The Gateway by Kathy Fish
CRAFT is thrilled to publish the newest flash fiction from Kathy Fish,
our fabulous guest judge for the 2023 Flash Prose Prize!
In “The Gateway,” Kathy Fish creates a narrative voice both deceptively pedestrian and eerily unsettling, coupled with a plot that builds in suspense while inviting interpretation that delves beneath the action. The story starts innocently enough, with a married couple taking a road trip to visit their daughter and meet her new husband. But while the story’s voice seems innocuous, the reader catches a hint of foreboding with the “hatchback”—a relatively small and vulnerable vehicle—setting out in “pounding rain.” Already, Fish has established a sense of suspense that heightens in subsequent paragraphs. The near-collision with an oncoming truck underscores the edginess. From there, the narration raises a number of mysteries: a “bright and glittering” hotel that’s “out of place in the otherwise deserted town,” where “unexpected arrivals happened all the time.” Fish leaves these clues and others throughout for the reader to interpret. In the end, she achieves what every writer strives for: a delicate balance between authorial intent and the reader’s agency. —CRAFT
John and Lara’s daughter had up and married a perfect stranger. She’d met the fellow at a gallery opening only two weeks before. The nuptials had taken place in a courthouse. On the phone Liza told them sure, of course, they were welcome to come visit any time. So they loaded up their hatchback and headed west in the pounding rain, intent on surprising the newlyweds.
It was during an argument over the fellow’s name (Weston or Wesson?) that an oncoming truck nearly plowed into their little car. The truck driver swerved away just in time. John had to pull over to collect himself. Their hearts racing in time with the windshield wipers, John exhaled in a disturbingly sexual way, like huh huh huh huh, that made Lara shiver.
Maybe it was a minute or maybe it was an hour, but finally Lara said, “I feel weird and woozy, can we just find a hotel?”
That’s when she spotted the sign for The Gateway off the next exit.
The hotel was bright and glittering, out of place in the otherwise deserted town. John was able to park right out front. He and Lara pulled their hoods up and made a dash for the door, which swooshed open invitingly.
Inside, the desk clerk said that although their arrival was unexpected, unexpected arrivals happened all the time, and they would be accommodated. He tapped on a keyboard, frowning now and then. Lara wandered into the bar where a crowd was gathered. A man in a tuxedo was playing the piano and guests were laughing and clinking champagne glasses.
She wandered back and asked the desk clerk if it was a special occasion.
“It’s always a special occasion,” the clerk said, and handed John a key with the number 302 engraved on it.
When they got off the elevator, a sign with an arrow pointing left said Rooms 304-320 and a sign with an arrow pointing right said Rooms 321-337.
Confused, the couple dragged their suitcases behind them down the hallway, left, then right, then left. The carpet was a deep blue, festooned with white clouds.
“Look, John, we’re walking on air!” Lara said. She thought of Liza’s first steps, how clumsy she was.
They came to a dead end, a stairwell door with a sputtering exit sign over it.
Nothing to do but go back and try the other direction. They passed the elevator, which now had a paper taped to it with the words Out of Order scrawled in red. They continued past, turning right, then left, then right until they reached another stairwell and another exit sign.
Assuming they’d made a mistake, they turned back in the direction they’d tried at first, this time examining the numbers more closely. When again they came to the end of the hallway and the stairwell and the exit sign, they decided just to take the stairs down and ask the front desk clerk for help.
On the stairwell between the second and first floors, a boy and a girl in bathing suits stood holding on to each other like life rafts.
“Are you lost? Can we help you?” John asked, but the children only stared. Lara wondered if they didn’t understand English. They would notify the desk clerk. As they continued down the stairs it seemed to Lara their suitcases had grown heavier, or she’d grown weaker. But no matter. The nice clerk would help them find their room.
He smiled when they reappeared. He pulled out a map, with schematics for each floor, and drew a felt tip pen along the path they must take. Yes, the room was on the third floor, and no, there was nothing wrong with the signs.
“Just go left, then right, then left again. See,” he said, placing a big red X over Room 302. “You can’t miss it. I’m afraid the elevator is out of order though. I’d help you with your bags but it’s just me and I can’t leave my post.”
Lara found herself yearning to join the lively party in the lobby. Maybe they could get a whiskey. Her father had always said a good whiskey warms the blood.
But John grasped Lara’s suitcase and made for the stairwell. They had to stop and rest between floors two and three. The boy and girl had disappeared. Lara scolded herself for forgetting to tell the clerk about them. They had to climb two additional flights to reach the third floor.
Everything was taking more time than it should.
John set down the suitcases. “I just need to catch my breath,” he said.
“It’s funny how silent it is up here,” Lara said. “We should sleep well tonight. I wonder if we could freshen up and head back down. Just for a while. Would you like to?” She remembered her fifth birthday party. How her brothers had ruined it, squashing the cake, teasing her friends.
As she rolled her suitcase behind her, Lara wondered why she had to pack so much.
“Left, then right, then left,” John said.
But when they came to the end of the hallway, they could only go right.
“He must have forgotten we were taking the stairs,” Lara suggested. “So we should do the opposite. Right, then left, then right?”
John consulted the map. The numbers on the signs were of no help.
He was breathing funny again, going huh huh huh huh as he crumpled to the floor, directly onto one of the fluffy clouds.
“What on earth’s the matter with you?” Lara said, looking around. “What if someone comes out of their room? Can’t you stand up?”
She decided there and then she would go down to the party, with or without him. She would wear the shimmery black pantsuit. She liked how it made her feel, sexy and alive.
KATHY FISH’s stories have been widely published in journals, anthologies, and textbooks. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Copper Nickel, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, swamp pink, The Norton Reader, and Norton’s Flash Fiction America (2023). Honors include the Copper Nickel Editors’ Prize and a Ragdale Foundation Fellowship. The author of five short fiction collections, Fish teaches a variety of creative writing workshops online. She also publishes a popular monthly craft newsletter, The Art of Flash Fiction. Find her on Twitter @kathyfish.
Featured image by Diego Fernandez, courtesy of Unsplash.