Thriller author Dan O’Shea offered a challenge: he’d donate $5 to the Red Cross for tornado relief for every flash fiction written about the theme of rain. I’m a bit late, but here’s mine.
by Jane Lebak
“Hold onto the end,” she says, “and then push the button.”
At her side, Melissa struggles with the child-size collapsible umbrella, repositioning her hands and then struggling with the button until it clicks, and the stem extends. Then she lets go of the top so it flares into blue and white flowers, while Jennifer, her mother, steps back out of the way to avoid the ribs.
Jennifer has closed her own umbrella in order to help Melissa learn to manipulate hers, and the drizzle dots her hair with temporary pearls, nature’s apology for leaving her wet. With her school bag at her feet, Melissa waits for the bus while she practices opening and closing this unwieldy creature, a being of wings and ribs, springs and stretchers, that can spread out to protect her world at will, but will spend most of its time tiny, half-disappeared in a closet.
Melissa pivots the umbrella so it’s in front of her, and she cranes back her neck to look directly up into the rain. “Why did Grandma give me an umbrella?”
“To keep you dry,” Jennifer says. “Because she loves you.”
Melissa cocks her head. “But you got all wet.”
Jennifer smiles. “I wanted to help you, so I don’t mind.”
The bus arrives, and Melissa yanks her bag to her shoulders, and clutching the umbrella, she dashes up the steps.
The door closes behind her, and Jennifer opens her own umbrella to return to the house. It’s dark blue, and there’s a hole at the top, right where the top notch meets the cap. She has to pivot the umbrella so a fat drop of rain doesn’t build up and then burst onto her head when the surface tension can’t take any more.
In the driveway, her husband has the car waiting, and she climbs in, careful to shake the rain off before settling in the passenger seat.
A minute or two of him tapping the screen of his cell phone while Jennifer wonders if their daughter will be able to open the umbrella for the trip across the grammar school parking lot, if she’ll forget it in her desk until the moment comes to step off the bus to walk home. She touches her hair and tries to remember when she got too old to play in the rain.
Her husband sets down the phone and put the car into gear, sipping his coffee from a travel mug at stop signs. Jennifer says, “Melissa had a hard time opening the umbrella.”
He shrugs. “It’s brand new. She has to break it in.”
“It’s a nice umbrella. I’ll have her write your mom a note.”
He nods. Jennifer has always been in charge of the thank you notes.
They arrive at the train station with a hundred other commuters, gathering their bags and Jennifer’s umbrella. They walk to the platform, Jennifer careful to position the hole in the umbrella so it drops its payload between the two of them rather than onto her shoulder or her husband’s. They’ve arrived with five minutes until the train. Her husband takes out his cell phone and checks his email.
Jennifer looks at the station clock: Melissa will be getting off the bus now, she and her brand-new umbrella, and moving in a throng of second-graders down the slippery-tiled hallways to a classroom at the end of the corridor. There she’ll hang up her umbrella and her jacket, and it will stay, forgotten, dripping puddles. I hope she doesn’t lie it down in her cubby. Jennifer worries about the wetness spreading through her daughter’s backpack and jacket, stopping only when a fat drop of rain splashes her cheek.
She looks up to see her husband has pivoted the umbrella so the hole isn’t over his cell phone. It’s now over his wife.
She shivers as the rain trails down her neck and under her shirt, her husband manipulating the cell phone, emailing someone at work about a meeting in two hours. Above her, the rain gathers at the cap, a tiny pregnant belly that once more bursts and drops onto her cheek.
Jennifer edges away, glaring at the cell phone in his hands, and thinks again about Melissa and her blue-white flowered umbrella. Dear Grandma, thank you for the umbrella you sent. It was a wonderful surprise. It rained this morning, and Mommy showed me how to use it.
Three minutes until the train. Another droplet falls, this time onto Jennifer’s shoulder. Her husband continues checking email.
Jennifer raises a hand, and she rotates the stem of the umbrella to bring the hole between her and her husband again. He doesn’t notice until the phone gets splashed.
He starts turning the umbrella, but she clenches her hand on the tube.
When he looks up, she meets his eyes, steely, ready for the day’s second set of umbrella lessons.