Flash Points: Sinéad O’Hart

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Welcome to Flash Points, a totally un-terrifying (one hopes) feature in which a remarkable, noteworthy story from the most recent round of Flash! Friday is marked and noted. In other words, we nibble at it, bit by bit, to savor each glorious nuance. YUM!

Prompt: Gymnasts

Word limit:  140 – 160 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  China in Your Handby Sinéad O’Hart

We were like one body – that’s what Mr Hardy said. Tumble, girls! Now, spin! That’s it! I’d do whatever it took to hear his ‘perfect!’, to dismount with my feet exactly right, to see the wide grin on Elizabeth’s face which, I knew, mirrored mine.

Four hours a day, six days a week. More when Regionals drew near.

‘You girls are closer than sisters,’ our teacher smiled. ‘No doubt we’ll see you on the winners’ podium in years to come, eh?’ I wanted it more than anything; I dreamed in gold. My mind was stuffed full of stretches and leaps, tucks and pikes.

Then Liz started falling. We let it slide for a while – distractions, or lack of focus. But when our rankings began dropping, Mr H took her aside. Her eyes found mine as he told her, but I blinked and looked away.

As she grabbed her stuff and left, I felt thick-fingered, like I’d dropped something precious.

What works

So many fantastic stories this week — there always are, of course — choosing one to blabber on about for a minute or two seriously tortured my poor little pea brain. What about David Shakes’ gripping last line:

The truth is, despite this wheelchair I’ve never felt more free… except when I was falling.

And you’ve got to love Rasha’s calculated numerical structure (didn’t you want to rise to your feet, cheering, at the end??), Todd Strader’s heart-panging parallel tales, and oh my, Lucia Gray’s wrenching story of pain and lostness. These balanced, naturally, by the guffaw-inducing tales by A J Walker:

‘That’s my girl,’ he shouted, writhing.

Annabelle looked down. ‘That’s not my dad.’

or Natalie Bowers:

I’d always prided myself on me observational skills – you don’t stay a pirate captain long unless you keep a weather eye on your shipmates – so when my landing was … softer than expected, I was somewhat vexed, both with myself and, son, with the woman who later became your mother.

In the end, however, this week it was Sinéad’s China that haunted me most. If you’ve read Flash Points for any length of time, you’ll know I love layers in a story, tension beneath the surface, the power of words that aren’t said. Such a feat requires writing two stories, one on the screen, and one… not. And this is precisely what China does. From hints, from the narrator’s comments, from subtle grammatical twists, we discover an entire world of story exists beyond what’s seen. Plunge with me for a moment into my mania, won’t you?

A story’s first line plays a crucial role, of course. It must set the stage, establish the tone, introduce the world to come. Sinéad does all three to perfection:

We were like one body – that’s what Mr Hardy said.

Effective first lines serve as bait, hooking the reader deeper into the story. Like this first line, they should prompt questions, in this caseWho is like one body? How can more than one person/entity act like one body (we’ve heard about twin souls, eg, but what does “one body” look like?)? Who is Mr. Hardy? 

Flash fiction allows no time for lingering, and Sinéad whisks the pace along accordingly. In the short first paragraph we learn the “we” consists of the narrator and a girl named Elizabeth, the setting (drawn by specific vocabulary: tumble, spin, dismount) is gymnastics, and Mr. Hardy, by implication, is the girls’ coach. Nice, right? A sweet, ordinary, non-noteworthy day of practice, isn’t it? 

No. In that same introductory paragraph, hinted at so quietly, the first stirrings of tension (that oh-so-critical story element!):

I’d do whatever it took to hear his ‘perfect!’

Someone willing to do “whatever it [takes]” can’t escape our notice. It’s a question on the brink of devouring all of us at one time or another: how far are we willing to go to get what we want? The question isn’t answered right away, nor is it immediately implied something else will need to be sacrificed. But it’s tension you can sink your teeth into, and the pace is fast, so we keep reading.

The second paragraph continues building tension in fragmented staccato, telling us just how grueling the girls’ schedule is:

Four hours a day, six days a week. More when Regionals drew near.

“Regionals” introduces the idea of competition, and for the first time, so lightly, so quietly, a crack appears in the mirror. It’s a crack that carries over into the split third paragraph. Look at the perfect division there:

‘You girls are closer than sisters,’ our teacher smiled. ‘No doubt we’ll see you on the winners’ podium in years to come, eh?’ // I wanted it more than anything; I dreamed in gold. My mind was stuffed full of stretches and leaps, tucks and pikes.

While the coach continues (for now) to view the girls as “one body,” a team, the narrator has already begun disentangling herself. Structurally, this split occurs at the exact midpoint of the story. In a novel such a point might be the crisis vaulting (haha, sorry) the protagonist to the plot’s awful climax. It’s true here as well on a micro level. Look at the very next sentence:

Then Liz started falling.

Our narrator has already separated herself from her partner, a division magnified by the other girl’s lagging performance. But the following sentence is the one I found most chilling.

