“Balter Café” by Elle Flythe

The chairs outside the Balter Café are gold and black with a chevron pattern that rips apart when the earthquake hits. The street beneath them splits in two. Inside the café things are no better. Wires hang low and the glass from the broken windows comes to rest inside still faces. But neither the cracked street outside nor the broken glass indoors is now the worst of it; that baddest bane is the tuberose flowers sitting by the café’s registers, for the Diablo Wind warms them to a sickly sweet scent that coats the nostrils and gets inhaled with speech. Speaking of speech, only two people are left living: Daniel and Etta.

Daniel and Etta are lovers from a long poem. Sometimes on narrow sidewalks they won’t unlink their arms and in crowded rooms they often hear only each other. Today they are more inclusive. They have taken notes of apology and last best wishes from the three other inhabitants who died several hours ago (although Etta, whose left ear is softly ringing, does mistake a Sara for Celia). Hunger. Dead phones. Birds’ nests. Car hoods. Survival. Everything and nothing is on their minds.

“How do you know they’re robins?” Daniel asks.

“Because they’re blue.”

“Starling eggs are blue too.”

Etta lies supine on the floor with her left wrist pinned under a table, but despite the discomfort she still has her wits about her. “Starlings, really? Well knock me over with a feather.”

When Daniel laughs, the silver beam running from the wall behind him, through his back, and out of his white sous chef jacket seems to grow longer, but the cranberry-colored stain no longer spreads. That’s a win for the couple who wants to get married and have two children. Etta longs to name them Halima and Grace if they’re girls. If they’re boys Daniel gets to give them names that look good in lights. With his left hand Daniel pets a long sharp knife.

Before their game of I-Spy, Etta told Daniel she could name every element in the periodic table. She gave up when he said he wanted to hear the new-school gases too, the ones with names like Californium. She hasn’t named her next trick.

There is an unfamiliar noise outside but Etta doesn’t look behind herself. Whenever she turns something falls off the table beside her and she hears a sound she can only describe as a rock hitting a waterbed mattress. Their boss. Instead of looking Etta runs her right index finger through the pollen on the floor. Then she carefully presses a single green dot onto her white silk blouse. Children making their first phone call practice less care. After three dots she looks up.

“The World Series quake was 6.9,” she says.

“That’s a baseball fact,” he answers.

She smiles and lifts her good hand off her bad one, “I do listen to your sports factoids, Daniel. You’re clever and you sneak them in among more interesting topics.”

The silver beam grows half an inch.

Etta bends her right knee and her lilac skirt forms a silk tent. Of no causal connection the ground rumbles again. It’s more important this time because the rafter holding the roof above Etta’s head cracks another inch. That’s the line Daniel and Etta chose one hour ago. As agreed, Daniel slides the long knife across the floor.

“Can you do it?” he asks for the last time.

“Notice my top first.”

Daniel takes her in from head to toe. When they met five years ago—when Daniel hadn’t heard of Opportunity or Helene Johnson, and Etta didn’t know that Sandra Cisneros wrote poetry not just books—the first thing Daniel noticed was Etta’s neck, that it was as thin as a pencil, and even though she was only in her twenties she already had four deep lines across the skin of it. He’s given her various origin stories since then: a ghost who tried to slit her throat in the night; a tiger and a narrow escape. Now he notices that it is almost exactly three times the width of her wrist. “How’d you get the pollen dots so even?” he asks.

“They are, aren’t they?”


“And that’s the trick.”

“What’s the trick?” He closes his eyes. He can’t watch.

“The trick, the trick… You just have to give yourself something worse to think about.”

Then the café is flooded with red.

Great flashing lights of it.

Elle Flythe was born and raised in the eastern United States. She lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost a decade. This is her first piece of published fiction. She can be reached at elleflythe@gmail.com


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