artwork by Graham Hardman —

Read Part 1


Sizzling fries and buzzing flies: DIRK pulls a metal chair out from under a long plastic table at a foodstand. The raw feet of the chair scrape against the black pavement, announcing his arrival over the noise of carnival workers hammering pins into place and drilling rides together. The foodstand, empty after the lunch rush, welcomes him under the palm-leaf green tent leaves it spreads across an oasis of peace in an otherwise turbulent street, which is brewing with the construction of the Persimmon Festival.

With an abysmal lack of self awareness, Dirk sits down quietly and scooches in loudly until he can place his arms on the plastic red-and-white tablecloth comfortably. The tablecloth is still wet with dew where he sits in the shadows, but further down it slouches in the sun like icing melted off a cupcake.

Dirk tries to adjust the tablecloth, but it keeps sliding off. AUNT GARTH, who set her tent up early, out of the generosity of her heart, to feed the carnies while they put the festival together that morning, and who was not expecting anyone she knew — especially anyone younger than herself, despite recent happenings — watches him from behind a screen where the fryer hisses and all the kitchen utensils hang languidly off a piece of particleboard. When a crow, or maybe a dove as dark as a crow, which had been pecking at a soggy lump of french fry under the slouching tablecloth, takes off and startles Dirk with a spring of spinning feathers, Dirk and Aunt Garth meet each other’s eyes. They both pause for a moment to assemble the pieces of a conversation before speaking.


Hey there, Dirk.

Aunt Garth unconsciously puts a gloved and greasy hand through her silver and gold grandmother’s hair.



Hey is too informal for Dirk. He lifts an arm off the sticky tablecloth and waves it stiffly.


And what’ll you have?


A tenderloin plain, Aunt Garth.


Can do —

Aunt Garth takes the spatula and uses it to slide a frozen tenderloin onto the hot grill. Fat bubbles and pops, and the breading browns. The tenderloin slides across the grill until Aunt Garth catches it with a fly-swatting slap of her spatula. She holds it there while she pulls her phone out of the front pocket of her apron. The phone shines ebony-like between the red nails encrusted at the tips of her small and wrinkled fingers.


Honey, how long you usually cook

a tenderloin for?

The phone Aunt Garth is holding buzzes like a startled bee.

(aged but static-subdued,
as if transmitted from
somewhere far away)


take ten minutes to cook.


Thank you, honey.


Is that Coach Jack?

Aunt Garth smiles and puts her phone back in her pocket. She comes around from behind the screen and brings Dirk a bottle of Coke while the tenderloin sizzles and dances with a chemical life of its own. She pops the cap off the soda and sets it in front of him.

(in a prairie kind of way)

It sure is.

A pause of sizzling silence erupts while Dirk takes a swig of soda.


It’s not the same, but it’s better than

it was before — when we didn’t have anything.

Dirk smiles and gulps his soda. His arms squirm across the table like slugs in a shallow tidal basin, but his face remains surprisingly still. He looks uncomfortable. You might be forgiven for thinking he was getting too hot with the way the sun finally shreds the shadows surrounding him and pins him to his seat — he seems to sweat, and his clothes are too heavy and too formal for a day of drifting around the festival. He is dressed in dark khakis and a cheap dark-blue jacket, and he claws at the wrinkled collar of his formal shirt. Only when Aunt Garth goes back behind the screen to eclipse a cheap burger bun with his tenderloin, separating them in a way, does he speak.

(telephonically apologetic)

I’m sorry that he’s passed. I wish I could’ve

made it back in time to pay respects.

(slyly implying differently)

He would’ve liked to see you there, you know —

he always thought so well of you and all

the kids he helped.


I wish I could’ve made it,

but I was caught up in school.

(remembering her forgetting)

That’s right…

Aunt Garth looks away. The wrinkles in her face turn red, and the mole on her cheek becomes a volcanic mound of chocolate pudding about to boil out of the pot. She runs a hand through her hair again and gains some control over herself before bringing Dirk his tenderloin on a paper plate.


It’s OK.


It’s not OK.


I mean that it’s

OK to talk about it. It’s been nine months.

Aunt Garth starts to retreat behind the screen, but then she stops.


Sorry — what’s her name?


It was Flori.



Dirk shakes his head and nibbles at the angelic wing of his sandwich.


