This Week in Short Fiction


This is supposed to be a story.

This is the first sentence of “The Alive Sister,” a powerful new work of flash fiction by Megan Giddings published at The Offing on Monday. In it, two little black girls are playing an imaginary game with foam bats in a park. Someone calls the police. The girls keep playing, oblivious, lost in their pretend battle. The police shoot. “This is supposed to be a story,” Giddings writes. As if to say: This is supposed to be fiction, fantasy. This is not supposed to be reality. This cannot be real. As if to say: But it is.

They’re in imagination land. Each of them is a giant and they’re fighting over who will be the next queen of giant land. The vanquished one will bring the victor candy cake and a golden crown that has you are the best engraved upon it. This is the final battle, the older girl yells, and sees a golden unicorn. Its wings thrill her. Then a police officer—for too stupid reasons that would make someone who thinks of herself as a good reader say in response, “it seems like you are trying to make the villain a caricature rather than a real person,”—shoots one of the sisters. The twelve year old falls back into leaves and the police officers don’t check on her. They instead arrest the sister.

Giddings writes the story as if she’s in the process of crafting the story, creating a tension between fiction and reality, the story and the perception of the story, this “fictional” police brutality and the too many real-life cases of it that have happened and keep happening. The police officer’s reasons for shooting are so stupid that some readers wouldn’t believe them in fiction, she tells us, holding up a dark mirror to American society’s weird need to rationalize such killings, to humanize the cop who pulled the trigger, to believe it had to be anything other than ingrained, systemic racism. This is a story that is self-aware and that brings the reader into its awareness, whether they like it or not.

“The Alive Sister” can’t be reduced into a polemic or a merely political story. It’s so much more than that. It’s a story of a sister’s grief and anger and love, and the way Giddings writes these emotions is visceral and essential and will twist you up. It’s a story that goes to unexpected places; a time machine becomes involved. It’s a story that questions fiction, and turns it inside out, and uses it to its fullest and best purpose: to expose the truth hidden in reality.

The left alive sister learns rage. Or loneliness. Definitely fear. She learns about life’s swamp ugliness. Hate is an alligator pretending to be a log, ready to chomp you in half when you’re calm and looking at it and thinking what a boring piece of wood. She will know what her sister’s eyes looked like right before someone meant to protect them shot her. Maybe someone will blame her or her parents because why should kids have anything that look remotely like weapons. And then she’ll learn what it means to be tired. Maybe I’ll be able to write all this in a way where people say I am so removed and even-keeled. I’ll write it in a way where someone just says what an interesting story and feels no blame. And then I’ll have to wonder if that makes the story a failure or success. There is no clear medicine in this story’s honey.

Claire Burgess’s short fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, and PANK online, among others. Her stories have received special mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, but haven’t actually made it into one yet. She’s a graduate of the Vanderbilt University MFA program, where she co-founded Nashville Review. She lives in Pittsburgh by way of the deep South and says things on Twitter @Clairabou_. More from this author →