2021 February Flash Fiction Challenge: Day 10

Write a piece of flash fiction each day of February with the February Flash Fiction Challenge, led by editor Moriah Richard. Each day, receive a prompt, example story, and write your own. Today's prompt is to write about an animal.
Author:
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Before we dive into today’s prompt, I want to bring Nancy Stohlman’s article, Five Reasons to Write Flash Fiction: Understanding the Literary Love Child of the Short Story and Poetry, to your attention. She has some great insights that we can use to inspire us to keep going!

Flash Fiction Challenge

Any other animal lovers out there? Well, if not, I hope you’re ready: Today, the prompt is to write about an animal. Real or imaginary, the choice is yours!

Remember: These prompts are just starting points; you have the freedom to go wherever your flash of inspiration takes you.

(Note: If you happen to run into any issues posting, please just send me an e-mail at mrichard@aimmedia.com with the subject line: Flash Fiction Challenge Commenting Issue.)

Here’s my attempt at writing on the wild side:

Goodbye

Walk now.

Emily looked up from her phone. “Walk later.”

Oscar tilted his head in the way he always did once she responded to him. He stood behind his button board, laid out neatly on the floor in an out-of-the-way space, growing steadily all the time. His dark eyes were bright, fixed on my face, his tail moving in a slow, heavy rhythm behind him.

After another few moments, he picked up one big, shaggy paw.

Beach. Hmm?

She grinned and set her phone off to the side. The addition of a questioning sound had been a good idea. It had taken him a little while to get the hang of it, to really understand what it meant, but now he was using it like a pro.

“Beach tomorrow.”

Oscar’s tail drooped, stilling. He blinked at her for a while longer before cracking his mouth wide in a yawn that ended in a small shriek. After that, he padded over to his toy bin, sticking his whole head into it as if only the best toys were buried in the bottom. Before he could find what he wanted, Oscar yanked his head out of the bucket, attention snapping to the back door. He paused, body tense, before running back to the button board.

Cat. Outside.

Levering herself off the couch, Emily opened the back door and let Oscar out. He shoved his broad, golden body past her legs and out onto the porch. Sure enough, a neighbor’s cat was hanging out on their railing, all sleek limbs and haughty expression. Oscar’s nails scabbled against the wood, his excitement making him clumsy and unfocused.

“Hello, Scruff,” Emily said.

Oscar’s tongue lolled out of his mouth and he sat heavily, head tilted back to see the other animal properly. After a moment, he let out a soft wuff and lifted his foot in the air, like he did when he wanted a treat.

Emily laughed and took a photo to send to her mom.

***

Mom.

Emily turned the heat down on the stove and put a lid over the pot. She looked over her shoulder. Oscar was standing at the board, his head cocked. “What, buddy?”

Come.

Wiping her hands on the dish towel thrown over her shoulder, she made her way out of the small kitchen and over to where he was standing.

“What’s up?”

Concerned.

Emily frowned. The emotion buttons weren’t all new, but he didn’t use this one all that much. “Concerned why?”

Look.

He turned around to stare at the back door. When she turned her head, the door was standing open. Not widely, but enough that now that she’d noticed it, she could feel a cool draft.

“Huh.” She approached it slowly. The porch light was off, so she couldn’t see anything too far outside. How long had it been standing open? A shiver crawled down her spine at the thought. “Could have sworn that I closed this earlier.”

She locked it and then tested the lock. Oscar stood behind her, stationed at his button board, dark eyes watching intently. There was a tension in his body that made her tense by default. She flipped on the porch light, but there wasn’t anything out there, not even Scruff-the-neighbor’s-cat.

“Gotta be careful about that,” she said.

He cocked his head, watched her. Whined high in his throat. Concerned.

“Aw, buddy.” She crouched down, rubbing a hand through the thick fur on his chest, ruffling the hair around his neck. “Nothing to be concerned about. I just have to be more careful, okay?”

