Paper Dolls Literary Thriller Flash Fiction By Hope Houston

Paper Dolls: Literary Thriller Flash Fiction By Hope Houston

In Paper Dolls by Hope Houston, a jog through Washington D.C.’s Rock Creek Park twists into a meditation on memory, crime narratives, and the fetishization of violence against women.

*****

The clang of the screen door. A dimly lit street veiled beneath the Adams Morgan slopes at crested dawn. My Nikes, pink like grade school highlighters. I take a breath.

I join the rhythm of the earth in dance, leading from curb to park. Overhead, big breaths rustle the blinking canopy. I continue onto the path.

For a moment, I become one with the run: that elegant but hard transfer of energy from galloping limbs unto skipping stones and scattered twigs. That snap and rebound from the hoof of an impending sneaker. It comforts.

I glance down into the nearby creek, snaking slowly, lonely a few feet below the park path. This is the place they found that girl, that Senator’s mistress, over a decade ago. Brown-black curly hair. Milk-glass complexion. Lips like a rose pulling itself apart.

That girl. 

I quicken. Check behind myself. Clear.

That girl. That girl.

Streaks of early dawn cut through the sheltering leaves, as woodpeckers drum a woodland timpani. The stream whispers. It, too, comforts.

Then, a body’s blur. It eclipses the path with accompanied grunt, turning the world grey. 

I trip on an unsung rock, hurtling off into adjacent trees, tumbling with the slick of the slope. Now, everything is eclipsed. Eclipsed by chaotic panorama until I thump into the base of an oak and roll myself into grass.

Nikes now muddied, stained chartreuse. Palms now frayed like denim. Dust and tears turning already disoriented vision into a watercolor, ground with grit.

Brown-black strands licking my wet, panting cheeks. The sound of papers whipping with the wind. Papers?

Fingers to soil, I make out roots and stumps and fallen limbs. My raw hands reading earthen braille. I realize a dense circle of trees fence me into a clearing. 

Brown-black strands licking my wet, panting cheeks. The sound of papers whipping with the wind. Papers? That girl. My eyes dancing frantically to catch the beat.

A word focuses. MISSING. That girl. “Missing” twists around the trees in bold, black print, forms a macabre ticker tape at every trunk. MISSING. MISSING. MISSING.

My raw hands reading earthen braille. I realize a dense circle of trees fence me into a clearing. 

Below it, grayscale eyes, noses, lips, and teeth look out from the trunks. Pictures. Every trunk a belly pregnant and topped with ticker tape bow, every face nestled inside. Every face dripping with morning dew into melting news copy. I stand.

5’6″ and answers to the nickname, “Sunny.” Birthmark on left side of neck that looks like Italy. Brown hair and brown eyes, last seen 3/18/15. Seven years old. Twenty-four years old. Fifteen years. Thirty years. Eighteen. Twelve. Brown. Brunette. Green. Blue. Black.

Women and children first. Women and children only. 

At arm’s length, a muddied sleeping bag peels itself apart in the breeze. A can of tuna, half-eaten with jagged lid adjoined, in its lap. A maggot crawls up the tin’s ledge. Too fat to stand. Too small to walk.

The wind whips harder. I count. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty. Is it thirty? Twenty-nine. Twenty-nine prefaces to twentynine obituaries. The sky shakes.

Cross-fit and crunches, keys spindled through gripped fists, pepper spray in neon, silly string dispensers. What could have prepared us for this? I shake, too.

Then, he is no longer a blur but a man, rising up from solid ground. Something glitters in his hand. He says things I cannot hear. He has a face I cannot see. He pushes, and I lay down. I will lay down. I can lay down. That is something I can do.

Please believe me that I studied. We all studied for this test, but I have failed. That girl.

I have let us down.

Are we disposable? We become blotted, gray-black-brown pages, Rorschach dreams, that cry out from milk cartons, that, if we’re lucky, split across screens and beg for your tips and your time.

Should I be ashamed? Should I look up into the trunk-limb-loge, would #1, would #9, would “Goes by the Nickname Sunny” sneer at me and spit? Did they fight like hell? Did they give him hell? Did they scratch, bite, brawl?

I push my fingers into the ground. Push so hard they worm into the dirt. Center in my mind’s eye, imagine I am the maggot in the can. I, too—every atom of me—can worm into the dirt.

Are we disposable? We become blotted, gray-black-brown pages, Rorschach dreams, that cry out from milk cartons, that, if we’re lucky, split across screens and beg for your tips and your time. I know I should scream, but my cords are cut. My wings are clipped. I laid down.

Chandra. Chandra Levy.

I will be a tabloid cover in my milk-skin, money-eyes, rose-lipped way. A tabloid read and disposed. But a tabloid consumed. A story presumed. A memory, shallow and fleeting, but kept. What of the rest?

He holds my face. Etches it into the sponge of his brain. I cannot look away.

I take a breath. I hear the creek. I cannot look away.

*****

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