: every detail must advance the story or provide accurate clues to its meaning.

      • I was just struck with the irony of the story’s title, as that’s just what I’m having trouble doing!

        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

          Let’s start with this: Lina isn’t sad. She takes bulls by their horns, and dispatches them…

        • I took it that the girls were drawing their own conclusion to their lives. Had noting to do with the reader drawing a conclusion to the story.

    • Michael Stang

      Mark became quite clear to me when I read the last two sentences in the second paragraph break.

  • Tim STL

    Well written, though it left me wondering what will happen next.
    Regarding Mark: He does not seem like a pleasant character, but I didn’t have the feeling that he deserved his fate here. I wasn’t sure if he was truly nasty, or if he just seemed that way through the filter of the MC’s point of view. Going on family outings, asking the girls about their day, those things make me think that perhaps he was reaching out to them. In any event, if their were-bear daddy actually shows up, I hope he has a better relationship with those two daughters. Thanks for the story!

    • Carl Steiger

      I think you missed a word. “In the beginning he didn’t bother us much. We NEVER had to go on family outings, or sit together for long, or tell him about our day.” (Emphasis mine.)

      • Tim STL

        Actually, I saw that. My interpretation was that the girls were ok with never having to interact with Mark in the beginning (because they didn’t like him). Later, when he started making them go on outings, asking them how their day was, etc., the girls found that bothersome.

        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

          Tim: I appreciate your interest in this story.

          The three interactions first mentioned never do occur. It’s a different interaction that impels Lina to act. Both girls understand the sinister import of Mark’s “generosity.”

          Note that the girls are completing the seventh drawing. Each drawing has advanced the action within the tableau as first presented.

  • For my tastes it is writing like this that separates true flash fiction from traditional 1000 word short stories. It captures a moment in time and speaks in a unique voice. Sarah writes in a style that she “owns” that takes us on a journey, and often lets us draw our own conclusion from the clues left within.

    There are no instances of overt abuse, other than sisters missing the warmth of their father and a loving family relationship. Without unneeded explanation, one child has found a way to rid themselves of an indifferent father-figure and a mother who has forgotten, if she ever knew, that a family is more than food and shelter, and devised a way to bring their real father back into their lives.

    I had no problem with the scheme of the kids ridding themselves of emotionally-neglectful parents. It was creepily “Back to the Future”-ish and with a hint of Rod Serling off-the-wall-in-a-modern-style format.

    I have learned a lot about writing with an oblique impact from reading her stories. Her writing has influenced the way I approach my current writing (not saying that I have been successful at this) and for that I am grateful.

    I hope she never draws my picture.

    • And, without a doubt, 5 stars.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      Pencils locked away…

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I thought this story was fantastic. I’m glad you took an alternate route to the overdone topic of the sexually / physically abusive stepfather (not that it’s an unimportant topic), though I got the feeling Mark was an expert at being mentally abusive.

    Your take on the ‘horrid’ stepfather gave the piece a fresh feel to it. The enigmatically ‘absent’ father added to a mysterious quality of this piece, especially when were-dad appeared on the scene. Overall, very spooky and satisfying! A bit like M. R. James, but with a more tangible ending.

    Okay, enough of the flattery. My only quibble? ‘He was acrid’ is three words, not one. Perhaps, “One word described what he was – acrid.” would work better.

    You didn’t really expect to get away without a lemon, did you?

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      As I mentioned above, to Carl, “The Mezzotint” is one of my favorite stories…
      I had a bit of the same concern re “He was acrid” and the repetition of the word “like” that Michael noted, and considered it very carefully as I went over this story (which underwent only minor changes). As I’ve said in other places, in my first-person POV stories I want the reader to lose the sense of reading and achieve the sense of hearing. To have made the sentence technically accurate, as you suggest, would have lessened, to my ear, the contempt and loathing with which the MC says this. Correctness of speech would have given her a more adult voice, with a little bit of distance. I think sometimes the writer hears variations in tone and stress that are almost impossible to explain coherently, but are essential to the writer’s belief in her own characters.
      Really glad you enjoyed this, Paul.

    • I think the use of italics with acrid makes the point exceptionally clear while keeping the flow of the voice moving.

      • Paul A. Freeman

        I think the main reason I had a little cringe is that one of the most famous TV bloopers known to us Brits is the ebullient darts commentator, Sid Waddell getting overly excited and exclaiming, “There’s only one word for that – magic darts.” Mind you, Sid also gave us, “That’s the greatest comeback since Lazarus” and “We haven’t seen jousting like this since Ivanhoe stuffed the Normans”.

        • There’s a Monty Python skit that was similar – not sure of the dialogue – something like “There’s one thing that… No two things…Three things 🙂

          • Paul A. Freeman

            That’d be ‘The Spanish Inquisition’.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            …which nobody EVER expects…

  • Cute concept. However, the formatting and style really threw me. Dialogue is fine, but less and larger paragraphs would have made this a much easier read. I’m not fond of using ten or eleven “parts” in a story this short. They’re unnecessary and the flow of the story is broken every time the reader hits the next section.

    There were a couple good lines, but “quicksilvery” in the first paragraph made my eyes bleed and things went a bit downhill from there.

    Almost 3 stars but not quite. Thanks for sharing.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      I appreciate it when readers are explicit about why they dislike a story.

