Neighbors and Little Thieves

It was Wills’ idea to cut through the fence. Our neighbors had the same garden as us, but ours just had weeds and cheap sunshine. Theirs was filled with soft creatures in pink and goldenrod and blue that had six legs, or maybe four, and they rolled back and forth and squeaked in little piles, and we’d never wanted to hold anything so badly in our lives.

They’re plants, Mama told us. Hold the cat if you’re so desperate. The cat was raw and crotchety and smart enough to hide from us anyway.

We spent weeks talking about how to hack the fence or override the fence or maybe overload the fence, how to upset systems we’d heard the names of and could mostly pronounce. The fence was meant to keep out station midges, not thieves, so when Wills got out Mama’s garden shears and went for it, that was that. Besides, it would only be a little hole. And our neighbors weren’t scary, not like some of the others. They looked like peaceful trees, tall slender things with heads that were just clouds of golden softness, like feathers. People said they drank light and never slept and that they saw time all at once, like a big painting.

Wait, I said. If they can see the future, won’t they know it was us?

Well, yeah, said Wills, but if they cared, they’d be here to stop us, and they’re not. So it’s like permission, really.

That didn’t sound right to me, but I really wanted to hold those soft things. And anyway, Wills was already halfway through the fence.

That’s when our older brother Aines came home. Just walked up like he hadn’t been gone for three days. He looked at us, crouching with our skinny arms in the neighbors’ garden, and we looked up at him, hard-eyed and lean, with the telltale scales already creeping out at his neck and shirtsleeves. He’d gone and done it, signed up one on of the outgoing ships, and they’d already set him up with a partner, rattling gently against his skin.

Nobody said anything. Then Aines went up the front porch of our house, and we scooted around to the back door, arms full of happy, squeaking clouds.

We had one glorious hour with them, piled up around us and shedding pink and blue softness on our arms, faces, and the couch, while Aines and Mama yelled at each other in the main room. It wasn’t even alive, Mama said, that thing he let crawl all over him, and Aines said he could let anything crawl on him he wanted and it was too alive, it had a name, dammit, and this is why they didn’t talk about the ships, because Mama was so bigoted—and then our neighbors came to the house. Ducked their golden heads and came right into the room, Mama and Aines close behind.

We tried to look ashamed of ourselves as Mama picked them up in twos and threes, stuffing them into the carriers our neighbors had brought. Aines helped. When it was done, our neighbors nodded, golden feathers floating up and down and shedding motes across the room. They were almost out the door when Aines reached out, scales clattering, and took one by its hand. Tell her, he said. Tell her there’s nothing to worry about, that it’s all going to be fine.

The neighbor stopped, swayed towards the other two, then bent toward our mother, the tips of its head-feathers standing out like there was electricity in the air. Maybe Mama saw its face then, I don’t know, but she looked at it with her mouth half open, like this was the last thing she needed, but she was looking anyway.

It said, “It’s all going to be fine.”

Then it swept out with its carriers, and Mama wiped her hands on her thin trousers, staring at the empty spot.

Later, we’d be cleaning every last piece of colored fluff and golden down out of the house. It would keep Mama from being angry at Aines, being angry at us. She’d say they were only repeating our words, that it didn’t mean anything. She and Aines would fight for two weeks, and then he’d leave with his new partner for the outer stars. We’d get more scrapes and bruises, get into trouble, grow up, leave home and come back, and later, much later, when we had careers and kids and Mama came to live with Wills or with me, and even with Aines for a while—after all that, we’d wonder if that had been the turning point. When our neighbors looked at us, little thieves desperate for things to be okay, and looked through time and made it so.


FFO: What piece of writing advice would you give to people learning to write flash fiction?

MJE: Lots of writers have given this advice, but I like Stephen King’s phrasing: “read a lot and write a lot.” It’s simple, but it’s the best advice there is. I’m also a long-time fan of Robert Heinlein’s rules for writers, which are, briefly: 1. write, 2. finish what you write, 3. don’t edit (too much), 4. send it out, and 5. keep sending until it gets published. 

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