Oscar leaned into her body the way he’d done as a puppy, all big paws and wide eyes. She felt him tremble and hushed him with nonsense words that were more feeling than speech. Eventually, the pot started whistling on the stove.

She darted back to the kitchen. Oscar watched her for a moment before cocking his head toward the door and listening as hard as he could.

***

She woke. There’s no other way to describe it; she was sleeping, and then all of a sudden, she wasn’t. She laid in the dark, disoriented, tense against her sheets. Had she been having a nightmare?

Hello.

She rolled over and listened hard. Had she imagined the faint echo of Oscar’s button board? On her ceiling, the wild pattern of branches and moonlight undulated as they moved in the wind. The heater kicked on. After a moment, the smell of hot dust settled over her like an uncomfortable blanket.

Hello.

“Oscar?” she called out. She strained to hear his nails on the hardwood floor or the creak of his weight on the carpeted stairs.

She yelped as his cold nose came up over the edge of the bed to touch her elbow. He quickly climbed into bed with her, body shaking but absolutely silent.

“Was that you at the board?” she asked softly.

Hello, the button board called. All the hair stood up on Emily’s arms.

Was there someone in the house?

Hello.

Hello.

Hello hello hellohellohellohello.

Then, silence. Emily felt like her whole body was straining, listening, waiting for any other sound.

But there was nothing besides Oscar’s heavy breathing and the sound of her heart in her ears.

***

She turned the button over and over in her hands. It hadn’t made a sound since the night before; none of the buttons had. Oscar peeked around the couch, his gaze unwavering. In his mouth was a Chewbacca plushie toy, soaking with drool. Emily opened the slide on the back of the button and replaced the batteries.

“If this doesn’t work, it must be the wiring,” she said. “We should make a note for the research team, eh, Oscar?”

Oscar and his Chewbacca disappeared back behind the sofa. She felt the weight of the sleepless night pressing down on her shoulders, putting creases under her eyes.

***

Oscar no longer used the button board. When she called the team at UCLA, they were understandably frustrated.

“He’d been doing so well, even after your move to the new house,” Jerry, the team lead, argued.

“I know,” she said, “but then we had some issues with the buttons going off on their own, and it spooked him. I’m trying some exposure therapy to help, and increasing my modeling of the language.”

There was a pause. “The buttons went off on their own?”

“Yeah, we were upstairs. It happened at night.”

“None of the other participants reported issues with the board.”

Emily took a deep breath. Let it out. Oscar was mostly hidden by the couch, his new spot. He’d been carrying his toys back there one at a time and refusing to come out for hours. It was starting to unnerve her.

To Jerry, she said, “I changed the batteries, and it seems okay now.”

“Okay,” Jerry said. His voice was laced with doubt.

“I’ll keep you posted.”

“Please.”

***

Emily crouched in front of the sofa, trying not to let her frustration show. The button board lay behind her, gathering dust in its corner.

“It’s been two weeks, Oscar,” she said. “You gotta stop hiding.”

All she could hear was Oscar’s heavy breathing. He’d regressed to only coming out from behind the sofa for meals and bathroom breaks. She was concerned enough that she’d scheduled an appointment with their vet, who’d seemed just as bewildered by Oscar’s behavior. All she had to offer was an anxiety medication that was clearly not working.

“C’mon, buddy. Don’t you want to tell me how you feel with the buttons?” she said.

Mom.

Emily’s entire body stiffened. Oscar whined.

Mom. Mom. Mom.

Emily forced herself to turn. The room was empty. Before she knew she was moving, her back was up against the couch. The room was empty.

“It’s the wiring,” she said, voice too loud. “It has to be.”

Mom. Mom. Mom. Mommommommommommommo—

“Okay!” she shouted. “Okay. That’s me. I’m Mom.”

Silence. Oscar let out a petrified moan. Emily envisioned running out of the house without him. She envisioned crawling back behind the couch with him. She imagined a world in which none of this was happening at all.

Mom, the button board said. Goodbye.

Emily screamed. Oscar’s howling rose to match it.

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