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Fire / The Haunting / My Debt Collector by Brenda Peynado


The interior worlds of girls and women are fertile ground for fiction—ground often riddled with archetype. Here are three fresh, powerful, intimate flash stories that surprise and deliver, that defy trope. It can be difficult to craft a character arc in 5,000 words, or even in a novel. With enviable control, Brenda Peynado offers us five complete characters: first a retrospective narrator recounting a turning point in her girlhood with “Fire,” then a compelling first-person plural POV in “The Haunting,” with three girls on the cusp of adolescence who say, “we listened and looked so closely, we could hear ourselves changing,” as if imploring us, or daring us, to do the same; finally, in “My Debt Collector,” we’re treated to compelling dialogue and an unsettling plot

So much is happening in these flash pieces, each less than 500 words. Setting, character, dialogue, interiority, time—an array of masterfully rendered craft elements enrich these pieces. And Peynado’s haunting closing lines will have you re-reading these stories with fresh eyes each time you return to the top to start again.     —CRAFT


 

Fire

 

When I was eight years old, I watched a fire leap over the forest in glowing arcs and the men in my family battle it away. The fire had taken out farms on the panhandle for a hundred miles each way, from Tallahassee to Pensacola. I had just been put down for bedtime after the family’s Sunday dinner when my uncle shook me out of bed and told me, Go fetch the buckets, girl.

I ran up to where I could see a glow like orange dawn over the hilltop. The heat almost burned my face off. The fire whizzed from tree to tree in arcs like deadly rainbows. The men passed buckets up the tree line. They were soaking the trees on the border of the farm in violent crashes of foaming water against bark. Trees exploded from boiling sap with deep popping sounds like drums pulling themselves open. I saw one come apart right in front of me, the sap glimmering as it burst, like amber that couldn’t take its own history. I, useless with my fistfuls of empty buckets, froze at the top of the hill. I felt like something inside of me was ready to explode. I wanted to stand there until those arcs burned me with the trees. I stared, with the heat on my face, until my father finally screamed at me from the bucket line to move. But we were dwarfed against those loud, raging arches, and eventually the water planes got there with their rain.

While we cleared all the underbrush away, my cousin whispered, I saw you, up there not doing anything. I wacked him with my bucket and then he grabbed my hair and held me down in the hot mud. You’re just a girl, he said.

I’m not a girl, I yelled, full of rage and flailing. I pushed him off and ran.

He caught up with me and grabbed my shirt by the fistful and the buttons tore, and he said, Look, you are a girl, as if that settled everything and we could never again be friends.

When I walked back home through the crackling woods, I left my shirt open to show what he’d done, to show the sap burning inside, to show how ready I was to burst, to turn others to ash, the word girl meaning fire.

 


 

The Haunting

 

We held hands in the graveyard and called the ghosts to us. The eve of my thirteenth birthday party we’d snuck into the cemetery across the street in our pajamas.

Is there anyone here? Carmen said. Besides us?

The air shouted with cicadas. The moon puffed full over us, and the beams from our flashlights fell in giant sheets and slivers between the shadows. Before running to the cemetery, we’d watched horror movies until my parents went to bed, movies that showed people can turn into monsters, that showed you could lose yourself once you crossed a threshold. I was the first of us to turn thirteen, though my breasts were the smallest. I still stared in the mirror at the new growth. Everything was changing for us. What would we become?

If you can hear us, I said, make a sign.

We looked around the graveyard. We closed our eyes to listen for strangers. We listened to our heartbeats, to the wind, to the creaking trees. I could feel the heat of all of us huddled together. I opened my eyes again. A group of girls, a group of girls, was there a whispering under our new voices?

Thalia tossed a rock against gravestone a few feet away, and said, Look, a ghost! 

We saw you, I said. We looked at her through squinting eyes. Was that a shadow just over her shoulder, was there a darkness she was about to turn her head into? But a flashlight bobbed and whatever it’d been, it had left.

An hour in the graveyard, and we heard no signs. Instead, we listened and looked so closely, we could hear ourselves changing. Shadows lengthened underneath our eyes. Our hair raised and frizzed and haloed us. Our bodies creaked with growing pains, filled out, skin stretching as our new hunger yawned inside of us. We reached towards each other and the moon, and our arms were longer. Could we hear what was coming for us? We listened so hard we could hear what we were losing.

If we were haunted, we were haunted only by ourselves, bodies vibrating with want. We want ghosts to appear, we said, but we meant so much more. Our future selves called to us from just over the threshold. They hung over us like dust, waiting for us to inhabit them, the light pale as bones. We mean you no harm, we imagined them whispering, but how could we believe them?

 


 

My Debt Collector

 

The debt collector called me for the tenth time that day. I knew him well; I had that many debts. I was planting azaleas under the sills of the house. Every time the phone rang, a jolt crawled up my stomach. Finally, I picked up the phone.

“Hello, Jerry, it’s me,” I said.

“Maria,” he said. “I see that you’ve charged yet another bill. I thought you said you didn’t have any more money. I told you to stop taking out credit.”

“I couldn’t help myself.”

I heard the click that meant the automatic voice recorder was having a “technical malfunction” again.

