Go to the park in the middle of the night. Take three envelopes and a pen and sit on a bench along the lighted walking path.

On the back of the first envelope, draw an uneven circle with zig-zags on either side. This is the rock in the yard that marks where the dog is buried. The dog you were supposed to watch the first time you were left alone. You got distracted and he ate a chocolate egg off of the counter. It was your egg. A gift from your mother. A gesture to compensate for future egg-shaped sleights and jabs. You buried him by yourself so his death could still feel like a secret.

On the second envelope, make a copy of the water bill. List the past due charges and  compounding interest that gets added no matter how careful you are about what you say. The current balance is two of your best memories. You have three, but they all involve being saved. According to customer service, those only count as one. Write DISCONNECT across the top.

On the last envelope, draw a telephone keypad. Touch the numbers that will reach you. Wait. When nothing rings, wait longer. Wait as long as you want. It’s the middle of the night. Everything belongs to you until you give up. Until you give it up. Until the morning.

Bury each envelope under playground equipment. The slide. The swings. The plastic alligator on a giant spring. Not deep. Just under the mulch. Where the children of strangers can find them.

Volunteer to teach swimming lessons to seniors at the YMCA. Take them to the deep-end. Tell them to imagine their ankles are tied together. At the other end of the rope there is a heavy rock. The rocks are the same size and shape. Tell them not to look so surprised. They’ve been practicing for this their whole lives. The only thing missing was the water.

Ask them about your mother. Is she ever going to get better? Will this get easier? Why did things have to be so hard for her in the first place?

The rocks float to the surface. The seniors know they’ve been found out. They swim away like mermaids. Get smaller the further they go. When they reach the edge, they’re so small no one can see them anymore. Take a breath and sink underwater to hear their replies. They say they don’t want to pry but they understand. And they feel bad. So bad. These things are always tough. They hope it all works out for the best but there’s nothing they can do. They need to focus on themselves now, on their children, and their children’s children. They clap in unison. It causes a tiny wave and they are gone, swimming back to their homes through the pipes.

Look down. There is a senior at the bottom of the pool. The rope is still tied to her ankle. The other end is frayed. She is not dead, but she’s not coming back up. A lifeguard blows their whistle. It’s time for the next class. This one for teenagers. They line up at the edge of the pool. Each of them is holding a hammer. They are waiting for you to leave.

• • •

Everything in the dining room was a gift from your mother. She made sacrifices to do this. She wants to always be associated with place settings and food.

Take the table and chairs and the painting on the wall and drag all of it to the front yard. Arrange it in a circle. For a short time, this is where everything in the universe will line up. This is where the realtor will put the sign when you leave. This is how your mother will find out you’re gone.

Get a shovel from the garage. Go to the circle and dig. Don’t stop until the hole is big enough to bury everything. Not even if it starts raining. Not even if the earth around you groans and caves in, bringing the table and chairs and the painting down on top of you.

You feel blood running down your face. You know it is not water because it tastes like chocolate. Pull out your phone and dial the number by feel. It doesn’t ring.

Use your elbows and hips. Try to create space among the arms and legs. It’s no use. You’re pinned. You are looking at the painting and for the first time, you see your mother’s signature on the side of the canvas. You’ve seen this painting in restaurants and offices your whole life. It is a ubiquitous and vague mystery. Your mother made the original.

You call again. Off in the distance, an ambulance turns on its siren.

• • •

The Doctor hasn’t changed his office since you were a child. He examines the wound and asks what happened. You explain about the dog and the seniors who turned into mermaids and the dining room furniture. He grunts. Either he isn’t listening, or this is something he always expected.

It takes twenty-two stitches to seal the cut, but this is only temporary. He says it won’t heal if we don’t remove a few bones. Two or three should do the trick. It’s up to you which ones. If it isn’t better in a couple of weeks, he’ll need to take more.

On the wall, over his shoulder, there is a faded copy of your mother’s painting. You always thought this meant one thing. It means so much more.

He asks if you are going to schedule a follow-up. If you are actually going to come back this time. You say you will, and you will, and before then you’ll decide which bones you can do without.

Nathan Willis lives in Ohio with his wife and son. His stories have appeared in various literary journals including Jellyfish Review, Atlas & Alice, X-R-A-Y, jmww, and Cotton Xenomorph. He can be found online at nathan-willis.com and on Twitter at @nathan1280.  

© 2020 Nathan Willis. Published by LITTLE FICTION | BIG TRUTHS, May 2020. 

Editors: Troy Palmer, Beth Gilstrap & Alvin Park. Images from The Noun Project (credit: Josy Dom Alexis).

The 2020 Flash Issue:



by Nathan Willis
For the Children 
of Strangers