From a Distance, It Always Sounds Like Begging

Flash-fiction by Leah Browning


In her bedroom, Janine is on the phone.  She’s being so loud that I’m afraid she’s going to wake the baby again.

Down the hall, my little sisters are asleep.  The younger one still sucks her thumb, and at night, when she has a bad dream, she cries and crawls into bed with me.

Earlier, Janine was on the phone with the landlord, pacing back and forth across the living room as she tried to sweet-talk him into another week, another two weeks, because she can’t pay the rent on time, but she’s got half of it, she’s got almost half of it and she just needs a little more time.

She was already in her nightgown—a short one, white eyelet with a pale pink ribbon laced through the bodice—and she paused in front of the mirror, closing her eyes as she said wearily, “I know, I’m sorry.  I’ll bring you a check as soon as I can.”

Now, in the bedroom, her voice rises as she says, “But what’ll we do for groceries?  Please, I need it.”

On the nights she’s been drinking, she’s more likely to cry when she talks to him, but tonight she’s not slurring her words or bumping into the dresser across from her bed.

I have a chemistry test in the morning, and I try to visualize the periodic table.  I can’t get Jan to call me in again; I’ve missed too much school as it is.

When the lady from the attendance office called the apartment, she didn’t ask to speak to Janine, just launched right in, saying, “Miss Smith, your daughter,” blah blah blah.

When she got done, I said, “It’s Mrs. Lenox now,” like a queen, because this was when things were still good and I was starting to think that it might work out.

There was a long pause.  “Congratulations,” the lady said, finally.  “You should come in and update Josie’s file,” but we both knew she’d never make it into the office, and then it didn’t really matter anymore anyway.

“I don’t know what you expect me to do,” Jan says now.  I’m so tired that the numbers on my clock radio are shimmering in the dark.  “No, don’t hang up!” she says.  “We need to figure something out!”

He must have hung up because I can hear the frantic sound of the numbers as she tries to call him back.  “Dammit,” she says.  “Dammit.”

In the morning, I know, her eyes will be swollen as she stands at the counter, shoving bologna sandwiches into waxed paper bags for the little girls’ lunches.

I can hear the baby start up.

The door of her bedroom swings open.  If she’s not careful, she’s going to wake the little girls.  Her bare feet make the faintest sound as she walks across the floor, hesitating only briefly before she turns the knob.  She kneels next to my bed.

“Josie, please,” she says, and I get up and go into her bedroom.  The baby is lying in the crib, flailing his arms.

I pick him up and hold him against my shoulder, letting him sob for a moment into my neck.  He grasps the soft fabric of my shirt and twists it in his hands.

“It’ll be all right,” I say.  I hold him close and pat his back, and take him to the kitchen to warm a bottle.

Leah Browning is the author of three short nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens and four chapbooks.  Her fiction and poetry have recently appeared in Coldnoon, Santa Ana River Review, First Class Literary Magazine,Waypoints, Chagrin River Review, Fiction SoutheastNewfound, Bellows American Review, Nebo, Clementine Unbound, The Homestead Review, and several anthologies including Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence from White Pine Press.  In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review.

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