This story was funded by our members. Join Longreads and help us to support more writers.
Before he sits down to write, Pravesh Bhardwaj looks for inspiration. Nearly every day, he reads a short story freely available online and shares it on his Twitter thread. Each year he chooses his 10 favorites to share with Longreads readers.
Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You is a collection of interlinked short stories following a Jamaican family living in Miami. “In Flux” is excerpted from this collection.
“Why does your mother talk so funny?” your neighbor insists.
Your mother calls to you from the front porch, has called from this perch overlooking the sloping yard time and time again since you were allowed to join the neighborhood kids in play. Always, this signals that playtime is over, only now, shame has latched itself to the ritual.
Perhaps you’d hoped no one would ever notice. Perhaps you’d never quite noticed it yourself. Perhaps you ask in shallow protest, “What do you mean, ‘What language?’” Maybe you only think it. Ultimately, you mutter, “English. She’s speaking English,” before heading inside, head tucked in embarrassment.
In this moment, and for the first time, you are ashamed of your mother, and you are ashamed of yourself for not further defending her. More so than to be cowardly and disloyal, though, it’s shameful to be foreign. If you’ve learned anything in your short time on earth, you’ve learned this.
Two grieving siblings must take a road journey in this dark and complex story by Lauren Groff.
He woke to an angry house and darkness in the windows. Aunt Maisie had packed his suitcase the night before and left it near the front door, and so he dressed himself without turning on the light and came out and dropped the pajamas on top of the suitcase. She was in the kitchen, banging the pans around.
Buddy, she said when she saw him, set yourself down and get some of this food in you. Her eyes were funny, all red and puffy, and he didn’t like to see them like that. When he sat down, she came up behind him and hugged his head so hard it hurt, and her hands smelled like soap and cigarettes and grease, and he pulled away.
He ate her eggs, which were like his mother’s eggs, though her biscuit was not like his mother’s biscuit; it was too dry, and there was no tomato jam. When he was finished, she took his plate and fork and washed them.
Ken Liu’s disturbing story is told by the family members of a young woman killed in a mass shooting. The story is included in Ken Liu’s collection The Hidden Girl and Other Stories.
So you want to know about Hayley.
No, I’m used to it, or at least I should be by now. People only want to hear about my sister.
It was a dreary, rainy Friday in October, the smell of fresh fallen leaves in the air. The black tupelos lining the field hockey pitch had turned bright red, like a trail of bloody footprints left by a giant.
I had a quiz in French II and planned a week’s worth of vegan meals for a family of four in family and consumer science. Around noon, Hayley messaged me from California.
Skipped class. Q and I are driving to the festival right now!!!
I ignored her. She delighted in taunting me with the freedoms of her college life. I was envious, but didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of showing it.
In the afternoon, Mom messaged me.
Have you heard from Hayley?
No. The sisterly code of silence was sacred. Her secret boyfriend was safe with me.
“If you do, call me right away.”
I put the phone away. Mom was the helicopter type.
As soon as I got home from field hockey, I knew something was wrong. Mom’s car was in the driveway, and she never left work this early.
The TV was on in the basement.
Mom’s face was ashen. In a voice that sounded strangled, she said, “Hayley’s RA called. She went to a music festival. There’s been a shooting.”
“In a Jar” comes from Morgan Talty’s collection Night of the Living Rez. The story is set in Maine on the Penobscot Indian reservation where young David finds a jar of teeth which might be a curse left by someone wishing David’s family ill.
On those steps I wasn’t playing for too long before I lost one of my men to a gap between the stairs and the door. It was a red alien guy, and although he wasn’t my favorite, I still cared enough about him to go get him. Looking behind the steps, my knees were wet when I knelt in the snow, and my hands were cold and muddy when I pulled myself up. The sun warmed my neck, and a sliver of sunlight also shone behind the concrete steps, right at the perfect angle, and in the light I thought I saw my toy man. But when I reached into the slush I grabbed hold of something hard and round instead. I pulled it out.
It was a glass jar filled with hair and corn and teeth. The teeth were white with a tint of yellow at the root. The hair was gray and thin and loose. And the corn was kind of like the teeth, white and yellow and looked hard.
‘Mumma,’ I said. ‘What is this?’