So is she…


In my phone? She died too early.

Dirk’s phone shivers. He presses his hand to his pocket in order to suppress the buzzing. Aunt Garth doesn’t notice from where she stands halfway behind the screen.


It’s all so sad…and with school too for you…

did they have to kick you out? You know

Jack wanted to watch you pitch a game,

but we couldn’t make the drive to Terre Haute.

The hammering festival workers start up again — and closer, suggesting the approaching beat of a robotic heart.

(rehearsing old excuses)

It was my fault. It makes sense that way,

I guess. I drank and drove and I should’ve known

even though I wasn’t drunk, legally.

And when we wrecked on campus it played their hand —

that’s why they had to expel me, you know?

As Dirk speaks, the drilling sound dies down, but his voice continues in a loud monotone, and his droning lack of emotion has a profound effect on Aunt Garth.

(digging a claw in)

You must feel awful.


There’s a dozen kinds

of debt to bare, and most of them aren’t money,

although I’ve got my share of all that, too.

Dirk smiles a half-laugh. He takes another bite of his tenderloin. The tenderloin is so huge that a rational person would assume he could never finish it. He eats it the way a machine eats a cog, going clockwise around the rim until, at long last, he licks the bun.

(cutting the pause down)

You want more pop?

Dirk shakes his head, “No.” More hammering — and shouts.


If they aren’t rebuilding the town…

this is the largest festival I’ve ever seen

since I was a kid. They say the mayor

has got a pot of money somewhere big,

but no one knows where.


He’s from out of town?


Yep —

Aunt Garth notices Dirk’s strange clothes, and something catches in her mind.


I guess you heard about the boy that died,

and the funeral today…

Dirk watches her intently, looking for a path of escape the way a mouse watches a cat before it pounces.


…did you?

(scuttering away quickly)

I’m meeting Shelly there.


Did you know him?


Shelly did, I think.


That’s nice.

Dirk looks up, surprised.


I mean

it’s nice of you to be there for her.

You know, things that happened to that boy

were horrible….I mean, just think about

how his parents ought to feel now. Even with

Hereafter and the good it does to help

a person grieve to see a loved one’s face

and hear their voice as if they’re really there,

it’s not the same — and I’m sure they’re torn apart.

Dirk’s phone rumbles again. His face turns pale. When it calms down, he takes his wallet out and places a $10 on the table. He stands to leave.


You can keep the change, Aunt Garth.


Thank you.

Dirk and Aunt Garth meet eyes again. Something else moves through Aunt Garth, shaking her gaze. She goes to run her hand through her hair, but it settles indecisively on her chin.


Were you together?




The girl who died

in the wreck with you last year?


We were good friends.

Hammers sound again. A carnie calls somewhere to let their supervisor know they need another bolt.

(attempting to reconcile
the narrative spun in her mind
with the apparent reality
of the situation)

I’m sorry that she didn’t live long enough

to find an afterhome inside your phone.

Dirk taps the money again. He puts his half-finished pop on top of the bills to keep them from blowing away.


Keep the change. I’m going to be late.

Dirk turns and leaves. Aunt Garth and her food stand soon disappear behind the prehistoric skeletons of almost-constructed carnival rides that rise up around him. Carnies escalate their hammering between all the metal ribs and electrical spinal cords. Their drill bits screech, and the fossilized swarm of metal creaks. Dirk seems to sink into the darkness of a preserving tar pit with so many rusted bones. But then his phone goes off, illuminating the scene from within the pocket of his jeans.

Dirk pulls the phone out of his pants. It shakes furiously in his hand and casts his face in an unnaturally blue light. FLORI floats across the pale screen.


What’s wrong?

(impossibly clear, present,
and intelligent)

I want to be the one to tell my story

the next time someone asks you how I died.


Lit Up

Welcome to Lit Up -The Land of Little Tales. Here you can read and submit short stories, flash fiction, poetry - in brief, your own legend. We're starting little. But that's how all big stories begin.

Cole Hardman

Written by

I’m an engineer with a passion for poetry and literary theory. Find more at:

Lit Up

Lit Up

Welcome to Lit Up -The Land of Little Tales. Here you can read and submit short stories, flash fiction, poetry - in brief, your own legend. We're starting little. But that's how all big stories begin.

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