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A Quiet Piece Of Midnight   —   Writing - Flash Fiction

The autumn wind was cool and wet as it plowed through the brittle leaves of the oak trees. A hard rain had developed slowly from an earlier mild drizzle and in the pale glow of the street lamps the rain cloaked the air like heavy fog.

Elizabeth was settled into the couch, her lap weighted with a large photo album, her feet pushed under the couch throw pillows for warmth. Her mind was lazily tripping over old memories as her tired eyes scanned the photographs spread out before her. The tall grandfather clock that was nestled into the corner behind the couch told the hour with a deep resonant chime and Elizabeth jumped slightly at the clock's declaration and glanced over her shoulder to see that is was midnight, the witching hour.

Glancing back to her lap her eyes met her aunt’s steely stare. Aunt Lorraine never was one for pleasantries. Her father’s sister, younger and made bitter by a cleft lip, never married. Elizabeth recalled an evening when her Aunt Lorraine was over to dinner, Elizabeth was six years old, her aunt was thirty-six. Elizabeth’s mother had cooked roasted lamb for dinner with a warm tomato soup and greens. Aunt Lorraine sat across the table from Elizabeth, or Elly as she was called when she was young, and sipped at the tomato soup slowly as if not to spill a drop. Aunt Lorraine’s cleft lip hovered above the soup filled spoon, revealing a small tooth through its fleshy gap, hypnotizing Elly into a slacked jawed unblinking stare.

Aunt Lorraine caught Eli’s stare with her own and held it there until the tall grandfather clock chimed low and broke the stillness. From that evening forward Elly made a conscious effort never to look directly at her aunt’s cleft lip again. Her fascination with the deformity turned to dread and she later started associating disabilities with shame.

Elizabeth shivered in the cool dry air of her home and scooted herself further down into the couch pressing her weight into the cushions and burying her feet deeper beneath the throw pillows. She turned the page of the photo album to escape any further memories of her unpleasant aunt, and rested her eyes upon a picture of Christmas Eve when she was eight. There she was curled into a ball in her father’s favorite recliner chair, sound asleep in the colorful glow of Christmas tree lights. Looking at the photograph she instinctively inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with the memory of the smell of that chair. It had always smelled faintly of his cologne, a hint of cigar, and sometimes of the soft suede leather of his evening slippers. The deep blue fabric with its skinny vertical lines of tan, had been her favorite chair as well.

The photograph told of the evening when Elizabeth had discovered that Santa Clause was only a fairy tale. She had fallen asleep in her father’s chair listening to Christmas music and watching her parents play scrabble and drink wine. The familiar songs and soft laughter of her parents had quickly lulled Elly to sleep, exhausted with anticipation in the late hour of the holiday. The photograph showed Elly asleep in the chair and her father sneaking down the stairs from the bedroom above with an armload of wrapped gifts and a goofy grin lighting up his tired face. The flash of the camera had woke Elly but she kept her eyes closed and instead listened to her parents clamor about, readying the holiday tree for the big presentation in the early morning hours. Her father dropped a box and her mother rushed to the fallen gift in hopes that it wasn’t the musical snow globe that Elly would later open. It was not. Instead it was the box containing her first set of earrings. Two days later she and her mother would take a trip to the jewelry store where Elly would clench her mother’s hand as the clerk pierced Eli’s ears into young womanhood.

Elly had listened to her parents for what seemed like an eternity, opening her eyes only a sliver to witness her mother arranging the gifts and her father wrapping his arms around her gently whispering the lyrics to the song, “I saw mommy kissing Santa Clause”, at which point he took the Santa Clause hat from atop the stuffed Christmas bear beneath the tree and placed it on his own head, making Eli’s mother giggle as she teasingly poked him in the belly.

Elly realized that evening that Santa Clause did not exist. And with that realization, she loved her parents more fiercely than ever before.

Elizabeth scanned the rest of the page in the album, glancing past photographs taken on that same Christmas holiday, her heart filling love and aching with emptiness simultaneously. She turned the page.

There, greeting her with a wide smile and huge sparkling eyes was Molly. Molly was a black Labrador Retriever. She was Elizabeth’s first dog and she had adopted her as a puppy from a shelter days after she graduated from college. One afternoon when Molly was a year old Elizabeth had let her outside for some fresh air while she did a full day of spring-cleaning. The sun had been high in a cloudless sky and the warm breeze was billowing everything that wasn’t nailed down. Elizabeth propped all of the doors open as well as the windows and allowed Molly to run around inside or out as she pleased. In her cleaning that day Elizabeth came across her camera, she saw that there was one picture left before the roll of film was completely used, and headed outside in search for Molly.

