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by Sandra Arnold

Finding a foot in a boot on the beach triggered all of it. The police insisting the foot belonged to a fisherman who’d been swept overboard didn’t help. She retreated. Ordered her groceries online. Changed the locks on her doors. Fitted chains and bolts. Stopped answering the phone. Made lists.

Things I’m afraid of:

  • Snakes falling out of trees
  • Mice and rats running up my legs
  • Spiders crawling on my pillow
  • Touching door handles with people’s germs on them
  • Manhole covers springing open
  • Multi-storey car parks
  • Falling down lift shafts
  • Driving across railway lines
  • Burning buildings
  • Falling out of boats

It was the last one that made her start a new list:

Things fathers say to daughters:

  • Keep smiling
  • Don’t answer back
  • Don’t air dirty washing in public
  • There are no shades of grey
  • I swear to God I’ll skin you alive. I’ll flay you. I’ll pulverise you. I’ll punch your lights out
  • You’ll wish you’d never been born

Dust motes floated on a shaft of light from a crack in the closed curtains. She watched them dance. Playgrounds. Fairgrounds. Clowns. Masks. Music. Toffee apples. Candy floss. This way little girl.

In the garden a bird shrieked. A cat threatening a nest? She pulled herself out of her chair. Unhooked the chain. Slid back the bolt. Turned the key in the lock. Opened the door. A greenfinch, swooping over some bushes. A baby bird, tiny, perfect, feathered, fluttering its miniscule wings in the grass. In response to its mother’s alarm calls it was trying to hop into the shadows. She scanned the tree to find the nest it had fallen from. But then what? If she put the little creature back the mother would reject it. If it stayed on the ground it would be a snack for a cat. The mother pushed a worm into its mouth and flew away. She supposed there was an outside chance it might survive the night if the mother stayed. But what if there were other hatchlings in the nest? The grounded chick would have to take its chance.

She lay awake all night, calculating the odds. In the early morning light she pulled on her dressing-gown, left the house and tip-toed over the damp grass, the cold shock of it stinging her bare feet. She looked for movement in the shadows. Looked for the shape of a slinking cat. Listened to the first stirrings of birds. Registered her own heartbeat.

Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. Her short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally. Her flash fiction appears in numerous journals, including Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine and New Flash Fiction Review, in the anthologies Sleep is a Beautiful Colour (National Flash Fiction Day, UK, 2017) and Fresh Ink (Cloud Ink Press, NZ, 2017) and is forthcoming in Bonsai: The Big Book of Small Stories (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018). Two of her stories have been nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize and the 2018 Best Small Fictions.