Flash Fiction Sequence: Music Lessons; For Family; The Bees

Music Lessons

For Aaron

When Angela first started studying with Derek, she told everyone about it. Not only was he the coolest guitar instructor in town, but he also had a long beard that hung down halfway past his belly.

“You have to take music lessons with Derek,” she advertised to anyone her age that cared enough to listen. “He uses a green pick that looks like an alien.”

Within a month his schedule was filled. Friends, neighbors, even the bullies from Angela’s P.E. class had signed up to learn how to play guitar from him. Some parents called it useless; others were glad it got the kids away from their screens.

Derek would compliment Angela’s taste in music, even though objectively, it was very bad. She would bring in songs that she wanted to learn how to play, and he would transcribe them into dots, lines, and letters scrawled onto a piece of white printer paper for her to decipher in the weeks ahead.

“You know, I’m pretty sure the guitarist in this band took the bottom three strings off of his guitar,” he’d say as he adjusted the tuning on his Epiphone. “He doesn’t really play chords so much as slides his fingers up and down the E and D strings.”

In retrospect, Angela wasn’t the best guitar player. Teenage, always distracted, never practicing. But she was as devout to showing up for her lessons as she was to not reviewing her assignments for the week. Angela would arrive 10 minutes early on habit—the week she was running late was the only occasion she came right on time.

In September, she went to visit her older sister at college for the three-day weekend. While they were out shopping, a cell phone rang. Angela’s sister picked up the phone—it was their mother. Derek had been killed in a car accident, a hit and run. She said she was sorry and hung up.

The memorial was to be the following Saturday, that way his young students could show up without missing school. While the kids were usually busy with soccer games, or video games, or other nonsense, instead they were here, circling around a dead person’s body. She saw the bullies from her P.E. class dressed in black, the cute girl from her elementary school in a band shirt printed with guitars. As she sat down in the back row by herself, she saw Kevin from 3rd period with shiny wet marks down his cheeks. She had never seen a boy cry like that before.

Her mom said she’d circle back around after running errands and pick her up when the service was over. On the car ride home, and still to this day, there was never another word about Derek or music lessons ever again. Even when it was just the two of them, it was as if Angela heard—You brought death into our home—when her mother spoke.

At school, the topic of the accident was avoided. Kevin didn’t sit next to her in 3rd period English anymore, and even the bullies started making their presence less known.

She wondered, did they really see her in this way, like some sort of belligerent angel of death, drunk on provocation? She was only 15—how could she be so powerful?

You could feel the tense thing not being spoken. If it weren’t for her, no one would have known this dead man.


For Family

Every time I’d go to visit my mother, she’d give me a key to her place. “In case you come for a visit,” she’d say.

She would give me my own copy, no matter how long I was there, so that I’d “be free to come and go.” However, she always insisted I keep the keys whenever I left for good.

I hadn’t realized this practice had apparently spanned decades until I was cleaning one day, after the first of the year. As I drifted from drawers to boxes to cupboards I found the scattered stockpiles of metal teeth left dormant and unfulfilled.

They weren’t from that long ago, so the teeth didn’t look like they used to, nor the keys. The metal was printed with colorful plastic film decorated and designed with whatever was popular, or at least eye catching to her at the time. One key she gave me looked like Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Another was decorated with shamrocks and in tiny print read “Luck o’ the Irish” in orange.

“Really, Mom?” I remember asking her when she handed it to me, “Grandma was Cuban, your dad was Italian—and this is what you went for?”

“It’s fortuitous,” she said. “Auspicious, a good luck charm.”

As I continued into my closet and onto the desk I found a tie-dye key in rainbow, one in dark camo print, and a repeating Loony Tunes pattern with the Tasmanian Devil. How had it accumulated to this point without me realizing it?

I had bags already set out for the thrift store, the garbage, the recycling center. I debated silently on where the keys belonged.

Did I have to keep them? I didn’t really want them holed up all around my apartment, and besides, a single key would suffice for what the very function was.

It felt wrong to put it in the garbage though, all of that nickel silver gone to waste. Could it be recycled? I wasn’t sure if their decorative prints would’ve been classified as plastic 3, Polyvinyl Chloride, or 4, for Low-Density Polyethylene—the city’s recycling program couldn’t take plastics 5 and 6. I hung my scooping handfuls of keys over the donation bag, maybe a teenager or art instructor could find a use for them. I paused. It seemed silly to dispose of them in this way; maybe she’d want them back.

I picked up the phone and gave her a call. She answered on the last possible ring and greeted me evenly.

“Mom, I found a lot of keys to your place while I was cleaning. I can send them back to you if you want.”

“Oh no, don’t go to the trouble. Plus, what if you want to come for a visit?”

“Mom, I live twelve hours away. We don’t even live in the same state anymore. It’s really no problem for me to ship them.”

I twirled the long chain of their interlocked key rings around on the floor as we spoke. I made spirals and waves and a dizzying circle out of the line.

“You don’t want to keep them?” she argued with me.

“Mom, there’s hundreds of them.” I looked at the loop on the floor. “Er, dozens—at least seven.”

“Good for an emergency,” she reasoned.

“In what emergency would I need seven keys? In case a bunch of dwarves needed access to your place and I managed to get on the first flight without a layover?”

