Negotiations by Beckie Dashiell
It is a ghost who whispers in my ear at night: it’s not natural to share a bed with the same man for so long.
The next morning, I begin making plans. Calculating what can be left behind, which books are mine and which are his, the pots and pans, the squirreling away of spare change for tolls.
Though she only speaks to me at night—my ghost—she is with me always. Her name is Anna, too, and she died in a fire over 60 years ago. She says she never felt the flames, that it was all over very quickly. Sometimes, I think she lies.
When the copier in the supply room is jammed, I think it could be her. A fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen is also her. She is the patch of ice in front of my steps, the branch that crashes to the sidewalk moments after I pass, the jumper cables I swore I’d lent to a friend but here they are in my trunk when I need them. She is always trying to trick me. She is always trying to save me.
He spends whole days on the couch, lost in whatever is on his phone.
The phone is his ghost, Anna says. It speaks to him, like I speak to you.
Then what is the difference, I ask. Am I no better?
The difference is you know why I’m here.
It isn’t simply the sharing of the bed. It’s him lifting his feet in the air as I sweep the floors. It’s him not bothering to eat if he isn’t reminded. It’s how quickly the liquor bottles fill the recycling bin.
I know, I know, he is staving off some deep darkness.
His own ghost, perhaps, whispering: it’ll be dark before 7. It’ll be cold. Here, you are warm and safe. Why even bother?
Imagine if our ghosts could talk. Negotiate. He simply has to get up. She’s thinking about leaving, you know.
His ghost: Well we can’t tell him that. He’ll become a part of the sofa.
My ghost: You see the problem there, don’t you?
His ghost: I don’t make the rules. I’m trying to keep him in one piece.
One piece, Anna says later. Not doing a very good job.
She can be brutal. She wants me to sneak away in the middle of the night. To leave only a note. I ask her what it would say, and she tells me to stick to the facts: This is too much, you are too much, don’t forget to put out the trash on Monday nights.
He has fallen asleep on the couch again, and I lie awake in bed, imagining the trash piling up around him. Seeping into every room. The cost of bagging it up and setting it outside once a week too high to bear.
Anna loved someone once, too, though she is fuzzy on the details. It might have been a lover, or perhaps it was her child. Aren’t those different kinds of love, I ask.
For you, maybe. This many years out, the only thing I feel is that it’s gone.
And the fire, I ask. Did the fire take them too?
I don’t remember.
After this, she is absent for many weeks. In that time, I don’t leave, and don’t leave again.
Late at night, I negotiate with myself. The only way to fall asleep is to promise that tomorrow I will put things in motion. But instead, what keeps me from sleep scabs over by morning. As if I can put a bandage on and nearly forget it’s there. It’s only when some fresh new wound takes its place, I remember the last one at all. And the one before that. And the one before that. The tender skin only just given a moment of fresh air.
I know that Anna will be back. I wait for the voice in the dark, the shimmer of her. I wait for her to tell me I’m an idiot. That I’m covered in gauze. That I am more like her than I know.
The NFFR and Beckie Dashiell Interview
During the pandemic, what’s been your favorite artistic escape either book, music, or tv?
I’ve been doing a lot of reading and watching tv, and have found particular comfort in revisiting past favorites, like Alice Munro’s stories and 30 Rock.
Science fiction has been especially appealing to me. I’ve reread Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy twice in the past year (after having read the whole series years ago). I’m amazed at this new, terrifying world he’s built, and all the characters he’s created to populate it. It’s more than a little relevant right now.
We’ve been thinking about the elusive definition of Flash Fiction and the different and similar ways we all approach it. What’s your working definition of it or thoughts on what it “is”?
As far as definitions go, I’ve always thought of flash fiction as stories that are 1,000 words or less. But you are right: that doesn’t really get at what it “is.”
I don’t usually set out to write a flash piece—it just kind of happens. There’s a moment where I know that this is all the story needs to be. I can always keep writing, but that would take away from the power of this compact little punch. And then there’s the breath after the punch. That’s where the story is.
What was the inspiration for this story?
The first line of this story was a thought I had as I was falling asleep. Luckily, I had the good sense to rouse myself and write it down; otherwise, it would have been gone by morning (which is what often happens to me). The story grew from there, as I imagined who the ghost was and the conversations she might have with the narrator.
Using the ghost was an interesting way for me to explore the things the narrator was afraid to say or even to let herself think about. I find myself often in this place—not wanting to confront what’s in front me.
There’s nothing like reading a story and having that moment where you think “I’ve felt that way!” or “Yes, that’s it exactly!” I hope some readers have that experience with my work.
Beckie Dashiell graduated from the MFA program at UNC-Greensboro and currently lives and works in Philadelphia. Her work appears in Tin House Online, SmokeLong Quarterly, Forge Literary Magazine, and Short Edition.