“You’re breathing hard,” he said. “Breaking your back? I bet you’re gardening.”

“I bought a collection of ties,” I said, guilty.

“Maria.” His voice caught in his throat, and I knew he wondered whom I’d bought them for. “Why?”

“They reminded me of you,” I said.

One was silk, green like emeralds and money, the kind I imagined his wife tied around his neck every day because she didn’t understand him. Another was red as roses. A superhero flew across another, chest large and bursting. Sometimes, Jerry had told me, when people yelled at him he remembered his parents fighting. He remembered the night his mother made him hold up all the pots in the house until his arms burned, his body trembled, his back ached. Every time he dropped a pot, his father came out and beat him, and he understood he was taking his mother’s place.

As soon as I’d bought the ties I knew I couldn’t send them. I wore them all at once like necklaces and jumped on my bed so they fanned out and bloomed like wildflower petals. I imagined those silk and cotton fingers around my neck were his. Then, I brought them to Goodwill.

He groaned. “You can’t.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, “You’ll handle that debt, too.”

“You know I’ll have to punish you for this,” he said breathlessly.

“Oh no,” I said. “Please don’t.”

“It will affect your credit score.”

“I’ll write a letter to your wife,” I said.

“One day,” he said, “when all your debt is collected, I’ll be at your front door with a bouquet of orchids.”

“One day,” I said. I could feel my eyes burning with weight.

He whispered into the phone, “I’ll have to call you ten more times today, until you pay.”

“I hope I never pay,” I said.

Voices crackled on his end. His manager was investigating the recorder malfunction. Jerry hung up.

Every time the phone rang, I knew. I had a debt I couldn’t repay. The world glowed with sunlight on a house the bank owned, feelings that couldn’t possibly be mine, my hands wet with tears I could sell in a little jar as a quack cure for stains. I kneeled in the garden. If only we could carry our debts like the world on our backs, if only we could drop them with soft thuds into the earth.

 


BRENDA PEYNADO’s stories have won an O. Henry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, a Dana Award, a Fulbright Grant to the Dominican Republic, and other prizes. Her work appears in The Georgia ReviewThe SunThe Southern ReviewThe Kenyon Review OnlineThe Threepenny Review, and other journals. She received her MFA at Florida State University and her PhD at the University of Cincinnati. She’s currently writing a novel about the 1965 civil war in the Dominican Republic and a girl who can tell all possible futures, and she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.

Author’s Note

I’m used to writing longer fiction and longer plots, so it took me a long time to understand how to write flash fiction. I kept trying to pack an entire short story’s worth of plot into flash fiction. It wasn’t until I started thinking about moments on the brink that I had a breakthrough. In each of these stories, I started with an image and a moment of deep desire for change, even when the character themselves doesn’t quite understand what they’re asking. They’re caught, like flies in amber, in a moment of transformation.

The world, of course, is the amber trying to trap them.

For “My Debt Collector,” I started with a memory I had of a debt collection call mixed with a customer service phone call I had where the representative was very chatty and we asked each other where we lived and how it was there. Once, too, I worked a receptionist job where I had to call people about their unpaid bills. What would happen if all of our debts were so weighty that our debt collectors knew our names, and we knew theirs, knew their burdens as well as our own? What would that change? Or would we be caught in this moment perpetually on the brink of releasing those burdens, never allowed to by our situations? That was the moment I trapped in amber, the moment that the characters came the closest to releasing everything, how desperately they want to, and yet still can’t.

For “Fire,” that moment of tension is between this girl and the larger world. She’s about to explode with power, she thinks, and yet the reader knows what the narrator is up against, the rest of her life like a wildfire she would burn in. Here, too, she’s only at the start of a larger battle, but the moment I wanted to trap was when she’d won something small, a swell of pride and image, on the brink of the rest of her life and the battles that implies.

For “The Haunting,” I started with a moment of being in Sewanee, Tennessee at the graveyard at night, everyone around me wanting to be haunted, waiting for something exciting to happen. I kept listening for anything spooky, but there was nothing but us giggling with flashlights. This was one of those moments on the brink, when our yearning for something about to happen, for what wouldn’t happen, was more important than watching whatever comes next. It seemed to me like a haunting from the future rather than a haunting from the past. I wanted to wallow in the yearning itself. Afterwards, the situation for the flash came to me, that this was girlhood, the girls’ older selves warning them, drawing them forward, our futures just as spooky as the house from The Haunting of Hill House that draws in its guests.

Another way to think about that moment on the brink is as a haunting. The moment when the future selves of the characters, like ghosts, tempt them to come forward, are visible at the corners of the reader’s eye. At any moment they could succumb. What pushes them forward? What, like a hand punched out of the dirt of a grave, holding on to an ankle, keeps them back?


BRENDA PEYNADO’s stories have won an O. Henry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, a Dana Award, a Fulbright Grant to the Dominican Republic, and other prizes. Her work appears in The Georgia ReviewThe SunThe Southern ReviewThe Kenyon Review OnlineThe Threepenny Review, and other journals. She received her MFA at Florida State University and her PhD at the University of Cincinnati. She’s currently writing a novel about the 1965 civil war in the Dominican Republic and a girl who can tell all possible futures, and she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.