Flash Fiction: Otis by Jennifer Marie Donahue


I discovered his lifeless body on the dusty bookshelf beside his bowl. I scooped him up and put him in the water where he sank to the bottom. The temperature, both water and air, had risen to an unbearable degree.  It was the hottest summer anyone could remember.  I stood, paralyzed by questions: How? Did he – jump? My mother was no use. She erupted into that crazy laughter that edged under my teeth. “Your goddamn fish killed itself!” She moved for the net, but I got there first. Her eyes narrowed. “What are you going to do with him?”  I asked.  She still had spurts of laughter erupting from her. “Fl-flu-flush him,” she hiccuped.  I scooped up the tiny scaled body and ran out of the apartment as fast as my legs would carry me, trailing hot water along the way.   I could still hear her awful laughter following me down the hall when I reached Mrs. D’Amico’s door.  After getting the entire story, Mrs. D’Amico hugged me. She found the perfect red box. It had once housed a pearl bracelet her late husband had given her for Christmas. Whenever she referenced Mr. D’Amico, she always crossed herself and said, “God rest his soul.”  I liked that. I planned to do that whenever I spoke of Otis.  We took the elevator, his namesake, downstairs.  As we descended, I traced with my fingertips along the brass letters OTIS. Outside the unrelenting heat had baked the earth so hard that chasms of dirt had split open in the grass. It looked like how I imagined Arizona except this place crawled with ants. I took the spade but the dirt would not yield. Mrs. D’Amico poured a glass of water on the soil and it loosened things enough to dig.


As her usual pattern, my mother insulted my father while she stood at the sink and washed our dinner dishes. She ran through the list of his failures: his weight, his height, his job, his laziness, his sloppiness. What was left that he could claim as good? Her voice pitched up and down, her insults became a refrain of a terrible song beating itself against the thick air. Her back was to me, I sat on the small chair by the bookcase where I’d found Otis, but I knew her face was red with the effort of expelling so much nastiness. My father said nothing. He bore the insults casually as one would rain falling from the sky. Finally, he stood up from the table and turned to leave. This was what he always did when my mother went “crazy.” His hand was on the doorknob when she called out to him, “That’s right Joe, just leave. We don’t want you here anyway.”  It felt as if someone had dropped a rock in a room filled with water, an explosion rippled out like waves. My father spun on his heels and his soft brown eyes were no longer ones that I recognized, they’d darkened, turned sharp and wild. He stared at me for a quick moment. He charged across the room. I curled into a ball. My father grabbed by mother by the upper arm and shook her. Still she wouldn’t stop yelling, “We hate you! We don’t need you!” I didn’t see him pull back, I didn’t see his palm strike her face, but I heard it. I felt the impact travel through the floor, climb the walls, and ripple up the ceiling. My mother fell, suspended for a moment in the air, before she crashed into the wall. This was the first time.


September brought a new school year. It carried the feeling of starting over, a sense of possibility in rows of freshly sharpened pencils and blank notebooks. Save for the fact that nothing could alter the pattern in our little apartment now. A war. A daily battle. No victors, only casualties. When the opening shots sounded, I ran. Now, instead of my father fleeing, it was me. The elevator door slid closed. I reached out and ran my fingertips over the brass letters – OTIS, just as the car lurched to a stop. The control panel went dark, the lights went out only to be replaced with the soft glow of emergency illumination. I pressed buttons. Nothing. The red phone. “Don’t touch that!” I could hear my mother screech at me. But now I lifted the receiver and there was nothing there at all. The illusion of help.  I lay down on the tiled floor, cool to the touch on my arms and legs. I stretched my body out like a starfish. I imagined Otis in his little red box, beneath the still cracked ground. I don’t know how long I lay there in the semi-darkness. It felt like forever but also like a minute.  The car jilted to start. The doors slid open to reveal two firefighters, startled to find me there on the floor. The building manager. Mrs. D’Amico. My parents. Everyone misunderstood.  Being stuck wasn’t the trauma, it was being rescued.

Jennifer Marie Donahue’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Grist Journal, The Rumpus, So to Speak!, Pangyrus, Nailed Magazine, Neon, Necessary Fiction, and other fine places. She lives in Massachusetts.

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