by Rajiv Moté (Flash fantasy, 800 words)
Jada wants to take dinner down to her father, so I slap some raw meat from the cutting board onto a tray. It means she’s not afraid anymore, and she’s still a forgiving child. I want to nurture both. But my heart beats faster. My throat and lungs are still raw.
I don’t tell her to be careful. His temper isn’t hers to manage. It was never mine, either, though I’ve formed instincts over the years. The door groans, the stair creaks, and I hear his breathing, the low rumble of an approaching storm. My muscles coil and an answering growl builds painfully in my chest. I listen for the telltales of agitation I’ve learned during our marriage. I’ll always protect you baby, I told my daughter four days ago, holding her head against my belly, her tears soaking through my shirt.
I relax my grip on the knife I’m using to cut onions, green peppers, and chunks of tomato. That’s not the protection that’s needed. That’s not the situation.
He’s a literal ogre, my friends say, as if they know what that means. As if it matters. As if fur and rage are all that define him. He’s big enough that I’m lost in his arms. Strong enough to stand against anything that would hurt our family. He has never once touched me or Jada in anger. He would never. He loves us, and even if ogres won’t apologize, the fact that he’s stayed in the basement shows he has remorse.
But he also has a temper.
Have you ever heard a lion roar? It’s louder than you’d expect, even from such a massive beast. You feel it as much as hear it. It fills space. It brooks no argument. An ogre roars like that, but hurling words with such force and fury, they hit you at your core. If a voice like that calls you useless, coddling, or lazy, maybe you are. When I was young my mother used a voice almost like that to call me selfish, and ever since I’ve tried to put the needs of others first. And she was no ogre.
I listen from the top of the stairs. Her father asks Jada about school, and she gives him the same one-word answers she gives me. Questions about friends get longer answers. She even whispers something that makes him chuckle, rattling the light fixtures. He’s Good Dad now. The growl rises to my sore throat. Four days ago, she was crying, saying she didn’t feel safe in this house. Four days ago I shouted him down into the cellar where he’s stayed ever since. I shouted down an ogre.
There’s an offensive theory that pop psychologists advocate on talk shows, to the jeers of the ogres, trolls, goblins, and harpies in the audience. They say the locust, famous for swarming and devastating crops, is not a distinct species from the grasshopper, but a stress-induced behavior. So too, they say, the inhumans among us are merely humans with “externalized pathologies.” They’re just people transformed by their worst traits. It’s a demeaning and racist idea that I never want my daughter to hear.
But it’s true that when ogres start to rage, they can’t stop. They keep working themselves up until the explosion, and only then can they eventually calm down. I know the drill. I’ve gone through the repair bills. But he’d never exploded at Jada before. Not like four days ago. She’s growing up, starting to assert herself. She’s showing signs of a temper herself. And her father has his triggers.
My first, awful thought? Thank God it’s not at me.
Selfish. I was putting my fears before my own daughter. Shame can overcome fear. Shame can curdle into anger in your chest and rip from your throat, louder than you’d expect from a human. And when you know—without a doubt—that you’re right, when it’s for your child, what you unleash brooks no argument. There’s power in rage. Enough to drive an ogre down into the cellar.
But I can rein it in. I have to. Someone has to set an example, to show another way. Jada’s only half ogre.
I make fajitas using the rest of the meat. I pan-roast it with the vegetables together, removing a portion from the heat a little early. Only a bit of char that doesn’t go deep. Lately I’ve craved my meat a little rare.
When we sit at the table to eat, occupying only two of the three chairs, Jada asks when Daddy can come upstairs. As if I’m the one keeping him down. I fold a piece of steak into a tortilla, without bothering with fixings. Its juices drip red onto my plate.
When he’s ready, I say, and then I take a bite.
I’ll be ready too.
In 2019, a magazine accepted this story for publication. We signed a contract. Then the magazine shut down and voided the contract. They reopened in 2021, and I resubmitted. They gave it a 48-day form rejection. The competition got tougher over the pandemic. So I’m tossing this one into the Unsold Tales pile.