      • To peek under the hood for a minute, can you give me some insight on why you chose that particular format? It really threw me because I know of your background and obvious talent, and that was rather unexpected. Perhaps I can learn something. I enjoy playing around with formatting if I think it fits the topic, but that’s usually an exercise I save for poetry.

        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

          Scott: Let me first emphasize that I don’t plan stories out. No notes/outline/deliberate first draft. In most cases a sentence will pop into my head, and things grow from there. In this case the title popped into my head first. I was very familiar with a classic horror story, so certain basic themes were in the back of my head. But the story formats are quite different.

          This story was written very quickly, because the children’s voices were clear to me from the start. I find that if I’m absolutely sure of the voice then the story almost writes itself. It’s when I don’t know what’s wrong with the voice–I just know it’s not working–that a story grows very slowly.

          Here the progression of the drawings created the structure. I didn’t need to specify a time frame because the effect of the drawings gives the reader a clue. And it was essential to the story that cause and effect be quite straightforward. Lina draws something, and she gets results, and we see what they are, and how they change the family dynamic in preparation for the next drawing. So it wasn’t necessary to fill anything else in.

          It was important to maintain a very spare, ruthless tone. Lina is deadly serious. It’s not important, in the larger sense, if she does or does not have “actual” power to erase Mark. But it’s certainly her intent to do so. She’s not a sad wistful little girl wishing life could be better, and dreaming about what would happen if daddy came back into her life. The opening dialogue sets that up. She’s confirming from the MC that their mother has no intention of changing anything about all their lives. Things were unpleasant before, and now Mark has been granted a specific form of power over Lina, and both kids sense that there’s something really unsavory about it, and that he’s relishing it, and mom and Lina’s teacher have facilitated it, and Lina will just have to rescue herself and her sister.

          There wasn’t any room for softness or gentle progressions here. Lina was unleashing a primal, very dangerous power, and I hoped the reader would feel a combination of horrible fascination and dread, with no wasted words in between.

          • Thank you for taking the time to explain all of that. I love hearing about the writing processes of other writers, It gives me insight into how to make my own work better.

            And just from reading what you’ve written here I’ve realized more errors I’ve made in my own work. Things I didn’t quite think about all the way through. And I also understand your story a bit better.

            It’s a shame we can’t leave stars for comments.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            I think it’s not a matter of making “errors” in one’s writing. The absolute essential thing is to develop your own instincts.

            I’ve never found any of the writing advice online and in books to be of any use to me. I write only when I have something to say. I don’t believe in doing a first draft just to get words on paper. For me, getting the words right from the beginning is crucial to finding the authentic voice of the characters. If I can’t hear them clearly in my head, there’s no point in going ahead without them, and trying to find them later.

            As I said, I don’t “plan” the story out before beginning to write. I don’t have character notes. But once I know in my gut the story works, I can tell you anything you ask me about those characters. They must come alive in an authentic way for the story to work. A little clumsiness in narration or description isn’t fatal, But the interior world of the story must be consistent and true to itself.

            It’s helpful to have one trusted friend–not necessarily a writer, just someone who is always honest with you–to show stuff to. As writers we want everyone to love our stuff. But the people who won’t let you get away with anything are the ones to trust. The people who always tell you what a good writer you are–maybe not so much.

          • That all makes sense to me. Thank you.

  • Friedmab

    My interpretation? The kids are not as innocent as we think, Mark’s not as terrible as they describe him, and the mom…well she’s just pregnant again.

    Yes, I do believe in magic. Just not in all cases…

  • Cassandra Jane Parkin

    This story actually turned me cold (and I mean that as a compliment). Brilliantly atmospheric with crisp dialogue and excellent characterisation. Lina is scary as hell. I’d love to meet her.

  • Chris Antenen

    i’m not going to read any comments before I write. This is exquisite-a word I reserve only for the best. This is one I will read again and again just because I want to.

  • Chris Antenen

    Now I’ve read the comments and learned from them. I write from a setting or a sentence that haunts from some eerie place, and the characters usually take over, but I can never achieve the depth you display. Thanks, Sarah.

    Good title.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      Your “Dark Meat” is among the very best EDF has ever published. I’m honored to have your regard, Chris.

  • amanda

    Since this is told from Lina’s sister’s point of view, I recognize that Lina and Mom and Mark would tell their own story. Yet this is the one we read and it is done well with all “possible” meanings. Very well done….almost a 5….keep writing.

  • Love it. Well told!

  • Marie

    This is a strong story. I think the mother, Mark and sister are drawn well enough. When reviewing flash I do not look for what is NOT done; I feel for what is missing. If I don’t miss it then it was fine to leave out. What to leave out is the high watermark for flash writing skill. The progression of the art told me everything. I agree that showtime seemed out of both context and voice. I would suggest Using a different kid- like word. I think adults use that word, not kids. The barely there penciled outline of the mom and the imagination-enriched dad was a lovely touch. A rare 5 stars from me, though I am not fond of the title at all. It needs more magic.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      I’m honored, Marie, when a demanding reader finds a story of mine worthy of attention and leaves a detailed critique–and has been mostly satisfied by what I’ve done.
      I’ve explained some of my choices in responses to earlier commenters. “Showtime” was the culmination of Lina’s wordplay in savaging the adults who have profoundly failed her. I’m sorry it didn’t work for you–a story often stands or fails on its final line. I’m grateful you felt this story had still earned a five.