One of the main reasons that I love flash fiction contests is the puzzle aspect. Not just “How do I tell a great story in one thousand words?” but also the assembly of the pieces which contest-holders offer as story prompts. For Julie Summerell’s challenge she upped the word count to 1,500 and offered a strange bag: Two Elderly Women (one brain addled), a cemetery, nightfall, midwinter, a young father with two young girls. I found my hook with a little suspect internet research. If you’re interested in that research, just click the hyperlinks as you see them. Enjoy!
Just One Cut
by Keith Karabin
I hate Groundhog Day. Every year it’s the same trip to the same cold creepy cemetery, to stand outside the same tomb and “Pay Respects to Grandmother.” Dad says this year’ll be different. I don’t believe him. People think nine-year-old girls are dumb little kids. My sister Una laughed and rolled the volume on her MP3 player from nothing to blasting, and back. Maybe people have a point. But not with me. Everyone says I’m smart for my age.
I felt the bump as old Aunt Bridget drove onto the cemetery road. Great, now we would go from slow to snail speed. I don’t know why they let her drive. She’s weird and she smells like soup. She could have one of her crying or babbling “senior moments” at any minute. I like her better than really old Great Aunt Malvina. She didn’t smell but I could tell that she was mean, even though she pretended to be nice. Dad was squeezed between them up front. He looked back and smiled at me. He was okay, I guess.
The cemetery was getting dark. The sunset was pretty, except for where it turned the icy and snowy patches on the grass purple-red, like glowing blood. There weren’t any standing grave stones, only ones that lay flat. Big old trees stood around like teachers on the playground. They watched. I wanted to go home.
The car tilted hard. The tires squealed in the snow. We went from snail speed to stopped.
“Oh, no.” Aunt Bridget said.
“The car’s stuck!” Aunt Malvina said.
“Let me check. You ladies stay warm.” Dad said.
Dad went outside and did Dad things. He squatted down. He kicked at stuff. He walked around the car. My stomach slipped every time he backed up and was swallowed by the coming night.
“You were right, Aunt Mal,” he said. “Good and stuck. I’ll call Triple A. We might as well walk from here.”
Aunt Bridget still had her wrinkled hands locked on the wheel. Aunt Malvina put her wrinkled hands on top of Aunt Bridget’s. “Let’s go pay our respects to Grandmother Cerridwen.” Aunt Bridget nodded.
Una jumped out of her side, eyes excited. I didn’t like this one bit. It was cold, windy and dark. And a cemetery. Dad noticed. “Come on Crearwy. It’ll be an adventure.” I still didn’t budge.
“Crear,” Dad warned me in his Dad voice. I opened the door and stepped into mud and slush.
Aunt Malvina and Aunt Bridget walked close together at Old Lady speed, which was slower than snail. Una held Dad’s hand. I walked behind with my hands in my coat pockets and tried not to jump every time the wind whined through the trees.
The path toward Grandmother Cerridwen’s tomb twisted over a bridge and under big, dark trees. My stomach was full of butterflies that just felt like bugs and weren’t pretty at all. Dad looked back at me. I didn’t smile.
The tomb, Dad called it a mausoleum, was a deep black spot in the last red line of sunset. The weird cow statue by the door was white against the black. “Come on girls! This year you get to go inside!” Una must have stopped because Dad told her it was okay. I stopped dead. The aunts disappeared within.
Dad smiled. I couldn’t see much else of his face. “There’s a surprise inside, girls. Just wait and see.”
“Really?” Una asked.
“Really,” Dad said. Una held his hand tighter. He held out his other hand to me.
“I don’t want to go inside there,” I said.
“It’s pretty inside.”
“I don’t care.”
“Just pay your respects and then you can come back out.”
I looked at his shadow face. I looked at Una’s scared and excited face. I started walking but I didn’t take his hand.
The air inside was warm and brightened by fat candles. They were laid out in circles that looked like wagon wheels, with lines connecting them. It smelled spicy, smoky and like something I don’t have words for. Flowers covered the floor. In the center of the room was a big stone rectangle. That must be Grandmother Cerridwen. Aunt Bridget stood near a black cauldron, like for Halloween. Wreaths hung on the walls, but not Christmas wreaths.
