[Editors’ note: The miCRo feature will take a month-long hiatus, with the exception of a special New Year’s Day poem. Thank you for your support in 2017; see you in 2018!]
Managing Editor Lisa Ampleman: As we told her when we accepted “Earthling,” Doris Cheng clearly trusts her readers as she weaves her flash fiction pieces. In this one, she invokes the pop-culture nonpareil E.T. at the perfect time—so that it grounds us but does not overpower the narrative—and finds just the right figure (taffy, an airport runway, fish scales) to inject the ornate and beautiful into the story. This one will tug at your heart strings with just the right amount of force. Share it with the teenagers in your life.
To hear Doris read her story, click below:
by Doris Cheng
I think Bree Nicholson suspects. Why else would she look at me like that? First period English, Mr. Carmichael asked me to name themes in Our Town. I started talking about the transient quality of human existence and saw her mouth drop open. Her glossy bottom lip was as flaccid as taffy. She nudged Tommy Gardner and said, loudly enough for the whole class to hear, “Rhea Diarrhea is a freakazoid.”
My instructions are to fit in. At least, I think so—I never got this in writing, and my memory isn’t what it used to be. I can’t even remember how to contact the Boss. So I stood in front of the class and kept talking about Wilder’s rendering of temporal instability and the universal need for connection, all while trying to keep my left eye from twitching. That’s something that seems to attract unwanted attention. That and the scars.
I’m an imposter. I try to act natural, but things don’t come out right; I don’t even know what acting “natural” means anymore. At lunch I hover outside myself as the other kids gossip and laugh and give each other wedgies. After school I do calc problems and look out the window. The sky is gray and impenetrable, a curtain pulled shut. I’m here for a reason; I can’t remember what it is, but I know I’m not qualified.
Dave and Phyllis are the parents I’ve been assigned. It’s easy to pretend with them. I eat the meat loaf they put in front of me. I do the dishes. They ask if I’ve finished my homework, and I say yes. They ask about my day, then turn on the TV before I can answer.
Tonight it’s E.T. A stranded alien hooks up a toy computer to some wires, attaches an umbrella, and puts a call in to outer space. The moment he connects, I sit straight up. I remember something.
I wait for Dave and Phyllis to go to bed. Then I rummage through drawers until I find a cassette player, a telephone cord, a jack-in-the-box. I scotch-tape everything together and run outside. The stars twinkle like lights on an airport runway. I hit Play and call the Boss. “Sir?”
The cassette player hums.
“Requesting permission to cancel this mission, sir.”
“Rhea.” His voice is a bell in the night. “Have you accomplished your objective?”
“I’m not sure. Every day I forget more and more.” I close my eyes and realize I’m crying. “Please let me come home.”
“You aborted your last mission.”
I touch my scars, taut across my wrists.
“You squandered precious resources.”
I push Stop. But not before the Boss, light-years away, transmits final instructions: “Stay until this mission is complete. Until you leave behind more than you brought.”
Somewhere a trout gasps for breath on a stream bank. Its jeweled scales glitter in the moonlight.
I watch the sky until orange bleeds into black. Then I go inside and get ready for school.
Doris Cheng received a masters degree in English literature from Columbia University. Her fiction has appeared in The Southampton Review Online, CALYX Journal, Apeiron Review, and The Writers Studio at 30, an Epiphany anthology. She teaches fiction and poetry at The Writers Studio in New York City.
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