alex peterson

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    flash fiction

    They Used to Paint the Sky

    fiction | winter 2016

    Here we have Maryann, a professional clown without obvious success, who saw a need and is now floating cross-country through walls and trees and concrete abutments to meet that need.

    Far from the screaming highway, a lone paved road slows and sprouts houses on either side. Single-story, identically shaped, embedded in moats of browning grass. Then the drugstore, stocked with essential groceries and a brand-new electronics section, then the school, then more houses, including hers. 206th curves like a frown and spiders into gravel after the pavement sort of just ends.

    Typical small linear town where people stay and grow old. Not Maryann.   

    Her brief stint as a child taught her two important things: 1) she had supernatural gifts, and 2) she had a natural gift that was just as super, plus more reliable. She could and would move to the coast ASAP to use those gifts in a big way. Maryann was infectious, and despite her youth could give anyone down on their luck a case of the smiles. She made the best funny faces and always had a story about how life was worse, way worse, for somebody else. 

    But six years gone and her shtick hasn’t quite caught on. Can-do as ever, and filling an apparent market void, she’s spent all her waking time with the poorest of the poor without so much as a laugh. Her travels through the coastal cities are long dim smears of memory that get interrupted by the yearly premonitions. 

    They came stronger this year, those otherworld inklings. All the parents of her old friends plus one grandmother still lived at home. They said, whispered, seeped into a conscious awareness, we’re sad here. So like before, she sat down and asked, how sad? Asked, where does it hurt? Asked, why, still? No further response, like always, just a vague image of a congregation at the central drugstore while the word ssssad leaked and tumbled away. 

    If the town on 206th has one tic, it’s that they mourn slow. It happened, it was no one’s fault even though plenty came forward to take some of the blame. They only remember the event in flits: twined bundles of fireworks, smashed aluminum cans, entire fucking class of ’98 in the grade school gym, orange-tinted everything. Beth Carlson had blood caked on her leg and just sat and stared at it, didn’t move for days until it flaked off on its own. Maryann’s own name got stamped into the new concrete they poured.

    They should be throwing a town-wide block party to kick off the summer. But ever since, they just group up and stay a respectful level of quiet, once each year. No grease-slicked grass in a blanket of wrappers or grills spitting charcoal smoke. No kids running in the street and no traffic anyway. 

    Yes, it’s her moment. Today is when it counts. Maryann has spent all morning painting painting painting. A white oval past her jawline, then oversized orange-blue lips, then black spiked outlines, then blush.

    But balloon animals galore and a squeak-toy nose don’t get even a nod from the kids. Adults, in their own huddles, keep mumbling about the weather like she’s invisible. “Dark and low, dark and low.” Old Stan, not a day older than she remembers, points up and away. His nephew Stanley nods without looking.

    Miss Carlson says, “Easier this year. Wendy and her sister can finally handle a dustpan.” Her daughters are too young to remember much. She holds Wendy by the neck between her hand and hip and gives a loving squeeze.

    Maryann floats and floats, jazz-hands in the middle of each group, and they just don’t perk up even a little bit. Some clown, some career, short life.

    Her own childhood was nothing to brag about but she remembers this: the road chock-full of people, smoky pastel sky, booms and flames and flashing lights that didn’t stop till way past bedtime, cheering like you’ve never heard.

    branching narrative


    fiction | fall 2014

    A short story that unfolds along a maze. Partly inspired by Loved, partly just a fun experiment.

    play the game!

    (note: This code is old, and only seems to be working proerply on Safari)