Exploring the art of prose


“Vacations” by Megan Giddings

Great flash fiction, for me, has the same appeal as a great poem. There’s a need, as a reader, to come in close, to consider what’s being said and not said, to think about the meaning beneath the surface. And, as with poetry, short fiction can easily be read again and again, allowing the meaning and the craft to bubble up and resonate. Titles, too, are important, often shedding important light on a certain aspect of the story.

When I first read Megan Giddings’s story “Vacations,” I found that I forgot the title as I read, and when I finished the piece, I puzzled over it, especially the use of the plural. It was only on repeated readings—when I used the title as a lens through which to read the story—that I got closer to understanding how the title and the story work together. Consider the lesser-known definitions of “vacation”: a respite or a time of respite from something; an act or an instance of vacating. And enjoy a beautiful piece of fiction.

Tana is dating a person who calls herself The Red Spirit of Joy. She is fussy about details: her clothes are red, never crimson, not scarlet. Don’t get fancy with the descriptors, Tana, she says while putting on lipstick.

My name is and has always been and will always be The Red Spirit of Joy, the article is fucking important, OK, Tana? If you are a woman and you aren’t a little pretentious about yourself, she says, then no one, not even a dog, will take you seriously.

Tana wants to know how dogs perceive human pretensions. Is there a scent to self-importance? If you do not emphasize your own respectability, will the dog refuse to beg for your food? She turns to ask all these things, but The Red Spirit of Joy has already thrown on her overcoat. She shuts the door, walks out into the cold, and does not say goodbye.

In the weeks after, Tana’s texts are ignored. The Red Spirit of Joy—it’s too early for labels, Tana—is tracked through news articles, social media posts. A woman dressed in head-to-toe scarlet was seen leaving encouraging notes and flowers beneath all the car windshields at the mall. “Your car looks especially shiny. Good waxing!”

At first, Tana stays at home. She eats strawberry ice cream, raw steak, tomatoes, red lettuce, peppermints, curries, and drips some food coloring into all her milk until it shines. None of this makes her feel any less lonely. She remembers how The Red Spirit of Joy once berated her for serving broccoli. The rudeness of verdant green.

A person, best described as a disheveled Santa Claus, was seen driving around and throwing candy at local children.

What is the point of dating a self-proclaimed spirit of joy if she also tracks misery into your life? Love isn’t supposed to be like a fire, able to be smothered or sprayed out. It’s supposed to be like water: it’s not just on the surface like a lake, it’s in you, it’s on you, it becomes the wet falling from the sky that you can’t resist sticking your tongue out and tasting.

After two and a half weeks of waiting, Tana begins to linger outside of addiction clinics. She goes to big box stores on Saturday mornings and hovers around the toy aisles, watching as kids weep and throw themselves at one-hundred-dollar stuffed unicorns. Their parents are saying, “I told you twenty dollars or less.” She haunts dentist waiting rooms and listens to the drilling, smells the latex. Finds herself wearing only tan and khaki. Makes small talk at the post office while holding packages of her own stuff addressed to herself.  Goes to sentencing hearings and stares at everyone’s shiny shoes. Emergency rooms, bars right before last call, neighborhoods rich people are too scared to drive through. It’s her vacation of misery. Tana revels in all the contemporary elements people have created to make others feel smaller: the pinch of fluorescent lights, dirty linoleum floors, the venom of watching a couple laughing and walking with their arms around each other, the drone of confusing paperwork with small fonts, an abrupt discontinuation of a beloved cheese.

Months pass. One Saturday, Tana wakes up and The Red Spirit of Joy is next to her in the bed. Tana takes her hand. Looks at her new wig: red and wavy. The fresh paint on her nails. The Red Spirit of Joy is wearing a long dress with billowing sleeves. She looks as if she’s about to swoon in a much larger lover’s arms.

“Aren’t you happy to see me?”

Tana expected The Red Spirit of Joy would apologize when they saw each other again. That she would reach out and her kisses, her hands, would say, I forgive you. They would fall into bed, and when they were done bursting over and over with pleasure, they would hold hands and go to lunch. She assumed seeing her again would teach her something even more important. That she truly loved The Red Spirit of Joy. A lesson about distance and geometry of desire. And once it was learned, Tana would feel the sunrise of yes, you are the one for me.