Molly was sitting beneath the oak tree in the back yard, panting wildly and warming her fur in the brilliant sun. Her coat was shiny and glistened in the light, her eyes squinted and her nose turned up towards the sky as if trying to get as close as she could to the breeze, the blue, the rays of light. Molly’s mouth was opened into a smile and her long pink tongue hung carelessly over her lower lip, the rhythm of her breathing bouncing it like a spring. Elizabeth quietly walked closer trying not to disturb the dog, wanting to get the photo of Molly exactly as she was. Elizabeth raised the camera to her eye adjusting the focus and satisfied with the frame pressed her finger into the button to snap the picture. And as if on command right before the photo snapped, Molly turned her head and looked directly into the camera, still smiling.

And there she was, on Elizabeth’s lap, small and flat in the photograph. Elizabeth closed her eyes and tried her best to repress the tears that were threatening to break. She pressed herself even further down into the couch making herself completely horizontal, and cried herself to sleep.

Elizabeth dreamt of Molly. She dreamt of the night that Molly had wandered too far from home, had chased a rabbit into a farmer's yard and had been shot. The shot wasn’t fatal, in fact it only went through one of Molly’s front paws, but it was enough to break the spirit of the young dog, from which she would never recover.

The farmer had used a shotgun and the bullet from the gun destroyed Molly’s toes, leaving her crippled with a deformed foot. The wound could have been worse. It could have taken off the entire foot the vet said, and maybe even some of the leg. But the farmer had only meant to scare Molly, and so he aimed his shot to the ground directly in front of the dog. But it was too close, and hit Molly just the same.

After Molly recovered from her injury and her paw had healed to the point where she could once again use it to walk, she walked right out into the street and was hit by a car in the night. Elizabeth didn’t know how she had gotten outside and was heart broken at the dog’s death, a death that still hung heavy on her conscious. Elizabeth’s sleep was a restless one, dreaming in fragmented dreams, images of her past like the photographs in the album that now lay on the floor. The wind still howled and rushed against the windows with a jarring force, and the rain continued to canvas the world outside.

When Elizabeth woke it was still dark but she could feel the dawn wanting to push its way through. Still tired she lifted herself from the couch and swung her feet to the floor where they softly landed on the plastic pages of the photo album. She looked down to her feet and saw the memories that she still carried in her thoughts, displayed in images that were familiar but long since removed from the reality of her life.

Elizabeth got off the couch and padded into the kitchen where she started to brew the first pot of coffee of the morning. Passing back through the living room she put a couple of small logs into the cold cement fireplace, stuffed some kindle around the logs and lit a fire. She made her way up the stairs to her bedroom on the second level, her husband was still fast asleep, wrapped in heavy blankets and breathing in a steady slow rhythm. Elizabeth kissed him softly, stroking his relaxed brow, and quietly shut the bedroom door as she headed back down the stairs.

The fire was glowing a soft orange and casting harsh shadows across the room making the furniture appear looming and clumsy. Slowly she sat down on the floor in front of the fireplace reaching her hands close to the small flames to feel their tight warmth. Elizabeth’s heart was heavy with longing. She longed to experience once again her life as she had lived it before, neither better nor worse of a life that she was leading now, just a life that had passed. She realized that it was increasingly difficult to carry such a longing and that it weighed her down to a point where it crippled her journey into the future.

Elizabeth’s hand reached behind her and seized the photo album dragging it across the floor and sliding it into her lap. This had not been the first night that she had fallen asleep on the couch with these photographs, waking with a heavy heart, and she knew that it would not be the last. Slowly and with great effort Elizabeth tore the pages from the album one by one and placed them into the flames that burned the logs without remorse. The plastic quickly curled and the photos burned away at great speed.

A hand gently rested on Elizabeth’s shoulder and she glanced up with a tear-streaked face to see her husband standing beside her. He looked down at her with a consoling smile and offered her a hand as she rose to stand next to him. They embraced in a desperate hug for a long while and Elizabeth briefly nodded off into slumber.

When she opened her eyes the dawn and its pink light had begun creeping through the windows and spread slowly across the living room floor. Elizabeth pulled away from her husband and gave him a reassuring smile. He looked deep into her eyes returning her smile and gently whispered, “Come to bed, Elly”, and she did.

Posted 9.17.2003

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