Two Short Fiction Stories — Dale Stromberg

Done and Dusted

He slipped on the road, dropped his box.

All his apples spilled out.

And we laughed at


     I was with Bellatrix Sakakino on her deathbed. The room was kept dim for her, and warmed by an oil-burning stove. She lay still beneath her quilts, eyes closed. I inquired whether she was comfortable, and she gave a subtle nod.
     I imagine she felt the end coming on, for she feebly lifted her hand. I leant in and asked, “What is it?”
     “Don’t grieve long for me,” she murmured. “Rain will fall and settle the dust. When the rainwater dries, it returns to the clouds to rain down again, and the dust, when dry, flies up again. All things must cycle so. We view them for a span, and then we also return to water and dust.”
     With this, she bowed her head and breathed softly, and I leant back in my chair, very much struck by her serene readiness to meet death.
     Perhaps five or so minutes had passed when Bellatrix wrinkled her nose and raised her head slightly, her eyes on me. “You cut one, didn’t you?”
     I sat nonplussed, then replied, “No, I didn’t.”
     She tutted and rolled her eyes. “You know, I’m only the one dying here. I’d rather not go out in a haze of your ass-gas.”
     “You’re imagining it.” I really was innocent of the charge.
     “Just—go fart in the hall, if you can’t hold it in.” She dropped her head to the pillow.
     A moment later, her eyes opened once more. Over the years, I’d learnt to divine her thoughts from her countenance, and what I read now was rueful annoyance at having ruined the solemn mood established by her prior comments—by what I now saw were to have been her last words.
     I observed hesitation in her face, and then her mind began to turn. I fancied that I could even trace the course of her thoughts as she prepared to repeat her final words—one last time, once and for all, and then lips sealed till the end. What was it? she must have thought. Don’t grieve—dust and rainwater—with the clouds and all that—view them for a spell? Wait, was it for a ‘spell’? A ‘spell’ sounds too homespun... For the love of Chr—
     Her breath ceased, and her eyes rolled back. Bellatrix was gone.
     I suppose I must have wept. She had been dearer to me than I could ever express. But something prevented me from yielding myself entirely to mourning. A trailing dissonance, like a singer hitting a bad note on a song’s final syllable.
     I do wish Bella could have managed a little longer to keep her mouth shut.

Unring the Bells

     The last item on my checklist: “Finish this checklist.”
     On Bellatrix Sakakino’s Last Day, her sister Hannah slept late, woke to the cotton pillowcase cool against her cheek, then ate a slow breakfast: yogurt with honey, homemade raisin bread, cubes of cut melon, black coffee.
     Their brother Ambrose sat by the window and read a novel till the sun was well risen, then took a wander outside, sticking to the narrower, quieter streets in Shimokitazawa. There were couples on café patios and hairdressers lounging outside on smoke breaks. The old woman who taught acting classes trundled past on her bicycle. The hookah bar owner hosed down the pavement in front of his corrugated shutters.
     When the bell rang just after noon at their grandmother’s apartment in Tateishi, Setsu opened the door to find her gentleman friend Okafo bearing Indian curry takeaway and half a dozen record albums. His kindly smile never faltered when Setsu looked blankly at him. “Bella’s Last Day,” he said, knowing Setsu needed the reminder. “Ah!” laughed Setsu in her usual demure semi-panic, beckoning him inside. “I’ll freshen up.”
     Tatsuya and Abdullah, a couple of Bellatrix’s exes, met at the turnstile in Nishi-Ogikubo Station not long before dusk and dapped elaborately as suit-clad commuters shuffled round them. They’d pledged to drain off one tokkuri of rice wine at each closet-sized bar in the neighborhood. Each was sure he’d outlast the other.
     Hannah and Ambrose chose a dimly lit anaba in Nakano for risotto and a chat. They shared a tacit agreement to follow their sister’s Last Day rules: no karaoke, no talking about work, no emotional drama; and, as they explained to the bartender, the TV mounted up in the corner needed to be turned off.
     Setsu and Okafo strolled from the bus stop back to her place after dinner, arm in arm under the streetlamps, the fingers of her other hand laid over his forearm. Each hummed and laughed lowly, barely able to contain themselves till they got home.
     Seven bars into their hashigo-zake, Abdullah asked Tatsuya how he was. “I’m going to slow down,” Tatsuya mumbled, lowering his cup. Abdullah said, “Yeah, better be careful,” then burst into giggles. They spent the next hour on their backs in a narrow neighborhood park, looking at the stars and sharing music from Tatsuya’s phone, one earbud each.
     With a yawn and a cheek-kiss, Ambrose left earlier than Hannah to clear the way for things with her and the bartender, who was the spitting image of Tomochin from AKB48. Hannah didn’t have to say a word to the girl; her eyes told her everything.
     In all, it wasn’t bad for a Last Day. Certainly no funeral could have compared. If Bellatrix could have come back to life for twenty-four more hours, there’s no way she’d have wanted to waste that extra day daubing her eyes over somebody’s casket. She’d have spent her last day the way they—that handful of people to whom she had mattered—spent it for her.

Dale Stromberg grew up not far from Sacramento before moving to Tokyo, where he had a brief music career. Now he lives near Kuala Lumpur and makes ends meet as an editor and translator. His work has been published here and there.