con·sort (kon-sawrt), n. [Late ME.; OFr.; L. consors, consortis, partner, neighbor < com-, with + sors, a lot, share; cf. SORT], 1. originally, a partner; companion; hence. 2. a wife or husband; spouse, especially of a reigning king or queen. 3. a ship that travels along with another. 4. [Obs.], a) [OFr. consorte; L. consortium, community of goods < consors], association; fellowship; company. b) agreement; accord. c) [altered < concert] harmony of sounds. v.i. 1. to keep company; associate. 2. to be in harmony or agreement; be in accord. v.t. 1. to associate; join: usually reflexive. 2. [Obs.], a) to be or go with; accompany; escort. b) to espouse. c) to sound in harmony.
This week, the dictionary project‘s flash fiction february features a flash fiction piece by writer Kindall Gray. Enjoy!
Gretchen waited at the entrance of the New York Aquarium for her former husband. She wore a chartreuse scarf and carried a red handbag. Above her the sky was the color of deep metal. She tucked a hair behind her ear and looked at her cell phone again. Nothing. A rotund, mole-covered boy pushed in front of her to the ticket booth, and asked his mother why they’d come to Coney Island in the first place.
“To see the animals,” she told him, smiling apologetically at Gretchen.
“But I don’t want to,” he said, and stomped his feet.
Gretchen’s phone lit up and she pressed it hard against her ear. “Hello?” She turned away from the mole child and his mother, who were now making their way into the aquarium.
“I can’t come,” Malcolm said.
Gretchen brushed hair out of her face. The wind was cold and hard. “What?”
“I’m not coming.”
“I just can’t,” he said. “It’s stupid. You know? Like. It’s useless. It’d be cruel of me to go.”
“It wouldn’t be,” she said, and felt her fingernails digging into her palm. She could see the enormous Cyclone in the distance, rising above the Coney Island skyline like the skeleton of a dinosaur. Even from far away the architecture looked haphazard, but still she wanted to ride with Malcolm, bump over the old, dusty tracks, and listen to carnival music. She wanted to eat funnel cake and drink beer.
“I’m not coming,” he said again.
“But the roller coaster,” she begged.
“We’d probably have died on it.”
She waited a moment, unsure of how to respond. This was the worst possible thing. “I can’t believe you.”
“Believe me,” he said. “It’s better for both of us. I’m not going to pretend it’s okay anymore. This thing we’re doing.”
“It doesn’t have to be okay,” Gretchen said, and meant it.
“She’s here right now. Melanie’s here right now.”
“You said we’d still be friends.”
“I said it but I didn’t mean it the way you wanted me to mean it.”
Gretchen swallowed. Hot tears ran down her chin. A man passed with his jacket pulled around his shoulders.
“Fuck you,” she said, and ended the call.
She slipped the phone back into her pocket and turned to face the aquarium again. Should she go inside? Should she go on the coaster? Should she locate a bar and get drunk? Or take the subway home? Should she call her mother?
Malcolm. Only a week earlier they’d gone to a club together, and then to a pizza place in Brooklyn. They’d shared an order of garlic knots. Sure, he talked about his new girlfriend most of the time, but he’d been paying attention to her, sharing with her. He’d been her friend.
Suddenly she felt a presence at her side. The fat boy with moles clutched her red purse. He was alone.
“Where’s your mom?” she asked, alarmed.
“My mum’s inside,” he said. His skin was like burnt almonds and his moles the color of dark chocolate. They speckled his face like a constellation of stars.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked. She glanced around and it was just the two of them.
“You’re crying,” the boy said. “I hate maminals.” He was too old to mispronounce such an easy word, which made Gretchen feel sorry for him. She thought he was at least seven or eight. “I want to go on the coaster,” he pointed.
Gretchen turned toward the coaster. “The Cyclone,” she said. “Why do you hate animals?”
“They’re always looking at me with their weird eyes,” he said. “And I can’t speak to them.”
“Oh,” Gretchen said. The boy’s reason made sense, in a way. “You’d better go find your mother.”
“No,” he said. “I’m going on the roller coaster.” He turned from her, and began to walk toward the Cyclone, toward the boardwalk.
“Wait,” Gretchen said. “You can’t.” She couldn’t allow a smallish child to leave the aquarium. What if somebody kidnapped him? The mother would blame Gretchen.
The boy continued on and didn’t turn back. Gretchen watched as his body grew smaller and smaller in the distance. She checked her phone again and then dialed Malcolm’s number. Her fingers were growing numb from the cold. He didn’t answer. She called again. No answer. Finally she left a message: “How dare you.”
She stood at the entrance of the aquarium for a long time and waited for the boy’s mother to come searching after him: “Have you seen my child?” What would Gretchen say? Would she lie?
The idea of lying to the boy’s mother filled Gretchen with a horrible guilt, and she cried harder. She wasn’t sure if she was crying for the boy or for Malcolm or for the boy’s mother or for herself.
She took off running in the direction of the Cyclone. She passed roller-skaters, homeless people, and couples making out on benches. She passed tourists eating hot dogs. At the entrance of the Cyclone she looked for the boy. None of the heads in the crowd belonged to him. Eventually she saw a small child standing dejectedly beside a ticket booth, staring down at his fingers as if waiting for money to appear.
She rushed over. “You’ve got to go back to the aquarium and to your mother,” she said.
“I don’t have enough money for the Cyclone,” he pointed.
Gretchen looked at the ticket booth. Eight dollars a person.
“You’ve got to go back to your mother,” she said again. She was still crying. “I can’t have this on my conscience.”
“What’s wrong with you?” the boy asked. “Will you just take me on the Cyclone?”
Gretchen looked up at the roller coaster. The cars flew down the tracks at break-neck speeds. They made the sound of clothes in a dryer. She imagined the wind in her hair, the way the stale carnival air would fill her lungs and make her forget Malcolm. Or maybe she’d even pretend the boy was Malcolm. When they’d started having problems, and then after he moved out, she thought she’d be okay as long as he still cared for her. Even as a friend. Now he’d taken that care away.
“Okay,” she said to the boy. His eyes lit up inside his face and he grinned, revealing a perfectly square gap in his smile as well as a silver filling in his back tooth.
She bought the tickets, and they waited in line. A woman climbed off the ride, walked down the railing, and vomited in a trash can. The boy grabbed Gretchen’s hand, and she let him. When their car was ready, they walked to it arm and arm, and Gretchen let the boy get in first, as if he were the lady and she were the gentleman. Gretchen felt dizzy with her own daring; taking the boy on the ride was risky, strange, out of character.
As the ride started, the boy said, “I don’t want to go on this after all.”
And Gretchen said, “You don’t have a choice, now.”
And the ride began. As the world melted around her, Gretchen felt only air inside her lungs, icy wind on her lips, and laughter inside her throat. The laughter came out in a kind of hysterical scream. The boy screamed too, but he was smiling.
Kindall Gray is a writer, a teacher, and an Arizona native (don’t hold that against her). Her fiction has previously appeared in Back Room Live and Toasted Cheese, and she is currently at work on a collection of short stories and a novel. She can be reached at kindallg at g mail dot com.
On the creation of “The Cyclone”:
When I got my word, “Consort,” I immediately began brainstorming–and I kept thinking of couples, couples, couples; couples accompanying each other, “complementing” each other, and going on journeys together. So I decided to write about unlikely couples–and the unlikeliest couples became a woman and her ex-husband, and of course a woman and a boy. The story kind of morphed in front of me, and I let it. At first I thought it would be more about Gretchen and her ex, but then it became about Gretchen and the boy and her reaction to the boy. – K.G.