Good morning! Today is the second Monday of January, which means today is the deadline for the Flash Fiction Draw challenge that Jeffrey Ricker drew a week ago. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can catch up here, but the short version is he used a deck of cards to randomly select three variables (in this case, a fairy tale, a studio apartment in a big city, and a potted plant) and anyone who wants to take part has a week to come up with a thousand-word flash fiction piece. This one is mine, and after a year of doing nearly no flash thanks to my wobbly arm, I have to say it was both nice to get back into it and perfectly clear how rusty my brevity skills had gotten. Either way, here’s my (exactly) thousand word piece:
A Fairy Tale for the Little Acorn.
“Once upon a time, there was a scared nymph and a handsome prince—”
“What? It’s right there in your name. And hush. She asked me to tell the story.”
Dillon Prince had just watered the front row plants in the garden centre when a downward motion caught the corner of his eye. Any movement at all was rare enough during lockdown, but this?
A broad, bare-chested man sat on the grass, his back to the garden centre sign, leaning markedly to his left, like he could barely hold himself up.
Something clearly wrong.
Dillon bit his lip under his mask, his nature wasn’t to hesitate in the face of ill fortune. Out the door he went, lenses of his glasses fogging up thanks to his mask and the cooler air outside.
Not warm enough to go without a shirt, he thought. The man wore soft green pants—sweatpants, maybe?—but was barefoot, too.
“Are you okay?” Dillon said, crouching down.
The man raised his head with visible effort. Deep brown eyes met Dillon’s, pleading. The man reached out his right hand, fingers tight around something. Dillon held out his own in reflex and the man dropped a handful of something onto Dillon’s open palm.
Keys. Not the metal sort, but rather seeds. Dillon eyed them. Ash tree seeds, if he wasn’t mistaken. Okay. Why not?
“Let’s get you inside.”
The man had no wallet—his odd sweatpants had no pockets—and couldn’t or wouldn’t speak, but when Dillon suggested an ambulance, the man shook his head.
He understood English.
He didn’t look ill: no sweating, no fever, his breathing clear. He just seemed weak. Wiped out.
It took effort to get the man into the garden centre, and even more to get him up the stairs to Dillon’s studio apartment. He lowered the man as gently as he could onto the sofa.
The man took Dillon’s hand at the wrist, and squeezed.
It was only then Dillon realized he was still holding the seeds.
“Okay,” he said.
It wasn’t like he had anything better to do.
Given the ash bore beetles spreading through the city, Dillon had an odd sense of fighting a battle while he prepped pots, wet the seeds, and otherwise prepared them. As though daring to champion a cause unlikely to see success, he moved the pots to the balcony with determination. With so much of the world out of control right now—the streets of the city oddly empty and quiet around him under quarantine and lockdown, trying to satisfy the increasingly irritated customers of the garden centre via “limited curbside service”—every step taken for the ash seeds was choice, rather than concession.
Ash—that’s what he called the man who’d almost passed out on his doorstep nearly a month earlier—seemed stronger these days. Still nonverbal, Ash moved around the apartment of his own volition, ate and drank with Dillon, and wore the clothes Dillon had ordered online for him.
Dillon checked missing persons reports, daily. If a small voice tried to tell him it was folly to have let the stranger stay, he didn’t listen. Truth be told, it wasn’t hard to ignore given the current world around him.
He was alone, beyond brief, socially distanced customer interactions after phone or online orders, and Ash’s silent companionship was a balm.
And, okay, Ash’s brown eyes had a way of gazing at Dillon that made him feel important.
After work most days, he’d find Ash sitting outside with the potted ashes, regardless of the weather. Often shirtless. Which was…nice.
Dillon explained how large the seedlings poking free of the soil would have to be before they’d need transferring somewhere else. He had a spot behind the centre in mind. Ash listened, clearly understanding.
They read. Worked on puzzles Dillon ordered. Ate. And despite the studio apartment’s size, it never felt like Ash was taking up space.
At least, not until it was time to turn in for the night. Ash would take his hand, and draw him in for a long, warm hug…and lie down on the sofa.
Then, Dillon was acutely aware of how much space they shared.
He was running low on reasons not to ask him to join him in the bed instead.
“Thank you.” Ash’s words were rough, and awkward.
Dillon nearly dropped his coffee—and swore colourfully—but managed to recover the tiniest shred of dignity. “Ash?” He stared at the man, who smiled back at him in that sly, shy little way he had. “Did you just..? You can talk! Thanks? For what?”
Ash tilted his head, eyebrows dipping in amusement, like of course Dillon should know exactly what he was talking about. “Thank you,” he said again, the words still stilted, but clear enough. “For…” He tapped his own chest. “Better.”
When Dillon didn’t respond—he had no idea what to say—Ash took his hand and pressed it flat against his chest. Even through the shirt Ash was wearing, Dillon could feel the thumping of the man’s heart.
“You’re welcome,” Dillon said, in zero hurry to move his hand.
Ash smiled, shaking his head. Apparently, Dillon’s cluelessness was obvious. Ash tugged him lightly, and Dillon let Ash lead him out onto the balcony. He wasn’t surprised when Ash took him to the potted ashes, but when Ash took Dillon’s other hand and pressed it into the soil of one of the large pots?
He definitely wasn’t expecting to feel the heartbeat in the pot, echoing the one inside the man.
“Is that when you planted the acorn?”
“No, sweetie. You came later. After my trees were outside.”
“Tell me the acorn story!”
“It’s late, sweetie. Tomorrow night.”
“You heard Ash. Tomorrow.”
“Good night, little dryad.”
“No! You’re not done yet.”
“You forgot the good part.”
“Oh. Of course. You want to say it with us?”
“Okay. On three?”
“And they lived happily ever after!”