Flash Fiction: Back to Work by Val Muller

Welcome to The Spot Writers. This month’s prompt: a book keeps appearing out of the blue in the most unexpected and unusual places. Today’s tale comes to you from Val Muller, author of the spooky novel The Man with the Crystal Ankh.

Back to Work

By Val Muller

From the moment her daughter just “had to have it” at the checkout line, Harrison Habbinger the Squirrel drove Marie crazy. It should be illegal for stores to have children’s items in the checkout section. Or any items, for that matter. The check-out line was always the worst part of grocery shopping with a toddler and a newborn.

But what is a mother to do? When there’s a fussy toddler and a cart full of items to be placed on the conveyor belt, the easiest thing is just to give in. And the toddler always knew just how to time things just right—messing with the cart items just to the point of causing an actual mess. It was like she knew her mommy would be frazzled enough to buy the small book. In the game of chicken, the toddler always won.

And it was what, $3.95? But it was a four-dollar mistake. Since its purchase, Harrison Habbinger the Squirrel kept popping up everywhere, even when Marie tried to hide it.

It wasn’t even a great story. It made its point with alliteration. Each page played with a letter. “Harrison Habbinger loved lemons, licking his lips for lavender lemonade…” The author had labored so much on making the alliteration happen that there was nothing interesting about the story. The toddler didn’t learn any new facts about squirrels, there were no insights, no characterization, no funny jokes put in there for parents. Some children’s books did all these things. They were—well, maybe not quite enjoyable to read, but at least they made an effort at it, eliciting a chuckle at some idiosyncrasy of the grown-up world.

But not Harrison Habbinger the Squirrel. Yet for some reason the toddler was obsessed with it. The book followed them everywhere. Even when she thought she put it back on the bookshelf, it would materialize in the pantry, under the TV next to the DVD player, in the passenger seat of the car…

One day, Marie received an email from her husband at work. He’d discovered the book stashed in his briefcase. He’d showed it to his co-workers, and the office had a good laugh at the stupidity of the book.

Every night, the toddler asked for it to be read once, twice, sometimes more. It was excruciating, and the worst part was that the alliteration made it impossible to tune out. It was laborious for a tired mom to read at the end of the day. As the newborn grew, his love of the language patterns only helped encourage the toddler’s obsession.

And it didn’t just stop at the book. The obsession with the squirrel transcended the pages.

The toddler often asked for stories in the car, always about the squirrel. Waiting in line. In the bathtub. At bedtime. Eating lunch. In the car. Everywhere, the toddler demanded a story about Habbinger.

It was getting harder to make up original stories about the squirrel that had very little personality. When trying to put the baby to bed, Marie cringed at the excited cheers downstairs shouting the fact that as soon as the baby fell asleep, Mommy would be free to read Harrison again.

And again.

And again.

When Mommy was stuck for hours at a time and a chair feeding the baby, she was held captive by a toddler and her book.

Marie tried to remind herself that she was only away from work for 12 weeks. The time would fly by quickly, the baby would get bigger, and the toddler would return to daycare as well. The time would fly by fast, even if the hours might seem long. But still: every time she saw that book, she shuttered.

Her seven-hundredth attempt to hide the book failed on the cusp of her return to work. She spent her last waking moments of maternity leave reading the squirrel book several times to the squealing delight of her daughter who seemed nowhere near ready to fall asleep for the night.

The first two days back to work were a sort of reorientation into the work world, with coworkers taking her out to lunch and her regaling people with stories of the birth and the first few weeks and the toddler’s reactions and all the cute baby pictures that leave out the less desirable moments of parenthood—the diaper blowouts and temper tantrums and the obsession with badly-written kids’ books.

But after those first two days of work, things got back into routine. Everyone focused back on their jobs, and Marie realized she had a lot of catching up to do. It was on that Dreadful Wednesday, hump day, dreary rainy blurry Wednesday, when she actually felt a bit tearful dropping the kids off at their daycare. She stared at her desk. Had she done it? Has she been one of those moms to squander her time off? Everyone told her to appreciate every little smile, every little diaper accident, every little change of clothes, every all-nighter, every annoying story, because those hands wouldn’t be little for much longer. They said it was way too easy to squander if you weren’t careful.

Had she squandered all that time?

She dug into her bag to try to find her lunch. She’d packed some Halloween candy, and chocolate always cheered her up. As she dug through her bag, something tattered and worn and colorful peeked out at her.

It was Harrison Habbinger the Squirrel. In all its glory. There in her work bag.

How had it got in there? She smiled and knew the answer. That little toddler of hers, as mischievous as she always seemed, always knew how to time things just right.


The Spot Writers—Our Members:

Val Muller: http://valmuller.com/blog/

Catherine A. MacKenzie: https://writingwicket.wordpress.com/wicker-chitter/

Phil Yeats: https://alankemisterauthor.wordpress.com

Chiara De Giorgi: https://chiaradegiorgi.blogspot.ca/

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