We let it slide for a while.

Do you see that? It’s a sleight-of-hand worthy of David Blaine. Look at it again in slo-mo: 

We were like one body

We let it slide for a while

The composition of “we” has changed: narrator/partner to narrator/coach. The latter two now look at the new outsider in pitying condescension. Liz has lost more than gymnastics rankings; she is losing her mirror. It’s terrible, agonizing, like not being able to tear your eyes away from a car wreck. The breaking of the bond is then confirmed physically.

Her eyes found mine as he told her, but I blinked and looked away.

All that’s left now is the dismount.

As she grabbed her stuff and left, I felt thick-fingered, like I’d dropped something precious.

I love this sentence. It’s poignant, yes, and wrenching. But structurally it’s magnificent, because it concludes not the superficial story (the ending of a gymnastics partnership) but the sub-story, a girl’s choosing of ambition over friendship. The conclusion answers the question asked at the story’s beginning: for the sake of her goals, she is willing (and does) sacrifice the best part of herself. And – tragically – it appears she has moved on far enough that she can’t quite pinpoint what she’s given up:

something precious

It’s the age-old sirens’ song, the give-up-your-soul negotiation with ol’ hooves ‘n’ horns, the sibilant temptation in Eden. And it’s especially troubling because no concern is given to the ousted gymnast. Why is Liz falling? Is there an underlying physical cause – a tumor? emotional distress? abuse at home? The narrator doesn’t tell us. Of course she doesn’t, because this isn’t, in the end, a story of two friends. It’s the story of a human’s giving up her soul.

It’s magnificent structuring and writing, this story-within-a-story.  So beautifully done, Sinéad. Thank you!

Flash! Friday Vol 2 – 32: WINNERS!

Happy Sunday, and welcome back for our newest contest results! Tragedy and woe played large roles in your themes, which feels especially fitting given this week’s headlines. Thank you for taking the time to share your worlds and skills with us. Come on back tomorrow, if you’re in the mood, to get an up-close-and-personal look at one of your fantastic tales at #FlashPoints.

One last reminder (waaaah!) for the #DogDays contest, whose deadline is this Tuesday, July 22, at 11:59pm Washington DC time. Lots of stories already elbowing their way to the top — be sure to add yours!!! Link here and in the sidebar.

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Judge Aria Glazki says: The creativity and diversity of this week’s stories are simply astounding. Not only did you have allusions to different cultures and religions, showcasing the assortment of backgrounds within this community, but you also addressed the full range of relationships, from the truly disturbing to the heartbreakingly self-sacrificing. Like in the Olympic arena, we went from one impressive performance straight to the next. I almost wish there was a code of points for flash fiction — my job would have been much easier! Many lines caught my attention, and ranking stories meant making unbelievably tough choices. So well done, all around!

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SPECIAL MENTIONS

Flawless imagery: Mark A. King, “The Weight.” “A sound. The splatter of colour.”; Marie McKay, “Balance.” “My image sits in little glass cages mounted on living room walls” (oh the layers!).

Maggie Duncan, “In A Distant Voice.” Wonderful growth to the character aided by the subtlety of what spurs it. A lesson she could only learn for herself and yet probably wishes she hadn’t.

Michael Seese, “Big Sister.” Such strong use of perspectives with the quoted lines and of time passing. Unexpected horror growing so naturally from a sibling relationship we had assumed was adorable and entirely normal.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

ifemmanuel, Untitled. “Left foot, right foot” — four simple words, and yet they give this story such a solid sense of rhythm, while also underscoring the character’s feeling of being trapped: as herself, in the background, in this world of gymnastics.

Rasha, “Redeem.” A short moment but with so much weight behind it. The use of numbers was subtle yet perfectly methodical, just like a winning gymnast, allowing the last line, “Ten. Ten. Ten.” to have immense impact

Lisa Shambrook, “Balance.” This story tells us everything we need to know in its first line, even though we can’t understand it yet. So it takes us through a lifetime of hurt, leaving us with a powerful yet understated image and filling out the bookended first line with all of that emotion.  Very well done. 

Nicholas Stearns, “Way to Salvation.” The first sentence here immediately grounds us in the world of the story — “Excited howls from hounds and men echoed through the dense forest.” We’re dropped straight into Anna’s emotions, trapped between an internal fear and an external threat, in a unique story that’s at once entirely unrelated to gymnastics and yet perfectly suited to the prompt. 

THIRD RUNNER UP

Amy Wood, “A Star is Made.” This story is unexpected in a wonderful way. The initial, potentially off-putting pride of the mother — comparing the other gymnasts to “workhorses” — is flipped with the context, becoming sympathetic defiance — “So I’d sold my soul to get her healthy, what of it?” What would a mother do for her sick, dying child? Absolutely anything, and don’t you dare tell her she can’t.