She thinks about their first date. They saw a movie. About ten minutes in, Tana realized The Red Spirit of Joy wasn’t watching the movie, she was watching her. Tana turned, looked at the spirit’s dark eyes, how the whites of them were tinted blue from the movie in front of them. An actor yelled the whale is coming, but Tana didn’t turn. They stared at each other. The Red Spirit of Joy’s breath smelled like cinnamon. Her perfume and shampoo were rose-scented. Her nostrils were small, making her nose’s bridge appear bigger than it was. Tana felt her heart opening with every second they looked only at each other, felt the anticipation of wanting to press her lips against The Red Spirit of Joy’s cheeks, her nose, her lips, her neck. A whale decimated a ship as they stared.


She thinks about the morning after. The way The Red Spirit of Joy kissed her one last time in the yard. Couldn’t resist. Rushed back for another. How Tana walked around town and the sunlight was never sweeter. Tana thought she could’ve looked directly into the sun and not been hurt at all, that’s how coated in happiness she was.

The Red Spirit of Joy tries to win Tana back. She fills Tana’s house with roses, makes her homemade cherry ice cream, scratches her back at every opportunity. Tana doesn’t talk much. She thinks often about walking out into January air with wet hair. How the hair freezes, then is damaged. You’re supposed to cut that hair out, so it can grow back in healthier. Tana thinks about the happiness of looking in a mirror and expecting your hair to still be short after the cut, but you’re surprised at how long, how healthy it’s grown.

MEGAN GIDDINGS is a fiction editor at The Offing and a contributing editor at Boulevard. You can find some of her writing at Arts & Letters, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, and Territory. More about her can be found at www.megangiddings.com.

Author’s Note

Moments Upon Moments

I think one of the hardest things for fiction writers to negotiate in fiction is the passage of time. I heard a lot of overcompensating when I was a student: a novel should cover at least a year in a character’s life; a short story should at most be a month in someone’s life; insert your favorite sitting-around-the-workshop-table-trying-to-sound-knowledgeable pronouncement here.

What I love about flash is that to be successful, you have to become fluent in all the different ways to signify narrative time. You don’t always have the time to describe the change in morning light, or pages being X’d off a calendar; sometimes, bluntness is best: “two and a half weeks have passed.” Sometimes, it’s better to have time’s movements rooted in specific character actions and reactions. For example, in “Vacations”: “A person, best described as a disheveled Santa Claus, was seen driving around and throwing candy at local children.”

That sentence, which might at first feel its purpose is to only be a joke, shows the reader what Tana’s love interest is doing, as well as puts the reader in a double-moment. They feel like they’re scrolling through social media with Tana and pausing on this, but they’re also aware that narrative time has passed enough that The Red Spirit of Joy was able to do those actions, and someone else was able to write and post about it. Moments upon moments.

The rest of the story is a mix of expansions and contractions. Months pass, marked both by specific details (in line at the post office, lingering outside addiction clinics) as well as blunt time markers (months pass). Then the story lingers in a specific memory: Tana and The Red Spirit of Joy’s first date. It’s meant to root the reader in their relationship: is it romantic? Are they involved with each other because there’s affection there, or because both want to be in love? Or because they enjoy the grand gestures that can accompany romance’s early stages? Even though it’s a moment in the past, the story’s hinge is seeing them together, before things fell apart.

One of the most interesting things to me about narrative time is how it tends not to work in the ways people delineate time; very few stories account for the seconds and minutes of a day. But it does mimic the way the brain tends to process things. Small, inconsequential moments move quickly, often in phrases if they need to be noted in the story, sometimes not even worth making it onto the page. But the moments where a character and the reader pause and consider are heavier. They expand and take up more of the story’s space. Lingering in short stories, but especially flash, is usually successful when it doesn’t feel like a moment of authorial indulgence, but when it heightens either plot or character. Time handled well keeps a reader engaged.

MEGAN GIDDINGS is a fiction editor at The Offing and a contributing editor at Boulevard. You can find some of her writing at Arts & Letters, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, and Territory. More about her can be found at www.megangiddings.com.