CNF: Stochastic

by Tara Laskowski


It is on the anniversary of my mother’s death that I learn the word stochastic—something that is randomly determined—a word too technical, too mathematical for the article I’m editing, but I leave it in, charmed by the author’s use, wondering where he picked that word up in his lifetime, a word I’m sure I’ve never heard uttered before and probably never saw printed either.

I want to know if he uses it to try to sound smarter than he is, like the way I barged into my mother’s hospital room, demanding to see a doctor, my heart thrashing against my pink-speckled chest, blotches I get when nervous or after drinking too much wine too fast. I pretended to understand their diagnosis, the rapid-fire rattling of words too technical for me—were they, too, trying to sound smarter than they were? For ultimately none of them could fix her, none of them could save her from the infection in her muscle that grew and pulsed, that took hold like a small parasitic animal, feasted on her, spread. None of them seemed to understand its strength and its determination.

We don’t recognize the randomness, do we, until it strikes. Until it takes hold, like a parasite, upon us. How fragile we all are, how random it is that we are even here at all, the bumps of fate that bring us together and tear us apart. And when they do leave us breathless, when they murder us with their cruelty, we are left with the raging “what ifs.”

I’m a mathematician, digging deeply to discover a pattern out of randomness. I look for reasons and answers where there are none. I apply a formula to a problem that cannot be solved.

I didn’t know the word for it then. Hadn’t had a way to express it. Just like I had never before known the definition of grief. Of all that, I’m still learning.


TARA LASKOWSKI is the award-winning author of the debut novel, One Night Gone, and two short story collections, Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons and Bystanders. She won an Agatha Award in 2019 for her short fiction and was the longtime editor of the online flash fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly. A graduate of Susquehanna University and George Mason University, Tara grew up in Pennsylvania and lives in Virginia.


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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Stochastic”?

I very rarely have to look up the definitions of words these days, but “stochastic” was a word that I’d never seen, and I wanted to make sure the author I was editing at work was using it properly. I’m not sure why the definition sparked a connection to my mom–maybe it was the seven-month anniversary of her death and her energy was hanging about–but the first sentence of this piece just popped into my head and it was such a strong urge that I stopped editing the piece and wrote a quick draft to make sure I got the rhythm of the voice onto the page. I often marvel at the creative process–how and why we write. It actually does seem random, and mired in our experiences. I can probably pull up any story I’ve written and tell you what random occurrence sparked that story, a story that wouldn’t otherwise exist if I hadn’t overheard that weird conversation, or seen that woman’s dress on the subway, or took the wrong exit off the highway. We are so shaped by the world around us, aren’t we? And yet we don’t often realize it until something traumatic, like the sudden loss of a loved one, happens. Then we come nose-to-nose with the cold, random unfairness of our lives. We see how little control we have over our fates, and it’s terrifying.


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