She was quiet.

“It’s nice to think of, right? A time when you’d just pop over and say hi.”

Our conversation fizzled out this way. Not with a goodbye, but with a greeting.

I didn’t understand. The last time I came to visit the trip ended with her throwing a takeout menu at me after refusing to let me cook for myself or for her. I ended up staying at a motel the last night and ordering a pizza, which I ate out of the cardboard box on the floor.

I had come as a favor. She was recently retired, didn’t have many friends, and regularly complained to me about how bored she was all the time.

I whipped up the linked keys, save for one and threaded them into the garbage, along with rotten apple cores and spoiled milk from the fridge.

However, I held onto the Irish key, the shamrocks, the one with the flag striped in white and green and orange. If nothing else, for family.


The Bees

We were walking one day in Volunteer Park. You asked me if I had ever been in the empty water tower that now served as a landmark and lookout. I said I hadn’t and you said we should go in.

From the sidewalk, you picked something from a tree and it splashed berry juice all over your hands. A bee buzzed by and you flinched.

“Have you ever been stung by a bee?” you asked me.

“I think maybe three times in my life. When I was small,” I responded. “What about you?”

“I got stung by a bee last summer,” you replied. “It was exhilarating. It woke me up out of something.”

I stared down at the red juice staining your hands.

“It got my adrenaline going and made me feel alive,” you added.

“Bees are very shy,” I said.

“Yes, they live in solitary nests under the ground,” you replied. I stopped and wondered how many bees were underfoot where we stood before we entered the brick structure of the water tower.

We walked up the steps of the spiral staircase inside the tower and I started to feel dizzy and weak. My heart was pounding. At the top, we stared out in every direction over the city and looked into the sun. Your eyes glowed—your irises encapsulated and retained the soft brown light and I hoped mine did too.

We read an informational sign about the creation of the area, about how the planner had conceived of a linked park system throughout the city that would be connected by a series of boulevards and trollies.

Notably, the landscape architect, John Charles Olmsted, believed, “That the primary aim should be to secure and preserve for the use of the people as much as possible of these advantages of water and mountain views and of woodlands, well distributed and conveniently located.”

More and more visitors began to come in up the stairs. We were not alone. But there were too many people around, so we walked back down and exited the park.


The next night we walked by our old college grounds. It was dark and that seemed appropriate, almost protective in some way. I wanted to hold your hand, but I didn’t. It didn’t seem like the exact right thing to do, but I didn’t know what else to want.

We talked about work without pay and pay without work. I mentioned an article that said that E. M. Forster had been granted a an honorary fellow position at King’s College, Cambridge, for twenty years without publishing another novel, but you pointed out that that still depended on a certain amount of pedigree and prestige prior to that point and I said it was true.

You suggested we find the old hydroelectric building that I had told you about one time. I didn’t think it was in use still, but at least it was still there, unless it had been torn down. I was worried. Maybe it had been scrapped and seen as refuse, maybe seen as no longer having any value or purpose. It was night though, and we were safe and disoriented in the dark. You were patient with me when I was confused and I couldn’t find my way.

“I hope you’re not disappointed by this wild goose chase,” I said.

It took us a few times going back and forth to find the right direction. I had found it on accident one day when were both students, but never took you there. I mentioned it one day after I had been reading about WPA projects.

We walked down to the water lining the campus and found some troughs dug in the ground. We’re getting close, I thought, but didn’t say so just in case we weren’t.

We moved around to the back of the building and found a staircase overlooking the water, then went up. A window was open so we jumped in and walked up a spiral staircase that hugged a room-sized metal cylinder inside the building.

When we got to the top and peered down into the cylinder it was pitch black and we stared into the void. You got scared and wanted to go back down.

“I have vertigo,” you said and closed your eyes and brought your own darkness back to comfort you instead of anything outside of us.

I felt dizzy and my heart started to race. We clamored down the metal stairs banging our way out of the building. You bent down on one knee so I could prop myself up and jump back through to the outside night.

We stared back out at the water at the top of the stairs, then you headed down to the grass and I followed.

“I guess we could have stayed at the top of the stairs longer,” you said, once we reached the bottom.

My body was pulsating in such a way that I couldn’t hold. I grabbed your arm and you tensed up as we walked back around to the front of the building. I let go once we had come back around the other side and my eyes swelled like they’d never close again.

We walked back the way we came; the night reflected the water, back towards the bridge.

It was hard for me to breathe. I held my hands over my chest and felt like I couldn’t hold what was going on inside of me. I wanted to sit down, but I was too afraid to ask you.

“Can we sit down?” I finally asked. You nodded and a bench emerged in front of us in the dark.

“I feel like my heart is going to explode,” I said to you.

“Because we just broke into that building,” you said and I said, “No.”

You stared out into the canal and I couldn’t find the voice to say.

“It feels intense what’s going on inside of me,” I said.

You said you didn’t know how you felt. We sat in silence as I searched for the courage to even speak.

“I think I feel like when the bee stung you,” I said. You didn’t respond, but maybe we were the bees.


Laura Paul is a writer and multimedia artist. Her work has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, LA Review of Books, The Comics Journal, Dream Pop Journal, Pangyrus, FIVE:2:ONE, and others. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @laura_n_paul or her website laurapaulwriter.com.