SECOND RUNNER UP

Brett Milam, “Tumble.” I kind of hate that my position this week meant I had to read this story multiple times, because it is just so incredibly horrifying (and I don’t do well with horror). Such vivid descriptions, and the line, “She was perfect, once.” is so simple on its own, but becomes, in this story, absolutely haunting. And to top it off, we get a thought-provoking commentary on the world behind the perfection and smiles. 

FIRST RUNNER UP

Image Ronin, “The Champ.” I love how this story lets our own preconceptions from the image lead us astray, then strengthens those preconceptions with the flash back moments, then turns it all on its head. The lights? Not a spotlight, but a cop car. The audience? Not thousands of fans but a cop. The inevitable, promised day? Not the shining Olympic moment but the low point on a self-destructive path.  Each of those moments draws us down the wrong path and yet entirely holds up even when we know where the story’s going while rereading.

And now: joining the sparkly group of three-timers, it’s Flash! Friday

DRAGON WINNER

KARL A. RUSSELL!!!

for

“The Routine”

What a journey for this character. The disappointment and shame all still there, all still driving her, and yet taking a back seat to the fun twist of her new life, and of coming into herself.  “Diamonds sparkled like tear-filled eyes” sums it up perfectly. Once, she’d been considered subpar, with tear-filled eyes, denied even a trip to the museum, and now her gymnastics opens every world for her, even those denied others, sparkling like diamonds and there for the taking. This triumph is even stronger with the juxtaposition of the discipline and submission to rules her gymnastics teacher must have wanted to instill, and the life Cherry built with those skills. “In your face…and thank you.” A wonderful balance (no pun intended!). Editor’s Note: The Flash! Friday dragons love this story too but would like to make it clear their personal hoard of diamonds, should such a thing exist, is off-limits.

Congratulations, Karl! Here’s another brilliant winner’s badge for your wall! Here also is your gold medal updated winner’s page and your winning tale on the winners’ wall. Please stand by so I can interview you yet AGAIN, lucky dragon, for this week’s #SixtySeconds feature. And here is your winning story:

The Routine

Cherry stepped into the deserted gallery and paused. The silence was heavy, expectant, like the moment before the tape clicked in, everyone waiting to see what she could do. Hopefully no one was watching her now.

Bending low, moving to a rhythm heard only in her heart, Cherry began to dance. She kicked and leapt, one graceful step after another, seeing not the museum but the gym floor. In her curiously doubled vision, she saw Miss Rushworth and her team even as she saw the glass cases and display boards. She had never been to the museum before, denied that treat when her clumsy dismount cost them the final, and the ancient shame reddened her cheeks as she made her final leap.

With a perfect dismount, she cleared the last alarm beam and took the glass cutters from her belt. Inside the case, the diamonds sparkled like tear-filled eyes.

“In your face, Miss Rushworth…”

She reached inside.

“And thank you.”

 

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Flash! Friday–Vol 2 – 32

Happy Friday!! With all that’s going on in the world, I’m especially grateful for the community here at Flash! Friday, and for the ability to spend a few precious moments on the joy of story. Thank you so much for taking the time to come and write with us. You are appreciated!

DON’T FORGET!!! There are four days left to submit your entry to the Dog Days of Summer contest (with cash prizes! and a decadent 800 – 1,000 word window). Click here or on the pic of the boys in the sidebar for details and to enter. 

Today’s prompt was chosen in honor of the legendary Nadia Comaneci. On this day in 1976 she was the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Olympics. Her story continues to inspire athletes around the world. Why not writers too!   

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It’s with great pleasure I introduce today’s judge, three-time Flash! Friday winner Aria Glazki. She likes layered language, she says, and realistic characters with an intriguing premise. Read more here. Then spin a tale to win your own perfect 10.0!  

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Awards Ceremony: Results will post Sunday. Noteworthy #SixtySeconds interviews with the previous week’s winner post Wednesdays.  I (Rebekah, and I seriously hope some of you look at this weekly updated selfie) post my own unbalanced writings sometimes on Tuesdays or Thursdays. And the fabulous Dog Days contest is live now through Tuesday night at 11:59pm, Washington, DC time.  

Now, chalk up your hands and let’s get to it!

Word limit150 word story (10-word leeway) based on the photo prompt.

HowPost your story here in the comments. Include your word count (140 – 160 words, exclusive of title) and Twitter handle if you’ve got one. If you’re new, don’t forget to check the contest guidelines.

Deadline11:59pm ET tonight (check the world clock if you need to; Flash! Friday is on Washington, DC time)

Winners: will post Sunday

Prize: The Flash! Friday e-dragon e-badge for your blog/wall, your own winner’s page here at FF, a 60-second interview next Wednesday, and your name flame-written on the Dragon Wall of Fame for posterity. 

***Today’s Dragon’s Bidding (required element to incorporate somewhere in your story; does not need to be the exact word(s) unless instructed to do so, e.g. “include the word “deduction’”):

Clumsiness

 

***Today’s Prompt:

Shiva. CC photo by Raphael Goetter.

Shiva. CC photo by Raphael Goetter.