‘David,’ she said from inside the shed. ‘Can you wait? Please, honey.’
I said nothing, waited, and examined the jar. My hand was slightly red from either the hot glass sitting in the sun all afternoon or from the cold snow I crawled on.
Mom came out of the shed, squinting in the bright light.
‘What’s what, gwus?’ she said. Little boy, she meant.
I held the jar to her and she took it. I watched her look at it, her head tilted and brown eyes wide as the jar. And then she dropped it into the snow and mud and told me to pack up my toys. ‘No, no, never mind,’ she said. ‘Leave the toys. Come on, let’s go inside.’
She got on the phone and called somebody, whose voice on the other end I could hear and sounded familiar. ‘I’ll be by,’ he said. ‘I can get there soon. Don’t touch it, and don’t let him touch anything.’
Karnoor, a poet, translator, and novelist writes some memorable women characters in this short story.
Rituparna had been an ideal student. She hung on to Sameer’s every word and spent long hours with him in the studio. She was also a good guest – she not only helped with the chores but took on some of the household responsibilities upon herself and was always thanking Aruna for allowing her to stay. ‘This is not an internship, this is the continuation of the guru-shishya tradition,’ she would say and jokingly call Aruna her ‘guru-ma.’ After this, there was no way Aruna could have been threatened by the proximity of her husband to this sultry, curly-haired woman nearly 15 years their junior. Moreover, Aruna was herself every bit the shade of monsoon clouds with a cascade of ringlets like the falling of nights that held the promise of laughter in them. She had turned many a head in her time and though slightly heavier under the chin now and with some grey peeking out at the temples, she was aware of her charm. That’s why she noticed nothing when a month later, stylishly unkempt Sameer began paying special attention to his grooming. And that’s why she noticed nothing when guru and disciple began going on long walks into the hills to discuss art history. She was just happy to have the house to herself and enjoy the peace of solitude. She noticed nothing when something furtive crept into Sameer’s behaviour and Rituparna began avoiding eye contact. That’s why it took her a couple of hours before realizing something was amiss when one day she came home from shopping for supplies to find them both missing and his car gone.
Mieko Kawakami’s novel Heaven was short-listed for the International Booker Prize in 2022.
It took only thirty minutes to cut down the wisteria tree. Its roots, abandoned on the dirt, resembled arms that grasped at something in midair. The excavator crushed everything, mixing the laundry pole, the flowerpots, and the stones. It trampled the porch and bulldozed through the house, mercilessly clawing through the furniture and screen doors. So that’s how you destroy a house, I thought, half-amused and impressed. The old two-story house that had stood majestically in the corner lot diagonally across the road was being destroyed, and I was watching the spectacle from my second-floor kitchen window.
An old woman had lived there. I would sometimes see her. When we moved into the neighborhood six years ago, we tried to pay a visit to the house a few times, but no one ever answered the door. Every once in a while, I would pass the old woman on the street as she walked slowly around the house in the morning and evening hours, leaning against a cart. We never exchanged greetings, and yet I felt strangely serene in those moments. She always wore a black blouse with a black cardigan draped over her shoulders, and in the spring evenings, I would see her walking slowly out of the rusted gate onto the sidewalk with a broom and dustpan in her hands. When the wisteria tree shed its flowers, the gray asphalt would be covered in shades of white and pale purple, and every time the wind blew, the petals would dance in the air. The old woman would spend a long time sweeping up those petals from one corner of the road to the other. The petals fell even on seemingly windless nights, and the following day, the old woman would emerge slowly with her broom and dustpan again. This would continue until the flowers were gone. But I had not seen her recently. When was the last time I saw her?
A bank teller falls in love with an easygoing older customer who doesn’t want to have an exclusive relationship.
“What is your name, dear?” he asked carefully, pulling out his wallet and putting it down on the counter.
“Angela,” she said.
“Angela, my name is Thomas.” He handed over his bank card. “Could I please have three hundred dollars in cash from my savings account?”
She rolled her eyes slightly, but as soon as she did she regretted it. She liked the man, and even if this was something that could have been done at the A.T.M. she shouldn’t have rolled her eyes. She was simply so used to disliking her customers, and she immediately apologized. “I’m sorry I rolled my eyes. It’s just habit.”
“A lot of things are habit,” he agreed, and didn’t seem offended.
