2nd Place Winner – Flash 405, August 2023: “Secret”
After their son left home, her husband asked for a divorce. His reasons were many and banal: growing apart, not understanding him anymore, a coworker who made him feel young. Talking to her about the whys and hows, his eyes were cold, his face closed.
She hadn’t seen it coming, and so now the house held a double absence when she’d been prepared for just the one. Even in her flip-flops, her footsteps echoed.
She considered the obligatory dog, but when the reality set in of morning walks and evening walks and not being able to get away for a weekend, she got somewhat serious about a cat. But then she’d always disliked cats. Aloof, fickle, and perpetually licking their own wounds.
In the end, the dolls just made sense. Low-maintenance. Self-sufficient. Plus, you could build a doll out of anything—a tube of paint, a can of soup—although ultimately she put in the time, learning how to cast ceramic heads from two-sided molds, how to thread human hair. She pulled out her mom’s sewing machine and got it working again, winding the bobbin, threading the needle, making them clothes. No babies, no Barbies, no clowns—just two women and a man: Leonora, Lisette, and Quinton.
After they were done, she got them doll beds, sewing the comforters and pillow shams herself. Then she bought them a car, and a toy piano. Finally she bought them a wooden boat on which they took rides in the old kiddie pool, going round and round like a backwards-winding clock.
When her son called to check in, he would ask the same question: “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” she’d say.
At night, staring at the ceiling and listening to the house tick, she wondered if the dolls liked each other, if they hung out when she wasn’t around or if they’d started a steamy love triangle, certain disaster.
When her son finally came home for the holidays and saw the dolls in his old bedroom, he said, “They’re so creepy, Mom. Like Chuckie, but worse.”
He asked her to put them away, but she wouldn’t. She wanted to paint them—driving in their car, sailing on their boat, sleeping in their small, soft beds. She intended to see if Quinton would behave, if the women would stick together.
It was then that her son got mad.
Abrupt endings start this story—a son leaving, and a husband quickly following. An empty nest in more ways than one. The narrator needs to fill this space, and she fills the void with what is around her, creating three dolls—dolls that stand in for what truly hurts and baffles, which is the ending of the marriage with no warning and no true explanation. And yet the dolls elevate what appears to truly be bothering this narrator—two women and one male. Will the women forge an unbreakable friendship? Will the male doll come between them, leaving one in the lurch? And the son, worried about the dolls taking over his mother’s life inside the now-empty house. But the son isn’t seeing the bigger picture the way the narrator does, how she hasn’t asked for any of this—the son leaving home, and the husband who has decided to follow. I love how this story elevates into a realm of how safe and secure are we really within our family unit? How tenuous is our hold?
J. Annie MacLeod teaches literature and creative writing at a public honors college fastened to a shore in Southern Maryland. Under her professorial name, Jennifer Cognard-Black, she is the author or co-editor of six books, including the forthcoming Good Eats: 32 Writers on Eating Ethically (New York University Press, 2024), and she has also produced two lecture series for The Great Courses as well as an Audible Original, Books That Cook: Food & Fiction. She has published her essays and short fiction in numerous journals—including Story, Versal, Another Chicago Magazine, So to Speak, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A lover of food and foodways, she teaches seminars in the literatures of food and spends her spare time reading—and cooking—food fictions, edible essays, and menu poetry.
Photo by Umanoide