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November 20, 2023

The Flamingo

Joel Hans

A long time ago, somewhere between there and here, you stop at a store, where the shopkeeper sells a shortcut to return home. When you ask how much that costs, they smile. You can’t return home without a gift for your daughter, but the shopkeeper hands you a stuffed flamingo—golden beak and eyes blue as the seat at the far, far end of the world, where your journey had taken you—and shows you to a shuddering door.

The stars are out but your daughter’s bedroom light is on. On your way inside from the backyard, you pass her mother, who stands with her hands shocked so firm over her mouth she only lets you kiss the backs of her hands. Still tucked into her bed, your daughter holds the flamingo close, their wide black eyes considering one another’s. When she asks if you can cut the plastic that binds the flamingo’s wings to its body, you find you have been carrying scissors all along. With its wings unclipped, your daughter makes the flamingo fly, its pink fur shimmering as though spun from glass. She asks if she is dreaming you, but you tell her you two are in no dream, and she thanks you not for coming home early, but for remembering her while you were gone.

In the shortcut, you earn back time you would have otherwise missed. Steal joy from behind shadow. You two dive your feet into a creek and giggle at minnows nibbling away your toes. You disrobe an owl from a barbed wire fence and find it returns, year after year after year, with the most beautiful gifts. You walk an aisle together, a hundred eyes watching, to deliver her to someone who loves her with equal measure. You treasure age together, along with the flamingo, always stuck in your daughter’s pocket like a nest—your wrinkles and her first grays and clouds scratched into the flamingo’s glass eyes.

Then, one day, you wake up and find the shuddering door in your backyard. Your daughter’s mother is shocked still with her hands over her mouth, but now she moves them so you can kiss once last, like she’s known all along the price you paid to the shopkeeper between here and there. That you might not see one another again. You walk to your daughter’s house and tell her the time has come for you to leave. Make up the time you together stole. Finish, alone, the rest of your long journey home. With a shuddering hand, she pushes the pink flamingo into your pocket, asking you to take care of her old friend, to be careful, as you are no longer the young parent she had gotten to love. She thanks you for this wonderful dream. She tells you to fly.

When you pass through the shuddering door, the shopkeeper puts a gentle hand on your shoulder. Shows you the path you must still finish. Now the shadows are out. The flamingo spreads its wings and shows you how to fly. Ahead is a woods populated by misses. Beyond that, at the end of your long journey home, the chance to see whose bedroom lights might still be lit on that someday starful night.