“I have lots of bad habits,” she said.
“I do, too,” he said. “It takes a lifetime to get rid of them, and even then that is not enough time.”
As she counted out his money, she asked, “What habits have you overcome and which do you still have?”
“I no longer smoke or drink, but I tell little white lies. In fact, I do smoke and drink sometimes. No, I guess I haven’t overcome any.”
“I forget to exercise, and I eat junk food all the time.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Your body knows what it needs better than you do, better than all the magazines do, better than the doctors do, better than your girlfriends do. You just keep eating your junk food and lazing around.”
“Thank you,” she said. “No one has ever said that.”
“You do whatever you want. It really doesn’t matter.”
When her promising career is halted by the betrayal of a childhood friend, a young woman finds it difficult to reconcile her new situation or with the childhood friend who faces eviction. “Tumble” is one of eight interlinked stories in Sidik Fofana’s debut collection Stories From the Tenants Downstairs.
Usually, they give you time. You might see a notice on someone’s door for the whole year. Now, several units were getting one on the same day.
So less than a week into my time as a building liaison, Emeraldine hands me a printout of Banneker tenants who got notices in the past month—twentysome in all. She does it with this attitude like she’s waiting for me to object, but I just take the list and act like the new worker who’s happy to get work.
We gonna start setting those folks up with the Citizens Legal Fund, she goes.
I hold up the list doing my best to murmur the names. Michelle Sutton, Darius Kite, Verona Dallas. Then I get to one that cold knocks me out. I move it close to my face to make sure it’s not a mistake. Kya Rhodes.
Tochi Eze’s story about two sisters announces the arrival of another promising writer from Nigeria.
I was six years old when Kambili was pink and soft. Dad and Mum were loud with their joy—after five years of trying again, waiting again, Kambili was their prize at the end of those frantic years. Daddy’s trophy. Mummy’s answered prayer. Mine to watch and care for.
Mummy had returned from the hospital that Sunday after mass while Daddy fried yams and egg sauce in the kitchen. I could still taste the hot honeyed Lipton tea stinging my mouth when Daddy waltzed out to the parlor, swaying to highlife music from Oliver De Coque, his happiness hung on his neck and lips, on the bridge of his nose. I wanted to pull his neck to my chest, hear his laugh close to me, tickling me till I was bouncing and laughing too. I reached out, my arms wide open in their endless regard for him, wanting, even at six, to be picked up and lifted in the air. But then the gate rattled, the car honked, and Daddy and I knew that Mummy was back. She stepped out of Baba Kunle’s yellow taxi, with grandmama behind her, both of them smelling of white powder and fresh baby.
When Kambili was five months old, I snuck into her room as Mummy fried akara in the kitchen and I pierced her tiny baby shoulder with a razor. I watched her baby blood spurt into the sheets, and I screamed, and she screamed, and I ran to fetch Mummy.
Ursa Story Company, helmed by Dawnie Walton, Mark Armstrong*, and Deesha Philyaw, offers audio and web versions of their stories. “Happy Family” is set in a Chinatown restaurant in a bygone era.
When the real estate business was failing, and my parents’ marriage was also failing, my mother and my stepfather took out a second mortgage and opened a restaurant. This was on Grand Street, on the other side of Chinatown. My parents christened it “Ga Hing” for “Happy Family,” which didn’t make sense to me at the time because we were barely a family, and nowhere near happy. My stepfather wasn’t happy because he played mahjong, and had accumulated the kind of debt that was so impossible to pay off, he was convinced that turning back to the game could save him. My mother wasn’t happy because she said that she already knew what it was like to be poor, and that being poor again was worse because it was now entangled with bitterness and regret. I wasn’t happy because I somehow understood, even then, that there were things that I would never be able to get back. I was fourteen; I was about to start high school. In short, it was the end of my childhood.
It was expected of me to work at Ga Hing, to contribute for the good of the family. And while my classmates could spend their afternoons at the Ice Cream Factory, or roam the halls of Elizabeth Center for anime action figures and keychains and fancy pens, I had to work at the restaurant, and at most, wish that I could be elsewhere. One wouldn’t think that at such a young age, I could learn how to take orders, serve dishes, or even work the register. But when push came to shove, I found that I could learn rather quickly.