As the curtain rose, the scenario began to play itself out. In between acts of Macbeth, two or three ninth graders came out to mime a short skit that set forth the themes for the next act. These parts had been created for students like me—too anxious, or Ian—too indifferent, to act in the actual play. Our themes were Fear, Guilt, and Violence.

I was supposed to pretend to sit on a bench reading, and appear startled, then frightened, when Ian snuck up behind me and tapped my shoulder. I’d practiced the scene at home in our kitchen while my mother sautéed onions in a pan. I shook my hands up and down and ran in place, with my mouth wide, my eyebrows raised.

Ian used to be my neighbor and could read at a really young age. We used to play “would you rather” on the bus ride home to pass the time. His parents thought he was going to be gifted, but he’d averaged out like the rest of us.

While we waited in the wings of the stage for the second act to end, Ian snuck up behind me and snapped my bra strap. Usually, I ignored him, but this time I told him to leave me alone. He always did these things when no one was looking.

Next, he held two fingers in front of his mouth and stuck his tongue through them.

My face got hot. I looked around. Had anyone seen? “Stop it. What’s wrong with you?”

Again, he ignored me. Instead, he leaned in closer. “Would you rather,” he whispered, “dip your hand in my blood or my cum?”

The voices on the stage shrunk; I heard a mother clear her throat, a father change positions.

I pushed him away and he held up his hands. “What? Too much?”

Our English teacher motioned for us to go on stage. It was time for our dumb show. I sat on the bench and didn’t even lift the book to pretend to read. I looked over my shoulder. When Ian tapped me, I would have known he was coming. Instead of showing fear, I’d pantomimed anxiety.

One of the other students shined the spotlight on my face, so I couldn’t see any of the parents’ reactions when I messed up. I did hear a mother sneeze three times in a row.

With one hand in my pocket, I thumbed the fingernails I’d bitten off. Even though I knew he wouldn’t dare do or say anything gross in front of a crowd of people, I still didn’t want to feel those fingers on my shoulder.

He tapped me, then stood to the side, and pretended to flinch while I flailed around. I was supposed to stand so he could take my seat, the way Banquo takes Macbeth’s seat during the dinner party scene, but I didn’t get up. He laughed, like we were both in on the same joke. A few parents laughed along with him. One father with a deep voice let out an awkward: Ha!

Ian held out his hand to prompt me to stand, to remember. I stayed still. Instead, he sat in the empty chair beside me, held up an imaginary glass and cheered the audience. A few more laughs.

Maybe he thought he had the audience on his side. He probably wanted them to think I’d gone crazy. Next, he leaned in close to me, poked my shoulder, then licked my cheek with his long pale tongue. His breath smelled like garlic and burnt ash.

I looked out to the audience for help. The student had swiveled the spotlight on to them. I saw all of the parents’ faces clearly. Their eyes, wide open. Their mouths, closed. Nobody moved. No one shouted out for Ian to stop. They were frozen, muted, like I had been. No one had reminded them to turn off their cellphones so I at least expected a ring or a vibrate, but the room was silent. Did they assume this was part of the skit? Even if it was, wouldn’t some of the adults object? Gasp? I willed tears not to spill down my burning face. Why did I feel shame when I hadn’t done anything wrong?

I looked into the wings. Elliot, who played Banquo’s ghost, and had fake blood painted on his face and neck, was also frozen in place. Was this a sick joke? Was everyone in on it but me?

Ian stood, took a bow.

I stood and we exited the stage together.

The play began again, and the parents and all of their belongings came back to life. When Elliot appeared as Banquo’s ghost to taunt Macbeth at the dinner table, a few flashes went off. The mom with the sneezes began to cough.

I watched the rest of the play in a haze, in the wings, barely remembering the events—how many people kill each other, themselves.

After, I waved to my parents in the hallway. My dad held up his keys and pointed to the parking lot. My mom typed something on her phone.

Liz Matthews received her M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Spelk, Storgy, Milk Candy Review, and The Tishman Review, among other places. Liz is the Executive Director of the Westport Writers’ Workshop where she also teaches Introductory & Intermediate Fiction.

© 2020 Liz Matthews. Published by LITTLE FICTION | BIG TRUTHS, May 2020.

Editors: Troy Palmer, Beth Gilstrap & Alvin Park. Images from The Noun Project (credit: Hea Poh Lin).

The 2020 Flash Issue:



by Liz Matthews
The Dumb Show