Editor’s note: “Aftermath” took 3rd place in our Show Us Your Short-Shorts Editors’ Prize contest.
Speak to someone. Give only your first name. Always give only your first name. Access your mental calendar. Try to count backwards to the relevant date. Think that number can’t be right. Know that number can’t be right. Count forwards this time; use your fingers. The number stays the same.
Hear the others speaking in unison. Stare at your still-keeping-count fingers. Feel eyes other than your own staring too. Glance at the nearest person, three seats to the right. You tried to sit alone—really alone—like you always try to sit alone—really alone—at these things. When that fails, buffer zones are the only alternative. And if there aren’t enough empty spaces when you arrive, you leave without hesitating, even though you aren’t supposed to. Even though that’s the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing.
Remember that rash of red. How it would bleed across your cheeks after hearing of your most recent transgressions, your face sporting the same look as fingers that stole the seeds out a pomegranate. Remember that feeling like last night’s vomit stalled inside you and turned into a statue in your stomach, how it’d never rise up early enough to save you, how it’d just sit there and keep you sick.
Feel your forehead, nose, and back coat themselves in sweat, make like a cold glass of something—anything, technically, but new rules have been imposed to restrict your imagination—set out and sprouting condensation. Hate it here. Hate all the elsewheres that, despite differences in time and place and day of the week, are still the same as here.
Someone up front asks who wants to share. Hands go up. Your eyes go down, make like they’ve been magnetized to the ground. Hear the wrong parts of what people say. Skip the messages. Savor their memories. Let them make you think of your own. Enjoy the euphoric recall. Ignore the parts that hurt, the parts that caution, the parts that caused you to be here.
Look up and see that the room is silent, nearly still. There are bowed heads, closed eyes, mouths moving but on mute. Realize you need to make a run for it. If you don’t escape now, there’ll be no escape at all, just an uncomfortable exit, avoidance of words, eyes, outstretched arms attached to bodies you’ve never encountered before. Shut your eyes the way you grit your teeth. Breathe. Notice you’re trembling. Be glad-but-also-not-glad what’s causing it isn’t the same thing that was causing it a month ago.
Breathe. Blink. Rise. Say your goodbyes without making a sound, without sign language. Leave through the back. Breathe. Blink. Feel the sun shrink more than just your pupils. Try to see through the glare. For the first time in a while—in forever maybe—understand that things change even when you try to stop them.
Samantha Madway is engaged in the lengthy process of transcribing hundreds of pages of her writing from barely legible blue ink into reader-friendly (twenty-first-century) Times New Roman type. She loves her dogs, Freddie, Charlie, Parker, and Greta, more than anything else in the universe. Her stories and poems have appeared in Gone Long, Maudlin House, After the Pause, Vending Machine Poetry, Magnolia Review, and elsewhere.