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by Charmaine Wilkerson

His mistake, he thought, later.

He’d sent a lengthy text message to the other homeowners, asking them not to flick cigarette ash off their balconies, where, down below, the basil and lemon had been positioned to catch the afternoon sun, and reminding them that his patio had been the recipient of a series of other uninvited items from above, including, most recently, a barbecued jumbo shrimp and a sodden baby diaper. Whereupon, whoever had been letting ash fall onto his patio proceeded to drop double portions of the stuff, much of which still held the tubular shape of a cigarette.

His daughter had feared as much.

The morning after, she slipped outside with a broom and dustpan and swept up the ashes before he could wake to find them. Just as she’d once tidied up the details of her mother’s afternoons, perspiration dampening her hairline. But he, being up until the wee hours of the previous night, had already checked the patio, had already found tiny tubes of ash on his synthetic wicker furniture, on the book he’d left out, on the Dare Me jersey his daughter had hung over the back of a chair to dry. Little ash caterpillars, accompanied by a far-reaching spray of grey and white particles, which dotted the leaves of his tangy basil plant and drifted across the floor.

He had feared as much.

He was ready with the broom and dustpan to clean up the extra ashes before his daughter could wake to find them. Just as he’d tidied up the details of her mother’s departure, sanitized and packaged them for teenage consumption. But his daughter woke on the second morning to find more ash, plus a crumpled tissue, sticky with green. She swept quickly, thinking that her father’s mistake had been this: To not follow more of the news, to not pay greater attention to the genesis of things, of toxic waste in the rivers, of trash islands in the ocean, of sea lions with six-pack plastic in their windpipes.

Poor neighbors were at the heart of it all, she knew.

At the heart of things that could drag a mother away.

She dusted off the fake-wicker chairs and watered the plants, having decided that she would protect him, leaving him to begin each day still believing in the goodwill of his neighbors. But then, he caught the man upstairs in the actual act of flicking ash. He shouted up to the balcony above, jabbing his gardening glove in the air.

His daughter had feared as much.

After his neighbor pulled the trigger, he lay prone on the patio floor, thinking that his daughter would have to wipe off the lemons and hose down the floor.

His mistake, he thought.

That he’d believed he could protect her, to allow her to end her day believing in the goodwill of her neighbors.

Charmaine Wilkerson was born in New York and does most of her writing in Rome. Winner, Bath Flash Fiction Award’s Novella-in-Flash 2017 contest. Her stories have appeared in To Carry Her Home — Bath Flash Fiction Volume OneAd Hoc Fiction and New Letters magazine. She tweets at @charmspen1. Sporadically.