Today in New Voices, the third place finalist for our Flash Fiction Contest, selected by Kathy Fish: “Simple Physics” by Kevin Leahy! In selecting this piece, Kathy said, “This deceptively simple story addresses the murkiness of memory in the face of great pain and loss. Here, the narrator, now grown, recalls a family outing that took place shortly before the death of his mother. The writer engages the reader’s empathy with a story that is by turns tender, funny, magical, and poignant. The final image of this unforgettable piece took my breath away.” Dive in below:
We all remember the scoop tumbling down Danny’s shirt—the chocolate stain it lithographed in its wake—and especially our mother’s bright, bursting laugh, louder than the rest of our laughs combined, a gut-buster that shattered into coughing.
That same June night, our parents bought us ice cream and balloons on the promenade of Buckingham Fountain. (Dad claims it was August, but I prefer to remember it my way, with the whole summer ahead of us.) We were greedy, ravenous: three boys fighting for the first scoop, catching elbows in our ribs. Every surface in the city bleeding heat into the sky. I grabbed the first cone but, to my mother’s surprise, refused a balloon—I’d just turned eight after all, balloons were for babies—but she pressed a bright yellow one into my hand.
“For me,” she said.
After the day we’d had, the need in her voice threatened to loose a rockslide within me, so I accepted the balloon without further complaint. It strained toward the sky, a dog trying to slip its leash. I figured five, maybe ten minutes until I could set it free without hurting my mother’s feelings. Naturally, I doubled its string around my fist and bounced it off my five-year-old brother’s head. He flinched and dropped his ice cream.
We all remember the scoop tumbling down Danny’s shirt—the chocolate stain it lithographed in its wake—and especially our mother’s bright, bursting laugh, louder than the rest of our laughs combined, a gut-buster that shattered into coughing. My father laid a hand on her back and looked from Danny to me, his face a swollen thundercloud. Danny gulped in a huge breath as his eyes brimmed, his ice cream dashed on the bricks, but he did not cry. Our older brother Tim, lost in his Walkman, cheerfully devoured his own cone. Beneath our father’s hand, the thin cotton of my mother’s shirt pulled tight against her ribs with every cough, outlining the boxy profile of her new pump and the coil of crazy-straw tubing that snaked into her abdomen.
“I’m sorry, Danny,” she said when she caught her wind.