Listen carefully, Flat Stanley!

by Jennifer Howard

This story is 376 words, the same length as JonBenet Ramsey’s ransom note, which experts found too egregiously long to be real. A ransom note needs five words: I have her. Pay me. Max thirty if you instruct someone not to call the cops, if you give a dollar amount, pinpoint a drop-off location. Statement analysts believe an excess of words suggest lies. I could tell you the truth in five words: this is my sad story. But maybe this is not a story, or what’s inside is a lie: this is a story about someone I’m pretending is merely missing but who really is gone gone gone and I know it. Maybe like JonBenet’s mom I want to pretend she was taken by a small foreign faction. A group of individuals. That they want me well rested for the delivery, when I will get her back. If this is not a story, it is a confession. I am the mother, and I never even found a note on my stairs. The authorities won’t believe me; I am too full of insistence and pronoun slips and verb tenses that signal I’ve already lost hope, or that I haven’t. I can’t even make impressions on the paper below, typing this on my lap on a stranger’s couch, so you’ll never know how much I struggled to get the syntax right, how careful I was to sound tough and warm. There is no trace, but I deleted the maybe from the beginning of so many sentences here. Can a sentence that begins with maybe be a lie? It would take Flat Stanley, or you, more than 20 minutes to re-copy JonBenet’s ransom note, or this story. His hand would ache afterward, and that’s only 376 words, a flash. Simply writing down words is an effort. Truth-telling when you want your little girl back is impossible. No wonder JonBenet’s mom took her husband’s ridiculous transcription, the nonsense narrative they built after some tragic unbelievable thing happened to her baby. No wonder she misspelled possessions and business: words too unimportant to mean anything. She kept writing and writing and writing because once you put the pen down and lay the letter on the steps, you have to make the call.

Jennifer A. Howard edits Passages North and teaches creative writing at Northern Michigan University in the snowy Upper Peninsula. Her collection of flash sci-fi will be published by The Cupboard in April.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Listen carefully, Flat Stanley!”?

    My niece Georgia gave me her Flat Stanley to take on my travels with me last year. (You know Flat Stanley? He’s a children’s-book boy flattened by a bookshelf who as a result is easily mailed or packed in a suitcase to visit the world and send back word of elsewhere to schoolkids?) He visited the UK, Tennessee, sometimes just the woods near my house with me, and I’d send Georgia photos of him in front of train station maps and crumpets and lambs. I suppose he became my little muse, this two-dimensional guy for whom everything (exotic or day-to-day) was new. He’s ended up in a lot of my stories lately, as someone who can unapologetically not understand almost everything even more than I don’t, especially the heartbreak of grownups who hurt each other.
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