“What are the decorations for? Is this a party, Daddy?” Una asked.
“Yes, Una. It’s a party.”
“For Groundhog Day?”
“No, before Groundhog’s Day. People call it Imbolc or Candlemass.”
“Because of the candles?”
“Exactly.” He made it sound like “No, silly” but Una didn’t hear it that way.
“Other people are having parties, too?”
“Not like our family. Not the way Grandmother Cerridwen likes it.”
“Oh.” She sounded confused, but that’s Una. She believes everything grownups tell her.
“Ok, girls, let’s put on our party clothes.”
He handed us frilly white dresses with red ribbons. I didn’t like this, but Una laughed.
The dress felt crinkly, like snake skin. I dropped it. “This isn’t fun, Daddy. I want to go outside.” I turned to leave but Aunt Mal stood in front of the big wooden door. “You said I could go back outside.”
Dad looked down on me. His eyes were yellow in the candle light. He had put on a long, hooded white robe and a necklace with a twisty drawing of a teardrop on it. “Pay your respects to Grandmother Cerridwen first.”
“I want to go now.” I watched Aunt Bridget stirring the cauldron with a big spoon. She was crying. I wanted to have a senior moment, too. I couldn’t see Una anymore with Dad in my way.
Dad crouched down and I could see Aunt Malvina’s white robed back. She had moved from the door and was doing something with Una at the rectangle stone. “Crearwy,” Dad said, “You’re a big girl now. It’s time for you to start acting like one.”
Dad was using his soft voice, like when he wanted us to take medicine. “What about Una?” I asked.
“Una is helping already.” Dad moved aside.
There were more candles at the foot of the rectangle now. Una was laying on the stone. Her hands were tied to it. She smiled at me. “Aunt Mal says it’s a magic trick!” I turned back to the door, but Aunt Mal blocked it again. She wasn’t pretending to be nice anymore.
“Don’t you dare start crying,” she said. “Just get it done. You like magic, don’t you?”
“Magic’s not real,” I said. Aunt Mal looked over my head at Dad and rolled her eyes.
Dad took my hand and led me to the stone. Una tapped her foot. Dad looked into my eyes. “This magic is real. Our family is special. Grandmother Cerridwen picked us long before we came to America. She gave us the recipe for a special potion. It takes years to cook, but it’s ready once every generation. We finish it by paying our respects. You pay with just one cut. Una pays with blood. Then Daddy drinks the potion and see the future.” Daddy sounded serious and excited. My throat was too tight to talk.
“How much blood, Daddy?” Una asked. She sounded like she wasn’t sure this was a game anymore.
“All of it, Una.” Dad took a golden sickle from under his robe and put it next to her.
“I don’t want to,” Una said.
“I don’t want to, either,” I said. I turned to the door and my Aunt Mal.
Aunt Bridget was crying harder.
“Don’t you girls want to see the magic trick?” Dad asked. He crouched down and tried to look into my eyes. “Just pay your respects and then we’ll go get ice cream. How about that? Triple Fudge Brownie,” he sang.
Aunt Bridget’s scream and Aunt Mal’s grunt broke the spell of ice cream. Aunt Bridget beat Aunt Mal with the giant wooden spoon. It dripped something that shimmered in the candle light. Aunt Bridget glared at me. “Run Crearwy! Don’t do what we did!”
I pushed past my aunts and dashed into the cold night. My Dad chased. Soon I heard Aunt Mal yelling my name. I hid under a bush and tried to be quiet. I thought of Una. Stupid Una. I had to go back. Dad and Aunt Mal sounded far off. I crept from my hiding spot and ran back to the tomb. The door was open. I stepped inside. Aunt Bridget was a bloody heap on the floor.
“Quiet Una.” I held the golden sickle just long enough to cut Una’s ropes then dropped it like poison. I helped her up and took her hand. She gripped back hard. I tried to run. Una stayed still as stone. Stupid Una. I looked back, mad.
“I wanna see the magic trick,” Una said. Her eyes were excited again. That was when I noticed the golden sickle in her hand. “And get ice cream.”